Kronomyth 1.0: CHERRYPICKING. History will show that The Beatles died with a confused whimper. The album that should have come before (Let It Be), came after, and any hopes of a peaceful afterlife were thrown into disarray by McCartney, a collection of musical sketches that offered only tantalizing glimpses of the band’s former greatness. Maybe the future wouldn’t sound like Paul screwing around in a home studio, John and Yoko screaming and George’s imaginary soundtracks, but it sure seemed that way until All Things Must Pass and John’s Plastic Ono Band arrived. It’s probably fair to say that no Paul McCartney album has been so pored over and cherrypicked as his first. The album does contain a few songs that could have easily found their way on the next Beatles album, and I suppose half the fun of listening to McCartney is imagining what “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Teddy Boy” and “Every Night” would have sounded like with the contributions of John, Paul and George. More than half of the album, however, is throwaway junk (ironically, “Junk” isn’t one of them—in fact, it might be one of his prettiest melodies ever). As an experiment in do-it-yourself home studio recording, McCartney reveals Paul to be a passable guitarist but an inept drummer (Ringo made it look easy, didn’t he?). Linda provides vocal harmonies in a few places, and if she’s not always exactly on key, just be thankful that she didn’t push for her own album (coughko). Although Paul would try harder on later albums (more or less), his career (with and without Wings) has largely been marked by its self-imposed exile and resulting stunted development. More than any of the other Beatles, Paul has sought the path of a true solo artist since leaving the group. It’s a lonely road sometimes, occasionally quiet and unremarkable, but you’ll see and hear things along the way that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Ram is a magickal, musickal beast, the measure of venus and mars at least!, possessed of a nappy golden fleece and strung with the scraps of a beetle’s feast. Credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, the album features supporting musicians and, in many ways, signals the beginning of Wings. But the music itself recalls The Beatles, perhaps moreso than any other Paul McCartney album. The songs are fleshed out and scorch like little on his first album, even when the stakes are only “Smile Away”. Not that Ram reinvents the wheel; “Ram On” parallels “Junk” as “Dear Boy” does “Teddy Boy. Instead, it adds a few more wheels and really gets rolling. “Eat At Home,” “Too Many People,” “Heart of the Country” and “Long-Haired Lady” are a vast improvement over “Lovely Linda,” approaching what fans expected from the former Beatle in a rustic mood, while the epic “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is arguably his magnum opus (you were saving the accolade for “Band on the Run?”). Also tucked in at the end is a song that reached the Top 40 in the UK, “The Back Seat of My Car” (and I didn’t even know English cars had a back seat). The remaining bits are a match for McCartney’s filler, silly but with some musical sensibilities: “3 Legs,” “Monkberry Moon Delight” and “Smile Away” (which would be recycled for “Magneto and Titanium Man”). To me, Ram and Band On The Run best approach the quality of The Beatles. I’m not sure what Linda does on here except for harmony vocals. I remember reading somewhere that the co-credit was financially motivated, which sounds about right (we believe that we can’t be wrong).
Like Ram before it, the songs on Wild Life are credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, only this time I believe it. Looking back, it’s a wonder Wings ever got off the ground after this inauspicious start. The group doesn’t line up much different than the last McCartney record, with Denny Seiwell returning on drums and Denny Laine joining on guitar. But where Paul’s first two records suggested a surplus of ideas from The Beatles’ days, nothing on Wild Life seems so premeditated. From the sound of things, the wine flowed freely, and the songwriting process consisted of a keyboard line from Linda embellished with a melody from Paul. Some critics have likened this to an audition, others to a garage jam. Certainly, it’s an informal affair. “Mumbo” (which likely takes its name from Paul’s mumbling) makes “Three Legs” from Ram sound polished; “Bip Bop” is as good as it sounds. A cover of “Love Is Strange” at least feels like a serious audition, and as unguarded moments go isn’t an embarrassment. “Wild Life” is far and away the highlight of side one, a pro-animal rights song that smolders with some of Abbey Road’s intensity (think a lighter version of “She’s So Heavy”). A breezy, twangy performance on “Some People Never Know” suggests Nashville Skyline-era Dylan and could be seen as one of Wild Life’s more interesting animals. It’s a short-lived sobriety, however, as Wings wobbles through throwaway melodies on “I Am Your Singer” (I’m guessing it took a lot of restraint not to touch the volume knobs when Linda sang), “Tomorrow” and “Dear Friend.” In between are a pair of uncredited tidbits that reprise the melodies from “Mumbo” (on acoustic guitar) and “Bip Bop.” It’s important to note that Wild Life isn’t just a cut below Paul’s usual work — it’s a cut below his worst work. Red Rose Speedway sounds like Band on the Freakin’ Run next to this album. I know I just lit into Pipes of Peace, but Wild Life is truly the last Paul McCartney album you need to own. Of course, every Beatle has some meatless skeleton in their closet: George’s early electronic albums, John’s sound collages with Yoko and Ringo’s um, well, most of Ringo’s stuff actually. I might concede Wild Life the upper hand in that Zoo of the Damned, if you’re intent on being bitten.
Kronomyth 4.5: BOND. JAMES PAUL MCCARTNEY BOND. Another of Paul’s patchwork epics (as opposed to a medley), joining the storied ranks of “Uncle Albert,” “Band On The Run” and “Rock Show.” This was, of course, the theme to the James Bond film of the same name (it’s still the best Bond theme ever). Produced by George Martin, the song featured an orchestra (presumably arranged by Mr. Martin) and was far more ambitious than anything on Red Rose Speedway. The B side is a nonalbum track that eventually made its way on the expanded CD reissue of Speedway. Sung by Denny Laine, it’s a throwaway no better or worse than the melodies included on Speedway’s album-ending medley (“Lazy Dynamite,” “Hold Me Tight”). Guns ‘N Roses had a hit in 1991 with their cover of “Live And Let Die,” which was probably the beginning of the end for them.
With a little help from his friends, Ringo delivered a pop album that put to rest questions of whether he would succeed as a solo artist. The self-titled Ringo spawned three Top 20 singles: “Photograph” (cowritten by George Harrison), “You’re Sixteen” (which included vocal backing from Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney) and “Oh My My” (cowritten by Vini Poncia). Ringo doesn’t have a great voice, but his everyman charm is winning, deferential where John Lennon was egotistical, grounded where Harrison could seem celestial. Ringo’s records (like Lennon’s) always seemed to be loosely aggregated parties, with guests coming and going, some staying only briefly (Marc Bolan, John Lennon, Billy Preston, The Band) while others hang around long enough to help clean up afterwards (Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, Tom Scott). These are the same circle of friends who formed the extended Beatles family, supporting Lennon and Harrison throughout their solo careers as well, so it’s no surprise that Ringo feels like the work of John and George from this period (e.g., Walls & Bridges, Dark Horse), which is referred to as “boogaloo” (whatever that means). But where fans had set expectations for the other Beatles, it’s fair to say that anything Ringo added was pure gravy; after all, Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues hardly boded well for the future, though the singles “It Don’t Come Easy” (which was added to this disc for the 1991 reissue) and “Back Off Boogaloo” did show promise. Starting with the Lennon-penned “I’m The Greatest,” Ringo gets out of the gate quickly, reprising his role as Billy Shears in order to remind folks of whence he came (Lennon obviously perceived the importance of Ringo’s first serious commercial album). Material from George [“Sunshine Life For Me,” “You And Me (Babe)”] and the McCartneys (“Six O’Clock”) added to the album’s cachet, with Starr (a.k.a. Richard Starkey) ably filling in the holes on “Devil Woman,” “Step Lightly” and “Oh My My.” Although his next albums would follow the same formula, it was on Ringo that listeners became starr-struck all over again, and for most fans this remains his best solo album.
Kronomyth 5.1: JET STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS. Lyrically, “Jet” is one of McCartney’s most confounding works. Is it about his dog, his wife, David Bowie? Macca always went more for sound than meaning (“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” etc.), and you can sprain your brain trying to figure them out, so why give the lyrics more thought than the author himself did? The B side for the album’s first official single (“Helen Wheels” was appended to Band as an afterthought) was “Mamunia,” another track that has fostered wild speculation, some suggesting that it’s Paul’s “Hey Jude” for John because of its reference to Los Angeles. For reasons unknown to me, “Mamunia” was swapped out for “Let Me Roll It” after the initial pressings. That song, it has also been suggested, is a commentary on John Lennon because its use of an echoed voice sounds like John’s work from this period (Mind Games, etc.). Beatles fans apparently have active imaginations and an inordinate amount of free time on their hands.
Kronomyth 6.0: THE WRITING ON THE WALL. At first glance, Ringo’s Rotogravure had all the ingredients for another hit album: contributions from John, Paul, George and Eric Clapton (!), a readymade hit (“A Dose of Rock ‘N’ Roll”), another golden oldie (the Lennon favorite, “Hey Baby”) and a little help from a lot of friends including Peter Frampton and the Brecker brothers. On closer inspection, however, Rotogravure was a weak copy of Ringo’s last two records. The trouble rests squarely with Ringo, who hands in a performance so perfunctory it would make Krusty the Clown blush. In what could be perceived as a vampiric move, Ringo robs Ring o’Records artist Carl Grossman of “A Dose of Rock ‘N’ Roll” and contributes three songs, one of them co-written with his girlfriend at the time (Nancy Andrews), none of them any good. His version of “Hey Baby” is cold-bloodedly bad. And what Ringo did to George Harrison’s “I’ll Still Love You,” a leftover from the fertile All Things Must Pass sessions, should be a crime; no wonder Harrison later sued him over it. Then there’s the left-it-unnamed-and-didn’t-even-bother-to-use-good-grammar-over “This Be Called A Song” from Clapton, which at least is not (because it could not possibly be) as bad as it sounds. On the brighter side of things, Lennon’s “Cookin’ In The Kitchen of Love” is a treat and Paul McCartney’s “Pure Gold” makes for a nice trinket. As the last of the Ringo records to feature The Beatles, Ringo’s Rotogravure will still hold appeal for collectors, although it’s clearly the weakest of the three.
As much as the quirky music of 10cc prepares you for Godley and Creme, the pair suffers from a commercial blind spot that’s baffling or frustrating by turns. They’re capable of writing brilliant snippets of art pop, sampled throughout the record, but insist on subverting their pop sensibilities to wild experimentation. “Random Brainwaves” (one of several tracks featuring guitarist Phil Manzanera), “I Pity Inanimate Objects” and “Get Well Soon” (with Paul McCartney of all people on backing vocals) scratch at the door of greatness, but when the door’s opened they run in the other direction like puerile pranksters. Even with all this, Freeze Frame is more commercial than their first two records and set the stage for the far superior Ismism (a.k.a. Snack Attack). The exotic arrangements are built by treating (or torturing) traditional sounds: vocals are stretched like taffy, guitars are shrouded in effects, and all manner of odd percussion is tossed into the salad. Compounding the confusion are inscrutable lyrics and strange narratives; “Brazilia (Wish You Were Here)” might be about the effects of greenhouse gasses or nuclear destruction, “Freeze Frame” appears to be about a person suffering from some phobia, but pinning any of this down is near impossible. For that reason, “Mugshots” is one of the few tracks that doesn’t escape recollection; it’s pretty catchy and has a storyline you can actually follow. Given the daunting nature of their limited catalog, Freeze Frame is one of the better Godley and Creme records, but it’s still a hard one to warm up to, even after repeated plays. On a different note, the nonverbal credits on the picture sleeve are appreciably clever.
Kronomyth 1.8: HEIRING AID. A year after Live Aid, Midge Ure and a smaller, star-studded cast returned to Wembley Arena to celebrate the 10th anniversary of (and raise money for) the Prince’s Trust Charity. This disc highlights the biggest stars from the concert, including bits by Ure, Dire Straits, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Sir Macca himself. As concert discs go, this one is pretty tepid; so was Live Aid for that matter. Performers don’t get a chance to set up the acoustics the way they’d like, they don’t get a chance to warm up, in some cases they’re playing with ad hoc bands (albeit with very good players), all of it conspiring toward mediocrity. The sound engineering on this one isn’t particularly good either; a lot of sound seeps out and what remains sounds thin. So if you weren’t invited to the original party, Highlights is no magic ticket. Some of the performances are good, most of them fall flat. Honestly, if you’re interested in hearing an oldies revue like this, pick up one of Ringo’s All-Starr albums. Speaking of The Beatles, McCartney does a decent version of “Get Back” with Tina taking a few lines and a short, spirited revival of “Long Tall Sally.” (The elpee version featured a bonus single with Sally and I Saw Her Standing There.) As someone who still isn’t completely sold on the merits of live albums, I’m rarely charitably disposed to these save the worldwind tours. The Trust’s Tenth is a great cast for a good cause, but a good live album it isn’t.
Kronomyth 16.0: STRAIGHT UP THE BEST THING HE’S EVER DONE. As much of a fuss as people made of Paul McCartney’s Flaming Pie, Ringo’s Vertical Man stands equally tall in my eyes. Fast as I can say “It’s a return to…” someone will answer: “I thought that’s what Time Takes Time was all about.” And they’d be right, sort of, only Time Takes Time felt unnatural. Vertical Man feels right. Ringo, Mark Hudson, Steve Dudas and Dean Grakal write most of the songs; not the Fab Four exactly, but far better than seeing Diane Warren’s name pop up for the umpteenth time. As for the production, it’s a mix of vintage Beatles and XTC, with mellotrons and tablas in moderation. The guest list is long to the point of distraction (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, George Martin, Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Alanis Morissette, Joe Walsh, Scott Wieland, ad inifinitum), but the best Ringo Starr albums are never only about Ringo. He’s the host of the party and he’ll sing if you egg him on, but it’s always with a self-effacing shrug. If it’s a good song, he’ll pull it off. If it’s not a good song, you don’t hold it against him. He gets a lot of good songs on Vertical Man; “One,” “Vertical Man” and “La De Da” are some of the best songs he’s sung since the golden age of Ringo. What golden age? It was kinda short (1973-1974), so maybe you were napping. As a very funny man once said (in a very unfunny movie), it’s good to be the king, and Vertical Man is Ringo’s command performance in the 90s. It has a little something from everyone, with a lot of somebodies from everywhere, which nobody does better than Ringo.