I’m in the midst of listening to the Beatles stereo remasters box…and when you think about it, that’s actually somewhat difficult to do, if by “listening” I mean something other than merely “having play into my eardrums.” And that, of course, is because I’ve heard these recordings (though not these remasters) approximately 17 zillion times each, which means that my brain is “hearing” what’s on them well before my ears get the chance. So the challenge is unlistening, in fact…and actually hearing what’s there (or isn’t, in some cases).
So I’ve been trying to find time, at the end of each day, to listen to an album or two in headphones, with no distractions. I’m running through the albums chronologically.
Last night I listened to Rubber Soul…and it seems to me that here’s where certain elements of the “Beatlesque” become defined. Paul’s bass-playing definitively sounds like Paul’s bass-playing, John’s rhythm work sounds like John’s rhythm work, and we even get what I believe is the first recorded example of George’s slide guitar playing (although since the part is entirely a simple rhythm bit in “Run for Your Life,” it might be John…and I know George didn’t truly take up slide playing until much later). And perhaps most clearly, the band’s arranging, and the characteristic “Beatles” production by George Martin, are in place here far more apparently than in earlier work (even on Rubber Soul‘s immediate predecessor Help!, which still bears some traces of the band’s more tentative and derivative earlier work).
This is obvious right from the start, with the rhythmically deceptive opening of “Drive My Car” (quick quiz: the first guitar note is on what beat? It’s actually the last 8th note of a measure…but Paul’s bass entrance in particular throws you off: its accent pattern is almost reggae-like in the way it pushes what proves to be offbeat, which isn’t apparently until the vocal entrance makes you realize you’ve been an eighth-note “ahead” of the meter all along). But the assurance with which the band interlocks its rhythms here, as well as the perfect blend of McCartney’s and Lennon’s voices – and the confidence with which they assay some rather bracingly discordant blue harmonies (“but you can do something in between” – John on a C natural, George on an F, and Paul on G, over what is nominally an A major chord: the sung notes make sense in the bluesy D of the song’s key) – seem a huge step forward. Or “The Word”: consider the placement of the piano into a small little corner of the sound, John’s very aggressive rhythm chords on the offbeat, and the brio of the bass/guitar borrowing from (I think) a Sam and Dave song during the pre-chorus. And Ringo’s playing, throughout the album, is varied, confident, and creative.
Earlier I mentioned “Run for Your Life”…which, nowadays, might be the most notorious and embarrassing Beatle lyric (unless you incline toward nominating “All You Need Is Love” for the latter prize) with its blatant threat of domestic violence. However…I’m going to risk writing that I think we’ve generally overreacted to this lyric in the tenor of the times – in that in taking it seriously, as an implicit endorsement of violence against women, we overlook how the lyric actually works in its context. First, there’s the context of the song itself: a sort of loping, country-blues feel, with some very tight (and very nice) vocal harmonies on the chorus, and the aforementioned (and rather corny) slide guitar bit. Already, there should be hints of a bit of genre pastiche forming in listeners’ heads…and to me the giveaway in that regard is the way Lennon sings “that’s the end-uh!”: it’s aural mustache-twirling, and I think that, poor taste though it may be, the persona here is much more Snidely Whiplash than it is that skeezy guy in a domestic abuse mugshot. The rest of the context (which only partly mitigates the accusations of misogyny against Lennon…and partly amplifies them) is that as a songwriter Lennon’s in the midst of a string of intensely self-doubting lyrics. Turn back a few songs, and we have “Girl”…which is more exasperated than aggressive, and in which to my ears, any explicit blaming of the “girl” in question is overcome by an implicit self-blame on the part of the narrator: he really should have known better than to let himself fall for someone who doesn’t really care for him, and worse, self-judge his own worth by how this woman and her friends look at him (which evaluation he may well be reading far too darkly in any event). The bridge is really rather devastating: “She’s the kind of girl who puts you down when friends are there – you feel a fool. When you say she’s looking good, she acts as if it’s understood – she’s cool….” The song’s tone of frustrated forehead-slapping regret makes me read these lines, really, as saying more like, “Why do I insist on interpreting everything she says about me as an insult? And why can’t I be as self-assured as she is, simply accepting compliments rather than imagining hidden motivations or veiled sarcasm?” At least, I think this is how the later Lennon, more confident and self-understanding, would read those lines.
So “Run for Your Life” is the sort of play-acting that works as a sort of prophylactic farce embodying emotions that the actor knows he shouldn’t play out for real.
Lyrically, too, they’re a long way from “yeah, yeah, yeah.”