As part of my lectures on National Trust Tours, I’ve occasionally asked fellow travelers to think with me about how old something needs to be before ― you know ― its old. How do we determine that it is historic? Then I ask this question: Please raise your hand if you can remember the first time you felt old?
I don’t know what your answer would be, but the day I first felt old was in the late 1990s when I heard that the British National Trust had acquired the boyhood home of Paul McCartney. A couple of years later they also acquired John Lennon’s childhood home. Whoa! How could this be…this wasn’t old, for that meant…that I was old!
I’ve always been one of those individuals who was a little sheepish about my feelings toward Lennon and McCartney. The cool kids suggested that John Lennon was the real creative genius behind the Beatles, and that McCartney was just a good salesman. But I was always drawn more to McCartney’s music and style. I tended to keep this perspective to myself…until I read Ian Leslie‘s magnificent essay from 2020 entitled 64 Reasons to Celebrate Paul McCartney.
Leslie has written a VERY long piece, and you may begin to flag well before you get to reason number 64. But I’ll tempt you with excerpts from a couple of his points and encourage you to go to the link at The Ruffian and read the entire post.
Here’s reason #3:
Perhaps this is a good moment to take a step back, the better to observe something astonishing: Paul McCartney has been writing and performing music more or less continuously since 1956. That’s sixty-four years. For the best part of a century, he has been creating songs that people sing in the shower and belt out in the car; songs to which people dance, run, cook, kiss and get married; songs we sing in crowds; songs we get stoned to; songs we sing with our kids; songs that wrap themselves around us when we’re down; songs that fill us to the brim with joy. His finest work is undoubtedly frontloaded by the miraculous accident of The Beatles, but there are gems scattered throughout his career, right up to the present day. For sheer fecundity, I can’t, with the exception of Bob Dylan, think of any other songwriter who comes close.…
Reason #5 to celebrate this terrific artist:
McCartney’s reputation has never fully recovered from the shredding it took when The Beatles broke up. He is still compared unfavourably to his most important creative partner. Lennon is soulful, deep, and radical; McCartney is shallow, trivial and bourgeois. That dualism, which took hold in 1970 and was reinforced by Lennon’s horribly premature death, still holds sway. Probably if you asked most people who know a little about The Beatles to say who they found most interesting, John would be the most common answer. If you surveyed Beatles nerds I suspect they would be more likely to say Paul, since the more you learn about the band the more stunned you are by what he brought to it.
And while McCartney made an effort to present himself as ordinary, reason #12 punches a hole in that perception.
He is, of course, one of the most un-ordinary individuals in history. When people acknowledge McCartney’s talent they usually mean his songwriting, which is not surprising, since he is as great or greater than any songwriter who ever lived. But it means we overlook what is a positively freakish array of gifts. Imagine if Cole Porter also sang like Frank Sinatra and played clarinet like Benny Goodman. If McCartney had never written a song he would be one of the great singers; if he had never written or sung he would be one of the great bassists — and that’s before we get on to his guitar, his piano, his drumming and his studio innovation.
With that introduction, I want to celebrate the magic that is Paul McCartney’s music for today’s Saturday Soundtrack. To do so, I’ll take short snippets from Leslie’s piece and add in video to demonstrate his point.
Let’s start with the singing
It is among the most exciting moments in twentieth century music: Lennon tears through the opening verse of A Hard Day’s Night, then McCartney steps forward in the middle (“When I’m hooome…”). One of the crazy things about the Lennon-McCartney partnership was that they both had all-time great rock voices. If Lennon’s specialism was raw emotion, McCartney’s was a range of expression which verges on superhuman. Few can match him as a rock n’ roll screamer — listen to Long Tall Sally or Oh Darling.…On Lady Madonna he does Presley crossed with Fats Waller. In his singing, as in his lyrics, he inhabits characters.
(McCartney) has a rare ability to glide through what classical singers call the passaggio — the transition between chest and head, which for most humans is a vocal speed-bump. Listen to Maybe I’m Amazed and marvel at that post-chorus glissando down from the heights.
Then there’s the songwriting
Monday, June 14, 1965. The Beatles didn’t get to Abbey Road until the afternoon. They set about recording three Paul songs, starting with I’ve Just Seen a Face (one of my favourites; I love the way it rollicks, lines tripping over themselves, enacting the breathlessness of love at first sight). They get it right after six takes, and move on to I’m Down, a bluesy screamer in the style of Little Richard. After seven takes, it’s done. The session ends, the Beatles disperse before returning in the evening, when Paul records a ballad called Yesterday, in two takes. Three songs, in wildly divergent, highly demanding styles, in one day. McCartney nails all of them for all time. By 10pm he and Jane Asher are at a bar on Cromwell Rd.
Then there’s McCartney the instrumentalist
Take the songwriting and the singing away and McCartney would still earn his place in the pantheon as one of the great bassists, despite, or maybe because, he didn’t want to be one. He joined the band as a guitarist, but when Stu Sutcliffe left, Lennon dragooned McCartney into playing bass. Bass-players, back then, were reticent creatures, happy to blend into a song without attempting anything flash. That was never going to be McCartney’s style, and his innovation started early. I Saw Her Standing There is powered by its driving bassline (that he can play this line on stage while singing the melody is a source of wonder and fury to bassists). Before the chorus, he halves the speed, playing half-notes under the run-up to the climactic moment of the song (So how could I dance with another…). Counter-intuitively that increases the tension and momentum. It makes you want to scream. Later on, and to a far greater extent than anyone had dared to before, he made the bass a melodic instrument, another voice, as on Michelle, Paperback Writer, Rain.
Like his piano playing, his acoustic guitar isn’t as revolutionary as his bass, but it’s entirely, distinctively him. Many people can play Blackbird, but nobody else can play McCartney’s Blackbird.
The scalding lead guitar on the theme of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is McCartney. As well as the bass on Taxman, McCartney plays that angular, modernist, Indian-flavoured guitar solo, one of the best solos in all The Beatles’ work. It happens to be on a song by the group’s lead guitarist. Similarly, his drumming on Dear Prudence — he stepped in after Ringo walked out of the White Album sessions — is some of the best drumming on a Beatles track. No wonder the others could find him annoying.
And if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of Taxman.
McCartney really is in a league of his own, as he enters his ninth decade of life. Here’s one of my favorites from the McCartney canon:
Ian Leslie uses Reason #64 to let us know what he’d do if he bumped into Paul on the street.
If I do see Paul McCartney in the street, I think I know what I will say to him, actually, presuming I can get the words out. I will say thank you. I might even tell him that I love him.
To end, let’s return to those boyhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. They really were places of creativity. Yet what happens to those homes when no one remembers screaming to I Want to Hold Your Hand? Sir Paul turned 80 on June 18th this year. Many of his fans have passed that milestone as well.
Liverpool England in the 1950s was near one of the largest U.S. bases in the world, and the American influence on the area was enormous. U.S. soldiers at Burtonwood looked — among other pleasures — for music that sounded like home. Four musicians from the city were more than happy to oblige.
While the rest of England was stuck in the vaudeville era, Liverpudlians had a special advantage with access to American records — especially from African American artists — and a big financial incentive to master that music. The first song that the Beatles recorded was a Buddy Holly cover.
Yes, the Beatles made new music in their time and place. Their boyhood homes can continue to inspire that type of creativity in the future, if we don’t preserve them in amber. The British National Trust is taking just the right approach, having recently hosted an event for current musicians to play music inspired by Lennon and McCartney in the living room of Paul’s boyhood home. These places were not only significant in the 1950s and 60s, but they remain so now. We can still see these homes as places of creativity.
‘I have spent all my life trying to say thank you to the Beatles, who made succeeding generations believe that, yes, you can achieve your dreams. There were no trappings, no luxury in the young McCartneys’ home, in Forthlin Road. But there was music, and inspiration. They were saying…if we can make our dreams come true … so can you.’Annie Nightingale CBE, from the National Trust article on the Forthlin Sessions
If we follow a conservation approach that allows what is living to stay alive and true to the place, McCartney’s genius will live on not only in his music but in his boyhood home.
More to come…
Image of Paul McCartney and inset of his boyhood home (credit National Trust for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland).
Pingback: December observations | More to Come...
Pingback: A new kind of American troubadour | More to Come...