Here’s a post in contrast to most of the others that I upload to the blog; a rather pointless digression into the solo career of Paul McCartney. I hesitated about including it here, but then remembered the main purpose of this blog: to simply type away the eclectic thoughts in my head within a historical framework. So, yes, ultimately pointless, but for McCartney fans it could hopefully provoke some debate.
I have fallen in love with Spotify: I pay ten pounds a month to listen to a ridiculously wide selection of music. I’m aware that it has its detractors: that it doesn’t pay the artists enough, that it spoils the fun of scouring record shops to come across something, and that it somehow devalues music by making it freely available. But I was never much of a collector – CDs were easily lost – and having all of this music available at my fingertips means that I can go through entire catalogues of musicians without having to take out a small loan to pay for records (or, more frustratingly, deal with YouTube and its intrusive adverts).
So, over the past couple of years I’ve gone through entire discographies of bands and artists, including the likes of The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan (all the heavyweights); as well as some minor and more forgotten bands (Lone Pigeon, anyone?). It’s a great way to reappraise an artist’s back catalogue, and to see how they changed with the times; for example, the 1980’s insistence on synthesised drum beats didn’t seem to spare anyone. One of my most favourite bands – ever since childhood – is that of the Beatles, and having gorged myself on the various “special editions” of every album I moved on to the solo careers of the Beatles. Enter, then, Sir Paul McCartney: the focus of this post.
McCartney – or “Macca” to his friends and fans – has had a long solo career, ranging from 1970 to the present day. Yes, he is most associated with the Beatles, but his non-Beatles career stretches to five decades (almost entering a sixth decade!). This is quite an achievement, although some of the albums include the annoying to the terrible. Part of this is due to McCartney’s continuing attempts to be “relevant” and “modern”; a quest to achieve chart success. However, amongst these failed attempts are a few real gems. Below is a brief chronological overview of 5 such albums; albums that every fan of the Beatles should listen to and treasure during his solo period, in Wings, or in partnership with other songwriters (and no, there is no space for the album Back to the Egg).
#1: Ram (1971)
McCartney began his solo career with the lo-fi album McCartney in 1970. It was a bleak time, what with the eroding away of the Beatles, and McCartney appeared to be searching for a new direction. However, the songs were mere fragments and sketches, rather than truly showing what he was capable of. Fast-forward a year and enter the album Ram.
Although credited to both McCartney and his wife, it shows “Macca” at full-speed in attempting to demonstrate his vision. This can be seen in the various structures employed in the likes of ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ and in ‘The Back Seat of My Car’; reminiscent of the medley on Abbey Road in the latter part of the Beatles. Of course, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ has its detractors, with many pointing to the unfortunate uncoupling of McCartney from a songwriter of the quality of Lennon. Post-Beatles left McCartney bereft of someone to reign in the shackles of what Lennon believed the tendency to descend into “that granny music” (or was it “granny shit”?). Despite “Macca” verging on the dangerous side, he doesn’t completely fall into the trap of repeating another ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ (although ‘Heart of the Country’ is rather sickly). 1971 is an interesting year for the old Beatles songwriting pair: whilst Lennon was voicing his own personal angst and about how the world could be free without religion, countries, and politics there was McCartney singing about the pleasures of home-cooking in ‘Eat at Home’:
Come on, little lady,
Lady, let’s eat at home
Come on, little lady,
Lady, let’s eat at home, eat at home, eat at homeCome on, little lady,
Lady, let’s eat in bed
Come on, little lady,
Lady, let’s eat at bed, eat in bed, eat in bedBring the love that you feel for me
Into line with the love I see,
And in the morning you’ll bring to me loveCome on, little lady,
Lady, now don’t do that
Come on, little lady,
Lady, now don’t do that, do that, do that
Uh, uh, uh, uh
But the ability and freedom to sing about whatever he wanted is Ram‘s best quality. It retains an innocence that the later work of Wings never replicated; this includes the much-heralded (and over-rated) 1973 album Band on the Run. The 1970s would never be as kind to McCartney again.
#2: McCartney II (1980)
The rather unimaginatively titled McCartney II offers an interesting mirror image to 1970’s McCartney. Both albums were released at the dawn of a brand new decade, and both were recorded chiefly by McCartney himself; they were released with “Macca” finding himself free from the shackles of previous bands (in 1970 it was the Beatles, and in 1980 it was the end of Wings after the rather terrible Back at the Egg).
McCartney II is something to behold: it is McCartney back relying on himself and attempting to experiment. The result is an electronic album that produced such gems as ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Front Parlour’, along with other pop-heavy numbers such as ‘Temporary Secretary’. There’s even place for a typical “Macca”-ballad in the form of ‘Waterfalls’, but even this song provides a hint of ominous sadness:
Don’t Run After Motor Cars
Please Stay On The Side
Someone’s Glossy Motor Car
Might Take You For A Ride
The album has been a clear influence on bands in later generations who felt more confident in utilising electronic equipment in their production of songs; including bands such as the impressive Super Furry Animals and the rather non-impressive (such as Hot Chip… sorry Hot Chip). All of this suggests that there is legs yet in this album, and perhaps its impact will be truly assessed in the decades to come.
#3: Flowers in the Dirt [demo sessions] (1987-88)
Although this inclusion is not technically an album, it deserves a place on this list for providing an insight into the level that McCartney was able to operate at. The background is this: McCartney met with Elvis Costello and together they wrote a selection of songs. It was intended that the pair would continue their collaboration by producing an album together, but the relationship started breaking down over McCartney’s choices for production. The idea of a more stripped-back approach was abandoned and “Macca” returned to his preoccupation of attempting to make a pop record. On the whole, the resulting album Flowers in the Dirt fails as an album: it was McCartney attempting to fruitlessly continue the pop “form” of the early 1980s albums Tug of War and Pipes of Peace; it has not been well regarded prior to its release (and McCartney did not even include a single song on his recent compilation Pure).
However, thankfully years later the original demos recorded between McCartney and Costello were released, and they revealed a fruitful song-writing spark and – arguably – “Macca’s” best songs since breaking up with the Beatles. These songs include ‘Tommy’s Coming Home’ and ‘So Like Candy’, with the highlight being ‘The Lovers That Never Were’. Costello remarked that McCartney’s vocal performance on ‘The Lovers That Never Were’ was one of his finest vocal performances, and this original recording supports such a contention. The song was later recorded by McCartney again in the 1990s, but it completely lacks the passion of the original.
Sadly, these demos were locked away and forgotten about for a couple of decades, before finding release in a new “special edition”. Perhaps if the pair had remained together in partnership they could have created new, interesting work. Perhaps Costello was one of only a few artists to have provided opposition to McCartney’s “granny music” tendencies. However, McCartney’s never ending quest for pop perfection and chart success meant that he had to uncouple himself from Costello; it is a feature of McCartney’s career that makes him such an infuriating artist, but also highlights an admiral quality in never stopping to attempt to construct the perfect pop song. Also, it could be argued that these demos were too similar to the work from the Beatles era, and therefore releasing them in this guise would open McCartney up to accusations that he was attempting to feed off the past with a Lennon replica.
Overall, Flowers in the Dirt represents a missed opportunity, and provides an interesting “what if” to McCartney’s career. He would have to wait a decade before he returned to this more simple, purer approach. But decades later McCartney referenced the time he spent with Costello, saying that whenever he is in the studio using too much production-polish he hears Costello’s words in his ear: ‘McCartney, no.’ Perhaps McCartney should have heard that voice more consistently over the years.
#4: Flaming Pie (1997)
1997 was an interesting year of music. It was the watershed period of “Britpop” and the year saw the release of some seminal albums (including Radiohead’s OK Computer and the Verve’s Urban Hymns) as well as some quickly forgotten albums (yes, Oasis’ Be Here Now). Amongst all of this was another album from Paul McCartney; but this one offered a return to form and a deeper connection to his methods and standards of the past.
The effectiveness in Flaming Pie lies in its simple approach to both songwriting and production. This can be seen from the very beginning with opening track ‘The Song We Were Singing’, and is traced through with the likes of closer ‘Great Day’ and the more “rocking” songs of ‘The World Tonight’ and Souvenir’. There is even space for a McCartney’s finger-picking love-song in the form of ‘Blackbird’: ‘Calico Skies’. This song takes on special significance when we consider how his wife, Linda, was to pass away shortly after the album’s release. And for the Beatles fans he included the title track – ‘Flaming Pie’ – which, as any Beatles fan worth his salt should know involves the story of the naming of the band.
The context of the period of the album offers an interesting reason as to why McCartney approached things with a fresh perspective: the mid-1990s were focused on the remastering of the Beatles back-catalogue in order to release the three large Anthology albums. Apparently when remixing the songs ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ McCartney was reacquainted with the high standards that the band aspired to back in the 1960s, and this burst pushed “Macca” onto the recording of Flaming Pie.
Of course, it is not a faultless album, and there is far too much reminiscing going on, but the album is important because it kick-started a new period in McCartney’s career. He followed this up with critical and popular success in the form of Run Devil Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full, and even New into the 2010s. “Macca” was refreshed and ready to continue on with his quest to create the perfect pop record.
#5: Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
The final selection presented something of a dilemma: whether to stump for McCartney being challenged, or going for McCartney unchained. The first was Chaos and Creation in the Backyard from 2005, where McCartney teamed up with producer Nigel Godrich; the second was McCartney with his ukulele out in a joyful, pop-stomping mood in the form of Memory Almost Full (2007). There is quite a lot to like from the second album, including the introspective and Dylan-esque ‘You Tell Me’ and the fascinating and haphazard ‘Mr Bellamy’ (I’d even include the whistle-worthy ‘Dance Tonight’). However, as is the case with most “Macca” albums, the cheese becomes too overwhelming. Therefore, the fifth and final selection is the earlier Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.
When I read that McCartney had teamed up with Radiohead’s producer my mind raced to consider the possibilities: a Beatles version of ‘Paranoid Android’?! Such a heavyweight figure as Godrich promised, at least, to provide a source of opposition to restrain McCartney from his “granny music” urges; Godrich would act as a Costello-like figure to channel McCartney in the right direction.
The finished product isn’t entirely what I expected: it is clear that McCartney was chiefly in charge, and this is reflected in the songs on the album. However, Godrich was an influence, principally in restricting McCartney to certain instruments in order to remove such a loud, pop-aggressive sound. In many ways, the album acts a sequel of sorts to the lo-fi album McCartney and even McCartney II: here “Macca” plays the majority of instruments, and the mood is more sombre and reflective. This can be seen in songs such as ‘Jenny Wren’ and ‘Too Much Rain’. However, the struggle between art and pop is evidenced throughout the album, most notably in the album’s opener ‘Fine Line’; it is almost as if the song is battling with itself, between a Wings kick-back and a Radiohead track. But perhaps the whole point of the album is to reveal such a struggle; as the album title itself hints, chaos and confusion is at the heart of this effort (and perhaps McCartney’s career as a whole). The lyrics of ‘Fine Line’ reveals more:
There is a fine line
Between recklessness and courage
It’s about time
You understood which road to take
It’s a fine lineWhen your decision makes a difference
Get it wrong, you’ll be making a big mistakeThere is a long way
Between chaos and creation
If you don’t say
Which one of these you’re gonna choose
It’s a long way
And in every contradiction
Seems to say
It’s a game you are bound to lose
On the whole, it is clear that McCartney has created a considerable range of worthy music over the past few decades in the post-Beatles period. These five albums are incredibly subjective, and others could plump for different ones (but hopefully not Back to the Egg). But the continued ability to create and produce music is undiminished, and this includes a variety of other spheres, including dabbling with classic music and dance music in the form of The Fireman. McCartney’s quest has always remained the same: to write and release pop music that appeals to a mass audience. Along the way, this quest has led him to remove himself from potentially fruitful relationships (such as that of Elvis Costello in the 1980s), however, it also has kept his working method fresh (as seen in his 2019 single ‘Get Enough’). It is McCartney’s greatest strength – the quest – but it could also be argued to be a major weaknesses; a monomania of sorts that appears obsessive at times. But as the lyrics above note, ‘there is a fine line between recklessness and courage… there is a long way between chaos and creation’.