Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Frequent readers of my music reviews may have picked up on the fact that I love to attend rock concerts. Because most of my favorites tend to be older and they don’t tour a lot - such as Bruce Springsteen and the Stones - I don’t get to as many shows as I’d like, but I still hit between 20 and 30 a year, mainly because I go to multiple performances when one of preferred acts.
For example, I saw U2 14 times during 2001. I also hit six Madonna shows and three Janet Jackson performances. While I’ll also go to some other concerts, you can see that the majority of my 30 shows in 2001 added up from just a few sources.
Happily, I’ve attended shows by virtually every act that I’d really like to see. This omits bands such as the Beatles, of course, since they broke up when I was three, but for all the performers I theoretically could see, I’ve hit them all. Unfortunately, some of them made me wait quite a while to do so. For much of the Eighties, I had a list of three favorite acts that I thought I’d never get to see. The shortest endurance came with the Stones. I’d desperately wanted to go to one of their 1981 concerts but I couldn’t get a ticket. As such, I had to suffer through eight long years before I’d finally get to attend some 1989 shows. Since the group virtually disbanded during that period, this eventual realization of my dream had been in doubt, so I was very happy to finally see them.
Of the “Big Three”, one act was - and remains - pretty obscure. I became a fan of Big Country back in 1983 along with others who loved their hit “In A Big Country”. However, I stayed with them after that, and I continue to count them as one of my favorite bands, though they did finally break up recently. I won’t delve into the sad details, but it took me 10 years to finally see BC; there were many “almosts” along the way, but since they rarely toured the US, I wasn’t able to attend one of their shows until October 1993, exactly a decade after I first grew to love them. (By the way, I would have attended their Washington DC concert in December 1983, but they played a nightclub called the Bayou, and no one under 18 was admitted. Since I was 16 at the time, that omitted me, unfortunately.)
While Big Country were the final act to get crossed off my list, they don’t earn the honor as the one for whom I waited the longest. The title goes to Paul McCartney, who I finally got to see in July 1990. Technically, I’ve always considered that I waited 14 years to see Macca, as that was the time period between DC-area appearances; his sole US concert prior to 1989-90 took place in 1976. However, I was too young for rock shows back then; my first happened in December 1977, when I saw KISS.
Nonetheless, I’d started to cultivate an interest in concerts sometime earlier in 1977. I still recall that I’d periodically phone the operator at local arena the Capitol Center and ask if McCartney or KISS were slated to appear. Eventually I got a “yes” for the latter, but never for the former.
Whether one thinks I waited 13 years or 14 years for McCartney, the fact is that it took a long time. When the big day finally came, I was happy to go, but I must admit that my anticipation level was less than peak. I’d loved McCartney when I was younger. 1977’s Wings Over America album - taken from the 1976 tour - remains my most-played record of all-time, and I also really enjoyed the Rock Show concert film that finally came out in 1981; I got a videotape of it in late 1983 and gave it a couple trillion viewings.
However, by 1990, my interest had waned to a certain degree. I still really liked McCartney, both on his own and with the Beatles, but the passion had faded. The same concern affected my enjoyment of the Stones the prior year; I was happy to go, especially since I’d nabbed a front row seat for one of the concerts, but I can’t say that I was really terribly interested in the band at the time.
For McCartney, I also had a great seat - seventh row for the first of the three shows I’d attend - but that couldn’t overcome my mild apathy. It was nice to finally realize this long-time dream, but the intensity simply wasn’t there for me.
For the record, I’ve largely regained my interest in both the Stones and McCartney. In regard to the former, their 1994 Voodoo Lounge shows really resparked my passion. It never returned to early Eighties levels, but I was very pleasantly surprised by that show, and it got me back into their music in a way I thought wouldn’t happen. The same happened for McCartney in 1996, but the reasons are less clear. The issue of the Beatles Anthology CDs prompted a resurgence in my fondness for their material - it was nice to hear something different after all those years - and I guess this craving for music led me to rediscover McCartney’s old stuff.
While it’s tempting to feel that my lackluster reaction to McCartney’s 1990 performances stemmed from my general apathy toward his material, that doesn’t seem to be true. Put bluntly, McCartney circa 1990 simply wasn’t at the top of his game, a fact of which I’ve been reminded through my viewing of the 1991 concert film Get Back.
Granted, I’m not sure McCartney ever was much of a live performer. Yes, I adored Wings Over America and Rock Show, but McCartney lacks much flair on stage. I feel that in almost all circumstances, musicians have to play a lot of shows before they can seem comfortable on stage. Clearly McCartney did boohoogles of concerts with the Beatles, and he also toured a lot during the mid-Seventies. However, by the late Eighties, he’d been off the road for many years. After 1976, he did a few shows in late 1979 and early 1980, and these were supposed to lead to a full-blown world tour, but his infamous pot bust in Japan scuttled those plan.
As such, McCartney did very few live performances between 1976 and 1989, and his lack of comfort on stage comes through during Get Back. It’s possible that he would never have been a stellar personality in front of a crowd no matter what; Rock Show made him look looser and more in charge, but it wasn’t a huge difference.
In any case, the McCartney of 1989-90 looked a bit stiff and goofy. No, I didn’t expect him to become a dynamic performer like Jagger, Bowie or Springsteen, but his stage presence failed to offer much magnetism. As such, the movie seemed somewhat drab just because not much of interest occurred on stage.
McCartney’s band didn’t do much to support him. I’ve read comments that this group could “play rings around Wings”, McCartney’s Seventies group. Technically, that may be true; it’s very probable that this group included more proficient musicians. However, I think that Wings had a great deal more personality, and there’s a looseness and an ease to their performances that’s absent from the 1989-90 band’s work. They’re accurate but they lacked much passion, and I think this contributed to McCartney’s drab presence.
As a whole, the tunes of Get Back sounded decent, but the absence of spark or life really made them seem less scintillating than I’d expect. Some of the songs worked quite well. “Back in the USSR” still burns some barns, and “I Saw Her Standing There” manages to catch a little fire as well. However, most of the other tunes sounded somewhat generic and bland. Frankly, I think this band may have been too technically adept; their skills rendered the songs more sterile than I’d like.
It didn’t help that McCartney was in bad voice during the 1989-90 tour. Unfortunately, his singing has lost a lot since the Sixties and Seventies, and he’ll never be able to regain that form. However, this tour found him to sound particularly reedy and rough. Subsequent performances during his 1993 shows and the 1999 gig seen on Live at the Cavern Club still showed McCartney’s vocal flaws, but they seemed smoother and richer than what I heard here.
Due to McCartney’s lack of stage presence, the forces behind Get Back decided that they needed to spice up the proceedings via other methods. Director Richard Lester - the force behind Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as flicks like Superman II and Superman III - led the project, and he did whatever he could to keep us from shots of McCartney and the others on stage. Of course, we still find a lot of those images, but quite a few other pictures intrude. Get Back features far more crowd shots than usual; the film frequently leaves the stage so we can see the audience’s rapturous pleasure.
This would be bad enough under the best of circumstances, but it’s compounded by the fact that McCartney seems to attract a rather dorky audience. It pains me to say this since I’m among them, but most of these folks appeared to be awfully awkward. I don’t want to watch crowd shots in any case, but the images of these folks made the transitions even less enjoyable.
If Get Back simply stayed with a mix of audience images and stage shots, I wouldn’t mind too much; yeah, the former would still be excessive, but I could still accept the presentation as one that makes sense for concerts. Unfortunately, Lester decided to add a slew of external elements to the presentation. Through many of the songs, he provided clips from other media. The movie included a slew of Beatle snippets; shots from Help! popped up during “Band On the Run”, the DVD’s first song, and they also made appearances in “The Fool On the Hill”, “Let It Be” and other tracks. A variety of other semi-appropriate snippets materialized in other songs. For example, “Rough Ride” showed different mishaps as they affected people, and “The Long and Winding Road” depicted lots of Sixties imagery.
The latter was the worst manifestation of this method. While the clips cropped up during parts of the other tunes, at no point in “Winding” did we see the performers; the entire song consisted of archival footage! All told, 12 of the DVD’s 20 songs included these sorts of shots.
That’s a ridiculously excessive number. I could accept this feature maybe two or three times during the show, but for more than half of the tunes? That’s nuts, and it’s both distracting and annoying. A good concert video should provide a clear and accurate representation of the original performance itself. Various gimmicks do nothing more than detract from the material and look like nothing more than visual messiness.
That’s why I liked Rock Show so much. It’s a calm and logical representation of the concerts, and it conveys a solid atmosphere without any pointless tricks or goofiness. Under the best of circumstances, Get Back would probably have remained fairly flat just because that’s the way the concerts were. However, it could have been a much more enjoyable and engrossing experience if only its producers had trusted the original material and not tried to make a McCartney show into a bizarre multimedia event. Let’s hope that when the inevitable video release from McCartney’s 2002 tour appears, its producers make it a more representative offering. (And if anyone cares, I’m hitting nine shows for that trek, including third row seats for the May 10th show, which just happens to be my birthday. Hooray for me!)