In Defense of Paul McCartney

Milquetoast Balladeer or Songwriting Stud?

by Mindy LaBernz

"After all, the Beatles were John's group. He was the band leader and the one who coined the name." -- Yoko Ono, 11/13/95

"The thing I find myself doing, which is a pity, really, is trying to justify myself against John -- and I hate to do that. There are certain people who think he was the Beatles. Now that is not true, and John would be the first to tell you that. But you can't blame people for feeling that way because his death was a hell of a tragedy." -- Paul McCartney, 10/29/95

All right, this Paul-bashing has gone far enough. If you need to exalt John Lennon, great, I'll join you in singing his praises in the highest. But don't ever, I repeat, ever, glorify John at the expense of Paul. It's tired, unnecessary, and just plain out of line. Listen, McCartney's fully aware of the criticisms leveled at him -- he can hear the snickers behind his back. He's gone on record saying that the McCartney-driven Magical Mystery Tour was a bit of a debacle; he's dismissed Give My Regards to Broadstreet as lofty ideas and ego run amuck; he admits Back to the Egg was all wrong. We've all heard the lyrics to "Silly Love Songs." But, when the bards have bungled the job of passing down the Beatles legend so thoroughly that Paul feels he must defend something as clear as his role in the Beatles, well, it's time someone steps up to bat for him.

Unfortunately, he's in no position to do it himself; like a politician trapped in a smear campaign, he's perceived as defensive if he responds and a pantywaist if he doesn't. Case in point: In the final episode of the six-hour Beatles Anthology TV special, George Martin asserts that the White Album should have been two records, and Ringo agrees. McCartney, in an uncharacteristic bluster of confidence, says, "I think it's a fine album. You know, I'm not a great one for that. You know, maybe it was too much of that... Look, whaddya mean? It was great. It sold. It's the bloody Beatles White Album. Shut-up." Half the crowd in my living room watching "the event" threw a fit, calling him smug and a braggart. Christ, what do they want? Had he been more modest, they'd have called him a phony. Had it been Lennon, King of the Pop-Offs, on the other hand, they'd have been high-fiving each other.

This isn't a new issue, of course, the McCartney vs. Lennon debate. It's probably existed among fans from the first day the duo tagged "Lennon/McCartney" to a composition. McCartney having a hit in America with "Yesterday" only exacerbated the situation as journalists had a field day with his going number one "without the Beatles." And now that the less diplomatic of the two is dead, McCartney's left to address the eternal questions about their songwriting partnership without Lennon around to supply acerbic witticisms -- which, as pointed out before, leaves McCartney in a spot. As he told Rolling Stone in 1990, "It's the ultimate conundrum. If I don't say anything, I go on being the wimp of the group. If I do open my mouth, it looks like I'm sullying John."

But open his mouth he did, and in front of a whole nation of Beatles fans glued to the televisions. Much as I enjoyed hearing wacko George's take on the Beatles experience and Ringo's drunken ramblings, it was Paul who truly had his ass on the line in the documentary. I was a wreck every time he came on the screen, hoping to god he wouldn't come off too contrived, too nostalgic, too anything that would give the skeptics more ammunition. After watching six hours of footage, I finally feel I've gathered the strength and the backing to stand up and shout, "Paul McCartney is the greatest pop songwriter/stud ... of ... all .. time ... bar none, kiss my ass, and piss off."

Now, I'm certainly no Beatles authority, but that doesn't really matter since the television special proved that even the Beatles themselves aren't necessarily authorities anymore. (Did you get high at Buckingham Palace or not, boys? And just how many people were at Shea Stadium?) What I am an authority on is being a Beatles fan and, more specifically, a McCartney fan. Even my earliest memories -- not the bogus ones triggered by photos, mind you -- involve McCartney worship: Me, sprawled on a cream shag carpet, the Magical Mystery Tour album open in front of me, Sgt. Pepper... and Ram spread out behind me, Rubber Soul turned upside-down to hide the creepy cover, my skinny, terrycloth jumpsuit-clad Mom darting in and out of the kitchen to turn Meet the Beatles over and over and over for me, because I was not to touch the record player; I counted how many "na-na-na-nanana-na's" lead up to "Make it Ju-day"; I memorized all the words to "I've Just Seen a Face"; I fantasized that McCartney's bus would break down outside my house, and hearing me singing the harmonies to "Lovely Rita," he'd have me join the band. Why I thought anyone's tour bus would even be close to Schaumburg, Illinois, of course, proves that I've always been a little delusional. But if he let Linda sing ...

Boring Beatle remembrances, I know, I know. We've all got them, and like true fans of anything, we all think our memories to be unique and definitive. Before this little tirade gathers steam, however, I'd like to state for the record: I am a girl, I think Paul is the cute Beatle, and I'm sure some crusty old hippie fuck will say I'm too young to have a valid opinion on this. However, being the same age as the kiddies running the rock & roll playground today, I can safely say I represent a large Beatle-fan contingency that often has an objective, musically-based fervor for the band since we didn't grow up alongside them, amidst all the romance of those wacky Sixties. (Thank god for small favors.)

"Being there," incidentally, gives you no edge on fandom. My goofy father spent most of the TV special singing all the wrong words or randomly tossing out where he was when different albums came out while my boyfriend and I sat entranced by every inch of the heretofore unseen footage. I'd wager I've listened more closely and more often to more Beatles/post-Beatles recordings than most people of Beatles age, because I had no choice -- I wasn't there. My kids are probably going to kill me for skipping the Nirvana show at Liberty Lunch or not paying attention to Pearl Jam when I saw them with Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the City Coliseum. I don't know Flea's real name, but I'm sure my children will.

But as I disclaim, I digress. The point is to clear the name of one James Paul McCartney, or at least shed some light on what he is, and why, perhaps, you've been duped into not appreciating him. A good starting point is the re-energized party line that "doesn't give a shit about the Beatles," revitalized, no doubt, by the resurgence of that Punk Rock Music the kids have just discovered, and the retarded, anti-music mindset that often accompanies it. That mindset is only relevant to our "Save the Paul" campaign when a full-scale dismissal comes from a noted rock critic -- I've heard it too often to be making it up -- which is akin to an American History professor ignoring the Civil War 'cause he's never really dug that North/South thing.

What is really disturbing and harmful, though -- not liking the Beatles is a matter of preference, I suppose -- is the Beatles "fan" who qualifies his fandom by making stupid, grandiose statements about why Lennon was the Beatles, man, and how Paul McCartney just sucks, dude. Well, in the words of a lawyer friend, that's an interesting opinion -- it's a wrong opinion, but it's interesting. The explanations these droids offer are usually staggeringly illogical, incomplete, and inarticulate, often prefaced by, "Well, I don't know that much about the Beatles, but blah, blah, blah."

For example, there's the "I hate those stupid suits and all that early, wimpy woo-woo crap" attack, which is similar to most aspersions cast toward the group, in that it combines -- or, rather confuses -- the music with the aesthetics and the accouterment. Somehow the blame of the early "cleaned-up" image often falls on Paul, as if he dragged Lennon kicking and screaming to the tailor. If Lennon was that much of a hypocrite, masking his rock & roll soul as it were, he's the one who should be castigated. Make no mistake, kiddies, Johnny wanted to go to the topper-most, popper-most just as badly as Paul.

The musical misconception contained in slagging the early "woo-woo" material is in thinking that: (a) the Beatles didn't rock in the early days; and (b) that the band belonged solely to Paul back then. The footage from the TV special alone shows that Lennon very clearly clutched the reins early on, singing lead on the bulk of the early hits -- which, by the way, were the rock & roll stuff of Kings -- while Paul handled the high harmonies, and, yes, a lot of oohs and ahhs. Yes, Yoko, it was John's band for a few years; disc one of the new Anthology set proves this as Lennon sings lead even on the McCartney/Harrison composition, "In Spite of All Danger." As far as the non-rocking issue is concerned, again, listen to any of those early demos, and you'll hear rock & roll screeches that would make Kurt Cobain's hair stand on end. And the performance of "I'm Down" at Shea Stadium alone annihilates the image of the staid, head-bobbing cartoon cliché of the Beatles, McCartney devouring the lead vocal and Lennon going quite literally insane. (Newsflash: Ed Sullivan wasn't the only gig the Beatles ever played, even if it's the only footage you've ever seen.)

As the Beatles phenomenon grew, McCartney's quickly growing confidence as a songwriter seemed to coincide with Lennon's inertia, and John turned the keys over to Paul halfway through the drive. Cynthia Lennon maintained it occurred after John's "bigger-than-Jesus" comment (stellar in context, by the way) blew up in his face. The documentary reveals Lennon pulling back, while the Abbey Road session notes document McCartney's keener interest in the details of the records. John had all but checked out of the Beatles toward the end.

Another big misconception is that Lennon was the big experimental guy responsible for the psychedelic dementia associated with the late Beatles -- the John as Hippie Guy theorem. Sure, John walks into the studio and says he wants a particular part to sound like an orange, but it was Paul who recruited a trumpet player for "Penny Lane" after watching him play Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto Number Two in F Major" late one night on the BBC. It's dazzling, of course, that Lennon wanted a song to sound purple, but it's McCartney's genius that led to the 24-bar orchestral swell on "A Day in the Life." In other words, they were both responsible for the psychedelic rainbow of sounds on those records.

The biggest fallacy, of course, is that when the Beatles did rrrrrock, it was at the hands of Lennon and not McCartney: the badass rocker versus the milquetoast balladeer myth. Certainly there's no vocal more terrifying than Lennon on the blood-curdling opening to "Mr. Moonlight," but check McCartney on "I'm Down" or "She's a Woman." Lennon, I concur, was a more convincing rock & roll cat -- he's all swagger and wordplay, bravado and mockery. For his part, McCartney always seems to be having a bit of a laugh, too much so to take the rock & roll pose too seriously. And although Paul could have pulled off "Twist and Shout," John had a bit more self-destructive attitude about his voice.

With McCartney, it's simply the case that he connects more universally with his love songs. Call them saccharine if you like, but when I'm in love, I feel as giddy as his voice. Lennon's never as sentimental; his expressions of love are riddled with insecurities, "If I Fell" for example, or -- yeccchh -- they're about his mother or Yoko as in "Julia" or "Oh My Love." I'd hate to feel as defeated in love as Lennon sounds on "It's Only Love" or "I'm So Tired." Overall, I think the true confusion with their respective personas derives less from the music than from the images we have of them -- the performances. Where Paul looks happy, John looks snide. Where Paul smiles, John smirks. As Paul spazzes about, John stands stock still.

But c'mon, now, is the smart-assed posturing of the cool guy transparent just to me? Perhaps because I've been a flighty 19-year-old girl who's fallen for the acerbic, nasty rock guy, I'm more than a little annoyed by someone so uncomfortable in his own skin that he has to be mean to everyone around him. It's not that Lennon didn't want to move, he fucking couldn't. It wasn't the suit he hated, it was himself he couldn't stomach. Said Lennon on Lennon: "My defenses were so great. The cocky rock & roll hero who knows all the answers was actually a terrified guy who didn't know how to cry. Simple."

It's a fucked-up, grade-school principle that mocks McCartney while lauding Lennon: Make fun of the kid who does his homework -- who at least attempts the problems on the blackboard or goes out for the school play -- just because he's trying; everyone knows it's much cooler to sit in the back row making fun of the world, because if you try, you just may fail, and then you'd be the brunt of the joke. It's cooler to just not give a fuck.

As the tension mounted and the Beatles starting falling apart, McCartney just tried harder and harder. Bossy? Sure. Controlling? You bet. That's what happens to perfectionists when the people around them just don't care. Says local bassist Tony Scalzo, who has a McCartney-like command of his instrument coupled with a brash punk rock stance, "I can identify with Paul McCartney really strongly, especially when I see Let It Be and I see him so frustrated with the apathy of the other guys in the band. Other people see him as an asshole, but I think of him as just wanting to do good shit."

Which brings me 'round to the current punk rock craze, which is even better than the first one where the Clash and Mr. Lydon at least got worked up about something. I think it's lovely that disenfranchised losers have a place where the untalented, the ugly, and the uncomfortable can feel alone together. Now that they've added slacker apathy to their nihilism, it's an even better package. I love the idea that any jackass can put a lousy band together and the worse they play, the better they are -- great rock & roll concept. Take the music back from the old farts and all that, fabulous. Not the most musical constructs around which to base a musical movement, but apparently that's not the point. Have they brought gobbing back, too? I love that.

Don't get me wrong -- I've got plenty of time for the Buzzcocks or the Undertones on a sunny afternoon, but that doesn't mean I don't have time for Wings Over America later in the evening. What the hell am I talking about, and how does it relate to Paul McCartney? I'm talking about the mentality that dismisses his work with Wings because it's diametrically opposed to the less-is-more punk rock approach of the late Seventies. It's the same ethos that governs the modern punk rock kid, who would assert, "Paul McCartney tries too hard. Trying sucks."

Never mind that his songwriting victories are resounding. Never mind that nearly every solo album -- no matter how sketchy -- has at least one song on it that any songwriter today would give their soul to be able to write. Never mind that he abandoned his rock & roll credibility like he abandoned popping pills and shagging strippers on the Reeperbahn. Never mind that John Lennon's idea of musical experimentation was to dump his inner Oedipal complex psychosis onto the lyric sheet (Paul's mummy's dead, too, John; he's not bugging us about it), or that he let his worthless, no-talent wife Yoko take up half a frigging album with her pretentious yowlings (at least Paul buried Linda in the mix), and that he took a five-year hiatus to raise his "Beautiful Boy" (I'm sure Julian loved hearing that one, Pops, but don't worry; Paul composed "Hey Jude" for the little guy when you were lost in the poppy fields with Your Monkey).

Wow, somebody pull me over. I promised myself I wouldn't praise Paul by damning John. Now look what I can't take back. But let's face some harsh facts: McCartney as Beatle should not be questioned; McCartney as Wings commander should be questioned here and there, but not any less than Lennon as whatever the hell he played in the Seventies (I'm afraid too much revisionism has gone on about Lennon's solo work); McCartney as a rock & roller is a non-issue -- that stopped being his bag long ago.

Nowadays, McCartney's problem is one of perceptions, publicly and his own self-perception, I think. He's always leaned toward the grand, the orchestral; his musical progression away from the rigid rock & roll rules is entirely natural -- if not well received -- all the way to 1992's Liverpool Oratorio. His rock & roll performances of late are often retreads of his older material -- Unplugged, Live in Russia -- and well they should be; he's not a 20-year-old Beatle, and he's not trying to be. If you're disappointed with Paul for not somehow matching his work with the Beatles, as I often was growing up, reroute your expectations. That innocence is long gone.

Just look at the black-and-white footage of him singing "Yesterday" as compared to the footage of him doing "Let It Be." There's something so sweet in his arched eyebrows, quivering smile and shy eyes that barely glance at the camera, that's been totally eradicated by the bearded, bloated "Let It Be" performance -- by which time he's aware that the eye of the camera is the face of the audience, and he won't let it go. And now he's stuck with the task of growing old gracefully, knowing full well that the single eye is holding him accountable for his every move. He should have followed Lennon's lead by behaving like an ass -- under the guise of the naked truth no one questions your motives. People confuse purported "totally honesty" with integrity. That's why Lennon was allowed to say whatever he damn well pleased about whomever he damn well pleased and still change his mind the next week with impunity. He was the Honest Beatle. Hey, Paul has let me down plenty, too. I don't trust vegetarians and I don't trust lifelong stoners -- two factors I personally believe have led to the daft decisions Paul makes now and again -- but I can separate the man from the music. And I need that ability now more than ever since he's on the cover of this month's Vegetarian Times, and the new official Beatles' product is all made of hemp. Christ.

My final point is this (and I do have one): I don't want Paul McCartney to go down in history as a pussy-whipped vegetarian goofball in linen suits and high tops, always pointing at the crowd woo-hooing and yee-hawing, like somebody's dad on Karaoke night. I don't want him to pass quietly in the night not having heard in a very long time that his music thrilled, aroused, and colored some peoples' lives to a greater degree than his wildest ego-rides could even imagine.

I want to tell him that his voice is as familiar to me as a family member and, in the direst times, has calmed me like my father's hand. I want to tell him that my best friend is my best friend because she always skips to the McCartney songs on Beatles' albums and because she gave me a copy of Live in Russia. I want to tell him that I just may marry my boyfriend because he thinks "The Ballad of John and Yoko" was saved by Paul's drumming and harmony on the chorus. I want to tell Paul all this, and I want to tell him now, because if there's one glaring reminder to take home from the Beatles TV special it's that when a musical idol dies, there simply is no more music.

Yes, I know, John, the dream is over, but I still believe in Beatles. Namely Paul. n

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