Happy Easter. I hope everyone has been having a good long weekend. Mine has been pretty spiffy. Hooray for spending bunny-related holidays with your partner in smoo, I say. Hooray!
My Easter present to you has nothing to do with Easter at all. Shocking, I know. Instead, it has to do with two albums I feel have been misunderstood, underrated, and unjustly neglected.
Anyone who knows me probably won’t be surprised to learn that my favourite Beatle is John Lennon. I’m not in love with everything he did post-Beatles. Mind Games and Sometime in New York City contain as much filler as greatness, and there’s the matter of those experimental albums he made with Yoko Ono. But the guy was always honest in his music and did whatever he wanted to do, regardless of popular opinion. Beyond all those great Beatles songs, Plastic Ono Band will always stand as one of the greatest albums ever recorded in my book. Try to find something anywhere near as raw, powerful, visceral, and yet still melodic and strangely accessible within the pop/rock pantheon — and when you can’t, check out Ringo’s drumming and Klaus Voorman’s bass playing, and marvel at one of the tightest rhythm sections anyone ever had. Imagine isn’t far behind. Walls and Bridges has some great stuff on it. Even some of the man’s tossed-off home demos are better than most people’s A-level material.
He also had a distinctive voice that you can’t really confuse with anyone else’s, and one of the best screams in the history of recorded music. Anyone who can write something as simple and beautiful as “Love” and something as vicious and cathartic as “I Found Out” (which, along with “Well Well Well”, kind of sounds like proto-grunge), and then put them both on the same album, is not your average artist. He was a very imperfect man, but he was honest about that too, and how many rock stars can you say that about?
I think we need John now more than ever. He’d have some wonderfully blunt and on-target things to say about the state of the music industry if he was still alive, and I’d be willing to bet he’d still be making some pretty great music, even if we’d have to wade through half an album of Yoko Ono songs now and then.
Nothing against anyone who’s a Yoko Ono fan. I just can’t get into most of her stuff, though I do think “Walking on Thin Ice” is pretty wicked, not to mention way ahead of its time. John’s lead guitar playing on that track — said to be the last thing he recorded before he was killed — is skull-shaking, unhinged, and unlike anything he’d ever done before.
I’ve been meaning to pick up some of Yoko’s early albums, to see if maybe I haven’t given her a fair shake. They’re supposed to be pretty out-there and interesting, and John’s guitar-playing is supposed to be similarly daring. Someday I’ll get around to it. I read a quote once from John where he said something to the effect of, “I’m not a very skilled guitar player, but i know how to make a guitar speak.” For me, that’s the stuff that makes a real musician. He may not have played like Joe Satriani, but he was able to make the guitar say what he needed it to say.
Having said that, this isn’t about John. It’s about Paul.
I don’t think anyone can argue against Paul’s work with the Beatles being pretty mind-boggling. John and Paul kind of completed each other as songwriters, even when they weren’t writing songs together anymore. They needed each other. I’d wager that there isn’t a single bad Beatles album. They just live in different ranges of greatness.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fanatic who goes around telling everyone, “The Beatles are the best band evarrrrr, and UR stupid if you disagree, OMG LOL Oasis R such playjerists.” The Beatles are not my favourite band in the universe (I don’t even know what my favourite band in the universe is, to tell the truth). I just don’t think there’s a bad Beatles album, and after Help! I don’t think there’s a Beatles album that isn’t great in one way or another.
Paul’s solo career is another story altogether. I think this is where he gets the reputation for being the “sappy” Beatle who wrote and goes on writing trite, cloying love songs and little else. Yes, he’s made some pretty foul albums. But so did John. So did George. So too, for the love of yellow submarines, has Ringo. No solo Beatles career could match the consistency or invention of what they did as a group.
Still, I think a case can be made for Paul’s post-Beatles career being the most diverse and rewarding. You couldn’t want for variety. He’s gone just about every musical place you can imagine at one point or another, short of death metal and countrified hip-hop (and there’s still time).
Some of the albums — both solo and with Wings — really are too sappy or middling for my taste. But the guy spent three decades married to the love of his life after losing his mother to cancer when he was still a young man. I think he had every right to be happy and write love songs. He also had every right to use his music as therapy when he lost Linda to cancer too. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose the two most important women in your life to the same disease. Just because he didn’t release something as confrontational and nakedly cathartic as Plastic Ono Band in the aftermath of the emotional trauma doesn’t make him a lesser artist. Everyone grieves in their own way.
After a bit of a fallow period Paul has bounced back in a very big way, releasing some of the best music of his long career over the last little while. I thought Flaming Pie was a great album that got a bum rap with some critics who didn’t like the idea of a former Beatle writing songs that sounded like they were trying to be Beatlesy. Give a critic what they want and it isn’t what they want anymore. Some of them seem a whole lot like bitchy children to me.
But Paul lost me for a while after that. What I heard of Driving Rain didn’t do it for me, and the classical stuff was nice, but I didn’t find it all that compelling. Run Devil Run, with all those full-throttle old rock and roll covers and a few originals thrown in, seemed to be something of a cathartic release for Paul, and there’s some good high-energy stuff on that album, but I think where he really shines is in the quieter moments. On “No Other Baby” and “Lonesome Town” you can feel the weight of Paul’s loss in his vocal performances.
For me, Chaos & Creation in the Backyard is where he really hit his stride again, and it can’t be a coincidence that he returned to playing pretty much every instrument himself for the first time since Flaming Pie. It’s an approach he’s taken on some of his best solo work, including McCartney — his first post-Beatles album, full of homespun charm and proof that Paul has the same knack John did for taking a tossed-off song fragment and making it more enjoyable to listen to than most people’s fully-fleshed-out material — and Band on the Run, which has long been considered the best and most Beatles-like Wings album, though I’m not sure it’s Paul’s greatest work even though it is a great album (and I’ll explain why in a minute).
Something about Paul being responsible for every musical spoke in every wheel, or close to it, just seems to make the music seem more personal, more interesting, and better. Or maybe that’s just me.
Chaos & Creation and its followup Memory Almost Full are both arguably the most engaging and consistent McCartney albums in years. But Electric Arguments, released under the alias The Fireman in collaboration with Youth (aka Martin Glover, a founding member of Killing Joke) ups the ante and blows them both away.
I read some reviews when first came out and found myself getting more excited about a new McCartney album than I’d been in some time. Then I heard some online samples and my jaw just about hit the floor. He was experimenting again and making music for himself, just for the hell of it! He wasn’t trying to please everyone or make things as palatable as possible! He was taking chances! And he was still playing pretty much everything himself!
And then I bought the album and jumped for joy. It’s like a huge pulsating middle finger in the face of every critic who ever wrote Paul off as a hopeless romantic incapable of scaling the musical heights he once did when he was a Beatle. It isn’t trying to be a Beatles album. It isn’t even trying to be a Paul McCartney album. It sounds like he’s just having fun and challenging himself to try new things. It also happens to be one of the best things he’s ever done, in my estimation.
There was a self-imposed rule that no song could take more than a day to write and record. So the whole album was written and recorded from scratch in thirteen non-consecutive days. I think that feeling of abandon and improvisation is part of what makes it so good. “Nothing Too Much Just out of Sight” rocks harder than anything Paul’s done in ages, and is proof that he can belt it out in his mid-sixties better than most people less than half his age can. The guy’s still got some serious pipes.
“Two Magpies” comes from somewhere else — a playful acoustic strut with brushed drums that might have fit onto the White Album in an alternate universe, or maybe McCartney. “Sing the Changes” is so unlike anything you expect to hear from Paul it’s a little jarring, but in a good way. It sounds more like a U2 song with Bono relinquishing the mic. It also feels unguardedly optimistic in a more meaningful way than anything U2 have done in years. If it wasn’t a hit single, it should have been.
And those are just the first three songs. It’s the most diverse and adventurous thing he’s done in a good two decades or more. I always find it heartening when an artist in the so-called “twilight” of their career keeps finding new ideas and manages to do some of their best, most interesting work at an age when most of their contemporaries are either dead, spiritually and creatively bankrupt, or they’ve chosen to prostitute what remains of their souls and integrity for the unyielding emptiness of fame and fortune (cough Rolling Stones cough).
I think Scott Walker belongs in this category of battle-scarred veterans who remain vital, along with John Cale, Polish jazz musician Tomasz Stanko, and Tom Waits. Springsteen is getting up there in age as well, and though I don’t rate his last few albums with the E street band (or the way they’re produced) as highly as some do, there are some good songs there. I think Bruce still has some good work left in him.
Bob Dylan may not be reinventing the wheel, but I’d say his last few albums really do stand toe-to-toe with his best work. Bob doesn’t sound like he did in the 1960s and ’70s, but that’s the whole point. He isn’t trying to write or sound like the man he was half a lifetime ago. He sounds like the self he’s grown into. He’s finally found the right musical backdrop for the gravelly “old Bob” voice that’s been developing over the past twenty-five years or so, and Modern Times is one of my favourite Dylan albums ever. I’m sure a lot of people disagree, but I think in some ways I prefer Bob when he’s not trying to be the voice of a generation. On these last few albums he sounds like he’s having fun, making music for himself. It’s a great thing to hear.
Which brings us, with no proper segue at all, to the two Paul McCartney albums I feel are the most misunderstood and unappreciated.
BACK TO THE EGG (1979)
Wings could never hope to live up to the Beatles no matter what they did. In a 2001 interview, Paul admitted as much.
“In a way the story is a little more dramatic,” he said, “because it was this daunting thing of following the Beatles. In the Beatles, we used to be quite pleased when anyone tried to follow us. We were like, “Take your best shot! You want to do better, be my guest! Haha!’ So, when the Beatles broke up it was like, ‘Uh-oh. My God! If I want to continue in music I’m now in that position of these wannabes.’ Plus, [there was] the loss of these guys as my friends. But it was all offset by Linda and I getting married and having the babies, and starting to go that route. Whereas the Beatles were like a phenomenal success story with four guys, [Wings were], like, follow that and raise a family at the same time.”
The popular consensus seems to be that there are some good Wings albums, but Band on the Run is the best by far and the only one that really holds a candle to what Paul did with the Beatles, while the rest run the gamut from middling to mediocre.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say the very last Wings album Back to the Egg (Paul’s way of saying “back to basics”) is at least as good, and maybe better. It was intended to be the beginning of a new, more rock-oriented direction as opposed to the swan song it became. Of course, it was hammered by critics who called it slight and unfocused, and it seems more or less invisible today to most McCartney fans. It’s a shame.
Anyone who thinks Paul is only good for ballads (apparently they don’t own the White Album, or much of Paul’s discography in or out of the Beatles) should give it a try. Songs like “Spin It On” and “Old Siam, Sir” rock pretty damn hard, and when Paul’s fired up he can scream with the best of them. Some things are almost punk, at least in their furious energy. But the album is all over the place, which is probably part of the reason I like it so much while others dismiss it as unfocused.
One man’s “oh shit…every song doesn’t sound the same…turn it off!” is another man’s “oh shit…every song doesn’t sound the same…turn it up!” Sure, you’ve got the snarling rockers like “To You” (with Paul howling, “You’re stepping on my toes! Keep it out of my nose!” followed by a bizarre, atonal guitar solo), but then there’s a dreamy interlude like “We’re Open Tonight”, a soulful ballad that segues into a completely unexpected accordion coda (“After the Ball/Million Miles”), an old-time big band jazz homage (“Baby’s Request”), a typical McCartney-ish “soft rock” ballad with a mellow R&B flavour and chord changes Barry Manilow would have killed for, but warped into something more interesting through some synth touches and a strange recurring off-time horn line (“Arrow Through Me”), and more.
The “Rockestra Theme” is sometimes singled out as a missed opportunity. It features the likes of Pete Townshend, David Gilmour, John Bonham, Ronnie Lane, Morris Pert, Ray Cooper, and several others. It sounds like a huge jam on a simple musical idea instead of some pyrotechnic-drenched supergroup behemoth. This is only speculation, but maybe — just maybe — the whole idea was to get a bunch of people together for a fun jam session, with no ambition to do anything earth-shattering.
The best stuff, however, just might come after the album proper is finished and you get to the bonus tracks. “Daytime Nighttime Suffering” has to be the best McCartney song no one has ever heard. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best, period. Paul himself has called it one of his favourites more than once. I imagine most people who’ve heard him say that have no idea what song he’s referring to or where it comes from.
It was relegated to B-side status, tucked away on the flip side of “Goodnight Tonight”, but in this case the B-side was a far, far better song. The way it’s structured and produced is kind of audacious for a “pop” record, if you really listen to it. That a cappella breakdown before the climax is something few people would have the guts to attempt, but I think it works beautifully, and there’s a brief moment of harmony between Paul and Linda (or maybe it’s Paul and himself?) right near the end on the last repetition of that would make my list of “favourite musical moments ever” if I ever wrote such a list. I don’t know why. I just dig it a lot.
MCCARTNEY II (1980)
And then, in short order, came something a little…different.
I imagine most people who were following Paul’s solo career at the time this album was released said, “What the fuck is this?!” not long after they dropped the needle on this one, wondered if their turntable was broken, listened to a few songs, and then chucked the record out of the nearest window while screaming. This ain’t your grandpa’s Paul McCartney. More than a few people believe this is the nadir of Paul’s discography.
I’d suggest they listen to Press to Play and think about which album has aged more gracefully. Press to Play sounds like a product of its time, and painfully so, with every single dated mid-80s production touch you can think of. There’s no creative fire there, and the songs sound like empty bids at mainstream success. Paul himself has admitted it’s probably his weakest album. Even his life-long gift for easy melody seems to be on vacation on that one.
McCartney II is completely bonkers and doesn’t sound like anything else from any era. I’d be curious to know what Paul thinks of it today, in spite of all those who say “nay”.
I bought McCartney II on CD around 1997. At first I thought parts of it were hilarious, while some songs just didn’t make any sense to me. This wasn’t the Macca I was used to. I think my brain hadn’t absorbed enough music or expanded enough yet to know what to make of it.
I still think parts of the album are hilarious. But there are also moments that are quite pretty, surprisingly bluesy, funky, and just plain demented. Most people’s least favourite McCartney album by far has become one of my favourites over the years.
I’m not sure I could tell you why. Maybe I like that it’s more or less the sound of Paul smoking a lot of good pot and having fun with synthesizers, drum machines, and some non-synth-related instruments as well. Some things here sound pretty far ahead of their time. “Secret Friend”, a B-side that didn’t even make the initial issue of the album, seems to point toward trance and ambient music before there was a name for it. “Temporary Secretary” sounds awfully contemporary as well, and while some find it annoying, for better or worse it’ll stick in your head. Things like “Bogey Music” and “Darkroom” are just bonkers, and they’re a lot of fun to listen to if you’re tuned in to Paul’s oddball sense of humour.
“On the Way” is a great sleepy bluesy number that ends up sounding like one of the strangest things on the whole album because it’s so normal compared to everything that surrounds it. There are a few instrumental tracks that could qualify as filler, and “Frozen Jap” comes off as a somewhat racist jab at the Japanese drug bust Paul experienced just before he began recording the album. Now there’s something that doesn’t really wash with the drippy romantic image everyone has been saddling Paul with all these years. But only the man himself knows what the truth is there.
“Waterfalls” and “One of These Days” are just about the only things on the album that sound like the Paul McCartney of yore. “Waterfalls” in particular has to be one of Paul’s better ballads from any period, with some great singing, lyrics that are somehow silly and touching at the same time, some nice atmospheric synthesizer washes, and an unintentionally hilarious music video to go with it.
One thing that’s a little odd — the bonus tracks on the CD releases of these two albums are a little funky and confusing. “Goodnight Tonight” is on McCartney II as a bonus cut, but it was recorded during the Back to the Egg sessions and became a hit single under the Wings name. I guess since Paul played all the instruments on it (nice synth bass line and guitar harmonies, Macca!) whoever produced the CD reissue decided it made more sense here, since it was technically a solo performance. That’s fair enough, and the other bonus tracks really were recorded during the relevant sessions.
But then on Back to the Egg you’ve got two songs that sound very much like they’re from the McCartney II sessions: the ridiculous “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae”, and “Wonderful Christmastime”, which (love it or hate it) has become a staple of the holiday season. No Christmas is complete for me without hearing it at least once or twice. How can you not enjoy Paul overdubbing himself into a choir of children?
Why someone didn’t have the foresight to keep the bonus tracks on the proper albums is beyond me. It’s not a huge deal. It’s just strange. Then again, so are the albums, and the recording dates are close enough that I guess it makes sense. Sort of.
Anyway, there’s your easter dose of overlooked Paul McCartney. You can thank me after you finish scarfing down all those Mini Eggs.