Monday 26 May 2014

Paul McCARTNEY: Give My Regards To Broad Street

(#304: 3 November 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: No More Lonely Nights (Ballad)/Good Day Sunshine/Corridor Music/Yesterday/Here, There And Everywhere/Wanderlust/Ballroom Dancing/Silly Love Songs/Silly Love Songs (Reprise)/Not Such A Bad Boy/So Bad/No Values/No More Lonely Nights (Ballad Reprise)/For No-One/Eleanor Rigby-Eleanor’s Dream/Long And Winding Road/No More Lonely Nights (Playout Version)

(Author’s Note: The CD edition includes a “bonus” track, the rather dull and unfunny 1930s dance band pastiche “Goodnight Princess,” the spoken opening announcements to which make McCartney sound like a lost Gallagher brother. But I used the cassette edition. Put it this way; £14 for a used CD in MVE, or 49p for a cassette out of The Charity Shop? The answer is: it was a no-brainer. And the thing is nearly an hour long anyway. I haven’t got forever.)

If the appearance of Give My Regards To Broad Street in this tale is a surprise, then its appearance at number one at the time was equally surprising and unexpected. I suspect no one was more surprised than McCartney himself. But the plan had been that Waking Up With The House On Fire, the third Culture Club album, would top the chart. It managed only second place, beaten (by some considerable margin) by the soundtrack to a glorified home movie.

Nobody was to blame for the latter except Culture Club themselves. They spent so long touring Colour By Numbers that they didn’t leave themselves enough time to write the songs for its follow-up. Two or three weeks were set aside for songwriting, but arguments, fights and sulks ensued and in the end the entire album was written in four days – and sounds it. Sheer fan momentum steered lead single “The War Song” to number two before people removed their earmuffs and realised how rotten it was, whereupon it plunged rapidly down and out of the chart. The follow-up, “The Medal Song,” a record so anaemic it made Black Lace sound like Test Dept, did not even crack the Top 30; the album’s only good song, “Mistake Number Three,” was not even released as a single in Britain. The group’s reputation was damaged permanently.

But enough about them; what about McCartney damaging his reputation permanently? I really didn’t think we could sink any lower after Bowie’s Tonight, but Give My Regards is a far more actively unpleasant record and a far more painful listen, despite (unlike Tonight) having at least one salvageable track. Why? Because Bowie micturating on “God Only Knows” is one thing, but listening to an artist effectively crapping on his own work brings a level of badness which this tale has not previously known. It is not that this record lacks good songs; indeed, some of its songs are among the best ever written.

But it’s what McCartney does to them that really rankles. It is as if he commissioned an artist to paint an elaborate, extravagant, finely detailed portrait of himself and then proceeded to draw comedy moustaches and eyepatches all over it. I do not recommend seeking out the parent film, as that would involve using up one hundred and nine minutes of your life that you’ll never get back again. If McCartney wanted to make an expensive home movie involving his family and friends with “wacky” video sequences, then that was entirely his business, and had it been a TV special it would have harmlessly passed the time of an evening on BBC4. But only Tracey Ullman appears interested in doing any acting; Sir Ralph Richardson appears briefly as a weary-looking bartender, and died not long afterwards. Otherwise the script appears at times non-existent and is certainly free of wit and interest when it does exist. Basically a series of music videos knotted together by a thin shaggy dog plot about missing album tapes, the performances and spectacle are generally so wooden that they cry out for a health and safety inspection.

Broad Street appeared to have little to do with 1984, or how to come to terms with the eighties. Had it been merely another rich man’s folly it would not merit further serious thought. But was Magical Mystery Tour – a project chiefly thought up by McCartney, and when all is said and done a not dissimilar one to Broad Street – really that much better, or different? George Harrison was not interested; Ringo (with Barbara Bach) loyally turned up for both film and album.

No doubt the internet is full of Macca fan sites and message boards whose contributors can see the good side of Broad Street and strive to point out its hidden merits. Good luck to them. I tried, and I could not. The one song worth saving was the most prominent new one, and the single: “No More Lonely Nights” was the strongest song McCartney had written in years, and proved that when he could be bothered to pull his finger out, he was more than capable of bringing back the old magic. Eric Stewart and Linda McCartney’s backing vocals remind us of “I’m Not In Love,” Dave Gilmour turns up to play a propulsive, anguished guitar solo, and it’s all very acceptable in a late 1975 kind of a way (and a far more deserving number two single than “The War Song”).

Otherwise, the soundtrack is a mess, full of random sound-effects, mirthless studio chat (as an actor, George Martin is a great record producer) and loveless, mechanical re-workings of old songs that sound as though they are being tortured. What was there to lose – Abbey Road, George and Geoff at the controls, Ringo back at the drums (although at least three other drummers turn up elsewhere on the record)?

Actually, quite a lot. Who the hell succeeded in thinking that the way to improve “Here, There And Everywhere” and “Yesterday” would be to add a brass band? “For No-One” gets taken down an octave (and of all Beatles records, why does this album include no less than four songs from Revolver? Did McCartney hate it that much? One is relieved that he didn’t feel the need to tackle Lennon songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “She Said, She Said”). “Eleanor Rigby” is spun out into an interminable – just over seven minutes, but listening to it felt like seven decades – dirge of dreary orchestral soundtrack hackwork. Recent songs like “Wanderlust” and “Ballroom Dancing” from the barely two-year-old Tug Of War, not to mention the year-old “So Bad” from Pipes Of Peace, do not remotely benefit from McCartney’s revisionism, and nor does the only Wings song, “Silly Love Songs,” a mere shadow of the lithe, subtle, supple record it once was (and Linda sounds decidedly unhappy having to go through it once again), improve matters.

Worst of all is McCartney’s own voice: gruff, grainy, disinterested, sounding as though he hates these songs. At least on Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits it was down to underappreciated session musicians to draw graffiti on the pop of the day. But to witness an artist exhibiting such craven disregard for his own music takes Broad Street far beyond Self Portrait territory. Of the other two new songs, “Not Such A Bad Boy,” is a run-of-the-mill rocker, while “No Values” is an inglorious addition to the Whiney Macca canon: “I hear them telling me that you’re selling off the furniture/And even keep (sic) my personalised autographs,” it begins, and really – who gives a shit? It’s as bad as George on Waking Up moaning about “John Blake and your big value Sun.”

With this “Long And Winding Road” one really does have to draw a line in the sand. If McCartney stormed out of the Beatles because of Phil Spector and Richard Hewson turning his song into alleged schmaltz, then what to make of Dick Morrissey’s Super Sexy Seventies Sax, blowing over an arrangement so bland and starchy that the Jimmy Young Show would have rejected it for being too conservative? This is wilful artistic self-harm. The closing uptempo revisit of “No More Lonely Nights” – see, he can’t even leave his “new” songs alone – features a five-man battalion of British jazz/session brass and saxophone veterans parping inane riffs over a rigidly unfunky backbeat, as though this were Haircut One Hundred or some other such modern-style pop act whom the youngsters dug.

So it would be one thing to treat Broad Street as an expensive little joke and forget about it as quickly as possible (in the USA, it climbed to a reluctant peak of #21). But I think there’s something more dreadful at work here, and it’s not just about McCartney being reluctant to tour, and therefore having too much time on his hands to dabble with his past, and the dangers of shuttering yourself off from the world when it no longer agrees with you. No, I actually wonder whether, by re-recording these songs, McCartney thought he could do better than the Beatles. Get them right, shape them up, with no John at his side to tell him that it’s crap, and shut up and play the bloody bass. It is about not coping. Like Brian Clough at Leeds United – do what Don did but do it better – and failing for the same reason (no Peter Taylor/no John Lennon).

It is about refusing to accept that, for some musicians, their moment had passed – and pop is nothing if it is not about the moment. Would anyone looking for 1984 film music to listen to take this over Music From Purple Rain, just in the same way that Prince could come back now and make the greatest and most radical music of his career and it would still count for nothing because his moment had passed, dissipated by a quarter of a century of formless, overlong jam sessions? The McCartney of 1984 needed someone to talk back to him, argue with him, dissuade him – and he had nobody strong enough to do that.

It is also about living far too much in the past, an idealised past that probably never existed in the first place, with all the painful stuff having been carefully edited out. It is why Britain’s overnight retreat to a horrible past feels like a similar exercise in angry futility. An “aural grapefruit,” Lena called Broad Street, in the sense that if you make a fruit salad, you don’t put grapefruit into it because it messes up everything else in the salad, texture and flavour-wise. The cover’s Hawaiian shirt and Radio 1 DJ haircut are regrettable, as is the project as a whole. Julian Lennon’s Valotte, which came out the same week and peaked at #20, was neither new nor brave but was certainly an improvement on Broad Street, which is a bit like saying that Callaghan was an improvement on Wilson.