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Chicago Sun Times

Undercover McCartney

October 17, 1999


At its best, rock 'n' roll is a spontaneous gut reaction. The musician doesn't have to disconnect his brain--the music can still be smart--but the sounds are always more potent when emotion and energy carry the day.

"One of the catchphrases we had during the week [of recording] was `no thinking,' " Paul McCartney said in the notes accompanying his new album, "Run Devil Run." "Thinking on something was outlawed; we banned thinking for the week, and I think that shows in a very positive way on this album. With rock 'n' roll, you either do it or you don't."

Some fans might be surprised that a man who's considered one of rock's great songwriters turned to other people's tunes to produce what is arguably his strongest album since leaving the Beatles. But it will make sense to anyone who ever picked up a guitar and headed out to the garage to bash through "Louie Louie," "Blitzkrieg Bop" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

There is a special magic in covering a song by one of your rock heroes.

"I've been thinking about doing a rock 'n' roll album for many years," McCartney said. "It was something that Linda and I were talking about, and she was very keen on the idea."

In an attempt to replicate the vibe of the Beatles' earliest recording sessions, McCartney booked five days at the room the band made famous, Abbey Road Studio Two. Each day was limited to 9 to 5, ensuring that the band could play only three or four takes of a song before moving on to the next number in order to finish by the end of the week.

McCartney recruited a group of British rock royalty: Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice, second guitarist Mick Green and keyboardist Pete Wingfield. But he didn't tell them what songs they'd be recording. Often they heard the tune for the first time in the studio, minutes before tearing through it as the [analog] tape rolled.

No thinking. Just feeling.

To prep for the project, McCartney rifled through the singles and B-sides that made him fall in love with rock in the first place: "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" by Chuck Berry, "Blue Jean Bop" by Gene Vincent, "Movie Magg" by Carl Perkins, "All Shook Up" and "Let's Have a Party" by Elvis Presley, "Coquette" by Fats Domino and "Honey Hush" by Johnny Burnette.

"I'd play the first line of the song, stop the tape, write down the words, play the next line," McCartney said. "I thought, `Wow, I love this! I haven't done this since I was 15!' And you get that same sort of teenage feeling doing that. You get so proud that you've managed to get down all the words to the song."

Most rockers learn to play by mimicking the recordings of artists they know and love. Once they've established themselves, they continue to play covers as a way of underscoring connections to admired predecessors and (if they've built enough of a reputation) paying tribute.

It's a poorly kept secret among musicians that covers are also a heck of a lot of fun.

McCartney's old songwriting partner knew this: He released his covers album in 1975. Produced by Phil Spector, "Rock 'n' Roll" showcased John Lennon's gentle, tender side. It was Lennon in his McCartney mode.

Aside from a few effective weepers ("Lonesome Town," "No Other Baby"), "Run Devil Run" is a rip-roarin' rock album--McCartney in his Lennon mode. I think it blows "Rock 'n' Roll" away. In fact, it may be the best collection of its kind in rock history.

Scattered covers here and there certainly one-up "Run Devil Run." But as an entire album, what would top it? David Bowie's "Pin Ups"? No way; too scattered. "The Spaghetti Incident" by Guns N' Roses? Even more of a mess. Yo La Tengo's "Fakebook"? That comes closest, but it's an intentionally quiet and low-key effort.

More intriguing are attempts by underground artists to replicate in their entirety classic albums by their heroes. In 1986, Pussy Galore released an inspired version of the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street." It was rumored that in response, Sonic Youth recorded all of the Beatles' white album, but that has never been released.

What would possess a band to mount such an undertaking? I asked Chicago's legendary punk-rock hero Ben Weasel, whose band Screeching Weasel released its own version of the Ramones' first album.

"The No. 1 thing is because you like the tune and you want to play it," Weasel said. "If you really like the band or the song, then at some point before you were a musician, you wanted to be that band. You were envisioning yourself as a teenage kid up on stage playing guitar for the Ramones or whoever."

In other words, if only for three minutes, playing a cover of a great rock song enables you to stop thinking and feeling like yourself and become the musician you emulate. Even if you happen to be one of the most famous musicians in the world.

Paul McCartney
Run Devil Run

Take a second and ask yourself a question. Why do you buy Paul McCartney records? Seriously. Why? Do you like him because he used to write Beatles songs? Do you like him because you like silly love songs? Or do you like him for his early work in rock, blues, and skiffle?

If you answered "yes" to the last question, you’re gonna be thrilled with Macca's new Run Devil Run CD, a 15-song anthology of some of his favorite rock-&-roll songs, performed with a marvelous handpicked band.

Recorded as briskly as it sounds at Abbey Road in just a week's time, Run Devil Run is the glorious sound of our favorite Hofner bass player returning to his rock-&-roll band roots. And what a band it is: Pink Floyd's David Gilmour on lead guitar, Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice, former bandmate Mick Green on second guitar, and Pete Wingfield on piano. Together they kick up an outstanding racket worthy of the material McCartney dug up from his past.

He reaches down deep for the screaming vocal line on his own "Run Devil Run" and bounces across the blues rock notes of another original, "What it is" like an 18-year-old singing in his garage. He rips into LittleRichard's "Shake a Hand," takes a big bite out of Elvis' crunchy "I Got Stung" and gives Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" a thrilling zydeco spin. He also tackles a great, sprawling rocker called "Honey Hush," originally recorded by Johnny Burnette in the early '60s. The spirit across this recording is immense and wonderful, marked by Macca's sparkling vocals and his band's stellar, spontaneous performances.

If you're looking for an album of McCartney's typically lovable, cloyingly cute, customarily levelheaded solo work, bypass this one and pick up a Wings reissue. If you're curious, though, how a grown man sounds tearing through true-blue rock & roll, and you're interested in the journey of a legend who traveled a long way to get back to his roots, Run Devil Run is a fabulously rough and ready record worth investigating.

Bob Gulla

Listen to it at CDNOW.COM

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