It won’t be soon enough for me – 10 years of the McCartney Archive Collection (part two)

When Tug of War and Pipes of Peace were announced as the next installments of the McCartney Archive Collection in October 2015, I was licking my lips in anticipation. Not only were these two of my favourite Macca albums, the b-sides from their attendant singles had never been released on CD – and, by all accounts, there was a wealth of unreleased material recorded during the sessions with George Martin from 1980-83. This package had the potential to be among the highlights of the series. But when the content for the bonus discs was revealed, it was a crushing disappointment.

The dual release of ‘Tug of War’ and ‘Pipes of Peace’, 2015

The b-sides were there, true, but the rest was largely made up of a batch of 1980 home demos of songs which made it onto the albums, and which had been circulating on bootlegs for more than 20 years. I always feel such things are a bit of a cheat, as they’re ultimately just unfinished or inferior versions of songs we already have. Interesting to listen to once or twice, but then you file them away and forget about them. Or at least I do, because the final recording is almost always the one I prefer. It was also baffling that demos were completely overlooked for earlier Archive releases like Ram and Venus and Mars, yet were now becoming the core of the bonus content – at the expense of unheard songs. But the craziest thing about the selection was that two of the demos he recorded in those 1980 sessions, the unreleased songs ‘Unbelievable Experience’ and ‘Seems Like Old Times’, were omitted from this package. WTF? One ‘new’ demo did make it onto the Tug of War extras, ‘Stop, You Don’t Know Where She Came From’ – but there is apparently a finished version of that, complete with a brass section, so why didn’t they give us that instead?

The Pipes of Peace bonus disc was a little better, in that it offered a couple of genuinely unheard curios, ‘It’s Not On’ and ‘Simple As That’, plus the relatively rare film soundtrack number ‘Twice in a Lifetime’ (I could have done without the ‘Say Say Say’ remix which flipped the Macca/Jacko vocal lines, though I see why it was included). But considering both that and the second Tug of War disc both had around 40 minutes of free space, this was pretty thin gruel. Why didn’t they include ‘Blackpool’, a track earmarked as the b-side of the cancelled ‘The Man’ single in 1984? Or the 1981 version of ‘No Values’, later re-recorded for Broad Street? Or ‘All The Love is There’, the song he cut with Stewart Copeland of The Police? Or the acoustic reprise of ‘Tug of War’ which was originally planned for its parent album? Or the three-part medley which originally welded ‘Sweetest Little Show’ with ‘Unbelievable Experience’ and the similarly unreleased ‘Any Younger’? Or some of the jams with Stevie Wonder and Carl Perkins recorded during the early 1981 sessions at George Martin’s studio in Montserrat? Hell, if demos were so important, why not include the terrific one Paul wrote and recorded for the Everly Brothers during this period, ‘On The Wings of a Nightingale’? Or the one he presumably must have cut for the song ‘Runaway’, recorded by the band Ivory in the early 1980s, or even the two tunes he gave Ringo for 1981’s Stop and Smell The Roses?

If these albums represented a huge missed opportunity, worse was to follow. In the summer of 2016, it was announced Paul had re-signed with the Capitol/EMI record label, and the accompanying press release touted that  “a comprehensive plan for the artist’s catalogue is being conceived.….. and will be implemented beginning July 2017.” This sounded promising, and hinted at a change of approach – after all, why would you need to conceive a “comprehensive plan” if you were just going to carry on with the Archive series in the same way? However, the next release – which actually emerged in March 2017 – proved to be the most controversial and divisive of the series so far.

The standard Archive version of ‘Flowers in the Dirt’, 2017

Again, on paper, Flowers in the Dirt (1989) promised so much. Another stellar album, it spawned some of his best-ever b-sides and bonus tracks. Lengthy recording sessions from 1986-89 also produced a plethora of unused songs, some of which saw a release on the Flaming Pie singles a decade later, while others (such as ‘Return to Pepperland’) languished in the vaults. And when the tracklisting for the Archive edition revealed that not only would the widely-bootlegged acoustic demos he recorded with Elvis Costello in 1987 feature, but also initial studio recordings of the same songs laid down the following year – recordings some of us didn’t even know existed – it looked like this package would really deliver. Sadly, that was where the good news ended.

First,  only the 1987 Costello demos (which most hardcore Macca fans already owned) would be included on the standard two-disc edition. If you wanted the really juicy 1988 studio versions, you had to splash out on the deluxe edition which, in the UK, was on sale for an eye-watering £130. Even though both sets of tracks would have fitted comfortably onto one CD. Not only that, but all other non-Costello outtakes from this period were completely ignored. As for all those great b-sides I mentioned, well, they were available if you bought the pricey package…..but only as digital downloads. This senseless decision understandably infuriated lots of loyal McCartney fans. There was even a petition on change.org, which attracted more than 1,000 signatures, urging MPL to add in an extra disc with the download songs, but to no avail. A spokesman claimed Paul didn’t want the Archive packages to contain more than four discs (including DVDs) – a bizarre, rather arbitrary “rule” which strangely didn’t apply to the Ram reissue, for example, or the more recent Flaming Pie release. Surely, when you are asking people to pay through the nose for a package like this, you should provide physical content? MPL seemed more interested in the accompanying books (including a less-than-essential photo book documenting the making of the video for ‘This One’ and a catalogue from one of Linda’s photo exhibitions) than actual McCartney music. Madness.

The ad for the full ‘Flowers’ deluxe package

In retrospect, I’m less bothered by the fact the b-sides were download-only than by the fact they weren’t even remastered, and so didn’t sound any better than the versions we already had – again, in total contrast to earlier Archive releases. It betrays a real lack of care towards how Paul’s music is presented. There are some truly great tracks there – ‘The Loveliest Thing’ is among my favourite Macca numbers ever, and there are many devotees of ‘Flying To My Home’, for example – and yet they were just tossed out without being upgraded or even put on a disc, like they didn’t matter. Even more perplexing, given the emphasis this release put on Paul’s collaborations with Elvis Costello (something he ultimately backed away from when making the original album), the downloads also featured four further co-writes, including acoustic demos of two completely unheard tracks plus the wonderful b-side ‘Back On My Feet’. As there was plenty of empty space on both bonus discs (again), why not put these in alongside the rest of the Costello-related tracks? The whole thing felt slapdash, ill conceived and a case study in how to alienate your (limited) target audience. If they had dropped a couple of the books, shoved in a couple of extra discs and pegged the price at around £100, I think many of us would have thought it was a luxury worth raiding the piggy bank for. As it was, well…..I have four friends who are huge Macca fans, and only one among the five of us actually bought the deluxe edition.

The ad for the ‘Red Rose Speedway’ reissue in 2018

To be fair, it seems MPL/Capitol took heed of the backlash around Flowers because, although we had to wait 21 months for them, the next Archive sets saw a big improvement. In December 2018, we lurched back to the early days of Paul’s solo career and the first incarnation of Wings, with reissues of Wild Life (1971) and Red Rose Speedway (1973). The former, recorded in little over a week with a threadbare collection of songs, was never going to offer much in the way of bonus goodies, though the compilers did their best, seemingly throwing on every sketchy home recording from that period they could find – including three brief snippets of guitar noodling which didn’t even have titles. Red Rose Speedway, on the other hand, was put together over the course of a year and was originally planned as a double album, and the resulting Archive edition is possibly the best one to date. The deluxe version contained the original double LP version of the album, including a clutch of unreleased numbers, plus a batch of other outtakes, live recordings and singles/b-sides. At around £150, it was still a pretty pricey affair but, crucially, almost all of the really worthwhile bonus music was also made available on the standard two-disc version of the release, and there was no download-only nonsense. So everyone was happy.

The mega ‘Wings 1971-73’ box – a snip at, er, £300

The only sour note came when a special Wings 1971-73 box set was also produced which combined both deluxe album packages and also threw in an exclusive live album from the band’s 1972 European tour….all for a trifling £300. Another poke in the eye for fans with more limited budgets (remember, this came out within weeks of the costly Beatles’ White Album and Lennon Imagine box sets) or those of us who just aren’t that interested in the books and other trinkets. Bearing in mind people buying both deluxe Wings albums would be paying the best part of £300 for them anyway, couldn’t Capitol have just released Wings Over Europe as a regular, standalone release? Plenty of people would have snapped it up. As it is, in this day and age, it quickly emerged onto the market through other, less “official” routes, but I just don’t see the sense of lining the bootleggers’ pockets when it could – and should – have been available for anyone to buy.

Still, there were signs of a more considered approach. But with the Archive Collection, it always seems to be one step forward followed by two steps back. The widely expected reissue of the remaining Wings albums London Town and Back To The Egg was bypassed and in July this year (sadly, 19 months between releases now seems to be the norm) we zoomed forward in the McCartney timeline with the release of his 1997 effort, Flaming Pie. Again, lots of potential with this one. We know he recorded a number of tracks with Steve Miller other than the ones which made the album, including ‘Sweet Home Country Girl’ and ‘Soul Boy’. Then there was ‘Cello in the Ruins’, a track recorded during the Pie sessions and almost issued on a charity fundraising album in 1995. And the cover of ‘A Room With A View’, released on a Noel Coward tribute album in 1997. So did the Archive edition feature any of these? No. Of course not.

This year’s ‘Flaming Pie’ reissue

What we got instead were demos of songs we already have on the album. Lots of demos. Home demos, studio demos, run through demos and, in some cases, multiple versions of the same song. I don’t know about anyone else, but I could happily have lived without four versions of ‘Beautiful Night’ and three each of ‘Great Day’ and ‘Calico Skies’, not least because none of them really that different. The rough mixes of the album songs featured here are equally pointless. And while they did include all the b-sides from the album’s three singles, most of them were recorded a decade earlier and have nothing to do with Flaming Pie. I can deal with that though – what is really annoying is that several of them are only available through the deluxe pay wall (now topping £200) and, even worse, are still embedded in the Oobu Joobu mini radio shows as featured on the original singles. I’m struggling to see the artistic value in that, as I’m sure most people would just want to listen to the songs in isolation. It’s strange how MPL/Capitol will go to the trouble of removing a few seconds of live stage banter at the beginning of ‘The Mess’ (as included on the Red Rose Speedway reissue) which fans had got used to hearing for 45 years, yet couldn’t be bothered to trim off many minutes of pseudo DJ chat and frippery – welded either side of six songs – that I can’t imagine many people ever wanting to listen to more than a couple of times.

So that’s where we are. In my next post, I’ll reflect on the Archive Collection as a whole, how it could be improved, and what I’d really like to see happen to the McCartney back catalogue going forward.

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