Paul McCartney at 70: Listen to what the man said – Part 1 of 2

For almost everyone these days Paul McCartney has always been there. That instantly recognizable voice. The forever-boyish face, with its winking and grinning and cute little comic takes. The black (or, in latter years, various hues of dark) hair, the grating airiness that, when you least expect it, condenses into a bolt of light so sheer and bright it seems otherworldly.

a living god, an embarrassment, generational symbol, an innovator, a shallow popsmith, a symbol for his generation, his country, global popular culture. . . McCartney has been, and continues to be, all of the above.

So now the man turns 70, his fame/influence/legend moves into its sixth decade and still he rumbles onward. More tours, more new music, more videos, books, paintings, post-hippie proclamations for peace, luv and the desperate unfairness of critics who never took him seriously.

Sure, it seems annoying at times. But try to imagine the day it ceases. How quiet and airless will the world seem then?

Still skeptical? Fine. Be who you are, hear what you like. But first, at least, take a listen to my imaginary box set of Paul’s best post-Beatles work. I imagine it as a two-CD box, with a subsequent collection (or two or three or 15) of the great lost/unreleased stuff he’s kept in the vault all these years.

This is the stuff that got released. From 1970-1990. Twenty years, twenty songs. The next 20/20 comes tomorrow.

DISC ONE: 1970-1990

1. Every Night – One of the two best-written songs on the solo debut, ‘McCartney’ from 1970, a casually sparkling track (played entirely by P) with one of those perfect soaring melodies that seem to drop whole into his imagination.

2. Maybe I’m Amazed – The one epic track on the same album, all tumbling chords, blazing lead guitar and screamingly passionate vocal. One of his greatest songs.

3. Another Day – Dismissed at first by John Lennon for being too bourgoise, his antipathy seems fueled more by post-Beatles rage than the song itself. Another acoustic-based song (albeit with drums and a full band, ‘Another Day’ is actually a spare, bittersweet tale of a lonely woman lost in the rush of the city’s business district. As Denny Seiwell, who drummed on the track, told me while reminiscing about the sessions a few years ago: “I thought holy shit! It’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in New York!”

4. Too Many People – A blazing rocker directed at Lennon (“….Too many people preaching practices/Don’t let ’em tell you what you want to be!”) the guitars sting, Paul’s bass elevates the low end to center stage, and all the frustration, anger and joy of the moment scream through his voice.

5. Ram On – An offbeat choice, sure (I ditched ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ to fit it in) but here is Paul, ukelele in hand, singing softly to himself (the title refers to his earliest stage name, Paul Ramon), urging himself to find the courage of his convictions, his love and his humanity. From the high schkwonk of the tape rolling at the start to the layers of sound, it’s like listening in on a private moment, with all the artifice vanished and the heart of the man in plain sight.

6. Hi, Hi, Hi – One of the stone cold nastiest songs in anyone’s music catalogue, this stomping rocker (released as a single in 1972) tosses a litany of decadence’s greatest hits (bootleg records, marijuana, wild sex, etc) into one blazing cauldron. “Like a rabbit I’m gonna grab it/Gonna do it ’til the night is done,” he screams, and just when you think it can’t get more intense here comes the break: “Move it!” he shouts, and the vehicle shifts into double-time, spinning wildly to its climax. Thrilling.

7. Jet – Almost every song from ‘Band on the Run’ could be on a best-of collection. But this rocker, with its rumbling sax hooks, high-intensity vocal and impermeable-but-perfect lyrics (“And Jet, I thought the major was a lady suffragete!”) drive the free-at-last message home with Hulk-like power.

8. Let Me Roll It – Another ‘Band’ rocker, this one a stripped-down, scary-intense nod to/satire of Lennon’s primal scream sound (see: “Plastic Ono Band”). Here the whole story is in the bare-bones bass line, the slashing guitar runs and the echoing-off-the-walls sound of McCartney’s vocal. “I can’t tell you how I feel/My heart is like a wheel/Let me roll it to you.” Yes, please.

9. Listen to What the Man Said – Here’s a huge hit from the ‘Venus and Mars’ album of 1975 that you never hear on the radio or see people writing about. Why not? It kind of rocks, and every time I hear it it’s like hook after hook after delicious hook. That opening guitar figure; David Sanborn‘s Tom Scott’s leaping, skipping soprano sax lines (and that solo! Even more impressively, that’s the first take). I know it’s frothy (particularly the lyrics), but it kills me every time. But the wonder of it all, baby. The wonder of it all.

10. Let ‘Em In -From its military-like rhythm, the simplest possible instrumention (piano-bass-drums, joined in the chorus by a flute and horns) and the cryptic procession of names in the lyrics, the tune is hypnotic, even vaguely psychedelic. Sit still and close your eyes. Are they coming to a party or just dropping by? Why won’t he (or can’t he) open the door himself? What’s that voice saying in the fade-out?

11. Letting Go – The studio version on ‘Venus and Mars’ sounds strangely muffled, so skip ahead to the ‘Wings Over America’ live album for the unfiltered, live-and-loud version. I always took this is a love-as-obsession song, tracing the point where passion bleeds into compulsion. Others have different interpretations, but don’t listen to any of us. Listen to the song.

12. Cafe on the Left Bank – From 1977’s odd/disappointing ‘London Town’ release. Again, the production fails the song, which in this case is another propulsive rocker, with a rich organ part, spellbinding bass and francophiliac lyrics that are mostly a blur. But sometimes that doesn’t matter.

13. Spin It On – So many people dismiss 1979’s ‘Back to the Egg,’ and I’m not sure why. Maybe they were stll upset about ‘London Town,’ which is sort of understandable. But did they listen closely enough to hear how raw and punkish the first side of this album is? This tune in particular runs double-time throughout its entire 2:12, with Paul stuttering, screaming and carrying on like a maniac throughout. Bonus tracks from this album: “Old Siam, Sir,” “To You.”

14. Junior’s Farm – A single from 1974 (I’m too lazy to put it in correct order), but another four-on-the-floor rocker with wonderfully cryptic lyrics (I was talking to an eskimo/Said he was hoping for a fall of snow/When up popped the sea lion, ready to go”), and great lead guitar from the young, doomed Jimmy McCulloch. The track is a blast of energy, the performances flawless. And here’s a bonus shred of lyrics I always took for a Watergate reference: “Ollie Hardy shoulda had more sense/He pulled a gee-gee and he jumped the fence/All for the sake of a couple of pence.”

15. Take it Away – From ‘Tug of War,’ McC’s first album after the death of Lennon. A cheerful, but reflective tune about loss, resilience and the healing, transformativel power of music. In which ‘Take it Away’ has several meanings, all of them powerful, all of them just right. Does the music sparkle with unexpected transitions, modulations and more? Um, yeah.

16. Back on my Feet – Hidden on the b-side of an English-only 1987 single, the first fruit of McC’s co
llaboration with Elvis Costello (which could have/should have powered his next album, but didn’t due to predictable ego/control problems) has the multi-faceted intrigue and joy of the best Lennon-McCartney songs. Imagine Paul’s hopeful ebullience harmonizing with Elvis’s darker, streetwise vision, layer it into the story of a sadsack loser who swears things are just about to turn around for him, and you’re just getting started. Dig this up. Download it. You won’t be sorry.

17. My Brave Face – So a handful of the Elvis collaborations turned up on ‘Flowers in the Dirt’ from 1989, including the lead-off track, which again illustrated the lovely John/Paul dialectic that Paul/Elvis could summon so effortlessly. Would it seem phony? If Paul emphasized the partnership would he give the world more ammo in its campaign to undermine his reputation as a 2nd-class songwriter? That’s what he worried about. And so the all-but-finished Paul-and Elvis album got shelved. This tune got slightly bowlderized (Elvis’s original production adhered to the Cavern vibe of guitars, bass and drums) but still, a lot rings true. Check out the duo harmonies (both voiced here by Paul for ridiculous reasons), particularly in the chorus when he goes “…take me to that place…” If you know your Beatles, that’ll make your heart skip, right there.

18. Don’t Be Careless, Love – Another Paul/Elvis collaboration, and this one is so musically quirky and lyrically unsettling it won’t leave you be. The first of two death songs (‘That Day is Done’ is pretty awesome, too) on the album, this one skips elegiac for horror-show creepy. “Saw your face in the morning paper/Saw your body rolled up in a rug/Chopped up into little pieces/By some thug…” he sings, a downward keyboard glissando seals the deal and you’ll be excused if you feel a little dizzy.

19. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore – From the oldies-only, Soviet Union-only (for a while) ‘Choba b CCCP’ album in 1988. I wonder what it would have sounded like if the Hamburg-era Beatles — famed for giving the Mersey Beat treatment to cowboy songs, jazz songs, show tunes, anything they all knew well enough to fill in another three or minutes in their night-long sets — covered Duke Ellington? Exactly like this. Fantastic.

20. Figure of Eight – The opening song on the enormous 1989-1990 world tour (Paul’s return after a solid decade of avoiding the concert stage) rocks harder than its counterpart on ‘Flowers,’ and better still, features Robbie McIntosh on a perfectly-done slide guitar solo.