Part two of a series. To recap, I have a friend who has never heard any of Paul McCartney’s solo and Wings LPs, except for, as he put it, the Frog Song, the one about no man’s land at Christmas, and Ebony and Ivory.
My job is therefore to share with him some of McCartney’s best songs, summarise why, for example, Alan Partridge Would Like These Albums, and we’ll then hear my friend’s reaction to what he hears. Remember, in many cases, he’s hearing these records for the first time.
It’s like a written version of those reaction videos on YouTube with cute kids hearing well known songs for the first time and crying with joy, except Steve is an averagely grumpy fifty year old Madness fan, works in insurance and really ought to have heard these songs before but hasn’t.
Let’s start with the first solo LP, titled simply “McCartney”, released on 17th April 1970.
What Was Paul’s State Of Mind?
Glad you asked – it was pretty much As Bad As It Gets:
It’s 1969. Paul McCartney has taken voluntary severance from his job as a Beatle, and he’s hugely depressed about it. No lump sum redundancy package here with three months gardening leave: just loads of hassle. Everything has gone wrong, he’s not talking to the others, who want to hire (in Paul’s eyes) a “gangster” (Allen Klein) as a manager, he’ll later be blamed for the split even though he was the last member of the band to actually leave, he’s hitting the bottle, and to top it all he’s about to lose all the rights to his publishing, starting a chain of events that culminate a decade later in Michael Jackson buying all his songs after getting a tip about how music publishing is a good investment. From Paul McCartney.
Oh, and he’s still only 27 years old.
John is doing better. He played a live show with friends he dubbed The Plastic Ono Band, one of whom was Eric Clapton, and even though he confided in a journalist friend he planned to leave The Beatles, that journalist somehow kept the biggest scoop in the world ever to himself.
Days after a September 1969 meeting where the Fab Four sign a new improved record contract, despite John wanting to leave the band, Paul escapes to Scotland with Linda. They take a guitar, the kids and a dog, and effectively go off grid in Scotland, unwittingly sparking rumours that Paul is dead.
Honestly, Scotland’s really not that bad.
Cue Drake University in Iowa starting a spoof story of Paul’s death, spawning myths that have continued among the feeble minded to this day.
It took two months before America’s Life magazine tracked him down in Scotland and took a photo to prove the rumours of Paul’s death were, in fact, exaggerated. He greeted the intrusion by throwing a bucket of kitchen slops over the writer, only to apologise afterwards. If that sounds nice, he only apologised because the incident was caught by the accompanying photographer. Steel and pragmatism, that’s McCartney.
He appears on the cover of Life with daughter Heather looking like she is about to beat the photographer to death with a walking cane.
Paul and Linda had moved to a house near Kintyre in Scotland. He’d bought High Park Farm for £35,000 in June 1966 on the advice of his accountant, in order to offset Harold Wilson’s 95% tax rate. It had three bedrooms and a hole in the roof. Fixing up the house, Paul used a room as a home-recording studio, powered by a generator, and his song-writing acted as therapy as he dragged himself out of a depression.
From this time came the song “Every Night” where McCartney disguises the pain he feels about how his life is going with a good tune. It is this sweetness of melody, mixed with melancholic lyrics that is one of McCartney’s great strengths, but also why people underestimate him. Listen to this for a bit of self pity:
“Every night I just wanna go out,
Get out of my head.
Every day I don’t wanna get up,
Get out of my bed.”
I mean we’ve all had hangovers like that, especially in Scotland, but if we think of his state of mind, this is quite a miserable confession, and clearly written by someone suffering. And yet, it has the sweetest melody, so the listener doesn’t really notice.
McCartney wrote and recorded his first solo album in December 1969 and January 1970 on a lo-fi four-track tape recorder, finishing it off in studios on his return to London. McCartney played all instruments. Drums, guitar, piano, bass, maracas, the lot. Only Linda, on backing vocals, contributed.
To save doing loads of press to publicise his new solo LP, McCartney released a Q&A which included the following statement:
Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?
Don Short of The Daily Mirror got wind of this, took a bit of a gamble and splashed the story on the Mirror front page: “Paul is Quitting the Beatles”.
By 11am the next morning it was the BBC’s main news headline.
To dissolve the Beatles partnership agreement, Paul would have to sue the other three in a court of law, with the not inconsiderable downside of temporarily freezing all their Apple-related earnings for albums like Abbey Road and Let It Be. It was a PR disaster. From here on in, Paul was known as the “square” who broke up The Beatles.
What the Critics thought then:
Not as bad as it could have been.
Used to a diet of Abbey Road lushly-produced Beatles wizardry, some critics were uncertain about the home-made feel of McCartney.
Alan Smith of the NME, presumably not the former Leeds striker, liked it, describing it as “an immensely warm and pleasurable album…” but also saying “Junk” was the best song on an album containing “Maybe I’m Amazed”, so who knows why we should trust Alan Smith.
Rolling Stone reviewed the album, acknowledging its home-made nature, but fretted over the press Q&A, worried The Beatles might be over. “Why did Paul choose to cover a very beautiful and pleasing record with such tawdry propaganda?” the writer asked, concluding “When compared to the best of the Beatles’ previous work, the songs on McCartney are distinctly second rate” while concluding “if one can accept the album in its own terms, McCartney stands as a very good, although not astounding, piece of work.”
But ultimately it was the press release Q&A Rolling Stone objected to.
“I like McCartney very much. But I remember that the people of Troy also liked that wooden horse they wheeled through their gates until they discovered that it was hollow inside and full of hostile warriors.”
What the Critics think now:
Now, fifty-odd years later, McCartney is credited with inspiring DIY musicians and lo-fi music. So take that 1970s critics.
Never mind the Critics, what does your mate Steve think about the songs?
I played Steve “Maybe I’m Amazed”.
I also showed him a clip of Mary’s Little Lamb being played on the Basil Brish show for a giggle, just to keep Steve on his toes.
Surely Steve will like Maybe I’m Amazed?
Having listened, Steve looked a bit annoyed.
“OK, there’s no denying. It is a good song” he conceded.
This was a strong start, I must say. Wasn’t expecting that. Maybe we have peaked too soon though? I mean, everyone likes this one. I pushed my luck and asked him why he liked it.
“It’s a simple song” he thought, “but I like that.”
He looked mildly annoyed again.
“I am in fact still singing it in my head even though its not playing!”
“Excellent! There, I told you he wa…”
Steve interrupted me. He hadn’t finished.
“To me though, that version, there is too much going on. its very busy!”
I was beginning to think Steve would have looked at the Sistine Chapel after Michaelangelo had put his brush in a jam jar, sucked in his cheeks questioningly and said, “There’s a lot of cherubs, isn’t there?”
Steve elaborated. “I thought it would sound better acoustic, and did check a few on YouTube, and they did sound better to me. Maybe its him and not his songs that have been putting me off??? We shall see…”
I was beginning to think this would be even harder than I had anticipated.
Then Steve added another zinger, “Oh, a personal peeve of mine is songs that are fleshed out with “Yeahs and ooohhhs”…“ he continued “I think its a bit lazy”.
But then Steve muttered to himself, “Damn it – I’m still humming it!!!” he looked at me, in a conciliatory manner. “Okay, for the songwriting I’d give him 8/10 for that one…but
I prefer the Faces version though”.
I took that as a win.
I then asked Steve for his thoughts on “Every Night” – a song I think is great – with slightly more trepidation. He looked more stern.
“OK…..it’s the 70’s so I will comment no more on the “ooohhs and yeahs” fillers.”
I could see Steve was going to be a stickler.
“It’s an okay song, but I prefer the Drifters version.” Steve then looked at me cynically. “I am assuming he wrote all of these? I’m not researching this.” I assured him McCartney, indeed, wrote both songs.
He then took a metaphorical step back.
“HOW can the man write two goodish songs – and I preferred the first more than the second – and then come out with tosh about Marys Little Lamb?” Steve looked appalled at McCartney’s impudence.
I tried to defend the indefensible. “Well, he just thought it would be nice to do a kids’ song. It’s one of a line of similar things, like “Yellow Submarine” and “The Frog Chorus”…”
Steve scoffed “I really do think that because he was in the Beatles he thinks he can write any old toss and people will buy it”.
I was pushing my luck with “Mary’s Little Lamb” I guess. Still, there’s plenty more songs to build up the credits.
Next time: Let’s hear what Steve thinks of Ram…