Paul McCartney: Wanna Hear You Play Till the Lights Go Down

Paul McCartney Has Proof He Didn't Break Up The Beatles

There’s a new Paul McCartney album out, which is always cause for celebration in my book. He’s my favorite Beatle, and has been from the start. Maybe that’s because I was introduced to both The Beatles and McCartney’s solo career at the same time, the summer between fifth and sixth grades, right when I turned eleven. That was also the summer I discovered MTV, and since McCartney was an early adopter of the music video, he was a constant presence on my television. The seismic impact that McCartney and the rest of the Fab Four made on my impressionable little adolescent brain that summer cannot be overstated, and likely deserves its own lengthy blog post. For now, though, let me just say that I will defend McCartney to the death. There are countless reasons why I love him, and many of them are incredibly well-stated right here thanks to British journalist Ian Leslie, so there’s no need for me to elaborate further on that front.

But, the release of a new McCartney album always gives me an excuse to re-visit some of the albums that I consider highlights of his extensive post-Beatles discography. These are the records I cue up whenever I want to listen to solo McCartney.

Band on the Run (1973)

Band On The Run - Wings Hit It Big Time | This Day In Music

After several spotty albums to start his post-Beatles career, this is the one where it all finally comes together. It’s a great album, in all respects. There’s no noodling here, only his patented top-notch songcraft, and a trio of instant classics: “Jet,” “Helen Wheels,” and the title track. This is kind of the perfect McCartney album, and if one were inclined to call it the best album of his solo career, it would be an easy choice to defend (that is, if you consider his tenure in Wings as part of his solo career, which I do).

Wings Over America (1976)

Review] Wings Over America (1976) - Progrography

A deeply underrated live album that features Wings at their commercial peak, and also features the best version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” you’ll hear anywhere. This album was originally issued as a triple LP, which means the running time is comparable to a full-length concert, and that turns out to be one its strengths. What you get here is basically an entire live show from one of the most popular bands of their era, and its a fantastic testament to how great a live act they were.

Tug of War (1982)

Paul McCartney - Tug Of War (1982, Vinyl) | Discogs

This was McCartney’s first album after the death of John Lennon, and he gathered reinforcements for it. The line-up includes Ringo Starr, legendary producer George Martin, McCartney’s old Wings bandmate Denny Laine, former 10cc guitarist Eric Stewart, jazz fusion bassist Stanley Clarke, and session drummer extraordinaire Steve Gadd. Carl Perkins shows up to sing a duet, and Stevie Wonder shows up to sing two (including “Ebony and Ivory,” which became a No. 1 hit single in the U.S. and beyond). The lingering influence of both Wings and The Beatles is evident in a good way, and the full spectrum of McCartney’s songwriting versatility is on display. He composes in a number of different styles, and still makes Tug of War feel like a unified whole. This isn’t an album that belongs to one genre or another, it has a genre all its own: McCartney-esque.

Flowers in the Dirt (1989)

Flowers in the Dirt by Paul McCartney (Album; Мелодия; А60 00705 006):  Reviews, Ratings, Credits, Song list - Rate Your Music

Nowadays, this one is probably most well-known for McCartney’s highly-publicized collaboration with Elvis Costello, a short-lived partnership that still yielded enough songs to fill out five different albums across the span of nearly a decade. But, at the time, it was hailed as a welcome return to Beatles-esque form for McCartney, complete with a Top 40 single (“My Brave Face,” one of his Costello collaborations), and another small army of premier sidemen, like Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, Pretenders guitarist Robbie McIntosh, and session pianist Nicky Hopkins. In retrospect, though, this is the album where we should’ve stopped thinking of McCartney solely as a rock-and-roller, because Flowers in the Dirt doesn’t rock very much. What it shows instead is that he’s is a composer of standards. There’s a reason he increasingly bills himself as the guy who wrote “Yesterday,” one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music: because he’s a songwriter in the Tin Pan Alley vein, the kind who writes songs that stay with us over time, and are therefore elevated to classic, timeless status. We should talk about McCartney the way we talk about Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and the Gershwins, and this is the album where that becomes wonderfully obvious.

Run Devil Run (1999)

Paul McCartney - Run Devil Run - Music

Following the death of his wife, Linda, McCartney made a surprising announcement: his next record would be an album of covers. What kind of grand artistic statement was that supposed to be in the face of such grief? Well, in retrospect, all I can say is: my bad. The resulting album, Run Devil Run, turned out to be the best kind of response to losing a spouse. McCartney goes back to the well here, steeping himself in the music he grew up listening to: Elvis, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, and Big Joe Turner are all represented here. And, by revisiting the songs that inspired him once upon a time, he turns Run Devil Run into a restorative act of healing. As the title indicates, McCartney has no more time for being in a funk. Whatever demons haunted him after Linda’s death are exorcised by this record. It’s a fun, bright, jubilant album, and McCartney sounds like he’s having a blast. As a bonus, he throws in three new originals, written in the 1950s style of the covers (all of which fit in beautifully). A joyful lark from start to finish, and a fitting remembrance of a happier time and place.

(Bonus tracks: check out the playlist I was inspired to make while writing this post.)

George Harrison: When He Was Fab

Image result for george harrison

I recently saw George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s lovely and comprehensive documentary about the former Beatle, and it inspired me to investigate Harrison’s songbook at length. Working in the shadow of John Lennon and Paul McCartney throughout his tenure with The Beatles, Harrison nevertheless established an indelible identity for himself within the band – he was the quiet, droll, spiritual one – that carried over into his noteworthy solo career. His catalogue is full of graceful knockouts that have earwormed their way into my daily life as of late, and the following five tracks exemplify why.

“Taxman” (1966)

Not the first Harrison song to grace a Beatles album, but maybe the first Beatles classic written by him. Outraged at the time by England’s 95% supertax on top earners (which included him), Harrison penned this satirical rebuke, which is sung from the tax collector’s point of view. The jabs are clever and succinct (“If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”), and the musicianship is on point: the song features both a rare McCartney guitar solo, and one of his most supple bass lines. With “Taxman,” Harrison’s emergence as a formidable songwriting force within the band was complete, and not only did it turn out to be a seminal track from a seminal album, it also became the de facto anthem for one of the most reviled days of the year.

“Here Comes the Sun” (1969)

Of all the songs Harrison wrote and recorded with The Beatles, this one is my personal favorite. It is surely one of his high points with the band. The day he wrote it, he was supposed to be attending a business meeting at Apple Corps headquarters. Instead, Harrison played hooky and went to Eric Clapton‘s house, where they wandered around the garden together, noodling away on their guitars, until this song began to take shape. Thank God he decided to take the day off: Harrison cemented his Beatles legacy on yet another seminal album by the band, and the world got one of the loveliest, most upbeat songs ever recorded about both seasonal and personal renewal. If that’s not a ringing endorsement for taking a personal day every now and then, I don’t know what is.

“Run of the Mill” (1970)

1970 was a notorious year for The Beatles: the band officially broke up, but still managed to release two albums anyway; and, all four members started releasing solo albums of their own on top of that. Harrison’s solo debut, All Things Must Pass, was a massive triple LP stockpiled with songs that never made it onto any Beatles albums. “Run of the Mill,” which closed out the first LP, highlights both the band’s end stage acrimony and Harrison’s emerging spiritual philosophy. As he writes in the opening lyrics:

Everyone has choice
When to or not to raise their voices
It’s you that decides

Armchair psychologists have been interpreting this song for decades, but one thing seems clear: the business of being in The Beatles had taken its toll on Harrison. On the flip side, a creative detour he’d taken to visit Bob Dylan and The Band in Woodstock back in 1968 had also made an impression: their mojo had seeped into Harrison’s songwriting, and “Run of the Mill” is a lovely, elegant example of the gestalt of those experiences during that turbulent time.

“When We Was Fab” (1987)

During the early 1980s, Harrison put his music career on hold while he explored other interests (like becoming a well-respected movie producer). But. by the second half of the decade, he was ready to jump back into the pop music fray. He recruited Electric Light Orchestra ringleader (and Beatles superfan) Jeff Lynne to co-produce a new album: the result was Cloud Nine, his strongest solo effort since All Things Must Pass. One of the standout tracks was the overtly Beatlesque “When We Was Fab,” a tribute to his days in the Fab Four. Things come full circle for Harrison here: he subtly references one of his former hits while waxing nostalgic about the good old days (“Back when income tax was all we had”), and Ringo Starr shows up to plays drums (both on the track, and in the accompanying video). Harrison sounds like he’s having more fun here than…well, since “Long time ago when we was fab,” as the song goes, and the same can be said about the entire Cloud Nine album. It was a happy return to form that thrust Harrison right back into the spotlight.

“Handle With Care” (1988)

One year after the release of Cloud Nine, Harrison and Jeff Lynne unveiled their second collaboration together: The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, the surprising debut of the eponymous tongue-in-cheek supergroup, which consisted of Harrison, Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan (all under assumed band identities). As the acknowledged leader of the group, Harrison wrote the music for the band’s debut single, “Handle With Care,” then tag-teamed the lyric writing with the rest of the group around Dylan’s kitchen table. Working with a crew this strong (and, also, as a graduate of the Fab Four finishing school), is it any surprise that “Handle With Care” turned out to be one of Harrison’s strongest post-Beatles tracks? Whether he liked it or not, the former Beatle thrived whenever he worked with artists who were at least as good as him (if not better), and the entire Traveling Wilburys project was (and still is) a glorious, delightful reminder of that.