Sunday, October 26, 2003

Image Hosted by

And now...without warning...that long awaited and oft-threatened Special Solo Beatles edition of Johnny B's Mondo Vinyl-O! in which I take twelve long-playing vinyl recorded albums and write a paragraph or so about them. This was precipitated by my acquisition of a new turntable several months ago after about two years without a functioning one, and the subsequent vinyl playing orgy that ensued. I figured I might as well write about it, and I did. This time out, I've decided to hold forth about solo Beatles records, of which I have several and of which several find their way onto the rotating platter quite often. So roll up, roll up...

Paul McCartney

RAM (1971)
This was the first proper solo Fabs record I ever owned, and at this point I should send out a shout out to my then-neighbors Grant and Greg Elliott, in whose basement I heard this for the first time. Paulie, a bit taken aback by what he perceived as harsh critical treatment of his first (and probably, after all is said and done, best) solo effort, 1970's homemade McCartney and the slight 45-only follow-up "Another Day", (even though I have personally never seen a review that was less than kind, and I believe that any critical backlash was out of anguish over the dissolution of the Beatles and Macca's role in same) decided to pull out all the stops and really deliver something that would wow the music press and restore his somewhat tarnished rep. Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say, and what Paulie delivered out of his newfound convictions was one odd, patchwork record, both slapdash and overproduced at the same time. Ram is made up partially of song fragments, some stitched together Frankenstein-like with the seams still showing, such as "Long Haired Lady", with nice BVs by Mrs. McCartney and the oddball mega hit single "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey", surely one of the most unlikely hits ever-which rest beside Big Production Songs like his bloated, overlong, but nicely scored Beach Boys homage "The Back Seat of My Car", the rocking opener "Too Many People", with a great, nasty guitar sound; and the Buddy Holly love letter "Eat at Home". I like the slight but pleasant acoustic ditty "Heart of the Country", the bluesy rockers "Three Legs" and doo-wopish "Smile Away" (with its vulgar lyric)- among the few times Macca really rocked convincingly on his own. "Monkberry Moon Delight" is catchy despite the utter lyrical inanity. "Dear Boy" is a lovely, forlorn and brief song that alternately pokes fun at and expresses regret to his former songwriting partner in the Fabs. Lennon didn't appreciate all the namechecking, both explicit and imagined on his part, that he received- upon noticing that Paul had attached a picture of two beetles fucking on Ram's collage sleeve, he responded by having a photo made with him standing in a pigpen, holding some unsuspecting swine by its ears which made its way, in postcard format, into the first printings of his subsequent Imagine album, and you probably are aware of his vicious swipe at McC via Imagine's "How Do You Sleep". Nasty letters column exchanges ensued between both parties, and the Lennon-McCartney feud dragged on for over a year before both parties wised up and reconciled. History lesson aside, Ram remains a puzzling, schizo listen. I like its offhand, sloppy feel, and many of the songs are beautiful...but as a whole it becomes too much sometimes because it's produced to distraction and the songs don't always hold up. Still, and maybe because I get a pleasant nostalgia rush when I hear the unintelligible opening lyric and guitar lick of "People", I pull this one out quite often.

Here's another waay overproduced album, but unlike Ram, the songs are constructed in letter-perfect fashion. Every note and lyric in its proper place and right, veddy good, carry on, soldier. This was the follow-up to 1973's Band on the Run, the record which proved to many critics that Macca still had a little left in the tank. It was also the album debut of Wings mark III, probably to this day the most fondly-remembered version of that group, with Jimmy McCulloch on guitar and Joe English on drums. McCullouch, in particular, had set Beatlefans abuzz with his stinging guitar solo in 1974's single "Junior's Farm" and his nice work on the album Paul did with his brother, McGear. Compared to Band, it's almost as tuneful, but not as engaging. It starts out just fine with the demure acoustic title track (reprised on side two), which segues into the big crashing rocksong opener "Rock Show" (a minor hit), which namedrops Jimmy Page and has some eyebrow-raising lyrics about "scoring an ounce" from pothead Paulie. When all the cymbals stop crashing and the pianos stop glissandoing, next up is another pleasant but unremarkable love song called, well, "Love in Song", which illustrated as well as anything what the problem is with this record- there are some high highs, but there's also a lot of derivative tedium as well. "You Gave Me The Answer", for example, finds Paul dipping once more in the same retro well from whence came "Your Mother Should Know", "Honey Pie", and "Gotta Sing Gotta Dance", with about the same unimpressive result. "Magneto and Titanium Man" is catchy, but features some truly dumb lyrics which namedrop Marvel Comics characters and makes me wonder whether Paulie really ever read any of those funnybooks. "Letting Go", for some reason, never fails to remind me of Band's "Let Me Roll It", although the two songs are very different and only share track positioning. Both are said to be written as conciliatory gestures to John. "Letting Go" is definitely the second best song on side one, though. And we get more dullness on side two, including the tedious McCullough composition "Medicine Jar", whose own advice Jimmy, who died of drug and alcohol abuse about three years later, should have heeded; an attempt to redo "Oh Darling", this time titled "Call Me Back Again". It's passable but pointless. "Spirits of Ancient Egypt" is catchy and fast paced, and even rocks a bit, but the overall effect is unremarkable. The highlight of side two has to be the Big Hit Single "Listen to What the Man Said", which features Allen Touissaint somewhere in the mix playing sax (this album was mostly recorded in New Orleans) and is one of my favorite Macca solo songs period. It's somewhat wistful and very likeable. All this music was wrapped in a cleverly realized Hipgnosis studio (you know, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) sleeve which featured posters galore and illustrations by the great George Hardie NTA, who I would link to in a heartbeat if he had a web site. If I had a scan of everything he's done, I'd create one, I love his illustrations that much.

By 1986, Paul was again hearing about how wretched his recent output had been, such as the soundtrack to the excruciatingly pointless 1984 vanity flick Give My Regards to Broad Street and his good in places but mostly unsatisfying 1982 opus Pipes of Peace, so he, by all appearances, seemed to really make an effort to wow his critics with this record. He enlisted an outside (non-Beatle extended family, cf. George Martin) producer, Chris Thomas, and sacked longtime songwriting partner Denny Laine in favor of 10cc's own "cute one" Eric Stewart, and appeared to take special care with the arrangements and lyrics for each song, even trying to write imaginative nonsensical words a la Lennon in "However Absurd". And for my money, he really succeeded. In fact, I think Press To Play is a very underrated album, and one of the best of any of the solo Beatles' efforts. Well, OK, if that was a 25-album list, perhaps. Songs like the rockish opener "Stranglehold", "Talk More Talk" (another patchwork song, but this time the seams don't show); the title cut (somewhat reggae-ish), "Angry", a hard-edged and punky (well, as "punky" as Macca can be, anyway) workout; "Move Over Busker", which sports funny lyrics and a great melody; and the gorgeous side one closer "Only Love Remains", a nicely produced strings-and-piano thing which could have been bombastic and unbearable in some hands (and indeed, if it had been on Ram or Red Rose Speedway it would have been unlistenable, I'll bet) but gets just the right touch here and should be a more fondly-remembered track than it is. I think that by 1986, people had simply had enough of Paul McCartney and his erstwhile surviving bandmates, and Play's reception was proof of that. Pity, because I think this is a really strong album and well worth rediscovering.

John Lennon

Known in some circles as "How To Kill Your Career and Get Kicked Out of the Country". By '72 John had traveled over to the US of A and had taken up residence here, ostensibly so Yoko could search for her missing daughter Kyoko, but also because he was tired of living in and being taxed to death by his native country. As soon as he got here, because of his aggressive peace propaganda campaigning, he became a magnet for every radical, Yippie, free-thinking, anarchistic headcase with an agenda to push and a cause to endorse, and John, as open-minded and eager to please as always, fell right in- endorsing many controversial causes and backing many less-than-desirable fringe dwellers slash pseudo celebrities who were more than happy to have a Beatle in their corner. Some of the causes he espoused were worthy, some less so. Anyway, at some point in the interval after the release of his Imagine album he realized that he was going to have to deliver something to the record company eventually...and hit upon a then-novel idea: he would quickly write and record songs in tandem with Yoko and NYC band Elephant's Memory which addressed the relevant topics of the day, and issue them quickly, newspaper-style, on his presumably receptive mass Beatle audience and anyone else who was enlightened enough to listen. Not the worst of ideas, but he got off on the wrong foot when the initial single, "Woman is the Nigger of the World" dropped the N-word on aghast 1972 radio programmers (even though the word was used in its literal sense, and not as a racial epithet) and barely got played- thus dooming this album, complete with faux-newspaper cover, to die a quick and decisive chart death and ensuring that no one but the hardcore faithful would get the message. This is far from a total disaster, though- Lennon correctly assumed that the crude, bluesy Elephant's Memory Band would add a little roughage to his recipe, Phil Spector is on board to make sure the mix doesn't get too muddy, and while many of the songs have dated badly ("Attica State", "Angela", about Angela Davis) and suffer from näive lyrical sentiment (Yoko's songs in particular have this problem) and heavy-handedness, there are some gems, such as the folky, dobro-driven "John Sinclair", Yoko's berserko "We're All Water", and the album's only masterpiece, John's valentine to his adopted home, the Chuck Berry-ish "New York City". Not long after this came out and bombed, faced with deportation by the hostile Nixon administration, John distanced himself from his radical politics, told the sycophants to get lost, and promptly seperated with Yoko. He then recorded the professional, tuneful, but reserved and lackluster Mind Games, then promptly embarked upon the legendary "Lost Weekend". Also part of the package was a live record that documented an evening which featured John and Yoko and Elephant's Memory playing with Frank Zappa and what was left of the Flo & Eddie verion of the Mothers of Invention, for only a buck more than the standard list price. This particular record is pretty hit and miss, mostly miss, and at least half of it, in this version, features Yoko's trademark avant-garde free-form yowling and screeching, which must have amused Zappa to no end. Roll eyes here. Zappa bitched a lot about this particular record release, in fact...for years after he claimed that J & Y butchered the master tapes, remixing and arranging them to feature the pair at FZ's expense, extending even to the innersleeve in which it came- which was the reproduced cover to the Mothers' 1971 Fillmore East live album on which J & Y scrawled their own graffiti and drew pictures, and so on. If I'm not mistaken, the Zappa people eventually released restored tapes of these sessions on one of the multitudes of posthumous live releases that came out in the 90s. For a buck, the record wasn't bad, but it didn't add much to this album as a complete package.

It was during that Lost Weekend, when he was living in LA, shacked up with Yoko's personal secretary May Pang (at Yoko's insistence- whatta gal) and scarfing down a million and a half gallons of alcohol with Harry Nilsson, Ringo, Keith Moon and anyone else who happened to show up, that John decided to record an oldies album. This was prompted by at least two things- first, a lawsuit by the publishers of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me", who sued John because someone thought "Come Together" plagiarized part of a settlement, John agreed to record that song and two others from that publisher. Also, a record was due to the company, and John had hardly been busy writing new songs. Plus, at the time it seemed like everyone and their grandmother was recording albums of songs from the 50s and early 60s, like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, the Band, and others. "Happy Days" fever had just gripped the country, and 50s nostalgia was the thing. So John went in (at the height of his mania) with Phil Spector at the height of his, and between fighting, bickering, drawn pistols, drunkeness, drug abuse and God only knows what else managed to cut maybe a half dozen songs before Spector took off with the tapes and the whole crew was politely asked to vacate the studio premises. Lennon eventually sobered up long enough to record another album, Walls and Bridges, co-produce Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats and not long after, John and Yoko reconciled. Happy about this, and happy abut having survived the Lost Weekend but not especially keen to write an elpee's worth of toons (househusbandry was beckoning, you know), he decided to track down the tapes Spector ripped off and see if there was anything to salvage. There wasn't much. Some of the tracks from those ill-starred sessions did survive and were included though, and it's easy to tell which ones they are because they're easily the dullest on the album! John took these, and recorded newer covers, and released the whole thing in 1975...and this was his last non-greatest hits type record until his big 1980 comeback Double Fantasy. This album is often brilliant, and often pretty humdrum, too. He leads off with a fine cover of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop a Lula", follows that with his magnificent version of "Stand By Me" (he really sings the hell out of that one), then goes right into a Little Richard/Elvis medley of "Rip It Up/Ready Teddy". He stumbles next on one of the survivors from the Spector sessions, the song which got the ball rolling in the first place, "You Can't Catch Me" which gets a too-long and plodding rearrangement, but quickly redeems himself with a sly and low-key funky horn-driven cover of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame". Those are the highlights of side one, for me. Side two starts out strong with "Slippin' and Slidin'", which I remember seeing him perform on some awards was set to be the next single after "Stand", but got pulled at the last minute. The rest of side two is fair-to-dull, and one would think that John would have done better by the likes of Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue") and Larry Williams, who he used to cover excellently in the early Beatles days. I just don't think John's heart was really in this, and the Spector sessions cuts should have probably stayed in the can- but this is really a fine, listenable record, often brilliant. One just wishes it could have had a less troubled birth and had been recorded with a bit more commitment.

John Lennon's murder in 1980 made this record more poignant than it was ever intended to be, but it's also a more enjoyable record than its predecessor in my ears, anyway. John wasn't able to help produce it to distraction like he did Double Fantasy, and that keeps the songs honest and even a bit rough around the edges, very unusual for an 80s-produced record. Like Fantasy and Some Time in New York City, it's half Yoko and half John, but by 1980 Yoko had grown as an accessible songwriter and many listeners had grown more acclimated to her quirks. Her stuff is well-crafted and often catchy in its singsongy way (I myself prefer the 70s stuff), but it's John's contributions, as usual, that make or break the record, and it's got some wonderful tunes like "Nobody Told Me", "I'm Stepping Out", and a version of an old Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, intended as a valentine to Yoko and presented here in little better than a demo version titled "Grow Old With Me" which sounds fragile and so emotionally unguarded that the listener can't help but be moved. There's another demo of this track on the Lennon Anthology set which is even rougher, and I prefer it. It's a heartbreaker. I remember being quite disappointed by Fantasy, then of course shocked and devastated at his murder, then the whole rotten shame of it all was driven home by this collection, which gave us a glimpse of what John had left to offer.

George Harrison

After his resounding opening solo career salvo All Things Must Pass, George got sidetracked by the Bangladesh concert and other things before finally releasing this, the follow-up, three years later. Living suffers in comparison with its predecessor, simply because it's not as big and ornate and hyperproduced. The songs are all low-key mid-tempo exercises, even the nominal rockers "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long" and the title track, and there's nothing which really sticks in the ear. But...each and every song boasts strong melodies and excellent playing, and after repeated listens becomes very enjoyable. Ya just gotta make the commitment first. If you've heard nothing else from LitMW, you've heard its only hit single "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth", a pleasant enough Dylanish ditty with some nice slide work. Other faves of mine include the droning, "Long Long Long"-ish "Be Here Now", which is quite lovely if a little like listening to a meditation lesson; the aforementioned title track, which romps along at about five minutes, has some clever lyrics, and features a couple of sitar passages- which he didn't get around to using again until 1987's Cloud Nine. "That Is All" is a sweet, understated ballady thing with a great melody- and was covered by Harry Nilsson a couple of years later; "Try Some Buy Some", a lecture on the evils of greed and covetousness, was originally written for and recorded by Ronnie Spector, but George decided to recycle it and created a very distinctive swirling calliope-mixed-with-Spector (Phil)-is wall-of-sound ambience. This track, as well as any other, demonstrated the biggest problem with LitMW: every song is immaculately crafted and always listenable, but almost every cut has a dour, scolding, didactic tone- especially on out-and-out sermons such as "The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)" (kinda know right off the bat what you're getting there, dont'cha) with its ridiculous lyric about "The leaders of nations/They act like big girls", The Light That Has Lighted the World", and "The Day the World Gets Round". How much tolerance you have for this sort of thing will directly impact how much you enjoy this album. Me, I suppose I got used to that sort of thing a long time ago- I mean, this sort of thing has been running through Harrison's music as far back as "Don't Bother Me" and "Think For Yourself", so I just concentrate on the melodies and the general sentiment and let all the rest go out the other ear. Kinda like when I used to go to church, heh... Anyway, this record did pretty well, sales-wise, most likely on the good will engendered by Pass...but many regard this as the first in a series of disappointing efforts by the Quiet One.

EXTRA TEXTURE (Read All About It) (1975)
This album, which has the distinction of being the last one released on the Apple records label (and appropriately enough, the Apple is now depicted as an eaten-away core), was recorded during a low point, both creatively and personally for George and it's pretty obvious- the Dark Horse album and tour debacle, plus a bout with laryngitis and hepatitis, had taken a lot out of him. The perkiest cut and would-be hit single, "You", was originally intended for Ronnie Spector; when that failed to materialize, George re-recorded the vocals (in a much higher key than one which befits his voice, so it has a very noticable speeded-up effect) and released it himself. It's catchy, but slight. This whole album has a diffuse, murky, shabby quality to it, and although cuts like "Can't Stop Thinking About You" (which, to be fair, could have fit very well on All Things Must Pass) and "The Answer's At The End" have strong melodies, they get bogged down in the malaise that permiates everything here. "His Name Is Legs" (Larry Smith, of Bonzo Dog Doo Dah fame) is kinda clever in a cutesy way, and "Tired Of Midnight Blue" boogies along agreeably if not energetically, but the overall effect of a complete listen to this album is quite enervating, preachy sometimes and depressing. He would go on to do much better eventually, but Extra Texture was a record that probably should have remained in the can. One would be better off looking for the original vinyl featured a cool die-cut cover which was practically the highlight of this lackluster effort. I cannot tell a lie- I took my review of this album and rewrote it a bit to save a little time. So sue me.

After the career low points of Dark Horse (even though I really like that record) and Extra Texture, George rebounded somewhat with 1976's more upbeat 33 and 1/3, then took three years to deliver this, the enjoyable, if somewhat slight, follow-up. There's a good-vibes feeling throughout the record, probably the result of kindler, gentler George having decided to stop playing the rock star game and concentrate on his home and family. He still can't resist telling us how he feels we should live our lives, but now just shrugs off our skepticism where before it seemed to get under his skin. Everything on this album is a celebration of simple pleasures of his life- his wife, Olivia ("Love Comes to Everyone", "Dark Sweet Lady", "Your Love is Forever"), son Dhani ("Soft Touch"), new hobby auto racing ("Faster"), the Moon on a tropical beach ("Here Comes the Moon", not exactly a sequel to the more well-known Abbey Road song, and probably the most elaborate and lovely track on the record- really overlooked, in my opinion), even the joys of fungal sensory enhancement ("Soft Hearted Hana", a clever 'shroomy soft-shoe). George also reworks the rejected White Album track "Not Guilty", toning down its crashing rock into more of a gentle shuffle more in line with the feel of the rest of the album. There was only one hit single, the cheerful and sprightly "Blow Away", the video of which showed George in all his curly permed glory. Honestly, this will never be an album which goes down in the annals of Beatle history as a landmark or anything- but it is a surprisingly fun listen.

Ringo Starr

After doing an album of standards "for his Mum", which I've still never heard, Ringo followed it up with an album of country/western music, featuring some of the cream of Nashville sessionmen at the time like Elvis' drummer D.J. Fontana and the Jordanaires, Charlie Daniels, Jerry Reed, Neil Young stalwart Ben Keith, and others and indulged himself in the same spirit which led to Beatle tracks like "What Goes On" and "Act Naturally". This is not a bad record by any stretch, but it just doesn't leave much of an impression because there's just not a lot of spark in any of the tracks. They're all competently played and sung (Ringo is in pretty good voice, for Ringo) but for some reason the tracks are lifeless. Hard to say exactly why. But still, there is a lot of listenable stuff here including the title track, the more uptempo "$15 Draw", a great honky-tonk workout titled "I'd Be Talking All The Time", and a downbeat anti-Vietnam War song called "Silent Homecoming".

In 1973 producer Richard Perry and all of Ringo's musician friends, including his ex-bandmates, got together and pitched in on a record with Ritchie which wound up being a monster smash hit with critics and the buying public alike, and thirty years later Ringo remains a solid, clever album which hasn't dated badly at all. When it came time to follow it up, Ringo once again turned to Perry and most of the same cast that enlivened Ringo...but sadly, the law of diminishing returns was in full effect and the resulting Goodnight Vienna falls way short of the standard of its predecessor. Plain and simple, the songs aren't quite as good. Which is not to say that this is a bad album, far from it- there's still a definite bonhomie in effect and the fun spirit comes across in nearly every track. John Lennon again contributes a winner, with the rocking title track; Hoyt Axton's "No No Song" is funny and clever, and has great BVs by Harry Nilsson; Ringo covers not only Harry on the string drenched "Easier For Me", but also does very well by Roger Miller on "Husbands and Wives", an example of (in my opinion, anyway) good country-rock as strong as any Gram Parsons or Mike Nesmith song at the time. "Occa Pella" is a horn-driven duet with Dr. John. A pleasant reworking of the old chestnut "Only You (and You Alone)", with more smooth Nilssonian BVs, was the biggest hit, and really the only clunkers were a muddy-sounding collaboration with the then-hot Bernie Taupin-Elton John team, "Snookeroo", and the plodding "Call Me", which pointed to the direction of the next three Ringo releases, which pretty much killed his solo career momentum.

Nobody cared anymore when this came out, even Ringo really (a lyric sample: "I'm going crazy with this record business/I want to stop it/You want me to stop it/Everybody wants it to stop"). Crafted from a host of songs that were given to him by his former bandmates, along with Harry Nilsson (his last new songs to see release in his lifetime) Ron Wood, and Steve Stills. Originally titled Can't Fight Lightning, it came out on the fledgling Boardwalk Records (the major labels having long ago passed on any further Starr product), which went belly up soon after this came out, ensuring a quick chart death. But- all things considered, this is a surprisingly good album, featuring great contributions from Paul in particular ("Attention", "Private Property") and Nilsson, who pretty much defines the sound and feel of the record with his reggae-and-steel-drum flavored "Drumming is my Madness" and the charming, if a bit negative title track, along with a reworked "Back Off Boogaloo" done in the style of Harry's long-ago cover of "You Can't Do That", with lots of lines from Beatle songs floating in and out and around the melody. George's "Wrack My Brain" was a minor hit single, which troubled the top 100 if I recall correctly and spawned a video I remember seeing. There's a cover of a Carl Perkins song which Paul produces, probably one that was suggested by Macca's earlier duet with Perkins on his Tug of War album. I don't think this is in print anymore, but if you see it in a used vinyl bin somewhere I strongly suggest you take a flyer on it- it's a very entertaining record and deserved a wider audience than it got. Ringo didn't do another album until he seized upon the All-Starr Band conceit towards the end of the decade.

Whew! That's gonna do it for now. I love to write about the Fabs and all aspects of their careers, and have gotten a lot of pleasure from their solo records, which often get short shrift from critics and writers, so any chance I get to hold forth about them, I take.

But I am done, and so I will Back Off, Boogaloo until a later time. Coming soon- horror comics I have known and loved.