Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Back To The Egg Revisited

After nearly eighteen months, and nigh on 500 posts, I’ve made the difficult decision to draw the curtain down on Retro Universe. A few months ago I nearly did likewise, but gained sufficient second wind to propel my enthusiasm to this point. However, my heart isn’t in it anymore, and though there are somewhere in the vicinity of 300-400 more artists that I’d like to write about, for now at least, I don’t feel I can do the blog, the artists, or myself justice in writing about them. I’d like to express a word of thanks to regular readers, and casual passers by, of Retro Universe. The biggest motivating factor in my putting so much time and effort into this blog has been the knowledge that like minded enthusiasts of quality music from a bygone era, have found, at least in part, my literary meanderings to be somewhat interesting, informative, and mildly entertaining. But - as they say in the classics, never say never. So like a money spinning Hollywood sequel, one day in the future the curtain may be raised once more for a Retro Universe encore. Until then, I thought I’d sign off in style.

As with so many things in life, for this swansong post I thought I’d travel full circle, or back to the egg if you will, and revisit something I made reference to in my very first post. I posted the front cover to the 1979 Wings album ‘Back To The Egg’, and unashamedly declared it to be one of my all time favourite albums. I stand by that declaration, and shall take this opportunity to expand with unabashed enthusiasm my reasons for taking such a stance.

Back in the early 80s, I took my first tentative steps into the world of being a Beatle-head. It began with some second hand copies of original Beatle albums, including ‘Abbey Road’, and the gatefold edition of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. By 1983, my interest in the Beatles, both as a group and as solo artists, was gaining momentum, swiftly. I was chuffed to receive a cassette copy of Paul McCartney’s album ‘Pipes Of Peace’ for Christmas ‘83, and over the ensuing couple of years it was McCartney’s back catalogue that received the lions share of my attention (though in time Lennon, Harrison and even Starr would receive likewise). I began hunting down any and all album titles by McCartney as a solo artist, and with his post-Beatles’ group Wings. One of my earlier purchases was a vinyl copy of ‘Back To The Egg’, procured at one of those small time suburban record bars, now fewer and farther between than ever before (thanks to mega-chain stores). Eventually I owned three vinyl copies of the album, which featured a different centre label on each side (one for ‘over easy’, the other for ‘sunny side up’). As I wore out one copy, I’d buy another, and I picked up a cassette copy just in case. This was during the formative chapters of the CD format, and who knew when or even if a back catalogue title would be released on the pristine digital mode. Several years later I finally did obtain ‘Back To The Egg’ on CD, and within a few months I’d purchased a second ‘back-up’ copy (this was well before the days of being able to burn a quick copy on your PC). In truth, one reason I purchased a second copy on CD was that the first copy had been the Parlophone release, and several months later I came upon the Columbia Records release (well, by that time repackaged under the Capitol banner). Exactly the same album, and track listing , but different CD label, and slightly altered layout and design on the back cover. Yes I know, my Beatles-tendencies were reaching, let’s say, unhealthily obsessive levels at that stage. In subsequent years I’ve kerbed my buying habits to a more casual level (and my bank balance thanks me). There was a reason for the ‘Back To The Egg’ album being released on two separate labels (one U.K., the other U.S. based), and it wasn’t an altogether unusual practice, but I’ll expand on that a little in the next paragraph or two. ‘Back To The Egg’ was also released on ‘video-disc’ format (which I guess equated to the relatively new video cassette format - it was also broadcast on television at the time), which for a year or two back in the late 70s/early 80s, became a bit of a fad with those artists who could afford to produce music videos for all the tracks on an album. Electric Light Orchestra did likewise for their 1979 album ‘Discovery’, which I have on DVD, but to my knowledge ‘Back To The Egg’ hasn’t been released in video-DVD format. I have a copy of ‘Rockestra Theme’, and snippets of ‘Winter Rose’ and ‘Love Awake’, which were included as a bonus on the ‘Wingspan’ DVD, and the video for ‘Baby’s Request’ (and ‘Goodnight Tonight’) was included on the DVD ‘McCartney Years’, but aside from some video tape copies of ‘Getting Closer’ and ‘Old Siam, Sir’, it’s a yawning gap in my Beatles’ related catalogue (if anyone who reads this has knowledge of a legit and available copy of the video version of ‘Back To The Egg’, please, please (let) me know).

Firstly, a little background to the ‘Back To The Egg’ tale. Arguably at their commercial and creative peak, 1978 saw the recording and release of Wings’ ‘London Town’ (UK#4/OZ#3/US#2) set, which oscillated between the mellowness of the title track, and the rollicking rock and roll of ‘I’ve Had Enough’, the latter title being incidentally what affiliate members Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English declared during that period. The album was released under the Wings banner, which had been clipped to the core trio of Paul and Linda McCartney, and long serving lieutenant Denny Laine. During promotions for the singles ‘With A Little Luck’, and ‘I’ve Had Enough’, former Elton John drummer Steve Holly hooked up with the band, and in the months following, respected session guitarist Laurence Juber completed the newest incarnation of the Wings’ squadron (the seventh in all, if you count the trio periods). With a new roster of players in place, and a newly released greatest hits album riding high in the charts, McCartney took his new recruits and retired to his own Spirit Of Ranachan studios, located on his farm in Scotland, determined to record an album that would resist the onslaught of the post-punk/new wave scene. Both Holly and Juber promised to add a sharpness that had arguably been lacking in the band’s chemistry of late, and McCartney no doubt felt he had both a talented, and potentially stable, crew under his command.

Meanwhile, the release of the ‘Wings Greatest’ package brought to a conclusion McCartney’s contract with the U.S. label Capitol Records (he was still betrothed to EMI/Parlophone elsewhere). Needless to say, an ex-Beatle who was now fronting one of the biggest selling acts on the planet in their own right, that is Wings, could command his own ticket price, and there were plenty of record labels courting him for that much prized signature on the dotted line. Columbia Records (CBS) eventually offered up the biggest dowry, and a deal was struck that was acknowledged as one of the richest paying in pop music history to that time. Details were never fully disclosed, but the full package of deferments, incentive clauses, buybacks, payouts, release windows, tour support et al, was rumoured to be in the vicinity of US$20M - not bad circa 1979. Reputedly one of the sweeteners that clinched the deal for Columbia, was signing over Frank Music to McCartney, home to the publishing rights of many high profile musicals, including ‘Guys And Dolls’ - for the catalogue hungry McCartney, it was too much to resist. To top things off, McCartney would also earn an almost unparalleled 20% royalty rate for every album sold. About the only upside for Columbia was they assumed control of his McCartney’s back catalogue - but only whilst he remained with them.

Doubtless, there were some nail biting label execs nervously awaiting the reception for Wings’ new single, ‘Goodnight Tonight’, released in March of ‘79. Initially, they must have breathed a collective sigh of relief, as the catchy, pseudo-retro, disco-tinged track was added to playlists immediately, and soon made a strong debut on the charts. The song had begun life in 1978 as an instrumental backing track. Pressured by Columbia for an advance single for the forthcoming album, McCartney reworked ‘Goodnight Tonight’ with the new Wings line-up, and produced one of the finest songs of his post-Beatles work. ‘Goodnight Tonight’ was pristine, and polished to damn near pop perfection. Stylistically it was eclectic, yet mercurially cohesive, seamlessly weaving strands of contemporary pop-rock, with splashes of flamenco guitar. It was captivating in its balance of pseudo old-world charm and romance, against spirited disco inflected pop. McCartney also served up one of the most infectious bass lines ever recorded - only marginally short of Bernard Edwards on Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ (see previous post). The single’s profile was boosted immeasurably by the no expense spared promotional video, produced by McCartney’s own MPL company, and shot at the scrupulously preserved Hammersmith Palais Ballroom, in London. McCartney and his Wings donned elegant 1920s style formal attire, complete with slick backed hair (except for Linda). Paul stepped up to the old style microphone to deliver his vocals in best Rudy Vallee style. During the more contemporary, disco-inflected breaks in the song, the video cut away to the band in contemporary garb, wailing away on bongoes and maracas and such. ‘Goodnight Tonight’ eventually did say goodnight to the charts, but not before cutting up the dance floor at #5 on both the U.S. and U.K. charts (OZ#6). The B-side to ‘Goodnight Tonight’ is worth taking a moment to mention. ‘Daytime Nighttime Suffering’ was later cited by both Paul and Linda as one of their favourite Wings’ songs, but it took until the CD release of ‘Back To The Egg’ for the song to make it to digital format. McCartney himself was prone on occasion to making generous promises (that for one reason or another weren’t always kept). It seems that the ex-Beatle experienced a momentary sensation of writer’s block when trying to come up with a B-side for the proposed single. He offered the other members of the band the opportunity to come up with a song over the weekend, that if deemed by him to be good enough, would be included on the single release, thus almost assuring its writer a generous slab of the royalties. By Monday though, it appeared that McCartney had recovered his fiscal senses, and song writing muse, and he declared that ‘Daytime Nighttime Suffering’ would suffice, putting an end to two days of daytime, nighttime suffering for Wings’ associates Laine, Juber, and Holly.

Whatever the financial restitution accrued from sales of ‘Goodnight Tonight’, it wasn’t enough to appease the suits at Columbia, who already saw the writing on the wall, and it was underwritten in red. Their hopes now rested on the reception offered Wings first album with the label.

I have a copy of a 1986 interview with Paul McCartney, in which he recalls encountering an ‘Aussie’ fellow on a train. McCartney told (in best imitation Australian accent) how this man informed him that his favourite Wings album was ‘Back To The Egg’. In the same interview McCartney went on to explain that the album was intended as a concept piece, but ended up being more of a ‘bombcept’ effort. A tad harsh from the man himself I have to say, but he did qualify that by saying that individually there were some good songs. Not to contradict Mr. McCartney, but in my humble view the album, though defined by its disparate elements, gels to form a thoroughly engaging and listenable whole - not unlike The Beatles’ ‘White’ album. As that album had done for The Beatles (not that they needed it), ‘Back To The Egg’ showcased McCartney’s diversity and consummate skill as both writer and performer, across a gamut of musical styles.

Production on ‘Back To The Egg’ had commenced back in June of ‘78, in Paul’s own studios in Scotland, laying down the basic guide tracks. The plan had been to complete the bulk of production at Abbey Road’s famed Studio No.2, but it appeared that Cliff Richard had gotten in first, and booked the studio indefinitely (presumably to record his ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Juvenile’ album). Never one to accept second best, McCartney ordered the construction of an exact replica of Studio No.2 be built in the basement of his MPL office building in Soho Square. When the studio was finished it featured only a mural in place of a real clock on the wall - McCartney wanted a real clock - so one was duly installed. He must have become comfortable with the layout in his newly dubbed Replica Studio, as the bulk of ‘Back To The Egg’ was recorded there over the ensuing months. Apparently, McCartney so liked the atmosphere there, that he briefly pondered the idea of converting it into a little café/club for punters, not unlike the old Cavern days. The balance of work for ‘Back To The Egg’ was completed at Lympne Castle in Kent, and EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London - under the production auspices of McCartney, with former Apple engineer turned producer Chris Thomas (worked with Pink Floyd, Elton John, Roxy Music), and aided by engineer Phil McDonald (of the curly wig and brandy barrel - per the album sleeve notes).

With much hype and fanfare, ‘Back To The Egg’ was hatched during June of 1979. Much to the chagrin of Columbia execs, McCartney had refused to include the recent hit single ‘Goodnight Tonight’ on the album, leaving them solely reliant on the new single releases, ‘Old Siam, Sir’ (UK#35), and ‘Getting Closer’ (US#20/UK#60/OZ#57) to generate interest, and sales. McCartney himself was quietly confident that ‘Back To The Egg’ would reaffirm Wings’ standing as one of the pre-eminent pop-rock acts on the planet, and that their back to basics approach would gel well with the new wave scene. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The album was almost universally lambasted by critics, but hey, what do they know. Sales, at least in the context of a regular artist, were more than respectable (UK#6/US#8/OZ#3), but still fell short of the desperately high hopes of the label suits. The single ‘Arrow Through Me’ (US#29) became Wings’ final foray into the singles charts (if you discount the live Glasgow recording of ‘Coming Up’ - which I know technically I shouldn’t since it was performed by the band, but since it charted in mid 1980, I consider it a post-Wings release. But hey look, if you‘re willing to argue the point, I’ll gladly entertain the notion that it was indeed the last single to chart under the Wings banner, albeit Paul McCartney & Wings). But I seriously digress in parentheses, as has been my want to do on occasion. I recall ‘Arrow Through Me’ featuring over the end credits to the romantic comedy ‘Oh Heavenly Dog’, starring Chevy Chase and Jane Seymour, which though a charming enough film, wouldn’t rate highly in my memory banks otherwise.

What the critics labelled as uninspired, sporadic, fragmented, and directionless, I would label as sheer brilliance, and Wings’ finest hour on record (or 42 minutes at any rate). So just what treasures are revealed in that 42 minute soundscape? The opening crackle of ‘Reception’ announces that here is a concept record - OK, we’ve established that. The track is an intriguing montage of sound bytes, woven together by a funky bass line. The fade-out leads directly to a slap-in-the-face crack of guitar, that announces the pulsating pop-rock of ‘Getting Closer’. Now that the pyrotechnic welcome is out of the way, the gentle acoustic guitar of ‘We’re Open Tonight’ invites you inside for the show proper, lulling you into a reclined state of consciousness, only to be jolted back into life by the manic frenzy of ‘Spin It On’ (I’m not sure of the songs B.P.M. rating, but Steve Holly must have been redlining behind the drum kit). Such a ferocious pace is unreasonable to sustain, so next up listeners are invited to kick back with some bluesy, down home country-rock, courtesy of ‘Again And Again’ (Denny Laine’s moment in the spotlight). That leads into one of my personal highlights, the brilliant ‘Old Siam, Sir’, laced with captivating lyrical characters, quirky oriental style synth, and layers of intricately meshed guitar work, including one of the most memorable riffs McCartney has ever penned (reportedly the track originated as an instrumental called ‘Super Big Heatwave’ - the eventual title has infinitely more cache). Side-A (we are talking pre-CD here) is rounded out by the silky smooth and sultry R&B of ‘Arrow Through Me’.

And now that you’ve had a chance to regain your breath whilst flipping the album over to Side-B, its time to have your socks knocked off by the raucous powerhouse of the opening salvo, ‘Rockestra Theme’. The largely instrumental track (aside from the cry of ‘I have not had any dinner’), was one of two recorded during a specially convened session at the Abbey Road Studios, on October 3, 1978. Invited to contribute was a virtual royal roster of rock’s finest. Among the elite all-star line-up were: John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Pete Townshend, Kenney Jones (who took Keith Moon’s place), Gary Brooker, Ronnie Lane, Ray Cooper, Tony Ashton, Dave Gilmour, Hank B. Marvin, and the classic Wings horn section (and regular Wings members Denny Laine, Linda McCartney, Steve Holly, and Laurence Juber). Hats off to the production and technical crew on hand for getting that lot to meld so magnificently together - McCartney no doubt has to take some of the kudos. The über-super group played one rehearsal, then five takes were captured in all, and it was worth the effort (‘Rockestra Theme’ won the Grammy Award for ‘Best Rock Instrumental Performance’). With the superstar ensemble off to the pub to enjoy a pint in celebration of their collective greatness, time to return to some rock roots, with the stripped down, punk-esque honesty of ‘To You’. This leads into the album’s conceptual heart, with the atmospheric medleys ‘After The Ball/Million Miles’, and ‘Winter Rose/Love Awake’ (featuring the Black Dyke Mills Band - “who were returned virtually intact” according to the liner notes), the ambient interlude serving to calm proceedings through its mellow charms. The sublime spoken word ‘The Broadcast’ acts as a curious intermission from regular programming, and features excerpts from ‘The Sport Of Kings’ by Ian Hay, and ‘The Little Man’ by John Galsworthy - the hypnotic piano backing deserves to be much more than a seemingly throwaway accompaniment (it’s as affecting as ‘Believe Me Now’ from E.L.O.’s ‘Out Of The Blue’ set). The energy levels are then ramped up to fever pitch by the surging ‘So Glad To See You Here’, the second track recorded by the expanded über-super group Wings roster. The album is then stylishly closed out with the seductive nightcap ‘Baby’s Request’.

Even for an ex-Beatle, the harsh criticism and less than anticipated sales for ‘Back To The Egg’ (that was expected to be a blockbuster success) must have proved a bitter pill to swallow. With no immediate plans to tour, McCartney retreated to his farm in Scotland, and began working on some songs, that would eventually be realised via his first post-Wings album, ‘McCartney II’ (1980). One of the tracks he recorded was the syrupy, though admittedly catchy, holiday treat ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ (UK#6/OZ#61), released under the Paul McCartney banner in time for Christmas 1979 (though in the cobbled together promo video, Wings alumni are clearly present at the festivities held at The Fountain Pub in Ashhurst, Horsham). By mid November ‘79, McCartney had reassembled Wings to take flight on a nineteen date tour of the U.K., mainly taking in smaller venues, and leading up to the Christmas break (it included the Apollo Theatre gig in Glasgow, at which the live single version of ‘Coming Up’ was captured). The tour was in essence a warm-up for a proposed world tour, scheduled to kick-off in Japan in during January, 1980. Wings had one last flurry of fervent live gigging with a series of dates at the Hammersmith Odeon, from December 26 to December 29, 1979, billed as the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (and UNICEF). Joining McCartney and Wings on the bill were Pretenders, Queen, Elvis Costello, Rockpile, Robert Plant, The Who, The Clash, Matumbi, The Specials, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Each show climaxed with an ever evolving über-super group of musicians performing ‘Rockestra Theme’.

On a high (so to speak) from the series of high profile, post Christmas gigs, McCartney had every reason to feel optimistic about the new year, and the new decade. He left London on January 12, and following a brief stop over in New York (where rumour has it he made another vain attempt to meet up with John Lennon), he arrived at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on January 16, 1980. A customs agent made a v-line to McCartney’s carry bag, and viola - half a pound of premium grade pot. The ensuing events are well documented, and were captured by local press for all to see. Much rumour and innuendo abounds regarding McCartney’s arrest and subsequent incarceration, but that’s for more qualified scribes than I to speculate about in more voluminous surroundings. After a nine day stint in the slammer, McCartney was released and summarily deported from Japan. Wings’ tour plans were in tatters - and for all intents and purposes so was the band. McCartney and his crew continued in fits and splutters over the course of 1980, recording sporadically in-studio, but with the release (and success) of the ‘McCartney II’ album, it was apparent that Wings were permanently grounded. During 1981, McCartney steered the proposed Wings album into a solo project, and dedication to his fallen former bandmate, John Lennon (1982’s ‘Tug Of War’ album). One by one, McCartney’s ‘wingmen’, signed off from the band, with the ever loyal Laine the last to leave in April of ‘81, with an announcement that Wings had formally split coming at the same time.

It’s worth noting, that at the time of Wings’ disbandment, the group had racked up global record sales over and above that of The Beatles (to that point anyway), and rated as one of the biggest selling artists of the 1970s. Paul McCartney had certainly proven his point.

And on that note, I shall wish you all peace and happiness, and bid you a ‘Goodnight Tonight’ from Retro Universe.


Warwick said...

OMG! I'm so going to miss the updates and information you post here!

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, for what you've put up over the last couple of years - you've kept me interested in the music of my age - in fact reignited it and directed it to places I wouldn't have expected.

I do hope you come back, even if only for much shorter updates. Something is better than nothing.

Worried now that the wealth of information here will be deleted by blogspot over time... (eek!)

Anyway, all the best, and thank you again!

observer said...

best of luck for the future, thanks for all of your work

Eclectic downloads said...

Sad to see you fade away, enjoyed your blog big time. Hopefully you will be back with a slight return. From a fellow blogger, thanks for many wonderful posts!

The Mood Indicator

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Many thanks Warwick, 'observer', and 'Mood Indicator' for your kind words and support. All the best.