Gimme Five: Solo Beatles records that, well, sucked

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For all of the promise that greeted their time apart — we’ll get four Beatles albums a year now! — the reality was far different as Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison embarked on solo careers.

Lennon might have had the most disappointing solo career of them all, if only because he was the one who left with perhaps the highest expectations. But a creative lull followed his first two albums, then a long stint as a house husband and then, alas, his vicious murder. That said, you’ll notice that fewer Lennon recordings appear on our list than do those from McCartney or Harrison, because it seems even his failures were more interesting than theirs.

As with our original list of bad Beatles songs, we are staying away from side-project recordings like McCartney’s classical stuff, Harrison’s early keyboard experiments and Lennon’s turn-of-the-1970s verite curios with Yoko Ono. We’re also exempting Ringo Starr, since (again) he never presented himself as a songwriter — and, ahem, we’ve done enough dogpiling on Mr. Starkey already.

Instead, we chose to focus on the principal composers from the Beatles, and the albums they issued as mainstream product. You might expect most of our entries to have come from the 1980s, a largely bereft period for many of their generation, but our list is actually evenly divided between that decade and the 1970s …

GEORGE HARRISON – SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND (1981): This album eventually drove Harrison from Warner Bros., so troubled and drawn-out were the sessions. His label ultimately ordered Harrison to drop four of the original songs, saying they were too downbeat. The replacements, thankfully, included the No. 2 hit “All Those Years Ago,” a requiem for the late John Lennon — but, sadly, almost nothing else of note.

As all of this unfolded, recording would stretch from the original dates starting in October 1979 all the way into February 1981. It didn’t really get any better, beyond Harrison’s reworked tribute to his now slain Beatles bandmate — which eventually would feature a partial Beatles reunion with Ringo and Paul, along with Linda McCartney and her Wings mate Denny Laine.

Curiously, two Hoagy Carmichael covers — “Baltimore Oriole” and “Hong Kong Blues” — somehow made the executives’ cut, as did “Blood from a Clone,” an on-the-nose indictment of the current music scene. “Life Itself” might be the only other song worth mentioning. Somewhere in England sounded as lost as its title.

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PAUL McCARTNEY – McCARTNEY II (1980): He was, it’s clear, trying to tap into the new-wave zeitgeist. But this didn’t pass for innovation back in 1980, and today McCartney II sounds at times laughably dated — fatally hobbled from the first by Paul’s own poor mechanics with the synthesizers with which he chose to experiment.

As with 1970’s McCartney, this sequel found Paul coming off a huge production. Originally, that was 1969’s Abbey Road with the Beatles; a decade later, he was stripping things down after 1979’s boisterous Back to the Egg with Wings. But whereas McCartney’s original one-man album had a kind of pastoral charm, this project — performed on a keyboard plugged directly into a 16-track tape machine — feels like a crude, unconvincingly conceived demo.

Many, in the ensuing years, have chosen to give McCartney credit — too much, really; I mean, seriously: “Temporary Secretary?” — simply for trying something different here. But those who complain about McCartney’s sometimes lazy cutisms are not required to love it every time he tries something different — and I just can’t.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Former Wings lead guitarist Laurence Juber talks about Paul McCartney’s transition back toward a solo career and ‘McCartney II.’]

JOHN LENNON – SOME TIME IN NEW YORK CITY (1972): Lennon’s post-Plastic Ono Band/Imagine recordings never reached similar heights again, though he seemed to be rebounding with the twin albums Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey at the time of his death in 1980. Five years of his too-short decade as a solo artist was also spent at home building a family.

That leaves precious little time to spare, and in way Lennon seemed to know that. He had long been obsessed with getting songs out as quickly as possible, memorably having written 1970’s “Instant Karma” in the morning and recorded it later that same day. Some Time in New York City was the natural outgrowth of this impulse, a recording focused on the issues of that very moment in time — ripped, as they say, right from the headlines.

Unfortunately, those newspapers have become yellowed and frayed. Few are the people who remember John Sinclair (the writer and MC5 band manager jailed for passing two joints to an undercover cop) and the Attica prison riots (sparked by demands for better living conditions), both big news in 1971 and the subjects of songs on Some Time. Without universal themes that could resonate across generations, however, this album now comes off as empty sloganeering. The sentiments are too brittle, and often all edge — the result, no doubt, of their rushed creation.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Alan White discusses the genesis of the Plastic Ono Band, and his contributions to early John Lennon recordings like “Instant Karma.”]

GEORGE HARRISON – EXTRA TEXTURE (1975): A darkly depressing album, with a superfluous rewrite of a Beatles song (“This Guitar Can’t Keep from Crying”) serving as a signpost for its creatively bankrupt, dead-end vibe. Harrison, who had returned to drink and drugs, couldn’t have strayed further from his religious moorings — or from the free-spirited uplift that made his initial post-Beatles projects such pleasant surprises.

The only two songs that break this elegiac mold were, in fact, older efforts: the thunderous “You,” which became a Top 20 U.S. hit, was actually a leftover track from a scrapped Ronnie Spector solo album for Apple, dating to 1971; while the jokey “His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen)” had been recorded the year before with Billy Preston, Andy Newmark and “Legs” Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

Even “Tired of Midnight Blue,” which along with “You” represents one of the few salvageable moments here, is a drag. Here’s how Harrison himself described it: “You know those nights you go out and wish you hadn’t? It’s one of those.” Same with this grinding, relentlessly downbeat album, where even the name Extra Texture has come to feel like a cruel joke. A better title might have come from one of its most wrist-slashingly awful songs: “Grey Cloudy Lies.”

PAUL McCARTNEY – PRESS TO PLAY (1986): It would have taken a lot to zoom past the cutesy London Town, the self-conscious Driving Rain or the undercooked Wild Life — to say nothing of the synthy disaster that is the previously mentioned McCartney II. McCartney got there with this oh-so-typically-1980s Hugh Padgham-helmed “event” — easily the least listenable offering from not just Beatle Paul but any of his Beatle brethren. Even McCartney II had “Coming Up.” Somewhere in England had “All Those Years Ago.” Some Time in New York City had the Chuck Berry update “New York City.” Extra Texture had “You.” There are no such respites to be found amid the plasticine echoes of drum-machined monotony here.

What Press to Play really represents is the smoking crater following a creative tailspin that began with Pipes of Peace, the leftovers from his uneven 1982 release Tug of War, and then the shockingly wrongheaded Give My Regards to Broad Street — which found McCartney rerecording Beatles and Wings favorites for the soundtrack to a movie that no one saw. To be honest, even the passing fancies of Tug of War couldn’t break a string of unfathomable failures. At this point, McCartney hadn’t put out an unbroken sequence of songs worth listening to since side one of Back to the Egg.

He’d need the snarky impetus of Elvis Costello, who would help McCartney score minor hits with “Veronica” and “My Brave Face” over the next few years, to finally begin a long walk away from these 1980s-era disasters. But really, you could argue that Paul’s musical renaissance wouldn’t come into full bloom until after reuniting with the surviving Beatles in the mid-1990s. Ever since, he’s been on a tear that — save for that aforementioned 2001 stumble, Driving Rain — has continued unabated. First, however, he had to get this overproduced dud out of the way.

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DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

6. PAUL McCARTNEY – GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET (1984): The redos of his own songs were awful, but Paul nearly redeemed himself with “No More Lonely Nights,” his last No. 1 — not to mention fun jams like “Not Such a Bad Boy”; 7. GEORGE HARRISON – DARK HORSE (1974): A strangely detached, croaky album recorded in the aftermath of his divorce. Unfortunately, it would get worse; 8. PAUL McCARTNEY AND WINGS – LONDON TOWN (1978): Too precious by half, this album found Wings reduced again to a threesome — but five years later, they couldn’t pull off another Band on the Run; 9. PAUL McCARTNEY – PIPES OF PEACE (1983): Sounds like leftovers from Tug of War, because … well, it is. 10. JOHN LENNON – MIND GAMES (1972): A largely unfocused, overproduced mess. The ballads meander and, far worse, the rockers don’t rock.

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