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Paul McCartney’s “Standing Stone” Reviewed

Album # 28 and we are back in classical mode, it is still 1997, just four months after the release of Flaming Pie, and McCartney had been working on his second classical work for two years. Standing Stone was a commission from Richard Lyttleton, the president of EMI Classics, to write the work as part of EMI’s centenary celebrations, per the Beatles Bible.

It is based upon a poem McCartney wrote, that appeared on the album’s gatefold and I tracked down on “Blackbird Singing: Poems And Lyrics, 1965-2001”. I never quite bought that Dylan’s lyrics were poetry (his poems were poetry) and McCartney’s poetry isn’t poetry either, but as a poet he is a terrific lyricist when the mood takes him. The “Standing Stone” poem is the story of the beginning of life as a Celtic legend in which an Adam type character, in a manner not dissimilar to the way the Old Testament is populated by people who couldn’t realize exist), saves the world through an idea he copped from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” . As stories goes, either you buy into the governing metaphor or not, that’s fine. But iteration is not poetry:

“tenacious trajectory”

“shivering elegance slivered in splinters”

“vision, visage, gentle, genteel”

If you can get past the endless repeat of similar sounds, you are left with:

“Fanned flames flicked up tongues, Lichen crawled with lunar cloud reflections”.

On and on overwritten dribble but not a bad reflection on an instrumental work whose highlight, “Safe Haven/Standing Stone” was much better when it was called “”Also sprach Zarathustra”. Standing Stone is bad but in good ways, overblown classical travelling music full of sound and thunder and yet, here and there, a melody so strong it stops you in your tracks occurs.

Standing Stone doesn’t work because McCartney doesn’t have the skills for classical. Costello’s “Il Sogno” is better and I think that’s because Costello learnt how to read and write music, it helps tremendously. The obvious reason is something like this. It is like speaking your short story into a tape recorder and having to have someone else write it down for you: even conceptually, it’s a problem. Now add to your expertise being in short stories and it is a long form novel and the problems become clearer.

Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Lawrence Foster at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, Standing Stone is an exciting listening, full of blaring horns like William Tell and explosive sounds, chanting choirs and a sense of rebirth, that sonically keeps you on your toes. It isn’t as melodically lovely as Liverpool Oration, but it is a fun ride to nowhere.

Grade: C+

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