In the mid-’80s, the commercial drop off that had hit Starr and Harrison finally caught up to McCartney. First, his feature film GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET (1984) was not well-received by the critics. For his follow up, 1986’s PRESS TO PLAY, he enlisted cutting edge producer Hugh Padgham (the Police, Phil Collins, Genesis, Peter Gabriel), but the record failed to go gold and was his worst-selling album to date.
As workaholic as ever, McCartney immediately started the next record with Billy Joel’s band and producer Phil Ramone, and they created an early version of “Back on My Feet.”
Ramone was dead center in the mainstream, but to spruce up the lyrics McCartney turned to New Wave singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. In their first meeting, they both brought unfinished songs for the other to fill in, like McCartney did with Lennon in the old days. Costello immediately helped bring “Back on My Feet” into sharp focus with concrete, vivid details.
In the first two verses, the protagonist is an old man railing at the thunderstorm pouring down on him, vowing to bounce back in the face of bruising setbacks. The defiance turns into cheerful optimism in the final verse, as a resilient young girl becomes the new protagonist, yelling that she’ll be back on her feet to the passing traffic. The characters ask us for a hand but warn us not to pity them, as they’ve seen things we’ll never see.
McCartney was still in a movie mindset and sings that the song is “in CinemaScope.” Each verse begins with cinematic terminology: “Reveal a,” “Cut to the,” “Focus in on,” “Cut back again to a . . .” At the end, McCartney sings that the song fades out as he pulls down the shade.
The amazing thing about McCartney is the number of times he’s rebounded from flops that would have discouraged someone with less fortitude: MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, WILD LIFE, BROAD STREET, Heather Mills. Perhaps the cost of producing so many successes was the inevitable dud, but the guy was a machine who never stopped.
“Back on My Feet” became a B-side that marked a moment of resurgence. The non album A-side “Once upon a Long Ago” featured an impressive orchestral lushness but also sappy lyrics about puppy dog tails, blowing balloons, and children searching for treasure, not to mention a Kenny G–like sax solo perfect for the corporate luncheon crowd. Costello arrived just in time to remind McCartney how not to be corny.
To Musician, Costello said, “There’s no denying that [McCartney] has a way of sort of defending himself by being charming and smiling and thumbs up and all the bit. I said once that I thought he should try and step from behind that, at least insofar as the music was concerned.”
Re-energized and refocused, with his next album (FLOWERS IN THE DIRT) and subsequent world tour, McCartney would indeed be back on his feet.
“Move Over Busker” was another fun track from the period that shared the movie imagery of “Back on My Feet,” along with its resolve to overcome the disappointment of GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET.
A pub rocker refitted with a modern sound, “Move Over Busker” was akin to a surreal Bob Dylan tune in the sense that McCartney meets a famous actor from the past in each of the three verses.
The first is Nell Gwynne, an actress and mistress of King Charles II in the 1600s. She started out selling oranges in the theater as cover for the fact that her real job was to be a liaison between the male patrons and the actresses backstage, who were also prostitutes. Hence, McCartney sings to her that he’ll have one of her oranges, but she tells him to “Move Over Busker.”
In the next verse he sees Mae West. Quoting her famous catch phrase, McCartney tells her he’ll come up and see her sometime, but she tells him to “Move Over Busker.”
It’s as if, in McCartney’s subconscious, after BROAD STREET’S failure he keeps getting rejected by actresses and is reduced to playing for change in the street.
Finally, in the bridge, he beats his chest and asserts that no one can hold him back and his time will come again. We see both the desperation and steely drive that kept him working for the chart hits. He sings that he wants to stay with the action, knowing if he doesn’t “grab it now,” his “great illusion” will vanish, before busting out with a Little Richard howl.
In the third verse, he’s nursing his injured pride when he sees a satisfied Errol Flynn being called into his trailer by a lusty lady. Flynn’s getting the love now, but McCartney tells him to move over, busker, because Flynn’s day is done and McCartney’s is on the way.
In the tradition of his ’70s albums, the refrain “good times coming” echoes another song on PRESS TO PLAY, “Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun.”