The heart can be a horrible thing. Horrible in that it dissuades logic and reason and throws irrationality to the fore, and in 1970, the weaker strains of the heart were all The Beatles had left.
THE END OF LEGENDS
The narrative for the eventual Beatle break-up has two well-trodden beginnings: the death of Brian Epstein and the emergence of Yoko Ono — with neither one placing blame on The Beatles themselves. In the ashes of the break-up such thought was heresy. The Beatles were musical gods, the Lennon-McCartney partnership etched into musical history. They had saved a generation from the death of Camelot, and no one could believe that the members of the inner circle were capable of their own undoing. Such was the power of The Beatles that individualism could not be deemed the cause. The heart played tricks on The Beatle-loving public, and even as time wore on the blame kept landing on individuals outside of the fabulous foursome.
Even with the lavish attention that was fostered on the quartet, we, the public, only had glimpses of each band member’s desires. Let It Be showed the band under tremendous strain, but we insisted that the arm-twisting of McCartney only be seen as him trying to keep the band together, rather than driving it apart.
Yet The Beatles were four men, and only four men, replete with differing ideas, who had nonetheless worked together well enough to coalesce into a sound that defined an era. Men can only be human, their acts the only thing that becomes immortal. The Beatles had slipped the reins of being individual members; they were an entity that couldn’t possibly fall victim to human error. Such is the cruelty of the heart. They officially broke up in April of 1970, but their identity would forever linger, a ghost that would haunt their individual lives and careers as long as teach had a mortal coil.
OUT OF THE ASHES
It is difficult to imagine the immense struggle they must have faced. There was, after all, no historical precedent: entertainers before had only to live up to the ghosts of their own creations, not the collective creation of a band that benefitted from their own surroundings, that had adapted so well to the ever-shifting culture, that had seared an indelible mark on everything around them. What mere mortal, thrown from the ivory towers of the gods, could survive becoming, once again, earth-bound?”
Paul McCartney was such a man. No doubt the rift had caused considerable depression, much of it evident in his last numbers with the group that had launched him into stardom: “Oh Darling,” “Two of Us,” “The Long and Winding Road,” — even “Let It Be” spoke of the pain, the guilt, the remorse, remembrance, and refuge that McCartney sought in his creative world, as his reality crumbled beneath him. McCartney was also a driven man; his desire to be adored and remembered, the vices of lesser ilk, would propel him once again to reshape his own identity out of the ashes.
At their death knell, The Beatles were a group of prodigious production. Having long tired of touring, they had made the studio their religion as they endlessly tried to improve upon current techniques, to stretch the limits of what was possible. The end results were their own idols, golden images that reflected their drive and ability.
McCartney would be, could only be the exact opposite. Abbey Road was not yet a year old, and as their ultimate product it might have been their best — no single overdub out of place, no piece over-produced, the sound destined to live on beyond its own creators, god-like.
Of the Four, none could be better suited for the challenge than Paul McCartney. His father a jazz musician, McCartney’s ear for melody and ability with instruments was unmatched in the group. It was he who showed the most interest in production and had the greatest knack for it. (One example is the geese-like sound that floats above “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was the end product of McCartney recording himself laughing and messing with the tape loops.)
Dismayed with the Let It Be sessions, McCartney retreated to his home to record something “back to basics,” armed only with the instruments he owned and the 4-track recorder that he kept in his living room. At the start he was a Beatle, but when he released the finished product, he ran it with a press release that announced his tenure with the group was over.
The album begins with the man in love. “The Lovely Linda” is a little acoustic jaunt that was recorded in McCartney’s living room. The high pitched squeak is actually the sound of the living room door being opened by Linda herself and although its a fragment, it builds the foundation for the theme of the album; ramshackle, intimate, and off the cuff. McCartney didn’t give a damn, he just wanted to see what he could do on his own
“That Would Be Something” is really where McCartney takes off. The song starts with a lone bluesy guitar riff that manages both to reflect McCartney’s situation and show off his musical talent, filling out with both acoustic and vocal percussion and some smooth bass work. But it’s McCartney’s Elvis-like croon that steals the show. Having had to live under the constant pressure of innovating while in The Beatles, McCartney’s reverence for the older styles really shows in this laid back performance.
And then comes the wordless “Valentine’s Day,” a succinct jam under 2 minutes that if anything proves McCartney’s talent with melody. Not a single other Beatle could have gotten away with not using his voice and “Valentine’s Day” is aware of that: its guitar caustic and biting, the drumming rapid, a kiss-off to the other members as if to say, “Well look what I can do, even without you.”
McCartney, even in his Beatle years, rarely sang in the first person, which is a shame, because he’s quite good at it. “Every Night” might be the best song on the album (if it weren’t for a little thing called “Junk” and “Maybe I’m Amazed”). Truly a portrait of himself at the time, it’s quite lyrically clever that McCartney makes the point that he wants to escape the ‘every nights,’ for the singular moments where he’s just with the one he loves. As a little kid I was enthralled with this arrangement, the off-beat boom hiccup of the snare and that wordless refrain driving the point home and making it one of McCartney’s most endearing and independent songs on record.
“Hot As Sun/ Glasses” marks an interesting point in the album; it’s another instrumental and again as melodic as anything McCartney ever made, and it’s a great homage to the classic fifties progressions (think Buddy Holly) as well as a quick foray into new sounds (that summery organ), John Cage (the classical dissonance), and musique-concrete (the snippet of “Suicide” — a demo he left off the album).
McCartney has a gift with acoustic guitars; intertwined with his voice, they become him when he’s at his most wistful (see “Yesterday,” “Blackbird,” “Her Majesty,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” “I Will,” even as far back as “I’ll Follow The Sun”), and no example might be more powerful than “Junk.” The song that might as well have instigated Elliot Smith’s whole career it’s a beautiful piece of McCartney’s third person story telling that manages to make even the blandest objects alive and heart wrenching. Only (fittingly) Rogers and Hammerstein ever made ordinary things as equally charming in “My Favorite Things.” Even before the chorus, just in the way McCartney gently lulls “Motor cars, Handle Bars, Bicycles for two,” you sense the immediate sadness, the forlorn nature of these objects without mentioning another word. Such is the power of McCartney’s music.
The next number might be the most jaunty and uplifting of the whole album. “Man We Was Lonely” begins with a beautiful intro that sounds eerily close to the chord progression Lennon himself would use on his ruminating “Love.” The way the melody melts into the chords, and even Linda’s vocals (long a point of contention among solo McCartney apologists) are put to good use here. McCartney’s vocal talent is on display too, using two very different takes to juxtapose past and present, reminiscence and moving on.
If it weren’t for McCartney’s unmistakable voice, in the context of todays music, you could sneak “That Would Be Something” and this next number “Oo You” onto a White Stripes — maybe even early Black Keys — compilation and people wouldn’t know the difference. It’s a connection that doesn’t strike right away, but it becomes obvious when put to light. Listen to how McCartney plays the guitar part, even the sound: isolated, instantly bluesy, and referential to the old Delta blues players that came before him. In describing McCartney’s ability to be the everyman and play all the instruments, an assumption is made that he can’t be exceptional at all or any of them, but he is.
It is with little warning that McCartney comes back to roughshod roots; the rollicking “Momma Miss America” is a bouncy instrumental. McCartney has never tried to set the world on fire with lyrical wordplay; rahter, these musical sketches are a more fitting portrait. His mission was never to enlighten, never overwrought with messages (both of which would befall Lennon and Harrison) but he sought to lighten, to engage the listener with the joy of the music itself. One can find many examples of simple toss-off lyrics in McCartney’s career, but there are few examples of melodies that don’t grab your attention.
If this album is to have a dud, it would be “Teddy Boy,” but even this is a prime example of the above. Listen to the song just once and try not to hum the melody, and even with that caveat, it’s not a bad song; the touches in production help as well, with the subtle backing harmonies, the soft patter of the drums, the ad-lib ending. It’s a nice little harmless tune and that’s all it was meant to be.
“Sing Along Junk” shows just how pure a melody “Junk” was. Even without the lyrics this (admittedly more produced) version puts the words in your head with the guitar alone, but it’s nice to hear the piano and guitar bounce the melody back and forth.
Out of the depths, we find McCartney at his most ragged on the beautiful “Maybe I’m Amazed,” his voice hoarse and pleading, the vocals both universal and intimate, and that guitar hook one for the ages. Few times have we seen the man as barely composed as he plays here, every shred of his soul put into every instrument, and its a nice touch that this song could be both about a friend and a lover (as it probably was). The way the arrangement builds is cinematic and personally reflective, the piano transforms from a sad waltz to a rock and roll pounding, the guitars plead and choke, and the drums go back and forth from put together to off-kilter. It’s the song that would come to define the album, despite the difference in sound.
“Kreen-Akrore” is a highly unusual number for any version of McCartney, Beatle or otherwise. To start, it’s percussion-based, and the groove starts out in a New Orleans fashion before some left-field production elements join the fray, and then a McCartney drum solo! It’s not all bad stuff. In fact the Beach-Boys-meets-Indian drone harmonies make quite an interesting draw midway through. It’s just so singularly unique in McCartney’s catalogue, too far ahead of its time.
McCartney managed to do the impossible: it took a God and made him a man, humanized him, and defined his sound. Nothing on the album sounds like it could have fit on a Beatles record, and yet it’s a welcome idea. While All Things Must Pass and Plastic Ono Band had better critical response, McCartney is the underrated winner of the bunch. Harrison’s All Things becomes too self-aggrandizing, and its production often mires the good songs that are on it, while Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is almost too honest and caustic to listen to in one sitting.
McCartney found his calling in creating music that soothes, and an album that can be played from start to finish without wearing out its welcome. Ram will still be my favorite solo album of his, where he took all the best little bits from McCartney and put it into a finished product, but no other product in The Beatles catalog, solo or otherwise, quite reaches the comfort and charm of this one.
It’s also a highly influential record, you can see where Elliot Smith and Jack White found their bearings from McCartney, and even with its lo-fi aesthetic (barring “Maybe I’m Amazed”) it’s a highly ambitious (and successful, reaching #2 in 1970) record. McCartney combines the man behind the music with the power of his music (and a bevy of styles and influences from old time blues to musique-concrete), assuring that even in the ashes of the greatest pop group of all time, there was music to be made.