Paul McCartney carries legacy of Fab Four while dodging Lennon's shadow
BY MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Paul McCartney is synonymous with "Yesterday," his guitar and string ballad from 1965. To this day, it remains the song most broadcast by radio stations worldwide, and is the most covered song of all time.
Yet, as people around the world recognize "Yesterday" as McCartney's tour de force, its composer still fears one day they won't.
His worry stems from "Lennon/McCartney," the song publishing credit he and John Lennon created in the early days of the Beatles to record their blossoming songwriting partnership. Though the Beatles grew artistically and Lennon and McCartney began writing songs separately, their signature "Lennon/McCartney" never was abandoned.
A few years ago, in the name of historical record, McCartney lobbied Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, for a change. So no one would mistake Lennon as the writer, McCartney argued "Yesterday" should be credited to "McCartney/Lennon." Ono said no.
"I tried to ignore it, but it built into an insecurity," he told Rolling Stone magazine last December. "It became a major issue."
And another thorn in McCartney's prickly relationship with Lennon that originated in their mop-top days. Since the day the Beatles broke up, McCartney has been unable to dodge Lennon's shadow. Although he has shined as the ambassador of the group since Lennon's death, his insecurity surrounding his slain partner has indirectly and directly influenced the highs and lows of his solo years.
McCartney and Lennon's opposite personalities and childhood backgrounds became the keys to their complex and tense relationship - forming the combustible brew that transformed pop culture from escapist entertainment to entertainment that introduced serious ideas and encouraged imaginative thought and even social change.
McCartney came from a tight-knit household with a brother, an encouraging musician father and a mother he grew close to until she died of cancer when he was 14.
Lennon never knew his father. He was an only child raised by his mother's sister and saw his mother only occasionally until a drunk driver killed her when he was 17. Much of the pain from Lennon's songs like "Julia" and "Yer Blues" came from his lifelong struggle of feeling abandoned and unloved.
The two songwriters' divergent backgrounds were perfectly illustrated during a moment on the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album when McCartney sings "it's getting better all the time," to which Lennon snidely replies "it couldn't get much worse."
Yet, even though McCartney expanded pop music's limits further than ever before, wrote timeless standards, invented rock singing and even wrote the first heavy-metal song ("Helter Skelter"), his image as a lightweight and Lennon's as the serious artist prevailed among critics and was stoked by Lennon publicly after the Beatles bitterly dissolved.
It fueled McCartney's solo career from the start. Instead of performing under his own name, McCartney quickly created a new band, Wings, and took off. In just three years, he had five albums under his belt. His pace never slowed until the '90s. McCartney cranked out album after album as well as countless movie soundtracks that were hits or misses, but often misses.
His productivity was his self-created burden, which only ballooned in 1980 once Lennon's murder created a cult of martyrdom around his former partner.
McCartney's fear that he won't be remembered for the right reasons has practically become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially in the past few months. "Freedom" and "Vanilla Sky," his two biggest songs in years, are tacky footnotes to his legacy.
The first, a dashed-off war anthem, and the second, a for-hire movie assignment, have the unfortunate air of salesmanship. Just like this year's Super Bowl, when he shilled his current tour on camera and forced himself to sing "Hard Day's Night" with jock announcer Terry Bradshaw. It's as if after all these years, McCartney is still desperately campaigning for public affection because it might have waned for no reason at all.
Growing old as a cultural icon will do that. Lennon's murder effectively relieved the slain icon of that fate. Dying at age 40, he never had a chance to face anxiety over his own popularity.
With Lennon gone, George Harrison living in seclusion and Ringo Starr not appropriate for carrying the mantel, McCartney became the public face of the Beatles. And this while he was trying to forge an identity as a viable solo artist.
But it was by giving a new eye to the Beatles that McCartney revitalized his own music once more.
Starting in the mid-'90s, McCartney devoted years to the Beatles "Anthology" series. The project - a video series, a CD series and a hardcover book - was a tasteful success. And the "1" (Capitol) collection of Beatles hits became a best-seller last year only because McCartney had the restraint decades earlier not to flood the market with endless compilations. He guards the Beatles legacy with an iron grip and as a result, a new generation gets to experience the Beatles for the first time with purity, not the crass commercialism that typically accompanies repackaged nostalgia.
Faced with such colossal responsibility, it is remarkable that McCartney has managed to resurrect an almost subversive flair for unpredictability these past years - a sign of confidence and a throwback to his early Beatles days when the group was carefree with a flare for mischief.
In 1994 he released an ambient techno album under the pseudonym Fireman. And two years ago, he collaborated with the Welsh psychedelic pop band Super Furry Animals on an album of bizarre Beatles re-mixes. He also makes a cameo chomping vegetables on the band's new album, released this year.
Last year, he contributed to tribute albums celebrating Sun Records and cult British rocker Ian Drury, two nods to his roots.
He appeared on Howard Stern mouthing off about Ono. And when it was time to kick off the Concert For New York City in Madison Square Garden last year, McCartney restrained himself from immediate flag-waving. Instead he kicked into the early Beatles screamer, "I'm Down," a song most of the audience didn't know, but one that perfectly captured the bottled-up rage they were feeling.
His renewed spontaneity surfaces on his past two albums as well. Although much of his past solo work tends to be ambitious almost to a fault, "Run Devil Run" brought him back to the rock basics. A collection of carefree covers (plus one original) of Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Chuck Berry obscurities, the album finds McCartney sounding the most reinvigorated in years.
He also whittled down the production on his newest album, "Driving Rain" (Capitol). Although sunny sentimentality peeks though at times, it's a deceptively dark collection of mostly sparse and quiet songs grappling with sadness and loss. It projects the encumbered idol as just another man who just lost his wife.
Even though he is a Beatle. The Beatle who wrote "Yesterday."
Paul McCartney's "Driving USA" tour
United Center, 1901 W. Madison, Chicago
8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
$250/$125/$85/$50. (312) 559-1212. Sold out.
What to expect:
McCartney's set list is expected to be heavy with songs from his recent album, "Driving Rain" (Capitol), plus hits from his days with the Beatles, Wings and his solo years. And don't forget "Freedom," his ill-advised 9-11 anthem/fighting song we've all had to endure. McCartney is also paring down his band on this tour. His three-member group in-cludes Rusty Anderson (guitar), Abe Laboriel Jr. (drums) - both players on his new album - plus newcomer Brian Ray (guitar and bass).
Just a few days before Paul McCartney arrives in Chicago, Beatles fans are invited to come together for a Fab-themed weekend at the Marriott O'Hare, 8535 W. Higgins Road, Chicago.
Running today through Sunday, the "Flashback Weekend" will include the Beatles tribute band American English and a convention featuring George Harrison's sister Louise, former Beatles promoter Sam Leach and others. There will be a Beatles art contest, a dealer's room and evening concerts are scheduled at the Pickwick Theatre, 5 S. ProsPect, Park Ridge.
Visit flashbackweekend.com or call Mike Kerz at (847) 478-0119 for more informa-tion.
Some hit, some miss, McCartney keeps cranking out the albums
Since his days with the Beatles, Paul McCartney has re-leased 20 albums, three live albums, three classical albums, numerous best-of collections, several movie sound-track songs and occasional oddities. To help sort through it all, here's a brief look at his best solo work - with and without Wings - on disc.
"McCartney" (Capitol) - 1970
On his first solo album, McCartney tempered the enormous burden of being a Beatle by making an album with zero expectations of greatness. Retreating to his home studio and playing all the instruments, McCartney knocked off an album of slight song fragments that decades later have a breezy, homespun charm. Highlights are the rustic acoustic pop of "That Would Be Something," "Every Night" and "Teddy Boy" and "Maybe I'm Amazed," the sole rocker of the bunch that is as lethal as any from his late Beatles days.
"Ram" (Capitol) - 1971
Credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, "Ram" is more fully realized than "McCartney." Gone are the song fragments in favor of more realized songs, like the song suite "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," the guitar rocker "Too Many People," the vintage pop of "Dear Boy" and the country delight of "Heart of the Country." Preventing it from greatness are the throwaway lyrics littered throughout. Avoiding personal confessionals or grand statements, McCartney is still finding his feet on his own here - he fully lands three albums later on "Band On the Run."
"Band On the Run" (Capitol) - 1973
The title of McCartney's solo masterwork was not by accident - he, wife Linda and Wings member Denny Laine recorded the album in Lagos, Nigeria, and narrowly escaped the tumultuous country with their lives. Just three years after leaving the Beatles, this album was McCartney's fifth and it is obvious he was pressed to the wall to win critical favor once and for all. He certainly came through - the result is his most substantial solo album with little filler. The songs within songs are reminiscent most of "Abbey Road" as are the accessible hooks of the songs - from the "ho, hey-ho" chorus of "Mrs. Vanderbilt," the shout-outs in "Jet" and "Helen Wheels" to the soulful gospel sway of "Let Me Roll It." "Band On the Run" is the only solo Macca album at the level of his best Beatles work. The organic yet elaborate musicality is a pairing he hasn't been able to sync together fully since.
"Venus & Mars" (Capitol) - 1975
Credited strictly to Wings, McCartney creates the illusion that this is the work of a band democracy - even pick-up player Jimmy McCulloch contributes a song ("Medicine Jar"). But while there's heavier rock guitar on this album than his others, "Venus & Mars" is really McCartney flashing his style dexterity, which includes full-throttle theatrical rock ("Rock Show"), Tin Pan Alley corn ("You Gave Me the Answer"), lovely pop-craft ("Listen To What the Man Said"), string-laden ballads ("Treat Her Gently-Lonely Old People") Fats Domino-like rhythm-and-blues ("Call Me Back Again") and even a slice of psychedelia ("Love in Song") that sounds more like it's from George Harrison's songbook. McCartney traveled to New Orleans to record most of this album and it shows. He enlisted the aid of legendary Crescent City producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint on piano, and although there are no real standouts on this album, it is McCartney at his most playful.
"Tug Of War" (Capitol) - 1982
McCartney reunites with Beatles producer George Martin for an album with a high level of craftsmanship - but not shaped around hooks. Although there are the essential radio hits ("Ebony and Ivory," "Ballroom Dancing"), this is mostly an experimental album with touches of reggae and funk. McCartney dives headfirst into recent synthesizer technology to build a set of complex and lush songs that challenge the traditional song structures he's so known for creating. On board are some expert session players (Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, Stanley Clarke) and McCartney enjoys a breezy duet with Sun Records legend Carl Perkins ("Get It"), complete with the lo-fi echo of the Sun era. However, the album's gem remains "Wanderlust." With its beautiful counter melodies intertwined throughout, the melan-choly brass ensemble and McCart-ney's purist vocals, it is one of his most underappreciated songs.
"Flowers in the Dirt" (Capitol) - 1989
After a few lackluster albums, this was billed as a McCartney comeback, mostly due to the involvement of popcraft protégé Elvis Costello, who shares partial songwriting credit and back-ground vocals. The collaboration also marked Costello's album "Spike" (Warner Bros.) the same year. Cos-tello punches up the lyrics somewhat and McCartney sounds revitalized as a singer. The pair's best efforts together result in the energetic lead single "My Brave Face" and "You Want Her Too," a duet humorously pairing the two contrary personalities (sneering and sunny) against one another. McCartney's own songs fare well - from sunny pop ("This One") to an acoustic nugget ("Put It There") that's reminiscent of his simple Beatles gem, "Blackbird." Otherwise, the album is drenched with heavy synthe-sizer schmaltz that hasn't aged well. McCartney and sometime producer Mitchell Froom meticulously add layer after layer that ultimately chokes the songs to death.
"Run Devil Run" (Capitol) - 1999
The Beatles started out as a cover band and McCartney ends the century by looking back at his influ-ences one more time. Cut in just a few takes over five days, McCartney's handpicked rock combo (including Pink Floyd's David Gilmour in a very un-prog rock mode) cranks through B-sides and oddities from '50s rock-ers Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Fats Domino with the type of teenage passion you wouldn't expect from rich, old rock stars. This album was meant to play loud and McCartney's raw, fire-stoked singing silences detractors who thought the man lost his soul 30 years ago.
- Mark Guarino
"Because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside"
- Paul McCartney, 1982