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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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