Paul McCartney was recently honored with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by President Obama. A concert was held at the White House that included Jack White, Jerry Seinfeld, and a host of A-listers to go along with McCartney. The concert was aired last night on PBS. Here is a post from our archives about Sir Paul’s career.
[If for some reason you have stumbled here with some kind of praise or axe to grind because of what McCartney said about former President Bush, shove off. The guy's been politically active for 40 years. Of course he has an opinion and of course he's going to say something if the mood strikes him. That is neither praise-worthy nor something to get Glenn Beck's panties in a knot over. Celebrities from all sides of the political spectrum take shots at their rival side all the time. That's not close to the worst thing ever said about President Bush and it is not near the things being said about President Obama now. We're a country full of vile hate-spewing rhetoric no matter who is in office. All McCartney did was poke a little fun. I think you should thank him for his relative restraint.]
I’m a bit of a McCartney scholar – spending the 90s stalking live shows and reading several dozen Beatles/McCartney bios and the like. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the bloke because sometimes he does something so amazingly silly that it makes my eyes hurt from rolling them so much. Take for example the rushed and ridiculously opportunistic and trite Freedom that was hurried onto the American release of Driving Rain and turned into, I believe, a double A-side single – trying to capitalize on the 9-11 attacks and the Concert in Central Park. That move and the live show itself, which ended with McCartney doing Let It Be live with Clapton, et al. turned me off on the album and McCartney for a few years. I felt like it was too much of a desperate attempt to stake a claim in a new cause – trying to regain some of Give Peace a Chance lost glory.
But to back up, McCartney had a run in the 70s where he was maybe part of one of the the best bands of the 70s (chart wise) and his personal output, while not as majestic as the Beatles, at very least rivaled other artists of the 70s.
Most legendary artists have a three consecutive album peak – a Holy Trinity of their work. The Beatles had Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Peppers. Dylan had Highway 61, Blond on Blond, and John Wesley Harding. Et cetera. McCartney was never able to pull off three amazing solo albums, which always stunted his momentum and is probably the reason, for folks that grew up in the 70s, that McCartney/Wings is often overlooked. Macca started off ok a as single artist with the self titled McCartney. It was a solid enough solo effort – bordering on very good – and any other artist could probably have notched it as the first of The Trinity. Not Macca. First of all his work was held up to the Beatles later efforts of Abbey Road and Let it Be. McCartney is much similar in sound as Let It Be but vastly inferior to it and Abbey Road. Additionally Macca was under pretty intense media and fan pressure (being the first Beatle to announce a solo project) for breaking up the Beatles (despite being the member that most wanted to hold the group together). Still, even with all that, McCartney was followed by Ram which was a pretty damn good second album with an actual pick-up band throwing out ideas (uncredited, of course) to help provide a raw but energetic sound. Probably a great album. If Ram would have been followed by the formation of Wings and the great tours of the band with the Band on the Run album, then the history of post Beatles Macca and Wings would be very different. Macca would have, right off the bat, his holy trinity. Instead Macca released the barely-more-listenable-than-Two-Virgins Wildlife originally just under the name of Wings. This was near the time of Macca’s screw-it stage where he smoked more pot than ever and let the animals on his farm share his farm house with him – shitting all over everything, eating clothes, pot, whatever. Additionally no one really knew who the artist was because it was some band called Wings.
That was followed by Red Rose Speedway which, though back to standard structure, was credited with the “and Wings” tag (which at this point was a pseudonym for… well, Linda I guess) and was ok, but a step back from both McCartney and Ram.
Finally, full band in tow, McCartney and Wings released the uber-produced Band on the Run. A lot of folks think this is Macca’s solo crowning achievement. They would also be wrong. It’s a great flowing album with stunningly (for McCartney especially) no filler. It’s also contains trite world-play that never really means anything. It’s an album that was constructed in part as response to Lennon making fun of Macca at every turn after Wildlife and Red Rose. Macca figured if he could not critically trump Lennon at that time, he would commercially trump him.
If Macca wanted to construct an amazingly commercial album with mass appeal that would blow all Bealtes solo efforts out of the water, then he succeeded with little left in competition but detritus.
If Band would have been a natural album on the heels of McCartney and Ram, then McCartney’s solo career may have known no limit. Unfortunately Band was produced by a suddenly critic weary artist and its success would be the harbinger of vapid constructed cycles that McCartney would give in to time and time again for decades to come.
Wings was a major touring event by this time and Wings Over America should rightfully claim a place as one of the best albums of the 70s.
Also, the artistic quality of Macca efforts eroded greatly during this time. I’ve long considered if the marketing savvy McCartney was actually having fun touring and that detracted from the studio? I personally liked Venus and Mars though many thought it was a poor follow-up to Band on the Run. I prefer it.
There are very few gems for the next two decades. I personally like McCartney 2 and Tug of War. The former being similar in direction to where David Bowie was going during his early 80s efforts. The latter is operatic rock with three of my fav Macca solo songs: Take it Away, Wanderlust, and Tug of War. It was produced by George Martin, which might explain the tight songsmithing and the best run of songs since Venus and Mars. The two albums were released in 80 and 82 respectively and would be the last worthwhile Macca release until the completely surprising awesomeness that was Unplugged. Then it would be nearly 6 more years before the almost decent Flaming Pie (97) and 8 years until the very good Run Devil Run (99).
Now, I believe, with Chaos & Creation (2005), Memory Almost Full (2007) and Electric Arrangements (2009) Macaa finally has his Holy Trinity of solo work. Better than Dylan’s modern efforts, better than The Stones, better than Bowie. Unfortunately most folks stopped paying attention. I didn’t come back on board myself until a year and a half ago when I finally heard a few tracks off Memory.
McCatney’s best solo album is also his most recent and was released under the name of The Fireman – Macca’s infrequently used pseudonym for experimental work. Electronic Arguments is no doubt, in my opinion, McCartney’s best work of his solo career. The feel of the album, co-produced by YOUTH, is primal and raw, but at the same time has many flourishes of electronica and ambient. Traveling Light is almost like a Leonard Cohen construction, but with a gentle and rolling ambient soundscape that is indeed reminiscent of something that is traveling and wistful. It’s a brilliant song and the first time I have heard anything from Macca that was progressive from Abbey Road. Highway and Light From Your Lighthouse though somewhat silly when compared to Traveling Light fills the prerequisite of rocker and sing-along respectively. Either would feel at home on McCartney or Ram.
The final 6 songs are where things get even more interesting. Instead of filler, what we get are the most thoughtful and musically interesting songs from Macca since Beatles times. The last six songs are game-changers with long intros, spacey ambient, and Macca singing in keys that we are not accustomed – including minor. Some of the songs sound like the offspring of Sgt. Pepper’s or the bother to The Flaming Lips recent excellent effort: Embryonic (2009). Musical juxtaposition and sound exploration lead the way on this amazing album. The lyrics are not critically profound, but that is hardly the point in this magnificent stretch. It is more about the absent of lyrics or how words accompany the music.
The Fireman – Electronic Arguments is a great album. Give McCartney another chance.