Perhaps no one in pop music history has been more decorated and recognized than Paul McCartney: Dozens of albums, scores of Top 40 hits, Grammy awards, an Oscar nomination, even a knighthood. Melodies seem to pour effortlessly from his head, as if they were there all along in nature, waiting to be found. Heck, he even dreamed the melody to “Yesterday.”
In light of all the acclaim and fame, why has his solo career been so disappointing?
Paul fought with his own ego and the ghost of John Lennon for years before realizing that (a) making a good album is hard work; (b) no one can replace Lennon as a songwriting partner.
He was an album-making machine when the Beatles broke up, pouring out at least one album per year during the 1970s. But without John’s cynicism and vision reeling him in, the little Broadway tunes were even more apparent. He surrounded himself with people who nodded at everything he said and did. Songs that were mocked by John during Beatle sessions (“Junk,” “Teddy Boy”) made it onto solo albums. His solo career is dotted with forgettable fluff such as “Bip Bop,” “C Moon,” “Temporary Secretary,” and “Pipes of Peace” – songs that would have never made it onto a Beatles album.
There were moments of genius through the years. “Dear Boy” from Ram is lush, layered with harmonies and counterpoint. “Warm and Beautiful” from At The Speed Of Sound is simple, warm and yes, beautiful, and most of “Band on the Run” stands up to much of his material with the Beatles. But many of his flashes of brilliance were just that – flashes, with little substance to back them up. That’s why the lyrics to “Bip Bop” consisted mostly of “Bip bop, bip bop bop
Bip bop, bip bop band.” That’s really all he had, or all he cared to create.
There was no one to call BS on him. He thought all he needed was a songwriting partner, and he went through many; first it was Linda, his wife; then Denny Laine from Wings; Stevie Wonder (“Ebony and Ivory”!); Michael Jackson; and even Elvis Costello. It rarely worked.
He thought that he was a songwriting machine, that he could simply start playing something and it would come out a hit. He bragged that one time, while waiting for Linda at a photo shoot, he aimed to write a song in two hours before she came back. (He did it, and the resulting song, “Somedays,” was on his album Flaming Pie.)
But songwriting is not easy, and one good idea does not a song make. His first album, McCartney, featured the brilliant “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Every Night.” These gems were offset by improvisational jam sessions that seemingly went nowhere and sounded half-baked.
Ram was his best effort of the 1970s, but was a pop album through and through. There were no rockers to answer John’s dark, angry Plastic Ono Band. His ballads were pretty but vilified. The sweeping, majestic “My Love” was criticized for having the chorus, “Wo-wo-wo-wo, my love does it good.”
1974’s Band on the Run finally gave him the critical acclaim he lacked, but it was followed by several forgettable Wings albums. He redeemed himself with 1982’s Tug of War, but then followed what was arguably the worst period of his career: The disastrous movie “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” the aforementioned Pipes of Peace (with several bad duets with Michael Jackson) and Press to Play.
It was only during the 1990s – perhaps fueled by the Beatles Anthology project – that Paul woke up and realized that John’s legacy, though short, might outshine him. The albums came more slowly, with several years in between releases. The time spent between albums showed in the quality of his work.
1997’s Flaming Pie was his ode to his former bandmates; if ever there was a Beatlesque record written by a solo Beatle, it’s this one. After getting that out of his system, he proceeded to make his own music, mostly by himself. His last three albums of original material – Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full and New – rank among his best. If not known for their hits, they are solid, consistent efforts.
These albums, though, are marked with a certain sobriety. Paul has lost his wife, seen another marriage end disastrously, and lost two bandmates and other friends from his Liverpool years. Now, it’s just him and his music.