McCartney’s lifelong pop journey knows no age limit
These days, Paul McCartney is doing more than hanging out in a cottage somewhere on the Isle of Wight, doing the garden and digging the weeds.
McCartney, who turns 80 tomorrow, seems to indicate no desire for retirement just yet. He just finished off the most recent leg of his “Got Back” tour at MetLife Stadium Thursday.
Put it this way, when the man himself turned 64, the No. 1 album in the country was the Chicks’ Taking the Long Way, their first album after drawing right-wing flak for not obediently supporting Gulf War II. The pop charts had tracks like “Hips Don’t Lie”, “Promiscuous” and “Bad Day” (which could have been known as “Dammit, Not That Song Again, Get Out of My Head”, but I digress).
What’s more, since he reached the age where a 27-year-old McCartney wondered in song since he would be needed and fed, he’s released six studio albums, two side project albums and a remix album of sorts and a pair of live albums (as the only thing that’s stopped him from touring was a global pandemic).
The first time the Beatles hit the Billboard Hot 100, in mid-January of 1964, when “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, Bobby Vinton’s “There! I Said It Again” topped the chart with the likes of “Louie Louie” and “Surfin’ Bird” also in the Top 10. The album chart was topped by the Singing Nun, followed by a couple of Peter Paul and Mary albums with Elvis in-between. Now, Harry Styles sits atop the singles chart and Bad Bunny has the No. 1 album.
VIDEO: The Beatles perform “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan Show
The British Invasion, the psychedelic era, funk, disco, punk, new wave, hip-hop, alternative rock, EDM, reggaeton — so many genres and subgenres that either didn’t exist or have blown up in the time that McCartney has been around, selling massive amounts of records and playing arenas and stadiums around the world.
All of which is to say that Paul McCartney has been at this a really long time, since before some of us were born or, for some of you, perhaps before your parents or even grandparents were born. He’s been a chart and touring presence since the same year color television, action figures, Sharpies and Pop Tarts were introduced.
It’s impossible to break down an entire career in the space I have for these piece and, indeed, I’m going to pretty much restrict this to his time after the Beatles. But I have to acknowledge this before I try– he’s one of the reasons I’ve written anything about music. Those screaming girls when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show? My mom was doing the same thing in her family’s living room in the Midwest that night. And years later, it was her Beatles 45s, along with ones by the Beach Boys and some scattered other artists that were my introduction to music as a child. The first album I ever bought with my own money when I was young was Magical Mystery Tour. Sure, there was also hearing the polka music my maternal grandparents enjoyed, but, well, there’s a reason you’re not reading my work at polkaandwaltzglobe.com.
It was John, Paul, George, Ringo, the Wilsons and, okay, fine, Mike Love, who opened the door for my interest in music, a door that led to places well beyond mop-topped hooks and harmonies influenced by the Four Freshmen to too many types of music to count.
McCartney has remained as a presence, usually welcome, on occasion eliciting a thought of “Oh, no. Why?” But he keeps going.
It would be really easy to coast and do nothing at all, and it could be argued that some of his solo work was dangerously close to that, but he still seems to take delight in creating.
And he can still produce results. His most recent album, 2019’s McCartney III, was a pretty good effort that made my personal Top 30 for the year. And its predecessor — Egypt Station — had its moments, although I certainly wouldn’t include “Fuh You”, a case of cloying faux naughtiness, among them. So of course, that’s the song from that album he’s been playing on the current tour.
Looking back, McCartney’s period with Wings was where some fans started to look askance. The Beatles were gone and not to return (the 1980 murder of John Lennon scuttled any possibility of that happening in the future). And even though the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team had increasingly written their co-compositions apart from each other as the Beatles went on, they still could be each other’s sounding boards in the studio.
The not uncommon thought was that without Lennon, there was a certain edge lacking to what Paul was doing. There were moments where one wished McCartney had, if not Lennon, someone to perform a similar role in Wings or in his solo career. The closest he came was in the sessions with Elvis Costello that resulted in songs like “My Brave Face” and “You Want Her Too” on his 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt and Costello’s Spike hit “Veronica”.
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “My Brave Face”
That said, some of his hits in the period were easy targets. Hearing, say, “Silly Love Songs’ ‘ now, it’s a meta commentary on love songs (starting with the clanking of machinery at the start), a statement in support of that craft. It also has a terrific bass line from him that drives the whole thing, combined with a hooky verse before that chorus.
Not every hit holds up as well. Considering how many outright earworms McCartney and Stevie Wonder created separately, their team-up on “Ebony and Ivory” was a disappointment. It may have spent seven weeks at No. 1, but it proved the road to hell paved with good intentions (racism is indeed bad) can be covered with enough syrup to induce a coma. The video laid on the schmaltz even thicker.
The breakup of the Beatles certainly feels inevitable in retrospect, given how they were growing apart in a management vacuum left by Brian Epstein’s death.
All four had their successes both commercial and artistic (Imagine and All Things Must Pass, to name two albums), but McCartney was the most active throughout the ’70s.
John left his Lost Weekend phase behind to be a stay-at-home husband and dad for the last half of the decade. George kept putting out albums, but stopped touring after a 1974 series of shows where he was burnt out with his voice paying the price. Ringo also didn’t stop recording, but he had plenty of outside interests (including substance abuse) that kept him from touring until he started his All-Starr Band shows in 1989 after gaining sobriety.
Wings mostly limited their shows to the UK and Europe, outside of the Wings Over the World Tour, which brought him to America for the first time in 10 years in 1976.
McCartney did two solo albums — McCartney and Ram, before Wings would do seven more studio albums throughout the ’70s. The constants would be Paul, his wife Linda and former Moody Blue Denny Laine, along with various guitarists and almost enough drummers to be Spinal Tap.
The output varied– the two solo albums and Wings’ Band on the Run and Red Rose Speedway have held up well. And London Town sits as his most underrated of the decade.
Elsewhere, there is wheat to be found among the chaff — the latter including the likes of “Bip Bop”, where a possibly high Paul makes “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” sound like Side 2 of Abbey Road by comparison.
Between that and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, which thankfully didn’t make the cut for Red Rose Speedway, one wonders if there wasn’t a part of him that didn’t want to host a Saturday morning cartoon show (“Hey, kids! It’s the Macca Gang! With Paul! Linda! The Macca Kids! And Bip Bop, the Monkey!”)
Wings At the Speed of Sound had the aforementioned “Silly Love Songs” and the quiet-into-loud build of “Beware My Love.” Beyond Venus and Mars’ hits — “Letting In Go” has been getting deserved hearings from its inclusion in tours over the last decade and “Rock Show” deserves the same.
Back to the Egg’s “Getting Closer” was a catchy rocker.
Wings’ last shows never happened as, gasp!, McCartney was arrested for weed possession in Japan in 1980. It was not a pleasant time, even as ridiculous as it seems for him to be arrested and deported for such a thing now.
That same year, he went solo again for the first time in nine years with the weirdly adventurous, if inconsistent, McCartney II where he apparently had discovered the joy of synthesizers.
As with Wings which, let’s be honest and with all due respect to Laine, were Paul affairs, the run of solo albums starting from 1980 through today has been much the same. Some have held up well, others can be found in the dictionary under “non-essential.”
Tug of War paired him with Beatles producer George Martin again and overcame the inclusion of “Ebony and Ivory” by being a stellar pop record overall from a reinvigorated McCartney. And there’s even a much, much better collaboration with Wonder in the funky “What’s That You’re Doing”.
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Pipes of Peace”
The follow-up, Pipes of Peace, was a solid successor. The collaborations with Costello lift Flowers in the Dirt. Flaming Pie has plenty of moments that showcase his gifts for simple melody. Run Devil Run is the sound of McCartney having a blast with the rock ‘n’ roll of his youth with a terrific-sounding David Gilmour joining in. Driving Rain is a return of the adventurous poppy side of him (albeit without the new wave weirdness of McCartney II.)
He worked with producers who were new to him to positive effect — Nigel Godrich on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, David Kahne on Memory Almost Full and the quartet of Paul Epworth, Ethan Johns, Giles Martin and Mark Ronson on New.
Even on the less essential “Great American Songbook” detour that is kisses on the Bottom, McCartney delivered the lovely original “My Valentine.”
As with Wings, the chaff would make its presence known. Give My Regards to Broad Street is the sound of nobody telling McCartney “No. Bad Paul.” The album, outside of the terrific “No More Lonely Nights,” is full of pointless remakes of songs throughout his career. It’s as if Hitchcock were still alive to do Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of Psycho. And, egads, the Broad Street movie is not a lost ’80s gem.
Unlike that album, McCartney was trying on Off the Ground, but too much of it is weighed down in self-conscious seriousness.
Most of the least essential releases tended to be the various live albums which are fine enough as souvenirs but none of them vault into the ranks of the classics. The best of the bunch is Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), where he has fun dusting off some deep cuts from his solo days back to the Beatles, all the way to some of the rock oldies that shaped him as a youth.
And that’s not getting into his other excursions — five classical albums over the years and three experimental albums with producer Youth as The Fireman. The latter, 2008’s Electric Arguments, traded in most of the ambient sound for a loose rock record that’s underrated in his catalog.
VIDEO: The Fireman “Sing The Changes”
McCartney has been around long enough that he’s spent more time with his current touring band of keyboardist/musical director Wix Wickens, guitarist Rusty Anderson, bassist Brian Ray and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. than he did as a Beatle or a Wing, a chemistry that’s helped the consistency of his more recent material, although ironically the best of the bunch was his one-man band McCartney III. It’s definitely helped his live shows which, it should be pointed out, can still go over 2 1/2 hours. Not bad for someone born the same year as Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Werner Herzog and, um, Mitch McConnell.
If McCartney’s voice has started to reveal the cracks of its age in recent years, the man still is capable of putting on a good show. If there’s a quibble to be had, it’s that the setlists are too reliant on predictable oldies at the expense of deeper cuts and any number of songs from his last 25 years that deserve to be heard live.
How much more will we get from McCartney? Who knows? One gets the feeling that he knows he’s playing with house money. Between the Beatles and his solo career, he’s been on 91 Top 40 singles in the U.S., 62 of them in the Top 10 and 30 of those reaching No. 1. An old pro before he hit 30, he doesn’t have to do this, but he wants to. This is who he is, what he does. He’s a creator.
As long as he’s healthy and capable, I suspect we’ll be getting new music, even if the live shows become less frequent.
Putting on my Ms. Obvious hat here, all those hits and the hidden gems are reminders of who McCartney’s always been at his core — a talented craftsman with a knack for hooks and melody that few can equal. He’s a talented multi-instrumentalist, especially his trademark bass.
Are there moments where one wishes he wouldn’t coast so much on his natural charm? Absolutely.
Does one wish he’d found more collaborators who could push him? Definitely.
Was there ever a need to commit his lesser moments like, say, “Wonderful Christmastime” to tape or Give My Regards to Broad Street to film? Absolutely not.
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime”
If he was no longer as groundbreaking as the Beatles were, well, as former National Lampoon/SNL writer Anne Beatts put it in a book about the latter years ago, “You can only be avant garde so long before you become garde.”
In 2022, McCartney is still out there, knowing that his gifts are a gift. And in a time where we’ve moved well past the classic artists dying in the 27 Club to them dying of old age, his audience knows it, too. Seeing him at 80, performing well, seeing people in the audience with their families of all ages experiencing a good time as much as his audiences did 40 years ago is still a source of joy.
And even with his sometimes maddening inconsistencies over the years, I can’t complain about having someone with his combination of skill, smarts, drive and likeability to be one of my first musical hosts. Nor can I complain about having a mom who basically said, “Here’s something you might like.” She was right.
McCartney’s already left us a long line of musical gifts. As long as he wants to, we still be there for him, even should he be 84 and beyond.
Here’s 80 Songs for 80 Years — a sampler of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles output for his 80th birthday.