Most people will tell you Revolver was the turning point for The Beatles. I’ve written an entire article about it’s conception on this very site (you can read that article here ) but if you really want to break it down, that turning point came much sooner than that particular album. The Beatles themselves will argue that Rubber Soul was their first big departure. While you can’t argue with the people who created these beloved albums, to me Rubber Soul is more about maturing than departing from the proven formula. I feel that turning point was during the single Paperback Writer and even more so with it’s B-side Rain.
In early 1966, The Beatles were pretty much over touring and were far more interested in experimentation within their music. While Rubber Soul featured plenty of low-key elements of behind the scenes ambition, like the lack of bass EQ in “You Won’t See Me” and their humble attempt at world music by the addition of sitar in “Norwegian Wood”, nothing really stood out and made the world take notice. When it came to record a pre-Revolver single, The Beatles took the opportunity to push the envelope on two seemingly simple tracks.
“Paperback Writer” was almost like the band proving they could do what the ‘mod’ movement was doing: a simple pop song with inane lyrics, elevated by a gnarly distorted guitar riff and front-and-center bass playing. A fantastic song that announced The Beatles were up to something bigger and far more ambitious than what came before. The B-side, “Rain” is a simple, mid-tempo pop song based around the I-IV-V chord progression but taking a closer listen, it’s far more elaborate than most give it credit for.
I remember being a kid and driving myself nuts trying to mimic the guitar tone of the rhythm track. Of course I didn’t have the fine instruments found in the arsenal of the EMI studios, but thought for sure, my assortment of modern effects pedals could somehow get me close, but it was impossible. The reason being, the entire rhythm track had been recorded slightly faster then slowed down, giving it this distinctive, slurring sound that can’t be emulated in real time.
Much like “Paperback Writer”, the bass guitar is front and center, showcasing some of the best bass playing in Paul’s entire career. Both John and Paul were obsessed with the sounds coming from Motown, and were becoming fed up with how melodic bass guitar had been in rock n roll, and most notably in their own recordings. To kick it up a notch, Paul worked out the bass lines after the the rest of the track was finished and ready for mastering. Not only was it closer in the mix than ever before, but in many way became the lead instrument of the song. Something that was unheard of up until that point. As for percussion, most Beatles enthusiasts will tell you this song stands as Ringo’s finest moment as a drummer.
Next up, John’s vocals were recorded with the tape machine slowed down, which changed the pitch when played back at normal speed. Altering pitch and speed are standard practice these days by the way of digital post production but for early 1966, this was a revolution in terms of recording technology! Speaking of advancements in technology, this was the first time reversed tracks were full utilized in a recording. Right after the last verse and a fade-out fade-in coda, guitar, bass, and vocals return in complete reverse, playing into the already dream-like quality of the song.
On the promotional side, being too busy with recording and their tour, The Beatles PR decided to make short promotional films tv shows could air in place of live performances. While they weren’t the first artists to make promo films, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is arguably the first to utilize visuals to make for a more ambitious viewing experience than standard live performance. It’s been said that in that way, The Beatles helped create what would later become MTV.
Coming right out Rubber Soul, before Revolver and around the time they controversially ceased to tour, Paperback Writer/Rain often gets over-looked within the grand scheme of Beatles lore. In recent years “Rain” has become one of The Beatles’ most acclaimed songs but during it’s release, I think most listeners underestimated it’s importance in the band’s growth. It’s not only one of the most important tracks in the band’s catalog but it just might be the greatest B-side of all time!