Graham Reid | | 5 min read
In the decade after he disbanded Wings at the end of the Seventies, Paul McCartney's recording career on albums offered diminishing returns outside of a string of mostly vacuous chart hits.
It wasn't until Flowers in the Dirt in '89 – and even that pulled its punches too much – you felt he still had something serious to offer.
The Eighties were tough times for Sixties stars as the young audience post-punk/post-New Wave dismissed them as relics from their parents' generation.
Although live audiences would remain viable for McCartney who had introduced Beatles' songs back into his set – those parents had money for concert tickets to enjoy the nostalgia – McCartney needed to up his game in the studio and not settle for less, as he was prone to do.
All his pop-rock albums contain at least two or three excellent songs but in the Nineties he was waylaid by his classical aspirations (disappointing mostly) and the more anonymous electronic experiments as The Fireman with producer Youth (much more interesting).
His 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard was considered a real return to pop-rock form – it did have some dead air however – and deserved more sustained attention than it got. Few, if any, of those songs have appeared in his set lists since however.
McCartney – astute businessman that he is – realised he needed to up his game when it came to promotion also, that he could no longer take for granted the old routine.
That had become a tired game: the brief but exclusive interview/encounter for some UK Dad-Rock magazine where he trotted out Beatles' stories, a familiar anecdote, the tip o' the hat to John and often the suggestion that the Beatles' track Carnival of Light might actually be released.
(Don't bother was the consensus from those who'd heard it, bloody awful was the verdict.)
For his Memory Almost Full album in 2007 he did something daring and seemingly counter-intuitive. The album was released on the Hear Music label (not EMI/Capitol where he'd spent his 45-year career) and on the day of release was sold through their front-of-house which was . . . Starbucks?
It appeared crass but on that day MAF was played in 10,000 Starbucks stores across numerous territories (and was available at the counter) so was heard by millions of people.
Whatever you think of that marketing ploy, the album crashed into the top rungs of the charts in the US and UK, even though in Britain the Starbucks sales weren't counted.
McCartney was seen and heard again . . . and to punch it home he did a “secret” gig at the Amoeba record store in LA a few days later.
“The idea originally came from Scott, my manager,” he said recently. “He said that the night you're playing in Los Angeles, The Police are also playing in town at the big Dodgers' Stadium or somewhere.
“He said if you're going to get noticed you might want to do something unusual.
“So I went, 'Oh great, that's my kind of thinking!' I'm not sure if he suggested it but the idea came up to play this great, iconic record shop in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard.”
McCartney knew the place because he'd bought records there and liked the idea that up-and-coming bands would play on the small stage and “sometimes you do things for a combination of PR and fun.”
So in late July 2007 McCartney and his band took to the small stage in front of a large crowd (which included Ringo) and played a canny set which included Beatles songs, material from his Wings decade and a few – not too many – from the new and as yet unfamiliar Memory Almost Full album.
Later that year four tracks – Only Mama Knows and That Was Me from MAF, C Moon from Wings and the Beatles' I Saw Her Standing There – were released as a limited edition vinyl.
And promptly disappeared.
Now however the full Amoeba set arrives on CD and heavyweight double vinyl as Amoeba Gig – part of a dump of remastered live albums alongside Paul is Live ('93), Choba B CCCP ('88) and the thumping triple set Wings Over America ('76).
Of them all the Amoeba Gig is, by virtue of being previously unreleased as a complete concert, the one where attention is directed . . . and it is pretty terrific.
It opens with a blistering Drive My Car (hard to believe the US audience didn't get this as the opening track on Rubber Soul because Capitol reconfigured the album into folk-rock) and then the rocking MAF song Only Mama Knows.
Across four side of thick vinyl (no liner notes to speak of), it is a quirky but also crowd-pleasing selection: C Moon is a funky oddity (originally coupled with Hi-Hi-Hi as a Wings single), the MAF throwaway Nod Your Head is a searing rocker, he throws in the old music hall song Baby Face, there also the old rock'n'roll classic Matchbox hauled into Eighties LA hard rock by guitarist Rusty Anderson, I'll Follow the Sun, Calico Skies and an emotionally charged Here Today about Lennon in which he sounds close to breaking down.
By keeping the MAF count low – the darkly atmospheric House of Wax doesn't work live in this context – it directs attention to his autobiographical That Was Me which is given a much more desperate treatment than on the MAF album . . . and you get a clear sense he is enjoying himself in this smaller setting.
A crowd of 1000 was small by his measure.
Yes, he digs into a fiery Get Back, Blackbird, Back in the USSR, Hey Jude and Lady Madonna (of course he would, you'd be disappointed if he didn't) but The Long and Winding Road is a real highlight where he sounds soulful and invigorated ,unlike his many other sentimental versions out there.
He also throws himself into Let It Be with yet another incisive solo by Anderson and the extended I Got A Feeling (yes, missing Lennon's more weary tone) gets a thick and rocking make-over. A great rock song.
The selection reminds you again of his emotional range (the vocal range a bit more frayed) and that McCartney delivered memorable rock songs.
After a joyous I Saw Her Standing There -- still a blindingly good and quite punky rock song with this band -- we also get a soundcheck take of Coming Up, one his most ignored but catchy and clever songs, the one Lennon heard and apparently exclaimed “Paul is back!”
Those lucky enough to gain entry (or who have paid over the odds for a special concert package) know that before his concerts McCartney will often do an extended soundcheck and play songs which don't appear in the subsequent show.
The skin-tight version of Coming Up here and only available on the vinyl edition – with the Peter Gunn Theme woven in – whets the appetite for a whole album of such material, which might also include some of those improvisations and jams, from soundchecks.
“It's a little treasure trove,” said McCartney recently about the hundreds of hours of recordings from soundchecks.
“One day we will have to put together an album, or something, with a selection of those songs that we've gathered, because they are from all around the world.”
These days Paul McCartney had been rehabilitated into a viable stadium filling/stadium-shaking rock act with a back-catalogue of genius.
And the Amoeba Gig album reminds you that he can also pull it off in a smaller venue.
No need to threaten the release of Carnival of Light anymore to get attention.