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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Paul McCartney: Red Rose Speedway

RED ROSE SPEEDWAY (1973)

1) Big Barn Bed; 2) My Love; 3) Get On The Right Thing; 4) One More Kiss; 5) Little Lamb Dragonfly; 6) Single Pigeon; 7) When The Night; 8) Loup (1st Indian On The Moon); 9) Hold Me Tight / Lazy Dynamite / Hands Of Love / Power Cut; 10*) C Moon; 11*) Hi Hi Hi; 12*) The Mess; 13*) I Lie Around.

General verdict: A cool collection of endearing pop songs whose cumulative effect just happens to be less than the sum of their individual parts, if that makes any sense.


I am not sure what can be said in general about Red Rose Speedway, the first Wings album released with a full band lineup and intended to mark Paul's return to the public sphere as a newly reborn, self-confident bandleader. Probably the only thing on which everybody agrees is that the album cover is godawful — if it was Linda's idea to make Paul look like he's bound, gagged (by the proverbial red rose) and staring at you as if you were Buffalo Bill or something, it ranks second only to Yoko Ono's initiative to betray the size of John Lennon's manhood to all of his past, present, and future female admirers. Throw in the earliest whiff of the silly mullet that Paul sported throughout the Seventies, and we are definitely not off to a good start.

Unlike Ram, this musical asylum for ʽMy Loveʼ has not managed so far to win back all the love it deserved, and I think I can understand why. On Ram, Paul's personal charm was put up front: with relatively sparse arrangements, vocals brought all the way up in the mix, a sense of quirky humor, and plenty of stylistic diversity it was pretty easy to disregard the «slightness» of the songs — they were only slight because the entire album was an exercise in child-like fantasy. With Red Rose Speedway, this was no longer «Paul & Linda McCartney»: Paul clearly had the goal of getting together a real band that would, if not surpass the Beatles, at least win renown as one of the most significant acts for the Seventies. All the way up to 1976, «Wings» were really presented as a partnership, in which McCartney was but one of the elements — a fake, hypocri­tical construction that did not work because it could not work, but one upon which he stubbornly insisted, even if pretty much every year he had to watch it crumble into dust, only to be picked up and reassembled and re-demolished again.

Much of the session time for Red Rose Speedway was spent jamming in the studio — pretty boring and tedious, according to the opinion of Glyn Johns, who was hired to engineer the album but quit midway through (and this guy certainly knew a thing or two about great jamming). In between the jams, Paul still wrote enough songs to fill a double album, but when it came to finalizing the product, he cut out most of the rocking ones and included most of the soft ones — perhaps he, too, realized in the final run that the current lineup of Wings was far from perfect when it came to rock'n'roll crunch. The softness of the record, however, was far from the main problem with it. The main problem was rather perceived as a total lack of purpose. If the first albums at least had this «domestic», «homely» vibe around them, one that you could shoot up or get along with depending on your preferences, Red Rose Speedway makes no cohesive artistic statement whatsoever. It is not particularly homely, not particularly surrealist, not too charmingly nonsensical, certainly not socially or politically relevant; it does not care much for the musical trends of the time, be it prog, glam, or proto-punk. Really, it's just a bunch of songs.

And yet again, as time goes by and we get more and more accustomed to once again perceiving albums as just bunches of songs, and the startling musical innovations of the last century start fusing together in one solid time-independent mass, Paul McCartney regains the winning hand. Take away historical context, stay with the music and music only, and Red Rose Speedway will emerge as just another excellent collection of very nice musical moments. As an LP, it is rather pointless; as an LP from 1973, it puts its creator way behind the lines of the great innovators and visionaries of that year — but there is not a single bad song on the album, albeit some moments may be more irritating than others.

Perhaps the very worst idea that Paul had implemented here was joining the last four songs together — an eleven-minute medley that would be inevitably compared to the conclusion of Abbey Road, and just as inevitably lose. The wonder of the Abbey Road medley was precisely in the fact that the used material consisted of semi-finished snippets, melodically and atmosphe­rically diverse, unpredictable, and occasionally challenging. Taken together, they were not telling any cohesive story or even making literal sense, but somehow still merged into their own uni­verse, where the routine could smoothly lead into the transcendental. None of that mystery or grand scope can be found in the ʽHold Me Tightʼ medley, which is really just four short and simple love songs melded together for no apparent reason other than tell us, "hey look! I'm still the guy who could do this sort of thing in 1969, remember?" Well, yes, except that, of course, back in 1969 you used to do that while still partnered with that other guy, remember?

The sad thing about it is that all four songs, on their own, are quite nice. The ska-ish ʽHold Me Tightʼ (no relation to the ʽHold Me Tightʼ that Paul wrote for With The Beatles — just how many song­writers, I wonder, actually write two different songs with the exact same name?) goes a bit overboard with the number of times that the title is repeated, but the main vocal hook is still immaculately constructed. ʽLazy Dynamiteʼ has a healthy soul vibe to it; ʽHands Of Loveʼ is a charming pop ditty whose soft, but fussy percussive pitter-patter is just irresistible; and ʽPower Cutʼ is actually one of those how-does-he-do-it magic moments where a single "baby I love you so" can gain extra depth just by being defiantly straightforward and simplistic (no, this can't happen to anyone, but at least in 1973 Paul still had a knack for these things).

Perhaps he thought that, since all four songs were so simple and melodically compatible (to the extent that, like on the Abbey Road medley, certain leitmotifs may crop up repeatedly — all the main themes are replayed in the ʽPower Cutʼ outro, for instance), they should go together; and outside of the comparative context, I see no problem with that. But no Beatle fan really lives outside of the context, and so, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it may have been better if he had spread the four jingles throughout the album (which would still allow for thematic repeti­tion). Are they «Beatle-quality» on their own, though? This is hard for me to say, yet not every simple love song that Paul did with the Beatles was perfect, anyway. But if you are a fan of ʽGood Day Sunshineʼ and ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ, I see no reason to bypass these little offsprings of the light-as-a-feather Paul vibe.

None of these received any radio play, though: instead, the popular fate of Red Rose Speedway was determined by ʽMy Loveʼ, arguably the first Grand McCartney Ballad that tore opinions apart — some viewing it as yet another great achievement in his troubadour canon, others com­plaining that ʽMy Loveʼ had betrayed everything that the Grand McCartney Ballad used to stand for, and was not fit to lick the boots of ʽLet It Beʼ, ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, and even ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ. I suppose that the sentimental string arrangement and the ultra-slow tempo of the song were the main irritants here, but should they have really detracted people from asses­sing its melodic strength? (Even when those people were consistently lambasting Phil Spector for adding his own sentimental strings to ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, they rarely dared to put down the song itself). As far as I'm concerned, ʽMy Loveʼ is classic McCartney — a dynamic verse-chorus unity that rises, falls, rises again and comes down in loving and lovable peace, with a creative bridge to boot that also doubles as a coda. Throw in the magnificent guitar solo by Henry McCullough, who does his own romantic impression of Paul's vocal melody, and you have the best Burt Bacharach song that Burt Bacharach never wrote. The lyrics suck? My love does what good? Who really cares when he hits those falsetto notes on the final "does it good... too-whoo-whoo-whoo... me"?..

But okay, whatever; if you still think ʽMy Loveʼ is just a generic exercise in MOR balladry, I'd like you to repeat this in the face of ʽLittle Lamb Dragonflyʼ, my all-time favorite song from this album. Someday somebody is going to make a late-night McCartney compilation entitled Ah, Look At All The Lonely People, celebrating the man's several decades of exploring loneliness, compassion, and empathy for the outcasts in music, and when this is finally done, ʽLittle Lamb Dragonflyʼ is going to be one of the highlights, Beatle- or post-Beatle era. The song had many literal interpretations, even including one about an actual lost sheep on Paul's farm, but there is no need to overthink it in order to understand that this one goes out to all the separated people out there — particularly touching, I'd think, if you physically lost a loved one. Consisting of two separate parts (I always think that the real title should have been ʽLittle Lamb / Dragonflyʼ, with the slash somehow lost on the way to print), it starts and ends on an epic note: the guitar-strings duet in the opening, eventually joining forces with Paul's la-la-la vocalize, seems to be setting the stage for a medieval ballad in its first couple of bars, only to begin descending into morose, introspective depths in the next couple — a light, but serious lament for something or somebody that used to be important but is now fading out on the horizon. The slightly faster, livelier ʽDragonflyʼ section has its share of gorgeous chord changes, but the best thing about it is still how, at the end of things, we revisit and fade out our grand lament.

In between the «biggies» are scattered all sorts of goodies, diverse to the point that nobody is probably going to like all of them: even I, the album's biggest fan, will admit that the goofiness of the opening ʽBig Barn Bedʼ, for instance, is nowhere near the level of intensity for ʽMonkberry Moon Delightʼ — this is the second time in a row that Paul is trying to open the album up with a bit of «rowdiness», and this time (unlike ʽMumboʼ), it seems as if he were actually trying to say something, but in the end it still comes out as a counting-out rhyme ("weeping on a willow, sleeping on a pillow, leaping armadillo"), hopelessly stuck in transit on its way to becoming an arena-size pop-rocker: still formally catchy, but not funny enough and not crazy enough. On the other hand, speaking of crazy, I am a big fan of ʽLoup (1st Indian On The Moon)ʼ, which Gavin Edwards at RollingStone has very aptly described as feeling "like a man drowning in an ocean after midnight with only a bassline to save him" — with wolves howling on the shore, I should add, a remark that should bring us closer in contact with both the song's title (ʽLoupʼ) and the actual guitar and vocal howling patterns in the main section. Comparisons have been drawn to Pink Floyd here, which is probably not a coincidence, since Floyd were recording Dark Side Of The Moon pretty much next door to Paul at the time at Abbey Road Studios; of course, for Paul this was just a temporary diversion, but given the brutal strength of that bassline, it still makes me wonder how a real musical collaboration between the two might have turned out.

Other points of interest include the Ram outtake ʽGet On The Right Thingʼ (with a very Ram-like echo on the vocals and a very Ram-like hysterical conclusion); the simple, sweet, sad excourse into country-rock stylistics ʽOne More Kissʼ, whose chorus I will defend to the death (also, watch out for these sliding little lead guitar pings that either McCullough or Laine do at the end of each bar on the chorus right after the instrumental verse — bringing the song up to a whole new level of sadness); and ʽSingle Pigeonʼ — the demo-like little brother of ʽJunkʼ and ʽAnother Dayʼ, another short and brilliant musical observation about being down and out in love. Really, as I said, just about every song here does something; if anything suffers, it is only the cumulative effect, which basically amounts to «well, uncle Paul wrote us some more songs, DUH!».

If you throw in most of everything that did not make the final cut, the situation does not exactly become any better. The rocking material that the band produced was mediocre: ʽHi, Hi, Hiʼ became more famous for being banned because of assumed drug references and the infamous "get ready for my body gun" line than for its musical content, and ʽThe Messʼ, although I suppose somebody like The New York Dolls would have liked it, is an attempt at mimicking the hard rock bands of the day but, in the end, is really just... a mess. The Denny-sung ʽI Lie Aroundʼ is vaude­villian Brit-pop that seems highly influenced by the laid-back Ray Davies style of the time, and so should have benefited highly from a Ray Davies-type vocal rather than Denny's unsubtle croak. And ʽLive And Let Dieʼ, the Bond theme song, although also recorded at the same time, never made it onto the album — but perhaps its grandiose symphonic ambitions would seem too incom­patible with the general feel, were it ever considered for inclusion.

Paul himself seems to have ended up with the same negative associations for the album that Mick Jagger now holds for Between The Buttons: since the albums yielded few hits and were not originally held in high esteem, they should best be forgotten. The only song from here that Paul has ever performed live is ʽMy Loveʼ (because that one was a hit), even if I am one hundred percent sure that most fans would pay twice the regular price to ever see him do ʽLittle Lamb Dragonflyʼ in concert. But on the positive side, Red Rose Speedway did mark his full-fledged return to the recording studio as a newly-self-confident artist: it is the first solo McCartney (or Wings, whatever) album that never sounds underproduced (occasionally overproduced), and if it took him a few more months to find a more stable direction and a more clear niche in the musical world of the Seventies, well, I can understand. In the meantime, I'll just keep on insisting that this is, perhaps, not a very good LP, but a pretty damn good collection of pop songs anyway. They just got clustered together in an inexplicable feat of gravity-related accidents.

13 comments:

  1. Yes, we have here a good bunch of songs. Formally well done as Paul is the composer. But I can't find something interesting or amusing here. It is tepid, without substance and most important: it is boring. A pity that he didn't try to join other talented artists in order to start the first super group. He was a genius but better to have two or three together. Remember The Beatles?

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  2. Excellent analysis, George. I'd only add that "When The Night" is also a fantastic song and one of my favorite Paul moments.

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  3. I love the whole second side of this album, including the medley (which I recall you regarded much more fondly in your original review, George). The xylophone (?) fill is quintessential McCartney -- who else at this time would echo the melody that way, on that instrument? The whole album has really grown on me over time.



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  4. 'Big Barn Bed' is an outtake from 'Ram', too. Never googled it but very confident about it — Paul sings the few lines of 'BBB' during the outro of the short 'Ram on' song.

    'Get On The Right Thing' is a real highlight for me — love the mood swings, love the mystical touch in the beginning, love the burst, love the soothing moment after when all the instruments hang for a while. Genius, which can't be marred by McCartney fooling around with vocal lines and screaming near the end.

    The folksy simplicity of 'Little Lamb Dragonfly' and its' evolution to a perfect soulful number always reminded me of The Carpenters somehow could they ever sound less fake. Very sincere song. And its' medieval touch is to be filed along with 'Long Haired Lady' under AMAZING tag.

    The album is just stuffed with lots of jaw dropping moments and timeless melodies but I agree the general perception of 'RRS' as of cheesy/sugary song collection and the fact that Paul virtually ignores it during live performances affects my regard of the album and I return to it less frequently than I should.

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    1. The song was recorded during Red Rose Speedway sessions for the album, even though it was quoted in Ram On. Get on the Right Thing and Little Lamb Dragonfly, however, are the recordings from the Ram sessions.

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    2. "The song" being Big Barn Bed.

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  5. Am I really the only one that loves 'Big Barn Bed'? Yes, it has idiotic lyrics, but I just can't keep it out of my head!

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  6. "how many song­writers, I wonder, actually write two different songs with the exact same name?"

    Irving Berlin, a vintage songwriter that Paul always reminds me of, wrote two different songs called "The Monkey Doodle Doo" in 1913 and 1925.

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  7. Well, George I'm surprised that you don't like Hi Hi Hi and The Mess anymore. You wrote good things about both tracks in your old reviews. I think both are great rockers and Paul should have included them in the album, to give it a good dose of rock and roll energy. Have you heard 1882?,is one of Paul's best dark rock songs that didn't make the final cut. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud2xhUDEY1s

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  8. While I agree that all of the tracks have nice melodies, most of them are ruined by either the production, the arrangements, the lyrics or the performances, including Linda's godawful backing vocals. I do think, however, that the rockers from this period were all good, and having them in the album would improve it greatly, under the right circumstances.

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    1. It's still a good album, though.

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