Paul McCartney. What to say, what to say, what to say? He owes me nothing. He’s given me everything.
Few people in history are more accomplished. Few people’s work has ever given more pure entertainment, joy and solace
to humanity at large. Who even? Walt Disney? Steven Speilberg? William Shakespeare? Mozart? Beethoven? John Lennon? Maybe.
Pound for pound, our Macca measures up with anybody in terms of giving sheer goodness to the world. For the bass playing and
singing on “Eight Days A Week” and “Nowhere Man” alone, he is nearly peerless. And those are just
two of a staggering amount of one-of-a-kind performances the man has offered: The background vocals on “Money,”
the lead vocal on “Oh! Darling,” the guitar solos of “Taxman” and “Good Morning, Good Morning,”
the bass playing on “Something,” the live take of “Maybe I’m Amazed” from ’76, the “Hear
Me Lover” bridge of “The Pound Is Sinking,” the rip-roaring vocal coda of “Back Seat Of My Car,”
the virtually encyclopedic singing on The White Album, the heartbreakingly gentle assurance of “Yesterday” or
“Hey Jude” or “I Will,” and on and on and on it goes...It’s mind boggling what this guy has
done. He owes me nothing, he’s given me everything.
And yet, like the voracious fan I’ve been since I was four years old, steeping myself for my whole
life thus far in the brilliance of the man, I can’t help it - I want more. I want something more. And for years now,
I’ve been asking myself what exactly that might be from the man who has already given me everything. Well, I’ve
now come to the realization that there is ONE more thing he could give me. I don’t expect it, but I know it would be
really fun if he considered it and did it. But to what that is in a moment.
Yes, it could be argued that the singing and songwriting have both somewhat dulled over the last two decades,
what with age, touring, smoking, already writing and singing everything there is to write and sing, and whatever else life
tends to throw your way when you’re the ultimate rock star on the planet for nearly fifty years. And yes, it could be
argued that the last truly great McCartney album was Tug Of War, and that the last truly great songs he wrote after that masterpiece
were in the company of one younger fellow Liverpudlian, the formidable D.P.A. McManus, a partnership with whom might very
well have kick started the dormant creative juices in a big way, had the two decided to call it a duo and make an album of
those terrific songs together. But it was not to be and those twelve or thirteen fabled chestnuts were scattered to the wind
over the ensuing decade, peppering several albums of varying quality with the bittersweet hint of what could have been. Now
I don’t know the backstory of the McCartney/Costello relationship and I don’t know what makes Paul McCartney decide
to do anything he does or doesn’t do.
But there is one thing I do know about him, and I’m pretty positive of it: It is very, very important
to Paul McCartney to be the biggest there is. He is a Beatle after all, only the biggest act in entertainment history by a
million miles, the most successful composer ever, and the founder/leader of Wings, arguably the biggest musical act of the
1970’s. It’s a lot to live up to, and so, the man has to keep putting out album after album, mount humungous,
world-straddling tours, reminding everyone he was a Beatle, if not THE Beatle, with a setlist heavy on the towering, timeless
achievements of the ’60’s; he has to play Red Square and break through to the Russians again, has to headline
Live 8 playing “Sgt. Pepper“ with U2, has to close Shea Stadium and open Citi Field, has to give the OK on the
massively incredible offerings of 9/9/09, etc, etc, etc. It just can’t be big enough when you’re the biggest there’s
But, there’s a catch to it if the new songs aren’t up to snuff, if every time he plays something
from Off The Ground, Flaming Pie, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation or even the fairly good Memory Almost Full, a sizeable
amount of the stadium audience heads for the concession stand or the bathroom. And that’s where this one more thing
I want from my dear Uncle Paul comes marching cheerily into play.
The one thing he has not done and the one thing he could still do is to form a truly creative alliance with
musicians of his caliber, his age, and his time, do a record of real collaborations with said group, and take it on the road
in a smaller, more intimate setting. Theatres, maybe. Even arenas would do it. Think about it: Aside from the few times he
sang the harmony part on a Denny Laine tune in Wings, Paul McCartney, one of the BEST background harmony singers EVER, basically
abandoned that skill and function with the end of The Beatles. Yes, it’s tough to do it elsewhere after you’ve
been doing it for John Lennon and George Harrison, but do you have to retire it for good? Two telling moments burst to mind:
First is the demo of “The Lovers That Never Were” from the Costello sessions. McCartney, taking the high bit with
a guy he clearly respects, a guy he knows writes as well as him if not better at that moment, springs to the top of his game
instantly, referring back to his “Oh! Darling” voice in a moment of pure vocal transcendence, as if the almost
twenty years between Abbey Road and 1988 have suddenly vanished and all there is in the room is that same hungry, unadulterated
genius. Secondly is the magical moment when Macca takes the stage with Eric Clapton at The Concert For George, and mightily
handles the soaring harmony on “Something” once again for all to witness and be comforted by. Simply breathtaking.
From my count, that’s twice since “Say Say Say” and “The Man.” Twice!
Another point in the same vein I have trouble fathoming is that here is a guy who after leaving The Beatles,
and only a couple of times afterward with Denny Laine, never added his protean talents as a producer/arranger to someone else’s
work again. Hardly ever played bass on someone else’s song again, Ringo Starr notwithstanding. A song here and there
in 30 years is simply not enough when you’re as good at it as Macca is. There is something that just happens when you
work on someone else’s song that can’t possibly happen working on your own. A different perspective occurs, hence
the awe-inspiring work he did on the songs of Lennon and Harrison. A powerful illustration of this point can be found and
enjoyed in the three greatest moments of George Harrison’s auspicious recording career, “While My Guitar Gently
Weeps,” “Something,” and “Here Comes The Sun,” each of which, for all intents and purposes,
Paul McCartney productions. Here is a function that Macca is capable of like few others, that he basically has cast aside
for four decades. Imagine the recordings of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”
without Paul McCartney on them. Imagine someone else playing bass on “Nowhere Man” or “And Your Bird Can
Sing” or “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” or “Come Together” or “A Day In The Life.”
It’s nearly impossible. The man’s ingenuity as the most melodic bass player and one of the greatest all-around
musicians ever has a great deal to do with why the records of The Beatles still stand so high and unchallenged after all these
years and will continue to do so into forever. And yet he retired this paramount skill of exponentially enriching someone
else’s composition with the spring of 1970. It’s hard to believe when you think about it in that way.
And so, to answer the initial question, I say get one more band together. But this time around, make it a
real band, a band of equals, like your first one. No, there can never be another John Lennon, let alone another George Harrison,
but that’s OK. It didn’t stop George from creating and playing the ultimate trump card in post-Beatles history,
The Traveling Wilburys. As it stands right now in Beatledom, the last truly GREAT album by a Beatle is Traveling Wilburys,
Volume One. And that is because hearing George Harrison having fun with his buddies in a BAND is a hoot and a half. Because
he’s with guys he loves who love him, and who are AS GOOD as he is. Sharing vocals, playing and writing good songs together,
this is the stuff of Rock and Roll dreams coming true. There is nothing better in Rock Music than a good band. Ask Pete Townshend,
Bono, Eddie Vedder, Bruce Springsteen, the list goes on and on. There is a creative friction in a band of equals you cannot
possibly attain by yourself in a studio. It’s impossible. Sure, you can make something as good as Ram, but you
can’t do it every time out, because there’s no one there to tell you what time it is or where you’re REALLY
at. It is an invaluable thing, and something Paul McCartney has been desperately missing, whether he knows it or not, since
the summer of 1969. Of all this spouting hyperbole I’ve been slinging, the one undisputable truth I can offer is that
The Beatles were absolutely better together than they ever were apart, and this band dynamic is the reason.
And these bands that Macca has been surrounding himself with on the road and in the studio since 1989, while
full of genuinely talented people, aren’t REAL bands. Maybe the Hamish Stuart/Robbie Macintosh band was. Maybe. But
come on, were they on his level creatively? No. And how about this strange combo he’s got working now? Yes, talented,
competently pulling off the music and the singing, but are they on HIS level? No. If they were, they’d be in the studio
with him every time around, forging new directions, making inspired music, challenging him to rise to the place he rightfully
belongs, the space he hasn’t occupied since Elvis Costello spurred him into writing “My Brave Face,” “Veronica,”
“The Lovers That Never Were,” “So Like Candy,” “Mistress And Maid,” “You Want Her
Too,” “That Day Is Done,” “Don’t Be Careless, Love,” and the exceptional and sadly unreleased
“Tommy’s Coming Home” and “25 Fingers.” The best of the artist Paul McCartney is there, doing
demos in that room with little brother Elvis Costello because little brother Elvis could hold his own with big brother Paul
in that room. He didn’t back down. Makes me think of the other guy who never backed down to him. The one he wrote “We
Can Work It Out” and “A Day In The Life” with, among a few others.
Pete Townshend often speaks of something he calls “The Brief.” Meaning, as a writer, it’s
easier for him to come up with meaningful material when he’s got some kind of schematic to work in, when there is a
central idea inspiring and guiding him in the process, something he’s writing FOR specifically. As masterworks like
Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia can attest, there’s something to what he’s saying there. McCartney’s
first “brief” was obviously The Beatles and more specifically, John Lennon. No one has inspired him more than
his original partner, as “Penny Lane” or the second side of Abbey Road, just to name two, can attest. But it was
the all-encompassing genius of Lennon’s vision that enabled McCartney to basically write about anything he wanted, because
using the Lennon filter for his lyrical ideas, the song would invariably always come out BEATLES. It was this brief that would
allow lines like “fish and finger pie” or “Sitting on a sofa with a sister or two” to make all the
sense in the world. Hence, even arguably lesser or relatively sillier ideas like those in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,”
“Your Mother Should Know” or “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (all great songs, mind you) would still come out
smelling brilliantly of roses under The Beatles moniker. Imagine songs like these outside that amazing blanket. Things like
“You Gave Me The Answer,” “Magneto and Titanium Man,” or “Call Me Back Again” spring to
mind. Good songs, yes, but not on par with the former. And why? Because they weren’t created and did not exist inside
that established brief.
So what does all this senseless babbling mean? Simply, Paul McCartney could use a Brief again. His work would
greatly benefit if that brief took the form of a collective of peers working around him. And that’s the key word: PEERS.
Not hired guns, talented but anonymous support players, who neither add nor subtract from what he’s doing. Maybe that’s
exactly why he enlists guys like that. So no one gets in his way. But I say, why? You’re greatness is unquestioned,
unshakable. You’ve done it all. You’ve done it all ten times over. You can’t get any bigger. You could,
however, still get BETTER. Witness the incredible work Bob Dylan has done over the last fifteen years. There is no doubt it
has a great deal to do with the fact his last four records have been made with bands made up of guys as truly GOOD as he is.
The list of candidates is near endless and certainly awesome: Pete Townshend, Billy Joel, Elvis Costello,
Dylan himself, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Glenn Tilbrook, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards,
Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton, Stevie Wonder, for God’s sake! How about a full fledged album with Stevie Wonder and Dave
Gilmour? How great would that be? A silly pipe dream, yes. But just imagine.
I’ve been listening recently to the band Rockpile. And from what I can tell, there are two guys out
there right now who could give Paul McCartney a shot in the arm and a run for his money: Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. Wow,
are these guys good. And from the same Everly place, the same sensibility. Roots firmly in early Rock and Roll, great melodies
alone and in harmony, a tremendous producer’s ear in Nick Lowe, and one of the great voices in Dave Edmunds. Picture
it: Macca in a studio with Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Ringo Starr on drums and Billy Joel on piano. McCartney
writing for Dave Edmunds’ voice, singing the harmony above him, playing the bass on a Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello tune;
writing more with Costello, writing with Nick Lowe, writing with Billy Joel, writing with Pete Townshend, singing songs they
wrote that he didn’t, it would be nothing short of unbelievable.
I know, I know, a silly pipe dream. Maybe it would lead nowhere but to a massive collision of egos. Maybe
it would be an utter mess and waste of time.
But maybe not.
If it were never to happen, that would be fine.
He owes me nothing. He’s given me everything.
I can’t help it. I want just a little more.