An Andy Way to Work

At the time of writing, Ireland are three from three in the 2023 Six Nations Championship. Following on from the uber successful tour of NZ in the summer, Irish rugby is sure in a good space. As the old cliche goes, winning is very much a habit. But what has caused this successful turnaround?

To my mind, the key factor is Andy Farrell. Farrell has brought so much to the Irish set up. Consistency of performance hit new heights under the venerable Joe Schmidt but, against the odds, the former rugby league man has pushed standards even further. The proof is there for all to see. So, what has Farrell done?

The primary thing that Farrell has provided is the infusion of a winning mentality. Sure, Ireland has a group of talented and ambitious players, but it’s the mind-set of the group that impresses most. These guys expect to win. Not in an arrogant way, but they fear no-one. And they’re relentless in maintaining and improving standards of performance.

Here, Farrell’s influence is key. A product of that splendid Wigan rugby league side of the ’90s, Ireland’s coach was brought up in an environment where winning was not just desirable but essential. It was mandatory. That side was marvellous. And Farrell was an integral component of it. You see that relentless attitude within the current Irish playing group.

What’s wonderful as well is the brand of rugby currently played. It’s pleasing on the eye and there’s a massive emphasis on individual and collective skills. Schmidt’s side was the archetype of systemic rugby, where everyone was meticulously drilled within their roles. It was functional rather than overtly creative.

Farrell’s side plays differently. The players clearly have licence to play what’s in front of them. If it’s on, they routinely go for it. And, delightfully, the offload is no longer an endangered species. Don’t get me wrong. It’s all curated within a definite shape and structure, and the team is as well organised as it’s ever been. But it’s not restrictive. There’s no straight jacket at play.

And they’re doing it with smiles on their faces. This Irish team is evidently enjoying its rugby. Work is an opportunity to improve, grow and develop. It’s not onerous in any way. The players are clearly relishing the challenge.

One example of the elite nature of this environment is the way in which Ireland have coped with injuries. A succession of players have gone down, but replacements have slotted in seamlessly. For instance, Stuart McCloskey has thrived with his belated chance at a regular run. Similarly, Finlay Bealham has excelled covering for the once indispensable Tadhg Furlong. Players have slotted in and out pretty effortlessly.

Such understanding only happens within a highly competitive and organised environment. All credit goes to the coach. The Schmidt era was the high water mark for Irish rugby. And, yet, his successor has taken performance to another level entirely. Success is never guaranteed in any walk of life but, heck, it’s coming pretty regularly these days at Lansdowne Road. We’ll soon see if the precious Slam lands, but these days it’s very unwise to bet against Andy Farrell’s men.

P.S. The Rolling Stones are reportedly collaborating with the surviving Beatles on their new album. Some are surprised at the move. But these guys have always been great friends. The supposed rivalry was always over hyped and as much a media invention as anything else. After all, it was Lennon and McCartney that gave the Stones their first major UK hit.

What this project ends up as, who knows. But even if McCartney and Starr only play on a couple of tracks, how fantastic is that? I’m excited to see what materialises. Because we’re running out of time to make this type of history. Bring it on!


In Pods We Trust!

As you know, I’ve been a Beatles nut for the best part of 15 years. However, this year was a game changer. It started with Macca’s historic headlining stint at Glastonbury in June. Despite devouring anything Beatles in recent years, I’d always resisted a deep dive into Paul’s solo and Wings’ stuff. Why? Well, the reviews were often so poor. To be honest, I was afraid of the disappointment.

But, after the glory of Glastonbury, I belatedly gave it a go. And I haven’t looked back since. I was always worried about being let down. To my delight, I was blown away by the sheer quality of the Wings’ output. For those who don’t know, Wings are immense! The obvious place to start is Band on The Run but there is so much more to discover. Red Rose Speedway is terrific and I even like Wild Life, an album that’s been universally derided by critics over the years.

Thereafter, I ploughed my way obsessively through Macca’s solo stuff. Sure, some of it is average and the music is so diverse at times it can’t be to everyone’s tastes. But there are some undisputed gems in there. Ram, of course, is essential listening but you won’t regret discovering later classics like Flaming Pie or Flowers In The Dirt. The most satisfying thing to unearth is the absolute breadth of the catalogue: there is so much material to get your teeth into.

But that was only the start of it. After that, I discovered two fantastic podcasts that I want to share with you. The first is I am The Eggpod, hosted by the wonderfully amiable Chris Shaw. The pod is conversational in style, dissecting Beatles’ and solo albums with an array of consistently brilliant guests. I’ve learned a phenomenal amount from listening and the great thing is, it’s helped me reappraise some albums I’d previously discounted.

Virtually every interview is worth a listen, but the podcast really excelled with its treatment of Peter Jackson’s Get Back film. Here, Chris and contributors went through each day captured in Jackson’s film. Of course, Get Back was the event all Beatles’ fans looked forward to with feverish anticipation. How satisfying it is to have the film analysed in such marvellous detail. It’s a tour de force.

But I am The Eggpod reviews a litany of albums and there’s much to delight. Virtually everything in the canon has been discussed, which means there’s always something to treasure. Your favourite Beatles’ related album is sure to be in there and, if not, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s coming!

The other superb Beatles podcast I discovered came to me later in the year. I stumbled upon a Radio Ulster series called Give The Beatles Back To The Irish which uncovered the band’s Irish roots and influences. The series is great, please go check it out if you haven’t heard it. As part of this discovery, I learnt that the hosts, Jason Carty and Steven Cockroft had a Beatles podcast. An Irish Beatles’ podcast? I was in!

Nothing is Real is awesome. It’s superbly researched and goes into minute detail in every topic it discusses. It’s definitely one for The Beatles’ obsessives. The best example of its forensic approach is the series of pods the guys did on the controversial former Beatles’ business manager, Allen Klein. Klein, to put it mildly, is a divisive figure in the Beatles’ universe. However, Jason and Steven go to great lengths to truly dissect what really happened in The Beatles’ breakup and the messy aftermath.

It’s not quite a reappraisal of Klein but strenuous efforts are made to properly understand what happened at the end of the end. The timeline is rigorously followed and questions are asked in relation to each party’s real motivations. As a listener, I left with the impression that the breakup was not so much a fait accompli but the result of a complex series of events and reactions that culminated in the final, bitter legal acrimony. Yes, Klein was a factor in the breakup, but by no means the only one and certainly not the most significant one.

Nothing Is Real is full of good stuff like that, though- essential listening for The Beatles’ buffs out there. That’s the best thing about being a Beatles’ fan. Just when you think you know most of it, you find there’s a treasure trove of wonderful, new stuff to discover. It’s never ending. At the start of this year, I thought I knew a good deal of Beatle trivia, but it turns out it was the mere tip of the iceberg. For those fans wishing to go to the next level, Nothing Is Real and I am The Eggpod are good places to start.


Worth a Spin!

Don’t know if you’ve caught the Revolver Special Edition , recently released by The Beatles? It’s well worth it if you haven’t. I’m not big on the endless trend of bands constantly remastering and editing old records. After all, the value is in the novelty of the original work, right?

In truth, I’ve always had a mixed relationship with Revolver anyway. Hailed by many as the greatest Beatles’ album, I disagree with that assessment myself. For me, The White Album and Abbey Road are vastly superior pieces of work. That said, it’s important not to underestimate the significance of Revolver. Above anything else, the Beatles’ heralded 1966 release represents the peak of the band’s transition from jovial mop tops who mastered the art of radio friendly pop into an experimental, creative group that was determined to cement its place in history.

So, Revolver is undoubtedly important, but I’m not its biggest fan. To me, the record always had an Indy vibe and that was never my bag, to be honest. I approached the new release, therefore, from a rather underwhelmed viewpoint. In preparation for the release, I listened to Revolver on repeat to try and approach it from a new angle. To my delight, it worked! After bombarding my ears with repeat marathons, I finally get why Revolver is so good.

The Special Edition of Revolver involved remixing the record through the wonders of modern technology and also incorporates previously unheard demos and samples from the period. The mastermind behind it all is Giles Martin, son of George. Well, is it any good? And given the fact that all Beatles albums were remastered as recently as 2009, is there any point?

Well, the results are incredible. Martin has done a wonderful job with the mixes. The songs sound beautifully fresh and modern, yet retain the creative genius of the original compositions. The tunes are polished and packaged superbly, but the technological sheen doesn’t diminish the essence of the album’s spirit. The Beatles still sound like the Beatles and that’s essential.

In listening to the album again, it strikes me that Revolver is the perfect gateway for Beatles newbies to learn about the unrivalled skill and creativity of the band. Because this album has everything. Ballads, social commentary, poetry and even Indian music (courtesy of George Harrison’s mid-60s obsession with the sitar). You name it, Revolver’s got it.

The most essential track to understand how creative and experimental the Beatles were is Tomorrow Never Knows. When I first heard the Lennon composition, I was mesmerised. This was written in 1966? It can’t be, it sounds like a 90s’ dance track! Talk about being ahead of their time! If you listen to nothing else, check out this tune. It is very special and still sounds modern all these years later.

But there’s much more. And all so varied. Eleanor Rigby is a masterpiece of melancholy and also like nothing heard before. Along more conventional lines, Here There and Everywhere is a classic; one of the most beautiful songs ever composed. It’s said that Jane Asher never speaks about her relationship with Paul McCartney. Then again, she doesn’t have to as it’s charted in some of the greatest love songs ever written.

In a similar vein, For No-One is a beautifully crafted number, with its plaintive lament for a relationship that seems to have run its course. John’s I’m Only Sleeping, meanwhile, is humorous and whimsical, an ode to lazy days, if you like. There’s also a delightfully pissed off George sticking it to the man in Taxman; all these years later you still hear the anger of a working class man who’s finally made money only to find that the bloody government is taking most of it!

Then there’s the extras and demos on the new release. The full speed version of Rain blew my mind-the song sounds fantastic that way. The guitars are great. But the real revelation was Lennon’s Yellow Submarine demo. I’d always seen this (ostensibly a children’s song) as slightly out of place on this album. All these serious and experimental pieces joined by this tongue-in-cheek McCartney joke song, given to Ringo almost as a throwaway.

The demo casts doubt on all of that. The original idea for the song actually seems to have come from John and his demo is a world away from the finished version. Check it out. It has what can only be described as a haunting quality. And the lyrics? ‘In the town where I was born, no-one cared, no-one cared…’ There’s genuine sadness there. Paul took the song in a very different direction, of course, but, man, what if Lennon had developed that demo?! Certainly, I’ll never look at Yellow Submarine the same way again.

My verdict is a positive one. The Revolver Special Edition is class. It’s a lovely polished, updated version of the classic album and the extras are delightful glimpses into geniuses at work, building towards their creative peak. Martin has done a terrific job. And, yes, it still sounds rather like a ’90s Indy record, albeit one by the greatest, most experimental band ever seen.


Who Needs Yesterday?

If you haven’t already, I suggest you watch Paul McCartney’s headlining Glastonbury set. Even if you’re not a Beatles’ fan. Even if you don’t particularly dig that type of music. Watch it. You’ll not be disappointed.

For an 80 year-old to headline the most prestigious festival in music is impressive enough in itself. But it’s the way McCartney did it. In a set that lasted nearly three hours, the former Beatle didn’t pause or draw breath. The only short interlude in the entire performance was prior to the encore. And that was a matter of minutes.

For the rest of it, Paul was relentless; entertaining the vast crowd with anecdotes in between the comprehensive rendition of the most impressive catalogue in rock n’ roll. Brilliant, as an adjective, fails to capture the awesomeness of it.

Still, there were detractors, of course. Some complained about the composition of the set. This allegation was peculiar given that McCartney rattled through loads of Beatles’ classics, as well as Wings’ staples such as Maybe I’m Amazed and Band on The Run.

Some moaned about his voice. Sure, it’s not what is used to be, understandably, but see how well it held up, without backing, during I’ve Just Seen A Face and George Harrison’s Something.

Others complained about a lack of crowd enthusiasm. I assume they switched off before the end. Yes, the set started slowly (as is the way with these things), but by the end Sir Paul had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. What else to expect from a legend with over 60 years’ experience in the industry?

Criticism of McCartney has often been fashionable. Yet, no-one has achieved what he has. In truth, no-one’s even come remotely close. Such an accomplished history. The Beatles’ stuff alone is peerless, but look at all he’s done since. And he’s still going!

Paul’s last two albums, New and Egypt Station were damn good. Keen observers also note that the veteran entertainer found time during Lockdown to complete McCartney III. On top of all that, he’s still touring, performing to tens of thousands of people per night in stadiums all over the world. Evidently, the fire still burns brightly.

It’s not as if he’s doing it for the money. McCartney’s still stretching himself at this stage of his career because he still loves it and is so damn good at it. Paul McCartney could have retired comfortably years ago and with his place in music history long since assured. The fact that he hasn’t tells all about this remarkable man.

The Glastonbury show ended, of course, as is now customary, with the finale of the Abbey Road medley. You sensed the palpable disappointment from the crowd that it was all over. Because we felt it too watching on our tv sets. There was no shortage of emotion. Headlining Glastonbury at 80: what an incredible achievement.

So, complain if you want to. Be negative if it makes you feel better. But I know what I prefer to do. How long can he keep this up? Who knows? But, one thing I do know for sure. Make the most of this iconic human being while he’s still around. For we will never, ever see his likes again.


Back to Brilliance

I finally caught Peter Jackson’s brilliant new Beatles’ film, Get Back, on Disney Plus. As you probably know, the film supplements the original Let it Be film (1970) with hours of previously unseen and re-mastered footage.

The results are incredible. You are immediately transported back 50 years and watch, first hand, the greatest band of all-time, at work in the studio. It’s almost like a time machine was built with the specific purpose of observing one of the most pivotal moments in music history.

Yes, Get Back charts the making of The Beatles’ final studio album (second last to be recorded, of course!) and all the attendant politicking and fall outs that happened in that turbulent period. I don’t think it’s a spoiler, though. to state that the film shows a much more complicated picture-that’s well documented at this stage.

You see plenty of bickering, of course, but you also see love, laughter, creativity and friendship. And yes, for most of it, Lennon and McCartney get on very well, thank you very much. At one stage George walks out, of course, but that aside, the atmosphere is much more convivial than previously portrayed.

Don’t get me wrong. The film is a long haul. I can’t see too many non-fans patiently sitting through it. There is a lot of sitting around jamming, talking nonsense and not doing very much else. The most absurd element is the endless debates about where the ‘concert’ would take place.

As many of you will know, the premise of the Get Back sessions (what became Let it Be) was to capture The Beatles live. The whole project was to be stripped back and without all the trademark multi-tracking and overdubbing that was the hallmark of previous albums. Back to basics and naked, if you like. All this was captured, as it happened in the studio, in documentary form.

The project was to end with a live concert where he band would perform the songs they created in the studio. This is where Jackson shows the latter day Beatles at their most excessive and absurd. There are interminable discussions over this concert venue. Everywhere on earth, it seems, from the Pyramids, to a ship, to Primrose Hill, and scores of other places, are mooted as possible venues.

It’s ridiculous. Hours of discussion over something that was never going to happen. For me, it highlights, arguably, how directionless the Beatles were in 1969. Imagine the biggest band in the world now working through a project like this without the slightest, coherent thought about the logistics of what was going to happen at the end of it?

Remember, The Beatles were already a phenomenon and yet the film shows this mega-entity essentially making their plans and logistics up as they went along. Actually, it shows how basically rudderless the band was following Brian Epstein’s death two years earlier. If the institution (and that’s what they were in ’69) was better protected/managed, perhaps they wouldn’t have imploded less than a year later?

For all that, it’s a joy to see them at work. The initial Twickenham Studio sessions are often portrayed as tough and uninspiring and the film does little to challenge that view. It’s in those early days that we see most of the tension and Harrison’s temporary walkout. There is little in that early, disjointed jamming to suggest classics were being created.

But as time progresses, we see the album take shape. Amidst all the tedium, we see great songs like Let it Be and Get Back written almost on the spot. It’s simply wonderful. We also see the transformation when Twickenham is abandoned for the more comfortable confines of the Apple Building on Saville Row. Things pick up further when the band is joined by its old friend, Billy Preston, on keyboards. That’s where the magic happens.

It ended on the roof, of course. After all that hype and speculation, The Beatles’ final live concert took place on the roof of Apple, with the police interrupting as they hoped. How perfect and apt an ending. And Jackson captures the brilliance, genius and significance of it all. It’s essential viewing for any Beatles fan.

Beatles’ fans can talk all day about how the band disintegrated shortly after or the way in which Spector changed the record into something it was never meant to be. But in watching this superb film, none of that matters. For a brief moment, the greatest band there ever was, standing atop the Apple Building, was united, defiant and where it was supposed to be. They were back.


McCartney The Master

As I write this piece, I’ve just finished watching the Paul McCartney interview, filmed as part of BBC Radio 4’s Mastertapes series. The interview  was broadcast on Saturday 28 May 2016 and featured a 45-minute long conversation with the legendary entertainer, focusing primarily on his post-Beatle career. The interview was presumably intended to coincide with the imminent release of McCartney’s compilation album, Pure McCartney (scheduled for 10 June 2016), which chronicles the former Beatle’s extensive solo catalogue, including the massively underrated Wings material that emerged following the break-up of  The Beatles in 1970.

As a massive Beatles fan, I devour anything remotely connected to the group, and was therefore eager to hear the latest musings from the evergreen McCartney. Most encouraging, though, is the fact that Macca is still busy as ever, planning the next phase of a career that’s seen him scale every conceivable height. I know it’s hard to believe, but the Liverpudlian musician turns 74 next month. For Beatles’ fans, the interview is certainly  worth a look, and although it understandably finds Paul in nostalgic mood, there is no indication that McCartney is hanging up his guitar just yet.

I came to the Beatles relatively late, and it’s fair to say I found their music from a position of acute scepticism. Despite the fact that many of my favourite bands cited The Beatles as an influence, my younger self struggled to see the appeal. Back then, I knew a handful of the Beatles’ hits and although they seemed okay, the music didn’t strike me as particularly earth shattering. And the image of mop topped young men performing to hordes of screaming teenage girls didn’t seem especially cool either. Yet, for all that, the Beatles just wouldn’t go away; their music proving enduringly popular across several generations. Why? And why did respected figures like Noel Gallagher insist this band was the greatest thing since sliced bread? I wasn’t sure.

Out of curiosity as much as anything else, I decided to find out what the fuss was about. In 2009, The Beatles released remastered versions of their albums, and this seemed as good a time as any to get better acquainted with their music. I purchased all thirteen original albums, from Please Please Me to Let it Be, and from that moment I was hooked. I immediately got it. It was all there: the beautiful melodies, simple, yet profound lyrics, and a diversity of musical output that I hadn’t heard from any other recording artist. What particularly struck me was how fresh and original the music sounded, 40 years after its original release. This was supremely inventive music, captured in extremely creative albums like the experimental Revolver and the psychedelic Sergeant Pepper. At once, I saw how virtually every band that had emerged since had been influenced (either directly or indirectly) by these sounds.

The biggest revelation, though, was Paul McCartney. Although I was familiar with the genius of John Lennon, I was genuinely shocked and delighted to discover how brilliant Paul McCartney is. I suspect, like many others over the years, I had been fooled by Macca’s amiable and genial image. I probably thought he was a bit naff. What a pleasure, then, to find out the extent of McCartney’s magical, mercurial talent. Of course, it shouldn’t really surprise that the man who wrote Yesterday, Let it Be, and Hey Jude was worthy of celebration, but I was legitimately taken aback by the sheer breadth and quality of his work. I’m fairly sure that perceptions of McCartney have been coloured by the Beatles’ break-up and the rancour that briefly ensued in the following years. When Lennon compared McCartney’s work to Muzak in 1971’s How Do you Sleep?, the idea became embedded in popular consciousness, I think. It now seems quite absurd to suggest that McCartney can’t rock (he wrote Helter Skelter for goodness sake!), but such sniping must be viewed in the context of the time. Break-ups are rarely civil after all!

The Mastertapes interview shows McCartney as the legendary, iconic figure he is, respected and admired in equal measure by generations of his fans. Kindred spirits like Gallagher and Paul Weller remain keen to show their appreciation. For a time, it seemed that McCartney hadn’t got the kudos his talent deserved; but at long last the former Beatle is consistently cherished for what he is, an international treasure. Beatles’ fans have long understood the genius of Paul McCartney, and we can only be thankful that his importance as an artist is celebrated in his lifetime. One hopes Sir Paul performs long into the future, but alas none of us can go on forever. It is heartening, therefore, that perhaps the most successful songwriter of all time continues to enjoy critical acclaim as well as commercial success. Because McCartney is the master. Long may he reign. We are extremely fortunate indeed to experience his enduring genius.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey