This week marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic loss of Linda McCartney, the famed photographer, activist and singer famously wed to Paul. She died at 56 on April 17, 1998 after a long battle with breast cancer, but she lives on through her memorable collaborations with her husband, whether solo Macca or in their collaborative band Wings.
McCartney (née Eastman) was an editorial assistant/receptionist at Town & Country Magazine who learned the ropes on how to set up shots from her photographer ex, David Dalton — and then jumped at the opportunity for her publication to shoot the Rolling Stones during a yacht party. Her talent was abundantly clear, and her career snowballed from there until she became the house photographer at the Fillmore East, getting classic shots of Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, and other rockers of the day.
One thing led to another due to her connections, and she met Paul McCartney during the launch party for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The two hit it off and ended up marrying in 1969, when the Beatles were about to implode. Linda’s effect on Paul was meteoric — with her on his arm, his whole demeanor and approach shifted. And when the Fabs were finally history, what got Paul out of bed (or a stupor) was recording weird, homey songs alone with his new photographer bride without any pressure to live up to the Beatles’ mind-bending psychedelic odysseys.
Paul and Linda’s marriage went on to revolve around public vegetarian activism just as much as music. But though she was no trained musician, her mark as a vocalist and keyboardist was also deeply felt in Wings and Paul’s solo work. Below are seven examples of how Paul and Linda musically collided to make something fresh, eccentric and often misunderstood.
“Every Night,” from Paul McCartney — McCartney (1970)
Linda technically barely appears on “Every Night,” relegated to a dusting of backing vocals during the chorus. However, her behind-the-scenes presence in the tune and Paul’s controversially low-key debut solo album McCartney cannot be overstated. If John Lennon’s simultaneous Plastic Ono Band was a dramatic, narcissistic declaration of independence from The Beatles, God, Elvis Presley and anyone else who’d dare to call his shots, McCartney simply takes the ball and goes home, opting for charmingly half-written home demos about growing a beard and hanging around the house in St. John’s Wood with his photographer bride and infant daughter. “Every Night” is Paul and Linda’s ode to just that — and with a beautiful, underrated melody. John pleaded for his listeners to “Look at Me,” but with Linda’s help, Paul basically sings, “Leave me alone.”
“Dear Boy” from Paul & Linda McCartney — Ram (1971)
When it comes to Macca, hindsight’s 20/20, with even his most baffling oddities (hello, “Temporary Secretary”) tending to develop new appeal over the years. That said, it’s worth considering how disconcerting it must have been to be a Beatle fan in 1971. Not only have John and Paul dissolved the world’s most beloved rock group to start new ones with their nonmusical wives, but they can’t stop hurling passive-aggressive barbs at each other in the tunes. Ram, McCartney’s wooliest and loveliest album, is full of those moments. However, “Dear Boy” isn’t anti-John (though he would have liked it to be), but a sweet-and-sour message to Paul himself about his dumb luck — oh yeah, and Linda’s ex, Joseph Melville See. To further close the loop, Linda’s lovely, cascading backing vocal almost resembles John in its tonality — with his old songwriting partner gone, she’s the vinegar to his olive oil.
“Some People Never Know” from Wings — Wild Life (1971)
At the time, McCartney and Ram suggested a sort of twin PR disaster, with the second receiving an extra helping of undeserved vitriol — Rolling Stone tore into it as “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far,” and even the affable Ringo didn’t get behind it: “I don’t think there’s one tune on the last one, Ram… I just feel he’s wasted his time… he seems to be going strange.” The corrosive response prompted Paul to retreat even further into himself. Missing the Beatles’ bonhomie, he wanted a band with Linda. The two grabbed some Dennys — Laine, from the Moody Blues, and Seiwell, a session drummer, and recorded eight songs. Then, Linda suddenly went into labor and required an emergency C-section, sending a maximum-stressed Paul into a feverish panic in which he saw a calming, serene vision of angels’ wings. (Really, Paul’s storied history of his most crucial songs coming from dreams and visions deserves its own article.) The band was named, and the ensuing album, Wild Life, resulted in critical jeers. The reggae-tinged “Some People Never Know” is no major track, but it’s a loving devotional with a big vocal assist from Linda. It would seem to touch on the misogynistic backlash against Linda that would ensue when Wings gained more commercial success — “Only love can stand the test / Only you outshine the rest / Only fools take the rest.”
“Bluebird” from Paul McCartney & Wings — Band on the Run (1973)
Partially recorded in tense and uncomfortable conditions in Nigeria, in which Paul collapsed of a bronchial spasm from too much smoking and the McCartneys were robbed of their lyrics and demo tapes at knife-point, the airtight Band on the Run was nonetheless a smashing success. It must have felt at the time like some of the goodwill of Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road had finally flooded back after a long period in which Paul couldn’t catch a break from the critics. “Bluebird,” recorded on vacation in Jamaica, is a bald callback to “Blackbird” and ends up on the way-fluffier side of that coin, but it’s still a nice little bit of bossa nova and a love duet between Linda and Paul. And along with the island vibe of “Some People Never Know,” this sound foreshadows Linda’s sun-kissed later solo work.
“When the Night” from Paul McCartney & Wings — Red Rose Speedway (1973)
Despite fiascos like “Loup (1st Indian On The Moon)” and, ugh, “My Love,” Red Rose Speedway is still one of McCartney’s most soothing and jewel-like solo records. Linda didn’t think so, later reflecting on the album coldly to Sounds Magazine in 1976 — “Red Rose Speedway was such a non-confident record … something was missing. We needed a heavier sound … It was a terribly unsure period.” She might be talking about the rather lightweight, commercial soul of “When the Night” here, but like most of Speedway, it’s still a charmer in spite of itself. Linda’s all game to do the faux-girl-group backing vocals here.
“Listen to What the Man Said” from Wings — Venus & Mars (1975)
If Red Rose Speedway sounds a little “soft” and Band on the Run a little played out, Venus and Mars might be your sweet spot for a harder, funkier version of what Paul and Linda could accomplish together. “Listen to What the Man Said” is exactly that — simultaneously groovy, loose and hooky, it’s an absolutely wonderful little single. And big, cascading, multi-tracked waterfalls of Linda’s backing vocals don’t hurt at all. Whereas material like Ram might feature Linda in a perfunctory, oddball way, she’s a perfect addition here, adding plenty of appealing counterpoint singing and percussion to the percolating arrangement.
“Seaside Woman” from Linda McCartney — Wide Prairie (1977/1998)
While her role in Wings and Paul’s solo records was mostly relegated to the background, Linda’s odds-and-ends collection Wide Prairie is truly the collection of songs in which Linda sings about her own experience — and it’s wild. In a way, “The Light Comes From Within” is alone worth the price of admission, in which Linda claps back at everyone who ridiculed her vegetarian activism, her country-mouse persona or rudimentary musical skills — “You say I’m simple / You say I’m a hick / You’re f—ing no one / You stupid d—.” (“Heart of the Country,” it ain’t.)
However, the real takeaway is “Seaside Woman,” originally recorded in 1972 and released under the name Suzy and the Red Stripes after the couple’s beer of choice. It’s a goofy little reggae trifle, with Paul ad-libbing fake claves and guiros. Here, it’s Linda finally on the lead vocal, and it’s she who shines brightest. The song’s nothing fancy, but that ain’t the point. Her plainspoken, cheerful voice rings true for someone who always stood for happy simplicity in her life, activism and legacy. And the beautiful creative and personal relationship she had with Paul still rings on. Papa loves you, mama. Smile all day.