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A song for a friend

Paul McCartneyPaul McCartney has a new album out. I was shut in a room with it for a morning the other week, in order to write a review for Uncut magazine, and I came out feeling it contains five songs — “Early Days”, “On My Way to Work”, “Looking at Her”, “Scared” and the title track, “New” — that would make a fabulous EP, if such things still existed. Five really good new songs: not a bad return at this stage of the game.

None of them, however, comes within a mile of matching my favourite McCartney track, which is one that hardly anybody, outside the realm of the fanatics, seems to have heard, or at least to remember. Perhaps that’s because it’s hidden away on Wings’ Wild Life, one of his least memorable albums, recorded in 1971, when his credibility was not exactly at its apogee.

It’s called “Dear Friend“. It’s a six-minute ballad with a simple but beautifully contoured melody: two four-line verses, repeated in sequence to make four verses in all, each 12 bars long and each separated by a pause or a moment’s hesitation. No chorus. A haunting lyric: “Dear friend, what’s the time? / Is this really the borderline? / Does it really mean so much to you? / Are you afraid, or is it true?” — and then: “Dear friend, throw the wine / I’m in love with a friend of mine / Really, truly, young and newly wed / Are you a fool, or is it true?” And the most gloriously subtle arrangement, based on a laconic piano, a bass guitar, minimal drumming and the dark glimmer of a vibraphone (all of which I imagine he played himself), each verse individually coloured by a small string orchestra, a couple of oboes, or briefly, in the final minute, a gorgeously grainy horn section that sounds like a brass band who’ve walked in off the street.

The whole thing is so plain, so underplayed, so brilliantly understated by whoever worked with him on the arrangement, that you can hardly believe it’s Paul McCartney in his solo guise at all. His singing, some of it in his falsetto register, is perfectly attuned to the sobriety of the arrangement, not least when he introduces a dozen bars of scat-singing in which his tone and note-choice are as eloquent as words. I don’t think he’s ever sounded so unselfconsciously introspective.

You only have to read the lyric to see why most people assume the song is about John Lennon, with whom his relationship was then at its most difficult. Perhaps that’s true. I prefer to take the Bob Dylan line, which is that it’s an artist’s job to take the particular and turn it into the universal, to play fast and loose with the truth in order to create a new and greater one. So when I hear “Dear Friend”, I encounter an emotion that isn’t tied to whatever its factual origin may or may not have been, and which somehow illuminates and expands feelings of my own. That’s art for you.

And for some reason he chose to hide it away towards the end of the second side of a mediocre LP. You can’t believe he wasn’t proud of it. If I had to take a Beatle-related record to a desert island, it wouldn’t be “I’ll Be Back” or “In My Life”: it would be this.

* The photograph of Wings — Denny Seiwell, Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and Denny Laine — is from the cover of Wild Life and was taken by Barry Lategan.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeremy Agnew #

    Hi Richard Thank you very much for introducing me to this fantastic piece of music. I was too busy listening to Surman, Osborne, the Blue Notes, etc.. in 1971 for this to come anywhere near my radar. Beautiful – and I am surprised Brad Mehldau hasn’t discovered it. Best wishes and thanks for a consistently informative and thought-provoking blog. jeremy agnew Date: Fri, 11 Oct 2013 14:21:15 +0000 To: j.w.agnew@hotmail.com

    October 11, 2013
  2. The Wikipedia entry for Wild Life has this: ‘”Dear Friend”, recorded during the Ram sessions’ (ref: Miles, Barry; Badman, Keith, ed. (2001). The Beatles Diary After the Break-Up: 1970-2001) which might be why it’s stronger than the other material on the album…

    October 11, 2013
  3. Dick A #

    I love it too. Understated genius. Throw the wine, indeed.

    October 11, 2013
  4. Thanks, a lovely description, tantalising – and rewarding when finally heard. I had never checked out Wild Life beyond “Love is Strange”, which is a wonderfully idiosyncratic piece of pop for potheads, one of the best versions of a much covered song. I’ve always thought McCartney’s doodles are always worth checking out, even Bip Bop, it turns out.

    October 12, 2013
  5. Steve Coles #

    Wildlife is an album which has always mesmerised me. It’s not great and it’s far from perfect, but it’s McCartney telling the world, more than Ram, that this is his choice of direction and that he’s happy with that direction, maybe for the first time in years.
    Thanks for the blog, by the way.

    November 3, 2013

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