Tag Archives: Paul McCartney

Rocks In The Attic #636: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’ (1982)

RITA#636Happy Halloween!

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted local Kiwi soap actor turned Hollywood bit-player Karl Urban in an Auckland shopping mall. After taking a surreptitious photo of him on my phone to send to my jealous wife (a big fan), I retreated with my kids up the escalators to the next level. Halfway up, I turned around to look back, and Urban was following us, a half dozen steps behind. We locked eyes, and I immediately saw the look of dread (dredd?) in his eyes. ‘Oh no…’ I imagined him thinking, ‘…another middle-aged Star Trek fan to make my life a misery. I just wanted to buy some underpants.’

I left him to his shopping (although I believe he was actually going to the cinema, probably the new Queen Latifah film† ), and went off with the kids. If I was any more of a fan, I might have approached him for a selfie, but I’d met him before – my friend asked for his autograph at the same event where I met Quentin Tarantino – and I didn’t get a good vide from him then.

A few minutes later, still buoyed from seeing a Hollywood actor in such a normal place, we stepped inside a shop. Michael Jackson’s Thriller started playing on the shop’s music system just as we walked in. It was the first time in a long time I had heard the song, and definitely the first time in a very long time I had heard it played at a decent volume. Man, what a song. I stayed in there for six minutes, holding my crotch with one hand, the back of my head with the other, and bending my knee in time to the beat, just so I could hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, I’m now banned from all branches of Bendon lingerie.

Often labelled as the best-selling album of all time – and rightly so, despite some strange reporting of sales numbers ranging between 66 million to 120 million – Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a beast of a record. His sixth solo studio record, it is the second album released on the Epic label following 1979’s Off The Wall, traditionally seen as the true starting point of his adult career.

Like Off The Wall, it is produced by Quincy Jones and where the earlier album was a marked departure from Jackson’s recording history with Motown, Thriller went a thousand steps further and turned him into a pop music phenomenon.

Prior to MTV landing in the UK – and light years before such things were readily available on the internet – my Dad would always try and seek out John Landis’ longform music video to Thriller, wherever he could. Every year, there was an American TV show, counting down the top 100 music videos, presented by Casey Kasem, and broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV. I recall my Dad waking me up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion just so we could go and watch the Thriller video in all its gory glory.

That 13-minute video is probably the reason I turned into such a big horror fan in my early teens, and is why I now spend so much time and effort on the internet pre-ordering horror soundtracks from Waxwork Records.

Thriller, the song, is worth the price of admission alone. But it isn’t even the biggest, most enduring hit on there. In fact, it was way down the list, the seventh and final single to be taken from the record.

Side two, song two, kicks off with perhaps one of the greatest locked–in grooves throughout all of pop, soul or funk. It’s such a groove, almost mathematical in its execution, that you can actually see it visually on the surface of the record, almost like a spiral that repeats on every rotation. The song, Billie Jean, is timeless, despite a music video that is – in contrast to the one for Thriller – heavily dated, with graphics and editing techniques showing the early days of MTV on its pastel-pink shirt sleeve.

Beat It, the other US#1 on the record (alongside Billie Jean), is another great song. Proving that Jackson can do hard rock just as well as he can do pop, the song’s centrepiece is a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen – the hottest guitar player at the time. Upon hearing of Jackson’s request to appear on the song, Van Halen initially thought he was being pranked – especially when Jackson phoned and told him, in his high-pitched voice, that “I really like that high, fast stuff you do.” He later recorded his solo in a separate studio to a tape of the backing track, for no charge.

Beat It is clearly the heaviest song on the record, forewarned by a series of ominous synthesiser gongs on the intro (lifted note for note from a demo recording of the Synclavier II synthesiser). The lyrics re-imagine Jackson as a street punk – an idea he would revisit on the title track of his next album, Bad. However, where Beat It genuinely sounds tough, Bad sounds like a pastiche of street violence – with the opening lyric “Your butt is mine” showing how far out of touch Jackson had become since 1987.

The other singles on ThrillerThe Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – are all very strong and individually could be the centrepiece of a lesser album. Personally I could do without the opening single, The Girl Is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. It isn’t a terrible song, but it’s easily the weakest of the seven singles, and pales in comparison to their other duet, Say Say Say, from McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace album. Released as a single during Jackson’s two-year promotion of the Thriller album, Say Say Say hit US#1; The Girl Is Mine had stalled at US#2.

I have such happy memories of the Thriller record. In terms of albums, I’d definitely choose it as one of my desert island discs. It has everything – songwriting, production and performance; a truly magical record.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

†  Queen Latifah gag, copyright Seema Lal 2017

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Rocks In The Attic #586: Walter Carlos – ‘Switched On Bach’ (1968)

RITA#586
I’ve been hearing a lot about this record recently, as I make my way through the Beatles Anthology Revisited – a sublime 28-hour ‘unofficial’ podcast I managed to hunt down online (despite it being continually taken down at the behest of Apple).

An influence on the Beatles’ swansong Abbey Road – if only a technical inspiration – Switched On Bach pointed to the way that a Moog synthesiser could be employed on record. I’m sure the Beatles would have been paying close attention to this album before they utilised George’s Moog on Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Here Comes The Sun, Because and I Want You (She’s So Heavy).

Thankfully, the Beatles’ use of the synthesiser was relatively subtle and not as plinky-plonky as Walter – now Wendy – Carlos’ homage to Bach. It really sounds like music conceived inside a computer – which of course, it is – and it’s not hard to imagine this sounding so futuristic back in the late ‘60s. It still sounds futuristic!

Carlos would repeat the formula in 1971 on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, this time playing the Moog to reproduce a couple of Ludwig Van’s big hits.

Hit: Air On A G String

Hidden Gem: Sinfonia To Cantata No. 29

Rocks In The Attic #578: Peter And Gordon – ‘Peter And Gordon’ (1964)

RITA#578Having Paul McCartney as your ­almost­ brother-in-law can’t be anything other than a good thing, especially if you’re trying to break into the music business.

In 1963, the Beatles left Liverpool for the Big Smoke of London town. John Lennon rented an apartment with wife Cynthia, while George and Ringo shared a flat together. Paul however moved into the house owned by the parents of his then-girlfriend (and later, fiancé) Jane Asher. Understandably, Paul was not allowed to sleep in Jane’s room, and so shared a room with her brother, Peter Asher.

In 1963, Paul offered the song A World Without Love to Peter and his song-writing partner Gordon Waller, after the duo were signed up by Columbia Records. The song had been written by Paul when he was a teenager, but had been deemed unsuitable for the Beatles. It would appear it was John who held the veto, as he could never get past Paul’s opening lyric. “The funny first line always used to please John,” Paul told Barry Miles in 1997. “’Please lock me away…’ ‘Yes, okay.’ End of song.”

You’d be wrong in thinking that Peter And Gordon were a one-hit wonder. McCartney’s kindness did help them establish their name – it was a number one on both sides of the Atlantic – but they didn’t stop there. They released a number of singles that charted in the Top Twenty, and their approach as a sort of English answer to Simon & Garfunkel would have been quite a refreshing change given that the charts would have been filled with pop, and rock and roll.

This debut album is really strong, and while it’s clear to see that Lennon and McCartney’s A World Without Love is the centrepiece of the record, there’s plenty of highlights along the way, whether it’s their own material, or covers like Little Richard’s Lucille or Ray Charles’ Leave My Woman Alone.

Hit: World Without Love

Hidden Gem: If I Were You

Rocks In The Attic #568: Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington – ‘Thrillington’ (1977)

RITA#568.jpgIn 1971, Paul McCartney had just recorded his second solo album, Ram (actually his third if you include his 1967 soundtrack to The Family Way). He had credited the record to ‘Paul and Linda McCartney’, to get around the publishing contract he had signed as a Beatle. Under that contract, any solo recordings he made until 1973 were owned by Northern Songs, so wisely he credited the album to himself and his wife.

It’s not surprising that McCartney was pleased with Ram; despite a fair bit of whimsy, it’s a massive improvement on his uneven debut solo record. If a comparison were to be made, you could argue that the melodies on Ram follow on from the more powerful moments of Abbey Road. However, where his contributions to the Beatles’ final recorded studio record were tempered with songs by John, George and even Ringo, Ram found McCartney writing and performing the whole thing by himself in fifth gear.

Before Ram was even released, McCartney had asked arranger Richard Anthony Hewson to orchestrate the whole record as a collection of light orchestral instrumental songs, intended for a separate release. Among the orchestra who played on these sessions at Abbey Road were the cream of the studio players of the day – James Bond Theme guitarist Vic Flick, bassist Herbie Flowers and drummer Clem Cattini.

The end result is an oddity. It is thought the indulgent project was undertaken to please his father, who played in bands of this nature during the First World War – but as Howard Sounes, author of Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney, points out, ‘the record…sounds like incidental television music, with a soupcon of the tea dance’.

Following the release of Ram in May 1971, and the recording of the instrumental version in June 1971, Paul formed Wings alongside Linda, Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine and session drummer Denny Seiwell. As a result of this new direction, the instrumental Ram was shelved, and McCartney’s band went on to record and release Wild Life instead.

rita568a‘When Paul did finally put this off record out,’ Sounes writes, ‘he did so as quietly as possible under a pseudonym, titling the album Thrillington after an invented character named Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington “Born in Coventry Cathedral in 1939”. Somehow this wasn’t as amusing as Paul obviously thought it was.’

Thrillington finally saw the light of day in April 1977, released between 1976’s triple-live album Wings Over America and 1978’s London Town. While McCartney is pictured on the record’s rear cover as a reflection in the glass of the studio’s control room, and thus identifying him as the true producer of the album, Thrillington went largely unnoticed until McCartney revealed the connection during a 1989 press-conference. Following this admission, the record tripled in value and hasn’t been reissued on vinyl since its original release.

Hit: Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey

Hidden Gem: Smile Away

Rocks In The Attic #561: The Kinks – ‘Kinda Kinks’ (1965)

rita561If there’s one ‘60s group whose album output doesn’t quite match up to their singles output, it’s probably the Kinks. The A-sides that Ray Davies wrote during that decade are up there with the best anybody else had to offer. He’s the only songwriter that comes anywhere close to the strength of Lennon and McCartney’s singles, yet the first batch of Kinks albums in the mid-‘60s don’t really deliver on that promise.

Their debut record is built around You Really Got Me, this follow-up is buoyed by Tired Of Waiting For You, the third album has ‘Til The End Of The Day and Where Have All The Good Times Gone, and album number four has Sunny Afternoon on it. Most of – but definitely not all of – the rest of these records have a load of generic R&B-inflected filler material making up the numbers. It actually makes sense in this case to own at least one good Kinks compilation. There’s nothing patchy about a collection of their singles.

My favourite track on Kinda Kinks is Nothin’ In The World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl, notable for its appearance in Kinks-fan Wes Anderson’s Rushmore soundtrack. This really is a beautiful, tender song and hints at the more mature songwriting we would hear from Ray Davies much further towards the end of the decade. So Long is another song in this folk vein, where you can hear more of what the Kinks became, rather than the American R&B they’re aping on the rest of the record.

Hit: Tired Of Waiting For You

Hidden Gem: Nothin’ In The World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl

Rocks In The Attic #549: Wings – ‘Wings Greatest’ (1978)

RITA#549.jpgI’m currently half-way through reading Howard Sounes’ Fab: The Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney. While it’s not the most revelatory of Beatle biographies, Sounes does win points for writing the most cutting paragraph of Sir Paul’s woeful fashion sense:

Paul showed up in a baggy tartan suit, like a Caledonian clown. [Linda McCartney] wore a maternity dress. Paul had cut a sharp figure during the Sixties, never more so than when he strode across the Abbey Road zebra crossing in a beautifully tailored Saville Row suit. Now he had mislaid his style compass. It would be years until he found it again. Not all Seventies fashion was bad, but it is fair to say that Paul McCartney dressed appallingly throughout that decade and much of the Eighties, wearing ill-chosen clothes and sporting a trendy yet hideous mullet haircut.

Ouch! Thankfully, unless you scan the record covers intensely, it’s now quite easily to overlook his sartorial crimes. All’s that’s left is a load of catchy – sometimes syrupy – songs. The other target in Sounes’ book is the strength – or weakness, if we’re going to be honest – of McCartney’s lyrics. For me, you can forgive something like Silly Love Songs when you have something like Live And Let Die to consider. The unbelievably good sometimes outweighs the unbelievably bad. Still, he does seem to defer to the act of choosing words because they rhyme rather than the words meaning anything. Just try and decipher the lyrics to Jet; it’s just gibberish.

You can’t fault the man’s light-hearted approach to promotion though. The album was supported by a jokey television advert, featuring several members of the public singing Wings tunes, ending with a dustman, parked in his lorry in Abbey Road, singing a wildly out of tune rendition of Band On The Run, at which point Paul, Linda and Denny Laine pull up alongside and Paul shouts “You’re a bit flat mate!”. The driver leans out his window and says “Funny, I only checked them this morning”.

Hit: Live And Let Die

Hidden Gem: Junior’s Farm

Rocks In The Attic #530: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – ‘Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ (1976)

rita530It’s a shame that the songwriting of Tom Petty hasn’t earned him a personalised adjective like other famous rockers. You could throw a couple of chords together and somebody might say it sounds Dylanesque, or if your song has a melodic walking bassline it could be accused of sounding McCartneyesque. But unfortunately if you write a song that has all the hallmarks of a Heartbreakers song, nobody says that it sounds a bit Petty. Maybe this does happen and all the recording studio bust-ups are over a simple misunderstanding.

I recently had a week off work. I caught a horrible virus from my four-year old, and felt like death for a few days. During that week – and you need that amount of time to set aside – I watched Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour Tom Petty documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been ill, but it was a really great watch regardless.

It’s become de rigueur for an all-encapsulating documentary to be directed by a big-name director. As well as Bogdanovich’s Petty-thon, there’s Scorsese’s doco on George Harrison, and Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam film. Concert films attract big names too – Jonathan Demme’s work with Talking Heads and Neil Young, Scorsese’s Last Waltz with the Band, Wim Wenders foray into Cuban music, Taylor Hackford’s profile of Chuck Berry, Scorsese’s and Hal Ashby’s work with the Stones. The list is endless, and probably driven by the fact that most film directors are big fans of music to begin with.

I can’t make my mind up about Tom Petty. I love his earlier material, like this album and the unequalled  Damn The Torpedoes, but his later work in the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond stray a little too close to the middle of the road for my liking. Maybe I’m just being a little Petty in saying that.

Hit: American Girl

Hidden Gem: Breakdown