Or Battle of The Beatles Heavyweights! Right about now in 1975, former Beatle JOHN LENNON released an album of Rock ’N’ Roll oldies – and it was to be his last for over five years. At the time the critics weren’t exactly singing the praises of it or their hero’s seeming lack of new songs. In fact, they were fairly forthright about it. It doesn’t really matter anymore, though, as today Rock ’N’ Roll stands as the man’s unique tribute to the music that inspired him, eventually to form his own band and then change the face of popular music forever.
PAUL McCARTNEY, on the other hand, was then on a roll with his band Wings. By 1987, though, Lennon’s esteemed Beatles bandmate was having a rough time of it. The hits had slowed considerably and, in an attempt to recharge his psyche, Macca revisited his rockin’ roots and did a covers album of his own, Choba Б CCCP. It was initially only available in Russia (hence the title: Back in the USSR). The record was imported and bootlegged heavily, and after McCartney issued a few of the songs as B-sides to a 1987 single, “Once Upon a Long Ago” (not released in the US), he eventually relented and released an extended version of the album on CD for all the world to hear.
Lennon and McCartney, though once united in rhyme in The Beatles, chose different songs for their respective tributes. They both relied heavily on the big names of ’50s rock: Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame” was the only song covered by both, with McCartney also doing Fats’ “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” and “I’m in Love Again”), Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. The albums were recorded over ten years apart, with different bands and under different circumstances (by ’87 Lennon had been dead for seven years, which must have weighed heavily on McCartney’s mind as he went about making his record). So pitting the two records against each other isn’t really a fair fight. But since I’m the referee in this ring, I’ve chosen to go for it anyway and render my decision. No punching below the belt, no name calling, gentlemen, let’s have a fair fight and may the best man win!
Lennon’s LP, Rock ’N’ Roll, is a very thick-sounding record. Replete with not only guitar and keyboards but a horn section, its production – by Lennon and “Wall Of Sound” originator Phil Spector – is multi-layered and at times suffers from too-much-happening-all-at-once. Yet the arrangements are quite spectacular, sometimes unique (the slow reggaefied rhythm of “You Can’t Catch Me,” for instance), and delivered with commitment. When John sings “Stand by Me” you can feel the song’s import on his life. The album’s been reissued many times. I highly recommend the 2010 vinyl, remastered from 24/96 digital files (purportedly taken directly from the analog master) but very detailed and with no noticable digital ick. For a different take on the material, find the 2005 CD – it was remixed at the time and de-clutters some of the arrangements to give you a different, maybe even better idea of just what was going on at Record Plant East Studios (“everybody here says ‘hi’”) all those years ago.
As for Choba Б CCCP, McCartney’s take on some of his favorite rock ’n’ roll classics, it’s also a winner. (I know, I know: There are no ties allowed. Wait for it.) Sparse compared to Lennon’s, these arrangements pretty much stick to your standard guitar/piano/bass/drums variety, making for a more immediate feel. Yes, the snare’s a bit overbearing (this was the mid ’80s, after all) and the guitar sometimes has a slightly over-processed tone, but this album sounds no more “Eighties” than Lennon’s does “Seventies.” McCartney, too, sounds like he means it when he’s singing Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” or Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” a song fabled in Beatles lore as the one he impressed Lennon with in 1957 or so when the two boys met and cemented their connection to each other forever. Though McCartney’s covers album was second in release (and really, Ringo Starr did an album of covers in 1970! – not a rock ’n’ roll outing), it’s hard to say which one is first in terms of greatness. But because there are no ties in pugilism – and because America loves a winner – I gotta go with Lennon. By a hair. Yes, those who know me know that McCartney is my man, but Lennon ain’t no slouch either. “But Marsh,” you might say, “McCartney’s put out a lot of crap as a solo artist.” And I would reply with, “Had Lennon kept releasing records for another thirty plus years, he might have put out a similar number of stinkers himself.” Besides: YOU WON. Let it be.
4.5/5 (Lennon, Parlophone/Apple); 4/5 (McCartney, Capitol)