Throughout his career, Paul McCartney has occasionally ventured into atypical musical genres anonymously or under an assumed name. In 1974, under the guise of the Country Hams, McCartney and Wings released the single “Walking in the Park With Eloise” (a number written by McCartney’s father), while 1977 saw the release of an instrumental version of McCartney’s Ram album as recorded by “Irish bandleader” Percy “Thrills” Thrillington. And uncredited dance remixes of “Hope of Deliverance” (the leadoff single from McCartney’s last studio album, Off the Ground) hit the U.K. club charts before McCartney’s presence on the disc was revealed.
The identity of the Fireman, the creative force behind Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, might have remained equally obscure, and club revelers would have been none the wiser. But the truth leaked out to the British press shortly before the album’s U.K. release last fall, confirming rumors that the Fireman is a collective pseudonym for McCartney and Youth, a British dance-music producer and former member of Killing Joke.
Together, the team has concocted an appealing collection of nine variations on a musical theme set to a techno dance beat. Anyone expecting a typical McCartney album will be disappointed; Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest has no lyrics (aside from the occasional sampled word), and the differences between the tracks are slight on a first listen. But as a dance record, its strengths are undeniable. The droning wail of guitars and keyboards gives the music an exotic tinge, conjuring up images of a late night stroll through the casbah. The innumerable samples (radio transmissions, random shouts, sitars, a line of classical music) also enliven the mix. A raver on the dance floor isn’t going to care who created music, which is entirely the point. This isn’t meant to be a chart contender; it’s more an opportunity for McCartney to indulge in some musical experimentation.
Conversely, the purpose of Come Together: Motown Sings the Beatles is entirely straightforward: It’s a collection of 15 Beatles songs covered by 10 Motown artists. And unlike most recent tribute albums, which solicit new recordings from the artists involved, Come Together is drawn from Motown’s archives, with the songs originally released between 1964 and 1971.
The Supremes were the first to tackle the Lennon-McCartney songbook with the release of the album A Bit of Liverpool in 1964, at the height of Beatlemania. Two songs from that LP, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” are featured on Come Together in lively, if somewhat expressionless, renditions. Diana Ross fares better as a solo artist with “Come Together” and “The Long and Winding Road”; originally released in 1970, the songs benefited from a fuller sound and stronger delivery.
On the whole, ballads come out ahead in this collection; the Miracles’ version of “And I Love Her” and Marvin Gaye’s “Yesterday” make already tender sentiments even sweeter, and Gladys Knight and the Pips add a sizable measure of soul to “Let It Be.” Stevie Wonder’s funky “We Can Work It Out” is another high point and the only track to find success on the singles charts, reaching the Top 20 in 1971.
Not every track is as successful — the Temptations’ “Hey Jude” and the Four Tops’ “Michelle” provide pleasant enough listening but are otherwise unremarkable. But Come Together is one of the few Beatles-covers collections that makes sense. The Beatles readily acknowledged the inspiration they’d received from Motown, so a compilation in which Motown returns the favor brings the circle to a fitting close.