(Update, 9/24 2:46 p.m.: My friend John Lorinc did this piece for WABE radio on the drugstore — and product — that helped inspire the album:)
Linda McCartney died in 1998. She and Paul McCartney had been married for 29 years. By all accounts, it had been a happy marriage.
Paul was bereft. To ease his soul, he decided to get back to his roots with an album of old rock ‘n’ roll covers. He rounded up a bunch of musician pals — David Gilmour, Pete Wingfield, Dave Mattacks among them — and recorded “Run Devil Run” in two months.
It may be the best of his post-“Tug of War” albums.
I liked “Run Devil Run,” with its slightly altered cover photo of a downtown Atlanta drugstore, when it came out in 1999. But I didn’t love it. Some of the songs sounded tossed off and others sounded like McCartney was trying too hard. (His self-consciousness has reared its head more prominently on cuts from “Flowers in the Dirt” or “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” with the latter’s very title speaking of its determined importance.)
But over the years, I’ve come to welcome its charms — and McCartney’s willingness to bear his soul, even at the risk of this often-cautious musician looking foolish. (The philosophy of recording, McCartney says in the liner notes, was “no homework. … I really wanted this to be fresh.”)
Take “Shake a Hand,” an old Little Richard tune. Perhaps only McCartney and John Fogerty have approached Richard when it comes to belting something like “Good Golly Miss Molly,” but to combine the fervor of Richard’s voice with the raw power of his band is something that’s usually left to the young punks.
Yet listen to McCartney and the gang power through this chestnut. The old guys — most in their 50s when “Run Devil Run” was recorded — blow the punks right off the stage:
Or “No Other Baby,” an obscure tune by a British group called the Vipers. McCartney is like a coiled spring, his passion bleeding through every note. Compare the original, a Buddy Holly (!) pastiche. In the “Run Devil Run” liner notes, McCartney admits he didn’t even own the Vipers record, but thanks to the wonder of YouTube, even obscurities are a touch away:
And they called themselves the Vipers. Seems to me McCartney should have given that tough name to his band.
Ironically, perhaps my favorite song from the album is McCartney’s version of “Coquette,” a Fats Domino B-side that was written in the 1920s and recorded by Guy Lombardo. Domino is often the forgotten rock pioneer, his amiable piano triplets lacking the obvious punch of Richard’s keyboard bashing or Chuck Berry’s guitar riffing. But McCartney and Randy Newman have always tipped their cap in a dozen different ways, and on “Coquette” McCartney captures both the easygoing delivery and earthy power of the tune:
(That’s Wingfield on the rollicking piano.)
Not all of “Run Devil Run” can measure up to this high bar. McCartney’s version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is serviceable, his take on Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” not quite up to the original.
But, in general, the songs — whether out-and-out rockers or more casual pop tunes — show a man as committed to his love at 57 as he was as a youngster.
And whether that love is rock ‘n’ roll or the lovely Linda, it comes through in every note.