About halfway through Paul McCartney’s 2010 show at what was then called AT&T Park, McCartney and his band launched into a Beatles song I’d always thought of as no more than a pleasant trifle: “Ob La Di, Ob La Da.” The instant keyboardist Wix Wickens banged out the distinctive, jangly piano chords that open the tune, the entire crowd jumped to its feet and began clapping along, me included.
After maybe a minute and a half, I paused to look around the stadium—and saw 42,000 people looking happier than I have ever seen human beings look.
There is magic in the world. I’ve seen it. And this magician turns 80 June 18.
I confess a personal connection to this. I’ve written before about how Paul and the Beatles helped me survive adolescence as a closeted gay teen in the early 1970s. And somehow, at every difficult or painful moment in my life, Paul McCartney has managed to write exactly the song I needed to hear.
To pick just one example: In 2007, as my 91-year-old father was dying of congestive heart failure, Paul released an album called Memory Almost Full, whose penultimate track was “The End of the End.” In it, McCartney looks in the face of death and finds it not so scary after all. In that familiar tenor, softened just a bit with age, he sings, “On the day that I die I’d like jokes to be told”—and I’m listening to it and thinking, “My god, he’s channeling dad.”
A few years back, a wiser writer than I—whose article I of course can’t find when I need it—wrote that Paul McCartney has likely brought more joy into the world than any human being who’s ever lived. That’s impossible to quantify, of course, but if you’ve ever been to one of his shows it’s not hard to believe.
The man has been an icon for so long that we almost take him for granted, something like the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest that we never really think about, even though somewhere in the back of our minds we know they’re stupendous. Yet as huge as he’s been for well over half a century, McCartney was never the typical rock star.
In a genre whose zeitgeist revolved around varying degrees of swagger and angst, McCartney had little use for either. He never hesitated to be sweet, sentimental, or plain silly. He could rock with the best of them when the mood struck, but he was just as happy putting out cheery, tuneful pop or transforming into a 1920s crooner.
Hell, in the seventies he even put his wife in his band—about as uncool a move as one could conceive in an era dominated by the likes of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. Kids loved musical acts that made their parents nervous, and, at least once the ’60s ended, Paul McCartney made no one’s parents nervous. “Cool”? Not really.
And, in an ironic twist, he’s made some of his best music in his later years, when he was way too old to be all over the Billboard Hot 100. More on that in a bit. For now, though, as he turns 80, it’s worth taking a moment while he’s still with us to contemplate this 60-plus year career.
Many musicians have built fine careers out of doing one thing superbly: singing, writing songs, playing an instrument. Some special talents do two of those things really well. McCartney is one of very few who’s been brilliant at all three.
As a singer, he was blessed with not just a great set of pipes but also the instinct to deliver vocals that cut right to the heart of the song. If you’ve never seriously listened to “Maybe I’m Amazed,” from his first solo album, take a second to do it sometime soon. It’s not just the range and power of McCartney’s voice or the effortless shift from sweet falsetto to throaty roar, it’s the way he cuts straight to the song’s essence, that falling in love is simultaneously glorious and scary as hell, because you’re surrendering control.
Many great singers—Sinatra, for example, or Roy Orbison—have essentially one voice that they can shift in volume or mood, but it’s always obviously the same voice. McCartney seems to have a voice for every occasion. If Martians landed and had never heard of Paul or the Beatles, might have trouble convincing them that the voices singing “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Helter Skelter,” “I Will” and “Old Siam Sir” were the same person. Oh, and when the mood struck, he could effortlessly channel Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis or Fats Domino.
Though he’s dabbled in all sorts of instruments, McCartney is of course most known for bass and keyboards. As a pianist, he’s the first to admit that he lacks the technical skills of the great classical or jazz players, but what he brings is an uncanny knack for giving the song exactly what it needs, from the playfully tinkling ivories of “You Gave Me the Answer” to church-like opening chords of “Let it Be” and the jarring staccato of “Mr. Bellamy.”
As a bassist, he’s one of the handful of players in the ’60s who transformed the bass from a barely-noticed timekeeper lurking in the background to an integral and creative part of a song’s arrangement. As folks more musically knowledgeable than I regularly note, the Beatles’ catalogue is just full of killer McCartney bass lines. That’s just as true of his seventies Wings records and beyond, with tracks like “Mrs. Vandebilt” and “Silly Love Songs” whose whole arrangement is built around Paul’s bass.
Actually, let’s talk about “Silly Love Songs” for a minute. This bit of disco-infused pop ranks as one of the most unfairly maligned pop hits of all time. First of all, it’s not a silly love song. It’s Paul teasing his critics and having some fun with his own image:
You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know
‘Cause here I go again
Aside from being ridiculously catchy, “Silly Love Songs” is also a lovely piece of musical craftsmanship, as McCartney spins out three distinct but related melodies and then weaves them all together at the end. Anything like a conventional verse-chorus structure goes straight out the window.
Though he’s certainly used conventional verses and choruses to great effect, it’s fun to watch McCartney mess with those conventions when it suits his purposes. “The Pound Is Sinking,” from the 1982 album Tug of War, has a couple normal-ish verses but otherwise puts together seemingly unrelated bits that somehow form a coherent whole in which crashing currency markets become a metaphor for botched lives, ending in a howling climax that’s pure McCartney.
In “Feet in the Clouds,” from the aforementioned Memory Almost Full, he has a pretty conventional structure going on at first, reminiscing about learning how to fit in as a kid. Then, out of nowhere, McCartney pauses the proceedings and takes the song’s goofiest line—in which the word “very” repeats seven times—and spins it into about 45 seconds worth of vocal chamber music, a little dollop of Mozart dropped into the middle of a pop song. Then he circles back into a variation of the chorus to bring the tune chugging to a conclusion. It’s completely nuts. And it’s glorious.
The lingering stereotype of the Beatles is that John Lennon was the clever wordsmith while McCartney was the guy with the pretty melodies. Like most stereotypes, that was always an oversimplification. Lennon wrote some gorgeous melodies, like “Across the Universe,” and McCartney wrote some great lyrics. Seriously, has there ever been a more perfect expression of hope in the face of adversity than “Blackbird”?
True, neither was as consistently brilliant after the Beatles broke up. Each was a genius in desperate need of an editor, and they never had better editors than each other. But when he’s not writing stream-of-conscious nonsense like “Jet,” McCartney’s lyrics can be extraordinarily eloquent.
After Lennon’s murder, a number of songwriters wrote tribute songs, including Elton John-Bernie Taupin and George Harrison. But McCartney’s “Here Today” is the only one that matters, because it’s the only one that treats Lennon as a person, not an icon:
And if I said I really knew you well
What would your answer be
If you were here today?
Well, knowing you
You’d prob’ly laugh and say that we were worlds apart
The song has become a staple of his live shows in recent years, regularly leaving the audience in tears.
In his latter years, McCartney’s become particularly skillful at bringing words and melody together to enhance each other’s effect, sometimes in sly and surprising ways. “Hand in Hand,” from the 2018 album Egypt Station, seems at first like just another Paul love song, but after a few listenings, it becomes clear that there’s more going on here.
It’s a song of young love, of new sweethearts looking forward to a life together, but why does that melody have such a mournful streak? And why are the lyrics dotted with little flecks of doubt? “We can make each other happy if we get it right” McCartney sings in one of several lines raising the possibility that they might not get it right. He sings it in a high register that we’ve heard many times before, but now it’s thinner and frailer than in the Beatles days, unmistakably the voice of an old man.
And then it hits you: This is a song of young love written from the vantage point of someone who’s lived long enough to know all ways relationships can crash and burn, a 76-year-old remembering what it was like to be 20 but unable to forget the lessons that came in-between.
These later songs will never be as famous as the Beatles tunes that the whole planet has been listening to for over half a century, but many of them are just as good. And as he hits 80, the man’s sense of joy and wonder – and his ability to transmit that joy to masses of people—seems unending.
Happy 80th birthday, Paul. Please live another 80.
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FIVE ESSENTIAL PAUL MCCARTNEY ALBUMS
Let’s stipulate from the get-go that lists like this are inherently subjective. Some hardcore fans will ferociously object to my choices, but if you’re unfamiliar with Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles output, these would be a good place to start.
Band on the Run (1973): Arguably the definitive, and certainly the most acclaimed, Wings album. This is where McCartney’s ’70s outfit crystallized a sound that was definitely Paul McCartney and just as definitely not the Beatles. The title song is a three-act play in five minutes, with each section having a distinct mood, melody, arrangement and lyrical style. If a few moments on the album seem gimmicky—hey, it was the ’70s—the ambition and craftsmanship more than make up for it.
Tug of War (1982): Haunted by the murder of John Lennon, “Tug of War” has a deep streak of melancholy running through it, a startling change from the Wings oeuvre. Indeed, the title song offers a downright bleak worldview, painting life as an endless struggle with no escape possible. In addition to “Here Today” and “The Pound Is Sinking,” the other standout track is “Wanderlust.” Reportedly inspired by a near-miss pot bust, the song nevertheless comes across as an older, sadder, wiser sequel to “The Long and Winding Road,” with an achingly beautiful melody and a gorgeous brass arrangement provided by Beatles producer George Martin.
Run Devil Run (1999): Another album shaped by tragedy—in this case the cancer death of Paul’s first wife Linda—“Run Devil Run” functions on two levels: It’s easy to enjoy as a raw, straight-up rock ‘n’ roll album, with Paul and a cobbled-together band blasting their way through often-obscure oldies and a couple original tunes, but it’s also a musical walking tour of the stages of grieving. The album’s sequencing is brilliant, as McCartney steadily cranks up the volume through several increasingly upbeat and fun tracks, letting us think this is all just for play, and then drops the hammer with wrenching versions of the obscure “No Other Baby” and Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town.“
Memory Almost Full (2007): Stylistically all over the map, Memory Almost Full offers a bit of all the things one expects from McCartney, from the crunching rocker “Only Mama Knows” to the theatrical “Mr. Bellamy” and the haunting “You Tell Me,” a bittersweet musing on the frailty of memory. After contemplating death in “The End of the End,” McCartney switches gears one last time to close things with “Nod Your Head,” a noisy, metallic rocker that ends the album on an offbeat and weirdly exuberant note.
Egypt Station (2018): At an age when many of his contemporaries had either hung it up or were coasting on past glories, McCartney released one of his most ambitious albums ever. The passage of time keeps coming up—playfully in the insanely catchy “Dominoes” and more seriously in two songs that don’t directly reference each other but could be the same story told 50 years apart: The wistful “Confidante” and the gloriously Beatle-esque “Do It Now.” To top things off, there’s “Despite Repeated Warnings,” a seven minute epic that metaphorically portrays Donald Trump as a mad ship’s captain with a crew contemplating mutiny.