(Side Projects, Solo Albums, and Other Detours)
Percy “Thrills” Thrillington - “Ram On”
As we all know, Paul McCartney’s Ram is the best1 post-Beatles solo2 album, so it makes sense that McCartney would want to take a victory lap after completing that record. And so he did by recording a full-length instrumental cover of his own album under the name Percy “Thrills” Thrillington. Yes, he took a page out of George Martin’s book and created a far far far less essential version of his own music. Before Ram was even released, McCartney was already working with conductor Richard Anthony Hewson to arrange new versions of his songs. The recordings began less than two weeks after Ram hit shelves, and were completed within the month. That was June 1971. Thrillington was released in April 1977, nearly six years later. Apparently forming the band Wings distracted Paul enough to neglect his most outlandish creation for more than half a decade.
But in the run up to the album’s release, McCartney seemed to dive headfirst into creating the character of Percy Thrillington. He sent rogueish valentines to female reporters under that name, and regularly took out personal ads detailing adventures in exotica locals that Thrillington had supposedly recent experienced. Naturally, since Thrillington was going to working with his music, McCartney had to create a space for himself within the life of this fictional playboy. He cast himself as a sort of mentor figure for Thrillington, taking the young and talented musician under his wing and helping to arrange the lad’s first album.
Here’s the inside of the album, which details Thrillington’s life and rather unconvincingly denies that Paul and Thrillington are the same person:
Yet, despite Paul’s involvement and his attempts to drum up interest in Thrillington, the album went utterly unremarked upon when it was released, save a passing mention in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone. Perhaps Paul was great at convincing people of the existence of a fictional person, but not so great at convincing them to buy that fake person’s albums. So, Thrillington became a sort of, kind of collectors item, hampered somewhat by the nebulousness of Paul’s contributions. It took until a November 27, 1989 press conference for Paul to publicly admit that he was behind the record, which revitalized interest in it and turned it from a footnote in his career to a slightly larger footnote in his career.
But, beyond it’s undeniably amusing backstory, the question remains as to whether Thrillington is actually worth a listen. While this is far from a ringing endorsement, I will say that it’s a far more interesting listen than George Martin’s easy listening Beatles cover records. However inferior these renditions may be, at least they’re not boring. He turns “3 Legs” into a sleazy saxophone number, and nearly converts “Dear Boy” into a doo-wop track. Most, though, are given horn-heavy instrumental makeovers. None of the tracks manage to outdo the originals, but then again, they’re not really trying to. This record is a low-stakes lark, not a true McCartney album by any stretch of the imagination. Ultimately, Thrillington is an utterly inessential record, but also never an unpleasant one.
1. Yes, better than All Things Must Pass, and yes, better than John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. (The runners up.)
What? Ringo Starr? I’m sorry, but I’m not sure who that is.
2. Yes, Ram is credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney” but we all know that all projects by former Beatles will be lumped together under the title of [That Beatle] Solo Works. It’s not isolation from all people that matters; it matters that they’re away from The Beatles.
(In Which We Cover Covers)
George Martin Covers The Beatles: Part 1
The George Martin Orchestra - “Help!”
When the popular fan topic of the legendary “fifth Beatle” arises, one of the names that’s sure to be mentioned is that of George Martin, the group’s producer.1 During the early years of their recording career, Martin served as a guide to the world of recording and arranging music. His contributions ranged from suggesting that the group speed up the then ballad “Please Please Me” to transcribing a melody for the trumpet part in “Penny Lane” from Paul McCartney’s hums. His technical musical knowledge allowed him to act as a lightning rod for the talents of the young group. Basically, it’s tough to understate his contribution to the music of the Beatles.
That’s what makes Help! such a mind-boggling record. Not the Beatles album, mind you, but the George Martin Orchestra’s identically titled album of Beatles covers. Released in the same year as the Beatles’ Help!, this album found the band’s closest musical collaborator conducting easy-listening-style, instrumental covers that drain every bit of energy, innovation, or excitement from the originals. It’s an utterly unnecessary collection of songs that run the gambit from inert to lethargic to soporific.
While most of the songs on this version of Help! are essentially predecessors of the Vitamin String Quartet tributes that line bargain-bins the world over, Martin’s adaptation of the album’s title track somehow manages to take an even more loathsome route. Instead of merely arranging the track for a classical ensemble, Martin chooses to remake the energetic “Help!” into a sleazy bit of lounge exotica. The track is chock full of every stereotypical element of a ~classy~ jazz club, from gaudy saxophone parts to showy piano runs to, of course, bongos. Listening to it will transport you to a scene that takes place at The Blue Parrot Club in an old Hollywood B movie.
But, more than anything else, the track above is surprising. Somehow, the man who was so heavily involved in the creation of such a classic pop song managed to make an absolutely wretched version of it just a few months later.
And yet, what may be more surprising is the fact that this isn’t the worst Beatles cover project that Martin was involved in. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow.
1. Other commonly mentioned names: Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Brian Epstein, Neil Aspinall, Derek Taylor, Billy Preston, Tony Sheridan, Jimmie Nicol, and the Volkswagen Beetle on the cover of Abbey Road.