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Friday, March 8, 2019

Paul McCartney: London Town

PAUL McCARTNEY: LONDON TOWN (1978)

1) London Town; 2) Café On The Left Bank; 3) Iʼm Carrying; 4) Backwards Traveller; 5) Cuff Link; 6) Children Children; 7) Girlfriend; 8) Iʼve Had Enough; 9) With A Little Luck; 10) Famous Groupies; 11) Deliver Your Children; 12) Name And Address; 13) Donʼt Let It Bring You Down; 14) Morse Moose And The Grey Goose.

General verdict: Subtly creative and uncharacteristically bleak — always fun to catch Paul McCartney in one of his less-than-happy moods.


This record opens a brief and somewhat underrated mini-stage in McCartneyʼs musical biography: The Autumnal Season of Wings. It is not just about the album cover, featuring gray skies over London, Paul visibly shivering in his overcoat, and a somewhat battered line-up of Wings, once again reduced to the «core trio» with Denny and Linda after everybody else had split. It is also about the music, which has once again performed an about face and left all of its glam-rock aspirations stranded in the dirt, many miles behind.

London Townʼs generally poor critical reputation is primarily due to the chronological context: 1977–78, with their revolutionary developments everywhere, were not particularly favorable to «dinosaur rockers» (only the Stones somehow managed to make the grade with Some Girls), and a record that did not rock out, stayed away from social issues, and made whatever points it had to make in cute, subtle, inobtrusive ways could hardly make it in the same month that also saw the releases of Patti Smithʼs Easter and Elvis Costelloʼs This Yearʼs Model, among others. As in so many other cases, time has been kind to the album — but not enough for Paul himself, who has pretty much shut it out of his own memory.

Oddly enough, things had started out quite auspiciously: ʽMull Of Kintyreʼ, released as a single in late ʼ77, became one of the biggest songs of its time, as its Scottish overtones and anthemic nature were too overwhelmingly impressive to dismiss — not to mention the Christmas season release, which effectively turned it into a modern substitute for ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ and boosted both sales and confidence. You would really be hard pressed to find a better compromise between Celtic folk and British pop — or a better example of Paul and Dennyʼs collaboration, with Paul providing the pop hook and Denny indulging his folk appetite. Even the bagpipes manage to sound glorious here, rather than traditionally irritating for the non-Scottish ear.

But the triumphant beginning had a less-than-perfect ending, as this particular Tale Of Two Singles ends up ʽWith A Little Luckʼ — or, more likely, without a little luck, since that particular song, in many peopleʼs minds, remains typical of everything that was worst about Wings: cuddly softness, inoffensiveness, sentimentality, and technological dependency — what with its use of synthesizers so reminiscent of all the generic trends of the time. Indeed, this was like a minor inept brother of ʽSilly Love Songsʼ — without that songʼs unbeatable hooks, impressive musical ideas (the bass is nowhere near as melodic and expressive), or endearing arrogance. Perhaps the songʼs biggest fault, in addition to all that, is that it tries to pass itself for an anthem of love and hope, but these anthemic aspirations clash way too harshly with the clinically sterilized production and the central role of generic Seventiesʼ synthesizers. I still think itʼs a good song after all, with a nicely unique central melody line that is pure McCartney — but it definitely could have used a livelier arrangement.

What is really sad is that the (in)famous popularity of ʽWith A Little Luckʼ has pretty much eclipsed everything else you can find on the album — and not only does it feature a wealth of interesting, less-than-trivial ideas, but it has a general vibe of its own: the slightly cold, damp, quiet, foggy vibe of an autumnal morning after a solid night of steady rain ("silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London Town"). Calm sadness, light melancholia, friendly introspection, shy reclusiveness — with the occasional exception of a more straightforward rocker or too, London Town clads you in rags, puts you under an umbrella and puts you out in the street to observe frequently less-than-happy pictures of everyday life. It is as much anti-glam as Venus And Mars was pro-glam: the perfect hangover antidote to a few years of drunken glitz. And it has a kind of depth to it that was really lacking in the previous two records.

I like to think of ʽLondon Townʼ as a sort of subconscious remake of ʽPenny Laneʼ — another gentle piece of solitary life inspection with equal parts love and pity for all of its characters. I am not even sure that its base melody is objectively worse than ʽPenny Laneʼ: it simply has a slower, lazier, less emotionally pinching vibe, which kind of makes sense if we are talking ten years later. It is also being more realistic about its dreams of escapism: the bittersweet "Oh, where are there places to go? / Someone somewhere has to know" conclusion to each verse stresses just how impossible imaginative escapism has become. Listen closely to the song, and in time you will discern a disturbing streak of gloom under its superficially soothing keyboard coating — a streak of gloom that sets the defining tone for the entire album.

Take the very next song, the slightly funkified dance-rocker ʽCafé On The Left Bankʼ — which, admittedly, takes us from London to Paris, but the general autumnal vibe does not change much. Right-wingers might want to interpret it as a rant against the emerging globalization ("English-speaking people drinking German beer, talking far too loud for their ears"), but it really sounds more like one desperate manʼs commentary on the pointless fuss of socializing, and everything about the song, from the minor chords to Paulʼs wailing vocals to the frantic solo (still played by Jimmy McCulloch), screams «panic!», which is not what you usually expect at all from a song centered around Parisian nightlife.

Another piece of weirdness is the ʽBackwards Traveller / Cuff Linkʼ medley — one short mid-tempo pop rocker about an "ancient wool unraveller" busy "sailing songs, wailing on the moon", one slightly longer gruff funk instrumental with a nagging, but memorable sinister Moog riff pushing it forward. Why are they together? What is their significance? What does he mean when he says that "Iʼm always going back in time"? Whatever it be, I really like how the two pieces complement each other: I would guess that ʽCuff Linkʼ probably began life as a random experi­mental jam (like ʽZoo Gangʼ or one of those other classic era Wings instrumentals), but then, in an Abbey Road-esque move, they associated it with this little snippet about time travel so that the mystery quotient could go up a notch, and it does.

Then thereʼs the oddness of ʽGirlfriendʼ. Allegedly, Paul wrote it specially for Michael Jackson, but ended up recording it first, one year prior to Off The Wall. If you only heard the Jackson version, you will think of the song as a feather-light sentimental ditty — and that is precisely the way it begins in Paulʼs version as well. But Paul adds an extra middle eight section, after which comes a guitar solo that begins by imitating the vocal melody — then, all of a sudden, takes a 180-degree turn into dark, bleak, mope-rockish territory for a few bars, before trotting back to safe, fluffy territory. If there is a better comparative example of why Paul McCartney is a great songwriter, while Michaelʼs primary talents are in other departments... well, there is no better comparative example. It is precisely this ability to surprise and stump the listener, even in small details like these, that elevates Paulʼs Wings-era stuff above most of his «soft rock» competition.

Foggy doom-and-gloom stuff accumulates even denser as the album reaches the midway point. ʽWith A Little Luckʼ notwithstanding, the two best tunes on the second side are ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ and ʽDonʼt Let It Bring You Downʼ — both co-written with Denny (who also gets lead vocals on the former), both featuring titles that seemingly advocate for hope even as the music throughout remains painfully depressing. ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ, not coincidentally bearing an uncanny melodic similarity to ʽRichard Coryʼ (which Denny, as you remember, sang on the Wings Over America tour), is a speedy acoustic folk-rocker with some of the most cynical confessional lyrics you can ever find on anything McCartney-related — fast, tight, tense, bitter, with a vocal arch on each verse that begins on a note of hysterical desperation and ends on one of gloomy disillusionment. Special praise goes to the bass-heavy acoustic solo that takes all the points stated by the vocal melody and emphasizes them fifty-fold. Arguably, this is the very best song Denny Laine ever wrote — and I never really know if it is a good thing or a bad thing that it is so deeply concealed in the cracks of a not-too-popular McCartney record. Probably good, since it still has a bigger chance of discovery than Dennyʼs solo version.

ʽDonʼt Let It Bring You Downʼ, another highlight, is a slow, stubborn, frigid waltz whose lyrics propagate hope in the face of seemingly unsolvable problems, but whose music is one of the most vivid portrayals of a broken-hearted person wallowing in his own pain. The quietly nagging, monotonous electric guitar part that accompanies the main acoustic riff throughout the song (and is only allowed to break into a real solo in the coda) hangs in there like some dull toothache that refuses to let go; the counterpoint flute riff breaks in from time to time like some ancient Greek funeral march; the quietly mournful tone of Paulʼs falsetto is the epitome of bleakness. If I knew nothing whatsoever about chronology, I would have easily made a blind guess that the song was recorded for Driving Rain, Paulʼs answer to Lindaʼs death — as it is, he happened to write the most convenient song about the harshest event in his life twenty years before the fact.

In between all these subtle emotional peaks, London Town places lighter elements, such as the fairly straightforward pop-rocker ʽIʼve Had Enoughʼ (which could just as well have been written around 1963), the somewhat gross send-up vaudeville number ʽFamous Groupiesʼ (one of those songs that would today earn a death sentence from the cultural police), and the nostalgic Perkins-meets-Vincent rockabilly tribute ʽName And Addressʼ. These are all nice, but something special; the albumʼs true wildcard is ʽMorse Moose And The Grey Gooseʼ, a frantic mix of disco rhythms, prog noodling, folk harmonies, and nonsensic lyrics that ends the whole thing on a note of total confusion and disarray — a far, far cry from the melancholic tranquility of ʽLondon Townʼ. I am not a big fan of this track (it lacks both the apocalyptic overtones of ʽ1985ʼ and the sorrowful absurdism of ʽMonkberry Moon Delightʼ), but it does show Paul trying to apply creativity and imagination to new musical formulae, rather than just doing it the common way on tracks like ʽGoodnight Tonightʼ.

In the end, London Town might take more time to grow on you than is usual with Wings, but its autumnal charms easily make it, perhaps, the second most intelligent Wings album after Band On The Run. If you are not convinced, play it side by side with something like Pipes Of Peace, just to see what it is that separates an inventive McCartney record from a flat and formulaic McCartney album. It may be so that its very «grayishness» and persistent melancholy have blocked Paul from revisiting any of its songs in concert, or maybe he just remembers it as the single most Denny Laine-dependent project of his life; whatever be, London Town deserves to be dusted off and properly enjoyed — particularly on those gray, dull, rainy days on which you are tempted to wonder if itʼs all really worth it.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for yet another fine review. With Apple Itunes, I download music I like and have never had a problem with this LP, as I recall With A Little Luck on the airwaves back in 1978-79 and my older sister saying something like "this song gets bashed so much, but it is a nice tune": that kind of sums things up for me with London Town. Although I agree with you that the title track is complex and dark. I do not get much gloom as you describe from, say, Cafe on the Left Bank, but that is also a ... nice tune. And, certainly, Don't Let It Bring You Down is more than nice. It has complexity, too. In short, while I agree with your review in a general sense, London Town as "second place" to Band on the Run is truly a far ways away second place...

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  2. There is something I don't understand. I have a dream: "I am hardly a fan of such choral pomposity." Sailing (old site): "let's just forget this stuff". But Mull of Kintyre: "anthemic, impressive, glorious".
    All three songs pull off the same trick. Same trick, same purpose, same effect and afaIc same dislike. No, I don't have a problem with bagpipes - but they are no excuse either.

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    1. Very simple. 'Mull Of Kintyre' doesn't have operatic pretense like the other two.

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    2. Can't believe that you came up with that one-liner in 7 minutes! Kudos to MNb for the incisive commentary too!

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  3. Is "Girls' School" on the remaster" Great song!

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  4. I believe it was in Philip Norman´s McCartney Biography I read Paul saying that "cafe on the Left Bank" is pure factual. John and Paul in Paris October 1961. The lyrics describes how Paul experienced it. The kind of song an old man writes,looking back at happy days of youth. Surprising that he was only thirtyfive at the time. You can compare it to On My Way to Work or Early Days from New, forty years later.

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