Monday, October 3, 2011

Paul McCartney Was MVP Of The Beatles

Paul McCartney is nobody's favorite Beatle. Most people would go with John (the smart, acerbic one with the political consciousness); music literati and classic rock scholars tend to favor George (the Zen, antimaterialistic one, unfairly suppressed by the Lennon-McCartney junta); and people who sleep really late are prone to vote Ringo without really thinking about it.

But nobody wants to say Paul's their guy. People like to root for the underdog, and the fact that, being the cutest, he probably enjoyed the most female comfort of the lads during Beatlemania makes him the exact opposite of that. Worse, he played bass, an instrument your casual music fan does not typically appreciate. And there's no denying his affinity for cheese: almost every bad song in the Beatles catalog (not a long list, but there are a few) was bad because it was cheesy, and if it was cheesy, it was one of Paul's. Unlike John and George, he did not stake out any political or humanitarian territory in his post-Beatles life to keep him hip -- he just got the worst mullet ever, let his wife into his band, adopted the squarest public persona imaginable (for someone who had announced to a camera crew that he had tried LSD), and kept making records.

And of course anyone born in the 70s or later initially met him as the guy who appeared on the worst song on the Best Album Ever ("The Girl Is Mine," Michael Jackson's Thriller) and the first nail in Stevie Wonder's creative coffin ("Ebony and Ivory"). And unlike his lifelong partner/rival/muse John Lennon, he has had the poor taste to continue getting older and both making more music that will unfavorably compare to the Beatles and getting ickier and ickier looking.

All those things are true, and technically correct. Paul is not the coolest Beatle, and he's not my favorite either, but he is definitely, unequivocally the MVP of the consensus Greatest Band Ever.

He's an amazing bass player. Paul McCartney (along with The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson) pretty much invented the entire idiom of rock and pop bass playing, taking it way beyond root notes supporting the main melody and adding walking patterns, harmonizing with (rather than doubling) the main melody. As Pete Townshend once said of Jimi Hendrix's and the guitar, "He turned it into an instrument." Meaning he turned it into a vehicle for more creative musical expression than just following the chord changes two octaves lower. You can listen to almost any Beatles (or Wings, or solo McCartney) song and hear this, but to take just one example, check out "Dear Prudence," from the White Album.

Pretty much every Lennon/McCartney composition after Rubber Soul is either mostly Lennon ("Norwegian Wood," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "I Am The Walrus," "Strawberry Fields Forever") or mostly McCartney ("Yesterday," "Let It Be," "Hey Jude," "Penny Lane"). The easiest way to tell is by who sings lead, and it's clear that "Dear Prudence" is one of John's. (He supposedly wrote it as a way to coax Mia Farrow's sister out of her bungalow at the Maharishi's compound in India. That John always was the most relatable!)

This is a great tune, and it starts with an inventive acoustic intro and a lovely fingerpicked main part. But it really starts getting good when Paul and Ringo come in for the second verse. John's guitar part is nice, but having played it at home a few hundred times I can tell you that it gets a little dull about the 8th time through. Which is why it's a great relief when Paul's bass arrives, loping around the main part and adding both a countermelody and syncopated counterbeat, and giving the whole thing a bounce that it sadly lacked before. This is typical McCartney: even when all he does is play on the song like a sideman, he makes a huge contribution to it, and it's true of nearly every song in the Beatles' catalog. Certainly, John, George, and Ringo definitely made their mark on some of Paul's tunes, too, but Paul slathered his essence all over every single tune.

He's not just the bass player. He sang on everything (everything), played the guitar solo on "Taxman," piano on "Let it Be," and drums on "The Ballad of John and Yoko."  When asked whether Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, John Lennon once replied, "He's not even the best drummer in the Beatles." His first solo album, McCartney, was Paul all by himself, overdubbing all the instruments. You know why John and George never did that? Because they couldn't!

He's not a jerk. Sure, John Lennon had his good points (almost all of them musical), but any reading of his interpersonal history, be it with his wives, girlfriends, bandmates, producers, lawyers, accountants, drivers, assistants, children, or domestic staff, reveals it to be fraught with his paralyzing insecurity, his insane mood swings, and his volatile temper. As for George, his discontent with being a Beatle predated even Lennon's -- he couldn't wait for the band to break up, openly rooted for it, and sat out a lot of sessions (notably all of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band except the song he wrote) in protest. Not that he wasn't somewhat justified in that (John and Paul didn't treat him very well), but you can't fall just short of actively sabotaging an enterprise and be considered for the title of MVP. (As a side note: does anyone else get the feeling that George Harrison't peace-and-love-and-buddhism shtick had a slight whiff of protesting too much? (I guess we'll find out for sure next week.) I don't know much about Ringo, he seems an affable enough sort but come on. He's not in the running for MVP.

He was head cheerleader. If it had been up to John or George, there probably would have been about half as many Beatles albums as there are. McCartney was always the one to rouse the others out of their self-absorbed stupors to make new records, to make films, to do just about everything the Beatles did after about 1966. Granted, this made the others resent him enormously and the animosity it led to was a big factor in the band breaking up, but I'd rather have the Beatles history we have -- eight amazing albums in five years, ending in acrimonious breakup -- than a version where John and George's apathy slowed their productivity down to a crawl.

He has the best solo album. Ram, McCartney's second album after the Beatles split, is inexplicably underrated -- maybe because it's credited to "Paul and Linda McCartney" three years after John Lennon had poisoned public opinion on Beatles recording with their wives with the putrid "Two Virgins" single. (I read not long ago that Lennon's solo albums ranked third among the former Beatles in terms of sales through the '70s.) All Things Must Pass is great, but it's too long. Lennon had some good singles ("Instant Karma" chief among them) but can anyone sit through a whole John Lennon album? I know that I cannot. Once again, Ringo's efforts barely rate a mention.

He's still at it. I started thinking about Paul McCartney in the first place because I saw a movie a couple of weeks ago called The Love We Make -- a documentary following him around New York as he prepared for the 9/11 benefit show The Concert For New York, in October 2001. I expected this movie to be minimally interesting but ended up fascinated, partly because Paul still sounds great (despite his wedging the already poorly aged 9/11 anthem "Freedom" into the show), but mostly because he seems to be the most famous person on Earth, but nonetheless walks down the street in New York City without security and patiently indulges the hordes of autograph seekers that collapse on him -- even the homeless ones that beg him for money. At the show, he is shown hobnobbing backstage with the A-List of the A-List -- this was the celebrity benefit for New York after 9/11, remember -- and everyone he speaks to (except for Pete Townshend and Bill Clinton) is totally starstruck. Jim Carrey practically faints when McCartney tells him he's a fan.

Then, after I had started writing this blog, I turned on the radio and am treated to an interview with Sir Paul about his new ballet score. A ballet score! This comes after a symphony he wrote a few years back, not to mention the fact that he's been reliably putting out albums every few years since the Beatles broke up. They're not all good, but one of the most recent (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard) got his best reviews since the 70s.

Make no mistake: I can never completely overlook such sonic abortions as "The Fool On The Hill" or "The Long And Winding Road" or whatever his awful Christmas song was called. Paul McCartney is not my favorite Beatle, and I bet he's not yours either. But he's easily the most important.


  1. Well put Alex. Only one question: What's wrong with fool on the hill?

  2. yeah I like Fool on the Hill! Long and Winding Road is cheesy though, as is Hey Jude (except the coda) and Yesterday.
    He is an awesome bass player though.

  3. Re: The Fool On The Hill: That recorder just cuts right through me.

  4. Well, he's my favorite - always was and always will be. As far as I am concerned, he was the one with the most talent. I saw him in person recently for the first time and I was literally sitting there with tears running down my face when he walked on stage. He's the best!