McCartney Wins (Sir Paul Turns 80 And Arguably Surpasses His Former Bandmates)

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Today marks the 80th birthday of Sir Paul McCartney (he doesn’t look a day over 64!). It would be a benchmark in any case, but Sir Paul and others have helped the event along with several recent opportunities for re-evaluation, including Peter Jackson’s eight hour Get Back edit and the series McCartney 3, 2, 1 with Rick Rubin, and Mark Lewisohn’s touring show in 2019 (which featured material from his upcoming Volume Two of The Beatles: All These Years), as well as several new critically acclaimed new albums by McCartney himself.

Also having done a couple of other posts on McCartney (this and this) and 40 on the Beatles, it’s occurred to me recently that for quite some time I’ve been walking around with an outmoded paradigm about the pop singer in my head, basically a narrative that’s about a quarter century out of date, mostly because I disliked so much of McCartney’s post-Beatles work so much that I stopped paying attention to him decades ago. But most of McCartney’s work since the mid ’90s has been critically acclaimed, and bears investigation (I know because I recently investigated it). He has aged and broadened and deepened, as one does; he’s climbed out of the sandpit of vapidity that once trapped him. Having been making music for well over 60 years, McCartney’s weaker decades (the ’70s and ’80s) now constitute less than a third of his career. Further, for the heck of it I did a little survey to test how much of McCartney’s solo work I actually truly dislike….and found the ratio to be something like 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3. That is to say, I really liked a third of it, and a third of it was “meh”…which means that I only really hated a third of it. Yes, that’s a stark contrast to the Beatles years, where I really like almost all of it. But it’s also different from hating all of it.

But this also means that longevity has been McCartney’s friend. His solo work no longer suffers as it once did in comparison to that of John Lennon and George Harrison because a) he has now written a body of reflective, contemplative songs that rival or exceed theirs; and b) some of what his bandmates were once praised for now some seems silly and boring (especially Lennon’s solo work). In addition to more mature, honest pop songwriting, which stretches at least as far back as Flaming Pie (1997), but perhaps even as early as Flowers in the Dirt (1989), McCartney has now also bested his bandmates by releasing several records of experimental electronica (like Lennon and Harrison he had dabbled in such music since the ’60s; unlike them, he didn’t release such excursions and doodlings for decades). McCartney has also fulfilled his own potential since the ’90s by releasing several albums of original classical music. It can no longer be said that “he’s not what he once was”; he’s long since come back much stronger.

For a time though it seemed as though McCartney’s reputation as a shallow balladeer seemed likely to swallow him up. What happened to him? I have a theory, complete with scapegoat. Naturally, breaking up with the guys who had always been his collaborators knocked him off his game. But there was something else happened to him, on a near enough timeline that people tend not to identify it or bring it up. I’m a strong proponent of the idea that artists are influenced above all by their significant others. McCartney grew by leaps and bounds during the years 1963 to 1968, when his girlfriend and fiance was stage and screen actress Jane Asher, a cultured young woman who apparently kept him regularly exposed to a steady stream of theatre, art house films, books, gallery openings, and so forth in addition to the musical tutelage he was getting at the feet of George Martin. During these years, McCartney generated all of these amazing pieces of writing: “Penny Lane”, “Eleanor Rigby”, the kind of stuff I’ve always considered his best work. By contrast, Linda McCartney was a visual artist, a celebrity photographer. It is my strong suspicion that she did NOT provide Asher’s kind of elevating influence but something more like the opposite. In fact, one of Linda’s first bits of advice to McCartney had been to put “Wild Honey Pie”, every Beatles fan’s least favorite Beatles’ song, on the White Album. The stuff she seems to have encouraged him to do often seem mindless, and his lyrical gifts seem to have fled almost entirely during those years. The records McCartney (1970) and Wild Life (1971) include scarcely any lyrics to speak of at all. And there are fairly appalling singles like “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (to my mind, the lowest plummet of all). His melodies are almost always unassailable. But now he seemed content to retain throwaway, first draft lyrics, rather than keep working them until they were decent. It’s as though every tune were “Scrambled Eggs”, but he’d now forgotten that he needed to take the train all the way into the station as “Yesterday”. The results are often infuriating, so you resent the musical temptation to sing along. “Big Barn Bed”? Who the hell wants to sing THAT lyric? At one time, McCartney had written pop songs that were compared to novels. By the ’70s, he was adapting comic books like “Magneto and Titanium Man” into songs (Gee, I guess he was ahead of his time in terms of public taste, after all!). Anyway, sure, a lot of rock musicians turn out junk such as songs based on comic books. When you know that someone is capable of much, much, much better, it is a disappointment.

But it’s also true that critics couldn’t seem to think straight on the topic of McCartney. They frequently castigated him for supposed faults which his bandmates were every bit as guilty of.  By what logic, for example is the much maligned hit single “My Love” not as good as George Harrison’s critically acclaimed “Something” or Lennon’s “I Want You” or “Don’t Let Me Down”? Lennon’s and Harrison’s love songs are praised for their Spartan simplicity; when McCartney does the same thing, he’s said to have “lost it”.  It seems to me that we are grading on a curve here and it’s not fair. We praise “Something” because Harrison reached up another rung and attained a new level of excellence. We praise Lennon’s love songs because, as with any modern artist, we watch his process of stripping away to arrive at essentials, like a Beckett or a Pinter or a Mondrian or a Rothko. McCartney routinely churns out such songs and he’s declared bankrupt, a bubblehead. Yet his bandmates’ songs have equally simple lyrics and tunes and themes, and people are in awe. By the way, have you taken the time to look at the lyrics to “Yesterday” lately? Are they that much more complex than those of “My Love”? Both would fit handily on a greeting card and for once I don’t intend that as an insult, for this is true of many of the lyrics to many of the best pop songs, dating to Tin Pan Alley.  I’ve always thought of “My Love” as one of McCartney’s best and even Beatle-worthy post breakup singles. Since we’re talking greeting cards, it’s the ultimate Valentine’s song — it’s much better at nailing that holiday than “Wonderful Christmastime” does its. 

The traditional line is that unlike Lennon and Harrison, who kept “growing” as people and artists, McCartney was developmentally arrested. He remained a Beatle, a pop star. In the beginning, all the Beatles had been “cute”. By 1970, the only former member of the group who seemed determined to remain appealing to the 14 year old girls who had formed their original mass fan base was McCartney. There were Wings posters. There were no Plastic Ono Band posters. McCartney was an entertainer. At a time when Lennon was obsessed with Vietnam and Nixon, and Harrison with starvation in Bangladesh, McCartney’s brilliant album was Ram, the virtues of which existed out of time, on its own terms.

Indeed, most of McCartney’s songs that seem intended to play some kind of larger social function, like “Ebony and Ivory” or “Freedom”, sound calculated and insincere. His emotions aren’t engaged in the same way. Is it possible that a man this rich and famous doesn’t have sufficient ego for the task? I think it is. He seems reluctant to involve his emotions when he’s singing to the world and not just an imagined romantic partner, almost as though he doesn’t feel entitled to undertake the job. Lennon obviously had none of those fears and compunctions, and that was not always to his credit. Yet with 20/20 hindsight is seems to me at least that Ram is a far superior record to Some Time in New York City. There is virtue in knowing what you ought to be doing. Indeed, 50 years later, it seems perhaps there are ways in which McCartney matured faster than his bandmates. He gets eviscerated for singing about being at home and living in domestic bliss in his first few solo records; but when Lennon does it on Double Fantasy a decade later, it’s treated like some heavy revelation instead of ground that McCartney already covered with comparable results years earlier. At any rate, McCartney’s mature phase takes its own form — it is intimate and personal, not political and spiritual. But surely that’s valid.

Here’s another psychological factor that may have played a role, yet I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone else express. Was McCartney intimidated by the thought of Lennon as a competitor during his lifetime? It’s only after Lennon’s assassination that you see McCartney engage in these high profile collaborations with major pop star peers like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello in the ’80s. Whereas, since the late ’60s Harrison had been playing with guys like Bob Dylan, the Band, and Leon Russell, and Lennon had collaborated with members of the Rolling Stones, and later David Bowie, Elton John, and Nilsson — and both guys played with Eric Clapton. It’s almost like when Lennon died, a weight came off. Is it possible that McCartney had felt inhibited when he knew his old partner was watching him?

In any case, I do think think Lennon would approve of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005), Memory Almost Full (2007), New (2013), Egypt Station (2018), and McCartney III (2020).  At times, it’s almost like McCartney is channeling his old bandmate, though that’s not fair. They’re similarly gifted men, who influenced one another, and developed along their own separate trajectories. (Allow me also to quickly observe the wisdom of waiting 2-5 years between projects and not a year or six months, as had formerly been the way. It’s the best way I can think of for ensuring that most of the songs on the album will be excellent — wait until you have enough good songs!)

By the way, at this late date, McCartney has even “answered” some Ringo product. Ringo had launched his solo career with an album of Tin Pan Alley standards called Sentimental Journey in 1970; the timing of its release had been a factor of the break-up of the Beatles. McCartney released his own album of such covers Kisses on the Bottom, in 2012. (In a parallel development it is interesting to note that Bob Dylan also released albums of Tin Pan Alley covers in 2015, 2016, and 2017). McCartney had them all beat — he tried to sell his own composition “Suicide” to Sinatra way back in 1969. Back then, Sinatra, in his mid ’50s, was the old, guy. Today, the surviving Beatles are octogenarians, an age at which Sinatra was only able to perform concerts with the aid of large print teleprompters.

Which summons the truth that writing about 80 year old pop singers doesn’t make me seem any too young either. So I’ll leave off for now, probably until next February. Because that’s when Yoko Ono turns 90.