RALPH Sall’s voice dips. “You know, if it’s okay, Dylan doesn’t want that kind of conversation,” says the respected producer and soundtrack supervisor. He sounds spooked.
‘Dylan’, of course, is Bob Dylan, with whom Sall collaborated on the Art of McCartney, a sprawling tribute record to Paul McCartney, the former Beatle. Sall approached Dylan’s management with a proposal: would the rasping troubadour be interested in interpreting a McCartney song? To Sall’s surprise, the answer came back in the positive: what happened next, though, must remain a mystery — as Sall says, Dylan would prefer his working methods to remain private.
“Dylan is probably the greatest American songwriter,” says Sall. “He is a guy who doesn’t do tribute records very often. The idea of Dylan doing a Beatles song is pretty special. I don’t think that has happened before.”
The song Dylan covers is a relative obscurity, ‘Things We Said Today’, from A Hard Day’s Night. It is one of several comparatively lesser-known numbers on a 42-track project that also includes such staples of the 20th century songbook as ‘Yesterday’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Live and Let Die’. Sall wanted a balance, to showcase overlooked material without being completist. GETTING THE RIGHT BLEND “I tried to make a blend,” says Sall. “I could have made a record that was entirely composed of non-singles. I’d have enjoyed that thoroughly: however, a mass audience might not have recognised the material. You have to strike a balance. For instance, I wanted to include artists who had influenced the Beatles, people such as Smokie Robinson and Ronnie Spector. With someone like BB King, I was looking for a blues song. We ended up with a deeper cut off the album McCartney II , a record not many people may know.”
The first song recorded for the collection was Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s reading of ‘Wanderlust’, from McCartney’s 1982 Tug of War album. Covering McCartney meant a great deal to Wilson: in the 1960s he had both idolised and competed with The Beatles.
Later,Wilson and McCartney became friends — so, paying tribute toMcCartney was intensely personal for Wilson. “I think McCartney has said [The Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds was an influence on him; there was a big and back-and-forth there. Brian has a friendly relationship with Paul – it meant a lot,” Sall says.
Some of the participating musicians seem a little out of left-field. It’s no stretch to picture Chrissie Hynde or Billy Joel interpreting McCartney. But The Cure? Def Leppard? Alice Cooper?
“It didn’t seem strange to me. Alice is a rock legend and is friendly with Paul. He is an icon and a big Beatles fan. If you listen to Alice singing, he does so in a way he hasn’t since his early records.”
More unlikely yet is the presence of cartoon rockers Kiss, tackling ‘Venus and Mars/Rock Show’, by Wings. “They are big Beatles fans,” says Sall. “Originally, they patterned themselves after the dynamic of The Beatles. All four members sang: each had their own personality. The Beatles were a big influence on Kiss.” REPAYING A DEBT In fact, if the project has a wider message it is that most of the rock community is beholden to The Beatles and to McCartney — what other musician can count as ardent devotees artists as widely flung as Bee Gee, Barry Gibb (tackling ‘When I’m Sixty Four’), neo soul artist Corinne Bailey Rae (‘Bluebird’) and croaking country stalwart, Willie Nelson (‘Yesterday’)?
“I’m sure there is the odd artist that hasn’t been influenced by the work of The Beatles and Paul,” says Sall.
“Nonetheless, it’s safe to say very few have been untouched by their greatness. In my case, The Beatles were the first band I ever listened to — they introduced me to music.”
There are several contemporary groups on the album, among them Airborne Toxic Event and Owl City. It was important to show just how far McCartney’s influence had stretched, says Sall. But he didn’t want to prematurely date the album by including musicians who risked returning to obscurity within several years and, so, give the record a time stamp.
He proceeded cautiously. “I wanted to put on legendary artists, who would stand the test of time,” he says.
“Twenty years from now, I would like for you to be able to pick up this LP and still know the artists, and appreciate their place in rock-and-roll history. That’s why you’ve about half of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame there.”
Sall got to know McCartney when, in 2003, he helped with the re-recording of ‘A Love For You’, an outtake from the 1971 Ram album. The new project has McCartney’s blessing, though he wasn’t involved at any official level.
Still, word has come back that he has sat down with the record and entirely approves.
“I know that he thought this has turned out well,” says Sall. “He was asked about it recently and gave it high marks.”
The readings presented on the Art of McCartney are mostly faithful to the originals: clearly, the artists have come to give homage rather than daringly reshape McCartney’s work.
“For the most part, they don’t radically reinterpret the material,” says Sall. “This is pretty much the greatest collection of songs written in the rock era — I wasn’t going for radical reinvention.”
With the track-listing split more or less evenly between the Beatles, McCartney solo and Wings, it seems reasonable to assume that Sall considers McCartney’s later output underrated?
It was, after all, for many years fashionable to deride McCartney as a vapid crowd-pleaser, in contrast to supposedly tortured foil, John Lennon.
“Once you are a Beatle, everything else you do tends to be underrated,” says Sall.“When you make a record like this, it shows the quality of his writing.
“There’s a thread that connects his earliest work with The Beatles to all phases of his career. I think that it is apparent if you listen to the album.”
- The Art Of McCartney is out now.