It took me years to come around on Paul McCartney.
I discovered the Beatles fairly late. I was a hip-hop head coming out of college when this new music service called Napster began making waves. Intrigued by the idea of discovering music via this new platform, I took the opportunity to explore classic music that time (and money) had kept peripheral for me — and one of the acts I fell completely into was the Fab Four.
But even as I got lost in the overwhelming eclecticism of The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) and the sleek production beauty of Abbey Road, I was never the most impressed with Macca’s songs. He could write some catchy tunes, sure; and he proved a nifty bass player on songs like “Rain” and “Taxman” — but the best Beatles songs to me tended to be John Lennon’s, and the 20-something me found Lennon more intriguing and substantial as a solo artist. His songs were highly personal, angst-ridden and angry; and his rejection of the gloss of many of his most beloved Beatles songs felt more progressive and daring.
The first solo Paul McCartney release I heard was a CD compilation called All the Best! from the late 1980s — and I absolutely hated it. But that’s not really unusual for those who only know McCartney via his most-played hits. Sir Paul’s most popular music tends to be his least artistically engaging and often his most banal. On first listen, poppy AM radio hits like “Another Day” seemed, at best, slight — while inescapable drek like “Ebony and Ivory” was patently awful. Despite his commercial success, he seemed like a guy who had horrible taste in his own music. And coming after The Beatles, the Macca hits I’d heard just weren’t all that impressive.
At least, that was my take for several years. It wasn’t until I saw a live performance from McCartney’s 2002 Back In The U.S. DVD — the concert video of his Driving Rain Tour — that I started to warm a little to solo and Wings-era McCartney. It was my first exposure to the “Let Me Roll It” and “Helen Wheels” side of Paul — the more muscular, riff-driven rocker — as opposed to the schmaltzy pop of a “Say Say Say” or even the borderline-mawkishness of a classic ballad like “Let It Be.”
McCartney occupies a somewhat odd place in popular music. He’s one of the most famous and beloved recording artists of all time, but so much of that success is casually accepted to be related to his status as a former Beatle. We know those moptops from Liverpool sold an unconscionable amount of records, and the impact of the Fab Four has been analyzed, dissected, revised and reappraised a million ways over the past five decades. But McCartney’s post-Beatles career, while not as historically important or undeniably potent as the 13 albums that quartet churned out in the 1960s, offers a much richer look at Macca’s artistry and musicality. And unlike the looming omnipresence of the Beatles, it doesn’t suffer from quite the same kind of overexposure. Those soft-rock hits like “My Love” aren’t leaving Lite FM playlists, but the very best of Macca’s more adventurous work is a lot less pervasive.
And it’s better for it.
Part of the reason why the Beatles can be so polarizing nowadays is the fact that even almost 50 years after their breakup, they seem to be shoved down our throats. And as an older man, McCartney has fallen in love with his status as the keeper of the Beatle flame: He’s spent a generation as the older rocker who shows up at awards shows to run through well-worn Fab Four standards like “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude,” he’s on-hand for every Fab anniversary special; he performs a litany of the band’s classics during his live shows. McCartney clearly sees himself as a public custodian for The Beatles’ legacy.
But throughout the 1970s, McCartney was intent on establishing and affirming Wings. The Beatles’ acrimonious dissolution — for which he was unfairly but understandably blamed after announcing his departure from the band via a press release for his first album — left a bitter taste, and he was adamant that his new band be taken seriously. Wings’ discography was heavily maligned during its heyday — lacking the punch of The Who or the unapologetic grandeur of Queen, while seeming to wallow in cutesiness and shlock — but has seen more positive reappraisal in recent years from retrospective critics like Michael Klinski and more comprehensive canonization from outlets like Rolling Stone.
As the driving creative force in a band that saw a revolving door of ancillary members outside of Linda McCartney and Denny Laine, McCartney’s Wings era belies a songwriter fully freed from having to spar with co-leads over the final product of his musical voice. Unsurprisingly, Paul indulged his jones for silly love songs throughout the ’70s, but he also churned out chugging arena rock hits like “Jet” and “Junior’s Farm,” sweeping multi-part epics like “Live and Let Die” and “Band on the Run,” and folky acoustic gems such as “Bluebird.”
But McCartney’s reputation was maligned by many for more simplified Hot 100 No. 1s like “My Love” and “Silly Love Songs.” The standard line was McCartney was an empty tunesmith, content to piss away his Beatles legacy by churning out cheese. In hindsight, those declarations weren’t totally unfounded (his 1972 single “C’Moon” was a U.K. hit, and is one of the most awful songs in his discography), but they do sound like biased accounts from critics’ content to vilify Paul while lavishing praise on his former partner John Lennon, who, to their minds, was making more “serious” music. Take a listen to almost any FM classic rock rotation today, and you’ll hear more McCartney than Lennon. For all of his boldness as an artist, Lennon wasn’t the master of pop songcraft that McCartney has always been. Surging rock anthems or sentimental piano ballads — hooky tunes just seemed to come very easy to Paul.
The early ‘80s demise of Wings was met with far less historical scrutiny than the Beatles’ breakup had, but it does indicate the start of another chapter in McCartney’s music. On 1980’s McCartney II, he returned to the singular approach he’d employed in the early 70s before forming Wings — flirting with new wave and synth pop in the process, and actually delivering more experimental music than former partner Lennon, who mostly spent his final days recording domesticated retro rock.
But the 1980s are a danger zone for anyone exploring Paul McCartney; like a lot of 60s stalwarts, he struggled to find artistic footing as the MTV era dawned, and his most embarrassing records happened post-1982. His hits were still there — mostly thanks to chart-topping pairings with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson — but they weren’t all that musically memorable, and rarely find their ways into his contemporary performances or onto current FM radio blocks. It would take years before McCartney sounded inspired again — outside of 1989’s Flowers In the Dirt, which saw him collaborating with Elvis Costello for his most inspired work of the decade, McCartney seemed intent on releasing empty ear candy that got increasingly vapid.
And that is the “problem” with Paul McCartney. His most famous moments, his most well-known persona, and his biggest hits — they just don’t seem very cool. He’s about as edge-less as any legendary rocker, and he doesn’t exude anything resembling swagger. When your most famous songs are fluffy trifles like “Wonderful Christmastime” and “No More Lonely Nights,” it’s easy to see why so many casual fans don’t think there’s much more to discover. But Paul’s image sometimes obscures the breadth of his artistry; the same musicality that shapes his almost innate pop instincts is embedded in classical works like his 1991 Liverpool Oratorio and his more experimental excursions within his electronic-dabbling side project The Fireman.
His latter career releases have shown tremendous growth and an enthusiasm for embracing a vast swath of musical ideas. Beginning with 1997s Flaming Pie, McCartney has functioned as almost two entirely different musical forces: On the one hand, there’s the pleasantly familiar nostalgia-baiting crowd-pleaser with a repertoire of songs that have been ubiquitous for decades. To watch McCartney on stage in the 2000s and 2010s meant seeing a lot of retreading of Beatles and some Wings — often played more or less how they sounded on the records. Not a ton of surprises, just the warm and fuzzy security blanket of hearing songs that everyone in the audience has heard countless times and cherished for most of their lives. And he clearly relishes being that guy.
But that other McCartney? That guy is much more interesting: a contemporary singer-songwriter still intent on pushing himself creatively on his albums. That guy doesn’t seem to care all that much about the Beatles. That guy has been doing his own thing for 47 years, and never stopped or slowed down. A quick look at McCartney’s discography reveals one of the most productive recording artists of his generation. And he’s remained an evolving, vital artist. Since 2002, he’s collaborated with the disparate likes of Nigel Godrich, Youth, Mark Ronson, David Kahne and Kanye West — even scoring a Billboard Hot 100 top five hit with the latter and Rihanna. His last 20+ years include an album run (Flaming Pie, Run Devil Run, Driving Rain, Chaos & Creation In the Backyard, Memory Almost Full and NEW) that could be the finest of his career, continually finding new modes of expression alongside new collaborators, without becoming inauthentic to the Macca who fans had always known and loved.
It’s McCartney’s 76th birthday today (June 18), which seems like as good a time as any to take a dive into the vastness of his post-Fabs catalog. Sick of the Beatles? Good. This won’t sound like them. It will sound like a versatile singer-songwriter, journeying through all of the classic rock, power pop, quasi-disco, synth pop, plastic soul, and old time rock & roll that he’s helped shape since 1962. And yes, there are some pretty glaring warts. But if you’re patient and keep your ears open — you will discover there’s plenty of gold to be found as well.
Lots of people already know that. But I was one who didn’t for a very long time. But exploring that music has been as enriching for me as any music that I love. It made something the 23-year-old me would’ve never believed he could be: a true fan of Paul McCartney.