PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Some Time in New York City’

Our latest installment in an exclusive series of articles on solo Beatles albums of the past features Wally Podrazik’s  re-evaluation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s controversial 1972 collection “Some Time in New York City,” an album that still draws negative reviews but, nonetheless, is recommended for both musical and historical reasons. …

 some time album cover

The John & Yoko Show Hits the Mainstream

Paul McCartney has been the target of some angry fan jibes online for the collaborative company he’s been keeping lately, most vocally about releases with rapper Kanye West. Those comments might seem like an extraordinary reaction to his artistic choices until you flip back the calendar. In the immediate post-Beatles era of the early 1970s, McCartney was the target of snide comments about multiple musical matters, from Linda McCartney at his side on disc to the perceived fluffy nature of some of his compositions.

Those paled, though, in comparison with the unbridled takedown that accompanied John Lennon’s 1972 release, “Some Time in New York City.” That two-record set (credited to John & Yoko, backed by the Elephant’s Memory band) reflected the issues and ideologies of the company they were keeping at the time. The likes of Jerry Rubin (a central figure in the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention protests) and David Peel (who recorded the album “The Pope Smokes Dope”). Radical artists. Street activists. War critics.

Such associations did not go down well. “Some Time in New York City” served as a lightning rod for everyone ready to share their annoyance at John and Yoko’s participation in those efforts. Or who just wanted to vent over the couple’s years of public posturing and/or offbeat art projects.

Under the headline “Banal Balladry,” the Milwaukee Sentinel opened its article on the album (back when local papers devoted time and space to their own original reviews) with the observation from the Heartland that “When music talk turns to pretension, sooner or later you arrive at the names of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In most cases, it will be sooner.” The article went on to dismiss the album contents as a “shrill superficial look at trendy leftist politics” with lyrics that ranged “from crude to bland.”

The passage of time hardly moderated the barbs. Marking the 2010 reissue of the remastered John Lennon catalog, the magazine Uncut described that set as “a contender for the worst LP by a major musical figure,” noting its 1970s left-wing clichés were “hamstrung by the utter absence of conviction within the melodies and lyrics.” The Rolling Stone retrospective at the same time called the original release “a disastrous double album of simplistic sloganeering.”

Even given that such negative judgments still linger, “Some Time in New York City” is nonetheless recommended here for both a musical and historical visit.

Here’s why:

Historically, “Some Time in New York City” held a special place of affection for John Lennon.

During David Sheff’s lengthy 1980 interviews with Lennon and Yoko Ono (for publication in Playboy  magazine), “Some Time in New York City” was the only album to earn a personal pause and callout as Lennon was reviewing his body of work, disc by disc. Sheff noted Lennon gazing at the jacket and observing, “Man, it’s nice to see this.”

With the impending release of “Double Fantasy” later in 1980, that nostalgic connection back eight years was understandable. To that point, the 1972 release of “Some Time in New York City” was the only other instance of John & Yoko issuing a mainstream music album together.

Not John on one side, Yoko on the other (as in “Live Peace in Toronto” or Lennon solo singles from “Give Peace a Chance” to “Power to the People”). Not simultaneous solo releases (as with the pair of 1970 John Lennon/Yoko Ono “Plastic Ono Band” albums, or the companion 1971 Lennon “Imagine” and Ono “Fly”). Those accommodations had allowed Lennon fans who did not care for Ono’s music to easily walk on by.

Previous releases credited to “John and Yoko” had been the experimental art pieces (“Two Virgins,” “Life with the Lions” and “Wedding Album”), which had been seen and heard by very few.

“Some Time in New York City” was different. This was a heavily promoted collection of rock and pop songs (many co-authored), co-produced with Phil Spector and presented as a true collaborative showcase by John and Yoko, who took turns on lead vocals throughout the album and even shared a few duets.

The first tease of their joint approach had hit late in 1971 with the successful Christmas single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” credited to John & Yoko (co-producing with Phil Spector). Although John’s vocal dominated, Yoko’s voice was also clearly in the mix throughout.

In fact, the popular success of that holiday release might have been seen as evidence that the world was ready at last for the John and Yoko show to take the mainstream record release stage.

It was not.

“Some Time in New York City” stalled on Billboard’s top album charts in July 1972, never cracking the Top 40 during its short four-month run. The lead single was even less successful and spent a mere five weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 without breaking into the Top 50.

Yet, some four decades later, it is still easy to appreciate John Lennon’s affection. The album perfectly captured the subject matter of the title: This was John and Yoko’s scrapbook clippings from the opening days of their very public lives in their adopted new home — a memorable inaugural time in New York City. Their words and music and activism reflected the people, places and influences in their lives.

Even more important, it reflected what seemed to be a newcomer’s enthusiastic embrace of the American way. They were eager to be part of it all, to devote their artists’ sensibilities to political pursuits on the issues of the day, residing in the hip and politically active circles in and around New York City.

The gatefold record package looked like a newspaper, with the album title set in New York Times-like typeface, from “JOKO Press,” “Late City Edition.” Seven columns of text (the song lyrics) covered the front and back sides, peppered with photos and oblique drop-in poetry and verse (“There are no birds in Viet-Nam”), along with a call to action (“Register to Vote”).

The mailing side of the petition and a card included in the album package.

The mailing side of the petition and a card included in the album package.

Appropriately, a pre-printed “Justice for John and Yoko” petition was part of the original “Some Time in New York City” album packaging, urging fans to show their support for allowing “John Lennon and Yoko Ono to live and work freely in our country.” (All of these details are best appreciated via the original 12-inch vinyl LP-size release)

By 1972, though, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had been staging art events and promoting various causes for half a decade. For some, there was John and Yoko fatigue, a sense of “enough already.”

In their separate record releases, they had managed to sidestep such reactions by focusing on poetic imagery (as in John’s “Imagine”), abstract sound play (as in Yoko’s vocal gymnastics), and classic rock riffs (as on “Live Peace in Toronto”).

With “Some Time in New York City” they brought a newspaper op-ed page to life against a volatile backdrop of generational and social conflict: racial tensions, the Vietnam war, anti-war protests, the celebration of drugs, free speech conflicts, and the ongoing re-election campaign of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Among the general public, there were strong opinions on all sides of these topics.

For record buyers looking for a new John Lennon music collection (or at least collaborations more like “Happy Xmas”), the approach taken by “Some Time in New York City” was akin to a contemporary TV viewer looking for a favorite entertainment channel and instead being stuck spending some time with an MSNBC or a Fox cable news diatribe. The music was solid enough, but the lyrics throughout the album pushed aside a sense of decorum in favor of activist engagement.

“Some Time in New York City” offered blunt polemics on such topics as activist Angela Davis (“Angela”), headline-grabbing American prison confrontations (“Attica State”), a life-is-a-prison lament (“Born in a Prison”), feminism set to a pop beat (“Sisters O Sisters”), repressive marijuana laws (“John Sinclair”), generations of conflict between the Irish and the English (“Luck of the Irish”), and the specific events of the January 1972 shooting of protesting civilians by British soldiers in Northern Ireland (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”).

Picture sleeve for the album's single.

Picture sleeve for the album’s single.

However, the track that probably sealed the sales fate of “Some Time in New York City” was its one-and-only single. With the deliberately provocative use in the title and main chorus of what is now usually referenced as just “the N-word,” Lennon virtually guaranteed that “Woman Is the N*gger of the World” would not receive radio play. It may well have been intended as an artistic allegory about suppression and exploitation (first expressed by co-author Ono), but it came off as highly charged and inappropriate.

As just another track, perhaps buried deep in the two-disc set, it might have slipped by, but as the album opener and promoted single, the song struck some as uncomfortable and in-your-face. Lennon and Ono brought the song to Dick Cavett’s show in May 1972 to promote the album, and only strong efforts by the host kept it from being excised from the pre-taped program.

And yet … scattered throughout this album were moments of aching beauty (“Luck of the Irish”), lyrical playfulness (“New York City”), and killer craft (“John Sinclair”). Yoko Ono’s best solo composition came in the driving dance number “We’re All Water” with its “can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head” imagery of President Nixon and Chairman Mao Tse-tung dancing naked (a doctored photo of the political leaders appeared on the front cover, itself another source of controversy, leading to stickers covering the image).

Oddly, the “bonus” second disc of the set provided one of the more accessible and radio-friendly offerings, a live cover version of the decidedly nonpolitical oldie “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” (a 1958 hit by The Olympics). That was part of a guest appearance by John and Yoko at a 1971 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention concert at the Fillmore East. Lennon described the number as one he had not performed since his days at the Cavern.

The 1992 Frank Zappa album that included John and Yoko's performance.

The 1992 Frank Zappa album that included John and Yoko’s performance.

The remainder of the bonus disc included additional riffs from Zappa’s show on one side, experimental sound collages that blended one to another. (Two decades after the “Some Time in New York City” release, Zappa issued his own full version of this concert night on the album “Playground Psychotics,” marking the times and titles differently, including a retitle for Yoko Ono’s “Au” as “A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono.”)

The other side of the bonus disc featured “Cold Turkey” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko” as performed live in December 1969 at the Lyceum Ballroom in London for a UNICEF charity concert, with George Harrison as one of the backing musicians.

Still, the perceived preachy nature of the studio songs left the album with its reputation for being “a tough listen,” then and now. The short chart life of “Some Time in New York City” in 1972 also brought to an end a continuous eight-year run (back to February 1964) by Beatles and solo releases on Billboard’s top albums chart, another strike against the set.

But could “Some Time in New York City” have been saved? With a different lead single, say the “Ballad of John and Yoko”-like “New York City”? Additional tracks? Fewer tracks?  For a 2005 reissue, Yoko Ono took one alternative approach: cutting the release to a single CD. In the process, some of the running times were trimmed and most of the live Zappa concert material on the original Disc 2 was jettisoned, leaving only the live “Cold Turkey,” “Don’t Worry Kyoko” and the oldie “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go).” In addition, both sides of the “Happy Xmas” single were added. For the 2010 remastering, though, the set was restored to its full length.

That really is the way to go today, because it is true to the original intent of the album. You may not agree with all of what’s sung, but there’s no doubt that it represents a glimpse into the creative souls of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the time.

The front and back of the album's gatefold cover.

The front and back of the album’s gatefold cover.

Lennon’s participation in the early 1970s political era has also drawn the attention of admiring scholars, chroniclers and artists such as writer Jon Wiener (“Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files”) and filmmaker John Scheinfeld (“The U.S. vs. John Lennon”), in part because it was an authentic and wholly unnecessary commitment to issues by a star. It resulted in far more than generating whining Internet complaints. There were real personal consequences to this political involvement, in critical and sales popularity and, most importantly, in personal well-being, as government forces pushed back, through official and unofficial channels.

All those issues aside, though, how do the songs stack up in the 21st century?

A number of the studio tracks ultimately lost the battle against their own lyrics (“Sisters O Sisters,” “Born in a Prison” and “Angela”). However, four are unqualified keepers: “New York City” (for its rapid fire autobiographical narrative), “John Sinclair” (for its killer Lennon slide guitar licks), “Luck of the Irish” (with its evocative music and imagery that manages to weave lyrics about torture and genocide into pure poetry, sung by both Lennon and Ono), and the live “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go).”

In the next tier down, “N-word” aside, “Woman Is” confidently shows off the brassy, wall-of-sound Phil Spector producing style. Both “Attica State” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” have an aggressive driving edge, turning their chronicles of authority outrage into rallying rhythmic chants. “We’re All Water” gives Yoko Ono the closing number, though its dance club riffs go on (and on) to “Hey Jude” length.”

Perhaps the best reason to listen to “Some Time in New York City,” though, is that it stands as a helpful guide to better appreciating the finesse of “Double Fantasy” in 1980. Without overt political posturing, that later album pulled off an even more aggressive back-and-forth programming approach between Lennon and Ono lead vocals, to far less consternation.

By then, it seemed that the world was ready at last for the John and Yoko show to return and take the mainstream record-release stage. Looking to the future, but informed by the past. Still in New York City, but in a very different time.

Walter J. Podrazik

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PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Living in the Material World’

Our latest installment in a series of articles looking back at solo Beatles albums of the past features Brad Hundt’s re-evaluation of George Harrison’s 1973 collection “Living in the Material World,” an album once bashed by some as sour and sanctimonious. Viewed now in the context of Harrison’s complete canon, Hundt thinks it showcases many of George’s best virtues …

living album cover

 

A Visit to Harrison’s Spiritual World

As I noted in an article for Beatlefan two years ago to mark the 40th anniversary of George Harrison’s “Living in the Material World,” the first copy of that album I purchased reeked of incense for years after I brought it home, thanks to its having lingered in the bins at a head shop in Toledo, Ohio, where the scented sticks burned at levels one would typically associate with an industrial site.

It never bothered me, though. In fact, it seemed wholly appropriate, given the nature of “Living in the Material World.”

As Harrison’s musical career hit the shoals in the latter half of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, fans and critics tended to see “Living in the Material World” as the point where the decline began. Sure, it contained a No. 1 hit single, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” and the album itself was a chart-topper, but they bemoaned the sour mood that hangs over parts of  it, the occasional bursts of sanctimoniousness, and its heavy infusion of Krishna consciousness.

From “All Things Must Pass” to “Brainwashed,” Harrison explored his spiritual inclinations, but never to the extent that he did on “Living in the Material World.”

A Last Supper-style album photo of Harrison and friends at Friar Park.

A Last Supper-style album photo of Harrison and friends at Friar Park.

Four decades later, and with Harrison’s canon now complete (unless a trove of unreleased material emerges), it’s possible to see “Living in the Material World” in a different light. While not attaining the grandeur of “All Things Must Pass” or possessing the warmth and accessibility of “Cloud Nine,” “Living in the Material World” showcases many of Harrison’s best virtues — tasteful production, top-tier guitar playing and songs that are insistently melodic.

“Living in the Material World” opens with “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” probably the only song ever to go to No. 1 that was about the desire to be free of the cycle of birth and rebirth that figures so heavily in Eastern philosophy. It has a piano part by Nicky Hopkins that echoes Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” and is the first showcase for Harrison’s slide guitar on the disc.

A bit of religious mockery from Harrison.

A bit of religious mockery from Harrison.

The album moves on to “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” which finds Harrison in a more humorous — and more biting — mode. Originally given to guitarist Jesse Ed Davis for his album “Ululu,” the slide guitar stings as Harrison offers up an ode to the legal problems swirling around Apple Corps and The Beatles, with the lines “court receiver / laughs and thrills  / but in the end, we just pay those lawyers their bills…” It’s one of the album’s most memorable – and best – tracks.

“The Light That Has Lighted the World,” originally offered to fellow Liverpudlian Cilla Black, finds Harrison musing how “some people have said that I’ve changed” and these same people are “so hateful of anyone who is happy or free.”

“Who Can See It,” also on the album’s first side, continues in this vein, using a gospel-style piano and organ introduction for a reflection on how he has been “held up” and “run down” and how he’d been “towing the line” for years. However, Harrison offers defiance in saying that “my life belongs to me…”

What led Harrison to this defensive posture after the triumphs of “All Things Must Pass” and “The Concert for Bangladesh” is something for an in-depth biography to explore.

Sandwiched between those two songs is “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long,” the single-that-never-was from the album. A breezy, simple offering, with touches of Phil Spector-style grandiosity, it demonstrates Harrison’s ongoing affection for soul and rhythm & blues.

The album’s first side closes with the title track, a rocking statement about Harrison’s desire to slip the bounds of earthly yearning and head to “the spiritual sky.” It contains autobiographical elements, including references to the other three Beatles, with Ringo Starr offering a drum fillip after Harrison sings that they “got Richie on a tour.”

More album art from "Living in the Material World."

More album art from “Living in the Material World.”

The second side of “Living in the Material World” opens with “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord),” the album’s nadir and one of the low points of Harrison’s career. It’s a finger-pointing exercise in sanctimony, and Harrison sounds like a fundamentalist minister railing about how we all must get right with the Lord, otherwise if we don’t give, “then (we) won’t get lovin,” along with cliched admonishments that the Lord “helps those that help themselves.” This would have been one better left for the cutting-room floor.

However, the album gets back on track with the lovely “Be Here Now,” an underrated Harrisong that, like The Beatles’ “The Inner Light” five years before, puts Eastern philosophizing to music. This, however, is much simpler than “The Inner Light,” using a minimal setting with an acoustic guitar in the foreground.

The relaxed, reflective mood is broken by Harrison’s rendition of “Try Some, Buy Some,” which was originally recorded by Ronnie Spector and released as a single on the Apple label in 1971, with Harrison and Phil Spector splitting production credits. Harrison must have felt the song deserved wider exposure, so he decided to try his hand with it, placing his own vocals atop the instrumental track that was originally cut. It’s not a bad song, but feels somewhat out of place. Coincidentally — or, perhaps not so coincidentally — it’s followed by “The Day the World Gets Round,” which has a Spectoresque sweep.

The album closes, appropriately enough, with “That Is All,” a plaintive love song that caught the fancy of Andy Williams, who recorded it that year for his album “Solitaire,” which was produced by Richard Perry, a Harrison pal who also produced Starr’s album “Ringo” in 1973.

Soon enough, Harrison fell from favor with critics and segments of the record-buying public. Though some of the albums he released later in the 1970s, like “Thirty Three and a Third” and “George Harrison,” are arguably better, “Living in the Material World” was the last point, until “Cloud Nine” 14 years later, that Harrison seemed unassailable.

— Brad Hundt

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Exclusive Preview of Ringo’s ‘Postcards From Paradise’ Album

Here, excerpted from Bill King’s latest Quick Cuts column, is an advance review of Ringo Starr’s “Postcards From Paradise,” which is due for release March 31:

ringo postcards

This latest collection of 11 songs, on which Ringo also has acted as producer, is a very pleasant and enjoyable fellow traveler with his two previous efforts, consisting largely of midtempo rockers that lyrically offer 12-step-worthy tidbits of Ringo’s upbeat philosophy on life, and musically feature some top-notch playing by the celebrated drummer and his friends — including Joe Walsh, Benmont Tench and Peter Frampton, plus his current All Starr Band members, including Steve Lukather and Todd Rundgren.

The thing I like about Ringo producing himself, as he’s done on his three most recent albums, is the organic feel of the recordings, which I find refreshing after years of former producer Mark Hudson’s catchy but sometimes cloying faux-Beatles pop. There’s a comfortable groove to these tracks that makes it sound as if the musicians had a lot of fun making the album.

The downside, though, is this album, like his other recent efforts, misses those earworm musical hooks that were Hudson’s trademark.

The album gets off to a strong start with the fourth installment of Ringo’s ongoing musical autobiography-in-song, a track called “Rory and the Hurricanes.” With its guitars and organ and prominent use of female backing vocalists, the number has a suitably early ’60s feel, as Ringo sings of visiting London with his old band. He namechecks the legendary Two i’s coffeebar and U.K. proto rock star Tommy Steele, but plays it coy when he notes that the next time he hit London, “I was with you know who.”

Also one of the album’s stronger efforts is the next track, “You Bring the Party Down,” on which Ringo appears to be making a sales pitch for clean-living to someone who is “still living off your memories of when you were in the band.” This one is notable for a taste of what sounds like sitar, and for a strong guitar solo.

The momentum falls off a bit with “Bridges,” which offers one of Ringo’s obvious metaphors for dealing with life’s choices (“crossing bridges is the best way to grow”). Not a great tune, but there’s some really stinging guitar work showcased in an extended solo.

Next up is the title track, which Universal sent out as an advance promotional digital “single.” Unfortunately, “Postcards From Paradise” is the album’s weakest song, a plodding rocker on which Ringo and his cohorts have created lyrics by stringing together lots of Beatles and solo Beatle song titles. An example: “And I ain’t going nowhere man / Because I want to hold your hand / It’s like I said the night before / I’ll love you when I’m 64.”

That tells you pretty much all you need to know about it.

(You can watch a “lyric video” for the song here. The video is a lot more clever than the song itself.)

The next chapter in Ringo’s musical testimony for a post-rehab life comes in “Right Side of the Road,” a lyrical cousin of “Bridges.” The musical backing is the highlight, with another extended guitar solo.

Next up are a pair of tracks that are among the album’s best, and it’s worth noting that on both of them Ringo departs a bit from his usual musical formula. “Not Looking Back” is a piano-driven ballad with strings on which Ringo sings about preferring to look forward. It has a nice violin solo. And “Bamboula” is a fun, moderately upbeat number about New Orleans, with some horns and accordion mixed in for Creole-Cajun flavor, along with very danceable percussion. (The title comes from the name of a type of bamboo drum that slaves brought over from Africa.) It’s good enough to make you overlook a few tortured rhymes in the lyrics.

The most notable aspect of the next track, “Island in the Sun,” is that it’s the first time Ringo has recorded with his current All Starr Band. Loping along to an almost-reggae beat and with some tropical-sounding percussion, it is enlivened mainly by its sax solo.

“Touch and Go” is a decent slice of neo mid-’60s rock. Better is “Confirmation,” a slightly upbeat, horn-backed love song about living life with no regrets. As Ringo sings (presumably to wife Barbara), “If I had known then what I know now / I’d do it all again with you anyhow.” He again makes nice use of his female backing vocalists on the title chorus.

The album concludes with “Let Love Lead,” which provides another summing up of Ringo’s philosophy: When in doubt … (see title). This one offers more tasty guitar licks in an extended instrumental portion that closes it out.

All in all, this album is goodtime, unchallenging listening that is no more musically relevant than what any other stars Ringo’s age are doing. But, if you’ve liked his music in the past, I think you’ll enjoy it.

— Bill King

(This review is adapted from one originally sent to Beatlefan/EXTRA! subscribers. For information on how you can receive Beatlefan/EXTRA! and be the first to read such exclusives, just email beatlefanmagazine@gmail.com.)

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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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