With a couple days to kill in the studio and some ace session men on hand, Paul McCartney ripped off a bushelful of songs consisting mostly of classics from the first wave of American rock and roll. The resulting album (CHOBA B CCCP or Back In The U.S.S.R.) was released only in the Soviet Union in 1988 before finally getting a worldwide release three years later. Although the arrangements sometimes betrayed the tossed-off, hurried nature of the sessions, McCartney’s affinity for and ease with this material makes it an invigorating listen, reminding anyone who might have forgotten how great a rock and roller this guy is.
14. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”- A rock arrangement of this standard might have worked with just a tad more lightness to highlight the deft nature of Duke Ellington’s melody. But the band sort of bludgeons it, even if the instrumental break is well-done.
13. “Ain’t That A Shame”- Cheap Trick had a pretty good go at this song by not playing it too close to the vest. The respect that McCartney shows to the original smothers it a bit and makes it come off as more imitation than inspiration.
12. “Midnight Special”- Maybe too light a touch is employed here by McCartney and the band, with the arrangement by Paul not quite capturing the darkness in the song that makes that ever-loving light so important in the first place. Nice guitar work on this one by Mick Green though to recommend it.
11. “Lucille”- The groove is a touch mathematical here, especially when you compare it to Little Richard’s raucous original. McCartney has fun with the vocal though, inspired by one of his true idols, and there’s no denying that this is a bona fide classic that’s hard to botch as long as you bring the energy.
10. “That’s All Right, Mama”- You have to hand it to McCartney on one account: He certainly didn’t back away from the behemoth songs of the genre. His take on this track that Elvis immortalized hews a bit more country and western, with the exception of the robust guitar break. Doesn’t threaten the original by any stretch, but a fine turn nonetheless.
9. “Kansas City”- McCartney knows his way around this song, as it was included way back in the day on Beatles For Sale. His voice sounds remarkably spry considering the quarter-century between recordings, doesn’t it? But, then again, it sounds pretty spry today even further down the road. Pretty good heft delivered by the band on this one.
8. “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday”- McCartney is, for sure, a “real gone cat” throughout this collection. On this, one of three Fats Domino-penned songs on the album, he and his buddies bust it up pretty good and vigorously sink their teeth into a tale of romantic revenge.
7. “Twenty Flight Rock”- This one holds a special place in Macca’s heart, as it was his knowledge of the song’s lyrics and changes that allegedly impressed John Lennon back in the day when the pair first met. Mick Gallagher gets a nice showcase on piano, as the band, taking the Eddy Cochran classic at a lope instead of a sprint, keeps their footing very well.
6. “I’m In Love Again”- Anybody’s who’s ever heard “Lady Madonna” should know that McCartney can do Fats Domino better than anyone save Fats himself. He slips into this rambler with no sweat at all, as Gallagher nails the piano triplets to anchor the music.
5. “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy- Man, does Paul sing this one wonderfully, touching every bit of the playfulness and bluesiness in the lyrics with ease. The fuzz of the guitar doesn’t quite square with the swing of the arrangement, in my humble view, but that’s nitpicking. The positives far outweigh that little nick.
4. “Crackin’ Up”- This is the most obscure song on the album, and it benefits from that, sounding alive and fresh rather than encased in glass. McCartney gets a lead guitar showcase and makes the most of it, while seeming to enjoy the quirkiness of the lyrics.
3. “Just Because”- The quartet nails the rockabilly vibe of this one, an antiquated song that Elvis also made famous. Great interplay among the musicians, while Paul’s bass and vocals bring a lot of charm to the proceedings. Certainly one of the most fun recordings on an album where “fun” was the operative word.
2. “Bring It On Home To Me”- Taking on a Sam Cooke song isn’t for the faint of heart if you’re a vocalist. McCartney tears into it fearlessly, adding a bit of a grittier edge in the higher notes compared to Cooke’s break-no-sweat smoothness. The call and response at the end leaves everything on the floor. A great showcase for his vocals, which retain their youthfulness and yet still reference the heartbreaks only life experience can engender.
1. “Summertime”- Taking this George Gershwin song and giving it an arrangement that hits the ominous notes of “House Of The Rising Sun” proves to be a stroke of genius. It really transforms it into something that Gershwin himself might not have realized possible. And it’s the one place where the heavier tones of the electric guitar don’t sound like they’re overwhelming the content of the song. Paul puts everything he has into the vocal; Ella would have been proud.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter & JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in March. You can preorder it at the link below.)
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.)
In 1988, Cheap Trick were up against it with their record company following the commercial failure of their previous album and were forced to use outside songwriters. The resulting album, The Flame, was a big hit with a pair of Top 10 smashes, so sometimes the suits are right; as strained as the title track may have sounded, it went to #1 and revived the band’s career.
Perhaps the most surprising of the songwriting contributions came from Diane Warren, she of the endless Michael Bolton and Celine Dion ballads and a ridiculous streak of Best Song Oscar contenders in the early 90’s. While rock purists might not be able to stomach her helping out these power-pop legends on principle, “Ghost Town,” the song that she wrote with Cheap Trick’s chief songsmith Rick Nielsen, turned out to be quite the affecting heart-tugger.
My guess is that Warren penned the lyrics here, which are workmanlike but do find a relatively novel way to depict a broken heart in the refrain of “It’s like a ghost town without your love.” Nielsen’s sighing melody has all the right peaks and valleys for lead singer Robin Zander to give an appropriately tortured performance, sounding like a man about to break down in a heap at any given moment. Nielsen also chips in some stinging lead guitar to up the angst well into the red.
I heard this song recently on the 80’s channel on Sirius/XM advertised as a lost hit, which suggests that a lot of folks might not know it. I was 16 at the time of its release and really vibed with Zander’s dramatic delivery and the song’s woebegone sentiments, so I knew it well. What surprised me hearing it again was how well it holds up, how timeless it sounds despite being released in an era that tended to put its unerasable stamp on songs.
So if it’s new to you, prepare to be enjoy the soothing sorrow. And if it takes you back to that time when everything meant everything and only the most passionately rendered sentiments rung true, maybe I’ll see you there.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
My take on the sublime 70’s anthem “Surrender” by Cheap Trick is now available at American Songwriter’s site. Check it out in the link. More Boss tomorrow.