Is it only reasonable for the aging popstar, even perhaps the brightest in the firmament, to abandon celebrity for tea and cakes? Years of plugging away, of fighting to be in critics’ and fans’ good graces; others have found these pressures impossible to bear. Success seems to justify an exit – a peaceful, unassuming coda.
At 80, Paul McCartney is still defiant, and probably the last person to hear any talk of a quiet life.
The Liverpudlian has refused to let the years rob him of his myth. By casual recollection, the pandemic alone has seen McCartney, who turned 80 years old this 18 June: release an album, produce a mammoth of a documentary, star in another documentary, release a book of career lyrics, and wrap up a 16-concert tour of the United States.
His star has not waned since 1964, when The Beatles came to America and were propelled to global fame. His music is surging still in pop culture, alive in the imaginings of films like Yesterday (2019), celebrated on TikTok as though he were a 2020’s frontman. The longevity is a compliment to his songwriting and tenacity. McCartney, after all, is a savant and a workhorse: whether alongside John Lennon, by himself as in his 1970 debut (in which he played all the album’s instruments), with Wings, or with Rihanna.
Born just prior to Y2K, I was introduced to McCartney’s music through the insistence of family. My grandfather was a young man slinging newspapers in Sampaloc when The Beatles came to Manila in ‘66; if he’d had less to worry about, he swears he would have gone. The songs basically fixtures at every beer-sloshed function, it was hard not to share the fascination. Eventually, I, all of maybe twelve, was seeking out YouTube clips of the Anthology on my volition.
To be sure, my generation have music appreciation a little too good and too easily. We experience the art of made men like Paul on our own terms, unstuck in time. Hankering for early detail, we can open Spotify and play “In Spite of All the Danger,” recorded in 1958, an early McCartney composition co-written with George Harrison. We want unhinged Macca going ham on his synthesizer, we put on “Temporary Secretary” and watch the room spin.
Having ready access to an artist’s catalog is an embarrassing luxury. The work across the years is openly sprawled out and available, a scrapbook inviting deeper appreciation.
The longevity is a compliment to his songwriting and tenacity. McCartney, after all, is a savant and a workhorse.
I can only think to celebrate Paul further by talking about the songs. For today’s purposes, I’ve decided to focus on his solo work, because that original group gets more than its due on a regular day.
This does not purport to be a best-of, clearly. It is a drippy, sentimental selection of eight, which I feel show the extent of the songwriter's gift – all Liverpudlian charm, with fits of both mischief and mastery.
Let Me Roll It (1973)
This seems like easing you in since it’s from a hit record. It’s not; “Let Me Roll It” is a haymaker. Emblematic of the era’s pop decadence, this big, moody rock ballad rewards repetition. Its resurgence because of the last Paul Thomas Anderson film is only testament to the song’s timeless pleasures.
Calico Skies (1997)
His so-called ditties for any other artist would be starmakers. One such number from 1997’s Flaming Pie is “Calico Skies.” Winsome with only guitar and voice, McCartney dusts off 60’s pacifism: The narrator confesses to his lady love, then hikes up to take a stand against war.
Some People Never Know (1971)
Paul treads familiar ground: His protagonist, bound to a life on the road, pines helplessly for a lover far away. The musicianship identifies McCartney – a raw and charged folk-rock backing amplifies his hurt. This was never in any of the best-of CD’s I inhaled as a child. But for my money this is up there with Paul’s best and most vulnerable.
No More Lonely Nights (1984)
The ubiquity of this 1984 hit is welcome. Can you imagine being so enamoured as to write, “May I never miss the thrill of being near you?” Lord.
Too Many People (1971)
Wounds from the Beatle break-up still fresh, John Lennon picked up on a coded message he had heard from this Ram (1971) rocker. Paul had taunted, “That was your first mistake / You took your lucky break / And broke it in two.” Lennon was compelled into a bitter reply in Imagine (1971).
Clearly, edge was never solely Lennon’s domain.
This Never Happened Before (2005)
When you have it, it seems to stick–even into your mid-60’s. McCartney doesn’t change the game here, but the workmanship in melody and untempered romanticism still bowls you over.
Say Say Say (1983) - co-written with Michael Jackson
The story goes that McCartney was handed a phone one day and was asked, Do you want to make some hits? The voice sounded, well, pre-pubescent.
Say, Say, Say was engineered to be a chart-topper. Sublime, irresistible pop from the best two to ever do it.
My Love (1973)
If both fan and critic were made to spell out their feelings about Mr. McCartney, my hunch is they would wind up describing 1973’s “My Love.” Unabashed sentiment, too “pretty” in melody, and a penchant for theatrics. I, for one, am relieved beyond relieved Paul leaned into his instincts. If everyone in the world were too cool and brooding in their art, the world’s collective charade would probably grind to a halt.
Paul doesn’t seem to mind the naysaying very much. Half the planet could be up in arms, the alleged “ditties” would still flow. (He got away with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da; he can get away with anything.)
Things haven’t turned out that horribly for him. I could be wrong, but maybe there is something to that approach.