16 June 2017 by Philip Kirkland
As Paul McCartney approaches three-quarters of a century of life, this Sunday, 18th June, it seems as good a time as any to appraise the ‘haphazard career’ that he mentioned when talking about preferring spending time with his youngest daughter, Beatrice, some years ago, and infinitely preferable to thinking about discussing the same subject at some, hopefully, distant time in the future when he is called to the great choir in the sky.
What is clear is that in writing the history of popular music in the 20th century, McCartney will stand comfortably in the company of the likes of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein et al., and remarkably, he reached that status by the age of 28, with the break up of The Beatles. What stands out is that he was a natural, both as a musician and a songwriter. As an adolescent, he preferred to learn the piano by ear, despite his father advising him to take lessons, and could pick out the latest Little Richard tunes after a few listenings. The reluctant bass player then quickly became one of the instrument’s leading exponents, and every new instrument was mastered with consummate ease.
As far a songwriting is concerned, his first recorded composition, ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’, written around the time of his sixteenth birthday, although highly derivative, shows an incredible understanding of the genre for one so young, and could easily have been written by any number of seasoned Tin Pan Alley veterans churning out hits for the Elvis ‘impersonators’ of the era. Its atmospheric, bluesy performance was also an indication of what was to come, although hardly anyone heard the recording at the time, of course.
Moving forward to the prodigious output of hits in the eight active years of The Beatles as a group, we marvel at the apparent ease with which McCartney was able to create time and again sublime unions of lyrics and music, the kind of songs that I always consider not to have been written, but to have just “happened”, as if they had always existed. Musicologists, of which I am not one, will point to the wonder of techniques used in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Penny Lane’ that appear to have been instinctive to McCartney, rather than the result of advanced musical knowledge. Although he wasn’t a student of musical theory as such, he was certainly a student of musicians, absorbing influences from the whole century. It is not too far-fetched to believe that he had his great predecessors in mind during the songwriting process, and had a single-minded ambition to create something to equal their best work, sometimes at the expense of being ‘contemporary’. Many, including his sometime songwriting partner, criticize the ‘granny music’ of ‘Honey Pie’, but the result was a perfect pastiche of a 1920s-style song, down to the ‘fruity’ vocals (Paul’s words), and would not have been out of place if it had been released forty years earlier – electric bass and guitar notwithstanding. It is interesting to note that Lennon produced one of his best, and well-fitting – lead guitar solos on the recording, in spite of his distaste for Paul’s ‘regressive’ music.
The solo McCartney years divide Beatles’ fans much more. Leaving the creative hothouse that was The Beatles and essentially striking out on his own as a songwriter, albeit sometimes sharing authoring credits with his wife, was always going to be a thankless task. The initial collaboration with the contrasting talents of John Lennon, bouncing ideas off him, and later the intense competition with him and, to a lesser extent, with George Harrison, inspired a body of work unparalleled in the rock era before or since. Such a talent was not going to dry up overnight, and there are certainly many songs in the first 10-15 years of his solo career that would have made it on to the very best of the Beatles’ albums. “Monkberry Moon Delight”, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, “Live And Let Die”, “My Love” and “Band On The Run” stand out. Later efforts such as “Once Upon A Long Ago”, “Hope Of Deliverance” and “Fine Line” miss the mark by a very long way, especially lyrically. Attempts to be ‘contemporary’ or ‘relevant’, such as the experimental ‘The Fireman’ project, or the ‘Press To Play’ album, or collaborations with members of Nirvana, and Kanye West, seem to be unnecessary for someone already assured of a place in the pantheon of the all-time greats.
Nevertheless, any other artist starting a career in 1970 and producing a canon of popular music like McCartney’s would have good reason to proud of his work, but the point is that he isn’t ‘any other artist’, he is Paul McCartney, national (and international) treasure, forever to be judged against a younger version of Paul McCartney, part a phenomenon that can never quite be equalled, even by its own members. No one would have expected him to retire at 40 and count his money, nor would they begrudge him the opportunity to continue doing what he likes doing best, making and performing music and, of course, still reach people. As he said himself:
“I used to think that all my Wings stuff was second-rate stuff, but I began to meet younger kids, not kids from my Beatle generation, who would say, We really love this song.”
High praise indeed but it seems, however, that Paul understands the majority of his public very well, and recognizes what they want, given that his concerts consist overwhelmingly of Beatles’ hits and early solo efforts. He obviously also recognizes that age is not a friend of the vocal chords, now often not even attempting some of the higher notes, but that the truest fans forgive that just to be in the presence of a true great.
A haphazard career, perhaps, but to paraphrase another legend, “Greatness is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”. Paul was effectively the driving force of The Beatles. He smiled and interacted with screaming fans while Lennon scowled, he conceived the ‘Sgt Pepper’ project when the group appeared to be faltering, and he never really wanted the dream to end, encouraging even greater standards and creativity, often to the point of annoying his bandmates. He was ever the optimist – “Thumbs-aloft Macca”.
A quick glance at the dictionary gives the following definition of genius:
“…very great and rare natural ability or skill, especially in a particular area such as science or arts, or a person who has this…”
Genius is creating some of the best music of all time despite a lack of formal training. Sir James Paul McCartney is a genius.
Happy Birthday, and many more of them!
Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.