Thursday, 26 March 2015
John Renbourn Obituary 1944-2015
This afternoon I had a rare break from writing and after several weeks of barely being able to leave the house finally made it onto a bus. Given that these journeys are a hazard at the best of times (especially the dodgy elderly busses they have round my neck of the woods) even without m.e. attacks I thought I'd ease the burden by digging out one of my original mp3 players - one I haven't used for a long time given that I've spent most of the past year listening intently to whichever AAA artists I happen to be writing about. I haven't got round to Pentangle yet (I'm currently on the letter 'H' so have a bit to go before reaching 'P') so haven't heard them for a good month or so - and wasn't intending to hear them today, IU'd just hit the 'shuffle' button of 2000-odd songs. 'Excellent' I thought as I heard the first one which happened to be 'Train Song' (and yet whose squeaking cello noises on the fade sound a lot more like my bus), mentally noting for about the fiftieth time that I must dig out some of the Bert Jansch and John Renbourn solo and joint albums now that I have all of Pentangle's wares. And then they kept coming, one after another - there must have been eight across my short journey of half an hour there and half an hour back, each one sounding particularly resonant: the weep of sorrow that is 'Cold Rain and Snow', the gorgeous sitar-guitar duet that was 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', the gorgeous paean of 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?', the jazzy upbeat strut of 'Light Flight', the merry poverty folktale jig of 'House Carpenter', the unusual loping gait of 'I Saw An Angel' and last but best of all dear John putting the world to rights on 'So Clear'. The rest of the evening I had Pentangle ringing in my ears, decided to dig out both 'Reflection' and 'Basket Of Light' for my inevitable post-journey afternoon nap and dreamt Pentangle thoughts, marvelling at my mp3 player's (Phillips The I he is - I'm currently up to Phillips The VII , which is odd 'cause the Spanish Kings only went up to the Vth) ability to always match my mood. And then I woke up to the news that John had died - our second great AAA loss in just four months after Ian McLagan back in December - and suddenly it all made sense. I was in fact saying goodbye to a dear friend - I just didn't know it yet. The fact that I learnt the news from David Crosby's twitter feed - thus demonstrating once again the inter-connected holisticness of writing this website - makes it all the more poignant.
Just as with Bert, who died in 2011, you sense that John would have been rather pleased to have slipped under the radar without a big fuss and that this folk historian with a gift for updating the exploits of the Middle Ages would have been overshadowed by the final burial of the rediscovered King Richard III, located underneath a Leicester County Counciul car park the other year. Renbourn's passing may have gone un-noticed to most of the world, who'd grown up in a world where Pentangle had been absent from the airwaves for most of the past four decades and who shied away from becoming the household name he could have been. To the minority of us though, the fans the guitarists and even the students of Renbourn's many great classes on guitar technique, we have lost another giant - one of the great unsung guitarists of the folk community and whose sound with and without Pentangle was instantly recognisable and always true to the emotional heart of what he was singing and playing. Whether recounting Arthurian legends lost in the mists of time, updating ancient English folk songs from centuries' past and making them sound immediate, writing new songs with the authenticity of a Medieval scholar or breaking boundaries an epic guitar duel mixing and matching styles from folk, blues, jazz, rock and psychedelia, Renbourn was a real star of music, whether he wanted to be or not.
Renbourn was the 'junior' member of Pentangle, a full year younger than most of the band and born into a highly musical family who all played one instrument or another. His father had died in World War Two when John was less than a year old - the family piano was their 'bomb shelter' under which they slept during raids, music keeping them safe even back then. However John only ever loved the guitar, taking a classical guitar course at school and he became especially enamored of the earliest songs the teachers played him - the ancient folk songs that dated back so far their authorship was unknown, the Renaissance era Madrigals, the secular songs from mankind's earliest days of writing things down. Even then it may well have struck him how close to our present day these tales of great woe, impending doom or sudden delight were, how brightly coloured their emotions (which said everything that a modern soap opera could without anything like the same artifice) and how close to modern tales these studies in love and war were. Outside school, though, Renbourn also developed a love for first skiffle and then for blues singers, all three major strands of the future Pentangle sound. After leaving school John hooked up with folk singer-guitarist Mac McLeod and set off for two tours of English folk clubs between 1961 and 1963. The trip was only partly successful - while the audiences who stayed largely raved at the way the two guitarists (heavily influenced by Davy Graham) approached their source material, most of the audience were too traditional to accept any guitarwork at all and preferred their folk sung with just 'voices'. After returning to his London home, Renbourn then enrolled at Kingston Art College, although by his own admission Renbourn was more interested in the R and B band he formed with his art college colleagues. When that band fell apart, Renbourn started playing with a local folksinger Dorris Hendersen, making his first recordings as her 'guitarist' in the early 1960s.
Renbourn found a 'home' for his style of music at a club in Soho named Les Cousins, which was where he met his soul-mate and lifelong buddy Bert Jansch. With a shared love of all sorts of styles folk musicians aren't traditionally meant to like, they found that together they had a unique style they labelled 'folk baroque'. The pair made their first professional recordings as a duo, with the under-rated 'Bert and John' LP from 1966 which features some truly sublime guitar parts. However as neither of them was a natural vocalist (though both had fascinating voices - John's lovely quiet baritone especially) they looked around for other musicians to play with. It was John who 'discovered' Pentangle vocalist Jacqui McShee, during a session for one of his mid-1960s solo albums (he released three before forming Pentangle - 'John Renbourn' 'Another Monday' and his most well known record 'Sir John A Lot', a late 1960s style 'concept' album using material written in the middle ages that naturally segues into more modern recordings like Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin and even a burst of The Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction'!) On one of the sessions for this last LP, John had cast around for a suitable flute player and discovered Terry Cox, who was better known for being a drummer. With the addition of double bass player Danny Thompson, Pentangle was complete.
From the start Pentangle was more than 'just' a folk band. Though all the five-star players in the five-star band had folk roots, they all came with their own unique backgrounds and influences. Renbourn brought the blues element to the band, making the songs sound darker and sadder than most folk revival bands were playing at the time, whilst remaining the most natural source for the band's older material thanks to his years of classical study and his love of early music. He and Bert were also adept at jazz, which has a major influence o the first album in particular and some of the guitar duets and contests on that record remain some of his finest playing. Many fans, some of them burgeoning guitarists themselves, raved at John's unique style, which involved using three fingers round the strings and his thumb bent round the body of the guitar, with bits of shaved ping-pong balls on his fingertips as 'artificial nails' - long after the age when he could have afforded a whole Royal Festival Hall-load of plectrums! On one memorable occasion they all fell off as he was in the middle of a solo, but he gamely carried on and reached out for the superglue he kept handy in case of emergencies. Unfortunately the tube was old and a bit rusty so he bit the top to make sure the glue was working - and accidentally glued his mouth shut for the rest of the performance!
Pentangle made such a name for themselves with their live performances that they were already headlining at the Royal Festival Hall before they'd recorded a note. Several record labels were interested but it was Transatlantic who signed a deal with the band. 'The Pentangle' appeared in 1968 with several group compositions, many of them featuring John and Bert's incredible musical telepathy. A second album, 'Sweet Child' mixed a return appearance at the Royal Festival Hall with a studio album, most of it built up from traditional folk songs that Renbourn urged the band to record (such as 'Three Dances', one of the oldest tracks Pentangle ever played and dating back to the Renaissance in part) as well as his and Bert's jazzy instrumental 'No Exit'. The all-conquering 'Basket Of Light' came next, featuring lots of lovely Renbourn acoustic work and most memorably a sitar part that John played on the traditional songs 'House Carpenter' and the sublime 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', a first in folk circles that's one of the richest in that album's glorious tapestry of sounds. John also began singing for the first time (other than backing vocals), swapping leads with Jacqui on the 'modern' folk song standard 'Sally Go Round The Roses' and the moody 'Lyke Wake Dirge', another early song that Renbourn especially excelled at.
Though Pentangle's (five) star began to wane, the final Pentangle records feature ever more excellent work by Renbourn: 1970's much-maligned (only some of it fairly) 'Cruel Sister' features a truly lovely ballad 'Lord Franklin' about the sad fate of an explorer whose crew were discovered frozen in the arctic sea although Renbourn sings the song with all the peace and tranquility of a sailor swinging in his hammock!; 1971's 'Reflection' features the lovely surreal folk original 'So Clear' that even on an album full of sparse yet beautiful acoustic songs is truly delightful. The collage front cover also offers a rare glimpse of him at home, playing his acoustic next to a stream in the grounds of his home in Petersfield; finally, the last Pentangle record - 1972's 'Solomon's Seal' - features the joint composition 'People On The Highway', one of the loveliest goodbyes on record. The band split didn't just come through falling record sales - the band were split over whether their career should stay traditional or embrace more popular sounds, the band were tired after constant touring and the fuss of changing over to a new record label (Reprise) although in the end they only recorded one new album for the label and generally feeling unhappy at how things had turned out. All of the band quit at some time during the making of that last ill-fated album with Renbourn's drinking becoming something of a concern, with the band generally recording in twos or three with whoever happened to turn up rather than with the 'full' line-up. When the end came in 1973, it was with something of a relief, although at least Renbourn took home a souvenir: for years 'Solomon's Seal' was the most sought after Pentangle LP, unseen since it sold only a fraction of their earlier LPs; though fans longed for it to be released on CD it was reported that the mastertapes had been lost. In 2003 though the album suddenly appeared, a sheepish Renbourn admitting that he'd only just found the tapes in his music studio as he was preparing to move house: he'd found them propping up a leg of his harmonium! Amazingly the recordings were still in a good condition and after a bit of re-mastering is actually amongst the best sounding Pentangle albums on CD!
Like Bert, John had continued his own solo career on the side in parallel to the band's , although this only received a fraction of the interest of either Jansch's or Pentangle's. My favourite of John's solo albums is 'The Lady and The Unicorn', released in 1970 alongside 'Cruel Sister' and like that album is the most traditional and uncompromising of Renbourn's solo albums, traditional throughout and bouncing from one source to another with aplomb (there's an eleven minute medley, for instance, that runs from 'My Johnny Was A Shoemaker'; to 'Western Fayre' to 'Scarborough Fair', all traditional English folk songs about particular towns but from very different periods and telling very different stories. Other albums continued in the 1970s: 'Faro Annie', 'So Clear' (named after a re-recording of that 'Reflection' song), 'Heads and Tails' 'The Guitar Of John Renbourn' 'The Hermit' 'A Maid In Bedlam'...in total John released a staggering 23 solo albums as well as a run of four late 1970s collaborations with fellow folk guitarist Stefan Grossman. Many of these albums reflect life living on a barge which John had been using as 'home' ever since 1971 - hardly the move of your typical top 40-hit guitarist but also very Renbourn! John also formed his own band, The John Renbourn Group, who released an additional five albums across the 1980s with a bigger, more electric sound. He also joined the all-too-brief folk super-group Ship Of Fools in 1988, who met up after years of correspondence and tape and sheet music swapping but only lasted one album.
Whilst Bert and Jacqui reformed Pentangle in the mid-1980s, John - often referred to as 'the catalyst' - chose not to join. Instead he went in a quite different route, returning to college to study composition at Darlington Arts College. This must surely have reminded him of his early days studying the classical guitar and his work began to shed a lot of its modern-day trappings in this period, going back to the 'purer' traditionally medieval sound. Indeed, some of the solo and band albums from the second half of the 1980s in my collection are so traditional in outlook they really do sound like being transported back to the Middle Ages - and it seems very wrong owning them on something as 'modern' as a CD! John also became interested in scoring music for films, again with a folky feel, starting with 'Scream For Help', a project John was invited to write for by his Petersfield neighbour John Paul Jones (of the rather un-Pentangle like Led Zeppelin). With British audiences beginning to dry up after so long out of the public eye, Renbourn turned to playing tours in Japan where he built up a whole new following during the 1990s and 2000s. In 2006 he was tempted back to Britain for the Welsh Green Man folk festival where he guested on a set by Jacqui McShee - the first time he'd appeared with another member of Pentangle since their split in 1973. This and other collaborations between the original five members led to a long awaited Pentangle reunion in 2008, sadly not lasting long enough for a record but resulting in a highly successful British tour and returns to both The Green Man Festival and The Royal Festival Hall and a few TV appearances. This was sadly the last time the band were back together again before Bert's untimely death in 2011 and now sadly John's as well. Renbourn continued to release solo albums too, right up until 2011 with what will sadly now be his last album 'Palermo Snow', which is a typically indefinable mix of folk, jazz, blues and classical guitar, a cornucopia of styles only John could play with such ease. However it may well be as a teacher that John is remembered rather than a performer or writer after all. A big believer in the importance of teaching guitar and other instruments to those who appreciated music, he spent most of his post-Pentangle career teaching at workshops, guesting at guitar conventions and making typically Pentangle style-use of keeping ancient music alive via modern technology with a successful classical guitar class on Youtube.
Typically, John was due to be performing the day he died, much as he'd spent most of the last half century of his life, at a club named The Ferry in Glasgow. Despite Pentangle's reputation as a ragged and un-organised band, Renbourn had never missed a day or been late for a solo gig and his manager and band grew increasingly worried as Renbourn failed to turn up. They sent a policeman round to his house in Hawick (the Scottish borders) to check up on him and when there was no answer broke into the house and found that he had died in his sleep. At the time of writing the cause is still unknown although reports are coming through that it was a heart attack. John had just turned 70 last August. Though to some extent forgotten by the music press in general and overshadowed by the more influential work of his colleague Bert in their solo careers, John still had a large and very vocal following of fans who considered him one of the greatest musicians of his generation. As a sign of the wide appeal of his following, tributes have already come in not from his fellow band-mates yet but from Catatonia vocalist and DJ Cerys Matthews and author Ian Rankin, whose few words of tribute says it all: 'Ach, now John has gone. What a guitarist...'
What a guitarist indeed. Pentangle may have recorded their last album some forty-two years ago and his solo albums may be hard to find even for a passionate collector like me (let's hope there's a re-issue or at least a compilation of them in tribute to John sometime soon), but Renbourn played a huge role in making folk music popular again, adding another century's worth of life at least to some ancient standards and wrote more than a few of his own to live alongside them. He will be very sorely missed everywhere but up in heaven, where old pal Bert is no doubt greeting him with the words 'where've you been?' and a natter about all the folk songs the pair always planned to record some day, together with a typically gorgeous and near-impossible guitar duet, Bert and John together again where they belong once more. A better world awaiting, in the sky.
Top five John Renbourn moments:
As ever with our tribute specials, here is a top five guide to our much-missed friends' greatest record moments. As with all of these specials, it could easily have been so much longer - Pentangle rarely put a foot wrong whatever they did - but it might at least curious newcomers navigate the cream of a very golden crop.
5) Jack O'Rion ('Cruel Sister' 1970)
A stunning side-long tour de force, Bert and John had been impressing audiences at folk clubs with this number long before the Pentangle days (a shorter version also appears on the 'Bert and John' album). Though Bert and Jacqui trade the vocals, it's the interplay between the two guitarists that really stands out, pinging this way and that between a whole range of styles that each one hits dead-on without any apparent editing or mistakes between the two. Dancing a merry dance between folk, blues, jazz and rock the song weaves the sorry tale of a servant who 'cons' a princess who has never seen him that he is in fact a prince and is condemned to death for his crime.
4) Lyke Wake Dirge ('Basket Of Light' 1969)
A gorgeous Christian hymn whose original tune actually pre-dates Christianity, the arrangement for this track is credited to the whole band but surely has John's fingerprints all over it. John, Terry and Jacqui sing together, making for an unusual sound that sadly pentangle never mine again, as impressively solemn and austere and yet so overwhelmingly musical as Pentangle ever got, imploring Christ to 'receive thy soul'.
3) Once I Had A Sweetheart ('Basket Of Light' 1969)
My favourite Pentangle recording of them all - no other band would dare to record a song that sounded so 1967 whilst remaining utterly faithful to the vision of circa 1767! As Jacqui pines for her lost love 'left me in sorrow to mourn' John embarks on one of the greatest solos in musical history, not on his usual guitar but on a sitar that tilts the whole piece from a private mourning inton a piece uniting the grief of West and East. The solo carries on and on, rising from the deepest darkest blackest despair at the start to a courageous cacophony of chiming high notes as John tries to weave his way this way and that around his ever-present grief. The sitar's drone that continues throughout the next verse, hanging like a black dog of depression stalking Jacqui as she tries to get on with her life, is a touch of genius.
2) Lord Franklin ('Cruel Sister' 1970)
A rare Renbourn lead vocal on a typically inventive piece of contrasts. 'Lord Franklin' was adapted from a poem better known as 'Lady Franklin', about the missing-presumed-long-dead explorer calling out to his wife late at night in her family home - one at rest, full of comforts and peaceful, so different to his icy tomb. She wonders what to do but she feels helpless and so heads back to sleep, John's sensitive vocal reflecting both sides of this sorry tale with an eerie calmness. He should have sung a whole lot more.
1) So Clear ('Reflection' 1971)
'So Clear' is the closest John ever came to a 'solo' song whilst in Pentangle, writing singing and playing lead guitar on a fascinating, quirky little song about his life and the band in general in 1971 as Pentangle was winding down to a close. Renbourn is at a station, wondering where his next destination will be, identifying with a 'Toulose Circus Rider' trying to stay afloat and perform while about to trip over (a sight that happened to come on telly in the background when John was writing the song). Throughout the song the narrator passes notes back and forth between his hurried scrawl on scraps of paper and his wife's posh writing paper carefully pressed for him before being stuffed in his pocket: the two are clearly leading different lives but neither quite know what to say or do. In the end the narrator sighs that only 'the song' is at all clear and vows to keep on playing even though or perhaps because the rest of his life is so confusing. With a solo incorporating all of the band's influences, from folk to blues and jazz and beyond, it's deservedly become something of a fan favourite - and we fans are very glad John took his own advice and kept playing, on album after album of exquisite music.
Monday, 23 March 2015
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Paul McCartney "Off The Ground" (1993)
Off The Ground/Looking For Changes/Hope Of Deliverance/Mistress and Maid/I Owe It All To You/Biker Like An Icon/Peace In The Neighbourhood/Golden Earth Girl//The Lovers That Never Were/Get Out Of My Way/Winedark Open Sea/C'Mon People/ (Un-credited Bonus Track) Cosmically Conscious
"I must admit I may have made a few mistakes, but let's get started, form a party - don't you know how long it takes?"
'Off The Ground' was released a full fourteen years after their last record and with an entirely different line-up (barring Linda of course), but it reminds me very much of a Wings LP. You wouldn't know it from the 'Macca only' billing, but this is very much a 'band' LP, recorded as close to live as an ex-Beatle with a lot resting on his album can dare, made by a band who almost know each other inside out after touring the world together twice (incoming drummer Blair Cunningham is the only line-up change, replacing Chris Whitten who'd left to join fellow AAA band Dire Straits). Then there's the album title, which isn't quite the uplifting image of Wings but does involve a certain idea of flight, of being whisked away to goodness knows where in the company of a writer whose delivered on the promise of more than a few musical magic carpets down the years. And finally, after a 1980s that fans either loved or hated with each individual LP, comes the return of that sinking feeling from the 1970s: the feeling that McCartney has got within breathing distance of the finishing line and then mucks everything up with a few crass one-liners and a few rough edges too many. If you've read even a handful of the Wings reviews on this site you'll know what I'm talking about: the ghastly thrown-together closing medley that makes a laughing stock of the carefully sculpted 'Red Rose Speedway', the clunky 'Picasso's Last Words' taking up brain space on the funky 'Band On The Run' or the horrendously misguided OAP insult 'Treat Her Gently' winding up the otherwise fantastic LP 'Venus and Mars' on a sour note. 'Off The Ground' is the album where Macca writes one of his most convincing rockers in years, slinky and sultry with a kick and a modern day lyric about a love-struck rebel with a passion for motorbikes that's a terrific leap forward in dealing with Macca's usual silly but neat love songs and then ruins it with the single line 'but the biker didn't like her'. This is the record containing 'Golden Earth Girl', a song that's a medal contender for the oh-so-perfect-it-sounds-as-if-it's-been-around-forever melodies in a career of oh-so-perfect etc etc melodies - and then saddles it with a lyric even Ringo would think twice about ('Someone over there is counting fish in a sunbeam, in eggshell seas, eggshell finish'). This is the album that ought to contain several of the most powerful tracks in the modern McCartney collection - and then throws them away because the band are on a one-take policy and weren't paying enough attention at rehearsals. In other words, boy does this album get off the ground - along with 'Press To Play' it has the potential to be everything McCartney needs, a winning commercial yet daring and groundbreaking album that everyone can love - which makes it oh so frustrating when it frequently crash-lands, with a clunky line, a bland melody or a nonchalant recording there.
The album this record most reminds me is of 'Wildlife', which is interesting because that record is essentially the 'hello' to this album's 'goodbye'. Back in 1972 Paul had a hell of a lot to prove, being blamed (largely unfairly) for the litigation mess The Beatles were in, trying to set up a whole new career while feeling unsure of whether it was the right thing to do and choosing to 'get back' to the earliest pre-fame days when he was in many ways happiest. 'Wildlife' is an album recorded by a band who'd never worked together before, in a makeshift studio, recording songs in a way as rough and ready as any punk rocker, while the songs themselves were ('Mumbo' and 'Bip Bop' aside) complex and intricate affairs, concerned with the way the world worked and furious at things outside the narrator's control (particularly the title track, in the running for the world's second ever environmental protest song following 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone?') 'Off The Ground' is a band who largely know each other but have never played in a studio as band before ('Flowers In The Dirt' features Hamish and Wix occasionally, plus Linda of course, but never the whole band) who too are being made to record more or less on the spot thanks to a misguided decision to use the 'Neil Young' way of working ('one take, best take' - which can work when the material demands it, but often as here ends up sounding more like 'one take, no thought'). Paul too has much to prove: he's effectively rebuilding from the ground up again after two mega world tours that made him the highest earning and one of the highest working performers again at the tender age of 51 and has to find some new motivation for doing it all again. This record too, in common with 'Wildlife', continues the trend of looking outside the usual Paul and Linda songs with frequently scathing attacks on modern day life but treats what is actually a pretty spiritual and outward looking album like it's a bunch of rockers. For the record I like 'Wildlife' a lot, often because of rather than despite its mistakes (as you'll know from my review) - though I can see why fans pour scorn on it that record's heart is in the right place and it's only a little bit of tweaking and a month in the studio away from being as loved and polished and celebrated as 'Band On The Run'. Alas I can't quite say the same here - 'Off The Ground's mistakes and masterpieces are largely equal this time around and every track is affected by some clunking mistake somewhere (although some tracks, particularly 'Winedark Open Sea', are so glorious they can cope with the howlers better than others.
Which is odd because this album ought to be fantastic. Macca's band (it is perhaps significant that he never bothered to name them in a 'Wings' type fashion despite them spending four hard years together) were at the top of their game after huge sell-out success stories, a nice rest across 1992 and new drummer Blair Cunningham (who never stayed long enough for us fans to get truly acquainted, but sounds like more of the sort of 'Joe English' empathetic drummers Macca plays with best than the harder-edged Chris Whitten. At times this band are really cooking with gas - 'I Owe It All To You' is ethereal and beautiful, 'Biker Like An Icon' and 'Looking For Changes' rock hard and 'Off The Ground' itself is, well, as uplifting as any McCartney pop song performance. Interestingly there's more piano and less guitar across this album, suggesting that Paul was moving away from using Hamish and Robbie as his main musical collaborators and further towards Wix (the only member of the band he'll re-call in future years), or perhaps that he was fed up of playing the guitar so often on tour. The more ambitious the band are on this album - the trickier the time signatures (the triple time of 'Mistress and Maid', Macca's first waltz since 'Baby's In Black' in 1964), the more elaborate the production ('I Owe It All To You'), the higher the stakes ('Winedark Open Sea', a near perfect ballad ruined only by Paul spelling out the song's structure - 'finish it now!' - to a band who clearly don't know it) the better they are, growing further and further into these songs and adding their own stylistic touches. Alas, Macca's in get-this-done-quick mode so too much of the performances get lost: 'Get Out Of My Way' is the soggiest McCartney rocker since 'Back To The Egg', 'Peace In The Neighbourhood' is a shrill vocal and clumsy drumming away from perfection and 'C'mon People' is perhaps the biggest waste of the 1990s, a gloriously promising song abandoned at the rehearsal stage because Paul seriously thought they'd 'captured' the song (the band clearly haven't - they're playing at what you might call 'half-power' during a rehearsal take to 'save' themselves for the real thing - only Macca's vocal is anywhere close to a take and even that isn't quite as good as he seems to think it is). Ironically 'Hope Of Deliverance', the one song here that deserved to be recorded quickly before the band lose the swing, sounds as if it's been pulverised to death, to the point where the band are sick of it and are no longer sure whether it sounds any good or not (it's a song that has 'hit single' etched into it, perhaps a little too clearly for its own good, but the chemistry is not in the room). Also for all Macca's attempts to sound contemporary and vibrant, live and ragged rather than polished the way he's so often criticised for sounding, the boomy drum-heavy echoey swirl of the production is more 1980s than 1990s and in the year before Oasis blew the musical cobwebs away with a return to a full-on guitar sound is hopelessly artificial sounding even though there's (thankfully) a move away from relying on synths for anything but a dash of colour. Any record would struggle to get 'off the ground' recorded in this studio in this manner in this era and it's all the more frustrating given how close elements of this record get to being where they should be (it's the musical equivalent of buying all the best ingredients for a truly sumptuous recipe, then using a clapped-out oven that's a decade behind the times, forgetting to put the timer on and turning the power off prematurely).
Before I get too mean, though, a word about what really works on this album. Not since the twin records of 'Tug Of War' and 'Pipes Of Peace' have we had such a strong and consistent theme running through a record (by contrast 'Flowers In The Dirt' was a pic-and-mix album, made up over four separate blocks of recording sessions in a range of different styles, some songs dating back years). Throughout 'Off The Ground' there's the theme of spirituality, of something deeper lying in wait just underneath the surface - and in relation to that the blinkered eyes of man whose lost in the troubles of a world largely of his own doing (a theme similar to 'Wildlife' again, but this time it's less about humans physically putting it right and more about faith in a future movement built from the pieces of this one). In essence, this is even more of a 'sixties' record than those The Beatles made way back when, returning to the idea that man has the power to change his ways and that if we 'teach our children' right they'll know what to do with the world when they grow up and become in charge of it again (which is, oddly, a theme The Beatles never did specialise in; instead the psychedelic years of 'Revolver' through to 'The White Album' nearly always balance the hope with the darkness, with an 'Eleanor Rigby' 'A Day In The Life' 'I Am The Walrus' and 'Why Don't We Do It In The Road?' for every 'Yellow Submarine' 'With A Little Help From My Friends' 'All You Need Is Love' and 'Blackbird' of their respective albums). 'Off The Ground' too struggles with darkness on occasion - unrequited love, sexism, inequality, fragmentation - but like many a 1960s record before it wishes really really hard that if enough people see life for what it really is people can't but help come to their senses and put things right. It would be hard to see 1993 as an equivalent to the summer of love and in every sense 'Off The Ground' is way out from what other artists were releasing that year (Nirvana's depressing 'In Utero', Blur's satirical 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' - whose title rather says it all - and Bjork's wonky 'Debut'). But in many ways it's unfinished business, with Paul doing exactly what he always sought to do before band breakups and Lennon's murder got in the way; in his own words 'taking a sad song' and 'making it better'. Fans could - and often did - laugh at the preposterous notion of a man who'd only just released the solemn anti-Thatcher protest single 'All My Trials' and who'd been an active campaigner for animal rights, vegetarianism, poverty and British colonialism in Ireland (quieter than but no less vocal than Lennon over a similar timeframe). But it all makes perfect sense given both Macca's naturally cheery air and the fact that he'd picked himself up from obscurity to world-wide fame several times over the course of his career. Like the early Beatles and early Wings there's a feeling that Macca is thinking in much bigger terms than just the music or even his only tiny corner of the world and that's highly welcome, for me at least (seeing so much of the world on tour must have helped - the poverty in Brazil in particular, where Macca played a memorable concert to the biggest audience any musical performer had ever seen in 1990, seems to have had a big effect on him judging by interviews). Critics often say that Paul spends more time using his head than his heart but we true fans clearly know that's not true - in many ways this album loses out precisely because he cares to much to get the words out and isn't thinking straight enough to know how to polish these songs as he so often does.
Anyway, spirituality and hope are the record's core theme with several subjects interwoven into thew record's 50 minute take on modern life. The title track tries hard to sound like an everyday catchy pop song (and Macca missed a trick by only putting this out as a single third, when everybody had already bought the album), but it's deeper than the 'la la la' chorus suggests, urging the world to overcome 'heartache' by drawing on inner strength and belief that can fly you away (it's the glorious return of the Macca optimism that's been largely missing since 'With A Little Luck' and highly welcome, suggesting the post-Lennon depressed/in denial years are wearing off). 'Looking For Changes' makes good use of all the pamphlets Greenpeace had been sending the McCartneys after their presence as 'sponsors' of the last tour (not that they paid any money, being a charity - but Macca gave them the 'space' to do what sponsors usually do on mega-tours; with banners at shows, a harrowing pre-warm up video about man's abuse of animals and space in the booklet to talk about their goals; Macca's interest has more recently switched to animal protection group PETA). However it's not just a list of wrongs like 'Wildlife' and a call to arms to stop it, but a call for a change in mankind's thinking, of 'looking for changes' in the narrow minded approach of man to his own planet. 'Hope Of Deliverance' continues the theme, a song that tries hard to get the world to singalong in the hope that if enough people join in we'll see the error of our ways and have world peace (with the hint, following on from 'Motor Of Love', that 'deliverance' will come in religious form; his recent 1991 slightly over-polished but well-meaning 'Liverpool Oratorio' - typically as far removed from the one-take power rock included here - is pretty much the first time religion cropped up on a Macca project). 'Mistress and Maid', one of two songs left over from the writing sessions with Elvis Costello, is the McCartney equivalent of Lennon's 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World' - only naturally politer and less brash, if still born of steel, an anti-sexism rant that gets by thanks to the cold efficiency of the dancing triple-time rhythm and the detachedness of the words. 'I Owe It All To You', one last great final love song to Linda during her life time (and no, the jam 'I Really Love You' doesn't count!), starts off as a re-write of 'Spirits Of Ancient Egypt' with its Egyptian metaphors and spiritual undercoats but is really a song of faith not in some deity but in love to heal all wounds, discovering that the subjects of those 'silly love songs' may be as profound as any 'Egyptian temple'. 'Biker Like An Icon' doesn't sound like it fits here - it's an edgy, modern-ish rocker about a girl who pines so much for her biker lover she follows him 'across America', but note that the un-named rebel isn't treated as a hero or a kissable lover with sexy legs but as an 'icon' - the girl loves him not because of what he's done but because of what he might do next when he just might change the world. 'Peace In The Neighbourhood' yearns to be back in the sixties, Macca wearily telling us as if he can't quite believe it himself 'I was there, I really was - at the centre of a love vibration!' The modern world clearly needs some of that spirit too, the rose petals falling off the narrator's eyes as he 'sees things as they really are - people struggling to survive, needing hope just to stay alive'. 'Golden Earth Girl', a failed attempt lyrically at creating another surrealist painting in words, is another song about Linda (though not quite a 'love' song), of how at home she seems in nature and how much she belongs there, 'watching the sunset from a mossy nest'. Note, though, how fragile this world is with planet Earth built on 'eggshell seas' that one day are going to crack as less and less people embrace nature (a McCartney theme dating back to 'Ram').
We're moving onto side two next (why are the album sides o uneven? I first owned this album on cassette and it used to drive me barmy fast-forwarding side two through ten minutes' worth of silence before I got to hear the other side!) and the same themes still apply. 'The Lovers That Never Were', another Costello collaboration, is an update of 'For No One' with a relationship that's 'lasted years' despite the fact the love ran out a long time ago. Despite Costello's wry cynicism, though (this is far more 'his' piece than Paul's or so it seems) there's a minute of pure McCartney hope: that 'as long as the tress throw down blossoms and leaves there will be a parade of unpainted dreams'. 'Get Out Of My Way', a sort of re-write of 'I've Had Enough!', sounds more 50s than 60s but note its very modern tale of the narrator shacking up with another woman when his lover leaves him cold, filling up his hope with his 'gas tank' as he bids ,melancholy 'bye bye' and 'prepares to see her now' (In context the unexpected false end, which was probably meant as a 'joke' because so many 50s rockers use the same trick, makes it sound even more as if the narrator is 'fooling' himself - that he'll never get true happiness no matter how far down this long and winding road he drives). 'Winedark Open Sea' sounds as if it should be a dark and brooding song - instead it's a classic McCartney ballad about how love is the 'fuel' that drives our lives onward and helps us navigate life's treacherous waters (I tale it back - is this the last love song for Linda?) 'C'mon People' is an urgent call-to-arms that Lennon would have been proud of Paul for at least trying, clearly intended as a 'reply' to 'Give Peace A Chance' (it even uses similar chords), urging the world that despite the doom and gloom of what we're doing to our planet and ourselves that we 'do' have a future ('and it's charrrrrrrging in!', a last minute substitute for the original line 'rushing'). After that, following a short gap (this is one of the earliest records I owned to do this - I genuinely thought it was a mistake at first) comes an unbilled 'secret' track that tries to tie the whole thing together: 'Cosmically Conscious', a White Album era song Paul had felt fitted with the album's textures and recorded for the first time (though not much of a song it's still so clearly superior to fellow throwaways like 'Honey Pie' and, err, 'Wild Honey Pie' that it seems odd it didn't make it to a record that The Beatles were eagerly making as lengthy as they could to get their measly contract to EMI out of the way quicker).
Not co-incidentally, 'Off The Ground' also 'sounds' a very 'sixties' record - and not the artificial this-is-how-we-used-to-do-it-kids 'Sixties' of 'Flaming Awful Pie' (where the decade is an amusement park or a holiday destination rather than a real embodied 'feeling') but a real attempt to re-capture the spirit of the era. Paul seems to have taken care to make sure that 'Cosmically Conscious' sounds as much like a 60s recording as possible with its sitars, gulping bass lines and spacey sound effects pushing the Abbey Road staff into hyperdrive. However that's far from the only song that uses the same trick and in many ways you can trace the 'evolution' of The Beatles across these recordings: 'Get Out Of My Way' is pure 'Please Please Me' fire and attitude, however the recording turned out. 'Off The Ground' is sophisticated 1964 pop song. 'Hope Of Deliverance' is the early stirrings of psychedelia played on 'Rubber Soul' style Western-inversions of foreign instruments, complete with phasing. 'Peace In The Neighbourhood' is 'Revolver', switching from monochrome starkness to an inescapable 'other' thanks to sound effects and 'alien' lyrics. 'I Owe It All To You' is pure 1967 psychedelia - though more 'Magical Mystery Tour' perhaps than 'Sgt Peppers', weird and ethereal. 'Winedark Open Sea' sails ever so close to the melody of 'Hey Jude' at times and sounds like 'The White Album' at times too in its simple performances of complex thoughts. And finally 'C'mon People' sounds like 'Abbey Road', a final anthem that tries hard to leave a final message without being too gloomy about it (the false ending before 'Cosmically Conscious' comes in some thirty seconds later even recalls 'Her Majesty' popping up after 'The End'). Yes the production pushes the album closer towards a late 1980s feel, but in many ways this is the most sixties of the records Paul has made since the band split, not just because of the 'message' but the textures of this album, whose sonic landscape includes several textures not heard since those days (allegedly there's a sitar on the title track of 'Tug Of War' but I can't hear it and there's a still unreleased Wings outtake called 'Tragedy' that uses one, but those aside this is the first released McCartney recording to audibly feature the instrument The Beatles introduced to the Western World since 1968!)
That influence may have come not just from Paul himself but from writing partner Elvis Costello (again credited under his real surname MacManus). Hanging around a Big Beatles fan is always going to do something to your sound, although that may have been through songwriting chats rather than the songs that made the album (both 'Mistress and Maid' and 'The Lovers That Never Were' are the least 'Beatley' things here). We said on 'Flowers In The Dirt' that it was a crying shame the two writers didn't work together more and for longer - even more than the mixed bag on 'Flowers In The Dirt' (which included one of the best songs on the album in 'My Brave Face' and one of the worst songs in 'You Want Her Too', with mixed results for 'Don't Be Careless, Love' and 'That Day Is Done') the two collaborations push McCartney's natural sound further than it has been pushed in ever such a long time. Costello's acerbic nature as well as his glasses pointed many fans in the direction of crowning him a new 'Lennon', but actually the bootlegs of the writing sessions reveal that a lot more of the 'harsher' ideas on these songs come from Paul not Elvis. Given the freedom to push himself before the anonymous 'Fireman' project came to him, this is Paul indulging in his darker side safe in the knowledge that fans will credit all this stuff to his writing partner anyway. It's a real shame Macca didn't continue the tradition on when touring commitments and a slight disagreement over the recording on 'Flowers In The Dirt' (Costello wisely stayed away this album and let McCartney do with the songs what he liked) got in the pair's way because they really sound as if they're onto something here. Yes like the rest of this album there's a clunky line too many in both songs, but each goes somewhere Macca hasn't been for ever such a long time. 'Mistress and Maid' is a story-song that, like that rich 1966 songwriting seam that resulted in 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'For No One', writes so much in between the lines, portraying a sad and heartbreaking tale of an unequal partnership in just a few sighs and much-fondled memories. 'The Lovers That Never Were' returns to the theme, a melody line that dances round the main riff without ever quite getting there until a sudden explosion into the chorus out of nowhere that matches the lyrics skirting round the unexpressed love the old-time lovers can't express anymore. Though many rightly praised Elvis for collaborating on two of the most mature McCartney songs in years (however badly both were messed up on recording day), these are clearly an older man's words, fleshed out and strengthened but probably not initiated by the younger songwriter). Three great songs and two not bad ones out of a six song partnership is statistically a better return than Paul ever got with Denny Laine (under-rated giant of a talent as he is), Eric Stewart (they're all really really good songs but there's only one true classic in 'Footprints') or even Lennon (have you heard 'Across The Universe' recently?!), so it's a real shame the partnership wasn't taken up any further: it would have been fascinating to see where they ,might have gone next and you can bet your Beatles dollar it wouldn't have been the pastiching straightjacket of 'Flaming Pie'.
So is 'Off The Ground' worth your while? My heart says yes even whilst my head says no. I really struggle to recommend to you an album that makes me cringe like clockwork every few minutes (in turn the banal chorus 'off the ground, off the ground, fly around fly around, hear the sound...'; the verse in 'Looking For Changes' about the monkey 'learning to cough; rhymed with 'bastard laughed his head off' which as well as being unintentionally comical doesn't even scan; the woeful whoops and cries designed to inject life into the worked-into-the-ground 'Hope Of Deliverance'; the off-handed squawk with which 'Mistress and Maid' hands 'him his usual drink-aaaaah!'; the over-written line in 'I Owe It All To You' about 'listening to the sea bird song of joy'; whole great realms of the lyric for 'Biker Like An Icon' (why is she 'slowly watching precious water slip away' anyway?); the shrill vocal and the weird pronunciation of 'seethingsastheyrealllyarrrrrrre' plus the daft dum-dum riff on 'Peace In The Neighbourhood'; the entire lyric of 'Golden Earth Girl' especially 'eggshell finish'; the one weak line in 'The Lovers That Never Were' just as we think the writing has gone up a gear: 'As long as the sun shines in somebody's eyes, I believe in ya baby so don't tell me lies!'; the whole stupid crash bang whallop scenario in 'Get Out Of My Way' which even a strong chorus can't restore; the rhyme of 'breeze' and 'seas' in 'Winedark Open Sea' and the horribly arch 'finish it now!' instruction going into the last riff; the rhyme of 'ancient shrine' and 'this time' on a lacklustre reading of what should be a sensational song 'C'mon People'. Only 'Cosmically Conscious' gets it right the whole way through - well sort of seeing as this is an edited version of the four minute B-side take - and then you sense it's because it only has three lines!) and yet for all that there's enough here that works to make it worth your while putting up with the odd grimace and falling in love with what Paul was really trying to do. A spiritual ecological parable that harked back to sixties values and yet remained modern and adventurous in subject matters of loveless marriages and sexism is exactly what McCartney needed to cement his reputation as one of the greats and song for song, mistakes ignored for the moment, 'Off The Ground' is actually a much stronger and consistent album song-for-song than even 'Flowers In The Dirt'. Only 'Hope Of Deliverance' and 'Get Out Of My Way' are far wide of the mark and even they both score bonus points which recorded in a different way might yet have come off. The problem doesn't lie with the band either, who are clearly trying hard, or with co-producer Julian Mendlesohn (who doesn't do anything 'wrong' as such - it's hard to say 'no' to an ex-Beatle in any case - even if there's nothing much he gets right). It's just that these songs arguably need a final re-write to make them truly sparkle and they most certainly need to be recorded after a lot of careful thought, preparation and love - not restricted to a one-take-unless-something-goes-badly-wrong policy designed to make this record quick and easy. 'Off The Ground', a record that - more than most McCartney projects - is concerned with the long-term and how things will look in the long-term really really deserved better than to have been thrown away the way it was. Rant over. Eggshell finish.
One last point before we move on though: Paul often struggled with album titles and found this one a problem more than most. It took son James (then sixteen) to listen to the demo tapes and point out to his dad that a planned 'B-side' named 'Off The Ground' would make a good title for the record and a good basis for an album cover (as well as a fine opening track). Not for the first or last time, his dad just hadn't seen the obvious but the title is a fine one, an 'up' that was about as far away from the 'down' of 'Flowers In The Dirt' as it was possible to get action-wise and led to much fun with the band getting their socks off on the album cover and tie-in title track music video (sadly not aired much as after the poor showing for both album and first single 'Hope Of Deliverance' most places round the world- though a surprise #1 hit in Germany - EMI simply weren't up for taking the risk of paying for promotion). They are, seen left to right, the legs of Robbie, Paul, Linda (husband and wife switched over late on, confusingly, to the surprise of many who thought Paul had more feminine legs than they remembered on some wider shots of the cover), Blair, Wix and Hamish. So there you are - bet you were dying to know!
'Off The Ground' is, like so much of this album, 90% of the way there. There's a catchy riff, a nice driving guitar part from Robbie McIntosh, one of those effervescently catchy McCartney tunes and one of the greatest use of handclaps since 'I Saw Her Standing There'. Note too the amazingly Wings-like harmonies, with Linda on full soar and Hamish sounding at his most Denny Laine-ish. And yet this song doesn't quite hit the spot due to a rather flimsy chorus ('fa la la la la la la la' indeed), a curious mix that dips Macca's vocal way under the drums (he's clearly been listening a little too closely to the Rolling Stones monstrosity mixes of the period) and a rather haphazard performance where nothing is quite where it should be. As a catchy nonsense pop song though this shows promise, with an opening verse that sings about 'heartbreak' and 'a ton of pressure', before cheekily saying that the narrator doesn't want to hear about it ('answer only if the answer's no!') - he's more interested in helping his loved one escape her problems than find out what they are. A cleverly ascending melody than tries to do exactly what the words say, reaching higher and higher in their attempt to get off the ground' before hitting the pure sunshine magic of the peak in the chorus ('hear the sound!' Macca cries before the song gradually falls back down the chords again, this time on a comfy duvet of sparkling bells). The second and last verse (this song could really have done more) is worthy too: perhaps with his old partner Lennon's 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night' in mind Macca comes across all zen and Yoko-like, telling us that 'though it takes a lot of power to make a big tree grow, it doesn't need a pot of knowledge for a seed to know what a seed must know'. So far so good, but a song needing to deliver such a powerful transition needs a better place to do it than 'off the ground, fly around, fa la la la la la', which just appears trite set against so much good work. Still, there's promise in this song and a typically dense McCartney production (perhaps the most complex on the album, despite the levity of the song) teases out many of the nuances hidden in the track. A different chorus, an extra verse and a few extra takes and this really could have been a winner - it really wouldn't take a lot more to get this off the ground in fact. Sadly an idea planned in rehearsal was dropped for recording despite working rather well, Macca going off on a sort of proto-rap at the end over an extended run of the song's central riff that just keeps on coming (and which is better heard than that sentence makes it sound!)
'Looking For Changes' is the kind of song that messes so much up that you're slightly embarrassed to hear it - and yet the idea is so strong that you have to applaud anyway. Despite his reputation as a vegetarian do-gooder lecturing on planet saving, as so many of his critics would have it, Macca's actually been surprisingly reluctant to write about his passion for conservation in song. This is only his second song on the theme (assuming for the moment that 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' really is a nursery rhyme for then-toddler daughter Mary and not a protest song in disguise) and it's notably moved from the slow realising horror of 'Wildlife' ('What have we done?') to burning anger: how dare we still be doing this so many years of thinking ourselves civilised? Yes the song messes up badly in both verses and choruses, throwing out the phrase 'do you know what I mean?' as if the narrator was casually asking a 17-year-old out for a dance or something before painting portraits of animal cruelty that, for those who don't have compassion for our 'fellow creatures' (the very audience Macca is addressing) are more likely to sound comedic rather than treacherous and belittling. At the same time though so much of this song gets things right: this isn't a pretty song, it's an ugly song with some terrific screaming guitar work by a nearly on-it band (only the bass and drums sound a little rigid) where Macca's anger comes across nicely. The stepping stones from the end of the chorus which go from 'and we will learn how to grow...' only to be cut off by a snarling guitar solo in the first two verse (only to finally relax and find some form of comfort in the final verse which rests on an acoustic guitar break) is McCartney magic. Sadly, horribly, unforgivably, all the situations depicted in the verses are true too, delivered with journalistic integrity rather than added effect, Macca's passion shining through only in his demented 'the bastard laughed his head off' pay-off line to the monkey smoking cigarettes. Though presumably the experiments in each verse take place in the name of animal research to supposedly make human lives better, Macca isn't fooled: this isn't animal in the service of man, but man proving what a bigger animal he is, sticking machines in the brains of cats, making rabbits cry from eye-make up and giving monkeys the bad habits of a cigarette addict. Though Macca calls for 'changes in the way we treat our fellow creatures' before we can 'learn to grow', what he really wants to see is man being less of a greedy self-serving animal and more of, well, a man. By the end of the song, clumsy mistakes and all (the half-rhyme of 'changes' and 'creatures' is off-putting every time we hear it) you're cheering Macca on as he tells the animal kingdom without a voice that 'he'd like to see that man take that machine and stick it in his own brain' - then he might see some sense! An interesting companion piece to 'Cow', partner Linda's similarly lurid song about a bovine going merrily on its way to the slaughter-yard co-written with Carla Lane about this time but left unreleased till Linda Macca's posthumous and rather good compilation 'Wide Prairie'.
There's a good song in 'Hope Of Deliverance' too, but while you hope that deliverance will come in the song's insipid arrangement and performance it never quite arrives. I have a theory about charity songs (and this is like a charity song without directly raising money for anyone) that they need to be better written than any other genre in order to avoid cliche and actually make an impact rather than making us close off our ears and simply reach for our pockets - but so many writers take them as the easy way out, that as long as they sell the music doesn't matter because 'bigger' concerns are at work. 'Deliverance' is a nice song about wanting peace, of an end to the 'darkness that surrounds us' in modern life, and had it been released in the 1960s period it so knowingly invokes when this sort of thing was new it may well have been influential. But 'Deliverance' is one of those songs we recognise from the opening bar - its the second song on the album in three tracks to use the songwriting device of reaching upwards chord by chord, features a calypso/reggae jaunt that's meant to invoke other cultures (although the deep chanting voices that are made to sound like African tribesman are the true mistake on the arrangement) and the lyrics end up in quagmire of repetition easy to second-guess and easier still to take the mickey out of ('I will understand someday, one day...I wouldn't mind knowing that you wouldn't mind going along with my plan...'. There's also something horribly artificial about the performance which nobody in the room seems to believe in - not the percussion players asked to suddenly sound Jamaican, not the twin acoustic guitar strummers who have to keep stopping and starting, not the almost patronising Motown walking bass, nor the bored sounding backing singers or even Macca's lead itself which starts out serious and ends up an embarrassing call of party noises, whoops and whistles. Despite all that, there is a good song in there: the sudden injection of tension in the 'when it will be right? I don't know' chorus recalls the clever trick used on this composition's sister song 'Pipes Of Peace' and is really ear-catching while the 'Things We Said Today' style twin acoustic guitar solo is an excellent new addition to the McCartney box of textures and a clever way of getting from A to B. The trouble is, though, Macca sounds as if he's thought up a great idea and then left the rest of the song to block in later, then turning to the band with an unfinished song and expecting them to sound as magical and enthusiastic after several takes. The song may hope for deliverance on many levels, but the band in the studio sound secretly doubtful that it will ever come. Released as a much-anticipated single with a whole host of publicity, the song stalled at #28 in the UK charts - better than most of the superior singles on 'Flowers In The Dirt' to be fair, but still something of a disappointment. Though catchy there's just nothing here different or exciting enough for audiences to latch on to, a problem pretending it's a solution without being able to offer both like the superior 'Pipes Of Peace' did.
'Mistress and Maid', though, breaks more boundaries in one casual stride than that song could ever dream of. An uncomfortable waltz that hops from foot to foot thanks to the waltz time (which makes it sound not just like 'Baby's In Black' but a Beach Boys record, Brian Wilson being obsessed with waltzes in the late 1960s), this is a clever song that really benefits from Elvis Costello's usual love of breaking rules. However its Macca's sheer musicality that makes this song about an abused, frustrated wife work - she doesn't just hate his guts, wanting to 'shout at the back of his head 'look at me look at me now that I am afraid!' she secretly loves him too, debating back and forth whether to tell him to his face or bite her tongue for hope that things will get better. The chorus rises in a lovely froth of indignation, though, as the incidents keep piling up until a calm second verse drawn with Dickens-style 'serious humour': 'The wine is warm, but the dinner is cold', with her not caring and him not sharing, too wrapped up in what sounds like a playboy magazine where 'the girls on the page come to life'. Macca's songs are usually full of pathos and believable sympathetic characters but most of them tend to be in charge - not till Linda's sad death in 1998 will his narrators begin to sound as trapped and suffocating regularly as they do here. A clever song that comes close to telling a whole novel through just the music and a few scant lines (second-best after the 'in denial' lyrics of 'My Brave Face' that only give way at the end) this is a highly under-rated experiment that really shows what not just Costello but McCartney can deliver when pushed and how well some of his chances can come off. Only another rather leaden performance (triple time is notoriously hard to play with lots of rehearsal time - it must have been a struggle played as-live) gets in the way of a great song but even that shows more careful planning than most songs on this album: the way the song starts off quietly mid-song on the words 'she said' (recalling a similarly turbulent Lennon classic from 'Revolver' which Beatle fan Elvis may well have mentioned as a 'starting point' and the fact that she never gets listened to when she says anything), the sudden carnival waltz as he passes out drunk (which recalls an evil 'Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite') and some subtle horn parts. Superb.
'I Owe It All To You' is a shimmering, glimmering ballad that starts off with a hazy mellotron solo that recalls the opening to 'Strawberry Fields Forever'. Thereafter though the song gets a dose of sensible, turning into a strident power pop song - it's the lyrics that get surreal, the narrator taking a journey either into the spirit world or within his own head which take in 'walls of stone' 'Egyptian temples' 'eternal gardens' and 'exotic islands' before leaving him back in the real world again, certain he's found the 'answer'. Macca may have been having an acid flashback (not least because drugs had become such a big part of popular and music culture again in the years since releasing his last album, though acid was more powerful and more potent than most of what McCartney had been taking across his adult life) and this recalls his famous first (and much delayed) acid trip of 1966 when he got roadie Mal Evans to follow him around with a notebook declaring his many visions (the only bit of which that could be understood the next sober meaning read 'there are seven levels'). This time round, though, Macca knows what the 'message' was and it's the same as in most of his other songs - the message is to love each other and that he owes all his success to Linda (or, alternately, to 'God' if that's your interpretation). As if to emphasise the fact that we're back on solid ground the chorus of this song is one of the most template Macca moments across his career, a swelling buzzing one-note-hugging triumph of a chorus that sounds like its being broken down to the basics of speech and trying to use all the vowels ('Oh I Owe It All To You' becoming 'O I O I A O U'). Yes the idea gets seriously messed up in the second verse (we're back to 'Venus and Mars', stuck inside another confusing Egyptian world of 'giant screens' 'glass cathedrals' and 'lakes of holy water' where we don't quite know what's going on) and even the first verse loses its mystery with the sixth-form-poetry line 'Distant islands listening to the sea bird's song of joy' (I've heard seagulls cawing too and they don't sound like that!') However most of this song is an excellent attempt to go somewhere new and still make it sound identifiably like a McCartney song, a sweeping exotic world where listeners never quite know what's coming next - a safe landing or a sudden flight back into the realms of the exotic. A trippy psychedelic song of which Lennon would have been proud, it's journey through dark shadows and into sun shine makes it perhaps the single most Beatles-like McCartney song since the 1970s.
'Biker Like An Icon' is also an experiment, but one that this time doesn't quite work. A novelty comedy song treated with pure sincerity, the song ends up not quite satisfying either aspect. Macca's humour is something fans have come to love or hate down the years with many a debate as to whether songs like Rocky Raccoon (dreadful!), Famous Groupies (hilarious!) or 'Rupert and the Frog Song' (has its moments!) are the greatest things since David Gates sliced Bread or a painful reminder that Beatles are only ever funny at press conferences. This song is slightly different though because the cheeky charm of the other songs make it clear they're being played for laughs - but with this song we don't know. The band don't seem to have been told this is a 'silly' song, turning in a taut performance that's about as good as they get on this album, especially Robbie and Hamish's guitar stings, set up neatly by Macca's strummed acoustic and Wix's retro Jerry Lee Lewis piano riffs. Macca's vocal too ends up getting very into the song, hollering out the final chorus with the drama of old. The fact that this is a rare 'silly love song' that doesn't work out also suggests this is a tragedy one giggle away from being a comedy. But how can we take this song seriously? The girl lovers her 'biker like an icon', we find out infamously that 'the biker didn't like her' and there's the 'Sally G' style denouement that 'no trace of her sweet face was ever found', Macca even drifting into his cod-Nashville accent for the line. Just compare this song back to back with virtually an identical story on 'She's Leaving Home' (in which Macca sides with everybody - the runaway teenage daughter, the inconsolable not-that-strict-really parents and the motorbike fiance in turn) and you'll see what's wrong - we don't understand the motivations for any of these characters, much less sympathise with them. Why does the girl run off after the biker? Is he handsome? Did her stop a bunch of bullies laughing at her? Does he represent a cause she believed in? Is she so trapped in her own life that she'll run off with anyone? A verse finding out these things would have made this a very worthy song - but instead we get jokey rhymes and a curious bit of unwanted plot detail that she's 'slowly watching precious water drip away' (is she by a sink or a river?) Note, though, the one great aspect of this song - this is another strong and active female character fully in charge of the song, which while Macca is far from the most sexist writer in popular music (see ':Lady Madonna' and 'Another Day' especially to see why Paul was more of a 'feminist' than John and that Linda changed his way of thinking at least as much as Yoko did his partner's) is nevertheless another welcome breakthrough.
The sweet tones of 'Peace In The Neighbourhood' sound at first as if we're in the big band jazz era, with a crooning Macca vocal and a laidback 'dance' between the players who drift around the song's parts Grateful Dead style before coming together for a 'dum dum' rock beat. However this song is pure 1960s: there's a 'feeling in the air' and 'something definitely was there' (Thunderclap Newman felt 'something' in the air' too remember) and Macca was once 'at the centre of a love vibration' he hoped would last forever ('good good good, good vibrations!') A fascinating song because it involves Paul confronting his past head on for pretty much the first time (a theme that's become stronger and stronger the older he gets) and note-perfect for the early 1990s (which were so desperate to turn away from the cold eighties that they clung to the polar opposite and decided the warm sixties were a good alternative after all, with CD re-issues helping make those albums widely available all over again - this is why Oasis were so right for the times the year after this album's release), 'Peace In The Neighbourhood' somehow manages to be memorable despite not actually doing that much. The only tension comes from a sudden switch in the middle eight where Macca 'woke up from my dream to see things as they really are, people struggling to survive...', but even this isn't a revelation so much as a weary sigh that puts Paul right back into remembering his 'happy place' - it's as if he's already tried to solve the world's problems once he's not going to try to again! He'd already been beaten to the idea by George Harrison too, whose 1979 song 'Soft Hearted Hana' is structured very much like this, complete with chattering voices, only George's natural cynicism means that the song's reflection about the 60s dream is revealed to be an 'illusion' at the end of the song when the drugs kick in and the song starts playing at the wrong speed; there's no similar revelation here: this song is just a celebration. This could have been so simplistic and silly but it gets by thanks to a heartfelt vocal, one of the better band performances on the record and a very pretty melody that manages to twist the knife subtly as the song gets heavier. The block harmonies on the 'peace in the neighbourhood, helping each other out' line (so similar to The Monkees' 'Daydream Believer') are also sumptuous, Macca extending them into a delightful skyward lift during a nicely extended finale that's terribly 1960s, not in a 'theme-park Merseybeat' type way but in a genuine attempt to re-capture the spirit and feeling of the era.
Next, 'Golden Earth Girl', one of those songs that changes every time I hear it so that I still can't decide if it's an album highlight or lowlight (heck, make that career highlight or lowlight). That's somehow fitting for a song about an ethereal beauty who cannot be tied down by man-made invention or summed up in words. In stark contrast to 'Looking For Changes' this is a song that suggests that man and animal aren't that far apart and is clearly based around Linda, more at home with animals than with her 'own kind' and imagined here by Paul as some sort of nature spirit, 'watching the sunset from a mossy nest...'. The melody is truly beautiful, especially the first verse, which serves merely as a 'warm-up' for the song proper complete with drum rolls and atmospherics, sounding part nursery-rhyme, part symphony. No wonder that Macca chose this as one of his songs to re-make for his 'Working Classical' album, even if that horribly stilted arrangement doesn't have anything like the power of the sudden swell of violins in the middle of this song. But oh my word this song messes up badly. Lyrically Paul is clearly trying to invoke the sort of clipped 'ugh' sentences of cavemen - reducing mankind back to his primitive basics as if to prove that he really is animal after all. However the rest of the song is so determined to make mankind's acceptance of his natural surroundings a mystical and wise experience that its the equivalent of trying to fit the lyric for 'A Day In The Life' into the music for 'Blue Suede Shoes': the two may be great in their own right but they really don't belong together. Not that the lyric is that great: haunting as some of the images are, the idea of the beauty 'counting fish in a sunbeam, in eggshell seas' is kindergarten level. The curious ending to each chorus of 'eggshell finish' may also be the single biggest mistake on album full of mistakes: what does it mean? It's clunky, manmade, awkward, ugly - a million miles away from the fragility and ambiguity of the rest of the song. Macca admits that he quite often 'blocks out' his melodic ideas with words that he intends to change, before realising that some of them end up 'saying' more than any seriously considered line ever could ('the movement you need is on your shoulder' line from 'Hey Jude' is such a phrase). This is one blocked out phrase he really desperately needed to change, the egg shell in this delicate and fragile beauty that was attacked by hammer and chisel. It's the equivalent of finding out that the Golden Earth Girl got her tan from a salon or that the sunset she's busy watching is man-made smog.
'The Lovers That Never Were' is the final collaboration with Elvis Costello. Demo tapes of the pair making this song reveal real chemistry in the air, both singers singing in ragged unison and chuckling with glee at the wild ride the song has taken them on. Even more than the rest of the album, though, the magic isn't there in the album re-recording which turns another promising experiment into another plodding song that the band haven't quite got to know yet. Macca was clearly having second thoughts being so far away from his comfort zone, but he shouldn't have done - this is a great, powerful song that again merges the best of both writers. The narrator is a lonely, anti-social man who only interacts with the world thanks to his love for his wife of many years - telling us that is he lived alone he'd be 'all alone, locked in a photograph' like a Sapphire and Steel story. But the relationship is not your typical one - 'we'll be lovers and never just friends' the narrator sighs longing for her to demonstrate a bit of emotion to him, with age decaying their relationship to the point where she has become too much like him with the narrator now urging her out of her malaise ('You know how much it's going to hurt if you still refuse to get your hands dirty'). Even the golden healing power of a template McCartney power pop chorus about faith that we can still work it out can only put things right for a while - this is a world where 'the clocks have run down', where his fiance is 'playing a game' that means he never knows where he stands with her' and how he came so close to happiness but never found it, the lovers that so nearly but never actually were. What should be a real song of mystery though is performed as if it's an everyday song, with Macca's detached narrator with so much under the surface undone by his OTT vocal adding false emotion into the song - it's the equivalent of an avant garde film like 'Magical Mystery Tour' being done like a Hollywood blockbuster (i.e. missing the whole point). Still, even the performance has some sensational drumming from Blair Cunningham - or at least I assume its him (so similar is it in style to Macca's own playing he may have done more here than just help him), the musical equivalent of banging the narrator's heads together and making them embrace each other.
By contrast 'Get Out Of My Way' features a lively performance that almost salvages easily the weakest song on the record. A nonsense car-driving song looking forward to good times ahead, it seems to be the curse of every single AAA band that they have to write one of these songs - and they're nearly always the worst tracks on the record (see The Beach Boys' 'In My Car', David Crosby's 'Drive My Car', The Kinks' 'Somebody Stole My Car', The Rolling Stones' 'Keys To The Car' etc etc). You know the sort of thing - the narrator's got a 'full tank of gas', has a 'long long ride' to a 'real fine woman' and is 'heading to see her now'. The interest comes from what isn't said - he's a lover 'again', suggesting something has gone wrong with his old lover and the spiteful 'get out of my way, get out of my life' chorus suggests that something has gone badly wrong there. But as with so much of that album we only get a taste of the more interesting song and the vast majority of this lyric is more concerned with boring lyrics about driving. A curious false ending - presumably here because its the sort of corny trick heard so often on retro 50s songs like that the band are spoofing - more than anything puts the dampeners on this song's wild exuberance, however, perhaps hinting that the narrator's just going to keep doing this with new women and new car journeys every time something in his life goes wrong. Thankfully there are three aspects to this song that raise it out of it status as the weakest track on the album: a punchy McCartney vocal, genuinely in the pocket this time, a sterling guitar solo from Robbie finding his inner demented 50s rocker and a sparkling horn part that gives this song a 'Venus and Mars/Speed Of Sound' flavour. It's just a shame that this much energy couldn't be found for the rest of the album, on songs more than deserving than this.
Thankfully five minutes of almost-pure bliss are up next with 'Winedark Open Sea', my favourite song on the album and a true unheralded beauty in the McCartney catalogue. A song not so much about a loved one as loving falling in love, it's a gorgeous hymn to how having love in your life makes the harder parts of living so much more negotiable. It's a cold, black, dark, uninviting life on which we sail, the song seems to be saying, but it needn't be a lonely life, the narrator reflecting on how 'I feel love for you, spreading through my body'. The song may only have two verses - and a lot of the lines in those are repeated - but it says enough and is nicely ambiguous without any clunky mistakes, which automatically places it higher than 'Golden Earth Girl'. It's the melody though that makes this one a classic - a shimmering, hazy song that like the lyrics has so much going on under the surface (a ragged Rolling Stones-style guitar riff and frantic acoustic guitar playing), but it all sounds peaceful thanks to being wrapped in some gorgeous synth playing from Wix (perhaps his greatest moment on a McCartney album). Note that this is the second song to include a 'false ending', adding nearly a full two minutes to the track, although this one makes even less sense - were the band simply having too much fun to stop? Peaceful and serene, with a real sense of calm and beauty and yet as tough as old boots at the same time, this shows what an instinctive writer McCartney can be at his best, piecing together a song from such small parts and yet making it soar. If only he'd given the band a bit longer to truly nail this song (even if his vocal is right on the money again, especially his blues hollering on the last verse in contrast to his calm demeanour everywhere else) and hadn't resorted to the embarrassing instruction 'finish it now!' that breaks up the mood then this might have been in the McCartney top ten; as it is it's still easily the best McCartney song of the decade (not that it has an awful lot of competition!)
The album ends with the rousing community-spirited song 'C'mon People', another promising song let down by a weak performance (this one didn't even make it to a 'proper' take - this is the rehearsal, which is why the band are so sluggish). Sounding very Lennon-like, Macca tried to rouse the world out of its stupor to put things right - but only McCartney would face a modern dilemma with lines about 'calling all the minstrels from their ancient tribes'. The trouble is that this is such a vague song that it doesn't quite know what it wants, calling for the very 60s ambiguity of 'fun' as well as embracing 'what never has been done before'. By and large the song just about gets by thanks to a verse that makes it clear that this is a hope not a promise and a thought not a lecture, Macca never more appealing than admitting, again Lennon style, to 'making a few mistakes' and the song builds nicely up the mid-point, a ropey performance not withstanding. However the song then becomes too heavy, with an extra urgent repeat of the nonsensical chorus ('Oh yeah! Oh yeah!', ripped straight from the opening of 'I want To Hold Your Hand') and a heavy orchestra. This well meaning but rather simplistic track just isn't strong enough to carry it, especially the sudden uncomfortable plunge downwards in the solo in the middle, and the song all but collapses under its own weight. The 'doo doo doo doo doo doo doo' riff also quickly gets annoying, even though I think I know what its trying to do (be the cheery pied piper leading on this heavy mass of weight onwards to a new exciting dawn, Macca's whistling of it carrying on even after the song has crash-landed). However there's one moment of magic when Macca builds to a peak finish and roars the word 'charrrrrrging' in with such commitment it seems to take everyone else by surprise (it's probably this bit he was so desperate to keep which is why the band never did another take). However for the most part 'C'mon People' is too shallow to be the profound singalong it thinks it is and too slight to rest the weight of the world on its shoulders. It was the source of a clever video, though, where a piano is built around Paul as he plays and was directed by Kevin Godley of fellow AAA band 10cc. With this to promote it this song deserved better than to miss the charts completely when heard as a single.
The album then ends with 'Cosmically Conscious' - or part of it at least. A full four minute version was released later as the flipside to the 'Off The Ground' single and ends with another unreleased songs from the 'Let It Be' period ('Take Me Down To The River') in place of the fade. The bit you can hear on the record, hidden away as a 'bonus track', is actually the part from the middle to about thirty seconds before the end/.Originally the song had a much punchier, rhythmical feel before kicking in with a power-pop version of the main riff. What we get on 'Off The Ground' is the 'psychedelic bit', as this 1968 leftover is greeted with an influx of pan pipes, flutes, sitars and a dip in the Abbey Road Studios effects box. A slurred bit of McCartney speech played backwards ('Plenty bad man!' or words to that effect) can also be heard low in the mix, but it's the sudden rush of adrenalin as the song kicks in again complete with phased vocal that make this such a convincing return to the 1960s. While the song is twee as it stands (The full lines are 'Got to be cosmically conscious, cosmically conscious with me, such a joy-joy such a joy-joy...' repeated over and over again) its full of that late 60s magic where everything The Beatles touched turned to gold, no matter how badly thought out. On any other album it would sound out of place, but McCartney has clearly dug the song out precisely because it reminds him of the rest of 'Off The Ground' - it captures the same psychedelic experimental feel, the 1960s verve that anything is possible and the thought that mankind has the power to change. It's a fitting finale to an album that offers more of a 'release' and one heck of a lot more hope than 'C'mon People' managed to conjure up and is a welcome addition to the album (though hearing the whole song, as you can on the poorly selling single, makes even more sense of this curious track).
Overall, then, 'Off The Ground' got a lot closer to success than a lot of fans and reviewers have cared to admit over the years. The record is full of exquisite traditional McCartney ballads and contains a few real strides forward into uncharted territory. For those reasons alone I feel I ought to be giving it an A-star, and yet its true that as a whole this record is less convincing than many on the McCartney songbook, with better songs and yet far more mistakes than on predecessor 'Flowers In The Dirt'. It's hard to get excited about this album, even though it has many exciting things on it, with the lumpiness of the recording and production sitting in great contrast to the nice album theme of hope and belief and that if man wants to continue living on this planet he has to look after it now. Even if it never quite reaches the great heights of the past, though, certain parts of this album do indeed launch you far off the ground and into that exciting magical world only McCartney can take you to. sadly the flight is going to be almost all downhill from here...