Jun 23, 2012
A reconsideration of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career as he turns 70.
John was always my Beatle. From the day in 1964 that my father took me, aged six, to see A Hard Day’s Night, I knew exactly who John Lennon was, could always recognise his voice and intent. His wild imagination, bitter wit and mad idealism became a beacon on my journey to adulthood.
Of course, Paul had his followers, too, but they were a different breed, seduced by sweet melodies and doe-eyed looks rather than a wild will to reinvent the world. It wasn’t until after the Beatles had ended and my musical interests expanded that it occurred to me John was greatly diminished without Paul.
McCartney’s post-Beatle records had been light and fluffy, lacking the gravity of the Beatles’ best, but I had expected that. What I hadn’t imagined was that after the primal howl of Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s solo debut, as monochrome as Sgt Pepper’s was multicoloured and as much of a masterpiece – I would become bored. Albums like Mind Games and Some Time in New York City plodded through platitudes in search of a memorable tune. For the final five years of his life, Lennon virtually gave up making music altogether.
McCartney, on the other hand, was never deserted by the muse, although he was sometimes deserted by his better judgment. Electronica, oratorios, ballets and ballads – music flowed from him, good, bad and indifferent, like a tap he couldn’t turn off. His albums were cheerfully packed with ephemera: song sketches that would have gained substance from a few lines of Lennon; pop production numbers that seemed to have no purpose beyond their sunny melodies and undeniable craftsmanship.
Now it was blindingly clear to me that Lennon and McCartney were both at their best when they had each other to impress or improve. But they were denied the chance to ever collaborate again when John was murdered in 1980. McCartney’s 70th birthday this month is being marked with the reissue of Ram, the 1971 set for which he shares credit with his first wife, Linda. It is one of his more consistent offerings. The cascading melodies of Dear Boy, joyful rock’n’rollings of Smile Away and goofy blues of 3 Legs have lasted well. Far better, though, is the album that exists only in my mind, comprising my own favourite Macca moments. Some selections are obvious. Who would dispute that Maybe I’m Amazed from 1970’s McCartney is as soulful as anything the Beatles ever recorded, or that the angular, minimalist Let Me Roll It from Band On The Run probably made John jealous?
But the best ones are more recent, as though the perpetually youthful popsmith has quietly, almost imperceptibly, matured. Somedays, from 1997’s Flaming Pie, is as deep a love song as any of John’s odes to Yoko. It had already registered its loveliness before I realised McCartney must have written the song knowing Linda was dying; then its gentle beauty became heartbreaking. It’s certainly not a silly love song, and nor is the exquisite Calico Skies from the same album, or Jenny Wren, a sort of companion piece to the Beatles’ Blackbird, from 2005’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard.
But there are great grungy rockers, too: Nothing Too Much, Just Out of Sight from Electric Arguments (one of several almost-indie discs he has made under the low-key alias the Fireman) would not be out of place on a Jack White record. I sometimes wonder how such songs might have sounded in the context of a Beatles album, what they might have inspired in Lennon, and what else Lennon might in turn have brought out of McCartney. But that’s all fantasy. These moments, on the other hand, are what we’ve got. And as time goes by, I value them more and more.