NME Originals – The Beatles (2002)

While some longstanding music periodicals have headed for the online-only hills or folded completely in recent years, mining content from the golden age of rock’s past remains a lucrative sideline for publishers. Rolling Stone, MOJO and Record Collector have all produced ‘definitive guides’ and ‘special editions’ focusing on individual acts or musical genres over the past decade, recycling and repackaging articles from old editions for new audiences (and collectors who have to have everything). Perhaps the most successful of these have been the ongoing ‘Ultimate Music Guides’ published since the 2000s by Uncut magazine, which not only reproduce content from the magazine’s own 25-year past (alongside brand new album reviews) but also from the rich and much more extensive archive of the New Musical Express (NME).  These compendiums serve as a nice blend of old and new, mixing interviews from across an artist’s career with modern-day reappraisals of their work. Before that, however, publishers IPC took a more straightforward cut-and-paste approach to the really vintage material in the form of a series of NME Originals in the early 2000s – the first issue of which, naturally enough, featured The Beatles.

Published 20 years ago

Before shifting entirely to digital in 2018, NME was the world’s longest-running music magazine, dating back to 1952 – when it also became the first publication to feature a singles chart, heralding the start of the pop/rock scene we (just about) still recognise today. Along with fellow weekly publication Melody Maker, it was effectively THE rock press in Britain until the 1980s, the go-to place for information about your chart favourites and up-and-coming bands. This was never more true than in the 1960s, when the country didn’t even have a dedicated pop music radio channel (officially, at least) until late in the decade. So when The Beatles exploded on the hitherto cosy and sedate British pop scene, and dialled record sales and public interest up to 11, it was inevitable that the NME would lap up their every move. And the glossy, 148-page NME Originals compiles all the key parts of the paper’s extensive Fab Four coverage, from a one-line mention about the release of ‘Love Me Do’ in September 1962 through to the rather disbelieving reports of the band’s split in the spring of 1970. And it’s a real goldmine, incorporating interviews, record reviews, exclusive photos, tour diaries, on-set film reports, front covers, fan letters, comments from their contemporaries and ads for all kinds of Beatle merchandise. All the key moments in the group’s history (if they happened in the public eye) are here, reported as they happened.

And that ‘as they happened’ aspect is the key selling point here. As I’ve written before, real time reportage of the Fabs’ progress gives us a precious insight into how events unfolded, how they were interpreted by an unsuspecting world and what the band members made of it all – all without the foggy filter of hindsight. It’s not necessarily more true, as you have to factor in the very different bounds of respectability and criticism people operated within back then, but it still offers a great deal to learn about their impact as a living, breathing group instead of a universally-lauded historical phenomenon and untouchable musical benchmark (though there was undoubtedly an awareness of their importance at the time). Likewise, the NME reflected the world the Beatles operated in, and the changes they wrought upon it. So a lot of early content (specifically the 1963/64 moptop period) here is devoted to relatively lightweight, fluffy fare – individual interviews to help map out their personalities, reports on what they did on holiday or at Christmas, and even accounts of their dreams. There was the obligatory ‘lifelines’ Q&A feature, asking them about their favourite drinks, hobbies, ambitions and so on (interestingly, in their ‘favourite actress’ choices, John was the only one not to pick Brigitte Bardot, despite him often citing her as his ideal woman; by contrast, all four selected the now barely-remembered French pin-up Juliette Gréco). That’s not to say this stuff doesn’t make absorbing reading, though. Because it’s The Beatles (often dubbed by the paper as ‘Liverpoplians’ during this early phase), the articles are anything but flimsy and forgettable. John even supplied a first-person report on Ringo’s wedding in early 1965.

A typical moptop-era NME cover

By the decade’s later stages, however, when the Fabs had grown up and ‘Merseybeat’ had long since been supplanted by folk rock, psychedelia, progressive rock and the beginnings of heavy metal, the tone, style and content of the coverage was quite different. Instead of discussing their favourite toothpaste in interviews, by 1967 George was stating that “man killing man is terrible”, while Paul revealed: “…I envy George’s faith…he seems to have found what we’ve all been searching for.” The following year, Ringo announced that “I need a psychiatrist”, and in 1969 John talked about his plan to burn hundreds of plastic baby dolls in the streets of London in protest about the use of napalm in the Vietnam war (not sure that jolly jape ever came to pass). You can also detect a change in the public’s attitude towards the hairier, more iconoclastic version of The Beatles, with near-universal adoration replaced by scepticism and downright bafflement in some quarters, forcing the paper into defensive manoeuvres on occasion. For example, there’s a lengthy piece in support of the heavily-criticised Magical Mystery Tour film, and a 1969 article entitled ‘Save Our Beatles – NME editor Andy Gray says stop attacks!’ Some readers remained unconvinced, however. One describes the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’ single as “drivelling nonentities of meaningless lyrics and elementary harmonies”, while another opines that the songs are “pseudo-intellectual, electronic claptrap”.

It’s also amusing to see the paper’s reviewers – usually Derek Johnson or Allen Evans – try to keep pace with the band’s rapidly-evolving musical development, which almost from the off surged far beyond the chummy Cliff Richard/Tommy Steele toe-tapping records music journalists were used to. Some of the critiques are a hoot. For instance, Johnson says ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ “is repetitious almost to the point of hypnosis…and has some built-in hand clapping to help along the infectious broken beat.” He describes ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as “a bouncy finger-snapper with an pounding beat”, ‘I Feel Fine’ as “a happy-go-lucky midtempo swinger” and ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ as “an up-tempo shuffler”. And as the music gets more sophisticated from Rubber Soul on, they’re all at sea. The sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’ is interpreted by Evans as “Arabic-sounding guitar”, ‘Love You To’ is “Oriental-sounding”, and when he gets to ‘Strawberry Fields’ Johnson has to admit: “I really don’t know what to make of it.” Their attempts to assess the lyrics leave something to be desired, too. ‘For No One’ is “about a girl who has given up a boy who won’t believe it”, while ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is apparently “about a girl and a pier with electric lights”. Rock criticism has clearly come a long way since then, but they also make some inexplicable howlers about who sings what. Paul is credited with the lead vocal on both ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, for example. Were they listening with ear muffs on?

A shot from the legendary 1965 Shea Stadium gig, reproduced in ‘NME Originals’

The magazine generally repackages all the vintage content really well, but I do have some gripes. While everything is laid out chronologically, the use of some photos from the wrong era or setting is sloppy and becomes irritating after a while. There’s also a heavy weighting towards the first half of their recording career, with the pre-1967 period accounting for two-thirds of the content. And though the majority of the material is presented in a modern magazine format, some of it takes the form of reprinted cuttings from the original issues, in much smaller, more cramped lay-outs. I guess it was the only way they could cram everything in without adding a lot more pages, but the tiny print and smudged photos do make these pieces a more arduous read (especially for those of us whose eyesight isn’t quite what it was).

It’s a shame, really, as there are some really interesting articles in this. All their US tours are documented extensively, usually by Chris Hutchins, one of the accredited reporters who travelled with them (and who, in a piece from 1964, claimed to have arranged a phone call between the band and Elvis Presley, a year before their fabled meeting in Beverley Hills). There is the occasional report from a studio recording session, plus items about lesser-known byways in The Beatles story, such as John’s and Paul’s 1966 film work on How I Won The War and The Family Way, respectively, and a fascinating feature about Paul’s 1968 visit to Yorkshire to record the Black Dyke Mills Band for Apple (when he also stopped off in a pub to entertain regulars on the way home). And, of course, the interviews are always engrossing. In 1968, for example, a self-proclaimed “pleasantly insincere” Macca discusses a range of social issues as well as some of the songs he wrote for the ‘White Album’, while the following year Ringo drops some interesting insights into the state of The Beatles during a chat on the set of The Magic Christian film. With his Yoko-inspired peace campaign in full swing, John is also very talkative in 1969, whether promoting his avant garde art antics or revealing – in a curiously overlooked ‘exclusive’ at the end of the year – that “The Beatles are on the brink of splitting”. It’s also fun to read stuff about things which didn’t come to pass, such as the “virtually definite” 1968 live concert, the planned 1969 Get Back album and George’s hint that the band could reunite in to record a new LP in 1971.

A terrific 1968 photo used to open the penultimate chapter in the magazine

All in all, NME Originals provides a captivating window on the past, when the Fab Four were top dogs and the media infrastructure needed to properly document them and the scene they spawned wasn’t yet in place. In fact, you get the feeling the paper was clinging onto The Beatles’ coattails for dear life as the band led the charge into a new world, hurriedly adapting and constantly recalibrating its perception of what pop stars were supposed to be. It probably wasn’t until the 1970s, as new writers started to come through and the full impact of the Fabs and their contemporaries began to be felt, that a more mature, more heavyweight (but less deferential) style of rock journalism emerged in the pages of the NME and elsewhere. This is reflected in a follow-up collection of Fabs coverage focusing on the 1970-80 solo years, issued in 2005, which I’ll look at another time. But if you fancy revisiting the band’s epic 1960s odyssey through a more innocent lens, and seeing it all reported as contemporary events in the lingo and style of the time, NME Originals is well worth seeking out.

Often leaves me wanting more – George’s 1970s B-sides

During the 1960s, The Beatles were the flag-bearers for putting unreleased, non-album material on the B-sides of their singles. Well, I think most acts of the time did likewise but, from what I can gather, flip-sides were mainly full of filler, knocked-off tunes which were there to make up the numbers and didn’t last long in the memory. While there were a couple of those in the Fabs’ singles canon (for all their charms, ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’ and ‘The Inner Light’ deserve their B-side status in my book), most of them were more than decent, with some – such as ‘Revolution’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – vastly superior to most bands’ A-sides. True, the band did occasionally recycle album tracks as B-sides but, for the most part, they believed in giving fans real value for money – and had the creativity and productivity to be able to deliver it. After the split, the ever-prolific Paul continued this ethos, turning out a treasure trove of ‘bonus’ material from his earliest 45rpms through the 12-inch/CD single era of the 1980s and ‘90s and into digital/deluxe edition landscape of today. Ringo has released a smattering of otherwise unavailable B-sides over the years, while John (with one exception) relied on Yoko tunes or album material to fill out his single releases. Similarly, George rapidly gave up the ghost from the mid-1970s onwards, invariably coupling a pair of album tracks for his 45s and so offering little incentive for fans to buy songs they already owned. But in the early part of his solo career, he put out a trio of fresh B-sides which are curious anomalies in his catalogue, and well worth a listen.

George in 1971 – possibly the biggest rock star in the world, and one who still put new B-sides on his singles

It’s often said that songs were pouring out of George by the time The Beatles broke up, evidenced by the mammoth triple album which appeared at the end of 1970, All Things Must Pass. But I’m not so sure. Discounting the improvised noodlings which make up the third, ‘Apple Jam’ disc, there were just 18 tracks across the two other LPs (compare that with the 30 numbers crammed onto The Beatles two years earlier), one of which was a cover and another – ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ – was featured in two different versions. So there were 16 songs, which he’d effectively been stockpiling since 1966. True, there were some other tunes kicking around these sessions, but they were either never properly finished or emerged later in his career (‘Beautiful Girl’, for example). It was almost two-and-a-half years before he released another album (an eternity in those days), and after 1973 the flow of fresh material slowed considerably. His next three albums – Dark Horse, Extra Texture and Thirty-Three & 1/3 – contained just 22 new songs between them. In the last 19 years of his life, he released just one album and even 2002’s posthumous Brainwashed featured four or five songs which dated back many years. The point I’m making is that, while a steady composer, George was never as prolific as Paul or John, and so I guess that bonus material was always likely to be at a premium.

Nonetheless, despite the great outpouring on his first post-Beatles release, he still had enough juice in the tank for two completely new single tracks in 1971. ‘Bangla Desh’, written to order as pop’s first charity single, was the A-side and designed to raise awareness of the millions of refugees suffering in the war-torn, famine-hit country (as well as trail the all-star fundraising concert which George led in New York shortly afterwards). Considering the subject matter, it’s better than it has any right to be. Despite one or two contrived rhymes (“mess” and “distress”, for example), the music carries the day, from its plaintive piano intro through to the fruity saxophone and shuffling beat of the main section of the tune, aided by an impassioned vocal. It did the job it was created for, hitting the top ten in the UK and #23 in the US charts, and still holds up as a listening experience today, many years after the fact.

The US single cover for the ‘Bangla Desh / Deep Blue’ single, 1971

Flip the record over, however, and the focus shifts from an international tragedy to an intensely personal one. ‘Deep Blue’ was written in 1970 as George watched his mother Louise dying from a brain tumour, crystalising his feelings of sorrow and helplessness as all his wealth and status as a Beatle proved impotent in the face of her decline and suffering. He later described it as “an awful experience”, and the lyric also manages to weave in a bit of spiritual reflection as he tries to come to terms with his loss. He recorded the song in the run-up to the Bangla Desh concert and, intended or not, it provided a private echo to the very public disaster he was striving to alleviate.

Musically, however, I find it less convincing. In contrast to the lavish, extravagant production which adorned All Things Must Pass, this is a bare-bones effort – a dry piece of acoustic blues, punctuated with bursts of (admittedly very effective) bottleneck guitar, the sort of thing Ry Cooder might have come up with. When I first heard it, though, it reminded me more of contemporary Beatles antecedents: it was the kind of stripped down, lo-fi arrangement Paul employed widely on the McCartney album, mixed with a jaunty, country-style tune you might have found on Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues. And it’s that upbeat melody which jars in the context of the lyric, for me, and – along with its repetitive nature – makes it a rather slight offering. I have warmed to it since I first picked up the single in the late 1980s, but I’ve never concurred with critics and fans who view it as some sort of lost classic. I think its obscurity contributed heavily to that, as it didn’t appear on an official album release for 35 years, eventually surfacing on the 2006 CD reissue of Living in the Material World.

That same release also gave us the CD debut of another Harrison B-side which had been left to stew on crackling vinyl for more than three decades. ‘Miss O’Dell’ appeared on the flipside of George’s 1973 US #1 hit ‘Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)’ and was inspired by Chris O’Dell, an Apple company factotum who became a good friend of Harrison and his then-wife Pattie. It was apparently written in 1971 while George was waiting for her to visit his rented home in Malibu (not the first time he had whiled away time in this manner, replicating the creation of ‘Blue Jay Way’ before the arrival of Beatles insider Derek Taylor in Los Angeles four years earlier. Is California really that dull?). And while this song also touches upon the developing crisis on the Indian sub-continent that year, it does so in a much more playful fashion. In fact, the whole lyric beautifully captures his eye-rolling exasperation with not only international aid efforts but also aspects of the 1970s music scene, California and his old nemesis, fame itself (“That pushed-and-shoving ringing on my bell /Is not for me tonight / Why don’t you call me, Miss O’Dell?”).

George with Apple Corps staffer Chris O’Dell, later immortalised in song

The tune, eventually recorded during the Living in the Material World sessions, has a clear Bob Dylan feel to it, with acoustic guitars and harmonic very much to the fore. And it has a lovely flow, with some really nice chord changes and plenty of sly humour – note the way he sings “The record player’s broken on the floor” with a hint of his native Scouse, for example. As an in-joke, he even closes the record by reciting what turned out to be Macca’s old Liverpool phone number (some fans and authors read all sorts of things into this about the state of his relationship with Paul at the time, but I suspect it was just triggered by some random memory or other which just popped into his head on the day). Indeed, he must’ve been having lots of fun during the session, as he kept breaking down in fits of laughter during one of the takes – and, interestingly, that’s the one chose to put out on the record. A ‘straight’ version eventually emerged on the DVD accompanying the Material World reissue in 2006, but it seems strange to hear it without the infectious giggles. Either way, it is an utterly charming number and comfortably my favourite of George’s 1970s B-sides. It probably wouldn’t have fitted in with the ultra-serious material which made up Living in the Material World; though, on the other hand, it might have added some much-needed levity and deflected criticisms decrying the album’s perceived sombre, rather preachy tone.

The laughter-free version of ‘Miss O’Dell’, over photos taken during the ‘Living in the Material World’ sessions

The final standalone Harrison B-side of the 1970s was produced during the sessions for 1974’s Dark Horse, and came out on the back of the album’s lead single (‘Dark Horse’ in the US, ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’ in the UK). ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’, on the face of it, seems to emobody his growing disenchantment with the music industry, as evidenced by its title and the spoken word lines which it opens with: “Okay, here we go…/ We’ve got a B-side to make / We haven’t got much time now, so we’d better get right on with it.” George himself later recalled it was a one-take, don’t-give-a-shit sort of recording, reflected in its low-key nature and rough vocal performance (he was afflicted by laryngitis around this time).

And yet it’s actually a rather intriguing composition, which possibly represents his chaotic state of mind during this period, when his marriage to Pattie had broken down, a critical backlash against his work was underway and he was turning increasingly to drink and drugs for solace (his relationship with Olivia was just around the corner). Again, the scratchy acoustic guitars and jew’s harp betray a Dylan influence, and there are more wry references to his northern English heritage in the lyrics (notably on the lines “Now get back up them stairs” and “It’s likely to upset your Dad”). But it’s permeated by a world-weary mood which lends the tune real depth, and it’s lit up by a wonderful, heartfelt middle section where George lays bare the feelings he’s struggling to control about the lover he’s singing to. It’s almost as if he wrote a fine song in spite of himself; and while it’s a shame he didn’t take more care with it, perhaps the ramshackle approach is just what the tune needed. In my book, it’s better than a few of the tracks which made the cut for Dark Horse, and would certainly have made a better finale than the dreary, overblown ‘It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)’ – I always stick it on the end of my playlist for the album, at any rate. As it was, incredibly, ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ didn’t get a CD release until the Apple Years 1968-75 box set in 2014, a full 40 years later.

Not caring anymore? A rather sombre George in 1974

And that, sadly, was pretty much that when it came to Harrison non-album B-sides. His remaining singles of the 1970s and early ‘80s were coupled with LP tracks (hell, such was his disillusionment with the record industry at this time, I sometimes think we were lucky to get A-sides, never mind anything else). His big comeback single in 1987, ‘Got My Mind Set On You’, did come with a standalone B-side, ‘Lay His Head’ (recorded seven years earlier for the rejected version of his Somewhere in England album), while follow-up hit ‘When We Was Fab’ offered the otherwise-unavailable instrumental ‘Zig Zag’ – a throwaway if ever there was one. And the record company request for a fresh B-side for his next single, ‘This Is Love’, was what ultimately led to the impromptu formation of the Traveling Wilburys, of course. The resulting track, ‘Handle With Care’, instead became their debut single, and no more rare George Harrison B-sides were ever forthcoming. It’s a shame, because while he was never one for churning out lots of spare material, there were more than enough songs on the cutting room floor he could have chosen from. I’m always bemused that the 1970 outtake ‘I Live For You’ didn’t appear until the 2001 All Things Must Pass reissue, for example. And the three other songs cut from the original version of Somewhere in England would, like ‘Lay His Head’, have made cracking B-sides. As it is, we’re still waiting for some of these tracks, and others, to see the light of day on a commercially available CD. The strange choices of the Harrison camp continue to ring down through the decades.

Having some fun tonight – the ‘Long Tall Sally’ EP

While reviewing Ringo’s EP3 recently, I got to thinking about the curious EP format. It was quite a rare, rather quaint beast even I was growing up, when vinyl was still just about the dominant music format. What with 12-inch singles (often carrying two or three b-sides) and the advent of CD bonus tracks, ‘extended play’ releases seemed pretty obsolete, a far cry from their heyday (in the UK, at least) of the early 1960s. Back then, from what I can gather, they served to bridge the gap between the relatively cheap 7-inch single and the more expensive LP, helping out hard-up teenagers who were profligate with their spending money or who couldn’t convince an adult relative to splash out on some horrible rock ‘n’ roll racket. It also allowed record companies to recycle already available material with minimal cost or effort, repackaging a clutch of album tracks in 7-inch form. I must say, I find it a head-scratcher that was ever a ‘thing’ – surely it would be deeply embarrassing if you could only afford four tracks off, say, Beatles For Sale, while your school friends had the whole lot? Nonetheless, it didn’t stop EMI plundering The Beatles’ catalogue extensively for such releases from 1963-66, and someone must’ve been buying them as several were huge sellers (Twist and Shout, for example, outsold all bar three singles in the UK during 1963). But the Fabs, always keen to give fans value for money, also put out a couple of EPs which contained standalone material you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The most celebrated was 1967’s double EP Magical Mystery Tour; the other, which has got somewhat lost in the historical mix, was Long Tall Sally in the summer of 1964.

The June 1964 EP, their first of all-new recordings

The story behind Long Tall Sally has never really been explored, as far as I am aware, but I suspect it was born out of commercial need rather than artistic expression. By 1964, The Beatles were the hottest thing on the planet, but there was a gap of four long months (!) between the release of the ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ single in March and the arrival of the A Hard Day’s Night album in July (tied to the release of the film). And for record company executives with pound/dollar signs in their eyes, such a dearth of new product would simply not do. The demand was particular acute in the USA, where their star was supernova-level hot, prompting Capitol Records to cannibalise the band’s UK output and put out as many different albums and singles as they could get away with. There was undoubtedly pressure on both Brian Epstein and George Martin to keep the conveyor belt moving (somewhat ironic, as the company had spent the whole of 1963 rejecting the duo’s appeals to release even a single Beatles record in the US), though I would imagine the band members themselves didn’t give a hoot about such requests. Nonetheless, during the spring/summer sessions which produced the superlative A Hard Day’s Night (their first release to include only original compositions), they did find time to delve back into their past and record four additional songs to help plug the gap, both home and abroad. The results, though, were something of a mixed bag.

Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ must be one of the most important songs in The Beatles’ history. It was among the flag-bearers of the first wave of US rock ‘n’ roll which turned them all onto music in the first place, and was one of the tunes Paul played for John when they first met at the Woolton Village Fete in July 1957. It was a regular component of their stage set throughout their performing career as a group, featuring on both the Live at the Star Club and Live at the Hollywood Bowl albums, and was the last song they ever played in front of a paying audience, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966. Paul later resurrected it for Wings’ 1972 European tour, and sang it during his live ‘comeback’ at the 1986 Prince’s Trust Concert in London (the demands it makes on his vocal chords perhaps explain why he’s never returned to it since). So it was probably an obvious choice when it came to plucking something from their vast repertoire of covers to record, and it was so hotwired into their collective consciousness that they nailed it in a single take. And yet, for me, it somehow misses the mark – especially compared with their best covers, like ‘Twist and Shout’ or ‘Please Mr Postman’. True, Paul’s vocal is terrific (channelling his Little Richard impression to marvellous effect), it barrels along with lots of energy and Ringo’s full-blooded drumming during the climactic section really kicks ass. But it’s all a little too mannered, the rough edges have been smoothed off; compared to the incendiary version on the Star Club album, it’s a rather lifeless facsimile. I think the production is part of the problem. There’s no bigger admirer than George Martin than me, but the sound here borders on tepid – Paul’s bass is almost inaudible, and it all lacks the punch-to-the-gut power so evident on the best Beatles rockers of the period or on comparable records by the likes of the Stones or the Kinks. Also, George saved some of his most peculiar solos for their Little Richard covers, but while his quirky approach works really well on Live at the BBC tracks ‘Lucille’ and ‘Oh! My Soul’, his playing here sounds a little awkward and uncertain. Their obvious passion for the song sounds blunted; perhaps a couple more takes would have helped.

Performing ‘Long Tall Sally’ at the 1964 NME Poll-winners concert in London

Some of the same problems plague their recording of ‘Matchbox’, and the end result is far worse. Again, this tune was one of their formative favourites, and is like a seam running throughout their collective and solo careers. You can hear them playing it on the 1960 Quarrymen bootleg tape, and it was still their stage setlist when they recorded the Hamburg Star Club album in December 1962 (they also taped a version for the BBC the following year). John jammed on this and other Carl Perkins rockabilly songs while recording his Plastic Ono Band album in 1970; it’s been a regular pre-concert soundcheck number for Paul for more than 30 years (one particularly good take was even included on Tripping The Live Fantastic in 1990), and Ringo’s been performing it for eons, releasing a new version of it just a few weeks ago to promote his latest live album. And all these renditions are miles better than the one they laid down together at Abbey Road in June 1964. It’s one of the very few Beatles tracks where they sound like they’re going through the motions, eager to finish the session and get down to the pub. Everything about it is perfunctory, from the tinny, flat production to the surprisingly sloppy guitar solo from Perkins mega-fan George to Ringo’s unconvincing vocal (he opted to play drums and sing at the same time on this for some unfathomable reason). And again, Paul’s bass is so hard to discern it may as well not be there at all. It all sounds rather rushed, knocked-off – I didn’t care for it when I first heard it in 1985, and I’ve not warmed to it since. Perkins, on a tour of the UK at the time, was apparently in the studio when they recorded it; while he must’ve been licking his lips at the prospect of the royalties rolling in, I would imagine he was wondering what all the Fab Four fuss was about if this was the best they could manage.

Of course, they were capable of much better, as demonstrated by their take on ‘Slow Down’ – the first of three Larry Williams numbers they would commit to vinyl (‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ followed in 1965). It’s a fairly routine teen romance number, admittedly, but the band rocks like a freight train. There are some dynamite drum fills from Ringo and a spiky, sure-footed lead guitar part from George, while George Martin’s piano (overdubbed a couple of days after the main band recording) adds real heft to the riff which drives the song. Yet it’s John’s magnificent vocal which elevates the track. He takes no prisoners on this – his singing is pleading, playful and lascivious in equal measure, and features some of his wildest, most exuberant screams ever. The moment when he impatiently roars into the final verse over the end of George’s solo (“wellllllll, you know that I love you/tell the world I do!”) is one of those bursts of unforgettable Beatles magic.

During the recording sessions for ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, which also produced the ‘Long Tall Sally’ EP

The best song on the EP, though, is unsurprisingly its sole Lennon/McCartney orginal – even though it’s one they thought so little of they had given it away the previous year. Written by John in the Fabs’ pre-fame days, he offered it up to Billy J.Kramer and The Dakotas, who released it as the B-side to their UK #1 single ‘Bad To Me’ (another Lennon cast-off) in July 1963. Perhaps John thought it deserved better, as The Beatles cut their own version eight months later and a very fine record it is. The lovelorn lyric is pretty straightforward (though Lennon, again, injects amazing levels of angst into it) but the band turn in a great ensemble performance, clicking together like a well-oiled machine. For the only time on the EP, you can really hear Paul’s bass (and he does some interesting little runs over the fade-out), while George’s newly-acquired 12-string Rickenbacker guitar is used to great effect throughout, giving the track a sparky, ringing tone. This is particularly evident during the solo section, where the band suddenly shift into a ska-like rhythm, the kind of neat, unexpected touch which set them apart from their contemporaries. The song was apparently under consideration for inclusion on A Hard Day’s Night, and it certainly wouldn’t have been out of place there (though it’s similarities to ‘You Can’t Do That’, another Lennon romantic recrimination number draped in Rickenbacker guitar, perhaps ruled it out). It’s undoubtedly a vintage slice of early Fabs which has become unfairly overlooked, though it’s interesting that Ringo chose to re-record it as his contribution to the all-star Lennon 50th birthday tribute concert in Liverpool organised by Yoko in 1990.

Long Tall Sally was released in June 1964. As well as inevitably topping the EP charts, it hit #11 in the UK singles listing and had sold around 250,000 copies by the year’s end. US fans actually heard some of it earlier, however, when ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘I Call Your Name’ were hastily thrown into Capitol Records’ cash-cow mincer and appeared on The Beatles’ Second Album in April. ‘Slow Down’ and ‘Matchbox’ not only surfaced on July’s Something New LP, but were also shamelessly released as a single Stateside, peaking at a lowly #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. The four songs didn’t feature on a UK album until the Rock ‘n’ Roll Music compilation in 1976 (which is how I eventually heard them almost a decade later), before eventually finding a permanent home on the 1988 Past Masters Vol. 1 CD.

The cover of the US ‘Slow Down’ single – in the rush to make money, Capitol didn’t even bother to get a clear photo or check that ‘Matchbox’ was one word

The Beatles started taking more control of their output in 1965, and cover versions were also on the way out, so this kind of standalone EP was never repeated. The Magical Mystery Tour double EP came about only because their film soundtrack contained too much music for a single and not enough to fill out an album. Today, Long Tall Sally stands as a curio in their catalogue, relegated to the ‘odds and ends’ section of any magazine or book reviewing their work. I tend to slot it into my A Hard Day’s Night playlist, where the songs sit comfortably (apart from ‘Matchbox’, which works better alongside some of the more rockabilly-influenced material on Beatles For Sale), but that’s a discussion for another day. The EP doesn’t represent the band at their best – it’s sort of backwards glance while they were in the midst of a huge creative leap forward – but it nonetheless is a flinty burst of rock ‘n’ roll energy which contains many pleasures. But then, it’s a Beatles record: how could it not?

Back in the sunshine again – the rehabilitation of Paul’s public image

When I first fell in love with The Beatles, in the mid-1980s, I was in for a bit of a shock. Although not really interested in music until my early teens, I had grown up knowing Paul McCartney as a universally-adored pop superstar, a national treasure, the man with the Midas touch who was the automatic choice to headline the British leg of Live Aid and who, as I remember one DJ saying around 1982, “couldn’t stop writing hits even if he tried”. Well, by 1986, it turned out he had stopped, and not for want of trying. Coming off the critical and commercial disaster of the Give My Regards to Broad Street film, he found his nose pushed out by changing public tastes, with Press to Play – his first big release of the CD era – becoming the biggest flop of his music career up to that point. After years of being among the top dogs of the music scene, he was now woefully passé, a relic from an analogue time. Sure, everyone still loved The Beatles, perhaps more than ever, but I became a huge Macca fan when his public stock as a solo artist was at an all-time low. What surprised me even more was that lots of people I encountered didn’t seem to like him at all. In the UK, at least, his public image seemed inextricably tied to Wings (at that time, most things popular in the ‘70s were laughed at) and a bunch of hit singles – ‘Mull of Kintyre’, ‘Ebony and Ivory’ and ‘We All Stand Together’ – which, while huge sellers, were also loathed by great swathes of the population and almost all critics. His family-friendly, ‘Fab Macca wacky thumbs aloft’ (as dubbed by Smash Hits magazine) persona also seemed a world away from how edgy pop stars were supposed to behave. In short, he was probably only a couple of notches above Cliff Richard (the epitome of naffness over here) in the coolness stakes and, for years afterwards, when I told people my favourite musician was Paul McCartney I invariably received what can only be termed “funny looks” – a gaze encompassing pity, condescension and bafflement.

Wowing the crowds – and the nation – at Glastonbury this summer

And yet, here in the 2020s, a strange metamorphosis has occurred. His last album, McCartney III, was greeted with the now-standard ecstatic reviews and topped the UK charts at Christmas 2020, his first time atop that particular summit in more than 30 years (while peaking at a far-from-shoddy #2 in the US). A lavish two-volume book of his lyrics – part of his craft which was routinely derided for decades – not only proved a big seller last year but was also afforded no little high-brow praise in many quarters, at the same time as the acclaimed Disney+ Get Back documentary was earning him newfound appreciation as the driving force of The Beatles’ later years. His 80th birthday in June triggered a flood of print and online articles celebrating his character, talent and longevity, some reeling off scores of post-Beatles songs people need to hear (hell, the UK’s Guardian newspaper even name-checked Ram in its editorial that day). And, despite the inevitable gripe here and there, his epic headline performance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival just a week or so later lit the touch paper for a national love-in, sparking front page headlines, a sea of admiring social media memes and a somewhat surreal situation where friends of mine who aren’t natural Macca fans were asking me if I had seen him (!) and telling me how great he was. A 90-minute primetime TV special documenting McCartney at the BBC, first aired in late 2021 and repeated for his birthday, introduced him – without a hint of irony – as “the king of cool”. And no one batted an eyelid. Blimey, it looks like I was right all along. But how did we get from there to here?

To be fair, I think my original impression of Paul’s standing in the wider world was probably a little skewed. While I get the feeling he was probably the darling of the UK (and possibly the Western world) in the 1960s, various things had probably chipped away at his popularity since then. He was blamed in some quarters (unfairly) for breaking up The Beatles, and his decision to install his musical novice wife in the band he launched soon afterwards undoubtedly left many people bemused or even resentful. Some of Wings’ early output, notably ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ and the cheesier parts of the 1973 James Paul McCartney TV special,  didn’t curry favour with serious rock lovers either, and while the band’s popularity exploded in the mid-1970s, the lazy fallacy that Paul’s post-Beatle music had become cutesy/safe/facile/over-polished was so often repeated within the echo chamber inhabited by most critics and authors that it had become set in stone by the decade’s end. These things tend to trickle down into the public consciousness and thus the dreaded “received wisdom” takes shape. And the perception became immovable in many minds during the 1980s when Macca was guilty of the crime of not being John Lennon, constantly compared to his newly-martyred former partner and found wanting. Some might claim that his duets with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, while huge hits, didn’t help matters; you pays your money and takes your choice on that one, but what is in arguable is that the Broad Street film (despite its many charms) was a hubristic overreach, and gave all those detractors a golden opportunity to stick the knife it. While I don’t agree with those who say it was an irreparable blow to his solo career, it certainly came at the worst possible time, when the likes of Phil Collins, Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen commanded the adult oriented rock higher ground, and young guns like Jackson, Madonna and Prince made Paul seem positively antiquated, a man out of time. There was no chance of a McCartney song being used on the soundtrack of Miami Vice or a Tom Cruise film.

Paul with Rupert Bear – loved by some, but not the height of 1980s cool

It was a long road back, with a few stumbles along the way, but the seeds of his recovery were planted in the late 1980s. Although Top 10 singles were now largely a thing of the past, a collection of them on All The Best! proved a big chart success at the end of 1987, at least in the UK, and he consolidated this by hitting #1 a couple of years later with his next studio album, Flowers in the Dirt. Including a handful of co-compositions with critics’ favourite Elvis Costello also helped ensure it received bouquets rather than the usual brickbats in the music press. While the album didn’t fare quite so well in the States, his return to the concert stage for the glorious 1989-90 world tour – which saw him fully embrace his Beatles past for the first time – did put him back in favour there, in a big way. Certainly, the four sell-out UK gigs I saw during that period showed there were still plenty of people who liked him, and liked him a lot. If he wasn’t exactly cool by the time the 1990s dawned, he was clearly far from washed-up either.

Back on the road and rocking out, 1989

The next decade proved to be something of a mixed bag. 1991’s trend-setting Unplugged TV show and album did well, but the momentum stalled a couple of years later when the Off The Ground CD quickly disappeared from the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The roll-out of the massive multi-media Beatles Anthology project in 1995/96 inevitably returned him to the toppermost of the poppermost, and he rode the crest of this wave in to 1997 with Flaming Pie, his most widely acclaimed and best-selling record in years. His charming appearance promoting it on the UK’s TFI Friday show was something of a TV event and reaffirmed he was back in everyone’s good books again, while a widely-watched interview with Oprah Winfrey that year seemed to do likewise in the US. And when Linda died in 1998, there was a tidal wave of public sympathy. The woman ridiculed by so many in the early days of Wings had since won people over with her authenticity, her dedicated vegetarian activism and her unstinting support for her superstar husband and their family. The pair had become indivisible in the public mind; surely, when Paul emerged from mourning to resume his career, his place in the public heart was assured, right? Well…

Whatever went on behind the scenes in their relationship, the arrival of Heather Mills in Paul’s life proved massively detrimental to his public image. This was partly due to her personality, and the way it compared to the previous Lady McCartney. In interviews, Linda came over as passionate about her views, but also gentle and warm; Heather, by contrast, seemed abrasive, self-serving, conceited and even snide on occasion. Moreover, whereas Linda had helped keep Paul’s ego in check and helped to channel his best qualities, Heather seemed to encourage his vanity and bring out some of his less appealing traits. For a start, there was the awful hair dye; while he had started colouring it a little while Linda was still alive, he went full-on Maroon 5 on getting together with Heather, with all sorts of garish, unlikely hues simply drawing attention to it in the worst possible way. Combined to a sudden wardrobe shift to younger styles of clothing and renewed penchant for partying, it was all somewhat unseemly and off-putting for a Beatle on the cusp of 60 – and very un-Paul. Their glitzy showbiz 2002 wedding in Ireland in was the polar opposite of the low-key, unfussy registry office ceremony when he had married Linda in 1969. And while the eco-friendly causes he and Linda had espoused seemed natural and from the heart, his abrupt adoption of whatever campaign Heather chose to champion, from getting rid of landmines to saving polar bears, appeared forced and false (their 2003 Moscow parlez with Vladimir Putin doesn’t look too clever now, either).

With Heather Mills, circa 2001. Less popular than his team-up with Rupert

While us hardcore fans still saw plenty of the old Macca charm and integrity during the early 2000s, the floating voters (i.e. most of the world) can’t have been impressed with some of the headlines from this period. There was the embarrassing David Blaine incident of 2003 when a (possibly worse for wear) Paul went to see the magician in his perspex box near Tower Bridge in London, and ended up in a scuffle with the paparazzi. He parted company with his long-serving PR man Geoff Baker soon afterwards. Then there was the ill-advised attempt to reverse the Lennon/McCartney songwriting credit on songs he claimed to have been the primary composer of, a wholly unnecessary, slightly paranoid move which made him look like he was dancing on a dead man’s grave (something he belatedly realised). I recall an awkward work lunch around this time when colleagues were asking me why he was doing this, and – for once – I could offer no defence. At Christmas 2004 he even appeared on a TV quiz show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, no doubt at Heather’s instigation. And while it was fun in some ways to see him in such a situation, it still seemed a bit beneath him. Even when he was doing something laudable, like organising the massive Concert for New York in the wake of 9/11, critics sniped it was all about self-promotion (not helped by the way he rushed out the single ‘Freedom’ in its immediate aftermath). It was just the way some had started to interpret his actions, almost as if he was tainted by association with his partner. And his music? Well, he was still a massive concert draw, but it was probably no coincidence that 2001’s Driving Rain was his biggest flop since Press to Play.

The fall-out when the marriage predictably crashed and burned wasn’t great, either. The Mills camp began leaking a number of unsubstantiated and unsavoury stories to the press, which must’ve been a nightmare for someone as private as Paul. Wisely, though, he kept his counsel and was largely vindicated in the resulting 2008 divorce case when the high court judge rejected most of Heather’s claims and awarded her a much smaller pay-out than she was looking for. Her throwing water over Macca’s lawyer after the verdict and subsequent crazed, wild-eyed rant outside the court left few in any doubt as to who was the villain of the piece, but nonetheless Paul’s image had been bruised, with many questioning his judgement in getting involved with such a woman in the first place.

It would take a few years for that cloud to disperse, and a couple of other factors didn’t help return him to the bosom of the public’s affections during this period. First, his concert voice began to show serious signs of wear and tear. This wasn’t so much of a problem when performing just to crowds of people who largely adored him anyway and were swept away by the magic of the show. But when his fraying vocals were exposed to the wider world, such as at HM The Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee concert or the London Olympics opening ceremony later that summer, an avalanche of criticism followed. “His voice has gone; he should pack it in,” I heard someone say in my office, something echoed in a Daily Mail headline from around the same time: “He’s been a musical colossus, but it’s time for Macca to retire.” Second, these poorly-received performances coincided with a spell of over-exposure. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a major McCartney interview in the pages of Q magazine or Rolling Stone, or on a TV chat show, was something of a big deal. But now he seemed to be popping up in or on something every week – the UK X Factor (a particular low point for me) and Peter Kay’s X Factor spoof; various Comic Relief and Children in Need charity shows; the Brit Awards and the Grammys; The Late Show with Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live and Later…with Jools Holland. He was everywhere, and it stopped being special. When it was rumoured (falsely, as it turned out) that he was to headline the closing ceremony at the 2012 Olympics, another person in the office where I worked (my faithful gauge of public mood) exclaimed: “oh, not again!” You can have too much of a good thing.

Paul with Nancy – a popular match with family, friends and fans

Over the past decade, though, lessons have been learned and the wheel has turned. Even before then, a reappraisal of his solo career had begun and has been boosted by the (admittedly painfully slow) re-release of his back catalogue through the McCartney Archive Collection since 2010. Ram, in particular, has benefited from this – Rolling Stone, which described it as “the nadir of decomposing 1960s rock” on its release, more recently heralded it as a “classic” – but albums like McCartney II are also now being viewed much more favourably than in the past, and even seen as groundbreaking in some quarters. This would’ve been unimaginable even 25 years ago. And, starting around the time of 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, his contemporary work has been receiving much more attention and acclaim from a younger crop of critics who don’t see/hear everything through the prism of Beatles comparisons, Lennon-worship or received wisdom. In a complete 180-degree swing from the 1980s, when a McCartney record is released these days a bad review is the exception rather than the rule. McCartney III, which I would say is lower-tier Paul, was treated like the Second (or rather, Third) Coming.

At the same time, the stature and cross-generational appeal of The Beatles seems to grow with each passing year, regularly boosted by best-selling anniversary reissues and high-profile projects such as the Get Back documentary. Furthermore, Paul’s pivotal role in the artistic and commercial success of the band, as opposed to him being a shallow hack who played second fiddle to John, is now rightfully recognised by today’s authors, feature writers, bloggers and critics. Even someone like Philip Norman, who famously downplayed Paul’s personality, talent and achievements in his 1980s Beatles biography Shout!, now admits he was completely wrong in his perceptions and spends much of his time these days blowing smoke up Paul’s arse. In fact, if anything, it’s Lennon’s stock which has fallen in recent times, with some of his utterances, lyrics, humour and behaviour not standing up to the rabid social inclusion scrutiny of modern times. By contrast, some of the things Macca was once labelled a crank for championing – caring for the environment, not eating animals, family life and, er, being nice – are now very much in vogue. Third wife Nancy Shevell seems a positive, humble and stable influence, and far less intrusive than her predecessor (I don’t think I’ve ever heard her speak, for example, whereas Heather Mills’ grating tones are still ringing in my ears 15 years on). Apart from one or two big promotional pushes for something each year, he’s returned to rationing his media appearances. And – I can’t overstate the importance of this – he’s finally stopped dyeing his hair so much (check out this priceless ‘eight dyes a week’ article if you don’t believe the impact such a thing can have). It could still do with a trim, though.

Looking – dare I say – cool at his ‘magic’ piano, 2018

There will always be some people out there who don’t like Paul McCartney. I think this is partly because he has never sought out the affected hipness of people like Bob Dylan or David Bowie, but has neither been part of the hit-making hack school populated by Elton John and his ilk. He’s that very rare alchemy of consummate songcraft skill and an irrepressible urge to push the envelope and do things slightly differently. Contrary to widespread perception, he has never been obsessed with commerciality; he likes having hits, yes, but on his own, idiosyncratic terms (listen to ‘Jet’ or ‘Coming Up’ if you don’t believe me). Some, I suspect, struggle with his versatility, the ease with which he can flit from style to style and master it with ease and supreme confidence – the fact that he can make ‘Helter Skelter’ one minute, and create the Frog Chorus the next. Lots of people, especially those without a deep attachment to music, prefer reliability and comfort listening rather than someone they can’t pin down from one release to the next.

Others out there will find his cheery, thumbs-up public persona grating, and see him as smug, big-headed and relentlessly self-promoting – completely failing to see the innate decency, genuineness, cheeky wit and mega-watt charisma so rare in anyone blessed with such genius and cursed with such an incomprehensible level of fame. And, frustrating as it is for those of us who can see beyond one-dimensional, inaccurate portrayals and misguided assumptions, that’s allowed. As George Michael once said, even when you’re #1 in the charts and filling stadiums with adoring fans, a majority of the public will either be indifferent to you or dislike you. It’s just the way of the world, especially in the UK. However, over the last year or two, I think more and more people are realising what a special, one-of-a-kind talent and personality they are still lucky enough to be sharing this planet with – as epitomised when the crowd at Glastonbury broke into a spontaneous rendition of ‘happy birthday’ during his set this summer, almost as if the whole world was singing a thank-you back to him for all the joy, beauty and fun he’s gifted to us over the past 60 years. They knew that we are sure going to miss him when he’s gone.

Ringo’s ‘EP3’ – three-sy does it

You’ve got to hand it to Ringo, he’s certainly consistent. After the release of 2019’s What’s My Name album he said he’d stick to releasing EPs in future and, in the last 18 months or so, we’ve had three of them. And he says that his music will be geared to promoting peace and love, and you definitely can’t miss any of that. As I’ve said before, it’s a minor miracle that we’re still getting any new material from him at this stage of the game; his cancellation of some All-Starr Band gigs due to illness this week providing a timely reminder that he’s very human and that, at 82, we shouldn’t take his continuing activity for granted. The sands of time are running faster now. Having said all that, is the music he’s making still worthy of a Beatle? Well, yes and no. The four songs on his latest release, the imaginatively titled EP3, are generally fine in themselves, but bunching them together on this shorter format rather than dotting them around an album tends to highlight predictability rather than consistency. Compared to its impressive EP predecessors, the third time isn’t the charm in this instance.

The cover of the new EP. You wouldn’t have seen that coming

“Every song on this EP relates to Peace and Love,” Ringo said in his press bumf for the record, as if such themes have been totally unheard of in his output of the last 30 years. “We started looking at the world in the 60s and, thanks to the hippies, a lot of us had a change of mind and peace and love and helping each other and being kind, if you can, became our goal. So I always look for songs that speak to that and all these songs have the same sentiment, just written in a different way.” The problem is, they’re largely  not written in that different a way. Though he’s taken a step back from composing in recent times (there’s only one Starkey co-write on this), even the people who contribute songs for him tend to write in the same custom-made fashion, especially with the lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of positivity, it’s just the repetition and greetings card-style nature of the words sometimes which is wearing a bit thin. You could probably feed the words “peace”, “love”, “world” and “Ringo Starr” into a reasonably advanced computer software algorithm and it would produce something not too far removed from what we’re actually getting (especially with the increased use of auto-tune on his vocals). And while there’s no denying that Ringo’s production skills have really come on since he started taking charge of his music (in partnership with engineer Bruce Sugar) a decade or so ago, the samey nature of the material tends to drag it down; he even tends to fall back on the same drum fills over and over. It’s no coincidence that the one time here he steps away from the formula, both musically and lyrically, it results in what is comfortably the EP’s best track.

Things kick off with ‘World Go Round’, co-written by Toto guitarist and now regular Ringo collaborator Steve Lukather, and is very much in the vein of the tunes he supplied for previous EPs, ‘Let’s Change The World’ and ‘There’s Not Enough Love in the World’. A solid pop-rock stomper with a strident guitar riff, it’s the kind of thing Ringo has recorded umpteen times before and – all being well – will probably re-do a few more times yet. The lyrics are likewise familiar fare about us all being in this together and using love to rise above, etc. “You’re not alone in this!” he warbles during the chorus. As with much of his recent material, the sound is bolstered by effective bursts of synthesised brass, a driving solo from Lukather and fulsome backing singers (the latter present throughout all the tracks here), and the end result is hard to dislike. He does this sort of thing often, but he does it well; in the dim and distant past, it might even have made for a radio-friendly hit.

The video for ‘World Go Round’

‘Everyone and Everything’ was penned by Linda Perry, the former 4 Non-Blondes singer who wrote the excellent ‘Coming Undone’ on Ringo’s last EP Change The World. This tune is decent enough, maybe the best one here, but the lyric is gratingly glib. Lines like “Looks like a movie scene, I thought on HBO/Something about a warning that we’re headed for the danger zone” and “Show an act of kindness/Don’t expect it back” are just trite and unconvincing. And the line which closes out the chorus, “Everything needs changing today” (Spotify and lyric sites say different, but that’s definitely what my ears tell me), is particularly annoying. Everything? I know there are still plenty of ills in the world, but everything needs changing? Gee, you wouldn’t guess that life expectancy and standards of living across the developed world are higher than they’ve ever been. I guess this is the kind of doom-laden world view that a well-meaning multi-millionaire octogenarian living in Beverly Hills would subscribe to, but it’s too simplistic for my tastes. Again, I’m not against a bit of social comment from Ringo, it’s just that I think he did it much better – and certainly in a less preachy tone – on numbers like ‘Don’t Know A Thing About Love’ (from 1992’s Time Takes Time) or Ringo Rama’s ‘Eye to Eye’ back in 2003.

Performing on his latest US tour, before COVID got to him

In-demand songsmith Sam Hollander has hit two home runs for Ringo in recent years – ‘Better Days’ on the What’s My Name album and the fabulous ‘Teach Me To Tango’ on last year’s Zoom In EP – but, co-writing with Bruce Sugar, he swings and misses on the next track, ‘Let’s Be Friends’. I probably don’t need to tell you what the words are about, but even musically it’s pretty lacklustre. Sure, it sounds good – amid the mid-tempo rock bombast there’s a bit of acoustic guitar, more synth horns and those backing vocalists are very much to the fore – and the ‘yeah yeah yeah yeah’ chorus section is super-catchy, but for the most part it’s pretty nondescript and forgettable. For my money, it’s the one out-and-out clunker across the three EPs. Not terrible, by any means, just lazy and rather vapid.

But then Ringo shifts gears for the final track, and what a sweet little kiss-off it is. ‘Free Your Soul’, which he co-wrote with Sugar, is a very tasty little slice of Latin-flavoured jazz pop, all the more enjoyable for being so unexpected. It’s strangely reminiscent of silky-smooth ‘80s chanteuse Sade (something you would never think to find on a Ringo bingo card), with smoochy lyrics about dancing in the summer moonlight, oodles of Spanish guitar and a slinky saxophone from Grammy-nominated player Dave Koz. A distant relative of 1976’s ‘Las Brisas’ (from Rotogravure), it has a charm and freshness otherwise missing from the EP. If I’m being critical, the guitar is maybe a little too busy and the whole thing might have sounded better at a slightly slower pace, but it’s still nonetheless a stand-out latter-day Ringo track.

What pose to strike this time? Well, if it ain’t broke…

Overall, EP3 is definitely the weakest of his EP releases so far, but here’s the rub. If you put all of the songs from them together, with a careful bit of sequencing, you’ve actually got a really enjoyable, above-average Ringo album. Spacing out the same-sounding peace-and-love rockers amid the other, more varied material gives them room to breathe and make more of an impact. There are still too many, but you won’t notice it as much. I’ve mashed the titles of the two previous EPs to come up with a name (and if you’re not familiar with those, you can read my reviews of Zoom In and Change The World). So, if you fancy listening to Ringo’s 21st studio album, here is my recommended running order for your Spotify/iTunes playlist, burned CD or (if you’re really retro) mixtape.

Zoom In and Change The World

Let’s Change The World

Zoom In

Everyone and Everything

Waiting for the Tide to Turn

Not Enough Love in the World

Here’s To The Nights

World Go Round

Coming Undone

Let’s Be Friends

Just That Way

Teach Me To Tango

Free Your Soul

Rock Around The Clock

To be honest, I don’t know why he just didn’t wait and put it all out as one album this year, but it’s his choice. I guess it does give us more actual releases, albeit briefer ones, to look out for. And let’s hope he’s back on his feet soon and plotting his next one. As this ‘album’ shows, there are still a few worthwhile Beatle nuggets left to mine. Get well soon Ringo!

‘All You Need Is Ears’ (1979)

To be honest, I find the whole ‘who was the 5th Beatle?’ debate pretty tiresome and utterly pointless. Notwithstanding the occasional personnel change in their early days, there were only ever four Beatles – as Mick Jagger so memorably put it, they were a “four-headed monster”. But if I was forced at gunpoint to choose another member of the team, the only possible candidate is George Martin. The only person (apart from roadies/assistants Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans) who was with them throughout the 1962-70 glory period – indeed, he initiated it by signing them to Parlophone in the first place – he not only played a key role in shaping their early career, but was also at the heart of their creative process from start to finish. So much more than just a producer, he taught them the craft of record making, backed and nurtured their songwriting prowess, translated their often outrageous flights of fancy into practical studio solutions, and mentored their staggering artistic development. And he remained a loyal and sensitive custodian of the band’s legacy in the years which followed, overseeing post-split releases from Live at the Hollywood Bowl to the Anthology albums and beyond, before handing over the reins to his son Giles shortly before his death in 2016. The Beatles loved and trusted him – check out his joyful interactions with Paul and Ringo on the BBC-TV Arena special on his life in 2013. By the same token, while he never milked his association with them, Martin was probably the most articulate, charming and open of anyone from the band’s inner circle (along with Aspinall, he was the only non-Beatle interviewed for the Anthology documentary series). So why, then, is his autobiography something of a let-down?

One of the first editions of the book, 1979

Well, the first thing to note about All You Need Is Ears, co-written with Jeremy Hornsby and first published in 1979, is that it’s not really a full-blown Beatles book. Despite the eye-watering hype accompanying it (“The inside story of the genius who created The Beatles!”) and occasional references in the early chapters, the Fabs don’t really enter the story until near the half-way point. Second, Martin doesn’t really go in for insights into the band’s personalities or interactions, or his own relationships with them – the focus is very firmly on the music and his role in helping to forge it. Which is fine (to a point), but when that role was so pivotal and intimate, you can’t help but feel something is lacking in his telling of the story, particularly when there’s hardly anything in it covering the period after Sgt Pepper. I doubt that, even in 1979, it offered much in the way of revelations, and chances are it will tell you little that you don’t already know about all those incredible sessions and lightning-in-a-bottle moments of genius Martin was party to. Although he rarely seemed to pull his punches or shy away from honestly held opinions in interviews (once even triggering a furious response from John in the pages of Melody Maker), there’s not much in his memoir that would rattle anyone’s teacup. And, of course, there’s nothing in there about his extensive work  remastering and expanding The Beatles’ catalogue from the 1980s on, much less his production and arranging duties on several of Paul’s albums over the same period.

The 1994 reprint, which I snapped up on a visit to New York

The book does begin with a Beatles story, recounting the day in Paris in 1964 when the band stood him up in a recording studio and the furious Martin tore around to their hotel to lay down the law, only to be instantly pacified by their cheeky contrition and schoolboy charm. I think even this anecdote had been told before, but it’s such a good one – setting the scene for their teacher/pupils relationship in the early days – it was worth repeating. From there onwards, Martin alternates chronological chapters on his life and career with ones dealing with the mechanics of the recording studio and the technical advances he had witnessed (and, in some cases, helped introduce) over the years. His recollections of his youth are among the most interesting parts of the book, detailing, among other things, how he fell in love with music at the age of six when his family bought a piano; his teenage band George Martin and the Four Tune Tellers; his time with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm during World War Two (where he learned the gentlemanly qualities so associated with him), and his first marriage. A further education grant on leaving the Armed Forces secured him a place at the Guildhall School of Music and subsequently, in 1950, the offer of a job with EMI at their studios in a certain Abbey Road, north London.

In between this straight biographical stuff, there are some deeper dives into various aspects of his profession. He discusses his favourite classical composers and the art of orchestration, studio editing, engineering and overdubbing, and even the building blocks of music itself (I kid you not, at one point he writes: “What is sound? It’s the transmission of pressure waves…” and then goes on to outline the basic laws of harmonics). It’s all interesting to a point, and he does his best to phrase it in terms non-professionals could understand, but the end result is sometimes quite dry – coming over a bit like a music lesson at school. When he’s talking about valve-operated condenser mikes, instrument frequencies and the different inch-per-second speeds recording tapes run at, even in reference to making the Sgt Pepper album, you might find your eyes glazing over a bit. The chapter on two- and four-track recording, and how Martin and the Fabs overcame its limitations to create increasingly complex ‘sound pictures’, is a worthwhile read though.

Listening to a playback in the control room of Abbey Road, studio two

His work with recording artists, rather than recording techniques, is probably what most readers are interested in, however, and we start to get more of that once he becomes head of the Parlophone record label (at the age of just 29) in 1955. We hear how he carved out a niche for the label with a string of successful comedy records, working with the likes of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, The Goons, Bernard Cribbins and Peter Sellers (collaborations which would not only earn him the instant respect of The Beatles but also equip him to effectively realise some of their more madcap ideas). And there are some nice anecdotes from this period, not least his memory of seeing Sophia Loren in her bedroom and in her negligee during recording sessions with her and Sellers in Rome. It’s scary to think, though, that he almost quit EMI after an offer to join Decca Records (ironically, the company which auditioned and rejected The Beatles eight years later) in 1954. He was persuaded to stay on, but his meagre salary and lack of recognition from the EMI hierarchy remained a running sore and is a recurring theme through the book. Thankfully, he was still in situ when Brian Epstein came calling with wild claims for a band from Liverpool in 1962.

Martin’s re-telling of the momentous events which followed is pretty straightforward and familiar; he thought the band’s performances on the aforementioned Decca audition tape were “mediocre”, but something about their sound intrigued him. Meeting them in person stoked his interest further (though he remained unimpressed by the quality of their early self-penned material) and he decided to sign them up. There is no mention of the behind-the-scenes politics at EMI which Mark Lewisohn claims, in his authoritative Beatles biography Tune In, was a key factor in that decision. I guess you have to balance the fact that Lewisohn wasn’t there to witness these events with the fact that Martin, naturally, would put his own spin on proceedings, and decide for yourself. What happened next, and Martin’s role in it, is indisputable – Pete Best out and Ringo in, ‘Please Please Me’ opens the floodgates for a never-ending flood of Fab Four hits, and the country (eventually the world) goes mad. And Martin wasn’t just stuck in the recording studio either, accompanying the band on their early US tours where he got to witness the mania engulfing them first hand.

The first of many – celebrating their gold disc for ‘Please Please Me’, 1963

Considering he was at the eye of the hurricane, though, many of his recollections here are frustratingly brief and/or routine, containing little of the insight his interviews regularly yielded down the years. There are precious few ‘wow!’ moments and, heaven knows, he must have been present for plenty of those. You never get much of a sense of his individual relationships with the Fabs, or the challenges of channeling their talents at a time when they could have done whatever they wanted. And, while it may just be his natural English reserve, you sometimes know what he thought about his Fab Four experiences, but not really what he felt; he doesn’t bring much colour to the story. Most disappointing of all, there is precious little detail – the Sgt. Pepper sessions aside – of his groundbreaking work in the studio with The Beatles. Rubber Soul and Revolver, for example, barely get a mention. Likewise, the 1968-70 period is almost completely ignored. Okay, relations with the band did become more strained during those years, particularly during the making of the White Album, but conversely that era also produced Abbey Road, which he has long declared to be his favourite Fabs album. Yet you will search long and hard to learn anything about it in All You Need Is Ears. And while he was probably ready for fresh fields after eight very intense years working with the band, he has little to say about their split or what might have caused it, which is somewhat odd.

Some interesting nuggets of information do emerge though. He writes about how John and Paul would bring their material to him in the studio, and they would fine tune it together (his contributions often being structural suggestions, such as beginnings and endings of songs). We learn how Paul began taking piano lessons, and Martin learned to play the guitar, so they could communicate ideas more effectively. And he recalls John’s bafflement at some of the more technical aspects of arranging, such as the need for different instruments to play different notes to the ones he’d written. Despite Lennon’s and McCartney’s occasional tetchiness down the years about critics ascribing too much praise to their producer, Martin makes clear he could never have written the songs they came up with, and that the genius was all theirs. And, while confirming his experience and knowledge remained important as their music became more ambitious and sophisticated, he acknowledges their was a definite power shift in his relationship with the band. “By then end, I was to be the servant and they were the masters,” he writes. The one album he does spend a lot of time discussing is Sgt. Pepper (“the turning-point”), and while pretty much all his stories about recording it have long since passed into Beatles lore, it’s still interesting to hear them straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. I could’ve lived without his lengthy recollections of working on the soundtrack of the disastrous Bee Gees/Peter Frampton 1978 Sgt. Pepper film adaptation, though.

Hard at work on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ 1967

On the subject of film, there’s another chapter dealing with the music he wrote and scored for various soundtracks, including Yellow Submarine and Live and Let Die, plus an amusing anecdote about his dealings with Shirley Bassey, for whom he produced the title song for Goldfinger. And he writes at length about how his frustration with EMI eventually culminated in him breaking away with two other producers to form the hugely successful Associated Independent Recording (AIR) company – a move he dubs “Martin’s Revenge”. But including so much of the legal wrangling this involved is rather self-indulgent, especially when his post-Beatles 1970s production work done through AIR with the likes of America, Jimmy Webb and Neil Sedaka forms another conspicuous black hole of information in the book. It ends with him looking forward to the challenges of recording in “the digital age”, but even this gets a little bogged down with telling us how computers work and how much 1979 studio recording consoles cost.

I picked up my copy of All You Need Is Ears when it was reprinted in 1994 (on my first visit to New York, funnily enough) and, while delighted to finally get hold of it, felt it could have been so much better. In particular, I was amazed it hadn’t been updated to cover Martin’s involvement in the Beatles resurgence of the 1980s and ‘90s, his award-winning work with Macca and the bittersweet story of his AIR studios in the Caribbean island of Montserrat, which housed artists such as Paul, The Police, Dire Straits, Elton John and the Rolling Stones before it was badly damaged by a hurricane. In fact, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t do a full re-write, ditching the technical stuff and focusing on his personal memories in much more depth. He did pen a full book on the making of Sgt. Pepper in 1992 and a super-deluxe memoir called Playback in 2002, limited to 250 copies (and now going for around £1,200 on Amazon), but a proper George Martin autobiography would’ve been an invaluable addition to Fab Four scholarship. I can only hope someone gets around to compiling the many interviews he gave over the years into a standalone volume. As it is, All You Need Is Ears is worth reading if you’re a big Beatles fan, but don’t go into it with high expectations – you’ll probably learn more about the science of recording than you will about Martin or his work with the band. On that basis, I can’t give it any more than a 6.

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl – The Beatles and The Queen

Paul and Linda chat The Queen in 1982. Hunting and vegetarianism came up, apparently

In 2012, on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, Paul McCartney described her as “the rock ’n’ roll queen.” He reflected (out of justifiable pride and historical perspective rather than egotism) that The Beatles will come to be seen as one of the great products of Britain’s second Elizabethan Age – in much the same way as, say, William Shakespeare was for the first. It’s hard to argue against that view. Indeed, BBC News bulletins recapping Her Majesty The Queen’s reign on the day of her death made reference to how the monarchy came to be seen in some quarters as stuffy and out of touch during “the swinging ‘60s of The Beatles”, showing old newsreels of Buckingham Palace under siege from fans when the Fabs received their MBEs in 1965. The band members themselves, of course, had different – and fluctuating – views on the royal family but, like everyone else here, their sense of national identity was inextricably linked to it. Even as they ushered in that period of sweeping social change which caused such institutions to be questioned as never before, the monarch remained a keystone in their lives (remember Ed Sullivan’s introduction to their epochal appearance at New York’s Shea Stadium: “…honoured by their Queen…”). And she popped up in the lives of four of her most famous subjects on a number of occasions, always adding a little grandeur to their legacy along the way.

We meet again – at the 2012 Diamond Jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace

Of course, the Fabs initially grew up with an altogether different monarch, with King George VI reigning throughout their primary school years. But when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, her coronation led to the first public appearance onstage by a young James Paul McCartney. Fittingly, for the Beatle most supportive of tradition, ten-year-old Macca won a Liverpool Public Libraries writing competition (under-11s category) with a school essay heralding the coronation in June 1953. Called up on stage by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool to collect his award at the historic Picton Hall in the city centre, Paul had his first serious bout of nerves (“I stumbled up with legs of jelly”), something that would trouble him into the Beatles era. The essay refers to “our lovely young Queen”, and he would take a more particular interest in her loveliness in the years which followed, later revealing that he and George had both lusted over Her Majesty during their early teens. “There was always something going on about her – teenage fantasies,” he told Q magazine in 1997.

As a group, The Beatles had their first regal encounter at the 1963 Royal Variety Show in London, meeting the Queen Mother in the wake of John’s famous “rattle your jewellery” quip. The following year, Princess Margaret (the Queen’s sister) attended the world premiere of A Hard Day’s Night at the London Pavilion, and pressed flesh with the Fabs once more in July 1965 when Help! debuted at the same venue. The latter film included a sequence which pretended the band had taken refuge at Buckingham Palace, but the band’s first – and only – collective meeting with their sovereign took place in November 1965 when they famously ventured to the Palace for real to receive their MBE medals. Its pretty routine for pop musicians to receive royal honours today but back then it was something akin to a national scandal in some quarters, with a number of war veterans returning their own empire medals in protest in what they saw as the frivolous nature of those four particular awards. While the honours system is managed by politicians, not the royal family, The Queen herself seemed to have no problem decorating the Fabs. Paul later described her as “very sweet” during the ceremony, and – his teen ardour for her presumably having cooled by that point – “a bit mumsy”. John later said the band members smoked pot in the Palace toilets to calm their nerves, a typically provocative Lennon claim later debunked by George in the Beatles Anthology TV series.

Collecting their MBEs in 1965 at Buckingham Palace – “a keen pad”, according to Paul

Maybe as a little nod of appreciation, The Beatles arranged for a box containing the four singles (including ‘Hey Jude’) which launched their Apple label in 1968 to be hand delivered to Buckingham Palace. And they repeated the gesture the following year on the release of Abbey Road, an album which featured two references to The Queen – firstly in the lyrics of ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and more pointedly in ‘Her Majesty’, the 23-second acoustic ditty which closed the album. But John, perhaps still feeling that accepting the MBE had undermined his rebel image, did not curry royal favour for long. In December 1969, he retrieved his medal from pride of place on his Aunt Mimi’s mantelpiece and returned it to The Queen in a blaze of publicity, writing: “Your Majesty, I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” It was very redolent of a period when – amid drug charges, long hair, appearing naked on album covers and giving interviews from the inside of a bag – many in the UK believed he had gone completely barmy. But he did at least sign it “with love” and, interestingly, he often asked what was going on with the royal family when interviewed by UK journalists during his time in the States over the course of the 1970s. And, as we shall see, The Queen certainly didn’t bear him a grudge.

Opening the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, 1996

Over the next two decades or so, regal interactions with the Fabs were pretty scarce. Paul and Linda met The Queen and Prince Philip at the end of 1982 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, during a concert in aid of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which featured classical re-workings of Beatles tunes. They chatted with the royal couple during the interval and, though not mentioned in Paul’s recent Facebook recollections of meeting Her Majesty, apparently gently chided the Windsors over their love of hunting – though Linda did find common ground over their shared affection for horses. Phew. Again, The Queen can’t have been too fussed about their difference of opinion, as in 1996 she not only gave a donation towards the creation of Paul’s passion project, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, but also agreed to formally open the building in June of that year. And less than 12 months later, Paul was back to Buckingham Palace for what he described as “one of the best days ever”, when he was knighted by The Queen herself. “When The Queen put the old Edward the Confessor’s sword on my shoulder….one of my kids cried. That brought home what a big deal it was,” he said.

When The Queen’s Golden Jubilee rolled around in 2002, it was kind of inevitable The Beatles would have a big part to play. ‘All You Need Is Love’ was chosen as the official anthem of the 50th anniversary celebrations, and was the climatic song of the all-star ‘Party at the Palace’ concert that summer – headlined, of course, by Paul McCartney. He cheekily included a rendition of ‘Her Majesty’ in his set (his one and only live performance of it, as far as I’m aware) and, I would imagine, must’ve reflected on that award-winning essay he had penned half a century earlier. He also joined Eric Clapton on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, a tribute to George who had died just six months earlier. On that occasion, Buckingham Palace had announced The Queen was “very sad” to learn of Harrison’s passing, a rare statement by the monarch about a celebrity’s death. And in 2008, she made a point of seeking out the garden created in memory of George during her visit to the Chelsea Flower Show. George’s widow Olivia, meeting her for the first time, said: “It was nice of her to visit. I really feel honoured, truly honoured.” And despite the medal-returning shenanigans of 1969, Her Majesty didn’t forget John, either, joining Yoko to officially open Liverpool John Lennon Airport during that Beatles-flavoured Golden Jubilee year of 2002.

With Yoko at the opening of Liverpool John Lennon Airport in 2002…
…and with Olivia, and designer Yvonne Innes, at the garden created in memory of George at the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show

Curiously, Ringo is the Beatle who’s voiced a slightly conflicted view of the monarchy. He always had positive things to say about his one encounter with The Queen in 1965, and – inspired by the Golden Jubilee and the recent death of the Queen Mother – co-wrote a cracking song for 2003’s Ringo Rama album entitled ‘Elizabeth Reigns’. But while raising a glass to Her Majesty in the lyrics (“she’s head of the family”), he also sings: “We don’t really need a king.” At the end of the tune he murmurs, “well, there goes the knighthood,” and interviews in support of the album reiterated his view that the monarchy was something of an outmoded institution. His vaguely republican stance clearly didn’t perturb the royal household though (or, more likely, the song was never heard by anyone there) as no objections were made when the UK Government finally awarded him that knighthood in 2017. And Ringo? He was reported to be “chuffed to bits”, and later confirmed after his investiture at the Palace in March 2018: “It means a lot, actually.” Though ironically it was future king Prince William, rather than Queen Elizabeth, who tapped the knighting sword over his shoulders.

Ringo’s 2003 tribute (after a fashion) to The Queen, ‘Elizabeth Reigns’

Macca, however, felt no such ambivalence and continued to be a staunch advocate of his former teenage crush during her final decade. Once again, he topped the bill at the star-studded Diamond Jubilee concert (this time outside the gates of Buckingham Palace) in 2012, and was able to introduce his third wife Nancy to The Queen at London’s Royal Academy of Arts that same year (she’d also encountered the second Lady McCartney, Heather Mills, during an exhibition of Paul’s paintings at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool a decade earlier, but we don’t talk about that). And there was a very special final meeting of pop royalty and actual royalty in 2018, when Her Majesty bestowed the prestigious Companion of Honour medal on Paul during a ceremony at the Palace. “We have got to stop meeting like this,” he said. The Queen giggled.

A delighted Paul receives the Companion of Honour medal at his final meeting with The Queen, 2018

While he didn’t perform at this year’s Platinium Jubilee celebrations (perhaps wary of overdoing it), Paul did record a brief video message played at the event, passing on his congratulations and stressing that “we love you.” And he echoed this feeling during a lengthy Facebook post reflecting on his meetings with the monarch posted soon after her death. And it seems the admiration was mutual. Ex-French President Francois Hollande has recalled how, during a state visit in 2014, she asked if the Republican Guards orchestra playing in her honour could perform some Beatles songs. And I’ve read a quote from her (though despite sifting through the mountain of coverage in recent days, I’m darned if I can find it), reflecting on the country’s artistic achievements during her reign, where she said something like: “Imagine a world where we had never heard the music of The Beatles.” So, on top of everything else, Queen Elizabeth II was a lady of taste. Truly, a rock ‘n’ roll queen.

Paul’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee concert performance at Buckingham Palace

“This is it!” Paul’s ‘Spin It On’ video

I was still in short trousers when punk rock hit the UK in the mid-1970s and not that cognisant of what was going on, but it’s fair to assume that Paul was part of the presiding rock aristocracy that the would-be revolutionaries wanted to deride, spit at and ultimately displace. Not only was he a member of the dreaded Beatles, the ultimate in pop royalty (“Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust” The Clash snarled in ‘London Calling’), but Wings were then at their commercial zenith, topping the charts and filling stadiums all over the world. It wouldn’t have helped, either, that during 1977 – the filthy, furious epoch of punk – Paul and his band began recording their next LP on a pair of yachts near the Virgin Islands, surely a sign of bloated, millionaire rock star excess and indulgence if ever there was one. Nor that he closed out the top of the year sat smugly and implacably atop the charts with ‘Mull of Kintyre’, a family-friendly Scottish waltz adorned with bagpipes which smashed sales records and was about as far away from The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers as you could get.

Wings 1979 – not the coolest band on the block (though Linda’s making a serious effort here)

This hostility must’ve bemused Paul a little, considering that – before their fame days – The Beatles were pretty much punks before the term had even been invented. Albeit without the political dimension adopted by some of their ‘70s descendants, their leather-clad, pill-popping 1960-62 era (which saw them rubbing shoulders with gangsters and prostitutes, not to mention peeing on nuns from a great height, during their wild Hamburg stints) nonetheless carved them out as rebels who stuck two fingers up to social conventions or anyone they didn’t much care for. And musically, their brand of raucous, adrenaline-fuelled rock ‘n’ roll was burning the paint off the walls at The Cavern and the German clubs they frequented – as the Live at the Star Club album, ironically released in 1977, amply demonstrated (check out the ferocious McCartney-led romp through ‘Long Tall Sally’ if you don’t believe me). By the mid-70s, though, Macca was better known for sumptuous ballads and polished pop, and by the time he headed into the studio in 1978 with what proved to be the final incarnation of Wings, he must’ve been itching to remind people that he could still rock with the best of them. And so it proved with the resulting album, 1979’s Back to the Egg, which sounded very different to the mellow, folk-meets-synthesisers approach of its predecessor London Town. In an echo of The Beatles’ White Album a decade early, while it ran a dizzying gamut of styles, the backbone of the record was made up of lean, angular, muscular guitar rock tunes. Some (like ‘Old Siam, Sir’) had a classic rock feel, while others (such as ‘To You’) leaned more into the ‘New Wave’ sound, the steely, more musical progeny of punk which was making its presence felt in both the singles and albums charts. But there was one tune which was an unabashed nod to the feeding frenzy of punk – ‘Spin It On’.

Hamming it up in the ‘Spin It On’ video

Starting with the words “This is it!” and a crunching guitar chord, it gives way to barrelling drums, a dirty, grungy riff and rapid-fire vocals which give Macca ample opportunity to do his beloved Little Richard ‘thing’. Denny Laine harmonises with him in a few places, and there’s also a tricksy, zippy solo from guitarist Laurence Juber. It doesn’t really go anywhere but it’s good fun and, at a breathless 2:12, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. In truth, it’s more rocked-up rockabilly than punk (reminding me a little of a speeded-up ‘Matchbox’, the Carl Perkins tune which also featured on Live at the Star Club) but, along with ‘Angry’ from 1986’s Press to Play album, is probably the fastest-paced rocker Paul has recorded since The Beatles and certainly captures some of the rough-hewn energy of its time. Where it completely diverges from the rocky road of punk is in its lyrics, which veer headlong into the dense shrubbery of McCartney whimsy and make no sense whatsoever. Random references to aircraft hangers, pinball machines and (for the second time in his 1970s oeuvre) putting your hair in curlers abound, all orbiting his central screamed exhortation to spin it on…because he’s got a lot of love for you. Hmm. I do love the way the lines “Well off to the field/With a missionary zeal/For the life/Of the wife/Of the farmer” roll off his tongue, though.

As the b-side of the first single from ‘Back to the Egg’

When it came to choosing the lead-off UK single from Back to the Egg, ‘Spin It On’ was relegated to the B-side of ‘Old Siam, Sir’ – though, in retrospect, I wonder if the quirkiness of ‘Spin’ might’ve earned more airplay and improved on the record’s miserable chart showing of #35 (though I doubt it would’ve been a bit hit, either). However, ‘Spin It On’ was one of the seven tracks chosen for the promo video treatment, which were later compiled into a TV special to promote the album. None of the films were particularly intricate or high concept, and this one was especially rudimentary. Beginning with a biplane emerging from an aircraft hanger (remember the lyric?) bearing the Wings insignia, the rest of the clip is straight performance footage of the band onstage. What’s interesting, though, is their collective look. The flares and sequins of a couple of years’ earlier are long gone, replaced by jeans and leather jackets (well, flying jackets to be precise, in keeping with the video’s vague aerial theme). The presence of two new, younger band members (Juber and drummer Steve Holley, wearing uber-cool shades) and the song’s rowdy vibe add to the impression of renewed, back-to-basics vigour, while Paul himself cuts quite a different figure than in days of yore. Drenched in sweat and sporting a five o’clock shadow, with his hair cropped (relatively) short and swept back, he looks younger, sharper and edgier than in the ‘With A Little Luck’ video from 12 months earlier. Unfortunately, any pretence of aligning the band with the street cred of their New Wave contemporaries is somewhat undercut by speeding up the film at certain points (showing them, ahem, ‘spinning’ round) and other silly antics which would’ve been more at home on The Benny Hill Show than on The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Onstage with Linda and guitarist Laurence Juber during Wings’ 1979 UK tour

In a very typical case of slapdash, unco-ordinated 1970s McCartney marketing, the Back to the Egg TV special didn’t air in the US until the end of 1979, long after the album’s release (in the UK, it didn’t see the light of day for a further 18 months, after Wings had effectively disbanded). ‘Spin It On’ did make the setlist for the group’s final UK tour in November/December 1979, with Macca again playing his beautiful Epiphone Casino guitar as on the studio version, and there was no softening of its frenetic intent (you can hear it performed for the final time at the 29 December ‘Concert for Kampuchea’ at London’s Hammersmith Odeon). But that was very much that for both the song and the video. The clip, like most of the promos made for the album, was completely ignored by 2007’s The McCartney Years DVD collection and, 12 years since the beginning of the McCartney Archive Collection series, there’s still no sign of a remastered re-release of Back to the Egg. One would presume this video will make it onto the accompanying DVD when it eventually does surface, but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting. It’s a pity, because for those of us who love to hear Paul rocking hard, this tune is a real treat – not a great composition, true, but sometimes the performance is all. I remember playing this as a 17-year-old to some friends who were heavily into punk and New Wave bands at the time, and one turned to look at me, disbelievingly, and said: “This is Paul McCartney?” Oh yes. Just as much as ‘Yesterday’, ‘Silly Love Songs’, the Frog Chorus and the Liverpool Oratorio, it most definitely is Paul McCartney.

The ‘Spin It On’ video from 1979

Picture show life: Ringo’s album covers, from worst to best

I guess when your solo career spans half a century, it must be challenging to keep coming up with fresh ideas for your album artwork. Especially when the golden age of album artwork – the kind of intricate imagery which used to eat up gatefold LP sleeves in the ‘70s, for example, or strike supremely cool marketing poses on ‘80s CD cases – must seem a dim and distant memory. Ringo certainly seems to think it’s not worth the bother these days, as most of his covers from the past 20 years are barely distinguishable from one another (hell, he doesn’t even think it’s worth recording full albums any more, more recently opting for EPs instead – and even they have virtually interchangeable artwork).

It’s a pity, because The Beatles pretty much wrote the book on producing striking, memorable album sleeves, and some very effective artwork also adorned many of Ringo’s records during the first half of his solo career. True, there was a slightly jokey nature to a few of them, playing up to his clownish public persona, which probably didn’t help with his artistic credibility in the long term. But he’s always been super-photogenic and, when he got the balance right, the covers captured something of his doleful, loveable personality and the kind of music he was making a that point in time. Which is all you can ask for in such artwork, really. And, being brutally honest, maybe the identikit approach to more recent album sleeves reflects the slightly formulaic, cookie-cutter feel of some of the music contained within.

The following list is just my own personal ranking of Ringo’s cover choices, based on visual impact, charm and memorability. As when I did a similar list for George, I’ve discounted compilations (though I’ve always liked the one fronting 1989’s Starrstruck collection) and live albums, as well as his 1999 Christmas album and the recent EPs. Which leaves us with 19 records to choose from. Though, as you will see, I think you can bunch a batch of them together right from the off…

19. Y Not / Ringo 2012 / Give More Love / What’s My Name?

2010’s ‘Y Not’. And if it ain’t broke…

Since he started producing his own records in 2010, Ringo has won zero prizes for originality with his accompanying album artwork. He’d had a dry run with 2005’s Choose Love, but the formula became set in stone with 2010’s Y Not: a contemporary photo of Ringo (wearing the obligatory shades), with either his hands in his pockets or flashing a peace sign. Some kind of star image or CND logo is optional, and it might be black-and-white or in colour, but essentially it’s been the same cover for four of his past five albums (and the EPs he’s put out since follow the same lacklustre theme). It’s strange, and disappointing, that so little thought or effort goes into this aspect of his craft nowadays. I appreciate that not many people shop in record stores anymore, and even fewer are casual buyers likely to take a punt on a new Ringo release, but it would surely help to distinguish one album from another when they are in the CD racks. Or at least just help bestow a little individual character or identity on each disc. But, as his music has settled into a comfortable (and largely predictable) soft rock, peace-and-love groove over the past decade, so the sleeves tend to blur into familiar sameness. Apparently he considered a (slightly) different cover for 2019’s What’s My Name?, featuring a blood red moon. Okay, he was still wearing sunglasses and giving the peace sign in front of it, but at least it was something out of the ordinary. Alas, he opted for monochrome blandness once more. A pity.

15. Liverpool 8

Okay, he did go for a strong red-on-black image with this 2008 album, reflecting the title track’s reminiscences about growing up in the city’s Liverpool 8 postcode area (the digit eight denoted by two black stars, naturally). And this one does at least attempt to try something bold, with the ‘8’ incorporating a photograph of what is presumably a Liverpool street scene from the 1950s or ‘60s. So I’ll give him a ‘B’ for conception, but only a ‘C’ for execution. It’s a bit too murky to make out what’s going on or see any detail, the colour smothering the image, and so any impact it might have had is lost. I think he’d have been better off focusing on the photograph itself, and maybe laying the title over it. As it is, it just looks like a big red 8 on a black background, which could mean anything, and is pretty dull. And unless you’re familiar with the UK’s postcode system for cities, it’s also a real head-scratcher. A bit of a missed opportunity.

14. Choose Love

Another red-themed effort, and the first stab at what has now become his default peace-and-love cover image. It was still quite novel at the time (2005), though, and so works well enough on a fairly basic level. I’m not quite sure what all the inscriptions behind him are supposed to represent, beyond lending the cover some vague air of mysticism. I suspect there was some kind of stylised point to it but, as with Liverpool 8, the grainy, indistinct artwork does it no favours. It’s okay – nothing more, nothing less.

13. Postcards from Paradise

Nothing remarkable about this one from 2015, either, but it does at least score points for being the only one which breaks the mould of the predictability since 2010. A bit of thought clearly went into it, with the postage stamp shape to it and the palm trees reflecting in Ringo’s sunglasses. Subtle it is not, but it all frames a nice up-close shot of the man himself, and there’s not a peace sign in sight. There’s no huge difference between the music on this and on the albums which preceded and followed it, but the artwork does give it that crucial bit of visual individuality I mentioned earlier.

12. Ringo Rama

When this came out in 2003, hot on the heels of Paul’s Driving Rain and George’s posthumous Brainwashed, it was seen as by some as another example of how solo Beatles album artwork had gone to pot. Considering Ringo’s output since, it’s actually not bad – producer Mark Hudson’s colourful (if somewhat amateurish) portrait of the Starr-man has a fair degree of innocent charm. Appropriately enough, in light of Hudson’s penchant for musical Beatles trademarks (which are all over much of his work with Ringo), he has him wearing a Sgt. Pepper-style jacket, and there’s even a touch of Magical Mystery Tour in the wizard’s hat. It reminds me of the kind of artwork you’d see in a fanzine; whether that’s good enough for an album cover is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

11. Bad Boy

Now we’re moving onto the more interesting fare. Considering booze was starting to exert an ever-greater influence over Ringo in 1978, I daresay he doesn’t look back too fondly on a sleeve which depicts him holding a glass of sherry (or something stronger). But it’s that very air of decadence and fun that I like about it. The photo (taken by his then-partner Nancy Andrews) also shows off his jewellery and appears to capture him living it up on a balcony overlooking a sun-drenched seaside location – more likely to be Monte Carlo than, say, Bognor Regis. It was the height of Ringo’s jet-set, ‘lounge lizard’ period of the late ‘70s, and it’s only fitting that his album covers reflected that.

10. Vertical Man

Bearing in mind there was a lot riding on this 1998 record – his first in six years, his debut on Mercury Records, and his last serious, all-out attempt to crack the charts – I can’t help feeling the cover should’ve been better, more eye-catching. It’s not bad; the yellow background stands out, and the inevitable star-shaped iconography highlighting some of the colourful images in the CD booklet works well enough, but it’s missing something for me. Once again, the artwork in the star is simultaneously too busy and indistinct, it lacks punch. Whenever I think of the album, the cover never really springs clearly to mind. Instead, I tend to picture the rear cover image showing Ringo’s Abbey Road photo plastered over Van Gogh-style Starry Night artwork; maybe that should’ve been on the front, instead.

9. Goodnight Vienna

One of Ringo’s classic covers, this 1974 effort cleverly lifted utilised a famous image from the 1952 science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still. It depicts the alien Klaatu stepping out of his flying saucer spaceship in Washington DC, accompanied by his imposing robot sidekick Gort, with a message of peace for the people of Earth. Only for the album, Ringo’s head is superimposed onto Klaatu and, you guessed it, a star insignia adorns his spacesuit (he missed a trick with the hand gesture not being a peace sign, though). It’s good fun and very effective, though it has absolutely nothing to do with any of the music on the album and I’ve always found the colours a little drab.

8. Stop and Smell The Roses

This 1981 release, when it was originally titled Can’t Fight Lightning, was going to have an entirely different cover (the aforementioned one which was later used on the 1989 compilation Starrstruck). But when the album was renamed after the song of the same name, this suitably floral photograph as substituted instead. There’s nothing fancy about it, but I’ve always liked it. It’s one of the last times we got to see Ringo without his shades (or beard, for that matter), so there’s an openness about the image, and something quite endearing as he peeks out from behind the roses. The back cover revealed he was wearing a police uniform, a curious theme he carried through to the video for the title track (but that’s a whole other blog post). Fascinating fact: the photo was taken by Aaron Rapoport, who was also responsible for the cover image on Supertramp’s lengendary Breakfast in America LP.

7. Time Takes Time

For his big 1992 comeback album Ringo went all out on the sleeve artwork, commissioning ‘pop-surrealist’ Mark Ryden, who had designed the cover for Michael Jackson’s Dangerous CD the previous year. And Ryden made a pretty good job of it, his painting placing Ringo at the centre of a smorgasbord of wacky motifs, including musical animals, a space rocket, the sun and moon, and – in a literal depiction of the album’s lead single – the singer carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s maybe a little too busy, to be honest, but it fits in well with the retro, ‘60s-feel of much of the material within and definitely gave Ringo the kind of bright, clean, colourful look he needed to announce his return to the music business after almost a decade away. It’s scary to think this was 30 years ago.

6. Rotogravure

There’s not a lot to say about this one, other than it’s just a really nice, fun snap of Ringo, capturing him at the tail-end of his chart glory days in 1976. It’s the kind of cover you’d expect from a hirsute ‘70s rock star, showcasing his personality to the full, with a hint of humour coming from the magnifying glass enlarging his (coloured-in) left eye. This probably made more sense on the original vinyl copies of the LP, which came with an actual magnifying glass which you could use to read the back cover – a photograph of the door from The Beatles’ Apple offices in Savile Row, covered in graffiti messages left by fans.

5. Sentimental Journey

Ringo’s first LP, from 1970, was packaged with a terrific cover which is perfectly in tune with its musical contents. As he had recorded a batch of pre-rock ‘n’ roll standards he fondly remembered from family singalongs at the local pub, what better choice of artwork than a photo of the Empress pub in the Dingle area of Liverpool where he grew up? And as he was doing his best Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett impressions on the songs, why not superimpose a picture of a tuxedo-clad Ringo at the entrance to the bar for good measure? I’m not sure when the main photo was taken, but it works as a time capsule of post-war Britain in itself, capturing the spirit of one of those kitchen-sink movie dramas (only in colour). You can imagine the young Richie in the boozer with his parents, singing his heart out and dreaming of the star(r)s. Just perfect.

4. Old Wave

Talking of a young Ringo, that idea was taken to its logical conclusion on this 1983 album, which is adorned with a fantastic picture of the man in his pre-Beatles days. Apparently taken in a photo booth in Liverpool, it’s hard to place exactly when – he looks very youthful and doesn’t have the beard you see in most pictures of him with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, so it could even date back to the late 1950s. Either way, it captures him in his Teddy Boy pomp, his majestic wavy quiff nicely reflecting the album title, which was a pun on the so-called New Wave bands which started to appear towards the end of the 1970s. With all the autobiographical songs about his early days which have peppered his albums over the past 15 years or so, this would’ve made a perfect cover had he not already used it. The lack of a peace sign and sunglasses would probably have ruled it out, though.

3. Ringo the 4th

Rather like the music on the album itself, the cover for this 1977 effort gets a bad rap which it doesn’t deserve. The photo of a woman’s legs straddling Ringo’s shoulders and under his arms is somehow seen as sexist in some quarters, though I think that’s just part of a critical pile-on because of the record’s commercial failure (well, relative failure – if any of his recent records had sold as “poorly”, they’d be considered big successes). If Rod Stewart had put out a cover like this, it would no doubt be considered a kitch classic today. Either way, I love it. With Ringo considering this LP the fourth in the lineage of rock records he patented with 1973’s Ringo, hence the title, he opted to pose like the monarch of some fictional eastern European state (the kind favoured by 1930s adventure films and 1980s soap operas), clutching a large sword – read into that what you will – and wearing a supremely po-faced expression for a man with a woman’s thighs in such close proximity to his head. The woman in question was a model called Rita Wolf, the photo was again taken by his late-70s paramour Nancy Andrews, and it’s another brilliant bonkers snapshot of his partying period, when the booze was flowing but hadn’t yet taken over.

2. Beaucoups of Blues

The photo which adorns the front of his 1970 country album is just sublime. Apparently taken outside musician Tracy Nelson’s smokehouse in Nashville, the city where he recorded all its songs in just two days that summer, it’s the perfect evocation of the rootsy project. Shorn of the long hair he wore during his final year with The Beatles, it finds Ringo lean, loose and in contemplative mood, puffing on a cigarette between takes. The sort of cover any self-respecting singer-songwriter would’ve been proud of during that period, it’s moody, uncluttered and timeless. I was tempted to put it in the #1 spot, but….

1. Ringo

The sleeve of this fabled 1973 release had to come out top. While most fans would argue this remains his best album (it’s definitely one of my favourites), it’s undoubtedly his most successful and most acclaimed. And its cover art is a key part of its mythology and feel-good vibe. As the music threw several nods to Ringo’s Beatles past (notably John’s song ‘I’m The Greatest’ and the presence of all the other three Fabs on various tracks), it was only fitting that the cover had more than a hint of Sgt Pepper in its crowd scene presentation. Somewhat bizarrely, it was the work of a man called Tim Bruckner, an apprentice jeweller in Beverly Hills who had met album producer Richard Perry and pitched to do some freelance artwork. It proved an inspired choice, though, as his painting was laced with humour (the faux Latin inscription at the top, “Duit on mon dei” – “Do it on Monday” – was a joke by Ringo’s pal Harry Nilsson) and portraits of the album’s star(r) contributors. It’s no coincidence that George (holding a Krishna-symbol balloon), John and Yoko (in bags) and Paul and Linda are all bunched close together in the centre of the audience. But, for all the heavyweight supporting cast, the cover – as with the music – puts the spotlight firmly on the Starr man on the centre of the stage. It sums up Ringo’s light-hearted, colourful and collaborative approach to solo music making, and I don’t see it ever being bettered.

20 years not out – Paul’s longest serving tour band

Paul once said that having a band was his idea of a luxury. By that, I think he meant the ability to just play music with others when he felt like it and, ultimately, perform in front of audiences – something we know is one of his great passions. While The Beatles ultimately became something much bigger than that, that was the band’s original core purpose. And when they broke up (after Paul had tried, in vain, to steer them back to that mission statement), Macca was first out of the blocks in an attempt to form a new ensemble and musical comfort blanket. Yet for all its huge success and the enduring presence of Linda and Denny Laine, Wings never had a settled membership, with a revolving door of guitarists (three) and drummers (four) eventually sapping Paul’s enthusiasm for the concept. His 1989-93 tour band provided more stability, but even that had an enforced change of drummer midway through. But the group he put together for his return to live performing in 2002 finally gave him the luxury he craved. This year they have celebrated two decades as a touring unit – longer than The Beatles and Wings put together – and the recent showstopping set at the Glastonbury Festival was, appropriately enough, their 500th gig together. So why has this backing band enjoyed such fruitful longevity?

Back on the road – Paul and the band reunite earlier this year

As is often the case with Paul’s musical collaborators, the formation of the band came about more by accident than by design. After Macca signalled his intent to work in a group setting when recording 2001’s Driving Rain album, producer David Kahne pulled in US session musicians he knew and liked – guitarist Rusty Anderson, keyboard player Gabe Dixon and drummer Abe Laboriel Jnr. – for the sessions. None of them had met Paul before, but they clearly hit it off, so much so that they performed together at the 9/11-inspired all-star Concert for New York benefit show shortly before the album’s release. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts – the show doesn’t rank among Paul’s best live performances, while Driving Rain is among his least commercially successful records – but before they hit the road for a full-scale US tour in the spring of 2002, there would be a couple of key changes. First, Dixon opted to exit stage left and focus on his own band instead, resulting in McCartney bringing in fellow Brit Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens from the 1989-93 line-up to handle keyboard duties. Second, to help fill out their sound with a second guitarist (and, crucially, someone who could handle bass duties when Paul switched to another instrument), they recruited Californian Brian Ray, a friend of Abe’s. And, following a brief debut opening that year’s Super Bowl game, they were off.

And they hit the ground running. The 2002 ‘Driving USA’ jaunt, Paul’s first full-scale tour in almost a decade and his first without Linda, was greeted with rapturous reviews and packed houses. That might sound an inevitability for someone of Macca’s stature, but if the band hadn’t been up to navigating his esteemed back catalogue with the mixture of fury and finesse it requires, I think people would’ve been quick to carp. As it was, public demand led to a second US leg that autumn, which then expanded into a fully-fledged world tour running into the summer of 2003. And, with a few exceptions, they’ve been performing together every year since. It’s a line-up which has backed Paul for some of his greatest concert triumphs – not just in front of huge crowds, such as two Glastonbury headline appearances (the first was in 2004), a pair of Royal Jubilee shows at Buckingham Palace and a ground-breaking gig in Moscow’s Red Square, but also in more intimate settings, from sweaty side-street clubs (notably The Cavern) to a performance at The White House in front of President Barack Obama. Their playing has been captured on three live albums and a host of concert DVDs, and while Paul has largely opted for a one-man band approach to studio work over the last 20 years, they have played on all his albums of new material during that time. When he returned to the stage a few months’ back after a three-year, pandemic-enforced break, there was never any question who’d be backing him. As he said in 2014: “We just love playing together…A couple of years ago, I kind of looked at them and said: ‘You know what guys? We’re a band. We’re a real band.’”

Playing at Abbey Road in 2018

So what makes them “a real band”? Well, they seem to have a good personal chemistry – something you can’t really engineer. They clearly have fun onstage, and have built up years of camaraderie and shared experience. Crucially, Wix, Rusty, Brian and Abe seem content with submerging their egos and basking in the reflected glory of supporting the most famous musician on the planet. And while they have each pursued their own side projects (Brian and Rusty have even released solo albums), Paul’s regular touring schedule has ensured they stay engaged and active as a musical unit – there’s been no repeat of the decision by 1989-90 drummer Chris Whitten, for example, who quit the McCartney ranks to join Dire Straits because he wasn’t prepared to wait a couple of years for the next tour. And this group hasn’t been saddled with Paul’s insistence on framing it as a democratic, creative entity in its own right, as he did with Wings. Everyone in the band knows the deal, and you suspect an older, wiser Macca has simply become better at choosing more compatible, less combustible characters.

But it is musical synergy which is at the heart of their stability and success. I first saw them in Sheffield in April 2003, and it still ranks as one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. This was largely due an exuberant, full-throated McCartney performance (possibly too full-throated, as he had to cancel the following night’s show after losing his voice), but also in part to the exemplary backing. This band is perhaps the tightest, most rocking combo he’s put together since The Beatles. Stick on the Back in the World album and listen to how they attack numbers like ‘Jet’ and ‘Coming Up’, or the more muscular approach they bring to slower songs such as ‘Let ‘Em In’ and ‘Hey Jude’. Wings Over America fans may disagree, but I think their thunderous rendition of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ is the definitive live reading of the tune (while Paul’s voice struggled in places, it was still a showstopper at the recent Glastonbury gig). I’ve seen criticisms that they can be a little too full-blooded on songs such as ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘My Love’ but, for me, it’s fine; it’s just a different way of interpreting the songs. And they definitely bring the delicacy and subtlety required of tracks like ‘Michelle’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’.

Hamming it up backstage, 2014

Another key weapon in their arsenal is their vocal dexterity. Harmonies are such a big part of Paul’s act at any time, but as his voice has begun to falter over the last 10-15 years, this ability to support his singing has become more important than ever. All the band members can hold their own, vocally, and they really shine on tracks like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘Another Day’. And while the setlists have been more Beatles-heavy than on previous McCartney tours, you sense the band’s general capabilities have encouraged Paul to dust off Wings songs he hadn’t played in decades (‘Junior’s Farm’, ‘Letting Go’, ‘Listen To What The Man Said’) or had never performed before at all (‘1985’, ‘Mrs Vandebilt’). There is only the occasional stumble. For example, to my ears, their take on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ has never really clicked; it sounds like a naff ‘60s tribute band, missing the bite and knowing fun of the original. And, for some reason, the 2009 Good Evening New York City live album does them no favours. It sounds somewhat flat and laboured, though this may have more to do with the way it was recorded and mixed (I saw them in Cardiff the following year and it was another five-star showing). Check out Back in the World or 2007’s more informal Amoeba Gig album to catch them at their best.

Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens with his keyboard set-up

Individually, they all bring something to the table. Wix has worked on and off with Paul for 34 years now, and so must know all his moves, likes and dislikes, and idiosyncrasies. From what I gather, he’s akin to the band’s musical director and, as well as handling all keyboard parts, his synthesised string and horn parts are vital components to many songs (though the addition of the Hot City Horns brass section has relieved some of those duties in recent years). His ability to fill in on accordion, harmonica and acoustic guitar adds to his value. Likewise, Brian Ray’s vocal, guitar and bass talents make him a perfect fit. Though an accomplished songwriter in his own right, his lower profile means he’s less showy in this ‘utility’ role than his predecessors Denny Laine and Hamish Stuart. Yet he’s a bouyant presence, and has carved out his own niche in the set-up – listen to his impressive guitar solos in ‘All My Loving’ and ‘Get Back’, not to mention the bass part which keeps ‘Hey Jude’ moving during the audience singalong section.

Paul and Brian trade ‘licks’, as they say

I must admit, Rusty isn’t among my favourites of Paul’s lead guitarists. He’s obviously very accomplished and handles his parts very well, but – especially when it comes to the solos – he lacks the fire of Jimmy McCulloch or the taste and versatility of Robbie McIntosh. And there’s something about his guitar tone which sometimes misses the mark for me, it just seems a little thin (listen to the Amoeba version of ‘House of Wax’ and compare it to the studio recording, for example). But, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s a minor grumble. He suits this band perfectly and, credit where credit is due, his solo on ‘Something’ – such a key part of the song – is excellent.

Rocking out with Rusty

By contrast, Abe is undoubtedly the fans’ favourite, and has to be up there with the best drummers Paul’s ever played with. He’s a larger than life personality, and that comes across in his style. He’s such an inventive, energetic player and, boy, when he hits those drums, they stay hit. It’s his sound which, in many ways, defines the sound of the band. Again, he might be accused of over-playing a song here and there, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. He’s also far a far from shoddy singer (before the advent of the Lennon lead vocal inserted on the most recent tour, he sang John’s lines on the ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ duet), and is an unfailingly entertaining presence on stage, Paul often making amused eye contact with him when he’s at the grand piano. And then there’s his dancing. Abe wowed the crowds (and made Macca giggle) at Glastonbury with his moves during ‘Dance Tonight’, but it was the shapes he threw during less obviously funky numbers like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ (!) on previous tours which really cracked me up.

Abe giving his all, as ever

All in all, my personal favourite of Paul’s backing bands would be the 1989-90 line-up, which brought a little more nuance to the varied setlist. The 1975-76 incarnation of Wings is also rightly lauded as an integral part of perhaps his peak performing era. But the current and, most likely, forever tour unit have a charm and a power all their own. I mentioned the wonderful shows I attended in 2003 and 2010 but, really, they were fabulous on each of the seven times I’ve seen them. There’s a reason Macca has stuck with them, without a single change, for two decades. They’ve become a great little rock ‘n’ roll group, a band in their own right, with a sound and character which allows Paul to relax and do what he does best, and have a great time in the process. And if he’s having a great time, unleashing his rock beast and singing his heart out, how can we not follow suit?

Taking a bow, 2013