Part 7: Rockestra (1980)
As the ‘70s drew to a close, our alternate-reality Beatles found themselves still mostly on top of the world, albeit with more company than they had in the ‘60s. They also found themselves falling into a pattern of alternating easily-accessible albums (Imagine, Band On the Run, Grow Up) with more experimental albums (Mind Games, Chaos). So naturally one would expect the follow-up album to Grow Up to take an un-commercial left turn.
And it does, but not in a way that would perplex people to the same extent as I think Mind Games and Chaos would have done. Rather, Rockestra finds the Beatles taking some cues from the changing musical landscape and transitioning their sound into the post-punk, post-disco era. Paul in particular did a complete about-face after 1978 and wrote some of his most creative music around the turn of the ‘80s. Like Chaos!, this album contains a very wide variety of styles, so I thought naming this album Rockestra after Paul’s instrumental which leads off Side Two of Back to the Egg would be a great idea, symbolizing the Beatles’ willingness to put anything and everything into their music. The Rockestra world tour, I imagine, would’ve been quite the show as well.
The song selection for the album was tricky, with Paul simply having a lot more material to choose from than anyone else. The fact that Back to the Egg and McCartney II are both totally awesome only made it trickier. Compound that with George releasing his (IMHO) second-most consistently solid album ever in 1979, and somebody’s favorite song is bound to be left out, so please folks, cut me some slack. I realize this album is longer than most, with eight songs on each side, and running about 57 minutes. Not entirely unheard of by 1980, though. I imagine that were this album actually released, a few tracks such as “Waterfalls,” “Daytime Nightime Suffering” and “Here Comes the Moon” could be a tad more concise, but we got what we got.
This album also signifies the end of an era – as we all know, John Lennon’s life ended prematurely in 1980, so after this we will no longer hear his voice or songwriting (with one exception, which I’m sure most of you can predict). See “Fixing a Hole Part 2” for a more detailed discussion of this complication in putting this series together. And yes, I know that in real life we didn’t hear some of these songs until 1983-84, but of course Lennon wrote them no later than 1980, and due to the lack of original Lennon music in the 1975-79 timeframe, I shifted most of the songs from 1980’s Double Fantasy to the fictional 1977 album, and the songs from the posthumous Milk and Honey to this fictional 1980 album.
So here it is, an album that is both groundbreaking and accessible – enjoy Rockestra! I think it’s the last true faux Beatles masterpiece (but there’s still plenty of good music to come).
“Rockestra Theme” – Back to the Egg is the McCartney album that tends to be forgotten among many of his more successful releases. It’s a total left turn from its predecessor London Town and loads of fun, taking stabs at punk, disco, metal, pub rock, soupy ballads, a couple “granny songs” thrown in, and of course this obvious ode to (or parody of?) ELO. And check out the video! One commenter said “This could go on for 20 minutes and I’d jam to it the whole time.” I concur.
“Love Comes to Everyone” – The lyrics are still firmly rooted in ‘60s Beatles idealism, but when you mix it in with George’s signature dense guitar chords, and quite possibly the earliest instance of what most of us know as “Steve Winwood synthesizer,” it becomes an essential late ‘70s period piece. Does anyone know of an earlier example of this synth sound?
“Temporary Secretary” – The segue here is a great example of how many different things were going on in the rock world in 1979-80. Paul fans are divided on this one. I’m a big Devo fan, so naturally, I think it’s a killer song, though admittedly its lyrics are a little dated and embarrassing. Let’s just say I’m not performing this at a karaoke bar anytime soon.
“I Don’t Wanna Face It” – We’re kind of in a situation here where we have to put everything on Milk and Honey and Double Fantasy that’s purely John on this album and the one before it. It’s not one of his strongest tunes, and probably would’ve been fleshed out a little more if he’d lived. But mediocre for Lennon is still good for most. The multi-lingual counting intro is kind of a fun segue after “Secretary.”
“Waterfalls” – Amidst all the weirdness of McCartney II, I think this simple ballad stands out as one of Paul’s most timeless textbook compositions, almost right up there with “Yesterday,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Almost. I think that opinion would be more universal had this been recorded on a real piano, but hey, it was 1980.
“Coming Up” – I think the Beatles’ version would’ve sounded more organic, like the Live at Glasgow version that got all the U.S. radio play. But not actually live. So just see if you can tune out the cheering. The McCartney II version is great too of course, but not exactly radio-friendly, so this, on the other hand, was a brilliant move by someone at the promotions desk. I provided links to both so you can choose your favorite.
“Nobody Told Me” – Another great example of an ex-Beatle making the whole songwriting thing look easy. Far and away the most complete-sounding song on Milk and Honey. Still get a kick out of the “most peculiar, mama!”
“Arrow Through Me” – I never get tired of hearing this quirky disco-rock concoction from Back to the Egg. Released as a single in late 1979, the perfect time for it, and by Paul McCartney no less, how did this not reach the Top 10? Where was the promotions desk? Too busy plugging the Commodores? I love how Paul takes a cue from the Bee Gees “Jive Talkin’” and removes a beat every other measure in the interludes. And the ending is probably one of my top 10 favorite endings of all time. And did I mention I love ‘70s videos?
“Attention” – My favorite Ringo songs seem to be the ones written by other Beatles. That really should come as no surprise.
“Daytime Nightime Suffering” – Isn’t Wikipedia great? Without it I wouldn’t have learned that this song was the result of Paul challenging every member of Wings, including Linda, to write a song over the course of one weekend to be the B-side to “Goodnight Tonight” in early 1979. And in true McCartney fashion, he listened to every one of the songs they all came up with, and rejected them all in favor of the one he had written himself over the very same weekend. And thus the greatest Paul non-album B-side was born. I would’ve preferred this on Back to the Egg over one of those medleys near the end, but maybe that’s just me.
“Cleanup Time” – same story as “I Don’t Wanna Face It,” it was a tough choice between this and “Borrowed Time,” but this one sounds more finished.
“Darkroom” – Just plain bizarre, but it’s not like the Beatles were never bizarre. Serves the same function as “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.”
“Here Comes the Moon” – While one could accuse George of trying to recapture some past glory here, he makes up for that in this song’s sheer beauty. Would be even better with John and Paul doing those harmonies in the chorus.
“I’m Stepping Out” – the other mostly-complete-sounding track from Milk and Honey. Oddly, John’s tracks are probably the most conventional-sounding on this album, but they provide some nice contrasts to the wild trips that some of the Paul and George material take us on.
“Goodnight Tonight” – I almost left this out, thinking that the Beatles would’ve made only one quasi-disco concession in this era, and “Arrow Through Me” is just much more complex and much better (and much less actual disco). But then I listened to it again, and thought that this was exactly the sort of disco song the Beatles would’ve been amenable to; perhaps John and George would’ve deep-sixed the robot voices, but certainly not the guitar parts. I often forget how amazing the bass work is in this song too. And geez, I wish I could have as much fun as all the Wings seem to be having in this video. So it’s in.
“Baby’s Request” – “No, not more of your granny shit!” says John in a rehearsal session, but then quickly backs down as he realizes that this tune brings the concept of the versatile Beatles, both innovative and crowd-pleasing, to a fitting conclusion. How does this have a video, by the way? Talk about a pleasant surprise.
WELL-KNOWN SONGS THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT
“Getting Closer” – Just too much on Back to the Egg that’s good, not enough room. I’m sure some folks are going to think this should be on instead of “Temporary Secretary,” and I think the album works either way. Maybe this would’ve been on the U.S. version, with “Secretary” on the U.K. version.
“Blow Away” – We’ll get to it, just not here.
“Not Guilty” – I decided to put the more rockin’ version on 1970’s Join the Human Race.
“Wrack My Brain” – Never did it for me. Too silly and not quite silly enough at the same time.
Coming Up b/w Borrowed Time, #1, 1980
Nobody Told Me b/w Spin It On, #2, 1980 (kept out of the #1 spot by Kenny Rogers’ “Lady”, much to the disgust of Beatle fans across America)
Arrow Through Me b/w Old Siam, Sir, #6, 1980 (gets the proper promotion this time!)
Next time: the Beatles in the early ‘80s, how do they hold up in a world without John Lennon and with Duran Duran and the Culture Club?