Two of Us
When you’re bringing Get Back, Long and Winding Road, and Let it Be to the table, a song like Two of Us is bound to seem at first blush like a bit of an afterthought, but for anybody else this would probably be the album high point. By Paul’s account, it was inspired by getting lost on a road trip with Linda Eastman, the new love of his life, but true as that may be it’s impossible to hear it as anything except a paean to his precious artistic partnership with John, soon to be shattered forever. The two of them harmonize closely throughout, and Lennon contributes a lovely little whistling part to cover the outro. We now understand, following the release of Peter Jackson’s comprehensive Get Back documentary, that the supposedly horrid and contentious Let it Be sessions weren’t anywhere near as full of strife as Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s selectively edited film made them appear, and here, as frequently during the recording, the Beatles’ titans remain in perfect sympathy.
In the “everybody’s a critic” department, one Tyler Golsen, writing in Far Out magazine, allows that Two of Us is “undoubtedly a beautiful song with some lovely imagery and vocal work from both Lennon and Paul McCartney” and was indeed “sublime”, but concludes that “it makes for a poor album opener”. Oh yeah? Says you, Tyler.
Paul Zollo over at American Songwriter gets it right:
One of the sweetest moments in the movie Let It Be, and the album, is this song. “Two of Us.” It’s a beautifully tender ballad written by Paul with a gentle lilting melody, and rendered with acoustic guitars and Ringo’s galloping drums. But it’s the way Paul and John sing it in perfect harmony, just as they sang so many songs through their time together, that makes it so poignant, especially now. It came during the sad dissolution of the dream, the breakup, and yet shines with that perfect Lennon and McCartney harmony. Despite all the dissonance between them, John and Paul sang this beautifully, free of any rancor, allowing the music to unite them again.
The title track from the 2013 album. Have a listen, and then you tell me whether the boy still has it. Many likened the rhythm and arrangement to Penny Lane, similarities to which can undoubtedly be heard in the horns and descending bass line under the verses, but this is also Paul, ever the chameleon, channeling the spirit of Brian Wilson (a peer whom McCartney has always greatly admired), especially in the a cappella conclusion. The first time I heard this I felt little waves of joy and recognition wash over me – just as Lennon once shouted from the back seat of a car, I was all fuck a duck, that’s Paul, it has to be, it’s fantastic – and this and the other tracks on New were very well received both by critics and the public, who pushed it into the top 5 in ten countries, including the U.S., Japan, U.K. and Canada. My favourite review comes from the comments section underneath the YouTube posting (usually a dragon-infested hellscape that one does well to avoid):
Can’t Buy Me Love
Distilled Beatlemania in a bottle, and the biggest hit from the wonderful Hard Day’s Night, the movie and album versions of which utterly beguiled the previously skeptical pundits of the snooty American mass media. The United Artists soundtrack released over here was entirely different from the U.K. offering, with about half of the songs missing, their spots filled by instrumental muzak – I don’t know, maybe that had something to do with publishing rights. Sadly, this gave the rapacious, predatory capitalists over at Capitol Records an opening to pad whole new fabricated albums with the residue, as they merrily butchered the real albums in the quest for more product (a miserable practice they didn’t cease until Sgt. Pepper – what they did to Revolver was particularly heinous). Many of the U.S. releases weren’t even in stereo, or proper mono either (which would have been O.K., the lads put a lot of effort into the mono mixes back in those days), but something misleadingly labelled “re-channeled stereo”, a hideous process that allots the same basic mono track to both channels, but tweaks one to emphasize treble while the other is altered to stress bass frequencies, creating a weak illusion of stereo separation while slaughtering the fidelity on both sides. It’s godawful. I remember being pleasantly surprised around 1980 when I picked up a superb Japanese pressing of the U.K. version of Hard Day’s Night, and first heard the songs – all the songs from the actual U.K. album – reproduced in true glorious stereo.
Summer’s Day Song
A small, overlooked, and entirely lovely little synthesizer piece (with flutes provided by mellotron) from the home-made McCartney II, released in 1980. Summer’s Day Song is built around baroque, hymn-like harmonics right out of Bach, and features dreamy, wordless, beautifully textured interludes that I’ve always found soothing and utterly, ethereally gorgeous. I can imagine it as film music, and wonder what it would sound like echoing under the vaults of a Gothic cathedral.
Another standout track from Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, likened by many to a cross between Blackbird and Eleanor Rigby (with the muted, booming drums also reminiscent of Mother Nature’s Son), in which Paul paints a portrait of a lonely and heartbroken girl plucked from the pages of Dickens. The day will come, he assures us, when she’ll sing again. That Paul’s aging vocal cords can only just manage to hit the high notes that used to come so readily only adds to the poignancy. The flute-like solo is provided by a duduk, an ancient Armenian double reed woodwind instrument that Paul somehow encountered in his travels, making its first appearance on a popular record.
Just about everybody’s favourite scene from Peter Jackson’s documentary of the same name shows Paul, immediately upon arriving in the morning to begin another day’s studio sessions, conjuring this irrepressible rock & roll number quite literally out of thin air. Playing his Hoffner bass as if it’s a rhythm guitar, he begins with just a few chords, tries out some interesting melodic accompaniment, and arrives at something almost fully formed (and pretty much affixed with a label reading Note: Future Billboard #1) in just about two minutes, while George and Ringo sit there looking only half awake, yawning at him. Ho-hum. They’ve seen it a thousand times. On the final studio cut, Billy Preston’s keyboard accompaniment was deemed so important that they didn’t just give him a credit, making him one of only a handful of Beatles session players to get the nod, they paid him the singular honour of billing themselves as “The Beatles with Billy Preston”:
At first, it was going to be a pointedly ironic political protest song, featuring the usual cast of English bigots instructing third world immigrants to get back to wherever it is they all came from, but the mood wasn’t right, and the Beatles generally shied away from overt political statements. A set of humorous, nonsense-rhyme “placeholder” lyrics were used instead, one suspects with significant improvisational input from Lennon, who was always apt to compose verse about characters like “Sweet Loretta Modern”. Somehow, it works just fine.
A rousing piano number from Band on the Run, released back when 1985 was still twelve years in the future, this is another one that sounds a lot like film music (Paul, perhaps, still channeling the energy he brought to Live and Let Die). It’s hugely effective when performed live. Once again, Linda adds completely serviceable vocal assistance.
A World Without Love
Not the best thing he ever wrote, but still, it’s kind of nice isn’t it? Back in those halcyon days when Paul was engaged to the exquisite Jane Asher, and living in a spare room in the Asher household, he naturally became chummy with Jane’s brother Peter, who was himself an aspiring pop singer trying to catch a break in a duo with Gordon Waller. McCartney, perhaps figuring it might stand him in good stead with the whole Asher family, decided to throw Peter a bone and contrived the somewhat slight but typically lilting A World Without Love, not so much a rock & roll number as a show tune influenced, perhaps, by Broadway standards like ‘Til There Was You, a hit from The Music Man that Paul used to like to perform in concert. Naturally, as a song credited to Lennon/McCartney, it went all the way to #1 in both the U.K. and America, and Peter and Gordon went on to have a couple of more hits before Peter moved on to become Apple’s head A&R man, and then a producer working on recordings for luminaries like James Taylor (whose demo first caught Peter’s attention at Apple), and Linda Ronstadt. The brief demo attached above was lost for decades, until Peter dug it out of some forgotten box.
I’m Looking Through You
Speaking of Jane Asher, conventional wisdom has it that this delightfully bitchy litany of gripes against an anonymous and apparently vexatious love interest arose out of a rough patch in the relationship, to which I say, Lord, that woman was so good for that kid – even when she was pissing him off, she was inspiring (and anyway, it was undoubtedly all his fault). I’m Looking Through You, off 1965’s Rubber Soul, gives voice to a sort of wounded disillusionment that we’d come to expect mainly from John, though it’s positively tame (and musically far superior) when compared to John’s really quite vicious Run For Your Life, also on Rubber Soul, in which Lennon threatens to outright murder his own girlfriend if she steps out of line, a bullying, misogynist sentiment that makes it unlistenable nowadays.
Friends to Go
Delightful. Even on first impression it’s immediately obvious that Paul is adopting the musical style of none other than George Harrison, paying gentle tribute to his old friend, who’d fallen just a few years earlier to cancer. In Friends to Go McCartney imagines his former bandmate as a reclusive ghost, happy to hang around and haunt his buddy’s place for a while, but waiting for the party to wind down, and all the strangers to leave, before he makes an appearance. It’s such a warm, affectionate, and whimsical piece, though George, who always laboured on his songs, often struggling mightily to get them just so, would probably have been exasperated at how easily Paul was able to sound just like him, only better (particularly in once again bringing the music to a tidy and satisfying conclusion, something George often seemed unable to do, see Blue Jay Way, It’s All Too Much, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Isn’t it a Pity, and so on, which leave one wondering how he managed the feat so well on his twin Abbey Road masterworks, Something and Here Comes the Sun). For much of the post-breakup period, George became known for having nothing but nasty things to say about Paul, resentful at having been, as he saw it, repeatedly thwarted by the guy who always treated him like a kid and junior partner, but the two were eventually reconciled, and it’s nice to know that Paul was at his bedside, the two of them reminiscing and joking as they used to do, just a few days before the end.
Let Me Roll It
This time it’s a spot-on impression of Lennon, right down to the “bathroom tile echo” that was a feature of so many of John’s most famous post-Beatle compositions. Let Me Roll It was a delayed response to John’s cruel and vitriolic How Do You Sleep?, which had been released a couple of years prior on his landmark Imagine album. It was the worst sort of personal attack, in which John hurled such vile insults as the only thing you done is Yesterday, those freaks was right when they said you was dead, and the sound you make is muzak to my ears. Lennon would probably have claimed he was only defending himself against the more muted swipes Paul had already taken at him in the terrific Too Many People, but it was one thing to make an oblique comment that might have been critical of John’s relentless (and often positively silly) rabble-rousing political antics, and quite another to engage in the outright character assassination and insult-mongering with which John retaliated, calling his old partner a talentless hack and asking him how he even managed to sleep at night. Really, John? You don’t want to think it over a bit before you commit that to vinyl? It was the rankest bullshit, and John himself must have appreciated on some level that whatever arguments he’d had with Paul as the Beatles dissolved, McCartney had certainly never done anything to him or anybody else over which a man of good conscience ought to be losing sleep. For the love of God.
Paul’s response? Being Paul, he suggested in song that they bury the hatchet, and told Lennon, essentially, “hey, I love you too”. My heart is like a wheel, he sang in John’s own style and tone of voice, let me roll it to you.
By the by, to the extent Lennon’s bitterness was rooted in the angry impasse they all reached when Paul insisted establishment lawyer Lee Eastman should manage the Beatles’ business, while John, George and Ringo fought tooth and nail to bring in notorious scoundrel and despicable bunco artist Allen Klein, well, you all should have listened to Paul, ya frickin’ idiots.
And I Love Her
An instant classic from the Hard Day’s Night sessions, framed as a sort of samba (or perhaps “cha cha” is more apt) and thus sounding rather Latin in its influences, And I Love Her has such an irresistibly memorable melody that it burrows right into your brain stem and never goes away. Even Grunge deity Kurt Cobain did a cover, of which there’ve been more than 300. “His first Yesterday“, opined John. Ringo plays bongos, and George contributes some of his best early work on acoustic guitar.
Looking at Her
One of his nicest and most emotionally honest love songs, with an unexpected edge.
It was just prior to his 2008 divorce from the unpleasant Heather Mills that Paul ran into highly successful businessperson Nancy Shevell in the Hamptons, where filthy-rich multi-kabillionaires from rich and successful families are apt to be lurking about. Well, she was all of that and a whole lot more. Apparently, Barbara Walters played matchmaker after that, so thank you Barbara, because the beautiful Ms. Shevell was everything Heather Mills wasn’t, refined, smart as a whip, independently wealthy, and neither grasping nor especially overawed by McCartney’s fame. In other words, just what he needed.
It seems to have been an anxious courtship. Looking at Her, unconventionally and endearingly, is all about being a nervous wreck on a date with a woman who might just be out of your league. Now, being as he’s a Beatle, for crying out loud, he shouldn’t be getting the heebie-jeebies over anybody, yet here he finds himself wondering sweatily whether this time he’s in way over his head. Like, way over. There he is in a restaurant, he’s Paul Fucking McCartney, and everybody’s looking at her. She’s the special one. Panic attack!! This is one woman who isn’t falling for the flash, and can only be won on merit, if merit enough there be.
Musicologist Alan Pollack called this “yet another one of those uncanny Beatlesque stylistic hybrids”, and while not my own favourite, I guess, damned if it isn’t the highest expression of Doo Wop ever committed to tape, with an added touch of Fats Domino-style R&B (while also being highly similar, according to the Wikipedia article, to a style known as Louisiana Swamp Pop, whatever that is) – and holy cow, what a vocal performance. Paul had to come in to the studio by himself and sing it as hard as he could for a whole week before he’d roughed up his vocal cords sufficiently to get the sound he wanted. Lennon thought it was terrific, and being Lennon, wanted to sing it himself, saying, in a1980 interview, “Oh! Darling was a great one of Paul’s that he didn’t sing too well. I always thought I could have done it better – it was more my style than his. He wrote it, so what the hell, he’s going to sing it.” He didn’t sing too well. Yeah. Right. The sheer intensity of the lead vocal is frigging legendary, Johnny. Not that John was too bitter and twisted to contribute superb backing work of his own, which Paul, for his part, has often praised, while lamenting that the supporting vocals didn’t get enough prominence in the final mix.
The musicianship by all is likewise superb, as as it was throughout on the Abbey Road album.
Band On The Run
O.K. I’ll grant you that Band on the Run, being, as it was, a product of his 1970s heyday, sports lyrics that don’t mean a whole hell of a lot when you see them written down, I mean, “well the rain exploded with a mighty crash as we fell into the Sun” – hunh? You been dipping into the stash again, boss? But musically, it works like a charm, and this three-part pop tour de force took the world by storm upon its release, topping the charts while anchoring his biggest post-Beatles album. Pause for a moment to consider that within the span of five minutes, McCartney takes us through three completely different musical styles, from ballad, to edgy electric rock, on through to joyous acoustic pop, all of it fused seamlessly into something that everybody was happy to hear coming out of their dashboard radios. In anybody else’s hands it would probably have wound up a pretentious, Art-Rocky sort of hot mess. Instead, it’s simply a treat to follow the bouncing ball, and audiences still cheer wildly when the final segment arrives, and the acoustic power chords announce the ecstatic release. Release from what? Why was the band on the run? From who? To where? Didn’t matter. They not only made their jail break, they got away clean, and everybody was overjoyed.
The production technique in the final verses is interesting, with an electric guitar chiming in one speaker, to be quickly echoed on a slight delay in the other, something he tried first, to similar effect, on Lennon’s Ballad of John and Yoko.
My Ever Present Past
A pleasing rocker from 2007, exploring a theme to which Paul’s been returning on his most recent compositions, the passage of the years, and learning to take pride in the glory days, rather than feel haunted by them, as he did for so many years after the breakup. He now reckons, I suppose, that he may as well enjoy the memories, since he’s never going to escape them, or lay the ghosts of the accomplishments that were already under his belt when, looking back on it now, he was still just a kid. It all went by in a flash.
The opening line was a slight modification of something his mom used to say, “I’ve got too much on my plate, no time to be a decent mother!” Fond memories of his parents seem never to be far from his consciousness.
Hope of Deliverance
The best cut on the generally underwhelming 1993 album Off the Ground (though I quite like the title track as well), this is another one I think John would have liked. Hope of Deliverance was little noticed over here, but was highly popular on the Continent, particularly in Eastern Europe, where it struck a nerve among whole populations who were themselves hoping for better times in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and looked forward to a day when the surrounding darkness might recede, just as the song hoped was possible. Hoped – this isn’t mindless optimism, and makes no promises, but listen, end of the day you gotta have hope, right? It has a very Latin American sort of groove going, and cruises along, drawing in the listener with its infectious rhythm until – and sorry to keep harping on this, but as I said earlier, harping on things like this is really the whole point – it ends most effectively with an elegant and unexpected flourish.
As you go down these lists, take note of all the songs that finish up properly, without recourse to the studio fade out. I just love that about Paul’s stuff.
When I’m 64
I’m sure this cheeky and unabashed foray into the more sentimental aspects of the old English music hall was just exactly what Lennon had in mind when he griped about Paul’s “granny music”, but as I grow older I tend to side more and more with the grandmas, and far less with the twenty-something men who like don’t like anything that isn’t loud, strident, and right up in your face. Besides, it’s not only an essentially perfect little piece of pop craftsmanship, it’s both touching and funny – heck, the reference to the generic future grandkids, “Vera, Chuck and Dave”, ought to be enough on its own to tickle you pink, let alone when the old guy of Paul’s imagined golden years reminds everybody that if you want to drop him a line, best to “indicate precisely what you mean to say”. Who can forget that poignant little rhyming couplet, Will you still need me? / Will you still feed me? Who isn’t moved just a little by the anxiety about having to “scrimp and save” to make it through retirement, while hoping that maybe it’ll be possible to rent one of those little holiday cottages on the Isle of Wight now and then, “if it’s not too dear”? It’s extraordinary enough to imagine such a kind and sympathetic portrayal of old age being written by a guy in his mid-twenties, but Paul wrote it for his Dad when he was just 14 years old. What did you accomplish when you were 14? Did you write a song that just about everybody would still remember, and be able to hum off the top of their heads, 20+ years into the next millennium? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
I’ll Follow the Sun
Another one that doesn’t have a lot to do with rock & roll, but would have been a perfect addition to the score of one or another Broadway musical. Such a concise, pretty little thing, and George Martin’s particular favourite from the Beatles for Sale period, when the lads were exhausted from years upon years of playing, touring, and recording, with hardly a day off since the endless, pill-fuelled marathon sessions way back in Hamburg. Look at those weary, unsmiling faces on the album cover. It’s a wonder Paul could write anything at all, let alone something as soothing and upbeat as this.
We Can Work it Out
A great mid-period single (but then, all of the mid-period singles were great), with unconventional use of harmonium, and intriguing forays into waltz time – waltz time, of all things – at the end of the choruses, We Can Work it Out is another one inspired by tempestuous moments in the relationship with Jane Asher, who, I’m guessing, wasn’t taking anywhere near as much guff as the headstrong young McCartney would have liked. Most listeners discern the contribution of John in the lines about life being too short for fussing and fighting, probably rightly, yet I’ve always thought those sentiments sound more like the usually restrained and diplomatic Paul than the verses, which pose the musical question “why in the hell haven’t you figured out yet that I’m right and you’re wrong?” They can work it out, all right, but only when she gets her mind right and starts seeing things his way – no fair, but he’s no longer in any mood to be fair. It’s gritty, angry, and not at all sentimental. Clearly, the woman is driving him to transports of frustration, as only somebody you really love ever can.