It’s October 1965.
The Beatles have just released Help!, their sixth album to peak at number one on the Billboard charts. They’ve just finished a successful – and grueling – North American tour. But this success had not been without its tolls.
Of those early months of 1965, Lennon would later say, “I was depressed and crying out for help.” The other Beatles had also grown weary of touring and live performance, so much so that they decided to stop performing live altogether.
This was almost three years after the start of Beatlemania, and the four boys from Liverpool had traveled the world, become wealthy, been mobbed by crowds, received death threats, met celebrities and heads of state. They were also dealing with the realities of relationships (Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia Powell was shaky, McCartney and Jane Asher would soon split). Lennon was also struggling with the pressures fatherhood, and his relationship to his young son Julian was no less strained than the one with his wife.
All of these things would coalesce into Rubber Soul, the band’s seventh album. Recorded in October, the album marked a dramatic shift in the way the Beatles made music. It was the first time the band exercised complete creative control of the recording. No longer limited by having to perform the songs live, they found themselves experimenting with new sounds: the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’, baroque harpsichord on ‘In My Life’, fuzz bass on ‘Think for Yourself’.
Up until this point, the Beatles’ work largely consisted of love songs about teenage relationships, generally in the style of rock ‘n roll acts like the Everly Brothers and Robert Johnson. By late 1965, the Beatles had little interest in this subject matter.
As a result, the lyrics of Rubber Soul were more introspective and adult. Songs like ‘I’m Looking Through You’ and ‘Girl’ detail complex and often negative portrayals of romantic relationships. ‘Run For Your Life’ is concerned with abusive relationships. ‘In My Life’ is a meditation on nostalgia and reverie. ‘Nowhere Man’ is equal parts self-portrait and self-criticism.
Despite these radical changes from the Beatles’ earlier sound, the album still made it to number one. It was well-reviewed, and its acclaim has only grown in the last fifty years: it won the 1966 Song of the Year Grammy, and would later rank fifth on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Albums list. Rob Scheffield, a writer for that magazine, would say of Rubber Soul: “we’re living in the future this album invented.”
Rubber Soul’s idea of an album as a cohesive work rather than a few singles and filler would be adopted by most leading musicians of the Sixties. As Bob Dylan said of the Beatles: “I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.”
It would be some time before Rubber Soul was recognized as the first masterpiece of the rock era, but it was already stirring up some competition. The Beach Boys would attempt to top Rubber Soul with their 1966 album Pet Sounds. That same year, the Beatles would respond to Pet Sounds with an album of their own.
This was 1965, after all, and the Beatles were just getting started.