Many classic albums are surrounded in juicy, front-page-of-the-Daily Mail drama. Then there’s Paul McCartney’s debut solo album, McCartney — released 50 years ago on April 17, 1970 — which is in a league of its own. To some, it’s The Album That Ended The Beatles. But, as is so often characteristic of rock lore, much of that drama overshadows the musical artifact and its true lasting legacy.
Let’s not dwell — the world has already done its share. Long story short: The members of the world’s most successful pop band had outgrown each other when Macca’s life-long friend and songwriting partner, John Lennon, privately announced his exit in the autumn of 1969. The ingredients for the end were many and long-coming: Creative differences and bickering studio sessions (the Get Back sessions, Abbey Road, Let It Be). Drugs (everyone). Draining side-projects (Apple Records and its roster of new artists). New leadership that divided the group (attack dog manager Allen Klein). Girlfriends that, perhaps, weren’t fully understood or welcomed (such as Yoko Ono, who would unfairly become one of several scapegoats for the split itself). Even rumors of Macca’s own death. It was out of control.
McCartney retreated to his Scotland country estate to drink and sulk, only to be pulled out from the darkness by his love for his new wife, photographer Linda Eastman. McCartney took action and jumped feet first into the future. He quickly assembled a new record, predominantly culled from demos, half-finished songs, and other odds and ends. Then, instead of sitting on Lennon’s announcement, as agreed, he announced his departure from The Beatles with a promotional interview for McCartney, fanning the flames of the group’s already acrimonious dissolution.
To the press, McCartney became the album that ended The Beatles — and according to critical response in 1970, this collection of tossed-off tunes was hardly worth that price tag. While the album did reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and produce a radio hit with “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the LP was quickly pushed aside by his own former band’s Let It Be. McCartney was mostly dismissed in the press—and his former bandmates took public shots at its quality: “I was surprised it was so poor,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone.
Even McCartney himself has been dismissive: “They were almost throwaways, you know?” McCartney said in the 1976 book Paul McCartney In His Own Words. “But that’s why they were included… That was the whole idea of the album.”
The lasting legacy of the album is just that: a homespun record recorded at home, mostly at 7 Cavendish Avenue in St. John’s Wood, London. While the songs date back across his career, they were tracked between December 1969 and February 1970 at home on a four-track recorder and a single microphone—a precursor to the home-recorded albums ahead. McCartney played all the instruments himself, including guitar, steel guitar, bass guitar, piano, keyboards, organ, Mellotron, xylophone, drums, maracas, bongos, tambourine, cowbell, wine glasses, hand percussion, aerosol, and even bow and arrow. It’s a cornerstone of the DIY music movement.
From a songwriting perspective, it’s a mish-mash from his craftsman’s shed: “Hot As Sun,” a two-minute-long instrumental built around a Spanish style guitar, dated back to the pre-Beatles band the Quarrymen. “Teddy Boy,” the tale of a son who couldn’t stand to see his mother in love with a man other than his father, and the tender, sentimental waltz “Junk,” were both written during the Fab Four’s famed trip to India and demoed during the band’s final sessions. (For a bit of alternate history, listen to the Black Album, a collection of Beatles demos later released as solo material from each member.)
But it is those bits and bobs that make the album unique: The 45-second opener “The Lovely Linda,” a half-baked ditty about his new wife, which has an accompanying video on Spotify with footage from their Scottish farm — Linda in her overalls, blonde locks blowing in the breeze, bouncing their newborn daughter, Mary, with the countryside in the background. It’s a vibe for the album.
“Valentine Day,” a lo-fi instrumental with hand percussion and a fun rock riff, and “Momma Miss America,” another instrumental jam with wild guitar lines nodding to the likes of Eric Clapton. “Every Night” with its trademark McCartney “dooo doooo wooowahhooohhhhh”s. “Man We Was Lonely,” with its riff that’s like a precursor to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “Yes, we was lonely, hard pressed to find a smile,” he sings. “Now we are fine all the while.” “Oo You” with its fiery rock riffs and playful attitude— “Yeow! Yeow!” he barks throughout the track: “Walk like a woman / Sing like a black bird,” he wails. “Woohoooooowooooooohoooooo.”
Sure, McCartney could’ve used a bit more of polish; the world has been in particular robbed of a more finished version of “Junk,” a truly gorgeous song. But McCartney is about moving on. Moving on from the world’s most-celebrated band, and there’s only one way to do that—by cleaning out the proverbial songwriting closet.
But there were a few newbies, and one in particular made a huge impact: “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a heart-squeezing piano ballad about his dedication and love to his new wife, Linda, in this time of personal tragedy and transformation. It was a document of the personal drama of saying goodbye to his childhood mates in the Beatles and saying hello to his new solo career and family life.
“Maybe I’m amazed at the way you love me all the time / Maybe I’m afraid of the way I love you / Maybe I’m amazed at the way you pulled me out of time / And hung me on a line / Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you.”
While it was one of the only songs on McCartney to receive the full studio treatment—he slipped into EMI’s Abbey Road Studios under a fake name to record it, playing all the instruments himself with Linda adding backing vocals—its message is plain and simple, totally unvarnished. And that’s the lasting legacy of McCartney.