Before the Album Mattered
There was a time when the Beatles were trash - a disposable commodity, with a career life expectancy of a couple of years at the top, if they were really hot. Guitar groups were on their way out, the common wisdom went, and anyway, they were just writing these goofy little teenage love songs.
Where’s the weight and heft to that? On these little 45s - burning white hot in the fickle pop consciousness of teens, grooves worn out fast from obsessive plays, late on school nights…
But then something happened.
The Beatles did what Elvis never could.
They recorded an album, and it was a hit - written, recorded, and produced all in one go. It was of a piece, instead of collection of recent hit singles filled out with covers.
And in the process, they attained immortality at last - they were a step closer to high art, impetuously demanding that their music be taken seriously. Well, not too seriously - because they were certainly high.
Rubber Soul was transcendent. There hadn’t been anything quite like it since Frank Sinatra had released his concept album In the Wee Small Hours in 1955. That collection of thematically-linked songs was a turning point in Sinatra’s career, too - suddenly he was no mere flash-in-the-pan bobby soxer heartthrob. He was an artist, performing songs of quality and depth - songs that weren’t meant to be played on jukebox, out of context. The meaning in these songs was enhanced by their careful placement and sequencing on a 12-inch 33 RPM record - these were something new to pop.
They were album tracks.
And now, more than a decade after a young Sinatra became Old Blue Eyes, fresh from their own media crossover success with Help!, the Beatles were attempting a similar trip. Rubber Soul is a great record, stacked with well-written songs and in-the-pocket playing, but it can be hard for modern ears to understand what sets it apart.
Go back and listen to other albums released around the same time. Start with Aftermath by the Beatles’ friendly rivals, the Rolling Stones. It features some of the band’s most revered singles - on the UK edition, “Mother’s Little Helper” and “Under my Thumb” to name two. It was recorded almost entirely after the release of Rubber Soul. And yet, the whole thing plays more like a compilation of assorted songs recorded around the same time, than a cohesive vision. I love almost every song on that record (sorry “Stupid Girl”) - but what I’m saying is just an objective fact. Little thought was given by the artist to the running order of songs, and the arrangements vary not in a Sgt. Pepper way - but in a “here’re some far out things we thought of” way.
With Rubber Soul, it became apparent that the Beatles were playing in the major leagues, while most everyone else was still hoping for a single base hit in the sandlot.
It wouldn’t take long for groups like the Beach Boys, the Who, and the Kinks, to catch on to - and even, arguably surpass - what the Beatles had done. And what no one else from the first wave of rock and rollers - from Elvis on down - ever really did.
The rise and fall of the mp3 era has arguably brought us full circle. The album is once again little more than a promotional tool for many artists, and the single seems to be once again ascendant.
And that means it’s actually the perfect time to take a trip back to 1962 - Flashback to Never is broadcasting from the first era of singles, when there was no way your music collection could be put into a file and your feed was a radio frequency.