Paul Is Not Dead: Notes on Silly Love Songs
When I was in Florida, browsing at a local bookstore, I flipped through a Rough Guide to the Beatles, particularly curious to see what they'd say about the various Fabs' solo careers (it's rare to get new takes on the band work, but you can sometimes get offbeat, more personalized views on their individual material). In the section on Paul McCartney, they praised London Town, Wings' 1978 pop gem, so I downloaded it from I-Tunes. Its general excellence-- not necessarily a masterpiece, but a very nice mixture of Wings' previous sound, a healthy dose of countrified instrumentation, and arrangements which suggest McCartney was busy listening to Squeeze--reminded me of what a strong and underrated solo performer Paul McCartney really is (as I type this, Jerry Seinfeld has just announced to the Daily Show audience that "Paul McCartney and Wings," at Madison Square Garden, was his first concert. Of course, he also said, on the same show, that he thought "blog" was the ugliest word of the new millenium, which is funny, because I would've thought this was the millenium's ugliest use of language).
This past summer saw the release of a new McCartney album, Memory Almost Full. I'm still listening to it, and I think I need to listen to it a few more times before I make any kind of final judgment. The two singles, "Dance Tonight" and "Ever Present Past," are prototypical bits of McCartney's pop genius-- tuneful, sophisticated, and seemingly effortless (he really is, as The New Yorker wrote about fifteen years ago, almost absurdly gifted). They combine ear-catching melodies with wry, witty lyrics that, like the best McCartney songs ("That Day is Done," "When I'm 64," "Let It Be"), reveal their deeper darker edge upon repeated listens (he's the Francois Truffaut of britpop-- the cheery guy with an ambivalent, melancholy side).
"Dance Tonight" sounds like a great lost Wings single, with its hurdy-gurdy, vaguely irish instrumentation, country dance rhythm, and swooping Paul vocal; "Ever Present Past" is more akin to McCartney's work on Flowers In the Dirt (1989)-- guitar-driven power pop whose bouncy bass lines (McCartney=best bassist in the history of pop-rock? Discuss) carry across a tale about memory loss and regret that's deceptively pleasant (kind of like howDirt's "My Brave Face" is an upbeat singalong about the dissolution of a marriage, and subsequent emotional crack-up, which you don't get until you're humming the chorus). I'm not sure the rest of the record is up to the quality of those two songs, or to the superb solo work McCartney's been quietly turning out for the last 18 years. Some of it is a bit too mid-seventies art-rock for me (like Yes or Rush), and while individual tracks or moments on individual tracks are great, it doesn't gel as a piece as much as I'd like.
Paul McCartney faces two problems, neither of which are really his fault, but both of which he has to end up confronting every time he releases a record. One is his massive talent-- like Prince, the contemporary musician he most resembles, McCartney is so musically gifted (both men can play virtually any instrument, and have recorded whole albums sans band) that he can do anything he wants, which sometimes leads to indulgences, and high expectations: having changed music in the 60s, people implicitly expect McCartney to do it with every new record.
His other 'problem' is the judgment of the High Priests of Pop Authenticity, those stalwart guardians of conventional rock wisdom (i.e., Rolling Stone and their ilk) who will always prize lyrics over sound, image over craft, and ideology over everything (a good recent example, in fact, was the normally estimable Robert Christgau's review of the Memory Almost Full in Stone this past June, where he spent half of the review talking about how the record is tainted because-- gasp!-- it was distributed through Starbucks; presumably, Christgau writes his reviews, not on such corrupted symbols of American capitalism as computers, but on carved stone tablets that he carries on a homemade wagon from his macrobiotic commune; I mean, we wouldn't want to accuse him of disingenuousness or anything). For this crowd, which remains sadly reflective of much media criticism (and academic criticism, as well, one of the lingering debits of the baby boom generation's high self-regard and stranglehold on American popular culture), McCartney will never be quite as cool as John Lennon or George Harrison, both of whom have taken on the status of beloved martyrs. Those are false images, and ironic ones, especially in the case of "don't believe in Beatles" Lennon's desire to smash false idols, but they suggest the weird filters through which we're often asked to hear music.
And yet, to paraphrase Kim Cooper and David Smay, "What's that got to do with the music?" In their brilliant manifesto, "Bubble Entendres," they wrote:
There�'s no putdown in the critic�s arsenal more dismissive, or easy, than �bubblegum.� To zap a performer with this particular insult is to brand him as a fake, a manufactured morsel aimed directly at the gullet of the least hip consumer. The artist is judged by his fanbase, and most six-year-olds are distinctly lacking in street cred.
Bubblegum offends the myth of Rock as an oppositional, �outsider� cultural force. To its detractors, bubblegum is read as an �inside� music, although in truth much bubblegum music came out on small independent labels, �as opposed to the edgier sounds of the accepted underground. The major labels did a great job of selling their product as packaged rebellion, and the late sixties� fanzines concurred. It was only when they overplayed their hand ("�The Man Can'�t Bust Our Music,"� the "Boston Sound" debacle, overpromoting Moby Grape) that the pseudo-hipsters rejected these hairy offerings.
Rock criticism, born of and beholden to the sixties, stumbles badly when confronted with music produced outside of its short set of registered myths. Session singers? Studio musicians? That�s not rock and roll! Except for Motown. And Stax. And the Beach Boys and portions of the Byrds� career. And, retroactively, disco. And Dusty in Memphis. And Richard Davis� sublime bass work on Astral Weeks.
We think it�s time to retire this folkie stab at a false authenticity. We�re not immune to the allure of the Romantic Artist, nor have we traded our Townes Van Zandt collections for BSB memorabilia. But this myth of the Self Contained Band (beginning with the Beatles) and its offspring�Anarchist Gangs (Clash, Mekons), Artist Collectives (Can, the Band at Big Pink), Populist Unions (Bruce & the E-Street Band, Fugazi)� breeds in the ripe compost of abandoned lefty utopias. It�'s no measure of the music.
To an alien landing here from Melmack, the supposed pejoratives lodged against McCartney's work-- "tuneful," "well-crafted," "commercial" "ballad-y"-- would seem ludicrous. While thankfully, some of this nonsense has abated in the decade since Lennonism reached its high point with the Imagine book/film/soundtrack (an era of baby boom revival that also included The Big Chill, the California Raisins, and The Traveling Wilburys-- some good there, some bad, but all designed to freeze how we hear pop music in roughly 1969 or so, thus allowing the Jann Wenners of the world to nod at us with a stoned-out smile and say, "Ya had to be there, kid"), Christgau's review and articles like this suggest that this remnant of the commune still dogs our ears. It's been nice to see, in recent years, the constant citation of McCartney by contemporary bands like Supergrass, Oasis, R.E.M., Blur and U2, and the slow outing of Wings fans among the musical tastemakers-- it suggests that boomer myths of authenticity might be fading, and McCartney might slowly begin to get his due. It's also nice that it's come in a period-- from roughly 1989 onward-- in which McCartney started turning out his best work (perhaps stung by the lack of critical respect, he tossed out a masterpiece, Flowers In The Dirt, and has never really looked back). With a DVD release of Help! set for next week, and a DVD of McCartney's solo concerts and videos set for release November 13, it seems like a good moment to re-evaluate.
So, what to get? Here's a list of albums and singles to download:
The Fireman, Rushes (1998): McCartney's avant-garde, art-rock tendencies found a fine outlet in this offbeat project, a collaboration with dance producer Youth, to create what might best be described as musical water-colors. It's fascinatingly strange, full of floating keyboards and slightly dissonant guitars-- a reminder that McCartney was making Sgt. Pepper at the same time Ennio Morricone was composing for Sergio Leone. It's certainly not the place to start, but an interesting place to go, eventually, if you want to hear something that sounds exactly like and nothing like Paul McCartney, all at once.
Songs to download: "7 AM," "Watercolour Guitars," "Fluid"
14) London Town (1978): From the combination of black-and-white photo and Colorform lettering on the cover, it's clear that the last great Wings record will be a study in contrasts: between the sleek keyboard pop of "With A Little Luck" and the loopy Fellini rock of "Famous Groupies"; between the new wave surrealism of "Cafe on the Left Bank" and the country pop of "Children Children"; and between London Town and the punkish new wave then colonizing the imaginations of rock audiences. On the one hand, London Town sounds nothing like punk; on the other hand, if punk is really about maintaing one's individuality and 'authenticity' in the face of repressive social forces, what's a bigger middle finger to the currents of that tumultuous period than to just keep being Paul?
13) McCartney II (1980): Wings had just gone on hiatus, not for the first but certainly for the last time; McCartney had just faced a hailstorm of publicity over a pot bust/short jail term in Japan; John Lennon would be murdered in a matter of months. It was a good time for re-evaluation, then, and the result was an all-Paul-on-all-instruments effort that felt startlingly contemporary and new wave/post-punk for a 38-year old ex-hippie. Then again, Paul was never as hippie as John, always savvier about musical trends and what was happening at the fringes of various modernisms (one of the great fallacies of the Beatles myth is that John was the cutting-edge one, when it was really Paul who was hanging out with the London avant-garde in the sixties and make John Cage-like sound collages). There's an otherwordly quality to McCartney II, as if the album was recorded underwater and in outer space: the vocals float and hang and shimmer, bump up almost accidentally against banks of keyboards; lyrics stray in and out of the melody, as if Paul is improvising them on the spot. It's an immensely imagistic album-- less a collection of songs than a soundscape, a forerunner to the kinds of atmospheric textures Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would craft for U2 in the 80s.
Songs to download: "Coming Up," "Waterfalls," "One of These Days"
12) Wings Over America (1977): Just before the Beatles broke up, McCartney made one last-ditch effort to save the band by suggesting that they tour anonymously as the "Masked Marauders"-- no names, no Beatles songs, no publicity-- just get in a van, show up unannounced at small clubs, and jam. The others shot it down, but it was the idea behind Wings, a kinda-sorta-never-really-a band that became McCartney's solo vehicle in the following decade. Members dropped in and out, egos flared, and chart position sometimes fluctuated, but once former Moody Bluesman Denny Laine joined in 1972, and they recorded Band on the Run, they were on their way.
All of this is to say that this album is kind of the big-budget, blockbuster version of that "take the little band on the road and jam" idea McCartney had eight years earlier. It was a massive success, and an affirmation of McCartney's pop instincts-- and his love of live-concert cheesy banter. For good and ill, it's hard to think of a better snapshot of 70s middlebrow pop (you can almost see the laser light show jump out of your stereo as it plays).
Songs to download: "Venus and Mars/Rockshow," "Yesterday," "Maybe I'm Amazed"
11) "Junior's Farm" (1974 single): The "rockingest" of McCartney's Wings' singles, this is a surreal bit of Steely Dannish, hard-edged guitar pop, the logical successor to McCartney's melodic solos at the end of the Abbey Road album. The band was once more a band (with a real drummer and everything!), and they sound tight as they groove around McCartney's stream-of-consciousness lyrics about poker, touring and the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
10) "Live and Let Die" (1973 single): Written and recorded in a couple of days for the Bond film of the same name (the first Roger Moore film, which McCartney's critics probably would sneer was appropriate), it's still one of the series' best, most "cinematic" title songs, full of shiveringly melodramatic orchestrations (courtesy of Beatles producer George Martin), which fit very well with McCartney's pop-rock arrangements and instrumentation. It wasn't McCartney's first soundtrack work-- he wrote the score for a 1966 film, The Family Way, wrote and produced the first Badfinger song "Come And Get It" (the ace demo of which you can find on Beatles Anthology 3, far better than the Badfinger version) which was part of the soundtrack to the Peter Sellers film The Magic Christian. And of course there are the various Beatles films. But it shows how well he worked in a different medium, and how old-school his professionalism was, only three years after the Beatles broke up. It also acts as a nice framework for his Little Richard-like yells and whoops.
"Another Day" (1971 single): For all of Lennon's overt sloganeering (he really was the Godard to McCartney's Truffaut), it was Paul who tended to have the best eye for everyday social detail, and while this single was criticized as trite when first released, it's aged much better than something like Lennon's Some Time In New York City. Acoustic guitar and bass intertwine like a trap around our bored, slightly suicidal protagonist, whose doldrums are nicely captured by the circle of melody and falsely cheery, oft-repeated chorus.
8) "Silly Love Songs" (1976 single): The most famous of McCartney's Wings-era bass lines, a disco-and-Stax-inspired dub sound that chugs the song along nicely. And the lyric is wonderfully self-deprecating ("Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs/And what's wrong with that?/I'd like to know/'Cause here I go/Again...") For a similarly relaxed, seventies soul sound, check out "Peace in the Neighborhood," from the 1993 album Off The Ground; the lyric is kind of trite, but the music and vocals groove like a house party at Curtis Mayfield's.
7) Band On The Run (1973): Famous as the album made in chaos (With the exceptions of Linda and Denny Laine, Wings' members quit the band on the eve of recording; the remaining members were mugged and got sick while recording in Laos), which ended up resparking his solo career, Band On The Run is an album with a lot of nostalgia and expectation attached to it, and it can't possibly live up to the legend that's grown around it over the last 34 (!) years. If one sets aside the hagiography, however, it's possible to hear a lot of good music here: the powerwhoosh pop of "Jet"; the jazzy chords of "Bluebird," the scruffy picareqsue of "Helen Wheels"; the relaxed groove of "Mammunia," which feels like rain on a summer's day; and the tremendous suite of the title track, which has one of McCartney's best lyrics. Plus, that cinematic album cover kicks ass.
Songs to download: "Band on the Run," "Mammunia," "Bluebird," "Jet"
6) Tug of War (1982): John is dead. Wings is dead. Is Paul dead? Not since 1969, at least (although he did release "Ebony and Ivory" this year, so you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise), but he was determined to rediscover himself after a decade of trying new sounds with Wings. To that end, he recruited his old producer, George Martin; his old drummer, Ringo Starr; and collaborated with two of his oldest influences, Stevie Wonder and Carl Perkins. Everyone went down to Martin's AIR studios in the Bahamas (with occasional stops at Paul's old Beatles haunting grounds, Abbey Road Studios), and spent nearly two years on an album that, upon release, sold like hot cakes, produced the best-selling single of the year (the aforementioned "LIfe's An Eskimo Pie (Why Not Take a Bite?"), and was proclaimed by many critics to be McCartney's masterpiece.
Well...it's not. It's good--very, very good-- but it hasn't aged as well as some of his other work. I could do without the wink-wink, aren't-we-being-cute hoedown antics of "Ballroom Dancing," and the aforementioned treacle (if well-intentioned treacle) of "Ebony and Ivory," while one of the album's most intriguing moments-- the metallic-edged, falsetto-driven "Dress Me Up Like A Robber"--cuts off suddenly just as it's getting started. Still, there's a lot of good stuff here-- the finger-pickin', relaxed collaboration with Carl Perkins ("Get It"), the second collaboration with Stevie Wonder (the synth-funk jam "What's That You're Doin'"), the utterly sublime pop perfection of "Take It Away" (if you don't experience a shiver of discophiliac pleasure as McCartney's vocal glides over those perfectly arranged soul horns ("In the auudience..."), well, I don't want to know you), the gorgeously epic ballad "Wanderlust," and the intriguing slow build of the title track.
Above all, there's the most touching tribue to John Lennon written or recorded anywhere, ever: "Here Today." Paul played it on his last tour, but it's really a forgotten song, which is a shame, because it's one of the best things he's ever done, with or without the Beatles. On an album full of production flourishes and baroque arrangements, McCartney steps to the mic, unadorned except for an acoustic guitar and (later) a small string section, and sings about how he misses his best friend, done as a one-sided conversation to a person who can no longer answer. The lyric is moving and witty ("Knowing you, you'd probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart"), the singing almost conversational: you almost feel embarrassed, as if you'd accidentally stumbled into a stranger's wake. But then, the Beatles' greatest gift, as many others have noted, was to make the personal universal, and the universal personal, and no one could do that better than McCartney does here.
Songs to download: "Here Today," "Tug of War," "Wanderlust," "Take It Away"
5) McCartney (1970): McCartney would later describe this album as a cry for help, his musical response to an emotional breakdown after the Beatles broke up. You can here some of that on the record (it's possible to hear its best song, "Maybe I'm Amazed," as a love song to both Linda and his old band), which is drenched in nostalgia-- for the beatles, for the fifties (the brilliant song "Teddy Boy") and for a long-gone childhood ("Junk," later used for, of all things, a seduction scene on the porch between Tom Cruise and Renee Zellwegger in Jerry Maguire). The album was the first "official" solo album by a Beatle (although both Paul and George had done soundtrack work sans band, and John and Yoko released Two Virgins in 1968); because of that, it carried the weight of all the post-Abbey Road expecations (the last album, Let It Be, was a posthumous mess, recorded in early 1969, but not released until 1970), and was regarded as "slight" by critics expecting Sgt. Pepper II. 37 years later, away from all those crazy hippie hopes, it's possible just to hear it for what it is: a wonderfully stylish, low-key pop album that seems to presage the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s.
Songs to download: "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Teddy Boy," "Every Night," "Junk"
4) Driving Rain (2001): The first post-Linda record is erratic but fascinating, its very mishmashed nature part of its charm, as if your favorite uncle had suffered a grave loss, but wanted to put a good face on everything. Everyone gives John credit for singing through and about his pain, but no one does the same for McCartney; here, though, following Linda's death from cancer, is a collection of well-crafted pop that's both autobiography and benediction, and if some of the songs aren't quite up to snuff, McCartney's appealingly ragged-but-dogged vocals hold it altogether: he's literally singing for his life.
Songs to Download: "Driving Rain," "Riding into Jaipur," "Magic"
3) Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005): McCartney started recording the songs that would become Memory Almost Full in 2003, then put them aside. He became fascinated with Middle Eastern music, and thought about doing a whole album in that style. He hooked up with Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich, and raised the "rock the casbah" idea. Goodrich said-- nah.
"I want to record a Paul McCartney album," he told our hero, and that's exactly what they did-- the best McCartney record in almost a decade, and the one where he seems the most relaxed and effortless, the most comfortable with his Beatles-and-Wings past. His voice seems to have recovered from the mournful scratchiness of Driving Rain, and that return of a vocal range allows him to expand again musically, from the Spanish guitar of "A Certain Softness," and the bluesy piano pop of "Fine Line" to the "Blackbird"-meets-Michael-Stipe musing of "Jenny Wren" to the Rupert-Giles-in-the-countryside pop shimmer of "English Tea." The album sold well, scored ecstatic reviews, and even got a Grammy or two. That same year, he played Live Aid II with U2, as the five of them jammed on "Sgt. Pepper" for hundreds of thousands in London. Paul, it seemed, was back.
Songs to download: "Fine Line," "English Tea," "Jenny Wren"
2) Flaming Pie (1997): Then again, he'd never really gone anywhere, had he? The great kept secret of the 90s is that McCartney had been turning out superlative work, even if everyone only wanted to ponder the navel of Eddie Vedder and the importance of Matchbox (oh, excuse me-- matchbox) 20. This album was recorded in a few weeks, inspired, McCartney said, by memories unleashed by the interviews for the Anthology project, and thinking about how fast the Beatles used record. The result is one of the best albums of his career, song-for-song as strong as anything he'd ever done. The title track is like "Lady Madonna" on happy pills, full of surreal one-liners and driven by stylish boogie piano. Nearly as good is "The World Tonight," which wryly comments on how then-current bands like Oasis were nicking his style ("I go back so far, I'm in front of me"). "Calico Skies" is a lovely ballad about loss and loyalty that takes on added resonance when you realize he must've written it for Linda just before she passed. "Young Boy" is straight-ahead guitar pop whose lyric gives some sense of what Buddy Holly would've sounded like if he'd lived to middle age, while "Heaven on A Sunday" is a thing of lyrically ambiguous beauty (I've never been able to suss out if the narrator's cheating on his partner or not), with a nice guitar solo halfway through by Paul's son James.
Songs to Download: "Heaven on A Sunday," "Flaming Pie," "Calico Skies"
Flowers in the Dirt (1989): The only thing the otherwise superlative Flaming Pie lacks is a touch of ambition: McCartney's pop genius tends to fire on all cylinders when he's under pressure or feeling challenged. After an up-and-down decade in the 80s, and facing critics who (*cough COUGH* excuse me) actually thought George was turning out better albums around that time, McCartney said goodbye to his past with a greatest hits collection (All The Best!), rang up a new songwriting partner, Declan MacMannus, and buckled down in the studio.
Of course, it helps that MacMannus's recording nom de plume is Elvis Costello. Was McCartney looking to the punkish new wave legend for a Touch of John, as some critics smirked? Perhaps, but it's worth noting that the relationship worked both ways: Costello never sounded as sonically alive as he did on Spike, the album that acted as his side of the collaboration. And it ignores the dark maturity of McCartney's own writing, from a man who'd lost his mother when he was fourteen to cancer. Anyway, it's a great, great, great record-- certainly the best thing he's ever done on his own, and arguably as good as some of the Beatles' records. It's marred only by two songs: a wanky bonus track, "Ou Est de Soleil," available only on CD and tape, and as good an argument for buying vinyl as you could imagine; and the "umm" erstatz reggae of "How Many People" (nice, Stingish lyric, though). Otherwise, it's aces. Yes, the four Costello collaborations are superb: the aforementioned "My Brave Face" reignites McCartney's gift for musical paradox; the witty duet "You Want Her Too" is best described by its writers, as a musical version of the "angel and devil Tom and Jerrys" on a guy's shoulder, trying to get him to go one way or another; "Don't Be Careless Love" transforms a ballad into a serial killer's threat (as "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" proves, this has long been McCartney territory); while "That Day is Done" is epic, a tale of death and love that Costello described as their attempt to write like Johnny Cash.
But the non-Costello songs are equally fine: "Distractions" sports McCartney's best use of the Spanish guitar sound he's loved since The Beatles' "I Love Her", and a beautiful lyric to boot; "Figure of Eight" is strong blues pop; "Motor of Love" layers vocals like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson; "Put it There" is the perfect folk song about fatherhood; "This One" is the best lyric McCartney's ever written; and "We Got Married" is his most revealing song, with a tense acoustic guitar undermining every attempt at sunny disposition. The album was released two years after Tunnel of Love, but it kind of reminds me of Springsteen's masterpiece: challenged to do something new and reveal a bit more of themselves in the work, both men rose to the occasion and found a way to explore darker themes in their work. In the end, though, McCartney's sensibility is an optimistic one-- that's his saving grace-- so if Springsteen wants to tell you that love is not, in fact, all you need, McCartney's masterpiece takes the listener to some dark places, and tells them that love is hard, ragged-- and absolutely necessary.
Download: All of it.