Spector at the feast? The Beatles and Phil Spector

Phil Spector. The name alone is likely to make some Beatles fans choke on their cornflakes or gnash their teeth in a fevered frenzy as they rail against his production of Let It Be. Indeed, when his death was announced recently some people on social media seemed to have more of an issue with his alleged blight on The Beatles’ recorded legacy than with the fact that he was a convicted murderer. But, putting value judgements to one side, is such antipathy really justified? After all, this was a musical magician whom all the Fab Four idolised. Who was invited to help salvage the Let It Be tapes when no-one else wanted to, and whose most contentious production job on it resulted in a US #1 single and a standard which remains one of the best-loved Beatles recordings. A man who co-produced three of the most acclaimed Fabs solo albums (two of which were also among the most commercially successful), and who was Lennon’s go-to guy for half his solo career. The brains behind the sound of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Imagine’. Before losing his marbles, did he really do such a terrible job?

Let me say, first of all, that I’m not here to discuss Spector’s criminal misdemeanors or defend them in any way. I understand how difficult it can be to distinguish the artist (and the art) from the human being (cf. Michael Jackson), and if you feel his offence and general behaviour cannot be separated from his musical achievements, then read no further. What I would say is that this post concentrates purely on his direct association with The Beatles from 1970-73, decades before his murder trial and subsequent imprisonment. It’s true his dangerous instability and declining mental health had already started to manifest themselves during this period (notably when he fired a gun into the ceiling during one of the recording sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and subsequently made off with all the tapes), but the terrible consequences of later years were still some way off. What I find hard to fathom, if you will forgive the analogy, is why Spector is so often put on trial for his work with the Fabs and usually found guilty.  I guess, ultimately, it’s a matter of taste and changing fashions, but is it a fair judgement? Let’s consider the evidence.

John and Cynthia with Phil Spector during The Beatles’ first flight to the USA, 1964

Spector made a big impression on The Beatles right from the off. The debut single he wrote for his band The Teddy Bears in 1958, ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, became a mainstay of The Beatles setlist (albeit with a change to “her” in the title), performed at their 1962 Decca audition and appearing on both the Live at the Star Club and Live at the BBC albums. It was such a favourite of John’s, in particular, that he returned to it for his Rock ‘n’ Roll album in the 1970s. They were also fans of early ‘60s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Crystals, with whom Spector honed his famous ‘Wall of Sound’ production techniques, laying instruments upon instruments upon instruments to create a dense, monolithic sound. Or, as he put it, “little symphonies for the kids”. Though their paths crossed socially – Spector was on the flight to New York with them in February 1964 when they subsequently conquered America – they never worked together, though Macca did tell biographer Mark Lewisohn in 1988 that the band so admired his work on the magnificent Ike and Tina Turner single ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ that they did consider it. They never departed from George Martin, though, and I don’t think they ever would have. They trusted him, and – I think – instinctively recognised that he was fully committed to (and brilliantly adept at) helping them realise their vision in the studio, rather than imposing his own. Which might not have been the case with Spector.

The BBC recording of ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’

Nonetheless, when 1970 rolled around, the group was virtually defunct, and John was first out of the blocks in exploring new directions. In January, apparently at George’s suggestion, he asked Spector to produce his solo single ‘Instant Karma’. And the American did such a fine job, updating the old rock ‘n’ roll sound to perfection without resorting to lots of overdubs, Lennon and Harrison subsequently invited him to work on The Beatles’ long-delayed Get Back/Let It Be recordings, made over a year earlier. Previous mixes had been rejected by the band but now, with the accompanying film scheduled to hit cinemas in the spring, time was pressing to get an LP ready for release. You probably know the rest – Spector overhauls the album; McCartney hits the roof over his unauthorised arrangement of ‘The Long and Winding Road’; the group breaks up amid a welter of claims, counter-claims and lawsuits, and the reputation of the album is tarnished forever after, with Spector invariably held responsible by commentators, critics and fans alike. Paul even approved a “de-mixed” version of the record in 2003, Let It Be…Naked, which stripped away Spector’s changes and also used a completely set of recordings into the bargain.

So, what was wrong with Spector’s version of Let It Be? Well, not a lot, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, seek out one of the early mixes made by engineer Glyn Johns.  The one I’ve heard is terrible – the band sounds sluggish, sloppy and lethargic. There are some great songs, but no sparkle, no energy. The back-to-basics, “let’s record live in the studio like we used to” ethos of the sessions was a good idea, but the end results weren’t always up to scratch, particularly in the fractious early sessions at Twickenham film studios. If this early incarnation of the album had been released, it would’ve unquestionably been the low point in their recording career. Yet the finished version has Beatles magic in abundance. Quite simply, Spector saved the album – he chose better takes, made some clever edits, polished up the sound and added some trademark orchestral overdubs (where the song lent itself to a grander sound – it’s not as if he ladled strings all over ‘Dig A Pony’ or One After 909’). Those overdubs are, of course, the real bone of contention, but are they really so out of kilter with the group’s oeuvre? I concede that they lack the subtlety George Martin would have brought to the table, but I think they’re great, nonetheless. The score for  ‘I Me Mine’ is deliciously dramatic and if the song had been released on George’s All Things Must Pass later in the year, critics would’ve been hailing it a masterpiece. For my money, his additions give ‘Across The Universe’ a suitable celestial feel and improve on The Beatles’ earlier version of the track, and – whisper it– I also prefer his full-on, all-guns-blazing  take on ‘Let It Be’ to the more restrained single version produced by George Martin.

The chart-topping single, produced by Spector

Which leaves us with his most controversial reworking of all, ‘The Long and Winding Road’. Paul really resented the addition of harps and a female choir, in particular (the changes actually featured in the High Court proceedings about the legal dissolution of The Beatles, with Macca citing them as unauthorised interference with his work), and I completely get where he was coming from. It was his song, after all, and he should have had complete control over how it was presented. The irony was, of course, that Spector’s embellishments surely enhanced the song’s commercial appeal. It stormed to #1 when released as a single in the US, and has become a global standard, a staple of Paul’s concert setlists, and one of the most popular (and covered) Beatles songs of all. No less a personage than Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys says it is his favourite Fabs track. So for all the moaning by some fans and critics, millions of people love it exactly the way it is – and I’m one of them. In fact, it was one of the songs which first drew me to The Beatles, and remains the one I probably love the best. I can see why some feel it is over-produced (and, indeed, overblown), but for me it’s just majestic. The orchestration swells and soars in all the right places, cranking up the inherent emotion in the music and squeezing out every last drop of pathos from the lyric. While’s Paul’s exquisite live rendition on Wings Over America may just shade it as the best version, the Spector take is certainly a big step up from the original, unadorned performances later released on The Beatles Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked (the latter boasting a horrible, truly inappropriate organ solo by Billy Preston).

So I think Spector gets a seriously bum rap for his work on the final Beatles album. Yes, he seriously strayed from the original “live” intention for the album (on some tracks), but the band had already veered away from that by overlaying new parts to a few of the tunes at subsequent sessions. Let’s remember Spector was asked to get involved, that previous, more ‘raw’ mixes had been rejected, and that the band members were already focused on solo projects by this point and showed little interest in revisiting what were – for them – quite old recordings. It also wasn’t Spector’s fault that George had opted to withdraw some really strong songs (notably ‘All Things Must Pass’) midway through the original January 1969 sessions,  and that John hadn’t really turned up with much in the way of new material in the first place. Had Spector been able to include the best Lennon number from that period, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (already released the b-side of ‘Get Back’ a year earlier), I think it would’ve pushed the album into top tier Beatles – certainly on a par with Abbey Road. Or, as John put it in less laudatory terms: “Phil did a great job….when I heard it, I didn’t puke.”

Spector with a particularly hairy George during the sessions for ‘All Things Must Pass’

John and George must’ve been happy with the finished result, as they both placed themselves in Spector’s hands to launch their post-Beatles careers. In George’s case, it was effectively a straight continuation of the American’s work on Let It Be. Everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at some numbers, such as the thunderous ‘Wah Wah’ and the epic ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, imbuing with them with a sweeping, grandiose sound which Rolling Stone magazine aptly described as “music of mountain tops and vast horizons”. Other tunes had a more rootsy, low-key approach, such as the country-flavoured ‘Behind That Locked Door’, while the likes of ‘What Is Life’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ represented expertly-honed pop perfection. There’s more of a variety of styles here than many would have you believe, and it all sounds great to me. Yes, some of the individual musicianship is sacrificed in the blur of the overall sound on occasion – hence we’re being treated to the inevitable remix when the album is re-released later this year, as I discussed in a recent post. But I can’t get too excited about that; for me, the original more-is-more Harrison/Spector production is an intrinsic part of the album’s appeal. George did switch to a more scaled-down approach for the rest of his solo career, perhaps wisely not trying to outdo his own magnum opus, but it’s telling that the best track (for me) on his follow-up, 1973’s Living in the Material World, is ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ – the one produced, in typically lavish style, by Phil Spector.

One of the many production-heavy, but brilliant, tracks from ‘All Things Must Pass’

By contrast, John chose to rein in Spector’s extravagances on his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. In fact, it is almost the polar opposite of a typical Wall of Sound production, a raw, bare bones record with no more than three instruments on any one track and seemingly so little in the way of studio polish you wonder why Lennon employed the American at all. But then you listen to the way those instruments fill out the sonic landscape, and the co-producer’s fingerprints become more apparent. He really makes his mark on the sonorous ‘Mother’ and, in particular, on the spectacular ‘God’, which sounds as monumental as anything on All Things Must Pass, despite featuring only bass, drums and a couple of pianos. Thereafter, Lennon gradually began to release the brake on Spector’s natural inclinations. Their next collaboration, 1971’s Imagine, struck the perfect balance between Spector’s ornamentation and Lennon’s minimalist tendencies at that time. While still relatively sparse in make-up, the songs were fleshed out with more instrumentation, including strings and saxophones, and possess a generally richer, warmer feel. George Martin later said he would have loved to have worked on this album, but it’s hard to see how even he could have done a better job, particularly on tracks like ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which all sound faultless.

The shift towards the Spector way of doing things continued on the glorious ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ single, which had all the (sleigh) bells and whistles one would expect from the man who gave us the legendary Phil Spector Christmas Album. And it was also evident on John’s next collection, 1972’s Some Time in New York City – in fact, Spector’s work is one of the saving graces of a hugely disappointing album. He particularly shines in helping to conjure up the booming, impassioned agitpop of ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, the nightmarish, swampy sound of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and the yearning atmosphere of ‘Angela’ (though his sickly sweet arrangement for ‘Luck of the Irish’ is one of many missteps in an unbelievably dire creation).

Recording the vocals for ‘Oh Yoko!’ during the ‘Imagine’ sessions, 1971

It was on the ill-fated 1973 sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll oldies project, however, that Spector was given carte blanche to rebuild his famous Wall of Sound, and did so with total abandon, employing whole battalions of brass and string players to breath new life into the vintage material. Unfortunately, his own increasingly erratic behaviour and the licentiousness of the sessions (John was entering his infamous ‘Lost Weekend’ separation from Yoko at this point) saw the album run aground amid a fog of booze, drugs and soaring studio costs. Spector scarpered with the master tapes and, by the time they were retrieved the following year, a more sober, focused John decided to finish the record without him. The resulting album, which came out in 1975, is dominated by more simple Lennon-led productions, though a few of the original Spector tracks did make the final cut – notably a full-blooded take on Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. What is mystifying, however, is that the best numbers from the Spector sessions didn’t see the light of day until after Lennon’s death. Maybe John felt he wasn’t fully in control of his faculties when he sang them but, either way, there’s a heartfelt, naked emotion about his performances on ‘Angel Baby’ and two Spector co-compositions, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’. These tracks capture both artist and producer somewhere near their best.

The 1973 version of ‘Be My Baby’, not released until ‘The John Lennon Anthology’ in 1998

For Spector, however, this was the end of his association with The Beatles and, with a couple of exceptions, pretty much his last major throw of the dice in the music business. He became an increasingly reclusive reclusive and bizarre figure, bedeviled by various health issues and crazed behaviour, culminating in the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 and his eventual imprisonment. It’s a tragic story which is hard to understand. But one thing I think he is categorically not guilty of is harming or spoiling The Beatles’ recorded work. On the contrary, I think he brought a huge amount to the table and has suffered from simply being the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time when it came to Let It Be, getting dragged into the mire of the band’s break-up through no fault of his own. His contributions to their work, as a band and as solo artists, were much more diverse than he’s given credit for; and while his “little symphonies for kids” may not be to everyone’s taste, they added yet another rich shade to The Beatles’ collective palette that I, for one, will always treasure.

‘The Beatles In Their Own Words’ (1978)

Imagine a world where reliable information on The Beatles is a little hard to find. There are some salacious biographies doing the rounds, with varying degrees of accuracy and questionable balance, the odd book of photos, and a fair few ‘cut and paste’ volumes recycling old newspaper reports or out-of-print tomes like Hunter Davies’ official biography. And you may or may not be able to pick up a couple of these at your local bookshop. Such was the situation for serious Fab Four fans in the early 1980s, though the flood of written works that would fill an entire library today was well underway by then. One book you would usually find on the shelves, though, was The Beatles In Their Own Words. Surely this would be a must-have? One that every student of the band could glean precious facts and insights from, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, if could be described as a disappointment then, it comes off as downright feeble reading it again now.

The edition I picked up in the mid-1980s

The Beatles In Their Own Words, first published in 1978, was part of a series of books from Omnibus Press which pulled together interviews and other quotes from rock stars of the day. There were similar volumes for the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, plus separate editions covering the wisdom of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as well as a belated follow-up (in 1991) dealing with The Beatles after the break-up. The 1978 book was compiled by Barry Miles, who looms large in Fabs lore as co-owner of the Indica Gallery, where John met Yoko, and the man who helped facilitate Paul’s avant garde adventures in Swinging London’s artistic underground. And, of course, he later penned Macca’s authorised account of his life in the 1960s, Many Years From Now. This book also features excerpts from exclusive interviews Miles conducted with Lennon and McCartney during the late-60s. So far, then, so good.

The first thing you notice, however, is that it’s quite a slim volume (128 pages) and that many of the pages are taken up with photographs. So you don’t really get that many of their words for your money. And then there’s the curious structure of the book. It’s divided up into sections covering ‘The Story’, ‘Press Conferences’, ‘Songwriting’, ‘The Songs’, ‘The Films’, ‘Drugs’ and ‘Politics’ – quite a strange grab bag  of themes. And the one on politics runs for all of three pages, almost as if it was thrown in as an afterthought. The content of some chapters also leaves you scratching your head. ‘The Story’ scarcely touches upon the Hamburg years, the trip to Rishikesh, Apple or Allen Klein. Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best and Brian Epstein are each dealt with and despatched in little more than a paragraph or two, while the break-up receives the equivalent of a page. Similarly, some well-known songs are allotted a sentence or nothing at all,  while the Help! and Let It Be films barely get a mention. It all feels a little thrown together at random.

Filming ‘Help!’ — something barely mentioned in the book

Worse, though, is the complete lack of context for any of the quotes chosen. We’re given no dates and – apart from the press conference section – don’t even know whether the comments were made during the band’s lifespan or after the split. And in some cases, particularly where key parts of their career or output are so scantily covered, that context is crucial. There are pros and cons of both contemporary recollections/thoughts from the ‘60s and more reflective/bitter/hazy look-backs from the vantage point of the ‘70s, but we aren’t given the dates to help inform our perspective. And occasionally it would have helped to have some more background about what they are discussing. There are also parts which cry out for a bit of editing. While some songs or events warrant only a few words, there are sections which ramble on for ages and go nowhere – especially John and George’s somewhat airy observations on the Maharishi and religion, which seem to have been included at length to fill out that part of the book. It’s just lazy.

Then there’s the bias. The book should really have been titled John Lennon In His Own Words (with the odd comment from his bandmates). I would estimate around 75% of the quotes come from John, which is just ridiculous.  George and Ringo barely get a look in – apart from eight words, the first Harrison contributions don’t appear until page 27, and even then it’s just a couple of sentences. It’s true John was probably the most entertaining interviewee, shooting more from the hip, even in the early days, and was always ready with a witticism or memorable soundbite (though it’s also true he could speak a lot of drivel on occasion). But this overwhelming focus on him does a huge disservice to the others, who also gave many fascinating, amusing and insightful interviews down the years. It also puts a Lennon slant on almost everything, as if John’s take on things was the gospel, the definitive version of events (and time has shown that it wasn’t – he had his agenda, and skewed memories, just like everyone else). The book’s heavy reliance on using extracts from his (in)famous 1970 ‘Lennon Remembers’ Rolling Stone interview is a case in point. Yes, it’s a great read, but was just a snapshot of how he felt at a particular moment in time – a trenchant and combustible moment, just after the band’s acrimonious split. Subsequent recollections were generally more considered and rounded, but books like this rehash it as if it were the last word on John’s feelings and the band’s history. Giving Paul, George and Ringo so little space deprives the book of balance and depth. As George once joked, “How many Beatles does it take to change a lightbulb? Four.”

Live on stage in 1963

Of course, as it is The Beatles in their own words, there is still lots of interesting copy in here, some of which you may be very familiar with, and a few bits you won’t. Paul gives a very precise reminiscence about the genesis of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, for example, and reveals how offended the band was when one reviewer described Sgt Pepper as “George Martin’s finest album”. It’s fun to read John recalling long-forgotten songs he wrote during their early days and realising they weren’t bad. There’s also some thoughtful stuff from John about his lyrical inspirations, heavyweight musical analysis (“it was quite flattering to hear all that crap about The Beatles, but I don’t believe it”) and how most of his songs “sound wrong” when transcribed to sheet music. And it’s intriguing to learn that Paul knew quite a lot about some of the obscure Indian gurus George chose to put on the cover of Sgt Pepper, reflecting how the four fed off each other throughout the 1960s.

The press conference section is good, bringing together lots of their off-the-cuff quips and put-downs, as well as highlighting the sheer banality of much of their questioning (Q: “What do you fear the most, the atom bomb or dandruff?” Ringo: “The atom bomb. We’ve already got dandruff.”). On a more serious note, there’s lots of space devoted to the 1966 ‘Bigger than Jesus’ controversy, and it’s gratifying to read how John – while clearly shaken by the tumultuous reaction it stirred in parts of the US – refused to retract or compromise on the meaning of what he had originally said. Some parts of the book, however, do remind you that even Beatles can spout complete cobblers from time to time. Paul’s metaphysical musings about the Sgt Pepper cover, for example, sound suspiciously like they were inspired by smoking some herbal cigarettes, while a couple of John’s political pronouncements are naive in the extreme (“I’m beginning to think Chairman Mao is doing a good job.”).

Curiously, for a book about words, one of its main strengths is the choice of photographs. There are some very familiar ones, obviously (the band at the Cavern, with Marlene Dietrich at the Royal Variety Performance, collecting their MBEs, at the Sgt Pepper launch party in Brian Epstein’s house), but some ones you don’t see as often. For example, there’s a great one of Paul, George and Ringo tucking into what looks like kippers for breakfast at (I think) the London flat the four briefly shared in early 1963, a windswept shot of John and Paul with director Dick Lester on the London set of Help!, a fine photo of them onstage in Munich during their 1966 world tour and a quirky one of Paul (alongside Jane Asher) pretending to hide from photographers in 1968. There are also some snaps of fans during the wild American tours, giving us an idea of the view looking out from the goldfish bowl at the centre of it all. But even here, the designers drop the ball by using some poor quality images or blowing certain pictures until they become grainy and distorted. A pity.

Recording ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ in February 1969

All in all, The Beatles In There Own Words is a missed opportunity. There are a few snippets here you might not have come across anywhere else (perhaps the quotes taken from Miles’ own chats with John and Paul), and it’s nice to have extended highlights of their press conference banter. But if you’re looking for an in-depth, personal overview of their career together and how they experienced it (and remember, there were only four people who did experience it from the inside), it falls well short. It’s too brief, too scatter-shot and too Lennon-centric. I’m not sure whether a definitive collection of Beatles quotes, mixing as-it-happened observations from the ‘60s with remembrances from later years, has ever been published, though The Beatles Anthology is obviously a prime place to start. Either way, this is a pretty flimsy effort which doesn’t really do the subject justice. I can’t give it more than 5.

Sing along: Paul’s ‘Put It There’ video

The UK singles chart was a strange place in February 1990. Dance records by the likes of Technotronic, Beats International, Black Box and Mantronix predominated, rubbing shoulders with seriously whiffy cheese from the likes of Cher and Michael Bolton, and more edgy, indie-style fare from the likes of The Wedding Present, House of Love and Depeche Mode. There was still room for established older acts, like Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and The Stranglers, but even then the order of the day was big, booming records which choruses you could demolish a house with. So when Macca released a gentle, folksy, two-minute ode to parenthood as the fourth and final single from Flowers in the Dirt, it was never likely to make any waves. And so it proved. Which is a shame, as the song and its accompanying video hold a uniquely unassuming and affecting place in his discography.

While it was one of many jewels which festooned Flowers when it was released in the summer of 1989, ‘Put It There’ was singular in its simplicity. Featuring just Paul on acoustic guitar, supplemented by Buddy Holly-style knee slaps and an elegant string quartet section scored by George Martin, it’s part of a Macca ballad lineage stretching from ‘And I Love Her’ in 1964 to ‘When Winter Comes’ on the recent McCartney III. In fact, it’s the kind of song reviewers often lazily refer to along the lines of “a bit like ‘Blackbird’, only not as good”, when in truth it’s every bit as good – if not better – but is instantly devalued (for them) by being released under the McCartney banner rather than the Beatles one. Unlike many of its  counterparts, however, it’s not a song about romance or being at one with nature, but instead deftly explores and celebrates the father-son relationship. Supported by a winsome melody, the lyric charts the evolving but enduring nature of parental love with real economy and skill.

Paul with his dad, Jim – man and boy

As Paul liked to tell interviewers on its release, the song was inspired by a regular saying of his dad, Jim, who used to hold out his hand and say “Put it there, if it weighs a ton.” By all accounts, Paul was very close to his father growing up, a bond which intensified when Mary McCartney died of cancer in 1956 and Jim was left to bring up two boys alone (on a very limited wage, to boot). He obviously did a fine job of it, and Macca still likes to quote his dad to this day, his affection, respect and gratitude clearly evident. And it was of course Jim, a former jazz band player, who nurtured and encouraged Paul’s love of music from an early age, something we should all be grateful for. But ‘Put It There’ is also about learning and passing on the baton to the next generation – in this case, Macca’s own son James, who was born in 1977. They seem to have a close relationship, too (James has grown up to be a musician, like his dad and granddad), and you can imagine that this was a tune which emerged from Paul’s heart as he watched him grow up. But, as with so many McCartney songs, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. It has a universal message any parent or child can tune into, whether it triggers warm memories or points a way to raising your own offspring when the time comes. Or both.

Paul with his son, James

The song certainly had a good reception when Paul performed it on his 1989/90 world tour, though he brought in other band members to bolster the delicate arrangement for stadium settings and added in the closing section of ‘Hello Goodbye’ to round it off (no idea why, but it worked quite well). Allegedly, it ended up being chosen as the album’s final single due to a strong reaction it garnered at a show in Paris in the autumn of 1989. This strikes me a little fanciful, likely one of the many tall tales put about by Geoff Baker, Pauls PR man/spin doctor at the time. There weren’t really that many obvious singles on the album, once ‘My Brave Face’ and ‘This One’ were out of the equation, so I suspect ‘Put It There’ was seen as having a bit of novelty potential. And, to be fair, in the more flexible, catholic charts of times past it might have had – though I don’t think it would ever have been a massive hit.

A still from the video

To promote it, a suitably simple video was put together. It mixes sepia-tinted shots of Paul performing the song in half-shadow alongside specially filmed footage of fathers and sons hanging out and having fun – playing football, swimming, making models, reading stories and so on. It’s a very idyllic portrait, true, emphasised by the old-fashioned, 1940s-style setting (perhaps harking back to Macca’s own childhood), and I guess whether you like or not will depend on your tolerance for this kind of sentiment. But it steers well clear of the contrived, mawkish approach of Mike and The Mechanics’ ‘The Living Years’, another song about filial relations released a year earlier. Most of the scenes running through the video have an authentic feel and are, I think, quite touching. We also get a nice pay-off at the end, as the clip closes with an old family photograph of McCartney father-son bonding, with James face-painting his famous dad.

The closing image of the video

‘Put It There’ is a kind of sister song – or perhaps that should be brother – to an earlier and equally fine McCartney composition about parental joy, ‘Mama’s Little Girl’, recorded by Wings in 1972. Paul or someone at MPL must’ve have thought likewise, as the widely-bootlegged tune was finally given an official release as the b-side of this single. Alas, even that wasn’t enough to tempt more than hardcore Macca fans into buying it. Despite the triumphant run of concerts in Birmingham and London (his first UK live shows in more than a decade) just prior to its release, ‘Put It There’ stalled at #32. Nonetheless, it hit the top 20 in the Republic of Ireland and even reached #9 in the Canadian charts. A timely reminder, perhaps, that the UK and US charts aren’t the be-all and end-all for significant chunks of the world population. For some baffling reason, neither this song nor any of the other Flowers tracks were included in the 2016 career-spanning Pure McCartney compilation, though the video did feature on the 2007 McCartney Years DVD collection (though, for another reason we can only guess at, the whole film was tinted blue). It’s a pity it hasn’t had a little more recognition, though maybe it will have its day in the sun eventually. It came to mind when I saw two dads playing football with their boys in a local park the other day, and it holds a charm and a truth that will never go out of fashion. As Paul sings, “it’s all that matters in the end.”

The tinted 2007 version of the video

Mixing a whole: the pros and cons of remixing The Beatles

Late last year,  the Harrison estate finally confirmed long-running speculation about the release of an expanded set to mark the 50th anniversary of George’s first post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass. Details of what it will contain and when it will come out (we are already past the anniversary date) are still to emerge, but we do know that the original album has been remixed. This, of course, plays to the rather schizophrenic view of the album among some fans. I’m forever reading people saying that this is the best Beatles solo album of all, and others proclaiming (often in the same breath) that it sounds terrible. It’s that evil Phil Spector again. The producer many hold accountable for “ruining” the multi-million selling Let It Be album with his meddling and overdubs was apparently also responsible for masterminding the recording of George’s most successful and acclaimed work, while simultaneously making it sound lousy by swathing it in his trademark  lush, orchestral ‘Wall of Sound’. Hmm. Even the official announcement quoted George’s son Dhani as saying: “Making this album sound clearer was always one of my dad’s greatest wishes and it was something we were working on together right up until he passed.” Putting aside the fact that George did reissue the album shortly before he died and chose not to tinker with the mix, what do we have in store when this set does eventually appear (which I’m betting will be closer to the 51st anniversary than the 50th)?

The new mix of ‘All Things Must Pass’

As a taster, a remix of the title track (one of the greatest of all Harrisongs) was made available on streaming and download platforms in November. Like other recent Beatles revamps (which I’ll come onto shortly), it sounds louder, with the instruments more clearly defined (especially the strings), and the vocals and drums more prominent. I could certainly hear a couple of little nuances in George’s vocal which weren’t evident before. So, a little different to the version we’ve all grown up with, but better? Improved? I wouldn’t say so. You see, I love All Things Must Pass just the way it is, Wall of Sound and all. You may say it’s bloated, overstuffed and mushy; I’d say it’s rich, epic and rammed  with goodies. In fact, it’s Spector’s Wagnerian production touches which help bestow some of the songs with the sense of grandeur they deserve (and it’s only one aspect of the record – as with Let It Be, it’s often overlooked that many of the tracks have much sparser, more low-key arrangements, according to their needs). In my book, it’s always sounded great. If there’s a record which is better produced than ‘My Sweet Lord’, for example, I’ve yet to hear it. Yes, you could argue some parts could be mixed further forward – I do concede there is some fine guitar playing from George here and there which is a little buried – but it’s swings and roundabouts. The point is, this is how George wanted it to sound at the time he made it.

Remixing, it would appear, is the new frontier when it comes to managing and marketing The Beatles’ group and solo catalogues. After all, if you haven’t got much in the way of new material left to put out (though that is seriously debatable), what better way of making people buy what they already own again – and possibly attract new fans – than to tweak the recordings, and make them sound different? Remastering – in other words, giving them a sonic upgrade – no longer seems to be enough; now we’re wading into the more murky waters of changing the way the songs sound. Think of it as being similar to making the grass in a painting by Constable a darker green, or giving the lines in a Van Gogh a bit more definition. Or, even worse, removing something from a painting altogether. Based on what we’ve heard on recent Beatles and Lennon releases, my views on this are (excuse the pun) decidedly mixed. I don’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud reactionary who views their recordings as some sort of untouchable, Dead Sea Scrolls, to be preserved forever in aspic. But, for the most part, the changes I’m hearing sure as hell aren’t making them sound better. In fact, I’d say they are unpicking the painstaking stitching The Beatles employed when creating their intricate tapestries. Just because modern technology allows you to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Promoting the 2017 ‘Pepper’ reissue

Aside from a some tasteful tweaks to some of John’s albums reissued in the early 2000s, the remixing juggernaut really got underway with the 50th anniversary re-release of Sgt Pepper in 2017. With the blessing of Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia Harrison, George Martin’s son and protégé Giles was given carte blanche to give the album a make-over and, I guess, freshen it up for 21st century ears. Given his loyalty to what his father had achieved in the first place, and his long-standing connection to the Beatles family, he was probably the ideal choice – they obviously trusted him not to spray-paint the Mona Lisa, as it were. And I have to say that when I first heard it, I was pleasantly surprised. He had really beefed up the sound, not only making it louder but giving the instruments and vocals more definition and space, allowing them to leap out of the speakers and fill the room – creating a more panoramic, ‘Cinemascope’ effect. Considering the whole album was created on primitive (by today’s standards) four-track recording machines, this was no mean feat. He had breathed new life into it. Many of the songs were enhanced, and I still stand by that.

Except then I started to notice things that were missing, or that were somehow gelded by the new mix. The way John and Paul’s vocals slowly drifted from left to right over the stereo ‘picture’ during the middle section of the title track – gone. The giddy, groaning ending to ‘Lovely Rita’ had lost its zip. Paul’s scorching guitar solo in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ sounded de-clawed. Worst of all – and it’s a massive failing – the rumbling, ominous orchestral cacophony which roars out of ‘A Day in the Life’ sounded hollow. By giving more clarity to the 41-piece orchestra ‘freak-out’, Martin robs it of its power, and the song is fatally hobbled as a result. Sometimes that dense packing of instruments, the way they interconnect and mesh together, is an integral part of what makes them work.

Like this photo, the 2019 remix puts a different slant on ‘Abbey Road’

This problem is even more pronounced on the 2019 remix of Abbey Road. This was the album which George Martin saw as his masterpiece, from a production point of view, and is generally regarded as the most ‘modern’ sounding of all Beatles records. Playing around with the structure of the songs was always going to be risky, and so it proved. It’s typified by how Giles approached ‘Something’, one of the most beautifully arranged and produced of all Fabs songs, with all its constituent parts melding together like a perfectly crafted Swiss watch. By bringing everything forward and separating them out, he has disrupted that delicate harmony. The strings, for example, now sound disconnected from the rest of the track. The rhythm guitar part sticks out like a sore thumb instead of blending in with everything else, and the cranked-up vocals and drums overpower everything else in the middle-eight section. Elsewhere on the album you can hear little bits and pieces which may have been obscured or downplayed before, but I’m not sure they add much to the listening experience – just the opposite, in fact. In ‘Come Together’, for example, pushing John’s buzzing guitar higher in the mix unbalances the song in my opinion. And worse, part of his vocal during the fade-out seems to have disappeared altogether. In ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, as with ‘A Day in the Life’, the layering of guitars, synthesisers and white noise which builds up to a thundering crescendo has lost some of its visceral impact. And while it’s harder to put my finger on, the imperious suite of songs which makes up the second half of the record just doesn’t sound the same. The one notable exception to all this dubious tampering is the new mix of ‘Oh! Darling’, which actually carries more of a punch and sounds terrific.

Of course, the ‘problem’ may lie with me, rather than the shiny new mixes. I’ve been listening to this music for my entire adult life, and expect things to sound a certain way, with everything in a certain place. I guess it’s a bit like coming home after a holiday and finding someone has moved all  your furniture around, and even added some new curtains. It probably meets the trendy tastes of some interior designer, but isn’t what you’re used to or what you’re comfortable with. Maybe some people had the same reaction when music switched from mono to stereo (and some people still prefer mono mixes), I don’t know. Maybe it won’t even be noticeable on phones or small portable speakers, it may even make the songs sound better on those devices. But if you want to listen to the albums on big speakers or a decent pair of headphones, much of it just doesn’t sound right. Crucially – and I keep coming back to this – they don’t sound how The Beatles and George Martin intended.

This comes more sharply into focus when you get to the most recent Lennon reissues. When 1971’s Imagine album was reissued for the umpteenth time in 2018, we were given what was entitled the ‘Ultimate Mix’ – and, to be honest, it wasn’t half bad. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s the most most satisfying Beatles-related remix so far. Like the best moments on the Sgt Pepper revamp, the songs sound largely the same, just fuller, with more presence, space and depth. They have ramped up the sound without, for the most part, sacrificing any of the textures and elements we’ve come to know and love.

The recent Lennon remix album. Truth has got little to do with it

By contrast, last year’s Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes compilation – overseen by John’s son Sean – is just horrendous. It’s so bad, I couldn’t even get all the way through it. Sticking with the art metaphor, it’s like they’ve scribbled on earrings, tattoos and a hipster beard onto the Mona Lisa in a bid to make her look more contemporary. Or to put it another way, by eradicating some of the blurring of the colours, they’ve made her look wan and washed-out. On tracks like ‘Mind Games’ and ‘#9 Dream’, the drums and vocals have been pushed to the fore, rendering the songs clunky and wrecking the subtlety of the original arrangements. ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, which always had something of a messy production, sounds far worse now it’s been ‘cleaned up’ and sanitised. And, ironically, the more modern-sounding numbers from Double Fantasy – like ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’ – have been stripped of their production sheen and just sound rougher. Like you’ve pulled off the cover of your laptop to reveal all the wires and circuits creating the magic which appears on its screen.

What is far more concerning and hard to swallow, however, is that some stuff has actually been removed by the remixing process. For example, the pulsating horns on ‘Steel and Glass’, a highlight of the song, are now nowhere to be found on the so-called ‘Ultimate Mix’. Unforgivable. And the 1973 Rock ‘n’ Roll album outtake ‘Angel Baby’ – which I’ve listed previously on this blog as my favourite cover by any of the solo Beatles – now sounds unrecognisable. From the removal of John’s charming spoken word introduction to the scaling down of the original huge-sounding brass arrangement (that man Phil Spector again), the track has been drained of life. Apologies for the metaphor overload, but it’s like a widescreen Technicolour epic has been reduced to a grainy, flickering home movie. A travesty. Even though John once said he would have liked to re-record every Beatles song, I struggle to believe he would have been on board with this. Changing the emphasis of a recording is one thing; taking out parts which the artist had put in there – in short, altering their vision of the song – is another entirely. What’s worrying is the guy behind this project, Paul Hicks, has also been in charge of overhauling All Things Must Pass. Be still my beating heart.

The new, de-horned verison ‘ Steel and Glass’. No, no, no.

Like it or not, I guess remixing is with us to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. As well as All Things Must Pass, this year is also set to bring new versions of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (which should be interesting, bearing in mind none of the songs feature more than three instruments) and, of course, Let It Be. Paul has yet to jump on the bandwagon with his reissues (with the exception of a modest remix of Tug of War in 2015), but I suspect it’s only a matter of time. I just hope the original versions do not disappear from view (though, if they do, I would imagine they will eventually be given a much trumpeted return – “the original mixes! As nature intended!”). Anyone discovering the band through these “ultimate mixes” will not only be given a distorted, inaccurate picture of what The Beatles created but – in many cases – be sold very short indeed. Cleaner isn’t always better. Sometimes music is meant to sound a little fuzzy and indistinct; sounds blending together to form something greater than the sum of their parts. And if people then start arbitrarily removing some of those parts as well, artistic integrity is one of the things which has passed away.

Finding my way: first impressions of ‘McCartney III’

I’d better start by coming clean – I’ve never been a big fan of either McCartney (1970) or McCartney II (1980). It’s not that I dislike them (there’s no such thing as a bad McCartney album, as far as I’m concerned), it’s just that they would come very low on the list when I come to rank his albums. Both are wildly erratic, showcasing Paul at his very best (with songs like ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘Every Night’, ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘One of These Days’) and at his absolute worst (‘Kreen Akrore’, ‘Valentine Day’, ‘Bogey Music’ and ‘Darkroom’). Half of each album is made up sketchy, unfinished musical doodles, throwaways and scratchy flights of whimsy which go nowhere. I understand that some people enjoy it when Paul retires to the studio alone, loosens up and  gives free rein to his more quirky impulses. But to read – as I have, repeatedly, in recent weeks – that these albums are “classics” and among his best solo efforts, leaves me baffled. I wonder how many people came to his music through these albums. Surely most of us were first drawn to the polished, fully-realised songwriting on Revolver, Sgt Pepper, Abbey Road or Band On The Run? Ah, but what about his contributions to the rough and ready White Album, I hear you say? To which I’d reply that, for every ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ or ‘Wild Honey Pie’, there were many more painstakingly perfected, lovingly produced (and, in my opinion, much better) numbers like ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and ‘Honey Pie’. Put it this way: I’d much rather have the full-on, concentrated Macca genius brought to full fruition on an album like Tug of War than the goofy, bitty, off-the-wall experimentalism of McCartney II – fun, and sporadically brilliant, though it is. There is room for both, of course, but it’s just what I prefer.

‘McCartney III’

So, aside from being thrilled at the prospect of a new McCartney album so soon after 2018’s Egypt Station, I was a little wary of the news that Paul had spent the year’s first Covid lockdown retreating to his studio to create another one-man, home-made, off-the-cuff production in the vein of its long-distant predecessors. Of course, fans of those albums were very excited at the prospect – the general feeling seemed to be that this time we’d get ‘pure Paul’, doing everything himself, giving in to his experimental side and not polishing stuff up too much or striving to please the pop crowd (such people are also invariably advocates of Macca’s more underground collaborations with the producer Youth, under the name of The Fireman, which I’ve never cared for). Which seems to overlook the fact that (a) Macca loves writing melodic pop songs, and always has, and (b) since 2001’s Driving Rain he’s recorded most of his new material on his own, and has never been afraid to go in off-beat directions (check out ‘Road’ from 2013’s New, if you don’t believe me). What going to be different this time was the lack of a producer and, perhaps, his own mindset. Also, those earlier McCartney albums were redeemed by some stellar songwriting, as I’ve said, heights he’s rarely hit this century. Without a ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ or even a ‘Coming Up’ to fall back on, would the new work lean much more heavily on half-baked, rambling fripperies like – ugh – ‘Check My Machine’? Or charming but inconsequential ditties like ‘Momma Miss America’?

Thankfully, McCartney III charts a different path. It’s more consistent, fleshed-out and wholly song-led than its two predecessors. It’s instrumentally more in keeping with McCartney (though not massively so), eschewing the synths and electronica which took up chunks of McCartney II, though it does retain some of the latter’s eccentricities and more idiosyncratic approach. Admittedly, there are no tracks worthy of legendary Macca status (though one comes mighty close), and there are moments when he could really have done with a second opinion, but there are no real misfires on it. It’s a solid set of songs which, as ever with Paul, reward repeated listening. Despite gripes from some quarters, his voice is more than adequate (I don’t get those criticisms – I mean, the guy’s 78, do people really expect him to have the same honeyed larynx of 20, 30 or 40 years ago?). Sure, it cracks and frays here and there, but for the most part it’s still strong and pure. And even its weaknesses add authenticity, reflecting the passage of time and how much water has flowed under the bridge since that same voice crooned ‘Michelle’ in 1965. I would’ve liked more bass and lead guitar flourishes, but his playing and arrangements are as inventive as ever. He’s still a questing artistic soul, constantly looking for new ground on which to express himself, employing new pallets and textures or clever mixtures of old ones. I don’t want to keep bringing up the “he’s nearly 80!” line, but the fact he is still showing some of that creative fire is astonishing.

In the studio during, ahem, ‘rockdown’

I’m not generally a fan of instrumentals, but ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ makes for a decent opener. While the main riff is nothing special, I love the descending guitar lines and discordant notes which break it up. Without ever really going anywhere, it builds nicely, layering scratchy guitars, flying in snatches of spooky recorder and ghostly vocals, and picking up pace with some really solid drumming. It’s simple yet clever, and has a rootsy, Celtic vibe which reminds me strongly of 1978’s London Town. Maybe it overstays its welcome by a minute or so, but I can live with that.

‘Find My Way’ is the nearest thing on the album to a McCartney pop song, albeit a lo-fi, slightly off-kilter variant of it. I’m not entirely sure what passes as indie rock these days, but the snatches I’ve heard don’t sound a million miles away from this. It mixes big power-pop chords with synth-brass, free-wheeling rhythms and tricksy, effects-laden guitar breaks, plus a false ending. The confident, driving verses are fine, but the falsetto middle sections are especially good, giving the song added urgency and weight. He sings about fears and anxieties, yet still manages to retain that trademark Macca feeling of optimism. It’s a real grower, and is probably the track which will receive the most airplay.

The video for ‘Find My Way’

Ringing acoustic guitars drive the more gentle ‘Pretty Boys’, which he says was inspired by reflections on the lot of male models (and probably some of his own experiences as one of the most photographed people of the 1960s). Its an unusual subject matter for Paul, but showcases his gifts as a sharp, intuitive observer and empathetic storyteller. The words are framed by a really sweet, stately melody, and his slightly careworn vocals add poignancy. It’s one of my favourites on the album. ‘Woman and Wives’, on the other hand is one of the least effective tracks. Paul affects a deep, growling vocal in the style of an old Delta bluesman over rolling piano chords, as he attempts to impart some homespun wisdom about the paths we travel and the choices we make, etc. It’s not a bad song, and has some nice twists and turns as the lines flow into each other, but it sounds a little forced and isn’t quite as portentous as I think he’d like it to be.

By contrast, ‘Lavatory Lil’ is light-hearted to the point of silliness. A basic, bluesy rocker with a nagging, sinewy guitar riff and call-and-response vocals, it sees Macca taking aim at a mystery woman who wronged him in the past (there is one obvious candidate, of course, but I can’t believe he’d want to re-open those wounds so publicly). It’s nothing to get excited about, but the caustic lyrics give it a bit of substance and it is good, infectious fun.

‘Deep Deep Feeling’ is the album’s centrepiece and, for me, comfortably its stand-out track. A brooding, impassioned epic, it starts very bare, with Paul singing tautly over a simple drum pattern. But it slowly grows into a rich, complex soundscape as he weaves in prowling, howling guitars, orchestral samples, counter melodies, tempo changes and a gorgeous, haunting piano part. Stretching out well over eight minutes, it achieves a hypnotic, unsettling effect, powered by the uncharacteristically direct lyrics about the emotional extremes of being in love. If I’m being critical, it lacks a soaring, break-out moment – perhaps a raging guitar solo (as in 2007’s ‘House of Wax’), or an old-school, screaming Macca vocal. But even without that, it’s still a wonderful piece, unlike anything he’s ever done (which, over a 60-year career, is saying something) and ranks among his best songs from the last 20 years.

At the mixing desk

The second of the album’s rockers, ‘Slidin’’ is the better of the two, thanks to its meaty, swampy sound and more dramatic tone. Originating from a soundtrack jam with his touring band, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jnr. both play on this, which spoils the DIY ethos somewhat (and neither do anything on this Paul couldn’t have done just as well himself). It lacks the sense of abandon you find in his best rock songs, but it’s still a decent track and, again, the falsetto sections work very well. ‘The Kiss of Venus’ is a curious one. An acoustic, romantic ballad, it doesn’t quite sound like his previous work in this field – mainly, I think, due to the brittle, elusive tune. I’m not sure the high-pitched vocal does it any favours, and some of the lyrics are a bit too obscure. That said, it has a winsome charm, and the harpsichord break is a nice touch. Another grower, I suspect.

While it may or may not be a comment on the Covid calamities of the past year, ‘Seize The Day’ is an unabashed McCartney pop pep-talk. Perky and life-affirming, it reminds me a little of The Feeling, the soft-rock band who commandeered the UK airwaves with a string of such hits in the late 2000s, and who seemed to take their lead from the likes of Supertramp, 10cc and, er, Wings. There are some nice, silly, slightly surreal lines about Eskimos, dinosaurs and Santa Claus, and a solid middle eight. The chorus doesn’t carry the punch it should, though, and it lacks something special to lift it above the norm. But it’s okay.

With his beloved ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ upright bass

Next up is another of my favourites, ‘Deep Down’. You wouldn’t think a song built around a couple of simple chord changes could sound so good, but it really does. The keyboards are so evocative and, meshed with the drums, form a relentless, irresistible groove, with echoes of ‘70s soul as well as a more modern, chill-out feel. It is punctuated by some tasty bursts of synth brass, and also boasts Paul best vocals on the album, as he pulls out a range of styles from his still-formidable bag of singing tricks to deliver the slightly saucy lyrics. At just under six minutes, it is a shade too long, and would’ve undoubtedly benefited from a producer’s input. More lyrics or a shift of musical gears midway through could’ve elevated this to an out-and-out classic. Nonetheless, it’s still a very strong number, and was the one which stuck in my brain after a single listen.

The album closes with ‘Winter Bird/When Winter Comes’, a brief reprise of the opening track followed by an acoustic guitar song Paul recorded with George Martin back in 1992. The same session yielded ‘Calico Skies’ and ‘Great Day’, which later appeared on Flaming Pie, but – while I know a lot of people like this one – I just don’t think it is of the same calibre. If it had (as originally intended) appeared on the recent Pie reissue, I would probably have thought: “That’s okay, but I can see why it didn’t make the cut.” The melody is so-so and the bucolic lyrics make it a distant cousin to ‘Heart of the Country’, which has always been my least favourite track on Ram. I don’t mind his rustic ruminations, I just think he can tackle them in more poetic, lyrical fashion (as with ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, or even ‘I Lie Around’). It’s not without its charms, but he’s done it better before.

The short animated film for ‘When Winter Comes’

The main plus about ‘When Winter Comes’, though, is that it was the song which got him back in the studio (to record some extra music for the short animation film which accompanies it) and thus triggered this whole project. I’m not sure I buy his story that he never intended to make an album but, either way, it doesn’t really matter. I’m just glad he did. It’s definitely an unexpected bonus, and there is a temptation these days among fans and, indeed, critics (my, how times have changed) to go overboard in greeting anything we get from rock legends at this stage in their careers. Look at the rapturous response to Bob Dylan’s latest album earlier in the year. In truth, I think there’s a bit of that with this record (especially considering how some earlier, stronger albums were treated) – but not excessively so. And if anyone’s earned the right to a few garlands, surely it’s Paul McCartney.

If you’re one of those people who, for some reason, cannot bring themselves to appreciate anything he’s done since The Beatles, or who just isn’t a fan of latter-day Macca material, it’s not going to convert you. But if you’re someone who is still hooked on hearing what Beatle Paul is going to come up with next, there’s a lot to enjoy. It’s never going to be among my favourite McCartney collections – in fact, it will probably end up fairly low on the list, though that’s more to do with the absurdly high standards he’s set in the past (and possibly my own jaded mentality) than any real failings here. Irrespective of how old he is or what he’s done before, McCartney III succeeds on its own merits as a playful, uplifting, occasionally stirring and always interesting record which proves he can still push buttons that no-one else can. And it wouldn’t have happened without the shit-show that was 2020. Once again, he’s taken a sad song and made it better.