“It is hard to understand quite how it happened, but there are millions of teenagers running around now who don’t know who U2 are.”
I was talking to my friend Steve the other day after reading this comment online where someone with enough music knowledge to share opinions about Arcade Fire and Coldplay had nevertheless apparently never heard of U2:
“It’s amazing! U2 have gone from being added to literally every iPod in 2004, to being almost entirely unknown by anyone under twenty. You can’t imagine that ever happening to The Beatles, can you?”
Steve looked at me a bit funny.
“That’s only because they wheel out McCartney to sing a ropey version of “Hey Jude” after every royal celebration and sporting event” he scoffed.
I nearly jumped out of my seat. You always hear of people with such heretical views, but you never entirely expect to meet them in real life and hear them confess quite so openly.
“I’m not a fan” he continued, unnecessarily, “I mean, what has he done since the Beatles? “Wings: The Band The Beatles Could Have Been.”
Steve chuckled to himself at his Alan Partridge quote as I picked myself off the floor at the sound of this heresy.
“John Lennon was so much better. “Imagine”, the great “Jealous Guy”, “War is Over”, “Woman…..”.
Steve continued, getting into his stride. “Now he, in my mind, was cool and his music was good. It makes me think he was the main talent, and I don’t think he would have written such drivel as McCartney did if he had stayed alive…”
Steve is a couple of years younger than me. We both grew up in the seventies and eighties, the decades of Texan bars, Blue Stratos, Cheggars Plays Pop on TV and white dog poo in the park. The glory days, we call them. But surely, those aforementioned glory days included McCartney, at least a little bit?
“The first I knew of him was the Frog Song” Steve told me, nailing the song title.
“In my mind he has the look of a children’s TV presenter. Not the seventies type though” he added hastily.
“I struggle to take him seriously with his dyed hair, double thumbs up and trainers with a suit”.
Steve was warming up. I had no idea he held such extreme views. It was like discovering your friend was an anti-vaxxer, or didn’t like Marmite.
I feel I should point out Steve is a lovely bloke. I don’t judge Steve simply because the release of any number of McCartney LPs has apparently had absolutely zero impact on him for the last five decades.
“I struggle to understand how he could co-write such great songs with Lennon when he was in the Beatles but then come up with novelty songs which rival “Agadoo”, and still get taken seriously” he added.
I began to understand the issue. It seemed to me that Steve hadn’t actually heard any Paul McCartney songs either before or since 1984’s “We All Stand Together”, which he so painfully likened to “Agadoo”. And perhaps this blind spot wasn’t an untypical view of people of a certain age, particularly those who read Smash Hits magazine? Smash Hits had a great way of not taking pop stars too seriously in the eighties.
Billy Idol became Sir Billiam of Idol in the pages of Smash Hits, and some might say got off lightly. We also had Ben Vol-Au-Vent Pierrot from Curiosity Killed The Cat, Stephen ‘Tea Towel’ Duffy, Mark “Horrible Headband” Knopfler, Lord Frederick Mercury of Lucan, and Morten “Snorten Forten” Harket of A-Ha. Paul McCartney perhaps had the most elaborate nickname, becoming “Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft”. Maybe it is hard to take anyone seriously when they are routinely called Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft, walk around in a suit/trainers combo and sing with frogs.
“How many Macca songs do you actually know, Steve?”
“I even cringe at the name “Macca”” he interjected, although I suspected he was stalling for time.
I mentioned “Mull of Kintyre” just to get him thinking.
“Without Googling?” he asked.
“Yes! It can’t be that hard?!” I was struggling to suppress my irritation.
“Okay. Frog Chorus. That’s one. Then the one about no man’s land at Christmas. And Ebony and Ivory.”
I winced slightly.
“Are you serious? That’s it?”
“What else has he done, then? Look, I know I’m not qualified to talk about him. I get it. And I realise how important, culturally, The Beatles were. But my whole opinion on him is based on his public persona from around 1984. To me, he’s like if the Chuckle Brothers were triplets.”
Yes. He actually said that. I’m not making this up.
What I wanted to say was “Firstly, it’s called “We All Stand Together” and it was written for a Rupert Bear kids film and it’s bloody great, and in no way, shape or form is it an Agadoo-style novelty song. Secondly, it sounds like you have only actually heard three of Paul McCartney’s songs. What rock, exactly, have you been hiding under for the last five decades?”
What I actually said was “James Bond theme?”
Steve thought again. Slowly.
“Oh, yeah. But I prefer the Guns ‘n’ Roses version.
I tried to dumb it down
“What about the post-code lottery song?”
““Who’s That Knocking At The Door?” I didn’t know he did that one to be honest. Not a fan though.“
So there we had it. Steve’s entire knowledge of Sir Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles output was entirely focused on a handful of songs. No wonder he was ambivalent, at best.
But I felt a challenge taking shape. Was it possible to do a PR job to replace the persona of “Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft” in Steve’s head, and elevate it to “Sir Paul McCartney, musical genius” in the mind of my friend?
It sounded difficult. This wouldn’t be as straightforward as simply writing a police report to confirm there were no parties at number ten during lockdown.
Now, part of me thinks: Sod it, life’s too short, if he wants to listen to Suggs the rest of his life there’s nothing wrong with that. No-one needs a know-it-all muso shovelling songs their way they have no interest in. And you only have to look at comments on Facebook or Twitter for two minutes to find plenty of people with opinions like Steve’s only a little bit angrier. You know the kind: those quite happy to tell you The Beatles are over-rated and McCartney was second rate at best and actually did you know Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles, and Wings were awful and no, I haven’t actually heard any of their albums, don’t need to…?
The other part of me is, of course completely affronted. Sir Paul McCartney is a man who, according the oracle of Wikipedia:
1. Fronted Wings – one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, with more than a dozen international top 10 singles and albums.
2. Has written or co-written 32 songs that have topped the US charts.
3. As of 2009 (don’t ask me why they stopped counting in 2009) had sold 25.5 million units in the US alone
4. Twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (including as a solo artist in 1999)
5. Won an Academy Award,
6. Won 18 Grammy Awards,
7. Awarded an MBE
8. And a knighthood in 1997 for services to music.
9. Not to mention massing an estimated fortune of £800 million
It was hard to reconcile these accomplishments with someone my friend viewed as a long-lost Chuckle Brother.
So we had a chat.
McCartney’s solo and Wings records are one of life’s great pleasures. They are cheap, typically sub-£10, have lots of extra bits like posters and stickers…
…and as we are now in some cases fifty years removed from the expectation of a Beatle releasing his latest LP (“Will he capture past glories?”) we can all relax a bit. A McCartney LP no longer gets think-pieces about how he either is or is not the future of rock’n’roll or has let down his fans.
That’s what Arcade Fire are for.
So we can enjoy his past work for what it is: a huge, varied body of work from one of the (if not the) greatest songwriters of our times.
So: My plan was to go around and pick up all the Wings records – no hardship for a confirmed vinyl-hound like myself – and give them a listen, picking out songs for Steve. I shall provide Steve with brief highlights as to Paul’s state of mind as he made the records so beloved of Alan Partridge. We’ll find out what the critics made of the records. Were Wings really The Band The Beatles Could Have Been?
Or is Steve right, and the World’s Greatest Songwriter is really just a Chuckle Brother in disguise…? Should McCartney’s post-Beatles albums be (ahem) Chuck(l)ed?
Over the next few articles, we’re going to find out.
And just for fun, we’ll ask Steve for his views on some of the songs. Anyone who can describe our greatest living songwriter as a Chuckle Brother deserves a platform, right? And not just on an angry Facebook page.