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.)
On the surface, 1965’s Out Of Our Heads looked just like its three predecessors in the Rolling Stones catalog in that it was comprised of a bunch of R&B and soul covers with a few originals sprinkled in for good measure. The difference was the quality of those originals, as the Jagger/Richards songwriting team seemed to flourish all at once and find their uncompromising, invigorating voice. And there was great variety there as well, as the standout originals on the album included a lusty blues, a defiant rocker, an icy ballad, and, of course, the song that remains their signature a half-century after its release. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “One More Try”- While not an embarrassment, this fleet-footed original suffers a bit in comparison to the Jagger/Richards classics that surround it and makes a bit of an odd choice for a closing track. (Although this was still a time when bands didn’t really consider albums as anything more than a collection of tracks, so it’s somewhat understandable this one was tacked on the end.)
11. “Hitch Hike”- Sequencing this so close to “Mercy Mercy” makes it seem like one long R&B workout to start the album, which is fine, although it doesn’t really distinguish this Marvin Gaye cover too much.
10. “I’m All Right”- If nothing else, this live cut displays the frenzy of their early concerts. It never quite devolves into complete chaos, thanks to Charlie Watts steady backbeat, allowing Jagger and the guitarists to flip out.
9. “Good Times”- When you’re up against the standard of Sam Cooke, it’s wise to underplay, which is what the band does here. They cop an easy-going vibe that makes this one a quick, pleasant diversion.
8. “Mercy Mercy”- It’s interesting to hear how the Stones rhythm section nails that strutting groove while the electric guitars fuzz things out. The result is just another example of the group putting enough of their own identity into a cover song to make it more than just an album-filling exercise.
7. “The Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”- The boys have some fun at the expense of a nameless record company promoter (later identified by Bill Wyman in his book.) While the music is a relatively straightforward blues stomp, there’s some sneaky insight in the lyrics about the cultural disconnect between the youth who played and listened to rock and the older generation clinging to their record company jobs trying to peddle the music.
6. “Cry To Me”- Man, were they great at these sauntering ballads. Keith Richards’ guitar punctuations at the end of Jagger’s wailing pleas are always perfectly-pitched. So what if Jagger’s screams weren’t as pleasing to the ear as Solomon Burke’s? He nails the emotion behind them, and that’s the important part.
5. “The Spider And The Fly”- The sleepy blues accompaniment is just right for Jagger’s weary tale of a rock star on the make. There’s no joy in his conquest (although there’s not really any guilt either.) Like the spider entices the weaker insects into a trap just because it’s what he does, so too does the singer ensnare unsuspecting women, like his girl at home and the barfly he encounters, as part of his routine existence. The sly humor and telling details provide further evidence of the rising songwriting tide.
4. “The Last Time”- Richards has spoken about how it was hard for he and Jagger to write a single for the group in the beginning, simply because the boys in the band were far tougher critics that any outside artist interested in songs from the duo. Maybe that’s why they piggybacked on a Staples Singers song (the chorus is nearly identical) to get it done. Aside from that though, the song is set apart by the loping rhythm, that quizzical riff (played by Brian Jones), and the striking cohesion between the musical attitude set forth by the instrumentalists and Jagger’s half-heartbroken, half-taunting bark.
3. “That’s How Strong My Love Is”- The album’s standout cover is Jagger’s showcase. Who knew he could get all heartfelt and earnest, setting aside his raised eyebrows to deliver from the heart and soul? The band supports him ably but basically stands back and lets him do the heavy emoting, and he really reaches you.
2. “Play With Fire”- For just a heartbeat, the acoustic guitar intro sounds like it’s going to be open-hearted and sentimental. It quickly takes a dark turn, and that’s the tone maintained throughout to chilling effect. Jack Nitzsche’s harpsichord is a left-field contribution that contributes to the song’s austere beauty. Then there’s Jagger’s vocal, which goes from emotionless in the verses as he tears holes in the facade of a society girl and then downright threatening in the refrain as he warns her away. Ruthlessly unforgiving and absolutely compelling.
1. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”- Well, there’s the riff, obviously, but it’s more than that, right? We start on the chorus like The Beatles, but the similarity really ends there. The better comparison, from the same year, is “Like A Rolling Stone”, in that both songs find a kind of freedom in alienation; you have to identify the issue before you can cathartically attack it. That’s where Jagger’s lyrics, practically stream-of-consciousness in the way they flow from one aggravation to the next, really carry the load. We all generally come up short in life, which is why this anthem has ridiculous staying power.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Rolling Stones, you can pre-order by upcoming book about their 100 finest songs by using the link below.)