In 1956, when Paul McCartney was 14, he sat down at his Dad’s piano and tried to come up with his own song. For years he had been breathing in songs from radio and TV and movies and family singalongs. Folk songs, show-tunes, pop hits, jazz standards, music hall numbers. Then there were the songs he listened to wearing Bakelite headphones: songs that arrived over crackling airwaves from pirate radio; songs by Americans, black and white; songs with booming beats and wild cries that made his heart jump and his blood sing. After falling in love with rock n’roll, he didn’t renounce the songs on which he’d been raised - right from the beginning, he wanted all of it. He’d heard his dad play a tune of his own, a party piece, and now he thought he would have a crack at it himself. Why not? He soon got quite good at it. His early efforts included a jaunty number, written when he was sixteen, called When I’m Sixty-Four.
It’s the end of 2020, the kid is 78 years old and is widely regarded as having made more great songs than anyone else alive. He is releasing a new album, McCartney III, his second in two years (the last one, 2019’s Egypt Station, hit number one on the Billboard chart). McCartney III completes a trilogy, spanning 50 years – yes, McCartney has been an ex-Beatle for half a century - of entirely self-produced, self-performed albums, all made in the first year of a decade. The first, McCartney, was made in the aftershock of splitting from The Beatles, in 1970. McCartney II, an adventure in electronica, was made in 1980, as his second band, Wings, dissolved. McCartney III was made in enforced seclusion during lockdown (there are few musicians who can so easily do without collaborators, if need be). It is released next week.
Perhaps this is a good moment to take a step back, the better to observe something astonishing: Paul McCartney has been writing and performing music more or less continuously since 1956. That’s sixty-four years. For the best part of a century, he has been creating songs that people sing in the shower and belt out in the car; songs to which people dance, run, cook, kiss and get married; songs we sing in crowds; songs we get stoned to; songs we sing with our kids; songs that wrap themselves around us when we’re down; songs that fill us to the brim with joy. His finest work is undoubtedly frontloaded by the miraculous accident of The Beatles, but there are gems scattered throughout his career, right up to the present day. For sheer fecundity, I can’t, with the exception of Bob Dylan, think of any other songwriter who comes close. There are very few artists in history, in any field, who have produced so much work at a high level over such a span.
His achievement is immense, historic, and will be remembered for centuries if anything will. Yet there are people, at least here in Britain, who talk about Paul McCartney the way they might a light entertainment celebrity who once hosted a game show. When his name comes up it is rarely long until someone says “Frog Chorus” or bestows upon us the insight that his solo career did not live up to The Beatles (as if it could, as if anyone has or ever will). This faintly dismissive attitude is more prevalent in Britain than in America or elsewhere, but wherever I come across it, it drives me a little bit nuts. Nuts enough to write this, anyway.
McCartney’s reputation has never fully recovered from the shredding it took when The Beatles broke up. He is still compared unfavourably to his most important creative partner. Lennon is soulful, deep, and radical; McCartney is shallow, trivial and bourgeois. That dualism, which took hold in 1970 and was reinforced by Lennon’s horribly premature death, still holds sway. Probably if you asked most people who know a little about The Beatles to say who they found most interesting, John would be the most common answer. If you surveyed Beatles nerds I suspect they would be more likely to say Paul, since the more you learn about the band you more stunned you are by what he brought to it.
You also begin to realise that he is an odder and more complex character than he lets on. Lennon’s personality – his dysfunction along with his wit and charisma - was always on full display, which is part of his enduring appeal. McCartney’s personality is occluded, folded and layered. The thumbs-ups cheeriness is not false, but it is only a part of who he is - the part he is content for you to see. His former collaborator Denny Laine remarked, “I have never met anyone as good at hiding their true feelings as Paul.” While Lennon has been the subject of endless psychological analysis, McCartney has received far less attention, partly because he is generally uninterested in self-examination, or in being examined. Lennon fits our template for genius, but the thing about genius is that it has no template. Here, I want to say why I think Paul McCartney is still underrated, as an artist and as a man, and why there are really only three justifiable emotions to feel about him: awe, gratitude, and love.
PAUL AND ME
I fell in love with The Beatles and Paul in particular when I was ten or so, in the 1980s. My parents had a few of their LPs including a compilation of their early hits called A Collection of Beatles Oldies. On the back, there is a picture of them taking tea, in (I now know), Japan. They are wearing sunglasses indoors, and they look impossibly glamorous (on the whole, The Beatles were not that interested in being cool, but around that period they nailed it, before moving on, as they always did). I played the record all the time, staring at the picture. Later, I got Shout, Philip Norman’s best-selling group biography, from the local library. That was it. Once you are swept up by the story of The Beatles, as well as the music, then there is no way out.
Why Paul? I don’t know. I liked his face, I suppose. He was still making hit records, and therefore the one through whom the story was still unfolding. I followed his career closely, looking for clues in the lyrics to his feelings for John. I even got into Wings (this was not normal for a teenager in the 1980s). My father, who was slightly older than him, died a few years ago, and so apart from my mother and my brother there’s hardly anyone alive with whom I’ve had a longer relationship. If I saw him in the street it would be like bumping into a character from Star Wars, a mythical hero come to life, and at the same time like seeing a beloved friend. Whatever I managed to mumble, he’d probably give me a thumbs up.
At schoolfriends’ houses we would play each other tapes of what we were into. My friends would play me soul and electro, and I would play them Tug of War, McCartney’s first post-Wings solo album. In case it’s not obvious, I was not a cool kid.
In Soho Square, London, there is a discreet office building that I have made a point of walking past and peering into when I’m in town, ever since I was a teenager. MPL Communications is the headquarters of McCartney’s music publishing business. He set it up at the end of the sixties as he began to extract himself from that mess of his own creation, Apple Corps. The office may look unremarkable but, to some of us at least, it is enchanted. I’ve always wondered what I would say if I saw him in the street around there. I think about which obscure song or album I would pick to tell him was my favourite, just so he knew I wasn’t some casual fan. But the truth is I’d probably be too overwhelmed to say anything.
THE ORDINARY GENIUS
If we see him as ordinary that’s partly his own doing. He has never cultivated the mystique of genius. Quite the opposite: there are few rock stars who have made such an effort to be ordinary. He lives the multi-propertied life of a rich rock star, but he has stayed closer to normal life than most mega-celebrities, walking London streets, going to shops and taking the tube. He still lives in the St John’s Wood house he moved into in 1966, a short walk from Abbey Road. In the 1970s and 80s, he and Linda did their own driving, cooking, gardening, and child-wrangling and sent their kids to state schools. His self-presentation encourages us to think of him as an enthusiastic and talented guy who hooked up with some great people and somehow it all worked out - and we, foolishly, have half-believed him.
He is, of course, one of the most un-ordinary individuals in history. When people acknowledge McCartney’s talent they usually mean his songwriting, which is not surprising, since he is as great or greater than any songwriter who ever lived. But it means we overlook what is a positively freakish array of gifts. Imagine if Cole Porter also sang like Frank Sinatra and played clarinet like Benny Goodman. If McCartney had never written a song he would be one of the great singers; if he had never written or sung he would be one of the great bassists – and that’s before we get on to his guitar, his piano, his drumming and his studio innovation.
Let’s start with the singing. It is among the most exciting moments in twentieth century music: Lennon tears through the opening verse of A Hard Day’s Night, then McCartney steps forward in the middle (“When I’m hooome…”). One of the crazy things about the Lennon-McCartney partnership was that they both had all-time great rock voices. If Lennon’s specialism was raw emotion, McCartney’s was a range of expression which verges on superhuman. Few can match him as a rock n' roll screamer - listen to Long Tall Sally or Oh Darling. But few can match him as a balladeer either - see Michelle, Here, There and Everywhere, or Let It Be. On the White Album, he performs a controlled nervous breakdown for Helter Skelter – an absolute tour de force - and on I Will pours warm honey into our ears. On Lady Madonna he does Presley crossed with Fats Waller. In his singing, as in his lyrics, he inhabits characters. Across Abbey Road he employs a panoply of different vocal personalities; in You Never Give Me Your Money or Uncle Albert he does the same in one song. It’s hard to exaggerate how rare such versatility of expression is or how hard to pull off. It helps that he has exceptional technical command. Whatever he’s singing, he nearly always hits the middle of a note, with tremendous force in the upper range. He excels at thrilling leaps up at the end of a melody line, as on Got To Get You Into My Life ("I didn't know what I would find there") or Live and Let Die (“give the other fella hell”), and has a rare ability to glide through what classical singers call the passaggio - the transition between chest and head, which for most humans is a vocal speed-bump. Listen to Maybe I'm Amazed and marvel at that post-chorus glissando down from the heights.
Monday, June 14, 1965. The Beatles didn’t get to Abbey Road until the afternoon. They set about recording three Paul songs, starting with I’ve Just Seen a Face (one of my favourites; I love the way it rollicks, lines tripping over themselves, enacting the breathlessness of love at first sight). They get it right after six takes, and move on to I'm Down, a bluesy screamer in the style of Little Richard. After seven takes, it’s done. The session ends, the Beatles disperse before returning in the evening, when Paul records a ballad called Yesterday, in two takes. Three songs, in wildly divergent, highly demanding styles, in one day. McCartney nails all of them for all time. By 10pm he and Jane Asher are at a bar on Cromwell Rd.
Then there is the way he sings with others, an art in itself. Put on Words of Love, the Buddy Holly cover the band recorded for Beatles for Sale. Use headphones. Listen to the way that Lennon and McCartney's voices wrap around each other. Close harmonising was one of The Beatles’ early innovations - they learned some of it from the Everlys, but it wasn't common for rock n' roll groups to harmonise like that. John, Paul and George were all expert at it but it's Paul who most frequently turns a good song into a great one with his supporting vocals, often by deploying that remarkable upper register at the climactic moment of a song. On Nowhere Man, he hits an exhilarating top note on the very last line. During the bridge of John's I'm Only Sleeping, Paul is suddenly high up there on "by my window" and it gives me a shiver every time I hear it.
Take the songwriting and the singing away and McCartney would still earn his place in the pantheon as one of the great bassists, despite, or maybe because, he didn’t want to be one. He joined the band as a guitarist, but when Stu Sutcliffe left, Lennon dragooned McCartney into playing bass. Bass-players, back then, were reticent creatures, happy to blend into a song without attempting anything flash. That was never going to be McCartney’s style, and his innovation started early. I Saw Her Standing There is powered by its driving bassline (that he can play this line on stage while singing the melody is a source of wonder and fury to bassists). Before the chorus, he halves the speed, playing half-notes under the run-up to the climactic moment of the song (So how could I dance with another…). Counter-intuitively that increases the tension and momentum. It makes you want to scream. Later on, and to a far greater extent that anyone had dared to before, he made the bass a melodic instrument, another voice, as on Michelle, Paperback Writer, Rain. There is no such thing as a predictable McCartney bassline. He can hardly bear, even within a song, to repeat himself: his basslines are full of ornamentation and switches of rhythm. Very often that incredible, indefinable feeling you get from a Beatles song is emanating from Paul’s bass.
Time and again, McCartney’s contribution to a track lifted the songs of the other Beatles to a new level. What would Taxman (Harrison) or Come Together (Lennon) be without his bass, Ticket to Ride (Lennon) without the drum pattern McCartney suggested to Ringo, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison) without that commanding opening piano line? There are countless other examples - he almost never just did a job. On Tomorrow Never Knows (Lennon’s song), it is McCartney, under the influence of Stockhausen, who made those seagull-like sounds out of tape loops, based on a snatch of the group’s laughter.
That an untrained pianist should be able to play Martha My Dear as well as he does is impressive, although McCartney’s piano-playing isn’t notable for its complexity so much as his touch. The piano part for Let It Be is so simple that even I can play it, but nobody can play it quite like him. Right up until Egypt Station he is still able to wring some new beauty out of a few simple chords and a searching vocal line. His other signature style is the boogie-woogie barrel-house rock which propels Lady Madonna and Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.
Like his piano playing, his acoustic guitar isn’t as revolutionary as his bass, but it’s entirely, distinctively him. Many people can play Blackbird, but nobody else can play McCartney’s Blackbird. His other songs in that acoustic fingerpicking mode include the late career masterpieces, Calico Skies and Jenny Wren. The young singer-songwriter Laura Marling recently talking about discovering the latter and being taken aback by its beauty. When Marling, who is a highly accomplished guitarist, tried to play it, she discovered it to be horrendously hard. McCartney’s guitar playing is the product of a self-taught and stubbornly individual musician.
The scalding lead guitar on the theme of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is McCartney. As well as the bass on Taxman, McCartney plays that angular, modernist, Indian-flavoured guitar solo, one of the best solos in all The Beatles’ work. It happens to be on a song by the group’s lead guitarist. Similarly, his drumming on Dear Prudence – he stepped in after Ringo walked out of the White Album sessions - is some of the best drumming on a Beatles track. No wonder the others could find him annoying.
I’ve barely begun to get into it here but suffice to say that when it comes to all-round musical dexterity, versatility and originality there has been barely anyone like him in the history of pop. Perhaps the closest analogy is Stevie Wonder - a magician, one of those rare individuals whose whole body seems to attract and channel whatever music is in the air. Oh and McCartney has written some good tunes, too. We’ll get on to a few of those, but first let’s take a minute to reflect on how history is written.
THE STORY SO FAR
The historian Erin Weber is an expert on the historiography of The Beatles – the way in which the stories told about the band have been shaped over time. She observes that our ideas of John and Paul were formed in the aftermath of the band’s break-up and were shaped by members of a particular caste: young male rock critics. The men who edited and wrote for Rolling Stone and NME in the 1970s had a particular view of the world – a sense that the straight world was corrupt and dying about to be swept away by mind-expanding, rule-breaking radicalism. Lennon, with his soul-baring songs and shockingly experimental art was the true visionary of the Beatles. McCartney was the guy with the pretty face and pretty tunes - the salesman. Lennon called his former partner “a good PR man…He really does a job.” As it turned out, McCartney did a terrible job on his own behalf. He gave few interviews around the time of the split (the NME took to calling him ‘the hermit of St Johns Wood’) and didn’t talk much about The Beatles for years. This reticence came at a price. Lennon - hugely entertaining, highly opinionated - had the mic more or less to himself, and effectively shaped the story of The Beatles for decades to come. John portrayed himself as the creative life force of the band, with Paul as his musically accomplished but conservative and shallow sidekick. Lennon’s interviews were riddled with contradictions, falsehoods and exaggerations, but he spoke with such verve that journalists took what he said as gospel - as Weber puts it, they mistook Lennon’s emotional honesty for truthfulness. Critics and biographers took up Lennon’s theme, and his tragic early death, in 1980, sealed the deal. In 1981, the band’s biographer Philip Norman told the world, “John Lennon was The Beatles”.
There is another reason that McCartney’s reputation suffered: he was a family man. In the autumn of 1969, a photographer tracked him at down at the cottage in Scotland to which he and Linda had retreated to escape from the psychodrama of the band’s break-up. The resulting picture appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine: Paul with his new family – Linda, baby Mary, and Heather, Linda’s daughter from her first marriage, then seven years old and wielding a shepherd’s crook. For the back cover of McCartney I, his first solo album, McCartney chose a picture taken by Linda of him with Mary peeping out from underneath his brown bomber jacket. It is easy to under-estimate quite how bizarre this image-making was for a rock star. It was at the height of the counter-culture’s contempt for the family man and his petty narrow, blinkered life. Rock stars were meant to be shining examples of a lifestyle liberated from the shackles of bourgeois convention. Revelling in domesticity wasn’t cool. It certainly wasn’t the kind of thing a genius did.
It’s revealing that one of the first songs McCartney ever wrote was about the joys of family life – “You can knit a sweater by the fireside/Sunday mornings go for a ride” – and even more so that he recorded it for Sergeant Pepper, when The Beatles were at the vanguard of counter-cultural revolution. For McCartney, the domestic isn’t opposed to the world of the imagination; it is a portal to it. He is a poet of the mundane; a writer who will start off writing about his dog, or fixing a hole, and see where it takes him.
Interviewed by Playboy in the 1980s, he said: “I’ve been right around the world a few times, to all its little pockets, and I’d swear to God I’ve never met any people more soulful, more intelligent, more kind, more filled with common sense than the people I come from in Liverpool.” When the interviewer suggested that people were sceptical about a wealthy rock star “preaching normalcy”, McCartney replied, “The fact is, being ordinary is very important to me…It’s really quite rational, my ordinariness. It is actually my answer to the question, ‘What is the best way to be?’ I think ordinary.”
Pete Townshend: "The difference between the way Lennon and McCartney behave with the people that are around them is incredible. What Lennon does is he sits down, immediately acknowledges the fact that he’s John Lennon and that everything for the rest of the night is going to revolve around him. He completely relaxes and dribbles on and gets stoned and does silly things. Of course, everybody gets into his thing and has a good time. But Paul McCartney worries, he wants a genuine conversation, a genuine relationship, starting off from square one. One of us is fucking Paul McCartney, a Beatle, the other one is me, a huge monumental Beatle fan who still gets a kick out of talking to Paul McCartney. And he’s starting to tell me that he digs me and that we’re on an even par so that we can begin the conversation, which completely makes me even a bigger fan. That’s all it serves to do.”
In the early 1970s, Lennon accused his former partner of hanging out with "straights". When this was put to him, McCartney said, "So what if I live with straights? I like straights. I have straight babies." There was an element of defiance to his self-presentation at this time: he wanted the world to know that he didn’t care about living up to John’s or anyone’s idea of an artist. His unashamed “normality” was an act of inverted rebellion, as transgressive, in its way, as Lennon and Yoko posing naked. But neither fans nor critics saw it that way, and to this day it is Lennon who best fits our Romantic idea of a great man; tortured, difficult and deep. Long before it became commonplace for male public figures to hymn the joys of parenting, Paul McCartney was showing us a different way to be a man, and we have never quite forgiven him for it.
A photo of his mother and an unknown colleague (and unknown babies!) that McCartney posted on International Nurses Day, 2020.
MANY YEARS AGO
In a recent interview with the New York Times, McCartney was asked if the new album represented creative growth. He questioned the premise. “You would naturally think, OK, as I get older I’m going to get deeper, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think it’s a fact of life that personalities don’t change much. Throughout your life, there you are.” I love this answer and I think there’s a lot of truth to it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. McCartney’s creative growth throughout the 1960s was explosive, and I think he grew as a person during that time, too. Without presuming to ‘explain’ him, I think we can understand the man and the artist a little better by looking at what happened to him between the time he started writing songs and the end of The Beatles.
Paul was fourteen when his mother died, in October 1956. She was 47. Mary McCartney, who had grown up in Dickensian poverty, worked furiously hard as a midwife to support a family in which she was the breadwinner – Jim, Paul’s father, was a cotton salesman in an industry fallen on hard times. Her death, from cancer, happened quickly: she felt pains in her breast, and a month later, following a hospital operation, she was gone. Paul and his brother Mike barely knew she was ill. They had been moved to their aunt and uncle’s house for the time being. Gathered in the living room to be told the news, Mike broke into tears. Paul asked, “What are we going to do without her money?” You can find that cold, or, as I do, heartbreaking.
Much of McCartney’s personality derives from Mary and the fact of her death: his fierce work ethic, his devotion to family, and a certain determination to be invulnerable. “I learned to put a shell around myself,” he said later. Mike recalled that Mary’s death had a bigger impact on Paul than was obvious. It drove him into himself, and he pushed others away, even his family for a while.
Paul McCartney met John Lennon in a church hall in 1957 and they gathered up George Harrison a few months later. We are used to thinking of John as rebellious, but so were the others. Being clever and curious yet refusing to be schooled was what, music aside, drew the three of them together. McCartney may have been the most obdurate of all, especially after his mother died. To his teachers he was a puzzle: a highly intelligent, articulate, socially capable boy who simply didn’t do what was asked of him. His dad noted, ruefully, that as soon as Paul started getting praise from teachers for doing well at a subject he would give up on it. There was nothing wild or chaotic about McCartney’s style of rebellion; he didn’t suffer from outbursts of anger, like John. He was just coolly resistant to authority, so much so that he brooked what to others would have been the humiliation of being set back a school year. His aversion to being overruled extended to everyone, except, perhaps, John.
When you read accounts of people who knew him as a teenager and young man, you get the impression that they liked McCartney but didn’t entirely trust or love him. He was charming and clearly gifted but there was a hint of deviousness too. Like Lennon, he could shrivel people with a joke but unlike Lennon, he always seemed in possession of himself. I get the impression that he didn’t entirely trust himself, either – that, haunted by his ability to carry on more or less as before after his mother’s death, he began to doubt that he had a heart.
McCartney was a nervous performer in the band's early days. At the Cavern, when he sang ballads, he would gaze over the heads of the audience towards the back of the room. He looked like a dreamy doe-eyed teen idol, and he knew it. But perhaps there was another reason this worked for him: he didn't have to watch the audience looking back. Playing cute was a way of protecting himself from the penetrating gaze of others.
The Beatles’ reputation for innovation is associated with the giant leaps they made in the mid-1960s but right from the beginning they were going to places their contemporaries didn’t dare visit. It was Paul who did most to push the band, in its early incarnation, to explore music that was, as he later put it, "to the left and right of rock and roll": show-tunes, novelty numbers, country and western, soul, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, doo wop, and more. The young Beatles absorbed a kaleidoscope of inflections and nuances into their sound. This eclecticism was risky because it made them harder to pigeon-hole and thus to sell to promoters and record labels. It also wasn’t cool to do show tunes in a beat music scene dominated by nerdy blokes: they risked being regarded as lightweight or even effeminate by their peers. But they cared little about that, McCartney least of all. When he sang 'Till There Was You in the sweatboxes of Hamburg and Liverpool he was saying, in effect, that the city of music contains multitudes and every neighbourhood in it is worth exploring, and why would you make yourself any less free than you have to be?
We now understand, if we ever doubted it, that there were two creative geniuses in the Beatles. (It's no insult to George Harrison to say that he wasn’t one of them even if he did become, incredibly, the third of a four member group capable of writing transcendent songs.) Lennon was clearly the driving force of the band’s early years, but his younger partner gathered momentum quickly and accelerated at warp speed once the band’s success was established. He wrote Yesterday in 1964 and kept in his back pocket for a year, despite intense pressure to generate material, mainly because he couldn’t quite believe he was capable of writing such a classic-sounding melody. Once he realised that he had done just that, it must have been like being solemnly informed he was a superhero. From 1964 to 1968 McCartney's development curve - musically, lyrically, artistically - is almost vertical, a rocket taking off.
Yesterday, a song he woke up with after a dream, is so over-exposed we find it hard to hear. Its opening melody line is seven bars long; conventionally, it would be eight, and that’s what the ear expects. McCartney cuts a bar out and lands too soon on “Suddenly…”, making you feel the singer’s disorientation. The composer Peter Maxwell Davies, an early music expert, picked Yesterday, alongside a John Dowland song, as one of his Desert Island Discs, remarking on its harmonically strange and mysterious melody. There's something pre-modern about it, as if McCartney had somehow tapped the subterranean river of English music. In recent years he has speculated that it is about his mother’s death.
Perhaps it’s significant that despite being from Liverpool none of the Beatles were football fans. They were not typical blokes, and in fact, in the band’s early years, they were, essentially, a girl group. Along with Little Richard and Chuck and Buddy they took a huge amount from The Crystals, The Marvelettes, The Cookies and the others in song structure, harmonies, group naming (the conventional naming structure at the time would have implied ‘Johnny and the Beatles’), and perhaps above all, a certain sense of yearning. Their hairstyle was just the external manifestation of a subtle subversion of gender norms. When they covered Boys by The Shirelles, they didn’t bother to change the gender. McCartney, the pretty one, was the most “unmanly” of all, and that was fine by him. In 1964, speaking about the band’s impact on America, he said, “There they were…all getting house trained for adulthood with their indisputable principle of life: short hair equals men, long hair equals women. Well, we got rid of that small convention for them.”
It is odd that McCartney has gained a reputation for being sentimental, because one of the striking aspects of his work, at least with The Beatles, is a refusal of sentiment. Eleanor Rigby levels an icy gaze at its protagonists - there is no sympathy for them. When George Martin suggested a string quartet for Yesterday, McCartney insisted that they play with no vibrato (Martin had to persuade him that a little is necessary to create a full sound). McCartney sings For No One, one of the songs he wrote during his slow break-up with Jane Asher, with brusquely clipped articulation, which only strengthens the sense of emotion seething underneath.
McCartney is not one of the great lyricists – he has written too many mediocre lyrics for that. Yet he has written some of the best lyrics of all time, and many excellent ones. The paradox is best explained by John, who remarked that Paul is a great lyricist who doesn’t think he is, which means he doesn’t try. While John was with him, he tried quite often. For No One is a masterpiece of economy, Hey Jude unforgettable, but so many of his songs have lines of beauty; swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun. One of my favourites is Back In The USSR - the wit and cheek and silliness of it; let me hear your balalaikas ringing out. Lennon’s favourite McCartney line was the one that closed out the last album they recorded together: And in the end/the love you take is equal to the love you make.
One of several balancing contrasts in the Lennon-McCartney partnership is that one looked inwards for inspiration while the other looked outwards. As Lennon slept - productively, in his way - in Weybridge, McCartney was bouncing frenetically around London's cultural scene like an eighteenth century aristocrat on a Grand Tour except mostly in one city. He engaged with just about every interesting artist, musician and thinker in town, from Luciano Berio to Bertrand Russell. He was a voraciously curious consumer of ideas, art, words, and people, bringing it all back to the others like a hunter returning with bounty. When you find yourself in the thick of it/Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.
In the mid-sixties, McCartney was throwing off brilliant songs like a Catherine wheel throws sparks. “I can hear a whole song in one chord. In fact, I think you can hear a whole song in one note, if you listen hard enough,” he said. Even after meeting the demands of The Beatles’ absurd recording schedule, he still had spare capacity. He wrote Step Inside Love for Cilla Black, a friend since her days as a coat check girl at the Cavern. In 1967 - the year of Sergeant Pepper - Cilla needed a theme song for her TV show, McCartney obliged. He took a crack at a Bacharach-style bossanova of considerable harmonic and rhythmic complexity – why not? (Here is the beautiful demo he made with Cilla). After Cilla requested extra verses so it could be a single, McCartney took his guitar to the BBC Theatre, where her show was recorded, to write them there. Greeting his old friend, he said, "You look tired, love," which became the first line of a new verse. (The famous conspiracy theory has a kind of flawed logic to it - when you look at everything he did in the 1960s it’s certainly hard to believe there was only one of him).
Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane are both songs about memories of childhood that also about what it is we do when we remember the past. They formed one side of a double A-side single, released in 1967, which might just represent the peak of The Beatles’ creative powers (even if it was denied the number one spot by Engelbert Humperdinck). In this case, I don’t think McCartney’s contribution quite matches Lennon’s, but while Penny Lane is not his finest song, it might be his most McCartneyesque. The weirdness of Strawberry Fields hits you full on - only as you get to know it do you realise what a solid song it is too. Penny Lane is the opposite: its bright, breezy surface conceals layers of complexity. This is literally true of the arrangement: the piano sound was created by McCartney layering four different piano parts, on four different pianos, on top of each other - the work of a true obsessive. There’s also that piccolo trumpet solo, familiar to us as pastiche baroque but at the same time, because of its unusually high register, surreal (in the studio, McCartney pushed the trumpeter right to the edge of his capability, just as he did with the horn player on For No One). The song’s harmonic structure is unusual; when the chorus comes, the melody line leaps up but the chords move down. The effect is to blend exuberance with sadness for lost childhood. The words, apparently a series of childlike vignettes of Liverpool life, hint at something more profound. During his whirlwind cultural education McCartney had acquired a love of Magritte, and he was drawn to the notion that if you look hard enough at quotidian existence you can glimpse something deeply uncanny underneath, as if through a crack in a teacup. There is nothing more ordinary than British weather, yet here, rain pours down from blue suburban skies. The song’s imagery is oddly anachronistic even for the time it purports to describe - the fireman and his hourglass, watching time slip away. At the centre of the scene is a young nurse selling poppies, in remembrance for the dead. She is neatly dressed, in the kind of outfit Mary McCartney might have worn, and idly wondering whether everything around her is a play. The impresario of this pageant announces that “she is anyway”. It is all, as we are reminded at the end of each verse, very strange.
After Epstein’s death, it was McCartney who became the driving force of the band. From 1968 onwards, he was virtually dragging the group along by sheer force of will as Harrison lost interest and Lennon became mired in drugs. The recording sessions for what became Let It Be, in 1969, were not quite as miserable as legend has it (Peter Jackson’s new cut of the footage for the eponymous movie will reputedly redress the balance) but there were definitely were some tortured conversations about the future of the band, some of which have found their way into the public arena. Paul is often pleading with his sullen - and in the case of Lennon, stoned - bandmates to work with him. For example:
McCartney: I’m only trying to help you, and I always hear myself trying to annoy you.
Harrison: You’re not annoying me. You don’t annoy me any more.
McCartney: We’ve only got twelve more days so we’ve got to do this methodically. I just hear myself saying it. I never get any support.
No doubt McCartney was overbearing, pushy and annoying. But that's not why the Beatles split up; it's why they stayed together. Without his determination, his prodding, his relentlessness, no Come Together, Something or Here Comes the Sun. Harrison and Lennon made first rate albums in the year or two after the split but after that, their rate of production slowed right down, as did the quality of their output. In Lennon's case, it ground to a halt. Sometimes the person you resent for being bossy is the person you need to do your best work.
Blackbird was written in the days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It is very McCartney to create something gentle and hopeful in response to a violent catastrophe. The song is infused by English folk, spiked by blues and rooted in classical music (it borrows from Bach). The performance has a thrown off, effortless quality, the kind that only comes from effortfully achieved technique. The words evoke McCartney's belief in the power of music to heal; the brisk tempo stops them sounding sentimental. Blackbird distils hundreds of years of music into a song of devastating simplicity - the kind that emerges on the far side of complexity.
On one of the tapes of studio chatter at Abbey Road you can hear McCartney saying, of something they’re working on, “It’s complicated now. If we can get it simpler, and then complicate it where it needs to be complicated.”
Towards the end of the sixties it became clear that by setting up their own record label, Apple Corps, The Beatles had strolled into quicksand. McCartney, who had insouciantly presumed he could pull off a business venture like he could a middle eight, came under intense pressure as the business got out of control. “I was in an Alice In Wonderland scenario. I would say, ‘Now what’s to be done here? Oh I know, cut spending.’ That would start in my brain as a reasonable assumption but by the time it reached my mouth, it was like the devil was speaking. It was like a traitorous utterance… I really couldn’t say anything without feeling like I was being devious. And yet I knew I wasn’t.”
All of The Beatles, with the partial exception of Ringo, were inveterate shaggers in their early years, and even among them McCartney was the most prodigious. His relationship with Jane Asher was a step forward in his maturity in more ways than one. She and her cultured, educated family (with whom he lived, in their house on Wimpole Street) fed his hungry mind with music and art and people. But the relationship was marred by his infidelities. He couldn’t bear that she had a career - that when he was back from tour, she was often away on hers. He was more or less openly unfaithful, and although she put up with it for a while the relationship ended in 1968. He then took up with a 23-year-old scriptwriter from New York called Francie Schwartz who walked into Apple’s offices to sell her screenplay and met McCartney in reception. In her memoir, Schwartz described him as a selfish, controlling boyfriend: “… petulant, outrageous, adolescent, a little Medici prince, powdered and laid on a satin pillow at a very early age.” His parting words to her, before she left him, were “Don’t cry, I’m a cunt.” I suspect his self-assessment was at least somewhat accurate, and somewhat honest. He was shallow and manipulative and egotistical. His saving grace was that he knew this and wanted to be better.
Shortly after splitting from Schwartz, McCartney started seeing Linda Eastman, a photographer he had met in New York. Things moved quickly, and by late 1968 he was living with Linda and her 5-year-old daughter Heather. I suspect the fact that she had a daughter made Linda more attractive to him, not less, as it would have done for many young men and probably most rock stars. He was ready for Linda – an older, worldly, wealthy woman who didn’t regard him as a god - and he was ready for a family, too, now that his Beatle-family was cracking up. He pivoted from extreme promiscuity to extreme monogamy, spending only a few nights apart from Linda until the end of her life. He wanted her to make him a better person, and she did. Winning over John reassured him he was brilliant; winning over Linda reassured him he was good. I’m reminded of something Mike Nichols said of his marriage to Diane Sawyer: “True love made Pinocchio a real boy. We all sort of feel like we’re contraptions, like we pasted ourselves together - a little bit from here, a little bit from there – and then, if you’re very lucky, along comes someone who loves you the right way, and then you’re real.”
In May 1968, McCartney drove from London to Weybridge to John Lennon’s house, a journey he knew well - except that this time he wasn’t going to see John. He was going to see John’s wife, Cynthia, and her and John’s son, Julian, then five years old. A few weeks before, John had abruptly left Cynthia for Yoko Ono. McCartney wanted to see if she was OK and to let her know that she still had a friend. He was also thinking about Julian; how awful it was for a parent to leave you like that. Around this time he was never not in the midst of composing a song, and as he drove he started to hum a line to himself: Hey Jules, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better. Over the following months, he developed this fragment, changing it from a song about a particular situation into something more universal.
Gifted melodists always risk being dismissed as superficial, yet melody penetrates us to our core. It is a language of emotion and the best tunes make you feel impossibly happy and impossibly sad at the same time. Hey Jude has, aided and abetted by McCartney, become something of an anthem, which can make it harder to appreciate its intimacy, or the way the original track builds from its sweetly doleful beginning towards that glorious final wordless chorale. All McCartney’s gifts came together here: that roving melody line which dips and rises up to the word song; his voice at its most tender and embracing; the magical alchemy of the band. Go and listen to it afresh - when that “naaa-na-na…” kicks in I swear you’ll feel moved all over again. It’s the sound of getting out of your own head; of communal healing. When the song’s long coda begins, McCartney shifts into a different voice, deploying his bluesy howling style as he improvises over the refrain. Listening to it recently I was struck by quite how wild he sounds, almost like he’s speaking in tongues, tearing his chest open and offering himself up to whatever is above us. It’s as raw a primal scream as anything Lennon committed to record, the sound of loneliness and grief being washed away by love.
The Hey Jude promo film, 1968.
Another Day, McCartney’s first post-Beatles song, was hammered by critics on its release, but like lot of his solo material from that period it sounds better today. I didn’t quite see through its surface perkiness (choo choo, cha cha) until reading a comment by a woman in a Facebook group I belong to: "Another Day is about living with high-functioning depression, about the pain and isolation that people living with it go through, and the protagonist is a woman. No wonder 70s rock critics didn't like it." After Eleanor Rigby and Lady Madonna, another narrative of female loneliness. I wouldn’t describe him as a feminist, but he has a distinct interest in and empathy for women. Asked a girl what she wanted to be. Which other male rock stars were interested in what women wanted to be?
Around the time of Another Day, during the Spring and Summer of 1970, McCartney was undergoing what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression. The Beatles were splitting up. The dispute over Apple had the effect of pitting him, alone, against his three best friends. The others, led by Lennon, wanted to be managed by Allen Klein, a man McCartney considered little more than a gangster, which was precisely why Lennon liked him. McCartney had been his mother’s kid, then he had been John Lennon’s partner, then a Beatle. Now he felt like nothing. In 1984, long before it became normal for public men to discuss their mental health, he recalled that period: “I was on the scrap heap, in my own eyes. It was just the feeling, the terrible disappointment of not being of any use to anyone anymore. It was a barrelling, empty feeling that just rolled across my soul.” If you’d had to guess in advance who would be worst hit by the break-up of The Beatles you wouldn’t have said Paul – the one who was so “together”, so driven, and so obviously a commercially viable talent. But it turned out that being part of a group, rather than just being himself, was more important to him than it was to any of them.
McCartney also spoke about how hard that year had been for his partner: “She had to deal this guy who didn’t particularly want to get out of bed, and if he did, wanted to go back to bed pretty soon after. He wanted to drink earlier and earlier each day…and was generally pretty morbid. I don’t know how Linda stuck it out.” She did, although she later described that time as “unbelievably frightening”. Hence Maybe I’m Amazed, one of the most moving songs of gratitude to a lover ever written. In its apparently more cheerful album companion, Every Night, he sings: Every day I don’t want to get up/ Get out of my bed. That song moves from the suspended anxiety of its verse into a breezy, wordless chorus by way of the line, Tonight I just want to stay in/And be with you. That was his way out – the realisation that being a husband and dad was a way of being useful, too; that domesticity is a creative challenge in itself.
At end of the 1980s, at his commercial nadir, McCartney invited several young producers to help him make a new album (Flowers In The Dirt), among them Trevor Horn. Years later, Horn and the others gave interviews about what the experience was like. “Out of all the legends I’ve met, Paul was probably the least affected by it,” said Horn. The producers, speaking individually, described McCartney as a torrent of creativity in the studio, and as an equable collaborator, if a little distant and occasionally defensive. All of them spoke effusively, dotingly, about Linda - how warm she was, how friendly, and how McCartney lit up when she was around. “He really liked her, if you know what I mean,” said Horn. “I know that’s a dumb thing to say, but he did.” Friends who visited him at home in the weeks and months after Linda’s death found him haggard, disbelieving, uncontrollably tearful. At her memorial service, he said, “She was my girlfriend. I lost my girlfriend.”
A commonplace about celebrities is that their personality gets stuck at the age they become famous, since that’s the age their audience wants them to be. McCartney escaped that trap. In the 1970 Q&A press release which accompanied McCartney I, and which broke the news of The Beatles’ split, the last question was, “What do you plan to do next?” He answered: "I intend to grow up."
AND IN THE END
I used to subscribe to the view that McCartney’s post-Beatles output has been one long disappointment, but I don’t any more. I think it’s uneven – which of course, The Beatles were not, but what an insane standard to hold anyone to, and anyway they only had seven years. McCartney has made plenty of mistakes but that is inevitable in a career that spans several decades, especially for an artist who is so prolific and so determined not to repeat himself. He has also made an incredible number of good songs since 1970, some of which you know, many of which you may not (listen to my Spotify playlist). As with Dylan, even his bad albums have one or two moments of greatness (even Give My Regards To Broad Street has No More Lonely Nights). He has also retained an appetite for the avant-garde. McCartney II is a gloriously bizarre electro-pop mash-up that sounds like Devo and Eno and Kraftwerk and became an influence on generations of dance and electronica artists (yes, this is the same guy that did Ebony and Ivory). The three experimental albums he made under the pseudonym The Fireman in the 1990s are also excellent, the second and third in particular (the second, Rushes, may be one of his finest works.) Last year’s Egypt Station contained some vintage new McCartney songs alongside some enthusiastically executed misjudgements. The footballer Thomas Müller, one of Germany’s most prolific goalscorers, told an interviewer, “I consciously take risks. In reports it sometimes says, he tried a lot but he failed. Yes but then it just didn’t work out. I try and lot and there are a lot of failures.”
Stephen Lipson, one of the producers who worked with McCartney on Flowers In The Dirt, concluded “My overriding thought was I couldn’t think of a better person to be in a band with. That is what I constantly thought. He is just really good at everything, and also he has endless ideas.”
Sergeant Pepper, Percy Thrillington, Paul Ramon, Bernard Webb, Apollo C. Vermouth, The Fireman. This is an incomplete list of personas that McCartney has adopted. He is more interested in being multitudinous and multi-vocal than in being himself. He wants to live all the lives, play all the characters, be everyone. Perhaps it’s not surprising that in age when we valorise authentic identity people can find it hard to know quite what to make of him.
Long before the concepts became staples of HR jargon, McCartney stood up and stood for diversity and inclusivity. The classical musician Leon Bosch, a black South African, recalls singing Yesterday with his fellow inmates when he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime. In 1966 McCartney went on holiday to Kenya and picked up the phrase ob-la-di-ob-la-da, Yoruba for “life goes on”. The song, recorded in 1968, is a pointed celebration of British multi-culturalism and a rebuke to Enoch Powell. (If you think being pro-immigration and diversity was just the default position for English rock stars, look at Eric Clapton - and if it is so today that’s partly because McCartney and The Beatles made it so.) The Wings track, Let ‘Em In, a playful, New Orleans-inspired shuffle about welcoming all-comers into your home, includes Martin Luther King in its roll call. In 1976, the soul singer Billy Paul picked up on the song’s egalitarian spirit and turned it into a paean to black civil rights (it was also covered, sort of, by Prince). Ever since McCartney learnt that his youngest daughter, by his brief marriage to Heather Mills, Beatrice, is gay, he has walked out on to stage carrying a Pride flag.
McCartney remained close to Julian, backing him and his mother (Cynthia died in 2015) in a legal battle to unlock money from the Lennon estate, a dispute that lasted well into the 1990s. In her memoir, Cynthia wrote about an emotional letter written to her by John in 1965, when he was away on tour in the US. In it, John talks about how much he misses her and Julian (then two years old), and how badly he feels about not seeing them. Much later, when Cynthia was down on her luck, she felt she had to sell the letter to make ends meet. It sold for a lot of money at auction, to an anonymous donor. Shortly afterwards a package arrived at Cynthia’s house: the letter, framed, with a note from Paul saying that it belonged to her and Julian.
Some artists like to keep their work to themselves until it’s ready to show the world, others are inveterate over-sharers, and McCartney is one of the latter. When he has a new song he plays it to everyone, asking them what they think, sometimes to invite suggestions (Eleanor Rigby was written like this), other times just for approval, like a kid showing you his picture, or indeed a tune he wrote at the piano. In 2005, he was getting a massage, and asked the masseuse to put on a tape he had brought along of rough cuts from his new album (Chaos and Creation). The masseuse loved one of them in particular: This Never Happened Before, a classic Paul-at-the-piano love song with a disablingly lovely melody. She told him she was getting married that summer, and before he went he asked for her address. Later, a CD arrived for her, and a newly wedded couple took their first dance to an unreleased Paul McCartney track. Not everyone gets a song in the mail, but nearly everyone has or will receive a gift from him. I doubt there is anyone alive responsible for a greater share of the world’s happiness.
You may have noticed that I haven’t spent much time on Paul’s relationship with John, which is quite the lacunae, but I’m trying to keep this essay-length and that subject, inexhaustibly fascinating, is a book in itself. Still, it’s worth spending a moment on the song McCartney wrote about his former partner after Lennon’s death: Here Today, from 1982. It isn’t one of his greatest songs, though it might be one of his greatest achievements. Think about the head-splitting weirdness of the situation: the whole world knows about your intense and sometimes difficult friendship with this person and now he’s dead, murdered, and everyone is waiting on you to writing an intensely personal song about him. I mean, no pressure. It’s more than enough to block any writer, and yet he delivered on his obligation – because that’s what it was - with a song that is beautiful partly because of its modesty. It doesn’t try to be the Greatest Song Ever, or to sum it all up, though it says plenty. The song is a classically structured ballad with a perfect ending, and I like the way he captures the flavour of their dialogue, as if John is right there with him: “If I said I really knew you well…you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart”. But its understated emotional climax comes in the middle eight: “And I am holding back the tears no more…I love you.” He somehow clears away a space to make those three over-familiar words mean everything again. When McCartney plays Here Today live, he introduces it by pointing out that he and John didn’t use those words with each other. “You never say anything like that. Especially if you’re a Northern man.” But he has learnt, he says, that when you do love someone, you should tell them, before it’s too late.
If I do see Paul McCartney in the street, I think I know what I will say to him, actually, presuming I can get the words out. I will say thank you. I might even tell him that I love him.
Ian Leslie is a writer for the New Statesman, the Economist/1843, the Guardian and others. His new book, CONFLICTED, on the art and science of disagreement, is out in February ‘21. You can read about it here. Yes, there is a mention of Paul McCartney.