Deep Beatles: “Run for Your Life” from Rubber Soul (1965)

It’s the song everyone loves to hate, the one containing squirm-inducing lyrics that are at least politically incorrect, at most misogynistic. Even John Lennon eventually distanced himself from the tune, calling it a “throwaway song.”

Since its 1965 debut on Rubber Soul, “Run for Your Life” has occupied an uneasy place in the Beatles oeuvre. But does it deserve to be permanently buried or tossed into the never-play pile of songs such as “Revolution No. 9”?

Deep Beatles is all about fearlessly exploring the depths of the Beatles catalog, so let’s dig deeper to uncover “Run for Your Life’s” hidden meanings and, yes, charms.

The song’s roots originate with Elvis Presley; his 1955 single “Baby Let’s Play House” (itself loosely based on the country track “I Want to Play House with You” by Eddy Arnold) caught Lennon’s attention, particularly the lines “Now listen to me baby, try to understand. I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” In his 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained that “I used to like specific lines from songs … so I wrote it around that but I didn’t think it was that important.” Barry Miles’ Many Years from Now offers Paul McCartney’s take on the track: “John was always on the run, running for his life. He was married; whereas none of my songs would have ‘catch you with another man.’” Overall he classified it as a “bit of a macho song.”

[WORST. BEATLES. EVER. AGAIN: We've been mercilessly derided ever since compiling our initial list of least-favorite Beatles tunes back in 2011. So, of course we've come back for more.]

Although Lennon later dismissed “Run for Your Life,” it became one of the first songs recorded for Rubber Soul. Entering the studio on October 12, 1965, the four worked on his composition with Lennon on acoustic guitar, McCartney playing bass, George Harrison on electric guitar, and Ringo Starr manning the snare drum and tambourine. After four attempts, the Beatles finally finished the backing track on the fifth try. Next they overdubbed more electric guitar parts from Harrison and Lennon, lead vocals, and backing vocals. According to the Beatles Bible website, the entire session lasted four and a half hours. George Martin and engineer Norman Smith commenced mixing mono versions of “Run for Your Life” on November 9, with stereo mixes finished the next day.

“Run for Your Life” received little airplay; in fact, Ottawa radio station CFRA banned the song in 1992, believing its “anti-woman” status too offensive for modern tastes. Strangely, the track did appear on a 1966 episode of the Beatles cartoon series.

Does “Run for Your Life” retain any merit? Harrison apparently thought so, as Lennon once stated that it was one of his favorites from Rubber Soul. From an instrumental perspective, it represents a solid pop song with a catchy, shuffling beat. The driving acoustic rhythm guitar is a constant presence throughout, as is Harrison’s lead guitar. Critics such as Ian MacDonald believe the guitar playing does not represent Harrison’s best work, even suggesting that Lennon actually performed the solo. “The guitar-work, some of which is badly out of tune, is similarly rough, the piercingly simplistic blues solo suggesting that the player was not Harrison but Lennon himself,” MacDonald writes in his book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. While not an absolutely perfect example of guitar work, the melody still lingers.

What the track does contain is the Beatles’ patented tight harmonies, most evident in the chorus:

You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl,
Hide your head in the sand, little girl,
Catch you with another man,
That’s the end ah, little girl.

Lennon also turns in an effective vocal, the slight roughness of his voice adding to the words’ sinister connotations. Just listen to how this raspiness lends an ominous tone to already confrontational lines:

Well you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind.
And I can’t spend my whole life
Tryin’ just to make you toe the line.

Lest anyone misinterpret the narrator’s message, Lennon reiterates his argument later: “Let this be a sermon, I mean ev’rything I said,” he sneers. “Baby, I’m determined, that I’d rather see you dead.” The tambourine weaves in and out during the song, taking the place of a harder drumbeat. After returning to the opening verse with the “I’d rather see you dead little girl, than to be with another man” line and a final return to the chorus, Lennon seemingly ad-libs as the song fades.

One is left with a sense of confusion — how can such harsh words be delivered through such an apparently bouncy tune?

Yes, “Run for Your Life” does include some alarmingly chauvinistic imagery. However, Lennon and the Beatles weren’t exactly new to this theme. “You Can’t Do That” contained the lines “If I catch you talkin’ to that boy again, I’m gonna let you down and leave you flat.” As time went on, the Beatles apparently changed with the times, admitting their previous macho attitudes — for evidence, listen to “Getting Better”: “I used to be cruel to my woman. I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene,” McCartney and Lennon sing. In his solo career, Lennon addressed his possessive side in tracks like “Jealous Guy” and “Woman.”

While the lyrics may cause today’s audiences discomfort, “Run for Your Life” should still stand as a catchy pop/rock song that effectively utilizes the Beatles’ distinctive harmonies. It may not exemplify the Beatles’ absolute best work, but the track does not deserve complete scorn.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • http://www.fab4nyctours.wordpress.com Susan Ryan

    Kit, I do agree with your assessment of this song. I know that it makes a lot of Beatles fans really, really uncomfortable — so much so that they often decry it and skip over it, as if it doesn’t exist. I recall a debate a few years ago on a Beatles chat board when a friend was performing with a large group of fans who used to learn all the songs on any given Beatles album in their entirety and then perform them — many of the women in this group refused to even learn the song, let alone play it. She wondered if everyone had an issue with it — and I told her that while by today’s standards, the song is certainly misogynistic and politically incorrect, I believed that it was not right to try and impose the social mores of the 2000s on a song from 1965. I’m not excusing the “threatening” nature of the song — and I’m not saying that it was EVER socially acceptable to beat on a woman — but it raised a lot fewer eyebrows when it was written than it would now.

    Someone else in that discussion was concerned because she felt that it meant that John himself was a woman-beater and proud of it…which I don’t think is (or was) true either. I have always looked at the song as one of those “character” songs that he and Paul often wrote…the guy in the song isn’t “John,” he’s some guy singing with John’s voice. Because the song is in first person, people often think that it’s John describing himself, but I have never seen it that way. How many other first person songs are not autobiographical, but rather just a convenient way for the songwriter to say the things he wants to say, after all?

    I personally have never skipped over the song, nor flinched from it. I don’t see a reason to pretend it does not exist. As you say, it’s a pretty damn good tune with impressive harmonies. Fans need to lighten up and stop worrying about today’s political correctness regarding a song written 48 years ago by a man who’s been dead for 32 years!!

  • Candy Leonard

    Nice discussion. I’ve been listening to the song since I was 8 years old and my thoughts about it have varied over the years. It really is an amazing pop song, albeit with some cringeworthy lyrics. John and Paul were products of their time and place – the good and the bad. They evolved as they saw, and ultimately helped reshape, the big world outside of Liverpool.

  • Dr. Mikey

    Susan is exactly right. Not every song is autobiographical. Art allows a writer to imagine a situation or describe something that has some universal relevance and is not only about oneself. Telling a story dosen’t necessarily advocate the behavior involved either. Part of the problem may be first, that everything the Beatles ever wrote was analyzed to death, and that second, John, after meeting Yoko, became self-absorbed with the “Johnand Yoko Life As Art” thing. The “bed-in”, Plastic Ono Band period was personal and political. I’m not sure Rubber Soul was recorded in that spirit. What bothers me more is current music that is clearly misogynistic 48 years after RS.

  • http://themelvins.net Dante Ramone

    IMHO It’s a great folk-rock tune by the inventors of the genre…. footloose and fancy-free,,,,,devil-may-care. I liken it to tapes of the Hamburg days.

    “So I really think the Beatles invented folk-rock.”
    -Roger McGuinn

    Mr. McGuinn always relates this opinion in his brilliant solo performances, seven of which I have been privileged to attend.
    He is The Authority on the subject.

    “When the Beatles had come out, the folk boom had already peaked,” McGuinn notes. “The people who had been into it were getting kind of burned out. It just wasn’t very gratifying, and it had become so commercial that it had lost its meaning for a lot of people. So the Beatles kind of re-energized it for me. I thought it was natural to put the Beatles’ beat and the energy of the Beatles into folk music. And in fact, I heard folk chord changes in the Beatles’ music when I listened to their early stuff like ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ I could hear the passing chords that we always use in folk music: the G-Em-Am-B kind of stuff. So I really think the Beatles invented folk-rock. They just didn’t know it.”

    At the same time all this was happening, McGuinn also experienced a major epiphany that would have a profound effect on his musical future: The Beatles had exploded onto the American charts. Captivated by their skiffle beat, mellifluous chord progressions, and infectious melodies, he instinctively knew that melding those distinguishing characteristics with his own tried-and-true folk sensibilities and training would yield a pretty unique sound.

  • JC Mosquito

    Most people accept the idea that songwriters don’t necessarily write about themselves or their own lives or any of the significant (or insignificant) others they work with on a daily basis. But when it comes to the Beatles, some fans totally forget this fact, and want every chord, musical note and lyric line to be about the Beatles themselves, their lives and their relationships. Unfortunately, sometimes the Beatles themselves fall into that trap – maybe they were so big they couldn’t help but be overly self-reflective. Some off the top of my head examples: 1) Sexy Sadie – about the Marharishi’s crush on Mia Farrow whilst all were in India; 2) Hey Jude is actually Paul’s consoling advice to Julian Lennon on his parents’ separation (apparently Jules is easier to sing than Jude); 3) Blue Jay way is George trying to find Eric Clapton’s house in the fog; and etc etc etc etc…………..

    No wonder Big Macca wanted them to assume other identities for Sgt. Pepper – they could write something else besides how hard it was to be poor boys singing in a rock and roll band…… yeah – same goes for those other guys too.

  • http://www.fab4nyctours.wordpress.com Susan Ryan

    The comments here have been very interesting! Thank you, Kit, for sparking a fascinating discussion. I really think people have to relax when they hear lyrics that are cringeworthy in old Beatles songs. I’ve heard people endlessly discuss a similar line in “Getting Better,” the one where it says “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her…etc.” and getting all up in arms about that as well. What’s actually kind of funny in that case is that Paul is the one who wrote that and sang tha — and yet for some reason some people are far more willing to defend that line and say “well, Paul’s not a woman-beater!” Why, then, are people so willing to believe that John was, and that “Run For Your Life” is autobiographical and that HE did those things? (This, of course, opens a whole other can of worms about what people are willing to believe about John vs. what they are willing to believe about Paul — but I digress. I don’t believe EITHER of them advocated violence towards women at any time, for the record.) Therein lies the issue with taking this stuff far too literally and flipping out, all the while forgetting the context and time and place in which the songs were written and who wrote them! For better or worse, the Beatles were products of their time and place — and for all that they changed the face of popular music, they were also very much influenced and affected by what came before them.

  • JC Mosquito

    “I don’t believe EITHER of them advocated violence towards women at any time, for the record.” SR

    I think Paul did at least once: “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her…etc.”

    And John wrote a whole song about it – called “Run For Your Life.”

    :)

    Once again, Beatlemania in all its emotional, social, and intellectual glory makes it hard to respond to anything they did as mere mortal songwriters with their particular strengths and weaknesses. In a couple thousand years from now, the fans and critics will finally get it right.

  • Fabrice Ziolkowski

    Well, I’m not sure you can blame a 25-year-old unreconstructed Northern male in 1965 for writing a song with those feelings. Isn’t there a statute of limitations about things like this? Funny, I’ve just thought about how Paul tries to make up for John’s loutishness on other occasions. John sings “Money” and a year later Paul sings “Can’t Buy Me Love”. John sings this song and two years later Paul sings “Getting Better”.