HERE IS A MODEST proposal for the musical health of certain Liverpudlian rock idols. Since, by all accounts, a public reunion of the Beatles is highly unlikely, why not a secret reunion? The lad could rent, say, a monastery high in the Himalayas (George would like that). They could then write new songs, rehearse for a while and then give a private outdoor concert for a dozen or so uncomprehending sherpas. That accomplished, they could then return to civilization and go their separate ways, with a rejuvenated sense of the old magic.
The reason for all this, is the release of Paul McCartney and 'Wings' newest record, Back to the Egg (Col FC 36057). The record is replete with competent, hard-driving rock numbers, snappy melodies, imaginative orchestrations, quirky tape sections, witty lyrics, soothingly soft ballads and dazzling vocals; in short, all the qualities that graced the Beatle records. Lacking however, is that spark of Beatle-ness that once transformed those qualities into inspired musical statements.
The Beatles were a collective genius, a four-headed musical mind with a single, all-encompassing vision. The strenghts and weaknesses of each individual served to temper and supplement those of the others. Thus, Lemmon's strident cynicism was countered by McCartney's jaunty exuberance, Harrisonhs overbearing mysticism by Starr's comedic innocence. The result was a complex mingling of personalities that coalesced into a unique and breathtakaing, magical musical tour-de-force.
McCartney's dilemma is his seeming inability to build a sturdy musical structure without the support of the other three. His solo projects have sounded stilted and carboardish. Like an ornate movie set, their facade is vaguely familiar, but there is nothing backing it up. Behind his older material, John, George and Ringo were always there as steady props - now there is only a blank wall.
Back to the Egg is plagued by this lack of dimension. From a purely pop standpoint, the record is difficult to fault. The music is catchy; the arrangements are tight and well-played and, with 14 songs, there is something for nearly every taste. But the record suffers from a feeling of incompletness, as if McCartney has recorded his own parts and is waiting for the others to add their own. But they aren't there anymore.
Because of this closeness to the Beatle legend, Egg inevitably invites comparison with the work of the Fab Four, and it fares badly. The use of taped sounds on songs such as "I am the Walrus" were daring experiments, a sort of Musique concrete meets rock 'n' roll. "Reception" and "The Broadcast" (from egg ) also feature taped conversations set to musical backgrounds, but they merely amble along with little thought or direction, suggesting that they might have been added in a fit of garish whimsy.
Likewise, the hard rockers are energetic but lack purpose. At one time, McCartney's high pitched "whoops" could melt the eye shadow off Little Richard, but his gravelly outbursts now seem stale and emotionally listless. "Getting Closer" and "Old Siam, Sir" have crunching power chords and thumping bass lines which are played with precision, but the feeling and love of playing now seem forced.
While he is still unwilling to collaborate with his former group, McCartney has assembled what he call his "rockestra," whose roster reads like a National Trust of aging British rock stars. The execs at Columbia must have licked their lips at the thought of Pete Townshend, Dave Gilmour, John Bonham, Ronnie Lane and Gary Brooker on the same record, but the results are more commercially titillating than musically rewarding. The two songs on which the rockestra appears sound like a horde of rocke 'n' roll insects droning away simple-mindedly while McCartney babbles in the background on "Theme" and adds nondescript harmonies on "So Glad to See You Here."
The record does have its high points, but they are McCartney's alone. While dulled by indifference, his voice and hands still constitute a formidable rock arsenal. His voice can be like a delicate, elastic instrument that stretches to cover various idioms. One moment, he is a rousing, brawling rocker ("Spin It On"), the next, a bluesy gospel singer ("After the Ball/Million Miles") and then he softens, caressing the lyrics of the lovely "Winter Rose." He remains the greatest bassist in rock, a kind of thinking man's musician who prefers carefully chosen notes and rhythmic touches to grandiose rumblings. Even his piano playing (although never virtuoso) still has that wistful enthusiasm that has always given a distinctive character to his songs.
The songs on Egg are, as usual, a bag of mixed styles and approaches. McCartney is an engaging songwriter, but, in the past, his eclecticism was skillfully sculpted into a unified style with a little help from his friends. Left to his own devices, he merely recreates styles such as soul ("Arrow Through Me") and '40s music hall ("Baby's Request") instead of making them his own. Without the other Beatles to bounce his ideas off of, McCartney is beginning to sound more and more like a McCartney imitator.
From the recorded sound to the packaging of the product, Back to the Egg is sleek and professionally done, yet it is devoid of the wit and playfulness of old. McCartney and veteran producer Chris Thomas have provided a crisp settling that fails to measure up to the odd instrumental and vocal ambience created by George Martin. The cover is beautifully photographed but the space motif is becoming worn at best. In an uncharacteristic display of Beatle class however, McCartney has mercifully excluded the disco single "Goodnight Tonight" from the record.
The Beatles may never re-form and it is presumptuous for the public to try and dictate the course of their careers (the modest proposal is, admittedly, an intrusion into their musical affairs). Nonetheless, the solo Beatles sound like men in search of themselves and each other, a fact that is woefully attested toby records such as Back to the Egg .