Sharps & flats

Paul McCartney used members of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple to help him get back to rockabilly on "Run Devil Run." The real surprise? It worked.

Published October 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Nobody, not even Elvis, has wasted his talent quite like Paul McCartney. His shoddy post-Beatles output would be easier to understand if Sir Paul had dentists stuffing him with painkillers or his own Col. Tom. Instead, the living half of rock's most important songwriting partnership has basically coasted his way to irrelevance. Does he care?

Probably not. Because every few years, McCartney releases an album with just a glimmer of what could have been had he hired the right producer or collaborated with so-and-so or simply pushed himself to write songs that reduced the cringe-per-album quotient. And Beatles fans everywhere buy it, watch it on VH1 or cheer it on tour.

Some of us still listen because, at 57, McCartney's voice is as sharp as the day the Beatles broke up. He also retains an almost unfair gift for pop melodies. So we keep waiting, putting up with awkward animal-rights jingles in hopes that the Macca will get serious. The last time he did was when he wrote with Elvis Costello, which led to "Flowers in the Dirt" (1989). Since then, McCartney's put out a weak live disc and two inconsistent studio albums, along with a symphony. He also watched his wife, Linda, battle the cancer that would kill her early last year.

And it is that -- real tragedy -- from which one might expect McCartney to draw when he tried to play music again. He and Linda reportedly spent fewer than a dozen nights apart over their 29 years of marriage. Now he will grow old alone. So what does he choose in this hour of darkness? Rockabilly, baby.

"Run Devil Run" is a collection of '50s covers recorded in a week with a band that included Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice. (McCartney's last album, "Flaming Pie," featured another washed-up white boy, Steve Miller.)

Those who would accept nothing less than Paul hunkering down to create a bitter pop masterpiece for his one true love, consider this: Since Linda died, McCartney hasn't really done any singing. He claims to have been nervous after booking the session at Apple studios, wondering if he could pull it off. What's surprising is that despite everything -- a hack band, a McCartney demand that "no thinking" be allowed during the session, the limited studio time -- "Run Devil Run" works. This isn't just because the album sounds good; it's because Paul seems to be making the kind of emotional connection usually absent from his post-Beatles career. Through these obscure B-sides, he's remembered how it feels to get lost in a song, an idea as attractive to an aging rock icon with a broken heart as a kid from Liverpool with a gig in Hamburg.

This is not the polished failure that was John Lennon's oldies album, "Rock 'N Roll." It's basic and straight-ahead. On "I Got Stung," McCartney turns the King's more restrained early '60s recording into a swaggering, hopped-up jam. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" is a dance song, an accordion lending a Cajun twist. "She Said Yeah" and "Honey Hush" are blistering rockers. "Coquette" is the sort of dance-hall goofiness that would have fit on the back of a Beatles 45, and "Blue Jean Bop" is a Gene Vincent song done with Sun-era guitar lines. A bare arrangement of Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town" is particularly heartbreaking, McCartney's high voice strong and strained at the same time.

"Run Devil Run" is not going to make the kids start listening. But it does give McCartney a jump-start. Now he has to make a few hard choices, to start working with players who challenge him -- nobody from Deep Purple, please -- and with material deserving of one of rock's true living legends.

By Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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