Low fidelity: Young in the Voice-O-Graph booth at Third Man Records in Nashville.
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Review: A Letter Home by Neil Young – a froggy echo travelling up the U-bend of time

A Letter Home was recorded in a Voice-O-Graph booth in Jack White’s “novelties lounge”. With cover songs and lo-fi crackles, it is an object study in the pros and cons of retro audio porn.

The photo shows Neil Young recording his new album in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine, currently housed in the “novelties lounge” of Jack White’s studios. For those too young to remember, Voice-O-Graphs were found at state fairs and seaside arcades. For a modest fee, a punter could record a personal message for a loved one – or, in the imagination of Graham Greene, a loathed one – which was then pressed on to a keepsake vinyl. “Like talking on the phone . . . but a thousand times more thrilling!” the adverts claimed. Neil Young addresses his departed mother (“Hey, Mom, Jack and I have discovered loads of the old songs I use to sing, so I’m going to send some of these to ya!”) and dashes off a dozen or so cover versions.

The swiftness and economy of the booth doubtless appealed to a man who puts out an album every ten minutes but has, in recent years, demonstrated a relaxed attitude to quality control. All this is also an act of caprice. Young’s big project at the moment is a digital music service called Pono (the Hawaiian for “righteousness”), designed to provide the listener with the best-quality audio experience possible – which A Letter Home most certainly isn’t.

The fetishising of vintage studio equipment and super-creaky recordings has been a theme in pop for some time. Years ago, I sat in a crowded pub with a boy who played me wax-cylinder blues songs from the 1920s through a single headphone, the voices indecipherable beneath 90 years of dirt, wind and scratching. Shoving my index finger deep inside my ear, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the furniture of the record was more important to my date than the music itself; this kind of retro audio-porn feels like an affectation, the musical equivalent of the artisan crisp or the fixie bike.

On A Letter Home, accompanied by guitar and a bit of whistling, Shakey’s voice emerges as a froggy echo travelling up the U-bend of time. But his selection of tracks is exquisite. These are tiny, three-minute wonders, mostly from the 1950s or 1960s, the kind of magic melodies that make the shoulders sink and the eyes float into the middle distance: the gloriously sulky “Reason to Believe” by Tim Hardin; the gorgeously sweet “Changes” by the protest singer Phil Ochs. Generally, Young whacks the song up a key and does it a bit faster. Apart from the sound quality – warps, crackles, wavering – the main difference is in the delivery, which is eccentric, each track tossed off like a naive sketch. “Changes” was already in his wheelhouse – he performed it at Farm Aid last year – and it works because it is just obscure enough to benefit from recasting.

But you do wonder what he hoped to “bring” to Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”. And “Needle of Death” suffers because no songwriter deserves decent sound quality more than Bert Jansch, whose every ghostly harmonic and thumb-squeak was an essential part of his recording. The song inspired Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and perhaps this whole venture is an exercise in auto­biography. Sometimes, even the speed of his playing seems to say: “We all know why we’re here.”

For me, the real time-capsule effect  comes when you’re pushed to revisit the original tracks. There’s a certain kind of song here that just doesn’t get written any more – urbane, late-1960s folk-pop beloved of America’s network TV shows, all cinematic strings and new-man lyrics as tightly wrought as doilies. On the cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” (“I walk away like a movie star who gets burned in a three-way script”), Young’s voice frees that extraordinary tune from its original, sugary setting. Elsewhere the olde-time treatment doesn’t make much sense to me: he opens Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, inspired by Boeing 707s, with a thunderous glitch, pulling the song back to some dusty, one-horse studio straight out of a Coen brothers movie, long before the days of Pan Am.

The trick works better with the more frivolous songs. They brought a piano up alongside the Voice-O-Graph and someone – presumably Jack White – played warped honky-tonk alongside Young in the manner of a saloon-bar dame. It sounds a treat in Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” (Young plays Hyde Park in June) because the song is approached as a kind of musical joke. Likewise, “Crazy”, the smooching Patsy Cline hit, written by Willie when he was a slick-haired back-room boy at Pamper Music Publishing. Young’s version is so jaunty that it sounds like a demo, recalling a time when pop songs really were throwaway things. Perhaps this album was meant to be heard just once and chucked out. But then, why the deluxe box set?

In recent years, Young has been documenting his life through archives, films, bizarre autobiographies and records a bit like this one – it’s a vast, Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce-like task that he will probably never complete, since the scope of the project seems to be changing all the time.

Among all the ephemera, there must exist out there some manner of royalty cheque from Neil to Nelson and Dylan and Springsteen, whose “My Home Town” is covered on A Letter Home. I hope someone is framing them. That’s one rock relic I’d like to see.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Baby you’re a rich man: the impossible madness of Paul McCartney’s life

“I was on the scrapheap,” the Beatles bassist had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. How wrong he was.

Hard though it is to grasp the full extent of Paul McCartney’s wealth, this book showers you with gentle reminders. He once ordered a pizza to be flown from New York to London by Concorde. He sent a sick puppy on a 280-mile return journey by taxi to a vet in Glasgow, and made the same sort of provision for a duck with a broken leg. “Hundreds” of his cash-filled weekly pay packets were discovered at his house in 1967 but he was already so rich that he hadn’t bothered to open them. He had a yacht turned into a 24-track studio and converted a minesweeper to accommodate the band.

What’s more, he has several Magrittes and a circular bed that used to belong to Groucho Marx. He organised a display involving 25,000 flowers beside the M4 to advertise a Linda McCartney photo exhibition and gave his second wife, Heather Mills, a £360,000 annual allowance (almost £1,000 pocket money a day). If Pete Best, the sacked original Beatles drummer, got “about £8m” for playing on ten tracks on The Beatles Anthology, what sum would the band’s bassist have earned for co-writing most of its output?

But whenever you find yourself envying a life in which you could underwrite a $200,000 heart operation for a friend’s daughter, you remember the grim reality of such fame. McCartney is forced to erect ramparts of privacy to allow him even the ghost of a normal existence. He systematically purchased all of the land around his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, in Scotland, to create a vast, continuous exclusion zone. The wire fences and 65-foot observation tower at his Sussex retreat prompted neighbours to call it “Paulditz”.

His profile is such that he occasionally resorts to riding in vehicles with tinted windows and had to disguise himself in an afro wig to attend a George Harrison concert. Women claiming that he slept with them in the distant past file paternity suits: can you imagine the indignity of being asked to submit blood samples to disprove some pissed event that may or may not have taken place decades ago in a Hamburg Bierkeller?

The repercussions of his celebrity are colourfully examined in this detailed and engaging book, as are the chief figures in his life – his mother and father, his early girlfriends, John Lennon, Brian Epstein and his first two wives – but it is the changing nature of another relationship that makes the most gripping narrative: that of the subject and the author. Tough, fascinated, painstakingly thorough and studiedly unemotional, Philip Norman was always firmly in the Lennon camp, once declaring McCartney’s rival and professional partner to be “three-quarters” of the band. Norman’s bestselling Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation and his superb John Lennon: the Life make this abundantly clear.

But things have changed. The author’s stance has softened. First, McCartney gave his tacit approval for this book – “neither authorising it nor discouraging it” – which allowed Norman access to countless crucial, first-hand accounts. And second, a growing awareness and understanding of McCartney’s predicament both within and beyond the Beatles now allows Norman to excuse various characteristics that he once disliked or considered suspicious.

He accepts that McCartney developed his “double-thumbs-up” demeanour as a valuable public relations shield between the band and the ravenous world: somebody had to “be nice to the endless relays of boring, bombastic local dignitaries, officious police chiefs and dumbstruck, dumb-cluck journalists” and it is entirely to the bassist’s credit that he volunteered.

McCartney’s legendary charm now seems beguiling rather than offensive. It took serious powers of persuasion, Norman points out, to sell millions of copies of the syrupy “Mull of Kintyre” in the teeth of the punk revolution. Who wouldn’t want to be allowed through international borders when you’ve forgotten your passport? Who wouldn’t want to be able to hold the attention of a court of law with just the tiniest modifications of facial expression, after informing a judge that it was your “interest in horticulture” that had led you to possess the marijuana in the first place?

When a Lord of the Rings film project was mooted in 1968, McCartney was tellingly cast as Frodo Baggins, Ringo as Samwise Gamgee, George as Gandalf and Lennon as Gollum. On TV, Paul’s angelic looks made him “seem three-dimensional while the others remained flat”, an irresistible trait that let him conduct love affairs with two other women while officially stepping out with Jane Asher (the reason John and Yoko were initially inseparable, Norman suggests, was that Lennon didn’t dare to leave his new squeeze alone with McCartney, for fear that she might fall under his spell).

There is something attractive, too, about the notion that McCartney ended up being the sole Beatle with a firm grasp on the tiller. While George invited a troop of Hells Angels to hang out at the Apple office (where they harassed the female staff) and John sent spherical packages to meetings with the message “Listen to this balloon”, McCartney had the sixth sense to flag up concerns about employing Allen Klein as their manager, a deal from which they later paid a fortune to escape.

So why alarm bells didn’t ring when he ran into Heather Mills is a mystery that baffles even Philip Norman. At the time, friends advised McCartney (with excruciating irony) that taking up with this doughty campaigner would be like “walking into a minefield”. In selfless support of his new wife, he started to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan “NO LANDMINES!” when they used to scream: “GO VEGGIE!” There is something profoundly sad about the whole episode; it is a tale so unnerving and crammed with agonising incident that Norman devotes 80 pages to it.

Mills convinced the world – and her apparently suggestible new husband – that she was some kind of romantic rebel, who had run away from home as a teenager to work on funfairs, sleep rough in cardboard boxes and steal food from supermarkets. She was soon labelled a “fantasist”, revealed to be a former topless model and accused of pedalling untruths and exaggerations to the extent that Jonathan Ross declared that she was “a f***ing liar” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised if we found out she’s actually got two legs”. With her press profile switching from “Diana” to “Mucca” in a matter of weeks, she sued her exasperated husband for £125m and settled for £16.5m, which speak volumes in itself.

And what of the music? Very little of this book concerns McCartney’s songwriting, which is understandable, as it is the area so comprehensively explored by the great Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn and by Ian MacDonald’s peerless Revolution in the Head – though when Norman describes Lennon’s and McCartney’s harmonies as “like vinegar and virgin olive oil”, you rather wish there was more of it. Instead, he is aiming to produce the most detailed composite picture imaginable and he succeeds effortlessly.

You’re left with a sense that McCartney’s life in the Beatles was impossible madness and that he has been in recovery ever since. “I was on the scrapheap,” he had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. “It was a barrelling, empty feeling that just rolled across my soul.” You’re so sympathetic that you want to forgive him everything.

Well, almost everything. He paid Wings members £70 a week and once deducted £40 for “hire of amplifier”.

Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen is published by Coronet

Paul McCartney: the Biography by Philip Norman is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (864pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism