In Praise of Paul McCartney
I’m at a stage in life where I avoid overly ambitious projects, but a little goal I’ve set myself during lockdown is to listen to all McCartney’s post Beatles work. I know very little about it, despite having been a keen Beatles enthusiast since the age of 7, 43 years ago. When you stop to think about it, there’s no logical reason not to take an interest in his later work — if you’re counting there’s 50 years of it versus the 7 years of recorded music we have from the fabs, so surely there’s plenty to enjoy in there — unless you believe McCartney’s songwriting gifts left him the day he left the Beatles, or if you maybe believe he had none (see below).
Now the last thing the world needs is someone else writing about the Beatles but I was prompted to write this article because I mentioned this to a colleague and he said
“I avoid him, not because he’s not a talented guy but because he always strikes me as a really objectionable chap”
This remark has stuck with me like a pebble in my shoe. I was going to send a well reasoned but opposite response, but didn’t really want to get into petty argument / tart riposte territory. I do feel there is plenty to say in return though and it got me thinking — why this response? There’s a lot of ‘Lennon was the true genius / hate Paul’ feeling out there ( not universal, of course ) but did you ever meet anyone who felt the opposite?
I don’t know why people think this way but I did think I would offer a case against. It might make someone think again, and they’d be doing both themselves a favour and McCartney less of an injustice.
There’s no sense in which Paul was less than 50% of Lennon/McCartney. If you think the true gems of the Beatles canon were the sole province of Lennon then I direct you to ‘For No One’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and of course ‘Yesterday’. The first two are exquisite works of social commentary and I find it astonishing that McCartney wrote them at the tender age of 23 and 24 respectively — offering as keen an insight into the human condition as George Eliot or Iris Murdoch. ‘Yesterday’ is now so familiar we maybe fail to hear its brilliance. I would further direct you to ‘Here, There and Everywhere’  as perfect a song south of ‘Yesterday’ as you could hope to find. I have to crowbar ‘And I Love Her’  in there too, written before Paul’s 22nd birthday — a beautiful song, and if the music were not enough listen to the words.
Sometimes the sense that McCartney was merely the romantic balladeer prevails and true enough he is that — two examples above. The thing is, McCartney can pretty much do anything he wants. Listen to him take the lead on the Beatles’ nailing of Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ , the balls out hysteria of Help b-side I’m Down or his completely authentic raw bluesy vocal on ‘Oh Darling!’. No one trick pony he.
I offer you ‘Blackbird’. I think I heard Bob Geldof say once that the man who wrote Blackbird had no reason to apologise for anything. Inspired perhaps by the song of the eponymous garden warbler, it is as perfect a man and guitar piece as you might wish to hear - its tricksy picking making it a favourite with guitar apprentices. Paul’s daughter Stella picked it out as the song she chose to represent her father’s work on Desert Island Discs in 2017.
I like many people have overlooked McCartney’s solo work. Listening to it back, it’s time for a re-appraisal. I’m looking forward to my own journey. A couple of high points so far are ‘Tug of War’ (1982) and ‘Pipes of Peace’ (1983), both of which saw Paul working with George Martin for the first time since the Beatles dissolution. Fabulous albums. Quite honestly, I’m not sure there is a dud track on either.
The first and title track, ‘Tug of War’ of this album is as fine a song as you might wish to find. A well navigated metaphor Paul pulls out all the stops with the simple beginning rising to a rousing orchestral climax complete with masterful flourishes such as the military snares and the beautiful but unexpected backing vocals. I personally love ‘Ballroom Dancing’ with its Lady Madonna-esque piano, Ray Davies-like nostalgia and the joie-de-vivre of the vocal ( just listen to the different registers, with the rock and roll howl thrown in). Listen too to the instrumental section featuring a few seconds of Motown brass, followed by swing band homage, followed by a little funkiness and mariachi trumpet before we wind back into the verse. McCartney is like a painter with sound — taking genres and sounds and applying them to his canvas, such is his mastery. I’ve always loved ‘Take It Away’ — deceptively throwaway in the style of ‘Get Back’, it’s seemingly effortless glide belies the work that must have been put in. Love the Steely-Dan style piano, the again awesome backing vocals — particularly the third verse. Love too, the brass during the fade — fabulous work on the arrangement (George Martin). ‘What’s That You’re Doing’ is a funky duet with Stevie Wonder and McCartney steps up to the plate so well it’s hard to distinguish his vocal from Stevie’s. ‘Ebony and Ivory’ many years on now sounds like a genuine plea for racial tolerance.
On its own from ‘Tug of War’ is perhaps ‘Here Today’ — McCartney’s tribute to John Lennon. A deep and heartfelt response to the fall of his songwriting partner, it is a song McCartney frequently performs live. Carefully wrought it avoids thoughtless cliche and is a worthy and moving attempt at honouring the fall of his comrade.
‘Pipes of Peace’ carries on in similar vein — many of the tracks originating in the ‘Tug of War’ sessions. High points include ‘Say,Say,Say’ with Michael Jackson — again, listening years later, I think it more than ranks with the best of Jackson’s work and is surprisingly catchy. ‘The Other Side’ is a heartfelt love song and for those who dismiss McCartney’s work as ‘sentiment and schmaltz’, after 14 years of marriage, perhaps a truer love song than the ‘boy meets girl’ nature of earlier work ( delightful though it may be). ‘Average Person’ is reminiscent of Penny Lane with its engine driver, waitress and boxer complete with nicely judged sound effects. ‘Tug of Peace’ is new territory with it’s African poly-rhythms and the closer, ‘Through Our Love’ is a frankly epic love song, beautifully constructed, starting and finishing with a single violin note and again beautiful backing vocals.
I really must also highlight Paul’s vocals throughout. He is a beautiful singer — pitch perfect always, with tremendous talent for styling. Again, so familiar, you just stop noticing. ‘Tug of War’ really showcases this but listen to the different approaches he takes in the likes of ‘Average Person’, ‘Ballroom Dancing’ or the really quite stunning ‘What’s that you’re doing’.
So ‘objectionable chap’? Really?
Probably not even the most objectionable chap in the Beatles if you insist on choosing one. Lennon was known to be brusque and deliberately acidic and hurtful. His famous ‘Why not call it “Queer Jew”’ as a suggestion to Brian Epstein as a title for his autobiography doesn’t sit well today. By his own admission  he hit women and men. ‘How do you Sleep’ is an un-necessarily vitriolic and public put down regarded as something of a high water mark for falling out in popular music.
Beyond that let us consider the likes of Phil Spector, Morrissey (sadly), well known members of 70s hard rock bands with little regard for the age of those they are sleeping with and lets not even get started on the likes of R. Kelly, Ian Watkins and Michael Jackson.
McCartney by contrast seems to have lived a quiet and relatively blameless life, while being one of the most famous and sought after men in the world — maintaining a happy marriage and successfully bringing up his four children with Linda, Linda’s daughter from a previous marriage and Beatrice, his daughter from his marriage to Heather Mills. He’s lived in this country all his life and presumably paid his taxes.
I’d really like to see an end to the whole Paul v John thing. I have equal regard for Lennon’s work and when listening to the likes of ‘Jealous Guy’ or ‘Watching the Wheels’ you do wonder if anything else is possibly that good. ‘Plastic Ono Band’ is almost on its own as a cry from the soul — there’s nothing quite that wrenching in Paul’s solo work, but then, is there in anyone’s?
But think on this, I once heard someone say that Paul McCartney has brought more happiness to more people than any other man alive. What a beautiful thing it is to contemplate the probable truth of that statement.
Give him a break, and if you do hate, stop hating. Want to know more, check out Tom Doyle’s excellent ‘Man on the Run’ and listen to those records.
 As an example of McCartneys songwriting mastery, observe he starts each verse with the three prepositions of the title — a deliberate challenge he set himself.
 Does he deliberately echo Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty …’?
 Comparative obscurity, but available on the Beatles ‘Past Masters’ — https://open.spotify.com/track/7ds98B8y5BQltzC60Gdkri?si=x-HsOI0ERGabIcg5hae5rQ
 ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loves’ — Getting Better ’67. ‘I used to be a hitter, that’s why I talk so much about peace’ — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpSiB4-og_o