In the late 1980’s, Paul McCartney took a shot at writing some songs with Elvis Costello. The ultimate result was a set of 15 songs, some of them never seeing the light of day until years later. But “Back On My Feet” was the first song that was released, buried as a B-side on the “Once Upon A Long Ago” single. It deserved better. Here, we explore the song in detail and shine a light on this overlooked gem.
“Back On My Feet” (Paul McCartney & Declan MacManus) Copyright 1989 MPL Communications Ltd/Plageant Visions Ltd
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Welcome, one and all, to the “I’m In Love With That Song” Podcast. I’m your host, Brad Page, and each episode of this show, I pick one of my favorite songs and we explore it together, just trying to get a handle on what makes a song great. No musical knowledge is required here. We don’t get into music theory or too much technical jargon. We’re just listening to the performances, the production, and all those little nuances that go into making a song work.
On this edition, we’re uncovering a lesser-known track by Paul McCartney that’s called “Back on My Feet”.
Way back on the very first episode of this podcast, we listened to a McCartney song called “Daytime Nighttime Suffering” that was relegated to a B-side and never got the attention that it deserved. On this episode, we’ll be exploring another McCartney B-side that I think deserves a lot more attention, too.
Back in 1987, McCartney was coming off a run of mediocre albums that didn’t receive great reviews and didn’t sell particularly well, either. So, he was looking to mix things up. He was looking for someone to inject some new life into his songwriting. And so he reached out to Elvis Costello.
Elvis Costello & The Attractions had played at one of the last ever shows by Wings, the Concert for the People of Kampuchea Benefit in 1979. And both Paul and Elvis were working in the same studio at one point during the 80’s, so they had met a few times before. By 1987, Elvis had a number of hits, and he was well-respected as a songwriter and critics loved him. He was a natural choice for McCartney to collaborate with.
People were quick to say that Costello would be the new Lenin in the partnership, but I never really saw it that way. Elvis Costello isn’t John Lennon. He had his own thing going. But he did bring a cleverness and a more biting edge than anyone McCartney had written with since Lennon.
The first song McCartney and Costello worked on together was “Back on My Feet”. Paul had the basic melody for the song together, but it wasn’t finished. Let’s hear a bit of McCartney’s original demo for the song.
If you listen to the whole demo, you’ll hear he just repeats that verse again. So, clearly, the lyrics weren’t finished yet. But the idea is there this image of a down on his luck guy, homeless, living on the street. Elvis would contribute to the lyrics, in particular, expanding on the cinematic language and adding a counter-melody. Recording sessions for the final version began on March 1987 at Hog Hill Studio, which is McCartney’s home studio in East Sussex, England.
This was the first time Paul worked with producer Phil Ramon. The basic track was laid down with Paul on piano, Tim Renwick on guitar, Nick Glennny Smith on keyboards and Charlie Morgan on drums. Paul would later overdub the bass along with some additional guitar and his vocals, and Linda McCartney would add some backing vocals.
I really like the low-key groove of this song. Let’s bring up the drums for a second just to get a better feel for that beat.
So far, the song is largely keyboard focused, but if you listen closely to this next verse, you can hear some very clean electric guitar come in. Sounds like it might be recorded in stereo. It’s nestled pretty low in the mix.
In that verse, we start to get some of that cinematic imagery in the lyrics:
“Cut to the rain as it runs down the glass,
Eventually through the lightning and thunder,
We see a man going under”
It’s almost like they’re directing a film. Let’s go back and bring up the vocals so we can hear some of those lyrics again.
Now we’ve reached the first chorus, and things ramp up here. There’s a distorted guitar that comes in with power chords, and McCartney intensifies his vocals here. Now he’s singing from the perspective of this guy on the street. Costello referred to this character as a “hapless vagabond”. He’s defiant. He’s saying, “I don’t need your love, I just need a hand until I’m back on my feet.”
All right, let’s go back and listen to that again because there’s something odd happening there as we come out of the chorus. It’s like there’s a half of a beat added, or maybe a half of a beat missing. I can’t figure it out. Listen to the snare drum and you’ll really notice it. The snare is hitting on the two and the four of every measure, as usual. But you’ll hear it sort of skip when they come out of the chorus. So here’s the snare drum on the two and the four, as you’d expect But listen to what happens as the chorus reaches the end.
You caught that, right? Let’s play through that change one more time.
Well, I just think that’s an odd choice, because it’s definitely intentional. All right, here’s the next verse.
I really like that series of chord changes behind that part of the verse. Let’s listen to just the instrumental tracks. There comes the next chorus. And notice how they add echoes to Paul’s voice when he hits the word “Sky”:
Great vocals in the chorus, including those harmonies. Let’s listen to that again and bring up the vocals so we can hear that a little better.
And there’s that skipped beat again.
Paul changes his vocal delivery again for this section. Let’s go back and focus on the vocals here.
I really like that “Whoa” at the end there. Let’s go back and listen to that section again with all the parts together.
Notice how they’ve mixed in an electronic drum sound along with the snare drum, just for those four beats between the vocals. We’ll play that again:
Here comes that added snare sound again. Here’s the last verse. It opens once again with a cinematic reference.
McCartney plays a great little bass part there. Let’s hear that again.
On this chorus, Paul sings some additional lines around the main chorus vocals.
And there’s some guitar fills, probably played by Tim Renwick added here:
Elvis Costello said that one of the things he contributed to the song was a counter-melody sung from the perspective of an unsympathetic chorus of onlookers. I’m pretty sure he’s referring to this part coming up:
And the final lines of the song kind of conclude the film or movie imagery here. They sing:
“His face starts to fade as we pull down the shade
and the picture we made is in glorious CinemaScope”
I love McCartney’s last bit of vocals there. As the song fades out, it’s like he’s yelling into the camera of our imagined movie here, defiant till the end. There’s also some nice orchestration with the guitar and the bass behind that part. Let’s back it up and listen through the fade to the end.
“Back on My Feet” by Paul McCartney.
Here’s a song written by two musical legends, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, produced by a legendary producer, Phil Ramone; they put all this effort into writing it and recording it, and then it ends up being relegated to a B-side of a relatively obscure single called “Once Upon a Long Ago” that most people don’t know that as an A-side, let alone what was on the flip side.
If I wrote something half as good as this, I’d consider that a lifetime achievement. For McCartney, it’s just something to fill space on a B-side. His career is just full of gems like this.
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Thanks for listening to this edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast on “Back On My Feet” by Paul McCartney.