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Macca

Getting Paul McCartney right

Listen to what the man said: “It’s best to stay silent – that way you keep your dignity.” Despite a rough few years – jawing with President Putin, brawling with photographers underneath David Blaine’s Thames-side tupperware box, changing a thousand locks on a thousand doors – Macca still knows what the public wants.

Admittedly that might not be a release of ‘Pipes Of Peace (Blood Not Oil 2007 Mix)’ with updated lyrics slamming the war in Iraq, but no cry of “Help Bush to see/That the Iraqi folk are like you and me” is surely going to come close to the sight of an on-form Macca rocking atop the Somerset Downs in front of 100,000 odd punters (with the emphasis there on the word odd) and the sun slowly setting while Sir Paul wigs out during a special extended 15 minute-coda to ‘Hey Jude’. Yup, word is the man is returning to Glastonbury to do the greatest ever gig of his lifetime since the last one.

By way of marking Macca’s card and providing a crash course for those of you who perhaps aren’t so familiar with his often-overlooked repertoire (which is, roughly speaking, in approximate terms, everything post-1969), here’s a user’s guide to both man and music – including ten key songs to listen out for. Print it off and keep it safe by your TV set so that, come curtains-up, you’ll be ready to furnish your palate with an ample serving of sweet Macca memories. And Macca, if you start boning up on this rather than learning how to say “how ya doing?” in Czech before you trot onto stage, you can’t go wrong.

1) MUSICAL VERSATILITY

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘WHAT’S THAT YOU’RE DOING?’

Paul McCartney – he can do anything! And perhaps no one subscribes to that point-of-view more than Sir Paul himself. Different musical genres? They’re just like different flavours of ice-cream – differently coloured syrups to be squirted into the Magimix of Macca’s talent. It doesn’t take years of dedication and hard thought to plough your trough in, say, folk or funk, if you’re Paul. Consider ‘Helter Skelter’, his Beatles-era take on the then nascent heavy metal craze, wherein he turned up the amps and just screamed into the mike to ace effect (Ian McDonald’s grumblings of “McCartney shrieking weedily against a massively tape-echoed back-drop of out-of-tune thrashing” not withstanding). Likewise, proponents of reggae, why bother with being born in Jamaica and appropriating the accompanying culture? Just put on a silly voice and sing about “Desmond”, that’ll do. Disco? See ‘Dress Me Up Like a Robber’ and a high-pitched Donna Summer-esque vocal. Dub? The opening section of ‘Take It Away’. Acid house? See the unabashed synth-noodling middle eight of ‘Pipes Of Peace’. And let’s not forget ‘No More Lonely Nights (Ballad)’ *and* ‘No More Lonely Nights (Special Arthur Baker Dance Mix)’.

However we reckon his most successful foray into a foreign genre is his top duet with Stevie Wonder, ‘What’s That You’re Doing?’ This is Macca funking right out, on top of a snaky bassline and some short-and-sharp guitar licks. Duelling with Wonder, let’s face it, Macca teaches the would-be-mentor some valuable lessons in how to operate on someone else’s turf. All you need for funk, he makes plain, is to drop the “g” sound from words ending in “ing” (“I say it’s sunnin’ when there’s rain”), and to sling in a few Americanisms (“you can make me holler, ow!”) That’s all it takes. Genre scored off, c’mon, it’s time to move onto the next one (anyone else feel a Liverpool Oratorio coming on?).

2) LYRICAL PROWESS

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘BEAUTIFUL NIGHT’

The many Beatles bootlegs out there make it more than clear that Macca’s approach to song writing has always meant that the lyrics are left until the last minute (“Momma don’t worry your Teddy boy’s here/Teddy’s [pause] see you through/Ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-na-na/Ner-ner-ner-na-ner-na-na-noo…”). They’re just that unpleasant bit of business that needs to be cleared up before the song can be dispatched and sent on its way to the toppermost. Assured of his own genius (and why not?) Macca’s approach to his own word-smithery seems to be that whatever he noodles down by way of lyrics is by definition going to be a-okay.

This lack of self-regulation has meant that during his solo years, some great stuff has come out of the McCartney rough-book unmolested and ready for us to enjoy. Now, genuinely, some of Paul’s words are absolutely top. No other pop star would ever use such prosaic and colloquial phrases as “do me a favour” (‘Let ‘Em In’) and “what with one thing and another” (‘Tug of War’) in their work. But he does, and with real √©lan. The downside to this, however, is that he doesn’t shy away from other words that should never appear in the pop pantheon, no matter what – and there’s none more so than “silly” which, of course, appears bloody loads in ‘Silly Love Songs’ (“love isn’t silly, love isn’t silly, love isn’t silly at all!”) That’s just wrong in anyone’s book.

But by way of a key example, consider ‘Beautiful Night’ from his 1997 album ‘Flaming Pie’. Although a lovely tune, the words are just so unselfconsciously clunking. What do you think could possibly compete with the feeling you have when you’re together with the one you love? How would you put that into words? Here comes Paul: “You and me together, nothing feels so good, even if I get a medal from my local neighbourhood.” Of course! *That’s* how it feels! To be honoured by your – ah – local neighbourhood, that would be pretty near the mark. But wait, there’s more. Watch how Macca marries “night” with, er, “night” not once, but twice!: “Things can go wrong, things can go right/things can go bump, in the dead of the night/So let me be there, let me be there/let me be there with you in the dead of the night/make it a beautiful night…” It is indeed a “wonderful sight for lovers of love to behold.”

3) AD-LIBBERY

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘C MOON’

As a veteran practitioner of the uber-adlib, Macca has committed many impulsive vocal utterances to tape, presumably in order to add that “live”, loose feel to his songs. For him it’s always been the case that scripted verbalese – consider the end of ‘The Girl Is Mine’ – never has as much charm as the off-the-cuff rap, such as that on the start of ‘What’s That You’re Saying’ (that one again), where Macca suddenly decides to salute the listener with a chatty “Good morning!”, follows it up with a chirpy “Good afternoon!” then completes the set with a half-whispered “Goodnight!”

Sometimes this has gone to extremes, and the line has been crossed from the casually informal to the downright shambolic. Both ‘Let ‘Em In’ and ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ sound like McCartney has a gossip half way through with someone else in the studio, while on tracks like ‘Ram On’, ‘Dear Boy’ and ‘Listen To What The Man Said’ he gives up on lyrics completely and spends whole verses intoning an idle “doo-de-doo”.

For full-on signature adlibbery, however, ‘C Moon’ tops the pile. As the lilting reggae-beat kicks in, Macca essays an opening gambit of “Um-checka-um-checka-um-check it out!” This is then met with a brief giggle from a female voice, presumably Linda, followed by a defiant “Uh-huh? Uh-huh!” from Paul. But there’s more to come. Adopting a resounding cod-Jamaican drawl, the man booms, “Was that the intro? I should’ve been in!” and for a final flourish offers up a demented “Oh-wah-la-la-la-la-la!” at the top of his range. Ten out of ten across the board.

4) THE MANY VOICES OF…

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘COMING UP’

Macca’s enormous vocal range could perhaps be filed under ‘Versatility’ above, but – whatever. Because Paul could never have become that “all things to all men” entertainer (and let’s face it, with his range no one can honestly claim they hate everything in his back catalogue – in much the same way you’d have to be nuts to declare you liked everything he’s done) if he didn’t have such a degree of light and shade to his vocal heroics. So how do the voices of Macca stack up? Well, there’s the full-on “the whole fruit” Paul, which is just your straight-down-the-line wobble-headed/lip-curled singing as heard on, for example, ‘Pipes of Peace’ or ‘Ebony and Ivory’. Either side of this we’ve got the slightly subdued version as heard on ‘Take it Away’, and the slightly pumped-up one, which you get on ‘No More Lonely Nights’ (but only once the song gets really going).

That pretty much takes care of his mid-range, so zipping up to the extremes there’s the Macca growl. Its most infamous outing probably came during his Beatles era, with that demented “Jude-ah! Jude-ah! Jude-ah! Jude-ah! Waah!” over the end of ‘Hey Jude’ which Ian MacDonald described as “ill-advised pseudo-soul shrieking” – a bit harsh, surely? Meanwhile, over at the other end of the spectrum an almost comatose Paul dribbled out the vocals for ‘Let ‘Em In’, presumably while slumped in a big armchair watching the telly. And it’s all the better for it.

But as if that wasn’t impressive enough, Macca can also turn into a kind of musical Jon Culshaw – albeit one it’s OK to like, and not sporting the smuggest hair in the business. Yup, he can even throw a few funny voices, most notably in ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ where he takes on the clipped tones of some elderly Naval officer (“Admiral Halsey notified me…”) However, the key example has to be ‘Coming Up’. This has got the full range, and then some. While Macca growls through the verses (albeit at a notch or two down from his ‘Jude wig-out voice, but definitely a couple of octaves up from his normal tone) he puts on what’s probably the stupidest voice ever for the chorus, as he bleats out “Coming up!” in a high-pitched, ball-shrinking manner. It’s almost like a call and response piece between the many voices of Macca, and suggests the next direction he could take with his music. C’mon, with a bit of studio wizardry and a shed-load of overdubs, let’s hear Macca do Barbershop on his own!

5) SOUNDS PECULIAR

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘UNCLE ALBERT/ADMIRAL HALSEY’

A sure sign that you’ve happened upon a mint Macca melody is when both tune and lyrics are derailed by a spectacularly unsubtle and defiantly cumbersome sound effect. You don’t really get this on Paul’s Beatles songs, except on occasional tracks like ‘Blackbird’ where a non-specific fowl squawks unhelpfully throughout the final chorus. Once free of his naysaying peers, though, it seems Macca needed only the slightest of pretences to mount a raid on the FX library and then bolt them onto his songs in the most obvious of fashions.

Fantastically literal in his choice of sounds, that faint gathering of people you can hear at the start of ‘Tug Of War’ isn’t actually a bowed and beaten queue trudging along to the labour exchange. Nope, it’s the sound of an actual tug-of-war going on. Likewise, ‘Let ‘Em In’ is blessed with – of course – a recording of a door opening; in ‘Listen To What The Man Said’ the line “Soldier boy kisses girl” is followed by the sound of – uh huh – someone kissing; and ‘The Pound Is Sinking’ has someone chinking coins all the way through.

Sometimes this policy goes awry – in ‘Picasso’s Last Words’, for instance, Macca plasters the song with himself and Linda doing Franglais “haw-he-haw” sounds, neglecting to recall the eponymous painter was in fact Spanish. Similarly there are instances when Paul doesn’t deliver the goods, such as in the magnificent ‘Wanderlust’ which controversially omits, after the nautically-inspired (and nothing else) lyric “Dropping a line”, the noise of an anchor being thrown overboard. But for best FX value, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ can’t be beaten. Not only do you have, after the line “I believe it’s going to rain”, an entire thunderstorm breaking out, but halfway through, apropos nothing at all, Macca himself impersonates a ringing telephone!

6) COMING AROUND AGAIN

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘NINETEEN HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE’

McCartney’s always had a penchant for unleashing sly musical jokes upon the world, often in the shape of entire songs – think of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ or the Lennon-pastiche ‘Let Me Roll It’. He even re-recorded ‘Yesterday’ for heaven’s sake, but then that was for ‘Give My Regards To Broad Street’, an entire film and soundtrack album based around a Macca one-liner, albeit a resolutely unfunny one.

His real trademark, however, is finding the means (though never, it has to be said, a reason) for reprising snippets of his own songs in the middle of some other of his own songs. This is always done in as shameless and knowing a way imaginable (we imagine him throwing Linda, or maybe George Martin, a big wink when first treating them to a run through on acoustic guitar). Hence ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ peters out into a reprise of ‘Jet’ for no apparent reason other than they’re both at the same speed. The song ‘Ram’, off the eponymous album, surfaces in charmingly low-key fashion in the middle of side one but then, for no point whatsoever, shows up at the end of, ahem, ‘Long Haired Lady’ on side two. The most extreme, however, is ‘Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five’, which closes the ‘Band On The Run’ album by, yes, segueing into ‘Band On The Run’, which also just happens to be the very first song on the LP (do you see?)

7) MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT THIS A BIT HARDER

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘TUG OF WAR’

This section has simply been included so we can rant about the daffy backing vocals on the aforementioned tunesmithery. Listen good, because just before the song makes for its ‘Pipes of Peace’-esque finale Linda can be heard interacting with Paul’s tug-of-war metaphor as she repeats the phrase “pushing, pulling” over and over. Sure, it sounds nice – but hold on. Surely if one side suddenly decided that pushing – instead of pulling on that rope – was a sensible tactic in a tug-of-war, then things would go very, very wrong. Think, woman, before you commit it to tape!

8) “A GREAT LITTLE BAND”

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘WANDERLUST’ (GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET VERSION)

“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” is not just the refrain from an early beat group hit, it’s also in the closing moments of ‘What’s That You’re Doing?’ Paul’s relationship with his Beatles past has always been open and honest. While, in one of those moments when he was desperate to be seen as some sort of everyman figure, he’s been known to refer to the Fab Four as “a great little band” (cf that documentary on the Cirque Du Soleil over Christmas), he’s actually forever enamoured with his ’60s past.

Enamoured, but not beholden to it, cos Macca is certainly not averse to ‘having a bit of fun’ with the oeuvre of – ahem – ‘McCartney and Lennon’. So, as well as cheekily tagging on a snatch from ‘She Loves You’ to his uber-collaboration with Stevie Wonder, Macca’s quite happy to work-through some of the Beatles hits when he’s up on stage (and indeed, has threatened a Beatles-heavy set list for Glasto – even though his solo stuff is stronger). Yep, dead Beatles are manna to Macca who can now get his mitts on ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and ‘Something’ under the guise of wistfully saluting the fallen.

In 1984, Paul did what so many have done before and released a Beatles cover album, in the shape of ‘Give My Regards to Broad Street’. Here he bashed out ‘Yesterday’, ‘Good Day Sunshine’, ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, ‘For No One’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (to which he now provided a surely long overdue sequel in the form of ‘Eleanor’s Dream’) and ‘The Long and Winding Road’.

Sacrilege, you say? Of course not! Paul carefully assembled a power-pop team around him to finally give those songs the treatment they deserved. Forget McCartney/Lennon/Harrison and Starr, now it was McCartney/Toto/Gilmour/Spedding and, er, Starr! However, his greatest reconciliation with that Beatling past arrives on ‘…Broad Street’ during a cover of that Tug of War track, ‘Wanderlust’, which here he kitted out with a brass ensemble. An even lovelier arrangement than the original, the song – of course! – eventually segues into an echo of ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ thereby showing that 1980s Macca was every bit the equal to his 1960s work. Fact.

9) STAGECRAFT

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘JET’

The last two categories deal with Macca as a performer, and specifically his armoury of on-stage devices he likes to deploy in order to strike an instant rapport with a crowd of several ten thousand anonymous faces. There are some you can expect to see whatever the occasion, namely the famous thumbs-aloft salute, so beloved of Smash Hits c.1987/8; the forced banter with backing musicians to try and imply he’s only “one of the band”; the somewhat meaningless exhortation to the assembled throng (listen out for in particular “Oh, this is a good place to be!” “Oh, you’re taking me back!” and “Oh, we’re in for a fine one tonight!”); and, of course, the careful attempt to dress down in order to appear one of the people.

For Glastonbury Macca will stroll out in denims, try a gag or two about festival culture (“Hey, is someone having a smoke out there?!”), toss in a plug for the latest young pretenders (“Hope you all checked out The Guillemots; great, weren’t they?”) and launch into his current set opener: a swaggering version of ‘Jet’ complete with dual guitar solos, bits where he drops out to let the crowd sing the tune, and a few vocal acrobatics at the end (“Oooh, my little lad-yeee!”).

10) WORKING THE AUDIENCE

KEY EXAMPLE: ‘HEY JUDE’

Finally, though Macca’s never gone in for any Freddie Mercury-style call and response workouts (“Day-ay-oh! Day-ay-oh!”), his impresario skills have come a long way from a faltering attempt to get the world to sing along to ‘Let It Be’ through a crap microphone at Live Aid. As a case in point, you need no look further than ‘Hey Jude’, which has been installed at the end of the man’s set for about 15 years now, and which always follows exactly the same pattern.

Basically, once he’s been through about four “Na na na…” choruses, Paul will rise from his piano stool, move to the front of the stage and, while the band continue providing a basic rhythm, single-handedly orchestrate the entire crowd in a masterclass of participation. First will come the yelled request, “Now I wanna hear the men, just the men!”, who’ll get one chorus to themselves before, “Now the women, all the ladies out there!”, who’ll also get one chorus (in the middle of which Macca will either shout “Yay!” or “Ooh, you sound so sweet to me!”).

The next instruction, excitingly, will be sung, and will go out to “All the people on the left side!” This is followed, sensibly, by “All the people on the right side!” and then “All the people in the middle!” Finally, Macca will let forth a frenetic “Now men, women, everybody, altogether, COME ON!”, the entire band will fall back in on cue, and he’ll race back to the piano for a few more rousing choruses.

He’s not quite through yet, though. Listen out for “I can’t stop this! I can’t stop this!” roughly about two choruses before he stops it, and then as the band hit the final chord, Macca will do a bit of business along the lines of “You were great, and you were great, and you were great…” pointing at different parts of the crowd. What an ending – and what a performance! But then from Macca you’d expect nothing less.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. david pascoe

    February 23, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Pretty definitive I must say.

    I’ve always found Macca’s lyrics hilariously brilliant. “Back Seat of My Car” being particularly full of “How did he deliver that with a straight face?” moments. “The lazy lights look pretty/ we may end up in Mexico City….And when we finished driving/ we can say we were late in arriving” Genius!

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