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Paul McCartney: Eighty For His Eightieth (Part 4)

The final instalment! I didn’t set out to save most of the best for last, but as I look down the list at the twenty that remain for this Part Four, I’m thinking it’s going to seem that way.

Penny Lane

I’ve written a lot about Penny Lane in the course of producing my Songs of the Day instalments for The Needlefish, and I’ll attach a link below to my lengthier prior analysis, but allow me to say briefly, here, that there never was a better piece of popular music, not by anybody, not anytime or anywhere. Nothing beats McCartney’s Liverpudlian remembrance of things past. I will brook no opposition on this point. It’s three odd minutes of the purest pop genius you’re ever going to encounter.

Different musicologists focus on different brilliant aspects of the song. This fellow is floored by the sudden appearance during the verses of a mood-altering B-minor chord, as if out of nowhere:

…while composer Howard Goodall, on the other hand, was more impressed by the way the choruses modulate the song out of the key of B, and switch seamlessly into A, fully seven times, with the listener hardly noticing. If you’ve never seen Goodall’s special on the Beatles, it’s well worth it, so here, and the part about Penny Lane begins at about the 20 minute mark:

And everyone, of course, is delighted by the baroque piccolo trumpet solo, played by classical virtuoso David Mason of the Royal Philharmonic, who was recruited by George Martin after Paul indicated he was looking for the same sound he’d heard the previous night on the telly, while watching a performance of Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto. Mason, as a classically trained musician, of course needed something written in musical notation, which Paul couldn’t produce, so he simply hummed what he heard in his head to a no doubt hastily scribbling Martin, and there you had it – something new from J.S. Bach, his spirit channeled, somehow, through a 25 year old pop star in England:

Here’s my Song of the Day entry, from December 2018 – it’s a goodie (even if I do say so myself):

Got to Get You Into My Life

Another obvious single that never was, Got to Get You Into My Life, with its big brass ensemble going to town, is a sort of Jazz/Soul/R&B fusion, part nod to the Motown Sound, and part tribute to the hits then coming out of Stax Records in Memphis. Rounding out Paul’s supernaturally eclectic contributions to Revolver (which many regard as their greatest album), it features yet another outstanding vocal performance, and catchy lyrics that sound for all the world like they’re about a girl, but actually, so McCartney has always insisted, are “an ode to pot…like someone else might write an ode to chocolate or a good claret.“ Harrison’s howling guitar break at the end supplies a superb outro, and the session players, a mixture of freelance Jazz musicians and a couple of members from a London club outfit called the Blue Flames, tackle their parts with exemplary gusto. Lennon rated this as one of Paul’s best.

I said “single that never was”, but this applies only to the Beatles, and only at the time. Cliff Richard took a version into the U.K. top 10 in 1966, and ten years later, Earth, Wind and Fire did the same in America, prompting Capitol to release a 45 of The Beatle’s version in promotion of another of their money-grubbing re-packagings (a double album anthology called “Rock & Roll Music”), which also climbed into the top 10.

She’s Leaving Home

One of the major compositions from the Sgt. Pepper album, She’s Leaving Home has about as much to do with Rock & Roll, and with 20th century pop music in general, as tournament chess has to do with foosball, which didn’t endear it to a lot of the emerging rock press. It wasn’t written for them. It’s entirely of another time and place, utterly exquisite, “the equal of anything Schubert ever wrote” in the famous estimation of classical song composer Ned Rorem, and one of the ones that convinced poor Brian Wilson that he’d never achieve his aim of topping the Beatles; Paul paid him a visit in late 1966, played a take on piano, and Brian and his wife both found themselves wiping away tears. Particularly beautiful are the juxtapositions between lead and backing vocals, McCartney hitting the high notes with unerring precision, and John supplying counterpoint in lower tones sounding smooth as a cello, their tracks, incredibly, recorded simultaneously, side by side in the studio, standing just a few feet apart at microphones individually adjusted to produce different ambience. The isolated vocals are a thing of wonder:

Paul is the storyteller, basing the lyrics on a newspaper article he’d read about a young runaway, while John plays the bewildered, traumatized parents, who simply can’t understand why their baby girl has left them, after they’d scrimped, and sacrificed, and devoted their lives to the child. We gave her most of our lives, they moan, we gave her everything money could buy. “It was all just things Auntie Mimi used to say”, explained John.

Oh, and yup, that’s another plagal cadence that winds things up, as Paul’s voice climbs for the heavens and John sadly responds with an inconsolable “bye, bye…”, quite possibly the very best musical resolution out of all the ones I’ve spent so much time praising here (though see Here There and Everywhere, below). Gets me every time.

The Back Seat of My Car

The lushly scored, multi-faceted extravaganza that closes out Ram, and a lot of peoples’ favourite cut on the album, The Back Seat of My Car was one of many that Paul had been tinkering with near the end of his Beatle days. Here he is noodling around with it during the Let it Be sessions:

Some hear a musical tribute to the more ambitious songs of Brian Wilson, and others have dubbed it another Abbey Road medley in miniature, while Paul was characteristically off-hand in his own description:

Back Seat of My Car is the ultimate teenage song, and even though it was a long time since I was a teenager and had to go to a girl’s dad and explain myself, it’s that kind of meet-the-parents song. It’s a good old driving song. [Sings] “We can make it to Mexico City.” I’ve never driven to Mexico City, but it’s imagination. And obviously “back seat” is snogging, making love.

Just a little ditty about snogging, that’s all.

Jesus, he sure can write a tune, though, can’t he?

Paperback Writer

The complex harmonies of Paperback Writer were another nod by Paul in Brian Wilson’s direction, but the heavy guitar riffs were obviously a riposte to the harder sounds of up-and-coming competitors like The Who and The Rolling Stones. Musically adventurous, and a major departure from the “boy meets girl” songs that to this point had been the Beatles’ bread and butter (as indeed was John’s magnificent Rain, the reverse on this “Double A Side” single), Paperback Writer emerged from a challenge issued by Paul’s Auntie Lil, who asked ‘Why do you write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse, or a summit conference, or something interesting?”, inspiring McCartney to come up with this story of a hack pulp fiction writer looking for a publisher. Paul says he was thinking of the ubiquitous Penguin series of paperbacks as he developed the lyrics.

On the technical side, this and its companion piece mark a transition to a much more resonant, musical bass sound gaining greater prominence in the mix, the product of Paul’s repeated pleas to the engineers to figure out a way to match the recorded sounds coming out of Motown (in aid of which Paul switched in the studio from his venerable Hoffner to a new and superior model from Rickenbacker). This was achieved by using a loudspeaker as a microphone, placed in front of the bass speaker – the more advanced technique of “direct injection”, a process in which the bass was plugged directly into the mixing console, would come later. The song was also recorded at a much louder volume than prior tracks, as could now be achieved without undue distortion owing to an Abbey Road innovation dubbed Automatic Transient Overload Control.

That’s Paul on lead guitar, and the lads are actually chanting snippets of Frére Jacques at some points in the harmonies.

The Fool On the Hill

One of the better interludes from the otherwise generally disastrous (and viciously panned) Magical Mystery Tour film had Paul wandering about the pleasant green fields of Nice, France, to the soundtrack of this riff on the classic theme of the misunderstood sage whom everybody thinks is a witless kook. The verses are in D major while the chorus changes to D Minor, creating the contrast between what’s true and what people say, the whole overlaid by flutes and recorder, with intermittent addition of harmonica to emphasize the rhythm.

Once again, this sure as Shinola ain’t rock & roll, to the dismay of a few contemporary critics, but c’mon, it’s almost unbelievably lovely, don’t you think? Writer Ian MacDonald, author of a superb book of Beatles scholarship titled Revolution in the Head, which is not always kind to McCartney, described it as “an airy creation, poised peacefully above the world in a place where time and haste are suspended”, a favourable opinion echoed by most everybody, these days. Musicians always understood. Artists as varied as Bjork, The Four Tops, Petula Clarke, Aretha Franklin, Sergio Mendes, and Bobbie Gentry, among many, many others, have recorded their own versions over the years.  

I Saw Her Standing There

Pretty much everybody would agree that Please Please Me, their real 1962 debut album (don’t come at me with that American Meet the Beatles, shit, O.K?) was John’s record, but it opens with this, McCartney’s first bona fide rock classic. When he counts in at the beginning – who, among those of us of a certain age, doesn’t have that exuberant “one-two-three-Fuh” impressed indelibly in memory? – it’s the sound of a whole new era dawning. Listening to this, sixty years later, one understands straight away that the first thing that took these guys to the top was the way they made everybody feel so wonderfully happy. They weren’t just fresh, and cheeky, and cool-looking, and all of that, they were infectiously overjoyed at being young and alive, and stuffed to the gills with raw talent, and they were here to pull you out of the doldrums. Dreary old England, seemingly mired in monochrome black and white since the end of the world war, suddenly emerged onto broad, sunlit uplands bathed in technicolour, and everybody within earshot, everybody all over the world, was soon swept up in the excitement, the thrilling sense that myriad positive changes weren’t merely possible, they were inevitable, and just around the corner.

Back in the USSR

Cheeky monkeys! The raucous, tremendously energetic opening cut on the White Album wasn’t just an affectionate tribute to the Beach Boys / Chuck Berry school of songwriting, with all its rah-rah “Back in the USA” / “Surfin USA”-style Murrican cheerleading, it was also a subversive parody, with its protagonist delighted to be returning not to the good old US of A, but – gadzooks – the USSR, where all the Commies hung out. The world’s most beautiful girls were in Georgia and the Ukraine, not California, and there was nothing to beat the majesty of the snow-capped Urals, or the pleasing sound of the balalaika, was there now comrade? Yikes! Blasphemy! Believe it or not, there’d long been talk among the John Birchers and other denizens of the radical American right that the Beatles were a Communist plot – you honestly thought that a bunch of unschooled scruffs from some podunk town in England could be writing music like that? – and Back in the USSR sealed the deal. See?!! SEE??!! The pinko bastards weren’t even trying to hide it anymore!


What can I say? Just listen, and weep, and thank whatever deity or deities you happen to worship that unworthy slobs like us were allowed to share some time with somebody who could compose such a thing. In his sleep.

This is another former Song of the Day, so here’s the more expansive write-up:

For the sake of completeness, I’ll note in passing that this is another one that ends with a plagal cadence.

Listen to What the Man Said

Call it light and frothy, call it shallow, call it brazenly commercial, Hell, call it disco – though when released, in 1975, this actually anticipated the disco craze, which hadn’t yet taken hold – but damn, it’s pretty hard to resist. One facet of Paul’s talent, and only one, was an uncanny ability to toss out hugely popular stuff that serious-minded music aficionados felt they weren’t really supposed to like, designed, as if by some diabolical form of advanced artificial intelligence, to tickle the musical sweet spot to the point that all rational objections became futile, while it loped up the charts to grab the top slot. Hello Goodbye was like that; Lennon hated the thing, but EMI didn’t want to hear about it, I Am the Walrus was never going to be a hit, and Hello Goodbye had #1 written all over it, so John got the B-side and that was that. Lennon fumed; some have said the demise of the Beatles began right there. I get it, but guess what, Hello Goodbye still brings a smile to my face, and so does Listen to What the Man Said, which, apart from its other charms, features superb saxophone work from session player and Jazz maestro Tom Scott. For what it is, it’s absolutely perfect.

Vanilla Sky

From the Cameron Crowe movie of the same name, and inspired when McCartney found himself momentarily nonplussed while out to dinner with the director at one of those fancy L.A. restaurants. The chef approached the table and proffered an amuse bouche, funny sounding words with which Paul, at his core still an unreconstructed Scouse git from Liverpool, bless his heart, was completely unfamiliar. “What’s he on about with this ‘musey bush’ business?” he thought, a little embarrassed that he didn’t understand, and the idea for the song began to germinate. There’s something lingering, something anxious and vaguely menacing, about Vanilla Sky. It’s like the internal monologue of a societal fish out of water who’s had some luck, and now finds himself travelling in new circles, enjoying luxuries he barely knew existed in the before time: wow, look at you, everything’s going great, just look at all the fancy food and shiny silverware, tonight you’re flying on a private jet, oh boy! – now don’t blow it, knucklehead.

Early Days

McCartney has a complicated relationship with his past, and the way others have portrayed it. In this lovely, scratchy-voiced old man’s reminiscence of youth, a time when he and his new best buddy John were striding the streets of late-1950s Liverpool, guitars strapped across their backs, unknown but destined, they both were sure, for the toppermost of the poppermost, a certain bitterness floats to the surface, even defensiveness. Paul’s still smarting, apparently, from the preposterously misguided misperception, promulgated mainly by snarky 1970s era rock & roll pundits like Jann Wenner over at Rolling Stone, that John was the real talent in the Beatles, and Paul was just the guy who wrote the lightweight toe-tappers for the old folks. Indeed, he’s pissed off generally about a whole host of distortions in the mythology about who wrote what, and who did what to whom, and he’s here to tell you: you weren’t there, and you don’t know. Screw all the nay-sayers anyway. There are those who know better, John knew better, and nobody can take that away from him.

The irony, of course, is that practically nobody still hews to the old nonsense that’s fuelled Paul’s insecurities for all these years. There’s been a belated but wholesale re-assessment, and from all I’m seeing lately, the official record has finally, and almost fully, been set straight. You can tell that McCartney still has his doubts.

Drive My Car

An archetypal distillation of the Beatles’ mid-period sound, recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions, and exemplifying the move away from songs about puppy love to the more imaginative stories and character studies that were coming to dominate the Lennon/McCartney songbook. Anomalous among the songs chosen here in being neither especially melodic nor particularly complicated – “sometimes two chords are all you need” said Paul – Drive My Car nevertheless charms on the strength of its catchy riff and it’s happy chants of “beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah!” Lennon referred to it as “son of Day Tripper”, after his own, similarly riff-dominated piece that sat on the flip side of Drive My Car on one of the group’s legendary double-A-side singles.

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window

During what came to be known as the “studio years”, after they quit touring, the Beatles continued to sell monumental craploads of records, but the general hysteria of Beatlemania waned, for the most part, devolving into something more akin to the rabid fandom enjoyed by mere mortals like movie stars and sports heroes. Still, there remained a hard core of obsessives, mostly female, who camped out in front of the Apple offices on Saville Row, and set up shop across the street from Paul’s house in St. John’s Wood, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols. They were known, not without some affection, as the “Apple Scruffs”, and it was one of these, a young woman later identified as Diane Ashley, who provided the inspiration for She Came in Through the Bathroom Window when she actually did just that, breaking into Paul’s home. As she later told a reporter:

We were bored, he was out, and so we decided to pay him a visit. We found a ladder in his garden and stuck it up at the bathroom window which he’d left slightly open. I was the one who climbed up and got in.

She and the others rummaged around and stole a few items, mainly some clothing and a few photographs, one of which, a picture of Paul’s Dad, was later retrieved by an Apple staffer, but Paul wasn’t about to call the cops and get them into any real trouble. Instead, he wrote the song that serves as the rollicking conclusion to Abbey Road’s Long Medley, coming just after Lennon’s hard-rock Polythene Pam (a real scorcher), and just before the album’s big conclusion, the majestic Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End, which begins after a brief but suitable pause.

From the Songfacts article:

Now married with four children, Diane keeps a framed photo of herself with Paul on her kitchen shelf and looks back on her days as an Apple Scruff with affection: “I don’t regret any of it. I had a great time, a really great time.”

For No One

This masterwork from Revolver is perhaps Paul’s most formally perfect composition, a really rather crushing tale of being kicked to the romantic curb told in spare, crisp verse that many regard as Paul’s best set of lyrics. It’s almost matter-of-fact; he really needs her, she really doesn’t need him back, and that there is what it is. The poor slob seems to have been labouring under the delusion that she was The One, and their love was mutual and timeless, but now, when he looks into her eyes, he sees nothing.

The famous French horn solo was performed by Alan Civil of the Philharmonia Orchestra, one of the very few session players to get a credit on a Beatles album sleeve. Like the later trumpet solo in Penny Lane, it was transcribed for the classical musician by George Martin, as hummed to him by Paul.

You Never Give Me Your Money

Another multi-part tour de force, serving as a self-contained medley within a medley on the legendary second side of Abbey Road. Opinions differ on whether the “Long Medley” actually begins with John’s contemplative Because, or only starts here with the plaintive, heart-rending opening notes of a lament, written about the soul-destroying business squabbles at Apple, that sounds sad enough to be about the death of a loved one, which, in a way, it was. It’s barely underway, delicate and mournful, before transitioning into an up-tempo, R&B/boogie-styled piece describing the state of being young, rudderless, and chronically unemployed (but oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go), then shifting again into a straight-ahead rock and roll fantasy about making a getaway in a fast car (step on the gas, and wipe that tear away). It’s masterfully done – when essayist Alan Gopnik writes about McCartney’s supernatural “grasp of the materials of music”, this is just what he’s talking about – and washes over the listener in a dense, beautifully recorded soundscape that several generations of Prog Rock wannabes would spend the next several decades trying to emulate. It was getting difficult to believe, at this point, but the Beatles were still growing, evolving, and changing their basic sound.

Here There and Everywhere

If For No One isn’t Paul’s most formally perfect composition, this companion piece from Revolver has to take the prize. Written in a style that harks back to an earlier era of songwriting, with its brief melodic preamble (just the way the Old Masters used to do it) and its pure, unselfconscious romanticism, Here There and Everywhere is just so disarmingly, enchantingly beautiful that even loquacious blabbermouths like me can barely find the words. This is what Richard Rodgers saw coming when he telegrammed the Ed Sullivan show to inform the lads that he’d just joined the Beatles fan club, and I’d wager that if only they’d lived to hear it, Cole Porter and George Frigging Gershwin would have signed up too. Plus – plus – and sorry, not sorry to keep banging away on this kettle drum – pause for a moment to consider the sheer elegance with which Paul brings it to a satisfying close. Wow. Honestly, wow. As long as you live, you’ll never hear it done any better than that.

Hey Jude

Once again, what can I say?

Well, plenty, actually, so here’s my prior Song of the Day entry:

Eleanor Rigby

Yet another masterpiece from Revolver – young Paul was certainly on a roll wasn’t he? – Eleanor Rigby was frankly an amazing thing to hear coming out of the same electric guitar pop combo that just a couple of years prior had been whipping the teeny-boppers into a lather with songs about holding hands and falling in and out of delirious adolescent love. Yes, it has an obvious antecedent in the similarly orchestrated Yesterday, from 1965, but the earlier song was still about love and heartbreak. Yes, the songs of the Rubber Soul period had seen both John and Paul turning away from simple love songs to something richer, and more sophisticated, but In My Life, I’m Looking Through You, Girl, Day Tripper and so on were again focused squarely on the opposite sex (it’s just that the women were no longer portrayed as mere idealized love objects). This, on the other hand, was a stark portrayal of lonely, forgotten people dying anonymous deaths, tragic, but clear-eyed and unsentimental. That brief, blunt description of poor Eleanor’s funeral, dry almost to the point of being indifferent: nobody came; the indelible image of the old priest sitting alone at night, darning his socks all by himself, and writing sermons that nobody ever hears; the strange yet eerily compelling description of Eleanor wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door, as if she goes through the motions behind a facade, while underneath there’s nothing but an absence, because really there’s nobody there any more; it prompted a reappraisal of what a pop song could be, and of what the Beatles, manifestly, were able to do.

The string arrangement features an octet, not a quartet as widely asserted, and was scored with the considerable assistance of George Martin to resemble the tense, unnerving work of film composer Bernard Herrmann (think of the shower scene in Psycho). The generally morbid tone is also enhanced by the song’s unconventional structure, based not on a key, but a mode, a more ancient musical form that hadn’t been widely popular with songwriters since sometime around 1400 AD or so, but remained a facet of the church music Paul would have heard as a child. I’ll let Howard Goodall explain – this time advance the video to the 29 minute mark:

Paul has always insisted, and no doubt honestly believes, that he fabricated the name Eleanor Rigby out of pure imagination, thinking on the one hand about actress Eleanor Bron, who’d appeared in Help!, and on the other of the proprietor’s last name as displayed on the sign over a wine and spirits store he’d run across in Bristol. Yet nobody can get past the extraordinary coincidence, discovered many years later, of a name that appears near the bottom of a forlorn headstone, sitting in the graveyard located only a stone’s throw from the very spot where John and Paul first met on the afternoon of July 6, 1957:

Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End

And then the magic carpet ride was over. Nobody knew this was going to be the last hurrah, not out here among the listening public, at any rate, nor was there anything in the immaculately produced music of Abbey Road that hinted at the band’s demise. It was another step forward, like all their albums, vibrant, beautifully recorded, and full of tight ensemble playing. The Beatles had seemed fractured on the prior White Album; now they’d rekindled the spirit of their finest moments, and seemed to be revelling in what their combined talents could produce.

In retrospect, one can’t help but sense that they felt in their bones this was going to be it, and they wanted to go out in style.

So we arrive at the end of the Long Medley, with what has to stand as one of their finest and most magisterial moments, and one of their most philosophically beautiful, too. Once there was a way to get back home, begins Paul over his mournful piano. The inspiration came from an Elizabethan Era poem by Thomas Dekker:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

The lyrics track the poem fairly closely, except, tellingly, the sentiments about losing the way home, and then being left to carry that weight for a long time, were Paul’s own. Still just 27 years old, he was now scaling to dizzying musical heights; did he know he would never be back there again?  It’s hard not to discern a sad awareness of all that was soon to be lost in this wonderful little song suite, another remarkable pastiche of disparate styles (including the amazing “guitar duel” in which John, Paul and George take turns cranking out howling riffs on their respective instruments) that seems to have been written deliberately to serve as the capstone of an era – but who wants to exit crying?  The great, beautiful music machine that was the Beatles was just about to be sent to the breakers and turned into scrap, but why weep, when instead there was still time to take her out for one last glorious spin?  Better to leave on a high note, yes? Thus the howling electrical guitars vanish in a flash, to leave behind a single sweet note played on piano, over which is delivered a sort of benediction:

And in the end, the love you take

is equal to the love you make.

The orchestra swells and lingers on one last gorgeous note for just long enough, and no longer, and it’s all over (listen to the 1:14 mark of the “mini-documentary” attached above, and you’ll hear the preferred take of that very note on the master tape, with Paul exclaiming “Keep that one! Mark it fab!”)

I’ll let musicologist Walter Everett have the last word [See Everett, The Beatles as Musicians, from Revolver to Anthology, beginning at location 5775 in the Kindle edition]:

While not an unusual theme for the Beatles, and certainly one of central importance to John Lennon, as in “The Word”, and “All You Need is Love”, it seems rewarding to hear this uplifting message as a very personal final gift from Paul to his mates, as well as from the Beatles to the world. ‘Tis true that a good play needs no epilogue, but McCartney’s ear for structural balance graces a fine medley with a better coda.

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