Paul is live — again and again and again
Paul McCartney was always the Beatle most addicted to performing. Look at live footage of the young Fabs from 1963 and 1964; he’s invariably the one that finds the main camera first, flashing a wink and a grin. He urged the group to get back on the road during the Beatles’ later years, and, unsurprisingly, was the only solo Beatle who’s spent a good portion of his career touring somewhere.
In contrast, John Lennon made a handful of live appearances in the ’70s (though it’s been said that prior to his death he was considering a return to touring, in the wake of Double Fantasy’s release). George Harrison staggered through one US tour in 1974, then couldn’t face doing more than one-off shows for another 17 years. Ringo Starr didn’t feel the itch until 1989, when he began touring with his All Starr Bands, but he still hasn’t made the rounds as extensively as McCartney (though interestingly, he’s actually released more live albums than McCartney).
Yet McCartney hasn’t chosen to reissue all of his live albums in this recent spate of reissues. It’s an eclectic group: an album last reissued in 2013 (Wings Over America); an album that isn’t a live-before-an-audience album at all (Choba B CCCP); an album that hasn’t previously been reissued (Paul Is Live); and a new, previously unreleased album (Amoeba Gig). All together (now), they trace McCartney’s career from the time he was keen to establish himself as a performer apart from the Beatles (only 6 of the 28 tracks on Wings Over America are Beatles songs) to a man acknowledging that the Beatles will always be the most prominent part of his legacy (over half the tracks on Amoeba Gig are from the Beatle era).
Wings was McCartney’s only post-Beatles band; since then, it’s been Paul McCartney and a Backing Group. And by the time of the Wings Over America in 1976, McCartney had racked up enough hits of his own that he really had no need to reference his Beatles past. Not that it didn’t help; alongside the likes of “Listen to What the Man Said,” “Jet,” “My Love,” “Silly Love Songs,” and “Live and Let Die,” Fab Four classics like “Lady Madonna,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” and “Blackbird” are the cherries atop an already excellent cake. Adding to the full band camaraderie, lead vocals are swapped around the band. Guitarist Denny Laine serves up his own hit with the Moody Blues, “Go Now,” as well as “Time to Hide” and a satiric take on Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” and guitarist Jimmy McCulloch turns in a great version of the sadly prescient “Medicine Jar” (though the song warns about the dangers of substance abuse, McCulloch failed to take his own advice; in 1979 he died of drug and alcohol-related causes). And imagine ending the set with a song — the tough rocker “Soily” — that was never a hit and never released in a studio version; you won’t see that happen again. This is quite likely the best live album McCartney has ever released.
Fast forward to July 1987, when McCartney decided to get together with some musicians and record 22 oldies-but-goodies over the course of two days (the promo material claims this as a “live” album because the songs were recorded “live in the studio”). This was a just-for-fun session, but when the tracks released as B-sides got a good response, he decided to put out an album — with a catch. On its first release in 1988, the 11-track Choba B CCCP was only released in Russia (the title is the Russian translation of a Beatles song title — guess which one). This created a frenzy among collectors, especially when a 13-track album was later released; completists, naturally, had to have both. A US release, with 14 songs, finally arrived in 1991.
AUDIO: “Twenty Flight Rock”
Most of the songs are the kind of classic rock ‘n’ roll numbers the Beatles blazed through as they paid their dues in their pre-fame years. “Twenty Flight Rock” was the song that landed McCartney a spot in the Beatles (Lennon was impressed that McCartney knew all the words). There are nods to Elvis (“That’s All Right”), Little Richard (“Lucille”), and Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”); most unusual is his swinging take on Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” They’re robust versions, more stripped back and streamlined in comparison to the sometimes bloated arrangements on Lennon’s own oldies covers album, Rock ‘N’ Roll. This reissue uses the 11-track lineup, so if you have the 1991 version, hang onto it for the extra tracks.
This series oddly skips 1990’s Tripping the Live Fantastic, which documented McCartney’s 1989-90 world tour, in favor of 1993’s Paul Is Live, which covered that year’s world tour. Kicking off the set with “Drive My Car” was an admission that the audience was there more for a nostalgic visit to the past than to listen to anything from McCartney’s latest album, Off the Ground. For that reason alone, Tripping might have been the better choice for a reissue, as Flowers in the Dirt, the new album McCartney was promoting on that tour, has stronger songs than Off the Ground. And to avoid too much repetition with Tripping, Paul Is Live doesn’t feature signature songs like “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” or “Band on the Run.” But the show’s acoustic sequence (no doubt inspired by McCartney’s appearance on MTV Unplugged), has a decided charm, with its mix of old and new (“Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Hope of Deliverance”).
AUDIO: Paul Is Live
In addition to filling arenas, McCartney also enjoys dropping in at more intimate venues; hence his June 27, 2007 in-store appearance at Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, while he was promoting his latest album Memory Almost Full. Some songs have come out on limited releases; this marks the first time the complete 21-song set has been officially available. McCartney’s clearly energized by his proximity to the audience, who even respond to the songs from Memory with enthusiasm, songs they’ll likely never hear played live again (which is a shame in the case of “Mama Never Knows” at least). There’s a surprise among his post-1990 selections, when he performs the touching “Calico Skies” from 1997’s Flaming Pie, one of his strongest albums. It’s a poignant love song, and one can’t help think that the inspiration was his then-wife Linda, who was fighting cancer and died the following year; what made him add this to the setlist? And there’s plenty of Beatles songs to keep the fans happy; he gives a great extended ending to “I’ve Got a Feeling,” tackles “Matchbox” (Starr was the lead vocalist on the Beatles’ version), and “I Saw Her Standing There” is the perfect closing. Overall, it’s the standard McCartney Arena Show downsized for a smaller space, and all the stronger because of that.
The vinyl editions are especially nice (the albums are also available in CD and digital editions), available in both basic black and luscious colored vinyl: Wings Over America, transparent red, green, and blue; Choba B CCCP, opaque yellow; Paul Is Live, opaque blue, opaque peach/white; Amoeba Gig, clear and what’s called “hazy amber.” They’re tempting. Very tempting. As a keen record buyer himself, McCartney has never neglected vinyl releases.
At age 77, McCartney shows no signs of slowing down, so we can probably expect another new live album — or more — to be released in the coming years, not to mention the other four that missed being reissued this time. What care he that his voice is rougher (it hurts to watch him struggle to hit the high notes on “Maybe I’m Amazed”), and that the new songs feel increasingly superfluous (only three songs from his latest, Egypt Station are in the current setlist)? This is a man whose second home is center stage, and it’s likely that as long as he can walk, crawl, or be rolled out in a wheelchair, he’ll still be out there, giving his all. Rock on, Sir Paul!
AUDIO: “Calico Skies” from Amoeba Gig