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Road to Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

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Sue Sorensen

#418 – Paul McCartney and Wings, “Band on the Run”

I sat down to write the review for Band on the Run in the early afternoon. I had a good chunk of time lined up, I sat down on the balcony where I’m staying in Edmonton, the record was all cued up for another listen…

And I couldn’t listen. It had to wait until sunset. It was just too early in the day. This is a sunset record. The hero returning home from the day’s heroic efforts. The hero then slips into recline mode in the car on the way home. At least, this self-described hero did for about a week now. Those opening chords and nifty little harmonies on the title track told me that it was OK to let down the guard a little bit. (Not too much – I was still on the road, after all). The hero walks in the door to the apartment during the transition riff section (“If I ever get here/gonna give it all away”), and then enters the real stage (the balcony) to the screams of passers-by below on the iconic, epic string section that singles one of Paul’s most well-loved songs. This was a fun charade to partake in.

As I write this, I’m struck by how I’m turning into my dad. I have memories of driving on some deserted American highway (on multiple occasions), and having this come on the radio. Dad would crank the volume way up with a delighted laugh that could also be described as a cackle, almost as though he was delighted that he was corrupting the music tastes of my brother and I. Thank goodness he did.

Aside from the album’s second track, “Jet” and the iconic “Let Me Roll It”, I’m not sure that I would be able to name a single song by Wings. The other thing about Wings that I know is the combo of Paul and Linda, which I really only came into consciousness of a few years ago when news of Paul’s divorce was impossible to ignore (and it wasn’t even Linda who he was divorcing!). Add this to the pile of things that need to be explored further once we get through the rest of these records.

I’m really gonna only have time to deep dive on so many of these artists in like 2023. One day, I vow to be well-read on all of these people.

I love “Jet” just as much as “Band on the Run” in a lot of ways. Both have really catchy, singable hooks that make you look like fools as you try and replicate what Paul’s doing with his vocals, and they’re both good at pushing the boundaries of pop music, with interesting song construction and unique elements. Other songs on this record of those unique elements, too, but the singability falls off a lot, and it becomes more a thinkpiece album than a jam record. “Bluebird”, for instance, could have just as easily been an early Radiohead record, and no one would have even batted an eye. “Mamunia” is enough to entrance you with the melody line of the chorus and its more minimalist structure. On the whole, lots of these songs were given a more exotic kind of a feel. “Mamunia” has the vibe of being in a hammock in some trendy destination over reading week, and “No Words” also has the feel of being gathered around a beach campfire. This was influenced by the fact that much of the conception and recording of this record took place in Nigeria, which had a great influence on the songs here. Those kinds of songs, while neat, is not what makes this a memorable record. A small number of songs take this up from being a neat record to “BAAAAAAAND ON THE RUNN!”

Arguably my favorite track on here was “Let Me Roll It”. This is just as much a feel good jam as “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and “Don’t Stop Believin'”. The difference – and the most attractive quality of this – is the 70’s rock bite that the song has underneath the ultra-singable chorus. The deep, percussive presence of Paul’s signature bass is brought out of the texture in a big way, and the dry snare and kick further underline that punch. An all-too-present electric guitar is right there to highlight the song’s groovability, and also to give you that place to unabashed place to bust out a poorly timed air guitar solo.

So go ahead. Throw this one down on the old turntable. You’ve earned it, you daily hero, you. Belt it out and tell the world about the jailer man and Sailor Sam. They deserve to know!

sueSS: It was a surprise to me, researching Paul McCartney this week, to find out how prolific he has been in the many years since The Beatles broke up in 1970. I was certainly aware of this album, a hit in 1973 and the biggest album Wings ever had, and to a lesser extent aware of the other albums that Wings recorded throughout the 1970’s. But McCartney has also been involved in more than 20 other post-Beatles albums. As the years have progressed, fewer and fewer of the albums have made a major impact, especially outside the U.K. That’s fascinating, considering the importance of the Lennon-McCartney songbook in the history of pop music.

The assets and liabilities of Band on the Run provide an overview of the reasons for McCartney’s uneven musical legacy. The first two cuts on the album, the cleverly shape-shifting “Band on the Run” and the unusually vigorous rocker “Jet,” are ingenious and memorable. Although I never owned this album, these two songs are somehow burned into my brain. I suspect they were in constant rotation on mainstream radio when I was a kid; through much of the seventies I was trapped on a school bus for two hours a day and forced to listen to whatever the school bus driver tuned into. As a result there is a lot of sonic junk imbedded in my psyche and I’m somewhat bitter about it. But I’m fond of “Band on the Run,” a fast-moving, quixotic suite stitched together from several different songs; it’s a less exotic relative of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or McCartney’s own “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” a longish song which, like “Band on the Run,” features three distinct melodies in a medley that shouldn’t work but nevertheless does.

“Jet” is energetic and spontaneous McCartney, the song of a man delighted to be freed from Beatlemania (and various constricting Beatles contracts). The stanzas are the nicely melodic stuff we would expect from the guy who wrote “Yesterday” but the refrain is a surprise: the mere joyous shout of “Jet!” The lyrics are mostly nonsense (“I thought the major was a lady suffragette”), something that holds true for the rest of the album, but the lighthearted, fresh-out-of-jail high spirits here make for a great song.

Band on the Run is a loosely conceived concept album about captivity and freedom but not nearly as complicated as other high concept projects of the era (The Who’s Tommy, Queen’s A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, and of course Pink Floyd’s The Wall). The listener could be forgiven for not even noticing the theme, which is held lightly. In the album’s last song, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” (which must have seemed a long way off at the time), bits of the first song recur and are playfully transformed – but such high concept games are subtle and in the background.

So those are the assets. As for the aforementioned “liabilities,” the rest of the songs on the album, especially the repetitive, eventually irritating “Let Me Roll It,” “Mamunia,” and “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” are not much more than ditties you might try out around the campfire. I do like the liveliness of “Mrs. Vandebilt” and yes, that’s the way it’s spelled. The love song “Bluebird” has been praised, but compared to McCartney’s other songs for his wife Linda, especially “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “My Love,” it’s thin although undeniably sweet. It’s clear throughout the album that McCartney just wants to write impulsive, happy songs without worrying too much about being one-quarter of the most important band in the world.

Wings was always Paul McCartney’s band and no one ever believed otherwise. Indeed, just as Band on the Run was about to be recorded most of the members argued with McCartney and took off, leaving only Linda McCartney and the loyal Denny Laine. Various others helped out later, but it wouldn’t be wrong to remember Wings as a trio. It’s hard to know what to do with the joint music credits for Paul and Linda on most of the Wings material; I want to believe in their partnership, and certainly they always seemed very close. (In some photographs they look eerily like siblings; there was something about the hooded and innocent quality of their eyes.) Her backing vocals and keyboard playing were, however, modest accomplishments. Still: her presence encouraged him to write some charming and graceful love songs like “Listen to What the Man Said” and especially the beautiful “Maybe I’m Amazed.” (If, however, she was the impetus behind the egregious “Silly Love Songs,” I am less impressed.)

What I’m working around to saying is that McCartney needed a stronger collaborator post-1970. There are a few good songs in the Wings catalogue but fewer still in the post-Wings songbook. McCartney is a natural songwriter of outstanding instinctive gifts, but without a strong (and provocative) partner like John Lennon, McCartney has produced (dare I say it?) quite a lot of material that is pretty thin when you hold it up to the light.

But it’s well worth spending some time with the enjoyable first two songs on this album – and pondering the astonishing fact that Paul McCartney to this day apparently cannot read a note of music.

You know what? We try so hard to make interesting picks with the songs we put at the bottom of these posts, but there really are no other two songs we’d want at the bottom here.

 

 

 

 

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#426 – Cheap Trick, “At Budokan”

the screaming fans are a must for a live album. There is no shortage of that. Honestly, the way that these Japanese teenagers are losing their minds for Cheap Trick of all things is a bit of a laugh to me, but I likely don’t appreciate this band enough. That’s all right – that’s why we have Sue to tell us why they’re important.

Live albums are always a crap shoot to me. The engineering is often way off, and you get a imbalance in the mix. To me, I could have used more of the crowd noise and more of the high frequency noises. One game I like to play is figure out mic placement on stage and how it’s all being recorded. To me, off the top, I had thought the mics were behind the drums, based on how much of them there were in the mix. Maybe I was wrong, and it turned out to be a moot point, as there were so many more interesting conversation points around At Budokan.

Here’s what I will say for Cheap Trick as a live act. A) they are not complicated to follow along with. The structure of the songs are catchy, and they have all the elements of a classic rock tune that’ll stoke your fire. B) You can hear them play the crowd. “Lookout” has frontman Robin Zander egging the crowd on, clapping along, and playing the crowd. I deliberately didn’t look up video from their performance (although I’ll see if I can find some for the bottom of this post), because I wanted to experience the album, and not necessarily the concert. From a performance perspective, Zander did one thing incredibly well on this record, and that is reading your audience. If he had gone into some diatribe in between every song, he would have lost his audience for sure. (I’m just going out on a limb here, but I doubt any member of the band speaks Japanese). What Zander does though, is announce the song we’re about to play in a slow voice, so that the audience member gets to experience one of the most underrated feelings of being at a concert – the thrill that your favorite band is about to play your favorite song. You get irrationally excited for a moment or so before the band starts actually playing. This is followed by a sort of letdown moment when you realize that the song you are hearing the band play only sort of resembles that song you fell in love with on the radio, but you’ll still give it up for a heck of a performance when the band is through. “Need! Your! Love! Need Your Love!” Zander shouts at the hordes of excited fans, to ensure that no member of the audience misses out on that excitement that precedes the playing of a hit tune. Whether this was intentional or not, I have no idea. But it was a bit of stagecraft that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

As can be evidenced by the (slightly over-indulgent) drum solo though right off the top, this is a definitely a rock live show. I mean this in the sense is that this was a rock show, not a multimedia spectavle show like Coldplay and Muse. While these shows have tons of merit, we just have a hair-thrashing sound that can be transported into any sort of venue, from the Casbah in Hamilton, to the Commodore in Vancouver, and, yes, to the Budokan in Tokyo. This is an amazing live record in that there are no frills, no added elements, just good rocking. It’s a wall of good times and sound all the way through, even during the eight and a half minute epic “Need Your Love”. There’s nothing experimental about any of this – you’re just getting unadulterated rock and roll for your dollar tonight.

At the end of the day, that’s the virtue of listening to Cheap Trick. It’s honest, straight-shooting, and isn’t gonna take you for any sort of loop. “Goodnight” and “Hello There” are the two-track pairing that make this the most clear. They are essentially the same song that provide the most obvious bookend to a concert that you’ve ever heard. It couldn’t be more clear how the show is laid out if someone had handed you a paper program at the door. At Budokan the prairie farmer who doesn’t have time to run you around the bush when there’s real work to be done. It’s the barista in your small town who you don’t even bother asking for a half-sweet anything, because you know that they’re gonna bring you a black coffee anyway. It’s my neck of the woods put into rock and roll. It’s not an accident that this record – a live album – charted number one in Canada and only number four in other countries. This is music we can get behind. The songs as a whole – maybe not necessarily the kind of generic lyrics but the way the songs are simply written – are songs that resonate well.

sueSS: Power pop, and its close relation, alternative rock, were a big deal to me when I was younger.  Exactly what these genres meant in the late 1970’s and 80’s has been, to a certain extent, lost, just as the meaning of punk is sometimes misconstrued (I’m sorry, but none of the following are punk bands: Blink-182, Sloan, The Cure, The Cult – we need to get our definitions straight, people). These styles are, however, all interrelated. Punk pioneers The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash released their first albums in 1976 and 1977, but because their sounds were so extreme and their messages so uncompromising and aggressive, it took a while for their influence to be felt, never mind accepted, in places outside London and New York. There was no way that stuff was getting any radio airplay, so it was hard to find out about it. In small-town Saskatchewan (where I grew up) we could sense the musical turmoil, but it was mostly available in diluted form. That’s where bands like Cheap Trick came in. That sounds like I’m slighting them, but really it was a good sound: subtract the threat, add some tunefulness, keep just enough of the energy.

So Cheap Trick, when they started out, offered some of the propulsion of punk and could deliver roughed-up, amiably twisted versions of 1950’s and early 1960’s pop. They also – and it may now be hard to see this – meant to be somewhat comic. Their first few albums delivered fun Beatles rip-offs and lead singer Robin Zander could do a weird parodic Elvis Presley thing when he wanted. The main thing to know about all of these genres – power pop, alternative rock, and their grandpappy, punk – is that they stood against the decadence of disco, the baroque excess of bloated stadium rock, and the country-rock whining of bands like The Eagles. The particularly egregious band in the cross-hairs was, to my mind, Fleetwood Mac, who dominated the years when the stripped-down punkish protest genres began to spring up. Fleetwood Mac were good musicians and they were rooted in the blues, but they became far too self-indulgent.

It probably won’t surprise knowledgeable followers of rock and roll history that Cheap Trick, of course, became enmeshed in the stadium rock quagmire anyway. Even by 1979, the over-produced album Dream Police demonstrated they had lost their edge; later they began to do all the expected things like marrying Playboy playmates and suing each other for the right to say who was in the band and who owned the song catalogue of lucrative nostalgia. I stopped listening to them early on, but they still keep going today, and are now in their 60’s. My favourite album was their third, from 1978, Heaven Tonight, which was clever and dynamic and full of variety. The two Cheap Trick albums which are on the Rolling Stone list, however, are In Color (1977) and Cheap Trick at Budokan (1978) – and it’s bizarre that these two albums were chosen, because they are, at least partly, the same album. The band was touring in support of In Color when they went to Japan (where, yes, of course, they were big) so the live album duplicates much of the material on In Color, while giving a hint of the better album to come with the one new song “Surrender.”

I have never grasped the appeal of live albums. Mostly they are reminders for fans of a special event, an aural t-shirt; the sound is usually iffy, the drums solos far too long because they aren’t by Nolan Kehler, and the atmosphere of stomping and clapping irritating. For Budokan, what you get is thousands of Japanese girls screaming. Screaming indiscriminately, at anything and for anything. Is this supposed to be electric? Nope, it’s annoying. For a live album to be worthwhile, I want it to be special: a hardcore band doing a klezmer thing at Carnegie Hall, or maybe doubling the speed of their songs, or using a symphony orchestra.

Why were the Budokan fans screaming? Ah, here’s where we get to what was perhaps the major appeal of Cheap Trick. Singer Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson were two of the most beautiful rockers anyone had ever seen, and they knew it. They were Snow White and Rose Red; they extended the debates I’d been having with my friends for years about who was more desirable of The Hardy Boys: blonde Joe or dark-haired Frank?  Zander and Petersson dressed the part of near-gigolos – they had gorgeous suits and the most amazing hair. Even today I could stare at the covers of In Color and Heaven Tonight for a good long while: there’s nothing wrong with giving thanks once in a while for male beauty in all its unashamed self-assurance. The fun part of all this – the part that made it acceptable to smart and sarcastic teenagers like me – was the other half of the band. Drummer Bun E. Carlos and guitarist Rick Nielsen were presented as demented dweebs – goofy guys with funny caps, cardigans, outrageous ties, comic guitars. Carlos was often photographed with a cigarette drooping from his mouth, looking like the slightly hungover manager of a rinky-dink grocery store. Nielsen was actually the mastermind of the band and a guitar virtuoso – he wrote nearly all the songs – but he put Zander and Petersson up front and as a result they all made quite a lot of money.

The fame of Cheap Trick at Budokan is a puzzle to me. Shouting out lyrics over the shrieking female hordes spoils the sly humour of the songs. Crassly and deliberately the band offers their most digestible, stadium-friendly dumb tunes: “Hello There,” “Come On, Come On,” “Goodnight Now,” and “Clock Strikes Ten.” These are so clearly pointed straight at the kind of kids who want to shriek that it’s rather insulting.

I saw Cheap Trick in Regina in 1979. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember that I accidentally encountered them in the airport the next day while my family was picking someone up. An older sibling encouraged me to get their autographs. Zander and Petersson were not as dazzling in real life, but they were handsome enough. I’ve lost the autographs. Soon after this I turned my attention to punk, which became more accessible on the prairies at last, and also to the one power pop artist who has always been worth following, the amazingly talented Elvis Costello. Cheap Trick seemed too cute and too limited to keep up with. But if you want to indulge in some fine power pop of a certain type from a certain era, listen to the album Heaven Tonight. You can experience the surprising range of Robin Zander’s voice – he could do romance, he could do sock-hop, he could do a slightly malevolent snarl that was refreshing when we first heard it in the 1970’s musical wasteland.

So, kids, will I be asked back to write more blogs from the middle-aged point of view? I have to say I’m a little disappointed in the backstage area of #Road2RS500. I was hoping there would be a midnight listening party in our university’s Great Hall with Nolan and all his cohorts, and we would only leave when custodians Hildegarde and Walter turned up with their vacuums at dawn. Instead, I drove back and forth to work in my frigid and tiny Toyota Echo listening to Cheap Trick by myself. Sad.

What’s not sad is that there is video from this show! Check out “Ain’t That a Shame”:

 

Give a gander at “Surrender”, if you can fight your way past the screaming Japanese teenagers”

 

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