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Paul McCartney & Wings

Enjoy another excerpt on Paul McCartney, this one from Fab Four FAQ 2.0 by Robert Rodriguez. He is also the author of  Fab Four FAQ (w/ Stuart Shea) and Revolver. The Wings Over America album was recently reissued in remastered form on May 28th.

Wings Over America – Released December 10, 1976

The Wings extravaganza that hit the States in the summer of 1976 was well documented on both film and tape. A TV special and possibly a feature film were always part of the plan, as was a double live album of the show’s highlights. But enterprising bootleggers forced Macca’s hand, resulting in the triple record set that eventually saw issue by year’s end. (Wings from the Wings was an underground issue of the entire June 23, 1976 set at the L.A. Forum, recorded the last day of the U.S. tour. It being the bicentennial year, the three discs were issued on red, white, and blue vinyl.) That the album made it to the shops in time for Christmas only months after the tour ended was a bit of a minor miracle in that Paul had to listen to nine hundred hours of tape to choose the best takes – this after spending much of September and October on the road in Europe and Britain.

Given Paul’s perfectionist tendencies, a certain amount of “sweetening” in the studio was deemed necessary before the results could be made public, but it would be nitpicking to suggest that the album in any way misrepresented the stage act. Given how de rigueur live albums were for big-name acts by mid-decade, it was critical for Paul to make sure that his would be exceptional and not simply a bloated, self-indulgent mess. But given the sheer professionalism that typified his stage presentation, it was a safe bet that the music itself would be the last thing to suffer.

Actually, presentation is one of the factors that made Wings Over America such an appealing listening experience. Reflecting the tour’s set list, the six album sides broke down nicely into thematically arranged mini-sets. Side one was an arresting succession of songs, none more dramatic than the segue from “Venus and Mars / Rock Show” straight into “Jet.” Few live albums captured the energy from the venue where they were recorded and projected it through the speakers the way this one did. Even minus the visual, the mental image of Wings at the height of their powers was vivid. Following that powerful opening, Paul shrewdly brought the tempo down somewhat with Band on the Run’s Plastic Ono Band pastiche, “Let Me Roll It.” (Jimmy McCulloch was unable to restrain himself from embellishing the son’s simple, repetitious riffing on the instrumental break.)

The side concluded with the one-two punch of Denny’s vocal on the moody “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” followed with little pause by Jimmy’s “Medicine Jar” – just as they’d been sequenced on Venus and Mars, giving audiences exactly what they were already hearing in their heads anyway. The latter track featured a blistering solo that marked – alongside “Junior’s Farm” – the young guitarist’s finest moment in Wings. (Though performed on the November 1975 swing through Australia, “Junior’s Farm” never quite seemed to jell onstage and was dropped for the 1976 shows.)

Side two kicked off the “piano set,” which began with “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a crowd-pleaser if there ever was one.  On this take, slowed in tempo compared to the one-man-band version cut for his debut, Paul’s vocals were as strong as ever and shown to great effect in the added coda. This side also featured the first two of five Beatles classics: “Lady Madonna” and “The Long and Winding Road.” (It was here that Macca first reversed the Lennon-McCartney” credits – an action that conspicuously drew no criticism at the time, as compared to much later.) Though not yet ready to pull “Hey Jude” out of his trick bag – that might have been too strongly identified with his last band – he did select songs that were calculated to put audiences on their feet. “Live and Let Die” ended the side with its usual explosive drama.

An acoustic set came next, beginning with an abbreviated version of “Picasso’s Last Words” segueing into the rather unexpected selection of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory,” sung by Denny. (The song was an adaptation of an 1897 poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, concerning a much-admired rich man who nonetheless ends his own life.) The earnest tone of the tune was belied by Laine’s ad-lib substitution of “John Denver” – a high-riding star of the day – for the title character. Two of Paul’s avian-themed songs followed: “Bluebird” and “Blackbird,” sandwiching the unexpected Beatles selection “I’ve Just Seen a Face” – first heard in America as the leadoff track to Rubber Soul eleven years earlier. But it was the side-ending performance of “Yesterday” that had audiences swooning as it closed the Fab portion of the set. With Paul alone in the spotlight with his acoustic guitar, it would have been difficult for even the most jaded of fans not to be moved by the evocation of a more innocent time from their collective youth.

The “piano set” resumed with a batch of newer Wings tunes, encompassing material from Red Rose Speedway (thankfully limited to “My Love”) through Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound, including the hits “Listen to What the Man Said” and their newest single, “Let ‘Em In.” (Though the tour ended before July 4, listeners can hear Denny acknowledge the bicentennial year on that side by calling out “Happy birthday, America!”) Also performed – during the Los Angeles shows only – was Laine’s “Yesterday”: “Go Now,” the Moody Blues’ first hit, on which he sang with another cut from the same release, “Beware My Love.” In the studio, both songs suffered from indifferent production and/or the seeming haste with which they’d been laid down. Onstage, however, the hidden potential in both tracks was unleashed, resulting in sharper and more focused performances that fully demonstrated the band’s ensemble capabilities.

Predictably, the set ended with the much-anticipated performance of “Band on the Run,” the group’s megahit of two years before. In concert, a film of the album cover photo shoot played on a screen above the stage. Macca and crew then left the stage, leaving his audience holding their lighters aloft as they clamored for an encore. Wings did not disappoint: within minutes, the musicians assembled onstage as their leader sidled over to the microphone and asked, “Fancy a bit of rock and roll?” The band then launched into a rollicking performance of “Hi Hi Hi” that (again) bested the studio recording, before ending the set – and the album – with the unreleased “Soily.” Despite their rather lengthy show, the band (including the horn section) delivered the goods, pulling out all the stops and coming off as fresh as if they’d only just arrived. It made for a stunning, powerful finish to an album that must have instilled much regret among those who’d passed on a chance to catch the tour when it came to town. Wings Over America went to #1, making Paul the second ex-Beatle to top the charts with a three-record set. (Like George’s, it too came packaged with a power, but no lyrics.) Though he’s gone on to release several live sets since, this one is required listening for both Macca and Beatles fans, capturing the glory that was the ’70’s concertgoing experience.

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In the years following the 1960s, Beatle fans around the world were twice-stunned: in 1970, when their beloved group disbanded, and ten years later when the murder of John Lennon ended a decade of hope that somehow the Fab Four would reunite. Fab Four FAQ 2.0 picks up the story where the acclaimed Fab Four FAQ left off. Loaded with images of rare period ephemera, including periodicals, single sleeves, and movie stills, this is the first comprehensive biography of all four ex-Beatles. This book covers everything from their recording careers in the decade after the band’s dissolution to the musicians they played with, the bands they influenced, the manifestations of latter-day Beatlemania, and the constant clamor for reunion expressed by fans and – sometimes – by the four themselves.

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They’re Gonna Put Me in the Movies!

In honor of Sir Paul McCartney’s 71st birthday, here is an excerpt from A Hard Day’s Night: Music on Film by Ray Morton describing how the Beatles classic movie debut came to be:

As the Beatles’ popularity grew, they began receiving offers to do films. This was not unusual: pop stars had been appearing in movies since the beginning of the sound era. From Al Jolson, Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby in the 1920s and 1930s to Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and Pat Boone and Doris Day in the 1950s, film producers were eager to cast musical celebrities in pictures in the hope that their fans would buy as many movie tickets as they did records. Would the Fab Four be able to repeat their recording success on the silver screen? They, and the world, were about to find out.

One of the first film offers the Beatles received was to do a cameo in a movie called The Yellow Teddy Bears, a lurid drama about teen sex and pregnancy set in an all-girls school in the English suburbs. The boys were asked to play a band that backs up one of the film’s male characters, who dreams of being a pop star. Because director Robert Hartford-Davis wanted to write all of the music they were meant to play in the film himself, they declined (another Beat group called The Embers took their place). British filmmaker Michael Winner, who had recently helmed a musical called Play It Cool starring Billy Fury, also wanted to make a movie with the lads. However, by the time he approached Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager was already deep in negotiations with a major Hollywood film company.

In the wake of the group’s incredible success, every music company in the business wanted to make a record with them. However, the exclusive contract that the band had with Parlophone and its parent company EMI precluded that. Or so it seemed. Sometime in the late summer or early autumn of 1963, Noel Rodgers, a music publishing executive in the London office of United Artists Records, discovered what appeared to be a loophole in the Beatles’ seemingly ironclad agreement with Parlophone. While the contract stated explicitly that the group was bound to the EMI label for original singles and LPs, it made no mention at all of motion picture soundtrack albums. Assuming that, if the contract didn’t mention something, then it didn’t cover it, Rodgers reasoned that if the Beatles were to produce a soundtrack album, they were free to make a deal with a company other than Parlophone to release it.

Of course, to make a movie soundtrack album, the Beatles would first have to make a movie. Luckily, United Artists Records was in a unique position to exploit this loophole, because it was a subsidiary of United Artists, the legendary film company started in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin. If United Artists put out a Beatles movie, then UAR could release the soundtrack. Hoping to make this happen, Rodgers approached George “Bud” Ornstein, the executive that ran United Artists’ European division, to see if he was interested in making a film with the group. Since Beatlemania was at that point primarily a British phenomenon, it wasn’t clear if a movie starring the Fab Four would have much of an audience outside of the U.K. However, Ornstein figured that if the picture could be made for a low enough price, then it could still be profitable, and even if it wasn’t, the proceeds from the soundtrack album would almost certainly be significant enough to make the project worth doing. So, yes, he was interested.

The proposal was presented to David V. Picker, United Artists’ New York-based head of production. Although Picker had never heard of the Beatles, he approved Rodgers and Ornstein’s idea.  Ornstein met with Brian Epstein and presented United Artists’ offer. Epstein took the proposal to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr. The boys were receptive, so Epstein got back to Ornstein and accepted.

The film was also going to need a producer. Since Picker and Ornstein wanted Richard Lester to direct the film, they decided to approach someone that Lester had already proven he could work effectively with: The Mouse on the Moon’s producer, Walter Shenson. Shenson met with Brian Epstein to introduce himself, after which a get-together was arranged between Shenson, Epstein, and the Beatles, to take place in Shenson’s office. On the appointed day and time, Epstein arrived without the band. An apologetic Epstein explained that the boys had forgotten about the appointment and had instead made plans to go to Abbey Road Studios to watch Gerry and the Pacemakers record some songs that John and Paul had written for them. Shenson still wanted to meet with them, so he and Epstein hailed a taxi and headed for Abbey Road. Along the way, they decided to stop at the Mayfair flat where the band members stayed when they were in London (the lads would soon move permanently to the capitol city from Liverpool) to see if they could catch the boys before they left. The cab pulled up just as the Beatles were coming out of the flat. Not wanting to let the group get away Shenson offered to give them a ride to the studio.

The Beatles jumped into the cab and during the trip to Abbey Road, the producer “…found myself in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie.” To begin with, there were six people jammed into a taxi designed for four and so a lot of comical rearranging was necessary to get everyone settled. During the trip, the Fab Four kept up a constant stream of their characteristically humorous patter and every time the cab stopped at a light, one of them would jump out and buy newspapers with Beatles headline on them. In the midst of all this chaos, Shenson was charmed by the boys’ personalities—he found them to be sweet and likable and to have the” same natural humor and wholesomeness as the great movie comedians.” Shenson felt that the Beatles were “something very special, on the level of a Keaton or a Fields.”

As soon as they arrived at the studio, the band members jumped out of the cab and disappeared inside. An apologetic Epstein told Shenson that if he wanted to meet with the Beatles, he was going to have to round them up himself.  “So I found an empty office,” Shenson recalled, “And said ‘All right, I’m a very important Hollywood producer, you guys. If you want to make a movie, follow me.’ They all said ‘Yes sir! Yes sir! Yes sir!’” Once Shenson had the group ensconced, John began the meeting by asking the producer what sort of movie he wanted to make with them. “I don’t know,” Shenson replied, but following that crazy cab ride, he knew “it should be a comedy.” The lads were receptive to this idea and asked who was going to direct. The name Richard Lester was unfamiliar to the Beatles, but when Shenson explained that Lester had worked with the Goons (of whom the Beatles were enormous fans) and had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (which they had loved), that was good enough for them. “Okay,” John told Shenson after conferring with his band mates. “You can be the producer.”

Lester and Shenson thought that the subject of the movie should be the Beatles themselves. Why ask John, Paul, George, and Ringo to play fictitious characters when their own personalities were so much more vibrant and interesting than any that could be concocted?  (Besides, given the group members’ collective lack of acting experience, it seemed unlikely that they could successfully play anyone other than themselves anyway.) Likewise, it seemed a waste to involve the band in a fictitious narrative when their real-life escapades were as exciting as any made-up adventure could ever be. A straight documentary would have been too dry, so Lester and Shenson decided instead to make what the director called a “fictionalized documentary” that compressed all of the group member’s extraordinary Beatlemania-fueled experiences into a single “typical” day in their lives, exaggerated them for dramatic and comedic effect, and provided plenty of opportunities for the boys to play their music and sing their songs.

The Beatles returned to the U.K. from America on February 22, 1964 and on February 25 (George Harrison’s twenty-first birthday) joined with producer George Martin to begin recording the songs they had written for the movie: “I Should Have Known Better,” “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her,” “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” and “Tell Me Why.”

All five songs, which were penned mostly during the bands’ trips to Paris and the United States, were jointly credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as were all of the duo’s Beatle-era compositions. In truth, while the two did collaborate on some tunes, they wrote the majority of their songs separately (although often with some assistance from the other). “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” was written by Lennon and McCartney together; “I Should Have Known Better” and “Tell Me Why” were written by Lennon alone; “If I Fell” was written primarily by John, with some help from Paul; “And I Love Her” was penned by McCartney, with some lyrical contributions from Lennon. Following band tradition, the lead vocal for each song was sung by its principal author. The exception was “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” which was given to George Harrison to perform.

Two songs not written for the movie—“I Call Your Name,” which Lennon and McCartney composed prior to the formation of the Beatles and had previously been recorded by Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas and a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” which, as sung in blistering fashion by Paul, had long been a staple of their stage act were also taped for use in the film. All of the songs were recorded at Abbey Road Studios on four-track EMI British Tape Recorders (which allowed for the overdubbing of multiple musical layers onto a single track to create a richer sound).

On February 25 the group did three takes of “And I Love Her” and three takes of “I Should Have Known Better.” Unhappy with the results, the band members returned to the studio on Wednesday, February 26, and did sixteen additional takes of “And I Love Her” and eighteen additional takes of “I Should Have Known Better.” At this point, they were satisfied with “I Should Have Known Better,” but came back on Thursday, February 27, and did two more takes of “And I Love Her” before finally declaring it finished. Later that same day, they recorded “Tell Me Why” in eight takes and “If I Fell” in fifteen.

On Saturday, February 29, the Beatles met with Richard Lester and [screenwriter] Alun Owen to do a read-through of the completed screenplay. The boys were happy with the script, which they (and those that knew them) felt did a good job of capturing their personalities, speech, and sensibilities. Owen and Lester were happy with the deft way the lads handled their dialogue: “They just nailed it!” Owen exclaimed.

The band returned to Abbey Road on Sunday, March 1 to record “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” in four takes. They then recorded “I Call Your Name” in seven takes and “Long Tall Sally” in one.

Once all the songs were finished and mixed, Richard Lester reviewed them to decide where he would put them in the film: although the script did indicate where musical numbers were to occur in the story, it did not specify which pieces were to be used in those spots. The director selected “I Should Have Known Better” for the scene in which the boys serenade a group of girls they meet on the train. “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” were chosen for scenes of the band rehearsing. “Tell Me Why would be featured (along with reprises of some of the other songs) in the big concert scene that climaxes the movie. It is thought that “Long Tall Sally” was originally intended to be the concert’s closing number, since the Beatles had finished all of their U.S. shows with it. Ultimately, however, the decision was made to use the band’s signature tune, “She Loves You,” to close the concert and “Long Tall Sally” was dropped. “I Call Your Name” was also dropped and both rejects ended up on the band’s next EP, Long Tall Sally.

When the March 1 recording session wrapped at 10 p.m., John, Paul, George, and Ringo all went home to get some sleep. They were going to need it, because [A Hard Day’s Night] was scheduled to start shooting at eight o’clock the next morning.

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A Hard Day’s Night: Music on Film Series is the story of the making of the greatest rock-and-roll movie of all time. Beginning with introductions to the film’s stars – chronicling their rise from a raggedy teenage skiffle band to the biggest pop act in the world – the book goes on to tell how the American film company United Artists wanted to make a quick, low-budget movie starring the Fab Four so its record division could put out a motion picture soundtrack album full of new Beatles songs, in order to allow the studio to cash in on the incredible wave of Beatlemania then sweeping the planet. Director Richard Lester, producer Walter Shenson, and screenwriter Alun Owen were hired to churn out just another cheap exploitation film, but instead used the opportunity to create a startlingly fresh and original movie that broke new ground both in subject matter (instead of simply following genre tradition and sticking the band in some corny made-up plot, they had the Beatles play themselves in a narrative based on their own incredible real-life experiences) and in form (Lester’s inspired, surrealist approach to the film’s musical numbers kicked off the entire music video revolution). Covered is the film’s frantic six-week shoot, the lively recording sessions that resulted in seven great new Beatles songs, and how both the film and the album met with great critical and popular success.