Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Paul McCartney Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

McCartney (1970, Apple)                                                                             

B+


One of the more unusual paradoxes of Paul McCartney's career, both as a Beatle and a solo artist, is that his first solo album is the enjoyable listen that it is, in spite of having hardly any fully-fleshed-out songs. Nearly three-quarters of this solo debut is comprised of tossed-off instrumentals ("Valentine Day," "Momma Miss America"), song fragments ("Hot As Sun/Glasses," "The Lovely Linda"), or songs so minimal in both their lyrics and music that they sound as if they were likely improvised on the spot ("That Would Be Something," "Oo You.") So why is this album so darn enjoyable, rather than being the embarrassment it might logically seem to be? Chalk it up in part to the low-key, homespun, oftentimes downright pastoral charm of the album's sound and production; recorded largely on his own (with only Linda's background vocals sparing the album from being a pure one-man-band effort), McCartney finds Paul retreating away from the production flourishes of the Beatles' final albums to give you the most intimate glimpse at him in the studio as has ever been captured on record. Yet the album never fully comes off sounding like a set of demos, merely just a wonderful set of home recordings (barring the album-closing instrumental, "Kreen-Akrore," which is the only truly dreadful track here), and Paul is clearly in some kind of comfort zone here, the sense of fun he so audibly seems to be having quite contagious. For all the instrumentals and throwaways (some of which are actually quite enjoyable, particularly the soulful, cowbell-laden "Oo You"), there are a fair number of fully-realized gems to be found here: "Maybe I'm Amazed," of course, is a timeless classic and would go on to be a massive hit in the latter part of the decade in the form of a live recording with Wings, but it's the original studio version included here that's the superior of the two; "Man We Was Lonely" foreshadows the pleasant country vibe that would permeate much of the next album, Ram;  "Junk," ironically, turns out to be one of Paul's all-time prettiest melodies; and the excellent hook-filled uptempo pop of "Every Night" would become an instant fan favorite, covered by everyone from Phoebe Snow to Claudine Longet, and would resurface on Paul's tours three decades later.

Ram (1971, Apple)                                                                                        

A  

Ram is jointly billed to wife Linda, but don't let that detract you from purchasing this, as this sophomore effort from Paul turns out to be a real knockout of an album and the best non-Wings album McCartney would release until Tug of War over ten years later. Unlike its instrumentals-and-song-fragments-heavy predecessor, all the songs here (barring a brief reprise of "Ram On") are fully-realized tunes, and mostly very good ones, too, with hardly any missteps. The eccentric-but-lovely medley "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" would become Paul's first solo Number One hit, but it shockingly turns out to be one of the less commercial tracks on the album, and you can't help but wonder how so many other superior tunes here got bypassed for release as singles. Chief among the album's highlights are the sunny driving pop of "Eat at Home," a precursor of the sound that Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks would perfect later on in the decade with Fleetwood Mac; the album-opening angry rocker "Too Many People"; and the multi-layered-vocal dynamics of "Dear Boy." Even the awkward lyrical shortcomings of the rockers "Smile Away" and "Monkberry Moon Delight" are quickly forgiven, thanks to the abundance of memorable melodic hooks in both.  Easily one of Paul's strongest outings of the '70s. (The 1993 CD reissue adds both sides of the excellent non-LP single "Another Day" / "Oh Woman, Oh Why," making it an even more worthwhile purchase.)

Wild Life (1971, Apple)                                                                                 

D +   

The first Wings album, Wild Life is not nearly as terrible as some critics would have you believe - half of it is actually quite listenable, though never terribly memorable - but it nonetheless is still a pretty bad album. Wild Life retains the unassuming sound and homespun nature of its two predecessors and proves to have its charms for that reason but pales wildly to McCartney's first two full-lengths for the mere reason that there's not a single great song to be found here. The entire first side of the disc is a total embarrassment and consists of two rockers ("Mumbo," "Bip Bop") with lyrics that are quite literally complete gibberish and another two songs (the title track and a reggae version of Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange") that just seem to drag on and on interminably. The second side is actually quite listenable ("Some People Never Know" being the most enjoyable track here), but all four songs are still just mediocre at absolute best, and it's very clear by album's end why no singles were released from this album - nothing here sounds like an obvious hit, a dubious first for a songwriter as gifted as McCartney. [McCartney completists are advised to bypass the vinyl version of this one in favor of the 1993 CD reissue of this album, which adds the non-LP releases "Give Ireland Back to the Irish," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and "Little Woman Love," all of which are unavailable elsewhere on CD or LP, and the excellent Red Rose Speedway outtake "Mama's Little Girl," which inexplicably remained in the vaults until being used as a B-side for "Put It There" in 1989.]   

Red Rose Speedway (1972, Apple)                                                              

C+

The first passable Wings album, what ultimately holds Red Rose Speedway from being the legitimately great album it should have been is that it began life as a double-album and, in scissoring the package down to a single-disc, they somehow managed to leave out most of the best material, while truly embarrassing nonsense like "Loup (1st Indian on the Moon)" inexplicably did make the cut. Some of the omitted material would wind up being released later as B-sides (the excellent rocker "The Mess" would be used concurrently as the flip side for "My Love", while "I Lie Around" and "Country Dreamer" would be used as flip sides for "Live and Let Die" and "Helen Wheels," respectively; "Mama's Little Girl" would finally surface over fifteen years later), while others would never get released (most notably, the excellent cover version of Thomas Wayne's "Tragedy" and the equally great McCartney original "Best Friend") and are available only on bootlegs. The upshot of all this is that it's possible, by deleting most of the cuts here and replacing them with the best B-sides and unreleased songs from the same sessions, to create an alternate version of this album that would be worthy of an A rating. If you don't know any of this, though, you might mistakenly assume that the recording sessions for this album were an almost-complete waste of time, as a good half of this album can be skipped over entirely, namely the aforementioned instrumental "Loup" and the album-closing eleven-minute medley of uncompleted songs. (Though not nearly as long as that medley, the ballad "Little Lamb Dragonfly" sure feels like it goes on for eleven minutes.) Not to say the album doesn't have its moments, though: the number one smash "My Love" - which, in spite of undeniably being Paul's sappiest love song, is thoroughly redeemed by Henry McCullough's wonderful guitar solo - is included here; "Get on the Right Thing," "One More Kiss," and "When the Night" are all enjoyable, even if not up to the high standards of the best material on Ram; and the album has a true hidden gem in the should-have-been-single "Big Barn Bed," a country-boogie singalong that gets the album off to an extraordinarily fun start and is the album's real highlight. 

Band on the Run (1974, Apple)                                                                  

A+


Usually praised by critics as being Paul's best solo album, that may or may not be the case (I myself think Tug of War is ever-so-slightly superior), but it certainly is his strongest outing of the '70s. The worst thing I can say about the album is that, while it certainly plays well as an album piece (both "Picasso's Last Words" and the album-closing "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" work in reprised snippets from previous tracks on the album to wonderful effect), the album's second side is undeniably inferior to its first side. (The original U.S. release of the album, I should note, adds the fantastic single "Helen Wheels" to Side Two, which goes a very long way towards balancing the album sides, but the song sadly does not appear on U.K. pressings or on the single-disc version of the most recent American reissue of the CD, so be sure the version you purchase includes it. The album suffers greatly without its presence.) So the album does taper off slightly in the middle ("Mamunia," "No Words,") but the set gets off to such a solid start (and the rollicking grooves of "Helen Wheels" and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" helping to rescue the album from a potentially disappointing end), you can overlook it. Both the epic album-opening title track and the rocker "Jet" became instant classics, of course, and mainstays of Paul's live act, but the three tracks that follow (the soft pop of "Bluebird," the quirky rocker "Mrs. Vanderbilt," and the bluesy Lennon-esque- shades of "Cold Turkey," for sure - stylings of "Let Me Roll It") are nearly every bit as fun. An absolutely essential purchase for any McCartney fan.