Sunday, November 23, 2014

Live a Little, Be a Gypsy, Get Around

What happens after you've accomplished it all and you haven't yet turned 30? The dilemma hangs heavily over Paul McCartney as he restlessly struggles to craft a post-Beatles life in Tom Doyle's biography MAN ON THE RUN. Based on a series of revealing interviews with the subject and richly detailed reporting, Doyle paints McCartney as far less calculated, and in a sense, more complex, than I would have guessed: In fact, Paul was adrift, depressed, and stoned for much of the 1970s even as he rarely dropped the jolly exterior and optimistic outlook he projected.

Cast as too domineering by George and too uncool by John (both accusations appearing accurate), the Beatle breakup left Paul with a kind of post-traumatic distress he medicated with pot, musical excursions both brilliant and banal, and life with a young family.

Periodic encounters with John Lennon recounted in the book illustrate a complicated and heartbreaking estrangement between the famed songwriting duo. John's public posture was many times more savage than what he'd share privately with Paul, whereas McCartney would frequently come off more flippant and careless than he'd intend, particularly his unfortunate "it's a drag, man" soundbite that carried the day upon Lennon's assassination. As Doyle tells it, Paul spent much of the 1970s in a vain search for a foil to provide the kind of competitive spark and counterforce that Lennon did, even if unconsciously so. The murder left him devastated and confused.

The book also provides a useful framework for understanding McCartney's inconsistent post-Beatle recording career, which even for us fans is something of a complicated narrative. McCartney's self-titled earliest effort largely resulted of therapeutic play in a home studio, while the 1971 followup RAM, conceived amid the legal unraveling of the Beatles, were both savaged by contemporary critics, although RAM's stature has greatly benefited upon reconsideration. "RAM was something of a marvel," Doyle argues. "Really the true successor to ABBEY ROAD, in its baroque detail and flights of imagination, it was variously funny, daft, touching and knowing."

Living a hippy lifestyle on a rural Scottish farm, Paul's next venture was, in his words, growing a band from a seed. Wings grew, all right, morphing from the dull, ramshackle outfit of the debut WILD LIFE, to the Peppery BAND ON THE RUN, to arena rockers of VENUS AND MARS to the radio popstars of SPEED OF SOUND and its successors. Part of this was Paul's unwillingness to reel in his outrageous versatility, but it was also his inability to keep another group together, with only himself, musically dubious wife Linda and ex-Moody Blues utilityman Denny Laine a presence throughout the Wings' career. One problem? He paid them too little.

The dissolving of  Wings Mark 2 (guitarist Jimmy McCullough and drummer Joe English, who joined following BAND ON THE RUN and accompanied the founding trio through the WINGS OVER AMERICA triumph) seemed to serve as another disappointing setback for McCartney, who even at the top of his game was always courting doubt. But, as Doyle points out, McCartney's growth from a guy who seemed lost without his Beatle bandmates to an artist who could fill a triple-live album almost entirely with non-Beatle cuts you know by heart in a matter of a only few years, is simply remarkable, even if it came with some filler.

The book takes us through McCartney's adventures in recording (the near-fatal chaos of BAND ON THE RUN's creation in Lagos and high-seas hijinx for LONDON TOWN); his idiotic drug busts in Scotland and in Japan; the deaths of Lennon and ex-Wingman McCollough, all leading to what Doyle suggests is the dawn of a calmer, more stable period to follow.

The below playlist includes representative cuts from Macca's singles, LPs and other projects during the decade:

Friday, November 7, 2014

Looking East

Sort of interesting thing I learned from Fink's AC/DC book.

There's no this:

without this:

Head East was a one of those Heartland boogie-rock bands who plugged away throughout the 70s but never broke out in the manner of contemporaries like REO Speedwagon. If they're remembered at all, it's for the enduring rocker above from their 1974 debut album FLAT AS A PANCAKE, whose syrupy cover I can picture from those Columbia House offerings. The riff apparently caught the ear of Malcolm Young, whose play on it blossomed into the ubiquitous AC/DC breakout. (We all know that jumped the shark years ago -- for me, it was when one of those "4 Jacks and a Jill" type bands performed it at a cocktail reception for real-estate executives I attended for work one time. Still get chills).

Head East had a second minor hit a few years later with "Since You Been Gone" but that song is best known for its 1979 performance by Rainbow. What I didn't know till just now was that Head East's version was also a cover of a song penned and performed originally by ex-Argent singer Russ Ballard. Ballard might be even less well-known than Head East, but his songwriting credits are many including the great power-poppy cut below, "Winning" later a cover hit by Santana and the great "New York Groove" made famous by Ace Frehley.

What's your favorite take of the three below?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Thunder from Down Under

In part because none of the subjects of the book's title are willing participants in the story it tells, Jesse Fink's THE YOUNGS concerns itself primarily with tracking down other biographers' stories on the elusive and secretive family behind AC/DC, and it might have helped to have read those first.

This is not a book for the casual or curious AC/DC fan; it drops right in on the arcane and detailed, probing into who really played drums on their earliest recordings; how much of BACK IN BLACK was composed before the death of vocalist Bon Scott; the story of the graphic designer who has never been properly compensated for his iconic band logo, on and on. It's not that these stories aren't interesting in and of themselves (some are, anyway) it's the fact that telling the story of George, Malcolm and Angus Young is difficult without examining such things because they're uncooperative, insular and probably don't mind that there's a bit of mystery and irreconcilable truths around them. That's how they are.

And, Fink would argue, the best rock and roll band ever, at least until Scott died. There's a ton of testimony -- from himself and other admirers -- to that account, and where Fink has succeeded is making that case behind a few truths emerging from the arcane: Original producer, songwriter, man-behind-the-curtain and older brother George Young was determined to direct his brothers' band free from the interference and influences that might have brought down his band, the Easybeats; middle brother Malcolm (maybe not exactly middle, there were I believe 9 Young siblings in all) helped the sound come to life behind singularly muscular and efficient rhythm guitar and has been the driving force in the band for much of its career; and Angus is the diminutive boy genius guitarist and natural showman.

Readers will actually learn more about Scott, whom Fink argues was the soul of the band until drinking himself to death in 1980, citing his cheeky, clever lyrics that gave way to clunky, childish double-entendre in the Johnson era. The swift change to Johnson and the ensuing BACK IN BLACK tribute (if it was that and not leftovers packaged that way) was shrewd. "No replacement vocalist has given a band a better second act that Johnson did for AC/DC," Fink writes, although he adds it was only a couple of records before Johnson's vocals were shot and even less before he ran out of ideas as a lyricist. The Youngs eventually shut him out entirely from the songwriting process, repeating a pattern they'd exhibited with dozens of sacked band members, producers and associates throughout their career, many of whom make an appearance in Fink's book.

 Some time ago I came around to the conclusion that AC/DC wasn't the garbage Rolling Stone told me they were when I was an impressionable kid (Fink in fact tracks down and interrogates critic Billy Altman in his book, to little avail). If nothing more they're about the very best practitioners of the kind of thing they do. Fink's book helped to put its development into context, arguing the band's sound as a kind of unreached destiny of the Easybeats and other projects bearing George's influence along the way including a new-to-me project called the Marcus Hook Roll Band, whose "Natural Man" (above, featuring teenage Malcolm and Angus) was AC/DC/BC as the below cut clearly illustrates.

Filled with passion for the subject and dogged reporting, "The Youngs" might be the best AC/DC bio out there, but the definitive tale may still await.