There’s a great new detective drama that’s showing on Sky Atlantic called “Mare Of Easttown”. It’s set in a small town in Pennsylvania and stars Kate Winslet as a world weary detective who has a demeanour of not really caring but, once you dive beneath the sex, alcohol and complex family life, has a heart of gold and seems destined to find the killer of two teenage girls. I am the only person in the universe who hasn’t seen “Titanic” so I don’t know very much about Kate Winslet, although I really enjoyed “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”. She is not at all glamorous in “Mare Of Easttown” and she is also appealingly grumpy, especially when a jolly, upbeat detective from outta town is foisted upon her. At some point this guy interviews her daughter and asks her if she had any tips for working with her mother. The reply is brilliant: “Lower your expectations”.
I’ve just typed “expectations” into the search feature of this blog and I can see that there are 26 times when I have used the word. It’s clearly a bugbear for me. When writing about “Stage” by David Bowie, I wrote that “mismatched expectations are the root of all conflict and I have tried very hard over the past few years to lower expectations in order to minimise disappointment”.
How on earth can Paul McCartney manage the expectations of anyone who is interested in music? I wonder what proportion of people alive today have ever heard a Beatles song? All those people might construct their own set of expectations for a Paul McCartney solo album. Given the ubiquitous nature of “Yesterday”, “Let It Be” or “Hey Jude” it’s a given that most people’s reaction, should they ever hear “Arrow Through Me” or “Winter Rose”, will be that it’s okay but not as good as The Beatles.
My own perspective is that to be able to compare “Back To The Egg” with, for example, “Help!”, I need to play it six times a day for four months, which is what I did with “Help!”, seeing as it was the only album I had at the time.
A common reaction to Paul McCartney is to dismiss his solo career by assuming he only writes soppy love songs (an assumption he addressed brilliantly in “Silly Love Songs”). It then beholds anyone with this assumption to turn their nose up at a more experimental song because it doesn’t meet their expectations of what he does.
Timothy White, (whilst he wasn’t dispensing poison across the counter of British chemist shops) used “Back To The Egg” as an opportunity to further his career as a rock critic whilst simultaneously betraying his blinkered expectations of a Paul McCartney album. In a Rolling Stone review in 1979, he wrote that “since his solo debut in 1970, this ex-Beatle has been lending his truly prestigious talents as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer to some of the laziest records in the history of rock and roll”. He carries on the same vein using words like “puerile”, “dreck”, “irritating” and “unfocused”.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but the problem with someone writing in a successful music magazine like “Rolling Stone” is that their opinion can be highly influential and potentially damaging. Timothy White was a well regarded writer and editor, becoming “editor-in-chief” of “Billboard” in 1991 before dying of a heart attack in 2002, aged 52. I can respect the fact that his expectations of Paul McCartney’s solo career weren’t met. Not everyone has to agree with my taste (apart from Andy). On the other hand, before delivering a coherent, well-structured and vitriolic criticism of the work of one of humanity’s greatest artists, I would recommend some reflection and consider how one would respond if the same sounds were recorded by an unknown artist rather than an ex-Beatle. My opinion is that, if this album were by Sgniw, rather than Wings, it would be justifiably heralded as a suite of songs that display a remarkable range of different styles, imaginative lyrics, great playing and impressive risk taking. Which is how “Revolver” is perceived. No, I’m not suggesting that this album is as good as “Revolver”, but it’s not far short. To criticise it because it doesn’t have a unified sound is ridiculous. Does “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” have the same sound as “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”? Having different styles on an album is a good thing, not a basis for criticism.
And “Back To The Egg” certainly has a range of different styles. “Getting Closer”, “Spin It On”, “To You” and “So Glad To See You Here” are great, up-tempo rock songs. Power Pop was a well respected genre at the end of the Seventies: a palatable version of punk rock and these four songs are perfect examples. In all of them, Laurence Juber’s guitar playing is sensational.
As everyone knows, Paul McCartney is a control freak, determined to hog the limelight to the exclusion of fellow musicians. If that’s true, why does every Wings album contain songs by other members of the group? “Again And Again And Again” is written and sung by Denny Laine. Of course, it’s not as good as “Go Now” so it must be rubbish. (Denny Laine was in the first incarnation of The Moody Blues). Do you see what I did there? I projected my expectations onto the work of a great artist and used them to dismiss his work. This song would be highly praised if it were on any album not by an ex-Beatle.
“Old Siam, Sir” is a magnificent song. It’s cleverly arranged, never dull, with a great melody and Paul McCartney singing in his “Long Tall Sally” voice.
“Arrow Through Me”, by contrast, is the kind of well constructed mid-tempo pop song that only Paul McCartney could write. The key changes, the use of brass, the extraordinary bass playing, and the breathless excitement of the singing combine to produce a song that if it were released by Aaron Lee Tasjan, Nick Lowe or R.E.M. would be hailed as a work of genius.
Paul McCartney often likes to start an album with a weird introductory piece and, in “Back To The Egg”, this is provided by the one minute “Reception” which has the sounds of a radio dial tuning into different stations (a la “Wish You Were Here” or “Burn It Down”) set to a funky groove, highlighting his bass playing.
Side Two contains two medleys, one after the other, each being a combination of two songs. I suppose they could be considered as one medley that consists of four songs. Each of these songs is Pure McCartney, to borrow a phrase from a 4 disc retrospective. “After The Ball” is a mid-tempo group song which leads into “Million Miles” which is lovely, with only an accordion for accompaniment. “Winter Rose” is more whimsical, probably meeting most people’s expectations of a Paul McCartney ballad. “Love Awake” features The Black Dyke Mills Band who provide a grand setting. The imagination and versatility of this genius is astounding.
Some of this album was recorded in Lympne Castle which, at the time, was owned by Deidre and Harold Margary who can be heard reading from books on the opening song “Reception” and the twelfth song, “The Broadcast”. These are certainly weird but it’s not as if Paul McCartney was a stranger to weirdness. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” was weird. The tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” were weird. The reference to movements on a shoulder in “Hey Jude” were weird.
Less weird, and not to everybody’s taste are the Twenties pastiche songs such as “Your Mother Should Know”, “Honey Pie” and covers such as “Till There Was You” and “A Taste Of Honey”. On “Back To The Egg”, “Baby’s Request”, the album’s closer is a brilliant example of this. He would go on to record a whole album in this genre, called “Kisses On The Bottom” in 2012.
Oh yes. There are a few guest musicians on the album who play on two songs, “Rockestra Theme” and “So Glad To See You Here”. Only Paul McCartney could hide away two songs featuring David Gilmour, Pete Townsend, Hank B. Marvin, John Bonham, Kenney Jones, John Paul Jones, Ronnie Lane and Gary Brooker and 10 other well regarded musicians. The former song was probably more fun to play than to listen to but the latter is dynamite.
The loveliest song on the album is the ninety second “We’re Open Tonight”. A memorable melody, whimsical singing and a simple finger picked guitar accompaniment. The original concept of the album was to call it “We’re Open Tonight” and to tell the story of going to a gig to see a band and this would have been the opening song.
“Wild Life” was Wings’ first album and “Back To The Egg” was their last. Both are maligned and overlooked but it’s important to keep in mind that they are the product of the most imaginative, creative and talented human beings that has ever existed.