Paul McCartney I

I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul McCartney, what with his new record out, with its valedictory feel, and all. McCartney is a subject of longstanding fascination, fandom, frustration and exasperation around my household, so much so that it’s hard to know where to begin. For every moment of genius in his work (about sixteen million or so) there seems to be an equal number of missteps, squanderings of talent, outright atrocities and failures of character, and I’d like to take the time to sort it all out in the next few days.

But here’s a good place to start:

The Beatles are popular around my house because they fulfill the same function today as they did in 1964: they’re the one group everyone can agree on. The kids love the songs because they’re irresistably singable and Mom and Dad can listen to them and revel in their craft, polish, complexity, uncanny sense of melody and harmonics, relentless creativity and experimentation. There is simply nothing else like them in the history of popular music.

So we were listening to the Beatles on the way to Target the other day, chatting about this and that, and their recording of “Long Tall Sally” came on, featuring McCartney’s joyful, electrifying, vocal-cord-shredding singing, the only serious challenge to Little Richard’s ownership of this song ever attempted. And Kit, 4, in the back seat of the Prius, started getting really excited. “Mom! Mom!” she said. “This is what I wanted my ukelele to sound like!” Kit’s mom explained that she had earlier in the week expressed dissatisfaction with the sound of her ukelele, despite the time spent tuning it. Little did she realize that Kit wasn’t looking for tuning, she was looking for electricity, and of course, the propulsion of John Lennon playing it.

I could probably tell a personal story or two about every single Beatles song in existence, but this incident struck me. We had been driving in the car listening to the Beatles for about twenty minutes at that point, and songs like “You Won’t See Me” and “Hello Goodbye” had played. In fact, McCartney’s very “Long Tall Sally”-esque “I’m Down” had just played moments earlier, and Kit hadn’t batted an eyelash. What was it about the recording of “Long Tall Sally” that had captured Kit’s ear? What quality did that recording have that produced the shock of recognition, the sudden realization that this is what she wanted her music to sound like? She didn’t want it to sound like “Nowhere Man” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “All Together Now” (three of the most requested tunes on my iPod), she wanted it to sound like “Long Tall Sally.” (This is the child who picked, of all things, 1963’s “There’s a Place” as the song to listen to 19 times in a row while we were recently stuck in traffic.) All the songs we’d been listening to featured electric guitars, and most of them featured McCartney singing. Did Kit sense, on some level, that McCartney singing a Little Richard song in front of Lennon and Harrison’s guitar (and Ringo’s drums, of course — that’s the only thing my kids really understand about the Beatles is that Ringo plays the drums) produced an alchemy that the other songs did not? And what is that alchemy? Why was the startling, shattering “I’m Down” pleasant enough, but “Long Tall Sally” a life-changing experience?

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14 Responses to “Paul McCartney I”
  1. As similar as they are – “I’m Down” came up randomly on my iPod in the car yesterday and for just a split second I did in fact think it was “Long Tall Sally” – I believe that as shattering as “I’m Down” indeed is, it still has an air on calculation and construction about it. It is still McCartney the performer singing work by McCartney the craftsman-songwriter, and a song very very deliberately in “the style of Little Richard.” Every bit of his yelling, his “wooooo!”-ing, every bit of apparent “chaos,” is carefully considered.

    When McCartney sings this song (or sang for just that one time – The Beatles’ recording of “Long Tall Sally” is, like their recording of “Twist and Shout,” a first-take straight-through marvel), I believe the step away from it being “his song” as composer allows a freedom, an incredibly subtle one but a freedom, in McCartney’s voice. He might as well be all hopped up on goofballs at 3 am in a Hamburg club again. It’s about pure rock”n’roll as he loves it, passing through him, what made him want to be a rock’n’roller, a songwriter – but it’s not his, so he doesn’t have to think about it, only channel it.

    Maybe Kit is responding to what she hears in McCartney’s voice the way he responded to whatever he heard in Richard Penniman’s that suddenly possessed him in that performance.

    I’m really looking forward to more thoughts on McCartney, as with the Elvis and Bond movies, where you helped me codify some confusing, abstract thoughts about the works with your commentary. I also have a strange, mixed relationship with Macca’s work, and would like to understand it better . . .

    • mcbrennan says:

      I completely agree–“I’m Down” is a Beatles song in the style of Little RIchard, the way “Laura” or “Scandanavian Skies” are Billy Joel songs in the style of the Beatles–pleasant enough, but a homage at best. “Long Tall Sally” has the electricity of a raucous, drunken night at the Cavern. Plus–frankly, Paul’s vocal is so much better on LTS–it’s in a higher key and it just cuts through anything. It is electric.

      I also can’t wait for more Alcottian McCartney thoughts. Much of his post-Beatles catalog drives me bats, but then again there are big parts of it I love a lot. He’s quite confounding. I expect Todd will help me sort it out directly.

    • Todd says:

      The calculation you speak of is one of McCartney’s strongest personality traits and one of his most frustrating compositional habits. His joy in performance is wed to a disdain for simplicity and his lust for melody is wed to a drive to innovate. Like his one-time collaborator Elvis Costello, McCartney cannot simply let it be (sorry), he always has to tinker, toss in some weird little innovation that will make the song “more interesting,” but which, as you notice in “I’m Down,” robs the song of authenticity. “I’m Down” takes a step away from Little Richard, tries to “improve” him, as if Penniman’s pared-down, direct, sped-up r&b joyfulness needed improvement.

      This habit of “improvement” goes back all the way to his earliest days. To stand out in the marketplace, McCartney reasoned the thing to do would be to take what was already dominant and just try to make one tiny innovation. Thus, in a market flooded with songs that said “I love you” and “I love her” McCartney reasoned that a song called “She Loves You” would stand out. And if all the songs in the market had a chorus in A, McCartney would have his start in A but then suddenly shift into G. And if a producer told him he had ten seconds to get to the hook before a teenager changed the station, McCartney would then put the hook one second into the song, even if that meant making the chorus the first thing heard, or having a song that’s all chorus and no verses.

      Of course, once McCartney came to dominate the marketplace himself, the only market to beat was the one he created and his desire for innovation went through the roof and into the stratosphere, but that’s a subject for another day.

  2. edo_fanatic says:

    It was the same for me and “Baby you’re a rich man”.

  3. moroccomole says:

    I can’t wait to read what you have to say about Give My Regards to Broad Street.

    • Todd says:

      I’m afraid you’ll have to — nothing could possess me to seek out that movie. Even my fascination with Things McCartney has some limits.

      • mcbrennan says:

        Ah, see, but I’ve seen it more than once (in the theatre!) and am prepared to offer up a thrilling analysis at whatever length you require.

        I also own the 12″ extended dance mix of Spies Like Us.

      • craigjclark says:

        I saw Give My Regards on cable bunches of times. The musical sequences are extraordinary. (“Silly Love Songs” especially.) Everything in between is abysmal.

      • moroccomole says:

        Coward. It’s Sir Ralph Richardson’s last film!

  4. craigjclark says:

    I’m a big Macca fan. Have pretty much all of his solo work. For a time he was my favorite Beatle (before that distinction was transferred to George). I was very happy that his last record, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, was an unqualified success on all level and probably the best work he’d done in decades. I’m less convinced by Memory Almost Full, but I may come around to it eventually.

    What are your thoughts on “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey”?

  5. teamwak says:

    I’ve not listened to McCartney since Wings, although I did see him at Glastonbury in the rain (actually going to this years festival tomorrow!). I’m afraid I consider him an old rock whore like the Strolling Bones. Tickets for his new concerts are like $300 or more. Plus that Starbucks contract. Urgh!

    However, the guy is one of the best tunesmiths I have ever heard. And Live and Let Die is probably the best Bond theme.

    It is funny how one song can strike a chord with a person, and another one cant. Working out which elements lifted the song from average to amazing is the Holy Grail of pop song writing. I saw an documentary about the band Pulp and Jarvis Cocker. He said when Common People came out, he once saw his 3 year old neice and her friends dancing to it at a kiddies party and he thought; WOW, this might go somewhere!

    For a song to get kids to love it, it must have the magic touch.

    • yetra says:

      You wouldn’t happen to remember the name of the Pulp documentary, would you? That sounds like something I’d love to see. I could listen to Jarvis talk for hours.

  6. yetra says:

    Excellent! I’ve added it to my netflix queue. Also found a doc called Made in Sheffield, which looks like it may be fun as well.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Naturally, this “style of” issue shouldn’t be willfully shoved over the line that seperates it from copyists or blatant exploitation either. We’re not talking the early Rolling Stones.

    The point of the Beatles complexity is the way they began with a mix of orientations that they COULD DO, and are marked off already in their first albums, for example, ballads, the love of R and B that is openly shown – with the correct songwriter credits – along with rockabilly cats like Perkins.

    For me, what is infectious – and that is the important term, the point about the early Beatles vs Merseybeat copyists etc… – in “I’m Down” is easy to see when you just watch them perform live rocking out in Shea Stadium. They are having a ball, laughing, John gets to be doing his patented elbow-on-the-keyboard slides, and so on. It was distilling into expression, into playing, the four lads, the essence of their moment as “the Beatles” through a mostly McCartney filter.
    As such, “I’m Down” was a song that works best in live concert settings, a partner to the way “Twist and Shout” was used as the concert opener in abbreviated version. McCartney had his vocal tone – that sound like he is smiling if not laughing, while Lennon had his, that almost-rasping melancholy. But then, both could do the other as well.

    Lyrically, “Long Tall Sally” is a straitjacket for the Beatles because it is the vein of Little Richard, it’s hard to get out of an impression. These aren’t Beatle words, and they have to say them. Whenever they can find the space (McCartney’s joy permeates through in his voice and phrasing for example) they do. But even the yells are firmly placed in composition.

    But “I’m Down” is already pointing to the Beatle-like compositions ahead, a reduction to allow for all the parts as a whole to work – from the obvious contradiction between what the title states and actual feeling implied by the vocals, to a balance between just enough lyrical sense (or also not just “hey hey hey hey” a la Kansas City and so on) to pin down the story along the way, and allow for just enough breathing space for the spontaneous energy of musicality to occur. They didn’t need the live rave-ups and the like, so they didn’t need the onomatopoeia and yells either to keep things pumping. Motown was a better fit in some ways, than Little Richard, lyrically. But Richard was a better fit, spiritually if you want. Chuck Berry, as storyteller and so on, was perhaps most important – but not really for McCartney’s side of the equation.