While the world glorifies "Sgt. Pepper," many die-hard Beatles fans credit 1965's "Rubber Soul" for kicking off the Beatles' experimental phase. Musician and author John Kruth explores why in his new book.
As we edge closer to the 50th anniversary of this transitional and important Beatles record, we caught up with Kruth – who is recording and gigging hard with his band TriBeCaStan (which just released a new CD, "Goddess Polka Dottess") – to ask him about his new book and the record that inspired it.
OnMilwaukee: You've written a number of musical bios but they've focused on artists that I suspect you came to as an adult. But you write that the Beatles were your 4th grade passion. Was it different, in terms of inspiration and passion, to write about such a formative and early influence?
John Kruth: Rahsaan Roland Kirk was an influence on me to play flute as a 13-, 14-year-old teen. My sister's cool boyfriend had those records, along with Herbie Mann, too.
But no one blew me away like the Beatles, having seen them on Ed Sullivan and growing up with them. Dylan and the Stones, too, of course, and I also loved Motown and Stax. Writing this book was different in some ways, in that it evoked nostalgia either for what was or how I might have liked life to have been!
OnMilwaukee:"Rubber Soul" is one of my two favorite Beatles records, in part because I'm a big fan of transitional records more than the "landmarks." What drew you to it as a writer and a musician?
Kruth: Well you nailed it. It was the transition album! I also adore "Revolver" and a lot of people asked how did I decide to write about "Rubber Soul." First of all this December 2015, will be the album's 50th year anniversary – a frightening thought to many of us – so it's a "timely" topic.
But "Rubber Soul" is so rich – the first time George uses the sitar – on "Norwegian Wood," Paul employs jazz chords on "Michelle," John evokes Weill and Brecht on "Girl," Ringo sings country on "What Goes On" on the Brit pressing. Paul's "I've Just Seen a Face" seemed to spell out I was everything I was searching for in a love relationship, overtly as romantic as it was. It's such a great tune. I still play the song on guitar at home or for friends at parties from time to time.
OnMilwaukee: It, of course, paved the way for "Revolver," which paved the way for "Sgt. Pepper" – transitional – but do you think people could see that was where it was headed at the time? It seems subtler in retrospect, but maybe it was more jarring a change at the time.
Kruth: I don't think anyone could second guess the Beatles, not even the Stones, who were very influenced by them. The only band who had them beat on occasion were The Kinks who got into Indian music earlier with "See My Friends," and employed elements of British Music Hall into their sound that both Ray Davies and McCartney were both really fond of, although I tend to prefer Ray's songs in that style.
OnMilwaukee: Did young fans shake their heads in wonder at some of it or did they just follow the band's lead and kind of get it right away?
Kruth: "Rubber Soul" drew a line in the sand. Either you were taking yourself "seriously" as a recording artist – as Dylan already had – or you weren't and I interviewed a lot of the Beatles' peers at the time – members of the Turtles, Rascals, Byrds, Al Kooper and Steve Katz of Blood Sweat and Tears, and Greenwich Village folk singers John Sebastian of Lovin Spoonful, and Richie Havens – to ask them what were they doing before the album came out and how did "Rubber Soul" change the game, raise the bar for them. A lot of these guys were my heroes growing up.
OnMilwaukee: I'm assuming you grew up with the U.S. version as I did. Did you, also like me, marvel at what an amazing thing the UK version was once you discovered it? It really helps explain the Beatles' idea for the "butcher cover" for "Yesterday and Today," doesn't it?
Kruth: Oh yeah, people ask which is better or which I prefer... I'm just happy I got to hear both of 'em, as I love almost everything on the two albums. And then to discover "Original 12 Bar Blues" and find out they cut a Booker T. & the MG's instrumental knock-off at the time was quite a revelation. It was later released on one of the Beatles "Anthology" records.
OnMilwaukee: I still have a soft spot for those butchered U.S. versions, because that's how I met the music. You?
I don't consider them butchered ... perhaps more like tampered with. Taking "I've Just Seen A Face" off the Brit release of "Help!" and using it as the opening track to the American version of "Rubber Soul" was kinda brilliant, that is unless you prefer "Drive My Car."
OnMilwaukee: My kids do!
Kruth: It kind of made "Rubber Soul" more of a folk-rock than a detour into soul music, which was a big influence on the lads at the time. None of that mattered as I was 10, 11 years old at the time I just thanked god every time a Beatles, Dylan, Stones, Zombies, Kinks, Who record came out. It wasn't until later that we all discovered what a hack job the record companies were doing in the States.
OnMilwaukee: Do you have favorites on the record?
Kruth: Sure, of course. Other than both opening tracks, "The Word" is so funky and beautiful, and it's the first time the Beatles went beyond girl/boy hand holding kind of love to their big message: that love is the universal power that can save us poor, wretched miserable human beings.
"Girl" is so cool, too, and infused with Brecht/Weill Berlin cabaret music and Greek bouzouki riffs, influenced, of course, by Zorba the Greek. George's "Think For Yourself" was so bad ass with that "although your mind's opaque" put-down and Paul's fuzz bass.
Of course, "Norwegian Wood" was probably my favorite track on the album; it's just so sultry/sexy and George's sitar introduced us all to the East. He inadvertently opened the door for us to the joys of Ravi Shankar, Indian mysticism, yoga, meditation, etc. It's all stuff I wax poetic over!
OnMilwaukee: What is the enduring legacy of "Rubber Soul," especially when everyone seems to idolize "Sgt. Pepper" so much that they tend to neglect the innovations of its predecessors? Will "Rubber Soul" get more love?
Kruth: I think most masterpieces are overrated, or considered "brilliant" for the wrong reasons, whether you're talking Beatles, Picasso or Burroughs. I'm a b-side kinda guy. Some people consider the Stones' "Exile on Main Street" to be their masterpiece. It's not at all for me! I listen to "Between the Buttons," "Beggars Banquet" or "Let It Bleed," which all mop the floor with it in me humble opinion.
Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" is considered by many to be one of his greatest crowning achievements, but I rarely listen to it, love Miles as I do. Maybe "masterpieces" just aren't the go-to moment of an artist's catalog. I love much of "Pepper," particularly George's "Within You Without You," which is a milestone, although many people didn't know what to think back in the day, and "A Day In The Life," which is absolutely brilliant.
"Rubber Soul" pushes buttons for a lot of people. There's a lot of love in that record. The Beatles were just starting to grow up and discover the world and that really comes across in the album. It's a keeper for the ages!
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.