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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Paul McCartney: Back To The Egg


1) Reception; 2) Getting Closer; 3) Weʼre Open Tonight; 4) Spin It On; 5) Again And Again And Again; 6) Old Siam, Sir; 7) Arrow Through Me; 8) Rockestra Theme; 9) To You; 10) After The Ball/Million Miles; 11) Winter Rose/Love Awake; 12) The Broadcast; 13) So Glad To See You Here; 14) Babyʼs Request.

General verdict: An album that sounds like it was made to be hated; whether you will cash in on the hatred or not depends on how much respect you have for pure and shallow melodic craftsmanship.

Here it is — the album that was supposed to triumphantly open a new era for Paul McCartney and Wings, and instead ended up rather embarrassingly closing an old one. With new band members Laurence Juber on second guitar and Steve Holley on drums, by mid-1979 Wings were fully back on track as a self-sufficient rock band, and although it was probably futile to hope for the same type and scope of reception that the band enjoyed in 1975–76, Paul was definitely set upon thrusting it back into the spotlight, now competing for popularity with disco, punk, and New Wave acts rather than glam- and prog-rockers from half a decade ago.

The infamous marijuana bust in Japan brought those plans to a halt, but while the bust is often mentioned as the main reason behind the dissolution of Wings, something tells me that the main reason must have rather been a combination of the colder-than-cold critical reception and relative commercial failure of Back To The Egg, multiplied by the ten days that Paul had spent in Japanese prison and by the refreshing experience of working solo once more on McCartney II after the arrest. Over the subsequent decades, Paul would pretty much disown Back To The Egg entirely: not a single track from the record would reappear in his live shows, even when he began digging back into the depths of his catalog to haul out forgotten nuggets (though he did re-record ʽBabyʼs Requestʼ for Kisses On The Bottom). Ultimately, it looks like the record eventually convinced him that the format of a pseudo-democratic rock band with stadium ambitions would no longer be in demand in the Eighties — or ever after, for that matter.

Now it is very, very, very easy to condemn, ridicule, despise, and just shrug off Back To The Egg as a typical exercise in «blind dinosaurism» — 35-year old fart with zero relevance for the changing times, trying to fit in without properly understanding and cleverly assimilating all the new developments. The single biggest problem with the album is that it really wants to succeed at everything: Paul wants to do the arena rock thing like Boston or Foreigner and he wants to do the smooth dance-pop thing like Hall & Oates and he wants to do the punk thing like the Buzzcocks and he wants to do the retro-vaudeville thing, too. In short, he wants to do so much of everything that the only thing he clearly forgets to do is to be himself — meaning that Back To The Egg has exactly zero of the despondent charm that made London Town so special. It is more of an exercise in genre-hopping, an oddly grotesque theatrical show that is downright impossible to empathize with on any level.

One thing and one thing only explains why, despite all of its troubles, the album has always had the potential to be fun and still retains it: in 1979, Paulʼs knack for churning out memorable and inventive hooks was still fully intact. Each and every one of these songs is a solid piece of work in its own right, able to get by through the sheer power of well-fitted musical chords. There is nothing like the hope-through-despair atmosphere of a ʽDonʼt Let It Bring You Downʼ, nothing like the get-on-your-feet-and-begin-life-anew attitude of a ʽJuniorʼs Farmʼ, nothing like the hypnotizing minimalistic innocence of a ʽLet ʽEm Inʼ — nothing, that is, that elevated the best of Paulʼs solo output from the status of generic pop music to the «proudly carrying the badge of an ex-Beatle» status. But even as generic pop music, Back To The Egg is anything but a collection of boring stereotypical patterns.

As a first example, take ʽOld Siam, Sirʼ, the heaviest rocking song on the album that was also released as the lead single from the album. It is slow, bulky, and overproduced; it features a screech-based vocal performance that might be more annoying than exhilarating; it has odd lyrics that try to be half-comical, half-dramatic but could instead be construed as clumsy and racist (though, arguably, telling a tale of a Thai hookerʼs adventures in the UK is hardly racist by itself: itʼs just that Paul ainʼt no Lou Reed when it comes to telling tales from the wild side). But even with all these sins, its leaden see-saw riff is physiologically unforgettable — and its symphonic bridge, pumping the air up with more and more tension until it finally explodes in your face, is a cool musical invention on its own. There are probably ways in which one could turn the song into an actual masterpiece — fiddle with the production, change the words, find a more threatening attitude with the vocals — but this is such a glaring triumph of form over substance that, as it sometimes happens, form becomes substance, and I simply forget about any obvious or intended original purposes for the song and get into the groove as if it were doom-laden or something.

On the other side of the equation, we have ʽArrow Through Meʼ — a song that commands attention already in its first fifteen seconds, during which Paulʼs spiraling bassline really conveys the feeling of «arrowing» through something, leaving a fuzzy taint of humming synth noise in its track. As the rhythm section steps in, we understand that this is just a slightly disco-ified track for a cheesy midnight dance with your current passion, but it is still hard to resist the infiltrating power of the vocal melody, and even in these circumstances, Paul still has a surprise for you in the form of an almost Stevie Wonder-like anthemic brass riff coming in for the middle section and stealing the day. Hardly a true feast for the feels, but sometimes it feels cool to sing along to it and picture yourself as this cartoonish smooth seducer.

Or take the much-maligned experiment of ʽRockestra Themeʼ, in which Paul packed a ton of super-powered musicians, including Pete Townshend and David Gilmour, in the same room and then made them all play a fairly simple theme in unison, as if posing an experimental question: «would a composition like that sound any different if all the players were guitar greats rather than average session players?» I honestly do not know the answer to that question — to answer it properly, we would need to have it re-recorded by an army of hacks — but what I do know is that ʽRockestra Themeʼ is fun. It sucks, it is a failure, it is a musical joke rather than a musical storm, but I like that theme — it puts Paul back in his thunderous ʽLive And Let Dieʼ mood, and it totally works as, say, a potential opener for a football game, with plenty of pumped-up power but no Queen-style pathos whatsoever.

Whenever you go on this album, be it on the soft side or on the hard side, the proverbial Egg always cracks up exactly the same way — the songs do not mean all that much, but it is hard to get them out of your head after a couple of listens. Even a veteran listener like myself, who likes to pick up on all the faint signs of mystery and psychologism in seemingly «shallow» McCartney tunes, has a hard time fishing anything truly serious from this collection. The only exception to the rule, though it might be surprising to hear that, is the brief acoustic interlude ʽWeʼre Open Tonightʼ — it has always sounded weird how this little jingle, formally just a terse announcement that "weʼre open tonight for fun, so bring all your friends come on", is set to the same acoustic chords as the coda to Genesisʼ ʽDancing With The Moonlit Knightʼ and, in a way, shares some of its melancholic gorgeousness. Like, what is the meaning of setting this kind of announcement to a bit of music that sounds more like a meditative invocation of the Lady of the Lake? This is one mystery about this album that I have never been able to solve — too bad itʼs just one, where, for instance, London Town had at least half a dozen of those.

On the other hand, in terms of true disappointments I would have to admit that Back To The Egg really sags in the sappy department. Almost two-thirds of the record are squarely in the rock or at least the power pop idiom, and it is only towards the end that Paul remembers how he has not yet properly serenaded anybody and lets loose with a cannonade of mini-ballads — a two-track, four-song medley — and all of them are quite subpar, be it the high school prom wooing of ʽAfter The Ballʼ or the dark brooding of ʽWinter Roseʼ, unconvincingly followed up by the cheery optimism of ʽLove Awakeʼ. It all reminds me of the closing medley on Red Rose Speedway, except that the songs were far better fleshed out and more coherent than these raw snippets. Even so, I still could not accuse the snippets of being utterly devoid of genius; it is simply that they do not penetrate deep enough, and it might not even be their own fault as much as it is a combined failure of incorrect sequencing, unsatisfactory production, and occasional blunders such as singing ʽWinter Roseʼ in a strangely unnatural, hoarse tone that mars the impact (perhaps Paul just had a sore throat on that day, but surely he was in no rush?).

Another quibble — and, perhaps, one that is at least partly responsible for Wingsʼ demise — is the unexpected seppuku of Denny Laine as a credible songwriter. From Band On The Run and all the way to London Town, he kept on showing signs of occasional brilliance, from the epic runs of ʽNo Wordsʼ to the folksy gloom of ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ; and his share of writing steadily went up from album to album, so that you might have expected him to strike some gold on Back To The Egg as well. Instead, he comes up with but one song — and that song is ʽAgain And Again And Againʼ, an exercise in intentionally moronic arena-pop whose sarcasm, if there is any, is easily lost on the listener. Perhaps he took the title of the album too seriously and decided that it was time to get back «to the roots», meaning writing a song from the perspective of a horny Fiftiesʼ teenager — but that was a long time ago; at least if he made it sound like Gene Vincent, I would understand, but he makes it sound like a soft-rock version of Slade, and this attitude just does not work for Wings at any time.  

But petty issues aside, Back To The Egg still finds its way into my listening list from time to time, which is so much more than I could say about Pipes Of Peace or Press To Play — unlike the former, it does not try to replace strong hooks with corny sentimentalism, and unlike the latter, its experimental nature does not allow to define it as «McCartney trying harder than necessary to not be McCartney». Once you have dealt with the obvious — namely, that this is the most psychologically shallow record that Paul had released up to this point — you are still left with the option to enjoy it for what it is (which kind of brings it close in nature to the Stonesʼ Emotional Rescue from about the same time, although Back To The Egg is still better). And when, after all the pointless turmoil, the curtain falls on the hush-hush, cuddly, lovable vaudeville piece ʽBabyʼs Requestʼ, it feels like there still definitely is some life around — so try to stick around with this guy for at least the next few years and see if he succeeds in redeeming himself...


  1. Even if you are Lionel Messi don't try to be Roger Federer. Just keep playing soccer. Or be happy just being an amateur tennis player. This was the year of Regatta de Blanc, Fear of Music, London Calling, The Wall, Highway to Hell, Unknown Pleasures. This album was a great disappointment. And far inferior to Double Fantasy from next year if you dismiss Yoko's songs.

    1. Enrique, I admire your stubborn dedication to accompanying each and every of my solo Beatles reviews with the RollingStone-approved "this was nowhere near as good as Sgt. Pepper" sticker - I would have worn myself out long before, trying so hard to state the obvious.

    2. George, thank you for your answer. What I tried to say is that this was nowhere as good as 100 other records from 1979. I don't care if it was done by someone that used to be great a few years ago. And no, I am not a RS reader. I prefer GS.

  2. What an analysis, George. Whether or not I agree regarding individual songs (I love "Again and Again and Again"), you drill down multiple levels and get to the core of what this album IS, in every context that matters. This is why I keep coming back.

  3. I recently went to "The Fest for Beatles Fans" a couple of months back where there was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road and the 40th of Back to the Egg. The big guest stars for the day were none other than Denny Laine, Laurence Juber, and Steve Holley, the 'Wingmen' themselves. They gave a very enlightening panel on the events surrounding the making of this album, with particular insight into what really led to Wings' disbandment. It seems that the infamous snafu concerning Sir Paul and Japanese customs was a contributing factor to the breakup, but initially the plan was to continue recording and touring.

    However, once work began on McCartney II, Paul seemingly rediscovered how great it was to be completely solo again, and little by little, the other Wings began to stop hearing from him through '80 and '81. Juber and Holley saw the writing on the wall and left, though Laine persisted and stuck it out through the Tug of War sessions. Ultimately, he and McCartney had a falling-out that might have had something to do with his lack of royalties for the co-writing credit on "Mull of Kintyre."

    The three ex-Wings ended up playing a handful of songs off of Back to the Egg at the end of the night during the obligatory 'all-star jam,' including the pleasantly surprising "We're Open Tonight" and "Spin It On," as well as "Old Siam, Sir" and, unfortunately, "Again and Again and Again." They even brought out fellow guests Alan White and Mark Rivera for "Rockestra," which was predictably messy but interesting to see.

    I've subsequently re-evaluated this album as a result of both that experience and this review, and I have to say, Back to the Egg is more solid than I originally thought. Miles better than a lot of McCartney's 80's stuff, at least. There's something endearing about Sir Paul trying his hand at Punk and New Wave while still keeping one foot in his usual fare.

  4. When you get around to Off the Ground, you HAVE to review the "Complete Works" version with the bonus disk of outtakes. That disk is basically a whole extra album (49 minutes), and it's better than the album itself – much less hokey and overproduced. There isn't a song on the bonus disk that I'd trade for one on the main album, outside the sore thumb that is the full-length "Cosmically Conscious", which I might swap for "Winedark Open Sea". Sorry for posting this on a Wings review, but I just discovered it and had to spread the word. It's a crime that this album, never released since, is so unknown. (And expensive... but there are other ways to hear it, of course.)