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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #1: McCartney and Ram

My pop music project for 2019? Listening to Paul McCartney's entire post-Beatles oeuvre. Why? Well, why not? Is that a good enough reason for you?

The fact is that late last year, around when the remastered 50th anniversary White Album was released, I listened to this delightful interview with Rob Sheffield (whose book on The Beatles blew me away), and it made me realize: man, the post-Beatles McCartney has been making music for nearly a half-century, and beyond the big radio hits, I really don't know it all that well. So, along with my old friend/music guru in Texas, I have a plan to work through every album (well, nearly; probably not the ones full of covers) Macca has put out, either on his own or with Wings. Should be an interesting year. My plan is to post about a couple of albums or more on the last day of every month through the end of 2019. Feel free to stick around for the whole trip, if you're so inclined.


First of all: McCartney. Honestly, this is a pretty terrible way to start this series out. This album, recorded by Paul and Linda essentially in total secrecy while The Beatles fell apart and McCartney was no doubt feeling all sorts of anger, confusion, and sadness--but also excitement over what was going to come next in his life--is, frankly, barely there; it's like a bit of hurried graffiti by some busy genius that someone packaged to sell to rabid fans who would pay good money for any incomplete bit of errata from their hero...except in this case the "someone" was Macca himself. The majority of its 13 tracks are unfinished collections of isolated riffs and chords stitched together--or not--in the hopes of getting a bunch of "songs" over the two minute mark. This is really kind of sad, because I think "That Would Be Something" and "Momma Miss America" probably could have been, with some lyrical thought and more studio work, really great tunes. There's only two songs on the album that really seem "finished" to me. The first, "Teddy Boy," is solid, but more like an outtake from The White Album than anything else. The other, of course, is "Maybe I'm Amazed," which is arguably McCartney's greatest solo composition from his entire career--a beautiful, brilliant, rocking love song, with passionate vocals and killer guitar solos. That song alone is so good it forces me to grade this D effort as a C.

Next comes Ram, a far more polished effort, and consequently much better. Still not a really great pop music creation, but definitely getting there. McCartney's love of folk and country musical styles (if not actual folk or country-western music itself--basically what John Lennon famously derided as Paul's weakness for "granny shit") really develop on this album, resulting in some pretty fun songs: "Dear Boy," "Home in the Heart of the Country," and "Long-Haired Lady" are all worth listening to a time or three. And there are some tight rock and roll numbers as well: "Too Many People" is probably about as close as McCartney can ever get to building up righteous indignation, "Smile Away" is made to be shouted out to a clapping and chanting audience, and "Back Seat of My Car" is a fine ballad. "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" is, of course, a classic late-period Beatles number: clever, hummable, with peerless musicianship throughout (though I will go to my grave believing that's the voice of John Cleese, not McCartney himself, on the telephone). Overall though, a solid B-, not higher than that. Of course, if they'd put "Another Day" on the album," I'd probably have to score it a whole grade higher--but they didn't. Silly producers. (Oh, and by the way: props to Macca for the whole "Thrillington" experiment; it's actually some pretty great 60s-style jazz orchestra elevator music, if you're into that sort of thing.)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Definitely Not My Favorite Python, But Probably the Most Pythonesque Python for All That

I've talked about Michael Palin's fascinatingly comprehensive and yet un-critical diaries, John Cleese's funny and sometimes scary arguments with himself, and Terry Gilliam's hauntingly familiar and yet frustratingly disconnected ruminations. Since Terry Jones has, tragically, descended into dementia and Graham Chapman is, equally tragically, dead, that leaves Eric Idle, the only musician among the Python's, easily their most savvy, business-smart, and traditionally ambitious member, the one with the strongest sense of old-fashioned showmanship, and by far the one with the most immature and sexist sense of humor, as the final member of Monty Python to produces his memoirs. Now he's done so, and it's great. I'm not certain I have a lot more to say beyond that, though.

Palin's diaries (and I really need to finally get around to reading the final volume) are documents of their time, the impossibly detailed and often quietly funny observations of, so it seemed to me, a smart man to likes looking at and reacting thoughtfully to and learning from the world around him--but not someone who is especially drawn to challenging or questioning or struggling with it. John Cleese's autobiography of his early years, on the other hand, was endless challenges and questions and struggles, mostly with himself and his own prejudices and judgments and assumptions (but often with others' as well, of course). Terry Gilliam's scrapbook-slash-autobiography painted a scattered portrait of man kind of unhappy with himself, but not too much, because he understands his own pre-occupations and the fact that they have driven him all over the map, and only occasionally coalesce around a project or a work of art or a relationship upon which he use his powers to create something great. Idle, though? Idle is man who survived some very difficult times, worked very hard, got very lucky, reaped great rewards, loves all of it, and doesn't think too much about What It All Means. It is probably the closest thing I have ever read to a genuine, straight-up, celebrity memoir, with names dropped on page after page after page, all done with absolute cheer and never a recrimination. Well, that's not entirely true; he really does seem genuinely contrite about the way he cheated left and right on his first wife, but once he gets past his not-particularly-embarrassed confession of having been a sex-obsessed asshole for years, it really doesn't trouble him, presumably at least in part because he was making enough money to sufficiently cover up any regrets that anyone had about his behavior.

Idle is, I think, in addition to all that I wrote above (indeed, probably in ways centrally connected to all of that) easily the most American of all the Pythons. He moved permanently to the U.S. in the early 1990s--and not just America, but Hollywood--after getting annoyed at the response to his latest film, Splitting Heirs ("If that's how you behave when someone brings eight million back to spend in the country, I shall take my flops to America, where they don't even mind if you are successful"--p. 172). And he loves it here--he loves the individualism, the opportunity, the chance to do one thing, and then do a completely different thing, and face no resistance whatsoever (so long, of course, as you're a funny, rich, white male with tons of celebrity friends, which Idle never pretends he isn't). Gilliam came to England and found, for all his frustrations with the way it changed in the 1970s and 1980s, a grounded culture and way of being in the world which spoke to him; Idle, by contrast, the child of abandonment and abuse and relative poverty, never seems at all interested in finding any kind of permanent ground at all. Again, that's not entirely true; he is utterly smitten with his American wife and dearly loves and cares for the many friends and connections he has built for himself over the years. But he's probably never really stopped being the sneaky, on-the-hunt smart-ass which his upbringing taught him to be--and again, why should it? His humor and sense of fun brought him into the orbit of everyone from George Harrison (their friendship is a large and delightful part of the book) to David Bowie to Robin Williams to Michael Caine to Mike Nichols to Peter Cook to Mick Jaggar (lots of guys, you're thinking? yes, I noticed) to dozens and dozens more. Why change--or rather, why change the constant changing--when what you're doing seems to work?

Monty Python was, in the end, a brilliant comedic troupe of people who made smart, snotty, silly fun of everyone. They were not serious satirists (though they could do that, when they thought it appropriate), but rather among the most absurdist snarkers ever. By that measure, hats off to the snarkiest one of them all. He's always looked on the bright side of his life, and good for him. I hope he never stops (and neither does he, that's for certain).