This is is a brief excerpt from a longer section on Rubber Soul, in Chapter Four of Beatleness. Thinking back to when we first heard John sing “The Word” is especially poignant this week, as we recall December 8, 1980.
Say The Word and Be Like Me
Fans were used to hearing the Beatles sing about love, but “The Word” was a love song of a different kind. A year and a half before the “Summer of Love” and their 1967 anthem “All You Need Is Love,” the Beatles were advocating love as a universal principle, and, quite explicitly, positioning themselves as the spiritual leaders of the emerging youth movement and counterculture, announcing they are “here to show everybody the light.” On behalf of the Beatles, John invites fans to “say the word” and “be like me.”
Love as a universal principle is part of the Judeo-Christian heritage— there is nothing subversive or countercultural about it. In fact, some fans thought the song was about Christianity. Fans heard and considered this familiar message, now proffered by their beloved Beatles who were, as one fan put it, “starting to illuminate every part of our life” (Female, b. ’55). The Beatles’ power—both culturally and in the eyes and ears of fans—reached yet another new height with the release of Rubber Soul, and so the song’s message and authority were significant.
More than just a “favorite group,” fans were, increasingly, finding great personal value in what the Beatles had to say, and discovering great beauty in how they said it. Still, younger listeners knew they were “a few years behind really understanding and appreciating what the Beatles did.”
With Rubber Soul, the Beatles came to occupy a role in fans’ lives and a place in their psyches that was different from any previous fan-performer relationship. Years later, Lennon said the Beatles were merely “in the crow’s nest” looking ahead at what was coming. But when writing “The Word”—on a multicolored lyric sheet and high on pot—they seem to have had a moment of megalomania that wasn’t all that delusional. Fans of all ages “looked up to them and wanted to be just as cool. They were, as one fan said, “the embodiment of cool.”
Rubber Soul was a lot to absorb, and some fans “were not there yet.” A male, sixteen at the time, remembers playing the album for friends who didn’t like it, preferring the relative simplicity of earlier songs: “They were looking for ‘Eight Days a Week.’” Another fan, a child of eight at the time, remembers keeping the album “at arm’s length” because she didn’t understand it. That said, the album went to number one in January ’66 and held that position for six weeks. With its warm brown cover, acoustic, folky sound, intriguing lyrics, and intimate vocals, the American Rubber Soul is often mentioned as fans’ favorite album.
Rubber Soul was also a hit with the press. Less than two years after summarily dismissing the Beatles, Newsweek called them the “Bards of Pop” and praised the album, saying the Beatles’ “blend of gospel, country, baroque counterpoint and even French popular ballads” created “a style that was wholly their own,” with songs “as brilliantly original as any written today.”