see also: The Beatles ; Macca Meets Jacko

Venus and Mars
Rating: 9
   Imagine an alternate reality, in which you are unfamiliar with rock and roll history. One day you hear on the radio a great song called "Listen to What the Man Said." It's built around an odd drum part, half shuffle, half cross-stick, a thumping bass line that slips in an unusual chromatic figure under the chorus, a simple but not obvious guitar hook (it leaves the modality unresolved) and some lyrics that on the surface seem bubblegum pop but upon closer inspection reveal a philosophical affirmation of love in the face of tragedy. The production is just right, too, with a brilliant soprano sax solo and congas providing the right amount of filigree around a vocal arrangement that builds from a solo vocal to male-female harmonies, to Carpenters-style choral backing. You've got to hear more from this band, so you head down to the record store and find the latest album by a group called Wings.
   The cover art seems to imply a bit of mystical superstition, with a photo of the band in the desert, an astrological title (Venus and Mars) and a bizarre billiard ball motif throughout. Great, you think, another set of wackos with pop smarts. And I just blew my last week's lunch money on Cat Stevens' Numbers! Having spent the money anyway, you take it home and give it a spin; and it's brilliant, an amazing feat of songwriting and arranging, the best album you've ever heard. It's unbelievable how good this sounds.
   The most impressive part of this album is the breadth of musical vision, linking many of the songs across the album. The eerie keyboard part in "Venus and Mars" correlates to the spaceship theme in the lyrics of its reprise, and the link between "Listen to What the Man Said" features the arpeggio lick from "Love in Song." More closely related are the guitar parts in the end of "Venus and Mars" (a brilliant arrangement itself, the song builds from simple guitar and vocal through layers of piano, bass, electric guitar and keyboards), which, sped up, become the main riff into "Rock Show." Beyond that, everything has a unique sound, unlike any other band (with the exception of the typical rocker "Medicine Jar," which is nonetheless kept interesting with backing vocals that sound more like a Broadway chorus line, but don't undercut the song's power). Consider "Magneto and Titanium Man" - the rhythms are unbelievable: the electric piano (nicely recorded with a close-miked amp) sets up a groove which the rest of the band ignores, opting to set the downbeat a half beat off, and the rolling effect is incredibly catchy, but that's only half the story. The verses have an intriguing melody that, counter to established pop practice, describes a downward arc (especially in the title refrain sung by the backing vocals), and the bridges do something rarely heard in rock, skip intervals of three up and down the scale. It's fascinating and completely hummable.
   "Rock Show" is impressive in the way it corrals a large number of sections into a coherent whole through repeated musical elements. Starting with an octave-spanning guitar lick that leads into a routine rock verse melody, the tags at the end of the verse ("could be, oo-ee") are repeated melodically in the chorus (the same notes are used of "rock show" and "Concertgebouw"), and then the bridge, with its militaristic stomping rhythm on the same chords used in the chorus, is exited with a variation on the main riff (instead of the whole scale, it's played in half-time on every other note), and it all seems to collapse into some off-key random piano plunking, but it's a big surprise as it's a fourth section to the song, a New Orleans rhythm in a key that actually resolves from the end of the chorus.
   The album is filled with little touches like this that make you gasp in awe at the genius behind this music. The massive echo on the conga in "Spirits of Ancient Egypt" conveys the mystery behind the lyrics and the moody melody with ghostly backing vocals, yet some weird beeping noises blend it into the modernistic verses. "You Gave Me the Answer" tools along nicely with some jazzy piano, but slips into a Little Richard-style motoring eighth-note pattern under the bridge, and the instrumental section, in the best swing-era attitude, plays subtle variations on the tune, and keeps the listener's interested by varying from a clarinet solo to duet with trumpet then a trombone leading voice against fluttering winds. "Letting Go" sounds like a formulaic arena-rocker at first glimpse, but reveals depths with a horn line that plays a counter-melodic part in a strident clash of keys that all works once the melody comes in and ties the horns to the band.
   The lyrics have a gentle humanistic spirit as well. Unlike lots of performers who wallow in self-regard or try to impose their vision of the world on the listener, Wings have a knack for expressing the best parts of the human experience. "Treat Her Gently" kaleidoscopes with "Lonely Old People", urging the young lover to see past his urges to a future state of moral grace.; "You Gave Me the Answer" sums of the key to "love eternally": "I like you and you seem to like me"; "Love in Song" sums up the universal aspiration for love in its key line: "happiness in the homeland." As well, they can turn a phrase or two. "eking our lives away", "my eye cries out a tear stillborn", "you'll never be crowned by the aristocracy/to their delight, you'd merely invite them in for a cup of tea". Even it their silliest, there's a sense of rhythmic/euphonic expertise: they may not make a lot of sense, but they sound good together: "in my green metal suit I'm preparing to shoot up the city" (and dig the phrasing of "confidante Mademoiselle Kitty (Kitty!)").
   As one esteemed writer said about a different album, "if the goal of rock musicians has been to take 44 minutes of blank tape and make it sound as good as it can possibly can, then this is it." The sheer musical genius at work on this LP has rarely been matched.
   Of course, in this alternative reality, you would then go on to discover that the prime mover behind Wings, one Paul McCartney, had a raft of other albums (none quite as good as this) and used to be in a group called the Beatles, a couple of whose albums, though usually dragged down with some weak material by his colleagues, are as good as this one. But you'd never get over the brilliance that is Venus and Mars.


  • From Ben Marlin: Very nice review! I've never seen it so enthusiastically described, even by George Starostin. Maybe I'll buy it as part of my binge this weekend. Then I can read your review again and match your descriptions to the music, which should be interesting.
    I had to double-check to see if you were quoting me...thank you very much. It made me laugh, and it's always flattering.
    As always, keep up the awesome work.

  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "[high-pitched shriek]" Steve says: "Thanks, I definitely recommend purchasing this. You can probably find it used; it sold a zillion copies in the seventies. I was inspired to write this review by an article I found in an old issue of the Journal of Popular Culture. The author tracked Beatles songs by their main author (based on his research), and determined that, judging by contemporary chart success and more importantly, popular perception of the songs the average listener associates as "Beatles tunes", that McCartney was the dominant force in the group's success. Lennon may have been the psychological leader, but his tunes did not stand out for the public as outstanding compositions in the way that McCartney's did. The author then speculated on the reasons that Lennon's solo music then became more widely critically acclaimed than McCartney's (it was definitely not more popular), and determined that the critical focus on lyrics - because of the ease of analyzing them in print - worked to Lennon's advantage and McCartney's disadvantage. Not that McCartney's lyrics were bad, but they don't have the deeply introspective personal edge that make Lennon's lyrics seem so impressive. (Not to me personally - I've got problems of my own, so I don't need to listen to Lennon's - therefore I prefer McCartney's more universal vision. What's more, McCartney seems genuinely motivated by sympathy for his fellow human being, rather than abstract causes, and I much prefer the former. I also find it interesting that, by and large, the amateur web reviewers I frequent tend not to focus on lyrics, but on the music - perhaps proving that you shouldn't send a journalist to do an artist's job - yes, criticism is an art form.) On strictly musical grounds, McCartney's work, up until about 1980, was hands down superior to Lennon's, and I wanted to point this out. Venus and Mars is, to my ears, his best ever solo album, beating out critical favorites Band on the Run and Ram by a length and a nose respectively. Band on the Run is brought down by the title track, with a chorus that sounds like it could be on an Archies record, and "Let Me Roll It" with a lead guitar seventy times louder than the rest of the instruments, and Ram suffers from too many loose ends. Both are finer albums than 90% of the rest of the music issued in the seventies, though. McCartney was one of the most brilliant minds in pop music for about twenty years, and deserves better treatment from the critics than he's gotten. Thanks for writing!"

  • From Ben Marlin: I've been haunting your site for a bit and I wanted to add something to your insightful response about Lennon and McCartney (on the Wings page).
    I think that all of your points are solid, and you present a counterpoint that is refreshing to read amongst the brainwashed mess that is rock criticism. However, I think that saying that McCartney's music is better because the public likes his songs more is not necessarily a fair argument (I know it's not your idea, but you base part of your argument on it).
    While I can't think of many examples off the bat ("Michelle" comes to mind), Paul was much more likely than John to record sappy, gratingly commercial ballads that were more likely to resonate with the masses. There's nothing inherently wrong with that -- I think "Silly Love Songs" is a masterpiece -- but it does cloud the issue a bit. "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey", while not having much of a melody, is, in my opinion, a lot more interesting and worthwhile than the soporific "My Love", which was a huge hit. "Let 'Em In" was a big seller in the 70's as well, and I think it's lame beyond belief despite being melodic and professionally-arranged.
    This is more of a devil's advocate argument, because I like Paul better too. I also haven't heard much of John's 70's work beyond the big hits. But at the risk of sounding like an elitist (and maybe I am), if one goes by public opinion and recognition, then Celine Dion makes songs as good or better than those of Lennon and McCartney. So does Garth "Yech" Brooks.
    I do think critical treatment of McCartney is unfair -- I don't know if you've perused Tim Riley's Beatles analysis Tell Me Why, but his dismissal of McCartney's best songs is disgusting. Paul is as good as the public thinks; I just don't think public opinion is a fair barometer of artistic accomplishment. Maybe a good starting point, is all. But unless I'm wrong, it's quite possible to pander to the public without creating anything innovative or artistically worthwhile. Also, accomplished melodicism, while impressive, can be used as a catalyst for unlistenable mush. The flipside to this is unmusical sonic experimentation, which I hate just as much. But I'm not concerned with it at the moment.
    I call this letter "To make a short story long...". Thanks for perusing.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Updup." Steve says: "Wow, I love this kind of thoughtful comment; it was my pleasure to peruse it. The point I wanted to make was that if there is a late-Beatles "sound" (and I think there is), then McCartney was largely responsible for it. The point of the public's identification with his songs wasn't that they're more popular, but that the Beatles sound recognized by the public is mostly the McCartney sound (see if that hair isn't split finely enough). So, if the Beatles were great (they were), then solo McCartney should at least be near-great (he was).
    I am indeed familiar with Tim Riley. Tell Me Why was one of those books I read until it nearly fell apart (it's not in as bad shape as The Heart of Rock and Soul, though), and I think Riley's critical voice is a big influence on the way I look at things. I disagreed with him a lot, but he really has a useful way of looking at songs as tunes, arrangements and lyrics all put together, unlike primarily literary critics such as Bangs and Marcus who can vaguely identify tempo as an element of music.
    Anyway, I guess what it boils down to is not that Paul was better because he was more popular (that's an argument you can't ever settle) but that Paul's greatness was closely related to the Beatles' greatness, and that his works resonate more with me because I prefer the common touch. If you're into the tortured artist thing, then by all means Lennon is your man. Thanks for writing, maybe we can make this an ongoing debate!


  • From Steven St. Thomas: You see a lot in Venus & Mars that I just have never bothered to look for! I still say that album was recorded worse than Band on the Run. It opens up so strongly as well with 'Venus & Mars', the title song. It's a beautiful recording, but MAN does it fall down when 'Rock Show' kicks in. Don't you honestly think the drums should be a little more upfront then they are in that mix? The bass guitar practically drowns out everything else (not the first time with a Paul bass track recorded by Emerick on a song!). The drums all the way in the back happens on 'Jet', 'Helen Wheels', 'I've Had Enough', it happens tons of times. I just thought others had noticed it as well. It sounds like the drums were recorded half a mile away from the microphone. Maybe its purpose is to cover up the missed fills and out of time drumming McCartney did on some of these tracks? I would have said RE-TAKE.
    But I'm glad that you like it. If it brings you some enjoyment in a funny ol' world, then who am I to complain?Personally I think you're better off sonically with Harrison or Starkey, and lyrically with Harrison rather than Lennon or McCartney -- though I wonder where that line 'Like a Lucifer she'll always shine' comes from in Letting Go. That doesn't sound like McCartney at all!!!! It actually suggests he knew what Lucifer meant at one time in history (before the Christians got to it!!!)
    I never thought the 'Happiness in the homeland' line in 'Love In Song' was even remotely congruent with the rest of the sentiments expressed in the song. It seems to come out of nowhere. 'I can see the places we used to go to now', is a little bit confusing just by the word 'now'! I know what he means, mind you. So is this song about being in love or losing it? Most of the verses seem to celebrate love, but you have that one verse that says, no. So is he celebrating the misunderstandings that come with love when asking for all the things that come with loving?
    I always thought 'Happiness in the heartland' would have been better, but then again, I'm not really a fan of McCartney's lyrical prowess. I'm not a fan of Lennon's either, mind you. He had that I, Me, You, Us, Them problem in so many songs. Funny man. McCartney's 'She's Leaving Home' is a great lyric, as is 'Eleanor Rigby', but the rest of the time he leaves me a little cold.
    Harrison, Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Pete Townshend, now I've always looked at them as lyric writers. They say what they mean and they mean what they say. You may agree, you may not, but I hope you have fun doing it!
  • STEVE AND DENNIS AND ABE RESPOND: Dennis says, "Gah." Abe says, "Going poop is hard." Steve says: "I thought 'lucifer' was just the British word for what Americans call a 'match': a stick of wood with flammable chemicals on one end, used for lighting cigarettes and candles."

    London Town
    Rating: 7
       It’s a shame that so much writing about the Beatles (and rock music generally) is biography-driven, because the personal lives of musicians can distort our perception of their music. For example, no one ever thinks of Paul McCartney as the Weird Beatle. Lennon, with his radical causes and very public relationships, or George, with his devotion to a minor Hindu cult, seem odder than McCartney with his stable family life and penchant for staying home in the evening. For a billionaire pothead vegetarian knight, he seems pretty normal.
       But if you listen to their solo records, it’s McCartney whose music stands out from any particulary genre – Lennon’s records are just electrified singer-songwriter material, while Harrison’s soft-rock is almost indistinguishable from other groups exploring the same territory (admit it: whenever “Sister Golden Hair” comes on, you’re a little disappointed that it’s not one of George’s tunes), and if Ringo seems harder to pin down, it’s because he switches styles every time he switches producers.
       But Paul McCartney is definitely the oddball – his music is so distinctly his own that it’s pointless to try to call it pop or rock or singer/songwriter; it’s simply McCartney music. His muse is so fertile and inventive that nothing seems out of reach – fuzz guitars with reed flutes? Sounds great. Punk guitars with a disco beat? Lovely. A music-hall style number played entirely with synthesizers? Why not! London Town may be the point at which his inventiveness was at its peak. His capacity for editing out weak ideas was not, however, so a few clunkers pass through, too. But what a gem of musical exploration!
       Much of the album was recorded in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, on a boat set up as a recording studio. The sunny vibe translates into several of the tunes, with a laidback, charming feel. McCartney’s sense of humor comes through as well. One delight is “Famous Groupies,” a collection of dirty jokes about musicians set to a chugging beat with flamenco-style guitar licks (courtesy of Denny Laine, who studied the style at the feet of Spanish masters) played with a steel-string acoustic, and an oddly martial chorus, that nonetheless works to lift the piece out of novelty status into a memorable melody. “I’ve Had Enough” is one of the weaker numbers with a routine guitar lick (Foghat has done this better) but one of the classic lines of resignation: “I earn the money and you take it away / When I don't know where you're from / I should be worried but they say it'll pay for a bomb.”
       When the band returned to England, drummer Joe English and lead guitarist Jimmy McCullough quit the group. McCullough wasn’t missed much, as McCartney is a fine, distinctive guitarist, but he wildly overestimates his own drumming. Comparing the tracks with English to those with Paul on drums is instructive. English’s tracks have a firm, steady pulse with natural dynamics and appropriate fills. McCartney frequently pushes the beat and plays stiffly, and his attacks are erratic: he often hits the snare drum with different intensity even within the same bar, and his crash cymbals are much too loud.
       But with so many other gifts as his disposal, McCartney still makes most of the tracks work. “Café on the Left Bank” builds its hook on the tape echo sound of the hard “c” in “Café”, and supplements it with some exquisite imagery of tourists in Paris: “Touching all the girls with your eyes”. “I’m Carrying” turns what might be a trite homecoming saga into self-effacing hopefulness with the phrase “if my reappearance lacks a sense of style”, and the melancholy string arrangement.
       It’s hard to say what the heck “Backwards Traveller” is about, but it’s a terrifically catchy melody, and the triplet half-time rhythms under “auld lang syne, my dears” are an unexpected trip-up to the charging rhythm. The burbling synthesizers lend a “Dr. Who” air to the proceedings as well. “Girlfriend” is a prime example of McCartney’s eclecticism: it starts out as a lightly swinging tribute to the Philly soul sound, but slips into a menacing instrumental break that’s positively doomy.
       Side two really shows off the musical Cuisinart that is our hero’s brain: “With a Little Luck” may not be the greatest tune he ever wrote (and he extends it past the point of interest by about four minutes), but most others (Leo Sayer, for instance) would take a tune like this and set it behind a tack piano and jazzy horn section. Our hero, though, piles on the layers of squishy synthesizers (it’s actually a bad idea, reinforcing the lack of propulsion in the original melody) – the point is, though, that he went and did it!
       ”Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is simply fabulous, one of McCartney’s best ever. A slow waltz propelled by brushed snare sets the pace for an arrangement featuring flageolets (a type of flute), Hendrix-effects guitar tones (not in the playing style, just the sound) and gloomy three-part harmonies. The lyrics are cheerful, but set to this melody, the irony is thick. The last number on the album is much-derided, but to these ears it’s a blast: “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose” is a big kettle of musical ideas, all of which work. There’s the disco beat, the “London Calling” guitar chops, the high-pitched keyboard playing Morse code, the backwards lead guitar, and the filters on the vocals to sound like a shortwave radio transmission. Throw in another catchy melody with an insistent refrain (the way they repeat “this is the Morse Moose calling” over and over simulates the Morse code effect of the beginning) and you’ve got a winner. It’s a pity he didn’t release this as a single instead of “With a Little Luck”: it would have gone a long way to undermining his unfair reputation as a softie.
       It takes either a visionary or a kook – at any rate, somebody out of the mainstream – to put together the variety of sounds McCartney welds on London Town; no record company would let him get away with it if he wasn’t Paul McCartney. But they sound great, and provide an endlessly entertaining, enriching review of what’s possible in a modern recording studio. What a weirdo.

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