Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Please Mr Postman

There was a story in the Daily Telegraph a few days ago about a letter from John Lennon that had finally - forty years late - found its way to its rightful recipient, folksinger Steve Tilston. Here's the link (with thanks to Louise Cripps for pointing it out):

What struck me wasn't so much the lost-letter theme of the story as the fact that Lennon was so accessible during his final year or so in England. He devoured the underground press and the rock weeklies, and was quick to respond whenever something caught his imagination. (He always ended his letters to Melody Maker with "LP winner", referring to the paper's habit of awarding the writer of each week's best letter a free album.)

But his correspondence wasn't just for private consumption. He would reply to letters from fans, or write out of the blue to somebody mentioned in the press, never failing to use his home address and often (as in this instance) including his home phone number. He clearly relished the opportunity to stay in personal touch with the outside world, both as a political gesture (I'm no more important than you) and because he was fascinated by other people and their lives. Which makes it all the more tragic that he retreated from the world for so many years after his second son, Sean, was born; and even more ironic that as soon as he tried to reconnect with his public, going back to the studio and signing autographs for fans outside the Dakota, he paid the ultimate price. No contemporary star would dare to be so open; in retrospect, I suppose it's amazing that John got away with it for as long as he did.

As a final thought, it's interesting that the need to connect with the 'real' world was something that linked Lennon and McCartney - both reclusive in different ways, but at the same time desperate to retain their links with the world around them. John did it via letters and political campaigns; Paul by trying to combine being the world's most popular entertainer with being an 'average person', to use one of his song titles. You have to admire their efforts, and think one more time about the crippling price of fame.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Wings tour rehearsals 1975

I've already mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I was fortunate enough to see the first night of Wings' 1975/76 world tour. Many years later, I was able to hear (but not keep, so please don't ask me for copies) tapes of the band's final rehearsals for that tour, at Elstree Film Studios in early September 1975.

While the musicians fine-tuned their performances (which by September were already set in stone, with little room left for individual improvisation), the lighting engineers worked on their cues. To help them out, two C90 cassettes were prepared of the entire set-list, using the original Wings studio recordings rather than the rehearsals that were taking place at the same time. To fill in the gaps, McCartney's engineers used the original Beatles versions of 'Lady Madonna', 'Long And Winding Road', 'I've Just Seen A Face', 'Blackbird' and 'Yesterday', adding the Moody Blues' 1965 version of 'Go Now' to cover Denny Laine's revival of the song.

So far, so dull. But two of the songs that Wings intended to perform didn't exist on record, so McCartney arranged for 'live' arrangements to be recorded in the studio purely for this purpose. And so it was that 'Soily' (then intended to feature in the first half of the show, rather than as an encore) and Paul Simon's 'Richard Cory' received their only studio outings, the latter sung by Laine as it would be on stage. Neither performance has circulated among collectors, though my memory is that both of them sounded identical to the way they would in concert a few days later.

Two other cassettes from this period exist, one labelled 'Tour Rehearsal 1975', the other 'Day 2 Elstree 1975'. Not surprisingly, they reproduce the entire set-list again, although this time in the form of 'live at Elstree' Wings performances. But scattered amongst the familiar arrangements of 'Jet', 'Medicine Jar' and 'My Love' were four songs that didn't make the concert halls - and were surely never intended to. The first was 'Ol' Man River', clearly sung as a spoof. Rather than return to 'You Gave Me The Answer', which was the next song on the agenda, McCartney led Wings into a romp through the Coasters' hit 'Charlie Brown', which doubtless formed part of the Beatles' early live repertoire.

With good reason, McCartney could rarely resist the temptation in the mid-70s to show off 'Suicide', a mere fragment of which had appeared on his debut album five years earlier. Though it's hard to imagine Frank Sinatra cutting the song, as McCartney had hoped, it does seem strange that it has still never been given an official release, when the likes of 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' were considered worthy. My notes fail to say whether this was a band arrangement or a solo spotlight; my money's on the latter. More on this deliciously beautiful song another time.

Finally, Wings embarked on a skiffle-style rendition of the traditional folk-blues tune 'Stealin' - which, coincidentally or not, had recently appeared as the title track of a particularly intriguing bootleg collection of Bob Dylan out-takes. Could McCartney have picked up a copy? Or did he know the tune from some distant blues source? Five years later, a different incarnation of Wings would return to the song during rehearsals for what was supposed to be the follow-up to Back To The Egg, but turned instead into a McCartney solo project, Tug Of War.

None of these performances would have satisfied McCartney the perfectionist. But on rare occasions, he has allowed us to hear his more relaxed self - with the rehearsals and soundchecks aired on the Oobu Joobu radio series, for instance, and most memorably the off-the-cuff rendition of Ray Charles' hit, 'Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying', which was included on the Tripping The Live Fantastic collection. Memo to Mr McCartney: I'd buy an album of such spontaneous moments anytime.