I mean I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. But I’m in awe of him. He can do it all and he’s never let up, you know. He’s got the gift for melody, he’s got the rhythm. He can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody and he can sing the ballad as good as anybody, you know so… And his melodies are, you know, effortless. That’s what you have to be in awe of… I’m in awe of him maybe just because he’s just so damn effortless. I mean I just wish he’d quit, you know. [laughs] Just everything and anything that comes out of his mouth is framed in a melody, you know.
Recorded during the pandemic for what became McCartney III, the third career solo outing since 1970 in which he plays all the instruments, Find My Way showcases Paul in fine form, continuing with a career renaissance that began with his excellent Chaos and Creation in the Backyard in 2005. Recent years have seen both robust chart performance and a dramatic critical reappraisal of both Paul’s solo career and his overall contribution to the Beatles, as people generally have come to recognize and value a talent that’s gifted them an ungodly motherlode of songs the non-existence of which is practically unimaginable to anybody who loves good pop music. I remember once, some music critic in the Toronto Star writing about his attendance at a McCartney concert and describing, as if he’d just come to appreciate it, “the terrifying depth of his catalogue”. Paul wasn’t saving the fan favourites for the end, the guy noted, because they’re all fan favourites. I’ve seen it myself; the concert I attended in Halifax a few years back went for over three hours, and he never got around to playing anything that anybody among the assembled 60,000 didn’t know by heart. My brother and I later engaged in an exercise of trying to figure out how long he could play before he did have to resort to something relatively obscure, and the answer, we figured, conservatively, was something like ten hours. Think of that: ten hours, probably, of three and four minute songs before he had to resort to playing a song that perhaps wouldn’t be instantly recognizable to everybody there within the first couple of notes.
Nobody else can say that. Nobody, ever.
The recent fantasy film Yesterday imagined a world in which a struggling singer/songwriter awakes one day in a world in which the Beatles had never existed, and he’s the only one who remembers them. It was purely a fanboy exercise, of course, not bad, not great I guess, but it had some lovely moments, including this one, in which Ed Sheeran, playing himself and being an incredibly good sport for the sake of the film, challenges the only guy who remembers the Fab Four – and who has now become an international sensation, claiming their whole catalogue as his own original compositions – to an impromptu songwriting contest:
Here’s the thing: imagine how many McCartney-penned Beatles classics they had to choose from to be the one that blows poor Ed Sheeran out of the water, and leaves him feeling like Salieri to the newcomer’s Mozart (even though Sheeran’s song, I thought, is quite nice in its own right, which perhaps is the whole point). The title track was disqualified, because they’d already used it:
So they were down to, I dunno, about 30 others, maybe, that fit the mood? I might have decided to make short work of Sheeran with something even more formally perfect, For No One, say, or Here There and Everywhere, She’s Leaving Home, Blackbird, Mother Nature’s Son, or Eleanor Rigby, or maybe gone for the pure overkill of Golden Slumbers, Let it Be, You Never Give Me Your Money, or even, God help him, Hey Jude. Or maybe just murder him outright with Penny Lane. That’s just a sampling, assuming we don’t want to change the tempo with something like Get Back, Lady Madonna, We Can Work it Out, With a Little Help From My Friends, Paperback Writer, or …well, pick one. The point of today’s column, however, is to argue that they needn’t have limited themselves to a pre-1970 timeline, if the premise is that nobody ever heard of this guy McCartney, or anything he ever wrote. One could choose from a whole slew of terrific songs composed by Paul in his solo career, a lot of which, if that’s the test, would have slotted in to Beatles’ releases without anybody noticing anything amiss. Take this little gem, which one can easily imagine appearing on the White Album:
It was something his Dad used to say to offer support to him when he was down; he’d hold out his hand and say “put it there, if it weighs a ton”.
I expect Sheeran would have been equally cowed by the exquisite and exquisitely Beatlesque Maybe I’m Amazed:
Likewise the gentle, unassuming, almost painfully delicate Junk would strike most people as better than Ed’s nice little song:
Or how about jump forward a few decades, to My Valentine, written in 2012 to fill out an album of covers of old classics, titled KIsses On the Bottom, extracted from the Great American Songbook, all of them songs to which Paul’s musician father exposed him as a kid?
Nobody, not Gershwin, not Rodgers, not Porter, not Berlin, ever wrote one better – indeed, this one, written in C minor, seems quite deliberately to be channeling the great Richard Rodgers, once described by musicologist Dominic Pedler, in his book Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, as the only other popular composer who ever rivalled McCartney’s “leap in the dark” gift for melody. It’s simply sublime, this one. Hey, don’t take my word for it. This is from American Songwriter magazine:
Writing a good love song, one that will bring tears to a woman’s eyes quicker than a dozen roses (or in the case of a man’s eyes, maybe quicker than tickets to a NASCAR race), is one of the hardest things any writer can do. Paul McCartney’s written a few that are part of pop music history. But maybe none of them have been as genuine, or sound as effortless, as “My Valentine.”…The song was as effective and timeless as any of the other great songs written by the masters he covered on Kisses On The Bottom, putting him squarely in their ranks. Nobody but McCartney could combine those lines with a killer melody in a minor key, of all things. Trying to write a love song in a minor key is automatically asking for trouble, as minor keys typically don’t lend themselves to positive, uplifting thoughts and feelings. But McCartney, being McCartney, got away with doing this song in C minor and including various minor chords in the changes as well.
Or how about this genuine piece of art rock:
At The Mercy would have been right at home within another iteration of Abbey Road’s “long medley”; Lord, that wonderful orchestral moment after the lyric “we can watch the universe explode”…the ringing guitars…the icy, foreboding strings…
Or how about How Kind of You, which is beautiful and dazzlingly sophisticated from the first note. It’s simply a superior exercise in music composition, and just listen to the extended coda, and how he wraps it up. It’s a McCartney hallmark, the ineffably elegant ending:
Then there’s this exhilarating rave-up, a live version of a track completed, from start to finish, in just a few hours for release under the pseudonymous group name The Firemen, in response to a challenge to compose, arrange, and produce/record a song in the span of a single working day:
It takes the like of Bono, Thom Yorke, and Noel Gallagher months to come up with something like that.
This is one, I’m convinced, that John would have liked a lot:
That’s Abbey Road Studio 2, by the way, and the kid at the recording console is Giles Martin, son of George. Try to keep track of all the mega-celebrities who jumped at the chance to be in a video with Sir Paul. This one rocks. Especially impressive is the dreamy interlude of the bridge, it was scary, but I did it, and I’m coming back for more.
I guarantee you, George Martin would have spoken warmly about this:
The sheer power of this one:
That’s one of the standout tracks from Ram, an album that was so reviled upon its release that you would have thought Paul had committed war crimes while making it. Honestly, critical reception was insanely hostile, and I do mean insanely, given that this is the present popular and critical consensus:
“Universal acclaim”. Hunh.
Which brings us to Find My Way. In a way, it’s just a good-timey number typical of its composer, but it’s also stuffed with the whole suite of subtle McCartney touches, beginning with the opening chords on electric harpsichord, and continuing through layer upon layer of expert instrumental ornamentation. It reminds me a bit of another sure-fire hit he wrote around 1968, which ended up being handed to Badfinger, Come And Get It, though it’s a great deal more complex, especially in the finale, another extended coda in which so many different instrumental lines are piled, each new one atop the last, that the complexity is essentially symphonic.
Look, I know that anybody who might still be out there reading my posts, supposing there actually is anybody, will be weary of my endless, tireless, interminable advocacy for Paul McCartney. Yeah, I hear you, but I’m on a mission, O.K? It’s because I came of age in the Seventies, when the man was generally reviled in the (essentially childish) rock press on a number of spurious grounds, among them his unforgivable tendency to not be angry at the world, and his heinous wish to write songs that made people feel good (and admittedly, his veering into some rather lightweight territory there for a while). I was myself apt to fall prey to the party line, and the Lennon hagiography, yet as I immersed myself in the Beatles catalogue, it became clear to me that the majority – I’d argue the vast majority – of the compositions that live on indelibly in the popular consciousness, and which will still be on the lips of ordinary folk centuries from now, are Paul’s. I really don’t think there’s any doubt about this. Plus, since my teen years, I’ve watched as nobody noticed that even the solo albums roundly condemned as dreck always included a couple of classics, and I’ve taken heart in his continuing popularity, as he keeps on making albums that hit the top of the charts. McCartney III debuted at #2, just a whisker behind Taylor Swift’s latest, and the previous album, Egypt Station, opened up at Number 1. Sometimes, some things are just as they should be.
Sorry to be grandiose, but hear this: McCartney will inevitably be recognized as the greatest songwriter in history. There will be arguments, of course. But the benchmark will be Paul, and not just for his work with the Beatles. To quote John Lennon from a different argument, in which I think it’s fair at this point to say he wasn’t as far off the mark as so many claimed at the time, I am right, and will be proved right.
Here, too, when you have the time, have a watch of this marvellous documentary from Britain’s ITV, and take note of the songs that made it to #1, and remain the popular favourites: