Wednesday, June 27, 2012


In preparation for the reissue of Ram (1971), I spent some time with the album that immediately preceded it in Paul's body of work, McCartney (1970), which was Macca's first solo record.
In contrast with Ram, McCartney is viewed today much like it was upon its release. At that time, critics gave it a mixed verdict. They swooned over "Maybe I'm Amazed" but counted the album's prevailing mode - loose, tossed-off, homespun - as an inescapable flaw. From what I can gather, that opinion hasn't changed a lot over the years. It's certainly close to my take. I find McCartney enjoyable but far from memorable. It boasts some inspired moments but not nearly enough. Too much of its charm fades as quickly as it sets in, due in large measure to how many of the songs feel like rushed, incomplete thoughts. Yes, Paul shows considerable range in his songwriting. And yes, there's a certain appeal to the DIY aesthetic. But McCartney was the first proper solo album to be released by any of The Beatles, and it's understandable that most people were expecting something more than a rumpled collection of demo-like jams, loopy instrumentals, and acoustic ditties broken up by a few gems. It disappointed then, and it still disappoints today.
What has changed between then and now is, 40-plus years after the fact, we're better positioned to speculate on the psychological component of McCartney. Even if the music doesn't fully satisfy, there's plenty of interest below the surface and behind the scenes. After all, against the wishes of John, George, and Ringo, Paul released McCartney before Let It Be, which quickly became a source of heated conflict and pushed The Beatles to their demise. A number of questions surface: What is the album's true place in the narrative of The Beatles' breakup? Was the release of McCartney a premeditated power play, the result of a churlish fit, or something else? What impression was Paul trying to create with it? And so forth. After background details and a breakdown of the songs, I'll touch on these questions.
Because The Beatles were, for all intents and purposes, on hiatus after Abbey Road, Paul found himself with ample time to freelance and make the music he wanted. He recorded McCartney between late 1969 and March of 1970. In a way, it was the fulfillment of his original vision for Let It Be, which emphasized a stripped-down, "back-to-basics" approach. Paul recorded most of the album at his home on a four-track. He played all of the instruments, and the only other person who made an appearance was his then-wife Linda, who contributed an occasional vocal. George Martin - and his trademark studio polish - was nowhere to be found, and neither were any of the other Beatles.
Operating on his own, Paul seized the opportunity to dabble in different sounds. Beyond the album's undercooked form, this is what stands out most about McCartney: it's a grab-bag of sonic styles. There are ad-libbed miniature love songs ("The Lovely Linda"); helpings of brawny blues-rock ("That Would Be Something," "Valentine Day," "Oo You"); mazy electro-instrumentals ("Hot as Sun/Glasses," "Momma Miss America," "Kreen-Akrore"); plaintive ballads ("Junk"); instrumental renditions of those plaintive ballads ("Singalong Junk"); sides of light country boogie ("Man We Was Lonely"); and acoustic dream-pop ("Teddy Boy"). Among these entries, the song quality doesn't move around as much as the genres do, but it doesn't get very high either. Paul seems to sleepwalk through most of the album, content to try this and try that but not try that hard. With too many jams and song sketches and too few fully realized cuts, McCartney emits a shaggy, come-and-go-as-you-please vibe. It's perfectly listenable but rarely does it compel you to stick around for long.
There are exceptions. Graced by those joy-kissed "woo-woo-woos," "Every Night" is the high point of Side One and a fine song in its own right. Of most significance is that Paul paints an evocative picture of pain and vulnerability with the lyric. As a Beatle, he didn't often explore introspective territory; he left that to John. Paul was the happy-go-lucky Fab, and most of the emotions he did exhibit came with a universal cast. On "Every Night," he plays against type and cracks the curtain a bit. The song's opening lines: "Every night I just want to go out/Get out of my head/Every day I don't want to get up/Get out of my bed." This is a window into Paul's life amidst The Beatles' breakup: he had been boozing heavily and was depressed. Separated from his band, he felt adrift. Luckily, he had Linda to lean on for support. The lyric continues: "But tonight I just want to stay in/And be with you." Cue the "woo-woo-woos." When they hit, it's like a sun piercing through gloomy clouds, slowly but unmistakably. Without Linda, Paul may have gone to pieces after The Beatles called it quits.
Of course, Linda was the inspiration for the best and most enduring cut on McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed." Like "Every Night," it shows Paul in a vulnerable state: "Maybe I'm afraid of the way I love you." Unlike "Every Night," "Maybe I'm Amazed" wraps Paul's confession of weakness in dramatic, even triumphant sonics. With a monster backbeat, lively piano fills, and that impassioned vocal, the song soars. When Paul exclaims, "Baby I'm a man/And maybe you're the only woman/Who could ever help me," it's the sound of him moving on with his life. Worthy of The Beatles' better output, "Maybe I'm Amazed" hasn't aged a day because Paul's emotions, delivered with such thrilling conviction, still ring true.
When Paul finished recording these 13 tracks, the expectation was that he wouldn't put them out until after Let It Be was released. (As you'll recall, The Beatles recorded Let It Be in early 1969 but shelved it due to dissatisfaction with the album's quality.) Paul had other ideas. Saddened by the slow-motion death of his band, isolated from almost everyone but Linda, and perhaps feeling empowered by his new-found freedom, he made the fateful decision to release McCartney in advance of the Fabs' last album. The other Beatles caught wind of this, and Ringo, who himself was delaying the release of a solo album, was sent to Paul's home in an effort to change his mind. Paul didn't react well to the gesture. He lost his cool and kicked Ringo out. On April 20 1970, McCartney was officially released. No singles accompanied it, and little promotional work was done on its behalf. However, included with advance copies of the album was a printed Q&A between Apple Records and Paul. Here's an excerpt:
Q: "Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?"
PAUL: "No."
Q: "Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?"
PAUL: "Time will tell. Being a solo album means it's 'the start of a solo career...' and not being done with the Beatles means it's just a rest. So it's both."
Q: "Is your break with the Beatles temporary or permanent, due to personal differences or musical ones?"
PAUL: "Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don't really know."
Q: "Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?"
PAUL: "No."
Boom. Once in their possession, the British press ran wild with the Q&A. The Beatles had cheated death before, but there was no coming back after Paul's juicy provocation.
The question naturally arises: why did Paul do what he did? My theory goes as follows: It was obvious to most that, at the turn of the decade, The Beatles were a sinking ship. The media knew, Apple Records knew, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo knew. Up until that point, John had been the most vocal of the Four about wanting to dissolve the band. George was also disillusioned, but he lacked John's forceful will. In the middle was Ringo, who didn't evince strong feelings one way or another. Then there was Paul, who clearly cared more than the others about keeping the band together. (It's fitting that, from start to bitter finish, the principle dynamic of The Beatles was the contrast between John and Paul.) Because it was evident that the end was fast approaching, Paul likely calculated that, barring something unforeseen, history would recognize John as the one who broke up the band. The official narrative would cite his fierce and chaotic personality as the force that ultimately dictated the fate of the greatest act in pop music history. Such an interpretation would inevitably cast Paul as the loser of this final power struggle. Possessing an enormous ego (justifiably), Paul didn't like what he saw coming. He had to distance himself - and quickly - from his image as The Beatle Who Cared The Most About The Beatles. So in haste, he recorded McCartney and took part in the Q&A. Soon after, John, Paul, George and Ringo were no more, and - in the eyes of many - Macca had orchestrated it. Mission accomplished.
Not exactly. If what I've described mirrors Paul's actual plan, it can't be called a big-picture success. Many factors went into The Beatles' breakup, but if any one individual contributed the most it was John. Paul's desperate power play (if that's what it was) merely hastened the outcome that John had been pursuing for some time. The history books acknowledge this fact.
What they also acknowledge is that, whether or not it was part of a gambit by Paul, McCartney was and remains a slack, underwhelming record that has survived mainly because "Maybe I'm Amazed" gives life to everything it touches. Paul's full lengths would get better, but his singles from then on had a lofty standard to meet

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