McCartney, part 3, in which I try to quantify greatness, so that I may dissect it

If you will bear with me a moment, I’m going to attempt a syllogism, or at least a mathematical formula:

IF we say that the recordings of the Beatles represent a certain extremely-high standard of professionalism, creativity and musical success,

AND Paul McCartney was one-fourth of the personnel of the Beatles,

AND said McCartney was one-half of the writing team responsible for most of the Beatles songs, that gives us SIX PARTS of responsibility, of which McCartney may reasonably lay claim to TWO, or ONE THIRD.

THEREFORE, ONE THIRD of solo McCartney material, post-Beatles, and absent other Beatles, may reasonably be expected to reach the same level of professionalism, creativity and musical success.

Does McCartney meet the demands of this (arbitrary, unfair) formulation? Do the other Beatles?  Could anyone?

Let’s take a closer look at the Beatles’ recordings. They are all masterpieces. I can say this because the best definition I’ve ever heard of “masterpiece” is that a masterpiece is an artwork that we can return to again and again throughout a lifetime and always get something new from it. I’ve been listening to the Beatles recordings probably since before I could write words, and I haven’t gotten close to getting to the bottom of their mysteries and surprises.

What do they do? How do they work? What are the hallmarks of “Beatles recordings,” that make them stand out from all other recordings? To stick with the theme of this blog, what do the Beatles’ recordings want?

I am not a musicologist. One could write a book on why the Beatles’ recordings work musically, and more than one person has. I am, however, a dramatist, and I find that my primary response to the Beatles recordings is dramatic. They have an overwhelming sense of drama, each song a perfectly realized little world, each recording existing by its own rules, often with an arrangement utterly unique: even if it’s just guitars, bass and drums, somehow each time a new sonic aspect of those instruments are teased out.

It’s almost as though every time the Beatles entered the recording studio, they acted as though they had never entered a recording studio before, and didn’t know if they would ever get the chance again. There’s an incredible make-or-break sensibility to each recording, in the same way there’s a make-or-break sensibility to Raging Bull. Every corner of every song is packed with melody, invention and what I like to call “entertainment value.”  There’s never a wasted moment or dull stretch in a Beatles song, even “Revolution 9.”

Think of the urgency of the Beatles songs. They did not come here to waste your time, and they will not let you change the station. A casual glance through my Beatles CDs tells me that many Beatles songs begin with the chorus, or sometimes don’t even have a proper chorus, or rather are all chorus, with bridges in between choruses. Many of the songs in question not only begin with the chorus, they don’t even have introductions, they just begin. I counted twenty-eight (out of roughly 200 Lennon/McCartney Beatle tracks) that begin with the vocalist plunging into the chorus without any introduction at all. Think of a sonic avalanche like “She Loves You,” a song both insistent and distant, joyful and pejorative, delivering someone else’s good news in a way that makes you assume that she couldn’t really love anyone but the singer. If McCartney is this happy about telling you that she loves you, just think of how happy he would be if she loved him.

Check out these examples of the finest dramatic writing in pop music. These are all the first lines of Beatles songs, sung without any introduction whatsoever, often a capella.

“As I write this letter, send my love to you –“
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you — “
“If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true — ?”
“Try and see it my way, maybe time will tell if I am right or I am wrong — “
“You tell lies thinkin’ I can’t see, you can’t cry ‘cos you’re laughing at me, I’m down.”
“Ahh, look at all the lonely people — “
“To lead a better life — “
“In the town where I was born, lived a man who sailed to sea — “
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad — “
“The long and winding road that leads to your door — “
“She came in through the bathroom window — “

And my personal favorite, which begins in the middle of the phrase —

“For I have got another girl — “

Think of that! McCartney begins the song in the middle of a phrase!

For the purpose of comparison, here are the opening lines of some Shakespeare plays, pulled off my shelf entirely at random:

“Who’s there?”
“When shall we three meet again?”
“Tush! Never tell me!”
“I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

This is masterly drama, beginning the song, the “argument” as it were, in the middle, forcing the audient to “catch up” with the singer. Each one of these opening lines is immediately arresting, plunging us into a drama already in progress — who could fast-forward past a song that begins, a cappella, “For I have got — ” for he has got what? Oh, another girl, I see — and why does he have another girl?  What was wrong with the first girl?  Why would a Beatle need another girl? And when are we going to get back around to the first part of that phrase? “I ain’t no fool and I don’t take what I don’t want, for I have got another girl,” ah yes, there it is.

You could say that these are simple pop songs, but they are not simple pop songs. Even the Beatles’ earliest recordings have a complexity and experimentalism that remains striking today. Just the other day I was driving with my 4-year-old daughter Kit and 1962’s “There’s a Place” came on, a song I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and listened to. Kit responded to it immediately and demanded to listen to it nineteen times in a row, allowing me a chance to get to know what was, to me, essentially a “new” Lennon-McCartney song. After I got used to the perfectly bizarre harmonics of Lennon and McCartney’s twin vocals, I started working out the lyrics in my head. “There’s a place,” they sing, “where I can go,when I feel low, when I feel blue, and it’s my mind, and there’s no time, when I’m alone.” The next verse starts “I think of you, and things you do,” which makes me think that “when I’m alone” attaches grammatically to the second verse, but it also works as the last line of the first. There’s a place where the singer can go when he’s depressed, and it’s his mind, but there’s no time when he’s alone. Meaning either that the singer could be happy in his mind if he had time to be alone, or else he must retreat into his mind because he’s never alone. Either way he’s completely miserable, and either reading is surprising in what sounds like a chirpy pop song on first listen. And this is before Beatlemania made John Lennon officially miserable, two years before “I’m a Loser” and three years before “Help!” (incidentally, both those songs also begin with a cappella choruses too).

They manage to do all of this while sounding like the most joyful people on earth. Paul McCartney sings “I Saw Her Standing There” like a dying cancer patient who’s suddenly been given a clean bill of health. All the vistas of life have suddenly opened for him. (“Well she was just seventeen, you know what I mean” also happens to be one of the great couplets in songwriting history and a perfect example of Lennon-McCartney teamwork — as McCartney tells the story, the opening couplet was originally “Well she was just seventeen, she never was a beauty queen,” but Lennon either substituted the existing line or pressured McCartney into changing it, turning it from a comment on the subject to thrusting the subject into the mind of the listener.) There is an incredible immediacy to the Beatles recordings, a sense that something is happening, right now, as the tape is rolling.  This in spite of their mature recordings sometimes taking days or even weeks to  painstakingly record and edit.

“You know what I mean” reminds me that, like any great songwriters, the Beatles are notable not just for all the musical detail they put into their recordings, but also for what lyrical details they leave out. Their songs often come almost to the point of cohering, only to back off at the last moment, creating not so much a story but a moment, not a drama but a scene, leaving out the beginning and the end, leaving the listener to finish the narrative his- or herself.

Which brings me to my last point, the Beatles talent for collage. Starting with the Sgt Pepper concept (which, despite the album’s greatness, isn’t very well fleshed out), most notably in “A Day in the Life,” but continuing through the jarring juxtapositions of the White Album and, most notably, on Abbey Road, the Beatles in their mature phase (which I think it’s safe to say is when McCartney came into his own, shouldering the lion’s share of the production burden) (and being the biggest asshole) threw out all the “love song” mainstays that had made their reputation and instead turned to crafting sonic landscapes with lyrics that were impressionistic, nonsensical or even completely meaningless. Side Two of Abbey Road only sounds incredible, none of those songs would have made it on their own, it’s only when “Mean Mr. Mustard” bumps into “Polythene Pam,” which then comes crashing into “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” that the songs gain their sense of excitement. These juxtapositions are related to montage, just as “shot of gun,” “shot of woman screaming,” “shot of man falling down” are uninflected images stitched together to form the dramatic beat of “man getting shot.”. That is to say, again, the primary impact of these recordings is dramatic.

So, if we say that the criteria for a good “Beatles recording” includes a heightened, almost supernatural sense of urgency, immediacy, complexity and experimentalism, a dramatic force and alacrity, performed joyfully, uniquely arranged and containing melodies both absurdly catchy and built to sustain generations of scrutiny, we might then be able to move on to judging McCartney’s work after the Beatles, and how it compares to the work of his bandmates.

hit counter html code


14 Responses to “McCartney, part 3, in which I try to quantify greatness, so that I may dissect it”
  1. sheherazahde says:

    quantifing greatness

    I really love your insights.

  2. jbacardi says:

    Damn, man! Every time something would occur to me to rebut, perhaps, or add to what you wrote, you’d answer it in the next line. Great job.

    One thing I will throw out there- I think part of the reason why they instinctively put such urgency and immediacy in the structure of nearly all their output is because of their early days in Hamburg and Liverpool, where the need to make an immediate impression and get people’s attention became second nature- and when they got started writing for real, they did this unconsciously (or perhaps consciously in a lot of cases).

  3. Anonymous says:

    beatles: deep analysis

    for those interested in a musicologist’s perspective, check out Alan Pollack’s notes:

  4. craigjclark says:

    I have a book that analyzes the Beatles’ output song by song and album by album, assigning percentages to determine how much each member of the band had to do with the writing of each song. Unsurprisingly, all of the albums up to and including Help! were heavily weighted in favor of John. On Rubber Soul and Revolver, John and Paul were fairly evenly matched, but from Sgt. Pepper onward, John didn’t have a chance since Paul went into a kind of songwriting overdrive. It’s also been said that this was because John was getting into harder drugs at the time and therefore wasn’t capable of churning as many songs out.

    • Todd says:

      Alternatively, one could say that McCartney saw an opportunity for a power-grab and took it. But we will get to all that in time, during the “war-crime trial” phase of our investigation.

      • craigjclark says:

        You know, as many times as I hear people blame Yoko Ono for the breakup of the Beatles, in a strange way it all comes down to Brian Epstein. If he hadn’t created the void in management when he did, would the band have stayed together longer? When they did break up, would it have been less acrimonious? Would he have been able to talk Paul out of the Magical Mystery Tour film?

  5. randymonki says:

    Abbey Road is my favorite Beatles album (Excepting “Come Together”, which is a song i cannot stand), and i was lucky in that sometimes the local classic rock station would play the whole Mustard/Pam/Window set when i still lived there. It always makes me wonder how the Beatles would have handled things if they lived in the high production values-era of music videos we have today…I always imagined that whole last half of the album as a series of vignettes that would seemlessly segue into each other, like a musical Mr. Show.

    And i still maintain that Revolution #9 was the first popular example of techno music.

  6. edo_fanatic says:

    Now which album is most consistent- Abbey Road, The White Album, or Sgt Pepper?

    • craigjclark says:

      Most consistent would probably be Abbey Road. They weren’t just experimenting for experimentation’s sake the way they were with Sgt. Pepper and they weren’t providing a unified front at all during the White Album sessions. In fact, I’d say that’s their most inconsistent (but still highly enjoyable) outings.

  7. craigjclark says:

    Can’t argue with that.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Wow is right.

    I’m glad I found your journal by way of Urbaniak and McBrennen (both also quite brilliant) by way of some NY theatre blog that I don’t even visit anymore. I’ve given up art for you guys.

    So I’ve never written in to one of these live journal thingys before but I must tell you that this girl, has come to stay. She loves YOU, and your writing — Thanks. I can not WAIT for the war-crime trail reportage.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “There’s a place” is a great choice. An early Beatles song that’s often overlooked for the hits.

    Instead of writing with the more 1950s conventions -“Please come back to me, I miss you, I remember how we used to” etc. they indeed give a modern sense, established over two simple verses. We get a sense something has occured, but not from the intro “a place” but as the song goes on. We start at “a place”, that’s alone in his mind, we end at “a place” that’s alone in his mind, and in between we pass through the domain of the heart – love.

    The song goes on from your quote to reveal:

    “in my mind there’s no sorrow (don’t you know that it’s so)
    there’ll be no sad tomorrows (don’t you know that it’s so)”

    In one verse, deceptively simple, comes the realization something happened:

    I think of you,
    And things you do,
    Go round my head,
    The things you’ve said,
    Like I love only you.

    The text is simple and pretty, in that way one feels it is easy to recall and to even sing it, but then on the last line is a barb. It isn’t “I love you”, it is, “like: “I love only you”. That last line is delivered in a different emphasis and voice and as if the beginning of a new phrase or at least of the bridge that leads back to “the place”. And to be correct, he’s quoting his ex – it should be written “The things you’ve said, like ‘I love only you'”

    I think that is a good example of one of their songs that makes you want to try writing, it seems so simple, but when you start up….

    Then there is the ‘odd’ sonic tone to the whole song, whether harmonica intro or voices, which is fitting – it’s neither their balls-out Everly-style, nor mournful, but more an ambivalent statement, one neither upbeat nor down, just mildly supportive, not decided in either direction lyrically, it start/stops, neither love song, ballad, certainly not a crowing rooster rocker, there’s not even a guitar break. It has a sense of inbetween-ness suggested by the total composition at work, the song as the place.

    McCartney at his best, in his solo career as well, is able to develop that almost primeval song form (also as “the place”) into more and more complex minatures. At his worst, to fill in all the spaces inbetween with saccharine goo.

    • Todd says:

      “they indeed give a modern sense”

      Modernism is the key to the Beatles, I believe. I think they were the first, and indisputably the best, modernist pop group. They were creating songs that are essentially about other songs, whether through pastiche, parody, homage or synthesis. That they did something that artsy and “smart” while sounding so innocent and joyful is nothing less than a miracle.

  10. greyaenigma says:

    Completely off topic, but I finally finished my monsters write-up.