As a recording group, the Beatles lasted only eight short years, and Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr have now been ex-Beatles for two decades. For most of that time, they have tried to escape their own intimidating past by touring infrequently and by downplaying the Beatles' repertoire when they do.
Who can blame them? The rock-and-roll audience made such an emotional investment in the Beatles that nothing they ever did on their own could rival those memories. Even a pop band as delightful as McCartney's Wings was resented simply because it wasn't the Beatles. It's bad enough to compete against others for pop affections, but how must it feel to compete against yourself? McCartney didn't tour between 1976 and '89; Harrison hasn't toured since 1974, and he and Starr pretty much stopped making any music at all between 1982 and '87.
Now it seems enough time has gone by for the ex-Beatles to make peace with their past and finally embrace it. When McCartney and Starr went on tour last year, they included a healthy percentage of Beatles songs in their shows, and now they both have live albums to prove it. Harrison has found a niche in another supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys, and rumors suggest he may tour with them. No one would be foolish enough to suggest that these projects recapture the glory of the Beatles, but no one should be so tiresome as to insist that these three musicians live up to their irretrievable past.
Paul McCartney: 'Tripping the
Live Fantastic' When people talk about Paul McCartney, they often oppose his strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter, praising him as a master melodicist and dismissing him as sentimental lyricist. They rarely acknowledge his other strength: McCartney is one of rock-and-roll's greatest singers, ranking right up there with Roy Orbison and Levi Stubbs. When he performed at RFK Stadium this past Fourth of July, his singing was the most impressive part of the show -- he crooned like Elvis Presley and screamed like Little Richard.
McCartney's singing is also the highlight of "Tripping the Live Fantastic" (Capitol), the live album from his 1989-90 world tour. It will be released in two formats: a "Deluxe" edition that includes 38 songs on two tapes or discs, and a "Highlights" edition that includes 19 songs on one tape or disc. The "Deluxe" version includes 12 post-Beatles McCartney numbers, 17 Beatles songs and nine music hall and rock-and-roll standards. Among the standards are three samples from McCartney's "Choba B CCCP," his wonderful 1989 oldies album that is still legally available only in the Soviet Union. His piano-pounding version of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" and his soundcheck version of Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" make the "Deluxe" album the one to get.
Since the last Beatles concert before a paying audience took place Aug. 29, 1966, in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, McCartney had never played many of his 1966-'70 Beatles songs in concert before last year. Hearing "Back in the U.S.S.R.," "Get Back" and "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" turned into unapologetic rockers is a treat, and the rollicking live version of "Birthday" was released as a single (on Oct. 9, what would have been John Lennon's 50th birthday). Best of all is the "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" medley from the end of "Abbey Road," in which McCartney goes from nicely understated wistfulness to a soulful rock-and-roll roar and back again.
'Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band' Ringo Starr is used to taking the back seat to better singers and musicians, so when he toured in 1989, he wisely shared the spotlight with his illustrious band: former Beatles session musicians Billy Preston and Jim Keltner; Rick Danko and Levon Helm of the Band; Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band; Joe Walsh of the Eagles; and Dr. John. Starr stepped forward several times to sing his solo hits and the few Beatles songs on which he took the lead vocals, but then he went back to his drum kit and played behind his bandmates as they each (except Keltner) took a couple of lead vocals.
The live album from that tour, "Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band" (Rykodisc), follows the same format. Starr sings five of the 12 songs, and everyone else gets one song apiece. The results are amiable, unambitious good fun -- much like Starr himself. Beatles fanatics will be disappointed that the tour's versions of "Yellow Submarine" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" didn't make it onto the album, but all the songs -- both Starr's and his bandmates' -- are given loose, enjoyable readings that will make no one forget the originals. Only one number transcends the oldies feel of the album: Danko's incandescent version of the Buddy Holly ballad "Raining in My Heart."
'Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3' Now that Roy Orbison is dead, the Traveling Wilburys closely resemble another supergroup: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Think about it: Each quartet includes one eccentric genius (Bob Dylan or Neil Young); one minor member from a seminal rock band (George Harrison or David Crosby); one blond rocker who peaked long ago (Tom Petty or Stephen Stills); and one British lightweight (Jeff Lynne or Graham Nash). Each group must thus rely on its one unreliable genius to make an album of any substance.
"Traveling Wilburys, Volume One" was a fine album because it contained three of Dylan's best songs of the '80s plus a great Orbison ballad. With Orbison gone and Dylan feeling uninspired lately (cf. his new solo album, "Under the Red Sky"), the follow-up "Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3" (Wilbury/Warner Bros.) is a limp disappointment, as thin as the last CSN&Y project, "American Dream." Whatever happened to "Vol. Two," you ask? Maybe it was only released on eight-track tape, maybe it's only available in the Soviet Union -- but more likely the new album's title is symptomatic of the cloying cuteness that accompanies the whole Wilbury routine.
The four Wilburys have all taken new first names: Harrison, for example, was Nelson Wilbury last time; now he's Spike Wilbury. They have to do something, one supposes, to stir up interest in these generic exercises from coasting singer-songwriters. Not even Dylan's nasal snarl can invest much meaning in lines like "Don't it make you wanna twist and shout when you're inside out?" That's all too typical of the songs here, which seek the happy-go-lucky simplicity of pre-Beatles rock-and-roll -- they get the simplicity but miss out on the happiness and luck.
'The Rutles' Far more amusing than the Traveling Wilburys are the Rutles, an inspired Beatles parody created for "All You Need Is Cash," a 1978 TV special by Eric Idle and Neil Innes of the Monty Python gang. The original 14-song soundtrack has now been reissued with six additional songs as "The Rutles" (Rhino). Idle is Dirk McQuickly (McCartney); Innes is Ron Nasty (Lennon); ex-Beach Boy Rikki Fataar is Stig O'Hara (Harrison) and John Halsey is Barry Wom (Starr).
The TV show (now available on video cassette) and the album liner notes are often hilarious (it's amazing how closely they resemble the "Compleat Beatles" video biography), but what really makes this parody work are Innes's ingenious songs. Rather than writing new lyrics to existing Beatles songs -- the parodist's easy way out -- Innes writes brand new songs with catchy Merseybeat melodies that can stand on their own. Thus they work as songs first and as parodies second, whether they're evoking the roots-rock ravers of the early Beatles, the seductive popcraft of the middle Beatles or the ornate art-rock of the late Beatles.