When Paul McCartney’s television special was aired several weeks ago, one of the ostensible aims was to provide a semi-biographical glimpse of the inner man, a kind of “getting to know him” in the words of an accompanying ABC press release. Instead, the show proved impersonal at best, with McCartney remote and distant from the camera, providing a portrait nowhere near as intimate, say, as some of the better scene-stealing he undertook in A Hard Day’s Night. Ironically, the most engrossing moments fell when passersby were asked to sing snippets of Beatles’ songs, and if the consequent production did nothing to heal McCartney’s ongoing image problem, it certainly didn’t help his musical offerings, which came off as forgettably ordinary and certainly disappointing.
Yet television as a medium demands attention, and as the best of Red Rose Speedway indicates, Paul McCartney’s music tends to crumble under prolonged examination. He is not an especially intense lyricist, preferring instead to choose his words according to sound and feel alone, and his melodies — particularly on more uptempo material — appear to be fostered through basic reliance on a rotating riff. Mathematically this adds up to nothing, but over the radio and through repeated listenings the power of such a simple combination mounts steadily, so that what is finally delivered is the pop song refined to its ultimate extension: pleasant, accessible without concentration, air waves filled, records sold, no condescension or middle-of-the-road apologies.
In fact, if Paul demonstrates anything with this album, it lies in his skill as an arranger, in his placement of instruments and the succession of movements he notches within any given tune. The hooks are never obvious, certainly not on the order of those soaring Beatlesque choruses, but after a while you might find yourself waiting for that pristine guitar figure, the drum interjection, the wash of background harmonies that are meticulously set in each piece. And make no mistake, though the songs are credited to the McCartneys, and though Wings works with an admirable degree of understated restraint, this is really Paul’s album. He dominates it in a way he hasn’t since embarking on his solo career, the results all to the good. His voice is consistently excellent, his bass provides the direction for most of the more ornate cuts, and he seems comfortable in his chosen milieu.
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“Big Barn Bed,” the opening cut on the album, captures McCartney’s current approach as well as any, showing in a series of steps just how he fleshes out a song which must have been mere skeleton when first written. The lyrics are rhymed nonsense, for the most part, played off against a curiously staggered afterbeat and a tightly controlled vocal. Neither verse nor chorus are anything much, but the song draws you slowly in with the same steady roll of traction demonstrated by that odd union of records which score heavily in the discotheque markets, reaching its peak with the endless repetitions of the chorus line in the end, let down slightly via the faintly Gregorian harmonies at the close.
Similarly, “My Love” relies on its success (both as single and album cut) not through the mushiness of its sentiments, or the superfluous prettiness of its melody (Paul did it better in “The Long and Winding Road” anyway), but in its constant attention to unconcealed repetition. A look at the lyric sheet reveals a staggering amount of “My Love”s and “Wo-Wo”s shoved in nearly every line, and if the song appears to be somehow more than it actually is, chalk one up for McCartney’s supervisory care.
This concentration on ramming the point home is both Red Rose Speedway‘s strength and weakness, however. “Medley,” which takes up 11 minutes of side two, consists of four songs tied together in a slight vignette. The story line is loosely based on the traditionals of a boy-girl relationship — in this case overwrought with a love theme — and the tunes themselves are charming enough in a lightweight sort of way. But eleven minutes? Not only could the medley have been easily compressed into a single segment with little loss of narrative flavor, but the net effect of lumping all these eggs in one basket only serves to underscore their individual lack of anything resembling bulk.
The remainder of the album is good, competent McCartney, neither his best nor worst, but solidly constructed material with a flair for creating gems out of the safe and familiar. “Get on the Right Thing,” with its Abbey Road texture, is a sharply synched number that folds nicely into “One More Kiss,” a scenario built on the premise of the one-night stand and down-played letter-perfect. “Single Pigeon” is a meager song, not made out to be much more than it really is (the Mamas and Papas over “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), while the picks to click of Red Rose Speedway rest with “Little Lamb Dragonfly” and “When The Night,” the former soft and sensual with a bit too much reliance on the “la-la-la”s and the latter a double-edged Paul rocker, featuring his best singing of the album when the group bears down in the coda. Wings’ great recent single of “Hi Hi Hi” is nowhere to be found, for reasons undeclared, especially gritting in light of a weak filler instrumental called “Loup (1st Indian on the Moon),” electronic patter more gracefully left to such as Pink Floyd and Hawkwind.
Still, despite expected hits and misses, I find Red Rose Speedway to be the most overall heartening McCartney product given us since the demise of the Beatles. After much experimentation with how best to present himself, Paul has apparently begun a process of settling down, of working within a band framework that looks to remain stable for at least the next vehicular period. An American tour should help matters out, if nothing else giving him greater accessibility to his audience, and the noticeable tightening of his musical vision should boost him from there. And as for the particulars of this latest album, suffice it to say that Paul’s grandfather would’ve liked it. It is, after all, very clean.