Summer Classes: “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I take on The Beatles’ companion records, “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”

The news that I was doing “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” for this Summer Class was, apparently, a bit of a shocker for some readers. I was told that I should be shot in space, generally argued with and mostly, just greeted with surprise. The truth is, I hadn’t listened to “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” pretty much solely because I don’t really like The Beatles. I think that their legacy and their impact on music is mostly just nostalgia rather than actual appreciation for what they did.

The people I know who always swore by The Beatles were the one’s who got into them young. They adored the album as almost a symbol of a time they didn’t live, as something of a time machine to go back to an idealized ’60s. I wasn’t introduced to really any bands as a child. My parents were never really music fans and I really discovered a lot of music on my own. I really got into The Who, Pink Floyd and The Clash early on, meaning the line “No Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones / In 1977!” always meant more to me than anything the Fab Four ever released. The Beatles were a relic and a joke before I ever gave them a chance.

I entered “Rubber Soul” skeptically. The only Beatles albums I had listened to before were “Magical Mystery Tour” (an engaging album that’s pretty much all singles we’ve heard on 10,000 commercials), The White Album (psychedelic smut) and “Sgt. Pepper’s” (I just don’t get it) so I didn’t have high expectations.

And vastly, “Rubber Soul” didn’t surprise me. I’m not saying that it is unlistenable, I just didn’t find anything particularly surprising or interesting there. It is definitely a lot of American inspired folk mixed with a touch of Indian sitar and rigidly traditional psychedelica. The fusion of the two in and of itself is interesting but it isn’t anything that couldn’t be found done better elsewhere, even by bands of the era.

That being said, there are moments of “Rubber Soul” that stand out. “Norwegian Wood” combines moments of twinkling folk and singer-songwriter style with sitars and world-music style that is beyond engaging. “Drive My Car” mixes the pop stylings that the group did when they were a mod-pop group in ’64 with the new stylings they’ve been picking up. It doesn’t feel like a huge step forward but it is certainly an engaging lateral move.

So, yes, “Rubber Soul” confirmed pretty much every opinion I already had about The Beatles. Songs all sound nearly the same, its pandering in both a worldly and feel-good sort of way and the songwriting isn’t particularly inspired. Considering that other groups at the same time were effortlessly blending lyrical darkness with pop beats to much greater critical, if not commercial, success makes the acclaim of “Rubber Soul” feel empty. I dreaded having to go on to listen to “Revolver.”

From the first notes of “Taxman,” it is clear that “Revolver” is a different kind of beast all together. The music is much more densely arranged, lyrics clearer and more engaging and there’s a sense that you’re stepping into something that others hadn’t exactly done before. This doesn’t feel like a natural evolution of what The Beatles had done before; it feels like an entirely different band.

Where “Rubber Soul” is an occasionally ambitious, shambling mess, “Revolver” takes a variety of disparate elements and brings them together in a way that is more than compelling. Stylistically, I’m reminded of The Who’s landmark bridging record, “The Who Sell Out” and The Beatles’ record is similar in many ways. Both represent a major artistic shift, with “Sell Out” signaling Pete Townshend’s transition from a mod to a conceptual drug addled guitar god and “Revolver” changing The Beatles from a group of photogenic mods to psychedelic pop provocateurs.

“Revolver” is an exercise in accidentally making a statement. McCartney and Lennon’s songwriting here, particularly on songs such as “Here, There and Everywhere” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are entoxicating examples of the fusion of cyclical lyrics with experimental pop. The only problem the album comes across is the moments that lack sharpness. Despite being recognizable, both “Yellow Submarine” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are shambling lyrical and musical messes. That being said, I don’t feel like either song is a failure. I just always feel like I’m missing something.

And that’s really the problem I had with both of these records. For ever moment that I thought I was enjoying myself, I was reminded that I didn’t have the same feelings I had the first time I listened to “Pet Sounds,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “My Generation” or any other number of albums that I consider classics. I totally understand why people like, even love, The Beatles. The thing is, I’m never going to have the same feelings about them. They’re never going to be a group that I consider anything more than pioneers. For me, phony Beatlemania never even had a chance to bite the dust.

Next Class: In preparation for “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman Week kicks off with one of the most hotly debated modern comics and another of my blind spots, “Batman: Hush.” 

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