Friday, March 20, 2020

The Beatles - Liverpool Childhood (1967)

The Beatles performed their final show at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, in August 1966. The group decided to call it quits from the touring business after a hectic few years, mostly because they could barely hear themselves because of the screaming girls, and decided to become a studio-only band. Their relief was such, that by the end of that tour (which involved death threats, LPs being burned in bonfires and almost being left for dead in Manila), George sat back on the plane ride home and said "well, I'm not a Beatle anymore", and they all decided to take an extended break. The group spend the next few months each doing their own thing, with Ringo staying at home to take care of his one-year-old kid, George traveling to India to study the sitar, Paul either dying or going on a holiday in Africa (we haven't quite figured that out yet, sorry) and John shooting a movie in Spain. And by the time they regrouped, in November 1966, the rumors that they'd broken up were many, and they were all considerably different than what people last saw them as, four nearly identical moptops. It was with all of this in mind that they went into their familiar grounds of Abbey Road Studios in December 1966 to craft the followup to their latest album, Revolver. And they would only be done in April of the following year.

The first few songs they worked on were "Strawberry Fields Forever", which John had written in Spain while shooting his movie, "Penny Lane", which Paul had been working on for the past few months, and "When I'm Sixty Four", which was written in 1958 and even played at the Cavern Club when the electricity died down. Inspired by Freak Out!, by The Mothers of Invention, the band had intended on making a concept album for a while, and decided that now was the time to do so, since they wouldn't need to tour on such complex material anymore. The first concept they'd thought of, because of the lyrical themes of the three songs, was a concept about working-class life in their hometown of Liverpool, and what growing up there was like. With work on those three songs taking up most of the month of December, the release of an album was put to somewhere in the middle of the following year, and EMI got desperate for material. Considering that back then albums were released every six months, waiting a whole year for a new album was unthinkable, and so they decided to release a compilation and demand a single be released by February. Considering they only had three songs ready, George Martin made "the worst mistake of his recording career" and released "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" as a single.

Now left without the two songs that defined the album's concept, the band decided to scrap said concept and start anew. And with that, Paul came up with a new concept: a fake old-timey military band, which would serve as an alias to the Beatles themselves. With that in mind, they quickly composed a theme for that band, "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band", and set on to work on adapting the material they had to fit into the record. And well, the rest is history. Yes, I know it's almost a sin to mess with perfection, but what I'd like to know is: what if they had managed to work with their original concept? If that non-album single hadn't happened, they would be able to make use of the "Liverpool childhood" idea and shape the album around it, with no need for a different idea. Well, to see how such an album would come together, we first need to set up some rules. Only songs from the original Pepper sessions that fit in with the overarching concept of the album will be considered, and even songs written after the album changed concepts will be considered, as there is not much pre-Pepper material to work with. I'll be working with seven songs a side, considering that was the norm back then, and will obviously not include either the title track or its reprise. With all of that in mind, here's what I've come up with:

Strawberry Fields Forever (Magical Mystery Tour)
Getting Better (Sgt. Peppers)
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! (Sgt. Peppers)
Fixing a Hole (Sgt. Peppers)
Piggies (The White Album)
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (Sgt. Peppers)
She's Leaving Home (Sgt. Peppers)
Penny Lane (Magical Mystery Tour)
Good Morning, Good Morning (Sgt. Peppers)
Lovely Rita (Sgt. Peppers)
When I'm Sixty Four (Sgt. Peppers)
Only a Northern Song (Yellow Submarine)
With a Little Help from My Friends (Sgt. Peppers)
A Day in the Life of... (Sgt. Peppers)

Bonus track:
Isn't it a Pity? (All Things Must Pass)

The four Beatles in December 1966, at Abbey Road Studios' doostep

First of all, we need to figure out which songs work well within the idea of the album. For our luck, most of the songs fit in pretty well, and in an honestly less hamfisted way than they did with Pepper. All of the album songs, minus the title track and "Within You, Without You" (can't see where Indian mysticism fits in with English working-class experiences!) are then included here, although in a different fashion. Also, a different running order is adopted, mostly based on an alternative side A sequence from early 1967 that had "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" as the third track is used. Obviously, we switch the opener for "Strawberry Fields Forever", as its mellotron intro serves for a great, suspenseful start to the record, and pull in "Getting Better" as the second track in the album. Other than that, we follow the alternative sequence to the letter, only adding another song to make up for the latter's absence. Side two is a bit more complicated, as I add "Penny Lane" as the side opener, move "Good Morning Good Morning" up to the second spot, and then shuffle around the remaining tracks, with "With a Little Help from My Friends" repurposed as the track that leads to the finale, which is still "A Day in the Life", also trying not to have more than two songs from the same singer in a row, and to have evenly timed sides.

As for differences in the songs themselves, I don't see much changing. Honestly, the only thing that linked "Little Help" to the Pepper concept was the Billy Shears intro, which can easily be substituted for an instrumental version from the Pepper deluxe edition, making it just a song about how having friends goes a long way in making life better, which fits in 100% with the Childhood concept. "A Day in the Life" has a clean intro, as it doesn't segue from the crowd noises of the reprise, and doesn't have the weird hidden track in the end, as it sounds better that way. And now that we are left without a George track, I decided on adding two: "Only a Northern Song" (with its chorus being a direct reference to Liverpool, even though the lyrics are pretty nonsensical), and the more controversial one, "Piggies". Having been written all the way back in late-1966, but only finished for the White Album, its lyrics deal with capitalism and class struggles in a lighthearted and fable-like way, which certainly fits in with the more child-like songs in the album, and materialistic critique certainly fits in with the working class concept. And considering its lead by a harpsichord and orchestral backing, "Piggies" is certainly psychedelic enough to fit in the album, sound-wise. Ideally, a psychedelic take on "Isn't it a Pity?", also from '66, would be featured there, but as it is, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

With two sides clocking in at about 22 minutes, Liverpool Childhood is a fantastic album, with some of the best Lennon/McCartney compositions ever written. When compared to the album it went on to become, I honestly feel it's superior on a song-by-song level, even though Pepper still takes the lead on consistence. Of course, adding two of the band's greatest songs to the album they belong to is obviously going to improve it, but songs like "Lovely Rita" and "Good Morning, Good Morning" honestly feel much more at home in a concept about everyday Scouse life than in a fictional marching band, which is understandable. As for the album cover, it was created by John Hunt over at I Design Album Covers, depicting what it would look like if Peter Blake designed a cover for this earlier concept. Alongside it came the title of Liverpool Childhood, which is honestly pretty good not to use. And as with Pepper, no singles would be released, to maintain the whole "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" mythos. Considering we got one of the greatest albums of all time out of it, it's honestly not too bad that this album happened to transform itself into a different concept. However, it's still nice to wonder how things could have been, had fate not decided on having Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band perform on record.

- The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
- The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour
- The Beatles - The Beatles

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Paul McCartney & Wings - Tug of War (1981)

Wings released their seventh and final album, Back to the Egg, in June 1979. It was recorded during the period of almost a year, and reflected Paul's desire to reflect some of the then-current trends in his work, most notably punk and new wave. The album ended up being an exceptional failure in all fronts, both in critical acclaim and in commercial performance, failing to soar to the heights their albums usually did. However, the band still toured the UK in late 1979, making plans for a Japanese tour in January 1980 and an American tour later that year as well. The British tour was well received, with the band's newest additions of Laurence Juber and Steve Holley gelling quite well, and closing off the year with a charity concert for Cambodia, in which Wings saw themselves performing alongside The Who, Queen, and newer acts such as The Pretenders and Rockpile. Despite a rocky start with a rather sub-par album, this new lineup seemed like a new beginning for the band, a breath of fresh air for a group that had been through a lot throughout its almost ten years of existence. And with dates planned in the States and in the Far East, the future looked bright for them. And then, of course, the Japan drug bust happened. And after McCartney was caught with some "recreational herbs" while entering Japan, activity within the band died down considerably.

After getting out of prison in February, he decided to release his solo, experimental recordings from the previous summer as his second solo album, appropriately titled McCartney II. Meanwhile, sideman Denny Laine also released his, rather ironically titled, album Japanese Tears, which included brand new recordings and some Wings outtakes, spanning all the way back to 1972, and making for a good retrospective of his time in the band, as well as his talents as a songwriter. The band would only finally reunite in June 1980, for rehearsals at a place called Pugin's Hall, in Kent. There, they'd spend the following months, with solo demos from June being used as a reference, rehearsing a batch of new songs written by Macca, apparently meant for a new LP by the band. In all, those amounted to eight songs, with the tapes we have of those rehearsals being very skeletal and simple versions of those songs, most likely because the band hoped to flesh out the songs in the studio, as they usually did. But by the time they hoped to enter the studio, in November 1980, with producer George Martin, Paul had decided to record that material as a solo album. Apparently motivated by Martin, who didn't like working with groups (how ironic!) and felt Macca should record with session musicians and with who fit the songs, instead of having to limit himself within the band's limitations.

Sessions started in December 1980 with only himself, his wife Linda, and Denny Laine from the band contributing. He managed to record an embryonic version of "Tug of War" and his collaboration with Laine, "Rainclouds" (which they rehearsed in Pugin's Hall in October), before tragedy struck, and the sessions were temporarily abandoned. By the time they returned, in February 1981, Denny only stuck around for another month before quitting, citing Paul's reluctance to tour in support of the album they were making, among other factors such as his desire to start a solo career. That prompted the official breakup of Wings, in April of that year, and Tug of War becoming a real McCartney solo album, with him inviting 10cc's Eric Stewart to the sessions to serve as second-in-charge, with no further involvement from any Wings members. However, what many were left wondering back then was: what if Wings had managed to record their final album, before George Martin interfered and decided on a solo album instead? Well, as always, we need to set up some rules first. We will include all the songs they debuted during those rehearsal sessions, and some of the songs Denny contributed to during the Tug of War sessions in 1981, with only one major exception which will be explained later, as usual when it comes to this blog. But other than that, here's our tracklist for Tug of War:

Tug of War (Tug of War)
Take it Away (Tug of War)
Keep Under Cover (Pipes of Peace)
Average Person (Pipes of Peace)
Be Together (Anyone Can Fly)
No Values (Give My Regards to Broad Street)
Ballroom Dancing (Tug of War)
The Pound is Sinking (Tug of War)
Wanderlust (Tug of War)
Rainclouds (Single B-Side)
Dress Me Up as a Robber (Tug of War)
Ebony and Ivory (Tug of War)

Bonus tracks:
Love's Full Glory (Wide Prairie)
Sweetest Little Show (Pipes of Peace)

Laine, the McCartneys and Martin at Montserat Studios, February 1981

In order to turn this hybrid of the Pugin's Rehearsals and the early ToW sessions into a proper album, we first need to select which songs are fair game to be used, out of the available few we have. All the new songs from those final rehearsals, which are "Take it Away", "Keep Under Cover", "Average Person", "No Values", "Ballroom Dancing", "Rainclouds", and "Ebony and Ivory", are included, as is "Dress Me Up as a Robber", which is based on an older Wings song from the BTTE sessions and has Denny playing the guitar synthesizer. But other than that, we are left with four blank spots, considering a new album would have more or less twelve tracks. And taking a look at which songs Laine performed in, we have "Tug of War", which was recorded during those early December sessions, and is an obvious addition to the album, as are "Wanderlust" and "The Pound is Sinking", which were demoed by the band in 1977, during the sessions for the London Town album. The fact those three were also demoed during solo sessions in June 1980 certainly helps! Not included, however, will be two songs Laine contributed to, "Somebody Who Cares", which was written after the rehearsals and demos at Martin's insistence, and "Hey Hey" was written in collaboration with bassist Stanley Clarke, who obviously wouldn't perform on the album had it been an actual Wings record.

Well, what about Denny's song, then? Luckily for us, he demoed a song with that exact title during both the Pugin's rehearsals and the Tug of War sessions, which is the closest we'd get to his solo spot on the album. And since "Denny's Song" is an embryonic version of "Be Together", from his Anyone Can Fly album, we can include that song here, even though it features no input from Paul. But other than that, if Wings had performed as a band on this record, or even in a sort of Band on the Run fashion (only the main three assisted by studio musicians), the arrangements would end up being different. And the main differences I see are the harmonies, which in the TOW album sound one hell of a lot like 10cc, because of Eric Stewart's presence and input, would have that classic Paul/Linda/Denny sound we'd all grown accustomed to over the years. And some of the songs, such as "Take it Away" and "Average Person", would have a more guitar-based sound, instead of relying on the piano too much, which in my view is always a positive. And "Ebony and Ivory" would not feature Stevie Wonder, of course! As for sequencing, I maintained the general shape of the album as much as I could, only filling in the gaps with the available songs, ending up with two evenly-timed sides at about 22 minutes, which is fair enough.

All in all, this certainly feels like a step up from Back to the Egg. With McCartney less preoccupied in being hip, we end up with a batch of very strong songs ("Average Person" notwithstanding), with mature arrangements, courtesy of George Martin, and overall good listening experience, if not a brilliant album. And in my humble opinion, this is even better than the released Tug of War album, with the exception of the great "Somebody Who Cares" and "Here Today". As the former is brought down by subpar collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Carl Perkins, it's nice to see Paul only receive input from his own band members, and not have to listen to "What's That You're Doing" ever again! And as for the album cover, I decided I wanted something visually similar to what ended up on the finished product, and ended up with this. It keeps the mostly red color palette, while substituting that picture of Paul with a painting of an actual tug of war, which remains the title of the album as well. The main single off the album would most likely still be "Take it Away", with "Ballroom Dancing" as the second single. This is a great look into how things could've been different, had Paul chosen to keep his longtime backing band together into the eighties. Considering it's his "lost decade", and not much good came out of it, I feel like he probably could've used their opinions, instead of playing a creative tug of war with himself.

- Paul McCartney - Tug of War
- Paul McCartney - Pipes of Peace
- Paul McCartney - Give My Regards to Broad Street
- Denny Laine - Anyone Can Fly