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New Paul McCartney Material and Fifty Years of ‘The White Album’
MAYBE there should be a limit on Beatles/Paul McCartney…
articles per year but if it were any other artist then I might agree - how could you limit such genius?! I feel, in a non-morbid sense, every year we remember music from The Beatles is a precious one. Last year, we paid tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and its fiftieth anniversary. Stations and broadcasters played songs and presented pieces that looked at the album’s magic, influence and how it managed to change the landscape of music back in 1967 – it pushed The Beatles' boundaries and curiosity and, as such, led to a revolution in music. 1970 is the last year we saw an album by The Beatles (Let It Be), so it is a couple more years before we have to say goodbye to the fiftieth anniversary – there will be chances to mark each one of their albums through history but you cannot overlook the importance of those milestone anniversaries. The Beatles’ eponymous album – dubbed ‘The White Album’ – arrived at a rather curious and transformative stage in the life of a band who, then, was going through fracturing. I will have a look at the 1968 masterpiece and why its fiftieth anniversary (in November) should be met with intense celebration. This year has been a big one for Paul McCartney: Ringo Starr has been knighted but Macca has played some memorable gigs (including one back at the Cavern Club) and is in the midst of promotional duties. His new album, Egypt Station, is out on Friday and it will be the seventeenth solo album from the Beatles legends...
2013’s New was a fantastic album and one of his very best in years. I loved that album and, in my psychic way, predicted something would come from McCartney! I felt he has stuff brewing and, although he does not need to put material into the world, you can never imagine the man resting and retiring! Even in his seventies; McCartney has that desire and fresh angles. The singles from the record so far have included flirtatious encounters and, as he has said, other songs will look at depression and darker sides. It is a complex album but one with the reliable brew of catchy songs and quotable McCartney lines! The Freshen Up U.S. Tour 2019 kicks off on 27th May (2019) in North Carolina and there will be Canadian dates. Look at McCartney’s official website and you will see the full rundown. Singles like I Don’t Know, Fuh You and Come on to Me will be included and we will get to see his latest album mixed alongside older material. McCartney travels across Europe, the U.K. and Asia and it seems like next year will be a very busy one. I am amazed by the energy of the iconic songwriter! The reason I have written a few pieces about him lately is that of his durability and ambition.
McCartney does not need to tour anymore or record material. A lot of his peers – aside from The Who and The Rolling Stones – have slowed or stopped completely. Those who have survived and still have commercial viability are a lot more low-level and restrictive compared to their heyday. Paul McCartney, on the other hand, seems to be as intense and busy as the early bloom of his debut solo album. I will talk about The Beatles in the second half but look at his solo material and what he did with Wings and I am stunned he still has material left in him! To me, there are no finer McCartney albums (minus a band) than RAM (1971) and 1982’s Tug of War. The former was recorded not long after Wings started whereas the latter was released after the band broke up. Although McCartney has received some bumpy reviews and released some so-so albums (by his standards!); the way he keeps pushing limits and evolving what he does stuns me. Many might assume his potency and genius would wane as he hit his sixties and seventies but that is not true. Egypt Station’s recent releases show there is ample life and brilliance left in him. I know there will be a few more McCartney albums before his time is done – not trying to make it gloomy – but 2018 is a huge year for him. Not only is McCartney launching a new album and preparing for touring but two releases from The Beatles are celebrating big anniversaries...
I have already marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of their debut, Please Please Me, and, being The Beatles, it wasn’t long before they followed that up. With the Beatles was released on 22nd November, 1963 and had to follow up on the raw and live-sounding material from their debut. The fourteen track album features six cover versions but the band, McCartney especially, were becoming sharper and more ambitious songwriters. The lads were tighter and the sophomore record allowed them a bit more time. It was still a period where a lot of cover versions had to supplement their original recordings but one can look at that album as confirmation the band was here to stay! With the Beatles, like so much of their work in the early-1960s, captured the band on the rise and stole the public’s hearts. Maybe we were yet to see most of their classic slices – Please Please Me had Love Me Do and I Saw Her Standing There on it – but you cannot deny the band was reinventing Pop and offering something thrilling and eye-opening to hungry fans! Whilst it is important to mark that anniversary; I feel the media needs to be aware of The Beatles’ fiftieth anniversary.
IN THIS PHOTO: Sir Paul McCartney/PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
On 22nd November, it will be fifty years since The Beatles was released to the world. Whilst McCartney will be promoting Egypt Station and preparing for an active and hectic 2019; I feel there will be fond memories and a few tears when he looks back to 1968. Ringo Starr, one suspects, will feel a tinge of nostalgia and look at a time when the world’s biggest band were not only on the verge of collapse but recording some of their finest material ever. One of the reasons I want to look at the album early – I will formally mark it in November – is because the media tends to be a bit slack and insincere when it comes to celebrating artists and albums. They covered Madonna’s sixtieth birthday well but were lacklustre for Kate Bush’s sixtieth; they almost forgot about Michael Jackson’s sixtieth (even if he is no longer with us) and I hope The Beatles gets the same coverage and respect as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One can compartmentalise The Beatles’ cannon into categories: the most important albums; the most influential albums: the most underrated albums; the most overrated albums etc. I feel it was remiss of people to scantily cover Please Please Me earlier in the year. Not only did that album introduce The Beatles but it is, in my view, more influential and important than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
With the Beatles is a big one but, for me, I feel people should be inking their pens now and getting to grips with a white-covered album that is more fascinating and compelling (than most albums) ever created! One could spend days and weeks dissecting the record and why it resonates and remains in the heart. I feel McCartney’s role and music from the record is stronger than anything else - stronger than Lennon's gems, for instance. If he was the band leader during 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and was taking more control of the band during that period – he would have more creative control during Abbey Road and Let It Be – then ‘The White Album’ was, effectively four Beatles recording solo material. Very few of the songs (thirty of them in total) saw all the members in the same room jamming and united. Only five years after their debut album; pressure, personal relationships and changing dynamics saw the legends on the verge of collapse. They would produce a spectacular swansong with Abbey Road – knowing that would be the last thing they recorded (Let It Be was released after Abbey Road but recorded before) – but people feared The Beatles would not survive after their eponymous record. I was obsessed with The Beatles’ debut when I was a child but it is the boys’ eponymous album that left the biggest dent in my infantile consciousness.
About eleven-or-so of The Beatles’ tracks were written by McCartney; John Lennon had about the same amount, maybe more (even if his contributions were not quite as potent) and, aside from the odd song where credit could have gone to Lennon and McCartney (Birthday among them), Ringo Starr and George Harrison had their say. I was hooked by the silliness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. The latter is a John Lennon song and features Yoko Ono backing vocals, a silly story and a cute chorus. It is an atypical Lennon cut! McCartney was usually the one who would provide whimsy and cute but here, unusually, Lennon provided something child-like and, sadly, inane. I loved it as a child because it was singalong and showed the complexity and variation of a fascinating songwriter. It was McCartney’s knees-up-and-a-barrel-of-beer-down-the-local kick of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da that got into my brain. Match that chirpiness and catchiness against another McCartney song like Blackbird and it is an extraordinary thing. Blackbird addresses civil rights struggles and holds political messages. Its birdsong and calm demeanour carries weight and is regarded as one of his best songs. Look at the thrilling opener of Back in the U.S.S.R. and it is almost like the McCartney opener from the debut, I Saw Her Standing There. Lennon and Harrison pitched in on Back in the U.S.S.R. – all handling percussion, guitars and various instruments – and, with Starr absent, it was a song that lacked a Beatle but showed the band, and Macca especially, had not lost the golden touch!
The four-sided L.P., The Beatles, has different sides that show eclectic spirit and four minds on different pages...but determined to add their talent and create a sensational album. It is a scattershot record but those two lead songwriters, once united, were creating genius alone. I will look at Lennon’s contributions – we cannot forget George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps – but McCartney was in inspired form. Helter Skelter almost invented Metal: a rampant and raw song where the man screams and shreds…almost alien compared to the tenderness and emotion of Blackbird! Wild Honey Pie (on the first side) and Martha My Dear (the second side) are less substantial but show sophisticated arrangements and new sides to his songwriting. I Will is an underrated gem and Mother Nature’s Son ranks alongside his very best from that period. The band were tense and not at their communicative best. There were storm-outs – Starr quit the band and returned – and sessions would often compartmentalise The Beatles. One might be recording a song in one studio whilst McCartney would be laying material down on his own. Like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; it is amazing the album was actually made, let alone the fact it ranks alongside the best albums of all-time! One can understand and appreciate why personal issues and pressure infiltrated The Beatles’ camp by 1968. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (that included Penny Lane and Strawberry Field Forever) rocketed them to new heights and, retreating from touring somewhat, there was a lot of pressure and speculation.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1968
They had to follow that mighty year and, exhausted and in need of recharging, the Transcendental Meditation course with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India (between February and April 1968) gave them new fuel and inspiration. McCartney and Lennon both identified the band needed to get away from everything and find spiritual guidance. The duo would meet in each other’s rooms in the afternoons to review their new material. If dope implicitly compelled a lot of their material around Rubber Soul and L.S.D. was impacting their minds in 1967; nothing illegal – aside from the odd bit of weed – was clouding their brains in India. Renewed, focused and intent; the band were prolific and, with George Harrison developing hugely as a songwriter; it seemed like things were on the up. The traditional and brotherly unification in India dissipated when the band went into the studio. I feel McCartney suffered a lot during the recording. His material is/was extraordinary but Yoko Ono’s introduction into the mix – and the heroin addiction she and Lennon both shared – led to temper and anger (from Lennon), division and two songwriters with a distorted and frayed line of communication. Apple Corps was established in 1968 and the band felt they were invincible. Perhaps there was ego and an inflated sense of self-belief but it is clear drugs and a new relationship in The Beatles’ camp affected things drastically.
The guys were not used to an outsider/non-Beatle in the studio so consistently; so that tension and unusual situation led to spats and breakdowns in the band – not only with the members but George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. Lennon found McCartney’s songs sweet and cloying: McCartney saw Lennon’s efforts as unmelodious and provocative. Starr left the studio on 22nd August during a session for Back in the U.S.S.R. following McCartney’s criticism of his drumming. (Starr would often sit at the studio’s reception waiting for the other members to turn up). If Lennon and Ono had their own orb and bubble; Harrison was working quietly and avoiding as much conflict as possible; McCartney was adapting to seeing a musical brother being taken away and feeling that tension – Starr, in many ways, was being isolated and having to come between all this electricity and stress. Only sixteen of The Beatles’ tracks had all the band playing; many knew the end was coming but, despite this, so much brilliant music came through. The Beatles is important because it signified a definite shift and strain; the ambition of the record and the varied, decades-lasting songs stood out strongest. It seems like a reissue of The Beatles is almost ready and we will see the original material and, who knows, there might be unheard cuts and some rare offerings! Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had a reissue that included outtakes and conversation in the studio: The Beatles, I hope, provides some in-studio conversation, more songs and a chance to really dive in.
Maybe that detail and level of exploration will offend the short-attention-span generation but, being such a crucial album, it is much-needed and exciting. I have talked a lot about McCartney’s brilliant contributions (on the record) but Lennon beauties like Julia, Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey; Glass Onion and Happiness Is a Warm Gun are insane! Those songs, alone, are among the best Beatles material – like McCartney; John Lennon was in inspired form and all over the map. If McCartney was writing civil rights songs and amping up to eleven; keeping it cheeky and providing his usual banquet of the eclectic; Lennon was writing extensive and experimental songs (Revolution 1), teasing and sexy numbers (Sexy Sadie) and Goodnight (a great closer that sees Starr take lead vocals). If there were some great reviews in 1968 – a lot of great reviews retrospectively – many were expecting something similar to what The Beatles were creating in 1967, as this feature highlights:
“The White Album was very different from what The Beatles had done before, and that led to it being much disliked when it came out. People were expecting Sgt. Pepper Number Two, but that was not The Beatles way, as in their world, everything needed to constantly change. People seemed shocked by this album. It was stark and much more basic rock n’ roll compared to Pepper, but thankfully over time it’s grown to become one of the most loved Beatle albums, even climbing to number 10 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time”.
What is the beauty of the album? Why has it managed to captivate and stun for all these years?! Jon Dennis, writing in The Guardian in 2011, explained why The Beatles was important to him:
“Like the Beatles' earlier albums, the White Album is eclectic, but here the songs are in conflict rather than harmony. They collide with each other, some in your face (Helter Skelter), others lurking in the half-light, daring to be discovered (Long, Long, Long). Why was I initially shocked by the White Album? I found – I still do find – the album's close devastating: the musique concrete of Revolution #9, the apex of the Beatles' introduction of radical art into the mainstream, is followed by the schmaltzy lullaby Good Night. The contrast is mind-blowing. The Beatles knew how to close an album”.
Whilst there was confusion from critics in 1968 – who were taken aback by the width and size of the album! – it needed to be that long. If you cut it down to a single album then you deny so much great material and insight. Maybe you do not like George Harrison’s Piggies or The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill but it all tells a story. They are puzzle pieces and parts of a tapestry that showed a band going from together and hopeful to the verge of splitting up. The article I have just quoted seems to sum up what I and many others feel:
“…I love all the Beatles records, but knowing them so well, I don't often listen to them now. The White Album's the one I return to more than any other. I disagree with the suggestion that the White Album should have been a single album. Its flaws make it more interesting. And its sprawl, its endless variety and the Beatles' adventures into their subconscious makes it unknowable”.
IMAGE CREDIT: Alejoari
This 2013 article from Consequence of Sound celebrated The Beatles and talked to artists/musical personnel/popular figures inspired by the record. Comedian and writer Eliza Skinner, when talking about McCartney’s Blackbird, said this:
“Blackbird” might just be the perfect song. It’s the song that makes all the other songs feel stupid. When other songs took hours to get ready to go out, “Blackbird” just threw on a t-shirt and looks better than everyone. “Blackbird” doesn’t even know how to put on make-up. And the other songs can’t even hate “Blackbird”, because it’s actually really nice and cool and lets you borrow its sweater, like, whenever. It’s perfect”.
The article, published five years ago, concluded by talking about The Beatles’ eponymous album and why that personal title and blank cover seemed to define where they were. There was no image and grand design (like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and no concept. This was their most personal work – even if the members, once so close and in love, were drifting apart (the below snippet is from the article I have just quoted):
“At the brink of a new decade, a decisive shift in the Beatles, punctuated by revolution, “Good Night” is the closing hymn of a record stuck in between a time perpetuated by tumultuous shifts. Forty-five years later, it still beckons to the listener — unsure of what promises tomorrow will bring, but hopeful about the sheer possibility”.
‘The White Album’ is one of the most divisive Beatles albums – between critics then and reinterpretation now – but I feel it is one that deserves huge respect. In November, when it turns fifty; I hope the media comes out in force and spends a lot of time writing about it!
I get why people feel John Lennon’s contributions were the most significant but, to me, McCartney is the shining star. From the giddiness of Back in the U.S.S.R. through to Blackbird and Helter Skelter; he covers so much ground and, in the process, created timeless songs. In any case; I know he will look back at 1968 and, whilst there were tension and uncertainty in the ranks of The Beatles, the music that came out of their eponymous album showed, above everything, music ruled everything! We have a couple more months before the official celebrations but I wanted to pay tribute to an album that was a big part of my childhood; something I listened to on cassette and sung along to. Paul McCartney is living through a year that sees his older Beatles work being marked alongside his new solo stuff. It is amazing the man in his seventies is hitting the road with a new purpose - many of us will look back at work he created in his twenties and marvel. Many can argue which Beatles record is the best and which one stands in the mind longest. I still maintain Rubber Soul (1965) is my favourite whereas many say Revolver (1966) is their best, quality-wise. If you want to look at their most accomplished, ambitious and fascinating offering, I feel nothing gets close to the brilliance, tension and scattershot visions of…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1968
THEIR eponymous genius!