Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Paul McCartney's discography, heard!

It’s ever so mildly disturbing when it happens but most sane people eventually realize that some Beatles songs flat-out suck. Or, okay, they find it difficult to access the magic heard upon first learning the canon. My epiphany occurred in the midst of the 2009 reissue frenzy. Forget mono vs. stereo – the lads were losing the distinction between serious and complacent at least as early as Rubber Soul. Where once I heard their increasing song lengths as a sign of maturity, now I could feel “You Won’t See Me,” their longest to date, slooooow down to a crawl during the final verse. The only euphoria I experienced chewing on such Revolver bon bons as "Here, There and Everywhere," "Good Day Sunshine," and "Got to Get You into My Life" again came courtesy of nitrous oxide at the dentist two weeks later. The whole of The White Album does indeed exceed the sum of its parts but for once, that’s no compliment; I no longer wanted to hear the parts. "Blackbird," "Rocky Raccoon," and "Mother Nature's Son" suffer folkie fools gladly while "Honey Pie" found its proper home crashed on the shores of Sextette (1978), Mae West’s swan song catasterpiece, in a rendition by Dom Deluise. As for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” thank gawd there’s no mono version to compare. If there’s a worse Beatles song, please keep it on your bootlegs.    

All of which amounted to a long overdue hint to be done with Paul McCartney, a project I’ve avoided until now. The prospect of traipsing through his discography filled me with dread given how I couldn’t stand what little I knew of it. Even something like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which Macca maniacs judge his first post-Beatles masterpiece, epitomized the man’s lazy fecundity. Maybe you’re amazed, dude? Maybe? Who wants a lover that can’t quite make up his mind, especially one that strains his voice when non-committing?

But therein lies his charm, such as it is. Lazy but productive. Forced but non-committal. Such paradoxes fuel McCartney’s oeuvre, a bank of songs that frustrates more than it amazes. As Taylor Parkes so beautifully puts it:

“They just seem to ignore most of pop's basic obligations. Few of these songs mean anything at all; they're rarely exciting in a purely visceral sense; they never tell a story, or attempt to blow your mind; they're seldom uplifting, or plaintive, or gross. They are utterly useless objects, which seem content simply to exist. This is their (very) peculiar charm.”

Before reading Parkes’ defense, that's precisely how I would've described some of the most shameless pop music from ABBA to diva house. But those artists are out to connect. McCartney's arrows seek no targets. That they sometimes strike a popular nerve is of no consequence because this is the music of a billionaire who need not worry if anyone ever hears his chaos and creation. And however much the facts of his life contradict such a conclusion, that’s how his songs come across. McCartney's influence is thus felt less on pure popsters Alphabeat or even putative Beatles Xeroxes Oasis than on indie anti-socialites like Guided By Voices, Low, Palace, My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, etc.

Nevertheless, a rich and uncaring discography has plenty of perverse pleasures to offer. Precious few in the beginning, though, and since I was tackling each album chronologically, this did not bode well for the dozen-plus I had left. Ram works as an album but much to my surprise and the rage of McCartney fanatics, I couldn’t salvage a single song/fragment from McCartney. And the first two Wings joints, Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway, were as hideous as I’d read. The former gets the nod for general weirdness but the only hope I received from Red Rose Speedway was that Mavis Staples covers “My Love.”

For the rest of the 1970s, I’d say that McCartney’s albums would’ve been better remembered were they EPs. With some minor shuffling, Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, Back to the Egg could have done without their side twos (leaving London Town a soft rock question mark). Proof that I was listening hard anyway lies in my enthusiasm for Speed’s “The Note You Never Wrote,” inadvertently moving in the manner of a godforsaken DJ Shadow thrift store find which, as a McCartney composition sung by Wings co-founder Denny Laine, it kind of is.

In retrospect, it’s fairly remarkable that Back to the Egg and McCartney II received such bad reviews at the time. Clearly, critics were just fed up with him by 1980, especially with punk and disco to distract them. But I dug Macca’s attempts to wrestle with The Damned (or is that ZZ Top?) (“Spin It On”), Squeeze (“Again And Again And Again”), and Steely Dan c. Aja (“Arrow Through Me”) on Egg. McCartney II is, of course, the album you play for people who hate Paul McCartney because it sounds like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. Perhaps in an attempt to one up Bowie, The Talking Heads, and Devo, Macca even handled the Enoisms all by his lonesome. The result is far more tuneless than its ever-expanding list of supporters would admit. But it remains captivating throughout. You can almost grasp the adorable image of a 1960s survivor nervously shuffling his feet outside punk-disco clubs in the hopes that “Coming Up” or “Temporary Secretary” will take.   

Instead of keeping up with Kid Creole and the Coconuts or Sonic Youth, however, McCartney’s subsequent 1980s output caters a bit too much to the recently christened Adult Contemporary charts. Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, and Flowers in the Dirt trade quirk for classiness. For once, there’s nary an infuriating moment to be found on any of them. Alas, there’s not much excitement either.

But then there’s Press to Play. Much like Bob Dylan’s chronically fascinating 1980s albums, this one is frequently disparaged for tacky production better suited for the end credits to a teen sex comedy. No doubt that’s part of the perverse pleasure I derive from it; never underestimate the power of watching Beatles fans squirm. But it just so happens to include the man’s greatest post-Beatles song.

“Press” is no less disconnected than any other of McCartney composition. He starts by complaining to Linda about “all these people listening in.” Um, hello, Paul, you’re the most successful musician on our planet (no clue as to how popular you are on your own). Of course, we’re listening in! So he takes this as an opportunity to invent a new word for fucking: “When you want me to love you just tell me to press/Right there! That’s it! Yes!” Letting us in on his most private conversation, it’s the most generous song of his career with all the tumult and clutter of Hugh Padgham’s production perfectly evoking Paul’s giddy love for Linda. We even get to hear their orgasm. “Oklahoma was never like this,” gushes Paul in one of pop music’s classic money shots. And here I thought I had the 1980s down. Wonder if there’s something this masterful hiding on a Steve Winwood album.

After the 1980s, a severe downturn. The streamlining that began with Tug of War became more severe with Off the Ground, Flaming Pie, Driving Rain, and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard such that the only song I can recall amongst them is “Driving Rain.” And even there, I’ll take the speedier live version from the otherwise embarrassing Back in the U.S.

That leaves Run Devil Run and Memory Almost Full. It certainly wasn’t preordained that Run Devil Run, an album consisting mostly of covers, would prove his best album, especially given the dreary oldies recastings on Снова в СССР (and his 2012 Great American Songbook bonanza, Kisses on the Bottom, exists mainly to scare Rod Stewart). But he never rocked fiercer nor sang better. "No Other Baby” and “Lonesome Town” were gut-wrenching goodbyes to Linda. And Memory Almost Full registers an uptick in care probably because he wanted to make sure we still loved him when he’s 65.

Normally at this point, I’d sum everything up with a one-disc distillation. But annoyingly, most of the tracks I considered essential turned out to be the singles anyway. And a two-disc started to look arbitrary. So instead, I decided to honor McCartney’s loopiness and damn history in the process with an alternative Macca timeline/discography. Enjoy!

1970 – Paul McCartney’s first solo album, Ram, is released!  
1. "Too Many People"
2. "Ram On"
3. "Dear Boy"
4. "Smile Away"
5. "Monkberry Moon Delight"
6. "Eat at Home"
7. "The Back Seat of My Car"
8. “Another Day”
9. “Oh Woman, Oh Why”

1971 – Wings debuts with bizarre, lopsided 12” single
A: “Mumbo” 22:50 version with members of Can at their funkiest
B: “Dear Friend” (special 3:00 version)

1972 – Again, only one single is released. McCartney chalks up inactivity to having to take out the trash on his farm on the Mull of Kintyre.
A: “My Love” (special guest vocalist Mavis Staples)
B: “C Moon”

1973 -   
Band on the Run 
1. "Band on the Run"           
2. "Jet"           
3. "Bluebird"           
4. "Mrs Vandebilt"           
5. "Let Me Roll It"  
6. "Helen Wheels"
7: "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five"

A: “Live and Let Die”
B: “Hi, Hi, Hi”

1975 –  
Venus and Mars EP
1. "Venus and Mars"                      
2. "Rock Show"                      
3. "Love in Song"                      
4. "Magneto and Titanium Man"
5. "Letting Go"                   
6. "Spirits of Ancient Egypt"                            
7. "Listen to What the Man Said"                   
8. “My Carnival”            

1976 –  
Wings at the Speed of Sound 
1. "Let 'Em In"           
2. "The Note You Never Wrote"
3. "She's My Baby"           
4. "Beware My Love"           
5. "Wino Junko"        
6. "Silly Love Songs"           
7. "Sally G"

McCartney performs on one-off Denny Laine single
A: “Get Off Your Ass and Let ‘em In Your Damn Self!”
B: “Six Day War” (Colonel Bagshot cover)

1978 –  
London Town EP
1. “London Town”
2. “Cafe On The Left Bank”
3. “I’m Carrying”
4. “Backwards Traveller”
5. “With A Little Luck”
6. “Famous Groupies”
7. “Deliver Your Children”
8. “Morse Moose And The Grey Goose”

1979 –  
Back to the Egg EP
1. "Reception"           
2. "Getting Closer"           
3. "We're Open Tonight"           
4. "Spin It On"           
5. "Again and Again and Again"  
6. "Old Siam, Sir"           
7. "Arrow Through Me"           
8. "To You"
9. "Daytime Nighttime Suffering"
10. "Wonderful Christmastime"

1980 –  
McCartney II EP
1. "Coming Up"           
2. "Temporary Secretary"           
3. "Waterfalls"           
4. "Summer's Day Song"          
5. "Darkroom"           
6. "Secret Friend"
7. "Goodnight Tonight"

1982 –  
Tug of War (specially priced EP)
1. “Take It Away”
2. “Ballroom Dancing”
3. “Wanderlust”
4. “Dress Me Up as a Robber”
5. Ebony and Ivory”

1983 –
A: “Say Say Say”
B: “The Man”

1984 –
A: “No More Lonely Nights” (extended version)
B: “No More Lonely Nights” (special dance mix)

1986 –  
Press to Play EP
1. “Stranglehold”
2. “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”
3. “Talk More Talk”
4. “Press”
5. “Pretty Little Head”

1989 –  
Flowers in the Dirt EP
1. "My Brave Face"
2. "You Want Her Too"
3. “We Got Married”
4. “This One”
5. “Ou Est Le Soleil”

1989 – 1999 – McCartney becomes mayor of The Mull of Kintyre

1999 – Run Devil Run!

2001 –
Special one-sided single
A: “Driving Rain (live)”
B: silence

2007 – Memory Almost Full EP
1. "Dance Tonight"
2. "Ever Present Past"
3. "See Your Sunshine"
4. "Gratitude"
5. "The End of the End"
6. "Nod Your Head"

Happy birthday, John.

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