November 22 – Thoughts on the White Album

The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)

We’ve finally arrived at the Big Anniversary of the Beatles’ sprawling, self-titled 1968 double album.  It’s the first Beatles album to be covered in this unabashed fanboy’s blog which I started at the beginning of the year.  Many of us have already greedily consumed the 50th anniversary release of the album, complete with the Esher Demos, session goodies, the famous individual portraits and lyrics poster, and a hardcover book.  Some have already published nice reviews in the blogosphere and elsewhere.  Somehow today feels a bit anticlimactic, though I’ll probably give it a spin before stuffing my face with turkey later in the day.

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It’s not that the anniversary hasn’t re-sparked my enthusiasm for the White Album, released this day in 1968.  It has.  It isn’t that I’m not thrilled with everything to do with the deluxe edition which I’ve been poring over these past couple of weeks.  I am.  But if you’ll excuse a bit of hyperbole, when I think about it, this entire year has been about the White Album as pertains to my perception of the Beatles, the music scene in general, and to some extent the year 1968 itself.

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The Mad Day Out.  (Stephen Goldblatt photo)

Looking back over the first eleven months of my blog, this record looms throughout.  The seed is probably found as far back as August of 1967 with the death of Brian Epstein.  The Magical Mystery Tour project in the immediate aftermath of his passing may have been their first attempt to carry on managing themselves, but with the White Album we see the fissures within the group and their individual future directions in full light.  Many of these songs were written in February during the Rishikesh retreat, and most of the band’s activities the rest of the year from that trip-onward led to this album or were an offshoot of it.

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We had the single, Lady Madonna/The Inner Light, released in March.  In May, the establishment of Apple Corps, Ltd. was announced.  This was to be the band’s business and musical apparatus, as well as a vehicle for them as individual artists – and isn’t that really what the White Album is, some group work but a lot of individual effort?  May was also the month sessions for the album began in earnest.  With the release of the stunning Hey Jude/Revolution single in August, they showed the world that the Beatles were still the Beatles despite the turmoil they always seemed to find themselves in.  Although those tracks were not included on the album, they are White Album session tracks.

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The Mad Day Out.  (Don McCullin photo)

Group and individual burnout is evident on this album.  Even Ringo walked out during his well-documented “I thought it was YOU three?” moment.  John’s behavior became predictably unpredictable, and the sad state of affairs (no pun intended, but yeah) surrounding his marriage to Cynthia finally came to an end as he officially transitioned to Yoko.  They immediately created their first vinyl baby, Unfinished Music No. 1:  Two Virgins, under the Apple umbrella, and she would be a permanent fixture within the group dynamic from that point on.

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Ringo’s personal copy of the White Album, edition numero uno, sold at auction in 2015 for $790,000.

George finally found his own creative outlet with Wonderwall Music (the inaugural release on the Apple label), the score to the Wonderwall movie which included Indian musicians who also performed on the Inner Light, as well as his buddy Eric Clapton, who participated on both the movie score and the White Album.  All of these factors – from India to Apple, from recording the demos at George’s house in Esher to the singles releases, from the “Mad Day Out” photo session in July to the individual side projects and contentious group studio sessions – all of them are woven into the double album we’re celebrating today, and all were played out over the course of the year leading up to its release.

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Some random personal thoughts about the record:

  • In 2018, if there’s any one member of the band I associate with the album more than the others, it’s George.  I freely admit this is due in large part to Hari gradually becoming my “favorite” Beatle over the years.  The White Album was perhaps his final chance to exert serious influence on the direction the Beatles would take, both musically and spiritually.  His creative input could no longer be ignored by John and Paul if he was going to remain in the group long-term.  It may not have gone as he had hoped, but his spirit is everywhere in these songs, including the ones which didn’t make the final cut.  As he mentioned in interviews, he tried to enter the studio the following January for the Get Back sessions with a positive mindset, but it was too late.  The Beatles were, for all intents and purposes, done, despite there being two albums yet to record.  Amazingly to me, George was only 25 when the White Album was released.

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  • As a child, even though I always loved most of its tracks, the White Album kind of creeped me out.  First, the “Paul is dead ‘clues'” in the grooves and album artwork were both fascinating and, to 9 or 10-year-old me, frightening.  My brother Paul would spin the vinyl backwards for me to hear voices supposedly saying “Paul is a dead man.  Miss him, miss him,” and “Turn me on, dead man.”  In that dimly lit basement I was glad not to be alone when listening.  To this day, Revolution 9 still gives me the heebie jeebies, and Good Night which follows sounds more funereal than lullaby because of it. Then there was the unfortunate, unintended  connection to the Manson murders. Even that shoddy collage of photos which makes up the poster insert was at best confusing to me.  But it’s So White Album, no?

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  • Their individual appearances fascinated me, as they did many others.  Overnight they transformed from the psychedelic, flower power Sgt. Pepper look to their disheveled appearances of ’68.  John looked tired and bitter, and it wasn’t until my teen years that I understood why that was.

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  • Yoko.  Yoko, Yoko, Yoko.  Yoko Ono…                                                                            Because I was born the year after the Beatles broke up, as a younger person I always accepted everything I saw, heard, and read as just part of the narrative of the group.  But wow, what an unforeseen shock her emergence in all their lives must have been!  Whether he’s simply taking the high road or being sincere, Paul made peace with Yoko in recent years as well as declared his perhaps overdue respect for John for making his stand with her.  I believe Paul is sincere.  It’s past time to remove those “I still blame Yoko” bumper stickers, folks.  There were plenty of other factors contributing to the split.

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  • And lastly, as for the great debate about whether or not it should’ve been condensed down to a single LP, my answer is a resounding HELL NO!  It’s great just the way it is, but if anything could’ve improved it, it wouldn’t have been making it a single album or two separate releases (the White and Whiter Album as Ringo quipped in the Anthology).  In my mind, this could easily have been a triple album.  I think it’s a crime that George’s Sour Milk Sea wasn’t properly recorded and included (nothing against Jackie Lomax’s version).  The same goes for Not Guilty.  Sprinkle those tracks, plus Hey JudeRevolution, and Circles throughout Sides 1-5, and make Side 6 all about John and Yoko’s madness with What’s the New Mary Jane and Revolution 9, and presto!, The Grand and Mega-Blindingly White Album!  It was all free-form craziness anyway, and we’d be celebrating it the same as we are today.  That still would’ve left Lady Madonna/The Inner Light as the non-album single between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album.

But I’ll defer to Sir Paul for the final word on the matter:

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  2. Dear Prudence
  3. Glass Onion
  4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  5. Wild Honey Pie
  6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
  7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  8. Happiness is a Warm Gun

Side Two:

  1. Martha My Dear
  2. I’m So Tired
  3. Blackbird
  4. Piggies
  5. Rocky Raccoon
  6. Don’t Pass Me By
  7. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
  8. I Will
  9. Julia

Side Three:

  1. Birthday
  2. Yer Blues
  3. Mother Nature’s Son
  4. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)
  5. Sexie Sadie
  6. Helter Skelter
  7. Long, Long, Long

Side Four:

  1. Revolution 1
  2. Honey Pie
  3. Savoy Truffle
  4. Cry Baby Cry
  5. Revolution 9
  6. Good Night

-Stephen

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/ringo-starrs-personal-white-album-sells-for-world-record-790000-62410/

 

 

 

My Album Rankings – Solo Beatles Top 25

I’ll wrap up my solo Beatles album rankings by putting it together in a tidy and very scientific Top 25 list.  My thoughts on each album can be found in my individual posts for George, Paul, John, and Ringo.  Other than my choice for #1, this is a rather absurd exercise to undertake, but what the hey.  It’s got me thinking of some mighty good albums I haven’t listened to in a while.  Just a reminder:  the only reason choices such as #’s 25 and 22 aren’t rated higher is because John and George, respectively, are featured on only half the album or less.

25.  Double Fantasy

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24.  Ringo

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23.  Wonderwall Music

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22.  Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

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21.  Brainwashed

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20.  Dark Horse

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19.  Tug of War

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18.  Flaming Pie

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17.  Shaved Fish

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16.  Wings Over America

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15.  Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard

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14.  Thirty-Three and 1/3

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13.  Imagine

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12.  Red Rose Speedway

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11.  Band on the Run

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10.  George Harrison

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9.  Cloud Nine

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8.  Mind Games

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7.  Back to the Egg

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6.  McCartney

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5.  Plastic Ono Band

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4.  Living in the Material World

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3.  Walls and Bridges

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2.  Ram

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1.  All Things Must Pass

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Alright, now you can let me have it!

-Stephen

My Album Rankings – Paul McCartney

Criteria for this list and all my rankings going forward include but are not limited to:

  • May include “Best Of” compilations
  • May include albums produced by the artist, even if their playing or singing on the album is minimal
  • May include live albums
  • May include box sets
  • Number of albums listed may vary depending on catalog
  • I reserve the right to change my mind about the order down the line
  • In short, my silly subjective rankings, my silly subjective rules, so let’s get to it…

As with ranking George Harrison’s albums, assigning numerical values to Paul’s catalog is going to take a minute simply due to the volume of his work, and I’ll be leaving much of it out (cough-mid-1980’s-cough).  Here’s how my favorite Macca albums stack up:

15.  Wings Greatest (1978)

This is a purely sentimental choice.  But as a child, I wore. this. thing. out. on my cruddy record player that sounded maybe slightly better than AM radio.  This, Wings Over America, and Back to the Egg were the McCartney albums I had in my juvenile collection, while my brothers had the rest of his catalog in their collection in the basement.  I used to “crank” Junior’s Farm and Live and Let Die, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Another Day and Mull of Kintyre.  I haven’t owned a copy of it in years, but to illustrate what a dork I am, I’ll admit that not long ago I culled the songs that appear on Wings Greatest from the double disc Wingspan and put them in a playlist by themselves, in proper order.  You know, to listen to while playing with my little plastic army men or coloring with my crayons.

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14.  Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976)

To his credit as well as his detriment, Paul went to great lengths to present Wings as a band that he was a member of, as opposed to his backing band.  A couple of my favorite songs on this album are sung by Denny Laine (The Note You Never Wrote and Time to Hide), but a song that almost seems was included as a gag was Linda’s Cook of the House (may she be resting in peace).  Beware My Love and Let ‘Em In are solid, and I’ll go ahead and admit that, for what it is, Silly Love Songs stands up just fine all these years later.  I might’ve had this album rated higher if much of it wasn’t covered on the subsequent live album which I do have rated better.

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13.  London Town (1978)

This album continues to slowly grow on me 40 years on.  Recording began in 1977, and it was a bit of a mellow come down after the craziness of the Wings Over the World tour the previous year.  This one received a fair amount of spins in my basement growing up, with Cafe on the Left Bank, Deliver Your Children (sung by Denny), I’m CarryingWith a Little Luck, and the title track as my favorites.  I could see this album jumping up a few spots in a year or two.

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12.  Electric Arguments (2008)

Electric Arguments has an un-McCartney-like spontaneity that’s refreshing to hear.  The entire album was recorded in 13 days – spread out over a year.  (I guess Paul even plans out when he’s going to be spontaneous.)  It’s all over the place as heard in the opening three songs:  Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight (a non-love song to his ex-2nd wife, whatever her name was), Two Magpies, and Sing the Changes.

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11.  Wild Life (1971)

This is Paul’s third post-Beatles album, and is a step back from the one which preceded it.  But it has aged better than expected, perhaps because of its simplicity.  Dear Friend, another message to John but with a conciliatory tone, is an overlooked gem.

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10.  Venus and Mars (1975)

Wings were nearing their mid-1970’s zenith with this record.  I still enjoy it, but as with Wings at the Speed of Sound, it is heavily featured on Wings Over America, which I prefer.  Love in Song is my favorite tune not performed on the live album.

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9.  Flaming Pie (1997)

When McCartney released this one, it had been (in my opinion) 15 years since he’d recorded a really good album.  In the interim there was 1988’s Russia Album of covers which showed he still had his chops, and 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt which got me excited at the time but sounds a little slick for me at this point.  Finally, in 1997, he “got back” so to speak.

I remember driving along a country road the first time I heard The World Tonight and how giddy it made me feel.  That guitar riff and its tone sounded like something right off Band on the Run, and I was very pleasantly surprised to hear him belt out the vocals as if to shout “I’m back!”  The album is maybe a couple of songs too long (Used to be Bad and Really Love You), but that’s a minor criticism.  If You Wanna, Somedays, Calico Skies, Great Day – I’d put these among his best solo tracks.  I think I know what I’m going to listen to later tonight…

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8.  Tug of War (1982)

As I go through this list, I’m reminded of just how much style variation there is on Paul’s releases not just from album to album, but song to song.  Nowhere is this on display more than on Tug of War, produced by George Martin and with its recording cast that ranged from Carl Perkins to Stevie Wonder.  It was a huge success all over the world, with Take it Away and Ebony and Ivory being the smash singles.

This is another sentimental album of McCartney’s for me.  It was released in April of ’82, and was on the radio a lot during a very fun summer spent at the city swimming pool and playing whiffle ball in the back yard.  The Cardinals won their first World Series title in my lifetime that fall.  It was a very good year.  Then one of my older brothers returned from a year studying overseas, got the album, and I spent the following summer becoming well-versed in the entire record while hanging out with him in his makeshift dark room in our basement while he developed his film.  This is the stuff “serious” music critics don’t consider.  Every song is a keeper in my book, even the excessive Ebony and Ivory.  My favorites include Take It Away, Here Today (his tribute to John), The Pound is Sinking, Wanderlust, Ballroom Dancing, and the title track.

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7.  Wings Over America (1976)

There was something very magical about live albums in the 1970’s, and for me Wings Over America (and Frampton Comes Alive) was as grand as it could get, especially when listening to it while hanging out with my big brothers.  Oh man, those gatefold covers, the photos, the POSTERS!  This Wings triple live album extravaganza, out just in time for the American Bicentennial Christmas, was an instant favorite in our house.  Looking at it now, it seems more like a live greatest hits compilation.  But back then, a couple of Macca’s albums heavily represented on Wings Over America were still new.

I saw Denny Laine live recently, and he told the story of how Paul asked him before the tour if he had anything he could play during the acoustic set (other than Picasso’s Last Words [Drink to Me]), and he didn’t, so he chose a Simon & Garfunkel tune he always liked, which was Richard Cory.  Laine made it his song in my mind on this record (although the original is still great), but when he performed it recently the audience still expected him to exclaim that he wishes that he could be…John Denver.  Alas, the reference just doesn’t hold up anymore, and Denny doesn’t use it.

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6.  Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)

It’s hard to believe this one is 13 years old.  Paul reached out for a change in production for Chaos, and I’ll just lazily quote wiki to explain why this was such a good decision:

“Paul McCartney hired (Nigel) Godrich to produce his album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) after being recommended by Beatles producer George Martin. Godrich fired McCartney’s touring band, and demanded that McCartney abandon songs Godrich found clichéd, over-sentimental, or sub par. The album was nominated for several Grammys, including Album of the Year, and Godrich was nominated for Producer of the Year.”

Godrich had previously worked wonders for Radiohead and Beck, with the latter’s Godrich-produced Sea Change being one of my favorite albums of the 2000’s.  There’s something to be said for very established acts getting out of their comfort zones with new producers who have fresh ideas.  Off the top of my head, this worked extremely well for Dylan when he hired Daniel Lanois, and for Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin.  I still consider Chaos to be a recent album in the McCartney canon, and deem it his best album of the last 20 years.

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5.  Red Rose Speedway (1973)

Red Rose Speedway just seems like one of those albums that has always been around in my world.  It was neither dynamic nor boring.  I’ve always liked the tunes, and the late Henry McCullough’s guitar solo in My Love is the best rock ballad guitar solo I’ve heard.  And it only happened because McCullough stood up to McCartney when his boss inevitably tried to tell him how to play it.  It had a booklet stapled into the gatefold with an odd assortment of photos (including neked ladies!) that kept me curious if not entertained as a wee lad.

The record was trashed by critics upon its release; it came on the heels of Wild Life, and the reevaluation of McCartney and Ram were years away, so this was seen as another batch of lazy, middle of the road tunes by a songwriter now on cruise control, resting on his Beatles laurels.  Only when people began to accept that they were who they were as solo artists – in Paul’s case someone who often thrived on light weight rock songs and love ballads – was his post-Beatles work taken more seriously or at least viewed more fairly by critics.  Fortunately for Paul, there have always been plenty of fans out there like me who enjoy the occasional silly love song, critics be damned.  Big Barn Red, My Love, Get on the Right Thing, and Little Lamb Dragonfly keep me coming back to this one.

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4.  Band on the Run (1973)

An obvious classic in the Paul McCartney catalog, I don’t have much to say about it other than to this day I wonder why he thought it would be a good idea to travel to Lagos, Nigeria to record it.  Things turned out rather badly for him while there, and he was fortunate to make it back to Jolly Old England to finish it.  It’s a great record with many personal fond memories attached to it.  However, these days I do tend to begin listening with track #3 (Bluebird) as Band on the Run and Jet have been played to death on the radio.

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3.  Back to the Egg (1979)

This is no typo, no misplacement in the ranking order.  This is one of my favorite McCartney albums, period.  The rockers on it are crunchier than any of his solo work prior to it, the pop as good as anything on the radio in 1979 (listen to Arrow Through Me and tell me Michael Jackson couldn’t have recorded it for his Off the Wall album that same year), the ballads and medleys as “Paul” as anything he’d done in years.  And the Rockestra/So Glad to See You Here recordings?  I don’t know of too many supposed light weights who can recruit David Gilmour, Hank Marvin, Kenney Jones, John Bonham, Pete Townshend, John Paul Jones, Ronnie Lane, Gary Brooker and others to play all together on the same songs.  I simply don’t understand why Paul has dismissed this album.  Maybe it has to do with memories of his Japan bust and the end of Wings a year later.  I was eight years old when Back to the Egg was released in 1979, and I’ve owned a copy ever since.  A very unique, very cool album.

As mentioned above, I saw Denny Laine in a small venue recently.  His drummer these days is his old buddy he recruited into the final Wings lineup, Steve Holley.  I had an opportunity to chat with both of them, and when I shared my personal Back to the Egg testament with Holley, his response was, “Yeah, it’s got a few good bits on it.”  I couldn’t tell if he was being humble or if he doesn’t like it, like his old boss.

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I’m the guy getting his copy of Back to the Egg signed, not the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer next to him waving at the camera after graciously signing.
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2.  McCartney (1970)

Another childhood/basement album for me that I later copied onto cassette from my uncle’s LP (he of the Cheerios as representative of the 4000 holes in Blackburn/Lancashire) before finally purchasing my own proper copy so that McCartney could eke out a living.  There are days when I want to hear something a little more interesting or complex, such as a King Crimson album, but if I haven’t yet tired of simple music like that on McCartney I doubt I ever will.

This is such docile music, so it’s hard to imagine any controversy surrounding it based solely upon listening to it in 2018.  However, it definitely caused a stir when it was released in April of 1970 a few weeks ahead of Let it Be, much to the chagrin of the other three Beatles.  Publicly, it was seen as Paul breaking up the Beatles.  This of course was rubbish, since John had already announced to the group the previous September that he was leaving but withheld announcing it publicly for business reasons.  But Paul’s inclusion of his self-interview in early pressings of his album was the first fully public shot across the bow in a feud which sadly would consume much of their lives in the ensuing years.  And, as with his other early albums, music critics hated it and seemingly hated Paul too.  Have a look at some of the reviews mentioned in the wiki article linked at the bottom for example.

The album sounds to me like Paul achieved what he wanted to artistically:  a very stripped down recording while playing all the instruments himself.  He wrote much of it at his farm in Scotland while in depressed exile after John announced to the group he was leaving.  He then recorded it mostly at his home in London on what was by then rudimentary equipment for a major act.  While the Wings Over America version of Maybe I’m Amazed became the hit, the home studio version here is just as good in its own way.  There aren’t really any standouts among the rest of the tunes; it’s just fun to listen and sing along to (hence Sing Along Junk?).

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1.  Ram (1971)

Ram and McCartney are 1-A and 1-B as far as I’m concerned.  Ram, his second album, is another one with a domestic feel to it, though not as crudely recorded so his solo debut.  I think of it as a happy record, loose with some good rockers.  Upbeat as most of it might be, the back and forth pettiness between Paul and John was now in full view for fans on their albums, with audio and visual references on Ram that provoked John into writing How Do You Sleep for his Imagine album.  The critics?  Same story as his other work, but at least they’re finally catching up with their positive reassessment.

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This concludes my long-winded McCartney list.  I welcome any attempts to bring me around to albums of Paul’s I’ve dismissed from my top 15.  Best bets are McCartney II, Pipes of Peace, Flowers in the Dirt, The Russia Album, UnpluggedDriving Rain, and New.

And, does he have one more great album in him?

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_Arguments

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tug_of_War_(Paul_McCartney_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Godrich

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCartney_(album)

-Stephen