Friday, June 29, 2012

The Other Me: Paul McCartney's Thrillington

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Paul McCartney is turning 70 years old this year and he's showing no signs of retiring behaviour. Having recently released a huge CD/DVD box set of his 1971 Ram, the listener can find within it a fascinating instrumental version of Ram called Thrillington. This album, along with a number of other known and lesser known recordings, Paul McCartney has laid claim to an avant-garde sensibility that was largely overlooked in favour of his more demonstrative former writing partner in The Beatles. This subject of McCartney's avant-gardism is currently being taken up in the form of a CBC Radio documentary being produced by Kevin Courrier and John Corcelli. This review of Thrillington ran two years ago in Critics at Large.

Thrillington (1977)

It’s been commonly assumed over the years that it was John Lennon who was the true avant-garde performer in The Beatles and Paul McCartney was - literally - the straight man. That view developed mostly out of Lennon’s bold outspokenness in both his personality and music, while McCartney submerged his personality in the craft of writing songs. Lennon possessed a romantic spirit, but it was one that made his art real and intimate to the listener. McCartney however was perceived as whimsical and impersonal (i.e. a light-weight). Of course, this is a rather simplistic perception because Lennon was equally whimsical in “Bungalow Bill”; just as McCartney could rock hard in “I’m Down.” It was McCartney after all who came up with the tape-loop experiments that Lennon incorporated into “Tomorrow Never Knows.” McCartney was also the first to create a sonic collage called “Carnival of Light” (still unreleased) before Lennon and Ono did their own “Revolution #9” on the White Album. During that period, John Lennon stayed home to live a more isolated domestic existence, while Paul McCartney was going to art shows and listening to Stockhausen.

After the group broke up, Lennon released very few records before his tragic death. His partner meanwhile released numerous albums (not all good) and toured with his band, Wings. John mostly struggled with being an ex-Beatle, focusing most of his work on his personal life and his love affair with Yoko Ono. Whereas McCartney continued to experiment with different musical forms. He not only founded Wings but over the years, he would release strange, far-out dance records (Twin Freaks), Steve Reich influenced soundscapes (Liverpool Sound Collage), electronic pop (McCartney II) and (under the guise of a pseudonym) a series of albums with the band The Firemen. But one of his most outlandishly fascinating records was called Thrillington.

Released in 1977, Thrillington was an instrumental version of his 1971 Ram LP. The record wasn’t noticed by the press, or even the rest of the music world, because McCartney’s name was nowhere on the cover. Instead, the artist was listed as Percy “Thrills” Thrillington. Apparently, in the spirit of Sgt. Pepper, he and his wife Linda cooked up the idea of a fictional character, a socialite who made the scene and recorded this unusual pop artifact. Although McCartney wrote all the music, it was duly orchestrated by jazz artist Richard Hewson (who knew McCartney back in the Beatle days when he helped McCartney arrange “Those Were the Days” for Mary Hopkin). You can't find the LP today since it was never issued on CD.

Thrillington is a sumptuous mirror of Ram, one that reflects the intricate melodic structures of the album's songs. Stripped of their vocals, the songs take on a fascinating pop eclecticism that reveals McCartney's ingenious gift for melodic structure and arrangement. Since McCartney's weakest facility was in creating dynamic narratives for his songs (often compensated for by the wit and verbal talents of his former partner), Thrillington emphasizes McCartney's greatest strengths which equal - and in some ways surpasses - Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds and some of Burt Bacharach's pop canon.

My good friend Donald Brackett is currently embarking on a book about the unacknowledged avant-garde world of Paul McCartney (if he can find a publisher with enough imagination and foresight to put it out). To illustrate his thesis, I've included a small sample of Thrillington from YouTube. The song “Dear Boy” from Ram is given the kind of treatment that suggests a serendipitous meeting between The Swingle Singers and Milt Buckner.

Listen here:

- originally published on March 10, 2010 in Critics at Large.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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