The biggest problem Paul McCartney has with his career is that he lived.
The comparisons with John Lennon are so highly coloured by Lennon’s early death that McCartney is mocked just for surviving.
Here’s the accepted wisdom: Lennon was the soul of The Beatles; the tough rocker; the genius with words; the psychedelic heart of the more experimental days.
Now here’s the truth: Paul McCartney wrote, undoubtedly, some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.
Alongside his more sentimental songs, he wrote songs that made your parents sweat – Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, Helter Skelter.
And it was McCartney who was ‘underground’, who stayed in London and mixed with the cultural avant garde while the other three Beatles retired to their Surrey mansions.
Sgt Pepper was entirely his vision.
He was also the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singer Britain ever produced. Listen to his version of Long Tall Sally, or I’m Down, the b-side of Help.
On the other hand, if you think John Lennon was incapable of sentimental pap, you clearly haven’t registered that he wrote Goodnight, specifically for Ringo to sing. It has to be the single most saccharine song the Beatles ever recorded, with the possible exception of ‘Til There Was You, which they didn’t write, so I’m not counting it.
For every Lennon rocker, I’ll give you a Macca roller. For every Lennon gem, I’ll give you a McCartney diamond. For every genuine Lennon-McCartney classic, I’ll just give thanks.
This whole ‘Lennon the genius’ vs ‘McCartney the crass’ argument is such arrant bollocks. When you say ‘crass’ or ‘sentimental’ or simply ‘rubbish’ are we talking about the same man who wrote Penny Lane, Yesterday, Fool On The Hill, Blackbird, Hey Jude, Let It Be, I’ve Got A Feeling, We Can Work It Out, Drive My Car, Get Back, Here There & Everywhere?
It’s often forgotten that McCartney, having been in the biggest band the world has ever known, followed it up by forming – erm – the biggest band in the world. Again.
Wings were HUGE. For a generation born too late, Wings IS Paul McCartney.
You might say, well John never had the chance. But he did. By the time John was murdered, Wings had been on the road for nearly 10 years.
John Lennon made, for me, two stupendous albums – Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. Which is not to forget the wonderful Rock’n’Roll – an album beset by Phil Spector’s increasing paranoia and John’s legal problems over Come Together. (His early mantra, ‘If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best’, came back to haunt him).
But it was an album of covers, John’s last album until Double Fantasy in 1980. So it seemed, at the time, a last lazy throw of the dice by an artist who had run out of steam.
And it’s forgotten, at this late stage, that Double Fantasy was seen on release as corny, sentimental and just not a fitting comeback for the onetime Picasso of Pop. The first single, Starting Over, struggled to number 8 in the UK top 10. A week later it had dropped down to 21. In America it peaked at number six.
And then John was shot, and all critical and commercial bets were off.
Now Starting Over was a tragic swansong for a cultural hero, and the album – even Yoko’s bits – was seen in hindsight as a post-modern expression of domestic bliss and parental devotion. And history was rewritten in the blink of a bullet.
So let’s remember some other incongruities: There was a brief period post-Beatles when Ringo Starr had the most successful solo career. What! Really?
And George Harrison did more, all at once, with All Things Must Pass than the other three combined. He also had the first post-Beatles number one with My Sweet Lord.
None of which, of course, addresses the question of quality. McCartney had the first number one album (in America) post-Beatles with McCartney. Now there’s an underrated piece of work. Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night, Man We Was Lonely. The final track, Kreen Akrore, is the sound of a man still stretching himself, experimenting, seeing where things will go rather than pushing them. It’s not entirely successful, but that’s not the point.
The follow up, Ram, is still an incredible piece of work. Without even listening carefully, you’ll hear The Beach Boys, rock’n’roll, The Beatles (showing how much McCartney shaped the later sound of the Fabs) and, for those looking for a darker side, a little biting satire. Too Many People is a message to John which is a lot subtler than John’s own How Do You Sleep – where he tells Paul, “The only thing you done was Yesterday”.
Nearly 30 years later, well into phase two of his solo career (post-Wings) he was beset by poor reviews and the burgeoning view that he was nothing without Lennon. Mull Of Kintyre and The Frog Song became emblematic of a man derided as having his eye only on the crass and commercial.
Well, I’ll tell you something about The Frog Song. It’s a very sophisticated piece of work. My guess is that most average musicians couldn’t even pick out the chord sequences. I’m not a fan of the record, but I’m an admirer of the talent it required.
And then, in the middle of this miasma, and nearly 30 years after the Beatles split, he released Flaming Pie – an album my youngest daughter picked up on, unbidden by me, and became in her own right a bona fide Macca fan. She’s 23 this year.
It’s too much to ask that everyone take the time to re-evaluate McCartney’s later career. But I’m telling you now: when he dies, you’ll wish you’d listened to Flaming Pie. Even now, Little Willow – written for Ringo Starr’s first wife, who died of cancer – will make you cry.
And you’ll also realise you should have listened to bits of Chaos & Creation In the Backyard, and to most of Memory Almost Full. Even New, his most recent solo album (2013), has songs to warm the heart of Beatles fans. But it also contains tracks any writer would be proud to have created.
So, can we buck the trend, and appreciate McCartney’s continuing ability while he’s still alive?
Or do we have to wait till he kicks it?