Exclusive Report: White Album 50th Anniversary Reissue Details!

A report on what the upcoming 50th anniversary White Album reissue …

Two media listening parties for the 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles’ White Album are set for Sept. 26 in New York City. And sources tell Beatlefan that the various configurations of the White Album reissues look like this:

  • A 4-LP set (2 discs of the new stereo remix + 2 discs of Esher demos)
  • A 3-CD set (same material as above). Apparently two of the CDs are the new remix and the third CD is the Esher demos.
  • And a Super Deluxe CD Box (3 CDs as above + 3 CDs of outtakes). Plus the box will include a Blu-ray disc that will be audio only. There will be no video.

The outtakes include “Hey Jude,” “Revolution,” “Inner Light,” “Across the Universe,” “Lady Madonna,” and nonalbum tracks/jams/improvisations. Of the latter, Beatlefan has been told that at least a couple are previously unknown. There also are some rehearsals.

Included will be the 12-minute version of “Helter Skelter” that previously was boiled down to about 5 minutes for the “Anthology,” but the legendary 27-minute version of “Helter Skelter” will NOT be included.

We’re told that the new remix of the album by Giles Martin has “incredible clarity and more bass and drums present.”

An official announcement of the releases is expected soon. The release date is expected to be Nov. 9.

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A Big Day in the Big Apple and the Beatleworld

Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman looks at how John Lennon and Paul McCartney made headlines recently on the same day In New York City …

McCartney’s latest album is available on LP as well as CD and digital formats.

Friday, Sept. 7, was quite a day for Beatles fans, especially in New York, with the release of Paul McCartney’s new album, “Egypt Station”; the ceremonial unveiling of the John Lennon U.S. Postal Service Forever stamp at the Central Park bandshell in the morning; and Macca’s “surprise” concert at Grand Central Terminal that evening.

The Lennon stamp, unveiled in New York City, is part of the USPS Forever series.

Having the Lennon stamp dedication at the bandshell made perfect sense. It’s just down the hill from Strawberry Field and, by extension, the Dakota. In the fall of 1974, Lennon cavorted for film cameras at the bandshell for the original “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” promo video (footage now officially in the “Mind Games” video, which was shown at the stamp ceremony).

And, on the Sunday afternoon after Lennon’s murder, the bandshell was the central point for the worldwide silent vigil for John.

From left are Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan, Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono Lennon and Bob Gruen, who took the photo used for the stamp.

The ceremony was notable for rare public speaking appearances by Sean Lennon and his now-very-senior mother, Yoko Ono, as well as veteran photographer Bob Gruen, who took the photo for the “Walls and Bridges” album used for the stamp. And, emcee Dennis Elsas announced at the ceremony’s conclusion that USPS trucks at the back of the bandshell area would have the stamps available for sale, which was not the case at many post offices around the country.

As for the two McCartney “events,” a couple of takeaways:

First, having just passed the 25th anniversary of Billy Joel’s last album of new material, and with Elton John commencing a long farewell tour and Paul Simon releasing an album of reimaginings of some of his older songs as he prepares for his retirement from public performance, it’s so nice to see Macca release an album that shows he’s still really trying.

“Egypt Station” shows that, musically, McCartney is still trying.

There’s a lot on “Egypt Station” — bows to the contemporary music landscape, message songs, a would-be peace anthem, a protest song that couldn’t be timelier, Brazilian samba, old-school horny rock, an ode to an old guitar, and more. As I write this, I’ve only had three complete listenings to the album, but I’ve liked it more each time (including the two Target bonus tracks). “Egypt Station” has the potential to be considered at least on a par with McCartney’s overall fine 21st century work.

Then, there was Friday night’s show at Grand Central, which was livestreamed on McCartney’s YouTube channel.

A lot of fans still look at Macca through the lens of Beatle Paul from 1964, or the leader of Wings on one of the 1970s’ biggest tours. In both cases, that’s a long time ago.

Performing for an invitation-only audience at New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

The fact is, the man is 76 years old. He uses a teleprompter and, after a week of talking to various media to promote “Egypt Station” — and in a space not really made for rock music performances — his voice turned ragged fairly early in the hour-and-40-minutes concert. On social media, people were expressing shock and heartbreak at this.

Again, he’s 76. Remember what Frank Sinatra sounded like when he was 76? And he wasn’t playing a variety of instruments (I counted five different ones that Paul played that night, and that didn’t even count the bullhorn!).

At a time when Elton and Simon are leaving the stage, or preparing to, and Joel is content to continue playing the oldies at his arena and stadium shows (he was at Wrigley Field in Chicago even as Macca was onstage at Grand Central) rather than write or record new material, McCartney should be given props for staying in the game.

He is still recording albums that show, at the very least, he’s trying.

And, he’s playing concerts around the world that entertain the most generationally diverse audience in the pop music business.

If his vocal instrument is showing some wear and tear, well, that is what happens as we reach a certain age.

— Al Sussman

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Apple to the Core: A Fan’s Notes

Fifty years ago, Apple Records released “Our First Four,” led by The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”/“Revolution” single. Bill King recounts how he’s followed the Fabs’ record label ever since. …

The Granny Smith logo that made Apple releases so distinctive.

My fascination with Apple Records began in the summer of 1968, when I was watching “It’s Happening,” a Dick Clark-produced weekday rock ’n’ roll variety show hosted by Mark Lindsay and Paul Revere of the Raiders. It was a spinoff of the “Happening ’68” program seen Saturdays on ABC after “American Bandstand,” and must see viewing for teenage music fans in that era.

A news segment on the show included a report on a young Welsh woman for whom Paul McCartney was producing a single. (Being half Welsh, I paid particular attention.)

I had heard of The Beatles’ London boutique called Apple, which had closed down recently with a massive giveaway, but I think that TV report was when I first became aware that the Fabs were launching their own record label.

Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” was a smash hit for Apple.

That young woman was Mary Hopkin, and I remember the first time I heard her “Those Were the Days” single that Paul produced — late one night in the car when my Dad and I had the radio tuned to WOWO in Fort Wayne, one of those clear-channel stations that could be heard over much of the country.

I also distinctly remember going to a local discount department store to buy 45s of “Hey Jude” and “Those Were the Days.” I thought the green apple logo on the discs was very clever, especially the sliced apple on the flip side! (I noticed the store had Jackie Lomax’s “Sour Milk Sea” single, also on the Apple label, but I didn’t buy it at that time because I hadn’t yet heard it.)

My next non-Beatles Apple single was Badfinger’s “Come and Get It,” which I knew had been written and produced by Paul for Ringo’s new movie, “The Magic Christian.”

I was laying in bed with the flu when it came on the radio, and, from that point on, I was a forever-fan of Apple’s second-greatest band.

Apple Records’ initial releases came out in August, 1968.

Sometime in the fall of 1970, I came across a list of all the Apple Records releases to that point (I think in a Badfinger songbook I picked up), and I decided I’d try to collect as many of them as I could. After all, it was The Beatles’ label, and they were involved in so many of the recordings. Plus, how often do you get the chance to collect an entire record label’s output?

Eventually, my friend Keith Parnell, a fellow Beatles fan who worked at a local record shop in my hometown of Athens, GA, became my Apple connection for new releases. No matter how obscure it was (even the Sundown Playboys disc!), Keith would order at least two copies — one for me and one for him.

I also managed to pick up some of the past Apple releases I’d missed, thanks to another local shop, Ort’s Oldies. The owner, a town character with an encyclopedic knowledge of singles and albums, periodically would go to Atlanta to the EMI distribution office and pick up any Apple releases they had on their shelves for me.

Meanwhile, I devoured any book that dealt with The Beatles’ Apple Corps era (a particular favorite being Richard DiLello’s “The Longest Cocktail Party”).

John Lennon and Paul McCartney promoting The Beatles’ latest venture.

Probably because of its Beatle owners, but also because of its eclectic releases — ranging from rock to r&b/gospel to jazz to modern classical — Apple Records developed a certain prestige within the music industry. Being signed to The Beatles’ label was a big deal.

I was struck by that fact one time when a disc jockey friend and I first heard Chris Hodge’s sci-fi tune “We’re On Our Way,” a modest radio hit for Apple late in its first era. My friend wrinkled his nose and said, “I expect better from Apple.”

The Beatles’ label maintained a very cool image. I’ll never forget when Keith and I were flipping through an issue of Billboard magazine at The Music Shop and came across a full page ad consisting of a very large black & white photo of an eyeball, with a small green Apple Records logo right in the center of it. That’s it. They didn’t need to spell out the visual pun; everyone immediately got it.

Keith and I even came up with our own Apple Records compilation, spending one Sunday afternoon at his house putting together a “best of” collection of the label’s singles, using a recorder he had that allowed you to make your own 8-track tape cartridges. (This was before cassette tapes had become the preferred format for mixtapes.)

A memorable advertisement for Apple. (Courtesy of Jeff S. Levy)

After Apple wound down as a full-fledged label, becoming essentially the custom imprint for solo Beatle recordings, I continued to collect anything to do with it.

I filled in most of the remaining gaps in my collection in 1976, after Apple had gone dormant, and Capitol Records, which distributed the label in the U.S., cut out its Apple inventory. A dealer placed a large ad in Rolling Stone magazine listing most of the Apple releases; I ordered everything I didn’t already have.

I indulged my Apple obsession in other ways, too. On visits to London, I not only made the traditional fan pilgrimage to No. 3 Savile Row, but searched out the more obscure sites where Apple offices had been located.

And, once my wife Leslie and I had started Beatlefan, I wrote and published numerous articles about The Beatles’ label (the latest of which are in Beatlefan #233).

Badfinger, Apple’s second-greatest band.

That first year of the magazine included our running a multi-part interview I did with Joey Molland and Tommy Evans of Badfinger. They complained that Apple was loaded down with too many of The Beatles’ old pals, and I still recall Leslie’s amusement, when she was transcribing the interview, with Evans complaining of the “outright fookin’ corruption” at Apple.

On another occasion a few years later, my friend John Sosebee and I got to chat with Joey and Badfinger drummer Mike Gibbins, and hang out backstage with them before an Atlanta show. At that time, they still were awaiting a release of their Apple royalties, hung up by The Beatles’ seemingly interminable business disputes. (Eventually, they got their money.)

Derek Taylor at his desk in Apple’s headquarters at No. 3 Savile Row.

I also was fortunate enough, over the years, to talk several times with Apple’s legendary press officer, Derek Taylor — the first time being a delightful lunchtime chat in a lounge off the lobby at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel, where we both were attending a Beatles convention. Asked what went wrong at Apple, Derek memorably replied: “We actually believed we could do what we promised. We believed we could save the world and we were wrong — due to mad enthusiasm, overconfidence and what we were taking.”

Needless to say, once Apple started cranking out reissues in the 1990s, I was an enthusiastic buyer, snapping up both CD and vinyl releases.

Sure, the original driving force in my Applemania was the Beatles connection, but I found that I thoroughly enjoyed much of what the quirky British label put out (with a couple of notable exceptions — the not very subtle novelty record “King of Fuh,” and David Peel’s mindless hippie anthems, a product of John & Yoko’s radical chic period).

So, I’m an Apple lifer. If I didn’t know it already, I knew it for sure back in 1988, when Apple finally issued an official VHS release of The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film. When that green Granny Smith logo came on the screen at the beginning, a slight shiver went down my spine. It felt like the return of an old friend.

Apple of my eye, indeed!

 

— Bill King

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Macca’s 25 Best of the Past 25 Years

Bill King recently gave a fresh listen to all of Paul McCartney’s mainstream albums released since 1993, in order to compile a list of the 25 best of Macca’s latterday tracks. He had an assist in this project from some longtime Beatlefan contributors. Here is what he came up with,  followed by the other contributors’ choices. …

Macca performs at halftime of the 2005 Super Bowl.

Whenever lists of Paul McCartney’s best solo songs are compiled, the emphasis invariably is on the first 20 years of his post-Beatles career — the likes of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Live and Let Die,” “Jet,” “Band on the Run” and so on.

Little attention is given to his body of work over the past 25 years. That was a tumultuous time for Macca, with a knighthood, the death of his beloved Linda, a short-lived marriage that produced another daughter before ending bitterly, and a third marriage that seems to have left him happier and more fulfilled. Plus, of course, numerous tours.

In fact, over the past quarter century, Sir Paul’s acclaimed live performances, in marathon concerts running nearly 3 hours, have become what he’s known for primarily, aside from The Beatles.

The new albums he’s made during those years are largely an afterthought, if they’re given much consideration at all — even with many long-time fans.

And, truth be told, much of the new music he has produced since 1993 is middling McCartney. It also was the era of a creative misfire that resulted in what many consider to be the low point musically of his career — the “Driving Rain” album.

Still, when it comes to making music, McCartney is incapable of not mattering. And, as a fresh immersion in his work over the past 25 years recently confirmed for me, there still have been some great tunes in that time.

In going back through his solo albums since 1993 to compile a list of the 25 best Macca tracks of the past 25 years, I limited myself to his mainstream releases — not including his classical works or his ambient or electronica side projects, with the exception of The Fireman’s “Electric Arguments,” which really is closer to a true McCartney album.

I also reached out to a group of Beatlefan contributors, asking for their own lists and comments on Macca music since 1993. Not surprisingly, our lists differed in many respects, but also had certain constants — tracks that everyone agrees are top-flight McCartney.

More about that later. Here are my 25 favorite Macca tracks of the past 25 years, in approximately chronological order …

“Off the Ground.”

First up are four tracks from 1993’s “Off the Ground” album:

“Hope of Deliverance.” A fine pop number with a tasty backing that mixes acoustic guitars, autoharp and a prominent bassline with Latin percussion. It also has a very catchy chorus, and a nice message, to boot.

“I Owe It All to You.” A traditional McCartney ballad, with a very effective acoustic guitar hook, some exotic imagery in the lyrics, a plaintive vocal and one of those instantly hummable Macca choruses.

“Golden Earth Girl.” One of those majestic McCartney ballads, with a piano opening that calls to mind “Wanderlust,” and chiming guitars and shimmering oboe and flute orchestration. This one carries an ecological message and some lovely word pictures (“counting fish in a sunbeam, in eggshell seas”), but what you’ll keep with you after listening to it is the beautifully delicate melody and refrain.

“Cosmically Conscious.” Paul wrote this at the Maharishi’s back in 1968. Its dense, echoey, layered sound is chockablock with old Beatles studio tricks and trademarks.

“Flaming Pie.”

Next are four numbers from 1997’s “Flaming Pie,” an album that stands pretty clearly (to me, at least) as McCartney’s strongest of the past 25 years:

“Somedays.” Recorded with a 14-piece orchestra, this is a beautiful, somewhat melancholy ballad with mournful strings. The Spanish guitar solo is especially good. It obviously was inspired by Linda’s illness. I find some of the lyrics incredibly touching: “Some days I look, I look at you with eyes that shine” and “Some days I cry, I cry for those who fear the worst.” 

“Calico Skies.” A solo acoustic guitar love song co-produced by Paul and George Martin, this one almost feels like an Irish folk tune. Another one seemingly written with Linda in mind: “I will hold you for as long as you like / I will hold you for the rest of my life.”

“Little Willow.” Another lovely acoustic number, and another sad one. Written in response to Maureen Starkey’s death.

“Beautiful Night.” A majestic piano-based tune with immediately recognizable Ringo Starr drumming, it has an irresistible, gorgeous chorus that is vintage McCartney. The orchestration by George Martin builds as the song progresses, and it has a false ending that gives way to an upbeat reprise with Linda and Ringo singing along.

Playing with his Run Devil Run band at the Cavern in 1999.

Next are three tracks from McCartney’s dip into the rock ’n’ roll of his youth, the 1999 album “Run Devil Run”:

“Lonesome Town.” This melancholy Rick Nelson classic, done as Macca performed it earlier that year at a London tribute to Linda, has a sad lyric that Paul said had become more meaningful to him. It shows, especially in his impassioned vocal, which pushes the limits of his higher register. David Gilmour joins him singing in the middle.

“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Done with accordion, this midtempo Chuck Berry number has a Cajun feel, and is a real toe-tapper.

“Honey Hush.” At the time it came out, Macca said this Big Joe Turner number was his favorite on the album to sing. A sometime Macca sound check offering, it’s a rollicking rocker with an infectious “Hi Ho Silver” chorus.

Departing from the album discography, the next track on my list is a one-off number:

“I’m Partial to Your Abracadabra.” This refreshingly different number is from “Brand New Boots and Panties,” an Ian Dury tribute album from 2001, and features Paul covering a Dury song with Dury’s old band, The Blockheads. It’s an engaging taste of a harder-edged Macca than we usually get. Paul, who was just the singer here, tackles the number with gusto, opening with an extended “Owwwwww!” and singing in his Little Richard voice. The catchy tune features a chunky, muscular backing with riffing horns that’s very reminiscent of The Who in the early ’70s.

Macca in his Liverpool backyard.

Next come two tracks from the 2005 album “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard”:

“Too Much Rain.” A beautiful piano-bass-acoustics tune, nicely arranged. The vintage McCartney melody was inspired, he said, by Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” The optimism of the lyric is tempered by an almost mournful guitar line.

“Promise to You Girl.” This catchy tune has a Queen-like chorus, starts out slowly, and ends up rocking out moderately with some pounding piano.

I included two songs from 2007’s “Memory Almost Full” on my list, but it nearly was three (more on that later):

“Dance Tonight.” Immediately memorable, impossibly catchy. The mandolin sells it, and it’s very much a knee-slapper.

“Only Mama Knows.” A classical-sounding string intro gives way unexpectedly to a rock guitar chorus that comes crashing in. The track as a whole harks back to the “Junior’s Farm” Wings era, only played with a bit more intensity. The chorus is very catchy, and there are some nice harmonies with the “Hold on” bit in the middle. This one was an almost consensus pick.

Creating art for The Fireman project.

Next up are three tracks from the 2008 album “Electric Arguments” (made by McCartney and collaborator Youth under The Fireman rubric):

“Sing the Changes.” A rollicking number with a wide open, airy feel, echoey vocals and chiming guitars. Worked well when done live.

“Highway.” An upbeat piece of classic rock that also brings Wings to mind, it’s propelled by a great bass line and punctuated with pounding piano and a bluesy harmonica. A very deliberately unpolished production, with a loose-feeling, almost noisy wash of sound.

“Dance Till We’re High.” Classic Macca pop-rock, this midtempo number has an infectious beat and an absolutely gorgeous middle eight and chorus. The production has a quasi-’60s feel to it, with its layered strings and pealing bells, sounding rather Phil Spector-esque. The first time I ever listened to this one, on a preview disc, I had to call up a friend immediately and play it over the phone!

Promoting “Kisses on the Bottom.”

McCartney’s 2012 album of pop standards, “Kisses on the Bottom,” supplied two tracks for my Top 25:

“My Valentine.” This is a far cry from being McCartney’s best love song, but it’s still a very engaging romantic number, in the style of the album’s covers. And, it’s elevated by Diana Krall’s piano and Eric Clapton’s acoustic guitar.

“Get Yourself Another Fool.” A tune associated with Sam Cooke, done here in a very jazzy arrangement with bluesy electric guitar by Clapton and a particularly strong vocal by Paul, who uses his regular singing voice, rather than the higher crooning voice he used on most of the album. Paul also contributes some tasty acoustic guitar.

A publicity shot for the “New” album.

Finally, Macca’s most recent album (as of this writing), 2013’s “NEW,” landed four tracks on my list:

“Save Us.” Cowritten with producer Paul Epworth, this propulsive rocker is driven by an insistent, fuzzy guitar hook reminiscent of the Strokes, and is backed by rich harmonies. It’s rather like I’d imagine Wings would sound circa 2013.

“Alligator.” A slyly sexy pop-rocker that has some familiar Macca chord progressions. It features a distinctive flute-like synth line, and a slower middle portion sung in falsetto. Plus, one of those oddball McCartney sexual analogies (in the tradition of “my salamander” in “Getting Closer”).

“Early Days.” A lovely autobiographical acoustic number featuring Paul’s unretouched, frayed, timeworn voice. Besides harking back to The Beatles’ early days, the lyrics jab those who profess to know what went on with the Fabs, but who weren’t actually there.

“New.” Making a nice use of horns, this is a terrific, bouncy, retro-sounding number with a wonderful melody. It brings to mind “Revolver”-era Beatles. The coda with Brian Wilson-ish harmonies is a nice touch (unfortunately dropped in concert performances). It’s hard not to feel good listening to this song.

That’s my list of Macca’s 25 best since 1993.

First runner-up was the autobiographical, upbeat rockabilly/skiffle number “That Was Me,” from “Memory Almost Full.” (It was a last-minute cut from the list.)

Other tracks that didn’t quite make my list, but which are worthy of mention: “Get Out of My Way,” “Down to the River,” “The World Tonight,” “Flaming Pie,” “Run Devil Run,” “No Other Baby,” “How Kind of You,” “This Never Happened Before,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Only Our Hearts” and “Everybody Out There.

Certainly, some of the songs on my list would not rank among the 25 best of McCartney’s entire solo career, but, overall, it’s a pretty solid playlist. Basically, Macca is in competition with his past self, artistically, every time he releases a new album — and his earlier work is hard to top.

A little over half of the songs on my list also were chosen by some of this project’s contributors: “Hope of Deliverance,” “Golden Earth Girl,” “Calico Skies,” “Little Willow,” “Beautiful Night,” “Too Much Rain,” “Dance Tonight,” “Only Mama Knows,” “Sing the Changes,” “Highway,” “My Valentine,” “Save Us,” “Alligator” and “Early Days.”

I should point out that I included some covers of others’ tunes done by McCartney, whereas some contributors chose to stick strictly to songs penned by Paul for their lists.

Also worth noting, I did not include any tracks from the 2001 album “Driving Rain,” which I consider the nadir of McCartney’s career. The tunes on that album mostly are half-finished and indifferently recorded by David Kahne, though a handful could have been much improved with better production. The ones I’d like to see Paul take another run at, perhaps with a different producer: “I Do” (not really a strong melody, though it has a nice middle), “Magic” (which is the reverse — a decent main melody, but it seems Macca forgot to write a middle), “Your Way” (a rather halfhearted attempt at a country tune) and “Your Loving Flame” (again, it seems he didn’t bother to write a middle and so he just vamped for a few bars).

The most popular track named by the other contributors that was not on my list was “The End of the End,” and I can’t argue with that selection. It’s a fine track; it just didn’t crack my Top 25.

In descending order, other tracks not on my list that were named by multiple contributors were: “Jenny Wren,” “Long Leather Coat,” “Off the Ground,” “Looking for Changes,” “Run Devil Run,” “Ever Present Past,” “The World Tonight,” “Flaming Pie,” “The Lovers That Never Were” and “Fine Line.”

Songs not on my list that drew only one or two mentions from others: “English Tea,” “Queenie Eye,” “I Can Bet,” “C’mon People,” “The Songs We Were Singing,” “Young Boy,” “How Kind of You,” “Sun Is Shining,” “On the Way to Work,” “Vintage Clothes,” “Try Not to Cry,” “Kicked Around No More,” “Party,” “This Never Happened Before,” Summer of 59,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “From a Lover to a Friend.”

Yes, even that last song, which I barely can tolerate, has its fans. And, I’m sure there are songs on my list that some of you can’t stand. Just keep in mind: Musical taste varies widely, and your favorites don’t have to match mine, and vice versa.

All in all, though, I’d say this is an enjoyable and respectable collection of latterday McCartney tunes.

— Bill King

Here are the Macca 25 lists compiled by Beatlefan contributors. First up, Rip Rense …

My choices were confined to songs written by McCartney, as opposed to covers. My original list maxed out around 35. Songs were chosen for musical structure, originality, sensible lyrics, and the old variable, personal taste.

Macca circa 1996.

In no particular order:

“Don’t Want to Be Kicked Around” — A bonus track from “Off the Ground,” it has McCartney infectiousness, strong melody, beautiful bridge, and sentiment you can identify with. Should have been a main album track. I always like McCartney laments.

“Big Boys Bickering” — Another track foolishly omitted from “Off the Ground,” with the famous “f—-ing it up for everyone” refrain. An angry denunciation from Paul, in this case aimed at the ruling elite of government and corporation. I always like when he gets blunt and mad, an all-too-rare thing.

“Golden Earth Girl” — By my standards, a beautiful piano ballad in Beatles tradition. Lovely Carl Davis orchestration/arrangement, witty lyrics (!), gentle lyricism. A poetic tribute to Linda.

“Looking for Changes” — From “Off the Ground,” a stinging, pointed rebuke of animal cruelty. Not the most imaginative song, musically, but a straight-ahead rocker with undisguised rage: “I saw a monkey that was learning to choke / A guy beside him gave him cigarettes to smoke / And every time that monkey started to cough / The bastard laughed his head off. . .” More please, Paul.

“Hope of Deliverance” — Some dodgy lyrics, perhaps (“I will understand someday, one day / You will understand always / Always from now until then”), but overall a warm, upbeat, encouraging anthem, with underlying acknowledgement of uncertainty. I can’t help thinking he had George Harrison in mind when he wrote, “We live in hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.”

“Calico Skies” — From “Flaming Pie,” a tender Paul ballad: poignant, moving, heartfelt, understated. Effectively a farewell to poor, fatally ill Linda, but also with strong general writing, including: “Long live all of us crazy soldiers / Who were born under calico skies / May we never be called to handle / All the weapons of war we despise.”

“Little Willow” — From “Flaming Pie,” this was written to comfort Ringo’s daughter, Lee, on the passing of her mother. It is as touching and delicate a song as Paul has ever done, uncontrived and graceful.

“Beautiful Night” — This “Flaming Pie” closer was supposed to be a “big finish” number, and mostly succeeded. Written in the early ’70s (or earlier?), it has a McCartney Beatles period melody and George Martin production (with Ringo drumming.) The “Make it a beautiful night” punch-line, while pleasant enough, might have had more depth. “Beautiful life” might have been a stronger idea, but this will do.

“Heaven on a Sunday” — A deceptively light guitar ballad from “Flaming Pie” that grows on you with repeated listening, it has a melody conveying something between laziness and ennui, bolstered by a comforting refrain: “If I only had one love, yours would be the one I’d choose.” Nothing contrived here.

“Run Devil Run” — A (nearly literally) runaway rocker from the album of the same name; half the fun of it is just trying to parse the lyrics, worthy of Chuck Berry. Paul’s raw-edged voice was in top form, and the band of David Gilmour, Mick Green, Ian Paice, Pete Wingfield, Dave Mattacks should have stayed together much longer.

“Jenny Wren” — A superior work worthy of McCartney’s Beatles efforts, from the “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” album. Thoughtful words, moody, original melody, with a creative touch also worthy of a Beatles session: a solo by one Pedro Eustache on the Armenian reed instrument, the duduk. A reflective song of melancholy, and, yes, optimism.

“English Tea” — Lennon might have dismissed this as “granny music,” but it’s delightful granny music — with a line you can draw back through “You Gave Me the Answer” to “Your Mother Should Know” and “When I’m 64.” It’s both tongue-in-cheek and sincere, which adds to its charm, as does the beguiling arrangement by Joby Talbot.

“Too Much Rain” — Temptation to dismiss this as a lightweight feel-good homily (“You’ve got to learn to laugh”) would be woefully misplaced. It’s fine music, for starters, rather unlike any other Paul composition I can bring to mind. He acknowledges how heartbreaking, crushing life is, yet still insists that one must brave it out. The message could not be more sincere.

“In Liverpool” — A weighty autobiographical piece about his home city, “In Liverpool” exists only as a live performance from 2008. Yet it’s one of Paul’s strongest career efforts, testimony to his often poor judgement of his better work. A natural, unaffected recitation of places and “people I’ve never met” from the old days, set to simple guitar accompaniment, it’s sort of a grandchild of “Eleanor Rigby.” A tragically lost gem. (How could he throw this away and put out so much dreck on “New”?)

“Dance Tonight” — Yes, it’s simple, yes, it’s about next to nothing, but it’s ear candy. It makes you feel good, and you can’t get it out of your head. It was born of McCartney trying out a left-handed mandolin in a London shop, prompting his daughter, Beatrice, to start dancing. Good indicator! Charming, doesn’t wear out.

“Ever-Present Past” — McCartney did a lot of things right on “Memory Almost Full” (thanks, no doubt, to producer David Kahne), and this was one. Glib, reflective, infectious, it’s an uptempo look back at life. Combining sad observations with upbeat arrangement (and vice-versa) is always a good plan.

“Only Mama Knows” — Brilliant string intro by David Kahne gives way to heavy rock band and a story-song lamenting the caprices of fate. You wonder if Paul adapted part of a novel here, but, whatever he did, it worked great. One of his best solo rockers, it melts back into Kahne’s strings at the end. A slick mini-movie.

“You Tell Me” — Excellent Kahne production of a gorgeous, wistful meditation, in which Paul laments the loss of youth. “When was that summer of a dozen words? / The butterflies and hummingbirds flew free / Let’s see / You tell me …” Example of how so much can be done with so little, when Paul has something to say.

“Mr. Bellamy” — One of the most musically and lyrically playful things McCartney has done in many years, this whimsical number is, I hope, about a cat. But, whatever the case, it’s a winner — from the somber opening brass to the broken piano figure, from Paul’s comical baritone parts to the understated strings and the spooky-jazzy outro.

“That Was Me” — More good stuff from “Memory Almost Full,” this energized autobiographical number sort of continues the “Ever-Present Past” theme in rambunctious ’50s rock ’n’ roll framework. “When I think that all this stuff can make a life / It’s pretty hard to take it in.” I’ll bet.  McCartney should have worked more with Kahne.

“The End of the End” — It’s tough to express, especially in rhyme, a farewell to life without being maudlin or forced. McCartney musically succeeds here in a fashion he has not managed, perhaps, since “Let it Be.” (He would do well to indulge more “sad songs,” which he seems to almost pathologically avoid.) “On the day that I die / I’d like jokes to be told / And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets / That children have played on/ And laid on while listening to stories of old.” These are among the best lyrics he’s done. Caveat: the song deserved a fuller production than the understated one it received; certainly, a solo other than Paul whistling, whimsical touch that it is.

“Only Our Hearts” — I don’t like this song, understand. I don’t care for “artificial standards” in general, but I am in the minority here. Fact is, McCartney executed this genre really well with this number, and with “My Valentine” (which I also don’t care for). You don’t have to like a piece of music to recognize its quality.

“Sing the Changes” — This is one of the most joyful, uplifting, inspiring things McCartney has done. His approach — while in the guise of The Fireman, produced by some creature known as Youth — was to jam in the studio, and add spontaneous vocal lines, often paraphrased from favorite poems. “Every ladder leads to heaven. . .sing the changes as you’re sleeping. . .feel a sense of childlike wonder.” Puts you in a great place.

“Traveling Light” — Another successful experiment from “Electric Arguments,” this is highly unusual, if not unique, in the Paul canon. His whispery baritone, the eerie instrumentation, the enigmatic poetry all combine for a haunting atmosphere unlike anything else he has done. A two-parter, to boot. Creative and weighty.

“Early Days” — The best work on the otherwise awkward, empty, deliberately au courant-sounding album, “New.” McCartney could take this song, and “In Liverpool,” and various other autobiographical works and pull them together into an album. “Early Days” is very fine, for its unadorned production, the honesty and pointedness of the lyrics(!), and Paul’s unaltered, scratchy “old voice.” “These sweet memories of friends from the past / always come to you when you look for them / and your inspiration, long may it last / may it come to you time and time again.” It came to him here.

Runners-up: “Get Out of My Way,” “What It Is,” “The Sun is Shining,” “How Kind of You,” “Two Magpies,” “Light From Your Lighthouse.”

Next, Kit O’Toole …

“Calico Skies”: Paul at his simple best — moving lyrics and acoustic guitar is all that’s necessary to convey the deeply moving lyrics.

At the Concert for New York City.

“Flaming Pie”: Macca at his most playful, with the lyrics clearly inspired by Beatles stories he mentioned during “Anthology” interviews.

“Little Willow”: A tribute to Maureen Starkey, this delicate look at grief and loss took on new meaning after Linda passed away.

“Somedays”: Paul must have had Linda’s fragile health in mind when he wrote this tender, thoughtful ballad featuring lines such as “Somedays I look / I look at you with eyes that shine / Somedays I don’t / I don’t believe that you are mine.”

“Too Much Rain”: Similar to “Somebody Who Cares,” the song provides understanding and encouragement about enduring difficult times.

“Riding to Vanity Fair”: One of the most personal, emotional songs Paul ever wrote. From the dark beginning to Paul’s straightforward vocals, he addresses someone who has clearly betrayed him. Tasteful guitar and keyboards complete this profoundly sad but defiant track.

“Ever Present Past”: The lead single off “Memory Almost Full” sets the reflective tone for the rest of the album. “Searching for the time that has gone so fast / The time that I thought would last” previews themes of time and memory.

“That Was Me”: A rocking track that looks back on his life with awe and wonder.

“The End of the End”: Although a sad reflection on death, the track also provides lovely images such as in the lines “On the day that I die I’d like jokes to be told / And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets / That children have played on / And laid on while listening to stories of old.”

“Queenie Eye”: This track cleverly compares the rules of a children’s game with rules of life, and it points out “it’s a long way to the finish.”

“Sing the Changes”: This song has much more energy live, but the Fireman track still retains its defiant, ebullient feel.

“The Lovers That Never Were”: Another product of his collaborations with Elvis Costello, this track tells of a complicated relationship (will this couple ever move beyond friendship?).  It would have been even better if it had been released as a duet with Costello, as you can hear Elvis’ voice throughout this version.

“Long Leather Coat”: Why did this rocker not make the “Off the Ground” track list instead of being relegated to a B-side?

“Cosmically Conscious”: While the lyrics may not be complicated, it’s hard not to sing along with the “it’s a joy” refrain. The live version at David Lynch’s benefit is even better than the original.

“Run Devil Run”: The first album released after Linda’s death, the album and title track signaled Paul’s return with surprising aggression and anger.

“222”: A bonus track from “Memory Almost Full,” this mostly instrumental song is a welcome foray into jazz.

“Kicked Around No More”: Again, why did this fail to make the “Off the Ground” lineup? Jazzy chord changes, lush harmonies, and a lovely McCartney lead vocal make this track a standout.

“Promise to You Girl”: “Looking through the backyard of my life” summarizes “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” perfectly; while the track begins on a somber note, it swiftly kicks into a higher gear, expressing optimism. The frequent changes in mood slightly echo the “Abbey Road” medley as well.

“Follow Me”: “Chaos” reflected the turmoil Paul experienced in his second marriage, and this song once again is about coping, but stresses that one cannot weather the storms alone.

“Turned Out”: The slight country twang combined with piano and rock guitar gives this “New” track an organic, classic Wings feel.

“Why So Blue”: Another example of a song inexplicably failing to make the final cut, “Why So Blue” sounds slightly Beatlesque, particularly in the chorus.

“Party”: Similar to “Run Devil Run,” “Party” reflects Paul’s deep affection for classic R&B and rock, yet signals his regained passion for music.

“Really Love You” (Twin Freaks version): The “Flaming Pie” track receives a radical makeover by Freelance Hellraiser (with Paul’s blessing). The drums come from “What’s That You’re Doing,” and that relentless funk bassline turns the song into a dance workout.

“The Song We Were Singing”: Evocative of the nostalgia pervading “Flaming Pie,” in this song Paul fondly recalls his years working with John Lennon. Despite their differences and difficult times, “we always came back to the song we were singing / At any particular time.”

Here are Al Sussman’s picks …

Latterday examples of McCartney the master pop craftsman/earworm creator:

Recording pop standards with Diana Krall.

“Off the Ground”

“Hope of Deliverance” — Used to great effect in John Scheinfeld’s film about the Chicago Cubs, “The Heart & Soul of Chicago”

“The World Tonight”

“Young Boy”

“Beautiful Night”

“Fine Line”

“Dance Tonight” — Arguably Paul’s most instantly accessible song of this century

“Ever Present Past”

“Only Mama Knows”

“Save Us”

“New”

“Sing the Changes” — From the most accessible of the three Fireman albums

Latterday classic McCartney love ballads:

“Calico Skies”

“Somedays” — Both of these songs written under very emotional circumstances, as Linda fought her ultimately losing battle with breast cancer.

“This Never Happened Before”

“My Valentine”

McCartney-penned should-have-been anthems:

“C’mon People” — If this had been a hit, it would have dovetailed nicely with the promise of the start of the Clinton administration

“Hope for the Future” — Unfortunately, not generally released, so most people have never heard it.

Favorite covers:

“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”

“Party”

“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”

“More I Cannot Wish You”

Great songs, but beyond categorization:

“Celebration” — from “Standing Stone.” Obviously has an emotional attachment for Paul, presumably involving Linda, since he plays it at virtually every soundcheck.

“The End of the End”

“Too Much Rain”

Next comes an imaginative list from Renato Facconi …

The 25 songs (from 1993 on) that I like the most:

“Off the Ground”

“Looking for Changes”

“C’mon People”

“Cosmically Conscious”

“The Song We Were Singing”

“Beautiful Night”

“The World Tonight”

“Young Boy”

“Calico Skies”

“Fine Line”

“Jenny Wren”

“Dance Tonight”

“Run Devil Run”

“Lonely Road”

“From a Lover to a Friend”

“How Kind of You”

“Dance Tonight”

“The End of the End”

“Only Mama Knows”

“Sing the Changes”

“Sun Is Shining”

“My Valentine”

“Save Us”

“On My Way to Work”

“Early Days”

Why did I choose these songs?

Keeping watch for icebergs is a good time to listen to Macca.

OK, when asked for a list, I remembered the time I was crossing on boat from North Canada to Greenland: 3 days and 2 nights sailing without a stop in a sea that was very cold and full of icebergs. I had to make a watch once during the day and once during the night for two hours and it wasn’t easy. They told me you can have some music, and that’s what I did. It helped a lot.

It was a real hard sailing, but everything went fine for me, my wife and the 7 friends who were with us.

In listing the McCartney songs I like most, I dreamed to be again sailing on the Arctic Sea and to prepare a tape/CD with 25 songs to accompany my night watch.

The first 3 songs from “Off the Ground” are the ones I like the most from this album, and it would be a nice start, just a way to sing and whistle, with nothing serious in mind.

“C’mon People,” let’s see how the waves are growing around us. Then “Cosmically Conscious” would start: What else can you expect from a dark night in the Arctic?

Oh yes, now this song really appears to be a great experience and, yes, I am full of joy, despite the cold weather.

Then, I have chosen songs from one of the records I like most, “Flaming Pie.” Excellent music, nice lyrics. I still remember the promo video for “The World Tonight,” with the landscape from Tuscany in the background.

OK, a nice remembering, good weather, nice fields, a lot of colors, while our little boat is passing in the middle of the fog. And, yes, just let me dream of The Beatles enjoying the songs they were singing, even when they had real difficulties.

C’mon, we’ll see the Greenland seaside soon, don’t worry! And I promise when I get home I’ll write a song. And, I did, “Hard Sailing,” its title.

“Beautiful Night,” “Calico Skies,” “Young Boy,” really the correct music to help you spend a difficult night.

What else can I expect? Some chaos? A splendid creation? Oh, yes, so the quiet songs that follow are really a good company until “Dance Tonight,” a song I have always loved, either on CD or live.  Quite easy, but so catchy and full of hope, you know, I start singing until … So glad that it’s not windy.

That’s untrue, it is really windy and the night now is dark, so I can now listen to a song, which, despite its title, is so positive, “The End of the End.” No need to be sad, this song runs, and I think of a good friend I lost a few years ago.

At the end of the end
It’s the start of a journey
To a much better place
And a much better place
Would have to be special
No reason to cry

Wow, I like to think this is the real end of the end.

C’mon, now, we have to stay tuned, the night is darkened you need to watch with attention.

“Run Devil Run” and “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” are a good way to get up from my thoughts and see how things are going.

Now, everything is going well with the sailing, so what about a few songs from a not very positive period for McCartney?

“Lonely Road” and “From a Lover to a Friend” really fit the quiet, approaching the end of the night sailing.

But, it is not the end and two songs from a certain Fireman are a good company now. I liked a lot this peculiar way of approaching songs by McCartney, and the two I have chosen are really great songs. And, no, the sun already shined long ago.

Now it is the time for a love song, “My Valentine,” an excellent song that seems to have been recorded decades ago, to prove the versatility of the composer.

Approaching to the end of my watch, no better choice than to hear 3 of the songs from his latest album.

OK, let’s throw the anchor and think about the early days by The Beatles and, why not? Also mine.

And, here are Jorie Gracen’s picks, which she says are not in any particular order. …

1. “Appreciate”

Linda was the inspiration for many of Paul’s songs.

2. “Only Mama Knows”

3. “Hope of Deliverance”

4. “Cosmically Conscious”

5. “Looking For Changes”

6. “Long Leather Coat”

7. “Alligator”

8. “The World Tonight”

9. “Try Not to Cry”

10. “Keep Coming Back to Love”

11. “Sing The Changes”

12. “Queenie Eye”

13. “I Love This House”

14. “Highway”

15. “Save Us”

16. “Flaming Pie”

17. “Beautiful Night”

18. “The Lovers That Never Were”

19. “Off the Ground”

20. “I Can Bet”

21. “Looking at Her”

22. “Mistress and Maid”

23. “Whole Life”

24. “Turned Out”

25. “Love Come Tumbling Down”

Finally, Tom Frangione’s list …

“Off the Ground”

Paul and Youth.

“Hope of Deliverance”

“The Lovers That Never Were”

“Long Leather Coat”

“My Old Friend”

“Calico Skies”

“Little Willow”

“Beautiful Night”

“I Got Stung”

“What It Is”

“Fine Line”

“Jenny Wren”

“How Kind of You”

“English Tea”

“This Never Happened Before”

“Summer of ’59”

“Vintage Clothes”

“That Was Me”

The End Of The End

“Dance ‘Till We’re High”

“Highway”

“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”

“New”

“Early Days”

“I Can Bet”

 

 

 

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Reassessing Paul McCartney’s ‘Off the Ground’ 25 Years Later

Bill King takes a fresh look at a 1993 album that once was a mainstay on his stereo, but which he hadn’t listened to in years until recently.

Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1993, Paul McCartney’s “Off the Ground” album was practically the soundtrack of my family’s life, as it occupied most-played status on the living room stereo amid a bunch of road trips to follow Macca’s New World Tour.

However, after a recent social media post from Beatlefan’s Al Sussman noting the anniversary of the album’s release, I realized that it had been years since I’d listened to “Off the Ground.

Paul McCartney

The back cover of “Off the Ground.”

That also spurred a memory from nearly five years ago, when my son Bill sent me a link to an article published by Grantland, the late, lamented pop culture site operated by ESPN. The piece by Ben Lindbergh was titled “Ranking the 21 Best Paul McCartney Deep Tracks,” and at No. 9 on the listing was “Golden Earth Girl,” a track from “Off the Ground.”

My son remarked that, until reading the list, he had forgotten about “Golden Earth Girl.” Ironically, he said, that was “an album I heard probably 90 times that year and have never, ever listened to since.”

Bill’s general impression of the album was that it featured rather dated production, sounding very early ’90s, and that it didn’t have the same level of songwriting that shone through on its similarly produced predecessor, “Flowers in the Dirt.”

I replied to him that “Off the Ground” had some good stuff on it (and some mediocre), but most folks, including Paul, seemed to have forgotten about it.

Five years went by, and I still hadn’t listened again to “Off the Ground,” until Al’s anniversary posting. My memory of the album was that some of it was really good (“Hope of Deliverance,” for instance) but much of it hadn’t held up well and wasn’t as satisfying as when we were caught up in the excitement of the tour.

McCartney used his 1993 tour band to record the “Off the Ground” album.

I decided to revisit “Off the Ground” with fresh ears and then go back and compare my contemporary impressions with what I wrote in my original review of the album, published in Beatlefan #81.

Overall, my 2018 critique of the album wasn’t nearly as positive as what I wrote in the winter of 1993.

Back then, I noted this was Macca’s first “band” album since “Back to the Egg” (recorded with his then touring band of Hamish Stuart, Robbie McIntosh, Paul “Wix” Wickens, Blair Cunningham and Linda, rather than session musicians), and said that I thought it had a consistency and energy absent from some of the tracks on “Flowers in the Dirt.”

“The highs here may not soar quite as high as on some previous albums, and there are a couple of weaker tracks, but there aren’t any that make you wince,” I wrote, adding: “Macca and co-producer Julian Mendelsohn, known for his work with the Pet Shop Boys, have put a lot of interesting textures into the sound of this album.”

My view now: It’s generally one of Macca’s less satisfying albums. Several of the tracks meander on way longer than they need to; the lyrics range from decent to embarrassing; and the production, like my son remembered, feels a bit too processed — unusual in that Paul said at the time that most of the basic tracks were recorded live in the studio. I’d rate seven of the 13 tracks as keepers.

Let’s go through the album track by track, comparing my 1993 comments with my recent impressions:

In 1993, I described the title track, “Off the Ground, as “a midtempo rocker whose hard-edged backing of thunderous bass and droning guitars is leavened by handclaps and the ‘la-la-la-la-la’ backing vocals of the very catchy chorus.” I still like the backing, and it does have a catchy refrain, but Paul’s lead vocal now strikes me as sounding very muted.

Back then, I noted that this was Macca’s most overt “message” album, with a heavy emphasis on animal rights and his nostalgia for the positive vibe of the late ‘60s.

Those are still valid concerns and feelings, but the tracks where Paul is trying to deliver a message now feel even more dated than the rest of the album, in part because of the earnest but clunky lyrics.

A prime example is the next track, “Looking for Changes. Even back in 1993, I noted that, while it was “an energetic rocker with bashing drums and buzzsaw guitars that calls for respecting animal rights [and] the sentiment obviously is heartfelt,” I thought “the lyrics are a tad awkward,” as when Paul sang, “I saw a cat with a machine in his brain / The man who fed him said he didn’t feel any pain / I’d like to see that man take out that machine and stick it in his own brain.”

Still, I said back then that the overall result was one of the most memorable tunes on the album.

Now, my notes on the track were summed up with one word: meh.

From left, Robbie McIntosh, Wix, Linda, Paul, Blair Cunningham and Hamish Stuart.

My original review found “Hope of Deliverance” to be problematic. “It’s a fine pop number,” I said, “with a tasty backing mixing acoustic guitars, autoharp and a prominent bassline with Latin percussion … And it has a catchy chorus … but [it’s] not a very good choice as the lead-off single because it doesn’t sound like much else being played on the radio, and it isn’t really representative of the album, having a much lighter feel than most of the tracks.” Now, having long since given up any concerns about solo Beatle stuff getting played on the radio, I rate “Hope” as the best track on the album.

“Mistress and Maid,” I wrote back in 1993, was “a slyly charming story song in 3/4 waltz time” that “displays the most assured lyrical touch on the album — not surprising considering it’s one of the two songwriting collaborations with Elvis Costello on the album. And it’s very nicely produced, with some interesting orchestration arranged by McCartney and Carl Davis.”

I don’t have much more to add, all these years later, except that it’s very Costello-sounding.

In my original review, I said that “I Owe It All to You” was “the closest thing to a traditional McCartney ballad, [with] a very effective acoustic guitar hook, some exotic imagery in the lyrics, a plaintive vocal and one of those instantly hummable Macca choruses. Where, in the past, he might have gone in for synths and strings … here he opts for a leaner, rockier sound that builds in intensity. It’s my favorite on the album.”

“Hope” since has supplanted it as my favorite, but “I Owe It All to You” is still a fine track, though I find the imagery of the lyrics (Egyptian gardens, glass cathedral, golden canyon) a bit rococo.

Which brings us to the track that drew the most derisive comments back in 1993: “Biker Like an Icon.” I wrote in my original album review that, “Musically, I can see the appeal of its quirky chord changes, and McCartney does a good job of singing it, particularly toward the end. But the lyrics, which tell a story about a girl who comes to no good as a result of her obsession with a biker, are awfully trite.  … The weak lyrics ruin what might have been one of the album’s most distinctive numbers.”

The track didn’t wear well, even then. By the end of the tour, I was calling it “loathsome” in Beatlefan. Now, I’d sum it up as not much of a tune, with stupid lyrics. The accompanying T-shirt sold on the ’93 tour — featuring a parody of religious paintings, with a madonna wearing a motorcycle jacket and helmet —  was more artistically satisfying than the song.

Onstage in Australia during the 1993 New World Tour.

Next is “Peace in the Neighborhood.” Back in ’93, I wrote that it was “a gentler message song that basically says the peace and love scene of the ’60s still is a worthwhile ambition for us all.” I said it had “an impossibly catchy refrain, some effective vocal play by Macca and very nice piano” by Wix.

Now, I find the extremely laid-back groove of the track too low-energy. This is one of the ones that drags on way longer than it should.

“Golden Earth Girl,” the track that Grantland liked, is “one of those majestic McCartney ballads,” I wrote in 1993, “with a piano opening that calls to mind ‘Wanderlust,’ and chiming guitars and shimmering oboe and flute orchestration. This one carries an ecological message and some lovely word pictures (“counting fish in a sunbeam, in eggshell seas”), but what you’ll keep with you after listening to it is the beautifully delicate melody and refrain.”

I still like this one a lot, especially the very pretty melody, but now I think the lyrics strain a tad too hard to be poetic and rely too much on an obvious pun (“in eggshell seas” for “in excelsis”).

Ironically, Macca was so concerned with upgrading his lyrics for this album that he enlisted the aid of a British poet friend, Adrian Mitchell. Paul said he asked Mitchell “to look through the lyrics as if he was an English teacher.”

Based on the end results, I’d say that, as a teacher, Mitchell was an “easy A.”

The album’s other collaboration with Costello, “The Lovers That Never Were,” didn’t knock me out in 1993. I wrote that it “has one of the album’s less memorable melodies, but its bittersweet tale of unrequited love (‘a parade of unpainted dreams’) is given a welcome bit of toughness by the pounding drums and handclaps.”

Now, I’d rate it definitely as one of the songwriting duo’s lesser efforts. The lead vocal on this one also sounds a bit too processed.

A bootleg showing how the cover shot for the official album was shot.

Next is Get Out of My Way, which most fans felt back in 1993 should have been a single. Back then, I wrote that it was “a terrific little rock ’n’ roll tune. The band joyously bashes this one out with considerable energy. … The ringing guitars are reminiscent of Chuck Berry, and the refrain is probably the catchiest on the album.”

That summation still works for me.

Back in 1993, I said that “Winedark Open Sea” was “the album’s weakest track. It meanders rather aimlessly, wasting the intriguing imagery of the title on a fairly repetitive love song. … Any of the B-sides … would have been a stronger selection.”

Another one that seems to go on forever. If I were still listening on a turntable, this one would be a needle-lifter.

The album winds up with “C’mon People.” I wrote in 1993 that, in this one, “McCartney attempts an anthem for the ’90s … and, for the most part, it works, [as it] builds from a relatively simple piano-driven opening to a big production benefiting from a tasteful orchestral arrangement co-written and conducted by George Martin. Best thing about it, though, is McCartney’s singing — powerful, emotional.”

With hindsight, that seems a bit generous to me. Nowadays, this one strikes me as plodding.

Tacked on to the end of “C’mon People” is a “hidden” track: a 2-minute excerpt from “Cosmically Conscious” (see below) that I said back then served up “a tantalizing taste of vintage Beatlesque psychedelica with a little Indian seasoning. It leaves you humming its unfinished melody and wanting more.”

And that’s still the case.

Reviews for the album in 1993 were tepid, and sales were unimpressive, with “Off the Ground” peaking with its debut at No. 17 on the Billboard album chart; it was on the chart for only 20 weeks, although it did go gold (meaning sale of 500,000 units). The initial single, “Hope of Deliverance,” peaked on Billboard’s Hot 100 at 83, though it did make it to No. 9 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The single was a bigger hit in Europe.

The album was released in conjunction with McCartney’s New World Tour and six numbers from it were played in the regular set list: “Looking for Changes,” “Peace in the Neighborhood,” “Off the Ground,” “Hope of Deliverance,” “Bike Like an Icon” and “C’mon People.” A seventh, “Get Out of My Way,” unfortunately was dropped from the set list after Australia.

“Hope of Deliverance” generally was the most warmly received of the new numbers in concert, and “Looking for Changes” rocked convincingly enough to hold the audience early in the show. The crowds seemed unfamiliar with (and not that interested in) most of the other new songs, with “Peace in the Neighborhood” being the weakest selection live and quickly becoming the beer or bathroom run song. Canny use of Linda’s pictures, culminating with a Beatles era shot of John and Paul, helped hold audience interest during “C’mon People,” and, at a few shows on the U.S. tour, some fans held up signs at the appropriate times with that song’s “Oh yeah” refrain printed on them.

“Off the Ground — The Complete Works” included the B-sides as well as the album tracks.

Besides “Hope,” three other tracks led singles released from the album: “C’mon People,” “Off the Ground” and “Biker Like An Icon.” None was a hit. A single with dance mixes of “Hope of Deliverance” also was issued. The dominant format at the time was CD singles, and each single featured three non-album B-sides, most of which were from the album sessions (with a couple of live “Unplugged” numbers thrown in).

Later in the year, a 2-CD compilation, “Off the Ground — The Complete Works” was released in Germany and the Netherlands. It included all the B-sides (except for the ones that were remixes of album tracks).

The common fan sentiment at the time was that the B-sides were better than some of the tracks that made the album, and, for the most part, that is still a valid observation.

The studio B-sides were:

“Big Boys Bickering” — a Cajun-flavored country-blues shuffle that drew some press notice for its liberal use of the f-word in protesting the first President George Bush’s refusal to sign an international ecological treaty.

“Long Leather Coat — a raucous rocker written by Paul and Linda with animal rights lyrics (better than “Looking for Changes”) and the band rocking out full-bore.

“Kicked Around No More” — a similar ballad to “Once Upon a Long Ago,” with a really fine, soulful lead vocal, and 10cc-style backing vocals. The syncopated rhythm injects a bit of energy into the lushly produced number.

“I Can’t Imagine” — a sprightly, upbeat acoustic guitar-driven pop number with a light Latin rhythm, nice backing harmonies, and an urgent lead vocal. (When the iTunes Store added McCartney’s catalog in 2007, they included “I Can’t Imagine” as an exclusive bonus track on the main “Off the Ground” album.)

“Keep Coming Back to Love” — a soulful number cowritten with band member Hamish Stuart, opening with a jazzy piano riff and featuring an interesting bass line on the chorus. Paul and Hamish share the vocal.

“Down to the River” — a Cajun-inflected country-skiffle harmonica number first performed during the 1991 secret gigs tour of Europe. Lyrically slight (and repetitive), but thoroughly enjoyable, with an impossibly catchy refrain.

“Cosmically Conscious — the full version of the extremely catchy song, which Paul wrote at the Maharishi’s back in 1968. Its dense, echoey, layered sound is chockablock with old Beatles studio tricks and trademarks. A great companion piece for George Harrison’s “When We Was Fab.”

“Style Style” — an unremarkable, overlong pop number (running 6:07) that does have a very hummable chorus.

“Sweet Sweet Memories” — a middle-aged love song with another memorable chorus and a prominent bass line. Tacked on at end is the 26-second “Soggy Noodle,” essentially just a bit of guitar picking.

Overall, the “Off the Ground” project didn’t produce a lot of top-level McCartney music, but it did include a number of tracks that are worth revisiting 25 years years later.

— Bill King

 

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That Was the Year That Was: Lots of High Points for Beatles Fans in 2017

Beatlefan Publisher Bill King looks back on the past 12 months in the Beatles world. …

The year’s big event was the 50th anniversary of the “Sgt. Pepper” album.

Any year where you get to see two of The Beatles live in concert in your city has to be considered an above average time for a Beatles fan, and that was the case for me in 2017.

But, the year proved to be notable for fans in other ways, too.

The biggest event in Beatledom this year (or, arguably, in many years) was the much lauded 50th anniversary edition of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

This one checked off just about all the fan “wants” when it came to reissues, as it was put out in multiple configurations featuring new Giles Martin mixes in stereo and 5.1 surroundsound, had bonus discs with previously unreleased material and video features, was presented in lavish and thoughtfully prepared special packaging.

I think it’s safe to say the 6-disc Super Deluxe Edition is the all-round best Beatles reissue ever, and a rare instance of Apple Corps hitting one out of the ballpark. (Conversely, the release of The Beatles’ Christmas recordings late in the year deservedly drew a much more muted response sine it came out only on vinyl and did not feature any bonuses. And, Apple Corps missed an opportunity by ignoring the 50th anniversary of “Magical Mystery Tour.”)

Meanwhile, the “Pepper” 50th anniversary also brought forth several documentaries (one of which was shown on PBS in America) and a number of new books about the album and its times, including Bruce Spizer’s “The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper: A Fans’ Perspective,” to which I was honored to contribute.

“I Me Mine” was republished in an expanded edition.

Also on the plus side, another notable event of 2017 was publication of an expanded edition of George Harrison’s “I Me Mine” book, spanning the complete length of his career in music. This volume was his musical story told largely in his own words and featured 141 songs with handwritten lyric sheets reproduced in full color.

However, not nearly as enthusiastically greeted was “George Harrison: The Vinyl Collection,” which consisted of 180-gram vinyl reissues of all 12 of George’s studio albums, from “Wonderwall Music” through “Brainwashed,” plus “Live in Japan” and two 12-inch picture discs of “When We Was Fab” and “Got My Mind Set on You.”

While Harrison fans wanting some, but not all, of these new vinyl reissues didn’t have to fork out for the entire box set, since the individual LPs also were available separately, the fact that the releases used the original analog master tapes, rather than new remixes, and did not include any bonus material drew a lot of flak from fans … and made them less than an essential purchase.

“Flowers in the Dirt” was the latest entry in the McCartney Archive series.

Much more successful, but still controversial, was the release of Paul McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt” album as part of his archive series.

The excellently remastered album was made available as a 2-CD special edition, a 2-LP vinyl set and a deluxe edition box set that included 3 CDs (with 18 bonus tracks, including previously unissued demos) and a DVD with all the music videos from the album, other short films and the “Put It There” documentary; plus a booklet of handwritten lyrics, a photobook and a 112-page book with the complete story of the album told through interviews with Paul, Elvis Costello and other contributors.

However, the decision to issue an album’s worth of additional bonus tracks, including B-sides, remixes and single edits, as digital downloads only drew heavy fan criticism, as did the fact that the “Flowers” reissue carried a much higher list price than previous Archive Collection releases.

The other major high points of the year for Beatles fans were the previously mentioned concert tours by both Paul and Ringo.

Bruce Springsteen onstage with Macca. (Photo by Bob Gannon)

Macca’s One on One tour stretched through much of the year, starting with shows in Japan and moving on to two legs of U.S. dates (including a bunch in the New York area that saw Macca joined onstage by Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen), shows in South America and Mexico City, and his long-awaited return to Australia and New Zealand in December.

While he didn’t shake up the set list much, and there still were the occasional problems with his voice, McCartney’s nearly three-hour show wowed audiences and left concertgoers with a big smile on their face wherever the 75-year-old legend went.

Also, he continued to show a superb command of the stage and a good feel for audience interactions. He frequently brought fans up onstage and sometimes — as with the July 13 Atlanta area show, where he helped a young woman named Becka Philips tell her family she’s gay — these fan moments were high points of the evening.

Another highlight of my Macca concert experience was having my longtime friend John Sosebee travel over from Alabama to join me and Leslie at the show. It felt a lot like old times, and we all enjoyed the concert thoroughly, even the familiar parts we’ve seen numerous times before. As I noted in my blog and Beatlefan article on the show, I think my friend Melissa Ruggieri of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got it exactly right in her review when she wrote: “There might not be a more beautiful sonic live experience than the moment ‘Something’ shifts from McCartney on ukulele to the full band kicking in like an exploding rainbow. It’s a moment worth revisiting a hundred times.”

Ringo at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Rick Glover)

The fact that I also got to see Ringo in concert just four months later was the cherry on top when it came to 2017’s treats. Leslie is still upset that she was under the weather at the time and missed Ringo and the All Starrs’ show at Atlanta’s beautiful Fox Theatre, but our daughter Olivia joined me, and it was a fun evening. Ringo was in fine voice and humor, Todd Rundgren played the class clown as usual, and the band members obviously were enjoying themselves as they jostled and poked each other during their rundown of classic rock hits.

The only real disappointment was Ringo not doing any song from his most recent album release, “Give More Love,” with the title number dropped from the set list shortly after the opening stint in Las Vegas.

With Ringo shaking up the band’s lineup for a forthcoming 2018 European tour, many of us hope that, perhaps, he’ll bring back “Oh My My” (done with the All Starrs in 2008) or finally do “Octopus’s Garden” (which he’s previously only done live a few years back with his part-time group, the Roundheads).

There are still songs Ringo isn’t doing that fans would love to hear. (Photo by Rick Glover)

I’d also love to see a live version of his hit cover of “Only You,” but I’ve pretty much given up hope of that.

Other 2017 Beatles-related highlights this Beatles fan included: the Avett Brothers’ terrific version of George’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” which they debuted on “The Late Show with Steven Colbert” and included in their concert sets … the voluminous “A Is for Apple Volume 2” book continuing the authors’ very detailed look at the early days of Apple Corps and and Apple Records … and the launching by SiriusXM of The Beatles Channel, which surprised many fans by including relatively obscure solo album tracks in its mix of familiar Beatles hits.

Sad moments during the year included the deaths of John Lennon’s pal Pete Shotton (with whom I once spent a delightful evening), Harrison buddy and fellow Traveling Wilbury Tom Petty and The Beatles’ first “manager,” Allan Williams. And, for us personally at Beatlefan, 2017 unfortunately will be remembered for the sudden loss of our longtime Japan correspondent, Gen Onoshima.

Overall, though, a 6-disc “Pepper” retrospective with lots of previously unissued bonus recordings, and fresh chances to see both Paul and Ringo perform onstage made 2017 one of my favorite Beatle years in quite a while!

Feel free to share your own thoughts on the latest Beatle year. …

— Bill King

 

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Ringo’s Back Beat: You Can’t Lose It

Beatlefan contributor Dave Persails offers an appreciation of the world’s greatest drummer.

Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band on their 2017 tour. (All photos by Dave Persails)

Ringo Starr recently finished a concert tour of the U.S., and he made a stop in greater Houston, in Sugarland, Texas, to be precise. With no real surprises, the show was very much the same show we’ve seen for the past six years.

We did get an excellent and welcome return of a rocking “Back Off Boogaloo,” complete with a riff from “Helter Skelter.” Disappointingly, however, the new album track “Give More Love” was no longer on the set list, as it once was for the earlier Vegas shows. Ringo dutifully puts out a new album every couple of years, and it almost seems that, whether it sells or not is beside the point.

Of late, there appears to be a new appreciation for Ringo.

Beyond that, what else is there to say about Ringo Starr? Plenty, it seems, if you pay any attention to what authors and musicians have been saying in recent years.

In some older Beatles biographies, Ringo was hardly mentioned. Whereas there are countless books on The Beatles as a group, plus many on John Lennon and Paul McCartney as solo artists, and even a few for quiet Beatle George Harrison, the number of books devoted to The Beatles’ drummer can be counted on one hand. Not until 1991 did anyone see fit to write one, when Alan Clayson gave us his “Straight Man or Joker?” Even the title raised doubt — still — as to whether Mr. Starkey should be taken seriously.

Of late, there seems to be a new appreciation for our favorite drummer. Michael Seth Starr issued his biography in 2015, and, in 2016, Alex Cain and Terry McCusker explored “the percussive elements” of Ringo’s work with The Beatles. Due in 2018 is a fresh telling from fellow Liverpudlian David Bedford, as to how Ringo joined the group.

This recent attention is no doubt due, at least in part, to Ringo’s 2015 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. That honor took place with more than a little help from his friend Paul, but it was also then that so many other famous drummers paid their respects. Dave Grohl said, “Ringo was the king of feel.” Jim Keltner called him “a song drummer.” And, Max Weinberg observed, “four drums, that’s all Ringo Starr needed.” They all, at one time or another, answered the musical question, “What would Ringo do?” Such is the power of his influence.

The Beatles and company also seem to have realized the importance of recognizing Ringo. In the recent 50th anniversary “Sgt. Pepper” release, the drums are mixed to the fore, a fact that has the drummer rather pleased. “Now my drums are back, the overdubs and things lost them originally,” he said. “Now they are back. I’m so happy to hear it the way we did it.”

Ringo seems to love backing up his fellow All Starrs.

If one digs deep enough, there is evidence that Starr always has been at the center of things. Lennon told David Scheff in 1980 that “Ringo was a star in his own right in Liverpool before we even met. He was a professional drummer who sang and performed and had ‘Ringo Starr-Time’ and he was in one of the top groups in Britain, but especially in Liverpool before we even had a drummer.” His old bass drum was boldly emblazoned with the words “Ringo Starr” — not the name of the group he was in — right up to the time he joined The Beatles. McCartney recalled Ringo’s first sit-in with the band as “the moment, that was the beginning, really, of The Beatles.”

In so many ways, Ringo was the heart of The Beatles, especially in the U.S. in 1964. Then, the Saturday Evening Post called Ringo “the most popular of The Beatles in America,” adding, “he evokes paroxysms of teenage shrieks everywhere by a mere turn of his head, a motion which sends his brown spaniel hair flying. When he flips his wig, the kids flip theirs. ‘Riiinngo! Riinngo!’ the kids call out.”

Throughout The Beatles’ career, Ringo often was on top, if not out front. Americans were introduced to him as he sat upon the tall drum riser on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” shaking his head, with that big, happy smile. This drummer was not one to hide in the back, as so many did. There was even a ridiculous “Ringo for President” campaign, an exhibition of his popularity, here. Then there was the Beatles cartoon series, where Ringo’s character was usually at the center of the story (if not the butt of the joke), and always in every sing-along feature. He had central roles in The Beatles’ films, too, most famously in “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” He forever will be associated with “Yellow Submarine,” both the film and the song.

Many famous drummers have cited Ringo as an influence.

From The Beatles’ heyday, consider how many songs are defined by his unique drumming style: “Ticket to Ride,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life,” “Come Together.” The list goes on. In the early concerts (see the Washington Coliseum film, for example) witness Ringo bashing the drums like he was driving a boat through a storm called Beatlemania. He’s all over the place!

Yet, in the studio, despite what initial misgivings producer George Martin may have had, Ringo proved to be THE drummer that every great Lennon-McCartney song needed. On percussion, he could be subtle (“And I Love Her”), raucous (“She Loves You”), and … where the hell did that come from? (“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Rain”).

So, what about Ringo Starr, now? Though they are very different bands, as George Harrison was with his Wilburys, Ringo is with his All Starrs. There is no doubt that Ringo is the leader, but he’s quite happy to take a back seat and, for much of the show, quite literally. Ringo as the front man and vocalist for some of his own songs is a good showcase. He’s learned over the years to be that leader. He’s more comfortable than he was in the past, but it’s very clear watching him up top on his drum riser — that’s where he’s most comfortable. That’s where Ringo’s star shines.

When the All Starr Band finishes Gregg Rollie’s “Oye Como Va,” Ringo clicks his drum sticks together to pay tribute to a performance well done. When Richard Page displays those smooth vocals on his own songs, again Ringo makes note. When Steve Lukather tears through a blistering solo, Ringo offers a nod. He’s having fun as much as they are.

Beatles fans should take advantage of Ringo’s continued touring and catch one of his shows.

The band members all take great care to pay tribute to Ringo when their turn in the show comes up. So it is that Ringo becomes “the legendary one” or the “greatest drummer ever” or “the guy we all came to see” and that all the other band members are all too happy to be playing with and honored to do so.

In this band, Ringo is in his element. Playing on the stage is what he likes to do, and the crowd couldn’t be happier to be a part of it, no matter whose hits are being played.

Should Ringo Starr get more recognition, and more press? Maybe. But, even Ringo is not so keen to write a bona fide autobiography. He seems content to let out just enough bits of info in his books of postcards and photos. He reveals just a little in his somewhat autobiographical song lyrics, too. As usual, he lets his music do most of the talking. He is not known for doing drum solos — so much so, that everyone knows the one very famous solo he actually did, and we know it by heart.

No, if you asked him, he would say what he likes best about his own drumming are his accidental fills. Fills, he says, that he could never play the same way twice. Ringo is arguably a very humble and modest drummer, for someone who claimed drumming as his madness.

Now, the fourth Beatle, the man some had been written off as a fourth-rate Beatle, is flying first class. With news coming of a new All Starr lineup, we all should be sure to catch his show while we still can.

Dave Persails

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