The recent performance by Paul McCartney at Glastonbury Festival (2022) inspired me to take a retrospective dive into some of Paul’s albums that have passed me by over the years. I was particularly impressed with Abe Laboriel Jr on the drums – a terrific session, he really shone all night and owned the stage even from behind his kit. Actually all the musicians Paul has surrounded himself with these past twenty years were excellent that night, and it led me to find out how and when they all got together.
The how and why (for two of them at least) was Driving Rain in 2001. McCartney wanted to get back to the spontaneous quality he enjoyed with The Beatles where he would play the band his songs for the first time just prior to recording them. Recorded in Abbey Road Studios, a group of session musicians was assembled by David Kahne for the album, two of which, Rusty Anderson and Abe Laboriel Jr have remained in the Paul McCartney Band to this day.
It must be really difficult constantly being compared to somebody, like your father for example, but even more so if that somebody is your younger self. McCartney set such a high standard with his first solo LP, McCartney, RAM and then the initial Wings offerings including the excellent Band On The Run, that any dip in form seems amplified and somehow more disappointing. I actively avoided a lot of it as I preferred to remember one of my heroes at his very best. Was that unfair? Was I wrong to do so? Let’s find out….
The album starts off with Lonely Road and, well, it’s a corker actually. If the rest of the album lives up to the opener then yes, I have indeed been missing out. It’s a kind of bluesy upbeat track with, like all bluesy upbeat tracks, downbeat lyrics. It should be remembered that Linda McCartney had died just 3 years previously and a lot of the lyrics are about Paul coping and coming to terms with this. Couple that with the terrorist attacks in New York taking place just prior to the recording (Paul was literally sitting on a Plane as it happened) and it’s fair to say the tracks are laced with poignancy.
From A Lover To A Friend is the second track, and the first single released from the album. It did ok, but not as well as it should have done because honestly, this is about as pure a McCartney ballad as you could hope for. I don’t think this would have been out of place during his 70s purple patch. The lyrics are a little challenging, a bit nonsensical, written late at night and when, fully admitted by Paul, he was ‘a bit out of it’. He decided to leave them in as they were though. Most commentators think the song is about the transition from life before and life after Linda’s death, but that has never been confirmed by the man himself, as far as I know. In the book Conversations With McCartney Paul says this is his favourite track off the album, and it shows.
She’s Given Up Talking is about a daughter of a friend who literally didn’t talk all day in school but couldn’t stop talking when back home. There are elements of this song that sound familiar, and if it was paired back a little it would fit right into late, maybe White Album era Beatles. But it’s a little too Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits for me, and is the first track to dip in terms of form, feeling a little rushed.
Driving Rain is musically a good track, all the McCartney traits are there, but the lyrics let it down for me and I think this is the crux of the matter sometimes with the more mature McCartney. A bit like Pete Townshend – you never lose the musical brilliance but lyrics can struggle for relevance or meaning for your audience. 12345 Let’s go for a drive – hmmm. Saying it ruins the song is a little harsh, maybe, but without that chorus, I would have liked it a lot more. Let’s move on.
OK, well if I was a little mean to the last track, this one made me cry. I Do is a lovely little love song, simple, and very well crafted. Paul called it one of his little Goaers as it was one of three tracks on the album written in an afternoon in Goa. This one makes it onto my Best of McCartney playlist and given the competition for space on that list this is high praise indeed. Accepting the lack of mentions of Linda in any interviews I have read about this album, it’s hard to imagine it being written about anybody else at its time. Paul seems to go to great lengths, actually, not to mention her, preferring instead to embellish stories with situations and objects and others that inspired these tracks, which probably speaks volumes.
Tiny Bubble was written as a piano ballad, and perhaps would have been better staying as one instead of what it ended up being. It’s an ok song, and the chorus at least, as others have alluded to, is not a million miles away from George Harrison’s Piggies. Still, it feels a bit saccharine, lacking the deepness a song about the world being a bubble demands.
Magic is the first track confirmed by McCartney himself to be about Linda, specifically meeting her for the first time, and, whilst it’s a great story, it is instantly forgettable as a piece of music. Just far too safe and, dare I say, boring?
Your Way rescues the album at this stage a little, although suffers from a little too much of a nod to country music. There are good things here, the ending riff, the bass line beginning reminiscent of several Beatles tracks, lyrics and melody are good. The slide guitars and conjured images of floppy hats and dungarees stop it from being great.
Spinning On An Axis and About You are real foot tappers, and will undoubtedly get better with further listening. The organ on About You is a great addition, but they soon pale in comparison to the stand-out brilliance of Heather.
I mentioned Pete Townshend earlier (I’m a huge Who fan) and there is more than a passing resemblance to Townshend’s early writing here. Heather is sublime, and really highlights the genius of McCartney just sitting at a piano and cranking out tunes at will. What I, and I think everybody else, is simply yearning for is an album packed with this sort of stuff. That’s all I really want to hear – Paul McCartney spontaneously doing what he does best. I like the story around this song so will just reproduce Paul word for word from paulmccartney.com
‘Heather’ – there’s a funny story about this track. It actually came about early one morning. I’d got up and was just jamming on the piano and Heather, who doesn’t know all of The Beatles songs because she’s young, said ‘That’s great – which Beatles song is that?’ I said ‘It’s not, I’m just making it up’. And she’s like ‘What? Now? Making it up now?’ Yeah. Suddenly she’s saying ‘Get it down! You’ve got to get that down, get it on a tape, now!’ I’m saying ‘No, it’s OK, I’m just noodling’, but she’s insisting ‘get it down!’, so we found a little dictaphone and played it into that. And then she said ‘By the way, what’s it called?’ ‘Oh’, I said, ‘It’s called ‘Heather”
An immediate classic, Heather makes the playlist without question!
We’re back with the sliding guitars on Back In The Sunshine Again, and I guess it’s just personal preference but I think it ruins the track again. I’m not a fan. Then we have Your Loving Flame which is a ballad in the bad sense of the word. A rock ballad more akin to Pink Floyd and guitar solos. Don’t get me wrong, I like Pink Floyd, it’s just after Heather these sound really out of place – Heather has ruined the rest of the album by being so good.
Riding Into Jaipur is the least popular track on Spotify, with a staggeringly low 91,000 listens. Ebony & Ivory has 45.8 million when last I looked, which says more about the consumers than the artist. It’s a nice enough tune but fails to hit the mark both in terms of atmosphere and meaning. It doesn’t conjure up a train trip into Jaipur to me, but then I wasn’t there. Maybe it’s perfect, but it doesn’t translate too well.
Rinse the Raindrops is by far the longest track on the album, starting off far too busy for the first two and half minutes before slowing down a bit, building up again to what can only be called a band jam session more suited to a live performance than a coherent album.
Freedom was a late addition to the album and is included as a hidden track – it was also a single and the album was delayed in order to contain it. A direct response to the 2001 attacks in New York, it’s basically a war cry and possibly misplaced and misjudged as later McCartney stopped playing it live when it became too associated with the military operations that followed.
Driving Rain is not a bad album and one that demands more listens. I’ll go further, it contains one or two absolute gems, Heather and I Do are stand-out tracks on an inoffensive album that, in my opinion, only just fails to be up there amongst his better works. Having said that, the consensus is that Driving Rain was, in 2001, probably the best album from Paul McCartney for a decade or so, and is (mostly) highly regarded. I can see why, and I’m not ruling out being won over enough to make this a permanent part of the collection.