In honor of Paul McCartney’s 76th birthday today, Rian Murphy takes a look back at Paul’s legendary career. All of us at PKM wish Sir Paul many happy returns!
Happy birthday, Paul McCartney! It’s 76 big ones for you, old son – and I figure you have many more happy returns coming to you. No upside in dying anytime soon! Then you wouldn’t get to bury Ringo – and you can’t really rest until you’re the last Beatle standing. Probably wanna see Dylan off as well. And maybe Jagger? That might be tough, though – he seems to be playing the same long game as you are. But really, what use will it be to tell that story of yours one last time unless there’s nobody who was actually there left to object? Live and let die, as the song goes.
In addition to the being the richest man in rock and god knows whatever else, you’re proving to be one of the masters of time as well – living long beyond the destiny promised by your cherubic younger self back when you four lads from Liverpool saved America from terminal post-Kennedy depression, then led the world through a generational shift that only a decade like the 1960s could offer (apparently) (God damn it)! Here today, in a world you once made that’s now tilting away, in other directions, you’re still living the rock star life, even if there’s no rock and roll world anymore to live it in.
You’re the Frank Sinatra of your class. Like him, you did it your way. But what is your “My Way”? Is it “Yesterday”? “Let It Be”? “The Long and Winding Road” might sum it up best after all these years. You just better hope it’s not “Silly Love Songs”.
Don’t get up in a bundle over this, Paul McCartney – yes, I’m taking the piss here! You can’t help getting older and you probably can’t help feeling oddly dislocated by the thing; I know I do, and I’m 25 years younger than you. Where did the time go? It was 41 years of my life ago that I made what was maybe my first LP purchase, a copy of Ram; even as far back as all that was, I probably feel closer to that kid than an adult of 50 (going on 51 in just a fortnight!) ought to feel. I’m figuring you feel the same way. How’s 76 supposed to feel, anyway? Other than like a somewhat modified 30-something?
Still, the world around you has changed. When you came into the game, it was all about getting a hit single – and from the very start, you had hit singles, from 1962 through to the mid-80s, when you had your last number 1. And sure, the charts today are still full of hit singles – but other than that passing resemblance, those charts are hardly the same destination you were aiming for. Even your collaborative effort with Rihanna and Kanye West (and seven other co-writers and producers – SEVEN!), while successful, doesn’t quite represent how CHANGED everything in music is now.
And honestly, the record that you set with that last one – 28 years between top-ten singles – just shows me what a strong ego you have. Every time you made a record in those 28 years between top-ten hits, you had a feeling that you knew what people would be into, and tried to give it to them. And sure, people generally liked your music enough to push the new records up the charts for a week or two, but they didn’t buy them in numbers enough to meet the bar of success you’d known since the early days. Yet, you still tried – and still do – and when something like “FourFiveSeconds” happens, I’ll bet it makes it all worth the effort.
No foolin’ – I honestly admire what a determined sense of self-worth that displays! Not just to have to spend the rest of your life from the time you’re 28 being compared to The Beatles and their ironclad position in pop music history as hit-making agents of change with regard to everything musically and culturally about their era (when of course, they actually had a little help from their friends on that count)! But then from the time that you slipped off the singles charts, to exist in the shadow of your former hit-making self as well – and to stay productive and optimistic that your work as an older person will, against the odds and rules of gravity of the Billboard charts, appeal to the greatest number of people. Because of who you are! That takes some stones.
But how does it feel when you’ve put time, thought, energy and observation into your new records – when, in the golden age of your solo career, you succeeded by making records ostensibly about NOTHING – yet go unnoticed despite singing more deeply about your life or the world, making more complete productions then you did then? Instead, you continue to be compared to the works of your younger self – the one who led the glitzy-yet-ultimately-rather-meaningless charge behind big chart records like Red Rose Speedway, a record so misguidedly vacuous that you yourself have declined to have it reissued as part of your latter-day roll out! Instead, you focus MPL’s recent energies on regurgitating a greatest hits compilation – 1979’s Wings’ Greatest – as if previous comps like All the Best or Wingspan or Pure McCartney (from just three years ago) didn’t have all that already!
This is really where you break my heart a little bit, because I can see that despite the amazing run you’ve had, you’d rather not dwell on the things that didn’t work (except, apparently, for McCartney II). It implies to me that there’s a limit to the hubristic pride, and that’s when it seems like you could be anybody, not simply the deity whose skin you wear so comfortably. What does it matter what anybody thinks? You’re so sensitive, Paul McCartney.
You know what it’s like to be indulgently crazy! I still marvel at how high you must have been in 1971, when you not only mixed Ram (and what wacked-out mix it was! One of my favorites of yours) twice, in stereo and then, strictly for promotion, in then-obsolete mono, which you then found necessary to reissue 41 years later (and thanks for that, I picked up the vinyl on Record Store Day in 2012 and it is a delight) but then, following the release of the album (which, as I know you recall, was greeted fairly ubiquitously with critical catcalls), to hire an arranger and a studio full of session players to make a really ODD instrumental version, which you then sat on for six years before releasing it with a Hypnosis-designed cover (that can’t have been cheap) under the pseudonym Percy Thillington, all the while not admitting your own role in it for well over a decade? For that matter, how high are you today, now that you’ve arranged for that album to be reissued? I mean, I’m gonna buy it – the original vinyl’s been too expensive forever, and while I love my CD, I gotta have this monstrosity on vinyl!
Honestly, Paul McCartney – if you keep reading this, you’re gonna find that I number among the MOST sympathetic listeners to your music – and I know there are plenty of Red Rose Speedway-heads out there (I am more inclined to spin Wild Life, London Town or Flowers In the Dirt for a hit of classic-but-not-quite-there McCartneydom), I know there’s some folks who’ve had their “Secret Friend” 12” records since they were dirt-cheap, or even folks who number Kisses On the Bottom among their favorite pop-stars-do-American-Songbook records (I do not, and not simply because I refuse to write such a list). But hey, Paul McCartney, I’ve been buying your records since 1976, and I think that Ram and Band on the Run are not only a couple of your best, but I also number 2005’s Chaos and Creation In the Backyard (the album, not the title) and 2007’s Memory Almost Full up there with them. Plus, I love Venus and Mars – and that’s a pretty silly record, even you have to admit.
This year, if you can, consider a resolution to keep your own counsel. It’s tough that over the years, you’ve felt you had to argue with regard to your contribution and influence in the Fabs. Don’t lower yourself! Anyone who listens to the Harrison and Lennon solo records can clearly hear guys who aren’t really interested in bending and shaping sounds anymore (unless out of reference or nostalgia), fellows who would rather just sing their numbers with a straightforward rock arrangement and professional backing. To listen to yours, with the kaleidoscopic eclecticism – and hear the fascination with arrangement, studio-as-instrument, album as concept, with link-pieces and call-backs – We may get annoyed with it sometimes, sure, we know that’s all you! George Harrison may have been the one who first bought a Moog, but you’re the one who’s actually used synths to great effect ever since then! You get that credit from us. And kudos! But humans are fickle, Paul McCartney, you have to understand, we’re prone to heaving our brickbats at the big personalities of the day.
This actually might be what I get the most out of when I listen to Chaos and Creation In the Backyard. You put it out when you were 63, long after there was anything to prove, and really, some time after I had last expected you to knock me out again. Yet when I heard it, I was blown away! I felt communicated with on an uncommon level, as I heard you lay yourself open in a variety of difficult moods. It’s the fragile, often dour moments, supported by the myriad familiar and pleasing aspects of your musicality, that create this incredibly vulnerable portrait. The bitter, hermetic, yet needy “Friends To Go”, that fills almost comically with arrangement elements the longer you claim that you want your partner’s friends to leave! In “Too Much Rain”, the sympathy and stoicism of the lyrics and mournful, keening melody lain against minor chords – truly elevated stuff! With “English Tea”, you take that music-hall style that everybody’s wanted to kill you for indulging in, and find something in it that’s new and real, personal, yet still whimsical.
Then the album turns into something even more personal. Whether or not it was intended to, if feels like it is addressing a relationship in crisis, with sudden moments of discordance and mawkishness – almost an OkCupid vibe, as if you’re offering yourself as an attractive partner, hopefully listing your traits and looking for a match. In a pure example of 60s-70s singer/songwriter soul, the songs here have been written to speak specifically to someone, then shared with everyone, and the impact, coming decades after that time had passed, is deeply moving. Musically, I’m reminded a bit of Abbey Road, where you trotted out everything that you had for tunes and production, in an effort to elide the vibes of breakup that were exploding all around you. Looking back, you knew it was almost over – but you tried anyway. And it didn’t save the relationship – but what an album!
It’s almost like you wanted to get Memory Almost Full out fast, just a mere two years, so that you could move on from the difficult aspects of Chaos and Creation – like you wouldn’t have wanted to end things with Chaos and Creation, so you hurried up with the next one – and it was another good one. I liked New too, though sometimes the modernity of the production seems a bit brittle. And now you’ve got a new new one. Congratulations! It’s not just more music – you’re winning out over old father time as well.
I heard you playing in the supermarket the other day, Paul McCartney. Your bass part resonated through the barn-like interior of the Whole Foods 365 Market in Silverlake whether we were listening or not; part of a playlist unfurling a fabric of musical wallpaper, with elements of our shared history replayed to ease us in our tasks, an aural comfort food offering. The song, as so many of the biggies are for you now, was recorded 50 years ago, and while it wasn’t one of the Beatles greatest hits, it didn’t matter – “Hey Bulldog” is a unique thing no matter where it plays, and sounds almost perverse, really, in the grocery story aisle in a way that John Lennon would certainly appreciate.
Later in the day, I heard a version of “I Thought About You” on the radio; it was a new version, but it struck me that those old Great American Songbook songs and your Beatles’ numbers are closer together in time than that Beatles stuff is to today. All that music is now a part of our past, not recognizably about the future. So be it! They still play you all over the world, echoing through all kinds of rooms and halls and malls where everybody or nobody might be listening. You are canon in our 21st-century culture, which means that no matter what you do today, the giant steps in your past are in the book. But at this point the horizon is beckoning, Paul McCartney – and whatever mixed feelings you may have about it, you’re going over the rim in absolute style, Happy Birthday, old son!
As you get farther along, your albums have become more serious, almost embarrassingly so, but they’ve come to it honestly. There’s nothing that’ll really reduce your god-like aura – no easily-avoidable Heather Mills fiasco, no Give My Regards to Broad Street, not even your recent bat-wielding domestic disturbance with your noisy neighbors in Suffolk (though honestly, if I had as many houses as you do, I might just move to a different one when the construction guys at your chosen nest take too long with their job) – and I know I’m not alone. You’re only as good as your worst, and it’s all worth something to someone among us – some poor “Eleanor Rigby”/”Another Day” type who needs and deserves the comfort of the music. It reminds us that there are precious few days left for all of us. And wait a minute – maybe your “My Way” is “Getting Better”, even after all these years! It’s a good slogan for any new album campaign. Enjoy your day, Paul McCartney! I’m not really worried about you.
I think 76 is gonna suit you just fine.