In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
Friday, 25 November 2011
Denny Laine "Reborn" (1996) (News, Views and Music 123)
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Denny Laine “Reborn” (1996)
In Time/Reborn/Rollin’ Tide/Night Walker/Hard Labour//Misty Mountain/Fanfare/Within Walls/Eternal Quest/Phoenix
The wonderful Jon Culshaw (local Ormskirk lad and best impressionist of his generation) is back with a new series of ‘The Impressions Show’ and has added a surprisingly shabby, but otherwise scarily accurate depiction of Paul McCartney to his act (although the programme’s shop-lifting Mary Portas and Prince Charles at the job centre are still the programme’s best gags, deserving their own spin-off shows!) The latest gag: Macca’s hosting a Beatles reunion, but he’s forgotten to invite Ringo (well you do, don’t you?) – the joke being that Paul is the only Beatle left to take part and the end result is just another solo record (with Ringo selling the T-shirts). Ten minutes later Macca has ‘broken up’ the reformed Beatles and is reforming Wings – but he’s forgotten to invite Denny Laine. The joke here is that its ‘basically...just me again’ (although in truth were Wings to get back together properly there would be a surfeit of drummers – with Denny Seiwell, Geoff Britton, Joe English and Steve Holly still around, although alas we’ve lost Jimmy McCullough and Linda McCartney in the years since. Whether any of them would want to come back of course is another matter...)
Note that sentence though – Denny Laine is given as an ‘exception’, seen as an integral part of Wings in a way that no other member barring Paul was. He certainly lasted longest in the line-up of anyone barring the McCartneys (1972-1982, as we saw last week, even if ‘Tug Of War’ ended up a solo album in the end) and is in fact McCartney’s most successful and most frequent collaborator outside John Lennon and wife Linda, if only based on the success of ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ (as much Denny’s work as it was Paul’s). Add in Denny’s successful stint as chief Moody Blue between 1964 and 1966 (as their lead singer, sole guitarist and – along with Mike Pinder – chief composer) and his reputation as a key member of two of the most celebrated groups that ever lived then everyone should know his name and own his solo albums, talking about Denny in the same breath as other music legends. In short, his decade with Wings and two years as a Moody should have made him a millionaire and a respected figure of the industry, no matter what else he produced. Instead Denny’s suffered a torrid time since away from the limelight, watching his solo albums sink without trace so fast that even I haven’t been able to track down half of them, filing for bankruptcy in the early 80s and re-recording Wings songs for the Hallmark Cards label as cheaply as possible in order to pay the bills. Things reached their ridiculous limit last year when a Denny Laine record from the 1980s was re-issued – but with a picture of Paul McCartney on the sleeve (on the basis that he plays bass on one track, a Wings leftover). If you’d have told me that in 1972 or even 1982, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it – those cheers in Wings and early Moodies concerts for that matter weren’t all for Paul or Ray Thomas you know. How could we have let down one of our greatest singer-songwriters down so badly? How could such a talent just disappear after 16 years (on or off) in two of the biggest bands that ever lived? Is it because Denny let himself down first?
Well, possibly, judging by the lyrics on this fascinating album, which are all about life’s ups and downs and guilt and making up for lost time. In truth the handful of Denny Lain solo albums I own are a mixed bag: I only liked about half of ‘Aah...Laine’ and ‘Japanese Tears’ and the Paul’s-just-bought-the-publishing-rights-to-Buddy-Holly-so-I-can-cover-his-songs-on-the-cheap ‘Holly Days’ is only worth owning for the pun in the title and a version of ‘Rave On’ where everyone (McCartneys included) sounds like they’re on speed and have been listening to the similarly zonked ‘Smiley Smile’ Beach Boys album. There’s at least three other Denny Laine albums I’ve never even seen too, despite keeping a close eye out for them – let’s remember too that Denny’s discography is so hard to pin down there might well be more than three - which on the evidence of the albums I own could be pretty darn good, might be dreadful.
‘Reborn’, though, is almost uniformly superb, without a single wrong moment or mis-step the whole way through – more than you can say for any Wings album, actually, which are notoriously roller-coaster rides in quality, even the good ones. You may have read during the past few newsletters that I’ve been busy adding my favourite albums to my own ‘best ever list’ (at www.besteveralbums.com) and a few of you have been kind enough to visit it and send in your feedback (generally good so far, but I wish non-AAA readers would stop hinting that I should add more modern albums. If there’d been anything half decent in the past 20 years I’d have found it by now). The album that’s caused the biggest debate among my readers so far though is this very album ‘Reborn’, admittedly placed at a lowly hundred out of a hundred but that’s no verdict on this album’s greatness (if only I could add my top 500 that might be closer to the mark of my real tastes...in case you hadn’t noticed there’s only room for one Oasis record, one Johnny Cash and one Jethro Tull – it’s so hard to choose – so Denny is actually in good company). (It goes without saying that Denny didn’t even have his own section on the site before I added him – but then neither did Jefferson Starship, Allan Clarke, Grace Slick, Jack The Lad, Lulu or even – most shockingly – Lindisfarne!) (I soon put that right!!) I didn’t actually own it till I was about 30 reviews through this website’s 101 ‘core’ list in case you’re wondering why it was too late to include (by and large I only review albums that I’ve owned for at least three years, barring the new releases anyway). Why do people expect not to like a Denny Laine solo album. Is it the bad Wings covers that have damaged his reputation? The occasionally dodgy moments on solo albums? That Wings are at their most unpopular right now? (A different story in the 70s, when they were one of the biggest bands on the planet and the 80s when they were still remembered fondly). The fact that there hasn’t been a single bit of media coverage about the second most important member of Wings since 1981?
‘Reborn’ is a great name for any comeback record and it’s an apt one for a record that tries so hard lyrically to admit to past failures and the need to try again and prove yourself. The moving sleeve-notes show where Denny’s head was at, waiting in vain after a few years off to get the first seeds of a song in his head before retreating ‘like the hermit I have grown to live with’ and writing this album in a few weeks’ burst – and the calamity when he accidentally wiped his first tape of opening track ‘In Time’ and had to start again. Incidentally, Denny refers to the album as a ‘painstaking labour of love’ and that pretty much is the idea of the record. Like ‘The Who By Numbers’ Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ Nils Lofgren’s ‘Damaged Goods’ and especially Pete Townshend’s ‘Empty Glass’, this is a virtual suicide note about how life gets you down and isn’t worth putting up with anymore, turned on its head because as well as listing the reasons the narrator can’t go on living anymore, he’s also listing the things that makes him stay behind and write to use rather than just ending it all without another word. Laine might not always go for the jugular as much as Lennon and Townshend do, but neither does he soften the blows much and there’s so much more to this album than most reviewers are aware of. Not that I think I’ve ever actually seen a review of this album, thinking about it, but that’s the impression I get: Denny Laine has spent the past 30 years of his life being a successful entertainer (to varying degrees) and got forgotten when he left that world behind, but only in the mid-90s is he baring his soul on his most personal and inspirational album.
True, I would have liked to have heard a bit more variation in the backing, I’d have liked to have had more money spent on the casio keyboards (not as dated as some other Laine albums, but still very 80s sounding for an album made in 1996) and Denny’s voice comes less easy to him than it did in the mid-70s. But like the four records I’ve listed above this album is oh so brave that it overcomes all the niggly things wrong with it, effectively laying the ghosts and demons that haunt Denny out for us to hear, perhaps knowing that only ‘true’ fans who know and understand him are ever going to actually find his record to buy. One criticism always laid against Laine was the lightness of the lyrics (admittedly a claim often lodged against former employer McCartney too) – but that’s so not true of this amazing album whose lyric booklet reads more like a book of poetry than rock accompaniment. By contrast it’s the melodies that aren’t always up to scratch although even these have a kind of lazy charm and, at their best, are among the greatest Denny ever had a hand in writing. Alas even ‘Reborn’ was stillborn and few fans ever saw it never mind bought it the first time around (a second re-issue, ‘Reborn Again!’ adding three Wings and one Moodies cover did slightly better) so it may well be that with this review I’m just talking to myself again and none of you will ever get a chance to see or own this record but, no matter, it’s my job to bring albums of greatness that slipped through the net to your attention and ‘Reborn’ is definitely one of them.
Going back a few sentences, its fair to say that this album has a ‘haunted’ feeling. The cover demonstrates this superbly as Denny is shown in a variety of possible guises from all possible paths of his career, spanning the millionaire proudly standing at the doors of Bramley Meade Hall (sadly not Denny’s house as some fans think!), the aristocratic be-wigged servant and the drunk sleeping rough on the park bench outside. In his time Denny has been all of these and everything in between, a winner a loser and a number two ‘servant’ to bigger stars (perhaps this is why the transparency of the figures keeps changing, with the ‘solid’ Denny sometimes rich and sometimes poor) and this album is all about the journeys from the one extreme to the other. As a side note, look for the number-plate of the car on the front cover which proudly states ‘DL4’ – this is indeed Denny’s fourth solo album (if you discount the Buddy Holly covers album) and may be a ‘homage’ of sorts to the ‘Beetle’ parked on the cover of The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ (you k now the one, ‘LMW 281F’). Perhaps not co-incidentally, that’s a shot of the view from the grounds near Hatch Farm Recording Studios in Surrey on the rear sleeve, where this album was made, Denny’s own lower-budget, less regarded version of the famous road crossing.
In case you don’t get the message from the lyrics, life was tough for Denny in the 1980s and 90s. From his point of view he’d stayed loyal to the McCartneys for a full decade and even backed them up in the press when the whole anti-Paul backlash started in the early 70s, when Linda was added to the band despite being an untrained musician and finally when the world went Lennon mad in the wake of 1980 and decided, almost overnight, that Paul was the ‘boring’ straight one. In return Denny had tried to get his then-wife Jojo added to the ‘family’ feel of the Wings tours (but was denied, rumoured to be because Paul didn’t want to give up the money and she didn’t get on with Linda – Wings legend has it that ‘Get Back’ waqs r-introduced to the set-list in 1979 so that Macca could glare stage-right and sing ‘get back to where you once belonged – get back JoJo!’) and watch one of his closest friends effectively ‘stitch him up’ over songwriting royalties to ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ (Denny, never the best at handling money, had asked Paul for a loan and instead had been told to hand his ‘half’ of the song over, losing out on millions over the years). Things came to a head one day in 1980 after the Tokyo debacle, when Denny – in need of money again – was let down by a mis-guided attempt by Macca to smuggle drugs into Japan and was not only jailed for seven days but deported, leaving the band with no money. The fact that Denny had stuck by Paul through this and continued to be involved in most of the sessions for what became ‘Tug Of War’ and ‘Pipes of Peace’ in 1982/83 (see last newsletter) before George Martin – never a fan of Wings – showed him the door wityhout warning in 1981 shows either ridiculous loyalty or the feeling that Denny knew he’d get nowhere without Macca’s help. To be fair, McCartney has addressed pretty much all these views over the years, seeing Jojo Laine as a ‘disruptive influence’ (her marriage to Denny didn’t last long as it happened), that the songwriting deal for ‘Kintyre’ was fair at the time and that Paul was sick of handing over money (he had done for years before this ‘arrangement’ he says) and finally that the decision to end Wings was Martin’s not McCartneys but was eventually agreed to by all parties. He also argued that his big break with Denny came when the latter slunk home to America in the wake of his prison sentence, leaving Linda to face the music on her own and look after her family of four (to be fair, the rest of Wings and their management didn’t stay around either). Nevertheless, whoever was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, Denny lost his top and became the first real McCartney confidant to blow Paul’s reputation with a newspaper article about the ex-Beatle’s money-pinching autocratic ways and then actually topped it by releasing ‘Japanese Tears’, a scathing attack on Macca’s days in Tokyo.
We seem to cover band bust-ups and rows pretty regularly on this site but this one is particularly important because your average man in the street still respected Denny and knew his name when it happened – and didn’t soon after. When Jimmy McCullough blew his top in 1976 and quit Wings to work with Steve Marriott nobody really batted an eye (Jimmy was a talented 20-something with a reputation for being a rebel and doing things his own way), despite a trend in the 80s and 90s to rate him as a higher talent than he’d been viewed at the time (because of what such a young talent might have become).By contrast, Denny’s news about Macca’s treatment of him came as something as a shock to many Beatlemaniacs (the ones who hadn’t got round to watching Paul and George trade blows in the hard-to-find ‘Let It Be’ film anyway) who were, after ten years in a band with a Beatle, Denny’s main audience. By speaking his mind Denny created anice little bit of temporary publicity, but elsewhere in the industry he was boycotted to some extent, a feeling that still runs today. Just to give you some clue of what it was like, the next person to really speak ill of Macca – Heather Mills – has become something of a hate figure in Britain, even though Paul’s reputation nowadays is itself far lower than it used to be. Attacking a fellow teenage band member for ‘sulking’ is one thing – denouncing your former employer of ten years with who you shared your biggest success and yet whose love overshadows your own leaves a massive hole in your CV. I wish to goodness Denny had found another talented collaborator, to get the best out of him and vice versa because that’s the role Denny plays so well (in the Moodies, too, he spurred Mike Pinder on to great things as a writer and vice versa). Either way, career problems, marriage problems and money problems all add up to a rather uncomfortable ride for the Birmingham guitarist who’d once had so much to offer.
If you ever heard Denny’s name mentioned at all these days its for the very occasional mention of someone raving on about an obscure Denny Laine song from 1967 called ‘Say You Don’t Mind’ who can’t quite believe it’s the same guy they saw miming to ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ on TOTP while looking bored. Recorded between The Moody Blues and Wings in 1967 (in fact, released just after his ‘old’ band had scored huge success with ‘Nights In White Satin’) it sounds like a plea for something greater, promising not to mind the struggles and trials of living even though what we can hear suggests otherwise. Had Denny had the funds and the backing to make a full album back then, he’d have been a superstar based on nust this one song alone – albeit one that sold few copies and got little attention at the time but grew by word of mouth and a passionate fanbase to the point where many 60s compilations feature it now. ‘Reborn’ is an album full of ‘Say You Don’t Mind’s, albeit an album recorded with a tinny casio keyboard and a voice that sounds like it’s had thirty years of hard living down the line, but there is a fit there lyrically, as if Denny in his fifties is seeking to finish the job he started in his twenties. ‘Reborn’ is no substitute for what might have been and what many of his fans wished for, but on its own terms this is a great little album, full of twists and turns and a record that comes closest to showing Laine’s true talent in all it’s glory.
Finally, look out for a second theme running through this album. One of my few passions that hasn’t yet cropped up on this website are the paintings by JMW Turner – most artists are over-rated, especially the bigger names (and most definitely anyone involved in ‘modern art’, who generally have more money and time on their hands than sense – there aren’t many words I hate more than ‘modern art installation’, except ‘Coalition’ ‘Cameron’ ‘God Save The Queen’ and ‘The Spice Girls’ maybe) but Turner’s rule-breaking epics about light and colour and nature and the smallness of man capsized in a world much bigger, stronger and cleverer than he is are pretty much all superb. No other painter has managed to sum up mankind’s egotism and hopelessness at attempting to make industry overcome the natural as well as he did and few others risked as much to their reputation when they could have just settled for an ‘easy life’ instead and not broken so many rules in one sitting. Aficionados rate ‘Wind, Steam and Speed’ and ‘The Fighting Temeraine’ as the greatest classics (plus the majestic mixture of white noise, feedback and paint that is ‘Seastorm’, the most rock and roll painting Peter Blake didn’t make, a copy of which hangs over my chair as I write this), but especially the lesser known Turners (even the biblical ones) are full of detail and vision and metaphorical oomph lesser painters can only dream of. I mention this here because one of the key themes of ‘Reborn’ is of the maddened narrator, overcome by his problems, putting them in perspective when he sees something of nature around him, the vastness of which reminds him how small his problems are. There are songs here about ‘misty mountains’ and ‘rolling tides’ and ‘mighty oceans’, which on first playing sound much like what we’ve heard before (after all, there wasn’t an angle about oceans the Beach Boys didn’t cover between 1962 and 1966). But the more I play this album the more I realise what Denny’s up to: the ‘water’ metaphors are baptism metaphors a la Quadrophenia, but a less literal one where it’s the very harshness and unpredictability of life’s waves that allow us to learn about ourselves more and ‘be reborn’ (unlike Jimmy the mod, Denny’s narrator is very much waving not drowning and the epiphany isn’t as ambiguous here). Nature here is huge, epic and old, much bigger wiser and ancient than man, and there’s a lot of resigning yourself to fate on this album, with Denny’s narrators acknowledging that a bigger hand than his might be deciding his life for him (though thankfully the ‘God’ references are left to the imagination). Nature will outlast even the worst we have to suffer – and that sentence is key to this record, both in a bad way (because our imprint on this world won’t last past the lifetime of anyone who knows us) and a good way (because all things must pass and that includes the bad).
Buy this album. Remind yourself of Denny’s talent. Be re-born.
As Denny’s revealing sleevenotes will tell you, opening track ‘In Time’ was the first song written and one that inspired the whole project, appearing in Denny’s head when he was trying out his new casio keyboard (an SY77 he tells us proudly, the ‘flagship’ of the Yamaha Fleet’, although to our modern ears it sounds like just one small step up from a digital watch beeping). Like the other songs on this record, it features both the theme of nature passing on oblivious to mankind’s actions and the feeling that all our problems will only be sorted out ‘in time’, ie when we die. Denny also writes that the first version of this song was ‘lost’ when he accidentally wiped it, an even that seems all out of proportion in the sleevenotes when Denny ‘didn’t even get a good night kiss’ (after all, he did manage to re-record it working from a taped copy or we wouldn’t have this song on the album at all) but actually makes perfect sense: this is a song about how, after many long years of mistakes and nasty surprises life is finally understood, so you can imagine how Denny would feel that this song in particular got lost, as if its one last cruel quirk of fate. ‘In Time’ isn’t the best song on the album but if it is the earliest of the songs here then marks a huge breakthrough for Denny’s writing: instead of keeping to a regular chorus-verse structure it builds naturally from one step to the next, one small peak at a time; the song’s rhythmic metre suggests a large hard struggle up the top of some mountain and, best of all, Denny’s found his voice as a prophecy of doom, sounding like the chanting Tibetan Monks John Lennon always wanted to have for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. The words do get a bit preachy at times, but then Denny is bravely tackling a song structure that even the most adept of writers steer clear of: a rhyming structureof AABBCCCC, meaning he has to find four words to rhyme at the end of each verse, not two. That’s why this song seems like poetry rather than a song, but thanks to using that rhythm with that slow build Denny manages to make even these words work with the music. The accompaniment is an interesting mix of the inspired and the inane. Considering the song was inspired by the keyboards they don’t half sound out of place on this song, artificial and temporary compared to the timelessness the rest of this song invokes. The hummed choirs though are a perfect touch, making the song sound mysterious and out of mankind’s reach, while the sublime chord changes that keep the tension coming are beaten only by possibly Denny Laine’s career best vocal, both detached and sympathetic at the same time and making him sound young and old all at the same time. Full marks too to the guitarist, whose gradually wilder and wilder solos throughout the song really add to the tension: alas while this album credits the names of the musicians I don’t know which one played what – whoever he is, though, he deserves full marks for his sensitive playing (note it doesn’t sound like Denny’s style, which you can hear on the rest of the album). Though ‘In Time’ isn’t the best track on this album, it may well be the best recording and the best realisation of these ten songs and in that context its easy to see why Denny was upset to think he’d lost it. This is a sterling piece of work and its criminal that more fans don’t know of it.
The title track, ‘Reborn’, is the catchiest song here, a Motown-like song with a bouncy booming chorus that mimics Gospel, played on a smattering of 80s production touches that make it sound like a track by a boy band. That’s an interesting and often difficult mixture of styles, but Denny just about gets away with it thanks to another energetic and likable vocal and a chorus that sticks in the memory long after the record has stopped playing. There are less words to this song, which is more of a groove a la ‘Goodnight Tonight’ than a song like ‘In Time’, but those that are here are intriguing because of the mixed messages. In the verses life is a card game, one that’s full of randomness and bad luck ready to dog you at every path. But on the other, it’s all part of a bigger picture, a ‘lifetime of learning you have to go through’ and things can be put right at anytime with any roll of the dice, no matter how bleak life seems. Rather than meaning ‘reborn’ in a Christian or religious sense, this song is all about fulfilling your potential, the fact that with every twist and turn in life man has a chance to put things right and experience life a different way, as if starting again. Denny’s been through more twists and turns than most and this is clearly a cry from the heart, inspiring another of his career best vocals although alas the backing lets him down this time, sounding decidedly earth-bound and uninspired in places. Still, another strong song.
‘Rollin’ Tide’ is one of the songs to make the nature link explicit, a slow breathy ballad that features quite a dull melody but one of the stronger sets of lyrics on the record. The song starts tranquilly and static, even though its a song about the unpredictability of nature, with man surrounded by ‘restless seas’ and ‘pools of mystery’. No wonder we’re all in such a mess, claims Denny, stuck on a planet where nothing is stable and everything changes in the blink of an eye, from the tides to the size of the moon to the weather. The best part of this song is an uncomfortable chord change at the very last line of the two verses, one that without drawing attention to itself suddenly wrenches this safe and cosy sounding song from under our feet, making it study this song afresh just when we think we’ve worked it out (eg ‘and figures in the darkness fade away’). There’s some intriguing lyrics here again too – in the first verse the very fact that our ancestors coped with the same changing conditions and saw life through gives Denny hope – but in the second the threat of the ‘new horizons’ lying out into the future makes Denny’s narrator afraid and nervous of what he might experience next. This is another good song, although this time the backing leaves much to be desired, with a very bored sounding batch of backing singers and a tinny basic track made on keyboards that sounds far too 1980s to be released in 1996 without a reason (perhaps Laine was sponsored by Yamaha at one point?)
‘Night Walker’ is a fascinating song, one akin to many songs on The Kinks’ 1977 ‘Sleepwalker’ album, by turning the tables on the narrator: instead of observing other people and telling us about their lives as imagined by the writer, this is the public seeing the writer and giving their observations about him. The sleevenotes to ‘Reborn’ paint Denny as a lonely hermit, working alone in his motorhome and here he portrays himself as a writer out walking and looking inspiration after dark, ‘never seen by the light of day’ lost in his own ‘dreamland’. It’s notable too that the writer goes not only to seek inspiration but to ‘hide’. Given what I’ve been writing above, it’s tempting to see this song as Denny’s response to being virtually written out of his own achievements with Wings (and to a lesser extent The Moody Blues once Justin Hayward joins the band) in his own lifetime, although of course that’s just speculation on my part. What’s undeniable is that Denny’s narrator, whoever he is, sees a bit of himself in the other misfits out after dark, the homeless the drunk and the angry out for a walk, with even his silhouette ‘wondering how many people really care’ when the narrator himself is too overcome to think. The backing to this song is fitting, sounding like a chirpy horror movie or possibly a film noire, with unknown strangers up to things the people in the ‘day’ never get to know. I would have liked more of that actually, with the sudden twist to a minor key on the verse before switching back again the most satisfying part of a fascinating track. The timid, bubbling bass line and keyboard riff are spot on too, suggesting a world that’s impenetrable.
‘Hard Labour’ is a song that’s, suitably enough, heavy going as Denny spells out his grievances and carries on the theme of the last track by speaking out about the horrors of homelessness and having nothing to count as your own. The tune is a cod-blues, complete with wailed harmonica (sadly mixed very low in the mix, presumably played by Denny given his sterling work on Wings track ‘Time To Hide’) and a stop-start tune that’s difficult for the listener to navigate at times. That’s all most likely deliberate though, on another song all about surprises with an excellent chorus that cuts through all the doubt and twists and turns of the song. I love the lyrics to this piece, which sounds like letting off steam about how unfair life is and how unfair it is that life rights itself for no apparent reason; that it’s not something you’ve done or haven’t done that upsets your life but something completely out of your control (no wonder The Moody Blues went to make an album about the ‘Question Of The Balance’. Denny must have stayed in touch with his old band to be inspired to make this song!) There’s some classy lines in the chorus about ‘working for nothing but the bags beneath your eyes’ and thinking you’ve worked out how to cope with life, only to find some trick of fate means ‘somebody changed the rules’. There’s a cod-chain-gang accompaniment with rattling irons that’s quite clever too, a trick I haven’t heard since Johnny Cash’s 1950s records. Listen out for Dylan reference ‘the things you don’t understand you still criticise’. There’s a slight borrow from Hollies hit ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, too, with the line ‘the road is long...’ sung in just the same manner, although here there isn’t even a brotherly love or companionship to see the narrator through, he really is all alone having worked his whole life for, seemingly, nothing. Another excellent song, less easy on the ear than most on this album (Denny’s croaky vocal doesn’t help either), but well worth the effort of paying attention.
‘Misty Mountain’ is the second of the two key ‘nature’ songs on the album and sounds poppier and more upbeat than most songs on the album. Denny’s effectively re-writing his words to ‘Reborn’ here, with a narrator on the top of a mountain-top, looking back on his life and all the lives he could have led, realising that it’s never too late to ‘live the way you please’. For all the mention of being ‘brought back to nature’ and ‘a new world awaits you’, though, the bright and breezy melody disguises the fact that this is actually a very pessimistic set of words, similar to Jack The Lad’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’ in looking back sadly over lost opportunities and wondering what life might have been like rather than counting blessings in old age. The verses are moving indeed, with Denny caught halfway between the joy of the tune and chorus and sentiments of the words and turning in another of his best ever vocals (he always sounded best on his most personal songs, eg ‘Time To Hide’, and this album is proof of that). It’s just the chorus that doesn’t fit: it’s taken me years of playing this album to get the ‘misty mountain’ link (ie all the stuff I was writing about nature above) and it still seems to have been cut-and-pasted into this song rather than being thought through. That’s just a small point, though, on another strong song about growing up and moving on.
‘Fanfare’ is an odd mix of a song, with some terrific ideas but yet another melody that seems to be there more to fit this latest complex set of words than work in its own right. That said, fans will want to pay more attention to this song than any other on the album, dealing as it seems to with the break-up of Wings. Paul McCartney is surely the other ‘bird of a feather’ in the opening line, with the pair ‘flying together but never speaking’, as if Denny never really got to know his former partner despite spending a decade in his company. The rest of the song goes on to become a song about the art of songwriting itself, questioning just why writers do what they do for a living, Denny using a metaphor that they’re like the explorers of old looking for ‘Atlantis’ or buried Spanish treasure, on the search for some inner vision and insight that will be of some benefit to mankind. The song then opens up for a truly sad chorus that shows how quickly that dream can go wrong, with Denny’s narrator looking in the mirror and seeing only a ‘carbon copy’, indistinguishable from any other performer out ‘entertaining’. ‘Fate plays the tune and we are only dancers’ sings Denny, sounding bitter that he’s wasted so much of his time to ‘pop’ singles and wishing he’d gone his own way earlier. There’s a fine redemptive last verse, though, where Denny’s narrator will gladly give up anything to be back on the stage, the ‘fanfare’ that greets his arrival making him feel fulfilled at the idea that people are listening to him (unlike the rest of his life), ‘eyes shining with a feeling of importance’. If only this song had had a better melody line to go with it this song might have been the most significant of all the songs here, a fascinating insight into the troubled world of a former star written with all the pathos and skill of a talent that’s lied dormant rather been extinct and certainly as a set of lyrics its sublime and complex, everything a song should be.
‘Within Walls’ is by contrast a bit of noisy guitar fluff that doesn’t really work as well as the other songs here, despite a neat arrangement that adds another gospel-sounding choir on top of 12 bar blues. The lyrics are fitting to this album, about a man breaking out of a prison he’s created himself out of guilt and regret over mistakes, but unfortunately for Denny Pink Floyd spent a full 90 minutes covering this subject (on ‘The Wall’ stupid!) and there really isn’t much more to add. What is interesting about this song is the second verse, where Denny drops the personal tag and comes to the themes of prisons as an observer, wondering (like me) why the hell political prisoners and artists who criticise the status quo should be locked up in the same place and for the same time as people who commit actual physical bodily harm, like murderers and rapists. There’s some spot-on lines about having to get yourself out of the ‘hole’ you’re mentally in because there’s no one around to help you – and that goes double if you’re physically locked away (when are we going to learn that half our justice system is taken up by people who feel they have no choice to live, to earn money or to prove a point – if we spent more on stopping the key causes of crime we wouldn’t have to spend so much on paying judges and funny wigs and would win in the long-term. And why is the Coalition so dreadful, making an even bigger hash of things than previously despite all the evidence to the contrary? Cameron is going to get himself assassinated by someone at this rate). Anyway, back to the song: there’s a nice guitar solo that livens things up but otherwise this is easily the weakest track on the album. (Another point though: normally even with our biggest classic albums there’s at least one song that fails miserably on every level – this one is only disappointing because it’s not up to standard).
‘Eternal Quest’ may well be my favourite record though. There’s an elegant, sweeping tune that sounds like Denny’s tune for ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ but better anda wonderful set of lyrics that link up several rogue themes from this album: staring at nature makes the narrator realise his place in the grand scheme of things; he returns to his ‘homeland’ and looks over his life as an observer for the first time; he likens the insights this gives him to ‘buried treasure’ and realises that even if he can’t always sense a pattern then life is still ‘an eternal quest’ and no one else has worked it out either. Denny sounds suitably moved here, with another spine-tingling vocal and a real sense of majesty and power about this song (for once the keyboard work on this album makes it sound bigger and grander rather than smaller and less important). A song of redemption, this is about realising that your life isn’t wholly futile and hopeless and as such fulfils a similar job to this album that ‘Blue, Red and Grey’ serves to ‘Who By Numbers’, adding a wash of colour and hope to an album that can be awfully black and white. In a nutshell, ‘memories of the past took away all the pressure’ – with the promise that things can turn round just as fast and bring you success as well as failure. I’m less pleased with the second verse, which unlike the above song loses out by moving away from the personal to the fate of the UK as a nation (‘we fought for freedom, whenever the powers of darkness put our faith to the test’ sings Denny, perhaps forgetting that in the past 10 years Britain had fought unnecessary and cruel wars in the Falklands and The Gulf War and was only a few years away from invading Afghanistan and Iraq because, erm, terrorists from another country entirely had attacked American citizens). That said, though, I’ll forgive anything for those lovely opening lines which are perfectly cast, with Denny sounding suitably misty-eyes at seeing his homeland and featuring a spot-on backing from a cast of players who are clearly better at conjuring up nostalgia than they are angst or aggression. Possibly the best song about Birmingham ever written, raising this often unloved and laughed at city to heights of spiritual wonder, redemption and salvation. Well, that’s imagination for you!
‘Reborn’ ends with ‘Phoenix’, another uplifting but slightly less impressive song about picking up the pieces and getting on with what you were meant to be doing before live got in the way, learning from your past to better understand your future. For the third time on the album, this is just a re-write of ‘Reborn’ (or whichever track came first), with Denny’s narrator determined to make his life better this time. There’s a bit of parping brass keyboards and a nagging chorus that make this song the most-Wings like on the album, although the words are actually pure Moody Blues (albeit of the sort of things they did after Denny left the band), existential and mystical but down-to-earth enough to offer help and hope to humans caught up in all sorts of horrible situations (again, homelessness crops up on this song). Perhaps Denny might have done better to make this song another Gospel-like track, because that’s clearly where he’s coming from with the quick-hitting chorus and snappy rhymes and uplifting feel and ‘bounce’ of this track. Sticking these lyrics to a 4/4 rock beat simply doesn’t work and doesn’t sound uplifting or transforming enough. That said, there’s another fine guitar solo and the album ends on pretty much the only note it could, with Denny offering some quite moving words to his listeners about how they mustn’t let ‘their’ demons deter or entrap or confuse them, but simply to hold out for better times. It’s a fine image on an album full of clever bits and pieces that simply needs a slightly stronger backing to become the rabble-rousing climax ‘Reborn’ needs and deserves.
For all my odd bits of criticism, though, you might have gathered that I really enjoy this album. After so many years of hearing piecemeal Denny Laine (he co-wrote half the tracks on‘Magnificent Moodies’, his only album with that band; got two songs per Wings album if he was lucky and made both ‘Aah...Laine’ and ‘Japanese Tears’ out of left-overs) it’s fascinating to hear Denny tackling one theme across a whole record and hearing him pull it off as if he’s been doing just that for years (even the Moodies, past masters at linking themes among their tracks, only really manage this on ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ and then its the comfortably vague linking theme of space travel). Some things don’t work as well as they should, the backing band only rarely raise their game to Denny’s standards and as we’ve said often this album would sound a hundred times better without those 80s sounding keyboards. But that’s small things to get wrong for an album that tries as hard as this one does and covers themes of redemption, guilt, mercy and nostalgia and gets them all pretty much spot-on. Had Paul McCartney made this album in 1996, at the height of the Beatles Anthology mess, this would have been heralded as a superb return to form. It’s not Denny’s fault that the world had forgotten him and written him off in 1996. But, dear readers, we can change that now. If you have any soft spot for Denny after all his many years in other bands, are curious as to how he’d sound on a full album, have loved ‘Say You Don’t Mind’ without quite realising who Denny Laine was or simply have some sort of agreement with my own favourite records then look out for ‘reborn’ and make it top of your shopping lists. As I speak, ‘Reborn’ is the only Denny Laine album available from Amazon for a vaguely sensible price (£200 for ‘Japanese Tears’? I don’t think so!). Let’s buy so many copies of this album that we inspire them to re-issue the other albums too. Let Denny Laine’s career be re-born, because goodness knows he deserves it.