Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"WHEN HE'S 72": Paulie's Birthday Repost

 (This post originally appeared on 6/18/11. )

Somewhere in cyberspace is a nasty review of "Chaos & Creation In The Backyard," Paul McCartney's 2005, Grammy nominated release.  I know it's out there because I wrote it. It's taken some years, as well as some good-natured pressure from friends, but I'd like to say on Paul's birthday, I think "Chaos & Creation" is a work of art. I'm saying "Uncle." Thank you friends. Thank you Paul.

I'm not sure what this says about me. Had I been hoping for another "McCartney" or "Ram?" If so, "Chaos" is the closest thing to either of those wonderful early solo releases. What wasn't I hearing at the time? Was I angry with Paul? Was I still not over "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reggae?"

This unfair dismissal of McCartney's solo work is not uncommon. My feeling though, is that most will not go back as I did. Most are satisfied with remembering "Silly Love Songs" for its relentless chorus of "I love yous" and not the beautifully layered production or killer horn arrangement.

I'd like to hand the floor over to my friend Peter Carlin. I've put together a mix for Sir Paul's birthday, and Peter immediately came to mind. I'm grateful he accepted my invitation to say a few words.

If any of the great songwriters of the rock era is a genius, then Paul McCartney is one, too.

I know, I know. 

So many half-baked albums. So many cutesy, bubble-headed exercises in What The Hell? Consider, for instance, “With a Little Luck.” Or, for the love of Jeebus, “Ebony and Ivory.” 

But that’s part of what makes the man such a fascinating artist. 

Because he also wrote “For No One.” And “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Because he really was the most sonically daring Beatle. Tape loops? That’s Paul. The orchestral orgasms in “Day in the Life”? Paul again. So you think he's a pop-happy goofball? Let’s talk about “Helter Skelter.” Or the searing guitar solos on “Taxman” and “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Or, c'mon, his blistering performance on "Long Tall Sally." That's a hurricane in a bottle, right there. 1:58 of complete fucking chaos.

I could (and often do) go on at length about the great paradox at the heart of Paul’s muse. The competing strands of old world showmanship he learned from his father (the leader of Jim Mac’s Band back in the ‘20s) and the world-ending grief he suffered when his mother died in 1956. That’s what did it. The terrible emptiness Mary McCartney left in her 14-year-old son. So he picked up his guitar and held on for dear life. Filling the emptiness with music. Turning his back on death to create the sound of life, light and, everywhere he went, a sizzling party. And guess what? That's John Lennon (and the Beatles too: : Grief refracted into the very essence of life and beauty.

Your mission -- now simplified by Sal’s labors in creating this 20-song playlist -- is to forget everything you think you know, and listen to Paul’s post-Beatle works with a truly independent ear. You’ll find plenty of bummers, for sure. I know them all, and cringe every time I hear them again. But if you don't press on you’re cheating yourself.

Download Sal’s list. Listen to it. No, really listen to it. I swear you’ll be surprised. Who knew that “Spin It On,” from the (supposedly) awful final Wings album “Back to the Egg” could rock as fast and hard as the Clash? And while the Elvis Costello collaborations (heard here in the spectacular “Back on my Feet,” a 1987 b-side to the only sort of listenable “Once Upon a Long Ago, and the duet "You Want Her Too") are truly wonderful, Paul didn’t need a Lennonesque chaperon to goad him to the far edges of his imagination.  

Check out the later albums, and listen for the often-surreal character studies. Here you’ve got the sweetly satirical “English Tea” lampooning Paul’s own strawberries and cream persona. (“A little twee/a little me...”) Then it gets weirder. “She’s Given Up Talking,” describing the odd habits of a schoolyard outcast. And, one of my favorites, “Mr. Bellamy,” in which the secretly misanthropic Paul projects his bitterness into the titular Mr B, whose attempts at solitude are undermined by reassuring, yet soul-killing assistants. 

More and more. The pitch-perfect Brian Wilson homage of 1971’s “Back Seat of My Car.” The bittersweet tribute to the fallen Lennon (“Here Today,” in which the very real tides of love, resentment, grief and outrage other words: welcome to Paul’s innermost consciousness). Also, the soaring loveliness of “On the Wings of a Nightingale” (composed for the reunited Everly Brothers in the mid-80s, and just as lovely here in Paul’s demo) and “Little Willow,” the clear-eyed portrait of maternal loss he wrote for Ringo’s kids when their mother was dying of cancer, and released in the midst of his beloved Linda McCartney’s struggle with breast cancer. 

The disease that killed his mother. That, within a year, would also kill his wife. You can hear it in his voice. The shadow is everywhere.

So you see that, even despite Paul’s own wink-and-thumbs-up public face, he and his music are far more complicated than they might appear. Listen closely and you’ll be surprised. Charmed in places, disturbed in others and, just maybe, overjoyed to realize how wrong groupthink can be. 

Sal put this list together. Now it’s ours, for free. Listen, and discuss.


Spin It On
English Tea
You Want Her Too
I'm Carrying
Mr. Bellamy
Back On My Feet
Little Willow
Little Lamb Dragonfly
Jenny Wren
Yvonne's The One
Back Seat Of My Car
She's Given Up Talking
What It Is
Here Today
For No One
Winter Rose/Love Awake
On The Wings Of A Nightingale
One After 909


Peter...thank you.

Please check out Peter Carlin's book "Paul McCartney: A Life" at the link below.


Anonymous said...

just diving in, but this already sounds like a well-made case. thanks, sal. thanks, peter.

Leon said...

I'm accustomed to having to make the same claims for Paul's greatness... crazy. I wear my Paul hat of fanship proudly.

I think of "Ebony And Ivory" as a splatter of paint on the wall that didn't work (although have you ever heard his solo piano demo of it? surprisingly cool!)... who cares? In the end, I'm more lifted by the heights Paul has scaled than the depths he's plumbed.

Your mix (downloading now) looks cool because it includes some of my fave Paul solo songs (Spin It On and the amazing I'm Carrying) but has a whole bunch that even I, ardent collector, have never heard.

Perhaps the two big omissions here for me are the lack of "Some People Never Know" (my favorite Paul solo song) and "Put It There," as well as much from his last few albums. I think "Driving Rain" is at least half of a great, great record.

Anything Should Happen said...

I put three albums on the ipod last night for the journey to and from work today.

Have to say, I still feel the same.

Of course it's all personal taste and your heroes can't be innovative for life, but it still seems so mundane.

Shriner said...

A song like "The End of the End" of his last album shows me how much he still has it. When I first heard it, I honestly couldn't believe he wrote a song about his mortality like that.

I would agree there's probably still more chaff than wheat in his entire solo output (I relistened to my copy of "McCartney" this week and realized that apart from the few really good songs, it's mostly dull noodling, really....)

No "Wanderlust"? Probably one of my favorite solo Paul songs. I smell a second volume of a mix down the road...

Rushbo said...

Every Macca album has at least one classic tune, so you can never write him off. The frustrating thing with him is that there seems to be no quality control and that real lack-lustre stuff gets rubbed up against the odd gem.

As Don said,"your heroes can't be innovative for life" and PMs had more innovative moments than most. And as for 'mundane' - one of his gifts was making the ordinary seem extraordinary, ie 'She's Leaving Home', 'Penny Lane' and (ulp) 'Another Day' (which I love BTW).

Fascinating mixtape too. It's nice to see some love for 'Back To The Egg'. Any best of Macca/Wings which omits 'Old Siam Sir' is risible.

Peter Ames Carlin said...

Why does "Another Day" have such a wack reputation? I know John L slammed it in '71 when he and Paul were battling it out in the media, but as quickly as he wrote and reveled in the savagery of "How Do You Sleep" (...the only thing you done was yesterday/And now you've gone your just another day...) he disowned it entirely, saying it was more about himself than anything else. Tho I'm sure he contradicted that statement an hour later, too.

The real irony in the whole story is that Lennon, for all his grand "Woman is the Nigger of the World" pronouncements, never quite expressed much empathy for small-w-women. Which is to say, the actual XX creatures who live alongside the bully boys.

Which brings us to "Another Day." Dismissed inexplicably as another illustration of Paul's bourgeois lameitude, that's both inaccurate and (I think) a kind of retrograde sexist perspective.

Because the song is basically "Eleanor Rigby," only set in New York, where a working woman's isolated life edges toward complete desolation. The days blur together; human connections fade. The office itself becomes a spiritual void, a place "where the papers grow" and it's all can she do to keep her eyes open.

I don't think there's anything mindlessly bourgeois about that song. It also has great/unexpected chord changes, a lovely melody and, for the love of God, listen to the bass line. Day-umm.

vanwoert said...

I also love "Another Day" for almost the same reasons. My favorite non-hit single not on your list is "Letting Go" and Sal,thanks for including "Back on my Feet"(great song!)

Anonymous said...

wow. thanks for this. the bad reviews have always scared me away from solo paul, so this is a most welcome intro to it. thanks for doing the hard yards I was too lazy to attempt. looking forward to hearing this.

big bad wolf said...

here's what i am convinced of: my life would be poorer without sal and peter in it. i am not convinced bu their arguments for paul, but i am a criminal defense attorney and thus am used to finding my way through the true yet not entirely convincing. there is much that is great in paul's solo career and i think that sal and paul lay that out. there is much in paul's work that is disappointing to just plain bad. i wish that were different. it isn't. still, we live in a world in which we can pick and listen to the high spots of someone's work (if only i could apply that to my own work! not that it has anything resembling paul's high spots) and, in that world, sal and peter rightly point us to many wonderful songs, any one of which would have been a high point for most lives. for paul, however, the hard truth is that he was "scattered among a hundred cities/and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections" at a very young age. that has left him judged mostly for his mishaps and not quites and made his many small and large wonderfuls harder to see.

another day is, as peter says, a great song. john was a harsh man in many ways. it never ceases to surprise me how gently his weakenesses and uglinesses are pardoned. really, imagine if paul had written a song as treacly as imagine.

Anonymous said...

Great post and wonderful mix. Thanks for both.

Bruce H.

Anonymous said...

Hello Sal - Thanks for a very good listen. Do another one, please. Really enjoyed this, thanks.


marksxart said...

Start to finish, a perfect mix. Been listening to Ram non-stop lately, really cool to be reminded of all the other great records he has done.

Jaggerfan1 said...

I love Paul McCartney, I love his music. I couldn't believe he turned 69, wow.

Anonymous said...

Hello, please remain seated,

Thanks for re-posting this. I downloaded this mix when you originally posted it and enjoyed it immensely. Few related thoughts:

- I'm in the love-Another-Day camp. As Mr. Carlin states above, the chord changes are great. The song has such a great flow to it.

- Perhaps revealing what some may consider an under-developed taste in music, I've always liked Ebony & Ivory. Corny? Yup. Predictable lyrics? You betacha. Comparable to Paul's best output? Not by a country mile. Don't care. It's got Paul McCartney and Stevie frikkin' Wonder. There are metric tons on mopey, angst-ridden songs out there (not that there's anything wrong with that). I welcome the palate cleansing properties of songs like Ebony & Ivory.

- Great point by BBW above regarding how we would react if Paul had written Imagine. Would it have been lumped in with Ebony as dreck?
- finally...Mr. Bellamy. Lost opportunity by Paul...he should have had David Gilmour record with him. Lyrically this song strikes me as a lost Pink Floyd cut.

thanks, Sal....


charlie c. said...

Wonder if anyone knows where I could get a copy of this: "Tom - A Best Show On WFMU Tribute to Ram"?
'The butter wouldn't melt so I put it in the pie . . .'

Noam Sane said...

A thoughtful essay from Mr. Carlin, whose book I somehow have not found time to read (but I will!)...and an equally thoughtful playlist that will go on my Nano this evening. Thank you both.

steve simels said...

Is Paul McCartney a genius?

On the basis of this alone, all signs point to yes.

I mean, sweet Jeebus that's brilliant.

Sal Nunziato said...

@Steve Simels

Holy moly!

Anonymous said...

My problem with solo Paul is the same problem I've always had with post-50's Elvis Presley: it's just not worth my time to listen to the other 90% of his music to get to the 10% that is brilliant.

Having said that I'm sure I'll love most of the tunes in your download, thanks for your effort on my behalf.

Allan R.

Sal Nunziato said...

@Allan R.

Ouch! Comparing 40+ post-50's albums from Elvis to Paul's solo work? You could have said the "50% that is brilliant" and I may not have leapt up off my couch. But only 10%?

As long as we are talking percentages...and be honest...what percentage of Paul's solo work post-Band On the Run have you listened to lately?

With love and respect,

Anonymous said...

RE: " Percentage of Paul's solo work post-Band On the Run"-

I bailed after the "Egg" album. That's when I felt it wasn't worth the effort time wise to keep listening closely to Paul.

So yes, I know little of post 70's Paul music, that's why your mix is so valuable to me.

As a music fan there is a point when your musical tastes start drifting in the direction where you will spend most (not all) of your time listening to. There is a little less musical exploring outside the genres you love. The late "70's" is when I found my main interest in "Roots Rock & Roll" music and Paul's music became too "Pop" for my tastes.

By the "80's" I lost most of my interest in The Beatles' solo careers music. I still think their music as "The Beatles" is some of the most brilliant music ever made. I just gave less time to their solo careers.

Allan R.

cmealha said...

You had me at "For No One"

Anonymous said...

Count me in as another who has shamefully ignored PM's solo work. Thank you for the chance to begin to remedy that.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Paul was the most talented Beatle.

Chris Collins said...

What a beautiful essay. Thank you!

charlie c. said...

BuzzBaby: I wish we could measure 'talent', then we could have a meaningful dialogue. My knee-jerk response was: ‘Paul is the more talented of the surviving Beatles, maybe’. But I realize that doesn’t advance the discussion. I think of George’s breadth and John’s depth and I wonder . . . if we absolutely had to pick one, who would the most talented Beatle be? Probably look something like those screaming teens at Shea: “I love John!!!”, “Ringo Forever!” For me, Lennon wins, by a nose . . .

Sal Nunziato said...

If I may...

I think John needed Paul more than Paul needed John. Hard to pinpoint talent, precisely. Also difficult not knowing what John might have accomplished in the last 35. But I do think Paul had more focus and much of we know and love by John as a Beatle, had plenty of Paul input. I don't think the same could be said about Paul's contributions, which by and large, were almost all Paul.

Anonymous said...

I am a Paul McCartney fan but I think what alienates him is the gulf between his great songs and some of the simple little twee songs that he does.

Great mix of McCartney tunes that should silence the critics.