Friday, 28 November 2008
“We’re open tonight for fun, so bring all your friends come on, we’re open tonight come one come all” “Back To The Egg” (Paul McCartney and Wings” I must admit I’ve never been much of a fan of the last Wings album, smacking as it does of a worried millionaire and some new acquaintances jumping on the then-in-vogue new wave bandwagon in the hope of shifting some extra LPs. However, somewhere hidden deep in my sub-conscious lie half-forgotten memories of the ‘Back To the Egg’ TV special Macca and friends put together to promote the album in 1979, a special that makes this album sound better than it actually is. Long forgotten by even the “We’re open tonight for fun, so bring all your friends come on, we’re open tonight come one come all” “Back To The Egg” (Paul McCartney and Wings” I must admit I’ve never been much of a fan of the last Wings album, smacking as it does of a worried millionaire and some new acquaintances jumping on the then-in-vogue new wave bandwagon in the hope of shifting some extra LPs. However, somewhere hidden deep in my sub-conscious lie half-forgotten memories of the ‘Back To the Egg’ TV special Macca and friends put together to promote the album in 1979, a special that makes this album sound better than it actually is. Long forgotten by even the most thorough of Beatles books, only shown on telly once in the UK and never released on video or DVD, this half-hour programme is a rare curio to say the least. And it deserves to be remembered – back in the days before MTV and VH1 it wasn’t compulsory to make music videos even for singles and I think I’m right in saying that Wings were the first band ever to go whole-hog and string a whole collection of them together from one album (though they only manage to film about half the LP and two contemporary singles). Now, as most of you probably know already, the website YouTube is a wonderful thing, a site that fulfils most of the collection-swapping antics that used to go on at record fairs up and down the country and its come up trumps again as I accidentally stumbled across all 11 music videos while looking for something else entirely (my YouTube name is ‘AlansArchives’ if anyone wants to link up with me and see them). This album is one of Macca’s more ‘visual’ LPs and while some of the videos are just plain daft, the music sounds much better accompanied by images, or as a ‘soundtrack’ album rather than a proper LP in its own right. So there I’ve been for much of this week, unexpectedly enjoying what used to be the only McCartney album I never really got on with (till the likes of Flaming Pie and Chaos and Creation came along and stole its thunder). On paper this Wings album should be great – it’s the album that came after London Town, an album that sits proudly at no 71 on our list; it features one of McCartney’s most gorgeous melodies of all time (Winter Rose) and was recorded quickly, knocked out by the band in the grounds of a Scottish castle Macca rented out for the purpose, with less overdubs and production overload than usual. But things just weren’t that happy in the Wings camp anymore: guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English both left during sessions for the last album and their replacements Laurence Juber and Steve Holly, though equally talented, never got much of a chance to show what they could do before they too got their marching orders. Then there’s that infamous prison incident: barely weeks after the release of this album the band fly to Japan for a tour promoting the record, only for Japanese customs officials to find some illegal marijuana plants in the McCartney’s luggage (planted by officials working for Yoko Ono according to one slanderous book I read!) and the ex-Beatle suddenly goes from hero to zero, kept in a prison cell for a full week and facing seven years in prison at one point. While Macca was released relatively easily without any further legal complications or backlash, the strain it put on the band was ridiculous: with money already dwindling and all income from the tour cancelled, Macca’s seven-year partner-in-crime Denny Laine heads for home in desperation for work, leaving Linda and the band in the lurch in an ‘act of betrayal’ that Macca never quite forgave (although, contrary to belief, the two do work again – Denny’s wonderful harmonies are all over Paul’s 1982 solo album Tug Of War).Reluctant to get together a new band (which would have been the 5th major line-up change in seven years), the McCartneys decide to knock Wings on the head after this disappointing album. Yet although the fracture came after this LP you can tell something is on Macca’s mind – Back To The Egg is a lot more aggressive-sounding than normal; the riffs are more jagged, insistent and repetitive and, most revealingly of all, Macca’s usually clear and concise lyrics suddenly turn to gibberish (like Neil Young, the worse Paul’s personal life gets the less revealing his music gets – as if he is only comfortable revealing the darker sides of his personality when he knows he can present the ‘lighter’ side to the public at large as well). Oh yeah, almost forgot – this album has a ‘theme’ to it too and its one that’s even close to Sgt Pepper’s in its determination to set the scene for a band walking on stage and inviting us to a concert – but that’s all this album does, it invites us to ‘get close’ because ’we’re open tonight’ and even features a reprise at the end that tells u the band are ‘so glad to see you here’ – but there’s nothing else to keep the half-concept going, no Billy Shears, no applause, no band announcement, no nothing. Strange. What we get is a bit of a mish-mash, with some cracking tunes married to some decidedly weird words, a couple of instrumental/ spoken word/sound effects collages that are strong candidates for the worst tracks of Wings’ if not McCartney’s career and two half-hearted medleys of songs that couldn’t be less suited to running into one another. To show what I mean about this album in general, let’s focus on the album’s (flop) single Old Siam Sir – the only song that anyone is even vaguely likely to know (and even that’s pushing it a bit, seeing as it peaked at no 70-odd in the charts). That opening walking bass riff, suddenly joined by a guitar and fiercely stomped on by a driving drum lick is a cracking opening and when it finally kicks in the tune doesn’t disappoint, with Wings making the most out of their new-found ‘live’ recording technique (in a neat mirror it sounds like the primitive first Wings album Wildlife. Only better). And the moment when the song finally drops its weight-of-the-world suffering for a cataclysmic break-out instrumental featuring no less than three guitarists playing the same riff is one of the cleverest moments of any McCartney song. But Macca’s wonderfully large vocal range is strained to breaking point, making him sound like Pinky and Perky on helium, and when you finally decipher the lyrics they make no sense at all (and not in a clumsy-but-cute way like C Moon either – although in truth that’s actually quite a clever symbolic song when you analyse it). ‘She spin around in Walthamstow’ is about as comprehendible as the lyrics get and, as for that curious title, what rhymes with ‘old Siam, sir’? ‘Found a man, sir’ – not the greatest couplet of Macca’s career. Like the album in a nutshell, it’s a seed of greatness that sadly grew into a crooked trunk, as Macca and friends too often bark up the wrong tree, as it were, although you can still see greatness in the roots. Elsewhere we get surely the worst and most pointless rocker in McCartney’s back catalogue (Spin It On, which is basically one short chorus repeated ad infinitum), a truly toe-curling Temperance Seven-type spoof (at least I hope it’s a spoof) Baby’s Request which rates as easily the worst of Macca’s many ‘music my mother should know’ show-tunes and a bunch of static and snatches of tunes masquerading as somebody switching channels on a radio underneath an actually quite interesting bass riff. And I haven’t even come to the album’s two clowning glory clunkers yet – the sheer waste of the Rockestra all-star jam theme tune, one which gathers the leading stars of the day together (Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane, David Gilmour, Jon Bonham, Hank Marvin, etc) and gets them to play a three-chord riff underneath a song which has the single throwaway line ‘Why Haven’t I Had Any Dinner?’ Unbelievably, the album sinks to even lower depths than this – as a favour to the owners of the Scottish estate Wings ‘borrowed’ for the recording sessions, they get to read out some really lame poetry while Macca tinkles out a riff on a synthesiser that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mills and Boon adaptation. So far so depressingly ordinary. But all is not lost. The first ‘proper’ song Getting Closer is a promising beginning, leaping from inventive section to inventive section in true Macca-mid 60s mode, before turning in on itself for a surprisingly dark and paranoid chorus which sounds like the Hollies classic I Can’t Let Go on high adrenaline. Other tracks like To You and Arrow Through Me are hardly among McCartney’s best, but even whilst sleepwalking there’s just so much finesse and style to Macca’s work that there’s enough to keep you admired – and both of these songs seem so obvious and perfect concoctions that you’re half surprised that they never existed before in all the 30-odd years of rock and roll we’d had up to that point, just as you are with most half-decent McCartney songs. Denny Laine too ends his fine run of Wings songs with one of his hardest-hitting rockers Again and Again and Again, another of his impressive songs that sounds half retro and half-contemporary, tied together with an irresistible chorus that seems to make repetition an art form. Best of all we get two unheralded 100% gold McCartney gems. Winter Rose is a heartbreaking ballad to rank with the best of them, with a monochrome production that simply sparkles from the speakers and fine vocal performances from Paul, Linda and Denny to match. The narrator’s been searching for his dream girl all his life – and now, finally, in the winter of his life he’s found her. Magic stuff. Of course, this being Back To The Egg we’re talking about here, even this song gets butchered, stuck together with a pretty but pretty inane ditty called Love Awake which couldn’t be less like its predecessor in tone, tune or theme if it tried and it undoes much of the previous song’s good work. And, this being a medley, you can’t even programme your CD player to miss it out worst luck. The other classic track is the barnstorming rocker So Glad To See You Here – the ‘Rockestra’ theme took all of the publicity, but this second song featuring the all-star line-up is a much better vehicle for their talents, with the band truly sounding huge and powerful (rather than silly). Macca’s histrionic vocal is one of his rawest and best and the last of a handful of Wings vocal rounds (Paul, Linda and Denny swapping leads on three different phrases sung all at the same time) is exquisite and a classic note on which to (nearly) end Wings’ career. The band even seems to be cruising full steam ahead into another verse at the end but no – the whole thing just peters out and we get blooming Baby’s Request to end on instead. Fascinating but infuriating, moments of pure genius tucked between mistakes that beginners to the music business would think twice about, Back to the Egg is a scrambled concoction that misses the mark more than most Macca-related albums, but still comes up trumps enough times to cook up an appetite. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫ (4/10).
Thursday, 27 November 2008
♫ And finally, the latest in our series of top fives, in homage to those Moody Blues re-issues I’ve been enjoying all week: five totally bonkers concept albums!
’s Nut Gone Flake (Small Faces/ 1968 –
specifically side two). We know it’s meant as a spoof of other similar concept
albums now of course, but that fact wasn’t widely known in 1968 when this tale
of a man called Stan looking for the other-half-of-the-moon-and-dangley-in-the-heavenly-bode
first came out. Of course, the fact that master of gibberish Stanbley Unwin
narrated the whole 20-minute piece should have been a give-away, as should the
fact that Stan was helped on his travels by a madman called John and an
un-named talking fly. Even so, the whole piece somehow works amazingly well and
is just the thing to brighten up your day when life is just a bowl of all-bran
(you wake up every morning…and it’s there).
4) A Soap Opera (The Kinks/ 1974). There are oodles of Kinks concept albums from the 1970s that could have made the list, but this one is perhaps the strangest of all. The starmaker, a well known celebrity, decides that his art has no link with the common man anymore and sets out to find one. He soon sets his sights on Norman, as in Normal, and is soon living in his family home and doing his menial job for him while Norman spends a spell as the ‘starmaker’ he only knows from the TV. However, the line between fact and fiction soon becomes blurred and the starmaker realises he isn’t really a star but was only
all along. A typical Kinks blend of fantasy escapism and an expression of anger
at the pointlessness of life, the nadir of this album is the sequence of three
or four songs about drinking down the pub, with nothing else to say in the
lyrics (which is kind of the point given this album is working up to a rant
about the repetition and pointlessness of life, but it still doesn’t make for
enjoyable listening). There’s a great finale though! Norman
3) Thick As A Brick (Jethro Tull/ 1973). Strange how all these concept albums seem to date from a similar time period. Anyway, the story behind this little epic (featuring one whole track for 42 minutes that actually continued between two sides in the days of vinyl) is that Jethro Tull were accused of being ‘concept writers’ when their album ‘Aqualung’ came out (1971). Frontman Ian Anderson took umbridge at the idea, despite the fact that yes most songs on ‘Aqualung’ do fit a rough outline about homelessness and all the songs feature characters with difficulties adjusting to society, and decided to create the mother of all concept albums in protest. ‘Brick’ is about a precocious 11-year-old called Gerald Bostock who wins a poetry competition with a very explicit piece that subsequently gets banned and replaced with something really average by one of his numbskull peers. Ian Anderson later revealed that the main inspiration for Gerald was himself, a lad so out of kilter with his peers and society that he was never quite sure if he was a genius or ‘thick as a brick’. Flawed as this sprawling piece is, we’ll happily settle for ‘genius’ after hearing this album – although the packaging is even better than the music, with a fold-out mock newspaper featuring several articles made-up by the band.
2) ‘Numbers’ (Cat Stevens/ 1975). There’s a world where numbers 2-9 live, all happily doing their delegated jobs for leader number 1 until, shock horror, number 0 (aka Jzer-o) comes to stay and takes all the numbers to a ‘higher level’ (ie 1 becomes 10 and 2 becomes 20, etc). If you can get through the accompanying head-hurting booklet and the off-ball opening and closing tracks (I can’t be the only Cat Stevens fan who went ‘what the….’ when I heard both of those for the first time) then this is actually as fair concept album about a humble stranger offering to do anything he can for the citizens of a town and getting soundly rejected, despite the fact that he can teach everybody so much more if only they opened their minds to him. Album centrepiece ‘Majik of Majiks’ is one of Cat’s best ever songs to boot. I still haven’t got a clue what ‘banapple gas’ is though.
1) Tommy (The Who/ 1969). One of the most famous concept albums of all, let’s just think this plot through for a minute. Hmm, so a child named Tommy sees his dad killed by his mother’s lover, becomes deaf dumb and blind but ends up a cured pinball champion running a holiday camp for people who want to hear all the things he saw while he was incarcerated in his own thoughts. How Pete Townshend and company made this story work I’ll never know, but they did – in live performance if not always on the original, sometimes rushed, LP. Come to his house and be one of the beautiful people – if only for the ultimate Who instrumental work-out on Amazing Journey > Sparks.
Oh and p.s. I know we try to restrict our witty banter on the AAA site to records, but I couldn’t resist pointing out the satirical news story of the week that surprisingly everyone else seems to have missed so far: yes that’s right, both Prince Charles and Noddy turned 60 this last week! (Who mentioned Big Ears?!)
That’s all for now – see you next week AAA fans!