Monday, 28 March 2016
Paul McCartney and Bands: Live/Solo/Compilation/Classical Albums Part Three: 1997-2015
(EMI/Parlophone, October 6th 1997)
Movement I (After Heavy Light Years)/Movement II (He Awoke Startled)/Movement II (Subtle Colours Merged Soft Contours)/Movement IV (Strings Pluck, Horns Blow, Drums Beat)
"Love is the oldest secret in the universe, warm as the sun"
'Standing Stone' is more what fans were expecting when they heard McCartney was turning his hand to classical writing - a lighter, less dense piece that's strong on melody and bursting with ideas. Unlike the 'Oratorio' it has the 'feel' of a McCartney release about it somehow (the urgency in the faster sections, the gossamer light melodies that sound as if they've been around forever and the inventive mixture of clashing styles) and is many pop fans' favourite of McCartney's classical releases for that reason, even if again it suffers from several ordinary passages in between the moments of inspiration (again, not unlike some McCartney pop albums...) The piece also has stronger Beatle ties than even the Liverpool setting of the Oratorio, having been commissioned by Richard Lyttleton to mark EMI's 100th birthday (though the company had only started recording musicians itself in 1931, when Anney Road Stduios opened, it had started life as 'The Gramophone Company' who distributed records made by others across the United Kingdom). 'Standing Stone' is the perfect piece for that occasion: the writer who'd sold more records on the label than anyone, delving into the sort of early 20th century classical recordings that had kick-started EMI's history (with shades of Elgar, who recorded music at Abbey Road, and Vaughan Williams, whose early recordings were distributed by the label).
However the main story around which the work was based is set even earlier. The McCartneys had long been interested in their celtic heritage and the part that nature played in early civilisations and you can hear early stirrings of the primeval soup of this record on such unlikely records as 'Wildlife' and Linda's song 'Apaloosa'. This time, though, he went back even further, with a potted 'history' of civlisation as told through music, with a piece that starts off simple and open (with single notes and lots of tribal drumming) and gradually gets more and more complex until reaching a peak with the finale 'Celebration', which puts to good use a charming melody that had been running through Mccartney's head without a home for years (the piece was even turned into a 'song' in its own right, with lyrics added at a later date). The image of the 'Standing Stone', man's earliest attempt to get his throguhts down on something 'concrete' but which has lasted down the years and civilisations (with man no further on in his quest for knowledge) is a good one that might perhaps have worked well in a pop setting too. In between the Earth is formed in the first movement (with an extended and rather unlistenable atonal section finally giving away to real joyful noise and eventually typically golden McCartney melodies), mankind is born in the second (a surprisingly low-key part whose text is concerned with working out the 'creator of life and his purpose, with Adam a lonely figure without Eve yet there to give him reason - a section clearly written as a background to Linda's own battles with mortality, 'Standing Syone' being the last work of her husband's she ever got to see completed), a third softer and less successful movement sees the world as we know it come together and a fourth is nicely joyous and typically McCartney, as man's journey and pupose in life proves yet again to be love, although there's nothing 'silly' about the love described in the last movement. Full of intriguing textures and forms and with a far more playful mood than 'Oratorio' it's generally speaking a success, especially with the golden melodies hidden away in the middle of the first movement and at the very end of the fourth. However once again there's a sense of schoolwork about this album, with Paul helped this time around classical musician David Matthews, who effectively re-shaped McCartney's ideas by telling him what would and wouldn't work (although this was less of a 'collaboration' than with Carl Davis last time around) and Steve Lodder, who physically transcribed Mccartney's ideas onto sheet music for him. The piece loses its way for long periods of ugly music where not much happens (unusual for someone as naturally musical as McCartney) and 'Standing Stone' would perhaps have been better as a strong twenty minutes rather than a patchy eighty minute one. However the highlights are magical indeed, especially the last two tracks ('Love Duet' and 'Celebration') when Adam and Eve have discovered 'love' and coax out a typically warm-blooded response from McCartney that's beautiful to behold.
One group of McCartney fans who were less than amused were Oasis, busy at work on their difficult third album 'Be Here Now' in the studio next door (and still sulking at being turfed out of the bigger studio one for the orchestra to move in). Rumours are that both sides tried to out 'down' the others with their playbacks and the corridors were full of an eardrum-breaking mixture of McCartrney kettledrums and the Oasis 'wall of noise'. Oasis were less than keen on what they thought was their hero 'selling out' to the mainstream world, but ironically one of the next projects to be made at Abbey Road was a 'classical' Oasis album with re-recordings of their first two years' worth of songs! (Their B-side 'The Masterplan' also sounds as if it would go well with this work, with its bountiful strings and searching questions so perhaps the pair weren't quite as far apart as they thought!)
Linda McCartney "Wide Prairie"
(EMI/Parlophone, October 26th 1998)
Wide Prairie/New Orleans/The White Coated Man/Love's Full Glory/I Got Up/The Light Comes From Within/Mr Sandman/Seaside Woman/Oriental Nightfish/Endless Days/Posion Ivy/Cow/B-Side To Seaside/Sugartime/Cook Of The House/Appaloosa
"You better listen hard to what I have to say, I've done it, I've won it, I'm not running away"
To most Wings fans in the 1970s Linda was known for only one song and not an especially good one - 'Cook Of The House' (few past the real Wings fans knew that Linda was Suzy and Wings were the Red Stripes on 'Seaside Woman'). However, Linda had actually taken to songwriting with far more enthusiasm than most people knew, actually enjoying the art of creating far more than being a musician to prop her husband up on stage, and despite eing very much an amateur musician when Wings first started in 1972 had blossomed into an expressive, credible player long before her untimely death in 1998. Though most fans didn't know it Linda had been a fairly prolific writer throughout her years in Wings and beyond and had a full Cd-length album of songs recorded in stops and starts throughout her life. most of which had never been released and only aired briefly on her husband's 'Oobu Joobu' radio series.The majority of these were recorded in the everything-goes heyday of the Wings 70s and most go along nicely with the vibes of each album ('New Orleans' is a perfect fit for the mardi gras-ville of 'Venus and Mars' - it should have been on the deluxe album actually - and 'Wide Prairie' itself would have brightened up the Nashville era Wings recordings no end). Others pursue Linda's long-held love and knowledge of early rock and roll classics - which rivalled even her husband's - or her early 1970s discovery of reggae which took place long before most 0of the Western world discoverd it, thanks to family holidays in Jamaica and the suitvases full of cheap home-made records the McCartneys brought home. Though as eclectic as any Wings album, with sahdes of folk and psychedelia as well as rock and pop, it's the sound of the white 50s rock meeting the black 70s reggae that is perhaps the defining sound of the album, where even traditional Ameerican songs like 'Mr Sandman' and 'Sugartime' get the Jamaican makeover. Other recordings date to the 'McCartney II' period (the pretty piano ballad 'Love's Full Glory'),'Press To Play' ('Endless Days'), 'Flowers In The Dirt' (a pair of animal rights song collaborations with Carla Lane) and a last great burst of creativity in 1998 when Linda knew her time was running short ('Appaloosa' and 'The Light Comes From Within' both date from mid-March, a mere month before she passed away).
Though in its way its as mindbogglingly comprehensive as 'All The Best' and with an even longer career span than 'Wingspan', 'Wide Prairie' works remarkably well as a whole and there's a sense in the moving teary sleevenotes from Paul that even he has only just realised what a credible talent his wife was now that all her songs have been collected together. It successfully shows of all sides of Linda's work, from a writer of simple pop tunes, to a reggae queen, to a ballad writer on a par with her husband to an animal rights activist at the cutting edge of music. Not everything works - so many of Linda's vocals were left unfinished, designed as guide vocals only and aren't designed for comfortable listening and the covers are a little limp - but there's enough here that does work to prove what a genuine talent Linda was in her own right, with the very best of these songs like 'Oriental Nightfish' and 'Appaloosa' rivalling anything Wings ever offered.
Though neither wife nor husband would have welcomed the comparisons, there's one to be made with Yoko's work outside John Lennon. Like those records 'Wide Prairie' is occasionally as unlistenable as you might be expecting, but by and large proves how much both wives learnt from their husbands in such a short time after earlier careers that were heading in quite different directions. At least Yoko had always considered herself an 'artist' though - Linda, though always a music fan, had never had any pretence that she could ever be a musician until Paul asked her to be on stage with him. The fact that Linda could turn out such a highly consistent rate of songs, with such a natural grasp of melody and a wholly original voice, is a real surprise and it's a great shame she didn't get more appreciation from fans in her own lifetime. The Linda Macca album was something that always seemed to be back on the back burner, one of the many inviting projects that Wings always had in the pipeline that lost out to the needs of touring and mainstream albums but one that the band never quite got round to making. The latest revival had come in 1996 when the pair received a rare fan letter addressed to Linda rather than Paul pleading for Linda to write some more songs, not knowing how many she'd already recorded but not released. Alas the project was delayed by the end of the 'Anthology' documentary and CDs, the release of 'Flaming Pie' and 'Standing Stone' - and then by Linda's death. It's so sad that the album turned out be a tribute album rather than a debut record when there could and should have been so much more of this to love. In any other band Linda would have been the star, not merely the 'wife' of the star. It's a tragedy that more fans didn't buy this album and that it all but disappeared on first release, peaking at #127 in the UK charts. It's well worth owning if you can find one at the right price, gloriously full of the light that came from within.
The title track 'Wide Prairie' was originally a thirteen minute jam recorded in France with overdubs in Nashville for 'Red Rose Speedway' when the album was planned as a more democractic double set with contributions by the whole band, but dropped when the album became a single. It's the closest Paul-Linda collaboration here, with the pair swapping lines on a deep American south song that half-mocks and half -loves Linda's Texas farm roots. Sadly for reasons of space this version fades after a mere four but the original unedited version drifts along in a similar vein to the jazzy end for several more minutes, with some terrific Linda moog playing.
'New Orleans' is Linda's version of Paul's 'My Carnival' taped at the same 'Venus and Mars' sessions - and is a far better song to be honest. Full of holiday spirit and in-jokes ('The Dewdrop Inn' was Wings' favourite watering hole during their stay, but the band felt uncomfortable mixing with the locals at another pub named 'The Dungeon') the song is based around a happy-go-lucky piano part and features a whole host of overdubs from some great 50s-style Wings harmonies, a trumpet solo and a harmonica part. Jimmy seems not to have turned up to the sessions but the rest of the middle Wings line-up are here including a great rock and roll drum part from Joe English. Infectious fun.
'The White Coated Man' is the first of two collaborations for an aborted single made in collaboration with family friend and fellow animal rights activist Carla Lane. Recorded in 1988 during the middle of three sessions for 'Flowers In The Dirt' (and featuring Robbie McIntosh from the McCartney period band) it's a song that has Carla playing the part of an innocent animal, unsure what's happening to her and why, while Linda leads a chorus about how 'the silent ones will pay' one day when mankind wakes up and realises the true horror of the attacks perpetrated on his fellow animals in the name of science. Though less catchy than 'Wildlife' or 'Looking For Changes' and with a slightly wobbly lead vocal, it's another strong song.
'Love's Full Glory' is a lovely piano ballad from 1980 that's the closest Linda ever came to aping her husband's most famous and most natural writing style. Fittingly it's a silly love song for Paul, with a similar sense of perfection and melody to her husband's and a lyric about how a 'simple love affair' became something much bigger. However, pretty as the major key verse and chorus is, its the haunting minor key refrain that just soars as LInda sings, 'Maybe I'm Amazed', about how Paul's love gave her sunshine and confidence and allowed her to really be herself for the first time in her life. 'Take me home' she sighs as if the McCartney family house is the most perfect place on the planet. Though once again Linda's voice isn't always up to her writing, this is a most beautiful song.
'I Got Up' features the last vocal Linda ever did, added to a backing track that had been around since the 'post Band On The Run' sessions' of 1973 (with Denny very audible on the retro backing vocals and Jimmy - on one of his first performances with the band - turning in a great aggressive guitar solo). A snarling response to the music critics who put her down for daring to be part of Wings, Linda refuses to take it all lying down in the most aggressive way possible. Funnily enough it sounds exactly like Yoko in the 1972-73 period, complete with the defensiveness and the simple rock and roll beats, though it's not one of the album's better songs.
The same for 'The Light Comes From Within', which is a later (1998) take on the same theme. Even as late as 1998 the song received a radio ban for the line 'You say I'm no one, you make me sick, takes one to know one you stupid dick!', while Linda gets more and more painfully off-key. However there's a charming harmony part and a gonxo guitar solo from husband Paul that uplift the song no end. The couple's son James, now nineteen, plays the backing guitar part.
'Mr Sandman' is an early example of Linda's passion for reggae. After helping to turn the Western world onto the sound before it was famous the McCartneys were held in higher esteem than most white acts copying the sound and no less a member of reggae royalty than Lee Scracth Perry agreed to supervise the backing track, which really was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. However while the idea of recording an old time white song in the style is good on paper, it's less interesting to hear and fan that she is Linda doesn't have quite the right style for this sort of song (she's rather overshadowed by her husband's whoops and yells in the background!)
'Seaside Woman' is a classic that, thankfully, did see release - though not initially under the Wings banner. Recorded in 1972 as one of the first Wings recordings just after the 'Wildlife' sessions (possibly the first with Henry on guitar, although Paul pointedly calls Laine to play the solo with the phrase 'slap it on, Denny!'), long before the reggae sound was popular, the band revived it for release in 1977 when the sound was all the rangem crediting it to 'Suzy and the Red Stripes' (Linda was nicknamed 'Suzi' while on holiday there in 1971 where 50s classic 'Suzi Q' was her karaoke song, while 'Red Stripes' was Wings' favourite Jamaican tipple!) The first song LInda ever wrote alone - deliberately, after a court case that Linda couldn't 'write' and that the Mccartneys were splitting up writing credits to get extra royalties though goodness knows how they'd have proced Linda wrote it 'solo' - it's also one of her best, setting out a new distinctive style quite unlike the band's usual sound. A charming children's song, with Linda playing the part of a young Jamican girl and based around a funky keyboard and guitar part, it shows a far better understanding of the genre than pretty much every other white reggae song going. The McCartneys sound particularly good together on the harmonies too and seem to have had a ball singing it. An equally charming animated music video for the song won the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious prize the Palm D'or.
However, for me better still is the lesser known 'Oriental Nightfish' which most fans knew pre-1998 only because it too was a cartoon - a rather adult one oddly included as a bonus on 'Rupert And The Frog Song' that got the pair into all sorts of trouble for its images of a naked woman. However good as the video is its the music that's phenomenal, a wonderfully surreal 'I Am The Walrus' meets 'The Shangri-Las' psychedelia song that's dominatedby moog and the single greatest guitar solo Paul ever played. The song was actually taped as part of the late 'Band On The Run' sessions (with Paul playing everything except LInda's moog and Denny's flute overdubs) and shares a similar sense of tackling the impossible by a band brimming with confidence. Though we never quite find out what the oriental nightfish is and the track is ambiguous whether the song is inspired by something magical, a nervous breakdown ('It was a Thursday night, I was working late...') or even a drugs trip, the surreal mood is expressive enough for that not to matter. Haunting, groundbreaking and memorably moody, it is perhaps Linda's peak as a creative artist with a sound quite unlike anything else ever made.
'Endless Days', taped here in 1987, is apparently an older song that LInda kept returning to. Another very Paul-like piano ballad, the song is simpler than most of Linda's work and is sweet enough but rather less memorable than some others on this album. A simple tale of wondering when a loved one will return, it's similar to 'No More Lonely Nights' but lacks Paul's natural grasp of melody and universal feeling.
The silly Leiber/Coaster song 'Poison Ivy' is another from the Scratch Perry sessions and another similarly inventive choice of a Western white song to cover. The track works rather better but Linda's vocal is even worse and quite a struggle to sit through at times. Perhaps the one track on this album that should have remained in the vaults.
'Cow' was the intended 'companion' song to 'The White Coated Man' which is similar all-round, with Carla Lane a cow waiting to be sent to the slaughterhouse this time. The song's nursery -style simplicity and lyrics of a 'placid creature' who never did anyone any harm, going to death with 'signity' is well played against the cruel vindictive humans who don't have anywhere near the bovine's courage and strength. The opening of the song is played on what sounds like a children's toy to emphasise the purity and there's some nice Beach Boys-style harmonies going on throughout, but there's less melody in this song than some others and 'Cow' doesn't have quite the impact such a devestating subject deserves.
'B-Side To Seaside' was the almost made-up-on-the-spot ditty in 1977 when Wings decided to release 'Seaside Woman' as a single. Though quirkier and far less substantial than most of Linda's other songs. it's still pretty clever for what it is. The song is based round a far more Wingsy grungy guitar and colourful keyboard part (which sounds not unlike a gentler 'Lunch Box Odd Sox') than the A-side and sports some daft but clever self-mocking lyrics ('Less than an A-side - but more than a C-side!') Though the CD sleeve credits only Paul and Linda on this track, I'm sure that's Denny Laine I can hear on the harmonies again.
'Sugartime' is the third and last of the Scratch Perry songs and probably the most successful. Though the original by the McGuire Sisters wasn't much of a success back in the 1950s the song was picked up by many other bands as a cutesy little pop song and it was an early favourite of both Paul and Linda on their separate sides of the Atlantic in their respective childhoods. Paul says in his sleevenotes for 'Wide Prairie' that it was their husband-and-wife party song, performed at family get-togethers with several harmonic variations along the way! It's great that at least one recording of the pair together exists and the song is a lot more suitable for the reggae groove than the other two, sounding as if it was always meant to be in this style. However it's a shame that the pair stick to the laidback groove of the style rather than the passion of the song.
'Cook Of The House' has already been discussed on our review for 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound'. A typical Linda song in that it moulds her passion for food with a very retro 50s beat, it confused many when first released and doesn't really hint at what she could really do. The lyrics really were taken from the ingredients on their kitchen shelves and Paul himself taped the opening sound effect of her chip fat fryer simmering! It's probably the weakest original song here, despite the inventive Wings backing.
Thankfully closer 'Appaloosa' is also very Linda and a far better song. Another of her last songs finished just before her death, it rather eerily precedes what did happen when she died - Paul, realising she was slipping away, asked her to imagine they were on the back of her favourite Appaloosa horse Blankit and riding off into the distance together. Here the Appaloosa again stands for freedom, but on a historical tale where the Nez Perce Indians rode them to escape the conquering tribes of white cowboys. It's an urgent, insistent rocker based around another lovely melody and features another terrifically stinging guitar part from Paul that's full of fright and pain. However, although the Indians were caught and massacred in real life, this isn't a sad song: instead the Indian feel safe on horseback and have never felt more alive as they ride off into an unknown destiny.
It's a final special song on an album full of winning moments like these from an artist who never got the due she deserved and 'Wide Prairie' is a welcome tribute, showing off all sides of Linda's personality from her feistiness and animal campaigning to the simply softer side that saw the world as such a beautiful place. It's a welcome release for any fan who ever thought that Wings was about more than just the most famous member and curious newcomer fans who don't know much about Linda or her work will be pleasantly surprised. The only regret is that there isn't more than this to enjoy.