Monday, July 11, 2016

Dr Sillylovesongs, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Paul McCartney

Contrary to stereotype, Paul McCartney can make dark, introspective lo-fi music

Anyone who gets into the Beatles at a young age decides which Beatle is their favorite. This choice is not merely an aesthetic one, but also is meant to reflect the personality and values of the fan. In my teens, John was far and away my favorite. To me he was the rebel Beatle, the one who stood up for peace and was not afraid to speak his mind. I also valued his musical contributions more, seeing him as the true artist in the group. The Revolver album, my fave Beatles record, seemed to make the choice pretty clear.  The John songs on that record are searing and full of all kinds of spiritual angst, perfect fodder for an adolescent. What teen hasn't just wanted to not get out of bed, as in "I'm Only Sleeping"? The real kicker, however, was "Tomorrow Never Knows," which still sounds amazing and different fifty years later. It was almost impossible to think that the band responsible for "Love Me Do" had created it. Paul had some fine songs on that record ("Yellow Submarine," "Good Day Sunshine," Got To Get You Into My Life," Eleanor Rigby" etc.) but they tended to be less rockish and more poppy.

As my twenties progressed, I started gravitating towards George, rather than John. Much of this had to do with my friends Debbie and Brian, who were big George fans. I had also loved his wry perspective in the Beatles Anthology interviews. The more I read about the Beatles, the more I liked George and felt less of a connection to John. While John finally seemed to be getting it sorted out at the end of his tragically short life, he could be a mean drunk who neglected his first child and treated his first wife, Cynthia, poorly. I empathized with his bouts of depression, but he began to strike me as a rather unpleasant person. On the positive side, I finally heard Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and I still believe that it's by far the best Beatles solo album.

Ringo was never a candidate for favorite Beatle for me, but I've always loved him. I think his drumming is very underrated, and it pisses me off when people put his musical ability down. (Harrison and Lennon could have had anyone drum on their first solo records, but they chose Ringo.) Paul, of course, was the one I had the most mixed feelings about. The more I learned about the breakup of the Beatles, the more I realized that those who blamed Yoko Ono were completely wrong.  Of course, the four men growing up and developing their own separate personalities and interests was the root cause of the break up, which I now take to be a good thing, since it saved us from terrible reunion tours and the kind of mediocre music we've been getting from the Stones in the last thirty years. The Beatles break-up had its immediate origins in the death of manager Brian Epstein, which left a huge vacuum. Paul tried to step in and be the leader of the band, and to have his brother in law manage. I attributed this to Paul being a control freak, something I saw first hand in his unbearable antics in the studio in Let It Be. I'd also heard the story that he had forced the band to record eighty takes of the mediocre "Ob La Di Ob La Da," which is enough to make anyone quit any band, including the Beatles.

I also generally thought of Paul as "the cute one" who made, in his own words, "silly love songs." Could I really rate the guy responsible for "Honey Pie" above the man who wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows"? Plus, as a child of the 80s and 90s, I thought of Paul as a guy with a terrible mullet wearing fashion-victim vests touring the world playing his hits. This to me, in my punk rock phase, was the height of uncool.

In recent years, however, my attitude has been changing. Paul is most definitely a control freak, of course. In the Wingspan documentary his own daughter seems a bit exasperated at all of the lineup changes in Wings brought on by that tendency. At the same time, aren't a lot of great artists control freaks? Paul isn't someone I'd want to work with, but his exacting standards are probably responsible for the timeless nature of his best songs. I also came to realize that while his attempt to take a controlling interest in the Beatles after Epstein's death backfired, it might have been the right way to go. They ended up hiring the infamous Allen Klein over Paul's objections, who, as he often did with the artists he represented, ripped them off. At that point in the late 60s John, who had been the leader of the group early on, was beginning to check out and act more erratically. Somebody had to step in and do something. Paul did it maladroitly, but he intentions were in the right place.

Paul's iron will to keep things together is also what gave us Abbey Road, which next to Revolver is my fave Beatles record. Even though the band was falling apart, they managed to end on an extremely high note. Paul was chiefly responsible for the second side's pastiche of song fragments. I think that medley might be my favorite thing that the Beatles ever did. (George also has some fantastic songs on that record. John's are good, but not at the same level.)

Over the years I also came to realize that while John got the credit for being experimental and George for bringing in Indian music, Paul was not just the guy who wrote silly love songs. Imagine my surprise when I learned that "Helter Skelter" was a Paul song, since that totally went against narrative. While may have penned some schmaltzy numbers, he had a well-documented interest in experimental music, as well as decidedly non-schmaltzy sleaze like "Why Don't We Do It In The Road." On top of all of that, he was definitely the best musician in the Beatles. His melodic bass lines are really miles ahead of what most rock bassists were doing at the time. What really put me over the top musically with Paul were his first two solo albums, which I didn't hear until a few years ago, mostly due to my old prejudices. He recorded the first one completely by himself, and the second with only some background vocals from Linda. They are idiosyncratic albums with a great amount of looseness to them. Hearing them now, they sound like the earliest antecedents of lo-fi indie rock. They also happen to be really good, and daring in their own way. The fan reaction was not greatly positive, and McCartney would find great solo success after creating Wings and going for a big 70s pop-rock sound.

Beyond the music, I really started empathizing with Paul after reading the book Man on the Run, about his career in the 70s. He fell into a deep depression after the breakup of the Beatles (which he had worked hard to avoid), complete with overconsumption of alcohol. His relationship with Linda and the loose experimentation of those early records are what helped him cope and recover.  (I myself could certainly understand the difficulties that come with having to make a major career change in your thirties against your will.) I always get irritated when people mock Linda and her presence in Wings. Paul brought her and their children on tour as a way of keeping the family together, rather than indulging in the rock and roll party lifestyle. Learning this now that I am a parent made me respect him even more. (Not to be petty, but compare this to John's treatment of Julian.)

I am not sure who my favorite Beatle is anymore, probably because I'm no longer young enough for that to be meaningful. I can say that time and wisdom have made me appreciate Paul McCartney much more than before. And hey, if some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, what's wrong with that? I'd like to know.


EnonZ said...

Spot on. Amazing to listen to Paul's bass on the remastered Abbey Road. My personal favorite, followed by Revolver.

Too bad we'll never get any remastered Mamas and Papas as I understand their record company threw their masters away.

Paul could be very dirty. Not just Do It In the Road. Try Eat at Home.

Anonymous said...

Why give John Lennon sole credit for the great Tomorrow Never Knows Track when it was Paul's tape loops that made the song unique? Tomorrow Never Knows is not a John song. It's a BAND song. One that also benefited from the work of producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. But Paul came up with the drumming pattern on the track. And Paul came up with the tape loops. To use that song as an example of John's inventiveness is misguided -- as is obvious when you listen to Lennon's solo work where you find little if any innovation musically, compared with McCartney's solo work where he is trying all sorts of things musically. Lennon's solo work is just song after song of churning guitar.

Also, it drives me a bit batty when people call Paul's behavior in the Let it Be sessions "unbearable." So Paul had a strong idea for how he wanted the guitar to sound on his own song? So? That's what artists should do. That YouTube video you linked to doesn't show me anyone behaving unbearably -- screaming, throwing things, calling his fellow musicians names. All it shows me is George getting irritated because Paul preferred a different guitar riff than the one George wanted to play.

And it was George who got ticked off about Yoko eating one of his cookies and literally got into a physical fight about it with Lennon during the Let it Be sessions. Wasn't that "unbearable"?

Wasn't it "unbearable" when John showed up for the sessions day after day strung out on heroin?

What I'm saying: For years people like you have rushed to blame Paul for the sour mood when the others contributed to it just as much. In fact, Harrison left the band briefly after that physical fight with Lennon. Yet for decades people ignored that and painted Paul as the bad guy. Meanwhile George and John -- as grown men -- agreed to do the Let it Be project and then sat there like whiny teenagers, complaining about having to do actual work and make music. Why agree to do the project then?

There was plenty of tension in the band back then. But it's ridiculous, not to mention unfair, to lay it all at Paul's feet.

And yes, Paul's solo work is filled with great underappreciated stuff (amid some dreck).

P.S. Ram is the best solo album by an ex-Beatle. Then All Things Must Pass. Then Plastic Ono Band. IMO.