I was browsing through a copy of MOJO from August 2011 this morning and there was an interview with Paul McCartney. He was reminiscing about making his first solo record, simply called “McCartney”. “It was nice for me to do. It was a lifeline. You’ve got to have something in your future that you’re looking forward to, something to do rather than just sit around and fall apart.” Well, could anything be more relevant? Many days, it’s very tempting for me to sit around and fall apart. The television is sitting in the corner of the living room begging me to switch it on. The on-line Tesco delivery is imploring me to add apple turnovers and pork pies to the next order. I know that most of my friends are taking the opportunity of lockdown to learn an instrument, take yoga lessons, learn a language, organise Zoom meetings, develop their cultural appreciation etc and I am determined to hope to emulate them and improve myself, if possible. This blog is a key feature that has helped me survive the past 7 weeks. I’ve made a start in learning how to program in Python and I’m even contemplating a podcast. But it’s not easy and the regular phone calls/House party meetings are essential in maintaining some semblance of sanity. So, let’s try and take some inspiration from one of the most inventive and creative geniuses that the human race has produced: Paul McCartney.
I do get a little impatient when Paul McCartney is dismissed because of some perceived negative characteristics. So he’s unremittingly positive and gives a thumbs up when recognised in the street. That’s a good think, surely? So he was a bit pushy in the studio with the other Beatles? Thank goodness he was or we’d not have had “Abbey Road” or the six fantastic songs on “Let It Be”. I honestly believe that he is utterly unique and his constant drive to improve himself whilst remaining popular has meant that he has a created a body of work that will last for hundreds of years. I think Bob Dylan is equally creative and inventive and I think that if Tim Buckley had lived, his output would have been equally diverse. Neil Young is still going strong (and I see his website indicates that he intends to release 5 albums before the end of the year) but I do think that the quality of his work is more patchy. Van Morrison has released 5 records in the past 3 years and they are all good but I don’t think he is constantly searching for a new direction. I think the range of Paul McCartney’s output is uniquely phenomenal.
Firstly, a summary of his skills and achievements. He is a singer with a range spanning 4 octaves. He is a songwriter having written or co-written 26 songs that have got to Number 1 in the UK (and 32 in the USA). He is an excellent musician, playing guitar (e.g. the solo on “Taxman”), drums (e.g. “Back In The USSR”), keyboards (e.g. “Maybe I’m Amazed”) and, obviously, bass (he identified “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” as his most inventive bass playing). He is a record producer (two of the earliest examples being “Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin and “Come And Get It” by Badfinger). He is a screen writer (“Give My Regards To Broad Street”). The range of his musical output is phenomenal. Obviously, there’s The Beatles, Wings and most of his solo work which could be classified as ‘pop’ or ‘rock’. Additionally, there are 5 ‘classical’ records. There is a ‘film score’ (“The Family Way). An ‘easy listening’ record (“Thrillington”). Three ‘ambient techno’ record (“Strawberries Oceans Ship Forest”, “Electric Arguments” and “Rushes”). An ‘avant-garde’ record (“Liverpool Sound Collage”). I’m going to gloss over his time with The Beatles because it goes without saying that he was magnificent between 1957 and 1970 but consider his solo career. “Mull Of Kintyre” is one of the biggest selling singles of all time. Before anyone dismisses this song, remember Stewart Lee talking about Thatcher. Remember when he said that it was easy being a comedian in the 80s because all you had to do was slag off Thatcher and everyone cheered because no one liked Thatcher. Apart, that is, for the millions of people who voted her in three times. So, it’s okay to say that you don’t like “Mull Of Kintyre” but unarguably millions of people did love it because it sold in such vast quantities. It’s not as if Paul McCartney has spent a whole career desperately trying to be popular as the range of his recorded output shows. I think The Beatles always wanted to be popular and Paul McCartney has maintained that. If anyone wanted to argue that his output is all commercialised and seeking to appeal via the lowest common denominator, I’ll pick a fight with them. For every “Your Mother Should Know” there’s a “For No One”. For every cover of “Till There Was You”, there’s “Long Tall Sally”. For every “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, there’s “Oh! Darling”. The range, imagination and creativity of this man is unsurpassed.
I haven’t yet even mentioned the ability to write beautiful melodies. Take “Somedays”, the 4th track on this record. The melody is utterly sublime. The way the song was written is remarkable: “This was written the day Linda was doing one of her cookery assignments. I went along too, taking an acoustic guitar, and asked the lady in the house we were using if she had a little room where I could go and sit quietly. She offered me her son’s room and I went in there. In these situations I tend to make up a little fantasy, thinking: well, they’re going to be two or three hours, and when it’s all done they’ll say to me, “What did you do?” And I’ll be able to reply, “Oh, I wrote a song!” So I just started writing, with my guitar, and came up with ‘Somedays’ -“Somedays I look, I look at you with eyes that shine, somedays I look into your soul” The first verse came quite well, then the second and the middle, and whereas, at another time, I might have thought, “I leave the words there and finish them next week”, I finished them there and then. John and I used to do this too, occasionally: I don’t think we ever really took more than three or four hours on a song. I’d go to visit him, he’d come to visit me, and we’d sit down and write.” Apparently, writing the song in a young boy’s bedroom with football posters on the wall inspired Paul to include the lines “It’s no good asking me what time of day it is/Who won the match or scored the goal”. The orchestral arrangement was composed by George Martin who, hearing this song for the first time, drily remarked “I see you haven’t lost your touch”. The song is utterly beautiful.
The opening track is “The Song We Were Singing” which shows Paul reminiscing about “the old days”, possibly, but not necessarily, with John Lennon. “For a while, we could sit, smoke a pipe/And discuss all the vast intricacies of life/We could jaw through the night/Talk about a range of subjects, anything you like.” One of the stories about Paul McCartney and John Lennon bunking off school was when they used to go to Paul McCartney’s house, find a pipe, fill it with tea and smoke it!
“Calico Skies” was written in Long Island during a power cut: “Bob, the hurricane, knocked out all the power; it was all candle-light, cooking on a woodfire. Very primitive, but we like that enforced simplicity. I couldn’t play records, so I made up little acoustic pieces. This was one of them—it’s a primitive little power cut memory”. It’s another gorgeous melody. The ability of this man to not only compose beautiful melodies but to sing them so graciously and emotionally is unsurpassed.
The record has a full range of musical styles and instrumentation. The song that follows “Calico Skies” is “Flaming Pie”. Mark Lewisohn writes “One of the many remarkable aspects for Paul when revisiting his earlier years for The Beatles Anthology was the problem of correlating differing memories of the same event. Perhaps the knottiest issue was the all-important “how did the Beatles acquire their name?”. The crux of the matter was a short, witty article written by John Lennon for the launch issue of the Liverpool pop paper Mersey Beat, published in July 1961, in which he wrote “How did the name arrive? It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an A’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.” While some recognise this as characteristic Lennon whimsy – much like the prose that would later go into his best-selling books – there remained, during the making of the Anthology TV series, a fantastic private debate as to whether or not John really did receive a vision about a man appearing on a flaming pie. The dispute fascinated Paul, and one morning in February 1996, while out horse-riding, his musings about song lyrics caused him to recall the phrase “flaming pie”. With what he now admits to being a “mischievous” gleam in his eye, he quickly wrote the entire set of verses and chorus, which fitted perfectly with some funky riffs he and Jeff Lynne had evolved days earlier while waiting to overdub guitars on to ‘Souvenir’. With lyric and music fashioned, ‘Flaming Pie’ was recorded quickly – for, entirely appropriately, Paul suggested that the song be taped with the speed that the Beatles often worked, cutting three songs in a day. Setting themselves a four hour deadline, the track came together with relative ease, Paul singing live to his own piano accompaniment (something rarely done in these days of expansive multi-tracking) with Jeff Lynne on guitar, before adding drums and bass and then more guitars and harmony vocals.”
I’m not prepared to listen to a word said against Paul McCartney. So you don’t like “We All Stand Together”? I humbly suggest you listen to it again and appreciate the imagination, creativity and melody to say nothing of its universal appeal to children. You don’t like what John Lennon referred to as Paul’s “granny shit”? Think again. I think that anyone who can compose both “Honey Pie” and “Listen To What The Man Said” is the foremost composer of the last century (or two, three…). He’s a genius. No argument. Thank you.