The Shapiro Files

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In Defense of Sir Paul

As a lifelong Beatles fan, I frequently obsess over random questions related to the Fab Four. My latest obsession is around Paul McCartney's oft-maligned solo career and how he got such a negative reputation from both critics and many serious rock fans. After all, he's an undisputed virtuoso on the bass--an incredible talent he never seems to get enough credit for. Then on top of that, he's written a wealth of great songs over the past 40 years of his post-Beatles career.

But then I realize the answer is obvious: Songwriting has always come so easy to McCartney that he's never been much of a self-editor. For every "Band on the Run" there's a "Girlfriend" or "Average Person." Plus there were the light-rock radio staples of the 70s and 80s that were more often as not perceived as unadventurous and shallow--although I'd argue that such an interpretation wasn't always fair. Take a song like "My Love." It's undeniably cheesy--especially lyrically. But it was a huge hit for a reason: Its song-craft is impeccable. The arrangement, musicianship, and melodic content all work together in a way as to make the song nearly irresistible. Say what you will about corny McCartney ballads, but you can't deny that the guy knew how to craft together a recording in a way that made it all seem so effortless. So it's no surprise that songs like "My Love" became such big hits. Unfortunately, this success came with consequences--namely that such songs tended to overshadow other facets of McCartney's work. For many people, a song like "My Love" began representing the totality of what McCartney was capable of. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. It's is a good song, but far from his best.

It's well-documented that McCartney never took particularly well to constructive feedback from anyone other than John Lennon and sometimes Beatles producer George Martin. Thus when freed from that type of input, he didn't always have the impetus to push himself beyond the things that came most naturally. It's probably for that reason that his early solo career got off to a particularly rough start. After so many ornate, brilliantly-produced Beatles albums, McCartney's self-titled debut solo album must have been something of a shock to fans and critics alike. It was entirely self-performed--mainly via a home-studio four-track machine (albeit later treated to recording studio overdubs and other touch-ups) with a deliberately "homemade" feel. It was McCartney's way of starting over with a "back to basics" approach. It's an understandable move and even admirable. But so much of the resultant album feels very "throw-away" with its random instrumentals and simplistic lyrics a la "That Would Be Something" or "The Lovely Linda." Yet buried near the end of that album is "Maybe I'm Amazed," one of McCartney's best songs he's ever written. With some proper guidance and nudging, perhaps the album could have a few more "Maybe I'm Amazed"s and fewer "Valentine Day"s.

The McCartney album was followed by Ram, which was McCartney's attempt to return to a properly produced recording. The problem was that the quality of the songwriting varied too widely. The Grammy-award winning "Uncle Albert" was indeed in the same universe as some of his more creative Beatles-era songs, but songs like "Too Many People" or "Smile Away" are both charming, but surprisingly crude. Making matters worse was that the album was amateurishly engineered and mixed. Which is a shame because I've always thought it was perhaps his most underrated album. He's undoubtedly a bit unhinged and could have done with the type of external guidance a George Martin could have provided, but he's definitely adventurous enough. "Back Seat in My Car" is an especially strong song that's only marred by a terrible audio mix and poor recording techniques. It's a shame because with the right production, that song could have easily reached the same heights of some of the best moments on Abbey Road.

After Ram, McCartney formed Wings and the remainder of the 70s consisted of the band's eventual rise to worldwide success (despite numerous personnel changes) and a string of hit singles. During those years, McCartney took the band from being a rough-and-tumble group playing college campuses to a slick and polished professional outfit capable of filling arenas. Throughout it all, McCartney continued to write catchy tunes and produce impeccably crafted recordings. I have no doubt it was all lots of work despite how effortless it all seemed. But it was that effortlessness that was probably the most damaging to McCartney's credibility. Songs like "With a Little Luck" or "Let 'em In" are so breezy and go down so smoothly that it's hard to imagine that either took any labor to create. But it actually takes a relentless pursuit of excellence--no doubt burning out many a Wings member along the way--to create somewhat that sounds so easy.

The 80s proved to be an interesting decade for McCartney, as it both produced his highly-regarded and Grammy-nominated Tug of War album (due in no small part to the fact that it was produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick) and the box-office flop Give My Regards to Broad Street. At least the decade ended off very strong with his excellent Flowers in the Dirt, which marked the beginning of his long road towards some degree of critical acceptance. The last two decades since have been especially strong, with his two most recent studio albums among his very best.

So in the spirit of redeeming Sir Paul, I thought it would be fun to take a look through his entire post-Beatles discography and make a list of the very best tracks from his long career. You probably won't see too many of his bigger hits here, which is probably a good thing. It should probably also go without saying that this is very much a personal list. Talk to another McCartney fan and you'd probably get an entirely different list. But hey, this is my blog, so I get to do whatever I want here.

Classic McCartney

"Maybe I'm Amazed" from McCartney (1970) and Wings Across America (1976)
As classic McCartney as it gets. A beautiful melody, great piano and guitar work (all played by Paul) that would have been very much at home on Abbey Road or The White Album. The 1976 live version is a little slower and has an extended coda, and might be even better than the original studio recording.

"Another Day" (1971 single)
A very Beatles-esque song that tells a nice quiet story of a woman leading a solitary life. A very understated, but no less expertly crafted recording.

"Back Seat of My Car" from Ram (1971)
I love this song, especially the descending chord progression of the "Oh we believe that we can't go wrong" refrain. I just wish it weren't so horribly horribly recorded and mixed. Oh Paul, why didn't you invite Geoff Emerick to engineer this one?

"Little Lamb Dragonfly" from Red Rose Speedway (1973)
Even devout McCartney fans might think I'm crazy for including this one. But I think it's a beautiful song with a perfect melody and arrangement.

"Band on the Run" from Band on the Run (1973)
An obvious choice, but no less an excellent song. Trivia: The drums on this recording are played by Paul himself. The only thing that's always been weird to me in the out-of-tune bass. Given what a famously excellent bass player Paul was, it's hard to imagine how that happened. Still, a great tune.

"Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" from Band on the Run (1973)
A great piano-based rock song that builds to a perfect crescendo.

"Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People" from Venus and Mars (1975)
For anyone who only knows "Listen to What the Man Said" from the Venus and Mars album probably doesn't know that this song represents the second half of that song, as the instrumental interlude that closes that song leads directly to this one. The melancholic turn the melody takes in the "Lonely Old People" section really makes this song a standout for me.

"The Broadcast" from Back to the Egg (1979)
This is a particularly odd track from an album that is better than the reviews make it out to be. "The Broadcast" is an instrumental track played under excerpts from "The Sport of Kings" by Ian Hay and "The Little Man" by John Galsworthy. It's a short and surprisingly moving piece. It's also fairly rare for McCartney to do an instrumental of this nature, as he tends to go all-out classical in his instrumental work. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'd love to hear him try a more contemporary piano-based instrumental full-length composition as well.

"The Pound Is Sinking" from Tug of War (1982)
This is a type of exploratory composition that McCartney has written many times throughout his career. But this time he had George Martin to tastefully shape it into a mini-suite and Geoff Emerick to make it sound lush and full (by 1982 standards at least).

"My Brave Face" from Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
A collaboration with Elvis Costello resulted in this perfect pop confection. Not much else to say other than it's endless listenable and catchy as almost any early Beatles song.

"We Got Married" from Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
The darkest tribute to marriage that I can think of. I think it's a positive lyric, but the music is so heavy that it creates a wonderful dissonance between theme and execution. I love Dave Gilmore's great guitar work on this track.

"Beautiful Night" from Flaming Pie (1997)
A great highlight from an album full of highlights. Classic McCartney piano ballad, plus Ringo on the drums and a George Martin orchestra arrangement. A real return to form.

"No Other Baby" from Run Devil Run (1999)
An almost shockingly cathartic moment of raw expression delivered via an oldie from McCartney's youth. Run Devil Run was McCartney's first album release after Linda's passing and the whole album feels like a soul-scorching expression of angst under the guise of a seemingly jubilant album of rock and roll covers. There's something so stark about McCartney's vocals on this track that it might very well be the most emotionally honest thing he has every released commercially.

"She's Given Up Talking" from Driving Rain (2001)
For anyone who knows Driving Rain, this is probably a surprising choice from an album that also has both the excellent "Your Loving Flame" and Beatles-esque "Heather." But there's something so arresting about this song's minimal lyric and creative production that makes this a standout track for me.

"English Tea" from Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
The whole Chaos and Creation album is among McCartney's very best releases, so you can pretty much pick out any track on the album as representing the strength of the entire thing. But as a lifelong Beatles fan, I can't resist this throwback to "For No One" from nearly 40 years earlier.

"The End of the End" from Memory Almost Full (2007)
McCartney has never been one to lay his soul bare in his work like his former collaborator John Lennon did. Rather, he liked hiding behind "silly love songs," bucolic topics, and light social commentary. So this song is particularly striking in its directness about his life and mortality. I guess it shouldn't be too surprising given some of the huge personal blows he endured over the years with the passing of Lennon, George Harrison, and his beloved wife Linda. These events have turned the charmingly elusive McCartney of the past into a more introspective songwriter. As as a result, "The End of the End" has a poignancy that's rare for McCartney and which makes it one of his best compositions yet.


Here are a bunch of other favorites that almost made the list:
  • "Junk" and "Every Night" from McCartney (1970)
  • "Dear Boy" and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" from Ram (1971)
  • "Tomorrow" and "Dear Friend" from Wild Life (1971)
  • "Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me) from Band on the Run (1973)
  • "Call Me Back Again" from Venus and Mars (1975)
  • "Let 'Em In" and "Beware My Love" from Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976)
  • "London Town" and With a Little Luck" from London Town (1978)
  • "Getting Closer" and "Arrow Through Me" from Back to the Egg (1979)
  • "Coming Up" (Live) from McCartney II (1980) [as an "bonus" 45RPM single in the original LP and now a CD bonus track]
  • "Tug of War" and "Take it Away" from Tug of War (1982)
  • "The Other Me" and "Keep Under Cover" from Pipes of Peace (1983)
  • "Stranglehold" and "Only Love Remains" from Press to Play (1986)
  • Every song on Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
  • "Summertime" from CHOBA B CCCP (released 1991, recorded in 1987)
  • "Winedark Open Sea" and "C'mon People" from Off the Ground (1993)
  • "The Song We Were Singing," "Somedays," "Calico Skies," Flaming Pie," and "Little Willow" from Flaming Pie (1997)
  • "Lonely Road," "From a Lover to a Friend," "Heather," and "Your Loving Flame" from Driving Rain (2001)
  • Every song on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
  • Every song on Memory Almost Full (2007)


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