kind of musician/composer is Paul McCartney? This may seem like an odd question, given that his unprecedented and unparalleled commercial success, even if it has not always been matched by concomitant critical approval, means that everyone thinks they have the story on Paul. After all, McCartney is listed in The Guinness Book Of Records as the most successful musician and composer in popular music history, with 60 gold discs and sales of 100 million singles. ‘Yesterday’ (credited to Lennon/McCartney, as all songs by either one as Beatles were, but composed entirely by McCartney) is listed as the most-covered song in history, by over 3,500 artists to date. Wings’ 1977 single ‘Mull of Kintyre’ became the first single to sell more than two million copies in the UK, and remains the top selling non-charity single there. He is the most successful songwriter in UK singles history, based on weeks that his compositions have spent on the charts. As a performer or songwriter, McCartney has been responsible for 30 number-one singles on the US Hot 100 chart, 20 of them with The Beatles, the rest with Wings or as a solo artist. You want someone for the British finale of Live Aid in 1985, and again for 2005’s 20th Anniversary Live 8 show, who you gonna call, Bob? The X-Factor final 2009? Fab Macca, of course. And yet, who would care to define, accurately and based on a more than superficial knowledge, what his music is actually like?
He’s been at it for a long time now, and his discography encompasses everything from charming folk to layered pop to amiable, household rock’n’roll to piledriving, uncompromising heavy metal to art-pop inclinations to lounge to classical. He touched on the English folk tradition in songs like ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ and ‘Blackbird’, from 1968’s The Beatles (aka The White Album) and ‘Jenny Wren’ from 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, joining the dots between Davy Graham, Nick Drake and Richard Thompson. There are the forays into blues, ‘Used To Be Bad’ and ‘Really Love You’, on 1997’s Flaming Pie. The more arcane corners of his back catalogue stretch from the classical Liverpool Oratorio (1991) to the electronica-based Liverpool Sound Collage (2000), to say nothing of the little-heard Thrillington (1977), made up of easy listening, big-band swing orchestral/instrumental versions of songs from his second album (co-credited to Linda) Ram (1971), recorded under the alter-ego Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington. Indeed, he has a penchant for adopting a persona for his more outré excursions from his cosily good-humoured public image, as the three pseudonymous collaborations as The Fireman, with ex-Killing Joke’s bassist and pioneering ambient house producer, Youth, demonstrate. ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’, from Ram, sounds like nothing so much as Tom Waits’ junkyard clatter avant la lettre, which in turn sounds like…? Leadbelly? In interview, he has evinced mild annoyance at being dubbed ‘the greatest living composer of love songs’, maintaining such a view is based largely on a misconception, and that he has written his share of nasty songs as well. “Remember ‘Helter Skelter’? That was me”, (Incidentally, the usually incisive Ian MacDonald, in his meticulous concordance of Beatles’ songs, Revolution in the Head, has a definite blind spot for this composition, failing to share its composer’s regard for it, declaring: “…their attempts at emulating the heavy style were without exception embarrassing”.)
So, he is a chameleon, and there perhaps lies his problem with how he is perceived: people who can be all things to all men (and women) invite the accusation that they have no real self. Devoid of essence, they don a series of masks, and tell you what you want to hear. It is even possible to treat what should be a positive characteristic, this voracious musical curiosity and impulse towards experimentation/innovation, with suspicion: why does he need to pretend to be someone else when he is doing it, rather than using his own name? It seems he is torn between self-conscious commercialism and the kind of music he makes when he’s not trying too hard to sell records. Then again, he hardly needs the money, so why worry if sales of a particular record are large or small? Is he afraid of confusing his fair-weather, mainstream audience? Or is it that he needs the status and recognition his continuing fame affords? Without being tiresomely Freudian about it, one of his bonding experiences with John Lennon was that they had in common the early deaths of their mothers (McCartney’s of cancer when he was 15, Lennon’s run over by a car when he was 19.) The psychology of public performing suggests that not only is taking to the stage in pursuit of the love and approval of millions a means of sublimating grief, but also a belated attempt to prove oneself to an absent parent.
The chief arguments marshalled by his detractors begin with the assumption that the years of mediocre, formulaic pop were motivated primarily by avarice. The term ‘filler’ – as used by mp3 single-track downloading kids about their parents’ album collections – could have been coined for much of McCartney’s solo output. Then there is the fact that he can undoubtedly be lyrically facile. His tendency towards whimsy and mawkish sentimentality are trying. Has a major artist ever released a more cringingly banal single than ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’? And let’s not even get started on the ham-fisted pleas for togetherness, ‘Pipes of Peace’ and ‘Ebony and Ivory’, or the dubious 9/11 response, ‘Freedom’. It can sometimes seem that if arch media prankster Victor Lewis-Smith’s assertion that the Beatles are dying in the wrong order has any validity, then Ringo will be next.
However, there is much to be countered in his defence. Firstly, when the group they formed as teenagers split up, The Beatles were all still young men: George 26, Paul 27, John 28, Ringo 29. Apart from being an utterly jaw-dropping achievement, the revolutionary arc of their 12 studio albums and two dozen singles, all recorded in only six and a half years, was also going to be a hard act to follow in their solo careers. McCartney even seems to have presciently realised this at the time: Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight/Carry that weight a long time.
Further complications were added to the fear that whatever they would do individually would never match what they had done together. There was the long competitive feuding with Lennon, the character-assassinating answer songs, the comparisons in the press not only of their work, but also their personalities. Plus, he was Paul McCartney, ex-Beatle, and so unlike most débuting solo artists, nobody was going to tell him that he couldn’t release whatever he wanted to release, which might account for the poor quality-control. It is frequently overlooked that that quality control barometer has certainly been more active in recent years, albeit in part as a response to a lack of chart action, with Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) and Memory Almost Full (2007) late career highpoints, while his latest album as The Fireman, Electric Arguments, is an exhilaratingly loose-limbed, improvisatory freak-out. Then, those who prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet, if public figures, have the advantage that while many feel they have ownership of them, nobody really owns them. Melody comes easily to him, and this facility can lead to his seeming, or more seriously being, facile, musically as well as lyrically. Being good at pop means his rockier and art-rock sides sometimes lose out. But he is conscious of the dangers of his own soft side, addressing it directly and self-deprecatingly on Chaos and Creation’s ‘English Tea’: Very twee, very me. It has been plausibly speculated that ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ was a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the banning of preceding single, Paul-as-protest-singer’s comment on Bloody Sunday, ‘Give Ireland Back to The Irish’.
But the greatest rebuttal to his critics is the sheer scope and excellence of the set list he will bring to Dublin, as documented on newly-released live opus Good Evening New York City, which is pretty much the same songs in the same order as he has been playing on his US tour over summer 2009. The 35 songs, weighted two-thirds in favour of Beatles over solo stuff, consist not only of standards like ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’, but less familiar material like Electric Argument’s ‘Sing The Changes’ and ‘Highway’.
Besides, the international institution that is Sir Paul McCartney MBE hardly needs any special pleading by me. With tickets for this sold out show purportedly fetching up to €500 on touts’ websites, even those grubby commercial considerations have long since been well taken care of.