Category: Rating The Albums

Yes I Wanna Know : Killer or Filler ? An ABBA-nalysis

Let The Music Speak: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns exposing our innermost thoughts on the musical offerings of the otherworldly beings known as ABBA and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other and maybe the world at large but our love for Agnetha, Frida, Benny, and Björn is strong enough to last when things get rough.

HOPE: Contrary to popular belief, not all ABBA songs are delectable pieces of candy. No, what they are is spaghetti. Meaning while there are plenty of good pieces that stick to the wall, there are also many inedible bits that land with a damp thud in a pile on the floor. When it comes to ABBA songs, there are only two official classifications that can be applied; it’s either a majestic piece of art or it’s caulking, it’s packing peanuts. There’s no in between.

Okay, so all that stuff you just read summarizes what my general feeling about ABBA has been over the years, that they are a straight up singles band who never actually made a genuinely classic studio album.

And the sales numbers of Gold were what I would frequently serve up to support this opinion. The 19 track compilation of hits has sold 30 million plus copies to date worldwide and is by far the most popular title in the entire ABBA catalogue. It remains as definitive, succinct and perfect an artist compilation as there has ever been. Not a moment is wasted on Gold, its contents are all Oreo creme and the jelly inside the donut with nothing extraneous to hack through. It is designed for pure pleasure. But I always interpreted its success as a covert statement, the world collectively shouting don’t bore us, get to the chorus.

The traditional ABBA studio album was not a safe place for a “just okay” song to reside. Oh pity the lesser ABBA song, forced to compete in the most thankless and brutal pop music beauty contest known to mankind. On an ABBA studio album there were no runners-up, only winners and losers.
But then again, were the singles just so transcendently good that they made the just okay stuff sound worse than it actually was? Or were ABBA simply hamstrung by a format of presentation, namely the long-playing album, and simply forced into filling space with inferior songs because they had to?

MATTHEW: Is ABBA dog poop? That was David Crosby’s now-infamous two-word verdict in a 2018 Tweet. When pushed, he doubled down and added “utter complete pop dog poop” and “not one decent song ever.” I’ll resist the temptation to sink to Crosby’s level and use short words to sum up his catalogue, and instead note that his inclusion of the word “pop” is significant. For some people, it makes no difference whether the word has one or two o’s. But it does to us. We love pop in all its glorious variations and manifestations (right, Hope?), and ABBA are unabashedly, fundamentally a pop band. One might argue that they are the ultimate pop band. After all, the Swedish quartet’s songs are rooted in schlager, the traditional folk-pop of central and northern Europe whose origins stretch back many centuries (now that’s deep pop); and no other band channeled their schlager roots so transparently and successfully into glam-pop and disco-pop—and even a little prog-pop and electro-pop. ABBA’s eight studio albums were released between 1973 and 1981, but the 1992 hits compilation Gold is the world’s 23rd best-selling album ever, and by this summer will have spent a record-breaking 1000 continuous weeks on the UK album charts (where it is the second best-selling album ever, after Queen’s Greatest Hits). But if we accept that 30 million people (and counting) have a point, and Crosby is an ignoramus, that still prompts Hope’s question: Were ABBA a singles band, hamstrung by the album format that didn’t really suit them? Were their albums mere vehicles for hit singles, each with a few killer tracks padded out with filler? Will our conclusion be, thank you for some of the music?

HOPE: Those are the questions we will answer here, going through all eight albums, as they were originally issued, classifying every track as either Killer or Filler (keepin’ it pure and accurate!). Although we are not evaluating the various updated re-releases with bonus tracks, we do ponder and consider the free-standing singles in the context of those albums, as well as the handful of key tracks that were only available as part of compilation albums. So, is there such a thing as an ABBA deep cut? Do any of the studio albums qualify as “classic”? Is it Killer or is it Filler? Let’s find out !

*Update!: Since the original publication of this piece, ABBA have released a new studio album! I know. Believe me we were as shocked as you when the news hit the fan. Being the nerdy completists we are, we knew we would have to address the new recordings or else we wouldn’t have been able to live with ourselves. Check out the ABBA-DDENDUM (what else would it be) following the conclusion for our thoughts on Voyage!

The Albums

Ring Ring (1973)

HOPE: Ring Ring (1973) This album is actually credited to “Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida” who at this stage were essentially a side project with no grand master plan. With that in mind, part of me wants to cut them some slack. Ring Ring wasn’t meant to be a definitive artistic statement, the group were just trying on hats and uh, yeah, throwing spaghetti…which is why the album features a whole lotta BS aka Björn Singing. Still there is some cohesiveness from a sonic standpoint as the songs do tend to stay in a particular lane on Ring Ring i.e. the corny, all ages, non-threatening middle one, pushing no buttons apart from the one that kicked out sugary gumballs (which were not remotely as cool as the foxy red hot candies offered up by the young lust inciting chart monsters of the time like The Sweet, Bowie and T.Rex). There are a few good songs on Ring Ring, the goofy, schlocky euro-Ronettes title track, “Disillusion” with its overt “Fire And Rain” style instrumentation and “I Saw It In The Mirror” which, nerd reference alert, bears a sweetly striking resemblance to an actual Badfinger song, “Dear Angie”. But the enemy forces outnumber the heroes here; the chorus of “Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother” is the devil himself. As for the patronizing, retrograde “I Am Just A Girl,” I just can’t.

Killer: Ring Ring, Disillusion, I Saw It In The Mirror.
Filler: Another Town, Another Train; People Need Love; Nina Pretty Ballerina; Love Isn’t Easy(But It Sure is Hard Enough); Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; He Is Your Brother; She’s Just My Kind Of Girl; I Am Just A Girl; Rock ‘N’ Roll Band.
Verdict: This album was an experiment, a new adventure, a bunch of songs by 4 people with no conjoined identity, manifesto or sound. Ring Ring is filled with filler and if we were to rank the studio albums from best to worst, this one would be the caboose.

MATTHEW: Ring Ring (1973). Although this wasn’t even released in the US and UK until the 1990s, it did well enough in Australia and continental Europe (#1 in Belgium!) to launch ABBA. The 12 songs, averaging a second under 3 minutes each, are corny ditties rooted deep in the schlager folk-pop tradition. During the group’s late-70s heyday, this stuff seemed comical—at best, amusing juvenilia (like Bowie’s 1968 debut), at worst, an embarrassing joke. In retrospect, it isn’t that bad, and there’s a certain charm to the relative simplicity of the songs. But they tend to plod along and quickly wear thin, their goofy happiness nowhere near as compelling as the disco-pop, divorce ballads, and other sub-genres that gradually take over later albums (with the possible exception of “Disillusion,” which hints at a darker direction; and is the only ABBA song written solely by Agnetha). For me, the most interesting thing about this album is how much it is rooted in the big ‘60s careers that every band member enjoyed, especially Björn, whose Hootenanny Singers were one of Sweden’s biggest bands in their 1964-72 heyday. Side Two of the album looks back to those late-’60s careers far more than it looks forward to late-70s ABBA, especially “She’s My Kind Of Girl,” which isn’t even an ABBA song—it was a hit single for Benny and Björn in Sweden in 1970, reaching #1 in Japan in 1972. I’ve put it in the Killer category because, like “Disillusion,” it is an enjoyable curiosity; but both songs only just slip in there, as does “Ring Ring” (their first stab at a Eurovision song; its remix with sax for the next album is much better).

Killer: Ring Ring; Disillusion; She’s My Kind Of Girl.
Filler: Another Town, Another Train; People Need Love; I Saw It In The Mirror; Nina, Pretty Ballerina; Love Isn’t Easy(But It Sure is Hard Enough); Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; He Is Your Brother; I Am Just A Girl; Rock ‘N’ Roll Band.
Verdict: I agree with Hope that this is the bottom of the ABBA barrel. It has no ABBA classics, and it is barely even an ABBA album—as reflected in its original Scandavian release under that awkward “Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida” (BBAF?!). That said, I’d rate it equally with the next album, Waterloo, because it is more coherent. It is not a singles album, lacking that contrast between a couple of hits filled out with packing material. It knows what it is—a meeting of four musicians and their pasts—and is not trying to be anything else.

Waterloo (1974)

MATTHEW: Waterloo (1974). From its opening glam-pop chug, and the first “My! My!” from Agnetha and Frida, you know the title track is a leap forward, revealing for the first time a successful mixing of the ABBA formula. “Waterloo” (the song) has it all: incredibly catchy pop with one foot in a related genre of that moment (glam), the seamless blend of the women’s voices, the men’s signature key change, and—crucially—lyrics that paradoxically suggest something a little darker. It is too soon in the band’s double-couple marriage-to-divorce arc to get heartbreak lyrics, so instead we get a massive, bloody battle (Napoleon’s 1815 defeat) as a metaphor for the start of a romance; the music suggests a happy surrender to love, but the words are full of disturbing phrases such as “you won the war” and “couldn’t escape if I wanted to.” It’s brilliant. It also takes me right back to my childhood discovery of pop music, complete with the weekly anticipation of Top of the Pops, the wonderful weirdness of The Eurovision Song Contest, and “Waterloo” as its 1974 winner (and the best song to win it ever) constantly on my tiny transistor radio.

So, how do the other ten songs hold up against this opener? Not so well. “Waterloo” is followed by the ghastly cod reggae of “Sitting in the Palmtree” and “King Kong Song,” probably the worst ABBA song ever. “Watch Out” isn’t great glam-pop, it’s just crap-glam. The rest of the album is admittedly not all bad: “Hasta Mañana” makes me smile, as schlager-pop at its amusing best, complete with the irresistible melody and that oh-so-ABBA mid-point key shift; and I love the sleeper song on here, “My Mama Said”—its lyrics have the triteness of most early ABBA songs (and all of this album aside from “Waterloo”), but it has a killer bass line, deftly treated Agnetha/Frida vocal harmonies, and is just begging for a Voulez Vous-era remix. Two of the filler songs here are right on the killer/filler line, with ”Dance (While the Music Still Goes on)” too clunky with potential to make it, and “Gonna Sing You My Lovesong” just making it for the sheer sweet catchiness of the chorus melody. “Honey Honey,” the minor-hit second single, also just crosses the line into killer category. The UK/US release of the album had a much-improved remix of “Ring Ring” at the end; slightly glammed up, it handily joins the title track as bookends to a real mixed-bag of an album.

Killer: Waterloo; Hasta Mañana; My Mama Said; Honey Honey; Gonna Sing You My Lovesong; Ring Ring (remix).
Filler: Sitting In The Palmtree; King Kong Song; Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); Watch Out; What About Livingstone; Suzy-Hang-Around.
Verdict: Although this has ambitions to being an album that stands on its own two feet, it is ultimately a vehicle for singles—and only one of them a real hit. At its best, it is way ahead of the debut album, but overall it is more uneven and thus ties for worst ABBA album.

HOPE: Waterloo (1974). Ah yes, I too remember hearing “Waterloo” for the first time as a child, although it was via the video being shown on a kids TV show here in the U.S. called Wonderama. The song and its visual accompaniment remain transcendently wonderful (watch here). As for the rest, I sooooo agree with you Matthew that “My Mama Said” is the sleeper. What blows me away about it is how mind-bogglingly prescient its sound is; it’s straight up proto-disco, albeit with some weird Steely Dan-esque flourishes, and sounds like a demo version of Silver Convention’s megahit “Fly Robin Fly” which dropped only a year later. Frida serves up a particularly sweet vocal on the fabulously melodic “Gonna Sing You My Love Song” which resembles the world’s kitschiest Carole King song and is either about unrequited love or being the proverbial “other woman” depending on your emotional worldview. The song isn’t traditionally Abba-esque in its construction but it is damn good and I just plain sloppy love it. The rest of the album’s tracks are expendable, from the heinous faux reggae of “Sitting In The Palmtree,” to the ill-advised attempt to rock on “Watch Out” to the excruciating “King Kong Song” which yes Matthew is quite possibly the worst thing ABBA ever recorded. Please make it stop.

Killer: Waterloo; My Mama Said; Gonna Sing You My Love Song; Ring Ring(remix).
Filler: Sitting In The Palmtree; King Kong Song; Hasta Mañana; Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); Honey Honey; Watch Out; What About Livingstone; Suzy-Hang-Around
Verdict: There are three good songs on Waterloo album. They are better than the three good songs on the debut album which is why Ring Ring is the sole occupant of the basement flat in the ABBA album rankings…but it’s really, really close.

ABBA (1975)

MATTHEW: ABBA (1975). This is a step forward from Waterloo, but not yet a leap. The hit singles are better, and there are more of them, bringing ABBA to the brink of their imperial phase. But we are still obliged to lurch from the sublime to the silly, from Killer to Filler. Take the six songs of Side One. Tracks 1 and 4, “Mamma Mia” (to which I’ve been rather overexposed—I know you agree, Hope—but yes, there is no denying its pop craftsmanship) and “SOS” (which is even better, its elements refined to the point where it has a timeless shine to it), are obliged to sit amongst forgettable filler of the kind that rarely appears in later albums (e.g., the cringey cod reggae of “Tropical Loveland”). Side Two is, ironically, less jarring because it lacks anything close to the brilliance of “Mamma Mia” and “SOS,” its singles being second-tier ABBA hits like “I Do [x5]” and misses like “I’ve Been Waiting For You” (which crosses into killer category by virtue of Agnetha’s emotion-packed voice) and “So Long” (which crosses that line on a generous day). But Side Two is weighed down in the middle by the boys, and their inclusion of “Rock Me” (one of two dire numbers sung by Björn) and the prog-lite absurdity of Benny’s instrumental “Intermezzo no. 1” (a B-side at best). It is so clear by this point—ah, the sharpness of hindsight!—that the magic of ABBA lies in the layered, overdubbed harmonies of the women’s voices, but the men cannot yet resist the temptation to keep a few tracks on each album for themselves. It is also clear that ABBA’s borrowing of elements from genres like glam only work when the result is ABBA-glam-pop (like the chorus of “SOS”) not ABBA imitating Slade or The Sweet (like “So Long,” the first of six singles taken from the album, and one of the three that were not big hits).

Killer: Mamma Mia; SOS; I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; I’ve Been Waiting For You.
Filler: Hey Hey Helen; Tropical Loveland; Man In The Middle; Bang-A-Boomerang; Rock Me; Intermezzo No.1; So Long.
Verdict: This is clearly a better album than the first and second, buoyed by two classic pop singles, a big step closer to real-album status. But as most of the album is filler (and much of it dire stuff), it keeps the band in singles album territory (and 7 of these 11 tracks were released as singles somewhere). Admittedly, in January of ‘76, “Mamma Mia” hit #1 in the UK (it peaked at #32 in the US), and “SOS” had reached #6 a few months earlier (#15 Stateside), meaning ABBA had shaken the one-hit curse of “Waterloo.” And for an astonishing 15 weeks in 1975, three singles from ABBA had taken it in turns to monopolize the #1 spot in Australia (“I Do [x5],” then “Mamma Mia,” then “SOS”). But could that success be repeated elsewhere? After all, in the UK, “Mamma Mia” was the sixth single from the album, following a trio of weak albums and more flop singles than hits. No longer one-hit wonders, ABBA were now a band that made lots of singles—a few of them really great—but not real albums.

HOPE: ABBA (1975) I am thoroughly tired of “Mamma Mia” but its poptastic virtues are undeniable, as is its iconic video which as of this writing has been viewed 218 million times on YouTube (watch here). But make no mistake: the song is also an absolute polarizer; the video also has 44,000 thumbs down votes by pop-hating grinches whom I also somewhat identify with (save me a seat on the fence will you). The schlager-slathered “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” is a staggeringly immense piece of cheese but endearing enough and “So Long” is a fun soundalike half sibling to ‘Waterloo.” But forget all that. The uncontested star here is lush, sophisticated heartbreak anthem “SOS” which also stands as the official introduction of “ Sad Agnetha™ ” to the ABBA mythology, a persona that was to be showcased and exploited on every album from this point forward. As for the rest, it’s a tough trawl with many tracks emitting an unpleasant novelty vibe…though I admit to a slight fascination with “Man In The Middle”, a brazen attempt at a Stevie Wonder style song, and how resolutely un-funky it is considering its inspiration.

Killer: Mamma Mia; SOS; I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,I Do; So Long.
Filler: Hey Hey Helen; Tropical Loveland; Man In The Middle; Bang-A-Boomerang; Rock Me; Intermezzo No.1; I’ve Been Waiting For You.
Verdict: While this album continues the trend of the previous albums and is dominated by cartoonish filler ( and thus not a good album), the four tracks that qualify as “killer” signify a real sonic turning point. The sophisticated singalong heartbreak of “S.O.S.,” in particular, acts as a one song mission statement on what the group were actually capable of.

Arrival (1976)

MATTHEW: Arrival (1976). Whether you hate or love “Dancing Queen” (and I can feel only admiration and gratitude for the song, having danced drunkenly to it a hundred times), there’s no doubting that it is a gold nugget of a disco-pop song. It is their best-selling single worldwide, #1 in over a dozen countries (their only US #1), top five in almost every market on every continent. Its first live (and televised) performance for the King of Sweden and his Queen-to-be the night before their wedding has from the start been part of its legend. As for the rest of the album, there’s good news and bad news. The good? Its hit singles are even better than on the previous album, with three bona fide smashes (four if “Fernando” is included; see below), all packed with hooks and elevated by Agnetha/Frida vocals—including “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” the brilliant sophomore appearance of a sub-genre that nobody has ever done better than ABBA: divorce pop. Sure, Fleetwood Mac turned intraband breakups into an entire album. But that’s divorce rock. I’m talking about creating a whole new art form out of the perfect pop paradox: lyrics of emotional anguish set to upbeat pop tunes. “SOS” was the sub-genre’s debut, and although Frida’s “Knowing” vocal hits home hard, it is Agnetha’s ability to “cry with her voice” (as producer Michael Tretow put it) that makes ABBA’s divorce-pop classics such deliciously wrenching doses of schadenfreude.

The hits on Arrival made it ABBA’s biggest studio album, launching their four-year imperial phase. This is the first of five straight UK #1 albums. Starting now and running right through the turbulent years of punk and disco, AOR and New Wave, ABBA were the biggest band in the world. (Classic Pop editor Steve Harnell’s recent gush is worth quoting: “It’s a perfect snapshot of a group brimming with optimism and alive to the diverse opportunities of sophisticated pop.”) So how can there be bad news? Well, let me digress into my own memory of this album. I was a 12-year-old English schoolboy when this came out. My friend James and I taped it from his mother’s vinyl copy (yes, these are the kinds of phrases that appear in a discussion of ABBA). We spent hours debating the relative merits of Agnetha and Frida (he boringly always ended up voting for Agnetha, I irritatingly could never decide). This is therefore the first ABBA record that I remember as an album; when “Knowing Me, Knowing You” ends, I anticipate the opening keyboard chords of “Money [x3].” But there the familiarity ends, because we would fast-forward over the remaining four tracks. And there’s the bad news: half of Arrival is feather-weight filler of the kind that made their first three records singles albums. Yes, the filler is better (“Tiger” is odd in a good way, and “When I Kissed the Teacher” is an amusingly bizarre choice for an opening track—it belongs on the same creepy playlist as Elton’s “Teacher I Need You” and the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” but isn’t nearly as good). But it is still filler (I know Björn later apologized for “Dum Dum Diddle”—Hope has the quote coming up—but I still cannot forgive its inclusion before “Knowing Me, Knowing You”). In most markets, Arrival had ten tracks, but in Australia & NZ it had an eleventh, “Fernando”—which was the band’s biggest hit single to date. So, we are trying to have our cake and eat it here, by evaluating the 10-track album while also tossing in “Fernando” (in parentheses). After all, Australia was the first market to make ABBA truly massive.

Killer: Dancing Queen; My Love, My Life; Knowing Me, Knowing You; Money, Money, Money; Tiger; (Fernando).
Filler: When I Kissed The Teacher; Dum Dum Diddle; That’s Me; Why Did It Have To Be Me; Arrival.
Verdict: Their best singles and their best album to date, justifying the launch of a colossal global presence. But if Björn and Benny, as the songwriters, really were keen to become “a good album act” (as Björn put it in 1975), they were their own worst enemies, continuing to juxtapose unique, classic pop singles with, well, some dum dum diddles. So close to a real album, but not quite achieving the—ahem—arrival.

HOPE: Arrival (1976) The famous backstory of “Dancing Queen” is that when Benny played Frida the instrumental demo of the song she was so blown away that she burst into tears at its magnificence, which is completely understandable. And then of course she and Agnetha graced it with a vocal performance that took it even higher; that moment after the songs intro when the two stretch that elongated opening “ooh” into “you can dance” may be one of the greatest moments in pop music history. Right, so “Dancing Queen” is worthy of every pop superlative known to mankind but know what, so is its Arrival roommate “Knowing Me Knowing You” a living breathing god of a break-up song right down to its super schlager-esque post-chorus guitar break (it also features the Best Björn Backing Vocal Ever™). On the flipside let’s hear what Björn himself had to say about “Dum Dum Diddle” in the brilliant band bio by Carl Magnus Palm from 2001, Bright Lights, Dark Shadows: “It might as well have been ‘Dumb Dumb Diddle”. Frida weighed in on its merits as well offering a classically cutting “I don’t like it”. And so that’s your nadir right there. The rest of the tracks qualify as just okay. Slick and well-constructed but not necessarily memorable with the exception of “When I Kissed The Teacher” which is memorable but for all the aforementioned wrong reasons. And even if the insidiously catchy“Fernando” had been included, it wouldn’t have tipped Arrival into great album territory; the filler would still outnumber the killer.

Killer: Dancing Queen; Knowing Me Knowing You; Money,Money,Money; Tiger; (Fernando).
Filler: When I Kissed The Teacher; My Life, My Love; Dum Dum Diddle; That’s Me; Why Did It Have To Be Me; Arrival.
Verdict: Again, filler outweighing killer…but this goes back to what I alluded to in the intro: the good tracks are so good, specifically “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me Knowing You”, they make the lesser songs sound a thousand times worse. That said, Arrival is still only half an album.

ABBA:The Album (1977)

HOPE: ABBA—The Album (1977). That title says it all. Abba—The Album may well have been the band’s first full-length release that sounded cohesive enough to call itself an album. Equal parts sophisticated and weird, The Album features ABBA’s two best rock(ish) songs (“Eagle”, “Hole In Your Soul”) as well as two straight up classics (“The Name Of The Game” with Agnetha absolutely killing on the verses and the swirling, hook hotel that is “Take A Chance On Me”). It also contains three songs from a mini-musical called The Girl With The Golden Hair that the group incorporated into shows during their 1977 tour. “I’m A Marionette” is the best of the aforementioned showtunes that while it sounds like it should be soundtracking a skating routine taking place at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, is full of bizarre, never boring tempo changes and a cool West Coast style guitar break. And I may be ensuring a front row seat in hell for saying this but I can’t freakin’ stand “Thank You For The Music” despite its nice Agnetha vocal. It reminds me of the Whoville Xmas song from the old Grinch TV special, but not in a good way.
Nerd reference alert X-treme edition: There are two songs from the ‘80s that I used to really like that in retrospect appear to have brazenly borrowed bits from a couple of The Album’s tracks, hmmm…:
1.Malcolm McLaren’s spoken intro to his 1984 classic “Madame Butterfly” bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in “Move On”.
2.Really sounds like Blancmange nicked some “Hole In Your Soul” for their also fabulous “Lose Your Love” from 1985. Yeah, hmmm.

Killer: Eagle; Take A Chance on Me; The Name Of The Game; Hole In Your Soul; I’m A Marionette.
Filler: One Man, One Woman; Move on; Thank You For The Music; I Wonder.
Verdict: An extremely consistent effort featuring the highest number of quality songs on an ABBA album thus far. But while The Album has a more solid foundation than its predecessors, there still remains a significant gap between the great (2 songs), the good (3 songs) and the unexceptional (4 songs).

MATTHEW: ABBA—The Album (1977). Finally, a real album! This is, for me, a quantum leap forward as a coherent creative achievement; their best album, and the only one—yes, I’m sticking my neck out here—that is all killer, no filler. “Eagle” sets a confident tone with its soaring singalong chorus and its proggy balance of synths and multiple guitars, while the a cappella opening of “Take A Chance On Me” lets us know that this is album is going to be packed with surprising hooks and inventively bespoke production (er, there’s a piccolo trumpet solo on #1 hit “The Name of the Game”!). This is obviously not prog rock, and it may be too much of a reach to call it prog-pop, but it certainly leans that way, and is the only ABBA album to do so. The songs stretch out more, their production is more sophisticated and ambitious, and it is almost a concept album. Defend that bold claim? Ok! The theme of the last trio of songs, billed as that The Girl with Golden Hair “mini-musical” Hope mentions, is about reaching for fame and then feeling trapped by it. The elements of that simple story arc also appear in the previous six songs, like sneak previews of the emotions laid out in the mini-musical—with romance/marriage and artistic fame serving as metaphors for each other. The personal lives of the two couples were now on relentless display (the Abbamania of their Australia tour earlier in the year, harrowing tales of fans traveling to Sweden to walk into their homes, Agnetha craving privacy for her pregnancy but the band under intense pressure to record and tour); and thus the stage musical feel of that closing trio works as a concept within a concept. (I can see I’ve not convinced you, Hope, but it’s worth a try—and the album is worth another listen!)

Killer: Eagle; Take A Chance on Me; One Man, One Woman; The Name Of The Game; Move On; Hole In Your Soul; Thank You For The Music; I Wonder (Departure); I’m A Marionette.
Filler: none!
Verdict: The ABBA pinnacle: a great pop record with four excellent singles and a further five tracks that add to the album’s coherence rather than just filling it out. There’s no silly schlager shite on here; it’s a complete 40-minute pop-pleasure experience that never gets old. (But could they keep it up…?)

Voulez-Vous (1979)

MATTHEW: Voulez-Vous (1979). How do you follow a prog-pop album that sold millions worldwide? Well, it’s 1979, so you make a disco-pop album. And here’s the thing: it works! Because Voulez-Vous is still very much an ABBA album. It’s not just disco, it’s disco-pop with ABBA mixed-bag lyrics, schlager roots, catchy melodies, irresistible Agnetha & Frida harmonies, and that signature key change to carry us to the final chorus. Like The Album, there is nothing silly on here, no “Dum Dum Diddle”-type filler. Also like its predecessor, Benny and Björn had a rough few months coming up with songs—this time the main problem was Björn and Agnetha’s imploding marriage—and those difficulties seem to have forced them to work harder and raise the bar higher. Björn later confessed that once he and Agnetha had decided to split, the tension in the studio was lifted, and the album came together. Ironically, it lacks a divorce-pop classic (the best of them would come on the next album). Ok, the children’s choir on “I Have a Dream” may be one layer of cheese too far, and “Lovers” is frankly awful. But the album as a whole wears well, not thin, even down to the non-single album tracks (“If It Wasn’t For the Nights” is a true deep-track delight). It’s a shame that “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” were not included on the original album (they were pre-album singles, and were then added to later CD and streaming releases); they’re the best of up-beat late-period ABBA, one muscular rock-disco (reminiscent of the same year’s “Hot Stuff”), the other a strong candidate for the band’s catchiest dance track (deserving of its status as a straight wedding favorite and a gay anthem!).

Killer: As Good As New; Voulez Vous; I Have a Dream; Angeleyes; The King Has Lost His Crown; Does Your Mother Know?; If It Wasn’t For The Nights; Chiquitita; Kisses Of Fire.
Filler: Lovers (Live A Little Longer).
Verdict: A real album? Absolutely! This is a coherent, high-quality disco-pop album, packed with upbeat radio- and club-friendly ABBA-bangers, with each vinyl/cassette side pinned in the middle with an expertly crafted schlager-cheese ballad. It is as much of an album as, say, its Bee Gees contemporary, Spirits Having Flown (which is arguably the most coherent Gibb album, sharing some musical characteristics with Voulez-Vous—whose title track was partly recorded in the Miami studios used by the Bee Gees during this era). Even the one filler track is not terrible; I just wish it had been used as a B-side and that “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” had been included instead (yes, such a swap would have still fitted on a single vinyl record), as that would have made this hands down ABBA’s best album. As originally released, it shares that crown with its predecessor and with their swan-song album.

HOPE: Voulez-Vous (1979). Being a curmudgeon means when given a choice of listening to kitschy, happy, cartoonish ABBA or heartbroken, world-weary, adult ABBA, I tend to gravitate toward the latter. The weird part is that while Voulez-Vous leans heavily on the former, I think it may actually be one of the best ABBA albums, meaning the overall standard of quality is pretty high. For one thing it’s home to 3 of the absolute most beloved and popular ABBA songs ever, the title track, “Chiquitita” and “I Have a Dream”, as well as one of the cuter runts of the ABBA singles litter, ”Does Your Mother Know.” Though I should clarify that while I recognize the supreme craftsmanship on display in those tracks, as a curmudgeon, I’m not really in love with any of them. In fact I believe that as far as ABBA hits go, they are all strictly B-team. The most intriguing tracks on Voulez-Vous are actually, wait for it, the deep cuts, the unicorns that prior to this essay I didn’t believe existed. “If It Wasn’t For The Nights” is a fab piece of soul-disco, with an embraceable ‘70s Spinners vibe, full of clever melodic twists and home to a wickedly brilliant vocal arrangement. The manic “Kisses Of Fire” with its tripping chorus, and the propulsive, disco-fied “As Good As New” are also ridiculously fun ( listen to Agnetha throw down in the coda of “As Good…”, yes girl, yes). Yup, when it comes to Voulez-Vous the album, I’d much rather hang out with the non-single weirdos than the popular kids. P.S. I agree Matthew, oh if only “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” had been included on Voulez-Vous, sigh. Not only are they both kinda bangers but maybe we would’ve been spared the shrill nightmare that is “Lovers (Live A Little Longer)”.

Killer: As Good As New; Voulez Vous; Does Your Mother Know; If It Wasn’t For The Nights; Chiquitita; Kisses Of Fire.
Filler: Angeleyes; The King Has Lost His Crown; Lovers (Live A Little Longer).
Verdict: A solid album, with a minimum of filler, and perhaps one of the lightest and least demanding in the discography. What keeps it from being great? Well it lacks a key element, namely the anchor/foundation of a classic ABBA heartbreaker (or two). Where are our divorce pop anthems (right Matthew)?! Throw a couple of those into the mix and Voulez-Vous would be heading into the maybe great album zone.

Super Trouper (1980)

MATTHEW: Super Trouper (1980). Melancholia is one of the cliches that foreigners attribute to Swedish culture, but it is a very real thread running through this album. Its causes are no mystery; they are displayed in the openers: the alienation of fame (the title track); and marital breakdown (here inspiring the band’s divorce-pop masterpiece, “The Winner Takes It All”). “On and On and On” rounds out the power trio of poignancy and pop production with which Super Trouper begins. But after that, it soon slips into being a sequel not to Voulez-Vous but to Arrival. ABBA works best when they retain a connection to their schlager roots without fully embracing them, but most of Side Two (especially “Happy New Year,” “Our Last Summer,” and “The Way Old Friends Do”) have more than a foot—more like nine toes—in the simple melodic sentimentalism of schlager. They should have put club banger “Lay All Your Love on Me” on Side One, and “Andante, Andante” (the least sexy song about tantric sex ever) on Two, subtitling the side “Nostalgia.” That said, I’m surely one among millions of Europeans who drunkenly sang along full throttle to “Happy New Year” whenever midnight brought January 1st in the early ‘80s—and likewise me and my friends can’t have been the only teenage partygoers to lie down on the ground and play dead to the song’s final line. The song may not do this album a big favor, but it sure as hell beat singing “Auld Lang Syne” and “Mull of Kintyre” yet again.

Killer: Super Trouper; The Winner Takes It All; On And On And On; Me And I; Happy New Year; Lay All Your Love On Me.
Filler: Andante, Andante; Our Last Summer; The Piper; The Way Old Friends Do.
Verdict: A flawed album, but still a real album. Comparable in mixed-bag quality to Arrival, but whereas the earlier record’s contrast between killer singles and dire filler made it a singles album, Super Trouper is consistent enough—as wistful as it is tuneful— to be an album.

HOPE: Super Trouper (1980). This album is frustrating. The first three songs,the sweet ‘n goofy title track, heavenly heartbreaker “The Winner Takes It All”and punchy gumdrop “On And On And On,” all hint at great things. Also present and welcome are the resolutely fun disco banger “Lay All Your Love On Me” and majestic synth-pop oddball “Me & I”. Plus this album is home to some of Björn’s most wonderfully batshit lyrics, inspired by everything from Stephen King’s novel of fascism and influenza, The Stand ( “The Piper”) to a type of spotlight (the title track) to bi-polarity (“Me & I”). Unfortunately the five good song heroes are countered by an equal number of vile enemies. There is a particularly cloying, syrupy melodic quality and unpleasant novelty vibe to the baddies and the aforementioned “The Piper” ( title says it all), “Andante, Andante” (“let your body be the velvet of the night”, wtf) and “The Way Old Friends Do” (just ugh okay) are all afflicted. I hear these songs and completely understand why ol’ David Crosby isn’t feeling this ABBA thing, because honestly in those cases, neither am I.

Killer: Super Trouper; The Winner Takes It All; On And On And On; Lay All Your Love On Me; Me And I.
Filler: Andante,Andante; Happy New Year; Our Last Summer; The Piper; The Way Old Friends Do.
Verdict: This one is pretty black and white, definitively half killer, half filler, though I should add there is only one genuine classic present on Super Trouper, “The Winner Takes It All”.

The Visitors (1981)

MATTHEW: The Visitors (1981). Is it fair to say this is the sleeper album in ABBA’s catalogue? After all, if the millions who assume ABBA was a singles band know any studio album of theirs, it would be Arrival; certainly not this. Yet it is not only a bona fide album, it does what the best old albums do: it reflects the moment in which it was created (in this case, pop’s embrace of new electronic instrumentation and production) while resting on enough songcraft to hold up decades later. It has a distinct feel to it, but remains an ABBA album, complete with an upbeat pop hit (“Head Over Heels”), a masterful divorce-pop classic (“One of Us”), a few tracks to remind us how badly Benny & Björn were dying to write musicals (“I Let the Music Speak” is almost operatic), a sweet slice of Agnetha-sung sentimentality (“Slipping Through My Fingers” is ABBA’s “She’s Leaving Home”), and even a goofy and creepy reminder of all those early summer variety show songs that filled early ABBA albums (“Two For the Price of One”). Of all eight albums, The Visitors is the one that keeps growing on me most, after all these years.

Originally a record of 9 tracks, 4 of which were singles, this was one of the very first albums released worldwide (in 1982) on CD. It was followed by two singles (“The Day Before You Came” and “Under Attack”), part of a possible ninth album that never happened; as of 1981, the band comprised two divorced couples, and the whole thing was rapidly becoming untenable. So the 9th album never happened, and those two final songs were included on a 1982 compilation called The Singles. They’re also included, along with a pair of B-sides, on some later reissues of The Visitors (such as the version on streaming services now). It is a shame “The Day Before You Came” was not written and recorded in time to be included on the original Visitors, because it is an extraordinary song: almost six minutes of building verses with no chorus, hypnotic and haunting, dark and dystopic, a triumphant meeting of divorce-pop and early ‘80s electro-pop. Is it about the band? Or about God?! Or about divorce, seen through a nostalgia for the mundanity of life before the relationship ever began, thus tossing a blanket of pain over it all—even the joy of romance and early marriage? If so, it is the capstone of ABBA’s run of divorce-pop masterpieces, from “SOS” to “Winner” to “One of Us,” but musically closer to contemporary synth pioneers like John Foxx and Gary Numan (closer, not close!). Substitute “Price of One” with “The Day Before You Came” and The Visitors might well be ABBA’s best album.

Killer: The Visitors; Head Over Heels; When All Is Said and Done; Soldiers; I Let the Music Speak; One of Us; Slipping Through My Fingers; Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.
Filler: Two For the Price of One.
Verdict: Without any doubt, a real album, and a swan song of which to be proud. Elegantly poignant, surprisingly rewarding, with more deep tracks than filler. Even the singles are sophisticated. As much as I love The Album, I’d be hard pushed to argue with someone trying to persuade me this is better.

HOPE: The Visitors (1981). “Here’s to us, one more toast, and then we’ll pay the bill, Deep inside, both of us can feel the autumn chill” sings Frida in “When All Is Said And Done”. That line pretty much encapsulates what is happening on The Visitors, the final ABBA studio album. The album is often characterized as the official ABBA divorce record as both couples had officially split by this point (reductive and true). But to go back to that lyric in the first line, the album isn’t only documenting ABBA leaving each other, it’s the physical manifestation of the behemoth beloved ABBA breaking up with their old sound and identity. The Visitors isn’t a moonlight snuggle session in “Tropical Loveland”, no, it’s being surprised by KGB or STASI agents trying to force their way into your home (the title track). With its chilly synths, spare arrangements and world weary world views of the sort present on early Ultravox albums, The Visitors sees ABBA exiting their bouncy castle bubble and stepping forthrightly toward the future (in their own lustrous ABBA way of course, meaning as icy as it is, every single track remains inherently radio friendly).

And so The Visitors is a curious egg, a disorienting place where Barbra Streisand on Broadway style vocal flourishes ( “I Let The Music Speak”) rub shoulders with dreamy acknowledgments of Robert Palmer’s fab early ‘80s eerie electronic era (“Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”). It is also home to two of the finest and most undervalued ABBA singles in the band’s history; rousing anthem of amicable parting “When All Is Said And Done” and self-pity oompa loompa sing-along “One Of Us”. Alas while both are resolutely fine, neither ever seem to appear within the bands Top 10’s on the streaming services or YouTube. Even more egregious is the fact that the former didn’t even feature on Gold. Oh sure there was plenty of room for “Does Your (freakin’) Mother Know” but no room at the inn for the undeniably gorgeous “WAISAD”. Yup. Over the years it’s become abundantly clear that frank, forthright ABBA doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance against frothy, frivolous ABBA, no matter how sweet a tune the sentiments are wrapped in. Mamma mia.

It’s unfortunate that both the bona fide cult classic “The Day Before You Came”—which features basically the Best Björn Lyrics Ever™—and infectious little wonder “Under Attack” were not part of The Visitors. Beyond the fact that they’re great songs, the album itself has always felt oddly short to me at 9 songs. And “Under Attack “ in particular would have injected a welcome bit of melodic candy into the darkness. And as you so perfectly and cuttingly noted Matthew, it wouldn’t be an ABBA album without at least one piece of vintage cringe present, that being the twee and excruciating “Two For The Price Of One”. As it is about a ménage involving a Mother and her (adult) daughter I feel strongly compelled to share an ironic and slimy observational sidenote; it’s not a patch on David Crosby’s 1971 song on the same subject “Triad”. And so on the ménage pop front, if you are keeping score, it is in fact Crosby- 1, ABBA nil.

Killer: The Visitors; Head Over Heels; When All Is Said And Done; Soldiers; I Let The Music Speak ; One Of Us; Slipping Through My Fingers; Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.
Filler: Two For The Price of One.
Verdict: The Visitors is an intrinsically sad, often weird, completely hypnotic piece of pop music art. A downbeat and drug-free Rumours. A poptastic and efficient Here My Dear. It is a really good album. Yes, I said it. Album. I bow to its sugar icicle tears.

Now it’s history: Our Final Verdicts…

MATTHEW: So, were ABBA just a singles band? When I started this conversation with you, Hope, I guessed I would reluctantly conclude “yes.” But I was surprised by the second half of the catalogue: all four records are real albums, each with its own distinct feel, filled not with filler but with great album tracks (many of which just happened to be smash singles). I’m glad you didn’t ask me to rank them, as I find it impossible to separate out the best three, tied at the top: The Album, Voulez-Vous, and The Visitors; with Super Trouper a clear fourth. As for the first half of the studio catalog, I’d rank them in reverse order of release, with Arrival fifth, then ABBA, and Waterloo and Ring Ring at the bottom. Hope, what’s your ranking and verdict on singles-album vs real-album?

HOPE: It’s weird because in the pass/fail sense I do ultimately consider them to be a singles band…but I admit after really spending time with everything there is some grey area. As you point out, Matthew, the overall quality of the albums started to pick up from 1976’s Arrival onward. The Visitors is a damn fine album, easily my favorite followed by Voulez-Vous in second. I’d consider those two to be full-fledged albums, satisfying, immersive and virtually filler free. The others though are too inconsistent to qualify as great albums. I’d rank ‘em like this: The Album, Super Trouper, Arrival in that order with the triumvirate of ABBA, Waterloo and Ring Ring sharing each other’s clothes and bringing up the rear.

MATTHEW: Our verdicts prompt the question, why do ABBA have that singles-band rep (even with us)? I think that the weakness of the first three albums laid the groundwork for that image; after all, they were albums that packaged singles with filler. Then Arrival sealed it, by being a mixed killer-filler bag that sold so well—bought for its huge singles by consumers who could hardly ignore the filler (unless they had a good fast-forward feature on their tape decks). If any doubt remained a decade after ABBA split up, it was quashed by 1992’s Gold, one of the most successful singles compilations in music history. The phenomenal success of the Mamma Mia! musical and movie surely led fans back to Gold and its follow-up More Gold, not to the studio albums. As for serious fans awakened by the rehabilitation of ABBA in the 90s, they were likely drawn less to the old studio albums and more to the 1994 4-CD box set, Thank You For the Music, which—in my view—reinforces the singles band image by throwing in dodgy B-sides along with all the singles. Ironically, their comeback reinforced that old prejudice. So, if you know Gold, but we’ve made you curious, I’d suggest trying the albums in reverse order, starting with The Visitors and going back to Ring Ring (which is also not far off our loose ranking, if you crunch our two final verdicts); and if you don’t get further back than Arrival, we wouldn’t judge you. What do you think, Hope?

HOPE: What’s funny is that when I was a kid, before I’d ever heard of the term “singles band”, even if I liked an ABBA song I was never motivated to buy a whole album. Not even once. I only ever bought the 45s. And believe me when I tell you I seriously loved “Take A Chance on Me”, playing it repeatedly as I pranced around my room. Why wasn’t I interested in hearing or owning the album it came from? I had no such reservations over say ELO or the Bee Gees or any of my other kid faves. Yet something always held me back from investigating any further, a faint inner voice whispering no girl, it’s not gonna get any better than that 45 you’re holding.

And that voice wasn’t technically wrong. When it comes to ABBA the singles were the finest jewels they had to offer, their most meticulously built and perfectly crafted creations. And so in terms of the eight studio albums, nothing comes close to Gold as a listening experience because nothing can, the deck is stacked with endless transcendence, it’s impossible for them to compete.

On the surface ABBA seemed frivolous and fun which, fair or not, implied that albums were not the priority. And the first three albums support this (understatement). They weren’t interested in securing a lingering emotional investment from the listener or spreading their wares over a whole album side to slowly seduce and convince people. Every ABBA song was a now or never proposition, a characterization that they never really shook. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. You can feel it in every fiber of “Waterloo”. There was no cohesive Dark Side Of The Moon style mission statement being made on an ABBA album, all that mattered was the spaghetti that stuck to the wall. The quality disparity between the songs seems to uphold this idea. And that general perception never really went away, in fact Gold pretty much cemented it for all eternity.

But you know what else? The Visitors is a great freakin’ album. Weird yet welcoming. Sad but celebratory. And there are some wickedly cool deep cuts within the other seven studio albums that land firmly on the “killers” side of the ledger. But as rewarding as it was for Matthew and I to experience those hidden in plain sight treasures, it was equally as fun to marvel slack-jawed at just how f-ing good those hits were. I am listening to “When All Is Said And Done” as I write this and even after all these years, it is still making me involuntarily shake my head in awe and wonder.
Dig in dancing queens…

ABBA-DDENDUM !

Voyage (2021)

MATTHEW: Voyage (2021).

Killer: I Still Have Faith in You; Don’t Shut Me Down; Just a Notion; No Doubt About It; I Can Be That Woman; Bumblebee; Ode to Freedom
Filler: When You Danced With Me;Little Things; Keep an Eye on Dan
Verdict: There’s good news and bad news here (as befits an ABBA album). The good news is that there are four stone-cold instant ABBA classics, sounding like long-lost gems from their late-’70s albums or hits from the early ‘80s albums that never happened; they are the first four I’ve listed above as “Killer.” I tried inserting them into a playlist of their classic 1992 compilation, Gold (I imagine it as Gold, Old and New, or maybe Still Golden; perhaps you can do better!), and these four new songs slip seamlessly right in. As has been noted in most of the reviews, the old boys of ABBA deliberately tried to be “trend blind,” so we are spared the embarrassment of phoned-in guest appearances by the pop starlet or hip-hop hero du jour. As a result, those four songs make it seem as if four years, not four decades, has passed since the last album. And, hey, doesn’t that make us all feel younger? Now for the bad news: there are six more tracks that don’t pass the gold test; we can be generous and say that three are silver, and three are bronze. The three silvers (“Woman,” “Bumblebee,” and “Ode”) I have also included as “Killer,” because I like them and they certainly belong on my imaginary More Gold, Old and New (More Gold came out in 1993). But the three simply don’t go anywhere: that is, they start well, but then instead of building, instead of giving us those corny ABBA chord changes or a bridge packed with catchy harmonies or any of the other sonic tricks in the BB bag, the songs just end. And suddenly, it does feel as if it has been four decades. As for the three bronzes: well, there is a dog in at least three songs on Voyage, so having one in the title and chorus (“Dan”) takes the album’s dominant theme of post-divorce domesticity a tad too far. As does the aspartame Christmas song (“Little Things”), whose placing as track 3 (after the grating “When You Danced”) is unfortunate. Shuffle them both to the end and they become more tolerable. In sum, this isn’t up there with the best ABBA albums, but nor is it down there with their weaker early ones. It falls somewhere in the middle, notable for its Killer and Filler, as one would expect. So, do I still have faith in the AAs and BBs? Absolutely. Bring those ABBAtars to life!

HOPE: Voyage (2021).

Killer: I Still Have Faith in You; Don’t Shut Me Down;Just A Notion; I Can Be That Woman; No Doubt About It;Ode to Freedom
Filler: When You Danced With Me; Little Things;Keep An Eye On Dan;Bumblebee
Verdict: I’m with you Matthew, so much so that our Killer and Filler picks only differ by one damn song! To be honest I was okay with the fact that ABBA were done and would likely never release a new album again. While no album by anybody is technically “necessary”, their existing catalog is of such a particular standard and has achieved such ubiquity that a new album seemed kind of, I don’t know, pointless. And so when Voyage was announced my first reaction was concern, as in, do you want to possibly besmirch the legacy you created with something sub-standard knowing all the attention this thing’s gonna get? But then I remembered the millions of post-break up ABBA fanatics, many of whom were not alive during the band’s heyday, and ultimately thought it was kind of cool that they were going to get to hear new ABBA music in real-time.

This album is…okay. I too utilized my inner default button while listening, mine being a “pretend it’s 1977 and these are new ABBA songs” button. And yes, there are a few that stand tall in that context ( and that could comfortably slot into Gold as you say Matthew).

Opening track “I Still Have Faith In You” with its stark and supremely moving Frida vocal and laid back twin cheeseballs “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “Just A Notion”, are all fabulous and worthy of spots on future reissues of Gold or, as we are officially calling it here, Still Gold (go Matthew). To my ears, these three songs are the stars of Voyage. Amongst the “Killers”, I have semi-grudgingly included both “No Doubt” and “Ode” because while neither are exceptional, they meet the general quality standard required of a good ABBA song. The former has a compellingly cool tempo change, the latter a sweetly wistful string arrangement ( though it does veer dangerously close to the flame of an Olympic torch lighting ceremony theme song ).

My “it could go either way” choice is wtf gaslighting ballad “I Can Be That Woman” which is as weird and disturbing a song as ABBA have ever released which is the sole reason I am categorizing it as “Killer”. Its power trio of pathetic microaggression, Tammy the dog and Agnetha singing”screw you” cannot be denied.

Bringing up the rear are “When You Danced With Me” (a painful hybrid of Big Country and “It’s A Small World”), “Bumblebee” (another track with that unwelcome Olympic opening ceremony theme vibe), “Little Things” ( a b-side studio scrap at best) and the genuinely cringeworthy “Keep An Eye On Dan” (ugh).

Is Voyage the last new music from ABBA we will ever hear ? Frida has insinuated that it may not be. In a recent interview with BBC2 she said, “I have learned to say never say never. We have probably said this must be the last thing we do – think of our ages, we are not young any longer. But you never know – don’t be too sure.”

Never say never…

This Is My Investigation: Rating the Albums of Dire Straits

Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) have a running list of artists whose respective catalogues we want to break down (figuratively) because our commitment to nerdiness is boundless. Welcome to the latest installment of this madness, This Is My Investigation where we will attempt to rumble through and rate the discography of dad rock kingpins Dire Straits. Wheels on…

The Game Commences: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns offering up our Dire assessments and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other and maybe the world at large but we are united in appreciation of the behemoth known as Dire Straits.

Here’s Mark Knopfler shredding, just because…

MATTHEW: With a catalogue of only six studio albums—and not a single one of them bad—Dire Straits may seem like an easy band to chat about and rate (hey, we just wrote 16k words rating the entire Macca catalog so we deserve a break! Read that here). And maybe that would be the case, were our opinions matched by those of most record-buyers and music critics—who helped make one of those six records, Brothers in Arms, responsible for a third of the band’s 100 million worldwide album sales. But they don’t. So there.

HOPE: I have a weird relationship with Dire Straits. They aren’t one of my all-time favorite bands…but I do genuinely like them. Okay true confession; I am not a guitar aficionado. Not an axe girl. Which is to say that while I’m appreciative of great playin’, elongated solos generally aren’t my thing. Fact is Mark Knopfler’s virtuosic skills have never been the most appealing thing about Dire Straits for me nor the magnetic force that made me want to listen; it’s always just been the songs themselves. I like their cinematic moodiness and how the average running time of a typical track is a fulsome 5 minutes allowing for complete headphone immersion. Put simply, I like how you can get lost in them. That’s what I like about Dire Straits.

The Albums

Dire Straits (1978)

MATTHEW: Dire Straits (1978, UK #5, US #2, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in two of them, sold 10m): 8/10. Deceptively simple and solid, this stunning debut is crafted to be so timeless that at the peak of the punk-vs-disco era, it simply sounded right, and still sounds right today. There isn’t a duff track on it, and arguably not even a duff note. Side B—“Sultans of Swing” to “Lions”—is an amazing 22 minutes, brimming with restrained energy. It was cued as Side A on most cassette editions, including the one I flogged into submission the year it was released. I was then 14 years old, torn between The Sex Pistols and ABBA (how was it possible to love both? Was something wrong with me?!), and therefore relieved and grateful for an album that offered refuge from the “cool” minefield. Neither too edgy nor too poppy, but still hip and tuneful, Dire Straits was safe but not dull. It only gets 8/10 from here because in retrospect, and compared to what followed, its safeness seems relatively…well, safe. The potential of all its influences and elements is incipient here, yet to be explored and developed—from the elements I love, such as prog-rock long-form rock jams and moody blues-based ballads, to those I don’t (but others do), such as rockabilly and country.

HOPE: Dire Straits (1978): 4/10. Bluesy, dusty and endlessly twanging Dire Straits is built to soundtrack both lengthy journeys across desert highways or slow walks through either saloon or pub doors. But okay, I find this album a bit samey (Hey Matthew, is that the same as “dull”?). On the upside,“Wild West End” possesses an appealingly horny charm, its laid back ogling offering a more romantic spin on the sentiments expressed in Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s more sinister observational anthem from the previous year “Street In The City”(listen here). And “Lions” has the sweetly appealing gait of a Thin Lizzy deep cut. But of course the undeniable star of the album is “Sultans of Swing”, the band’s signature song and eternal sonic specter (literally, as its infectious guitar figure haunts a solid handful of other DS songs in the discography)…still, as cool as those 3 tracks are, I just, can’t, quite, latch, onto the rest.

Communiqué (1979)

MATTHEW: Communiqué (1979, UK #5, US #11, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them, sold 7m): 9/10. Along with millions of others on both sides of the Atlantic, I was primed by my love of the first album to either be disappointed by the sequel (ooh, just not as good?) or thrilled by it (another great album so soon?). For me, it was the latter: I thought this was a brilliant sophomore album, and from the very start I loved it even more than the first; I still do. Without a “Sultans of Swing” to overshadow the album, it struck me as having more balance, a sibling to the first album, for sure, yet hinting ever so slightly at a musical development that—little did I know in ‘79—would be fully realized in the two albums to follow. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, as the last album before Mark’s brother David quit (he left during recording sessions for the next one), the album has a warmth of tone unique to the band’s catalogue. In retrospect, the tendency to rank this at the bottom of the catalogue is mystifying; some critics seemed to see the lack of a hit single (“Lady Writer” failed to repeat the success of “Sultan”) and the album’s release on the heels of the debut as signs that this was a second-rate rush-job.

Listening to the two albums now, I see zero drop in quality. In fact, the more I listen to them together, the more convinced I am that Communiqué is the better of the two, an evolutionary step forward in song-writing. I see why you find some of the debut album boring, Hope (even if it doesn’t bore me), but I think there’s nothing nondescript in this one. There’s a tension here both in the story-telling (Knopfler is a troubadour at heart) and in the guitar-picking laid-back groove that runs from the opening lick of “Once Upon a Time in the West” to the blissfully soporific lilt of “Follow Me Home.” And in the middle, the menacing masterpiece that is “Where Do You Think You’re Going?” Unlike you, Hope, I adore a ridiculously long guitar jam, and I wish the minute-long solo that ends this song was more like ten minutes (even if the change in tempo disturbingly suggests that the narrator has gone from threatening to actually chasing; oh yes, this is narrative pop-rock at its best!).

HOPE: Communiqué (1979): 4/10. These early albums feel like a journey to get to the next place, developmental in a sense. The western film theme/pub sound is still fairly dominant here which is to say my favorite track is the (slightly) weirdest one, closer “Follow Me Home” (crickets, lapping waves, sinewy, subtle and dark, yeah, I’ll have that). And “ Where Do You Think You’re Going?” possesses a pretty nifty riff and a nice snarling vocal from Knopfler…but both this and the self-titled album are just not sticky enough for me, not melodically memorable and are ultimately a little too meandering to inspire endless listening. There are a few genuinely good tracks on each but to my ears they both wither in the wake of what came after. P.S. My inner musical conspiracy theorist believes that Gordon “Sting” Sumner brazenly pilfered the guitar figure from “News” for “Fragile”.

Making Movies (1980)

MATTHEW: Making Movies (1980, UK #4, US #19, Top Ten in six nations, sold 7m): 8/10. I adored this when it came out, and I have often returned to it for the same reason: it is a bigger, brighter, more melodic version of the formula from the first two albums. The addition of keyboardist Roy Bittan (from the E Street Band) feels like a natural step forward, and is it my imagination that there is a hint of Springsteen/E Street on here? On a different day, I might rate Making Movies a 9. Today, it’s an 8/10 because I’m bothered by something that has periodically nagged at me for forty years: isn’t this a concept album about lost love, five great songs over 30 minutes, but with two misfit tracks at the end to bring it to 38”? It’s infuriating because that first half-hour is sublime, an evolution of that troubadour style into poignancy and beauty. Stick to the first five tracks, all classics, and skip the last two clunkers.

HOPE: Making Movies (1980): 9/10. Unlike the previous 2 albums, there are no songs on Making Movies that would work to soundtrack a Western duel. No, this album is fueled by more modern day machinations…in other words, meet the new Dire Straits featuring less twanging and more grooving. The album is a perfect intermingling of wistfulness and desire ( and okay, a handful of horniness) and so yes, it could rightfully be characterized as Springsteen-esque. My first interaction with this album came not via beloved evergreen epic “Romeo and Juliet” but with the now iconic video for “Skateaway” starring the late Jayzik Azikiwe as Rollergirl (watch below). Not only did I think she was simultaneously one of the coolest and hottest humans I’d ever seen, I found the song itself intoxicating and appealingly weird, unpredictable and groovy. It also features one of my absolute favorite Knopfler scenery chewing talk-singing vocal performances. But to be clear the 4 songs that surround it are equally sweet ( need to call out that coda in “Romeo and Juliet” with its “you and me babe how about it?” because yes, it just plain rules). The last 2 tracks “Solid Rock” and “Les Boys” are straight up sub b-side scraps and so, in my heart, Making Movies will always be a handsome, top down 5 song EP.

Love Over Gold (1982)

HOPE: Love Over Gold (1982, UK #1, US #19, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in five of them, sold 8m): 7/10. Why do I sort of love Love Over Gold ? Allow me to oversimplify and generalize : 1-It sounds good in the rain, 2- There are only 5 songs, each of which are 5 minutes plus making it ideal for complete aural immersion, 3- As such the whole thing feels very cinematic, epic and widescreen making it a fine soundtrack for lengthy daydreaming sessions. “Telegraph Road” is both fist-pumpingly melodic and tear-jerking poignant…and for a song that is the musical equivalent of War and Peace in terms of length (14 plus minutes), it still feels like it’s over in a heartbeat. Oh “Private Investigations”, I think you are very beautiful, standing under that streetlight, all monumental and majestic, full of resignation and sadness. But hey, hey, not ignoring you “Love Over Gold”, you are also ravishing and lovely especially your literally 3 minute rainswept instrumental outro/coda. Sidenote; to this day I still get a kick out of hearing the seeds of “Private Dancer” the future megahit Knopfler wrote and gifted to Tina Turner in the song’s chorus.

Why do I only sort of love Love Over Gold i.e. not full on?…well there are 2 tracks I’m not nuts about namely the album closer “It Never Rains”, a just okay, kinda perky sub-standard Springsteen-style song and, ugh, “Industrial Disease”. I’ve tried to rationalize its inclusion by reminding myself that The Police did this kind of thing on all 5 of their otherwise immaculate studio albums, namely including at least one genuinely cringey “comedic” song amongst the stellar ones. The half full mentality says the cringers ultimately make the better songs shine even more brightly…but when an album is only 5 songs in length and 2 of them are not great, their presence becomes painfully magnified. This is why my love for Love Over Gold will always have a heart-shaped asterisk next to it.

MATTHEW: Love Over Gold (1982): 9/10. Why do I unabashedly love Love Over Gold? Sometimes one is lucky enough to experience love at first listen; and that’s how it was with this record. I can still remember the first time I heard “Private Investigations”: I was listening to BBC Radio 1 in my mother’s MG, flying between the hedgerows along a tiny country road, and Tony Blackburn played the song twice in a row, because it was that good, and he didn’t care that his program manager was yelling at it him; then he said, if you like this song, you’re going to love the other track on Side A, its over twice as long! Old Tony was right. That’s the epic “Telegraph Road,” of course, and I’ve not stopped playing their combined 21” (Side A on the record) for almost four decades. The whole record is masterful.

Well, except perhaps for Side B’s “Industrial Disease,” which hinted too strongly (for my tastes) at the retro-rockabilly virus that would infect the later albums. At first, I skipped it, to go straight to the bliss of the title track and “It Never Rains.” But then I caught one of the final concerts of the Love Over Gold tour—in London in the summer of 1983—and “Industrial Disease” was great played live (as you can hear on Alchemy; see below). That helped me to see how the song serves a useful purpose, as a sort of lightweight relief in the middle of the wonderful but arguably earnest prog-rock pretentions of the two tracks before and two tracks after. That said, I’ve never completely embraced its inclusion on the album. As you note, Hope, there are echoes of “Private Dancer” in this album’s title track, making rather confounding Knopfler’s rationale for giving to Tina Turner what would become the title track to her comeback album. Wouldn’t the song have been a great way to start Side B of Love Over Gold, instead of “Disease”?!

Brothers In Arms (1985)

MATTHEW: Brothers in Arms (1985, UK #1, US #1, #1 in ten nations, sold 31m): 6/10. At 30 million units sold, and one of the ten best-selling albums of all time in the UK, this is their biggest record by far, typically cited as their best. But while it has some great tracks—like the beautiful title song—it is marred by intolerably artless and irritating tripe like “Walk of Life,” which turned me off the band for so long they’d broken up by the time I forgave them. Apparently, the producer wanted to toss “WoL” in the B-sides bin, but he was overruled by the band; if he’d had his way, he wouldn’t have been forced to edit down every track on Side A except “WoL” for the vinyl version, which only added insult to injury. The offending single is preceded by “Money For Nothing,” which is a classic example of an overexposed song: it is a brilliant rock/pop single, I understand why it remains so popular, and I don’t skip it when I’m playing the album; but I would be fine with never hearing it again.

“WoL” is then followed by “Your Latest Trick,” the fifth (!) successful single from the album, and a wonderful example of that soft rock style that would characterize Mark Knopfler’s solo records (and indeed the B-sides were both Knopfler solo recordings). I love the trumpet and sax licks by the Brecker brothers. And that is the thing with Brothers: it lurches between the annoying and the sublime, the overexposed and the timeless. Instead of a further step towards prog-ish, blues-rock theatricality, this was a step sideways from the theatre to the arena. I realize that this is a treasured artifact from the childhood or youth of millions, but for me this was always less compelling and coherent than any of its four predecessors, all of which I always preferred.

HOPE: Brothers in Arms (1985): 5/10. Goodbye adventurous idiosyncratic weirdness, hello expensive stadium-ready sleekness. It’s disappointing that Brothers, an album nowhere near as good as its 2 predecessors and the most sonically polite and plush release in the entire Dire Straits discography is the album that has come to define the band. I wholeheartedly agree with your 3 points Matthew; the title track is lovely, “Walk Of Life” is literally tripe and “Money For Nothing” has absolutely worn out its welcome. As for the rest, “Your Latest Trick” with its “sexy sax”, the swaying palms of “Why Worry”, the faux Peter Gabriel vibe of “Ride Across The River”, the positively Clapton-ish (ugh) “So Far Away” are not a patch on painterly, riveting tracks like “Private Investigations” or “Skateaway” or “Love Over Gold”. Lastly we need to address the elephant in the room, namely the legendary Knopfler headband, immortalized in glowing neon glory in the “Money For Nothing” video and whose ascent as key cultural artifact peaked right about here. Along with the Mercury and Oates mustaches, MJ glove, ZZ Top keyring and Madonna’s giant crucifix necklace, it is unquestionably one of the ‘80s most iconic pop accoutrements, in other words, #knopflersheadband.

On Every Street (1991)

MATTHEW: On Every Street (1991, UK #1, US #12, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in eight of them, sold 9m): 6/10. The success of Brothers in Arms kept the band touring so heavily that it essentially broke them up (they were officially “inactive” or disbanded, depending on what you read, from 1988 to 1991). This therefore sounds more like a Mark Knopfler solo album for that reason; sadly, that means none of the prog-ish ambition of the early 80s, but more of the country incipient on the late 70s ones, with a touch of the retro-rockabilly that infected the 1982-85 material. Still, aside from two of its five singles—“Heavy Fuel” & “The Bug”—being as annoying as the two big hits on Brothers, this is a fine swan song, intricately crafted and played; I completely ignored it at the time, not bothering to give it a chance for over a decade, but I’m glad now that the band had one last go of it (I love “Planet of New Orleans,” for example).

HOPE: On Every Street (1991): 3/10.There’s an old scrapbook of memories vibe to this album; it sounds like a sentimental tribute to younger days. I like the bones of the title track (tune, words) but the woodwind infusion feels intrusive and the overall orchestral feel brings to mind trawling grassy mountain tops with a walking stick as opposed to roaming the lonely city which to my ears always feels at odds with the lyrical sentiment. The retro-rockabilly tracks, the self-consciously noirish blues of “Fade To Black” as well as the Eddie Cochran/Roy Orbison flavored throwback “Ticket To Heaven” are also lacking that intrinsic mystical something for me. In conclusion On Every Street is pleasant and tasteful and features the usual virtuosic musicianship…but it’s missing all the epic weird, romantic storytelling and dirtiness that made the first 4 Dire Straits albums if not all equally awesome, compelling and listenable.

MATTHEW: Some readers will have called me a crazy fool for ranking Communiqué over Dire Straits, and others will throw their arms up at my ranking On Every Street even with Brothers in Arms. But as I go back and forth between the two, I cannot escape the conclusion that the latter two really are very close to being as good as each other—and, incidentally, very close in quality to Mark Knopfler’s best solo album (that is not a film soundtrack), 2000’s Sailing to Philadelphia.

HOPE: You know what I’ve always kind of wished, that more women artists would cover Dire Straits songs. I love the idea of turning certain tracks sideways and yeah, just think it would sound so damn cool. While there’s been some “Romeo And Juliet” action ( most notably by Indigo Girls, listen here) there hasn’t been much coverage in relation to the deep stuff. Would love to hear a little “Private Investigations” for one…go on girl(s).

MATTHEW: Yes! Brilliant idea! (But not including Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.”)

Live Albums, Compilations and Side Projects

MATTHEW: There are also three live albums worth considering. Here they are, in order of their release, which also happens to be how I rank them, from must-own to don’t-bother. Alchemy, 9/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album, UK #3, US #43, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in one of them) is one of the best live albums of all time, with a stunning 10-minute version of “Sultans.” This would be the album to take to the Desert Island if only one from the band were allowed. Drawing heavily on Making Movies and Love Over Gold, Alchemy comes close to rendering both redundant. The CD version (remastered in 2001) is preferable to the LP one, because it includes “Love Over Gold” and none of the edits and fades necessitated by vinyl. I give it 9 instead of 10/10 because I always thought the use of “Going Home”—the Knopfler solo hit from the Local Hero movie soundtrack—was an odd way to end the album; and, when it was reissued, why not include from the outtake bin the full “Portobello Belle,” an edit of which appeared on the 1988 Money For Nothing hits compilation?

Ok, maybe I’m nit-picking. And maybe I’m over-compensating for my personal connection to these live versions, because I was almost at the Hammersmith Odeon concerts where they were recorded. Instead, I saw them at the Dominion (also an old London theatre) a couple of nights earlier. Half the audience left after the encore (including my girlfriend), but then the band came back out with Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy) and played an amazing half-hour second encore. (My memory of some details may be fuzzy; if you were at the London gig where Lynott joined Dire Straits—not the legendary Rainbow Theatre one in ‘79, but this Love Over Gold one—let us know!)

On the Night, 7/20 (1992 concert, 1993 album, UK #4, US #116, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them), on the other hand, is somewhat pointless, because Alchemy is better, and this begins by showcasing three weak songs that were late-period hit singles (unfortunately, in my view, but fortunate for Knopfler’s bank balance)—“Calling Elvis,” “Walk of Life,” & “Heavy Fuel.” That said, the 10-minute version of “Elvis” is far superior to the studio version, and the rest of the album is pretty awesome. In all their incarnations, Dire Straits were a superb live act, and so it is great to have these concert versions of late-period classics like “Brothers in Arms” and “On Every Street” (which obviously weren’t yet written when Alchemy was made).

The third concert album, Live at the BBC, 5/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release, UK #71, did not chart US), strikes me as being for fanatics only (and I’m clearly not fanatic enough). It comprises decent live versions of six tracks from the debut album, but not to the standards of Alchemy; one so-so song written by both Knopfler brothers that was never studio recorded because it evolved into the far better “Lady Writer”; and an early version of “Tunnel of Love” (played live in Germany in 1980, despite the album’s title, so an odd misfit).

There’s also a 1996 live set, but it was only released as part of a 1998 “best of” compilation, so see our paragraphs on comps albums below.

HOPE: Alchemy, 7/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album). Back in ‘83/84 I was eagerly attending exactly the sort of shows you might expect a teenage girl to see. Duran Duran. Culture Club. Psychedelic Furs. As you can probably imagine the crowds at these events were as hyped up as living breathing humans could possibly be, totally high on pop music and lust and screaming their freakin’ heads off. In the context of things, that behavior made total sense, the whole experience felt sugary, hot and exotic. Which is why when I first heard Alchemy I was a little taken aback at how expressive and vocal the audience was. The whistling, the hooting, the clapping. I was fascinated that people could get as worked up over a Knopfler guitar solo as I would get watching Simon LeBon “dance” or Richard Butler “twirl”.I was mystified that they could love something that didn’t involve “pin-up-ability” so intensely ( I clearly had some growing up to do). But to this day, that’s what charms me most about this album, I mean just listen to how completely invested and loved up the crowd is during “Telegraph Road”; it’s really kind of beautiful. I adore this version of “Romeo And Juliet” (the instrumental coda is particularly swoon-worthy)…and especially dig how it segues into “Love Over Gold” which then leads on into “Private Investigations”. The 3 greatest Dire Straits songs played consecutively and the unabashed, spoken out loud love on display ?…yeah, I’ll take it.

As far as On the Night, 4/10 (1992 concert, 1993 album) goes, it seems like a completely superfluous release. It’s nowhere near as embraceable as Alchemy and the damage inflicted on “Romeo And Juliet” by my personal nemesis, the aforementioned dreaded “sexy sax” is absolutely criminal. On the whole, things are just a bit too slick, shiny and stadium and I would definitely categorize it for fans only…as I would Live at the BBC, 3/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release), an archival curio which as Matthew says is “decent” but not remotely compelling.

MATTHEW: Finally, what of the compilation and hits albums, and Mark Knopfler’s solo output? There are three compilations, the first of which, Money for Nothing (1988) is worthless save for one track: half its tracks are edited down, with the full-length originals all superior; only the live version of “Portobello Belle,” left off all versions of Alchemy, is worth accessing here—for hard-core fans. The compilation was replaced in 1998 by Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits, which made the same error, with 6 of its 16 tracks edited down. Half of its tracks are from the last two solo albums, mostly the singles that—in my view—aren’t the best songs on those albums. So, again, worthless. But (a big but), there were deluxe editions in ‘98—with a second CD, containing 7 tracks from a 1996 Royal Albert Hall concert—and in 2002, when a DVD was added to that second CD. The live set cannot match Alchemy, and is similar to On the Night, so it’s not bad and certainly not worthless—but really of interest to serious fans only.

The third and so far latest compilation is Private Investigations: The Best of Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler (2005). The addition of solo numbers is interesting, but beware of the single CD and vinyl versions; yet again, these contain some edited versions, and are thus also worthless. To make room for solo songs (four on the single CD version), the first two Dire Straits albums are ignored beyond “Sultans.” The 2-CD version is better, although it likewise ignores the first two albums, and includes the inferior edit of “Private Investigations”—sadly ironic, considering the album’s title. It offers 9 solo tracks, and they are a reasonable introduction to Knopfler’s 22 albums outside Dire Straits—that’s nine solo albums, from 1996 to 2018 (so far), nine film soundtrack albums, from 1983 to 2016 (again, so far), and four collaborative albums (two in 1990 and two in 2006—a studio and a live album with Emmylou Harris). Note that roughly a third of all those were made before Dire Straits dissolved, with most of that early work being soundtracks. There isn’t therefore a clean break between Knopfler’s Dire Straits, solo, and soundtrack work (his best soundtracks are arguably the 80s ones, during peak Straits years); nor is there one in terms of styles. We haven’t rated the non-Straits albums, as they are a different species. But there is DNA overlap. As a generalization, the solo albums are singer-songwriter records in the related genres of country and British/Irish folk music. The best of them—for me, that’s Sailing to Philadelphia (2000) and The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)—come closest to Straits albums at times, but never that close. And when they do, they sound more like the late-period Straits songs that anticipate Knopfler’s solo work. I think that’s called Dirony. (Sorry!)

If there must be a “best of” compilation, I’d prefer it be 3 CDs, the first all Straits, the third all solo work, with the middle CD mixing the two with some of the songs that overlap in style—-like “Fade to Black” from the final Straits album, and solo gems like “What It Is” from Sailing to Philadelphia, and “Terminal of Tribute To” from Tracker (2015). I’d want on that third CD the Sailing title track, plus “Hard Shoulder” from Get Lucky (2009), and “A Place Where We Used to Live” from The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002). Heck, how about a 4th CD of live tracks, and a 5th of soundtrack pieces. But such a 3-CD (or 4 or 5!) compilation doesn’t exist, so you might as well buy the no-frills Dire Straits Studio Albums box set, a $30 bargain, put on your red head band, and start drinking Portobello Road gin (yes, it’s Knopfler’s brand, complete with a mini red headband on the neck); after a few Local Hero G&Ts, you may see the virtue in also buying Alchemy and a handful of Knoppy’s solo and soundtrack albums. Now that—to cite a track from his Princess Bride soundtrack—is “A Happy Ending.”

HOPE: I concur with Matthew’s points in regards to the compilations! Dire Straits were never a singles band and are just so ill-suited to that type of overview (square peg meet round hole). The ideal way to experience a Dire Straits song is within its natural habitat surrounded by its actual herd via the actual studio albums (with Alchemy serving as the mike drop at the end).

As far as the Knopfler solo stuff, it’s a true mixed bag and admittedly I’ve never latched onto any of the albums as a whole…but there are a couple of tracks within them I find particularly exquisite: The infectious and sticky portraiture of “The Scaffolder’s Wife” from the Kill To Get Crimson album (2007) and the aforementioned and beauteous “Hard Shoulder” which sounds like both an earthbound spin on “Wichita Lineman” and a tribute to old chestnut “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” at the same damn time.

Album Ranking Summary

MATTHEW:
9/10: Communiqué, Love Over Gold, Alchemy
8/10: Dire Straits, Making Movies
7/10: On the Night
6/10: Brothers in Arms, On Every Street
5/10: Live at the BBC

HOPE:
9/10: Making Movies
7/10: Love Over Gold, Alchemy
5/10: Brothers in Arms
4/10: Dire Straits, Communiqué, On The Night
3/10: On Every Street, Live at the BBC

In Conclusion…

And what have you got at the end of the day?
What have you got to take away?

HOPE: When Matthew first suggested we explore Dire Straits I was worried that I didn’t feel strongly enough about them to be able to appraise them fairly or accurately. But of course that crazy (inevitable) thing happened where the more I listened, the more things started to resonate, the more invested I became in the experience. And here I am digging Alchemy in a way I never have before in my life. And playing “Hard Shoulder” and imagining I’m in a ‘60s movie on a greyhound bus watching the rain beat against the window. And so there you go, you got me Mr.Knopfler, mission accomplished.

MATTHEW: Yeah, Knoppy got me too! I thought my opinions were fairly set, especially as my views on music from my teens and college-age years (1977-86) are so infused with emotional and personal associations. But in the course of our deep-diving, I have discovered anew the narrative richness of the Dire Straits and Knopfler catalogs; I’ve heard musical moments I’d missed or forgotten; and I’ve come to better appreciate both Knopfler’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter, and the talents of his band mates. If our conversation leads you to anything remotely close to that, then OUR mission is accomplished! Now where’s that bottle…

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 4-The 21st Century)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

It’s A Fine Line: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

2000-2020: Driving Rain to III…

MATTHEW: Cliche alert: happy artists make trite art, and the best stuff is made by miserable bastards. Happy Adele? Snore. Broken-hearted Adele? Now we’re talking. Yet I never believed that Macca had a silly love songs problem in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Nor did I imagine that the root of such a problem, had it existed, was his long and happy marriage. After all, I love “Silly Love Songs.” But then Paul’s happy streak hit some unimaginably tough twists and turns. In the decade following Flaming Pie, his “Lovely Linda” lost her hard-fought cancer battle, George Harrison died, and Paul’s new marriage ended after just a few years. Was there enough misery in there to temper the silly love and inspire some stirring new songs? Oh yes. Three albums of them. Three great albums. Three of his best.

And that wasn’t all. Sir Paul’s creative output this century has been extraordinary. And considering these are his senior years (he turned the Fab age of 64 in 2006), his productivity seems superhuman. We may be less enamored of his ‘10s than his ‘00s pop albums, but we’re still bowled over by the sum total.

Driving Rain (2001)

MATTHEW: Driving Rain (2001), 9/10: When Paul released his Pure compilation in 2016, Paul Sinclair of Super Deluxe Edition took a look back at Macca’s solo career; I usually agree with Sinclair’s opinions, but he judged Driving Rain as “frankly awful,” the worst album in the catalogue, with not one good track on it. I was stunned. Because I LOVE this album. I still remember the first time I played the CD, in my car; I sat in the parking lot at work unable to bring myself to stop listening. Macca was channeling his grief over Linda’s passing and his joy over meeting Heather through his well-honed pop filter, and the result was totally captivating. For me then, and now, there’s not a duff song on here. And despite its length, it doesn’t tail off at the end, only getting better. The sole blemish is the hidden extra track, recorded and added at the last minute in response to 9/11 (“Freedom” is indeed “frankly awful”). I don’t remember Rain getting bad reviews when it came out, but I do recall it selling poorly, and scathing reviews of it are not hard to find (Ultimate Classic Rock, like the aforementionedSDE, ranks it as Macca’s worst, #21 of 21). I guess there’s no accounting for taste; in this case, mine. I hear an hour of strong, intimate, engaging tunes, and I honestly feel bad for those who don’t.

HOPE: Driving Rain (2001), 8/10: Driving Rain remains one of the most hated and maligned albums of Paul’s solo years. And let’s be frank, whether or not people want to admit it, the disdain for the album has less to do with the actual songs than the person who inspired their creation, Paul’s then new wife Heather Mills. To which I say, who cares. He was in love and this album has some absolutely kick ass songs; why should it matter who the source of inspiration was? If you are craving sticky and swoon-some style melodies like the kind that dominated most Macca albums in the ‘70s and early ‘80s then you should absolutely spend time with Driving Rain. It is full of fabulous hooks, from the punchy loved up title track to the gloriously Nilsson-esque “Your Loving Flame” to the rainy day balladry of “From A Lover To A Friend” to the Wings flavored “Magic”. Point is, there’s a lot to love here, a helluva a lot more than there is on the far more heralded Flowers in the Dirt. And for historical purposes, I will concur with Matthew in regards to “Freedom” and state that while it has genuinely good intentions it is also unequivocally terrible.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)

HOPE: Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005), 7/10: Chaos And Creation is one of the most traditionally Beatle-esque albums of Paul’s solo career, its best tracks sounding like not so distant relations of Macca’s White Album contributions. It is also home to a straight up, deep cut classic and what I regard as Paul’s absolute finest 21st century track. “Riding To Vanity Fair” is a clear-eyed, pragmatic and world weary ballad that’s flexible enough to accommodate the story of a friendship ending or the inability to be friends after a relationship has imploded. Either way, it’s an unadulterated, underrated beauty in the tradition of mist-inducing ballads like “Dear Friend” and “Love In Song” and I still swoon when it enters the room. While the album’s opening track and first single “Fine Line” is supremely bouncy and features an undeniably nifty piano based hook, the best tracks on Chaos are the ones with the most mournful melodies (“At The Mercy” and “How Kind Of You”). Chaos is a cloudy, wanting and lovely thing.

MATTHEW: Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005), 10/10: Paul has said that during the period of this great trio of albums (Rain, Chaos, and Memory), he never tossed out a song because his personal life had taken a new turn. So the songs take us to various points on his emotional roller coaster, but we cannot always be sure which ones; we can only guess at whom or what he is mourning, which love he is giddy over, what loss he is processing. For me, that—plus Paul’s undying gift for melody—makes Chaos one of his very best albums. As Hope says, it’s Beatle-esque, with all the praise that implies. Ten of its tracks are in my Macca Top 100, and I might as well have put the whole album in. Without the eccentricities that made most of his previous albums either annoyingly or charmingly quirky (depending on your taste or feelings for the record), this one is consistent, coherent, and compelling. Mature Macca’s masterpiece.

Memory Almost Full (2007)

HOPE: Memory Almost Full (2007), 5/10: When you listen to a new Macca album, whether you mean to or not, you are subconsciously comparing it to everything that’s come before. And if you are a crazy Macca-head you are also instantly attempting to put it into context. When I listened to Memory Almost Full for the first time, my matchmaking mind almost instantly honed in on its closest sonic relative, the less than stellar Press To Play. Go on and play them back to back. It’s all of a sudden gotten very 1986 in here right ? And while Memory is never boring, it never genuinely shines. Its best moments by far are where Paul gets weird. Both “House of Wax”, an eccentric, epic, slow moving cousin to Speed of Sound’s “Beware My Love” and “222”, a spiralling hypnotic sketch of song replete with tempo changes and the always welcome Macca falsetto, are fascinating and super fine slabs of oddball Paul.

MATTHEW: Memory Almost Full (2007), 7/10: I thought Chaos was just as good as Rain, but I was aware by the time Memory came out that the first was generally considered to be rubbish and the second great. So this third album of the decade was going to be rubbish, right? Not so much. Far from rubbish, it is a dozen strong songs, lots of melodic hooks, no unfinished fragments or self-indulgences of the kind that marred some other Macca albums. It’s in my McTop Ten. That said, it is a step away from the confessional intimacy of Rain and Chaos, and a step towards the so-so modern pop of Paul’s 2010s albums. It is best when it sounds more like a sibling to Chaos—for example, in “You Tell Me,” “Vintage Clothes,” “That Was Me,” “Feet in the Clouds,” “The End of the End.” I didn’t realize until a few years ago that all those songs were written and demo-recorded BEFORE Chaos was made. It shows. Perhaps if those demos are included in the Archive Collection reissue, whenever that comes, they’ll underscore how much this album might have been a Chaos twin. That said, I’d not want the final five tracks (which Paul has called a medley) to be any different (I’m generously pretending the album ends with “End,” not the 2-minute back-alley dentist visit that is “Nod Your Head”).

New (2013)

HOPE: New (2013), 6/10: New is an unpredictable and blessedly weird creature with moments that bring to mind everyone from Queen to The Killers to MGMT. It’s a dirty window of an album with a fair amount of “riffing” and “shredding” and ultimately more about sounds than songs. The Macca voice goes down an octave, the amps get turned up and things get wonderfully eccentric. You couldn’t call it outright Indie Paul, but there is something distinctly off-kilter in the construction of songs like the pounding “Road”, fuzzy singalong “Queenie Eye” and electro-peculiar “Appreciate”. You don’t necessarily see what’s coming, the hooks aren’t obvious and the instrumentation isn’t rote ( it should be noted that 2 of the aforementioned songs are co-writes with esteemed producer Paul Epworth). The song that best personifies New’s accessible weirdness for me is “Looking At Her” with its incongruous, where the hell did that come from synth-line. It’s the aural equivalent of giant neon brick being thrown through your living room window and is just yes, yes, yes.

MATTHEW: New (2013), 6/10: The modern pop tendencies of Memory Almost Full are almost fully realized on New (and are fully so on its sequel). The tortured Paul of the previous decade was gone, and while I’m happy for him, it meant the return of playful Paul—and songs that were more fun to create than they are to hear. If that makes it a hard album to love, one to pull songs for mixes more than to enjoy from start to finish, it also makes it endlessly interesting. Hope puts it perfectly: its the sounds, rather than the songs, that surprise and bewitch. “Alligator” and “Appreciate” are just the right balance of weird and melodic. The hidden 13th track, which sounds right out of the Rain/Chaos era, always arrives as an odd but welcome twist (and much better hidden after “Road” on the original release, instead of after the dispensable extra tracks on the so-called Deluxe Edition).

Egypt Station (2018)

MATTHEW: Egypt Station (2018), 4/10: I heard a couple of damning reviews of this, Macca’s 22nd studio album of originals, when it first came out. I tried to ignore them but I was put off by “Come on To Me” and “Fuh You,” which seemed just plain bizarre coming from a 76-year-old; the latter sounds like Coldplay production with Enrique Iglesias lyrics, but sung by an old geezer who refuses to do a clean version. I concluded that the slow downward trajectory from Chaos to Memory to New had continued with Egypt. Two years later, I still think there has been diminishing returns since Chaos. But my reaction to the two singles mentioned above smacks of ageism. Surely he’s earned the right to sing “I just wanna fuh you” to anyone who wants to hear it, regardless of how old he is! Besides, there’s one GREAT song on here (“I Don’t Know” is an instant Macca classic), and there are some pretty good ones scattered throughout the full Egypt sessions, enough to fill two sides of vinyl. The fact that one has to wade through an hour and a half of music (the original album’s hour, plus the bonus tracks and follow-up singles) to find one’s fine forty minutes is, well, all part of the pleasure and privilege of having access to so much Paul pop. He’s been doing it for six decades, and shows no sign of stopping. Let’s hope he never does.

HOPE: Egypt Station (2018), 3/10: I concur with Matthew heartily on multiple points; “I Don’t Know” is a freakin’ great song, vintage melodic Macca. And yes, the album is too damn long ( thanks streaming, you bastard). As far as the ageism, well, guilty here too…but then again is there such a thing as age appropriate music, should there be ? Rock stars are forever young right ? “Fuh You” does have a bit of a Grandpa posting stuff on TikTok vibe but it feels much truer to who Paul is at his core than something like Kisses On The Bottom ( his standards album which we discuss in the side projects section below). Still if Egypt Station makes one thing abundantly clear, it is that Indie Paul as heard on its predecessor New is infinitely more listenable than Modern Day Pop Paul as heard on a number of tracks here. There’s a fair amount of filler but the quirky, weirdness of electro-chant ”Back in Brazil” is pretty winning. And the bizarro “Caesar Rock”, a marriage of the sludgy and yes “Soily” sound of early ‘70s Wings and Talking Heads is a head-spinning and ridiculously fun melange.

McCartney III (2020)

MATTHEW: McCartney III (2020), 5/10: We had already written on all 22 studio albums above, when Paul announced that during “rockdown” he’d hammered out another totally-solo album—entirely written, performed, and produced by him, in the vein of 1970’s I and 1980’s II. As you can imagine, and no doubt like you and many thousands of others, we were excited, intrigued, apprehensive. So how did it turn out? Well, exciting and intriguing. There are some genuine new gems here; I really like the “Winter Bird” tracks that open and close the album, and I love the two deeps—“Deep Deep Feeling” and “Deep Down” (the sequencing on the vinyl version has them both on Side B, making that a fine 24 minutes of mature Macca, perhaps enough to push this from a 5 to a 6/10 as it grows on me). But III is not without the quirky flaws that divide opinions on I and II (“Lavatory Lil” is music hall juvenilia of the kind that has amused Paul since Beatle days, but to my tastes is—and here am I hypocritically sinking to the same level with a predictable metaphor—a turd to be flushed). In other words, it’s a typical Macca album, both brilliant and infuriating, an imperfect but very welcome reminder of how lucky we are to still have among us the extraordinary talent of King Paul (yes, after half a century of memorable solo albums, I think he deserves a promotion).

HOPE: McCartney III (2020), 5/10: We are totally in sync on this one Matthew ! The 2 deeps, “Deep Deep Feeling” and “Deep Down”, the former with it’s gorgeous darkly melodic piano line reminiscent of those on Back the the Egg ( as well as Chaos classic “Riding To Vanity Fair”) and the latter with its dirty Ram style groove are unquestionably the finest tracks on III. And my runners up are the birds that bookend the album (“Long Tailed Winter Bird”, “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes”) both of which are sonically splattered with vintage McCartney 1 and Ram mud. Still, the good stuff is countered by a lot of just okay stuff and one dyed in the wool nightmare (“Lavatory Lil”) so III is not the latter day classic some might have hoped for ( including me). Not sure why but I was expecting III to be more akin to McCartney II, full of electronic noodling and spacey intervals, in fact I was feeling pretty open to that idea so it was kind of surprising to hear him reverting to more traditional patterns. But that’s Paul. Predictably unpredictable. Able to raise a smile or induce a tear at will. Still the uncontested forever master of melody. And of course still pumped to make music (and play drums!). It’s a beautiful thing.

Compilations, Live Albums and Side Projects (1970-2020) !

MATTHEW: Now to the hits and “best of” compilations, of which there are surprisingly only four (considering how many artists with a far smaller catalogue have squeezed far more compilations—or, more often, their labels have): Wings Greatest (1978), All the Best! (1987), Wingspan (2001), and Pure McCartney (2016). I think Paul is to be commended for not flooding and confusing the marketplace with compilations. He seems to give them thought and attention, and perhaps is mindful of the many live albums he released between 1990 and 2019.

Wings Greatest (8/10) was odd for not including all of Macca’s hits to date, but that would have required a double LP, whose cost and pricing Capitol weren’t willing to risk. Still, 5 of its 12 tracks had never appeared on a McCartney album, and it comprised 11 great hits and “Mull of Kintyre” (sorry, but I was living in England when it was #1 for 9 weeks, became the biggest selling single to date, and was inescapable; I’m still recovering). My cassette copy was fairly well flogged in the day.

By the time All The Best! (6/10) was assembled, there was no avoiding putting out a double album of 20 tracks (or 17 on CD, and a different 17 on the US vinyl and CD version). All three versions put me off a little by including the duets with Wonder and Jackson, edited versions of some songs, and (outside the US) the Rupert and the Frog soundtrack song. I made my own mix and almost never played the original compilation

By comparison, this century’s two compilations are superb. Wingspan (9/10) covers roughly the same period as All The Best! but does it so much better, its 40 tracks (yup, it has the advantage of 2 CDs) chosen, divided in two, and sequenced perfectly. I really flogged it. Finally, Pure (10/10) drew on Macca’s entire career since 1970, and by sequencing tracks non-chronologically it created some interesting juxtapositions. The 2-CD version is good but the 4-CD 67-track version is better, throwing old hits up against recent gems and surprising album cuts (like “Winedark Open Sea”). I made my own version of 100 tracks, but I actually play the Pure CDs more.

HOPE: Wings Greatest (9/10) I got this album for Xmas in 1978 and admittedly have a huge sentimental attachment to it. As far as engaging my child brain it worked effectively on many levels. It came with a poster (!). It meant I finally had the perfectly ponderous “Junior’s Farm” on vinyl (!!). I liked the whole thing meaning I could happily play both sides without skipping tracks (!!!). And the one song I most wanted to skip happened to be the last one, “Mull of Kintyre” which made things exceptionally convenient (tilt!). “Mull of Kintyre” fun fact ; when the single was first released in the U.S. it came in a plain sleeve. Imagine my dismay when only a few weeks later I saw it at Korvettes department store with a damned picture sleeve featuring a heretofore unseen photo of Paul, Linda and Denny. There was no way I was going to buy the same record again but I totally wanted the sleeve. After considerable shifting and shuffling, with 2 older sales ladies only feet away, I managed to “pour” out the 45 into the bin and pilfer the sleeve. I literally heard one say to the other as I casually toddled off, “did she take something?”. I did and let me offer my sincerest apologies to both of you ladies wherever you are. If it’s any consolation I still have and treasure it.

All the Best! (5/10) My rating on this is retroactive because I admittedly didn’t buy it upon release ( bad fan). By that point I was obsessed with making mixtapes and so the only thing I really coveted off of it was the new song it included “Once Upon a Long Ago” (which irritatingly was not included on the American version of the album and so I ended up having to fork out for an import version of the single). “Once Upon…” featured the classic “Paul in the ‘80s” combo of cringey lyrics married to a lustrous, unspeakably gorgeous melody. Since the latter is more important, I totally love and forgive it. As a result I only ended up getting the (U.S. version) album a few years after it came out and solely for the sake of completion. Looking back at its contents now, All the Best! was clearly constructed for the masses with its glut of single edits and is thus more straight up product than artistic statement. At this point it’s simply an artifact of another time.

Wingspan (9/10) is an infinitely better overview and curated with far more care though I admit I was far more excited about the brand new collectibles attached to it, namely the documentary and book of the same name ( truly engaging documents both). I was working at Virgin Megastore in Times Square at the time of its release and was able to blast it over our giant sound system for a nice patch of time. Hearing “Back Seat of My Car” echoing through that cavernous space with hundreds of people milling around was as transcendently and ridiculously beautiful as it sounds. Pure (8/10) is essentially a readymade, officially sanctioned playlist. Despite the presence of a few unwelcome interlopers ( “Bip Bop”, “We All Stand Together”) it’s pretty thoughtfully laid out and the cover featuring bearded ‘70s Macca is hot. Is it necessary or essential ? No, but it’s immeasurably better having Paul make the playlist than some ignorant, emotionless algorithm.

HOPE: It was inevitable that Paul’s relentless touring would spawn some live recordings but we had no way of knowing just how many (aka too many). Apart from the precious, emotionally charged document that is Amoeba Gig (the 2007 secret show at the brilliant, legendary LA record shop) the rest of Paul’s latter day live catalog is pretty superfluous. Tripping the Live Fantastic ’90, Unplugged ’91, Paul is Live ‘93, Back in the U.S. ‘02, Back in the World ‘03 and Good Evening New York City ‘09 are cool souvenirs if you were at any of the shows, but none are truly essential or a patch on the revved up oldie, 1976’s Wings Over America.

MATTHEW: I agree that the eight (!) live albums of 1990-2009 (that’s counting separately the two 1990 versions of Tripping the Live Fantastic) are enjoyable extras, with only the Amoeba Gig being essential listening. Tellingly, the only one I listen to regularly is GENYC, because it evokes the live shows I saw a few years before and after then. I also like how it connects the solo work to his Beatles songs (as the other live albums do, but none of the compilations do). And of course the live albums tap into the energy that mature Macca has sustained to a stunning degree.

MATTHEW: We’ve mentioned some of the classical and electronic pop projects in passing, but let’s round up everything not yet rated and summarized. After all, in addition to the 22 studio albums, 4 compilations, and 9 live albums covered above, there are 5 studio side-projects, as well as 7 classical and 5 electronica albums (according to the tally on Wikipedia)—for a grand total of 52 (in 50 years)!

The side-project albums, as I just called them, are the forgettably dodgy Thrillington (1976) instrumental album; Give My Regards to Broadstreet (1984), the ill-conceived soundtrack album that we justifiably dismissed earlier; and two albums of old rock ‘n’ roll covers. CHOBA B CCCP (1988) and Run Devil Run (1999) are interesting curiosities, no doubt adored by some fans, but not albums I ever choose over his original studio albums. As for the electronica albums, they are more varied than that genre tag suggests: experimental projects like Twin Freaks are one-listen-only curiosities; but the trio of albums made by Paul with Youth, as The Fireman, are worth exploring. I miss Paul’s quirky charm on these three albums, but it’s absence makes them more consistent. The best of the trio is Electric Arguments (2008), and it’s the closest to a Paul solo album. The most recent side project is Kisses on the Bottom (see below). My enjoyment of Pie also prompted me to buy Standing Stone, which came out the same year. It remains my favorite of Macca’s classical albums. The others are interesting and pleasant, but Stone is more original, complex, and rewarding (I particularly love the second movement with “Sea Voyage” at its heart).

HOPE: Ah yes, the dreaded “side projects”, the scourge of every completist on a budget. 1976’s Thrillington album featured instrumental, ballroom flavored versions of songs from the wondrous Ram. Unfortunately, despite its stellar source material, it sucks. Ram is a dirty, glorious mudball of an album and Thrillington conveys none of its charm. The terrible soundtrack Give My Regards to Broadstreet (1984) did possess a singular piece of precious cargo in the form of handsome mega-ballad “No More Lonely Nights” but its inclusion on the All The Best! comp a few years later stripped it of that lone virtue forever. The 2 rock oldies cover albums CHOBA B CCCP (1988) and Run Devil Run (1991) were clearly passion projects for Paul and while he sings with genuine fire on both I don’t ever feel the desire to listen to them. As a melody addict the meat and potatoes rock of the ‘50s and early ‘60s isn’t quite tuneful enough for me. Yes, this is what happens when children are raised solely on ‘70s AM and ’80s FM radio, you get a whole generation of kids with a ridiculously large sweet tooth and no appreciation of musical history (or, okay, maybe it’s just me).

I agree with Matthew’s assessment on the electronica excursions and that Electric Arguments (2008) feels the most like an actual Macca album. He included the album’s rousing single “Sing The Changes” as part of his setlist on the ’09 tour and I can confirm it sounded shockingly good in the stadium environment, filling the impersonal space with something akin to actual joy.
The gaggle of classical albums Paul’s kicked out over the years within the decade are home to a handful of genuinely transcendent moments. Working Classical (1999) features some seriously moving orchestral versions of old classics (“Junk”, “My Love”) as well as several sweet originals (“Spiral” is lovely). But the best of the classical excursions is unquestionably Standing Stone (1997) most especially the aforementioned epic, cinematic and okay, slightly militaristic “Sea Voyage”. It remains my absolute favorite Paul-strumental, even over “Singalong Junk” or “Hot As Sun” and continues to occupy a galleon-size space in my heart.

HOPE: Kisses On The Bottom (2012), 2/10: Back in 2007, Daryl Hall gave a revealing interview to Pitchfork and said this about Rod Stewart’s string of successful standards albums; “You can be Rod Stewart, and be Clive Davis’s dog, and have a career at the expense of your artistic soul. I have nothing but negative things to say about that, because I respect him as a singer, and I hate what he does. He sold his soul. And I take that personally.” A very cutting observation there but also painfully true. And having watched the Rod do a show at MSG during that era where he donned a dinner jacket for the first hour, then reverted back to sleazy rock star for the latter half, it was clear where his heart was i.e. not in the jacket. This will sound nuts, but I didn’t want Kisses On The Bottom to be successful because I hated the idea of Paul falling into a Rod style quagmire. Of course as a songwriter who loves/lives to jam, it wasn’t likely but hey, I don’t think Rod ever saw himself heading down that path either. The album is an inessential curiosity.

MATTHEW: Kisses On The Bottom (2012), 3/10: I too feared this was the start of a whole new “standards” post-career, with multiple volumes to drive multiple nails into the coffin of Sir Paul’s credibility (a la Sir Rod). It’s certainly pointless (and even has a pointless, less-good remake of “Baby’s Request” from disrespected Egg). It’s best song, “If I Take You Home Tonight” isn’t even on here (it went to Diana Krall, who made it a stand-out track on her brilliant Wallflower album). But it isn’t terrible, it has one good new song (“My Valentine”), and I’d rather listen to it all the way through than his worst 80s-90s albums (mmm, maybe). (It’s a good way to mollify people asking for Christmas music, without having to suffer actual Christmas music; how’s that for damning with faint praise?!)

In Conclusion…

HOPE: I know. You are exhausted from reading this 4 part epic. We are too. If you are not already hammered from having a drink every time we uttered the words “Archive Collection” then please, relax and have a drink, you freakin’ deserve it for making it this far. And Thank You for indulging us, seriously, THANK YOU.

Right, because I can’t let sleeping dogs lie, I wanted to close this insanity with our personal Top 5’s for both songs and albums…but Matthew told me it would be impossible to narrow our picks down to only 5 songs. And he was right. 5 isn’t gonna do it. And so with that in mind, we now humbly offer our Top 10 songs in alphabetical order ( and our Top 5 albums in the order of all our aforementioned grades).

MATTHEW: Hope, you asked me for my Top 5 Macca songs. Too hard! I can get it down to ten (with the proviso that such a list changes from week to week—as you and any fan will understand—and this week it happens to heavy on ‘70s singles). Here’s that Top 10 in alphabetical order:

MATTHEW’s Top 10 songs

1.Arrow Through Me

2.Back Seat of My Car

3.Band On The Run

4.Beautiful Night

5.Goodnight Tonight

6.Live and Let Die

7.Maybe I’m Amazed

8.Riding To Vanity Fair

9.Silly Love Songs

10.With A Little Luck

MATTHEW: As for my Top 5 albums, many Macca fans would agree with the first and last of those five, but far fewer would understand my other picks! Yours are a similar mix, aren’t they, Hope? My Top 10 is rounded out with albums stretching from 1970 to 2007, reflecting the staggering fact that Macca has not only been churning out songs for sixty years, but most are good and many are great.

MATTHEW’S Top 5 Albums

1.Band on the Run

2.London Town

3.Back To The Egg

4.Driving Rain

5.Chaos And Creation In The Backyard

HOPE: While my favorite songs are generally determined by whatever headspace I am in at a given time, I will say that my picks stay relatively steady for the most part. And while I’ve listened to the ones I’m about list hundreds upon hundreds of times at this point in my life they never stop feeling like home. In alphabetical order they are…

HOPE’S Top 10 songs

1.Arrow Through Me

2.Back Seat Of My Car

3.Don’t Let It Bring You Down

4.Jet

5.Listen To What The Man Said

6.Little Lamb Dragonfly

7.Once Upon A Long Ago

8.Riding To Vanity Fair

9.Some People Never Know

10.Take It Away

HOPE’S Top 5 Albums

1.Ram

2.Back To The Egg

3.Tug of War

4.Band on the Run

5.Driving Rain

MATTHEW: We’ve tried to be critical and discerning, as well as fawning and fanatical in our reviews of his albums. That is partly to make our comments less predictable, partly because our opinions have been formed by personal experiences, and partly because the full Macca catalog is deep and wide, varied and complex, packed with experiments and surprises—some less welcome than others. Too often, the missteps have been used to dismiss the Macca legacy, when the real cause of that attitude is a lazy and unjust perpetuation of the old blame-game: blaming Paul for the Beatle breakup, for being happily married and relishing ordinary life when John offered angst and drama, for surviving when John was martyred, for making everyone else seem inadequate by being tirelessly productive. Sure, across the hundreds of songs, there are highs and lows, but the highs are scattered across the decades. This is not a tale of brief brilliance followed by slow decline. There are gems everywhere, and at any minute another one could surface. It’s extraordinary. When you add in the songs he wrote with The Beatles, the sheer magnitude of his impact on popular culture over the past six decades—his contributions to the daily lives of many millions of us—it is staggering. As Ian Leslie recently posted on The Ruffian, there are only three emotions that Sir Paul and his music most justifiably evoke: “awe, gratitude, and love.” How lucky we are to live in the Age of Macca!

HOPE: I concur with EVERYTHING Matthew just said! Digging deep and dissecting the Macca solo discography has been an absolute joy for us. Despite having heard most of the aforementioned albums ten trillion times, we still somehow rediscovered songs we’d previously ignored as well as came to appreciate the ones we already loved even more. We hope that this crazy thing has maybe, just maybe inspired you to dig, revisit or just plain explore the vast and wondrous Macca solo catalogue.

Gonna give the last word to the tiny machine below, the first iPod I ever owned (2001-2009 r.i.p.). Take it away dear friend…

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 3-The ’90s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

I Can See The World Tonight: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

1990-1999: Off the Ground & into the Pie

MATTHEW: Considering how productive he was in the ‘70s (9 original studio albums) and ‘80s (5 of them), it is striking that Macca made only two albums of new material in the ‘90s. Yet the reasons for this being the least productive of his five solo decades are obvious: a series of huge world tours; and Linda’s long battle with cancer. Which excuses the weakness of Off the Ground and makes the strength of Flaming Pie all the more notable.

Off The Ground (1993)

MATTHEW: Off the Ground (1993), 2/10: This was Paul’s only pop/rock studio album between 1989’s Flowers and 1997’s Flaming Pie, but he was as busy as ever: he released the first of what would be several album collaborations as The Fireman; the first of half a dozen classical albums; and around the time when Off the Ground was being written and released, he put out no less than three live albums (Tripping the Live Fantastic in ‘90, Unplugged in ‘91, and Paul is Live in ‘93). All that activity, the live albums and massive world tours they captured or reflected, made OtG somewhat irrelevant to his public profile and career. It was certainly irrelevant to me; I was still listening to most of what Paul had created during the first 18 years of my life (1964-82), but I had given up on everything since then. I wasn’t alone; OtG did poorly (except in France, Germany, and Japan—a knock-on effect of his touring, perhaps). In retrospect, it is not an irredeemably terrible album; it has its moments. But, like PtP, it isn’t great; it lacks a single really great song (although I do like “Winedark Open Sea”), and we know that Paul can write those in spades.

HOPE: Off the Ground (1993), 1/10: As Matthew states so succinctly above, OtG lacks a single really great song. The only track I ever spent time with was, yes, “Winedark Open Sea”, a decent enough slow groove…but it’s still not worthy enough to make a post Beatle Macca Top 100. Paul’s never made an album that could be scored as a straight up zero out of 10 as his inherent melodic gift is always somewhere in the fabric of every full length he creates…which is to say there will always be at least a minute of head spinning pop beauty on whatever he does. But out of all the latter day Macca releases, those sweet bits are by far the hardest to find on OtG.

Flaming Pie (1997)

MATTHEW: Flaming Pie (1997), 8/10: I’d pretty much given up on Macca by this point, no longer listening to anything recorded by him after Wings disbanded. But “Beautiful Night” got my attention: it captured those elements of melody and inventiveness that made Paul’s pop so brilliant. I loved it and still do. It took me to Pie, a year or two later (yeah, I was a tad slow, but it was that mid-30s crazy busy career and family time for me), and suddenly I was one of those Beatle/Macca fans between youth and middle age revisiting and rebuying albums. (As I was getting back into ELO too, the Jeff Lynne varnish on much of the album appealed to me.) So how does Pie stand up now? As we write, the Archive Collection reissue recently came out, getting attention and praise. And the album is pretty damn good. In fact, I still love the first six tracks (nicely sequenced from “The Song We Were Singing” to “Calico Skies”); the title track grates a tad, and in the second half there are a few of those collaborative tracks that Paul had more fun making that I have listening to (often the case with his 80s-90s albums), but they are offset by gems like “Heaven on a Sunday,” “Little Willow,” and “Beautiful Night.” For me, this is by far his best album of his varied 80–90s middle period.

HOPE: Flaming Pie (1997), 5/10: True confession. In the years leading up to Pie I’d fallen completely under the spell of Britpop, utterly besotted with everything from Elastica to yes, unabashed Beatle worshippers, Oasis. And so when Pie was released I was not really receptive to it, as I was so entrenched and enraptured by big brash Britpop with its massive singalong chorus’s and druggy, sexy looks. And so I listened to Pie a few times, cherry picked the couple of songs I liked, popped them on a mix cd and filed it away. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. I get why some people find that Jeff Lynne production stamp irksome on the albums he produces but it’s not as intrusive here as it was on say George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. The songs I like best on Pie actually remind me of vintage Wings tracks namely “Great Day” which sounds like a not so distant cousin of Red Rose Speedway’s groovy, dirty “Big Barn Bed” and “Heaven On A Sunday”a sort of soul song with a really fine vintage Speed Of Sound guitar break hiding in it (from Paul’s son James ). Pie is a slow burn of an album, the kind you need to play on repeat for a while before it infiltrates.

End of Part 3

Coming in Part 4, the 21st century! Plus a whip ’round the Macca side projects and compilations. Get comfortable, it’s a big one…check it out here

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 2-The ’80s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

Once Upon A Long Ago: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

1980-1989: Macca II to The Dirt

HOPE: The ’80s were a markedly confusing and dark time for many of the music world’s more established and beloved artists. With the new decade came a dramatic, seismic shift in pop sights and sounds. Sure there were the inevitable sonic advances in recording and such but the shift was mostly down to this one particular thing, an immense, all consuming behemoth called MTV that took near complete control of music culture (as well as my own teen brain). The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay, the visuals and visages as important as the songs themselves. Yup, once MTV hit, like some musical equivalent of Logan’s Run, any musician over 30 suddenly seemed genuinely old indeed. The acoustic sounds that had been so mega and pervasive only a handful of years before now seemed criminally dated.

The need to sound “modern” to stay relevant proved to be problematic for many of the established rock and pop superstars of the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in some truly disastrous sonic (enter sexy saxes) and sartorial decisions (hot mullet action). Of course there were artists who were able to transition and/or evolve with enormous success as the ’80s progressed like Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and even, surprisingly, The Kinks. And there were others who while not necessarily progressive sound-wise, resoundingly found their niche as the decade evolved (Linda Ronstadt). But alas others stumbled. Hard

Which is to say welcome to Paul McCartney’s ‘80s. The decade began with Paul’s being arrested and detained for bringing a cache of weed into Japan where the Wings tour was set to begin. He was subsequently deported and plans to continue the tour were aborted (and as such the USA never got to experience the Back to the Egg live, dammit Paul dammit). Once summer hit though, things in Macca world took a marked turn toward the better as Paul’s new single, an oddball pseudo-new wave chant called “Coming Up” ascended to the #1 spot in the singles chart. The success of that song then supercharged sales for the ponderously weird and uncommercial album it called home, 1980’s McCartney II helping drive it up the charts to similar heights. Then on December 8 of that same year, everything changed.

The tragic death of John Lennon invariably threw an intense spotlight on Paul and left many wondering how he might ultimately address this immense loss within his music…or if he would at all.  The answer came in the form of an album that he’d begun recording prior to John’s death, 1982’s Tug Of War. Within it he spoke eloquently and emotionally about John ( in the song “Here Today”) while also delivering one of the finest full lengths of his entire post-Beatle career. Little did we know at the time that it would serve as the high water mark for all of Macca’s ‘80s output. The quality of the releases that followed Tug Of War whipped wildly from intermittently strong to outright terrible

Check out any career-spanning album ranking list and you will invariably find the 2 studio albums that came in the wake of Tug Of War, namely Pipes of Peace and Press To Play as well as the soundtrack to Paul’s ill-conceived (disaster) film Give My Regards To Broad Street firmly lodged at the bottom. And in the case of Broad Street, it’s a 2-fer as it’s also arguably one of the worst films of the ‘80s. While we can cast a legitimately critical eye at these albums with their mullets, smarmy, thumbs aloft videos and clunky attempts at modernity, we also can’t entirely dismiss them for there are in fact some true gems living within their grooves. But be warned, if you choose to listen to Macca’s ‘80s albums in their entirety, you are gonna get dirty.

McCartney II (1980)

MATTHEW: McCartney II (1980), 4/10: derided as a featherweight failed experiment at the time, especially in the US (where it’s chart showing was Paul’s lowest since Wild Life), it is hailed today as a bold, experimental, unappreciated gem. So which is it? Both and neither: it’s an experiment that works at times, but ultimately isn’t experimental enough. The electropop tracks are very 1980, but in a good way; they stand up pretty well (although surely “Frozen Jap” is an unnecessarily offensive title, even if Paul was still grumpy about his recent drug arrest in Tokyo airport). But they would have been more compelling if sequenced together—perhaps as a semi-instrumental Side B (like Bowie’s Low and Heroes). Instead, as if he was wary of asking fans to embrace something too novel, Paul interspersed them with more conventional songs. Two of those are great (the singles “Coming Up” and “Waterfalls”), but the other four are like forgettable outtakes from the pre-Egg Wings era (and “Bogey Music” comes unforgivably close to completely ruining Side B). Left off the album was “Blue Sway,” which would have been one of its better tracks (it is on the Archive Collection edition, which also has the excellent live Wings version of “Coming Up” and the extended—too long!—versions of the electropop numbers).

What’s the solution? The best I can come up with is a double EP (3-4 tracks on 4 sides, grouped by style, allowing for both versions of “Coming Up,” “Blue Sway,” and some longer edits). But a double EP was almost never done by anyone, for good economic reasons. Not a great idea. So maybe the solution is that we must be content with playing around with the original track and outtakes from what is a flawed, confused but ultimately worthwhile addition to the catalogue.

HOPE: McCartney II (1980), 5/10: The release of this album was preceded by the single ”Coming Up” a song with a cute modern haircut and no discernible melody. I’ve never liked it and at the time wished it hadn’t gotten to # 1 because I was genuinely worried Paul would take it as a sign to write more songs like it (I miss the days when that was the kind of shiz I was actually worried about). I know McCartney II has received a lot of latter day love for its prescience and supposedly ahead of its time electropop experimentation which I kind of get…but to my ears there aren’t enough fully fleshed out songs to latch onto. Which is to say several tracks feel like incomplete sketches and/or straight up noodling (“Front Parlour”, “Darkroom”, “On The Way”), not to mention that things get seriously cringey in a couple of places ( “Frozen Jap”,”Bogey Music”). On the up side, I love the ethereal and woozy “Waterfalls”; though it’s the most prototypically Macca-style song here, maybe the least adventurous, it is by far the most memorable track on all of McCartney II. And I want to award honorable mentions to a couple of deep cuts from the same cloth, “One Of These Days” and “Summer’s Day Song”. While not up to the melodic standard of “Waterfalls”, they are similarly hazy and hypnotic and often insidiously sneak into my Macca playlists when I’m not looking.

I was hoping that I would have an epiphany regarding McCartney II once I spent time with the Archive Collection edition, but apart from discovering the plush nighttime in the city groove of bonus track “Blue Sway”, nothing had changed; I liked the same 3 aforementioned songs I always did and felt nothing for the rest. I agree with Matthew’s assessment that while Macca sometimes colors outside the lines on McCartney II, he doesn’t go far enough to make it genuinely interesting…but think that applies the other way too, as in he skates around his melodic tendencies without digging in; there just aren’t enough hooks here and brilliant hooks are what define the best Macca songs and set him apart from the songwriting herd.

Tug Of War (1982)

HOPE: Tug of War (1982), 9/10: If you are a hardcore Macca fan chances are you have a pretty tough skin. When haters want to trash post-Beatle Paul they tend to wave the same tired pieces of dirty laundry in the air to make their point. And the Exhibit A of total suckery is always the same. Yes, “Ebony and Ivory” is ridiculous. When they premiered the song on one of the big NYC radio stations back in the day I remember being embarrassed on Paul’s behalf after it had finished. Still, while it’s clumsy as hell and I don’t care if I ever hear it again, I know it’s heart is in the right place and the tune itself is kind of sweet. But yes, I get the hate. We all do. I just wanted to get that out of the way before we talk about all the beauty and joy surrounding it.

Critics were falling all over themselves to praise ToW upon release…which even in my youth I recognized as unusual having become so accustomed to their bashing him. In fact it sort of seemed like the extra praise was their way of offering Paul sympathy and love after what happened to John. I admit I thought this, like oh now you think Paul is good, feeling ever so slightly pissed at his prior treatment and their convenient new magnanimity. But then again, ToW was pretty great.

I love the overall sequencing on ToW…how the handsomest stuff is served up first and how the lesser lights are discreetly tucked away ( those being the other sadly pedestrian Stevie W collaboration “What’s That You’re Doing” and the Carl Perkins duet “Get It”). And there couldn’t have been a better opener than the epic and wistful title track. I love, love “Take It Away”, it is one of my all-time favorite solo Paul tracks, right down to it’s fantastical video with John Hurt as “some important impresariooooo”. The harmonizing in the coda is straight up heavenly and I could listen to it playing in an endless loop forever. “Wanderlust” often gets singled out as the album’s finest ballad, but I’d nominate the rainy “Somebody Who Cares” with its slightly mournful melody for that accolade (plus it sounds like “Waterfalls” little brother). I think ToW is a great record, literally, in that it is so perfectly suited to be absorbed on a turntable, having to be flipped over. It’s never boring and remains utterly listenable in every way.

MATTHEW: Tug of War (1982), 7/10: In the early 80s, I was a fanatic, chart-obsessed English consumer of pop music, and thus a witness to the stumbling of ’70s rock and pop stars that Hope describes. I was also part of their problem, quick to give up on the likes of the Stones, Floyd, Supertramp, Elton John—and Paul McCartney. I was not alone in dismissing these artists as no longer uncool even while still listening to their “old stuff”; that sounds contradictory, but their nostalgia status was part of their uncool-ness. Macca was really up against it, lumbered with the albatross of Beatles uber-nostalgia and the deeply unfair resentment of Lennon mourners. Back to the Egg and McCartney II were still cool to me because I read their experimentalism as Paul not caring what we thought. But the run of albums from 1982-86 suggested he cared too much, trying different duet partners, different producers, veering into children’s music, capitalizing on old Beatles songs but with inferior new versions. The embarrassing “Ebony and Ivory” seemed to set the tone for the decade. It tainted ToW for me at the time, and each subsequent album (not to mention the Rupert the Bear moment) seemed to confirm and further lower my expectations.

None of that was particularly fair, and as a result I failed to give Tug of War a fighting chance. But I came back to it in the late ‘90s, when Macca lured me back with his creative renaissance and when I no longer cared what was cool or uncool. And yes, both Stevie Wonder duets are still embarrassing (calling each other “girl” and squealing “What’s That You’re Doing” to each other would have been less awkward had it been deliberate). But in retrospect ToW sounds like a sequel to pre-Egg Wings, with a few new collaborators, and the same mix of catchy melodies, pseudo-oldies (“Ballroom Dancing” was leftover from Egg days, I believe, and sounds like it—that’s a compliment!), disposable oddities (“Get It”), memorable ballads (“Wanderlust” is great, and “Here Today” is by far the best ode to Lennon by any of the Fab survivors), and solid singles (I love “Take It Away” too). ToW was a hit then, it held up well, and it positively shines in comparison to what followed it.

Pipes Of Peace (1983)

HOPE: Pipes of Peace (1983), 6/10: When I went to purchase this album upon release the guy at the counter told me it was “shit” (turned out he was 10 years off and had the wrong album but I digress). PoP is for all intents and purposes a watered down version of ToW , in other words, not awesome but a long, long way from the shiz pile. I do want to note that while the albums pair of duets with Michael Jackson “Say, Say, Say” and “The Man” have become problematic for me because of MJ’s well-documented issues, I do believe they are 2 of PoP’s strongest tracks. In fact “The Man”, was my absolute favorite track on PoP for ages. I found its lightness, slightly eccentric lyric and hook impossible to resist; it sounded like a pop-ified version of “San Ferry Anne” off of Speed of Sound. And Paul’s vocal on the track is downright exquisite, just absolute sweetness. I also confess that the “Say Say Say” video enhanced my experience of the song as it provided ample opportunity to swoon over how hot Paul was ( of course at the time I was a teen and Paul was over 40 but let’s just look at it as a tribute to how well he was aging). And I have to shout out plush, corny, epic, arms wide open on a mountain anthem “Through Our Love”; it is pure ’80s glory-osity and just plain rules. Now the bad news…and excuse me for acting “like a dustbin lid” for a second if you will ( please listen to track 3 of PoP if I just confused you with that characterization). While PoP has some undeniably engaging hooks threading through it, it also has filler, the latter half of the album making for a particularly tough trawl ( up until “Through Our Love”). Which is a shame because the first 6 tracks are genuinely lovable in their own individual, idiosyncratic ways.

But what I want to say most regarding PoP is that it makes me genuinely sad. Not for its inconsistency but because I miss this version of Paul, when his default button was set to “melody”, where every song was seemingly built for that thing called radio. And so while it isn’t perfect, PoP remains a sweet document of the straight up “Pop Paul”, a throwback to his ‘70s styles which were never to be seen again after this in such a fulsome way. And hey, NYC record store guy, wherever you are, I think you were wrong.

MATTHEW: Pipes of Peace (1983), 5/10: I’m tempted to give this a lower rating because of the Jacko duets, but that’s far from being Paul’s fault and the songs aren’t bad. Actually I did rate it down for that. Sorry. There’s also the “Tug of Peace” mashup, which reminds me of the turd that was sequenced after “Amazed” on the first album; only this is worse, because it’s a turd pile one has to leap over to get to the closing ballad—which is pretty good. In fact, the whole album is only a little less good than ToW. Which really damns it with faint praise (and a very unoriginal evaluation on my part). But it’s surely less of a drop-off than Bowie’s Tonight was to Let’s Dance (although I admit I prefer both of those to both of these). I think “The Other Me” and “So Bad” and “Through Our Love” are underrated pop nuggets that sound great in Macca mixes. I put my favorite dozen tracks from ToW and PoP in a playlist along with “No More Lonely Nights” (from the Give My Regards to Broad Street fiasco) and the result is a fine hour of Paul pop. I did that last week, and I rather wish I’d done it decades ago.

Press To Play (1986)

MATTHEW: Press to Play (1986), 2/10: Hope says PoP makes her sad; Press to Play makes me very sad. It’s the first Macca album that in real time struck me as an end. I thought, poor Paul. He still has the skills, but the creative genius is gone. The fact that buried in the very middle of an otherwise almost unlistenable album is one of his best ballads—“Only Love Remains,” a modest UK hit soon forgotten because Paul’s magical chart run of two decades was over—only makes Press to Play more depressing (depress to play? Oh dear. I apologize). In fact, to give it a full chance and dig a bit deeper, there are some good moments in here, in parts of songs (in “Feel the Sun,” “Footprints,” “Pretty Little Head,” and a couple more); but the songs as a whole aren’t great, and great is what Paul has given us too many times for this to get played much again.

Nothing from the album made it into any of the versions of All The Best, the big hits collection released the following year—which made #2 in the UK but only #62 in the US, perhaps reflecting the damage done by Broad Street and Press.

HOPE: Press to Play (1986), 2/10: Matthew, believe me when I tell you, Press to Play makes me sad too…but even more than that, it makes me angry knowing what Paul is capable of. There are flourishes of divine melody on PtP and melodically epic ballad “Only Love Remains” is an underrated gem…but, and it genuinely pains me to say this, the lyrics throughout the album are atrocious. I admit that at the time of release I found the video for PtP’s first single “Press” pretty irresistible for reasons that had zero to do with the song. Watching classic “cute” Paul mugging, grinning and running his hand through his lustrous hair as he surprised commuters on the tube was kind of all kinds of charming & I totally wished I’d been there, on that train. Pause. Damn. As I have been writing these blurbs, it’s become clear to me that MTV had a cult like influence over me and seemed to rule my entire waking existence in the ’80s. Shit, maybe those angry PRMC ladies were onto something. Right, so back to “Press” the song. The tune was nice enough, but the chirpy, winking sexuality in the lyrics was embarrassing especially in light of what Prince was kicking out with such wit and brilliance at that same juncture. And I found the “I love you very, very, very much” bit in the song to be particularly grating ( it’s right up there with Kiss’s “crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy nights” on the irritation scale). Oof. Fittingly (?) the album closes with the overwrought “However Absurd” which sounds like a substandard Rutles song, right down to it’s title. PtP is Paul on autopilot and simply put, it just kind of sucked.

Flowers In The Dirt (1989)

MATTHEW: Flowers in the Dirt (1989), 5/10: With only one original studio album in the six years since PoP, and it relatively unsuccessful, this was a potential comeback record. It did well enough (#1 in the UK), and was generally considered a “return to form” (forgive the cliche); but of its four singles, only “My Brave Face” was Top 25 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Hope says there is nothing essential on here and I agree (I like “We Got Married” and “Motor of Love,” but they’re hardly essential). The Elvis Costello collaboration was heavily publicized, but it sounds far more like a Crowded House album than a Costello one—reflecting the influence of Mitchell Froom, lead producer (after Paul) and also producer of the first three Crowded House albums (1986-91). I was a huge CH fan at the time, so the comparison helped me like this more—but not as much as the CH albums. It still is, for me, in that quite-good category with VaM and PoP. It gave me hope that Macca would make a few great albums in the ’90s…but it would turn out to be merely the high point of a low patch lasting most of the ’80s and ’90s.

HOPE: Flowers in the Dirt (1989), 3/10: It’s true that to my ears there are no essential tracks on Flowers. It was certainly a step up from its studio predecessor PtP but nothing stuck to the wall for me. It’s one of my least played Macca albums. I was working at CBGB’s Record Canteen at the time this came out and as I was playing it one day, one of my co-workers, who like me was in her early 20’s said, “Wow, I think my Mom would like this album”. While she hadn’t meant it as an insult and was just making an observation, I admit that it changed how I heard Flowers for a minute. To make matters worse, she’d made the remark while my favorite song off the album was playing, the catchy, poppy and goofy “Figure of Eight”. Flowers was indeed polite, clean, undemanding and overly cloying ( “Put It There,”How Many People”, ugh). Which is to say it didn’t feel especially cool. In other words, your Mom and Dad would very likely enjoy it ( this despite the participation of Elvis Costello and Mitchell Froom who gave the whole thing some credibility amongst both critics and nerds). I’ve periodically revisited Flowers hoping something might resonate but it’s just never happened. My best memory of this release is that it preceded the first Macca tour of the U.S. since 1976 (!) and thus prefaced my first opportunity to see him play live. It didn’t matter that it was from the back of a stadium in New Jersey in the presence of the asshole guy I was seeing and Paul was a barely discernible dot on the horizon, the important thing was that after what felt like a lifetime of waiting, I was there, in the same “room” as Macca, finally .

End of Part 2

Coming in Part 3, a dissection of Paul’s ’90s discography. Let the resurrection begin. Read it here

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 1-The ‘70s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

So Glad To See You Here: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we remain as one in our eternal love for Macca.

HOPE: By 1976, something weird was brewing in Beatle world. Thanks to the consistent radio plays, latter-day exposure to the Beatle movies and the influence of millions of older siblings, cousins and babysitters, a new generation of fans were starting to discover them. And so began the first pop music perfect storm. These newbies were kids who’d been born in the late ’60s and beyond and hadn’t experienced the band in real time. They were frequently referred to as “Secondhand Beatle Fans”, a short-lived, semi-official moniker that was both condescending and lovingly true.

One of the best parts about becoming a Beatle fan in the mid-’70s was that not only were there innumerable older albums to consume and catch up on, but a constant stream of new releases by the now solo Beatles to look forward to. Which was something of a divine gift for the Secondhand fans. For while they couldn’t experience the excitement of buying a newly recorded album by The Beatles and being part of the cultural zeitgeist that surrounded them, they could still enjoy something that felt like theirs, something new. And when it came to kicking out new music, the most motivated and driven ex-Beatle by far was Paul McCartney aka Macca. He proved to be staggeringly prolific out of the gate, kicking out 9 studio albums plus a triple lp live album between 1970 and 1979 alone, as well as a stellar array of stand alone singles.

Paul was plain unavoidable in the ‘70s which is to say, he was f-ing everywhere, emanating from every radio, appearing on countless magazine covers, invading every city to rock every coliseum and filling the charts with a continuous stream of, well, stuff. Paul’s star wasn’t flatlining, it was manically ascending, his music becoming as omnipresent as that of The Beatles as the decade unfolded. This goes some way toward explaining and understanding why the post Beatle Paul McCartney catalogue meant so much to the latter day generations of Beatle fans. It was as close as they could get to experiencing the Fab Four in real time. Like the tagline for the short lived 1977 Broadway show Beatlemania so hopefully and desperately declared, “Not The Beatles, But An Incredible Simulation!”. That was Paul McCartney in the ‘70s. And as it happened, it was a damn good simulation…so good that you could sometimes forget about that other band he was in, especially if you were a kid at the time.

And with that, welcome to THE WONDER OF IT ALL : Paul McCartney’s Solo Years !! Join Secondhanders Matthew and I (Hope) as we bravely trek through 50 years worth of the post-Beatle Macca discography, dissecting its contents, grading the albums and generally over-sharing for context (half truth, it’s mostly because we get exceedingly emotional when discussing Macca). We will be exulting the underdogs, nudging the sacred cows and venturing into the darker corners of the catalogue fearlessly, heartlessly exposing what lives there (yes “Mumbo”, consider that your official warning). And oh yes, one last thing, we will occasionally spew cutting references to the McCartney Archive Collection, the ongoing deluxe reissue project begun in 2010 in regards to their nonsensical, non-chronological order of release which has been a major source of frustration for Macca nerds ( feel free to turn it into a solo drinking game). Yes, there’s something here for everybody, young and old, dabbler and obsessive and we hope you like it.

MATTHEW: Yes, throughout the 1970s, the Beatles were omnipresent and inescapable.  There was always something in the papers, on the TV, or on the radio from or about the Four, either from when they were Fab or from their post-Fab musical and personal lives.  As Bob Stanley noted in his book Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, for most of the ‘70s, “the States were still pretending the Beatles hadn’t split” (p.247, also see my 33 ⅓ book on Elton John’s Blue Moves, p.61; forgive shameless plug). Although Beatlemania (and that Beatlemania show) was, ironically enough, bigger in the US than the UK, the phenomenon was similar on both sides of the Atlantic.  Re-released Beatles songs and new solo releases charted quickly and sold well.

At the top of that heap of new music was everything by Paul, Linda, and Wings.  Between 1970 and 1979, they released ten albums (two under the McCartney name, seven studio albums under Wings, and a Wings live album; we are not including the Wings Greatest compilation).  Eight of the ten reached #1 or #2 in the US and Canada (five of them did in the UK), charting and selling millions all over the world. In terms of quantity—the number of albums and the number of units moved—Paul outdid his former bandmates many times over. In our view, he outdid them too in terms of quality.  All those albums and singles yield hours of melodic pop marvels.  But critics were less generous.  Many of them were unenthusiastic, if not downright rude and derisive, about most of these albums; in fact, with the exception of Band on the Run, all these records were generally given a rough ride by reviewers.  Why?

Much ink has been spilled on that question and on similar ones, but we are going to stick to one, simple theory that helps take us to the task at hand (rating the albums): Paul refused to release a perfect album, and that got under the skin of critics. The first trio of albums were so obviously and blatantly LPs that Paul wanted to make, for himself and Linda—without giving a monkey’s about anyone else or what they might think or want. According to this theory, nothing on these first three albums pandered to bandmates, managers, producers, record company suits, fan clubs, record store buyers, or critics. Some people in that last category took it personally. The fourth album did, at last, seem to be reaching for critical and commercial approval, but it wasn’t good enough for the critics. Then, when the fifth album did prove to be perfect (at the very least, close to it), that only enraged them more. As if Macca could have made a Band on the Run every year, and he was deliberately, bloodymindedly choosing not to!

Well, the critics were right—in a way.  The albums weren’t perfect. As Rob Sheffield notes a couple of times in Dreaming the Beatles, some of the songs, even whole albums, had an unfinished feel to them. And I must admit that I found that a little confusing at the time. I was a kid during this decade and missed the early albums in real time. I was 6 and living in Madrid when McCartney came out, so I was already a Beatles fan but was oblivious to their breakup and the solo sequels.  But in the five years between Band on the Run and Back to the Egg I was in school in England—and increasingly obsessed with pop music.  I loved the steady stream of Wings hit singles, and acquired the albums as I could, at first a year or two behind their releases, and then—with the last two of the decade—in real time.  By then I had accepted the imperfections of these albums as part of their charm. Their flaws were minor, endearing, and above all forgivable, considering that the other ex-Beatles had, by 1979, produced so little—and so much of it total shite—by comparison. After all, if Wild Life was Paul being selfish and inconsiderate to fans, what about (as of 1979) Ringo’s dismal seven albums, or George’s failure to make anything close to All Things Must Pass, or the fact that John gave up mid-decade completely?

1970-1979: From Cherries to the Egg

MATTHEW: The first three post-Fab Paul albums always seemed like a trilogy to me. Although released under three different names (McCartney; Paul and Linda McCartney; Wings), they all came out within a 20-month period in 1970-71, and they seem to stem from that short creative period (even if some songs had late-60s origins). They also bear that period’s unfiltered hallmark—for better or worse. Without John, Ringo, or the Georges (Harrison and Martin) to reject, rework, develop, or approve his draft compositions, Paul clearly felt deliriously free to simply jam out the bits and pieces constantly emerging from his fertile mind, pop them onto acetate, and let Bob be his uncle.

When it works, it feels thrillingly like sitting in Paul and Linda’s kitchen, drinking their wine, while they make up songs. The invention of Indie Rock? That more likely emerged from the use by multiple artists of cheaper, smaller recording technology. But I see why some critics (and fans) have given Macca that credit.

As for the trilogy: not as bad as many critics claimed in the ‘70s, but also frustratingly flawed. Each one has a handful of songs that are not only among Paul’s best, but hold up well in the catalogue of pop’s greatest, full stop. But then Macca can’t resist tossing them in with tracks that should have gone straight into the B-side bin—or the bucket of half-baked ideas to be revisited later.

McCartney (1970)

HOPE: McCartney (1970), 6/10: I know for a long time people thought this album to be the product of clueless hubris, but honestly its homespun sloppiness feels so genuine and heartfelt to me; it’s the sonic embodiment of muddy boots, wet dogs, worn wool sweaters and Linda’s home cooking…which is to say, it’s an unbelievably warm and cozy record. And I should add, it’s aged surprisingly well. But, but that’s not to say it isn’t scarred by filler. While it’s home to blindingly beautiful romantic constellations like “Every Night” and “Junk”, it also contains some outright shiz, namely “Ooh You”, “Momma Miss America” and the exceptionally awful “Kreen-Akrore”. No matter how much of a Macca contrarian someone is, no one should be willing to die on a hill for those 3 demons. And I know it’s semi-blasphemous to say but here goes; I prefer the raw emotional live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” that came later on 1976’s Wings Over America over the original here with its fat, intrusive organ.

At the end of the day though, the bad tracks are outnumbered by the good. “Man We Was Lonely” is a total sweetheart of a song, a soundalike sibling to The Beatles “The Two of Us”. And I quite like the acoustic, candy-coated instrumental “Hot As Sun” though admittedly it has something to do with a weird, sentimental childhood memory. At some point in the late ’70s one of our local TV stations in NY started using it as the theme music for the Popeye cartoon show that was on at 7 am before we went to school. Yes, “Hot As Sun” was the daily prelude to an hour of spinach fueled revenge scenes…which is both utterly bizarre and strangely perfect.

MATTHEW: McCartney (1970), 8/10: Cherries (as I’ve always called it) is for me the best of the first three: a half-hour of beautiful, tuneful, whimsical pop (“Every Night” and both versions of “Junk” are Paul-pop bliss), culminating in the insta-classic “Maybe I’m Amazed” (yes, the live version is better, but it doesn’t replace this one).  If only he’d stopped there or waited until a couple of the better songs from the next album were already written (or included “Another Day,” which had been written during the Let It Be sessions the previous year). Instead, he takes us to the 35” mark with a stunningly crappy final track (was he taking the piss? Having a laugh? He must have been, right?).

Two of the themes that run through our whole blog essay are the issue of track selection and sequencing, and the impact on the listener of her/his personal history with an album. Both of those come together for me with Cherries, as my father gave me the pre-recorded cassette of the album when I was a boy; it was a cherished item in my small, fledgling tape collection, and I still have it. But the tracks were re-sequenced by the label (“Amazed” on Side A, the two “Junks” together on B, etc.). When, near the end of the ‘70s, I heard the proper sequence and made a tape from the record, I realized how much of a difference it made; a beloved but admittedly bumpy album became smoother and better.

Ram (1971)

HOPE: Ram (1971), 10/10: I love Ram. Love it. Okay, I will admit there is one song I don’t really care for and yes I’m talking about you “3 Legs” you freakin’ monster, but since it’s short and sandwiched between 2 stellar songs “Too Many People” (anxious, angry and devilishly beautiful) and “Ram On” (delicate and swoonworthy), it’s easy to ignore. But I have nothing but endless adoration for the rest of Ram. For one thing, it’s home to one of my absolute favorite McCartney songs ever (Beatles included), the plush, gorgeous and semi-carnal “Back Seat of My Car”. It’s simply off the charts on the swoon-meter (and majorly so on the mono version that’s included as part of the deluxe Archive edition of the album, listen here). “Smile Away” and “Monkberry Moon Delight” are batshit crazy, and I love songs where unhinged, old school rock ‘n roll Paul crashes into melodic and tuneful Paul ( more of that to come later). And throughout Ram, Paul confirms that he is KING of the coda, from the aforementioned “Back Seat” to “Long Haired Lady” to “Too Many People” to “Uncle Albert”, ending them all with completely new hooks and twists, I mean who on earth has ever, will ever do it as well ?? No one that’s who.

MATTHEW: Ram (1971), 7/10: For me, Ram is neither front nor end loaded. It scatters its great songs throughout the album, making it easy to overlook the weaker ones. As with Cherries, there’s a full half hour of music on here that sustains countless listens (“Dear Boy,” “Uncle Albert,” “Heart of the Country,” and “Back Seat of My Car” among the highlights—yes, the latter is indeed gorgeous and romantic and freakin’ perfect)! And a riveting example of the melodic codas or outros that Paul does SO well. That means it (just) makes my favorite 10 Macca albums. But unlike Cherries, savoring that half-hour requires skipping tracks. Or doing the digital equivalent of what I did decades ago with a C-60 cassette, on which I put 11 of Cherries’ 13 tracks on one side, and 7 of RAM’s 12 on the other. A killer hour.

Wild Life (1971)

HOPE: Wildlife (1971), 2/10: All that talk about this being one of the worst Macca albums of his career ? It’s true. I cannot comprehend why this was given the deluxe Archive treatment over London Town or Back to the Egg, 2 far superior records ( Archive Collection complaint # 1). Out of the 10 songs on offer, I only listen to 2 with any regularity; stunning, bitter rainy day ballad “Dear Friend”, and gorgeously poptastic “Some People Never Know”. Both are superb Macca songs by any standard. The only possible way I could imagine enjoying the other 8 tracks would be if Paul and I were sitting on a porch on a breezy afternoon and he was strumming his acoustic guitar and singing them to me and me alone. That’s the only scenario in which “Bip Bop”, “Mumbo” or “I Am Your Singer” might sound “good” or at least marginally appealing ( doors open Paul, in case you want to try changing my mind).

MATTHEW: Wild Life (1971), 4/10: this has a pretty great Side 2, culminating in a pair of fine Macca songs, “Tomorrow” and “Dear Friend.” But then it is followed by another absurd piss-take closer—this time, mercifully short, but unfortunately a reprise of the painful track that opens the relatively weak Side 1 (ok, weak is being nice; its atrocious; I can never get through “Mumbo” without lunging for the skip button). I’d rate Side 1 a 1/10 and Side 2 a 7/10; so my final ranking splits the difference. That’s probably being too generous as, in the end, there are only two true keepers on here; and considering the plethora of perfect pop songs that Paul penned in the 70s, that’s pretty sad. 

The next two Wings albums, in my mind, are a pair—most obviously because they both came out the same year (1973), but also because they came to me on the opposing sides of a C-90 cassette about a year later (when I was 10, courtesy of Carol, an honorary teenage cousin—I called her parents uncle and auntie).  Band on the Run overshadowed Red Rose Speedway commercially and critically—and on my tape deck.  Carol had added “Live and Let Die” to the end of the BOTR side of the tape (for years I assumed it was actually the album’s final song).  007 is a hard act to follow; “Red Barn Door” ( aka “Big Barn Bed”) just didn’t cut it. So, nine times out of ten I didn’t flip the tape, but pressed rewind or put on something else.

Red Rose Speedway (1973)

HOPE: Red Rose Speedway (1973), 7/10: I have a real affection for this album and while it’s not entirely successful ( “Loup” is pure evil), it’s infinitely superior to Wild Life. And it’s home to another one of my all-time fave Macca songs, “Little Lamb Dragonfly” ( I will take as many epic hook-filled ballads from Paul as he can serve up). I confess I’m a complete sucker for Macca tracks where he employs his trademark improv quirk; all those “do-do-do’s” on The Beatles “Mother Nature’s Son”, “ooh-ooh-oohs” on “Back Seat” and “la-la-la’s” on “Little Lamb” and on and on. I even like the ham-fisted medley (“Hold Me Tight/Lazy Dynamite/Hands of Love/Power Cut”) that closes this album which is clearly bits of other potential songs awkwardly sewn together. Plus there’s another wonderful “tuneful screamy” here,”Get On the Right Thing” that I can’t get enough of. The album is slick and slight but it’s hidden gems justifiably kick up the score for me. And though I know it was the thing back in the day in the UK to release stand alone singles that didn’t land on actual albums, I think the double A-side from ‘72 featuring  “Hi Hi Hi” and the candy-coated “C Moon” would’ve fit quite nicely on RRS, the latter in particular.

MATTHEW: Red Rose Speedway (1973), 6/10, lacks history for me, and although it has grown on me through many recent listens, I still find it rather flat. It has ups and downs, like its three predecessors, and there’s nothing awful on it. For some, it is probably as good as Ram. For me, it’s a notch or two above Wild Life but falls short of Ram. I understand why EMI opposed making this a double album; with the exception of one or two tracks (I rather like “Country Dreamer,” for example), the rejected numbers were even less memorable. It’s as if instead of developing unfinished songs further, Paul just kept writing more of them. The “Kiss/Dragonfly/Pigeon” trio in the middle of the album have particularly grown on me, but they need something more compelling around them. For example, with many of these Macca ‘70s albums, one wishes in retrospect that some of the between-album singles had been substituted for the weaker tracks. RRS, for example, had one big hit (“My Love”), but (as Hope says) imagine how much better it would have been had it included the earlier single “Hi Hi Hi” and its B-side “C Moon,” and the later single “Live and Let Die”!

Band On The Run (1973)

MATTHEW: Band on the Run, (1973), 10/10, on the other hand, deserves its accolades. It is one of those albums that simply works. The Paul & Wings ingredients are the same, but the formula is tweaked, and the result is finally the record that one imagines the previous four might have been. Play the late Beatles albums to someone who (somehow) has never even heard of them, then play BOTR and say it was the Fab Four’s 1973 record, they’d surely believe you (they might ask why only one Beatle sang, but musically they’d accept it).  As a result, it thus never ages. Like Abbey Road, it is immortal.  RRS sounds like the early 70s. BOTR sounds like a great rock/pop record. I admit I’m pretty much over “Jet,” which has become tiresome after a thousand listens; and the original UK album version without “Helen Wheels” is better. Nor is it my absolute most-loved Wings album (that’s still to come). But there’s surely no doubt that it’s the best album Paul made in the 70s (and one of his best two or three ever).

HOPE: Band On The Run (1973), 9/10: BOTR is like Sgt. Pepper to me. As in the first Beatle album I owned as a kid was Pepper and in turn BOTR was the first Macca solo album to find its way into my meagre collection. I played it endlessly, front to back and it invariably became the gage by which all other Macca records I got would be compared to. But as Pepper has gradually descended down the Beatle album ranking lists over the years making way for the likes of Revolver, White Album (and lately Abbey Road), somewhere along the way the charms and virtues of other Macca albums, including Ram, came to knock BOTR off the top spot as far as frequency of listening and overall love for me. In fact, there are at least 5 other Macca albums from the ’70s I listen to with more frequency than BOTR. But my feelings are driven solely by over-familiarity, it is still a ridiculously wonderful pop album and is deserving of every accolade it gets! 

 I think the real stars of BOTR are not the piano pounders, but the gentler animals, specifically “No Words” and “Bluebird”; both are melodically stunning and I absolutely adore them to this day. Still, I have to offer a true confession that you ain’t gonna like Matthew… which is that the song I play the most is, okay, it’s freakin’ “Jet”. Ah Mater, I’ll never get tired of yer.
I do think though, that the overwhelming praise for BOTR did a bit of a disservice to what came both before and after it release-wise. For years critics held to the claim that every post-Beatle Macca release was significantly inferior to it. Patently untrue but they clung to that opinion for eons, cutting Paul no slack until the release of Tug of War in 1982. It still kind of irritates me, it felt like there was a concerted effort to drag him down, but I digress! BOTR deserves a near perfect score and if I were to offer one artifact to a space alien unfamiliar with solo Paul to investigate, it would unquestionably be this.

Venus And Mars (1975)

MATTHEW: The next three Wings albums are very much a trio that go together, all released between May ’75 and December ’76, with the third being a live album that promoted the previous two. For some reason, I don’t remember listening much to Venus and Mars and At The Speed of Sound at the time; but I still have my cassette tape of Wings Over America, which I played a lot. Looking back, that kind of makes sense, as WOA arguably renders its two predecessors redundant.

HOPE: Venus and Mars (1975), 6/10: Nerd fact, when iPods were launched in the early ’00s, you could get the back of the device engraved with whatever personal wording you wanted. I chose the lyric “Venus and Mars are alright tonight” because what the hell else was I going to do; like christening a boat, I had to bestow my new precious, incredible life-altering device with an equally meaningful “name”. V&M is not my favorite Macca album but I do find a lot of it to be exceedingly embraceable. But bad news first. “Rock Show” is a bit silly, not the tune but it’s genuinely cringeworthy lyrical content, “behind the stacks you glimpse an axe” being a particularly egregious line. I think Paul was aware that he wasn’t perceived to be as hard and tough soundwise as The Who or Led Zeppelin at that time but still reeeeally fancied the idea of the proverbial ‘kids’ thinking Wings ROCKED ( of course by the time they did officially, convincingly ROCK on 1979’s Back to the Egg the kids could not have cared less).

When I was kid I loved kitschy retro “You Gave Me the Answer” which I find completely insufferable now (I would actually play act Paul and I dancing to it which is as humiliating as it sounds ). I do adore “Love in Song”, think it’s a total sleeper, so handsome and full of rain. And the sad soul of “Treat Her Gently-Lonely Old People” qualifies it as a keeper as well. At the end of the day though  “Listen To What The Man Said” is the indisputable star of V&M, just an unimpeachable melody and production (and it still has the ability to make me sigh out loud). If I’d have been rating this album as a kid I would’ve awarded it a 10/10 solely because of the stickers and poster it came with. That stuff was as important to me as the actual record. I immediately slapped the stickers on my school notebooks and while they served as a nice compliment to my masterfully drawn ELO logos, I feel an insane, undeniable twinge of regret that I no longer have them.

MATTHEW: Venus and Mars (1975), 6/10: I see why “Rock Show” flopped as a single; it doesn’t rock well, it lacks the charm that imbues so many Macca songs, and it wears thin very fast. I suspect it put me off the album back in the day. But even now, Venus and Mars strikes me as a very mixed bag. I like “Love in Song” and “Letting Go,” but there is simply nothing great here until the end.  The closing cluster is REALLY great (“Call Me Back Again,” “Listen to What the Man Said,” and “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People”; I’m going to pretend the “Crossroads” TV theme was not tacked absurdly on the very end). But those fine 15 minutes remind me of how disappointing the rest of the album is. And to return to my point earlier about between-album singles: “Junior’s Farm” would have made a great substitute for “Rock Show”!

Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976)

MATTHEW: At the Speed of Sound (1976), 7/10: For decades, in my mind this was as good or bad as Venus and Mars, but I recently realized how much better Speed of Sound is. For starters, Sides A and B kick off with great singles—“Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs.” The whole of Side A stands up well. It closes with a nice pair of mellow Macca ditties. And as for Paul’s controversial inclusion of songs written and sung by other Wings band members: when it works, it works really well (“The Note You Never Wrote” is excellent, perhaps the best Denny Laine song on any Wings album); but when it bombs, it bombs big (“Cook of the House,” cute enough as a B-side, as it was to “Silly Love Songs,” where it should have remained).

HOPE: At the Speed of Sound (1976), 7/10: I’m pretty sure this is the first Macca album I bought in real time. And to be frank I wasn’t sure what to make of it with its overly democratic song distribution. Which meant it didn’t rank highly for me in the beginning because all I wanted was Paul. But like you Matthew, as years went by I came to love it especially the cryptic and cloudy “The Note You Never Wrote”. There is something very overcast and gloomy about the whole record that appeals to me, I feel the presence of a very particular sonic vibe on tracks like “San Ferry Anne”,”Time to Hide” and “Wino Junko”, as well as the 2 stellar singles “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs”. And I think “Beware My Love” is a total powerhouse, one of his best ever rockers, I mean the construction of it is just so clever. And Paul’s vocals on those “I must be wrong’s” are absolutely killer! All hail screamy Paul.

Wings Over America (1976)

HOPE: Wings Over America (1976), 5/10:  While WOA is generally fun I have problems with how the setlist is arranged as well as some of the actual choices. There are at least a dozen tracks from post-Beatle Paul that are more worthy of inclusion than the dreaded “You Gave Me the Answer”,“Richard Cory” or “Spirits of Ancient Egypt”. Having said that, the version of “Listen To What the Man Said” on offer here is absolutely smokin’ and I especially love when Paul introduces the Thaddeus Richard sax solo with a “take it away Thaddeus”. And what is there to say about “Maybe I’m Amazed” at this point, I mean what an absolutely spectacular vocal good lord

MATTHEW: Wings Over America (1976), 7/10: comparing live albums to studio ones is always an apples/oranges challenge (and a cliché to point that out!), especially a triple live album to single studio ones. But this one is so closely tied to specific studio albums that the task is made easier. Although it came out of the summer 1976 tour that promoted Speed of Sound, WOA overwhelmingly favors Venus and Mars above all others. If we count the V&M title tracks as one, and we discount the 1-minute “Crossroads” outro, WOA includes almost all of V&M, 9 out of it’s 11 songs. In contrast, there are only 4 songs from Speed of Sound (and 5 each from Band on the Run and from the Beatles catalogue). But here’s the thing: the live versions of the V&M tracks are better than the original ones; even the dodgy “Rock Show” is elevated by being in a medley with “Jet.”  The use of songs written and sung by band members other than Paul somehow works better live than in the studio. And there are just the right number of Beatles songs. Ok, the result is not amazing (don’t hate me if I prefer the other big hit live album from 1976, Frampton Comes Alive!), but it is pretty damn good.  My old cassette got played hard (admittedly it was an Indonesian bootleg with the tracks muddled up and tracks like “Answer” and “Egypt” missing), and I’ve gotten my money’s worth from the 2013 Archive Collection CDs too.

London Town (1977)

MATTHEW: We both recognize how much our—and anybody’s—appraisal of an album is tied to our personal history with it, to deep-rooted emotional connections and associations that interfere with our vain attempts to be objective.  Well, that factor plays more of a role with my feelings—yes, FEELINGS—about the last two Wings albums than with any other albums in the entire Macca post-Beatles catalogue.  London Town came out right after my 14th birthday; I was 15 the summer that Back to the Egg was released. I bought them both right away, flogged them without mercy, and absolutely adored them. I still do. They are, hands down, my favorite Wings LPs and my favorite Macca LPs. I listen to them now, trying to understand why they have reputations as reflecting the decline and collapse of Wings, why Paul has slighted them by not releasing Archive Collection editions, and I just can’t. It makes no sense. They are full of energy and creativity and melody and so many masterful pop music moments. Why, Paul, why?  These records are so freakin’ GOOD!

HOPE: London Town (1978), 7/10: I think LT is a stone cold crazy record. It’s the most disparate bunch of songs Paul had ever assembled on any of his solo albums to that point and despite the title has no discernible theme. The weirdest and most disturbing thing is that the song I think most about on this album, find myself mindlessly singing to myself most often, isn’t even one of the genuinely good tracks, it’s “Cafe on the Left Bank”, an insidious piece of filler I refuse to accept that I like. But then again that’s part of why I’m so completely charmed by LT as a whole. It’s like a bunch of TV commercials gathered together masquerading as a pop album. All that isn’t to suggest that it isn’t home to some stunners. “With a Little Luck” remains eternally gorgeous and I love “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” with its dark melody tied to what’s meant to be an uplifting lyric…but cherry picking songs does LT a disservice. These songs quite literally need each other, 90 % of them can’t stand up on their own. No, LT sounds best when listened to in sequence, each song leaning against the other like the bunch of sloppy drunks they are. Please Paul, time to top up and let the endearingly problematic LT into the Archive room ( Matthew and I will get the door).

MATTHEW: London Town (1978), 10/10: I am incapable of being objective about this album. It is so deeply familiar, and every single track just right and in the right place. Giving it less than a 10/10 would just be pandering to you, Hope, or (God forbid) to the cretinous critics who trashed it with knee-jerk derision just because it was made by happy Paul not angsty John. Like Speed of Sound, it’s two sides begin with smooth, well-crafted, comfort-food singles (the title track and “With a Little Luck”). But LT is better than Speed of Sound for being all-Paul (9 tracks) or Paul co-writing with Denny Laine (5): tuneful, inventive, varied in style but not overly so, quirky but not whacky. It isn’t even missing a non-album single (“Mull of Kintyre” stay where you are). Intellectually I can accept that Band on the Run is better, but if I could only take one Macca album to the proverbial desert island, it would be this one.

Back to the Egg (1979)

HOPE: Back to the Egg (1979), 10/10: Egg is a loud, beautiful, blaring down the highway, mess of an album and I think it’s the most criminally underrated release of Paul’s post-Beatle career: the catalogue’s true sleeper. With it’s fat riffs, sludgy chords and throat shredding vocals, Egg is most certainly Satan’s favorite post-Beatle Macca album. Okay, let’s just call it what it is, PAUL’s METAL ALBUM. Out of all the grungy noise makers, I feel most worshipful toward the maniacal “Spin It On” and Cheap Trick-ish “So Glad To See You Here“. But I also love the dirty power pop of “Getting Closer”, which I think is one of his most underrated singles. And let’s talk about “Arrow Through Me”, one of the all time greatest McCartney songs ever ever ever, a sublimely melodic lament and deep catalog dark horse which can never be exalted and appreciated enough. That hook is positively sublime.

The album was the recipient of some savage reviews which led to Paul distancing himself from it, talking it down, and most significantly from a hardcore fan perspective (as of this writing) depriving it of the deluxe treatment within the acclaimed and exhaustive Archive series (wishing you took us up on that suggestion of a drinking game now right?). In what universe is Wild Life more deserving of the fancy pants treatment than Egg? Egg is loud, lyrically cartoonish, romantic, weird, occasionally somber and staggeringly melodic; what’s not to love ? It’s one big confusedly beautiful piece of noise. And for the record, I loved the freestanding single that came out just prior to Egg featuring the lush disco-lite “Goodnight Tonight” as well as it’s perky b-side “Daytime Nighttime Suffering”. I know Paul didn’t feel they fit the vibe on Egg and hence didn’t include them on the finished album but honestly I don’t think anything is “missing” from Egg as a result of their exclusion. To be frank, at the time, it didn’t occur to me that they could or should have been on there. I was just happy there were multiple new Paul records to get! And, added bonus, Egg is also the ideal gage for verifying whether someone shares the same worldview as you and is ultimately worthy of your lifelong friendship.

In the late ‘80s, I had a job at the CBGB Record Canteen, the decidedly sleazy and noisy shop located next door to the club. One day, my boss asked me to help train a new girl they’d hired. She and I were both very young and cynical and so circled around each other music nerd style, tentatively dropping band names and monitoring one another’s reactions. We somehow got on the subject of McCartney ( though to be honest, I’m sure I brought him up), and without prompting, she said that she particularly loved Egg. That was it. Egg was the magic sign that let me know she was cool and we are still friends to this day. It is truly magical.

MATTHEW: Back to the Egg (1979), 9/10: The fact that you & I agree on this, Hope, but Paul and his critics apparently don’t, logically makes us wrong. But here’s the thing: we’re not! Because this is a weird and wonderful Wings concept-album experiment that simply works; despite being far more varied and quirky than London Town, Egg has a momentum and energy that holds it all together and carries it breathlessly through its 42 minutes as if it were half the length. It’s nod to the punk/New Wave movement that was peaking at the time is just right: neither forced nor half-hearted, it infuses the album with a hard rocking edge that no other Macca album before or since matched. As Hope notes here (and in a stirring ode to the album elsewhere on Picking Up Rocks), some of Egg is HEAVY. But the hints of metal don’t mean it skimps on melody. The riffs are hefty but buoyant, driving multiple singalong moments. “Getting Closer” and “Arrow Through Me” are primo Paul pop singles; the bass line and hook in “Arrow” are like a shot of bliss right to the heart.

Having gushed thus, I can’t resist one caveat. Macca albums almost always beg to be resequenced or edited, as there were usually non-album singles far better than his dodgier album tracks. Exceptions are Band on the Run (the UK version is perfect) and London Town (for me, if not for many others, perfect as is). But Egg is not an exception, as it’s sessions also birthed non-album Top 5 (US & UK) hit single “Goodnight Tonight” and it’s also excellent B-side, “Daytime Nightime Suffering.” In 1980 I made a tape with both those on the album instead of the non-songs “Reception” and “The Broadcast.” Ok, I still listened to the original version more. But my edited version is pretty great. (In case you’re curious, “Tonight” follows “Arrow,”  starting Side B, and the Grammy-winning “Rockestra” closes the album.) By the way, I also think Egg suffered from a record label change and competition with back catalogue: in the US, Paul switched from Capitol to Columbia after LT; Capitol’s response was to release Wings Greatest, which was packed with hits, five of them previously unavailable on an album. It thus competed with Egg, released only six months later. (Elton John’s Blue Moves suffered similar competition for the same reason; that’s the last plug for my book, I promise.)

End of Part 1

Coming in Part 2, we examine Paul’s ’80s discography. You might wanna put on a seatbelt. Ready? Read it here

Maneater: Grading the Albums of Daryl Hall And John Oates, A Love Story

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But if there’s a doubt maybe I can give out a thousand reasons why…

(“Say It Isn’t So” 1983)

I love Daryl Hall and John Oates. At this stage of my life I’m pretty certain that I’ve listened to the Private Eyes album in its entirety thousands of times. And within that, the number of times I’ve played “Did It In A Minute” and “Italian Girls” in particular is, by any normal standard, sickly excessive. I’m not trying to scare anyone though the fact that I could easily live out the rest of my days without hearing another Dylan or Nirvana song but would invariably suffer painful withdrawal if I couldn’t hear “Kiss On My List” might. I remain enraptured by most of the same stuff everyone else is I suspect, the endless melodic genius of the tunes and Hall’s ridiculous vocal prowess chief among them but must acknowledge the standard cliche that applies here, namely that Daryl Hall & John Oates provided much of the soundtrack to all the wonder, fear and horror of my impressionable childhood and teen nightmare years. And though the songs weren’t necessarily coming from the viewpoint of a nerdy suburban girl who liked to draw for hours while sitting in a walk-in closet, they totally spoke to me on some visceral level that I’m incapable of explaining coherently beyond the stuff I just described. Deep down it’s way, way more than all that.

Grading the Albums of Daryl Hall & John Oates aka Why the Hell Am I Doing This ? In the words of late, legendary writer Toni Morrison, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it“. Now to be clear here, I am in no way comparing myself to a real and extraordinarily gifted author, it’s just that this statement kind of explains why I’m doing this. I’ve always wanted to read a piece breaking down the Hall & Oates catalogue and ephemera and so figured I’d just make one for fun, for love, and for all the past, present and future H & O acolytes otherwise known as my people.

Disclaimer (or maybe warning):  I confess that this essay features some of my personal history as it relates to the music of Daryl Hall and John Oates. I had to draw on a few experiences to establish context in several instances but have tried to keep things under control ( tried ). Believe me when I tell you that I am infinitely more interested in breaking down the moody, noir-ish magnificence of the “One on One” video then sharing self-important kindergarten anecdotes because seriously who cares. And I’ll just refer to them as H & O from here on in for ease of everything. While I’m going to reference some factual history as it relates to the overall sound and imagery in no way is this mess you are reading meant to serve as an actual history of the band. It’s a fan’s view of the sound, lights and colors emitting from H & O as seen through besotted and terminally faithful nerd eyes ( which hopefully one or two of you share ).

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Oh no, not sidebars:  Yes sidebars, but mostly in spirit, because they aren’t situated physically on the side, they are just stuffed directly inside this essay thing. These “sidebars” feature ludicrous conspiracy theories, potentially embarrassing anecdotes as well as impossibly misguided counterpoints to popular opinions. The truly unhinged and wtf sidebars happen once we hit the ’80s so I hope you will stick it out until then.

Listen to This ! :  I attached links to the song titles mentioned within the album reviews so you can hear them as you read. It’s kind of like a poor man’s version of a museum tour. Plus there are links attached to some of the names mentioned within so if you want, you can get a little additional background.

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DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES ( established 1970 ™) :   Need to get factual and dry for a second which I want to apologize for in advance. I promise there’s some shit talking right around the corner. Anyway, since coming on the scene in the early ’70s, H & O have sold over 40 million records, had six # 1’s, 34 chart hits, 7 platinum and 6 Gold albums. Those are crazy numbers when you consider they happened at a time when you had to buy actual records, tapes or uh, reel to reels in order to hear stuff at your leisure. When the only number that was counted technically was that initial time you played it i.e. bought it. Streaming has skewed and forever altered the meaning of numbers but the point is H & O have been insanely successful ( and H & O’s play counts across all the platforms add up to pretty staggering numbers ). But the singles are only half the story. Let’s talk about that for a second…

“Singles remind me of kisses, albums remind me of plans”

(“If I Didn’t Love You” by Squeeze 1980)

Singles vs. Albums :  Squeeze’s genius lyricist Chris Difford really nailed the difference between singles and albums in that line, perfectly and poignantly. While H & O are very famous for their kisses ( singles and no pun intended, swear ) , their plans ( albums ) are generally not spoken of in reverential terms. You won’t see them on those ubiquitous “Greatest Albums of All-Time” lists unless maybe it’s one solely focused on the ’80s, but even then it’s unlikely ( not cool enough, I’ll get to that shortly ). H &O’s full lengths are generally regarded as storage facilities for singles that are surrounded by inferior filler/packing material. While that logic applies to ABBA, it does not apply to H & O ( while some may suggest otherwise  there is no such thing as an ABBA deep cut, either it’s a transcendent single or it’s caulking, there’s no in between ).

The fact that H & O’s singles were so successful has clouded the perception of what they actually were at their core. They were an album band. They were a deep cut manufacturing company, only theirs weren’t meandering, last minute filler but in fact all sounded like # 1 singles from some alternate universe.

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“Maybe I should feel guilty…”
(“It’s A Laugh” 1978)

The Scourge of the “Guilty Pleasure”: I’ve never listened to Daryl Hall and John Oates with irony. Not just because I never thought I was personally cooler than whatever album I was listening to ( I wasn’t ), but because when I first heard most of the songs, I was still innocent, trusting and naive enough to take them at face value. Which is to say, for all its apparent rhyming silliness, “Kiss on My List” wasn’t a joke to me. It was a key member of my teenage crush soundtrack team along with evergreen anthems like The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Misunderstanding” by Genesis.

Of course there are some who experience the H & O visuals and aural soundscape a lot differently. The self-conscious silliness and utter ’80s-ness of the typical H & O video, coupled with the pop piano chords and lush Oates mustache have contributed to their often being referred to as a, dread of dread, “guilty pleasure”. They are considered either with a nod and a wink full of bemused irony or as a punchline. That kind of thinking has no place here. The concept of “guilty pleasure” is at its core, bullshit since none of us can help how we’re wired. It’s always best to just own up and embrace stuff and not give a shit what people say because who cares. Obviously “Maneater” isn’t the mortal, soul baring equal of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”…but “She’s Gone“, well that’s another story.

What are we grading here ? :  Basically all 18 official studio albums as well as any key live or compilation albums that were released within the timeframe that H & O were still releasing new studio albums, plus the 2009 box set. I’m going to use the standard 1 to 10 grading scale, 1 being rubbish, 10 being perfect.

About the compilations :  I’m sorry but I have to share one more nerd thing. There are a whole lotta hit compilations, too many, which has inevitably resulted in a lot of repetition. I really want to accentuate the studio album experience here and will only be talking about the compilations I feel are the most significant and/or were the most culturally relevant at the time of their original release.

Also won’t be getting into some of the latter day, 21st century live albums which while generally fine serve mostly as archival documents and souvenirs.

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“It’s you and me forever”
(“Sara Smile” 1975)

Initial Contact:  The first Hall & Oates record I ever bought was the 45 aka 7″ of “Rich Girl”. From that point on I was officially hooked though I had no idea at the time that meant for the rest of my life. I also vividly remember spending most of my meagre allowance on the Circus Magazine depicted above. I know. It was unquestionably worth forking over hard to come by kid cash to the mean girl cashier at Family Pharmacy, my childhood magazine haunt. Plus it had a poster of hairy Andy Gibb so you know, it was coming home with me no matter what. At the time I couldn’t decide who I thought was hotter but I admit that John’s shirtless come hither thing coupled with my inexplicable youthful fascination with mustaches gave him the edge at that moment. I did ultimately switch allegiance to Daryl but retained a keen Oates appreciation and this cover is the undeniable foundation of that appreciation.

John-Sex-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-and-Keith-Haring-at-AREA-ClubJohn Sex, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in 1987. I swear this will make sense in a minute. 

Question- What is “Cool ?” :  I attended the School of Visual Arts in NYC in the 80’s, when visual artists seemed as big as pop stars ( or at least they did to me ). Iconic graphic artist Keith Haring had studied there for a couple of years before dropping out but nonetheless came to do a presentation one afternoon. He’d arrived with fabled and fabulous downtown performance artist John Sex in tow, another SVA alumnus, which was about as NYC ’80s hip as you could possibly get. Keith spoke favorably of his former school, showed slides of his work, answered our student questions and sweetly drew his trademark radiant baby on anything we put in front of him. But then he did this thing that nearly obliterated whatever good will I had for him and everyone in else in the room that day.

During his presentation he showed a slide of an album cover he had worked on, some dance thing I can’t recall and said he frequently got asked to do art for record sleeves but was picky about what he chose to work on. He then mentioned that he’d recently been asked to do an album cover for Hall and Oates. John Sex then jumped in and asked Keith if he’d considered this request. His answer was an emphatic “pfffft, no way“. The obvious implication being that they were lame. Which was made abundantly clear by the tone of his voice as he said it. No way. People laughed. They knew what he meant. It was instinctively understood by every person in the auditorium that day that Hall & Oates were not cool.

Admittedly, everything was working against them in the “this band is cool” column at that point. They were popular. Their videos played in an endless loop on MTV. The songs were catchy and in regular rotation on AM radio ( uncool ). They were in their thirties for God’s sake ( this was regarded as ancient in the ’80s MTV heartthrob days ). And of course girls liked them more than boys. They were not looked upon as a serious, credible musical entity in any way. And so Keith Haring and my pretentious art school classmates thought them to be corny shit. But they were wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. See no matter how “uncool” they were perceived to be by the cool people in the ’80s, whether they accepted it or not, at that time Hall & Oates were the absolute total 100% sound embodiment of New York City.

No, I didn’t say anything after that dark moment, I just sat there and seethed, arms crossed, playing the role of pissed off fan girl. “You all just wait, because 35 years from now I’m gonna call you out on this bullshit”. And here we are. Okay, I feel better now.

P.S. I forgave the late Keith in my heart and remained a fan of his…but I do still think he was wrong.

Sidebar ! : I believe the album in question was the 1983 Rock ‘n Soul compilation because the cover art they ultimately settled on amounted to a poor man’s version of a Keith Haring drawing i.e. THIS :

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“Rummaging through antique clothing store racks of quirky Technicolor bowling shirts, musty record stores with row upon row of vinyl inspiration, vintage guitar shops, seeing beautiful girls writing their own fashionable rule books, druggie burnouts on broken stoops and all this wrapped together under a thick aroma of freshly baked pizza and italian bread…the Village offered up multiple sensory orgasms of possibilities around every corner”

“The maneater wasn’t just that woman. It was New York City”

-Quotes from John Oates’s 2017 memoir Change of Seasons

Okay, so Hall & Oates = NYC: Certain bands are as much a place as a sound. The Beach Boys ARE Southern California. Joy Division ARE Manchester. And Daryl Hall and John Oates ARE New York City. Or to be more specific, ’80s New York City. They embodied the vibe as vividly as any of Larry Levan’s legendary nights at Paradise Garage or Wild Style or the seedy “Fascination” video game arcade in Times Square which I was always moderately terrified to walk into. They may have been full on Philly in their origins but their sound was completely embedded with the neon, steaming manholes, cigarettes, and candy eyed synthesized glamour of New York City (and yeah, MTV lived there ).

You’d never know it now but back in the ’80s, 8th street, in the West Village of NYC, was ground zero cool for teen people like myself. It was centrally located near all the all the best record and clothing stores as well as home to a giant new wave pop culture infused head shop called Postermat that had glass counter displays containing what seemed like hundreds of different Bowie, Specials, and Jam pins, a massive tee-shirt wall with images of everything from Little Richard to the Union Jack and roughly a kajillion different James Dean posters.  It was also located directly across the street from the legendary Electric Lady recording studio, the musical homebase of Jimi Hendrix during the last months of his life.

Of course the studio’s historic legacy meant absolutely zero to my ignorant teenaged brain. All I cared about was the fact that Daryl Hall and John Oates recorded their albums there ( ultimately their 4 GREATEST albums ), across the street from Postermat on freakin’ 8th street, where I walked by nearly every day, and they touched this same sidewalk I’m touching now, and oh my god what if they are actually here or on the way. Walking down that street was always a slightly fevered experience because of this. I did ultimately catch them filming part of the “Possession Obsession” video on what I’m certain was the coldest night in the history of mankind but even with my youthful constitution at its maximum strength it was just too damn cold to stand out there and watch for too long. 

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This is the image that is lodged in my mind when I think of NYC in the 80’s. Daryl and his immaculate hair on 6th Avenue and 8th Street in 1983’s “One On One” video.

One Last Thing, Here It Comes…John Oates, Real Talk : Time to address the elephant. It’s no secret that John Oates has been treated as something of a 6th finger in Hall & Oates by the world at large. As in he’s there but is not necessary. As in what exactly does he do and is his guitar plugged in. It was an idea that picked up steam as the duo became more successful, and Daryl became the primary face in the videos, and the primary voice on the hits.

John’s legendary secondary status reached its pop culture apex on, where else, The Simpsons :

In a Pitchfork interview back in 2007, Daryl was quoted as saying that he and John were “not an equal duo and never had been. I’m 90% and he’s 10% and that’s the way it is “.

And all through my years of fandom, I admit I felt this too. Hot Circus Magazine cover aside, when it came to listening to the albums, the Oates tracks ( the ones he wrote and sang lead on ) were barricades, the opening band before the real thing you were there to see. Still as it was LP days and moving the needle required physical effort, I mostly just let the albums play all the way through, becoming familiar with the Oates led tracks by default but having nowhere near the same emotional investment in them. The hooks in the Hall led tracks were just more straight up swoon-some and surprising.

Once the Sony Walkman arrived on the scene and fell into my hands ( ed. note: I basically hijacked my brothers so blessings to him for understanding ), the editing frenzy began and it was mostly Oates tracks that ended up on the cutting room floor. The painstakingly assembled mixtapes I was stuffing in this magnificent new gadget were basically non-stop Hall-fests. Daryl, Daryl and more Daryl.

The inevitable by-product of this editing, this laser focus on only the songs I loved with nothing in between resulted in these previously adored tracks losing some of their initial luster from overexposure. Like a beloved teddy bear that’s lost an eye, I just plain over-loved them.

To “fix” this issue, I started plugging songs I’d initially ignored into newly made mixtapes hoping it would reignite my fever for the old songs by recreating that anticipatory feeling of waiting for them I used to get when the record was playing on the turntable. Which is what led to my formal Oates Epiphany. Most of the new additions on these tapes were HIS songs. Don’t get me wrong, I’d kinda liked some of them already but something had shifted. They were now sounding really, really good, like way better than I remembered . Is “Cold Dark & Yesterday” ( Oates ) better than “Did It In A Minute“( Hall ) ? In a word, no. But it is damn good. Still are there days I’d rather hear “Friday Let Me Down“( Oates ) than “Method of Modern Love“( Hall ) ? Absolutely, most days in fact. And so when I say I love Daryl Hall and John Oates, I do genuinely mean both of them. It took a minute but the epiphany arrived.

And so to honor and acknowledge  what maybe doesn’t always get the attention, at the end of most of the album reviews there will be a nod to the “Best Oates Moment” i.e. the song(s) where Oates is primary composer and/or lead vocalist ( FYI: John’s autonomous contributions were somewhat sporadic over the first handful of albums and several thereafter so I will only reference where the above description applies ).

And now…

THE ALBUMS:

Whole Oats (1972) 

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Grade: 4/10

John Oates refers to this as H & O’s “dump album”, as in it features the most worthy songs they’d accumulated in their arsenal up to that time. The theme of the album is just a simple, “Hi, We’re Daryl Hall and John Oates and it’s 1972” and as such is filled with sunny, quirky, AM radio ready, sucking on hayseed, folky pop songs and no fixed identity. There’s a lot of talk about heading back to the “countryside”, walking “down by the canyon” and of course, “lying on the needle floor” with who else but “the reverend’s daughter”. The overall sound sits restlessly between early ’70s acoustic style Elton John and the cornier side of Harry Nilsson…but underneath this pile of hay are a couple of tracks brimming with promise and foretelling the H & O sound of the future, specifically Hall’s shining vocal showcase “Lazyman” and the album’s closer, the lush, Todd Rundgren-esque “Lilly (Are You Happy)“. They are both soul with the latter also being fire.

 

Abandoned Luncheonette (1973) 

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Grade: 8/10

While the hayseed folk pop of the debut album is still on display within Abandoned Luncheonette, the soon to be trademark, lushly stringed soul sound officially infiltrates the proceedings, due in large part to the influence of album’s producer, the legendary Arif Mardin. And fact is the most successful songs are the ones where they abandon the folk pop and go straight up soul. As for specific songs, what is there to say about “She’s Gone” at this point ( insert reverential sigh here ) with its oddly joyful, over the top angst and legendarily demented proto-video. It features not only the finest vocal interplay H & O ever laid down but generously gifted the world with the seminal line “worn as a toothbrush hanging in the stand” ( As “guilty feet have got no rhythm” was to the ’80s, so was that “worn toothbrush” to the ’70s ).  The superb title track, a movie plot in the shape of a song, offers a particularly memorable and soaring vocal from Hall on the chorus . Guitar solos straight out of ’70s cop shows where they are heading to the bad side of town, sophisticated soul ballads, it’s all here. The last minute of the album is occupied by a chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough i.e. a couple of bizarre raving banjo and fiddle solos because, well why the hell not.

Best Oates Moment: A 23 year old John was inspired to write “I’m Just a Kid ( Don’t Make Me Feel Like a Man)” after the experience of being surrounded by even younger people ( girls ) at a show, whom he sensed were looking at him as an old guy even though he himself was technically young. It is lyrically problematic at points with John referring to himself as a “cradle thief”, and his love interest as “little girl”, and then stepping way over the line with “will you survive, will you learn to drive”. It’s not 33 year Ringo Starr singing “You’re Sixteen” to be sure but you know, may be slightly dicey. Know what, shit, best not to think too much and just take it at face value as a kind of cool ’70s rock shuffle with a nice little tune.

 

War Babies (1974)

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Grade: 5/10

Generally speaking, even when they were being weird, H & O still made songs that were pretty accessible. Produced by old colleague and super genius Todd Rundgren, War Babies is the most deliberately defiant, sonically experimental, FM radio album H & O ever made and as such, the one with the most “Rock Cred”. As a chick I can state it’s not really built to appeal to chick ears, and seems more focused on attacking key nerve centers in boy brains… which is to say at points it gets dangerously close to Frank Zappa and there is some serious instrumental wanking. When it works it more closely resembles the noodly yet accessible soul-pop excursions of Todd himself, “Is It A Star” being the best example. And while “I’m Watching You ( A Mutant Romance)” sounds like a lyrically clumsy Lou Reed song , it is still oddly compelling. War Babies is ultimately a slick, sleazy and desperate piece of work, an acquired taste to be sure but worth exploration for the open-minded H & O fan.

 

Daryl Hall & John Oates aka the Silver Album (1975)

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Grade: 3/10

This album features in “Worst Album Covers of All-Time” lists so often at this point that it’s become a cliche. And the fact is, the cover’s not that bad, it’s androgynously “of its time” though maybe somewhat unreflective of the music within it i.e. if it sounded like say Diamond Dogs or Young Americans it would make more sense. Frankly, as worst H & O album covers go, this wouldn’t even make the Top 5 ( Dear God, it gets so, so much worse ). Of course the fact that the cover tends to be the main talking point regarding this one says a lot about the album itself, for despite being the home of the evergreen, eternal, undisputedly wondrous ballad Sara Smile, the rest of it is pretty middling and mediocre. But it does establish the temporary sound address that will serve as homebase for the next H & O release, namely the string laden Philly style soul being purveyed at the time by the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and producers Gamble and Huff . In 1974 H & O parted ways with Atlantic ( shit just wasn’t happening ) and signed to rival label RCA in no small part because of manager ( and future head of Sony Music ) Tommy Mottola’s relentless belief in their potential. They honor him here with a thinly veiled “tribute” song called “Gino the Manager” and yeah, let’s just get out of here.

 

Bigger Than Both of Us (1976)

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Grade: 4/10

The first half of “Bigger Than Both of Us” is solid and soulfully poptastic. “Back Together Again“, “Rich Girl” ( their first #1 ! ), “Crazy Eyes” and idiosyncratic, haunting ballad “Do What You Want, Be What You Are” are superfine to the last and if we were rating just those this would be at least 7 out of 10. But the quality starts to slip after that and the rest of the album regresses into pretty faceless, paint by numbers b-side quality songs. “Rich Girl” remains a perfect piece of ear candy and the fact that mercurial, contrarian legend Nina Simone, of all people, went so far as to record a cover of it powerfully attests to its significant charms.

Best Oates Moment:Crazy Eyes” is a genuinely sweet thing and has a neat little hook.

 

No Goodbyes (1977 compilation)

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Grade: 3/10

In 1976 to capitalize on H & O’s success since leaving their label, Atlantic re-released “She’s Gone” as a single. Back in 1973, the song had only gotten as high as # 60 in the pop chart but now that H & O had a few hits under their belts, the world was more receptive and appreciative of its emotional, cynical  beauty and it soon shot to #6 on the pop chart.  And with that Atlantic kicked out No Goodbyes, to cash in on the new success of “She’s Gone” and recoup some dollars. It featured a handful of tracks cherry picked from the 3 albums they did for Atlantic but more importantly added 3 previously unreleased tracks which is why I’m bringing it up here. Those tracks are okay but Daryl himself is particularly sweet on “It’s Uncanny“, an optimistic, Elton John-esque little bounce and as a result it’s been finding its way into live performances in recent years.

 

Beauty on a Back Street (1977)

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Grade: 6/10

Time to ROCK. Sort of. Beauty on a Back Street is the “hardest” H & O album. It is primarily guitar driven and completely devoid of hit singles. It is home to “Winged Bull“, considered in some circles to be the worst song H & O ever recorded . While that song is not good per say, it’s not the worst ( though Hanoi Rocks, legendary Finnish AOR glam rockers 2002 cover version might lead you to believe otherwise ). It’s just a pretentious, over-ambitious power ballad that sounds like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and “No Quarter” mixed together and not in a good way (though admittedly I’m uncertain if there could be one). But it isn’t hurting anybody.

Forget about the bull though, for there are some superbly edgy, truly fine, let’s call them “rockers” populating the top of half of the album. Dark and soulful “Don’t Change“, the Cheap Trick-esque “You Must Be Good for Something“, anthemic ballad with a straight up Joe Walsh style solo “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart“, old school ballad “Bigger Than Both of Us” ( yes, that was the title of their previous album and as such a total throwback to their more vintage Philly sound ) and “The Emptyness ” a kind of back alley Beach Boys song with an extraordinarily OTT Oates vocal that remains oddly endearing. Beauty on a Back Street marks the start of the creative upswing that was to run unbridled for the next 8 straight years…after this next cash in-hopeful gesture thing that is…

Best Oates Moment: The aforementioned “The Emptyness

 

Livetime ! (1978)

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Grade: 3/10

Back in the seventies everyone was doing it. After kicking out a few studio albums, it was de rigueur for any moderately popular rock and/or soul act back then to release a live album. The live releases were not so much souvenirs of particularly special shows than they were placeholders to maintain momentum between studio albums and avoid falling out of the public eye. But despite the motivation behind them, make no mistake, if the wind was right this kind of thing sold ( Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, McCartney & Wings etc.). That said, Livetime! was not one of them. On the plus side, the garish late seventies style album cover is super awesome and the track selection itself is decent with all the big hits represented. On the down side the overall sound is exceptionally tinny and it includes a straight up piece of filler in “Room to Breathe”…which wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact the album is only 7 songs in length which only serves to magnify its presence.

Best Oates Moment: While Oates’s vocals on both “The Emptyness” and “I’m Just a Kid…” are ridiculously melodramatic, hearing him give so hard and feel so much for everyone in Hersheypark Arena on that cold December night in 1977 night is kind of badass. 

 

Along The Red Ledge (1978)

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Grade: 7/10

Hardcore aficionados often cite Along the Red Ledge as the real sleeper in the H & O catalogue, the secret classic…but there is trickery at work here thanks to the dreaded top-loading factor…which is a coy way of saying that the first 5 tracks are so solid and get you so high that you don’t necessarily notice how weak the rest of this album actually is. Yes, while you’re still tripping on the luscious fumes of the luminous “It’s a Laugh“, “Pleasure Beach“, the worst song H & O ever recorded, is sneaking in the back door of your very ears, riding on the coattails of all the goodness that came before it and hoping you don’t notice how crap it is.

This album is where things started to shift stylistically, seeing the final appearance of the Philly Soul string flourishes while marking the full mobilization of the hook factory. Highlights include the aforementioned “It’s a Laugh”, both cynical and sad with its huge, gorgeous, ascending chorus and the heartbreaking Beach Boy-esque beauty “The Last Time“. And don’t want to sleep on deep cut “Have I Been Away“, which is essentially a more melodic precursor of future hit “Everytime You Go Away” and is home to a stunningly acrobatic Hall vocal. And to be fair, the album does end on a hopeful note in terms of quality with the hazily romantic “August Day” so we do get past the iceberg ultimately.

Best Oates Moment:Melody for a Memory“, an epic and occasionally haunting piece of rock music for staring at city lights with some ridiculously fine co-lead vocalizing from both John ( going low ) and Daryl ( going high ).

 

X-Static (1979)

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Grade: 8/10

And now comes maybe the true sleeper in the H & O catalog. X-Static lives a lonely life within the H & O discography, suffering the statistical indignity of “watching” the 4 albums that had preceded go Gold and the 4 that followed it go Platinum while achieving no shiny awards for itself, forever cementing its D-List status. Apart from its lone hit single “Wait For Me“, it is mostly forgotten…which is a damn shame because it’s actually really good.

X-Static is full of piano propelled, big chorus’ed prototypes of future H & O hits, songs that had they maybe appeared within the next few albums would’ve been hits, in particular “The Woman Comes and Goes” and “Running From Paradise“, both super melodic, keyboard driven bangers. The album’s only genuine hit, the aforementioned plush power ballad “Wait For Me“, remains a swoon inducer of the highest order and is the only track from the album that ever appears in a setlist with any regularity.

The album is slightly time stamped, due to its couple of desperate but totally infectious excursions onto the dance floor. “Portable Radio” and “Who Said the World Was Fair” are essentially rock-disco, though to be clear are much closer in the gene pool to say Paul McCartney’s popped out version of the sound than to the Studio 54, snorting coke in the VIP lounge Rolling Stones version. But they are both exceptionally sticky and fun.

This album was reissued in 2000 and featured a previously unreleased bonus track “Time’s Up ( Alone Tonight)“, an absolutely bitchin’ uber-melodic kiss off pop song and co-write between Daryl and producer David Foster, and it’s a damn shame it wasn’t on the original release.

Best Oates Moment:All You Want is Heaven” is a complete hookfest and offers a gentle tip of the cap to the old Philly soul.

 

Daryl Hall : Sacred Songs  ( Recorded then shelved in 1977, released in March 1980)

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Grade: 7/10

Sidebar: The Doomed Tale of Daryl Hall & Robert Fripp otherwise known as The Turning Point in the Sound of Daryl Hall & John Oates That Led to Their Complete Chart Domination from 1980 Onward 

When you talk about The Beatles, you’ve got to talk a little about their invaluable and debauched residency in the sleazy clubs of Hamburg. From the haircuts to the profound emotional brotherly bonding, their time there was the foundation for nearly everything that happened to them afterward.

Now while this next stuff didn’t happen during H & O’s formative years, it marked a crucial turning point in their sound evolution and sowed the seeds of what happened next i.e. H & O becoming one of the biggest pop bands in the world. Stick with me here…

The Bonding:  Daryl Hall first met Robert Fripp, the main creative force within UK progressive rock legends King Crimson in 1974. Though at that point Fripp had decided to step away from music to explore his spiritual interests ( the official male English Rock star rite of passage of the era. See George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Richard Thompson etc.), the two remained in regular contact through Fripp’s musical sabbatical.

Let’s Do This:  By 1977 Fripp was feeling inspired to get back in the fray and so he and Daryl decided to embark on a couple of new projects. The plan was to produce and create the first Daryl Hall solo album which would dovetail into Robert Fripp’s own album (also his first solo excursion) wherein Hall would provide the lead vocals.

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Oh to be a fly on this wall. Fripp, Gilda Radner and Hall in 1980.

Project #1:  The first Hall/Fripp collaboration, and Hall’s first solo album, Sacred Songs is hard to pin down. It’s reminiscent in parts to early seventies Bowie ( think Young Americans and Station to Station) and full of hazy plastic soul, jagged Fripp guitar solos and ambient interludes. It runs the gamut from hypnotic, post-apocalyptic balladry ( “The Farther Away I Am“, “Why Was It So Easy” ) to anxious New Wave ( Nycny ) to proggy FM radio ready rock ( “Babs and Babs” ). The best of the bunch is “Something in 4/4 Time” , a gritty piece of power pop that was hopefully a top ten hit in a better, alternate universe. Sounds good right ? It is ! But it sounded nothing like the H & O albums that had come before it…which turned out to be a problem.

RCA mad RCA were not happy with Sacred Songs. It sounded nothing like a standard H & O album which, to them, created a marketing conundrum. Worried that its overall sound would confound existing H & O fans and “Rich Girl” lovers, and kill whatever existing momentum had been created, they refused to release it, it was, in classically cruel record company speak, shelved. Hall and Fripp were not happy about this and openly complained to no avail ( at least not right away ). Unfortunately the RCA stonewall didn’t end there.

Undeterred aka Project # 2:  In 1979, Hall and Fripp recorded the second installment of their collaboration, the Fripp solo album, ultimately titled Exposure featuring Hall’s lead vocals on all tracks. RCA weighed in again. On the premise of contractual restrictions, they refused permission for Hall’s vocals to comprise the whole of the album. The edict handed down resulted in Fripp’s only being able to include 2 of the Hall vocal tracks. This forced Fripp to recruit other singers to re-record songs Hall wrote and had already recorded.

Fuck You:  To summarize RCA had a very specific vision of what a Daryl Hall infused record should sound like and it needed to jibe with their pre-ordained marketing plan. All this served to ( rightfully ) piss Daryl off forever. In his 2007 interview with Pitchfork he straight up says “That’s when I completely fell out of love with the music business”.

On Second Thought:  Eventually good sense prevailed. After some track leaking, open complaining by Hall and Fripp and letter writing by fans who’d gotten wind of the whole mess, RCA eventually acquiesced and released Hall’s Sacred Songs in March of 1980. Time has been kind to it and it’s been rightfully celebrated as a minor cult classic over the course of the 21st century.

A Seed Takes Root:  Hall and Fripp’s collaborative efforts produced an eccentric, sometimes challenging, inherently soulful and peculiar kind of pop music which served as sonic blueprint for the H & O sound that came to run riot over the charts in subsequent years. Next in line is the gigantic, fantastic, hybrid flower that grew from the seeds of the Hall & Fripp collaborations…

Voices (1980 aka the album that marked the point at which Daryl Hall & John Oates officially became HALL & OATES)

Diagram A : Daryl Hall & John Oates Voices is better than Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, let me explain…

Grade: 9/10

Wait a Minute Baby:  In 1979 Fleetwood Mac released Tusk, their highly anticipated follow up to the massively successful Rumours album. It was a 2 LP, 20 song behemoth that felt less like a group effort and more like a random sampler featuring the work of 3 disparate artists ( the Mac songwriting core of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie ). It was generally regarded as an incoherent mess, albeit one with a handful of truly brilliant songs sprinkled within it, amongst them Nick’s eternally exquisite “Sara” and Buckingham’s commanding title track.

Thump and Clangor:  The main problems fans, label and critics expecting Rumours 2 seem to have had with it were related to Lindsey Buckingham’s contributions. The 1979 Creem Magazine review of Tusk described his anxious, helium infused proto-new wave offerings as “dull sketches buried in thump and clangor”.  Which is to say they were just a little too quirky and eccentric for people to get their heads around, more “Vegetables” style Brian Wilson than say “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” style.

Sonic Sea Change:  Over the past 20 years or so there has been a major shift in opinion regarding Tusk. It’s gone from being a legendary disappointment to being considered the boldest and most inventive work the band ever did, as well as the album all the cool kids now namecheck as their favorite Mac release.  And the Buckingham tracks that everyone had a problem with ? Those are the songs generating the most accolades. Its enviable afterlife has seen it lauded in every way possible from being given a latter day review score of 9.2/10 on Pitchfork, to having 2 books written about it, to its being released as super deluxe 5cd box set.

NY/LA:  Voices is the NYC version of the LA to its core, Tusk. Only it’s a better record. It’s a mix of anxious, bizarro-new wave and pop-piano hook-fests that go down way easier than any of Tusk‘s jittery excursions. Even at its weirdest, every track on Voices sounds like a radio song. While Tusk is self absorbed and insular, Voices is out wandering the streets looking for trouble.

What Album ? :  But of course where Tusk has retroactively been lauded as a masterpiece, H & O’s Voices is generally just thought of as an old pop album…when it’s even thought of as an entire album at all, because the enormous popularity of its singles, “You Make My Dreams” ,”Kiss on My List” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” have gone a long way to rendering the rest of the tracks on the LP invisible.

The Songs:  Voices is hooked, chorus’ed and ready for use. The perfectly dolled up demo Kiss On My List“, and the electro soul blueprint of the future “You Make My Dreams” are the glamour queens of the album, drawing the crowd and looking good. The spare and sharp quartet of “Big Kids“, “It’s So Hard to be in Love with You“, “How Does it Feel to be Back” and “United State” mix soul, New Wave and Cheap Trick and make something completely new; nothing in pop sounded quite like it at the time. The straight up weird and edgy songs, “Gotta Lotta Nerve“, “Africa” and  “Diddy Doo-Wop” exist in the same sonic universe as Tusk tracks “The Ledge“, andNot That Funny“. And the cover of the old Righteous Brothers chestnut “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” is significantly dirtier and street-ier than the original and is full of over the top soloing from both Daryl and John. I still think “Every Time You Go Away” ( which was ultimately covered by British singer Paul Young , slathered in synthesizer and sent on its way straight to # 1 on the pop chart ) is a weak link and not a patch on any of the wondrous balladry that had come on previous albums ( “Do What You Want“, “Lilly” ). It seems funereal compared to the up all night vibe that exists within the rest of Voices and worst of all, is missing the H & O signature move i.e. the “did you get the license plate number, what the hell just happened” hook.

Voices > Tusk:  Voices is not the best H & O album but it is the most important, for with it the blueprint of the future became official. And so yeah, Tusk is a beauty in places but as far as innovative, accessible pieces of pop music art go, listen to this, Voices is better.

Best Oates Moment: The Cheap Trick meets the Temptations vibe of the album’s opening track “How Does it Feel to be Back

 

Private Eyes (1981)

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Grade: 10/10

Private Eyes is H & O’s definitive artistic statement. It’s their Pet Sounds. Their Blue. Their Purple Rain. It’s the album to offer up should someone ever ask you where to start in the H & O canon and is rife with both whiplash inducing hooks as well as some of D.Hall’s finest vocal performances. It’s the prime H & O musical artifact to be thrown in the time capsule and home to the frequently- forever sampled/ no bass-no drum, electro-soul ballad “I Can’t Go For That ( No Can Do)” one of the greatest H & O tracks ever ever. The rest of the album is split between the gloriously urgent and shiny ( “Tell Me What You Want“, “Head above Water“, “Some Men” ), plush piano pounders ( “Private Eyes“, “Did It In a Minute“,”Unguarded Minute“) , the latter featuring the classic New Yorkers having people leaving them and move to LA sub-plot line and Oates-ian scenery chewers ( “Mano a Mano“, “Friday Let Me Down” ). A sinewy lizard in the form of a song  ( “Your Imagination” ) and a bow to H & O heroes The Temptations and the Four Tops ( “Looking for a Good Sign” ) featuring a Hall vocal par excellence round things out. Private Eyes is true vintage NYC-pop music-art perfection.

Best Oates Moment:Friday Let Me Down” is an oddly joyful rejection song that lies somewhere between the Go-Go’s and Springsteen and nicely showcases the extraordinary cruelty of that classic torture device known as the answering machine.

 

H20 (1982)

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Grade: 10/10

H2O as a whole is a pretty cynical affair, with every song to the last expressing some manner of confusion, anxiety or frustration, albeit in the most popped out, addictive manner possible. It’s all sweet outer coatings with bitter centers ( “Guessing Games“, a stellar cover of Mike Oldfield’s “Family Man” ) and dark city grooves ( “Open All Night“,”At Tension“, “Art of Heartbreak” ), its centerpiece being Hall’s gorgeous, world weary ballad “One on One” . And bonus points for the video of the latter featuring Daryl impeccably decked out in his fifties street corner finery walking through a long gone ’80s NYC : it remains a swoon-worthy and gorgeous memory of the olden days.

This is the album where Hall starts to push the envelope vocally, unleashing and shredding to magnificent effect on “Family…” and in the coda of “Go Solo“, a precursor of what was to come on the next studio release, Big Bam Boom

“Oh Oh here she comes”. Okay, just a few words on THE SONG.  Despite the name of this essay, I’m tired of “Maneater“. Partially because it’s a little silly and it lends itself so easily to mockery and as a result is the song haters will generally wield as the primary example as to why H & O suck. But mostly, I’ve just heard it too many times. Like Beatle lovers who hate “Hey Jude” ( get it ) or Bob Marley fans who couldn’t endure another minute of “One Love” ( please tell me there are some ), “Maneater” is not, nor will it ever be a part of my evergreen H & O playlist. Of course having seen people completely lose their shit to it in a live setting, I understand why it still needs to happen. With its 330 million plus plays on Spotify ( and counting ), the love for “Maneater” runs deep. And in its defense Charlie De Chant’s sax solo within THE SONG, completely annihilates every other ’80s sax solo that ever existed ( including you “Careless Whisper”) but from a personal standpoint, I’m just gonna sigh and hit fast forward forever.

Best Oates Moment:Italian Girls” with its lyrical references to Sophia Loren, pasta and “vino rosso” is a patently ridiculous, melodic and awesome piece of candy.

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Oh, it’s no secret to me…

Sidebar : The Misogyny Thing aka “She was open all night”

Success breeds backlash and so as H & O’s chart dominance began to grow, so too did the negative criticism. Hence a few writers began calling out what they perceived was an overt misogyny within the lyrics. The nature of the complaint was that within the typical H & O song women were more often than not, presented as cruel and manipulative ( they’d “pay the devil to replace her” after all ).“Maneater” and “Open All Night” were thought to be particularly hostile ( the chorus of the latter being  “She was open all night, while I was away, you were open all night” ). The irony of course was that the duo’s primary songwriting partners during their biggest years were women, namely sisters Sara and Janna Allen, the former of whom had a hand in both aforementioned tracks. 

But okay for arguments sake, could “Open All Night” be said to possess a questionable sentiment ? Well technically, yeah. While it remains a gloomy beauty of a song there’s an undeniable thread of judgement and anger running through it. But it’s not part of some broader manifesto. In fact the critical assertion of misogyny always felt like a bit of a broad and lazy stroke, a bit of selective cherry picking to justify disliking them. The weird part is until these magazine reviews brought it up, I hadn’t really noticed because I was processing what I heard in a really different, naively fantastical way.

Like some prehistoric form of fan fiction, I was sensing something a little “different” lurking within the songs…something deeply, inherently queer. As in, it sounded like some of these love-themed songs were addressed to boys. It didn’t matter to me how many times Daryl sang the word “girl”, to my ears that was just a red herring. It was a classic “Paul Is Dead” scenario, with me twisting and deliberately mishearing words to support my desired theory. When Daryl sang “I should’ve listened more” I heard it as “I should’ve listened BOY”…and okay, I still do. When he trilled “You know I ain’t no danger boy”, I inserted an imaginary comma between the latter 2 words.

Now to be clear, these thoughts weren’t triggered by the rumors that had regularly dogged H & O since their infamous Silver album cover ( that Daryl and John were in the old parlance, lovers ). That tale seemed, and was, so on the nose as to be patently ridiculous. No, my Spidey sense and wild teenage imagination were ignited by a handful of highly interpretable often vague ingredients within the music itself, ranging from the “New York City vibe” described earlier, to what I perceived as a knowing “lilt” in Hall’s vocal delivery, to the brief lyrical turns from the crewcut rainbows mentioned in “Some Men” to the repeated “blowing” in “Delayed Reaction” to not being able to “go for that” in you know what song. Further gasoline was thrown on the fire when in a 1983 interview in Rolling Stone Daryl said, “The idea of sex with a man doesn’t turn me off, but I don’t express it. I satisfied my curiosity about that years ago. I had lots of sex between the ages of three or four and the time I was fourteen or fifteen. Strange experiences with older boys. But men don’t particularly turn me on. And, no, John and I have never been lovers. He’s not my type. Too short and dark.”

The “Paul is Dead” saga or more specifically, The Beatles themselves had convinced me that no song was ever to be taken at face value, that every single one was a puzzle waiting to be solved, you just had to be savvy enough to catch the clues and code words. Of course, I wasn’t trying to solve a complex conspiracy theory here, I was a teenage girl looking to imbue my favorite H & O songs with mystical romantic qualities because honestly, I thought it was hot. Now please enjoy Daryl bringing all of the above home on this staggeringly wondrous version of “Laughing Boy” from 1976. Watch here. Hot.

 

Rock ‘n Soul Part 1 ( 1983 Compilation plus 2 new songs and FYI, there were 2 different covers )

Grade: 9/10

Rock ‘n Soul was the first bonafide, all killer, no filler H & O hits collection and though it’s now primarily an artifact of the olden days, its initial release was a pretty big deal as it marked the debut of 2 highly anticipated ( by me at least ) new tracks. The first, “Say It Isn’t So” is unquestionably one of the greatest H & O songs ever , its echoey, hip-swinging, strutting down the runway tempo is perfectly set by T-Bone Wolk’s booming bassline and it features some of Hall’s absolute finest vocal scenery chewing and word stretching ( “I know that you lie-eeeed” ). The other new track, the stuttering and cynical “Adult Education” is not as melodically lush but is still a great sneery, finger wagging, synthesized beast. And oh yeah, oh yeah, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the video . “Adult Education“, the movie, is 4 1/2 minutes of confusingly arcane symbolism, set in an underground tomb and featuring a true star-making performance by John Oates. Open shirted with eyebrows vacillating in manner somewhere between Groucho Marx and Milhouse Van Houton, he aggressively brandishes the neck of a guitar ( the neck, just the neck ) and comes across like some weird aberration of Prince, if Prince couldn’t dance. He totally, shamelessly goes for it and serves up a performance is equal parts bold, beautiful and utterly cringeworthy.

 

Big Bam Boom (1984)

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Grade: 9/10

You know how around Xmas time there are some houses whose occupants opt for the extreme method of decoration with seizure inducing light displays, elaborate manger scenes, a motorized Santa checking names and reindeer occupying every available surface ? This album is like those houses. It’s noisy, synthetic sensory overload. Introspection is out of the question. But it’s also ridiculously fun, in fact the cover tells you all you need to know. Of all the albums H & O made in the 80s there are none more intrinsically, biologically timestamped EIGHTIES than BIG. BAM. BOOM. It is also the last truly great Daryl Hall and John Oates album. “Out of Touch” the anthemic lead single ended up being their last # 1 song ever, a notion which if posed at the time would have seemed patently absurd. Big Bam Boom serves as a showcase for some top class Daryl Hall end of song improvising with nearly every track featuring some ridiculously clever, virtuosic ad-libbing during the final minute ( or in the case of “Method of Modern Love” the last 2 plus minutes which is total f-ing beauty ).  Highlights include the handsome “Some Things are Better Left Unsaid” which starts wistfully sad, then like most everything else here, ramps up and increases in volume as things progress, allowing Hall to really wail and the aforementioned “Method…”, the synthetic soul, love pledge that sounds like Smokey Robinson in space, which is kind of who H &O were at that point.

Best Oates Moment: There are in fact 2 supreme moments,”Possession Obsession” is a sweet, singing on the street corner throwback, while “Cold Dark and Yesterday” is slick, slightly sinister and groovily hypnotic. Both are just straight up cool.

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This photo from backstage at the Live Aid show in Philly in 1985 will never not be completely insane.

Tina Turner knows:  After witnessing the triumvirate of Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry of Journey and Daryl singing their respective lines at the recording session for USA for Africa’s  We Are The World in 1985, Tina Turner exclaimed something to the effect of  “damn, these white boys can sing ! “. She had a point.

 

Live at the Apollo (1985)

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Grade: 4/10

Both a labor of love and dream come true for H & O, this album recorded live at the fabled Apollo Theater in Harlem features a super group comprised of Daryl, John and 2 of their absolute idols, Temptations legends David Ruffin ( the rough ) and Eddie Kendrick ( the smooth ) running through a handful of hits from both groups. It’s a sweet document, though with a little bit of a “you had to be there” vibe, both a tribute and a baton passing and made all the more poignant by the fact that by 1992, both Ruffin and Kendrick had passed away.

 

Daryl Hall: 3 Hearts In The Happy Ending Machine (1986)

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Grade: 5/10

Welcome to 1986 when there was no such thing as “enough” and bigger was thought to equal better ( shoulder pads, hamburger patties ). This was especially true within the world of record album production. On the half full side, the second Hall solo album could be said to resemble a more grown up version of Big Bam Boom, loud, glossy, armed with head spinning hooks and a wider worldview. But there is a half empty take to counter that, namely that the Hall voice, the most valuable tool in the arsenal, is more often than not buried in layers of synthesizers, echo and shiny guitars to suffocating effect. To be fair, this was the style of the time, and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, gifted but essentially the poor man’s Jeff Lynne, was at the helm, so there was no way it wasn’t gonna sound like this, with everything turned to 11 and Hall often fighting to rise above the racket.

But underneath this noisy neon blanket live a handful of great, GREAT songs. The H & O-ish “Foolish Pride“, one of the few tracks where the Hall’s voice soars with clarity, break up ballad “Someone Like You“, the twanging riff heavy “Dreamtime” and anthemic hookfest “I Wasn’t Born Yesterday” are all pretty fabulous at their core.

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The inner sleeve of Three Hearts features a picture of Daryl wearing what looks like a jacket made from a cow while standing next to a cow and was an endlessly weird thing to stare at while the album was playing.

 

 

 

Part 2, A Change of Season 

Hold on tight for we are about to go off a cliff. It pains me to say this but from this point on in H & O’s career the quality of releases whips wildly between sort of okay to adequate to not so great, with a few moments of brilliance sprinkled in for good measure.The endless touring, the fatigue, the understandable desire to explore outside the confines of H & O all probably affected what happened from this point forward to some degree. And so the latter era H & O records as whole aren’t great…but there are definitely a few beauteous songs nestled within them.

 

Ooh Yeah ! (1988)

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Grade: 2/10

“Ooh Yeah ! was an unfocused album. My head and my heart were not into it”.

-Quote from John Oates’s 2017 memoir Change of Seasons

It’s never a good sign when the Wikipedia page for an album has no information other then the names of the participants, general statistics and song credits. While that serves as confirmation of its existence, it’s also a reflection of where it stands in the big picture. And it’s especially odd when it’s an album that actually went platinum… which is to say we all loved H & O and were very excited that finally, after 4 long years there was a new studio album. And then we were all very disappointed once we heard it. Ooh Yeah ! qualifies as both the worst H & O album and the biggest let down. It’s the most slickly produced with the most unfinished sounding songs. Hooks are scarce. It seems distracted. To add insult to injury, the cover is also terrible ooh yeah. The strongest track by far is the LP’s lone hit, “Everything Your Heart Desires“, with its laid back Temptations vibe. Runner up award goes to “I’m In Pieces“, an over the top Jackie Wilson-esque, unrequited love ballad that while somewhat hampered by an overblown production ( and saxophone ) is still pretty okay. I’d like to say Ooh Yeah ! is a misunderstood cult classic whose mysteries will eventually reveal themselves but no, truth is Ooh Yeah ! will only ever be an album that came out in 1988 by Hall & Oates.

 

Change of Season (1990)

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Grade: 4/10

So Close“, the first single off Change of Season is a great song, widescreen sad, nostalgic with lots of space for the Hall voice to run free and wild. That said, Hall hates the version that leads off the album having been forced by the record company to bring in, wait for it, Jon Bon Jovi to fatten up the production and make it more “radio friendly”. Which, to be frank, had to suck. As a compromise, Hall’s preferred, unplugged version was included as a bonus track. The Bon Jovi version is a cacophonous monster, a nearly 5 minute death match between the production and Hall’s voice with the latter coming out on top, shredding, raging and steamrolling over every shiny guitar chord that charges his way Super Mario style. And truth be told, it’s still pretty great. But yes, Daryl’s instincts were correct, the unplugged version is the truer rendition, the real heartbreaker. The rest is a bit faceless for the most part except for “I Ain’t Gonna Take It” which is a gloriously defiant little monster that would’ve fit perfectly on Hall’s aforementioned Three Hearts album.

The End of an Era : In 1990, John Oates shaved his renowned mustache off after a show in Tokyo. Asked about it in a 2011 interview, Hall said he thought it was “bold”…and mentioned that  “when he did that, he also shaved his head. It was a statement. He was a shaved-head, bald-lipped motherfucker!”. Bold.

 

Daryl Hall/Soul Alone (1993)

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Grade: 6/10

Soul-rock hippie space cadets The Family Stand were one of the finest and most underrated bands of the ’90s. While their idiosyncratic sound basically ensured their never finding a regular home on radio or MTV, they were the recipients of a lot of love from other musicians and were regularly tapped to work on other outside projects . The 2 male members of the trio, Peter Lord Moreland and V. Jeffrey Smith produced and co-wrote the majority of Soul Alone with Hall, the three creating a sleek, lush, soul sound, full of Marvin Gaye style flourishes and eccentric hooks that still sound pretty damn good today. You will find the Hall voice front and center throughout the album, where it should be, a real about face from his previous solo excursion, Three Hearts. The plush and fabulously patronizing, “I’m in a Philly Mood” is superb. And melodic deep cut “Wildfire” is pretty exquisite with its twisting, turning chorus. Plus there’s a sweet nod to Mr.Gaye with a wistful re-interpretation of his “When Did You Stop Loving Me…“. The song quality levels out a bit after those 3 tracks to just plain old good as opposed to brilliant, but the standard remains resolutely high.

 

Daryl Hall/Can’t Stop Dreaming (1996)

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Grade: 3/10

Released first in Japan and soon after in the U.S., Can’t Stop Dreaming is a mixed bag with a lot of co-writes and is not an especially memorable listen. The sweetly uplifting title track is the standout here, with a very ’90s R & B feel and classic H & O hook…but the rest is surprisingly faceless and veers dangerously close to smooth jazz in parts. And there’s a superfluous remake of “She’s Gone” which conveys none of the passion or urgency of the original.

 

Marigold Sky (1997)

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Grade: 3/10

There was some hype with this one as it was the first new H & O studio album to appear in 7 years and it had been assumed by that point that they were through doing new music as a band. It’s mostly forgettable except for one gloriously shiny diamond “Romeo is Bleeding“, which features a big fat synth with a big fat hook and big fat Hall vocal and qualifies as one of the greatest “lost” H & O tracks that should’ve been a hit ( and I sincerely wish they’d start playing it at the shows which they were around the album’s release ). It dwarfs everything everything here and alone it scores a 10/10.

 

Greatest Hits Live (2001)

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Grade: 7/10

Recorded in 1981 on the Private Eyes Tour, this was at one point being considered for official release during H & O’s ’80s mega-years according to the sleevenotes, which is why I’m including it here. And while there are plenty of actual “greatest hits” on it, there is also weird shit like “Mano A Mano“, “Diddy Doo Wop” and “United State” which I 100% approve of and Hall’s vocal on “Wait For Me” is complete and utter fire.

 

Do It For Love (2003)

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Grade: 3/10

Seriously, is someone just punking us with these album covers ? I just can’t. Anyway, like 1990’s Change of Season, there are a whole lotta hands beyond Daryl and John’s involved in the songwriting here, making for a less than cohesive listening experience. There is a tendency to grade on a curve with stuff like this because when a beloved artist makes an album after years of recording dormancy that doesn’t completely suck, most of us feel a great sense of relief. And that haze of relief results in a whole lot of over the top hyperbole and excessive praise. But because of the ridiculously high standard H & O have set in the past, it would be impossible for an album like this not to be a disappointment. The cool electronics of the eighties are nowhere to be seen and the sound here is closer to 1990’s Change of Season, with a lot of glossy acoustic guitars. Actually come to think of it, maybe the cover was trying to tell us something. The Philly soul flavored title track is okay, if a little rom-com soundtrack-ish and the sweet cover of New Radicals plush and lovelorn “Someday We’ll Know” is an inspired choice ( in fact a full on collaboration with New Radicals main man Gregg Alexander would be just too wonderful, getting a fever just thinking about it).

 

Our Kind of Soul (2004)

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Grade: 5/10

This lovingly curated cover album features a mix of Motown, Philly Soul and originals and has its heart in the right place. I saw H & O play just prior to the actual release and was totally blown away by their performance of The Temptations deep cut “Fading Away“…but that passion doesn’t quite come across on the studio version. Which is to say in a live setting, these songs really come alive but as studio recordings they tend to fall a bit flat.

 

Home For Christmas (2006)

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Grade: 4/10

Christmas albums are always a dicey proposition and how “good” they are depends on how high your tolerance threshold for holiday music is as a whole. Back in 1983, H & O released a sweet, kitschy version of “Jingle Bell Rock” as a single, the video of which is a masterclass in mugging, grinning and complete cuteness and ended up recording a new version for this release ( which is okay but not a patch on the aforementioned version ). As for the rest, they tried to make things a little more eclectic by including a couple of originals among the standards, and there’s a really fine, shuffling cover of The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight“. And have to call out the Hall vocal on “O Holy Night” which is exceptionally pretty. At the end of the day, it’s a laid back, delicately crafted Christmas album and that’s really all it’s trying to be. Mostly though I love the pooh bear and piglet style cover.

 

Do What You Want, Be What You Are (2009 Box Set)

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Grade: 8/10 ( it covers everything but…let me explain)

I guess the real question is, if you are not a completist do you need this comprehensive 74 track collection ? And the answer is…maybe. It’s a great overview to be sure and there’s a bunch of previously unreleased stuff…but unfortunately the majority of that stuff is of the live variety and not particularly essential. The fact is H & O didn’t leave a helluva a lot on the cutting room floor, the best songs really did land on the actual studio albums for the most part. Still there are a few interesting curios (and a nice booklet breaking down the songs in the 4 cd physical version) including “Don’t Go Out“, an Oates track that didn’t make it onto Private Eyes.

 

Laughing Down Crying (2011)

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Grade: 5/10

“He was my best friend in the whole world. He was my musical advisor and teacher.” That’s Daryl Hall talking about longtime H & O band leader and multi-instrumentalist Tom “T-Bone” Wolk ( Literally the “&” in Hall & Oates ), who died the week recording began for this album. It lends a truly bittersweet air to Laughing which also features the last track T-Bone ever played on ( “Problem With You” ).

The 64 year old Hall voice is in pretty fine fettle throughout but this one is mostly for hardcore completists. In other words, it’s okay. But, but here’s the thing, there are some genuine flashes of that old school Hall melodic gift, a nifty hook here ( “Wrong Side of History” ), a big chorus there ( “Crash & Burn” ) and enough proper tunes to suggest that he’s still got it in him.

 

John Oates- The Solo Albums

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True confession. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the 5 Oates solo studio albums, the first of which, released in 2002, had one of the most tragic album titles in the history of recorded music, Phunk Shui. I can only explain it like this. You know how sometimes, even as an adult when you are around your parents (or parent) you involuntarily regress into the surly teenager you used to be, giving one word answers and eye rolls when they ask you questions and occasionally recoiling from hugs? That’s kind of how I feel when confronted with John Oates solo albums. Muscle memory takes over and I become that impatient H & O fan from my younger days who just wanted to hear the Daryl led songs. And I feel some guilt about this because as I’ve been saying all along here, John was responsible for some absolute bangers over the course of H & O’s history. And it seems like he’s had a really good time recording all of his solo albums.

Based on all that I’m reluctant to step into the role of Grinch and slam them. I’ll just say they run the gamut from groove based soul to retro folk to swampy blues to country rock with a few cover versions thrown in for good measure. They tend to harken back to early guitar based H & O and so if you are a fan of that sound go forth and Phunk Shui.

The Oates solo studio discography:  Phunk Shui (2002), 1000 Miles of Life (2008), Mississippi Mile (2011), Good Road (2013), Arkansas (2018)

Who The Fuck Are Daryl Hall & John Oates ? 

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Daryl Hall and John Oates were never part of a scene. They were popular but they were also total outliers, oddballs, weirdos. They were creatively restless soul scientists, the kind of sharks who had to keep moving forward to stay alive, expertly distilling elements of Motown and New Wave while adding bits of folk and prog and making something new. Their songs featured some of the most majestic pop singing you’re ever gonna hear in the form of Daryl Hall. Cool but not cool, NYC to the core but actively stuffed into Yacht Rock playlists, white boys but with a deeper shade of soul. Back in 1985, Daryl said “I think we’re the ’80s Beatles”. And he had a point. Both bands were completely ubiquitous in their respective heydays and the popularity of their songs has ultimately transcended age, race and gender. There were some lean years when no one cared and some creative mis-steps but within all of it there were songs. Brilliant, beautiful, ridiculous, heartbreaking, NYC living, loving, crying songs. Only one way to end this…

 

Bonus H & O Ephemera Footnote ! : 

The Best Daryl Hall & John Oates Cover(s) Ever:

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Check out The Bird and the Bee’s superb cover album Interpreting The Masters Vol.1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates. With pronouns in tact, heart and soul on full display, it’s a a master class in cover song etiquette and execution and is an absolute gift.

Robert Fripp and Daryl Hall’s Opus of Glorious, Paranoid Weirdness:

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If you wanna hear Daryl Hall at his most manic, unhinged and free, check out the 2015 reissue of Robert Fripp’s Exposure which features all the previously unavailable Hall performances. It’s a long, long way from “She’s Gone”.

The Daryl Show:

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Live From Daryl’s House started as a web series in 2007 and as a result of its popularity grew into into a broadcast TV series in 2011. It usually features some cooking with Daryl looking on hungrily and admiringly, but mostly it’s live ass music featuring Daryl and his kick ass band. They perform with both established artists and new kids, offering up stuff from the extensive Hall songbook as well as originals by the respective guests. It’s plenty fun since a lot of deep cuts like “Somebody Like You“, “Babs and Babs” get airings and some of the performances are amazing. The 2009 episode featuring Todd Rundgren duetting with Daryl on “Can We Still Be Friends” is a particular heart-squeezer after which I always need minute to sop tears and collect myself.

As you may have noticed, I’ve incorporated some quotes from John’s eminently readable 2017 memoir Change Of Seasons in this piece. It’s a breezy, engaging read and features some genuinely off the wall anecdotes that even if you are not a hardcore H & O fan make it worth checking out. Which is to say if you’ve ever wondered what it would’ve been like to have had the late legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson as a neighbor, wonder no more because John’s got stories y’all.