It might be argued that the period of around two years after their official breakup was the artistic nadir for former Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with both setting back the frontiers of sullen self-indulgence, spinning far, far away from every quality that had formerly endeared them to fans. By 1972, Lennon was deep into a period of political radicalism and enchantment with his avant-garde wife, short circuiting any remotely commercial instinct he ever possessed. McCartney, on the other hand, in a quest for legitimacy as a rock figure, had ironically (as he was periodically wont to do) thrown quality control out the window. The LPs associated with this period were Wings’ debut record Wild Life (December, 1971), a skimpy collection of jams and half-written songs; and John and Yoko’s Sometime in New York City (June, 1972), a grab bag of underwritten, shallow anthems written in response to current events (and thus dated almost the instant they were released).
Interestingly, though they were diverging artistically, the former partners were still competing with each other. One of the more interesting aspects of this rivalry (given that so many aspects are so uninteresting) was they each wrote their own pro-IRA anthem at around the same time. Lennon’s was recorded first, but McCartney’s was released first, and as a single (Lennon’s was just a track on an LP). Each is drastically sub-par, excellent examples of why they were better together than apart, for each of them would most certainly have corrected the worst indulgences made by the other partner in these terrible songs.
Why did they write these songs at all? Well for a bit of context, this was a very “hot” period in the long-roiling unrest in Northern Ireland. “Bloody Sunday”, in which British soldiers shot and killed unarmed Irish civilians had just occurred (January, 1972). This was a horrible event — so horrible that even the normally unpolitical McCartney was motivated to respond. The instinct was laudable. And both Lennon and McCartney had some Irish in their background, which perhaps (they may have felt) gave them permission to speak out on it.
Yet, one can’t help thinking, the Irish themselves take a back seat to no other people on earth as poets or songwriters. One can’t help smelling something a little patronizing about these British millionaires, making their little “statements” and trying to get everybody to sing along. But…
Wings’ debut single “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was released on February 25, 1972. It seems to have been partially motivated by the fact that the band’s guitarist Henry McCullough was Irish. The record was considered too incendiary; it was completely banned from all British radio, although it became a #1 hit in Ireland. But it was heard almost nowhere else, and still hasn’t been. It’s not just because of the content, but because both the lyrics and tune are makework, completely uninspired. I confess to finding the tune to this one catchier than Lennon’s, but it is also marred by McCartney’s patent superficiality. The line that always makes me wince is “Great Britain, You Are Tremendous”, a Las Vegas level sentiment, more suitable for Steve Lawrence than a former Beatle.
Lennon’s song “The Luck of the Irish”, released June 12, but recorded the previous December, is to my mind, even worse than McCartney’s. This from the pen of the man who wrote “All You Need is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Revolution”. Though Lennon was doing interesting things vocally and in terms of musicianship and production during this period, he seemed nearly bankrupt as a songwriter. The tunes from Some Time In New York City are his absolute weakest. As he had copped from the blues for “John Sinclair”, for “The Luck of the Irish”, he dabbles in what I call “Irish Bullshit Music”, with a vaguely traditional sounding melody and ornamental penny whistle as an atmospheric gesture. So this one evokes Ireland more than McCartney’s, but rather lamely. (It was McCartney who would eventually nail this traditional sound in “Mull of Kyntire”, although the theme for that one is Scottish).
The lyrics are perhaps even more embarrassing than McCartney’s. “If you had the luck of the Irish/ You’d be sorry and wish you was dead/ You should have the luck of the Irish/ and you’d wish you was English instead.” Now, when he wrote this, it may have originally been intended as characteristic Lennon humor. If he recorded the song in that vein, perhaps as a raucous drinking song, with many male voices, like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, this song may well have come off. But instead he does it SUPER earnest. We can only conclude that he means this drivel. His sentiment is excellent; his method of expressing it, terrible. Even more hilariously, Yoko comes in on the second verse, bringing us her take on the English-Irish question, which I just know the public had been waiting for with baited breath:
Eh, wot? A little skunk cabbage to have with your corned beef. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!