For a few months now, as previously mentioned, I’ve been getting to grips with the McCartney solo material I had long ignored. This is thanks to a variety of podcasts, including Nothing is Real and I Am the Eggpod. The latter is a mixed bag: a tendency to be a bit bland but some high-profile guests, which other podcasts don’t manage. I’ve moved on now, from listening to curated lists of ‘the best McCartney solo songs’ to delving deeper into albums that have been sitting here for decades waiting for me to listen to them.
I’ve also been getting to grips with the reasons behind my McCartney ignorance. It’s been striking to note that a lot of these podcast presenters and guests (let’s call them podders) are a certain age, and have in common with me the fact that we were all fans of the Beatles when they were temporarily unfashionable: in particular during the scorched earth Year Zero of the punk rock era. And yet while many of them went deep into Beatles solo material, I (wrongheadedly) decided that only Lennon was worthy of my attention.
There have been some spine tingling moments of recognition for me, as some podders relayed memories of discovering The Beatles Monthly in the newsagent in the 70s. And yet: there was something about Lennon’s angry iconoclasm that appealed to the angry teenage iconoclast in me, and I swallowed hook line and sinker the idea that Paul McCartney was a bit rubbish, on the level of Chris De Burgh.
Some of this came back to me as I listened to an episode about the final Wings album, Back to the Egg, which was dismissed by the Lennon sycophants at Rolling Stone magazine as ‘just about the sorriest grab bag of dreck in recent memory’. I suppose Rolling Stone deserves some respect for leaving this piece of shit character assassination on their web site rather than trying to rewrite history by deleting it, which is what it deserves. Needless to say, Back to the Egg is actually very good.
Back to the Egg
Released in 1979, it followed on the heels of the Rolling Stones’ last good album, Some Girls (1978), and can be seen as his reinvigoration in the light of the scorched earth Year Zero etc. It’s produced by Chris Thomas, who had some involvement in that Sex Pistols album, but who had also worked on The Beatles and Dark Side of the Moon. So it’s wrong to characterise him as a ‘punk’ producer. It always makes me laugh when people cite Never Mind the Bollocks as being some kind of departure. It’s a highly polished, very produced album, with more in common with Black Sabbath than The Velvet Underground.
I always disdained both the punk ethos of ‘one chord and the truth’ and the pretence that most of these bands (The Stranglers, The Clash, The Blockheads, Blondie) were anything other than dusted off pub/club rock bands. Joe Strummer was 3 years younger than Springsteen, who was four years younger than Debbie Harry, etc.
Meanwhile, McCartney (three years older than Debbie Harry) decides to get back to basics, but that being a cliché he called the album Back to the Egg. Now, when you’ve played the Top Ten in Hamburg and the Cavern, and you made Let it Be, you can get back to basics whenever you want: because these are your basics: you invented them.
I remember hearing ‘Old Siam, Sir’ on the radio and quite liking it. The album has some vestiges of a concept album in filler tracks that sound like tuning a radio etc., but it contains a fair few decent rockers, along with a couple of gospel/soul tracks and (on singles released at the same time, like “Goodnight Tonight” and “Daytime Nighttime Suffering”) a little bit of the disco bass we heard on “Silly Love Songs”.
Here’s the secret of listening to Paul McCartney if you are a dyed in the wool Beatles fan: you have to try to forget that Macca was a Beatle. The comparison is not fair and not even a valid one to make. In a genre that has so often featured reinvention (Dylan, Bowie, Weller), you have to allow for the idea that the persona of Paul McCartney post-1970, was a completely different artist. It’s like the different Paul Wellers you get in The Style Council and The Jam. My problem with him, for decades, was that I was listening for echoes of the Beatles, and he (or the press at least) didn’t help this at all, in his promotional work. There has always been too much made of Paul working with George Martin, for example. Or recording at Abbey Road. Or linking up with possible Lennon replacements like Elvis Costello or Eric Stewart. Or getting Ringo in on drums. All of this stuff is noise, and it all gets in the way of your ability to listen to his work on its own merits.
On its own merits, Back to the Egg is actually a decent rock record made, in 1979, by people who could play their own instruments. It’s not a patch on Damn the Torpedoes, which came out in the same year, but it’s most definitely not dreck.
Tug of War
After the demise of Wings, Macca went solo and released McCartney II, followed by this, Tug of War. Yes, it’s produced by George Martin, yes Ringo is there, as is Eric Stewart, but the thing you need to know about this record is that Paul McCartney was around 40 when he made it. Yeah: he’s 80 in a couple of years, and this album is closer to Let it Be than it is to his most recent release Egypt Station (also very good).
So you can count backwards now and appreciate that McCartney was still in his 30s when he made Back to the Egg. He’s at the peak of his creative powers, and furthermore his voice is still the incredible instrument it was in the 60s. That’s why I’ve included the picture from the Tug of War booklet above: look how young he was.
When history is written, long after we’re all gone, Paul McCartney will be recognised as the greatest rock singer of them all.
So yeah: Tug of War is great, really great.
So the real secret to listening to McCartney is to forget he’s a Beatle, and then ignore the words (they’re just there to carry to melody), and let the music play. It sounds great. Really great.
Which brings us to Flaming Pie, recorded when Macca was 55, two years younger than I am now. The voice is still there. He’s fresh from The Beatles Anthology, and yes, a lot of the publicity mentioned George Martin, and Ringo, and some of this evokes the Beatles deliberately, but Jeff Lynne was also on board, so it has that sheen at times.
I just played it in the background as I was writing this, and it’s just terrific really, full of good tunes and great musicianship. I write this not for you, McCartney fan, but for my younger self. I plan to package it up and send it back in a wormhole to the Quadrant shopping precinct in Dunstable in 1978, where it will find me picking up a copy of The Beatles Monthly, my young heart pounding.