I have a little theory: Paul McCartney is insane. Batshit nuts. I don’t know quite when the cheese slid off his cracker, but I’m guessing about twenty-five years ago. Yes, he’s always been a little goofy, but lately? From his bizarre hair-dying experiments to the interviews that are about equal parts inane platitudes, vegetarian propaganda, and total gibberish accompanied by a cheery thumbs-up, he’s been leaving a trail of crazy wherever he goes since the mid-1980s. It’s not train-wreck, flame-out crazy, like Martin Lawrence wandering through traffic with a handgun. It’s a subtler crazy, as if during the recording of Press To Play, alien beings had made off with his brain and attempted to replace it with an exact replica, but assembled it from poorly-translated instructions.
That’s not what happened of course. What happened is that his ownership of many valuable song publishing rights kicked in about then, he became a multi-billionaire instead of a multi-millionaire, cut himself off from anything resembling reality, and has been living in a totally self-generated bubble-world ever since. And I don’t blame him. If I became a multi-billionaire, I would reach foaming heights of crazy that would make Andy Dick look like a Presbyterian deacon.
For reasons directly related to his billionaire-induced craziness, Paul has become the most-maligned Beatle. With every misfire album and every cringe-worthy quote, his light dimmed a little more. But make no mistake — he was the driving creative force of the Beatles in the second half of their career, and that’s no small thing. He always valued the concept of being in a band more than the others. Lennon gets credit for being the witty, rebellious iconoclast, Harrison gets credit for being the quiet mystic, and let’s face it, both of them get double-extra-credit for being dead. Everyone loves a corpse, because they never disappoint. They’re not around to release mediocre albums anymore. But both of them tired of the “band” concept long before Paul did. In the 70’s, Paul tried to keep the idea alive by putting together a bunch of hirelings and calling it “Wings,” but even he knew they weren’t a real band — they were his employees, and various members came and went like the clock-punchers they were.
(At the start of his solo career, he followed the example of Lennon and installed his wife as full creative partner. His second solo album is officially credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney.” On John & Yoko’s joint albums, Yoko contributed full songs. Horrible, horrible songs. But songs, nonetheless. Linda’s contributions consisted of 1) hilariously flat backing vocals placed super-high in the mix, and 2) helping to write some lyrics. The conceit fooled no one, but co-crediting songs kept their royalties from becoming “frozen assets” in the morass of the Beatles break-up lawsuits going on at the time.)
At times, Paul seems to be resented by fans for simply still being alive and somehow tarnishing the image of the Beatles by his very existence as a living, breathing doofus, which can’t be helped. This can result in some unfair treatment. (There’s a song buried in the second half of Off The Ground — if you make it that far– called “Winedark Open Sea,” a kind of sparse, dreary piano ballad that I suspect would be hailed as a “classic” if it came from Springsteen or Neil Young. Those guys can get away with almost anything.) Other times, it’s entirely his own fault. The parallels with George Lucas become obvious if you’re petty enough to examine them (which is my stock in trade). The younger creative genius gives us several gifts we all cherish, things that beyond providing hundreds of hours of entertainment, may even have molded us as people. He then ages into the older billionaire crank and starts doing stupid shit, such as going back and futzing with the legacy. McCartney’s bone-headed attempt to change the songwriting credits on “his” Beatles songs from “Lennon-McCartney” to “McCartney-Lennon” a few years ago is the musical equivalent of Greedo shooting first.
But no matter how many Wild Lifes Paul puts out there, it will never erase that fact that he was the primary architect of both Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, and gave us “Yesterday,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “For No One,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” and dozens of other classics.
Paul McCartney discography:
Ram (1971) with Linda McCartney
Wild Life (1971) with Wings
Red Rose Speedway (1973) with Wings
Band On The Run (1973) with Wings
Venus And Mars (1975) with Wings
Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976) with Wings
London Town (1978) with Wings
Back To The Egg (1979) with Wings
McCartney II (1980)
Tug Of War (1982)
Pipes Of Peace (1983)
Press To Play (1986)
Flowers In The Dirt (1989)
Off The Ground (1993)
Flaming Pie (1997)
Driving Rain (2001)
Memory Almost Full (2007)
The workaholic McCartney has also put out two collections of oldies covers, five collections of original classical material, five experimental electronica albums, a film score, a film soundtrack of re-worked Beatles and solo songs, six official live albums, and an album of pre-rock pop “standards.”
BEST ALBUM: Band On The Run — Recorded during a flux in Wings’ membership (the album was performed almost entirely by Paul and guitarist Denny Laine) in a ramshackle studio in a dangerous part of Lagos, Nigeria (are there any other parts?), an air of controlled chaos and adventure is palpable in the grooves of Band On The Run. I doubt McCartney will ever better it.
Toward the end of the Beatles’ recording career, they emptied out their junk drawer of unfinished songs and stitched them all together to form the side two “suite” on Abbey Road. Naturally, McCartney supervised this process and it came out brilliantly, but it planted a dangerous seed under his mop-top. From then on, very few McCartney albums would be released without at least one (often two) multi-section “suites”. More often than not, these were made up of two or more unfinished songs jammed together. When that wasn’t the case, when the different sections were intended to be of a piece, good things could happen. The infectious three-section title track of Band On The Run is an excellent example, and was high in the running for my “Best Single.” The album also treats us to the irresistable “Jet,” with its nonsensical lyrics, growling guitars, and a propulsive rhythm that matches its title. And of course the empty-headed chorus (“Jet!! Whoo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo!” or something close to that. Those of you that know it know what I mean, and if you haven’t heard it, give yourself a treat and cue it up). “Helen Wheels” is a bouncy, T. Rex-style glam-rock shuffle that, oddly, only appeared on American copies of the album. The “Blackbird” sequel “Bluebird” can’t match its predecessor, but its a peculiarly pretty calypso-flavored ear-worm in its own right. The folksy “Mrs. Vanderbilt” is reminiscent of some of the quieter moments of the Kinks. The track that may have the oddest history is “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me),” which was the result of an over-dinner challenge by actor Dustin Hoffman for Paul to write a song about the first subject that caught his eye in the next moment. It happened to be a magazine article on the death of Pablo Picasso, and Paul started writing the lyrics on the spot. (“He’s actually doing it! Holy shit!” was Hoffman’s reported reaction.) And it turned out to be a pretty interesting song in the end. A country-flavored acoustic ballad to begin with, it takes a left turn with a bizarre clarinet solo (!), a soft-jazz reprise of “Jet” as part of the bridge (!!), then back-and-forth between its countrified beginning and string-laden R&B, finally concluding with a completely unrelated “hey-ho” fade-out featuring Cream drummer Ginger Baker shaking a can of gravel. It’s all better than it reads. Really.
Plus any album with James Coburn and Christopher Lee on the cover is worth a listen.
BEST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: This was a tough one to pick. Albums that were fairly well-received on release haven’t aged well (Tug Of War, Flowers In The Dirt) largely due to their 80’s style MOR over-production. The bad albums (see below, plus the execrable Off The Ground) are, well, bad. Which albums have just enough modest charms to be a Best Album Runner-Up? Ram is ramshackle fun, the quiet London Town is somewhat underrated, but we have to give the nod to…
Flaming Pie, the first in what we can call McCartney’s “I’m-really-trying-to-make-good-records-again” trilogy, which includes the poppy Driving Rain and the fiery covers album Run Devil Run (with David Gilmour on lead guitar). These can be seen as a kind of late-period artistic renaissance. Unfortunately, he had dug himself too deep with all his earlier missteps, and these quite pleasant albums didn’t get much attention, even though they were far more interesting than the yawn-fests being offered up at that time by other artists in his age bracket (think Elton John, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton — good God, have you tried sitting though Clapton’s 1998 Pilgrim lately?) Flaming Pie is the best of these latter-day albums.
Jeff Lynne‘s punchy, pristine (co-)production (which I’m always a sucker for — “Add a few more 12-string acoustics and get Keltner on the phone, stat!”) is at the service of some good tunes, such as the Tom Petty-ish rocker “The World Tonight,” the epic singalong “Beautiful Night,” with Ringo’s distinctive Beatle-drumming, and McCartney’s best ballad in two decades, “Somedays” (see below). Flaming Pie‘s writing and recording period coincided with much of Linda’s cancer ordeal, adding an emotional heft and poignancy missing in most of McCartney’s solo work.
(Some would even expand the “Macca’s Back” trilogy beyond three albums with Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, produced by uber-trendy Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Pointedly not ignored, it was a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and snagged some Grammy nominations. Sales remained strong for Memory Almost Full. Is it not too late?)
BEST HIT SINGLE: “Live And Let Die.” The explosive title song for the 1973 James Bond film may be the last great collaboration between McCartney and Beatles producer George Martin. Martin’s thunderous orchestral backing has elements of the great original 60’s Bond theme work by John Barry, and McCartney’s sense of spectacle and showmanship is put to excellent use. (Highest Chart Position: #2 )
BEST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “No More Lonely Nights.” In a solo career full of questionable moves, writing and starring in a Prince-like vanity film about the trials and tribulations of being a fabulously wealthy rock star with a devoted family and worshipful group of backing musicians may top the list. But it’s almost worth sitting through 1984’s Give My Regards To Broad Street to get to the closing ballad. Bands like Chicago have spent an entire decade (the 80’s) and several albums trying to achieve the perfect power ballad, but all of them combined never came close to this one seemingly tossed-off McCartney song that played over the credits of his piece-of-crap movie. (I almost chose “Silly Love Songs” for Best Single Runner-Up, or even Best Single. Some people really hate that song, but then, some people kick puppies. As rock critic Greg Kot said, the bass line alone justifies that song’s existence.) (Highest Chart Position: #6 )
WILD CARD: “Maybe I’m Amazed.” This is McCartney’s best solo song, and maybe one of the best songs ever. It appeared at the end of his first album, McCartney, in 1970, but was not released as a single at that time. When a single of the song finally was released seven years later and made it into the Top Ten, it was a slightly inferior version from the Wings Over America live album. So we can’t call the superior McCartney version a “Hit Single,” nor can we truly say “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a “Non-Hit Song.” Neither fish nor fowl, we have to rely on the words of Charlie Kelly: “Wild card, bitches!!”
BEST NON-HIT SONG: “Let Me Roll It.” I don’t know if this Band On The Run track was intended as a subtle parody or pastiche of John Lennon’s thumping, echoey “Primal Scream” recordings of 1969-70, but that’s how it comes off. It’s also in the same neck of the woods as Paul’s own late-period Beatles rockers “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” and “Oh! Darling.”
BEST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP: “Somedays.” A baroque heartbreaker on par with the Beatles’ “For No One,” or dare I say it, “Yesterday,” drenched in classical instrumentation and sepia-toned regret.
WORST ALBUM: Wild Life. The first official Wings album sounds like a bad bootleg of Ram outtakes. And not the kind of outtakes that become bonus tracks on the CD reissue later. The outtakes that remain permanently and blessedly on the shelf. If only. Wild Life consists of only eight songs (thank God for small miracles), five of which were proudly described as “first takes.” Two of them — the opening two — were literally nonsense. Kicking off the first album of your new band project with songs called “Mumbo” and “Bip Bop” illustrate the perils of self-producing. There was no one around to say “That sucks. Try again.” This is a problem that would dog McCartney through his entire career. The two songs that seem to have a modicum of effort put into them, “Tomorrow” and “Dear Friend,” are lightweight and kind of plodding. The six-minute reggae version of the old Mickey & Sylvia song “Love Is Strange” has some value as a curious oddity, but the title song is abysmally wretched.
WORST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: McCartney II. Intended as a companion piece to his first solo album, McCartney II does indeed have a lot of parallels. Released at the start of a new decade as his band of the previous decade was splitting up, both albums were sort of head-clearing exercises, made up mostly of random bits and pieces rather than fully formed songs. But whereas the original McCartney‘s bits and pieces had a homely, rustic charm, McCartney II‘s cold, meandering synth fragments merely puzzle and annoy. “Songs” with titles like “Bogey Music” and “Frozen Jap” would represent the absolute nadir of McCartney’s recording career, if Wild Life wasn’t already down there to break its fall. Recorded over a few weeks in July 1979 by plugging microphones directly into a sixteen-track Studer tape recorder (no mixing console), these were originally intended to be private demo recordings showing off his new toy — a synthesizer. When Wings imploded and canceled their forthcoming album and tour, McCartney, with his usual “what the hell” attitude toward what he releases, foisted these half-formed sketches on the public — who sent it to #1! I guess he’s not so dumb. With the possible exception of the stupid-but-catchy (how many times has that been used to describe a McCartney number?) disco single “Coming Up” and the so-so ballad “Waterfalls” , later re-worked by (to better effect) by TLC, none of these tracks should ever have seen the light of day. (Paul’s much-despised Christmas single “Wonderful Christmastime” also dates from these same synthesizer-testing sessions. I like it, but I have a soft spot for Christmas songs.)
WORST HIT SINGLE: “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” It’s exactly what you think it is: the old nursery rhyme set to music. Well, the nursery rhyme is the verses. The chorus is a bunch of “la la la”‘s. (Highest Chart Position: #26; #9 in the U.K.)
WORST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “Freedom.” Written as a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11, this really, really, really dumb jingoistic singalong about a “fight” for your “right” to the titular concept was tagged on to the end of Driving Rain, and sadly tainted that otherwise decent album. We have quite enough retarded, boot-in-your-ass bullshit “anthems” from our mainstream country artists, thank you, and we don’t need them imported. And doesn’t it seem kind of odd for a Brit to be singing this to Americans? (McCartney later had the decency to distance himself from the song, and donated the single’s profits to the Robin Hood Foundation charity.) (Highest Chart Position: #20, Adult Contemporary.)
WORST NON-HIT SONG: “Temporary Secretary.” What happens McCartney sets out to create a deliberately annoying song? He succeeds in spades. From the regrettable McCartney II album, this “song” combines nasal, atonal vocals with sub-Atari 8-bit sound effects, and has to be heard to be believed. (And it does have its defenders.) And like almost any McCartney song, it can and will get stuck in your head. Hide all sharp objects in your house if this happens.
WORST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP: “Motor Of Love.” Flowers In The Dirt closes with a junior prom slow dance song…from the very bowels of Hell. Six-and-a-half minutes (!) of syrupy mawkishness, complete with “sparkly” 80’s keyboard swirls. Listen and be nauseated.
RECOMMENDED McCARTNEY SONGS FOR YOUR SOLO BEATLES PLAYLIST: “Every Night,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Too Many People,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Smile Away,” “Band On The Run,” “Jet,” “Let Me Roll It,” “Live And Let Die,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Listen To What The Man Said,” “Silly Love Songs,” “With A Little Luck,” “Mull Of Kintyre,” “Coming Up,” “Here Today,” “Ebony And Ivory,” “Say Say Say,” “No More Lonely Nights,” “Spies Like Us,” “My Brave Face,” “The World Tonight,” “Somedays,” “Run Devil Run,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Dance Tonight”
And if you don’t buy the aliens or billionaire theories for why Paul is how he is, factor in that he’s smoked pot every day since late 1964. That’s more than Jerry Garcia. More than Bob Marley. (Do the math.) Probably about the same as Willie Nelson, but Willie’s crazy, too.