A sly and light-hearted romp from Sgt. Pepper, which had its genesis in Paul learning, to his delight, that in America female traffic wardens were referred to as “meter maids”. Initially, he thought that the narrator should be angry at getting ticketed all the time, but soon decided “it would be better if I loved her instead”, after which a series of clever and comical lyrics practically wrote themselves, the action culminating on the meter maid’s couch, where our boy nearly – nearly – gets it on with the lovely Rita, “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two”. The high-pitched, apparently electronic tones that ring out in the early going weren’t the product of studio trickery, it’s just Paul blowing through a comb laced with tissue paper, probably an old trick he learned as a schoolboy.
This upbeat little number went straight to #1 in 1980, helped along by a clever video in which various versions of Paul compose an entire orchestra, horns, drums, the lot. It might surprise the reader to learn that John, whose relationship with McCartney was then on the mend, particularly liked Coming Up, and exclaimed, upon first hearing it from the back seat as it played over a car radio, something along the lines of “Fuck a pig, that’s Paul, it has to be him, it’s fantastic!”. At the time I didn’t think much of the song, or the accompanying album McCartney II, but over the years I’ve warmed to both. Listen, if it was good enough for Lennon…
Let it Be
Paul’s other masterpiece from the album of the same name, and an inevitable #1 in 1970, Let it Be served as a powerful swan song for the group, which by that time had already broken up. Just about the only track that sounds better in the original album mix than on the much later Naked collection, this version, with its weighty horn accompaniment, and Harrison’s thoroughly bitching guitar solo, likewise absolutely shreds the much tamer take that was released on 45 for airplay (which you can hear, if you like, on the Blue Album). Its obvious gospel roots, heavenly organ, and references to “Mother Mary” made it seem so hymn-like that it was actually sung in churches, though Mary was in this case not the virgin mother of Jesus, but Paul’s own mom, who died when he was only fourteen. Years later, he remembered the trauma, and how much it gutted his father:
My mother’s death broke my dad up. That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry. I’d never heard him cry before. It was a terrible blow to the family. You grow up real quick, because you never expect to hear your parents crying. You expect to see women crying, or kids in the playground, or even yourself crying – and you can explain all that. But when it’s your dad, then you know something’s really wrong and it shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on.
Much later in life, stressed and fretful, his mother appeared to him in a dream, speaking the comforting words that Paul soon turned into one of his greatest compositions.
Like a number of his other classics, Let it Be ends on an “amen”, in the manner of the hymns it resembles, with a pair of descending chords known technically as a “plagal cadence”, sometimes referred to as a “dying fall”. Back then all of the Beatles, Paul especially, would have laughed uproariously at the notion that he was ever using anything so highbrow as a so-called plagal cadence to conclude a song, as of course he wouldn’t have known that the musical progression, which he’d probably heard hundreds of times in church while absorbing it into his intuitive musical vocabulary, had a fancy name. Yet it was a device he returned to over and over, and it always worked beautifully. Have a look:
A driving, exuberant breath of fresh air that stands with his very best, Quennie Eye appeared on the generally buoyant album New in 2013, earning rave reviews and spinning off this terrific video that features just about everybody who was anybody at the time – listen, if Macca asks you to appear in a video, you show up for the shoot, conducted in this case right there in the sacred confines of Abbey Road’s legendary studio #2. That’s Giles Martin, son of George, and the latter-day producer of numerous Beatles-related re-packagings and re-masterings, up there in the booth, carrying on the family tradition. I love how the song kicks off with strains from a mellotron, the rudimentary music synthesizer featured way back in Paul’s opening to John’s Strawberry Fields Forever – I seem to recall that the very machine, which played tape loops via keyboard, was still kicking around EMI’s storage rooms. I also love the dreamy middle eight, which some music critic whose name eludes me likened to Brian Eno, in which Paul sings of being frightened, but carrying on, and coming back for more.
Queenie Eye was a kid’s game they used to play in Liverpool, a variant on “hide the ball”, which McCartney uses here as a metaphor for the nasty games you have to keep on playing throughout your adult life. The chorus is verbatim from the chant used by school children back in the day.
This “making of” video is actually worth your while, if you’re inclined. It’s touching how the various celebrities and mega-stars are overawed just to be in the space where it all happened, in the exalted company of the real live Paul McCartney. They’re emotional and completely star-struck:
Newly-signed Apple recording artist Mary Hopkin needed something to keep her on the charts, so Paul gave her this; what I said earlier about McCartney gifting the fruits of his “A” game to other artists goes double here, because oh boy, what a melody. I mean – oh, boy. I remember my Beethoven-worshiping father bursting into the little den where my brother and I used to play records, all excited at hearing a melody like nothing he’d ever encountered before. It literally gave him goose bumps. “I don’t know where that even comes from”, he said, “it’s like it’s out of time, from the future“. If you’re continuing to ground the argument that McCartney is the greatest and most evocative melodist of the modern era, you’d do well to cite this one.
I actually like Paul’s austere demo version better.
Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey
A richly orchestrated song suite from the once-maligned Ram, Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey contains so many musical ideas, and is so packed with charming whimsey – not to mention the exhilarating chorus of hands across the water / hands across the sky, cribbed loosely from an old Edwardian postcard – that it hardly matters in the slightest that it doesn’t really mean anything. If you’re immune to its charms, then honestly, I really have to wonder what’s up with you. I loved this recent commentary from Pitchfork magazine, expressing bewilderment at the critical savaging to which the entire Ram project in general, and Uncle Albert in particular, were subjected upon its release:
Critics hated “Uncle Albert”. “A major annoyance,” Christgau opined. Again, from the current moment we can only plead ignorance, and assume that some serious shit had to be going down to clog everyone’s ears. Because “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is not only Ram’s centerpiece, it is clearly one of McCartney’s five greatest solo songs. As the slash in the title hints, it’s a multi-part song, starring two characters. To put its accomplishments in an egg-headed way: It fuses the conversational joy listeners associated with McCartney’s melodic gift to the compositional ambition everyone assumed was Lennon’s. To put it a simpler way: Every single second of this song is joyously, deliriously catchy, and no two seconds are the same. Do you think early Of Montreal, the White Stripes at their most vaudevillian, or the Fiery Furnaces took any lessons from this song?
Maybe I’m Amazed
One of his greatest songs, and surely one of the greatest love songs ever written, honest, visceral, and expressive not just of the joy, but also the bewilderment and anxious vulnerability, inherent in that first experience of absolutely loving and relying upon another human being. A lot of people will tell you this is the finest of all of his post-Beatle songs (though arguably it isn’t really post-Beatles, since when it showed up on 1970’s McCartney he’d already had it the works for a couple of years); I don’t know about that, but it certainly contends, and it’s yet another marvellous vocal and instrumental performance (everything you hear was played by Paul), while the chord shifts are divinely inspired.
All My Loving
Those lucky enough to have been alive and watching when it happened can today cast their minds back to that magic evening in February of 1964, when upwards of 73 million people tuned into the Ed Sullivan Show to see what all the fuss was about with these crazy English kids from Liverpool, of all places. Ed makes the introduction, the kids start shrieking, then Paul looks straight into the camera, begins singing close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you – and right then, right that instant, the whole course of Western popular culture was irrevocably changed. Everybody noticed the haircuts, the “Beatle Boots”, the smart-looking suits, and the guy whaling away on drums, but a few out there were also able to discern, over the shrill screaming of delirious female fans, one of the standout pop tunes of the era. Among those listening, and fully understanding, was the great Richard Rodgers, probably the only other organism in the fossil record who could ever go toe-to-toe with Paul in the composition of exquisitely memorable popular melodies. He fired off a telegram that Ed read out to the crowd: “I am now one of your most rabid fans”.
Sing the Changes
A positively rousing, anthemic piece played here at a 2009 concert in New York – note how the big screen is projecting the giant smiling face of Barack Obama, then ushering in, so Paul and the rest of us hoped, an era of hope and change after the execrable regime of George W. Bush (it’s rather sad to reflect that at that point, we honestly thought that W. was the worst we’d ever get). The song was produced as part of an experimental side project dubbed “The Fireman”, and resulted from a challenge to write and record a completed track from scratch in the span of a single working day. The lyrics could thus perhaps still use a bit of a polish, but oh, the music, so majestic, so uplifting, of a sort that the likes of U2 or Oasis would surely be only too pleased to have written. The video also showcases McCartney playing with his trademark “lead bass” technique on the legendary Hoffner, the very same instrument he was wielding way back in 1962; note the exuberance and agility of the line, and how he plays it with a pick, rather than plucking it in the usual way. It’s also a treat to see him jamming enthusiastically with drummer Abe Laboriel during the instrumental breaks, and man, that band is tight.
Well, they don’t come any better than this, do they? Another achingly beautiful White Album acoustic number played in the finger-plucking style learned from Donovan in India. Paul has always said that he wrote it as a reaction to the miseries then being suffered by black people in America at the height of the contemporary civil rights struggles, but you don’t need to know anything about that to appreciate its extraordinary grace and universal messages of hope and perseverance. Take these broken wings and learn to fly, he tells his wounded listener. Take these sunken eyes and learn to see. Because no matter how soul-destroying it seems, there’s always a little light remaining in the dark black night, if only you can bring yourself to see.
The second clip provides a “present at the creation” sort of moment, as we watch Paul working on the song in the studio, and discover that the metronomic clicking noise heard on the final track is just the singer tapping his shoes.
I saw him perform this live to a hushed crowd of over 50,000 rapt concert-goers. People wept.
Live and Let Die
Paul reunited with George Martin to produce this taut, dramatic, hugely orchestrated extravaganza for Roger Moore’s first turn at playing Bond, and it worked on every level. The sudden switch into reggae for the middle eight (what does it matter to ya / when you gotta job to do…) is one of those ingenious stunts that only McCartney could have pulled off, and once again we hear him adopting an idiom, writing a song that utterly sounds like a James Bond theme. Twelve-year-old Graeme was extremely pissed that year when it lost out for best song at the Oscars to The Way We Were.
A song about a sailboat (and what a good name for a yacht, yes?), and fleeing out to sea to escape the madding crowd, as well as the malign clutches of intolerant law enforcement (inspired, perhaps, by his recent stint in a Japanese jail, after he was caught bringing a little weed into the country – hey, it’s medicinal, O.K.?). George Martin was again helming the booth for this and the other songs on 1982’s Tug of War, his first album after the assassination of beloved John. Some may find Wanderlust a little over-produced and even bombastic, but I think it’s magnificent and utterly Beatle-esque, with its inter-twined backing and lead vocals and beautiful brass, besides which there it is again – the perfect musical conclusion, and our old friend the plagal cadence.
Fixing a Hole
A quirky, charming little diversion from the general grandeur of the Sgt. Pepper album, in which the usually gregarious and outgoing “happy Beatle” manages to fully inhabit the persona of a rather misanthropic recluse, albeit a contented one. Thematically, this seems more up John’s alley (see, for example, I’m So Tired and I’m Only Sleeping, Lennon’s pair of gems about being too weary and fed up to get out of bed and face the world), but musically of course it’s pure McCartney, jaunty and clever, especially in the lyrics of the chorus (and it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, I’m right / where I belong, I’m right / where I belong). There’ve been times when this one has served as my own personal anthem, having lived so much of my own life trying to shut out the squabbling people and random annoyances that are always trying to stop my mind from wandering where it would otherwise go.
At the Mercy
Another highly ambitious bit of artistry from Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, At the Mercy is unpretentiously orchestrated with frosty strings, and features powerful interludes that remind me of the production on Abbey Road. The comments in Part 1 with respect to How Kind of You are generally applicable here.
Find My Way
Yet another eminently catchy and thoroughly Beatle-esque track off his most recent collection, McCartney III, which, as on his two previous eponymous outings, features Paul playing all the instruments, including, in this case, an electric harpsichord. I’m reminded a little of Come and Get It, and his other songs from the White Album period, among which this one could easily mingle with nobody the wiser. The layering of guitars and keyboards in the extended coda is almost symphonic in its complexity, and we get to see him playing all of the parts juxtaposed in the composite shots of the attached video, which is very well done. It’s a joy to see him having so much fun, and still being so creative, in what was then his 79th year. He’s still got it.
It just chugs along so naturally, so smoothly, that you can perceive Lady Madonna as a completely conventional pop number, and miss how clever it is, perhaps not even noticing that Paul’s now demonstrating his easy facility with yet another musical form, this time classic R&B mixed with old-fashioned boogie-woogie. The piano groove is so infectious that it was covered by Fats Domino – think about that for a second – and the lyrics, described sometimes as inscrutable or even essentially meaningless, actually tell a complete story about a woman who has mouths to feed, and figures that the best way to make lots of easy cash is to, er, entertain a stable of paying male customers, each of them identified anonymously by a distinctive trait, and the day of his weekly appointment. The guy who arrives every Sunday likes to creep in quietly on the down low, the session with the mook on Tuesday afternoon just dragged on and on, while Wednesday’s fellow, sadly, never got his happy ending, and so on. Meanwhile, people wonder how she manages to make ends meet. Lady Madonna snuck to the top of the charts in 1968 without anybody seeming to notice what it was really about, which was a good thing, actually – the programming prudes back then would never have played it if they’d figured it out.
Just one minute and forty-five seconds of pure pop perfection, with a melody that uses every note on the musical scale, look:
It’s almost a children’s song, almost a lullaby, and very much of a piece with his earlier I’ll Follow the Sun, innocent, untroubled, and glad to be alive. One of Paul’s own favourites.
Not a Big Statement or Monumental Masterpiece – look, they can’t all be Hey Jude, all right? – Every Night, off his first solo album, is still a highly enjoyable slice of acoustic pop, in which Paul uses a somewhat reworked snippet of melody borrowed from Abbey Road’s infinitely more sombre and serious You Never Give Me Your Money, magically morphing it from heartbreaking to joyous. It’s not a song that springs to mind when you’re asked to name his best off the top of your head, but it’s satisfying musical comfort food, pleasing whenever you happen to hear it.
You Won’t See Me
When you’re cranking out corker after corker the way Paul and John both were at this point, every one of ’em a humdinger, something’s going to get pushed to the margins where it doesn’t really belong. So it was with 1965’s You Won’t See Me off the epochal Rubber Soul, which tended to get overlooked amid the various Lennon masterworks, Girl, Norwegian Wood, and In My Life (though as to the latter, I’m with those who’re convinced that Paul’s remembering it right when he claims, as he always has, that he wrote the melody – sorry, those words are all John, sure enough, but no way Lennon ever wrote a melody like the one that graces In My Life, and I don’t care what anybody says). Yet on anybody else’s album, the wonderfully infectious You Won’t See Me would have been a standout, and an obvious candidate for release as a single. Indeed, a decade later, Anne Murray performed a cover that made it into the top ten in both Canada and the U.S., and at the time, I didn’t even know it was a Beatles original, since it wasn’t on either the “Red” or “Blue” albums. Her version isn’t half bad:
Another thoroughly Beatle-esque number that harks back to the acoustic tracks on the White Album, Calico Skies is a straightforward but deeply affecting love song, one of the highlights on 1997’s Flaming Pie. Largely unnoticed, it almost qualifies as a hidden gem, except that he’s played it often in concert over the years, affording it widespread exposure among his dedicated fans.