Monday, August 27, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: The Last 68 Seconds of "Rock Show" by Paul McCartney

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.

Listening to Paul McCartney is a lifetime task. By my count—and when it comes to Paul McCartney there is truly so much music available that it really does, in some way, come down to what you can personally account for or fathom as physically possible to listen to—there are 36 or 37 (depending on if you include Yellow Submarine or not) canonical studio albums to listen to between the Beatles, Wings, and his solo releases.

I’ve been listening to Paul McCartney in some form or another for about 20 years. I listen to and care about his canon far more than anyone I directly know. (For instance, I’ve listened to the song “C Moon” so many times, that I had forgotten it existed until I just remembered the other week. And that’s not even a well-known Paul McCartney song.) And I have only barely scratched the surface of listening to and appreciating his entire output. To be frank, I’ve only really listened to a fraction of it, probably closer to a third than a full half. For every “Seaside Woman” or Thrillington that I know, there’s an Off the Ground that I’ve never even come near.

The joy of listening to Paul McCartney, like any truly great pop craftsman, is in the details. For instance, take the song “Ram On (Reprise)” from Paul’s wildly influential 1971 album Ram. “Ram On (Reprise)” is itself a return to the song “Ram On” earlier in the album. Each track is a bit of homespun, studio-pop wizardry, full of whistles, handclaps, overdubbed vocals, ukulele, and humming keyboards. At the end of “Ram On (Reprise),” though, McCartney throws in an additional melody. This was something the Beatles did frequently throughout their career, from “Ticket to Ride” to “Cry Baby Cry.” However, after listening to the song dozens of times and progressing through his discography, you realize that this little melody soon became a full song on his 1973 album Red Rose Speedway with Wings—a song called “Big Barn Bed.”

Or take for instance the song “Suicide.” It’s been reported that Paul first wrote the music for the song when he was 14. It was then recorded as part of the Get Back sessions in 1969 but never used. Paul recorded the song again for his McCartney album in 1970. The song, by many accounts (including from Paul himself), was meant to be given to Frank Sinatra to cover. Sinatra never covered it. But Paul included a snippet of the song as part of the outro to a song called “Hot as Sun/Glasses” on McCartney.

Those are just two examples of the small, minute, melodic details you can follow throughout Paul McCartney’s career. Some may say that this borders on obsessive. Why the hell would you care so much about some fragments from minor compositions within a major artist’s long career? But if you love something as much as I love the feeling of and the idea of Paul McCartney’s music—the idea that at any moment you could possibly sit down at a piano and compose a tune that is not only pleasing to the ear in the tradition of pure pop music, but also endlessly fascinating and intellectually stimulating and do so in a way that appears from the outside to be easy—you give a shit about things like this.

One of these little details that I think about a lot is the ending of the song “Rock Show” from Venus and Mars, Paul’s 1974 album with Wings.

Venus and Mars is usually overlooked in Paul’s career. There’s good reason for that: a lot of the songs are cheesy, a lot of them are very ’70s, the other members of Wings are given space to sing lead too frequently, and overall the album lacks a sense of even vague depth. That being said, I actually have grown to really love the album. Even the melodramatic “Treat Her Gently-Lonely Old People.” And “Magneto and Titanium Man” may have the most trite lyrics of any McCartney song, but I dare you not to be entertained by the melody and shifts in tempo—as well as Paul’s sincere commitment to the vocals on a song about superheroes.

“Rock Show,” though, is part of an opening 1-2 punch that kicks off the album. The album starts with “Venus and Mars,” which is a strummy, ostensibly contemplative, opener about getting ready to see a big concert. The lyrics are so on the nose that you almost groan and there are synthesizer sounds that at the time probably seemed cool, then over the next thirty years seemed impossibly dated, but which now actually seem like they would fit into a certain kind of contemporary pop song again.

“Venus and Mars” segues from its soft-rock overtures into “Rock Show,” which is a by the numbers 1970s rocker. The song is, you guessed it, all about a rock concert. Paul throws his voice into the song with a conviction that he is only capable of. It is a vocal performance where, because he shifts the level and tone of his delivery so frequently, you can only assume that the tissue that his vocal chords and throat are composed of is simply different—like, from another species different—and better than yours. There’s mentions of “glimpsing an axe,” of “scoring an ounce,” of “Madison Square” and the “Hollywood Bowl.” The whole thing would be utterly unremarkable if not for the final 68 seconds.

Just when you think the song is about to fade out completely, Paul pulls it back with an incredibly funky ending. It is lead by an undeniable piano part that is mimicked my a riffing guitar, as well as booming drums that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Funkadelic record. You could describe the tempo and feel as reggae, but that would be wrong—and also an insult to reggae. Once the high-pitched synthesizer kicks in, the song takes on a texture that is almost prog-rock, but even though it’s weird and overblown, it’s not that weird and overblown.
Over all of this, Paul scats, hums, and moans about going to a rock show and tells his baby to “not be late,” to place her “wig on straight,” and that they “can’t be late.”  

In all honesty, what it sounds like is the first draft of the theme from Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr. or “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis & the News—only better than either of those songs. In just over a minute, Paul manages to build a melody and hook that ended up sustaining full-length tracks of two separate artists and one entire film franchise. But as part of his canon, it is simply a weird ending to an otherwise forgettable rocker from 1974.

In writing this, I’ve listened to the 68 seconds that conclude “Rock Show” almost two dozen times. That certainly says something about me, but it also says something about Paul McCartney as well. Just wait till you hear what I have to say about the first three seconds of “Backwards Traveller” from London Town.

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