Friday, September 26, 2014

Movie Review: Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins (1959)

Gregory Peck, looking dashing in uniform as Dwight Towers in On the Beach, 1959.

Anthony Perkins, Gregory Peck, and nuclear scientist Fred Astaire.

The Coca-Cola bottle sending the Morse code signals in On the Beach.

A lighter moment on the set with Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, and producer/director Stanley Kramer.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, 1959.
Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film On the Beach was one of the first Hollywood movies to take a serious look at the dangers of nuclear warfare. Based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, On the Beach takes place in the then-future of 1964, after a nuclear war has destroyed nearly all of the life on the planet. Radioactive fallout is slowly spreading south, and On the Beach follows a group of people in Australia, which is the only place in the world that is still inhabited by humans. 

Gregory Peck plays Dwight Towers, the captain the Sawfish, an American nuclear submarine. The Sawfish survived the war and heads to Australia. Towers’ liaison with the Australian Navy is Peter Holmes, played by Anthony Perkins. Holmes has a wife and baby, and he struggles with the realization that they will all soon die. His wife is in denial about their situation, and doesn’t want to discuss it. Holmes introduces Towers to several of his friends, including the alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) and the alcoholic scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire). Towers has a wife and two children in the United States, and although he knows it is highly likely that they are dead, he still talks about them in the present tense. Towers and Moria start spending more time together, and eventually their relationship becomes romantic. 

Meanwhile, naval communications in Australia are picking up Morse code signals from San Diego. The signals are gibberish, but on the possibility that it could be a survivor, they dispatch the Sawfish to check it out. But on their way to San Diego, the Sawfish heads as far north as possible to see if radioactive levels have dropped. Julian Osborn goes along on the trip as the head scientist, and he confirms that radioactive levels are still very high. I was surprised at how little of the movie took place on the submarine. I thought most of the movie would be focused on their journey northward and then to San Diego, but they get to Alaska in about two minutes. The Sawfish stops by San Francisco on their way to San Diego, and one of the most moving moments in the film is the montage of crew members looking through the periscope at a totally uninhabited city. One crewman from the Sawfish, Ralph Swain, is from San Francisco, and he leaves the submarine to return to his home. An oddly moving moment is the conversation that Towers and Swain have the next morning as the Sawfish prepares to depart. Towers is speaking over the loudspeaker of the submarine, so all we see is Swain sitting on shore talking to a submarine periscope. It’s funny and sad at the same time, a moment that seems so surreal, yet the emotion is heightened as we know that Swain’s conversation with Towers will be the last contact he has with another human being before he dies from fallout. 

The Sawfish tracks the Morse code signal to a refinery in San Diego. One of the crew is sent ashore to investigate and find the signal. He finds that the signal is coming from a Coca-Cola bottle that has fallen and gotten stuck in a window shade. As the breeze moves the window shade, the bottle strikes the telegraph keys, sending the nonsense gibberish messages. The last hope for any survivors has been dashed. 

The submarine returns to Australia and the men wait out their inevitable fate. Osborn has always had a passion for cars, so he enters a car race and wins. It’s the most suicidal car race ever seen on film, as drivers deliberately crash their cars to avoid a painful death from nuclear fallout. The government is handing out suicide pills, and Holmes and his wife finally have a realistic conversation about how they will euthanize their baby before killing themselves. Osborn commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, sitting at the wheel of the race car he loved. Towers and Moira know that they have little time left. The remaining crew of the Sawfish vote to head back to the United States, even though they know they will die before they make it home. Towers commands the ship on its final voyage, and Moira watches from a hill as Towers and the Sawfish depart. 

On the Beach is a bleak film. There is no glimmer of hope for mankind, no way out of the terrible situation the characters find themselves in. One of the questions the movie asks is: how would you spend your last days on earth? Personally, I would rather be in the arms of Ava Gardner than on a doomed submarine. But that’s just me.

All of the performances in On the Beach are excellent. Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as the stoic Dwight Towers, who never panics in the face of a terrible future. If I were on a submarine as the world was ending, there’s really no one I’d rather have be in charge than Gregory Peck. Ava Gardner is very well cast as the alcoholic Moira, who sees in Peck a final chance at some happy moments. While it might seem unbelievable that Dwight and Moira would embark on a romantic relationship, the fact that they are played by the superbly handsome Greg Peck and the delectable Ava Gardner makes it seem obvious why they would like each other. On the Beach was Peck and Gardner’s third and final movie together. They also co-starred in The Great Sinner in 1949 and The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1952. Peck and Gardner have an obvious chemistry in their scenes together. 

Anthony Perkins is touching as the officer with a wife and a young baby. A baby is always a symbol of hope for the future, but in On the Beach we know that there will be no future for this baby. Perkins brings his all-American boy next door charm to the role, and he’s very convincing in the part. A year after On the Beach, Perkins would star as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which forever changed his on screen image. Hitchcock saw that Perkins’s off-kilter charm just needed a slight twist to seem super creepy. Although Psycho was a highlight of Anthony Perkins’s movie career, it also typecast him as a bad guy.

On the Beach is a rare non-musical film role for Fred Astaire. He does a good job as the morose scientist, even though his toupee is distractingly awful. Astaire looks so much older in On the Beach than he did in Silk Stockings and Funny Face, both released just two years before On the Beach. The character that Astaire plays was written as a much younger man in his 20’s in the novel. That makes a little more sense given his love of race cars. But Astaire brings touching moments to the part. When Perkins is worried about his wife and baby, Astaire says “At least you have someone to worry about.” 

One thing I didn’t understand about the movie is what nationality is everyone supposed to be? Peck is obviously an American, but what about the characters that Perkins, Astaire, and Gardner play? Are they all supposed to be Australians? Thankfully no one attempts an accent, although Astaire does pronounce some words very strangely, as though he suddenly remembered his character wasn’t American. 

Stanley Kramer does a good job of directing On the Beach, and I liked his use of titled camera angles to emphasize the surreal circumstances the characters find themselves in. There’s ambiguity in On the Beach, as we never learn how the nuclear war started, or which side dropped the first bomb. Ultimately, that’s irrelevant to the story, which was Kramer’s point-every side loses in a nuclear war. Kramer was most famous for serious films that dealt with important topics of the day. His credits as a producer include Death of a Salesman, High Noon, The Wild One, and The Caine Mutiny. As a director, his most famous films are The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Ship of Fools, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The least successful aspect of On the Beach was the ridiculously repetitive score by Ernest Gold, which will make you really sick of “Waltzing Matilda” by the time you get half an hour into the movie. Oddly enough, Gold won a Golden Globe for his score for On the Beach, and the score was also nominated for an Oscar. Gold would win the Oscar the following year for his score for Exodus. Trivia note: Gold was married to Marni Nixon, who famously dubbed many female stars’ singing voices, including Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.

On the Beach is an excellent movie from an era in which the threat of nuclear destruction was at its highest, and I strongly recommend it.

Derek Jeter and Keith Olbermann

Derek Jeter, wearing a Derek Jeter patch, 2014.

Two days ago Keith Olbermann went on a rant on his TV show about how Derek Jeter is overrated, and that he’s sick of all the hype surrounding Jeter’s impending retirement. While I agree with Olbermann that Jeter is overrated, the rant that he went on was annoying and over the top. Olbermann didn’t give Jeter any credit for being a great player, which annoyed me. He called Jeter “excellent,” but that’s it. I think it’s completely logical to think these two things:

1. Derek Jeter is a great baseball player
2. Derek Jeter is also overrated

I should say that I’m not a Yankees fan. I’m a Twins fan, and I hate how the Yankees have crushed us in the playoffs in 2003, 2004, 2009, and 2010. That being said, I admire and respect Derek Jeter. He plays the game hard, all the time. He’s the kind of player you’d love to have on your team, and the kind of player you hate playing against. 

So what does Olbermann have against Jeter? Well, first Olbermann criticizes Jorge Posada for saying that Jeter is the greatest Yankee of all time. Come on, what do you think Posada is going to say? Jorge Posada played with Derek Jeter for 17 years. Jorge Posada did not play with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle. Jorge Posada is not a baseball historian. He’s not going to say, “Well, actually, if you look at OPS+ and WAR, no one has ever come close to surpassing Babe Ruth as the greatest Yankee of all time.” His purpose, at that press conference, is to say something nice about Derek Jeter. Of course people who really know the history of the game know that Derek Jeter isn’t the greatest Yankee ever. 

Yes, Derek Jeter is overrated as a player. Yes, the year-long celebration of him and how wonderful he is has become a little grating. But what Olbermann didn’t say is that there are reasons why Derek Jeter is overrated:

1. Jeter has played his entire career for the New York Yankees, which means that he plays for the most famous baseball team in the world. Just because of that fact, he’s going to get more media attention than, say, Paul Konerko, who has played almost his whole career for the White Sox, and who is also retiring at the end of this season.

      2. Jeter has played almost an entire season’s worth of post-season games. 158, to be exact. Even if you’re a casual baseball fan who only plays attention in October, Derek Jeter is someone you are very familiar with. Jeter also comes through during the playoffs. His regular season slash line is .309/.377/.439. His postseason slash line is .308/.374/.465. Derek Jeter consistently comes up big when the game is on the line, as he showed tonight when he got the game-winning hit in his final home game at Yankee Stadium.
      3. Derek Jeter is very media friendly. He’s movie-star handsome. He has a knack for always saying the right thing. He comes off as a smart, well-spoken guy. He’s always been a class act. And he just seems like a really nice guy. (In contrast to A-Rod, who always says the wrong thing at the wrong time and comes off as a jerk.)

For those reasons, it’s inevitable that Derek Jeter is going to get a lot of media attention and press coverage and be much more famous than other baseball players. It isn’t so much that Derek Jeter is overrated; it’s that he’s overexposed. 

To further criticize Jeter, Olbermann picks the stat, “Best WAR per season as a Yankee,” which is slightly misleading, since Jeter played more seasons for the Yankees than anyone else on the list. Jeter has played for 20 seasons, but since Olbermann is only counting full seasons, we’ll disregard the 1995 and 2013 seasons for Jeter, putting him at 18 full seasons, and an average of 3.8 WAR per season. I’m not sure where Olbermann is getting his numbers from. I’ve used for my WAR stats. According to baseball-reference, Jeter has 71.7 WAR for his career. If we take away 1995 and 2013, his partial seasons, he has 72.7 WAR, which would be an average of 4.04 WAR per season, which is higher than the 3.8 figure Olbermann has. So how does Jeter compare to those other Yankees that Olbermann mentions?

Graig Nettles averaged 4.0 WAR a year as a Yankee, but he also played for the Yankees for just 11 seasons, rather than Jeter’s 18. Nettles also played for the Yankees during the peak of his career, which helps his WAR as a Yankee. If you look at Nettles’ whole career,  he had 68 WAR over 22 years, which averages out to 3.09 WAR per year, quite a bit lower than Jeter’s 3.8. 

Red Ruffing pitched for the Yankees for 15 years, so the 7 years he played for the Red Sox at the beginning of his career, when he was a crappy pitcher with an ERA+ of 92, don’t count. It’s also silly to compare pitching WAR to hitting WAR anyway.

Willie Randolph’s name is spelled wrong in the graphic on Olbermann’s show. He played 13 years for the Yankees, so we’re not counting the last 4 years of his career. When you average out Randolph’s WAR for his entire career, it’s 3.64 per season, which is lower than Jeter’s 3.8.

Mike Mussina played for the Yankees for 8 years. He has more WAR than Jeter, but he’s also a pitcher so the comparison is silly anyway.

Thurman Munson played for 11 years. He died in a plane crash at the age of 32, so we don’t know what kind of numbers he would have put up in the decline phase of his career. He’s not a great comparison to Jeter.

A-Rod has been a Yankee for 10 years. Yes, he has more WAR than Jeter. He’s also a steroid user.

Joe DiMaggio only played for 13 years, because he missed 3 full seasons due to World War II. Babe Ruth played 15 years for the Yankees. Lou Gehrig played for 17 years, although 3 of those are partial seasons, putting him at 14 full seasons. Mickey Mantle played 18 years, the same number as Jeter when we take away his partial seasons. Mantle is the only player on the list who has played as many seasons with the Yankees as Jeter. These comparisons are inexact, and invariably unfair to Jeter, because you’re comparing his entire career to people who played many fewer seasons for the Yankees. Baseball-reference ranks Jeter 5th in WAR for the Yankees, behind Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and DiMaggio, and I think that’s a better display of where Jeter ranks among the all-time Yankees.

I do agree with Olbermann that Jeter has stunk this year. His stats show that he really did make the right decision to retire. And he probably should have said, “Move me down in the batting order.” However, Joe Girardi probably didn’t want to be in the middle of the inevitable media firestorm that would have occurred had Jeter been moved down in the batting order. 

Yes, the modern merchandising of baseball has made Jeter’s final season a crass marketing juggernaut. But because we knew early in the season that 2014 would be Derek Jeter’s last year, fans got a chance to show their appreciation for him, knowing it would be the final time he played in their city. Sports fans don’t often have a chance to say goodbye so publicly to athletes. Most of them just fade away. Many great players and Hall of Famers did not get the season-long sendoff that Jeter did. To give just a few examples, Jim Palmer was released by the Orioles in May, 1984. Steve Carlton was released by the Twins in April, 1988. Mike Schmidt abruptly retired in May, 1989. Ken Griffey abruptly retired in June, 2010. Pete Rose just stopped putting himself in the lineup after August 17, 1986. Fans didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to these great players. So it’s pretty cool that Derek Jeter got to have a final lap. I’ll admit, when the All-Star Game came to Target Field this year, I was proud to stand up and cheer for Jeter as he exited the game. I was applauding Jeter for his whole career, and the excellence he’s embodied throughout 20 years in the majors. I was applauding his ability to rack up more than 3,400 hits, good for 6th on the all-time list. I was applauding his uncanny ability to make the big play when it needed to be made. I’m glad I got a chance to say goodbye to a truly great player.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mix CD: "The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years-1997-2013"

Promo poster for Paul's album "Flaming Pie," 1997.

Paul McCartney, 2009.

Paul performing with Ringo in 2014.
As I said in my previous post, Paul McCartney’s solo work since 1980 hasn’t been collected in a greatest hits compilation. So I made my own 2 disc set of my favorite Paul McCartney songs. Volume 1 covered the years 1980 to 1993, and Volume 2 covers 1997 to 2013. In my opinion, Paul McCartney has produced consistently excellent work since 1997’s “Flaming Pie.” He continues to write really great songs, and he keeps exploring new ground as a musician. While in concert Paul plays a lot of Beatles tunes, he’s never let the baggage of being a Beatle weigh down his solo career. He’s not one to dwell on the past, and I think this has helped him in his career. He’s never been afraid of taking risks, from putting his wife in his band to releasing albums of ambient music under the pseudonym “The Fireman.” The 2 disc set that I’ve made certainly doesn’t cover all aspects of McCartney’s music since 1980, as he’s also written an oratorio, various classical pieces, and a score for a ballet. 

Here are the songs I chose for the second disc of “The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years,” covering 1997 to 2013.

1. Flaming Pie
2. The Song We Were Singing
3. The World Tonight
4. Calico Skies
5. No Other Baby
6. Try Not To Cry
7. Lonely Road
8. Driving Rain
9. Your Loving Flame
10. Vanilla Sky
11. Fine Line
12. English Tea
13. Riding to Vanity Fair
14. Promise to You Girl
15. Dance Tonight
16. Ever Present Past
17. Mr. Bellamy
18. Sing the Changes
19. Highway
20. My Valentine
21. Save Us
22. Everybody Out There
23. I Can Bet

Some comments about the songs:

“Flaming Pie,” from “Flaming Pie,” 1997: While “Flowers in the Dirt” and “Off the Ground” got a lot of press at the time for being “comeback” albums for McCartney, I think time has shown that “Flaming Pie” is a much stronger album. In between the release of “Off the Ground” in 1993 and “Flaming Pie” in 1997, McCartney spent a lot of time on The Beatles’ “Anthology” series, and he credited working on the “new” Beatles songs for “Anthology” with jump-starting his own creativity. The title song is a stomping rocker, with a great piano part. It features surrealistic lyrics from McCartney, and the title came from a piece that John Lennon wrote for Mersey Beat about the origin of The Beatles’ name. 

“The Song We Were Singing,” from “Flaming Pie,” 1997: A gentle song about Paul’s relationship with John Lennon, as Paul sings about the different things they would talk about, but how “we always came back to the song we were singing.” The lyrics sound very 1960’s, as Paul sings, “Take a sip/see the world through a glass/and speculate about the cosmic solution.”

“The World Tonight,” from “Flaming Pie,” 1997: This song has a sense of mystery about it, as we never find out exactly who the narrator of the song is addressing, and what their relationship is to the narrator. No matter, it’s a catchy song that was the first single from “Flaming Pie.” 

“Calico Skies,” from “Flaming Pie,” 1997: A beautiful acoustic song, produced by George Martin. Paul sings “I’ll hold you for as long as you like/I’ll hold you for the rest of my life.” 

“No Other Baby,” from “Run Devil Run,” 1999: After Linda McCartney died of breast cancer in April of 1998, Paul went into seclusion for a while. When he returned to making music, he made an album of old rock and roll songs from the 1950’s, which would become “Run Devil Run.” It’s an excellent album full of obscure songs like “No Other Baby,” which was a B-side for the group The Vipers. While the Vipers’ original was a rather brisk skiffle tune, Paul’s cover is slower and moodier, with great yearning vocals.

“Try Not to Cry,” from “Run Devil Run,” 1999: Even though “Run Devil Run” is a covers album, Paul ended up writing 3 new songs for the album. “Try Not to Cry” is very simple, but amazingly catchy. The chorus is just “Try, try, try/I try not to cry, cry, cry/cry over you/over you.” But it’ll stay in your head for days.

“Lonely Road,” from “Driving Rain,” 2001: Paul’s 2001 album “Driving Rain” is a favorite of mine. I think it has a lot of great songs on it, but it proved to be Paul’s least successful studio album in the UK, peaking at number 46. “Lonely Road” is the first song on the album, and it starts with a lovely bass intro. I’ve always wondered if this song was unconsciously about Linda, as the first verse is: “I tried to get over you/I tried to find something new/but all I could ever do/was fill my time/with thoughts of you.” Paul’s rocking vocal is terrific. 

“Driving Rain,” from “Driving Rain,” 2001: Another effortlessly catchy tune from Macca. The hook is: “1,2,3,4,5, let’s go for a drive/6,7,8,9,10, let’s go there and back again.” Why is that so catchy? Paul’s gift for melody is amazing. I remember reading a description of Paul that said, “He can write a hit song as easily as most people cross the street.” Yup. 

“Your Loving Flame,” from “Driving Rain,” 2001: A lovely piano ballad.

“Vanilla Sky,” from “Vanilla Sky Soundtrack,” 2001: Paul was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for this song, from the Tom Cruise movie. The song itself is light as a feather, and it sounds like the kind of confection that Paul can whip up in just minutes. “Oh, you need a song for a movie? Called Vanilla Sky? Okay, got it!”

“Fine Line,” from “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” 2005: For his next album, 2005’s “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” Paul worked with producer Nigel Godrich, best known for producing Radiohead. Paul played nearly all of the instruments on the album himself, and it’s a very strong piece of work. “Fine Line” is the first song on the album, and it was the lead single. It really should have been a bigger hit. The song is dominated by Paul’s pounding piano. Paul plays all of the instruments on it, except for the strings, and the music video imagines a band made up of many Paul McCartneys, sort of similar to his video for “Coming Up.” 

“English Tea,” from “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” 2005: One of my favorite Paul songs. In “English Tea” Paul sends up his own image as a creator of silly songs as he sings, “Would you care to sit with me/for a cup of English tea/very twee/very me.” It’s a simple song, but very catchy and delightful. Paul’s always had a spirit of fun about him, from songs like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,”  “Monkberry Moon Delight,” “Silly Love Songs,” “The Pound is Sinking,” and “English Tea.” I really like that Paul isn’t afraid to indulge his more whimsical side. 

“Riding to Vanity Fair,” from “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” 2005: Wonderful song with an incessant, melancholy melody and great lyrics. Although this song pre-dates Paul’s divorce from his second wife Heather Mills, it’s hard not to wonder if this song was about her. Sample verse: “The definition of friendship/apparently ought to be/showing support for the/one that you love/and I was open to friendship/but you didn’t seem to have any to spare/while you were riding to vanity fair.” 

“Promise to You Girl,” from “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” 2005: Paul puts several pieces together and comes up with this catchy piece of pop. It starts out slow, with Paul playing the piano and singing, “Looking through the backyard of my life/time to sweep the fallen leaves away.” Then it sounds very Beatle-y as Paul sings, “Like the sun that rises every day/we can chase the dark clouds from the sky.” And then the piano starts pounding and it turns into an up tempo tune, all in the first 30 seconds. 

“Dance Tonight,” from “Memory Almost Full,” 2007: “Memory Almost Full,” Paul’s 2007 release, was another excellent album with strong songs. Like “Fine Line” before it, “Dance Tonight” is a catchy earworm of a song that should have been a huge hit. Paul plays all of the instruments on “Dance Tonight.”

“Ever Present Past,” from “Memory Almost Full,” 2007: This song is about time moving too fast, as Paul sings, “Searching for the time that has gone so fast/the time that I thought would last/my ever present past.” It’s a nice exploration of our relationship to our own past.

“Mr. Bellamy,” from “Memory Almost Full,” 2007: This might seem to be a left-field choice, but I really like this song. It starts with horns before a jagged piano part comes in and Paul starts singing. “Mr. Bellamy” has two voices, one is Mr. Bellamy, who sings, “I’m not coming down/no matter what you do/I like it up here/without you.” The other voice is Mr. Bellamy’s would-be rescuers, who sing, “All right Mr. Bellamy/we’ll have you down soon.” It’s an interesting song.

“Sing the Changes,” from “Electric Arguments,” 2008: McCartney has recorded three albums with the producer Youth under the pseudonym “The Fireman.” The first two, “Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest,” from 1993, and “Rushes,” from 1998, were ambient electronic albums. “Electric Arguments,” the third Fireman album, is more similar to McCartney’s rock records, as they have more conventional song structures and feature Paul singing lead vocals. The rule that McCartney and Youth made for the songs on “Electric Arguments” was that each song had to be finished the same day it was started. So the album was recorded over 13 days, spread over the course of a year. “Electric Arguments” is a superb album that shows Paul’s relentless creative drive. “Sing the Changes” is an exuberant song about the power of music.

“Highway,” from “Electric Arguments,” 2008: A catchy groover that tells the tale of a girl “Running through the nighttime/and looking like a wreck/got too many highlights/and a love bite on her neck.” 

“My Valentine,” from “Kisses on the Bottom,” 2012: For his 2012 album of standards, “Kisses on the Bottom,” Macca thankfully chose rather obscure songs to set it apart from all the other “veteran rock star sings old standards” albums of late. True to form, Paul couldn’t help but write two new songs for the album. One of them is “My Valentine,” a lovely ballad that he wrote for his third wife, Nancy Shevell. “My Valentine” has been regularly performed by Paul in concert since 2012. 

“Save Us,” from “New,” 2013: Paul’s most recent album, the simply titled “New,” is another excellent record full of good songs. “Save Us” is the first track on the album, and it’s a brisk rocker. 

“Everybody Out There,” from “New,” 2013: This is another upbeat song, as Paul exhorts listeners to “Do some good before you say goodbye.” 

“I Can Bet,” from “New,” 2013: Paul gets slinky on this funky one, as he sings “I’ll look you straight in the eye and pull you to me/what I’m gonna do next I’ll leave entirely to your imagination.” It’s pretty amazing that 50 years after The Beatles released “Please Please Me” Paul McCartney is still making great music.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Mix CD: "The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years-1980-1993"

Paul McCartney, promo image for "Tug of War," 1982.

Poster for "Give My Regards to Broad Street" movie and album, 1984. Was a picture of Paul in "futuristic panda" garb really going to sell people on the movie?

Paul McCartney, mid-1980's. He's making his standard "I'm Paul McCartney and I'm cutely posing for a photo" face.

Promo for Paul's tour of Japan, 1990.
While there have been several greatest hits compilations covering Paul McCartney’s 1970’s work, there hasn’t been a compilation dedicated to the music he’s made since Wings broke up in 1980. The excellent 2-disc set “Wingspan,” from 2001, does cover some solo McCartney tracks, but it only covers the period from 1970-1984. With that in mind, I created my own 2-disc “The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years,” covering Paul’s work since “McCartney II” was released in 1980. Paul has created a lot of great music since 1980, so it was a difficult task to narrow it down to two discs. I decided to leave off Paul’s duets with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, so there’s no “Ebony and Ivory,” “Say Say Say,” or “The Girl is Mine.” Sorry to disappoint anyone. 

Here are the songs I put on disc one of “The Best of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years,” which covers 1980 to 1993.

1. Waterfalls
2. Tug of War
3. Take It Away
4. Here Today
5. The Pound is Sinking
6. Pipes of Peace
7. The Other Me
8. No More Lonely Nights (playout version)
9. Spies Like Us
10. Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun
11. Press
12. My Brave Face
13. Distractions
14. This One
15. Off the Ground
16. Hope of Deliverance

Here are some comments about the songs:

“Waterfalls,” from “McCartney II,” 1980: A hauntingly beautiful song that features only Paul’s vocals and synthesizers. One of his most underrated songs, it was a hit in the UK, peaking at number 9, but in the US it stalled at 106. And yes, TLC stole the chorus for their 1995 hit “Waterfalls.” I didn’t choose “Coming Up” because I don’t really like the synthesized studio version on “McCartney II.” I much prefer the live version, but that was actually cut with Wings in 1979, which would break my rule of including only solo McCartney songs.

“Tug of War,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: “Tug of War” is one of Paul’s strongest solo albums, with terrific songs and production from George Martin. The song “Tug of War” starts off as an acoustic song, with strings eventually joining in as the arrangement builds. The song has an insistent melody, and George Martin’s arrangement works well. 

“Take It Away,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: “Tug of War” fades directly into “Take It Away,” a superbly catchy song with several different hooks and a groovy bass line. It’s a bit of a throwback to McCartney’s 70’s songs like “Band on the Run” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” that had many different sections. 

“Here Today,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: Paul’s moving song about John Lennon is simple, and one of his best. George Martin’s string arrangement is a perfect accompaniment. Paul’s been playing it regularly in concert since 2002. I don’t know how he gets through it every night without breaking down. The most moving lyric might be at the end when Paul sings, “And if I say I really loved you and was glad you came along/if you were here today/for you were in my song.”

“The Pound is Sinking,” from “Tug of War,” 1982: And we move from the serious and touching to the silly. This is a goofy song, as Macca sings about the various financial states of world currency, but it’s so damn catchy! Sample lyric: “The pound is sinking/the peso’s falling/the lira’s reeling/and feeling quite appalling.” At the very least, “The Pound is Sinking” is a useful primer on the old European currency that was replaced by the Euro. My favorite part is the bridge, as Paul sings in an upper-class accent, “Well I feel my dear/that it’s imminently clear/that you can’t see the trees for the forest/your father was an extraordinary man/but you don’t seem to have inherited many of his mannerisms.” I don’t know how that fits into the rest of the song, but it’s still awesome.

“Pipes of Peace,” from “Pipes of Peace,” 1983: A companion piece to “Tug of War.” In my opinion, “Pipes of Peace” is a weaker album than “Tug of War,” but this is still a great song, as Paul makes a plea for world peace. 

“The Other Me,” from “Pipes of Peace,” 1983: This song has a little bit of a different flavor, as it uses a drum machine. Paul sings as someone who has done his girl wrong, and he tries to smooth things out, saying that he wants to find “the other me,” the better version of himself: “I want to be/the kind of me that doesn’t let you down/as a rule.”

“No More Lonely Nights,” (playout version) from “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” 1984: Critics hated Macca’s self-indulgent 1984 film “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” but if you’re a Paul fan there’s a lot to like about it. The plot of the movie is so thin as to be non-existent, so you get to see a lot of Paul singing and playing some of his greatest songs. Paul only wrote a couple of new songs for the movie, but one of them was this great tune. There are actually two versions of “No More Lonely Nights,” a ballad version and the up-tempo “playout version.” I like them both, but I chose the “playout version” for this CD. 

“Spies Like Us,” single, 1985: This daft song, the theme song for the Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd movie of the same name, is Paul’s most recent Top Ten single in the US, peaking at number 7 in early 1986. Oddly enough, it’s something of a rarity, as it was never issued on a McCartney album or any of his greatest hits compilations. It is a bonus track on some editions of “Press to Play.” It’s not a great song, but it is catchy, and it shows Paul momentarily giving in to the mid-80’s huge drum sound. In terms of production values, it’s one of his most dated songs. I thought twice about including this song, but the fact that it was a hit led me to include it. 

“Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun,” from “Press to Play,” 1986: Paul’s 1986 album “Press to Play” was a commercial disappointment, peaking at just number 30 in the US. In the UK it fared better, peaking at number 8, but it slipped off the charts quickly. However, like every McCartney record, there are good things to be found on it. McCartney collaborated with 10cc guitarist Eric Stewart on most of the songs on “Press to Play.” “Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun” is a medley that starts off with a chorus chanting “good times coming/good times coming in,” then it turns into summery pop song about a “golden summer.” “Good Times Coming” then fades into the “Feel the Sun” section, which shares a similar summery vibe. 

“Press,” from “Press to Play,” 1986: “Press” was the lead single off of “Press to Play,” and it’s a catchy piece of mid-80’s pop. The lyrics are rather sexy, as Macca sings to his girlfriend, “When you want me to love you/just tell me to press/right there/that’s it, yeah.” Paul also sings, “Oklahoma was never like this.” What does that mean? Maybe it was a joke between him and Linda.

“My Brave Face,” from “Flowers in the Dirt,” 1989: “Flowers in the Dirt” was seen as a comeback album for Paul after the relative failure of “Press to Play,” and “Flowers” topped the charts in the UK. The album saw Paul co-writing some songs with Elvis Costello. It’s one of the few times in Paul’s solo career that he’s worked with a co-writer. (Another was the aforementioned Eric Stewart on “Press to Play.”) Paul and Elvis obviously hit it off, as they wrote about a dozen songs together that trickled out over the next few years, including Costello’s hit “Veronica.” There are obvious similarities between Costello and Paul’s most famous collaborator, John Lennon. Lennon and Costello have some of the most recognizable glasses in all of rock and roll. (Apologies to Elton John.) Like Lennon, Costello’s songs could be full of hatred and spite, with very personal lyrics. Lyrically, “My Brave Face” tells the tale of a newly single man who can’t always keep it together. It’s different terrain for McCartney, who doesn’t have that many songs about breakups. The part of the song that is the most Costello-like is the bridge leading into the chorus, as Paul quickly sings, “Ever since you went away I’ve had this sentimental inclination/not to change a single thing/as I pull the sheets back on the bed I want to go bury my head in your pillow.” In my head, I can hear Costello’s distinctive voice singing those words. It’s too bad that Elvis and Paul haven’t written together since that time, it would be interesting to hear what songs they would come up with now.  

“Distractions,” from “Flowers in the Dirt,” 1989: A nice, jazzy tune about life’s complications. “Distractions” has lovely strings, and it’s one of my favorite songs from “Flowers in the Dirt.” 

“This One,” from “Flowers in the Dirt,” 1989: A super catchy chorus anchors this song. It shares a lyrical theme of regret with “My Brave Face” and “Distractions,” as Paul tells his girlfriend that if he didn’t do something nice, “I was only waiting for a better moment that didn’t come/there never could be a better moment than this one.” Features a great vocal from Paul as he sings in his rock falsetto during parts of it. 

“Off the Ground,” from “Off the Ground,” 1993: McCartney launched a world tour in 1989 in support of “Flowers in the Dirt,” his first world tour since 1976. The success of his 1989-90 tour led him to record his follow up album with his touring band and embark on another tour in 1993. “Off the Ground,” the first song from the album, is a catchy pop tune, featuring a “la-la-la” chorus and handclaps. 

“Hope of Deliverance,” from “Off the Ground,” 1993: An uplifting song with a South American feel to it, this was the lead single from “Off the Ground.” It was successful in the UK, peaking at number 18, but flopped in the US, peaking at just 83. It was a number 1 in Spain, though. I love the part towards the end where Paul sings, “Hope of deliverance, hope de doobie doobie.” 

That’s it for volume 1. The post on volume 2, covering 1997 to 2013, will be coming soon.