Bringing Sexy Back: Paul McCartney

Sometime around the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it became cool to like Justin Timberlake.

He had, via Saturday Night Live, revealed a winning comic presence, happily lampooning himself while directing his musical talents toward absurd comedic ends.

Creatively, he had distanced himself from his teenybopper past, releasing sleek bangers in collaboration with the likes of Timbaland and Pharrell.

But still…

Justin Timberlake?

I remember sharing my skepticism with a coworker.

“You don’t like Justin Timberlake?” he said, screwing up his face, genuinely flummoxed.

But this guy was a good 6 or 7 years younger than me. He only knew part of the story.

See, I was in college during the boy-band era, a grown-ass man by law if not much else.

And if you were a grown-ass man during the boy band era, you may have had no real problem with ‘N Sync or The Backstreet Boys, may have considered them a goofy distraction, harmless junk food for tweens.

But you would, and I cannot stress this enough, sooner gouge both your eyes out than admit as much.

There was a generation gap to be reckoned with, and the subject looked very different depending on which side you were on.

In 60-plus years of performing, Paul McCartney has straddled not only generations, but entire eras, movements artistic, social and political. And yet, like the other “cute one,” McCartney seems perpetually misunderstood, misremembered, mis-seen by fans of a certain age (this is where all McCartney-Timberlake comparisons will end, though they are not necessarily inapt: both are natural performers, inveterate hams, most definitely lovers and not fighters).

From my side of the generational divide (too young for the Beatles or Wings, juuuust old enough to remember Spies Like Us), McCartney has often resembled a Dad.

And here’s my hot take: that’s because he is one.

And I don’t mean, simply, he has sired children. What I mean is that Paul McCartney lived an entire life by 1969. A whole universe contained in eight years and he was its author.

He was a middle-aged artist by the time he was 30.

So, I’m not here to tell you that Paul McCartney is cool (yes I am). I’m here to tell you that the man’s entire catalogue must be not so much re-examined, but re-seen, viewed as a whole entity, a lifetime’s work.

One that starts with a Dad and his family making music during the height of 70’s rock-God excess.

If we can accept that dichotomy–that McCartney, though roughly the same age as the Plants, Pages, Jaggers and Richards(es?) who defined hedonistic arena stardom, was in fact of a different generation than his peers due to The Beatles’ unprecedented, time-bending artistic advancements–then we can look at the man and his work anew.

Here’s a brain teaser for you: Paul McCartney has been uncool for so long that it’s actually uncool to think he’s uncool.

We’ve seen it all before: the awkward mullets, the cringey Michael Jackson collaborations, the forced and phony 9/11 response song, “Freedom.”

We compare him to John Lennon and he inevitably comes up wanting. We re-examine our comparisons. We get hip to the notion that he was the “real” driving force behind The Beatles’ studio years, a freak musician who outshined his bandmates in many ways but whose manic creative energy and tendency toward primadonna-hood splintered the group irrevocably.

We see him at nearly 80 years old, still rocking, playing the elder statesman, the dignified and worthy steward of The Beatles’ legacy. We watch him tour Liverpool with James Corden and we tear up a little, despite ourselves.

But how often do we dip into the catalogue? I mean, my God, the music this guy made!

I often hold Paul McCartney in the same mental space in which I hold Robin Williams or Jim Carrey (and I have allotted a good deal of mental space to those two dudes over the years). All three are members of the “just can’t help it” club. Think of Williams or Carrey–the comedy just pours out of them. They are vessels, conduits of relentless, unstoppable creative torrents.

And yeah, it gets annoying sometimes. Annoying, cloying, overwhelming. There’s just so much coming at you.

Let’s slow the tide a little, sift through its currents.

First, check out McCartney.

His first solo release, a low-key, lo-fi dick move, it is, in its own way, as powerful a creative statement as Plastic Ono Band or All Things Must Pass. Where George went all out with a Phil Spector-produced triple album and John delved deep into his trauma, Paul retreated to his Scottish farm and self-recorded a beautiful, understated little record that lacks All Things’ sweep or Plastic Ono’s catharsis, but is absolutely filled with delightful musical moments, a stripped-down look at how a bummed out, heartbroken genius keeps himself sane.

Oh and it’s also got “Maybe I’m Amazed” on it.

Let me just say right now that this song–one, again, often relegated to the “AM Gold” bargain rack in the mind of the average person old enough to remember radio–is a song that an entire career could be hung on. And we’re just getting started.

Check out “Every Night,” “That Would Be Something,” “Junk,” “Momma Miss America.” Did I mention he self-recorded it and plays every instrument?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to run down every album, song by song. That’s what podcasts are for.

I’ll just say:

Check out Ram, his first proper studio solo album, well-known and beloved by Beatles junkies, unfamiliar to most passing fans. It contains Beatles-worthy moments of inspired whimsy (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”) and bizarre musical detours (“Monkberry Moon Delight”), White Album-style acoustic pastorals (“Heart of The Country”) and a banger of an opener–“Too Many People”– that comes as close as Paul can to outright dissing John in song (which is not very).

It’s also the first appearance of Linda McCartney on one of Paul’s records. Which brings me back to the middle-aged thing.

It is the stuff of McCartney legend (and probable hyperbole) that he and Linda never spent a night apart after getting married. He brought his wife and young children completely into his life as a performer. He didn’t want to be apart from her, so he put her in the band (which actually is rather romantic, isn’t it?).

He brought the idea of being a family man into rock stardom.

Does this seem a little uncool when compared against the debauched exploits of the likes of Zeppelin and the Stones? Does it matter? Time catches up with us all, and McCartney had already conquered the world.

Rob Sheffield may have put it best: “[McCartney] did less to fuck up his good luck than any rock star ever.”

Because How To Be A Rock Star is only one chapter of a deeper, far more interesting book the man inadvertently wrote: How To Live A Life As An Artist.

But I digress:

Check out Wild Life, the first Wings record.

You can’t help but notice that at least a quarter of it sucks.

But listen to “Mumbo.” An outrageous opener! So cool, so forward-looking! Listen to “Bip Bop” and “Tomorrow.” The musical ideas were pouring out of this guy, even if they sometimes remained half-realized. He was Williams/Carrey-ing it all over the place.

In fact, Wild Life is, in certain ways, a template for much of McCartney’s solo work: moments of delicious execution followed by utter duds (“Love is Strange” into “Wild Life” for instance). There’s something uniquely annoying about a McCartney brick. A mawkishness that somehow overpowers the senses, diminishing all the astounding music around it. It feels like a guy who makes it look this easy should never miss. Or…maybe not take quite so many shots.

Case in point: Wings At The Speed of Sound.

All I can tell you is, there are two good songs on this album and I could go the rest of my life without hearing the others again. But those two are “Let ‘Em In,” and “Silly Love Songs.”

Check out the much-lauded Band On The Run, then check out its troubled backstory, how McCartney had an album to record and no band to play on it so he said fuck it, I’ll do it myself.

Check out Venus and Mars. It, as the kids say, slaps.

Check out London Town. It’s worth it for “With A Little Luck,” if not much else.

Check out Tug of War. A masterpiece.

Check out Press to Play. Not a masterpiece. But at least four great “high 80’s” tracks.

Check out Flowers In The Dirt, co-written with Elvis Costello (but get the deluxe edition with the original demos so you can hear the album that should have been).

Check out his 1991 MTV Unplugged performance, the first entry in an-era defining format and a crack performance by a guy who cut his teeth and made his bones strumming an acoustic guitar.

Check out Flaming Pie, a self-consciously Beatles-reminiscent album written in the wake of the Anthology project. “Calico Skies” and “Beautiful Night” alone make it worth the trip, though “The World Tonight,” “Young Boy,” “Souvenir” and “Flaming Pie” make a convincing argument for sticking around.

And check out 2006’s Chaos and Creation In The Backyard.

In fact, check out this quote first. It surfaced in my social media feed recently, and this entire rambling post had its genesis in my (in)digestion of it:

“I listened to ‘Jenny Wren’. It’s from a Paul McCartney album [‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’] you wouldn’t think twice about– not to be harsh – but it is the most astonishingly beautiful song. I suddenly realised that there was an entire catalogue that I hadn’t paid attention to that was full of these stunningly beautiful songs. I’d never thought [McCartney] was bad, but I’d overlooked him, certainly.”

Laura Marling, British singer-songwriter

I’m not gonna lie. I don’t really know who Laura Marling is. And I’m probably not gonna find out.

A Google search tells me that she is all of 30 years old, and sure, the initial impulse was to get all stodgy about a 30 year old musician’s implication that they might have the right, the permission–nay, the ability!–to even suggest that Paul McCartney “was bad.” I mean, Not to be harsh? Gimme a break! The man is a knight!

But the truth is, I was Laura Marling, too.

We were all Laura Marling.

Consider Chaos and Creation. Even if I have not totally overlooked it, I have been guilty of paying it little mind. It’s ethos–mortality and aging–is alien to a young person’s conception of the world, anathema to the ever-youthful spirit of pop music.

And I had never considered Chaos as a piece of work made by a man in his 60’s on the heels of a failed marriage, and that on the heels of his first wife’s death. This is the stuff of which Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction are made, and yet we demand eternal youth of our rock stars, in both set list and appearance.

Viewed this way, it’s hard not to see beautiful new dimensions of songs like “Follow Me,” “Friends To Go,” and “Too Much Rain.”

It’s hard not to look back into the man’s entire catalogue and behold a wealth of “stunningly beautiful songs” so copious it boggles the mind.

If Laura Marling–whoever she is–can evolve, we all can evolve. Paul finally stopped dyeing his hair. He’s 78 years old and looks it. There will be an answer, let it be.

Come back in 20 years. Maybe I’ll be writing about Justin Timberlake.

But don’t count on it.

12 thoughts on “Bringing Sexy Back: Paul McCartney

  1. If and when the libraries reopen I will dive into the McCartney post Beatles work. Good chance I’ll use this as a roadmap. I tried to do this a couple years ago, make an 80 minute CD of what I liked best and try to appreciate it a little more, but maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. It just felt like there was too much cheesiness to wade through.
    But life is short, and McCartney is great, and I wouldn’t want to miss some good work. If you haven’t seen it, there is a wonderful 9 minute youtube from 2004-ish, of Neil Young on stage in England playing ‘A Day in the Life.’ a couple of minutes in Paul McCartney bounces on stage to sing along and clown around. He’s never looked so happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha I tried a similar approach. I tried to listen to his entire catalog last year in the lead up to seeing him perform at Dodger Stadium. Yeah, definitely some tough going in places and I only made it to about 1989 before the concert. In the intervening year, I have done a lot of reading online and listened to a lot of podcasts that put a lot of the work in context and that really helped me appreciate it a lot more. There was a lot going on, just with Wings alone. For instance, the constantly changing lineup and what some might call an ill advised move, though well-intentioned on Paul’s part, of trying to make it a true band and give songwriting to the other members. I think it’s a common theme among fans that he should’ve taken more breaks and been more discriminating about what he released but the guy just can’t help it! He is overflowing with music! I will definitely check out that Neil Young video, thank you for reading!

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  2. Very good column! It’s rare for someone to have such insight into this kind of thing, especially a youngster like yourself… 🙂 Me, I’m not yet 64 but it won’t be long. I’ve been a McCartney fan since I realized, about 1971-72, that he was one of The Beatles (thanks to mom and dad’s record collection). You got it right.
    I’d say, for me, all of his albums up through 1979’s Wings Back to the Egg are very good if not awesome. After that, they mostly get a bit spotty but like you say (paraphrasing) someone who puts out this much music is bound to create some duds. The thing is, sometimes what first sound like “dud” later turn out to be amazing (like you said about “Jenny Wren,” whose title still sounds trite [it’s no “Blackbird”]). Alright, that’s all I got for now…

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    1. Thanks for reading! I enjoyed your post about McCartney, too. I think a lot of people my age are experiencing that phenomenon with Paul McCartney, going back and finding music that once seemed kind of uncool is really great. I am coming to the opinion that he could have used a very strong producer/editor in the 80’s. Flowers in The Dirt had like 7 producers on it and a lot of strong demos got turned into weaker songs. Then again, I suppose most people would say that strong editor was John Lennon.

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        1. That’s awesome, thanks! Just read your Flowers post, very nice. I keep going back and forth on this record. I was a little too young and not enough of a McCartney fan as a kid to be aware of the album. Listening to it repeatedly over the years as an adult, I definitely agree that it was a return to some degree of normalcy after some tough years. These days though, I just keep thinking of the album that could have been, like if the production had a little more of that Costello/Attractions sound to it?? A little less glossy and bubbly. I don’t know, wishful thinking and conjecture, I guess! I look forward to reading the rest of your posts.

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  3. “Wings are the band The Beatles could have been.”

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Not an Alan Partridge fan?

    I’m not sure about the Justin Timberlake comparison. Is he even a songwriter? And could he write anything as majestic as that one with the Frog Chorus? Call me sceptical!

    I did find this interesting. I remember your posts about discovering The Beatles, so it doesn’t surprise me that you explored Paul’s back catalogue as well. I’m not really that familiar with his solo stuff, although I know some of the better Wings tracks.

    How do you think his solo work compares with Lennon’s, especially in the 70s?

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    1. Haha I don’t know much about Alan Partridge, although my British friend once showed me a funny clip of him very enthusiastically singing along to Jet. Yeah I realize I kind of equated Macca to Timberlake which was not exactly my intention. Let’s just say my opinion on the guy hasn’t changed much. He and Macca are–to quote Pulp Fiction for the first but maybe not last time today–not in the same league, not even the same f*^%ing sport. Can’t say I know the song with the frog chorus lol. Is that one of those Rupert songs? That’s pretty deep cut British stuff isn’t it? As far as Lennon comparisons go, yeah I don’t know, I love his work too. I think it’s fairly clear that McCartney and Lennon both missed the balance provided by the other. When Macca got too Macca it became inane and cloying, when Lennon got too Lennon it was too acidic or too caught up in trying to make a point. Love Imagine. Plastic Ono is pretty great, if not always an easy listen. I really like Walls & Bridges, too. And Double Fantasy. You know, when each guy really connected, they hit it out of the park. Together that happened almost always. Apart, the home runs were fewer and farther between but still pretty numerous. Also George did some great, absolutely great solo stuff. But maybe that is for another post! Thanks for reading!!

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      1. We all Stand Together. Yeah it’s from a Rupert Bear cartoon apparently. It’s on Youtube (of course): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0fuVoSa3dc

        It’s actually kind of charming watching it in context. The YT version has what seem to be Dutch subtitles, so you can learn the words in Dutch as well. If you want.

        BTW, I Googled your blog instead of going through the WordPress Reader just now and accidentally found out what the Ebert Test is. So there you are, your site is educational, even if only by accident.

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        1. You know what? I kinda dug that froggy song, thanks for sharing! Delightfully weird. In fact I kinda dig that whole Ram-era, farm animal, kid-oriented trip he seemed to be on back then. And yeah–long live Ebert! My favorite critic, wry to the very end!

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