JANUARY: McCartney III

Saying that I’m a bit of a Beatles fan is like saying the Pope is a bit of a Catholic. They have been the guiding musical lights of my life. I think The Beatles were a kind of miracle, the greatest creative expression of that burst of working class energy that blossomed in post war Britain. They didn’t just change the course of music, they changed the course of culture and society. I was 10 when Lennon was shot – I remember being really upset, but I also remember that no one else my age really knew who he was. By the time I was in my early teens, I was a subscriber to Beatles Monthly. This, at the time, did not make me cool. It made me square and weird. Everyone else was listening to Duran Duran. I once saved up weeks of paper round money to buy a brick from the original Cavern Club (they were being sold off for charity).

Now here I am decades later, and nothing has really changed. The Cavern brick is framed on my wall. My daughter is called Astrid, not just because we loved the name, but also because of Astrid Kircherr, the Hamburg photographer who was so influential in shaping the band’s look. I have a cat called Ringo. My house is groaning with Beatles nonsense. I vowed to stop buying stupid Beatles tat, but my friends still buy me stuff and honestly, it’s always welcome. Astrid got me a Beatles calendar for Xmas. Of course she did.

Paul was always my favourite Beatle. Partly, I think, when I was young, his songs were the most melodic and warm hearted and easy to engage with. But partly, also, I never really had any truck with the idea that Lennon was the artist and poet, and that Paul was just the tuneful cheesemonger of the band. It was obvious to me that McCartney was the most versatile Beatle. Pastoral ballad? Mother Nature’s Son. Musical hall? When I’m 64. A song about death and loneliness written when he was only 22? Eleanor Rigby. Howling rock n roll, Little Richard style? I’m Down. Giant pop chorus? Hey Jude. Song that literally gave birth to heavy metal? Helter Skelter. Any real Beatles fan could see he was the engine of the band as well as one of its two geniuses. Sgt Pepper? Paul’s idea. Side 2 of Abbey Road? Paul put that together. It’s always a little secret when you meet another big Beatles fan – you both immediately check that you both agree Paul is your favourite Beatle. It nearly always is. John is for the part-timers.

Solo Paul was a different matter. As a teen, I lapped up the albums of the time – Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, and plenty of the Wings stuff, but in all honesty, a lot of those albums have not aged well. One or two good tunes aside, there is a lot of guff on them, and it’s the kind of guff that has haunted his reputation ever since 1970. It was telling that when we all started listening to this new album, that Joey was surprised to hear McCartney rocking out – had he been listening to Queens of the Stone Age, Joey asked? The answer, is, of course, is that it’s the other way round, but I also get that to the casual listener, McCartney’s reputation as a rocker has been lost under decades of Mull of Kintyre and Ebony and Ivory and Frog Chorus.

So yes, his solo work has certainly been a mixed bag. But there are real gems in there. Ram is, I think, his best album and one of the best solo Beatles albums. But McCartney I and II have both got really special places in my heart. They’re both totally solo efforts, with McCartney playing every instrument – as we find him doing here on III. McCartney I is a homespun and folky joy, and McCartney II is genuinely nuts – experimental and electronic and a great reminder that Macca has been a great boundary pusher throughout his life.

I’d heard rumours recently that this new album was a genuine revelation, but I was very, very nervous of suggesting McC III as our album of the month. Macca means too much to me, and I know he means an awful lot less to the rest of you, and means nothing at all to at least one of you! In all honesty, I was worried that it’d be ok but nothing more, and we’d spend the podcast ripping apart my greatest musical idol. Maybe that is what will happen, I don’t know. But this album has floored me. I never ever expected Macca to ever make another song that I really cared about, and certainly not (nearly) a whole album of them. I have listened to this album constantly since it came out. It has wrapped its arms around me and it’s now going to be part of my life forever. It’s the greatest musical surprise of the year.

So let’s talk about what works for me. Firstly, he’s relaxed and he’s himself and it just sounds honest and joyful. I’ve struggled even with the lauded albums of the last 20 years (Egypt Station, Chaos and Creation…) – to me, they sound like a shit hot producer has overproduced some slightly workaday McCartney material. None of them have really stayed with me. I think the lack of producer has completely liberated him. He didn’t even know he was making an album. You can literally hear him in the studio messing around on these songs. And bloody hell, what a musician he is – the drumming on the opening jam! The octave harmonies on Find My Way (and the harpsichord), the crunching guitars on Slidin, the crazy loops of vocals on Deep Deep Feeling.

What I also love is that he’s showing his full range – folk ballad (When Winter Comes), hard rockers (Lavatory Lil, Slidin’), pop song genius (Find My Way), slow tempo melody (Pretty Boys), hell even a song that – as Joey points out – sound like it has a Mac Miller RnB vibe (Deep Down). It’s an extraordinary range he’s showing. The album’s centrepiece, Deep Deep Feeling, goes even further, an astonishing 8 minute delve into tape loops, gorgeous soulful vocal experiments that feels raw and beautiful, and for me, justifies every second of its length. I do wonder if that song might divide opinion big time – it’ll be interesting to discuss.

The other surprising strength is his voice. I remember hearing him sing at the 2012 Olympics and being sad that his voice was clearly ‘going’. Well, he’s no longer trying to hide that. He’s 78. He’s an old man, and his voice sounds gruff and aged, but to me, at least, it’s an integral part of the album’s charm. It was when I was listening to Women & Wives that it hit me – this is very similar to the Johnny Cash albums he made at the end of his life with legendary Def Jam producer Rick Rubin. This is an old man wearing his age on his sleeve. You can hear it in the stoic lyrics of Pretty Boys – he was once one of those boys a long time ago. Not anymore.

Not everything works, let’s be really honest. His lyrics are a mixed bag, and I probably like them a lot more than the rest of you, but I can see that if you’re not digging all 8 minutes of Deep Deep Feeling, you might find them a bit cloying. The Kiss of Venus is a very ordinary song, and the one stinker on the album for me is Seize The Day – a naff sub-Beatles pub tune with bloody awful lyrics about being nice and something about eskimos. It’s a reminder that he’s never that far away from Mull of Kintyre if you’re not careful with Macca. But for me, that’s the only song I actively dislike. There is joy and musical interest to be found in every other tune, though I do also agree the opening jam could lose a minute or two.

I’m fully aware I’m writing as a fan of a man who has defined my life. I can’t imagine what this album feels like to a casual listener, or someone who’s not that bothered about The Beatles (also, what is WRONG with you?!). But I hope there is something in there for everyone, even if you don’t have quite the response I’ve had. Think this could be a really interesting discussion, anyway!

I wonder if this is his swan song. It certainly feels like a last race round the block – a chance for him to flex his musical muscles and remind everyone of his range. Or maybe, even better, this is just what Macca does when he’s locked down – write better songs than anyone else can. The comparison with Bowie’s Blackstar is interesting – obviously Blackstar is a much darker, existential record. That’s partly because Bowie was facing death and he knew it and that’s what he was writing about. But also, Bowie is a more existential soul. Macca is an optimist who believes that things are ‘getting better all the time’. Maybe this is what’s inside him at this age – a man who still wants to be there for you, who still delights in nature and the simple life, but also feels the pain of ageing and being in love. A lot of those kind of things aren’t very cool anymore, if they ever were, but I don’t think he cares about any of that now. He’s done everything. He’s written everything. He’s just the most famous musician in the whole world, jamming around in his studio for fun, and somehow out pops an incredibly coherent album, a last little musical present from the master. I couldn’t be happier about it.

5 comments

  1. whyohwhyohwhy

    Brother David. This is such a beautiful entry that I need to gather my thoughts before I respond, as I think something short wouldn’t do it justice. So I’m going to say that it’s great knowing a bigger Beatles and Paul fan than I am, (by a way) but I also feel a lot of the same way you do so in short: I couldn’t agree more with so much of what you said and in long: you’ll have to wait a day or two. This band and this man mean so much to me that I can’t wait to get into this all.

  2. nolankane706

    As always brother David, a great introduction. I love your passion and love for McCartney. I on the other hand have next to no history with his music with the exception of the Beatles. If you ask me what my favourite Beatles album is I would tell you the blue greatest hits (shameful I know). Wings remind me of when I worked at a middle of the road radio station; and that could kill anyones interest. I also approach this album with hesitation; I’m not old enough to listen to Paul McCarney’s new album. A new Paul McCartney album is what your uncle mentions to you at Christmas dinner when he’s trying to show that he too listens to cool music. That in mind, I’ve tried to go in with an open mind.

    To my surprise the album started off well. ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ is a great start to the album. Next up is ‘Find My Way’, musically it’s good; but then McCartney chimes in with the first of many cringeworthy lyrics. At this point I begin my album long struggle with this album.

    There are some nice highlights to the album, ‘Seize The Day’ could be a Beatles song, ‘Sliding’ is a good bit of dad rock and ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ could be good if it was shorter.

    My issues is I struggle with the lyrics. They’re predictable and a boring. I really expected more out of this album on that front. Musically it’s a good album, good for background music, but dear god please don’t listen to the lyrics too close.

    It’s a shame I didn’t see my uncle this Christmas, but maybe it’s a good thing as I’m not sure he’d appreciate me slating his music suggestions at the dinner table.

    I’m still trying to stick with this and I look forward to hearing everyones thoughts on this.

  3. whyohwhyohwhy

    I’ve been mulling over my response to this for some time. Especially after David’s beautiful elegy to his favourite Liverpudlian. A wonderful breakdown of his life with Paul, and what this album means to him against that mighty backdrop. For my the trepidation is partly because my sharing so much of his love and reverence for the Beatles and for McCartney. And also because I wanted to give an album that’s going to be that important to me, too, a proper, respectful response. I am a big BIG Beatles fan. At least I thought I was until I read David’s post. Then I thought ‘maybe I’m just a big fan’. It’s quite something to match that. So I’m not really going to. I’m going to tell a bit of my own story, how this album’s landed in my life, and what it’s meant to me.

    I first listened to the band – much like many 40-somethings – with my parents. My mum was a fan, and I still have my mum’s copies of Help! and Rubber Soul at home, nestling next to my LCD, New Order and Elton John Albums (in the ‘non-dance’ section). The Beatles were all around us. We watched Yellow Submarine dozens of times when we were small, on worn VHS tapes in Africa when we were kids. As I was a teenager I still loved them, along with a lot of less fashionable bands for a late-80s, geeky teen (Motown, Phil Collins, Paul Simon, Lenny Kravitz, Crowded House) so it wasn’t so much as bad for my street cred, more that there wasn’t any cred to lose! But I was especially obsessed with the White Album and Sgt Peppers when I was 15 or 16 years old. What did I love about them? They wrote amazing music, like nothing else I’d heard, and evoked an era that was romantic and exciting to me. The 80s had just ended, and a new decade was still alien to me, before dance music first ‘hit’ me and I went through a bit of a musical awakening at university in Sheffield. In a secondary school life that was pretty lonely and unpleasant, they were a refuge. I’ve been about the ‘feels’ since then, and Paul’s music is all about the feels.

    And who did I like? Paul. Of course it was Paul. I flirted with John for a while, but I never felt cool enough to really be a ‘John’ guy. Plus I just felt Paul’s music spoke more to me. Yes, it was fun chuckling along to John’s ‘Semolina Pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower’ but it just felt a bit daft. I was (am) a pretty vanilla guy and it felt like I wasn’t in on the joke sometimes. So many of my favourite Beatles songs – Blackbird, Golden Slumbers, She’s Leaving Home, Get Back, For No One, You Never Give Me Your Money – were Paul’s (though I loved many of John’s and definitely George’s too) and they’re the ones I also came back to over the years. Did I follow his solo stuff? Like David’s said, it wasn’t really very cool when I was growing up, but have a soft spot for No More Lonely Nights, Pipes of Peace, Say Say Say, Ebony and Ivory (still have that 7 inch too) and much like another artist I adore – David Bowie – it wasn’t a great time to get into him. Much later in my life I got into Wings, and also some of the solo work, especially McCartney I and II, and was lucky enough to be at Glastonbury in 2004, which was one of my favourite live music moments, when most of my mates were off in Lost Vagueness at the time i was singing along to Hey Jude. I didn’t care as much for later albums like Egypt Station because they too felt a bit overproduced to me, too polished. Perhaps it’s a bit passé to want that classic, rougher 60s and 70s sound, but to me that *was* Paul and the Beatles.

    So – again there’s parallels with Bowie – I was (maybe) amazed when it became clear we had an unexpected third instalment of McCartney’s solo project in December. Of course, we all know that people can get productive in lockdown, but there’s starting a podcast and then there’s writing a solo album at 78. There’s so much mythology surrounding Paul McCartney, that you – even as a big fan – assume there’s a little artifice attached to any story of his. I’m sure he didn’t mean to write a new album, but such is the layers of reaction, review, counter review, that search for meaning, that with anything surrounding the Beatles and their legacy, you have to just take these things as read and move on. And that’s the staggering thing: The Beatles were (are) one of the greatest and most successful bands in music history, whose influence is unparalleled. Their 22-album career was crammed into under 7 years, but strip away the US-only versions and in the UK there were 13 albums, seeing them go from wide-eyed rock’n’roll covers in The Cavern and Reepherbahn, to musical pioneers and experimenters into acrimony and disfunction. A story all of itself. Since then, Paul McCartney, he’s made 18 solo albums since 1969. And that’s not counting Wings, and other records in his monstrous catalogue. It’s a staggering output, and one that never really stopped, right up to the 18th December 2020, when McCartney III arrived. Even given his age, his somewhat diminishing returns (when you’ve made Band On The Run, McCartney I and II, RAM, that’s a hell of a standard to live up to) the weight of expectation you’re pushing against is almost inconceivable. So how could and did this compare?

    First things first: It’s a joy to hear Paul’s voice again, unexpectedly, sounding old but bright, and on a completely new collection of songs under the ‘McCartney’ solo banner that we never thought we’d see after 1980. The album was a really enjoyable listen over the first week and that was, more than anything, a relief. I was actually nervous in case it left me as nonplussed as his later output, but these were good! They were fun! They were doing interesting things i didn’t expect, and even half a dozen listens in, I was already singling out some favourites. There was a little bit of the 9 year-old boy and awkward teen that jumped for joy inside when I started to fall in love with some of these 11 tracks. Because I would’ve died a little if it didn’t have that sparkle around it. But it really was a a beautiful moment at the end of a very, very shitty year that was the pick-me-up I never expected I’d see.

    As I’ve started to live with McCartney III I’ve come to know it more intimately, ands it’s been an interesting parallel experience as a listener. There’s part of me, with a lifetime of his music in my veins, that is enjoying it more and more with each listen. It’s that indefinable way that as you get to like an album as an entity – because while it’s 11 tracks, it’s also a whole, a being, that, old-fashioned as it may sound, needs to be seen, experienced and lived with in its entirety – where you start to look forward to the music. I tapped my foot and closed my eyes as the kick landed on Long Tailed Winter Bird, its teasing guitar refrain worming into my subconscious and my smile curling up as he sung ‘do you, do you, do you miss me’. I punched the air as Find My Way rocked along, full of Paul’s positive vibes and uncomplicated worldview. I felt a mix of joy and wistfulness as Pretty Boys played out, as McCartney looked back to his youth, perhaps also nodding to his first wife Linda’s love for photography (and some lovely synchronicity as their daughter, Mary, photographed this album) from his septuagenarian studio hideout in the country. Initially I wasn’t sure about his vocal inflections on Women and Wives, but over time it seemed to just be another way of doing something he wanted to. It’s sometimes easy to remember that this is a guy that’s been making music for 60 years, and that he can still come up with moments of wonder, reflection, magic and insight. I loved Deep Deep Feelings length, its insistence on stretching out its ideas, not being afraid of taking 8 minutes to wend its way. For all of those oft-aired criticisms of Paul’s lyrics being gauche, thin and shallow (and some of it’s justified here), this song really felt earnest and heartfelt. As does the closer, When Winter Comes, with Paul almost seemingly returning to those post-Beatles years, out on the farm with Linda and the kids as he struggled to come to terms with the man he was. Here instead, he’s 50 years on, settling down, rather than asking the big questions.

    Some songs do tread a fine line and others fall over it. And as a fan, these are minor irritations, things I’ll mostly let go as it’s PAUL. But seeing it critically (and it’s an odd thing that so many reviews seem almost afraid to be overly critical of this work, which would I’m sure make him despair) there are some deeper issues that can’t be ignored if this blog and podcast were at least trying to be even handed. Deep Down straddles this with a rocking melody, interesting percussion, vocal layering and synth brass that shows there’s still flair, fun and flexibility in McCartney at 78 (and doesn’t it sound like a great backing for a hip-hop record?) but its lyrics are some of the ones on the album that I struggle with most. Similarly Seize The Day, with its Beatles-template rock and almost painfully joyful lyrics sometimes feels as if it’s laid on a little thick for me. Lavatory Lil, tub-thumpingly brilliant as it melody is, and how much sheer fun McCartney has on it, is just a song that I can’t take too seriously. Perhaps that’s the point (and even if it is about ‘her’ then it’s hardly caustic) but you feel it’s just a bit too close to a Polythene Pam to feel totally original. And much as that QOTSA-weight riff sounds fantastic on Slidin’, it’s one of the weaker overall efforts (weaker in comparison to the album’s best tracks certainly) that does feel a little overstretching its soundcheck riff beginnings. And The Kiss Of Venus, its simplicity and clarity a wonderful moment on the album, seems to be let down by words that feel at times, well, twee.

    Perhaps this is the dilemma. Fans wear more than one hat, and if you remove that warm, comforting, titfer and strip away that reverence, for the rest of the listeners without that (happy) emotional baggage these songs may just grate. It is clear that this album will mean many things to many people. But it’s possible, i think to love it for what it is in the Beatles and post-Beatles pantheon, and gently dissect it as a standalone, almost isolated artefact. Then remember that Paul played *everything* on this record. And think about that. For me, I’ll never quite separate the two different viewpoints, and I’m more than comfortable with that. Because when it comes to the experience I have with McCartney III, and that I never expected to connect with and adore a new set of songs from Paul as much as I do here, that I love listening to it in all situations. It is already carrying me through some difficult times, just as it calls me back diving into his mind-boggling catalogue, it is a rare joy that I haven’t felt for many other occasions, and not since the entirely different surroundings of Blackstar’s bleak, gut-wrenching eulogy on David Bowie’s life. So few artists get to do something for so long and still have the ability to surprise and please at this late stage on their own terms. It’s really something I feel lucky to have in my life. If this is his final record, that’s some fitting way to bow out. I suspect it won’t be, and so if he follows it with lesser albums, that’s ok. They’ll be well produced, and if he still wants to make that music, then who can argue against that? But I know I’ll be holding this dearly in years to come, with a fitting place in his solo highlights, and whatever happens, that is, of course, ‘great’.

  4. misterstory

    Wow. I am not really sure how to follow any of David and Guy’s words. I feel totally ill-prepared and inexperienced to have a meaningful opinion. Or do I? I’ve been loving and listening to music all my life, even though I am not a fan I’m totally qualified to have an opinion. I have lived around the music of the Beatles and am very conscious that so many of my musical crushes have Beatles crushes that are so obvious in their music.

    My parents didn’t really listen to the Beatles, so I didn’t really listen to the Beatles as a kid. They listened to Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder … so I did too. However, I do recall the purchase of a 20 year anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper when I was 10. And to be fair I did grow to love it. That made me explore the White Album that I found in the pile of vinyl that my Dad no longer played. But when I am asked ‘do you like the Beatles?’ I tend to say no. Partly cause I’m a contrary twat but also because I actively dislike so many Beatles songs. A recent exercise I went through to create a list of Beatles songs that I did like resulted in a simple conclusion – I like the miserable Beatles tracks. Also, my playlist had a greater % of George tracks than is representative of their wider output.

    In terms of McCartney’s solo output … I really don’t know it. Apart from the obvious ones that you can’t escape. But that lack of knowledge is just what it is. I am not sure if anyone in the history of music retrospectively got into the Beatles because they were a Paul McCartney fan? So, when David suggested having McCartney III as Album of the Month I was very worried. How can I pass comment on someone that David and Guy love so much … particularly as it was very likely I wasn’t going to like it.

    So into the album we go. Well. It’s all over the bloody shop isn’t it. Like totally random factor. For a non fan who likes albums to be consistent musical statements this is a bit of an early issue. He’s basically trying a load of stuff out. It’s almost as if there was a global health crisis that isolated everyone and left him with loads of time to enjoy himself in his studio. And fair play. He’s certainly enjoying himself isn’t he?

    I first listened to this while I was ‘doing stuff’ over Xmas. Cooking. Editing photographs. Sketching. Blah blah. And I kept finding that the album was going round more than once without me noticing. I had to start asking myself, am I enjoying this? I think that I just might have been. Hmmmmm. The album got quite a lot of playtime. I was interested with his obvious desire to be ‘an old bluesman’ I was expecting this and am intrigued as how much this speaks to his back catalogue. There were some very contemporary experiments in their too that sparked closer inspection.

    Then I started to take the album out on walks. This is usually when I maximally engage with an album. But unfortunately this is when I started to disengage with this. When I was not distracted by other tasks and focused purely on the music I started to flag all sorts of things that I didn’t like. The first one is that I think that it’s lyrically weak …. sometimes painfully-cringe-bad. On some tracks, I would have preferred an instrumental as the only thing stopping me from enjoying it is the lyrics. I then realised that I really didn’t like at least 3 of the tracks. As that is over 25% of the album, it’s an issue.

    However, I do love 3 tracks. And I do mean love. To the point that I am surprised at how much I love them. Women and Wives, Deep Deep Feeling and Deep down are the tracks. Each of them pretty different too. Deep Deep Feeling has really divided opinion in the press. I love it. I love an extended exploration of a groove and this is a great example. Others have suggested it’s self indulgent and indisciplined but I don’t agree. I think its fluid and he allows this musical flow. The piano is so grounded in the mix and I love the production of the percussion towards the end of the track, it sounds majestic in head phones. Women and Wives is another piano driven track that totally does it for me. It’s only 2mins 30 but is lean and tight and all the better for being kept so. I am sure there was the potential to explore this further but I am happy with the restraint he’s shown. Deep Down … what can I say. When I first heard it I couldn’t put my finger on what it reminded me of. It was recent, it was ‘RnB’ but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then BAAAAAM it struck me – this track could be on Mac Millers ‘Circles’. And that is an album that I love. Of the 3 this is the weakest lyrically, but it works. I am listening to it now and it makes me smile (oh and it has a great sounding organ too).

    One thing I’ve always loved are people who just have to create. It’s just what they do. They almost have a pathological need to create stuff. At 78, this album proves that Paul McCartney is still that guy. His voice is not what it was, but he’s owning that and pushing it and I hope, he’s comfortable with it. He’s having a bunch of fun. The album doesn’t work as an album for me. It’s essentially a sketch book in musical form and that’s ok. 3 of those sketches make me very happy.

  5. whyohwhyohwhy

    I’m still so happy to have this in my life. It is a comfort for me in this turbulent present.

    It’s fascinating seeing non-McCartney fans weigh in because I’ve never encountered opposition so open. Can’t wait for people to hear the podcast. It gets lively!

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