Paul McCartney largely took the middle part of the 1980’s off, with the exception of 1986’s Press To Play. Some might snicker that he might as well have sat that one out too, and there is some merit to that argument. As brilliant a producer as Hugh Padgham and as adventurous a songwriter as Eric Stewart might have been, their styles seemed to clash with McCartney’s instead of complimenting it. He deserves credit for trying something out of his comfort zone, but, for the most part, McCartney seems at sea here, which, combined with a dearth of memorable songs, hamstrings this album. Here is a song-by-song-review:
10. “Pretty Little Head”- Sounds like it was crafted for a Miami Vice scene where Crockett and Tubbs have to find the drug dealers in a dense jungle. As much as I love Miami Vice, this is not a compliment, especially since the style didn’t suit McCartney whatsoever.
9. “Talk More Talk”- While the experimentation and wacky wordplay is admirable, the sterile production keeps this from being more than an oddity that won’t interest you more than once or twice.
8. “Angry”- If there was a target to this diatribe in song, it’s now lost to the mists of time, as McCartney himself might put it. What’s certain is that the participation of Pete Townsend and Phil Collins is largely wasted on this feisty but underwritten and overdone track.
7. “Press”- Imagine a television with a brightness knob. In the 1980’s, pop music production brightened from the sleepy twilight of the late 70’s until it hit just the right level and the day-glo colors popped perfectly around 1984. Only they kept turning the knob up until we could no longer distinguish the substance behind the blinding light. That’s the best way to describe this, one of McCartney’s least effective singles ever.
6. “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”- A nice little reggaefied workout, that, despite the title, contains some creeping melancholy. McCartney’s bass work is as nimble as could be expected. The second half of the song is a bit more musically mundane, but not an embarrassment by any means.
5. “Stranglehold”- The opener mixes some rockabilly acoustic guitar, soulful horns, and a stop-and-start rhythm into something promising. The lyrics nicely conjure the sweet agony of anticipated passion quite well. Here the production doesn’t get too busy and the song is better for it.
4. “Move Over Busker”- Paul is on much firmer footing with this funny rocker. The lyrics seem to suggest that the musician doesn’t hold as much weight in the world as the bigger stars he encounters; the title alone implies a kind of disrespect for what McCartney does. He has the last laugh, however, since the song swaggers with more raucous confidence than most movies can ever hope to achieve.
3. “However Absurd”- The title is apropos here. The music suggests something of great circumstance, as it seems to be intentionally overbaked what with the stomping drums and the stressed-out strings and all. Meanwhile the lyrics contain some striking individual lines, even if they don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things. At times it almost seems like a Rutles track parodying an earnest Beatles ballad. Not sure what Paul was after, but it’s fascinating anyway.
2. “Footprints”- McCartney has always had a soft spot in his songwriting for the outsider who many of us might not even consider, the still-waters-run-deep kind of fellow with a whole world going on behind his staid expression, a world about which we can only guess. “Footprints” is played with great touch and sensitivity by the instrumentalists and features a melody that takes you to places you never expect when the ride begins. An understated but affecting character sketch.
1. “Only Love Remains”- I know you’re not supposed to make a ballad the lead single, but I wonder if Press To Play might be regarded a bit differently if Paul had led with this atmospheric, romantic, grand slam of a ballad. Tony Visconti’s orchestration is subtle until it needs to be sweeping, and Paul’s melody soars when it’s not allowing a little bit of doubt to creep in to keep things honest. There’s not a false moment, and the message may be time-worn, but it’s still crucial. We all can get caught up with things that ultimately don’t matter too much, but songs like this, especially when rendered by a master like Macca, set us straight on what’s truly important and resonant.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. And preorder my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s available in March.)
Because Tattoo You, which came out in ’81 but consisted of material of much older vintage, interrupted the narrative somewhat, 1983’s Undercover seems a bit out of left field in the Rolling Stones throughline, when in actuality it’s a natural progression to the modern, dancey sounds of the era that began with Some Girls and continued with Emotional Rescue. The effort is always there (although you can hear it a bit too often,) but, save for an excellent one-two punch at the beginning and a decent closing duo, the focus wavers. In the middle portion, we’re left adrift somewhere between Mick Jagger’s sound-of-the-moment pretensions and Keith Richards’ inclination toward traditionalism, and it’s a bumpy ride. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Too Tough”- Jagger’s heart doesn’t seem to be into this throwback to the riff-rocking of the 70’s. Extremely forgettable, except perhaps for the rampant nastiness of the lyrics.
9. “Feel On Baby”- If they could have gotten out of the way of the basic riddim, things would have been a lot better. But the production eccentricities that help out “Undercover Of The Night” are cumbersome here, and the five minutes running time drags.
8. “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)”- The sadomasochistic overtones are a bit heavy-handed, which would have been OK if the music had been a bit more playful instead of so unsmiling. Not a bad middle eight, but apart from that, it’s a bit much and not enough all at once.
7. “Too Much Blood”- Jagger’s cockney rapping is a kick, even if the subject matter skews toward the gory. Still, the music hasn’t aged well, with horns that sound like they were on loan from Phil Collins and synthetic drums that kind of take Charlie Watts out of the equation, which is never a good thing.
6. “Wanna Hold You”- It might be Keith on autopilot, with a flickering guitar groove that he’s done often before and since and lyrics that sound as if they were scrawled down in the last minute at the session. But it’s comfortable in its skin, which makes it stand out from a lot of the fussier stuff around it on the album.
5. “Pretty Beat Up”- Ronnie Wood gets a co-writer credit for coming up with the music on this quasi-instrumental. The horns are employed a lot more effectively here and there’s bite to the groove. David Sanborn adds some intense saxophone to top it all off.
4. “All The Way Down”- The double entendres fly fast and furious on this rocker that Watts provides with an energetic pulse. The somewhat nostalgic, somewhat caustic look back at a torrid affair with a more experienced woman sure seems autobiographical; Jagger certainly plays it to the hilt. Bonus points for this verse: “How the years rush on by: birthdays, kids and suicides/But still I play the fool and strut, still you’re a slut.” Manages to be self-aware, nasty, and pretty damn funny all at once.
3. “It Must Be Hell”- I’d be more praiseworthy of Keith’s great riff if it weren’t so similar to the one adorning Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” And I’m still not sure if Jagger is sympathizing with or sneering at those bemoaning the world’s problems at the time. But the music is tough and focused and the chorus is rock solid. Pretty good send-off track.
2. “Undercover Of The Night”- It manages to sound very much of the times and very much a Rolling Stones track, which, in the early 80’s, was often a case of never the twain shall meet. Watts bomping beat keeps pushing you headlong into Jagger’s tale of repression and violence in South America, which builds to a frenzied peak with the lines “The smell of sex, the smell of suicide/All these dreams, things I can’t keep inside “. Here the production effects, like the echoing guitar and sledgehammer drums, are right on point with the tenor of the song. Every moment is charged with wiry energy. You can dance to it or despair to it, whatever your bag might be.
1.”She Was Hot”- The verses are the Stones doing yet another take on a Chuck Berry potboiler, as Jagger moans from his collection of cold, lonely hotel rooms. The refrains pull back to let the atmosphere sink in as the narrator luxuriates in the memory of a particularly steamy tryst. Richards separates the two parts with a stomping solo. Jagger’s descriptions don’t skimp on vivid imagery, with phrases like “molten glow,” “the lost bayou” and “the human zoo” showing Duran Duran, at the time the bell cows of sultry wordplay, a thing or two. Dare I say that the “hot, hot, hot” refrain at the end of the song, or climax might be the better word, sounds like lovers thrusting? Write what you know, they say, and Jagger seems to know this scenario right down the last bead of sweat.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, now available at the link below and all major online booksellers.)
I’ve been working on a project about the early 80’s, an era that’s near and dear to my heart, and the research rarely turns up a killer song that feels like it went under the radar. The artists at that time were pretty good about leading with the best stuff on singles and videos, and those songs have had a long shelf life. But I hadn’t heard this Phil Collins ballad in quite a long time, and after a few notes, the fondness I had for it quickly came back to me.
Collins gets an unfairly bad rap, if only because of just how ubiquitous he was in that decade, either releasing solo albums or Genesis albums, producing hit songs by the likes of Frida and Howard Jones, guest-starring on Miami Vice, putting out soundtrack songs, and on and on. The guy had a serious work ethic, and eventually he became a bit overexposed (“Sussudio”, which still sends me into spastic shivers when I hear those grating horns, was probably the tipping point for me), but his work from 1980-84 is consistently fine, as the guy, with and without Genesis, shifted seamlessly from arena rock to R&B to balladry with nary an ounce of strain.
This song was a bit of an underdog, considering it came on an album, 1982’s Hello, I Must Be Going, which produced the hit cover “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the intense “In The Air Tonight” redux “I Don’t Care Anymore.” By the time they got around to releasing this one, Collins was back with Genesis preparing their next LP.
Like a lot of his early solo work, “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” deals with the wounds of lost love. Unlike the simmering anger that surfaced on songs like “In The Air Tonight,” this one is more graceful and tender, a loving plea from a regretful guy who still thinks he’s the one for the girl he’d addressing, even as a new man moves in. With an understated string section and sensitive piano work underpinning, the pretty wistfulness of the melody shines through. Meanwhile Collins does his vocal thing where he starts off all dejected and then explodes with passion. Check it out and you’ll realize that “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” is that rare beast: an underexposed Phil Collins song from the 80’s, and an exceedingly worthy one at that.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
If there were any doubt about the contrast between the two leaders of Pink Floyd, David Gilmour drives it home on 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, the first Pink Floyd project following the departure of Roger Waters from the band. As much of a Gilmour solo album if not more than The Final Cut was Waters’ baby, the album eschews, for the most part wordiness and concepts in favor of the instrumental flights of fancy that were once the band’s calling card. The change in strategy works for half the album before it bogs down in the latter stages.
9. “Yet Another Movie/Round And Round”- Imagine Phil Collins-era Genesis at their fussiest but without the moments of hammy humor or poppy catchiness and you’ve pretty much got the idea of what this slog delivers, even with studio aces Tony Levin and Jim Keltner helping out.
8. “Terminal Frost”- If you’re looking for tasteful if passsionless soundtrack material, then you’ve come to the right place. But you actually bought a Pink Floyd record, so you’re probably quite disappointed with this.
7. “The Dogs Of War”- The one song on the album where the lyrics sort of take center stage is as unsmiling and strident as anything Waters ever spat. It’s not quite eloquent enough to carry that kind of weight.
6. “A New Machine”- The vocoder effect on Gilmour’s voice with the lack of any real instrumentation behind it is a striking effect, but that’s all that’s really here. The two parts of this track are positioned as the bread of a sandwich for which “Terminal Frost” is the meat, making this one of the most askew and forgettable song suites the band has ever attempted.
5. “Sorrow”- It’s got some great playing for Gilmour as well as some lyrics from him that, while a bit busy, are good enough to get by. Still, the whole thing never rises above the moody, airless atmosphere it maintains, making it a closing track that fails to ignite.
4. “Signs Of Life”- Gilmour conjures a “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” throwback vibe on this opening instrumental, which is well-sequenced before the crashing opening of “Learning To Fly.” Rick Wright makes his return to the band with some synthesizer work on the track.
3. “One Slip”- There is a kind of sterile professionalism that was very much of the time that dogs this track a bit, and the lyrics, which seem to be a meditation on the perils of impetuous romance, get clunky here and there. Still, the sweeping chorus cures a lot of ills, and the pinball sound effects at the start are a fun touch.
2. “Learning To Fly”- If there’s a slight quibble with this hit, it’s that the questing, aerial tone of the lyrics doesn’t quite jibe with the lurching rhythm. Only in the final verse, with Gilmour’s voice made to sound disembodied, does that kind of dreamy feel infiltrate the track. Still, this is a focused, well-produced rock song (great backing vocals in the chorus, by the way) that nods to the band’s spirit of experimentation but still stays accessible throughout. And, say what you will about the lyrical content elsewhere on the album, but the words here, inspired by Gilmour’s flying lessons, are excellent.
1. “On The Turning Away”- Writing a message ballad is always tricky business, since things can get sappy real quick. But Gilmour, who wrote the music and got an assist on the lyrics from Anthony Moore, avoids that trap by keeping things balanced between dour realism and tentative hope. The melody is one of the loveliest in the band’s catalog, while the words are humbly poetic and subtly stirring. Gilmour gets the chance for an extended solo rip at the end, all fiery anguish and unchecked emotion. Probably the best song released under the Pink Floyd banner after Waters’ exit.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)