A peek into McCartney's 'Backyard'


October 16, 2005


While there are certainly benefits -- the healthy bank accounts and the knighthood among them -- the down side of being Sir Paul McCartney, icon of a generation and the most celebrated surviving Beatle, is that almost anyone you collaborate with will be too intimidated to tell you when you've had a bad idea or are doing sub-par work.

With all too rare exceptions, a McCartney solo album usually has been a mixed bag, with the occasional glimpse of the brilliance he displayed in partnership with John Lennon ("Maybe I'm Amazed," "Every Night," "Band on the Run" or "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five"), scattered full-scale disasters/flat-out embarrassments ("Monkberry Moon Delight," "Silly Love Songs," "Ebony and Ivory" or "Freedom") and a whole lot of plain old mediocrity.

Hailed by many fans and critics as one of his strongest efforts ever -- and my personal favorite since the fiery roots-rock cover album "Run Devil Run" (1999) -- "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," McCartney's latest and the 20th studio solo album of his career, succeeds largely because the artist allowed himself to be challenged and to heed some much-needed criticism, in this case from producer and brave soul Nigel Godrich, who arrived on the job highly recommended by another of the queen's knights, Sir George Martin, and with a list of earlier credits including Radiohead, Beck and Travis.


When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison
Tickets: $49.50-$250
Phone: (312) 559-1212




Here's the set list from a typical night on Paul McCartney's current tour, at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto last week.
1. "Magical Mystery Tour"
2. "Flaming Pie"
3. "Jet"
4. "I'll Get You"
5. "Drive My Car"
6. "Till There Was You"
7. "Let Me Roll It"
8. "Got to Get You Into My Life"
9. "Fine Line"
10. "Maybe I'm Amazed"
11. "The Long and Winding Road"
12. "In Spite of All the Danger"
13. "I Will"
14. "Jenny Wren"
15. "For No One,"
16. "Fixing a Hole"
17. "English Tea"
18. "I'll Follow the Sun"
19. "Follow Me"
20. "Blackbird"
21. "Eleanor Rigby"
22. "Too Many People"
23. "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window"
24. "Good Day Sunshine"
25. "Band on the Run"
26. "Penny Lane"
27. "I've Got a Feeling"
28. "Back in the U.S.S.R."
29. "Hey Jude"
30. "Live and Let Die"


1. "Yesterday"
2. "Get Back"
3. "Helter Skelter"
4. "Please Please Me"
5. "Mull of Kintyre"
6. "Let It Be"
7. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
8. "The End"

The 63-year-old McCartney has said in several recent interviews that at one point during the recording sessions, he had to restrain himself from physically assaulting Godrich after the producer called one of the tunes he'd just tracked "crap."

"I was well-pissed," Macca told the European Web site www.breakingnews.ie. "It was like, 'You don't like my songs? How dare you? Who are you?' I thought: 'What will I do now? Punch him or just spit at him?' "

McCartney refrained from doing either, and after cooling down overnight, he accepted Godrich's critique and bagged the tune -- which had to be pretty awful if the producer considered it worse than "English Tea," the new disc's nadir.

"I realized he was looking for a vibe, so if one of my songs was a bit perky, maybe he didn't think we should do it this time around. It was good for me: It was like working with a great band member. It was similar to me and John, back to when we were just kids."

To be certain, nothing on "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" comes close to approaching the Beatles at their best ("Revolver"), or even at their worst ("Let It Be"). But the good moments are very good indeed, including the irrepressible "Fine Line," the lilting "Jenny Wren," the George Harrison tribute "Friends to Go" and the majestic "Promise to You Girl."

The most pleasant surprise of all: a hidden track consisting of three unrelated musical snippets that Godrich surreptitiously recorded as McCartney tinkered at the piano. These improvised instrumental snippets alone boast a dozen melodies strong enough to make lesser composers green with envy.

"I love those, too," the always charming former cutest moptop told me during a brief interview Tuesday via cell phone from the back of his limousine after a sound check before a show in Toronto. He broke into that famous chuckle when I said I'd welcome an entire disc in this mode.

"But you are in the real world, and people expect songs from me. I'll goof around anytime, though, and you can have 90 minutes of that if you want."

Though Lennon was always much more outspoken about the burdens of being an ex-Beatle, McCartney also clearly feels the weight of his considerable history. Of the 38 songs in his current two-hour, 45-minute show, 22 of them hail from the Fab Four's catalog. While he's justifiably proud of his latest album, only four songs from "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" made the set list, though he's pleased to report that fans -- many of whom are paying $250 plus Ticketmaster service fees per seat, or more than $7 per tune -- have been responding enthusiastically to his new material.

"It really is nice. One of the exciting things on a tour like this is that you start to tour, and people don't really know the numbers, and then as you get into the second and third week of the album's [release], people are singing along and holding up signs, and the numbers get better and better and better, so it's very gratifying."

Still, I asked, if you were so inclined, could you perform the new disc in its entirety, casting off the burden of history and eschewing those Wings and Beatles classics, or at least relying on them a little less?

"I think you could," McCartney said. "I'd say it's a beautiful burden, this business of having a history, but I know what you mean: I think what we'd have to do is to do a smaller venue and announce up front that we were just doing the new stuff, because people come with expectations to these big venues. We've got big families and stuff coming to these shows, and people obviously want hits.

"I'm a bit like that when I'm in the audience as well. I saw Coldplay recently, and it's a big moment when they do 'Yellow.' But it's a beautiful burden, and I'm happy with it, but sometimes it would be nice to just do unknown material for the people who would really like that."

In the same way that Godrich challenged McCartney in the studio, I mentioned that the band of young musicians that has joined him onstage for the last few years -- lead guitarist Rusty Anderson, guitarist and bassist Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul "Wix" Wickens and hard-hitting drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. -- seems to prod the legendary musician gently out of his comfort zone, inspiring him to try that little bit harder. McCartney readily agreed.

"That's one of the great things. In a way it's a bonus for me: I knew they were good from the word go, and it was always easy and fun to work with them. But now we are realizing that we have a few miles under our belt, and just like any band, if you have good players and then add mileage, real unexpected stuff starts to happen. It's really cool, and I have to say we are popping as a band right now."

In fact, one of the only disappointments of working with Godrich on the new album was the producer's insistence about a week into the project that McCartney dismiss the group and record most of the instruments himself, a la "McCartney" (1970).

"It was a personal disappointment in a way, but in another way it was a compliment," McCartney said. "[Godrich] basically said, 'I want to do something different. We can make the album straightforward, and the guys are great players, but I want to hear how it sounds like this and like this.' He had some things he wanted to do, so I thought, 'If I'm working with a guy like this, I'm either going to listen to him or I'm not.'

"He's a teammate, and I can overrule him if I want, but it was really more embarrassing than anything to have to tell the guys that he wanted me to come in over the next few days and try some stuff alone. He said, 'Blame me,' and I said, 'Oh, I will, don't worry.' [Laughs] But they are my guys, and they were great about it, and they know about making records. It's not easy to get a record nailed, so they said, 'Whatever it takes. You try it and see what happens.' And I think the way the album has worked out proves [Godrich's] point: It was worth stretching."

It always is, Paul -- in interviews as well as in creative endeavors. But although the Sun-Times had been promised 20 minutes to chat with the musical giant, this reporter wound up barely getting six before the limo arrived at the venue and Sir Paul bid a friendly "cheerio," leaving unaddressed a long list of questions small (What's up with dissing Ringo lately? And what do you think of the swipe Yoko Ono just took at you as the sort of songwriter who rhymes moon, June and spoon?) and large (Given the steep ticket prices, why did you feel the need to take even more money via an obnoxious sponsorship from a luxury car company? And how on earth could the same artist capable of writing a song as timeless and beautiful as "For No One" also pen something as dreadful as "Ode to a Koala Bear"?).

Alas, on McCartney's personal magical mystery tour, some things are destined to remain forever unexplained.



While rabid Beatlemaniacs are being a bit too effusive in their praise of Paul McCartney's new "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," the album's strongest moments do place it high on the list of his most rewarding post-Beatles recordings. Here are my choices for five more standouts, listed in chronological order by date of release.


"McCartney" (1970)
The first of two self-titled albums, the singer-songwriter's solo bow has some real low points, including "Lovely Linda" and the aptly titled "Junk." But two of his best songs ever, "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Every Night," and the spare, stripped-down production earn this disc its spot on the list.


"Band on the Run" (1973)
Although the production sounds pretty dated -- the synthesizers are just plain goofy -- this album stands as Wings' finest moment, and the post-Fabs McCartney has never rocked harder than he does on "Jet" or the title track. "Let Me Roll It," "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" and "Picasso's Last Words" are all pretty great, too.


"CHOBA B CCCP" (1991)
The first of two efforts in this vein, the so-called "Russian Album," also known as "Back in the U.S.S.R.," was a quick and dirty bit of non-sentimental nostalgia, the result of a two-day session that found McCartney kicking out the jams on a set of vintage rock 'n' roll covers such as "Kansas City," "Lucille" and "Ain't That a Shame."


"Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest" (1993)
Recorded as "The Fireman" in partnership with the British techno DJ Youth, this collection of ambient house instrumentals is an overlooked gem, not so much on its own merits -- it doesn't come close to the genius of the Orb -- but it's a welcome reminder that Macca was once at the forefront of the psychedelic rock avant-garde.


"Run Devil Run" (1999)
After his wife Linda's death, the aging rocker found catharsis by putting together a top-notch band, including Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and tearing through another passionate set of the '50s classics that made him fall in love with rock 'n' roll, including hits by Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson. You've got to respect that.