Gimme Five: Solo Beatles records that, well, sucked

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.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Bobby Whitlock takes us into the studio for George Harrison's sprawling three-disc solo debut, where Derek and the Dominoes were born.]

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.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

43 Comments

  1. Nick: Get with the program. McCartney II was reissued in 2011 and got terrific reviews pretty much all over the place. Music has caught up with where Paul was on McCartney II back in 1980. And the McCartney II reissues got great reviews from Pitchfork, AV Club, The Quietus, Stuff.com, Mojo, Uncut, Q Magazine, etc., etc. Hell even Rolling Stone gave it three stars.

    Feel free to dislike the album but it’s just plain inaccurate and misleading to ignore the fact that McCartney II is now considered one of Paul’s best solo albums.

    • It’s simply too uneven to be called one of Paul McCartney’s best recordings. Moreover, the fact that ‘II’ has yet to go platinum (three decades later and counting) tells me the buying public agrees — whatever the critics say.

      In fact, ‘II’ had sold under 20,000 before the reissue release — third worst, all-time, among McCartney recordings (behind only ‘London Town’ and ‘Wild Life’). This new edition of ‘II’ didn’t fly off the shelves, either — selling less than 1,900 copies, for instance, during its first week of release in McCartney’s native England.

      Some, I suppose, might say that’s because it doesn’t pander to the charts. Or you can say that, in the grand scheme of things, it ranks somewhere around ‘London Town’ and ‘Wild Life’ on the scale of great McCartney albums. We’re going with the latter.

      • Plastic Ono Band didn’t fly off the shelves either and remains a low-selling album. That doesn’t prevent it from being John’s best album. We all know that great albums don’t always sell well.

        IMO, McCartney II is, as Quietus recently described it, an “outstanding” album.

        • While fewer than 20,000 copies of the pre-reissue ‘McCartney II’ had shipped since the SoundScan era began, John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ sold well over 165,000 copies. There’s really no comparing those two albums, on any level.

          • Yes, actually there are many comparisons to make. Both of them are outstanding albums. Both of them are unusual and experimental. And it just doesn’t matter how well either of them sold. The fact is: Plastic Ono Band got great reviews and STILL sold poorly for such a hugely praised album. Meanwhile, McCartney II was way ahead of its time and got slammed badly when it first came out so it’s not surprising that its sales were low. It took 30 years for today’s critics to appreciate it. That happens to Macca’s work a lot.

      • McCartney II sold under 20,000, what are you talking about? It was Number 1 in the UK and Number 3 in the US.

        • I’m talking about the SoundScan era. That’s why, if you read my comment, I said: “Fewer than 20,000 copies of the pre-reissue ‘McCartney II’ had shipped since the SoundScan era began.” This encompasses sales over the last 20 years — commonly referred to as the SoundScan era, which started when Nielsen began tracking sales data on March 1, 1991.

          • The Right One says:

            Because it was out of print most of that time?

            …I agree Mc II is a great album. Weird Macca = good Macca, and he gets dementedly weird on this one. A letter to the Alfred Marks employment agency, Circa 1980 studio gadgetry and trippy influences ranging from Kraftwerk to Alexis Korner. Much cooler Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, etc. or whatever kind of studio dross came next.

  2. P.S. Wild Life is a great little album, too. Perhaps you need to listen to Tom Scharpling’s show to understand that.

    And why isn’t Lennon’s Imagine album on this list. It is, as one reviewer recently described it, the most “over-rated album” of 1971 — “clammy, colourless, and self-absorbed.” Where is Lennon’s Two Virgins album on this list? Or Life With the Lions?

    • As mentioned, Lennon’s experimental albums with Yoko aren’t included, since we don’t consider those mainstream pop releases. In talking about ‘Wild Life’ and ‘Imagine,’ I certainly wouldn’t put them into my Top 10 for 1971 — after all, it was a very good year. That being said, the point here wasn’t to compare these albums with those from their contemporaries, anyway.

      And ‘Imagine’ isn’t even in the conversation for most clammy, most colorless or most self-absorbed Beatles solo release.

      • So how is McCartney II then deemed a mainstream pop release? Nothing about that album was or is mainstream.

        • Here’s how: The album version of “Coming Up” went to No. 2 on the UK pop charts. Meanwhile, a live version of the same song topped the American pop charts.

          • One hit song on an album doesn’t make the album a mainstream release. It makes that particular single a mainstream release.

            At any rate, McCartney II is a great album. And I’m glad the vast majority of critics have come round on that.

            • Except that “Waterfalls” went to No. 9 on the pop charts in the UK, as well. How many Top 10 singles does an album have to have before it’s considered a mainstream pop release, Sam?

          • That’s just McCartney’s melodic genius at work — and the benefit of his last name translating into sales. I’m saying it doesn’t matter if the album had 1 or 2 hit singles. McCartney II wasn’t a mainstream album then and it isn’t a mainstream album now. But it is a great album and certainly doesn’t belong on any list of Beatles solo work that sucked. Pipes of Peace would have been a better choice for this list.

          • I meant in the Top 5 featured. McCartney II doesn’t belong anywhere on this list. I wouldn’t have had any disagreement with Pipes of Peace being in the top 5.

            • S. Victor Aaron says:

              >>I wouldn’t have had any disagreement with Pipes of Peace being in the top 5.

              Did you clear this with Rolling Stone and Pitchfork first?

          • Victor: Snide remarks are the last resort of someone who has nothing to add to a conversation.

      • Robert Spinello says:

        I disagree. Imagine is a classic. Lennon at his best. Has the best of both worlds – The cutting edge lyrics like Plastic Ono Band with a smooth production like Walls and Bridges. It is the ultimate Lennon “compromise.”

  3. I would have included “Driving Rain” as a boring tuneless dud.

    • What’s all the more surprising is that it arrived amid a period of such sustained creative rebirth for McCartney. In fact, I’d count ‘Flaming Pie,’ ‘Chaos and Creation’ (in particular) and the Fireman collaboration as being among his best-ever solo efforts.

  4. Well, I guess I’d better weigh in on this one. :)

    Nick, I agree with your John Lennon picks, although the title track to “Mind Games” is one of his best, I think. As for George Harrison, I believe “Gone Troppo” deserves a (dis)honorable mention. It’s not his worst, but it definitely has the same dated feeling that “Somewhere” contains.

    Where I mostly disagree is with the Paul McCartney picks. I’m one of the apparent few that defends “Press to Play.” Yes, it is a victim of the over-synthesized 80s. However, it includes some very nice moments, including one of his best ballads, “Only Love Remains.” In my opinion, “Driving Rain” is hands down his worst album. I didn’t connect with one single song on that disc, which is highly unusual. I also defend “Pipes of Peace”–I concede that it isn’t among his best efforts, but his duets with Michael Jackson and “So Bad,” among other songs, are memorable.

    I noticed you didn’t mention Ringo. I submit the following (note these are original album configurations, NOT reissues):
    Goodnight Vienna (1974)
    Ringo’s Rotogravure (1976)
    Ringo the 4th (1977)
    Bad Boy (1978)

  5. Agree mostly with this list. Glad you excluded Ringo. I love Ringo (share a birthday with him), and I’ll continue to buy every record, but, yah, there’s just too much sub-par co-written material there. The self-titled Ringo record is by far the best album start-to-finish.

    The McCartney choices: while I don’t think M2 is phenomenal, I do enjoy it. It makes me smile. I enjoy moments of Press To Play (“Good Times Coming” & “Write Away” are fun and I agree w/ someone’s comment about “Only Love Remains” being one of his best ballads.”) but over all, one of the weaker albums; true. It really pains me to put the Driving Rain album as one of his worst. A good friend of mine played keyboards on the whole record, and while I like a handful of tunes (“Tiny Bubble” “Spinning On An Axis” “Your Loving Flame” – another excellent ballad), the rest of the songs are just the weakest of his catalog. I would’ve easily switched Driving Rain and M2 on your list. I think Memory Almost Full is also a disppointment (what kind of chorus is “I find it very very very very very very hard”!?!?), especially considering how strong Chaos & Creation was! (I think that’s one his most consistent albums start-to-finish).

    George Harrison: agree w/ Extra Texture (I think “World of Stone” is the best of allll those sloooow songs.) But I would easily switch Gone Troppo & Somewhere in England. From the moment that keyboard flails-about willy-nilly right in your face to the limping-out of “Circles” (I know that song was originally written around the time of The White Album, but that doesn’t mean its good.) The least offending track is the near-instrumental “Greece”.

    John Lennon: Across the board, I think Lennon’s solo output is much weaker than is hyped. I’m sure I didn’t just win any friends right then. The singles are awesome, but album tracks typically seem uninspired or really bloody depressing. Sometime in New York City is just plain hard to listen to, right from the opening track. (The near-title track is killer, tho). Walls And Bridges is my favorite Lennon album. I dig every tune.

    So, that’s the official TheDailyVinyl response to your article.

  6. Count Screwloose says:

    Interesting picks, though I’d champion ‘Mind Games’ (I was surprised at how much I liked it when I heard it for the first time in years after buying the reissue) over ‘Walls and Bridges’ which still sounds to me every bit like the lost weekend that inspired it. Admittedly ‘Walls’ had more hit singles, but it’s a tough one to get through from beginning to end. I’d just throw in that I’ve always been fond of ‘Extra Texture’ and am surprised it isn’t better liked in general. It would come in #3 on my personal Harrison list, after ATMP and Material World.

    • I am a huge fan of George Harrison, Count (as evidenced by this exhaustive examination of some favorite deep cuts: http://somethingelsereviews.com/2012/05/03/deep-cuts-forgotten-gems-from-george-harrison/), but I just can’t get through the draggy, deeply depressing ‘Extra Texture.’ As for Harrison sleeper picks, well, it pains me to disagree with Kit, but mine would be ‘Gone Troppo.’ Though the album is certainly not helped at times by the period-piece synthesizers, I find it to be far more approachable than his mid-1970s work — and “Unknown Delight,” a track dedicated to his young son Dhani, is this lost treasure.

  7. Robert Spinello says:

    In George’s words. some songs turn out good and some not so good. On EVERY Beatles solo album there are moments of brilliance, including on the albums you have listed. After all. the beatles best work was their singles, even from the Sgt Pepper era, Strawberry Fields was the single, not included on the album. Your list misses the point. There less than perfect work is still better or as good as anyone else’s best.

  8. Robert Spinello says:

    Lennon’s solo work was capable. First listen of Walls and Bridges when it came out was somber if anything, but the quality of his songs was still there. McCartney’s 70s releases I treated with childish expectations. I was usually rewarded with upbeat, and listenable LPs. Harrison’s work, far more infrequent had impeccable playing and production. I think their solo work has been too critically reviewed.

  9. Robert Spinello says:

    McCartney ll was pre-Fireman style experimentation. Why do you think he took his name off the three Fireman albums – to prevent the harsh reviews McCartney recieved. Funny how as the Fireman it works but as Paul it would never…

  10. JC Mosquito JC Mosquito says:

    I agree with Nick – I was pleasantly surprised by The Fireman, and Flaming Pie, and, well – count Run Devil Run in there too just because everyone got to hear David Gilmour play rockabilly guitar. for a change.

    But there was a lot of dreck between Band On the Run and that trio of releases.

    Lennon wrote a lot of good songs, but you had to go digging around to find them on some fairly just OK albums. The Plastic Ono Band album at least holds up as an album, or even a great album, but as I read somewhere surfing around on the net the other night, it’s easy to turn out something great once in a while, but it’s hard to turn out material that is consistently good. As a point of comparison, look at the body of work of the Beatles as compared to Led Zeppelin. I think the Beatles had more quality songwriting, but most of Zep’s albums hold up better than Beatle’s albums when you sit down to listen to the whole thing. Of course, it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison (or maybe an Apple and Swan Song comparison!).

    Another artist to consider is Tom Petty. His albums and songs are usually pretty good, but other than Damn the Torpedoes and its hits, he doesn’t have a lot of brilliant moments, and only recently has he started to show up with a few duds. But overall I’d say he was a solid writer who earned his reputation by using craftsmanship well enough that it’s often thought to be simply inspiration.

  11. Frank Martin says:

    I think people like to expect Paul’s solo efforts to be as strong as the Beatles albums but the Beatles had three songwriters. Maybe if Paul had released an album every three years instead of every year he could have picked the absolute best cuts and all his albums would be classics. I don’t think Paul took himself too seriously, he just liked to write fun pop songs which is what he did when he was with Beatles. John mainly wrote the serious stuff. I’ve had all Paul’s albums and there were some weak albums and some stronger albums and when it comes down to it it’s just music. You either like it or you don’t nothing more. Every album offered at least one strong single. Paul’s best work is his singles and occassional album cuts. So for most people an album like “Wings Greatest Hits” or “Wingspan” or “All The Best” would suffice. I find most of Paul’s albums kind of weak so I just pick the best of the album cuts and make my own best of cds. Except for a few select tracks albums like McCartney, McCartney II, Wings At The Speed of Sound, Wildlife, London Town …..are weak efforts. Nobody is going to convince me that these are strong albums. McCartney II has one strong single with “Coming Up”. Maybe one or two so so tracks and the rest not even worth mentioning. People seem so caught up in trying to convince others that something is better than it really it is but they don’t realize that they simply like lame boring music.

  12. In the early-mid seventies, I kept hoping for the next solo album by each of the four to be really great. I bought ‘em all, either on vinyl, or eight-track, and came away at least slightly disappointed each time, until “Ringo” and “Band on The Run.” I thought, okay, now they’re hitting their strides. “Goodnight Vienna,” “Venus and Mars,” “Walls and Bridges,” “At The Speed of Sound,” and 33 1/3″ all had some good moments, but after listening to “London Town” on an album-oriented FM station, I decided that Apple Corps had gotten enough of my money. My favorite solo Beatle album: The not- really -solo Beatle album: “Ringo.”

  13. Frank Martin says:

    My guess is that anyone listening to Paul McCartney albums are people who grew up with Paul in the 1960s and 1970s and maybe early 1980s. I can’t picture someone around fifty years old just starting to discover the wonders of P Mac. I heard all of his little pop tunes on am/fm radio back in the 70s. I liked John with the Beatles but he was less appealing to me as a soloist. I like pop tunes and Paul always wrote great melodies. Paul could take a simple idea like “Let ‘Em In” and make some nonsensical idea into a song. Anyone looking to expect more out of a McCartney album needs to go back to their serious Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen albums. People like to believe Paul changed when he went solo but I think he writes the same kind of songs he did when he was with the Beatles. It actually made Paul a better writer having him to work things out without John. The times changed and the ideas changed but it’s the same man writing about different things. Really to argue about whether McCartney II was great or not is a waste of time. It’s just Paul having a bit of fun in the studio. That’s what is cool about it. He had his fun and then he came out with “Tug Of War”. Now he’s back to writing what people expect of him. You can take any album out there and make an argument as to why it’s the greatest masterpiece or a dismal failure.

    Here is a partial list of why he DID do a good job:
    Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey,Hi Hi Hi, My Love, Live and Let Die, Band On The Run, Juniors Farm, Jet, Helen Wheels, Listen To What The Man Said, Silly Love Songs, Let ‘Em In, With A Little Luck, Getting Closer, Goodnight Tonight, Coming Up, Take It Away, Ebony and Ivory, Say Say Say, No More Lonely Nights, Spies Like Us, Press To Play, My Brave Face…….

  14. Leggy Mountbatten says:

    The George Harrsion albums are masterpieces compared with either “Living in the Material World” (drearier than any Leonard Cohen album, and without any of the good that entails) or “Gone Troppo”.

  15. Clarence_Boddicker says:

    You forgot to mention “Gone Troppo”, one of Harrison’s most half-baked albums. He only recorded it to fulfill his recording contract, and man, does it sound it. “Dream Away” is the only good song on it.

  16. Bang Bang says:

    Clarence, I thought “Unknown Delight,” the song George wrote for Dhani, was actually a delight … no pun intended!

  17. Magic Kenny says:

    “Press to Play” is pretty awful. However, “Angry” off that record is great – Paul’s closest punk-rock power and yawp since “I’m Down” and “Helter Skelter.”

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