PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Walls and Bridges’

In the latest installment in our exclusive series on solo Beatles albums from the past, Robert Rodriguez, author of “Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll,” takes another look at John Lennon’s “Walls and Bridges,” a work he finds worthy of re-evaluation. …

walls and bridges cover

John Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend’ Triumph

“The work of a semi-sick craftsman” — John Lennon, 1980 on 1974’s “Walls and Bridges”

“Half of what I say is meaningless” — John Lennon, 1968 (cribbed from Kahlil Gibran)

“Walls and Bridges” is unique in the Lennon canon as his only post-Beatles musical statement comprised of his own words and music crafted entirely without Yoko Ono at his side.

It therefore merits special attention not only for the music contained within but also because of how it was received and his own regard for it. As to its reception, this much is striking: It was the only Lennon album that topped the U.S. charts and begat a #1 U.S. single — in his lifetime. (The much-loved “Imagine” did not achieve this, and when singles culled from “Double Fantasy” topped charts on either side of the Atlantic, it was under an entirely different circumstance; one John would not have chosen for himself.)

When the creator of “Walls and Bridges” articulated his dismissive assessment six years later, it was in the context of talking up the marvel that was his artistic and romantic partnership with Ono. After five years’ commercial silence, his comeback was about to be released: “Double Fantasy,” a collaborative follow-up to the universally pilloried 1972 joint effort, “Some Time in New York City.” It took a particular amount of nerve, daring or naiveté to deliberately blunt the impact of a certain public welcome by resuming his career pairing with an artist whose appeal had somehow eluded fans thus far. Answering the question, “What was he thinking?” is a subject for another day; what we address here is why his public pronouncements about his last collection of original work were so pointedly negative.

Lennon publicity shot.

Lennon publicity shot.

Some background: Between 1974 and 1980, much had changed in the pop-rock world. As far as John was concerned, the raw, edgy sounds that had been coming out of England for at least the past four years — then in vogue in the clubs of New York — were a sign that Yoko’s time had come, public acceptance-wise. With so much to gain by suggesting her current work showed that the world had caught up with her, John wasted no opportunity in his final round of interviews to talk up Yoko’s artistry, even if it came at the expense of his own. Part and parcel of that clearing-of-the-decks approach was throwing “Walls and Bridges” — the last collection of Lennon songs — under the bus. (That period also saw the release in 1975 of the long-brewing oldies project, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a collection that brought him little more than a series of headaches both during its creation and after its release.)

Indeed, the entire period of their separation would be characterized during the “Double Fantasy” interviews as “the Lost Weekend” — a reference to the 1945 Billy Wilder film starring Ray Milland, detailing a New York writer’s downward spiral in an alcoholic haze. While the episode where John and Harry Nilsson, sailing on Brandy Alexanders, were tossed from the Troubadour club during a Smothers Brothers set caught the public’s imagination, and tales of drunken mayhem during the Phil Spector-produced “Rock ‘n’ Roll” sessions were rife throughout the industry, by the spring of 1974, John had sobered up. He channeled his considerable energies into work on Harry’s “Pussy Cats” album, followed by his own “Walls and Bridges” and then, Ringo’s “Goodnight Vienna” sessions. He not only penned the title track, but also gifted Ringo the inspiration and arrangement for a remake of The Platters’ “Only You,” giving the drummer another Top 10 hit.

Out on the town in Hollywood with May Pang.

Out on the town in Hollywood with May Pang.

Implicit but unmentioned during John’s later recounting of this period of his life was the fact that he was romantically involved with former personal assistant May Pang, a woman who encouraged John to re-connect with old friends and peers (as well as rebuild his damaged relationship with his son Julian). Once John got the hard-partying “I’m a bachelor again!” behavior out of his system, he demonstrated seriousness toward his craft and got down to business, belying the 1980 stories of how despondent and incapable of functioning he was without Yoko. That he was capable of producing some of the finest work of his post-Beatles career without his wife’s presence or influence ran counter to the latter-day myth being laid down and therefore had to be swept under the rug.

All told, achievements during this era included releasing two albums under his own name, plus “Pussy Cats” and collaborations with Ringo, Mick Jagger (“Too Many Cooks”), Elton John (a remake of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) and David Bowie (co-writing credit and vocals on “Fame”). The latter two singles went to #1: If this was someone’s idea of a “lost weekend,” all our binges should be so fruitful.

Though he was first among the four Beatles to issue singles with a spin-off act, it took John the longest to score a stateside chart-topper. When it did come, it was aided immeasurably by the presence of the planet’s biggest rock star on co-lead vocals. Elton John’s contributions to the lead-off “Walls and Bridges” single, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” surely helped its chart fortunes, but given how far John had to come back from his last offering – 1973’s anthemic “Mind Games,” which had stalled at #23  — anywhere within the Top 10 was a bonus. The song’s own merits were considerable, Elton or not: Loosely inspired groove-wise by George McCrae’s own 1974 chart-topper, “Rock Your Baby,” John took the title from a late-night TV sermon and turned it into the most exuberant, energetic song he’d issued in this form since 1971’s “Power to the People” — an altogether different animal. From (the late) Bobby Keys’ opening sax wail to the juked-up piano banging by Elton heard in the song’s fade, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” revealed its maker’s dormant command of the hit single, an art form he’d sought to master from his earliest days as a songwriter.

From "Walls and Bridges."

From “Walls and Bridges.”

It offered a taste of the thematic unity that followed in the parent elpee: like Frank Sinatra’s series of concept releases throughout the 1950s, John had assembled a collection of material roughly unified around an adult premise — in this case, coming to grips with one’s maturation while letting go of one’s youthful abandon. “Walls and Bridges” contains songs of morning-after dissipation (“What You Got”), ruminations on love lost (“Going Down on Love,” “Bless You”), wistful nostalgia (“#9 Dream”), newfound romance (“Surprise Surprise”) and betrayal (“Steel and Glass”). Two pleasant but lightweight placeholders space out the weightier material: the subdued Harry Nilsson co-write on Side 1, “Old Dirt Road,” and the funky instrumental on Side 2, “Beef Jerky.” This latter song offers something for Beatle trainspotters: a central guitar motif that echoes the riff Paul wrote “Let Me Roll It” around. Recall: that was the “Band on the Run” track many saw as his gentle closure to the tit-for-tat feuding going back-and-forth on alternate McCartney and Lennon releases throughout 1971. With “Let Me Roll It,” Paul offered a spot-on impression of Plastic Ono Band-era Lennon; “Beef Jerky” comes off like a subtle “message received, Paul” reply.

The album’s two side-closers (excepting Side 2’s “Ya Ya” coda) serve as the collection’s thematic  keystones: “Scared” and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out).” Though presented here with the production gloss befitting someone striving to make his most personal statements accessible, either composition could’ve easily fit on the stark “Plastic Ono Band” album, being direct windows into John’s inner life, nearly bereft of metaphor. “Scared” is self-explanatory: an admission of fear stirred by awareness of loss in life’s ongoing battles. He is weary but not defeated, and the recognition that this will be a constant going forward resolves itself with resigned determination (“Steady, babe!”).

“Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” — its title evoking the blues standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” — is not exactly the exercise in maudlin self-pity that one might conclude. The first song written for the album, John was at his lowest point in the wake of the disastrous “Rock ‘n’ Roll” sessions when he began pulling himself up and out of his existential crisis. But his companion during this odyssey, May Pang, records that the song began life as a sort of send-up of the once popular entertainer, now bottoming out, as depicted in any number of films. That people would read it as a take on himself, given the headlines of drunken escapades in Los Angeles reported earlier that year, was one valid interpretation, but the one John preferred was as a big, Vegas-styled closing number for — to circle back to the earlier comparison — Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra's themed albums provided a template (knowing or not) for Lennon's approach.

Frank Sinatra’s themed albums provided a template (knowing or not) for Lennon’s approach.

It was Frank who’d produced those thematic Capitol albums (1955’s “In the Wee Small Hours,” particularly) a generation earlier that served as — consciously or not — a sort of template for “Walls and Bridges.” John’s song cycle wasn’t as narrowly focused as Frank’s had been, but the theme expressed here carried enough of that after-the-party mood and reflection in the wake of romantic loss to appreciate the similitude. On that latter subject, “Bless You” — not so explicit as to call out Yoko by name — remains one of John’s finest love songs largely because it’s not marred by the specificity that stifles universal appeal. Additionally, it expresses a mature perspective beyond what had become his somewhat predictable songs of devotion or apology to his now-estranged wife. While lamenting their parting, it also reassured that the love between them would always be. For a man accustomed to expressing himself in explicitly black-and-white terms, the unresolved ambiguity was striking.

Lest anyone forget John had been a Beatle, the album’s second hit single — the lovely “#9 Dream,” with its tasteful arrangement and somnambulistic vibe (evocative of John’s earlier “I’m Only Sleeping”) — reminded listeners that politics and Yoko paeans aside, he was still capable of crafting timeless, memorable melodies with the best of them. While relentlessly engaging, it also possessed a fragile beauty, supported by a string arrangement he’d first tried out on Nilsson’s cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” (Pang, occupying the muse slot in John’s life once held exclusively by Yoko, made an appearance here, calling out “John” like some kind of ghostly apparition. In the revisionist music video produced years later by Yoko, May was, of course, supplanted visually.)

The other partner John may have felt moved to publicly make amends with at this juncture was Paul McCartney. Relations between the two estranged ex-Beatles were warmer that year than at any time since 1968, and every opportunity to spend time together was taken when they found themselves in the same place in 1974. Aside from the subtle musical response noted above that John may have purposely crafted, “Steel and Glass” can be seen as another positive peace-making move directed toward Paul, being what was widely regarded as a slam at the man who’d been Paul’s nemesis from the start, Allen Klein. The fact that its horn and string arrangement was particularly evocative of “How Do You Sleep” — the ill-conceived character assassination directed at Paul on 1971’s “Imagine” album  — could not have escaped anyone with ears. The song may have been John’s attempt at a mea culpa, however oblique.

From the promotional campaign.

From the promotional campaign.

Promotion of “Walls and Bridges” throughout the fall of ’74 saw John in a good place, no matter how great the depths he’d started the year in. As heard in numerous interviews on radio and TV, he was relaxed and warm, speaking fondly of the past and positively of the future. The hectoring, irritable and defensive tone often heard in conversations up till now was replaced by something approaching the John of old: at peace with himself and his Beatle legacy. Maybe within the mindset of competition he’d had for years toward Paul and his work, he felt he’d at last reached parity: the milestone of a #1 single, plus a #1 album putting him on par with the successes Wings had had for two straight years.

It may have been this that led him to conclude it was possible to work with Paul again — as equals — and from a position of strength. Anecdotal evidence suggests John was sounding out opinion on whether others thought it was a good idea. He must have concluded that it was worth exploring, given the plans that were made to join Paul in New Orleans in early 1975 as Wings were at work on “Venus and Mars.” However, the ending of John’s estrangement from Yoko lowered the boom on the scheduled visit.

“Walls and Bridges” does not readily lend itself to the label “classic” in the way that “All Things Must Pass,” “Band on the Run” or “Plastic Ono Band” do. Unlike those releases, it did not make (or appear to make) a “grand statement.” But what it did do was showcase a mature artist on an upward arc. John’s solo output to this point had swung wildly from the personal (“Plastic Ono Band”) to the political (“Some Time in New York City”) to somewhere in between (“Imagine”). “Mind Games,” marred by — in some instances — subpar material (“Only people know just how to change the world …”) and a rushed production, represented a step in the right direction. It reined in the more misguided impulses while showcasing what had been his traditional strengths: passionate, soulful vocals; superlative melodies, and lyrics that took the personal and made it universal.

After a false start with “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” John regained his groove and consolidated all his skills. “Pussy Cats” gave him the opportunity to fine-tune his production and arranging chops, while the nurturing influence of Pang helped him regain his confidence. The songs he wrote for “Walls and Bridges” represented a return to form — the lack of anthemic statements some had grown accustomed to expect from him did not diminish the smaller themes. The collection brims with energy, conviction and the explicit presentation of an artist revealing his innermost feelings while trying, without pandering, to make that message as appealing as possible. It was an album one could enjoy on one level for the sonic pleasures it provided (you could dance to a good portion of it!); on another for marking a return to Lennon songcraft — that sweet spot he’d hit back on “Rubber Soul.”

It pointed the way to better things in 1975, even if the unfulfilled get-together with his former songwriting partner didn’t amount to anything more than a one-off. (Before reconciling with Yoko and unexpectedly finding himself about to become a father again, John had begun crafting songs for a follow-up to “Walls and Bridges,” tentatively to be titled “Between the Lines.” Demos laid down around this time were later re-purposed into material for “Double Fantasy,” notably “Watching the Wheels.”)

What’s important to know about the Lennon of this time, contrary to self-spun myth generated to serve a later agenda, was that he was fully in control of his craft, producing songs that recalled his talents before the effects of heavy drug use and psychological damage had taken his art in another direction. He was on a roll and at the top of his game; his ex-Beatle cachet eroded by this time, “Walls and Bridges” was a success on its own merits.

It warrants a second listen today, to let audiences judge for themselves what a semi-sick craftsman can do when unencumbered by a none-too-subtly projected message.

— Robert Rodriguez

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Kanye-Rihanna-Gaga: What’s at the root of negative fan reaction?

Did you think some of the negative fan reaction to Paul McCartney working with Kanye West and Rihanna and even Lady Gaga was a bit over-the-top? Why do you think that was? Al Sussman addresses that question in this thought-provoking new article exclusive to SOMETHING NEW …

The cover of the single, "FourFive Seconds."

The cover of the single, “FourFive Seconds.”

I’m writing this on the morning after the Grammy Awards telecast, amid all of the post-show analysis of around-two-dozen musical numbers in the show. Among those performances announced in advance was a live debut of “FourFiveSeconds,” a Top 10 collaboration between the R&B/pop star Rihanna and hip-hop headline-maker/celebrity husband Kanye West, with accompaniment from one Paul McCartney. It became the most successful “single” carrying the name Paul McCartney since his last Top 10 single, “Spies Like Us,” in 1986.

That followed the recent release of a McCartney-West collaboration, “Only One,” a Top 40 hit.

Macca and Lady Gaga.

Macca and Lady Gaga.

And, just a few days before his Grammy appearance, Lady Gaga announced that she is also involved with a studio project of McCartney’s.

One would think that all of this involvement with 21st century pop luminaries would produce a good deal of excitement among Paul’s fandom. But, at least on social media, it’s been quite the opposite.

On two recent episodes of “Things We Said Today,” the Beatles news-history discussion podcast, my fellow panelists and I ruminated about this strange reaction. The Grammy show and post-show reaction is going to produce more discussion between us.

To put it succinctly, elements of McCartney’s core fandom, at least those who use social media, have reacted to these collaborations — especially in the case of Kanye and Rhianna — as if Paul’s going to catch hip-hop cooties from working with them. The response hasn’t all been negative, and the social media critics may not be reflective of the feelings of McCartney fandom overall, but a vocal cross-section is quite unhappy with his decision to work outside of his musical milieu.

Some of this, of course, is generational. Much of McCartney’s fandom is made up of people who, on average, are now older than our parents were 51 years ago this week as they scowled and tut-tutted while we watched The Beatles’ live American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” These fans are taking on the same sort of narrow viewpoint.

From the video for "FourFive Seconds."

From the video for “FourFive Seconds.”

They don’t listen to any current pop music and many take the attitude that “today’s music sucks” without having heard any of it. All they know about Kanye or Rhianna or Gaga is the negative media coverage they get — in Kanye’s case, much of it self-inflicted (see his post-Grammy show comments about Beck winning Album of the Year) — so they’re not going to look favorably on McCartney working with acts they perceive to be inferior to him.

However, there’s also more than a bit of musical racism going on here. That sizable older portion of McCartney’s core audience had no problem with Paul working with black pop stars Stevie Wonder and the pre-Wacko Jacko Michael Jackson in the early ‘80s. But they do seem to have a problem with him venturing into the world of hip-hop.

Many social media commenters have refused to listen to “Only One” for no other reason than it’s a Kanye West recording. Again, he’s a lightning rod, due to his celebrity and self-aggrandizing public persona, but some also have refused to listen to “FourFiveSeconds,” despite the fact that Rihanna has more natural talent than West and the song is more immediately accessible. Indeed, the general reaction to the Grammy performance of “FourFiveSeconds” had very little to do with the song itself, but instead dealt mainly with whether McCartney’s mic was on, since no one seemed to able to hear him in the mix.

But there were also comments about McCartney lowering his standards to be onstage with these “hip-hop no talents.”

Macca onstage at the Grammys with Rihanna and Kanye West.

Macca onstage at the Grammys with Rihanna and Kanye West.

And, make no mistake, this racism is not limited to music. The same types who make vile comments about the mixed-race president of the United States aim similar comments at celebrity hip-hoppers like Kanye and Rihanna.

But most of the disapproval appears to be stylistic, rather than race-based, with the target being hip-hop. Many in that older portion of McCartney’s core constituency are not fans of alternative rock bands like Foo Fighters and even fewer were fans of Nirvana in the ‘90s salad days of grunge. Yet, I’ve heard very few, if any, fans complain about McCartney’s work over the past couple of years with Dave Grohl, including the 2012 semi-reunion of Nirvana. It’s been suggested that Grohl has the persona of a classic rocker and that may account for the easy acceptance of him as a collaborator with McCartney. Also, the harder-to-musically-categorize Lady Gaga has yet to receive much in the way of scorn for her announcement that she’s working with Paul since the never-satisfied segment of Beatles fandom has been too busy obsessing over Paul’s foray into what they perceive as hip-hop land.

Anyone familiar with the entirety of McCartney’s career knows that he’s prone to exploring various musical forms, and while neither “Only One” nor “FourFiveSeconds” falls in the realm of true hip-hop, it remains to be seen what will come out of his ongoing collaboration with West.

But, given the morning-after slagging Kanye took in the wake of his Grammy night, McCartney fandom isn’t likely to be much more receptive to him in the future.

The never-satisfieds are likely to have plenty pf grist for the mill in the coming weeks.

— Al Sussman

 

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PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Flowers in the Dirt’

We’re pleased to present the second installment in a new series of articles exclusive to the SOMETHING NEW blog, in which some of our writers re-evaluate solo Beatles albums from the past. This issue, Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman takes another run at Paul McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt,” which he initially dismissed in 1989 as “just pleasant.” On listening again, he now finds that it’s an album that is aging quite nicely. …

flowers in dirt cover

Hard as it is to believe, November 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of Paul McCartney embarking on his first American tour since 1976. That tour was preceded a few months by a 12-song collection (13 on the original CD) “Flowers in the Dirt,” his first studio album of original material since 1986’s “Press to Play.”

This is actually the third time I’ve explored “Flowers in the Dirt” for Beatlefan. In the June-July 1989 issue of the magazine, I basically gave the album the back of my hand, dismissing it as being “just pleasant.” Indeed, my review was so dismissive that Bill King chimed in with a counterpoint that, while admitting this was one of McCartney’s “least rocking efforts,” rated “Flowers” as Paul’s “most satisfying work since 1982’s ‘Tug of War.’” Some 13 ½ years later, in the Nov.-Dec. 2002 issue, I took a look back at “Flowers” and 1993’s “Off the Ground,” largely within the context of the studio albums that preceded what were, at that point in time, McCartney’s most recent tours.

That means it’s been a dozen years since my last assessment of “Flowers,” and McCartney has hardly been off the road since then. But he hasn’t played a note from the album since the 1989-90 tour, and it’s been largely forgotten by all but Paul’s hardcore constituency.
So how does “Flowers in the Dirt” fare, better than a quarter-century after its first release?

Actually, it’s aged quite nicely, thank you. The complaints that some of us made about a lack of direction owing to the multi-producer format McCartney used has been rendered moot because many well-known acts since have gone that route, including McCartney, who used four producers on his generally well-received 2013 album, “New.”

macca 89Of course, the 1989 album’s best-remembered track was “My Brave Face,” one of four collaborations with Elvis Costello on “Flowers” and a U.S. Top 25 single, McCartney’s last one to date. It still pops up occasionally in a store via satellite radio or digital music services and is as catchy and delightful a listen as it was in 1989.

Of the three other McCartney-Costello tunes, “You Want Her Too,” with its Paul-Elvis lyrical conversation, and “That Day Is Done,” featuring Nicky Hopkins’ stately keyboard work, are still quite effective. “Don’t Be Careless Love,” not so much.

By now, we’ve gotten used to McCartney’s meanderings into various musical genres. In 1989, though, his expeditions into classical, ambient dance forms, etc. lay ahead. His core audience was still reeling from the synth-laden tracks on “Press to Play,” so the appearance here of the stripped-down, bluesy “Rough Ride” and jazzy “Distractions” took some getting used to. They’re not overly memorable, but they also don’t sound as dated as does so much of “Press to Play.”

Neither does “Motor of Love,” which still conjures up the ’70s Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s post-Beach Boys work, though that was just beginning when “Flowers in the Dirt” first appeared. Also, “Ou Est Le Soleil,” the “bonus” track on the original 1989 CD, was one of the first indications of the dance music experiments that would be a considerable part of the McCartney musical palette over the next quarter century.

The reggae-driven message song “How Many People” was less of a musical shock to the system, since McCartney’s love of reggae and Caribbean sounds could be traced all the way back to his Beatles days. It’s a lovely song, but unfortunately has fallen victim to the same cynicism that has eliminated as massive a hit as 1982’s “Ebony and Ivory” from radio airplay in the 21st century.

The McCartney band circa 1989.

The McCartney band circa 1989.

Then there’s “We Got Married,” which has all the slow-building elements of a classic rock track, including lead guitar from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Indeed, it became the arena/stadium “heavy” first set number in the 1989-90 tour shows, the only time that “Let Me Roll It” hasn’t held that spot since it was first done live on the 1975-76 Wings world tour.

The three remaining songs from the original “Flowers” album would be included in the set list for the 1989-90 world tour.

The lovely “Put It There,” inspired by Paul’s dad, would be a popular part of the mid-show acoustic set on that tour and retains its charm and warmth.

“This One” is a typical, totally accessible McCartney earworm that still pops up from time to time on Beatles radio shows.

And “Figure of Eight” would be the show-opener on the ’89-’90 tour, the last time that a non-Beatles or Wings favorite would serve as a McCartney concert opener. However, the “peace and love/get together” theme of the song has rendered it unfashionable in these cynical times, so it rarely gets a call, even on those Beatles radio shows. And, when “Figure of Eight” is played, it’s usually either the subsequent single version or the live recording from the ’89-’90 tour document, “Tripping the Live Fantastic,” rather than the seemingly unfinished “Flowers” version.

Overall, 25 years later, “Flowers in the Dirt” is an interesting reflection of a transitional period in McCartney’s career and, in retrospect, it does indeed stand with “Tug of War” as McCartney’s only fully-realized album projects of the ’80s.

— Al Sussman

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PLAY IT AGAIN: Reconsidering the Solo Beatle Albums

We’re pleased to launch a new series of articles exclusive to the SOMETHING NEW blog, in which some of our writers re-evaluate solo Beatles albums from the past. We open with this look at the “Tug of War” album by Contributing Editor Tom Frangione. It’s always been one of Paul McCartney’s most highly regarded efforts, but Frangione posits that it’s the very best of all solo Beatle albums. Take it away, Tom …

tug of war cover 2
Is it me, or does every new Paul McCartney album get touted as “his best since ‘Band On The Run’”? I roll my eyes every time I hear that, as I’m of the belief that the standard was forever raised by his 1982 masterpiece “Tug of War.”

Before examining the album’s content, more than just a little backstory is needed to put this album in its historical context. From a musical and critical perspective, the first decade following the disbanding of The Beatles was an uneven one for Paul. As musical identities of the Fab Four were now being evaluated on their own terms, the initial going was a challenge, given his penchant for simple homemade affairs (the “McCartney” album), lightweight singles (“Mary Had A Little Lamb”) and laying down the gauntlet of forming a new (gulp!) band, Wings. He also made himself an easy target by deciding to enlist his new bride Linda as his musical partner.

So, while George Harrison was releasing an opus-level album like “All Things Must Pass” and making history by marrying up rock ’n’ roll with charity and social relief, John Lennon was deep into self-exploration with his primal album and opus of his own (“Imagine”) and Ringo blasted out of the gate with a string of well-produced hit singles, it was Paul who still unjustly wore the badge of the bad guy who sued his friends to break up the band.

By the mid-’70s, all that changed as albums like “Band on the Run” and world-conquering tours (as captured on the live album “Wings Over America”) saw Paul rise again to rock’s top echelon. The records were better, if still uneven at times — for every “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Jet,” there was a “Cook of the House,” making for a convenient target, if and when critics felt the need.

Then came the ’80s, which could not have gotten off to a worse start, Beatle-wise. Paul did a brief stint in a Japanese prison for pot smuggling in January, and the bookend event in December of that year need not be relived here. In the midst of this, Paul released his second purely “solo” record, the aptly named “McCartney II,” then set about making his first fully developed solo record.
macca tug

By “developed,” I mean recorded with an outside producer. Hooking up with George Martin was a masterstroke, as it was someone whose ears and sensibilities McCartney knew he could trust to select the players and, more importantly, the material. Enter Steve Gadd, Ringo, Stevie Wonder, Carl Perkins, Eric Stewart, Stanley Clarke, and others.

Taking Paul out of his comfort zone, challenging him musically, and relieving him of ringmaster duties would prove to serve him well. As for the music, there was clearly enough material for a double record, but paring it down to the best songs for a single disc (White Album or “Red Rose Speedway” debates, anyone?) proved fortuitous; the leftovers largely formed the decidedly weaker follow-up album, “Pipes of Peace.”

The producer, the band and the songs were now sorted out; let’s examine what resulted.

There was no way this album — Paul’s first since the death of Lennon and, by extension, The Beatles (vis-à-vis any hope of them reuniting) — would not be under the microscope. You can almost imagine the editors of the then-relevant Rolling Stone wringing their hands in their self-appointed role of torch bearer in the name of St. John. Overlooked was Paul’s propensity to deliver some of his best work in the face of adversity — whether it be the aftermath of the breakup of The Beatles (“Ram”), or his band flying the coop (“Band on the Run”). This would be no exception as he delivered, well, “his best album since ‘Band on the Run.’”

“Tug of War” was unanimously hailed, even by Rolling Stone, which gave it a top rating of 5-stars. Their review cited it as the masterpiece everyone knew he could make.

Musically, McCartney tackles multiple genres in equally masterful fashion. The opening title cut, begun simply on acoustic guitar, explodes into a full-throttle assault, with a brilliant string arrangement by Martin. The closing passages are nothing less than Beatlesque. This segues into a funky pastiche called “Take It Away,” which became a Top 5 hit and sported a terrific video featuring McCartney, Martin and Starr.

After the opening pair of numbers, things settle down with a beautiful piece of patented McCartney acoustic guitar, “Somebody Who Cares,” before launching into a very solid groove for the first of two McCartney-Wonder duets, “What’s That You’re Doing,” with Paul turning in some exceptional drumming and an improvised “we love you yeah-yeah-yeah” thrown in over the closing passages for good measure. Delightful.

Then, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: With just acoustic guitar and strings, Paul turns in his heartfelt tribute to his fallen partner in “Here Today.” Written as if in conversation, it’s McCartney coming to terms with his most bare feelings. The mournful strings and dissonant chord pattern recall previous Martin-McCartney collaborationss such as “Yesterday,” yet resolve perfectly to their major chord root. Instinctively and intuitively, it is executed to perfection, underlying the song’s message and album’s theme of conflict and resolution.

This number still gets a rousing ovation (for Paul AND John) when performed live. One of his five best post-Beatles songs.

After a perfect pause, Side 2 of the LP (remember those?) opens with a rollicking “Ballroom Dancing.” It’s another nice pastiche, which came to life visually in the 1984 film “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” providing one of the few developed production numbers (and more memorable sequences) in the movie. It would make a great addition to the live set, even after all these years.

The quirky yet tuneful “The Pound Is Sinking” follows. Featuring elements of several musical genres, ranging from doo-wop to power chord-driven hard rock to vaudeville, this one is over way too soon.

The majestic “Wanderlust” is next. Built on a strong melody line/chord change pattern, this one features a gorgeous counter-point melody and lyric in the mid-section and a final verse that soars over the beautiful brass section arrangement crafted by Martin. Another of Paul’s finest compositions.

Macca and Carl Perkins during the "Tug of War" sessions.

Macca and Carl Perkins during the “Tug of War” sessions.

Taking things down a notch is a nice country-rockabilly duet with rock ’n’ roll icon Carl Perkins. “Get It” gives Paul a chance to trade off verses with someone pivotal in his (and the other Beatles’) musical development. Simple and low-key, the number features Paul taking the lead guitar with Perkins injecting “Go cat” in his best “Blue Suede Shoes” tradition. The song ends with Perkins guffawing — not at a joke between him and Paul, but apparently caught on tape having to correct Paul’s attempt at a Southern colloquialism for being well situated, as “sitting (sic) in high cotton.” Perkins’ amusement was captured and tacked on for posterity.

Another Beatles trick shows up on the album (how handy to have Martin around) with a haunting link track called “Be What You See.” Echo-laden and in a minor key, it recalls “Can You Take Me Back” from the White Album.

“Dress Me Up As a Robber,” much like “The Pound Is Sinking,” is structured around multiple musical themes (an old McCartney trademark, harking back to his early solo work like “Uncle Albert”). This time, ace flamenco-style acoustic guitar anchors the proceedings.

Perfectly placed as the album closer is the mega-hit single that preceded the album, “Ebony and Ivory,” a simple, child-like call for racial harmony sung as a duet with Wonder. While cynics will call this the nadir of Paul’s artistic credibility, I say hogwash. It’s impeccably produced, instantly hummable and a perfect pop record. A No. 1 record for seven weeks, it stands as the most successful of all post-Beatles singles.

Has it aged well? Go watch the performance the duo did at the White House a couple of years ago and you tell me.

While “Tug of War” has yet to receive the deluxe archive series treatment, it is interesting to point out that for the previous reissue series in the early ’90s, period-specific singles, B-sides (where available) and the like were tacked on as bonus cuts … except here. “I’ll Give You a Ring” and “Rainclouds” (the B-sides of “Take It Away” and “Ebony and Ivory,” respectively) and the solo version of “Ebony and Ivory” (issued on a special 12-inch single) were left by the wayside, with McCartney electing to leave this one just as it was. Not even ‘Band on the Run got such honors (with “Helen Wheels” and “Country Dreamer” jarringly and unsuitably following the crescendo and reprise that close the album proper).

Maybe that was Paul’s way of acknowledging this one as special. I’d like to think so.

The album and the Wonder duets would receive a total of five Grammy Award nominations (alas, album of the year honors went to “Toto IV”). It would not be the last such snub for Sir Paul; “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard“ (“his best record since ‘Band on …’ I mean, ‘Tug of War’”) was similarly nominated and passed over.

Begun in 1980 (a new decade, and perhaps distanced enough from the Beatles breakup), it boggles the mind to think of how working with Martin on tracks this good would have sounded had the entire band decided to work together again. John’s songs from that year’s “Double Fantasy” album are among his best, and George’s most recent self-titled album was similarly rich.

In retrospect, it’s clear that, with a decade in the rear view mirror, new peaks in their songwriting and studio efforts were just being hit.

For my money, “Tug of War” the very best of all solo Beatle albums.

— Tom Frangione

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Fans Rank Beatles’ Group and Solo Albums

How do fans rank every studio album released by The Beatles as a group or as solo artists in the 50 years from “Please Please Me” to last year’s “New”? In collaboration with Beatlefan and the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, Anthony Cusumano conducted a survey to determine just that. Here’s his report. …

Abbey-Road-Album-Cover--e1373043749226Every few years, an outlet like Rolling Stone or VH1 enlists a group of faceless rock critics to assemble its latest gargantuan list of the best albums of all time. These lists are typically populated by the same repeat offenders, with the only question mark being whether “Sgt. Pepper” or “Revolver” will nab the top spot. For listeners looking for evidence that proves Nirvana’s “Nevermind” is superior to Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” these rankings are a godsend. But those wondering where albums like “Back to the Egg” and “Gone Troppo” fall into the mix are out of luck.

To fill that void, I presented a survey in collaboration with Beatlefan and the Steve Hoffman Music Forums to determine what fans thought of every single studio album released by The Beatles as a group or as solo artists in the five-decade span between “Please Please Me” and last year’s “New.” The 94 albums fans could vote on included experimental, classical and remix albums, but not live albums, compilations or archival releases, ranking them on a scale from 1 to 10. In total, 506 fans took the survey.

On the surface, many of the results are unsurprising, but digging deeper into the votes provided some intriguing revelations, like the fact that there are at least four people who prefer “Two Virgins” to “All Things Must Pass.” (You know who you are.) Plus, the contentious battle for the top solo album — which shifted back and forth as the ballots came in — was swayed by a mere three votes. Presumably, some may have voted strategically in an effort to boost their favorite albums and/or Beatle in the ranking, but ultimately this is a ranking for Beatles fans by Beatles fans. Of course, I’m sure there will still be plenty of debate over the results, and I look forward to reading it!

So while we unfortunately cannot offer any indication of the quality of “Mind Games” relative to, say, Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” thanks to the magic of statistics we can definitively say it’s better than “Ringo’s Rotogravure.” Of course, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure that out.

Coming out on top was The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album, followed by “Revolver,” “Rubber Soul,” the White Album and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

botr coverAt No. 6 was the highest-ranking solo album, McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run.” The rest of the Top 10: Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Ram,” “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” and The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Here, starting from the bottom, is the full list of how fans ranked The Beatles’ group and solo albums:

(Author’s note: I decided to leave the soundtrack to “Everest,” which included contributions from George Harrison, out of the ranking because less than a third of the voters rated it. For the record, its average rating was 4.341.)

93. John Lennon & Yoko Ono — UNFINISHED MUSIC VOL. 2: LIFE WITH THE LIONS (1969)

AVERAGE RATING: 2.264

92. John Lennon & Yoko Ono — THE WEDDING ALBUM (1969)

AVERAGE RATING: 2.321

two virgins91. John Lennon & Yoko Ono — UNFINISHED MUSIC VOL. 1: TWO VIRGINS (1968)

AVERAGE RATING: 2.405

John and Yoko’s trio of experimental albums score the hat trick of dreadfulness, proving that listeners have yet to warm up to these records almost five decades later. It could have been worse: In a 1969 Rolling Stone interview, John promised (warned? threatened?) that an LP of the couple laughing on one side and whispering on the other was due. Alas, it never saw the light of day. “Life With the Lions” managed the impressive feat of earning a “1” from more than 50 percent of voters.

90. George Harrison — ELECTRONIC SOUND (1969)

AVERAGE RATING: 2.934

And thus, the empire of Zapple Records crumbles once again. “Electronic Sound” may have outranked label-mate “Life With the Lions,” but it has no reason to celebrate: It’s the only album that didn’t receive a single “10” vote. (It also received the highest percentage of “2” votes, with 22 percent.)

89. Ringo Starr, etc. — SCOUSE THE MOUSE (1977)

AVERAGE RATING: 3.139

While many voters were unfamiliar with this children’s album written and narrated by actor Donald Pleasance — it was only released in the U.K. and has never been issued on CD — those who have heard it clearly weren’t impressed.

88. Ringo Starr — RINGO THE 4TH (1977)

AVERAGE RATING: 3.751

“You know that I’m drowning,” Ringo sang on the opening cut here, and he had no idea how right he was. This disastrous stab at disco received the highest percentage of “4” votes, from 18 percent of voters.

87. Paul McCartney — OCEAN’S KINGDOM (2011)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.048

86. Ringo Starr — BAD BOY (1978)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.082

In perhaps the first sign that being able to claim “former Beatle” status only went so far, Ringo was unable to hold on to his Atlantic Records deal after the abysmal performance of “Ringo the 4th” and needed to find a new label. Portrait Records drew the short straw, and “Bad Boy” barely outperformed its predecessor on the charts— much like in this poll.

85. Paul McCartney, etc. — LIVERPOOL SOUND COLLAGE (2000)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.111

84. Paul McCartney — THE FAMILY WAY (1967)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.27

The first album credited to an individual Beatle is also the shortest album on the ranking, clocking in just short of 25 minutes (“Ringo 2012,” on the other hand, is a beefy 29 minutes). Paul’s score to the Hayley Mills film, conducted by George Martin, earned the highest percentage of “3” votes (18.5 percent).

83. Paul McCartney — ECCE COR MEUM (2006)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.345

82. The Fireman — STRAWBERRIES OCEANS SHIPS FORESTS (1994)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.411

81. Ringo Starr — OLD WAVE (1983)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.504

80. John Lennon & Yoko Ono — SOME TIME IN NEW YORK CITY (1972)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.612

79. Paul McCartney — STANDING STONE (1997)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.635

78. Paul McCartney — LIVERPOOL ORATORIO (1991)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.66

77. Twin Freaks — TWIN FREAKS (2005)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.717

This obscure collection mashes up various McCartney compositions with varying degrees of success — which explains why the response to it was more diverse than any other album, with a standard deviation of 2.64.

76. Percy “Thrills” Thrillington — THRILLINGTON (1977)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.721

75. George Harrison — WONDERWALL MUSIC (1968)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.782

74. Ringo Starr — RINGO 2012 (2012)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.79

73. Paul McCartney — WORKING CLASSICAL (1999)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.87

72. Ringo Starr — SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (1970)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.889

Ringo’s first solo album is one of two albums that received the same amount of “1” votes and “10” votes (10 each).

stop smell roses71. Ringo Starr — STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES (1981)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.941

70. Ringo Starr — Y NOT (2010)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.963

69. Ringo Starr — RINGO’S ROTOGRAVURE (1976)

AVERAGE RATING: 4.984

68. The Fireman — RUSHES (1998)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.136

67. Ringo Starr — I WANNA BE SANTA CLAUS (1999)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.14

66. Ringo Starr — CHOOSE LOVE (2005)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.154

65. Ringo Starr — LIVERPOOL 8 (2008)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.276

64. Ringo Starr — BEAUCOUPS OF BLUES (1970)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.344

A second string of four consecutive Ringo albums, interrupted only by “Rushes.” Of the 17 albums that make up the core Ringo Starr discography, 12 are in the bottom 30 (as is “Scouse the Mouse”). By contrast, the only other conventional pop-rock record that has appeared on the ranking thus far is “Some Time in New York City.”

63. Paul McCartney — GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET (1984)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.446

A McCartney pop album makes its first appearance on the ranking with the soundtrack to his flop film about missing master tapes. For those keeping score, this means that George Harrison has the honor of having the best “worst solo album” …

62. George Harrison — GONE TROPPO (1982)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.626

… But clearly it isn’t that much better.

extra texture61. George Harrison — EXTRA TEXTURE (READ ALL ABOUT IT) (1975)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.655

Arguably the gloomiest Harrison album — if not in the entire Beatle catalog — “Extra Texture” received a higher percentage of “6” votes than any other album (23 percent).

60. Paul McCartney — DRIVING RAIN (2001)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.675

59. Paul McCartney — PIPES OF PEACE (1983)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.743

58. Paul McCartney — KISSES ON THE BOTTOM (2012)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.8

57. Paul McCartney — PRESS TO PLAY (1986)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.82

56. Ringo Starr — RINGO RAMA (2003)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.841

55. Ringo Starr — VERTICAL MAN (1998)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.843

“Vertical Man” is the other album to receive an equal number of “1” votes and “10” votes (12 each).

54. George Harrison — DARK HORSE (1974)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.949

Best remembered for George’s rough vocals, more voters felt neutral about this album than any other, with more than 21 percent giving it a “5.”

53. Ringo Starr — TIME TAKES TIME (1992)

AVERAGE RATING: 5.965

Though it failed to hit the charts in 1992, “Time Takes Time” outranks every other Ringo album from the past 40 years on this list. Only two of his solo releases appear in the top 50.

52. Paul McCartney — OFF THE GROUND (1993)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.069

51. George Harrison — SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND (1981)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.113

wild life cover50. Wings — WILD LIFE (1971)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.131

Wings had nowhere to go but up, as their debut album was voted the weakest of their seven studio albums.

49. John Lennon & Yoko Ono — MILK AND HONEY (1984)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.151

48. The Beatles — YELLOW SUBMARINE (1969)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.229

There was never any question that “Yellow Submarine” would be the lowest-rated album of the band’s core collection — John Lennon once referred to it as a “joke” for its inclusion of George Martin’s orchestral soundtrack. Voters didn’t fully agree with Lennon’s assessment, but it still just misses the cutoff for the top half.

47. Ringo Starr — GOODNIGHT VIENNA (1974)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.349

46. John Lennon — ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (1975)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.39

45. Paul McCartney — McCARTNEY II (1980)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.407

44. Paul McCartney and Wings — RED ROSE SPEEDWAY (1973)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.544

43. Wings — WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND (1976)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.716

42. John Lennon — MIND GAMES (1973)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.72

“Mind Games” received the highest percentage of “7” votes of any album (26 percent).

41. The Fireman — ELECTRIC ARGUMENTS (2008)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.768

40. Wings — LONDON TOWN (1978)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.77

39. George Harrison — THIRTY-THREE & 1/3 (1976)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.802

38. Paul McCartney — CHOBA B CCCP (THE RUSSIAN ALBUM) (1988)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.88

37. George Harrison — LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (1973)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.928

36. The Traveling Wilburys — VOL. 3 (1990)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.939

35. Paul McCartney — RUN DEVIL RUN (1999)

AVERAGE RATING: 6.952

34. George Harrison — GEORGE HARRISON (1979)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.016

33. Paul McCartney — MEMORY ALMOST FULL (2007)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.129

32. Wings — BACK TO THE EGG (1979)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.155

31. Paul McCartney — FLOWERS IN THE DIRT (1989)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.47

30. John Lennon & Yoko Ono — DOUBLE FANTASY (1980)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.481

29. John Lennon — WALLS AND BRIDGES (1974)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.493

Listen to this statistic: “Walls and Bridges” narrowly edged out “Help!” as receiving the highest percentage of “8” votes by less than one one-hundredth of a percent (26.55 percent), and is one of just two solo albums with a single “1” vote.

28. George Harrison — BRAINWASHED (2002)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.537

27. Paul McCartney — CHAOS AND CREATION IN THE BACKYARD (2005)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.665

26. The Beatles — BEATLES FOR SALE (1964)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.673

25. Paul McCartney — McCARTNEY (1970)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.703

Paul’s DIY solo debut is forever linked to The Beatles’ bitter breakup, and received decidedly mixed reviews at the time of its release. Four decades later, fans responded well to “McCartney,” one of only two solo albums that did not receive a single “1” vote.

24. Paul McCartney — NEW (2013)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.714

Oddly enough, Paul’s earliest and most recent solo albums appear back-to-back on the countdown.

23. Wings — VENUS AND MARS (1975)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.768

22. The Beatles — LOVE (2006)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.785

Purists may scoff at the idea of remixing The Beatles, but voters couldn’t deny the magic of tracks like the “Within You Without You”/”Tomorrow Never Knows” mash-up. Still, this is a surprisingly high showing for the soundtrack to the Cirque de Soleil show, and by far the best performance of any album that isn’t a standard pop-rock release.

21. The Beatles — PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.808

with beatles cover20. The Beatles — WITH THE BEATLES (1963)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.849

19. Paul McCartney — TUG OF WAR (1982)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.93

“Tug of War” is the other album that received just one “1” vote.

18. Paul McCartney — FLAMING PIE (1997)

AVERAGE RATING: 7.933

17. George Harrison — CLOUD 9 (1987)

AVERAGE RATING: 8

16. Ringo Starr — RINGO (1973)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.013

15. The Beatles — LET IT BE (1970)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.075

14. The Beatles — HELP! (1965)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.257

13. The Traveling Wilburys — VOL. 1 (1988)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.361

12. John Lennon — IMAGINE (1971)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.481

“Imagine” received a higher percentage of “9” votes than any other album (27 percent) — John just can’t escape that number, can he?

11. The Beatles — MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.629

10. The Beatles — A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.705

9. John Lennon — JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO BAND (1970)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.706

John’s solo debut just narrowly tops “AHDN” in the closest race of the entire countdown.

8. Paul & Linda McCartney — RAM (1971)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.729

Once deemed “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock” in an infamous Rolling Stone review, “Ram” is clearly no longer a black sheep in the McCartney discography. It stands with its predecessor “McCartney” as the only solo albums that did not receive any “1” votes.

7. George Harrison — ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970)

AVERAGE RATING: 8.99

While this received a higher percentage of “10” votes than any other solo album (49.46 percent vs. 49.24 percent for “Band on the Run”), some voters docked points for the “Apple Jam” disc. Had just seven “9” voters boosted their vote to a “10” — or if the three voters who gave Harrison’s triple album a “1” didn’t rate it at all— “ATMP” would have edged out the Wings classic.

6. Paul McCartney and Wings — BAND ON THE RUN (1973)

AVERAGE RATING: 9.031

5. The Beatles — SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1967)

AVERAGE RATING: 9.296

Interestingly, “Sgt. Pepper” is tied with “Yellow Submarine” for the most “1” votes of any Beatles album, with two. That may not sound like a lot, but had it received just one, like the #4 album on the countdown, the two would have swapped places.

4. The Beatles — THE BEATLES [THE WHITE ALBUM] (1968)

AVERAGE RATING: 9.3

3. The Beatles — RUBBER SOUL (1965)

AVERAGE RATING: 9.366

2. The Beatles — REVOLVER (1966)

AVERAGE RATING: 9.588

1. The Beatles — ABBEY ROAD (1969)

AVERAGE RATING: 9.681

A whopping 80 percent of voters elected to give “Abbey Road” a perfect “10” rating. For comparison’s sake, about 77.5 percent of “Revolver” votes went for the top rating, while the rest of the top five hovered around 60 percent. Only four voters gave “Abbey Road” a rating of less than “7,” ensuring that it easily had the least variation of any album, with a standard deviation of just 0.78.

Average rating of John Lennon albums: 7.004 (rock albums only), 5.729 (all albums)

Average rating of Paul McCartney/Wings albums: 6.966 (rock albums only), 6.219 (all albums)

Average rating of George Harrison/Traveling Wilburys albums: 6.993 (rock albums only), 6.398 (all albums)

Average rating of Ringo Starr albums: 5.165

Average rating of Beatles albums: 8.446

Average rating of all albums: 6.82 (rock albums only), 6.32 (all albums)

— Anthony Cusumano

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L.A. Fest a Hit With Beatles Fans

The granddaddy of Beatles fan conventions, the Fest for Beatles Fans (formerly known as Beatlefest), returned recently to Los Angeles for the first time in 14 years. Correspondent Peter Palmiere was on hand and filed this report. …

fest logoJohn Lennon once said that Elvis might have done the right thing staying away so long because people missed him so much. After an absence of 14 years, the Fest for Beatles Fans added an L.A. show this year, and fans generally gave it two thumbs up.

A good gathering of guests, a somewhat healthy flea market, great live performances, entertaining speakers and a reunion of old Beatle friends made for the most high-energy, enjoyable Fest since the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Producer Mark Lapidos was greatly aided this time by the services of publicist Jean Sievers, who handles the likes of Brian Wilson and Rockaway Records. Sievers launched a media blitz utilizing the Web, a billboard overlooking the 405 freeway (a major artery in Los Angeles), magazines and local TV and radio.

KLOS helped sponsor the event; their very own Chris Carter was the Fest emcee.

The flea market was in two different ballrooms — one exclusively devoted to The Beatles and a flea market for other great finds. The tables were sold out and there was a wide variety of interesting items available.

The big highlight in terms of displays belonged to Rockaway Records, which had two major items of interest on consignment. The first was the original wall from “The Ed Sullivan Show” stage autographed by the Fab Four; it boasted a $500,000 price tag. The other was the actual contracts that were signed by Vee-Jay Records and EMI giving Vee-Jay the right to release Beatle records in the USA. That asking price was $100,000. Although the items went unsold, they brought a lot of people to the tables.

Other veteran sellers of memorabilia, including Jim Hansen of Austin and Cliff Yamasaki of San Francisco, were there. Oddly enough, there was not an abundance of vinyl. Only Hansen, Rockaway and Freakbeat Records had any. At all. The crowd inside the flea market bought a healthy amount of vinyl and were clamoring for more. Bootlegs were present, but not out in the open — vendors perhaps being mindful of the 1998 bust.

The main complaint about the flea market was the absence of vendors and collectors from the U.K., Japan and Mexico. The vendors were somewhat reasonable with pricing — nothing too outrageous, with only a couple of exceptions. Most vendors did very well in terms of business.

Guest speakers Bob Eubanks, Freda Kelly and Mark Rivera were very entertaining. Eubanks shared his story of booking The Beatles into the Hollywood Bowl and gave glimpses into their personalities at the time. Kelly, who was Brian Epstein’s Beatles Fan Club secretary, gave an engaging talk about her experiences. The warmth of her voice and personality made her talk an engaging one. You could see why Brian and The Beatles trusted her so much. Mark Rivera mainly spoke about his experience with the All Starr Band and how Ringo played on Rivera’s new album.

Legendary drummer Hal Blaine (right) with Tom Frangione.

Legendary drummer Hal Blaine (right) with Tom Frangione.

Also on hand for the first time was legendary session drummer Hal Blaine. He drummed on many classic ’60s hits, including those by Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys and, of course, the legendary Phil Spector-John Lennon rock ’n’ roll sessions. He said Spector fired a gun while in the studio with Lennon during the sessions and also when Stevie Wonder came in to visit.

Blaine also said Lennon was always respectful to the musicians at the sessions, despite being drunk most of the time. Conversely, he was quite rude and disrespectful of any executive or producer who came through the door.

He also stated that Ringo was a great force in rock ’n’ roll because of both his drumming and his persona. Blaine had recently spoken to session drummer Bernard Purdie, who admitted his statements regarding his drumming on many Beatles classics were untrue. The only thing he drummed on were the Tony Sheridan tracks issued by Atco Records.

Although Blaine’s interaction with The Beatles was limited, he received a huge standing ovation at the end. People knew of his playing on so many hits they loved and remembered.

Onstage: Mark Rivera, Denny Laine, Joey Molland and Mark Hudson. (Photo by Jude Southerland Kessler)

Onstage: Mark Rivera, Denny Laine, Joey Molland and Mark Hudson. (Photo by Jude Southerland Kessler)

The performers at the Fest — including Joey Molland, Billy J. Kramer, Mark Hudson, Rivera and three members of Wings: Denny Laine, Denny Seiwell and Laurence Juber — gave spirited performances.

The performance highlight, though, went to former Apple Records exec Peter Asher, who entertained the audience with concert performances of Peter and Gordon songs, reminiscing about his career, and showing vintage video clips. Through the magic of video, his show included a performance of “True Love Ways” with the late Gordon Waller of Peter and Gordon. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house and the performance was given a huge standing ovation.

Asher, to his credit, did a full two-hour show, despite being jet-lagged. He took a transatlantic flight from Britain to Los Angeles, going onstage a scant two hours after his arrival.

Finally, I spoke at length with Mark Hudson, Ringo’s former long-time producer. Hudson said that the relationship between him and Ringo was in the healing stages; they were discussing putting out a CD this summer called “Demo Daze,” which would consist of songs that they made as demos but which didn’t make the cut on any of Ringo’s solo records. Ringo likes the idea or, in Hudson’s words, “Ringo loves demos! He likes bootlegs, too.”

Hudson has hopes this could lead to a full reconciliation, both personally and professionally, with Ringo.

Hudson also revealed his favorite track off the “Vertical Man” album was “What in the … World,” which he wanted released as a single instead of “La-De-Da.” His favorite tracks on the Christmas album they did together were “Come On Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland.” And, Hudson said, the line about “It’s a bad point of view / If Pat Boone got through to you” in “Memphis in Your Mind was a direct result of Ringo’s hatred of the fact that Boone had a hit with Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” in the USA.

Lapidos also had a huge gathering of Beatle authors for the Fest that included Bruce Spizer, Chuck Gunderson, Al Sussman and Wally Podrazik. Beatlefan Contributing Editor Tom Frangione did an onstage interview with Lapidos at the convention.

While those who attended were very pleased with this year’s L.A. Fest, attendance was disappointing, with most estimates running in the 3,000 range for the weekend, which leaves you wondering whether the Fest will return again to L.A. next year.

— Peter Palmiere

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August 1969: Some Kind of Innocence …

beatles august 69

(This memoir by Bill King originally was published in Beatlefan #90, September, 1994, to mark the 25th anniversary of these events. We thought it would be a good way of now noting the 45th anniversary.)

It’s a year for anniversaries. Beatlemania. D-Day. And observances of the I-remember-where-I-was events that packed that yin-yang summer of 1969.

Yes, I remember Woodstock. I was there.

OK, so I wasn’t up to my ears in sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and mud on Max Yasgur’s New York farm. But I was in Woodstock, in Georgia’s Appalachian foothills, where my family was “roughing it” for a week in a rustic cottage — complete with color TV with which to stay in touch with the rest of the world, which seemed to be going mad.

So it is that my memories of Woodstock and the Manson Family killings forever are entwined with images of us sitting at the breakfast table, trying to pick millions of tiny bones out of the catfish we’d snagged in Lake Allatoona.

It was as if the spicy social and cultural gumbo that was the ’60s was boiling over in the latter days of summer as my senior year of high school approached. Already in July, we’d had the wild contrast of the investiture of the Prince of Wales in an ancient ceremony and the modern marvel of man walking on the moon — both telecast live around the world via satellite.

A few days after the moon landing, Teddy Kennedy, who earlier that year was the fifth most admired man in America in a Gallup Poll, had gone on national TV to try explain Mary Jo Kopechne’s death in his car at Chappaquidick.

And then, that jam-packed week at the lake, we heard of the bizarre and bloody Beverly Hills murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends, followed by the similar slaughter of an L.A. grocer and his wife the next day … Northern Ireland erupting as Catholics and Protestants took their age-old hatred into the streets, prompting the introduction of British troops … the gathering of more than 400,000 at that place in New York with the same name as our vacation site for a three-day rock fest that became a cultural watershed … and Hurricane Camille tearing up the Gulf Coast, killing 283.

We didn’t know it yet, but another cultural upheaval was taking place in London,where The Beatles were burning out in a creative supernova. The day before Sharon Tate was butchered, the Fab Four strolled across a certain zebra walk that was to be immortalized in the most famous record album cover of all time.

Even for those of us who lived it, 1969 seems like another world … a world where the hot new home entertainment item was the 8-track tape; the hottest new band was Creedence Clearwater Revival; Johnny Cash was pioneering country crossover; adolescent boys were falling in love with Olivia Hussey of “Romeo & Juliet” while Henry Mancini had an unexpected chart-topper with the film’s theme song; and Hollywood was courting the burgeoning youth market, with “Goodbye Columbus,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Midnight Cowboy.” A film that satirized the new sexual freedom, “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” was due out soon and “I Am Curious (Yellow)” was testing pornography laws across the country.

TV’s tame answer to all this sexual license fell well short of Broadway’s nudity-laced “Hair” and “Oh! Caluctta!,” but some ABC affiliates nevertheless were nervous about the new comedic anthology, “Love, American Style.”  The networks were on their own youth kick, with Michael Parks roaming the country in search of the Meaning of Life in “Then Came Bronson,” cool teens and caring teachers addressing relevant concerns in “Room 222,” and Aaron Spelling trying to follow up on his “Mod Squad” success with “The New People,” about a group of college kids stranded on a Pacific island who must start all over. For our little brothers and sisters, there was a goofy new sitcom about this lovely lady with three daughters who met this man with three sons of his own. …

As school got underway, we seniors briefly lost and regained our off-campus lunch privilege; we argued the upcoming Vietnam Moratorium Day nationwide anti-war protest in Coach Warlick’s Current Affairs class; we still watched “Dark Shadows” when we got home; and, in the latter half of September, tracks from the forthcoming “Abbey Road” album started showing up on the radio. Stations in a few cities also began programming the rough-hewn tracks from the abortive “Get Back” album, taken from advance acetates that had leaked out.

A taste of the times can be had via the “Posters, Incense, and Strobe Candles” bootleg, taken from a recording of WBCN in Boston airing the “Get Back” album on Sept. 22, 1969.

That same night, on my 17th birthday, The Beatles were seen on TV in a disjointed promotional film for the summer hit “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (with a drum beat replacing each mention of “Christ” and a couple of minutes of “Give Peace a Chance” from that May’s Montreal Bed-In inserted in the middle).

The occasion was the star-loaded premiere — with Tom Jones, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Oliver, Buck Owens, Three Dog Night and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young also on the bill — of ABC’s “The Music Scene,” a hip but ultimately short-lived variation on “Your Hit Parade” notable mainly for introducing Lily Tomlin.

Leafing through a TV Guide from that week, and listening to that “Get Back” bootleg, I am swept back to a time when outrage still was tempered with hope, that heady mix of anything-goes and lingering innocence made life a thrilling adventure of discovery,  there seemed to be no limits to what we could do … and when, not coincidentally, The Beatles were at the apex of their musical and cultural influence, a presence so powerful and pervasive that it crossed almost all socio-economic boundaries.

For our children, it must be difficult to fathom the unique position the Fabs had in 1969. But if they imagine the combined impact of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, David Letterman, Kurt Cobain, Fabio, Madonna and, yes, even dead Elvis — and multiply it several times — they might come close.

The Beatles occupied a sort of pop culture Mount Olympus. No mere stars, their every move triggered worldwide interest and trends. Their lyrics and even their album covers were examined for meanings in the uniquely ’60s belief that these rock ’n’ roll demi-gods must know something we didn’t.

(This, of course, resulted not only in that ludicrous media uproar in the fall of ’69 now known as the Paul-is-dead hoax, but also in the revelation at the Manson trial a few months later that Crazy Charlie considered The Beatles to be higher beings who were sending him messages through their music. “Helter Skelter,” he believed, foretold an impending race war and was the alert for him to get on the right side by slaughtering some pigs. In reality, it used playground imagery as an analogy for sex.)

Back then, The Beatles were so unbelievably hip that we figured anything they did must be hip, even if it didn’t appear so on the surface. I remember when I first heard the “Abbey Road” album: A group of us had gathered at a schoolmate’s house to work on a Senior English class report (something boring by Joseph Conrad) and it wasn’t long before our attention wavered and we adjourned to Mary’s basement bedroom to listen to the new Beatles LP, which I hadn’t yet scraped up the bucks to buy.

Anyway, we listened in awe as Mary guided us through “Abbey Road,” and I’ll never forget her preface to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which today is viewed in the same light in which The Beatles themselves saw it — as the “corny” one — but which Mary, who was known as one of the school’s artsy intellectuals, imbued with some unknown quasi-mystical meaning beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals.

“This one is too far out,” she said breathlessly as the song began.

And, you know, listening to the tale of Maxwell Edison and his deadly silver hammer in the wake of the summer of ’69 … well, it did seem that way.

2014 POSTSCRIPT: I recently sent this piece to Mary, who at first didn’t recognize herself in it, and then was bemused that I described her as an “artsy intellectual.” She also couldn’t believe she had ever used the phrase “too far out.” I can’t swear those were her exact words, but that’s definitely how I remembered it 20 years ago, and still do. I also should note that, while I’m not sure anyone would have described me as an “artsy intellectual” in 1969, that’s the group I mostly hung out with in high school.

 

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