When McCartney’s mother died from breast cancer in 1956, he buried himself in the distraction of rock and roll. When his wife Linda passed away from the same disease in 1998, he returned to the music of the ‘50s. He got the album title Run Devil Run from a brand of bath salts used to ward off evil he saw being sold at an herbal medicine shop on in Atlanta. Rock and roll was always his balm.
“Party” was a deep cut from the 1957 Elvis movie Lovin’ You. Wanda Jackson later covered it and her version can be heard in the 1989 film classic Dead Poet’s Society. The tune was also included in the 2010 Broadway show Million Dollar Quartet, based on the day Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded together at Sun Studios. McCartney used the song as his tool to correct some infuriating revisionism that had been going around about him.
Backbeat is a very good 1994 film about the Beatles’ early days. (That is to say, it’s good for Beatles fans; it’s hard to say if non-fans would be bored or not.) Like Dick Clark’s 1979 telefilm The Birth of the Beatles, it spotlighted their stint in Hamburg, the Vegas of Europe, in their raw early days when they all wore Gene Vincent leather suits. Forced to play for six to eight hours a day to drunken sailors and strippers, they were turned on to over-the-counter speed to keep going and it welded them into an incendiary tight unit. (Pete Best didn’t do amphetamines, though. It was one of the things that kept him at a distance from the others — like not adopting the Beatle cut — which eventually led to his replacement by Starr.) The movie tells the story through the eyes of Stuart Sutcliffe, Lennon’s painter best friend whom Lennon drafted to play bass, even though he couldn’t play. His musical ineptitude led to serious tension between Stu and perfectionist McCartney, who could play bass better. It was a precursor to the John-Yoko-Paul triangle, but luckily for Western civilization, Stu hooked up with German artist Astrid Kirchherr and graciously stepped aside.
While the audiences back in early ‘60s Hamburg experienced the Beatles’ music as intense hard rock, the creators of Backbeat believed that kids in the mid-‘90s would not, since they were accustomed to the likes of Nirvana and Metallica. So the producers enlisted hot rockers of the era to reinterpret the music for modern kids, and the actors lip-synched to it. Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs did the vocals, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore did guitar with Gumball’s Don Fleming, Mike Mills of R.E.M. took bass, and Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) played drums. A very hip band, but neither vocalist sounded anything like Lennon or McCartney.
The film also fell prey to the same fallacy that almost all Beatles movies do, that Lennon was primarily a vulnerable, mixed-up softy and not, as often as not, a prickly asshole. The movie also portrays Harrison as an innocent little boy afraid of the groupies, when by all accounts he was as big a player as any of them.
And it showed McCartney as preppy, aloof, and snobby. McCartney complained, “One of my annoyances about the film Backbeat is that they’ve actually taken my rock ‘n’ rollness off me. They give John the song “Long Tall Sally” to sing and he never sang it in his life. But now it’s set in cement. It’s like The Buddy Holly and Glenn Miller stories. The Buddy Holly Story does not even mention Norman Petty, and The Glenn Miller Story is a sugarcoated version of his life. Now Backbeat has done the same thing to the story of The Beatles.”
Ironically, the same year Backbeat was released, the fantastic missing link Live at the BBC was issued. It was a two CD set that consisted of live in-studio performances by the Beatles culled from their 52 appearances on the BBC between 1962 and 1965. Here with perfect clarity you can hear how tight they were, and the amazing revelation was what a fiend Ringo was on the drums back then, when they were touring and performing almost every day.
It’s true their early guitar sound pre-dated the use of hard rock distortion (which the Beatles had inaugurated with “I Feel Fine,” along with the Kinks), so to kids who thought Soundgarden defined rock, the Beatles would sound un-tough. Thus Backbeat is what it is, and it does a good job of capturing a milieu that was important to their evolution.
The interesting thing is, in his return to roots on Run Devil Run, McCartney does not sound like the Beatles from the BBC (which was presumably, what they sounded like in Hamburg, only drunk), but he sounds like the band in Backbeat. Showing up with his own gang including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour and Deep Purple’s drummer Ian Paice, he scorches with the clear goal of wiping the Backbeat band and everybody else off the map. With the hellhounds of Linda’s death on his trail, he does.
(See 2:28 in the Backbeat clip below …)
As had been his trend with Off the Ground and Flaming Pie, McCartney recorded the Run Devil Run album as fast as possible to capture the excitement of live performances. He enlisted the Sex Pistols’ producer Chris Thomas, who had done Wings’ Back to the Egg album in 1979. Thomas had also filled in for George Martin when Martin went on vacation during The White Album, when Thomas was 22. He went on to mix Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (of course, featuring Dave Gilmour) and produce Badfinger albums.
Linda had wanted McCartney to record a second album of ‘50s rock covers (his first had been 1988’s Russian Album/ Back in the USSR, originally recorded in an epic two-day session for sale in the Soviet Union only), though she would not live to see it. For the ‘50s songs, McCartney would listen to them and write down the lyrics (even if he didn’t quite understand them). In the studio, he’d ask the band if they knew the tune. If not, he’d play it to them a couple times, and then bang, they’d lay it down. The majority of the album was done within a week; they would do three or four a day with no advance warning of what songs they were doing.
Of all the songs on Run Devil Run, the one that most clearly expressed McCartney’s grief was “No Other Baby.” Dickie Bishop wrote it in 1957 with Bob Watson and performed it with his band The Sidekicks. It was one of the first quasi-rock tunes written by a Brit to be covered by an American (Bobby Helms). At that point, Brit rock was considered a pale imitation of the original.
The version that made an impression on McCartney was The Vipers’ 1958 skiffle version, produced by no less than George Martin. It actually sounds a bit like a peppy number on Live at the BBC called “Lonesome Tears in my Eyes.” McCartney had recorded “No Other Baby” for the earlier covers album, but on Run Devil Run, he recasts the song as a slow and grieving epic, highlighted by Gilmour’s piercing guitar.
The video perfectly captures McCartney’s desolation after Linda’s death. Gorgeously shot in black and white, it features him stranded in the middle of the ocean in a lifeboat. Rowing through ice flows and through storms in the blackest night, he wakes in the morning with sharks circling the boat. Some bloggers commented that the sharks were eerily prescient of Heather Mills.
Another highlight from the album was his fierce rendition of “Shake a Hand.” Back in 1953, when the Orioles went to No. 1 on the R&B chart with “Crying in the Chapel,” Joe Morris wrote “Shake a Hand” in clear emulation of “Chapel”’s phrasing and inflection, and Faye Adams recorded it fast enough to knock the Orioles out of the No. 1 spot. In 1958, Little Richard did his own take. Of course, McCartney was Little Richard’s No. 1 disciple, save perhaps for Prince, one of the few people who can match McCartney in his prolific output and ability to do entire albums by himself. (Check out Live at the BBC to hear McCartney doing more Little Richard like “Lucille” and “Ooh! My Soul!”) Macca recalled, “I have this image of being in Hamburg, there was one bar that had a pool table and a great jukebox. And that was the only place I ever heard “Shake A Hand.” Every time we went there, I put it on. I never had the record, but I knew I wanted to do it. It always takes me back to that bar …”
Along with Gilmour, McCartney brought in guitarist Mick Green, who had been in Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, which Brian Epstein managed. On “Shake a Hand” both Gilmour and Green take their turns doing distinct solos. Green called his “rough and ready” while Gilmour’s was “Smooth and tasteful.”
Shake a Hand is at 3:51 in the clip below …
It’s interesting to compare McCartney’s Little Richard voice in 1999 with his take on “Long Tall Sally” in 1964. It’s deeper but amazingly intact and strong, compared to the voices of Dylan and Jagger — the former now a croak of its former self, the other overly mannered. In this clip from ’64, McCartney’s voice is a little shot, but check out Ringo in the second half.