Posts Tagged ‘Essentials’

Since beginning this occasional series in 2017, I included this italicized explanation at the top of my picks until earlier this year: “As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.” What I hoped to convey with those words was this: “essential” does not necessarily equal “great.” Sometimes they are one and the same, of course, but as often they’re simply important, but flawed, chapters in the chosen artist’s development.

Such is the case with McCartney II, which was released on May 16, 1980. It was, is and likely will forever be a love-it-or-hate-it entry in Paul McCartney’s oeuvre. Some fans consider it an eccentric delight, as the 11 songs span the gamut from synth-pop to ambient electronica to new-fangled techno to old-fashioned blues to an acoustic ballad. Others, however, find the synthesizers, electronica flourishes and vocal distortions off-putting. I’m in the former camp, myself. While I don’t consider it a great album, per se, I do think it’s an important album that features glimmers of greatness.

Most fans know the backstory of the album, but for those few who don’t: Following the wrap-up of the Back to the Egg album, which was released in June 1979, the members of Wings – Paul and Linda, long-time compadre Denny Laine, and newcomers Laurence Juber and Steve Holley – went their separate ways for a spell. With a 19-date U.K. tour slated to begin in November, and the expectation that it would expand to the rest of the world the following year, everyone had things on their to-do list that they wanted to address first.

In Paul’s case, that meant goofing off – first in Sussex and then in Scotland. In a 1980 Club Sandwich interview with rock writer Paul Gambaccini, he says that “I hired a 16-track machine and got an engineer friend, Eddie, to fix me up a thing where I just took one microphone into the back of the machine direct, so we didn’t use a big console. It’s very difficult if you’re trying to work on your own with a big console, so we bypassed it and just went directly into the back of the machine.”

In some respects, McCartney was looking to cast out the cobwebs he’d gathered during the on-and-off Back to the Egg sessions, which began in late June 1978 and didn’t end until March 1979. While BTTE was and is a fun set, it’s also flawed and formulaic – and, though it includes a nod to new wave, extremely safe. Like many of the era’s old-guard rockers, in other words, he was treading water.

For II, he changed things up. As he explained to Gambaccini, “Well, the whole thing about all these tracks was to do something different. ‘Coming Up’ was done as all the tracks were. What I did was to just go into the studio each day and just start with a drum track. Then I built it up bit by bit without any idea of how the song was going to to turn out. It’s like a reverse way of working. After laying down the drum tracks I added guitars and bass, building up the backing track.” In the interview, he equates the process to sculpture: “It is very much like sitting down with a few lumps of clay and putting down one after another until it makes itself into a face or something.”

By the time he finished the working holiday, he had enough material for a double album – but shelved everything, as the Wings tour beckoned. 

And then Japan happened.

The plans to re-conquer the world were cancelled along with the sold-out 11-date Japanese tour; and McCartney found himself listening to his previous summer’s sonic adventures. From the same Club Sandwich interview with Gambaccini: “I wasn’t even thinking of it being an album until I got all the tracks together and played them on a cassette in my car; it started to sound like an album.” Then it became a matter of figuring out how to create a coherent set from the material. Paul, apparently, wanted to release everything as a double album, but then thought better – or, more likely, was reined by his record company. Some songs were edited for length, while others were left behind.

In a sense, McCartney II is a high-tech update on the 1970 McCartney album, which is also accented by oddball instrumentals alongside a few memorable tunes. In this case, the fun begins with the catchy “Coming Up,” which was also the album’s first single.

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The flip side of the 45, I should mention, features a live rendition of the song by Wings along with the Venus & Mars castoff “Lunchbox/Odd Sox.” In the U.K., the song reached No. 2 on the pop charts, but in the U.S. the live rendition – which is what most radio listeners heard, as deejays rebelled against the sped-up vocals – went No. 1.

“Temporary Secretary” is, depending upon one’s mood, funny, maddening or the audio equivalent of a dentist’s drill. (When I saw Paul in 2015 at the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia, there was – and it may have been mine – an audible groan when, early on, he announced it as the next song.) In September 1980, it was released as a limited-edition U.K. single, believe it or not, and has supposedly taken on a life of its own in techno cubs the world over. (As I don’t frequent techno clubs, I can’t say for sure.) Its b-side was the interminable “Secret Friend,” which was added as a bonus track when II was released on CD in 1987.

The third track, “On the Way,” is a bluesy delight that was influenced by Paul having watched Alexis Korner on a TV show about the blues.

Another highlight: “Waterfalls,” which was the only song on the record that Paul wrote prior to beginning the one-man-band sessions.

It was also the second single released from the album, sneaking into the U.K.’s Top 10 while failing to crack the Top 100 in the U.S. The b-side, “Check My Machine,” is what raised the hair on the back of my neck, however; it features sped-up vocals and an absolutely killer beat – a true overlooked gem. (Like “Secret Friend,” it’s now a bonus track on the McCartney II CD.) 

Aside from “Check My Machine,” however, the album tracks I’ve featured are anomalies from the overall feel of II, which veers more toward the ambient and eccentric as it continues. For instance, “Frozen Jap” is an oddball instrumental built around a cool motif that conjures Mount Fuji.

“Darkroom” is another favorite of mine. Be forewarned, though: It’s an ear worm. One listen and you’ll be hearing it for days onward… 

The closing “One of These Days” is another overlooked gem. 

Paul told Gambaccini that he was inspired to write it after “a Hare Krishna bloke care round to see me. He was a nice fellow, very sort of gentle. After he left, I went to the studio and the vibe carried through a bit – I started writing something a bit more gentle that particular day. The song seemed right as a very simple thing, and it basically says ‘one of these days I’ll do what I’ve been meaning to do with the rest of my life.’ I think it’s something a lot of people can identify with.”

Like many U.S. fans, when I brought home the “Coming Up” single in April 1980, at age 14, I first preferred the b-side with Wings. And when the album was released a month later, I found the mix of the expected and the eccentric more of a curiosity than anything. But as the listens accrued, I began to appreciate the eccentric more and more. And, in retrospect, the synth stuff, sped-up vocals and the like led the way for me to appreciate off-kilter releases from other favorite artists, such as Neil Young, in the years to come.

We fans sometimes pigeonhole our favorites, after all, and expect their every release to build upon, or borrow from, what came before. But just as I, as a fan, enjoy a wide array of sounds, why can’t or shouldn’t a music artist expand their sonic palate, as well? In some ways, the success of the album – and it went gold in both the U.S. and U.K. – freed McCartneTy from the straitjacket that Wings had become to him. Ask yourself this: Would The Fireman have happened without McCartney II? I doubt it.

Anyway, in 2011, McCartney II was released alongside the original McCartney as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection (and can be heard on Apple Music). The set includes the unedited versions of many of the tracks as well as a few previously unreleased curiosities, such as the ambient “Blue Sway” (with Richard Niles orchestration) – a very cool track, that is – and the “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” and “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway.” Not everything jells, but that’s okay. They’re cool to hear, nonetheless.

 

Released in June 1979, Back to the Egg was lambasted by rock critics the world over. In Rolling Stone, for instance, well-respected scribe Timothy White called it “[a] veritable slide show of dead-end flights of fancy and yesterday’s dross” and claimed it “doesn’t contain one cut that’s the least bit fleshed out or brought to any logical conclusion.” Sales-wise, it was something of a disappointment, too. Although it did go platinum in the U.S. and gold in the U.K., it didn’t sell anywhere near as well as anticipated.

Yet it remains a favorite of many Wings connoisseurs, myself included, due to the spiky sound Paul McCartney often found with the latest (and last) iteration of his band, which now included guitarist Laurence Juber and drummer Steve Holley. Co-produced with Chris Thomas, whose credits included records by Chris Spedding, the Sex Pistols, Roxy Music and Badfinger, Back to the Egg features a mix of new wave, power pop and old-fashioned rock, with lots of Macca’s patented whimsy sprinkled throughout.

But, first, let me set the stage: I joined the Wings Fun Club at some point in early 1979, and not long thereafter received the first all-color edition of its Club Sandwich newsletter, which alerted me that Paul and Wings were recording a new album. After learning that, I stopped in the Hatboro Music Shop just about every day to see if it was out…until the proprietor (and future Hatboro mayor) Joe Celano finally explained to me that new releases only came out on Tuesdays. By the time of its release, June 8th, I was bouncing off the walls as only 13-year-old me could.

The Club Sandwich trumpeting Back to the Egg, which is pictured up top, arrived a week or two before the album itself was released, though I could be wrong. It went in-depth into the recording, with Laurence delving into the guitar side of the songs and this article expanding upon the overall process:

I immediately heard it as an approximation of the radio experience – and still do, though that wasn’t McCartney’s intent. Listening to it is akin to twisting the radio dial in search of that sound, whatever that sound may be, and coming across an array of infectious tunes. There was rock, pop, new wave, disco-light and even some psychedelia, plus a true Beatles-like “happening”: a who’s who of rock’s (primarily) old guard in an orchestral-like setting for the “Rockestra Theme” and “So Glad to See You Here.”

Replicating the radio experience wasn’t the concept, however. It was meant to convey the experiences of a band on the road, but that concept cracks shortly after Back to the Egg start begins. The “Reception” is said to be the band listening to the radio on the way to a venue; “Getting Closer” signals, uh, getting closer to the venue; and “We’re Open Tonight” – the working title for the album – is the arrival.

“Spin It On,” thus, is the concert’s start.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a stretch. The only thing that connects the songs to the concept are the titles, as – aside from “We’re Open Tonight” – the lyrics are about matters of the heart; and the concept further deflates by the time the LP is flipped from Side A to Side B, which includes not one, but two medleys. In a metaphoric sense, then, the band’s van got stuck in a ditch before it reached the venue. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fine album. A good album. I loved it as a kid and still like it, now, though I think it would have worked better if they’d ironed out the kinks and embraced an “Around the Dial” theme instead of a band on the run from town to town.

The guitar-driven “Getting Closer” features a catchy chorus, but is lyrically slight. The concise “Spin It On,” on the other hand, is one of McCartney’s top rockers – as are the Grammy Award-winning “Rockestra Theme” and “So Glad to See You Here.” And “Old Siam Sir” is a psychedelic delight with some tasty guitar licks. One can almost smell the smoke and see the black light swirling from the speakers.

“To You” is another tasty little rocker. And one of the medleys, “Winter Rose/Love Awake,” tugs at the heart in its first half and then flowers into bloom in the second in an easy, engaging manner. (In retrospect, they should have been separate tracks.)

Denny Laine’s “Again and Again and Again” is another highlight. 

In some respects, at least to my ears, Back to the Egg uses the same basic template Linda Ronstadt used for her 1980 Mad Love album – an old-guard artist embracing the new wave…though not really. At the end of the day, it’s McCartney and cohorts cranking out some good tunes. Is it his or their best? No. But it’s a fun set, nonetheless, and features one of the coolest LP covers of all time.

I should add that it will be a no-brainer purchase if or when it’s released in deluxe form. (It was said to be slated for the end of 2019, but put on hold for reasons unknown.) The band filmed umpteen promotional videos, some of which are on YouTube, which would make for a cool bonus DVD, especially if the TV special that arose from the “Rockestra” sessions is included. Also, soon after the album’s release, the band hit the road for a U.K. tour that culminated with their appearance at the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea on December 29th, 1979. Although this version of Wings didn’t quite reach the heights of the Wings Over the World-era band, the shows were solid. (Various bootlegs and the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea LP are proof of that.) A concert could be included, in other words.

The Back to the Egg track listing:

Released on March 31st, 1978, Wings’ London Town album wasn’t well received by the rock press at the time. Rolling Stone’s Janet Maslin described it as “so lighthearted that the album’s feeling of familial strength and affection is virtually the only thing that binds it to earth” in her review, for example, and – if my memory’s correct – Dave Marsh slammed it in the (blue) Rolling Stone Record Guide a few years later.

Don’t believe the disses.

While not a five-star album from Paul McCartney and pals, the 14-song set features an enjoyable mix of soft rock, pop and light psychedelia. The keyboard-driven title track, which opens the album, is a good example, with its whimsical lyrics painting a colorful scene: “Walking down the sidewalk on a purple afternoon/I was accosted by a barker playing a simple tune upon his flute/Toot, toot, toot, toot/Silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London town…” 

Musically, it eschews the new strains of rock bubbling up from the streets (aka punk and new wave), with the brief guitar break at 3:25 instead conjuring the old-school vibe of Abbey Road instead of, say, “Anarchy in the U.K.” It’s an airy delight. The second track, “Cafe on the Left Bank,” continues the timeless sound; in some respects, it echoes Paul’s work on Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Just as McCartney sidesteps punk and new wave, the disco beats then heating up the pop charts are nowhere to be heard on the album. Instead, we’re treated to “I’m Carrying,” one of McCartney’s most unheralded love songs: 

I should back up for a second here to explain the album’s background: It began life in early 1977 when Wings regrouped in the studio after their mega-successful 1975-76 world tour. Reportedly, the plan was to record a new album and return to the road – but Linda’s unexpected pregnancy (with son James) caused the McCartneys to change their mind about touring again anytime soon. Instead, in the spring, they headed to the Virgin Islands, where they rented a few yachts, one of which they turned into a recording studio, and enjoyed a working holiday. (In a sense, you could say it’s actual “yacht rock.”) As Paul explained to Melody Maker that same year, “There was a nice free feeling. We’d swim in the day and record at night.”

It’s understandable, then, that the laidback recording sessions led to a laidback sound; and, as if he needed it, the notion of being a dad again likely buoyed Paul’s natural optimism, which is on full display in the album’s lead single, “With a Little Luck.”

The single fades out a minute-and-a-half earlier than the album version, however, and the coda on the album version is quite cool. (As I wrote long ago, this song is what led 12-year-old me to become a McCartney fan. First I bought the single, then the album. And when I heard the longer version, it blew my little mind.) How anyone can hear it and not be swept away by its unbridled hope is beyond me.

“I’ve Had Enough,” which closes Side 1, is an old-school rocker that could well have been written at any point in the preceding 15 years. Written and recorded during the yacht sessions, it protests everything from backseat drivers to the taxman: “I earn the money and you take it away/When I don’t know where you’re from/I should be worried but they say/It’ll pay for a bomb…”

Another of my favorites is “Deliver Your Children,” a driving folk-flavored number and one of five tracks written by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine. In this instance, it was a song that Denny had been working on since the Venus & Mars sessions; Paul helped finish it.

“Girlfriend,” which McCartney wrote for Michael Jackson to record, is another highlight. (McCartney recorded it first, obviously, with MJ getting to it in 1979 on his Off the Wall album.)

Another track I enjoy, though some might not, is the closing “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose,” a sprawling, eccentric rocker in the mode of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”; it’s also a broad hint of what’s to come on McCartney II. 

The bulk of the songs feature the classic Wings Mach II lineup: Paul, Linda, Denny, Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English, although guitarist McCulloch and drummer English flew the coop midway through the sessions – McCulloch to the reformed Small Faces and the American-born English back to the States, as he’d grown homesick.

On the charts, the album didn’t do as well as expected (No. 2 in the U.S., though it did go platinum, and No. 4 in the U.K.), which set the stage for the following year’s Back to the Egg. But make no mistake: Despite a few stumbles (“Children Children” and “Famous Groupies”), it’s a solid set that’s sure to please all but the most hard-hearted. 

R&B/soul singer Merry Clayton’s name may not be well known, but her vocal prowess is – as documented in the 20 Feet From Stardom film, that’s her singing with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She was 20 years old at the time of the recording, seven months pregnant and working on little sleep, as she was called into the recording studio in the middle of the night by an apologetic Jack Nitzsche, who was helping Mick and Keith Richards mix the song in L.A.; the Glimmer Twins realized it was lacking that something extra. Enter Merry, so named because she born on Christmas day. She arrived with her hair in curlers, did her thing and then left after three takes. (Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage upon returning home.)

She was far from a neophyte in the music business, as she explains in this 1986 L.A. Times article. Her first turn in a studio came in 1962, at age 14, when she sang with Bobby Darin on his swinging “Who Can I Count On? (When I Can’t Count on You),” which surfaced on his 1963 You’re the Reason I’m Living LP. She later joined the Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backup singers, and also provided backup vocals for everyone from Pearl Bailey to Neil Young.

It was “Gimme Shelter,” though, that opened the door to a recording contract with Lou Adler’s Ode label, and in 1970 her rendition of the song served as the title track for her solo debut, which also featured – among other highlights – tremendous renditions of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Van Morrison’s “Glad Tidings.” With a crack session band that included Billy Preston, Paul Humphrey, Joe Sample and David T. Walker, it’s a soulful delight, the kind of disc that demands repeated listens.

That the album failed to chart is one of the mysteries of life. It’s a great set. The history of popular music is littered with lost treasures, of course. But that’s the way the music business has worked since the dawn of time, with some albums and artists seemingly destined to be discovered by succeeding generations.

Released a year later, Clayton’s eponymous sophomore set equals the brilliance of Gimme Shelter and even, I think, surpasses it in spots. A soulful spin on Neil Young’s “Southern Man” opens the album to great effect. The lyrics take on an added poignancy and weight when sung by her.

Three songs penned by Ode labelmate Carole King, who also plays keyboards on the tracks, are additional highlights:

Her take on James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues,” titled “Steamroller,” is simply scintillating. 

And her rendition of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” may well be the best out there: 

There’s more. Far more. (As Diane just said of “Love Me or Let Me Be Lonely,” which was a hit for the Friends of Distinction a year earlier, “this is a great version.”) From top to bottom, this self-titled set from Merry Clayton is just a phenomenal, soulful set. Chart-wise, it did a little better than her debut, making it to No. 180 on the album charts and No. 36 on the R&B charts; and the 45 of “After All This Time” topped out at No. 71 on the pop charts and No. 36 on the R&B charts.

If you’re unfamiliar with Merry Clayton beyond “Gimme Shelter” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (another song she sings backup on), give this set – and her debut – a go.