In 1970, Macca bid adieu to The Beatles to enjoy the spoils of DIY home recording
Paul McCartney’s solo debut, McCartney, has always been overshadowed by its release being tied to McCartney’s announcement that he was leaving the Beatles.
John Lennon might have told his bandmates that the group was finished in September 1969. But in public, the individual members were careful to issue a series of vague non-denials when asked about the future of the band.
But now, at the start of the new decade, the gloves were off. Review copies of the album were accompanied by a specially prepared Q&A that addressed the matter bluntly. “Are you planning a new album or single with The Beatles?” “No.” “Do you foresee a time when Lennon/McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?” “No.” Though McCartney still hedged in places (asked if his break with the Beatles was temporary or permanent, he states “I don’t know”), it was enough for the newspapers to run with. The Daily Mirror’s front page headline, “Paul Is quitting The Beatles,” was typical.
It set McCartney up to be a grand statement of independence. But reviews at the time were mixed; critics were underwhelmed by a record that largely seemed to be made up of random odds and ends. “The best and worst of an extraordinary talent” (Richard Williams, Melody Maker); “Almost a betrayal of all the things we’ve come to expect” (Penny Valentine, Disc & Music Echo). In 1975, authors Roy Carr and Tony Tyler suggested in The Beatles: An Illustrated Record that album had aged well: “Hindsight reveals its charms.” But such generosity was thin on the ground in the spring of 1970.
In truth, it’s still something of a grab bag. McCartney had worked swiftly, first recording at home on a Studer 4-track in late 1969, then moving to professional studios in the new year for overdubbing and mixing. The opening track, “The Lovely Linda,” is in fact the first number he recorded for the project, a 46-second fragment made to test the Studer, with McCartney on acoustic guitars, bass, “percussion” (slapping a book in time), and vocals (aside from some vocal contributions from wife Linda, no one else appears on the album). It’s a pretty little piece, but too fleeting to make much of an impression. That’s true of a number of tracks, that seem like rough drafts for songs waiting to be fleshed out. Such as “That Would Be Something,” which has a catchy hook that could’ve been developed into the kind of mellow rock number you can imagine Wings doing.
You could say the same of “Valentine Day,” “Oo You,” “Momma Miss America,” and “Hot As Sun”/“Glasses,” all instrumentals or song fragments that remain incomplete (though “Hot As Sun” has some additional interest for McCartney aficionados, as it dates back to the late 1950s, when the Beatles were still known as the Quarrymen). These are the pieces that made the critics (and others) scratch their heads; why was the man responsible for the superb craftsmanship of Abbey Road releasing a record of such trifles?
These interludes were mixed in with more fully formed songs that give a clearer picture of where McCartney’s head was at. “Teddy Boy,” which the Beatles half-heartedly worked on during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, is a self-conscious retread of “Rocky Raccoon.” But the other songs offer a rare look at McCartney’s more vulnerable side. McCartney has since spoken about sinking into a depression at the time of the Beatles’ split, not wanting to do more than drink too much and stay in bed. That’s exactly the situation he recounts in the pensive “Every Night,” though he gives the scenario a positive ending by ultimately finding solace in the companionship of his wife.
“Junk” is a wistful piece, a nostalgic trawl through a trunk in the attic. Beatles biographer Hunter Davies recalled how McCartney liked sing the song to others, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, noting that “jubilee” was an especially nice word to sing (there’s also an instrumental, “Singalong Junk,” if you want to try singing it yourself). The title of “Man, We Was Lonely” speaks for itself. It features the most prominent harmonies from Linda, and would’ve fit nicely on McCartney’s next album, Ram (or in an early Wings setlist).
The standout track is, of course, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a classic track that serves as one of McCartney’s best solo works. This isn’t one of his silly love songs. There’s a poignant mix of desperation and wonderment in his voice as he sings “Maybe I’m a lonely man/who’s in the middle of something/that he doesn’t really understand,” fear and longing intertwined. It’s a powerful statement of emotional surrender, especially coming from a man who’s maintained such careful control over his own life. But here he succumbs to the pleasures of letting go (to a point, at least; note the qualifier “maybe” in the title).
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Maybe I’m Amazed”
After that emotional workout, “Kreen-Akrore,” an instrumental inspired by a TV show McCartney watched about the Brazilian tribe of the same name, is something of a let down, though it does give you a chance to catch your breath. But as the album’s final track, it also adds to the record’s overall improvisational feel.
If this album had come out later in McCartney’s career, it would have likely been regarded as a fascinating look at his creative process. Instead, at the time it was seen as something of a misstep, and a surprising one, from this most detail-oriented of artists.
But from another perspective, it can also be seen as an exercise in bravery. This is Paul McCartney, stripped bare and mostly alone, feeling his way, working without a map as he seeks to establish himself as a solo artist — and not afraid to run the risk of making his mistakes in public. That’s why, as flawed as it is, McCartney is still an album you find yourself returning to, taking a second look.