Wings’ unexpected swan song, 1979’s Back To The Egg doesn’t quite deserve the critical lashing it often receives. To some it was dispiriting to see Paul McCartney trailing the blaze of New Wave and punk rock, although the other way to look at it is that at least he had his ear tuned to modern sounds. It is true that the album’s second half is unfocused and the songwriting on the whole is below Macca’s standards, but he throws himself into the thing with abandon, and the last version of Wings is at least an energetic bunch. Here is a song-by-song review:
14, “Reception”- The album’s abbreviated, discofied, instrumental intro seems to make the promise of a concept album that never actually materializes.
13. “We’re Open Tonight”- This meditative acoustic song is another example of an incomplete track that McCartney kind of wedges into the proceedings, albeit without the grace that he once managed on projects like Abbey Road of Band On The Run.
12. “Winter Rose/Love Awake”- These two songs aren’t much on their own and don’t really fit too well when assembled. Back To The Egg has its faults, but it generally isn’t boring. This is an exception.
11. “So Glad To See You Here”- The “Rockestra” band hangs around for this full-throttle track, but the sound and fury turns out to be an empty shell.
10. “Again And Again And Again”- Denny Laine’s lead vocal on the album suffers from weak lyrics, which is too bad, because the thing is halfway-catchy and benefits from some good harmonies.
9. “After The Ball/Million Miles”- McCartney as a gospel emoter hadn’t been heard from too much since his two formidable ballads from Let It Be. These two tidbits of song are nowhere near that category, and the repetitiveness of the thing can be wearying, but it’s an interesting curve ball.
8. “The Broadcast”- It sounds like it wandered in from some forgotten Pink Floyd album. But that stiff-upper-lip voice is strangely compelling, even if it’s completely out of sorts with the rest of the album.
7. “To You”- A serviceable rocker played and sang with gusto. As is the case with much of Back To The Egg, the performance outstrips the songwriting.
6. “Spin It On”- Maybe this was meant to be an answer to punk, but it honestly comes off more like adrenalized rockabilly. Nice guitar work throughout by Lawrence Juber in his Wings debut, and it packs an unfussy punch.
5. “Rockestra Theme”- I’ve always thought it was the height of indulgence to gather a rock supergroup in the service of a pretty basic instrumental (why no solos?). If nothing else though, it showed that Paul’s Rolodex was impeccable, and the melody he composes works nicely in the bombastic setting.
4. “Baby’s Request”- Bing Crosby meets Sam the piano player at Rick’s in this standard-esque closer. Paul has proven time and again he can do this kind of thing; one wonders if he would have been a Cole Porter-type had he been born about a half-century earlier.
3. “Getting Closer”- If McCartney was regurgitating sounds he may have heard from newbies like Cheap Trick or Squeeze, well, turnabout is fair play. “Getting Closer” is taut and freewheeling all at once, a nice single that probably deserved a better radio fate than it actually enjoyed. The escalating, unresolved finish scores it points as well.
2. “Old Siam, Sir”- This song attempts to construct a narrative of sorts and ends up making “Jet” sound like great literature. That said, McCartney’s screaming melody and the muscular, dramatic rock arrangement makes for an engaging, even powerful track. In that way, it resembles a distant, slightly lesser cousin of “Beware My Love” from Wings At The Speed Of Sound.
1. “Arrow Through Me”- McCartney is back in the same kind of quiet storm mode as he inhabited on “Girlfriend” from London Town. The Stevie Wonder vibe is strong with this one, but, hey, in the 70’s, there was no better pop artist to emulate, right? The horns are great, and one of Paul’s more underrated couplets is here: “Ooh, baby, you wouldn’t have found a more down hero/If you’d started with nothing and counted to zero.”
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul’s “other” band, check out the link below to pre-order my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, due out in March of 2017. And to check out all of the books and e-books in my Counting Down series, the link below that leads to my Amazon page.)
As a general rule, when Paul McCartney was forced to take most of the burden on himself the create a Wings record, the resulting record turned out to be better than the group’s more democratic efforts. Much like Band On The Run, 1978’s London Town was essentially carried by McCartney, wife Linda, and Denny Laine when other band members headed for the hills at the last minute. And while it doesn’t quite reach the masterpiece status of Band On The Run, London Town, until it peters out at the very end, abounds with such effortless geniality and tunefulness that it makes a strong case to be included among the Top 10 McCartney post-Beatles albums.
14. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”- It gets lost somewhere between traditional folk and prog, and McCartney doesn’t really try hard enough with the lyrics here. Really the only time this album seems ponderous.
13. “Morse Moose And The Grey Goose”- Bizarre right down to the core, this track sounds like McCartney started trying to make some grand statement that got away with him. It’s too bad the last two songs on the disc are the weakest; sequencing (or maybe lack of editing is the better term) mars an otherwise excellent album.
12. “Backward Traveller”- It’s barely over a minute long, but it’s urgently engaging enough to make us wish that it were fleshed out to a full length.
11. “Deliver Your Children”- The minor-key whoosh, the finger-picked acoustic guitar a la “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the solid harmonies from McCartney and Denny Laine, the refrains: All are fine. The lyrics start well but spin out of focus by the third verse, which keeps this one from quite meeting its potential.
10. “Name And Address”- Not much going on here beyond some rockabilly grooves and McCartney trying out his Elvis impression, which turns out to be not half-bad. The Stray Cats were listening.
9. “Cuff Link”- The light-saber synths are a nice contrast to the ominously funky rhythmic thrum, which, of course, is McCartney on bass and drums, which, of course, turns out to be all you need.
8. “I’ve Had Enough”- It has a very Wings-y feel to it, right? The fact that the song was recorded before Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English skedaddled probably accounts for that, but McCartney is still driving the bus with his feisty vocal.
7. “Cafe On The Left Bank”- The lyrics could have come off as twee, but McCartney’s decision to marry them to some of the toughest music on the disc erases any concerns. Some excellent lead guitar and clopping percussion keep this one vibrant and entertaining throughout.
6. “Famous Groupies”- Maybe not as sweetly appreciative as George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs,” McCartney’s ode to rock hangers-on is still suitably awed at these sirens’ surprising powers over the musicians they enchant. Winking fun and, you guessed it, catchy.
5. “Children Children”- For my money, this is Denny Laine’s finest moment in Wings. He co-wrote the song with Macca, and you’d have to think Paul had a big hand in the song’s melodic charms, which are hopeful with a slight undertow of melancholy. Nonetheless Laine plays an engaging Pied Piper. Sweet without being cloying.
4. “Girlfriend”- McCartney’s efforts to craft a song for Michael Jackson led him to inadvertently test out his falsetto stylings, which turned out to be quite seductive in their own right; you can kind of understand why the titular character would be stepping out with this guy on the side. McCartney also adds the high-drama instrumental break (omitted by Jackson in his own take), which deepens what could have been just a fun but lightweight ditty.
3. “With A Little Luck”- One of the things critics of McCartney’s lyrics fail to recognize is just how adept he was at matching the words he chose to the the music he crafted. So while “With A Little Luck” might not seem like much on paper, the tentative optimism of the tune is perfectly captured by Paul’s simple declarations. Even the little-engine-that-could backing vocals at the end are right on point. What starts out as a humble tune, barely willing to poke its head out of the ground, becomes quite decisive and stirring.
2. “London Town”- The obviously antecedent here is “Penny Lane,” right down to the colorful characters and dignified brass. That the title track wakes up the echoes of such a formidable number is to its everlasting credit. It also sets a relaxed, benign tone for the rest of the album that turns out to be its calling card. Also, it seems redundant at this point in this particular Retro Review series to say that McCartney writes an enchanting melody, but, really, it’s a beauty. And the brief, rocking break shows there’s some spunk in the old city after all.
1.”I’m Carrying”- I have no idea what the narrator is carrying, nor do I know the occasion of this meeting with him and the girl in her room. But I do know that it is mesmerizingly romantic, thanks to the music behind the tale and the melody with which it is told. The delicately-picked guitar and the carefully-arranged strings form the airborne foundation, and the tune soars even above that with avian grace. In the final repeat of the refrain, you can hear McCartney start to let loose with some wordless “ooo-ooh” vocals, for even he is caught up in the sheer beauty of his creation. Who wouldn’t be?
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Macca’s “other” group, check out the link below to preorder my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, due out in March 2017. Below that is a link to my Amazon page, where you can check out all my Counting Down books and e-books.)
So the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just delivered their list of nominees for 2017, and I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve been telling anybody who would listen for many years that it was a travesty that ELO hadn’t yet been included or even nominated. I’m not kidding myself to think that they’ll get in; let’s face it, Tupac and Pearl Jam are sure things, leaving only three spots for 13 other nominees, so the math isn’t really in Jeff Lynne and company’s favor. (For the record, my choices: ELO, The Cars, Tupac, The Zombies, and Depeche Mode. Personal tastes play a lot into these things, obviously, and, as a songwriting guy, these five artists, to me, left behind the largest portion of memorable songs of this field.)
ELO’s last album in their heyday was 1986’s Balance Of Power; they would disband for fifteen years before their next studio album, Zoom, appeared in 2001. I’ve always had an affinity for this album, perhaps more than any of their other albums in the 80’s. It didn’t have any big hits but the songwriting was consistently sharp, the melodies pristine, and the production, with the exception of a synthy misstep or two, typically sumptuous; what else would you expect from Lynne?
ELO’s list of tear-jerking ballads will always be topped by “Telephone Line” with “Can’t Get It Out My Head” sitting at 1A; you just don’t get much better than those two. But Lynne delivered a late-period showstopper on Balance Of Power with “Getting To The Point.” Only the diehards (and I’m proudly one of them) know it, which is why I’m hoping that those reading this who are only casually aware of the band will check it out, and maybe check out the rest of the album in the process.
In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that ELO somehow sneaks into the final five for the Rock Hall, even as I know it likely won’t happen. And, while we’re on the subject, maybe next year at this time I’ll be doing a Weeper of the Week on Harry Nilsson, Warren Zevon, or Squeeze in honor of one or all of their nominations. One can dream.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a full list of my Counting Down books and E-books, check out the link to my Amazon page below.)
By attempting to prove that Wings was a band of equals, Paul McCartney inadvertently ensured that the world knew just the opposite was true. 1976’s Wings At The Speed Of Sound gives every member of the band a chance to shine, but the songs are generally weak to middling and are often rendered without much imagination. Two ditties for which McCartney amped up the charm made the album a smash, but it hasn’t held up that well four decades down the line. Here is a song-by-song review:
11. “Wino Junko”- The title pretty much says it all about the subject matter of this one that puts Jimmy McCulloch in the lead. Tries for bluesy but ends up woozy, and, at over five minutes, it really drags.
10. “Time To Hide”- Denny Laine wrote and sang this clunker, which is about as generic as it comes in terms of arena rock. The instrumental break isn’t bad, so that’s something.
9. “Cook Of The House”- Linda does rockabilly, and it’s as shambolic as you would expect. A more beefed-up sound might have drawn attention away from the vocals, so the production doesn’t do the missus any favors either. But at least she’s having fun on lead, which can’t be said for some of her other bandmates.
8. “San Ferry Anne”- The horns are a bit overdone here (a common problem throughout the album), and the lyrics don’t really go anywhere. Next.
7. “Must Do Something About It”- It’s too bad McCartney didn’t give drummer Joe English more to work with for his lead vocal on the album. The song is breezy but forgettable; English, on the other hand, shows a lot of personality as a singer.
6. “The Note You Never Wrote”- This one starts enticingly enough in a mysterious sort of way, and there are some pretty moments in the melody. But it loses its way, musically and lyrically, through no fault of Laine’s serviceable lead vocal.
5. “She’s My Baby”- Imagine one of Stevie Wonder’s punchy, funky love songs with bizarro lyrics (comparing a woman to gravy is certainly a new one) and you’ve got the sense of this one. The music is just feisty enough to put it across, but barely.
4. “Let Em In”- Paul is back in “All Together Now” mode here, writing a trifle that’s undeniably catchy and just as lightweight. There’s some fun to be had in the name-dropping, and the drowsy horn is a kick. Getting a Top Five hit out of this was a steal, but it fits the era’s radio fare very well. And if that were easy to write a smash single, I guess everybody would be doing it.
3. “Silly Love Songs”- I don’t have a problem with the quasi-disco or the sentiment; you can’t blame the guy for developing rabbit ears considering all the shots he had taken after The Beatles disintegrated. He could have made his point in two minutes instead of six, if you ask me, but, while his bass line is front and center, it certainly keeps your attention.
2. “Warm And Beautiful”- I go back and forth on this song from thinking it’s an unheralded classic to believing that McCartney could have done it in his sleep. And maybe those two beliefs can coexist. I do think the melody is maybe a tad facile, but the little guitar break is wonderful touch and the strings are employed with great care. There are a lot of worse ways to spend three minutes than listening to unabashed prettiness, right?
1.”Beware My Love”- That little three-note instrumental hook brings some high drama to the proceedings. It calls for McCartney to rise to the occasion with vocals that start at an emotional precipice and stay up there for the entirety. There’s not much to it other that passion and intensity, but the way those two traits are sustained is quite impressive. An odd one, for sure, but quite entertaining.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Macca’s other band, check out the link directly below to preorder my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs. The link below that is to my Amazon page, through which you can check out all of my Counting Down books and e-books.)
It’s never a good sign when an album is more well-known for the tour it spawned than for the music contained on it. And Paul McCartney’s decision to allow some of his fellow Wings to take the lead might have helped band harmony, but it didn’t help the quality of 1975’s Venus And Mars. Macca didn’t produce any out-and-out classics for the album either. That said, if you only consider his songs, there’s an impressive variety of styles that he covers here that are all handled adeptly, and his commitment to the material is never less than full-tilt. Here is a song-by-song review:
13. “Spirits Of Ancient Egypt”- Caught between a generic rocker and quasi-mystical claptrap, Denny Laine’s lone writing contribution to the album is eminently skippable.
12. “Crossroads Theme”- Wings interpretation of the theme to a long-running British soap opera is tacked on at the end because, well, why not, I guess.
11. “Letting Go”- An odd choice for a single this. Maybe McCartney felt he needed a rocker to put across to the masses, but why he chose to embellish it with such overbearing brass and such embarassingly clunky lyrics is a mystery.
10. “Medicine Jar”- Jimmy McCulloch does a nice job here as a frontman, even if the song doesn’t quite feel of a piece with the rest of the material. Sad subject matter though considering his drug-and-alcohol-related death just a few years later.
9. “You Gave Me The Answer”- McCartney has never been shy about his love of pre-rock genres, and his facility with melody translates across the eras. This is by no means good enough for the Great American Songbook, but it’s charming nonetheless right down to the old-timey vocals.
8. “Venus And Mars”- The acoustic-and-synth opener to the album, it’s intriguing enough that one wishes to hear the full song. With the reprise, you kind of can.
7. “Venus And Mars (Reprise)”- See above.
6. “Magneto And Titanium Man”- Casting Marvel superheros and villains as side players in the tale of an alluring female robber shouldn’t work, but McCartney’s conviction makes it so. It doesn’t hurt that the rhythm keeps your head bobbing even when the narrative twists and turns beyond all sense.
5. “Rock Show”- It rocks convincingly and includes some nifty interludes that show off McCartney’s ability to seamlessly meld seemingly disparate parts into a whole. Songs about the life of a touring rock band are notoriously hard to pull of though, since the average Joe can’t relate, and I’m not sure if Paul completely clears that hurdle here. But the energy wins the day.
4. “Love In Song”- The melody carries this a long way, as does McCartney’s lovely, yearning vocal. You can make fun of the lyrics if you want to when you read them off the page, but, in the context of the dreamily melancholy tune, they’re just fine.
3. “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People”- I guess I could nitpick and wish that Paul had written another verse to beef this one up. But the sentimental sway of the chorus gets me, as McCartney sweetly imagines the inner life of an elderly couple. It might not be as incisive as John Prine’s “Hello In There” about the subject matter, but it deserves credit for even considering that subject matter at all.
2. “Listen To What The Man Said”- He could crank out tunes like this with such effortlessness that he was often taken for granted at the time. Now when you look back at the catalog and see the sheer amount of indelible singles he turned out you have to bow down to the magnitude of it all. There’s a sweet message in the song about love’s indomitable nature that the melody delivers right to the heart. McCartney’s vocal sticks to the sturdiness of that main tune, allowing Tom Scott to sprint all over the place on sax for just the right flourish.
1. “Call Me Back Again”- You’d never guess that the bulk of Venus And Mars was recorded in New Orleans from the sound, with the striking exception of this track, which is kind of a son of “Oh Darling” what with McCartney soulfully emoting. The horns are employed much more artfully here, and Paul does this kind of scream-singing as well as anyone. You can imagine him on his knees in the studio, wracked with emotion as he hopes for that call back. Wonderful performance.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul McCartney’s “other” band, check out the link below to preorder my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, due in March 2017. The link below that is to my Amazon page, where you can check out all my Counting Down books and e-books.)
I got a kick out of hearing that Conor Oberst’s new solo album, which is quite excellent by the way, was called Ruminations. Couldn’t every one of his albums, every one of his songs for that matter, be titled the same? Picking at the minutiae of life for morsels of truth and digging deep into loves he’s lost and mistakes he’s made for some sort of lesson that he eventually ignores, lest there be no more grist for his songwriting mill, Oberst is one of music’s great ruminators.
He also has the knack for putting you right in the middle of a situation, even if it’s somewhere you’d never be in your actual life. I’ve never used recreational drugs in my life and have only visited the tourist attractions in New York City. And yet, on “Lua,” released on 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Oberst’s recording alter ego Bright Eyes, his details and observations bring the city’s young and affluent drug scene to such harrowingly vivid life that the song seems like a memory that I’d blocked out. The loneliness, the weariness, the whole dispiriting, devastating cycle of that lifestyle can be gleaned from his well-chosen words.
It can also be understood from his hushed vocal, at times so quiet and defeated that it seems as though he’s singing a lullaby to a dream that long since died. When his voice does turn up, it quivers in that inimitable way that Oberst has, and the damage done to his narrator is clear. What’s so heartbreaking about the song is that this guy can insightfully describe the pitfalls of this life and yet is helpless to leave it behind.
If “Lua” is one of your favorite Oberst songs, as it is mine, you really should check out Ruminations, which also features the artist in his most stripped-down guise, nothing getting in the way of his delicate melodies and wounded words. Then you can ruminate on your own time about how, a dozen years on from “Lua,” he’s still at the top of his game in bringing listeners to the bottom.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the link below to my Amazon page to purchase my Counting Down books and e-books.)
The making of Paul McCartney & Wings 1973 album Band On The Run featured a little bit of everything: band departures, exotic locales, theft, health scares. At a time when his solo career was being run down by everyone from critics to ex-Beatles, McCartney didn’t really need the extra pressure. But he rose to the occasion brilliantly, overcoming all the obstacles and finding his rock and roll pocket for one of the great albums of the decade. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “No Words”- Denny Laine, the last Wing standing on the album, received a co-writing credit on this interesting little shapeshifter. The modulations from section to section are the best part of it, which I’m guessing is where Macca had the most input.
9. “Bluebird”- Again with the birds! Band On The Run succeeds largely on its rockers, but the ballads have an ease about them that’s alluring; it doesn’t sound like Paul is trying so hard to please on them as he had in some of the slow ones from just before this release. Guest players Howie Casey (on sax) and Remi Kebaka (on percussion) make solid contributions on this one, and the sleepy little melody works its magic without pushing too hard.
8. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)”- The folky part was written on demand from Dustin Hoffman, and it’s quaint and lovely in a “Michelle” kind of way. It then spins off into an orchestrated medley of the rest of the album’s songs, which hasn’t aged all that well but still doesn’t torpedo the dreamy beginning.
7. “Mamunia”- Note how the stretched-out lines of the verses are contrasted by the short, sharp punches of the refrain. The countermelodies that show up in the final verse are sumptuously pretty, while the message of keeping spirits up in adverse conditions is rendered nicely.
6. “Mrs. Vandebilt”- McCartney uncorks a sinuous bass line here that plays perfectly off the acoustic rhythm guitars. There’s a Beatles-y electric guitar interlude to sweeten the pot, and the “Ho-Hey-Ho” chant that coaxes involuntary fist pumps. it may not have too much on its mind, but, as he sings, “What’s the use of worrying?” Especially when there’s effortless fun to be had on a track like this.
5. “Let Me Roll It”- There’s toughness in the electric guitar flicker that drives the music and tenderness in the vocals as McCartney rolls his heart to his lover. His bass keeps taking us where we need to go, from the yearning verses to the cathartic chorus. The comparisons of this song to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band were knee-jerk and off-base; whereas Lennon’s stark music was more about getting out of the way of the message, McCartney uses the elements, sparse though they may be, to set the tone here.
4. “Helen Wheels”- After all those years of America messing up The Beatles’ albums, a U.S. release finally did McCartney right, as this indelible chugger was only (originally) included on the version of Band On The Run released in the states. McCartney learned well from Chuck Berry how important meter was to writing a good rock lyric, and he uses that skill to give this one the forward momentum that fits the theme of the song to a tee. Great guitar work at the end of the song from Macca as well, even after everybody says bye-bye.
3. “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five”- After the opening line, McCartney pretty much abandons the futuristic theme in the lyrics. But the music manages to communicate it quite well, from the driving piano to the spaced-out vocal interludes. This is a good point to remind you that Band On The Run was largely a one-man show, which makes tracks like this, which keeps you on your toes for the entire running length right down to the title track reprise, even more impressive. And he sings the stuffing out of it, absolutely freaking out during the cacophonous outro. Fantastic closer.
2. “Jet”- It’s quite unfair how many hooks McCartney crams into this high-energy rocker about, well, I have no idea but I get it, you know. Nobody has ever been able to marry rock propulsion to pop tunefulness as well as this guy, and “Jet” is one of his best examples of how to do it. The instrumental touches are all right on point, from the stately brass to Linda’s wobbly keyboard solo. And the Lady Suffragettes and Sergeant Majors all make perfect sense in the context of the thrilling music. There’s nary a moment in the song that doesn’t demand your full attention.
1. “Band On The Run”- McCartney’s signature solo song works on a lot of levels. Obviously it’s a musical tour de force, a song suite assembled with ambition and grace to signal every stop on a prisoner’s journey, from incarcerated doldrums to tense planning to glorious escape, which finally comes in the pristine strums of Paul’s acoustic guitar. Lyrically it could certainly be read as McCartney’s nod to the shackles that his Beatle reputation had placed on his solo career, shackles that he finally shook off by focused force of will and sheer talent. And once the fans heard this song, they had to finally grant him that freedom, while the critics couldn’t help but tap their feet as they ate their crow-and-humble pie hoagie. You could listen to it every day and never tire of it.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Macca’s “other” band, check out the link below to preorder my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, available in March 2017.)