Sunday, 9 September 2018

Paul McCartney "Egypt Station" (2018)

Paul McCartney “Egypt Station” (2018)

Opening Station/I Don’t Know/Come On To Me/Happy With You/Who Cares?/Fuh You/Confidante/People Want Peace/Hand In Hand/Dominoes/Back In Brazil/Do It Now/Caesar Rock/Despite Repeated Warnings/Station II/Hunt You Down-Naked-C Link

‘Spirits of Ancient Egypt, echoes of passing trains, back on the run again…’

In 1988 Paul McCartney spent his downtime from making ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ putting the finishing touches to a painting he called ‘Egypt Station’. At the time he would have been gearing up to go back out on tour for the first time in a long time, with the painting (this new album’s cover art) signifying the bizarre chaos of touring. A half-man half-lightbulb waits patiently on the station platform, surely inspired by Pink Floyd’s just out ‘Delicate Sound Of Thunder’. An ibex with impossibly long horns waits patiently next to him. Elsewhere a whole bunch of travel stickers adorn the screen with their exotic colours and logos. I wonder if the painting leapt out at Paul when he was looking for new ideas for his next album, released after an unusually long wait of five years. By 2018 he must have had very different feelings about that painting with so much that has taken place since: the death of his soulmate Linda, the debacle of the Heather Mills years, the new love with Nancy Shevell and the fact that, apart from a gap between 1994 and 1999, Paul has pretty much never stopped touring since. The bright colours must surely be all jaded, the eccentric characters annoying, the endless trudge drudgery of one station after the next a fact of life rather than something exotic and adventurous calling him on. Home is a place Paul has rarely been lately and touring has become the new norm as he teases out one next batch of lost Beatle or Wings classics to sing in concert that his band have never touched before. To a whole generation plus now Paul is the touring Beatle and stations feel like home.

The revival of the cover goes with the words though in suggesting that Paul wants to go back to a time when touring was unusual and Paul was just sitting at home with a synthesiser twiddling his fingers. This album has the feel of a ‘McCartney II’ (as well as ‘Electric Arguments’) in the way Paul plays absolutely everything (still no luck for our longterm AAA suggestion Paul takes his hip and happening band into a studio with him and makes an album from scratch, something that amazingly he still hasn’t done yet despite eighteen years on the road together – double the lifespan of the whole of Wings and way more than The Beatles did. In other ways, though, it’s an earthbound ‘Venus and Mars’, making good on the promise of [82] ‘Spirits Of Ancient Egypt’ by looking at Earthbound oddities and eccentrics seen while travelling. Paul is very open about calling this one a ‘concept album’, where each new track goes to a different place. Now, I’m a sucker for a good concept album. I’ll even buy the one in ‘Venus and Mars’ even though it seems to end up drunken at a Wings concert by song two and only bothers to go back to the main theme once. This is exactly the sort of thing Paul should be doing, still inspired by the mad world around him after all these years, but the sad news is that of all the stations Paul goes to on this album only a few aren’t return visits. If you were to switch this album with your friend’s copy of the hideous ‘Pure McCartney’ compilation of a few years ago and told them it was a bonus track from the olden days they probably wouldn’t notice (except, perhaps, for Macca’s even more alarmingly faded voice). Far from being inspired by what exists outside still, Paul has turned inward for this album and returned to the sort of things he’d done so many times before (peace, love, sex, politics) only not as well. The real concept of this album, I think, isn’t ‘look at all these exciting places in the world I’ve been fortunate enough to see’ (as Macca keeps hinting in publicity) so much as ‘gee, here we are again’.

This would matter less if Paul had been more genuinely inspired to make this LP (and yes I do mean LP, with the growth of the old format one of many things coming back into fashion again on this album with a big publicity blitz for the coloured vinyl). He has after all been to some brilliant places and some avenues are ripe for exploring again. Worryingly, though, another inspiration for the album from his painting was ‘how the Egyptians reduce everything to a symbol’ so that two simple lines become a tree for instance. Though he doesn’t quite come out and say it, that’s pretty much what Paul does with the music here: this really isn’t an album of depth or emotions, just symbols that touch on feelings we all have without really describing or acknowledging them. It’s an album of people feeling lost without the gasping reality of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, in love without the sensual pleasure of [46] ‘My Love’ and afraid without the panic of [172] ‘Pipes Of Peace’. There’s no real feeling or emotion in this album, Paul telling us how he feels instead of making us feel it for him and no clever attempts to wrong-foot us as he often does a la [212] ‘My Brave Face’ or [209] ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’. Basically it’s an album of emojis replacing feelings – or, given the album title, hieroglyphics perhaps. 

This is nearly a whole album that suffers from [308] ‘Jenny Wren’ syndrome: Paul knows he can’t write another ‘Blackbird’ (no one can) so just the act of writing about a different bird will be enough to make a complete song. It isn’t. Variable as last album ‘New’ was, wretched as much of it was, at least when it was good it really was going somewhere new and as a long-time collector that was exciting (particularly [374] ‘Hosanna’ and [378] ‘Scared’). This album lasts twice as long as usual with nearly double the usual quota of tracks, making it the longest released studio album of Paul’s career. And yet it feels like less than half an LP because so much is recycled and much of it recycled from Paul’s lesser moments (‘I Don’t Know’ is a lesser [380] ‘Get Me Out Of Here’, ‘Who Cares?’ is a lesser [330] ‘Only Mama Knows’ crossed with [160] ‘Somebody Who Cares’, ‘Fuh You’ nicks its sexual joke from Apple signees Brute Force, ‘People Want Peace’ is to [172] ‘Pipes Of peace’ what ‘Yellow Submarine’ was to ‘Revolver’, ‘Hand In Hand’ is an awful [199] ‘Only Love Remains’, Dear God ‘Back To Brazil’ is a lesser [89] ‘My Carnival’ – who would have thought it? – ‘Do It Now’ is a version of ‘Scared’ as done by The Rutles, ‘Despite Repeated Warnings’ is a [250] ‘Big Boys Bickering’ without the fight, the two station tracks of ambient noise are worse even than [260] ‘Welcome To The Soundcheck’ from sodding ‘Tripping The Live Fantastic’ and only ‘Come On To Me’ improves on the title track of [269] ‘Flaming Pie’ and that wasn’t hard to do). I’m surprised there wasn’t a second Frog Song or an ‘Ivory and Ebony’ in there too to be honest. This is, I fear, the result of Paul hanging around with his new friends Kanye West and Rihanna who live in an entirely different musical world where you don’t have to conjure up real feelings if you can refer to something that already exists. Paul doesn’t belong in this world or know how it works so his attempts to re-create it are hopeless.

Yes, I hear you, Paul has covered so much ground in his career he doesn’t need to go anywhere new. I’d agree with you if only he could go back to the old places with grace. Unfortunately this album sounds like all those odd songs on old McCartney albums that seem to have snuck by creative control (you know the ones: [29] ‘Bip Bop’ [147] ‘Bogey Music’ [62] ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ [241] ‘Biker Like An Icon’…) where the words are outrageously poor. Here’s an extract from ‘Fuh You’ (‘I just wanna know how you feel, want a love that’s proud and real, you make me wanna go out and steal, I just wanna fuh you!!!’) To think this was the writer who once came up with ‘Eleanor Rigby’! Or how about the opening lines of the record from ‘I Don’t Know’? (‘I got crows at my window, dogs at my door, I don’t think I can take any more’). You and me both buddy! Here’s ‘Back In Brazil’ (where ‘there lives a girl who dreams of a future and a far better world’). And here’s ‘Dominoes’ which tries to sum up a career the way ‘memory Almost Full’ did so poignantly – and fails (‘It’s been a blast, as time goes by we’ll cry about the past!’) These sound like the sort of stupid songs people write at summer camp about their friendships when even the people singing it don’t believe it. People are often rude about Paul’s lyrics but on his day he can conjure up an image the way nobody else can and not just on his famous songs: there are many moments from his lesser known back catalogue ([116] ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ [188] ‘No More Lonely Nights’ [81] ‘Letting Go’ which I am so pleased to see back in his live set) which are still simple yet profound and real enough to make you cry. Though less direct than Lennon there’s an imagination and an eye for observation of the human condition that makes Macca one of the best writers we have ever had about understanding ourselves and the mess we make of our lives. Lyrics like these though just give more ammunition to his critics who say that an ex-Beatle in his seventies has no reason to write about the present day. Even the current vogue for modern anti-Trump politics is embarrassing (‘Our danger’s up ahead, the captain not listening to the words we have said’), the first chance Paul has had to put his stamp on the biggest change in modern society for decades (scary to think Obama was just starting a second term when ‘New’ came out). What is Paul’s message for the ages? That wonderful moment of light to shine in our dark world and lead us through into a better time of peace and prosperity during a time of endless chaos and strife? ‘Yes we can do it, wo wo woah’. This take on a mis-steering ship isn’t even ‘Pirates’ but ‘Pilates’ Of The Caribbean’, a stretch too far! Just imagine what Lennon would have made of the modern world that is fake news and scared staffers trying to stop world war three – or even what the old McCartney would have made of it when he thought the world could still be saved with a song. ‘Where am I going wrong?’ Paul asks at one stage. Letting songs through after a first draft probably has a lot to do with it.

The good news is that this time, unlike ‘Chaos and Creation’, Macca has given us an empty LP because he is genuinely happy and contented (last time we got an album this empty was, of course, when the marriage to Heather Mills and Paul didn’t want the world to know just yet). There aren’t many references to home life on this rushing blur of a travelling album, but those that are tend to be sweet and endearing. Nancy continues to be, as she was on ‘New’, a shadowy presence. Paul feels protective of her and wants to keep her out of the limelight – understandable given the attacks on not just Heather but Linda in the early days – but he can’t help her spirit infusing this album and impacting it the way his loved ones always do. Quieter than Linda but doing much the same thing, the best parts of this album all stem from the moments when Paul realises that against all the odds the most romantic writer in rock got lucky in love a second time. ‘Hand In Hand’ can’t match past romantic classics (not even Heather song [297] ‘Your Loving Flame’ while [374] ‘Hosanna’ already poured out Paul’s heart to his new wife) but it is the best thing here by a country dreamer mile, not least because it feels real. ‘Gonna take it to a new level, you and me’ Paul boasts as if he’s watching one of his favourite graduates at the LIPA building before he reaches out his hands and admits that, yes, even a Beatle still has dreams he hasn’t completed yet and he’d love it if she could help. ‘Caesar Rock’ sweetly admits that even after all these years Paul finds it hard to write what his lover means to him (‘If I could find the words to talk about my woman I would surely shout them out, but every time I feel inspiration, it’s too much, it won’t come out’). ‘Happy With You’ credits Nancy with making him so happy he no longer needs drugs (I wonder what Linda would have made of that?!?) Even the paranoid and noisy closer ‘Hunt You Down’ has a sense of real paranoia as Paul gets spooked trying to call home and finding his lover isn’t there (it’s the McCartney canon equivalent of Lennon’s ‘I’m Losing You’, the slap of reality in an all-too loved-up period) before he then changes his mind and goes somewhere weird.  Of course even there Macca has to ruin it with ‘Come On To Me’ and ‘Fuh Me’ horny rock songs that aren’t even as fully developed as [42] ‘Hi Hi Hi’ (now there’s a sentence I thought I’d never have to write!) The other song that works here is one for ‘us’, with ‘Confidante’ the only genuinely pioneering track in this bunch that goes somewhere different, starting off as a tribute song to fans before going surreal as a bunch of images sway ‘Lucy In The Sky’ style in Paul’s head as he tries to pin them down into a song.

Not coincidentally, ‘Confidante’ is also the one song here that doesn’t feature a lot of production. This has been the downfall of all the albums Paul has released in the 21st century to some extent (with what started as a nice attempt to do something different on ‘Driving Rain’ getting decidedly less interesting the seventh time round). After having his cake and eating it by working with four trendy producers last time around on ‘New’ Paul sticks to just two on this album. Fifteen songs are produced by Greg Kurstin who is best known for his work with Adele and Beck, two derivative names you would ever want a Beatle to sound like and sadly Macca comes out of the pop mangle sounding worse for wear with even the little bit of promise in these songs taken away. The opening chords to ‘I Don’t Know’ sound exactly like an Adele song but even when she grows up enough to write an album named ‘76’ after her age like Macca is now she won’t have the ability to match even a lesser McCartney song. There’s a nice little track on ‘Who Cares’ but not done like this with noisy crashing instruments that should be dancing a snaky backbeat but just sound like they’re being pummelled by a gorilla with a hammer. ‘Back To Brazil’ could have been a fascinating journey into a whole new landscape of South American music, but instead it sounds like every other awful modern sounding pop song out there. On the day that Greg couldn’t make it and Paul had an idea who does he call in? U2’s sodding Ryan Tedder on the execrable ‘Fuh You’. My guess is that the noisy production is merely here to cover up Paul’s fading voice anyway, which ironically enough only sounds good when its slathered in the production echo Lennon used to use to make him sound old. There is a lot of modern music on this album, even for Paul. He understands the current trend for big booming surface pop with four syllables a line even less than past forays into hip-hop and synthesised records though. There’s a reason The Beatles were put on the planet to blow empty pop songs off the face of the Earth and it breaks my heart (and my eardrums) to hear an ex-Beatle going back there not just once or twice on an album but on nearly all of it (not least because that ex-Beatle isn’t even sodding Ringo!) 

The production can only make the most of what’s there though and the sad truth is that this is melodically Paul’s weakest album. The much mocked ‘Wildlife’, maybe even the much lauded but actually empty dish ‘Flaming Pie’, heck even twee covers album ‘Kisses On The Bottom’, all at least had the odd juicy melody to keep you interested. For the first time ever after playing a McCartney album for a week I can’t remember how a single song goes. Once I go back to play the album a little I vaguely remember how ‘Hunt You Down’ goes (but more because its such an unlikeable melody its unusual for Paul) and my ears vaguely look forward to ‘Confidante’ (it’s a reflective action that happens with good songs on bad albums). I remember the days when I could sing you the whole of ‘Ram’ or ‘London Town’ in one sitting, albums that had more inventive melodies across one carefully polished track than all of these songs put together.

So far Egypt ‘Station’ has had a mixed ‘reception’ (boom boom!) Almost all reviews I’ve read have gone ‘well it’s just good to have him back isn’t it?’ That of course goes as read: I’d rather have another McCartney album than not have one (unless of course it’s ‘Kisses From The Bottom’, *shudder* - at least he wrote these tunes). Talent doesn’t dry up overnight and there are always moments on every McCartney album worth savouring – ‘Egypt Station’ is no exception with ‘Confidante’ sweet, ‘Happy With You’ cute and ‘Who Cares’ showing promise that somehow didn’t make it to record and the final few guitar minutes of ‘C-Link’ make for a far more promising basis for a song than anything else here (though it’s also typical of this album that instead of getting lyrics we get a fake syrupy string overdub instead). But my first reaction to ‘Egypt Station’ after a five year gap is that Paul is written out. ‘Pharaoh Nuff’ you could say: who doesn’t after such a long time of extended creativity? Most of Macca’s peers lost their, ahem, ‘platform’ for making meaningful music a long time ago and his contemporaries like The Rolling Stones and The Hollies keep ducking the question of a new album too. It’s understandable that Paul should make an album purely to have something new to sing while out on the road rather than because he feels his songs actually matter to anyone against the vast backdrop of his legacy and what does he care if that’s all he does? He’s given us enough already. The sad thing though is that Paul could still give us so much more: in this age of hollow orange superstars saying the wrong thing taking their cue from orange hollow presidents doing the same, we need people like Paul who can still write powerful songs. We need his generation to remind us how to write, how to sing (yes even with a weakened voice), how to feel, how to write more than shallow surface lyrics and how to love. If he can’t do that across a full LP then, heck, I’ll settle for a single. But the captain of his generation isn’t listening and he’s in danger of losing his ship and his crew. I mean almost all the lyrics on ‘Egypt Station’ are like a wannabe pop singer starting out on their first teenage album, not someone with the weight of that history. What was Paul sphinxing?!? He’s in de Nile – and I don’t just mean the Egyptian river! Egyptian pyramids are traditionally where Gods are buried to exist in the afterlife – I really hope that isn’t the case and that Paul will finally, surely, honestly make good on the promise shown by ‘Electric Arguments’ very nearly almost a full decade ago now. It would be awful if his career is buried right here at one of its very lowest ebbs, a ghost in the dark, because something tells me this album isn’t going to have much of an afterlife past release week somehow. I’m not sure if ‘Egypt Station’ is even worth a return ticket…

‘Opening Station’ kind of reminds me of [130] ‘The Broadcast’ but is not even that well thought out. The ‘pun’, for what it’s worth, is that this is a radio station of the mind as well as a train station so we get some ambient noise to that effect. There are some sound effects of real stations in there too. Basically though its one note from a sampled artificial choir with sound effects for forty seconds. ‘Sgt Peppers’ it isn’t – and Ringo’s already cornered the ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’ market for ex-Beatles. You’d think someone at Paul’s station in life would know how to turn this into an actual song or throw it away for not working.

According to Wikipedia ‘I Don’t Know’ was written after a ‘difficult period’. What period was that exactly? Is this a hangover from the Heather Mills period? Because by Paul’s standards the last ten years have been his most peaceful without the quest of the sixties, backlash of the seventies, the post-Lennon eighties, the left behind nineties or the Heather Mills naughties. My guess is that this song started out as a verse from ‘Memory Almost Full’ time that has finally been finished – but if so one wishes Paul had just left alone. The verses are fine in an almost revealing sense: Paul’s bombarded inside his house, the paparazzi on his trail, wondering why someone whose always been as open and loved as he is suddenly persona non grata. There’s a sweet reference to brother Mike McCartney (of The Scaffold)  who has been through divorce long before his elder brother tells him that ‘life’s not a pain’ and he should see the joy in life even when he’s overwhelmed by his own sadness. Paul briefly agrees that even this late in his life ‘I have so many lessons to learn’. But we don’t get that song – it suddenly rains and Paul is sent into a spiral of despair anyway even though he for one should know that rain or shine is just a state of mind. But in comes that trite chorus to put things right (‘It’s alright, sleep tight, I will take the strain, you’re fine, love of mine, you will feel no pain’). Paul is the best writer there is at taking a sad song and making it better, of turning bad situations on their head so we can find the wonder of brilliance in life and giving it another go anyway. But here he’s lost his ability to sound anything other than shallow. What’s frustrating is that, of all the songs on this album, this feels like the one that got away: there is a real song in here somewhere and putting such a vulnerable song effectively at the start of the album is a clever move he’s never really done before. Unfortunately, though, it’s all lost in the shrug of an indifferent performance that seems to think McCartney is from the same generations Adele and can get away with hinting at pain without living it. There are some awful cod-Stevie Wonder stylings in the middle (‘hmm-hmm, yeah’) that seem to equate this with a soul song, but there’s no real soul here, just a multi-millionaire feeling sorry for himself. Just to add to the feeling that Paul’s just writing a song not revealing his heart comes with the fact that the opening terrible verse about being hounded by dogs and crows is heard twice and that truly awful chorus three times. I don’t think I can take any more, I don’t know – and it’s only track two.

Lead single ‘Come On To Me’ is the track getting all the attention at the moment and it’s a weird, weird song. Not since ‘Hi Hi Hi’ or the cheeky lines inserted into ‘Penny Lane’ has Paul been this openly aggressively suggestive and while his younger self might have got away with it, hearing it here up against the modest relentlessly modern production sound yet rather reminds of the complaint in Magical Mystery Tour that Ringo’s Aunt Jessie making out with Buster Bloodvessel was ‘being rude to people in their old age’. Over a recycled riff from B-side [88] ‘Lunchbox/Odd Sox’ of all things Paul gets turned on by a stranger’s smile and ‘refuses to dismiss your suggestion’. Now, I don’t know when this song was written – it could well be another leftover from the post-Mills years – and Paul is not adverse to making up songs for characters. But he’s a married man singing it. He would never have gotten away with releasing a song like this while married to Linda or she’d have hit him with a frying pan – one senses Nancy should watch out. I think Paul is just trying to think ‘young’ to have a ‘hit’ and thinks that this is what millennials do now (texting, scones and sex). But its wretched: ‘if you come on to me then I’ll come on to you, doo doo doo doo doo!’ is no substitute for lines about the wonders of romance, the glory of finding the one you love and the difficulties of keeping them which Paul used to be a master at. More worrying yet, in these days of ‘#me too’, is the fact that Paul never actually checks that his new lady friend is after that at all. A wink doesn’t mean anything (maybe she just wants his autograph?) but suddenly he’s hanging up his coat and getting it on without a second thought, admitting that he’s too lustful to ‘wait for an introduction’. We’re a long way from the image of old age imagined on ‘When I’m 64’ with Paul still trying too hard to be part of the young generation – the problem is he has nothing to say. Even The Rolling Stones have grown out of this suggestive fluff by now. Only a marvellous brass band solo which arrives full of ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ urgency and an a capella-with-handclaps repeat of the chorus near the end show any invention and catches the ear. Also the drumming in this song is terrible, unusually so for McCartney whose usually pretty darn good at that sort of thing – why not get the excellent Abe Laboriel Jnr into play it from his own band?

At last Nancy gets the song she deserves on one of the two decent album tracks ‘Happy With You’. With memories of the simple fireside family songs Paul used to write for Linda, this sweet acoustic tune gets rid of the mad production values and allows Macca to sound like himself, all that age and wisdom to the fore. With memories of Heather’s accusations ringing in his ears, Paul admits that yes he used to get stoned as it was his quickest way of getting happy (a later verse adding drinking to his sins, Paul lying about his intake so as not to shock his doctor) – but he doesn’t need to be that person anymore now he’s in love again. Instead of dreaming of the past, as on so many recent McCartney songs, he looks to the future and talks about all the things he still wants to do with his life and how lucky he is to find someone he wants to do them with. The lyrics would never win any awards (‘I used to walk around angry, I used to feel bad, but now my days don’t have to be sad’) but the melody is very McCartney and the one tune on the album that doesn’t immediately sound like something from the past. Quietly hopeful, secretly yearning for better things, it only really goes wrong on a third verse that suddenly gets into children’s storybooks and pitches head-over heels into twee (‘Walk a bluebell carpet…catch a moon and drop it’) when it was shaping up to be one of the best realistic McCartney confessional songs of recent years. Though desperately in need of a re-write and with less to say than you hope when it starts, this is at least the sort of song Paul should be doing and if the rest of the album had been up to this standard I would have been only too happy.

‘Who Cares?’ is another song that’s only a re-write away from greatness. A song about standing up for bullied victims everywhere, Paul starts off shrieking over a funky feedbacking guitar part sounding every bit the passive, before he turns the tables on the song and hits back with a piece of solid plastic pop. He’s learnt a lesson after the Heather Mills years and wants people to learn it too: nobody else’s opinion matters. Not your family, not your pee group, not even random critics at Alan’s Album Archives who keep wondering off into random jokes about The Spice Girls. Nope, ‘who cares what the idiots say?’ snarls back Paul, they don’t know what you’re going through but ‘I do’. And he does: Paul has one of the biggest hearts in rock and when he uses it this can be a very powerful thing. The trouble is this song is like much of the album – Pauls telling us, not showing us, as is the way for many modern bands. Back in 1982 he wrote an exquisite song called [160] ‘Somebody Who cares’ about how everyone has someone to love them even when they think they don’t and if they really have no one then he wants to be that person, sympathising, empathising, soothing. It sounds like it too – in a typical McCartney template that song rises from the depths of a very real sounding despair to a chord change that leaves you on top of the world. Here there’s no progression just two repetitive chords and instead of lyrics that help you rise above it all Paul just offers to stick out his tongue with you. Even so, this song is more suitable than hearing Paul being randy or trendy and the snazzy guitar work would have made for a great instrumental.

Well, maybe this album isn’t so bad or maybe I’m mellowing in my old age or…no, only joking. ‘Fuh You’ is the worst of McCartney in one godawful song. Let’s start with the production which is so modern it hurts – nobody but nobody in years to come will be saying ‘let’s listen to that Macca album with all the 2018 stylings for pleasure’. It’s horrid: empty, shallow, twee and repetitive. Producer Ryan Tedder, of One Man republic, is perhaps the only less suitable producer for Paul than Greg Kurstin (or Nigel Godrich). Paul can work with modern names – his work with Youth brings out his daring adventurous creative side – but using producers as a shorthand to sounding young and hip is asking for trouble. What young kid is going to say ‘gee I want to save up my pennies (or rob a liquor store) to hear that old geezer who once worked with Kanye West? This is not your audience Paul, you shouldn’t cbe catering to them – who cares what people half a century your junior buys? Then again so is the song: with all the mysteries of life and love and the universe Paul spends his time ‘trying to crack your code, but I’d rather hit the road!’ The lyrics in this one are pure kindergarten, the first obvious word to rhyme with even when it doesn’t fit the song at all. The tune is almost all on one note. And dear God the chorus is so bad, ending with the deeply juvenile ‘I just wanna fuh you’. Paul could of course cheekily say he means ‘for you’ but its less endearing than him actually coming out and using the f-word the way Lennon wouldn’t think twice about. Even that isn’t as clever as he thinks it is – he only needs to consult his Apple 45s to see Brute Force had the same idea a full fifty years ago and they did it rather more cleverly than this (‘in the land of Fuh there was a King and everyone called him The Fuh King!’) We do still have parental advisory stickers on CDs I suppose but far less censorship which makes this whole enterprise pointless. As for the theme of the song, well, Paul’s feeling lusty again and just wants to get a girl into bed without the need to talk to her. Has he just discovered Viagra pills? The result is the ugliest song on what must surely be McCartney’s ugliest album complete with awful ‘wo-a-woahs’ and a two note synthesiser part that sounds like the sort you play when ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ is too hard for you. I’m tempted to say ‘Fuh You Paul!’ but I won’t, given all the joy he’s given me in the past.

Thank goodness for ‘Confidante’, the one song here I would choose to listen to for pleasure. The rolling acoustic riff is a great one, immediately dispensing with this record’s horrific production values. The lyrics are intriguing too, Paul remembering his imaginary childhood friend he used to talk to at the top of the stairs to fulfil his need of loneliness. He realises he hasn’t needed them for so long and wonders if he needs them again. He remembers feeling good in ‘your reflected glory’, of having the guts to go out and fight battles knowing someone believed in him and imagines a world of their imagination where everything was turned on its head, a Goon Show world of ‘butterflies in army boots’ and they would listen to the music flowing in their heads ‘chasing lost anthems’. Similar in feel to [287] ‘She’s Given Up Talking’ Paul paints this whole approach as being reasonable in a cruel lonely world and sees it less as mental instability than a chance to learn social skills. Paul feels guilty for ‘bringing our romance to an end’ and growing up, but doesn’t dwell on that but instead praises the person of his imagination who gave him the tools that he uses now. Intriguingly the artwork for this track (all the songs have something where their lyrics are printed in the booklet) is a drawing of a Beatle which raises another question: did this song start as a tribute to Lennon a la [162] ‘Here Today’ before the subject matter got changed? Who better to go chasing ‘lost anthems’ with in an imaginary Lucy-Diamonds style dreamscape than John? (the lines about ‘playing with’ could be a typical McCartney pun meaning music-making). Or – thanks to the presence of a brief three-note phrase played on the sitar – is this song the equivalent of that song for George (who was after all a more childhood friend?) A fascinating song whoever it’s for, even Paul’s fading voice sounds spot on the money for this one, the album’s one song that dares to do something different doing it quite brilliantly while the chance to hear Paul play properly without that insipid production makes this one extra-specially special.

Paul is less sure writing about the outer world on this album than he is singing about himself. ‘People Want Peace’ is the single most cringe-worthy song he’s come up with since [300] ‘Freedom’ and is similarly wretchedly empty. People want peace as well as freedom. Good heavens! People don’t want to get shot at! Who’d have thought it? Lacking the depth of [172] ‘Pipes Of Peace’, the poignancy of [229] ‘All My Trials’ and the weary anger of [250] ‘Big Boys Bickering’ this song has nothing to say beyond the title. Paul seems to think this realisation is a shock but it isn’t: only politicians and their media-savvy cronies want war; everybody in their right minds want peace. Lennon knew that fifty years ago so why is it such a shock to Paul? And why is making such a big deal of it, asking us to stand to attention and listen to a message ‘straight from his heart’? The opening burst of noise and mayhem, reflecting the carnage at the start of The Byrds’ similar ‘Draft Morning’, is the best use of production on the album, a blitz of guns and noise that would make anyone cry out for peace. But unfortunately the song itself is so bad I’d rather listen to the noise than Paul. Macca says he wrote this one after the negotiations to play both Israel and Palestine on a recent tour and where he met a bunch of kids playing music who told him ‘all we want to do is live in peace, and raise our families’. Paul remembers a conversation with his own dad when he was tiny, watching the news and asking why so many people clearly wanted peace before his sensible dad tells him that indeed only the politicians want wars. The trouble is that’s not the song we get here, which is just an empty platitude about how much better it would be living in peace;. Completely missing the complexities of the political situation and trying to cut through it all to the fact that no one wants to die is a good idea – but sadly this song doesn’t say that. Instead Paul is preaching to the choir, asking ‘brothers and sisters’ to listen to something we already know: peace is better than war. Simple as ‘Give Peace A Chance’ was at least it carried a deep message and made people think through clever word choice and the shock of someone saying what had till 1969 been unthinkable; this song has nothing to tell us and doesn’t even tell it to us very well with another one-note melody and more insufferable production values.

Yet again the love songs work best although ‘Hand In Hand’ isn’t quite as good as ‘Happy With You’. The song builds on the last album’s brilliant love track [374] ‘Hosanna’ as Paul prepares to go through the rest of his life hand in hand with wife Nancy. Paul sounds great, cracks in his voice and all, as he returns to the simple chords that have propelled so many songs from [11] ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ onwards. Putting himself back at the beginning of the relationship, Paul vows to prove himself to his wife, to show himself to be worthy of her as he demonstrates his ‘passion’, offering to let their worlds collide with each other in the most romantic he’s been for a long time. However it doesn’t sound that romantic as sung here. This is a sweet song, ripe for re-recording one day, but its tone of warmth is slightly underdone by the clichéd (and quite cold-hearted) I-IV-V chord progression (the sort of obvious Tin Pan Alley template The Beatles sneered at) and a lyric that doesn’t quite fit the melody and ends up sounding clumsy rather than whisk-you-off-your-feetish (‘Paaaaa-sion’ is a syllable too short for the line for one thing). There are some McCartney love songs that are inspired and some that are pure filler; this one is right down the middle: it sounds like the first thought and first piano chords are true and heartfelt but everything afterwards got filled in later to make a ‘hit single’, Paul following his heart not his head. There’s even a most puzzling pan-pipes solo that suddenly takes everything real in this song and throws it all away, making it sound like a new age record – the sort that plays while you’re having a massage, not a candle-light dinner for two. Along with ‘Who Cares’ this is the album song that really got away and the kernel at its heart deserved an awful lot better. Frustrating.

‘Dominoes’ is the song I was most looking forward to since hearing that it was written ‘Memory Almost Full’ style as a possible career-closer (Paul can talk all the guff about ‘other people changing their lives with one tiny action’ on publicity all he wants, this is his own death in song again).Unfortunately it’s no [338] ‘End Of The End’ - Paul basically tells us ‘well it’s been a blast’ and wonders what all his worrying was about now that he’s near the end of the road and looking backwards. In retrospect he sees life as a series of domino pieces (an idea perhaps nicked from Syd Barrett, of whom he is a fan) – some of them don’t fall the way we want but if you wait long enough you’ll have the pieces you need to get through life and everything will turn out right at the end. This should be the most Macca-esque moment on the album. In case you’re thinking that’s really profound though, I’m afraid it doesn’t sound that way. Paul’s voice is really shot now and it’s at its worst here unadorned by anything. The key change from minor key to major key is so awfully cheesy. The backing vocals are from that insincere music hall end of the McCartney spectrum. The tune keeps stop-starting so much it drives you scatty. Only the bass work sounds great, that terrific muscly sound from ‘Band On The Run’ days that really drives the song along and connects all the dots across the sections. The result is frustrating as hell because it’s a re-make away from greatness if it had been delivered sincerely and more sparsely than this. Still I do consider this overall one of the album’s better moments: it does something a bit different with a good idea (even a recycled one) and ‘Dominoes’ is brave to sound a bit, well, ‘dotty’. However it’s still not a song born for repeated listenings and quickly gets tiresome.

Meanwhile ‘Back In Brazil’ a young girl dreams of the future and meeting a tall dark handsome stranger on one of the weirder McCartney tracks of recent years. Recycling the drum beat from the wretched ‘Atlantic Ocean’ (see the unreleased ‘Return To Pepperland’) was not the way to go and the song is oddly patronising for someone who travelled so much seemingly with his eyes open to other cultures, much more so than Paul and Linda’s reggae songs ever were for example. The trouble I think is writing this to the modern style with melodies that have sentences than run only three or four syllables and then trying to write a story over it. Think of all the past McCartney story-songs (‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ [1] ‘Another Day’ [49] ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’) and the one thing they have in common is a long slow languid melody line that leaves lots of room for telling that story. This one gets its wings clipped early that brings out Paul’s penchant for quipping to cover his tracks (‘Back in Brazil she makes a date but he has to cancel ‘cos he’s working late’) and I find it quite rude that Paul thinks that the only way the girl’s dreams will ever come true is if she finds a rich man to marry. Macca has always been a feminist (even before Linda, Jane Asher shaped the 1940s Liverpudlian ideas he was brought up with a lot) and this song feels fifty years out of date. The ending also comes out of nowhere: one minute this un-named girl’s dreams are ‘beginning to crumble’, the next the ‘weather has changed’ she’s ‘raising a family’ and most curiously of all ‘the kids are happy – and they don’t ask why’. Kids asking why led to The Beatles, so why add that strange statement at the end? This feels like a song that was created purely out of the rhymes and its weird story is askew with every past McCartney piece leaving an odd taste in the mouth. Apparently it was inspired by a marriage proposal Paul received while touring in Brazil during the Heather Mills years. If so then this feels like Paul turning he down gently with the news that he’s working late. Better though – and much more McCartneyesque – would be for him to tell her that she doesn’t need him to fulfil her dreams, that she can do them alone and then later find true love at the same time just by being herself. That would be the Beatle way after all, but this is no ‘Lovely Rita’ never mind ‘She’s Leaving Home’. At least the backing for this one is, uhh, interesting; it’s definitely not Brazilian (it’s more ‘Graceland’ than ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ for instance) but it is at least different and the closest thing in the McCartney songbook to the modern jazz of Steely Dan.

‘Do It Now’ or ‘D.I.N’ is, like [217] ‘Put It There’, a saying from James McCartney Senior, Paul’s dad. He would surely have been tickled that his eldest is finally listening to all his advice late on in his life! Basically the theme is not to put off doing anything that needs doing because you might not get another chance. A nice idea, but sadly it makes for a wretched song. Ignoring his own advice Paul stretches these lines out until they’re stupidly long and makes you yearn to be doing something better with your time – the antipathy, surely of the song’s message. His voice creaks with all the cracks of an earthquake fault-line, which oddly doesn’t add to the urgency of the song so much as make you wish he wouldn’t strain himself for our sake. The production decides this is a good time to start being big and booming again, even though this is a gentle, minor little song that would have been better sung straight with an acoustic guitar. The lyrics are odd too: James McCartney married twice, both times happily, both after long courtships. But Paul seems to be taking his dad’s advice as a way to avoid his responsibilities and escape the clutches of someone he’s fallen out of love with. This is, you hope, another song leftover from the Heather Mills days but it feels at odds with the screamy genuinely urgent songs from that period and the rest of this album, slowed down to a crawl and a list of platitudes. The result is one of the most painful songs on the album – this song needs a re-write now, not later Paul, come back here and finish this song off, you’ve had five years! DIN really stands for ‘Do It Naturally’, with Paul making another promising emotion sound artificial…

‘Caesar Rock’ was – Dear God! – inspired by watching Kanye West work and basically making up songs word by word even when they made absolutely no sense. The song started life as ‘She’s A Rock’ but got weird, Macca following the song line by line where it wanted to go. The result is, like most things Paul makes up on the spot, really not his forte (though not quite as bad perhaps as [274] ‘Really Love You’ it’s close). The first verse, the one he actually worked on, is really promising: he wants to tell his love how much she means to him but he gets scared and the words won’t come out (a common feeling with Nancy it seems; see [378] ‘Scared’). However the trippy production values and manic backwards guitar parts complete with booming blooming awful backwards guitars suggests we’re going to go somewhere else and sadly we do. Paul says that if he was at school she would be his ‘favourite teacher’ and that ‘if she wants me I’ll know I have succeeded’. Against all this everybody in the room yells ‘yeah!’ at random moments and Paul puts on his rock and roll voice which sounds awful being the only thing in the room not treated with some electronic gadget or another. Macca decides the time is now for a great improvised fade-out but he has no idea where to go so starts getting desperate, plucking for words in the dark (‘She got all the looks, she got the books, she’s got matching teeth!!!’) As ugly as this song sounds, as dumb as the sentiments are, at least this track bravely goes somewhere Paul has never gone before though and would be a testament to his creativity – had all the tracks on the last Fireman album made up on the spot not gone somewhere much more interesting. On this album we like to give praise when songs are different –but did this oe have to be quite that different?!? As with Paul Simon’s ‘Love Me Like A Rock’ I’m still confused as to why being a rock is a good thing by the way – stability is good but aren’t they kind of cold and emotionally distant? Caesar’s Rock is, by the way, a real place off the Florida Quays and was named after a pirate – maybe Paul learnt that fun fact when filming his fun cameo as Keith Richards’ rival in the ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ films?

‘Despite Repeated Warnings’ is the track that most fans seem to have taken to so far, but I’m not quite sure why as from a songwriter’s point of view Paul sounds as lost as any of his characters. A nearly seven minute epic dealing with the depths of depravity of modern-day society, it ought be a track where Paul finally stops dilly-dallying and goes back to his day job as the voice of his generation. However for me its perhaps the biggest disappointment of the album, a lesser man’s [337] ‘House Of Wax’ which is the single most Rutles-sounding song of his career, as if every other McCartney song ever has been put in a blender and written by a computer line by line. The captain steering the world has got it wrong, his crew and passengers are about to fall overboard and no one is listening to the right people to change course now – a good idea for a song which has kept CSN (‘Shadow Captain’) and The Kinks (‘Loony Balloon’) afloat for a while now. But that’s it: Paul’s more concerned with the long list of signals (‘red sky at night? This album’s a fright! Red sky in the morning – this album is boring!’) than he is at moving the ship away from danger, while his panicked cries in the background (‘What can we do?’) seem oddly un-McCartneylike and docile. If even Paul can’t find the optimism in a situation then, darn it, we’re all doomed and far from making me feel better about the state of the world as so many fans seem to think this song makes me feel ten times worse from this section alone. There’s a weird change out of ballad mode into angry jabbing rock and roll in the middle that makes things even worse as Paul tries to ‘save the day’  but quickly switches to an odd family with a mother named Janet (to rhyme with ‘planet’, naturally) who ‘don’t want the captain to go’. This ugly section rhymes ‘know it’ and ‘slow it’ and goes downhill from there over a plodding piano part seized whole-heartedly from [269] ‘Flaming Pie’. Over the top some awful cod-heavy metal guitaring, apparently played by Paul, make this seem like a parody of all musical genres not just his own and yet you’re soon leading for it to come back when a saxophone synth takes over that part. Too messy and unfocussed to tell a proper story, too complicated and ugly to simply work as music, this is a truly awful terrible hopeless song that after seven painful minutes can only give us the message ‘yes we can do it woah woah woah’ before going round to the beginning instead at half-speed. Paul then tells us to listen to the ‘will of the people’ over and over for what seems like hours (that’s not exactly a profound thought about to stop Donald Trump in his tracks now is it?), which as far as I’m concerned is to retire with dignity right now. Yikes. I’m handing in my McCartney Club Sandwich badge in right now.

‘Station II’ is the second half of the not that interesting opening track of ambient noise and noise in general, cut in two seemingly at random though we do get the benefit of a pretty groovy guitar solo at the end played over the station announcement Tannoy leading in to…

‘Hunt You Down-Naked-C Link’ which, in a sop to another unlikeable McCartney tradition, features three songs not good enough to finish randomly stuck together to make a song suite for no other reason than Paul says its one. ‘Hunt You Down’ does at least feature a quite brilliant groove on an album oddly short on them, an angry charging guitar sting that dances around the Stones riff to ‘Satisfaction’. The song also vaguely (if you squint one hell of a lot) fits the album theme of travel as Macca goes all round the world trying to track down his baby (recalling the old Beatles ‘Live At The BBC’ track ‘Got To Find My Baby’).  However what with the screaming background and the stabbing guitar Paul sounds as if he has murder in his eyes, not love (so maybe he’s after Trump instead?) This album production is the only one that works the way the production team clearly want it to (other successes are despite sounding modern and horrid but this one works precisely because it is while simultaneously rocking harder than most modern music does, played without that awful permanent sarcasm of most things in the charts). The use of brass, guitar and a classic Macca flying piano part all oddly make this tone of the most magnificently McCartney moments on the album too though. It’s just a shame the lyric gives up somewhere past the title – and that the song gives up not long after that as we crunch headway into the ugly music-hall banter of ‘Naked’ which takes us back to the title track of ‘Return To Pepperland’. Paul thinks he’s being funny, I think, informing us with some shock that he was ‘born naked’ and another reference to brother Mike (who many people say looks like him – I’m not one of them). All this awkward gaucheness sounds ten times worse following the genuine power of the last segment and I don’t quite know why it’s here (the two tracks are in different keys, on different instruments and come in completely different moods). Paul yells a pained middle eight that he wants someone to help his spirit free…but then he traps himself back in that ugly chorus that is the worst of McCartney all in one place. A female choir twee-ly sighing over the top doesn’t help matters much, though Paul does seem to have learnt how to play the drums again. Best of the trio is clearly the ‘C-Link’ part, a curious name for a guitar-strings duet that has Paul going back to the bluesy style he once tried out on [142] ‘On The Way’ with even more of a Clapton feel to his playing. Clearly in a melancholy mood, his sour feeling drips out of his playing for the most real part of the entire album, an eerie ‘I Am The Walrus’ style string overdub right there chasing him like a dark cloud hanging over him as he tries to steer this way and that to leave it behind. Given that this was clearly added a long time afterwards, its pretty amazing how well this fits as a concept, using the skills of improvisation versus rehearsal that Paul has learnt his career long. So why wasn’t it in use earlier – and why didn’t this piece turn into a full song? It’s crying out for words – much more so than almost everything else here that got them!

I have no idea what those last two tracks have to do with the album theme by the way, which seems to be even more sketchy than in Wings concepts past. I think we’re meant to have travelled around the world using our brains, but for once a McCartney album is empty-headed I’m not sure I ever feel like taking that journey with him again. There are good moments here – a couple of great ones in ‘Confidante’ and ‘Happy With You’ – and other songs would have sounded pretty good to had Paul just done the sensible thing he’s been delaying for so long, booked a studio for three months, asked his band to come play and written some songs down instead of making a lot of them up on the spot. Had this been the era when The Beatles had to release an album every six weeks I’d understand it, but Paul doesn’t need to do any of this. There has been a five year gap – only two short of the entire fab four recording history – and this is all Paul could come up with? The best of this album feels like discarded songs from the Heather Mills years anyway. I’m not sure if this album is quite as bad and empty as ‘Chaos and Creation’ but it’s even worse than ‘Flaming Pie’ and after the promise of the better quarter of ‘New’ ‘Egypt Station’ is a travesty, a train wreck if you will. The fact that Paul says he was inspired to make this after working on the ‘Sgt peppers’ and ‘White Album’ re-issues and that he feels this record could be viewed by history as being every bit as good really concerns me (unless the only bits he was hearing were ‘Rocky Raccoon’ on repeat). ‘I could stay up half the night messing with your head – but I’d rather go to bed’ sings Paul in this album’s worst song ‘Fuh You’. After hearing this album one wishes he had done that instead, because mine feels very messed up right now. 
Non-Album Recordings Part #34: 2018
Not for the first or probably last time, the more revealing songs from the ‘Egypt Station’ sessions were hidden awasy as ‘bonus tracks’, on an edition of the album only made available through HMV (in the UK) or Target (in the USA). I’m not sure quite what the rest of the world was meant to do… Anyway, [404] ‘Get Started’ is a unique collaboration between Paul and producer Greg Kurstin that seems to deal with the Heather Mills years head-on. Still connected through their daughter Beatrice, Paul finally plucks up his courage to forgive his ex and tell her ‘what I should have told you long ago’ – that he comes in the name of peace, not war. Tellling her that their relationship is ‘just getting started’ on a whole new footing they never had before Paul offers her ‘my heart and my word’ that he wants the best outcome for everybody. For those who come to this album off the back of ‘Electric Arguments’ especially this is a huge breakthrough, but suitably this is a quiet reflective song that doesn’t want to make a song and dance about letting bygones be bygones. It’s very McCartneyesque to wrap up a past that clearly shook him quite badly with the band aid that it’s ‘getting better now’and that if he can find peace in a once stormy situation then the rest of the world has no excuse. I love the humble human side of Macca’s writing – so, even if it is a bit brief and over too soon, why wasn’t this lovely piece on the album proper? Find it on: the deluxe ‘physical’ edition of ‘Egypt Station’ (2018)
Alas Ryan Tedder collaboration [405] ‘Nothing For Free’ isn’t quite as good (though I’d still take it over their other collaboration [394] ‘Fuh You’ anyday). Grumpy Paul is getting more like Ringo in old age, surrounded by sycophants and wondering what they want from him (even though its clearly money and maybe for a bit of that celebrity sparkle to rub off). Similar to [380] ‘Get Me Out Of Here’ but not as good, Paul gets paranoid and tries to fend his new ‘pal’ off with the pretence that he’s getting old and ‘my brain isn’t working too well today’. If money can’t buy love though everything comes at a price and Paul decides that his best way of stopping this tide of people draining his time and resources and talent is to ask for something in return – not unreasonable, it has to be said, but there’s a spiky defensive tone about this whole track unusual for the man who used to be celebrated by fans and ‘Apple Scruffs’ as being wonderfully approachable and sweet to fans. This, more than anything else, is how the Heather Mills have changed him and putting these two songs out together may well be a comment of sorts. The end result is better made than most of the parent album and much more from the heart, but still hardly up to standard. Find it on: the deluxe ‘physical’ edition of ‘Egypt Station’ (2018)

Other Macca-related fun and games from this site can be found at the following links:

'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' (1976)

'London Town' (1978)

'Back To The Egg' (1979)

'McCartney II' (Original Double Album) (1980)

'Tug Of War' (1982)

'Pipes Of Peace' (1983)

'Press To Play' (1986)

'Flowers In The Dirt' (1989)

'Driving Rain' (2001)

'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard' (2005)

'Memory Almost Full' (2006)

'New' (2013)

The Best Unreleased McCartney/Wings Recordings

Surviving TV and Film Footage

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part One: 1967-1987

Live/Wings/Solo/Compilations/Classical/Unreleased Albums Part Two: 1987-1997

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part Three: 1997-2015

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1970-1984
Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1985-2015

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Buy Our Book!!! 'Flying On The Ground Is Wrong - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Buffalo Springfield' Available Now!

Click here to buy our book!!! 

Monday, 30 July 2018

Neil Young: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

My very dearest readers. Well here we are at last, at the every end, with the final regular article of new material at Alan’s Album Archives after ten long years of blogging, 1247 posts and 500 in-depth reviews. We’ve laughed, loved, loathed, praised, pedandicated and pounced on anything not up to scratch, worked out what made albums tick and what made some of them turn out less than stellar. What a journey and one which I really am astonished to have completed after this being just one small idea on a time-filling jobcentre placement that somehow became an industry (well I do have a t-shirt anyway, it’s an industry to me!) It’s been one hell of a journey I couldn’t have done without you wherever you are around the world – and its only the end of this chapter. Over the past two months there have been Alan’s Album Archives books released on The Beach Boys and The Beatles (see our author page here at ) and there are another twenty-eight due out on the 1st of every month from here until the end of 2020 so keep your eyes out for them. We end though with a last look at the concerts and cover versions of Neil Young and one last joke about The Spice Girls:

If you are trapped in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with the Spice Girls, but there's only enough room for 5 people, who do you throw out? Yourself!
Till the next review (whenever one of the AAA bands does something new – probably around Christmas) take care and keep rocking!

I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important. Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! Neil of course has barely been off the road since he started going solo back in 1968 and in the fifty odd years since he’s given us nearly everything: solo acoustic shows, Crazy Horse tours with Roadeyes and overgrown rusty garages, big country music bands, a blues band with horns, heavy metal power trios, a rockabilly band dressed all in pink, the gloomy drunken ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour and the ‘Transband’ where Neil and co would sing along to pre-recorded vocoder tracks operated by opening their mouths. What I find even more fascinating though is when Neil chooses to book a tour to promote an album and then bring in an entirely different bands to play it – sometimes he’ll play solo to promote a big Crazy Horse album, debut some new songs while jamming with Pearl Jam or use a power trio to perform a pristine and pretty record. To date there have been an endless supply of the two thousand-ish  shows Neil has now played out there, each one subtly or fascinatingly different as Neil constantly tweaks his live sets and sometimes revives old songs he hasn’t played in decades on a whim (while dropping other songs just as quickly). So far we have had six live albums (‘Time Fades Away’ is the weirdest made up of all new material, ‘Live Rust’ is the most rounded, Gulf War soundtrack ‘Weld’ the greatest and ‘Year Of The Horse’ the most under-rated and ‘Road Rock’ and ‘Earth’ the weakest) , a similar number of ‘archive’ sets (the early solo Neil shows from 1968 are a delight, even more than the shows that overshadowed it in the press like the famous Crazy Horse gig at the Filmore or Neil at Massey Hall in 1972, while ‘Bluenote Café’ and ‘A Treasure’ are under-rated gems too) and dozens more bootlegs (the 1989 acoustic tour plugging ‘Freedom’ being my personal favourite – when’s that coming out as part of the archives Neil?!?) Live shows have always been as integral to the Neil Young experience as the records – sadly while space precludes us from writing more if you’re interested Pete Long’s book ‘Ghosts On The Road’ was one of the first books to draw up a semi-complete collection of set-lists, a valuable reference manual in the days before the internet nicked it all!

1)   Where: The Bitter End, New York When: October 23rd 1968 Why: First Solo Gig Setlist: Unknown

The name of the venue sounds like a Crazy Horse song already, but back in 1968 the fans only knew Neil as the nervy guitarist dressed like an American Indian from the Buffalo Springfield (who played their last show on May 5th the same year). As one of the more obscure members of a fairly obscure band the early Neil Young tours didn’t get much of an audience – which is a shame as I still rate these early intimate shows as some of his best, with Springfield songs beautifully reworked into solo piano or acoustic guitar form and the tracks from Neil’s eponymous debut also sounding rather better in basic form without all that superfluous overdubbing. We don’t know specifically what songs Neil played at his first ever gig but I would imagine they were much like the ‘Sugar Mountain’ show, taped just eighteen days later. Oddly for an artist whose live career has been catalogued more than any other (Pink Floyd are the only really comparable band in the AAA canon) we don’t really know much about this live show at all – how well it was received and what the speeches between the songs were like (they tended to vary night to night too and rambled across anything from seconds to ten minutes concerning such topics as Neil’s previous careers – as a bookseller on drugs – how to write a ‘hit’ song back in the days before he’d written one and his increasingly bonkers ‘riders’ about what he wants onstage and back!)

2)  Where: Santa Monica Civic Auditorium When: March 28th 1970 Why: Danny Whitten’s Last Gig Setlist: ‘On The Way Home’ ‘I Am A Child’ [42] Everybody’s Alone [40] I Believe In You [38] Birds ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ [15] The Loner ‘Helpless’ ‘Country Girl’ [25] Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [66] Winterlong [27] Down By The River [160] Wonderin’ [80] Downtown [24] Cinnamon Girl [30] Cowgirl In The Sand

We could have gone with Crazy Horse’s first gig next (February 12th 1969 and again at ‘The Bitter End’, a mere three days after the solo Young show released on CD as ‘The Riverboat’) but that isn’t far off the official Horse archives set at the Filmore anyway. More poignant perhaps in the light of what will happen afterwards is the last Crazy Horse show with Danny Whitten in the band, the last time he will be considered with-it enough to still function. However even this early on (almost exactly at the midway point between ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and ‘After The Goldrush’) Danny is failing and Neil is forced to extend the show with a lengthy opening acoustic set. Into this he throws lots of oddball songs he won’t often sing again including the rare outtake ‘Everybody’s Alone’, a non-CSNY or Springfield version of ‘On The Way Home’ and ‘Déjà vu’ song ‘Country Girl’ on acoustic guitar (a favourite of bootleggers that really deserves a proper release soon too). When Crazy Horse come out their setlist is a bit in freefall too: ‘Wonderin’ will later be revived as late as 1983 as a rockabilly number for The Shocking Pinks but is a country-rock number here, ‘Winterlong’ will be abandoned until being revived for ‘Decade’ in 1977 and the last song Danny will play on stage with Neil will be the stinging criss-crossing guitars of ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’. Unbearably poignant in retrospect is the song Neil and Danny wrote together, ‘Downtown’, about being on the run from the cops and taking drugs (Danny will die from an overdose on November 26th 1972). Though Crazy Horse will reconvene without Danny for some Summer 1971 shows and will play a major role on the 1973 ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour they won’t play with Neil under their old name again until as late as December 7th 1975. Astonishingly fourteen tracks of this precious show (which begins at the start but fades out during ‘Winterlong’ will survive in bootleg, but only in very poor sound.

3)  Where: Topanga Corral, California When: August 11th 1973 Why: First Tonight’s The Night Tour Setlist: [76] Tonight’s The Night [81] Mellow My Mind [78] World On A String [77] Speakin’ Out [83] Albuquerque [84] New Mama [82] Roll Another Number [86] Tired Eyes [76] Tonight’s The Night [30] Cowgirl In The Sand

The audience have heard the rumours of course. Neil hasn’t been himself since his guitarist died and he’s gone a little crazy. That’s all over now though right? I mean we’ve had the bonkers soundtrack to an even more bonkers film (‘Journey Thru The Past’) and the tie-in album of a tour so miserable Neil couldn’t face re-cutting the songs in a studio (‘Time Fades Away’). ‘Harvest’ is still in the charts so I’m sure he’ll be back to making proper music again…’ The rotting old palm tree in the middle of the stage doesn’t bode well though. Nor does Neil when he walks on, barely recognisable with six-day stubble and a beer in his hand as he leans up to the microphone ‘welcome to Miami beach – it’s all cheaper than it looks’. Hmm, it looks mighty cheap to you and why is Miami Beach being replicated here in inland California?… The band look worse for wear too. The bassist keeps laughing and joking in between smoking. The drummer looks forlorn as if his mind is elsewhere. The guitarist is walking round as if he has lead-weights tied to his doc martin boots. Oh dear. The pianist you vaguely recognise from some music profile on Phil Spector though – surely that’s Jack Nitzsche and he should be good! Neil starts with a brand new song that somehow ambles into an angry and emotional rap. ‘You put my guitar in your arm, Bruce!’ Neil pleads, half drunk and reliving a painful memory. It takes him five minutes to get to the end of a simple story about a roadie who used to borrow Neil’s guitar and play ‘as real as the day is long’. Next is another new song. And then another. And another. And another four follow, all featuring images of death and desperation – from gang-murders that went wrong to a junkee mother strung out on cocaine to how the world on a string don’t mean a thing. In between songs Neil keeps asking the stunned audience to applaud the band members and keeps pointing towards a part of the stage kept empty, almost as if a ghost is there. By the end Neil tells us that he’s ‘now going to do a song you have all heard before’. Aha, it was all a test – we’re just getting the new songs out the way before the ‘greatest hits’ set (mental note: maybe don’t buy the new album just yet although hang on, Neil doesn’t have an album out yet and these songs will feel like a bad dream by the time they do appear on vinyl two years later). Only Neil starts up again with a story of how a roadie called Bruce borrowed his guitar and…aaaagh! So you get up and leave and only on your way out do you hear Neil finally doing a song you know, a sweet version of ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ for the first time since March 28th 1970 when he sang it in such very different circumstances, the world at his feet. So ends the first of twenty-eight equally ramshackle shows played across Europe and America by The Santa Monica Flyers, a tour after which Neil will never quite be the same again.

4)  Where: Mountain View, California When: October 13th 1986 Why: First Bridge School Benefit Setlist: Unknown

Neil Young did so many great and noble things in his career – Live Aid, Farm Aid, more charity shows than anyone outside CSNY and a number of protests against everything from dead student protestors (four dead in Ohio) to Vietnam Veterans denied care. However perhaps his greatest gift to the world is the shows that he organised himself with wife Pegi’s help. The Bridge School was where their son Ben went to learn alongside other handicapped kids. It’s an annoying quirk of fate that the schools that need the most money spending on them (generally for children who don’t fit anywhere else) are almost always the most poorly funded. Pegi was shocked at the state of the school’s finances and urged her husband to do something, while taking over the committee books and taking over his contact book. Neil won’t play solo at this show but he did reunite with CSNY for only the second time in twelve years (with David Crosby out on parole from his drug sentence to play it). He was also instrumental in signing up the other acts who took part and often took part in their sets too – this first year included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, old friend Nils Lofgren and comedian Robin Williams acted as compere. The shows brought in revenue of around a million dollars and was such a success that – after a year’s gap in 1987 – the shows were held every until 2016. In that time a whole host of acts performed including a great big long list of AAA names: Brian Wilson, The Grateful Dead, Simon and Garfunkel (a one-off reunion of theirs in 1993 ten years since their last!), The Who, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and even a long awaited Buffalo Springfield reunion in 2010. Pegi usually sang backup on Neil’s gigs but went solo in 2014 and fans could tell that something wasn’t quite right. Indeed, the Youngs announced their divorce shortly after the show that year and while the couple soldiered on for another two years, for the sake of the charity and their child, tensions were strained backstage and they decided to knock the charity on the head in 2017 with no further plans for any concerts as yet. This is such a shame – the shows were held for a great cause, always delivered extra surprises fans couldn’t get elsewhere and saw some lovely crossovers between acts who admired each other which couldn’t have possibly happened without someone like Neil as compere. To date one ‘best of’ disc, one ‘twenty-fith anniversary’ disc and one six disc box set of ‘Bridge School’ recordings have been released to raise further funds for the school (the single disc, officially titled ‘Vol 1’ though so far it’s the only one, was released in 1997 featuring Neil singing ‘I Am A Child’, the ‘25th Anniversary’ set contains Neil’s guestspot with REM on ‘Country Feedback’ and  a storming [220] ‘Crime In The City’ while the box set, officially also titled ‘Vol 1’ though so far it is again the only volume, was released in 2006 and includes four songs by CSN/Y alongside a medley of [13] ‘Sugar Mountain’ and [113] ‘Comes A Time’)

5)  Where: Coronation Hall, Omemee, Ontario When: December 1st 2017 Why: Homecoming Gig Setlist: [113] Comes A Time [96] Love Is A Rose [97] Long May You Run [57] Journey Thru The Past [385] I’m Glad I Found You [383] Tumbleweed [51] Old Man [249] Old King [225] Someday [52] There’s A World [**} Stand Tall [246] War Of Man [63] Don’t Be Denied ‘Helpless’ [49] Heart Of Gold [247] One Of These Days [239] Mother Earth [13] Sugar Mountain

Hopefully we don’t know what Neil’s final gig will be for a long time yet and this is the spot usually reserved for such a sombre occasion. If I know Neil he’s still going to be playing to the last day of his life somewhere. So instead we bring you a much happier occasion all round – Neil’s recent gig and the first time he ever played a show in the town where he was born, Canada’s Omemee (he moved to Winnipig as a toddler). Neil teased us for weeks referring to this special gig as being ‘from my hometown’ without actually telling us where till quite late on in the day (so many fans were expecting it to be in Winnipeg or Laurel Canyon or even The Broken Arrow ranch!) Omemee is quite small and even their biggest venue doesn’t hold many people, with only two hundred lucky fans able to go with invitations. The concert was however streamed for broadcast in Canada via TV and to the rest of the world via facebook. Rather sweetly proceeds from the concert (it was quite expensive) went to a local school – which just happened to be named after Neil’s father Scott who went there himself as a boy in the days before he was a famous author. The show is a good one by recent Neil standards, with The Promise Of The Real much better on the stage than they are on record and with an intriguing collection of songs old and new (including a surprise throwback to 2014’s ‘Storytone’, the first hearing of the autobiographical [63] ‘Don’t Be Denied’ in many a long year and the biggest surprise of the night is the 1976 outtake (released on ‘Decade’) [96] ‘Love Is A Rose’. This was a busy time for Neil as, making the most of the extra publicity, on this exact same day he also launched his online version of ‘The Archives’ project and released his new record ‘The Visitor’ (though typically he only performs one solitary song from that album at this gig that was meant to be promoting it!)

Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) I’ve spent much of this book discussing songs with the idea that no one else except Neil would ever think of these songs and it seems odder than most to hear his songs performed in a different voice, with that familiar quiver or sense of vulnerability where they can often sound quite different. I’m surprised then by quite how many cover songs there are out there (three hundred ish? More than our AAA average of one hundred that’s for sure, behind perhaps only The Beatles and Stones out of our thirty acts) and not just that but the breadth. With some AAA bands finding ten different songs covered by other people is a struggle – with Neil easily one hundred songs have been covered by somebody. This pile is admittedly helped by two of the better tribute albums out there: ‘The Bridge’ from 1989 is a bonkers one that caught the end crest of the heavy metal wave and the beginning of the ‘various artists sing the hits of…’ craze and features such delights as Bongwater ‘Mr Soul’, Sonic Youth treating [149] ‘Computer Age’ as a synth-less rock and roll song and the unlikely sound of Nick Cave singing ‘Helpless’; 1994 and 2007 saw two volumes of ‘Borrowed Tunes’, the first of which is the best cleverly split into ‘hey hey my my’ acoustic and ‘my my hey hey’ electric discs with Randy Bachman’s take on [15] ‘The Loner’ easily the standout in this crowd, while Volume II is most notable for Neil’s half-sister Astrid’s take on [257] ‘Sleeps With Angels’. Money from both volumes went to Neil and Pegi’s Bridge Street School charity; ‘Cinnamon Girls’ is a female-only tribute album from 2008 oddly sticks to Neil’s earliest most misogynistic era from the early 1970s where Kristin Hersh’s impressive sex-reversal on [109] ‘Like A Hurricane’ impresses most; finally there’s also ‘MusiCares’ from 2016 which is the weakest set despite featuring the biggest names like Elvis Costello (doing [28] ‘The Losing End’ of all songs), Norah Jones and James Taylor. CSN even appear to sing ‘Human Highway’ on what may well prove to be their last studio recording. We have however skipped all of these for three other comparative rarities you might like:

1)  [18] The Old Laughing Lady (Stereophonics, B-side to ‘I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio’ 1999)

One of the most altered Neil Young arrangements for the ‘Unplugged’ set in 1993 was his take on this orchestral epic from his first album. Performed as a semi-fast acoustic rocker it sounded mighty good if not up to the majesty of the strings. Stereophonics, one of the better Britpop bands around (why do they always get a bad press? Kelly Jones’ voice is one of rock and roll’s secret weapons!) loved the Unplugged set and started doing this song in their act, later taping a studio version for the release on one of their lesser singles. I remember being in sixth form college where many of my classmates assumed this song filled with metaphors and cupboards and death was a new original and wondered why it wasn’t the A-side; they weren’t too pleased when I pointed out it was a song from fifteen years before I was born (and yes I did have an anorak over my school uniform). The Stereophonics version is subtly different to Neil’s many because this band can’t do anything that quietly (despite the fact that their ballads are often their best material), the throaty roar giving away that this song is meant to be about an underlying death and loss. The line ‘laddddeeeeeeaaaaahhhh’ is either the greatest or worst thing about this cover depending on your taste and while nowhere close to the original (or even Neil’s Unplugged version) this is a fine band covering a fine song and doing it proud.

2)  [125] Pocahontas (Johnny Cash, ‘Unearthed’, 2003)

Effectively the ‘outtakes’ from the ‘American’ series Johnny Cash was recording with Rick Rubin up until his death, in many cases I prefer this stash that was kept back to what was released on the records proper. While Rubin messed up on the intended CSN ‘Covers’ album of 2014 he did wonders for The Man In Black, giving him dangerous music to sing again with bare-bones arrangements that showed off the strain in his aging voice. After a career of being a brave tough guy, its deeply moving to hear Johnny as a brave fragile old man. Rubin was a particular Neil Young fan and actually provided Johnny with two covers – [49] ‘Heart Of Gold’ is the better known (it’s from a follow-up outtakes set ‘American Rarities’ of 2010) but I prefer this cover, where Johnny sings Neil’s comical tale of American Indians as if it’s one of his tragedies, the line ‘they might have left some babies lying on the ground’ even more of a tearjerker (Johnny’s greatest album is surely his most controversial, ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian’, a brave move to release such anti-white man songs in 1963 and which might well have inspired Neil’s original). Johnny’s deep growl is moving indeed but better still is the arrangement which includes a creepy violin effect playing the guitar riff and some occasional piano that fleets in and out of this song as if it’s playing in slow motion. The slower stately tempo too really suits this already gorgeous song.

3)  [51] Old Man (Wailin’ Jennys, ‘Forty Days’, 2004)

We end our entire thirty-part ‘cover songs’ series with a rare track free with Mojo Magazine that was actually rather good. Neil may well know this band of three female country singers – they were formed in a Winnipeg music ship that Neil knew well (Sled Dog Music) when three separate solo singers were asked how they’d feel about performing one or two songs together and they named themselves as a pun on their biggest musical influence and Neil’s old collaborator Waylon Jennings. ‘Old Man’ is a rare cover song in their set but it sounds as if it could have been an original, perfectly cast for three part harmonies (what a shame CSNY didn’t often do this song as a group performance like this, it would have been lovely!) and with some lovely bright acoustic playing by Carla Luft but no bass or drums to distract us. This song sounds like a much purer distillation of the song and nudges it further down the country road than a rock road. Though I really miss the harmonica and the pedal steel I’m really impressed with this song, a highlight of their debut album.
Other Neil Young and related articles from this site you might be interested in reading: 

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016