Your guide to Paul McCartney's perfectly normal legacy in the 1970's.
I’ve read a lot of rock criticism in my life. It’s true I don’t reach
for my Lester Bangs volumes as much as I did in college. And, sure,
I’ve become a less avid reader of Pitchfork as I spend more of my time
glaring at the approaching age of 30—half out of dread and half out of
boredom. But regardless of my current headspace, I consider myself well
read on various critiques of rock n’ roll music.
The funny thing
about rock criticism is that it has already reached its Platonic Ideal.
Yes, that’s right, rock criticism has been perfected. And that
perfection comes in the form of Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review of Wild Life
by Paul McCartney and Wings on AllMusic.com. The review is economical
and spot on in every way, but it closes with an especially marvelous bit
“Yeah, it’s possible to call this a terrible
record, but it’s so strange in its domestic bent and feigned
ordinariness that it winds up being a pop album like no other.”
music nerd out there should thrill at this sentence! First, there is
the critical observation stating that the album is, in a way, terrible;
then, there is the quick and efficient explanation into what makes it
fascinating—feigned ordinariness!—before the final admission
that the album has a singularity that would allow some poor, misguided
soul to find deep merit in it. What true music fan doesn’t have a
record—or records—he wears as a badge of pride in this way? I know I
have several, and Wild Life happens to be one of them.
am a fan of Paul McCartney’s solo work. Though, to be fair, my extensive
knowledge is limited to everything from 1970-1980. There are certainly
solid and truly enjoyable Paul McCartney records after that point (his
2013 album, NEW, being one of them), but I find the work he did
between the Beatles’ breakup and John Lennon’s death to be truly
fascinating. Sure, there is perhaps no greater solo Beatles record than All Things Must Pass; no truer artistic statement than Plastic Ono Band; and no more deep cut, wink-wink album than Ringo’s Beaucups of Blues.
But no Beatle can truly match the range, confusing decisions and
overall performance art of Paul’s solo output from the 1970’s.
What do I mean by performance art? I mean exactly what Mr. Erlewine wrote in his review of Wild Life: that is, the feigned ordinariness of McCartney’s output in the 1970’s. We live in a world where there is a fashion trend called “normcore,”
which is basically a conscious choice to dress like a “normal person.”
“Normcore” is an absurd notion, but it is one of those instances where
fashion becomes a kind of performance art in its own right. What the
“normcore” fashion decision says about a person, I don’t know. Is it a
way to show intelligence or hipness? Perhaps. Is it a way to take a jab
at what society deems to be “normal” attire? Sure. Is it a way to hide
your fear of losing some kind of perceived edge, by consciously choosing
to dress in “normal” manner? Maybe.
In a way, post-Beatles
McCartney was perhaps the forefather of “normcore”. Just look at the
famous photo on the back cover of his first solo album, McCartney.
Paul stands in front of a Scotland field permeated with twilight. His
face is adorned with a scruffy, “dad on vacation” beard; he’s wearing
what appears to be a standard white t-shirt that is obscured by a large,
comfortable-looking winter coat lined with fur. Tucked in amongst that
fur lining, the head of newborn Mary McCartney pokes out; she smiles the
disoriented smile of an infant in front of a camera. And the photo
credit goes to none other than Linda McCartney.
Now, it may seem
like I am reading a bit much into a simple, pleasant, photo on the back
of a musician’s first solo album, but you have to remember that this is a
Beatle we are talking about. At the time, Paul McCartney was a living deity. When McCartney was
released, Paul was arguably one of the ten most famous people in the
world, and when you take this photo, along with the blatantly “charming”
and “laid back” quality of the music on the album, the entire statement
is one of a volitional decision to retreat from super-celebrity into
“standard,” domestic life.
That brings us back once more to that wonderful phrase “feigned ordinariness.” Elsewhere in Erlewine’s review of Wild Life
he describes the music as “something that sounds easy—easy enough that
you and a couple of neighbors you don’t know very well could knock out
in your garage on a lazy Saturday afternoon—and that’s what’s
frustrating and amazing about it.” Again, this is unimpeachable rock
writing! Erlewine perfectly conveys the befuddlement that many listeners
in the 1970’s must have felt about each successive McCartney release,
but at the same time recognizes what an incredible phenomenon it is that
a visionary, cutting-edge (remember, Paul was the one who brought Stockhausen and tape loops
to the Beatles’ table along with “Martha My Dear”) musician and
song-writer like McCartney would willfully make this type of artistic
We’ll get to Wild Life as a case study in a
moment, but for now, for those of you less familiar with all of Paul’s
records in the ‘70’s, allow me to present a quick, album-by-album
rundown to chart his decisions.
McCartney (1970) – Along with Dylan’s John Wesley Harding
(1967) this is the archetypal “back-to-basics” rock record. By that I
mean it set the precedent for a rock artist to pull back from the
excesses of previous work and “find him or herself” most likely in some
kind of home studio. This album features simple love songs to Linda
(“The Lovely Linda”), half-baked, enjoyable grooves (“That Would Be
Something”), simple pop gems (“Every Night”), an instrumental rocker
(“Momma Miss America”), a pair of Beatles rejections (“Teddy Boy” and
“Junk”) and perhaps his all-time best ballad (“Maybe I’m Amazed”).
– This is the critical darling. Part home-recording, part big-studio
wizardry, this is the best album Paul made post-Beatles. There is the
trademark medley (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”), a Beatles diss track
(“Three Legs”) influential alternative-pop (“Smile On”), unhinged,
only-Paul-could-do-this screaming (“Monkberry Moon Delight”),
by-the-book McCartney craftsmanship (“Dear Boy”) and an epic rocker
(“Back Seat of My Car”).
Wild Life (1971) – The first official Wings album. Feigned ordinariness. We’ll get back to this.
Red Rose Speedway (1973) – An overlooked classic. This is a full-blown McCartney (fine, Wings)
studio effort. There’s a pair of rollicking rockers (“Big Barn Bed” and
“Get On The Right Thing”) an AM ballad (“My Love”), a weird
instrumental (“Loup (1st Indian On The Moon)”), Paul showing off his vocal range (“When The Night”), and an Abbey Road-esque, album-closing medley.
Band on the Run (1973)
– The blockbuster. This record is filled with hits—the title track,
“Jet”, “Mrs. Vandebilt”, “Helen Wheels”—and great deep cuts—“Picasso’s
Last Words (Drink to Me)”, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five”. It also
features one of my favorite Paul songs: the Lennon satire “Let Me Roll
Venus and Mars (1975) – Venus and Mars
sees Paul get a little bit carried away with this whole “Wings” thing.
The album is an attempt at democracy that just doesn’t work. The opening
duo of “Venus and Mars” and “Rock Show” isn’t bad and “Listen to What
the Man Said” is supermarket pop, but its enjoyable enough. But you have
to really brush your teeth after “Magneto and Titanium Man.” And I don’t want to talk about “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” or “Medicine Jar.”
Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976)
– Once again, Paul is in full-on “band mode.” Everybody gets a turn
singing and it’s not pretty. I’m a sucker for “Let ‘Em In”, but really
no one should ever listen to this album. If you can make it through
“Cook of the House”, you truly like pain (of the sweet kind!) as much as
I do. This record is like a loaf of Wonder Bread with the crusts cut
Wings Over America (1976) – The live document of Wings’ stadium cramming 1976 tour. Watch the movie Rockshow
to give you an idea of what was going on this album and tour. Paul
finds the camera in every shot and manages to fit approximately 100
different inflections of “oh, baby” into his stage banter. Here, Paul is
expertly playing the role of a guy just “havin’ a good time with his
band.” Maybe he was, but it’s hard to not view and hear it as
London Town (1978) –
Perhaps the most underappreciated McCartney album. This is still under
the Wings name, but it is really Paul, Linda and the stalwart Denny
Laine. The title track, with its shimmering keyboard and flourishes of
“Rule Brittania” trumpets, is oddly affecting. “Backwards Traveller” has
the best opening five seconds in Paul’s entire catalogue. “With A
Little Luck” is a perfect pop song. “Girlfriend” is the best track
Michael Jackson never sang. “I’m Carrying” is a classic, overly-sweet
but not saccharine McCartney ballad.
Back to the Egg (1979) – This album feels
like the 70’s are wheezing to the finish line and that Paul is out of
ideas. “Getting Closer” is an inoffensive rocker, “We’re Open Tonight”
is short and weird enough to be interesting, and “Rockestra Theme” is a
guilty pleasure. Other than that, though, there’s really not much here.
McCartney II (1980)
– This is the last album McCartney made before John Lennon died. Paul
recorded this album in his home studio and it sounds as if he had heard
about Prince but never really listened to his records. “Coming Up” will
make you giddy. “Waterfalls” is a fantastic synthy ballad. “Temporary
Secretary” is the first song to sound like a box of rubber bands
repeatedly falling off a metal shelf. “Bogey Music” is a dumb rocker in
the best way. “Frozen Jap” and “Front Parlour” are somewhat dated, but
still great instrumentals. And “Darkroom” sees Paul come up with one of
his best sexual innuendos. Opinions are mixed on this album, but I love
it. Paul sounds recharged and inspired for a new decade.
when taken as a whole, McCartney’s output from 1970-1980 seems like an
ongoing therapeutic experience in reaction to the staggering fame and
trauma he experienced as being part of and breaking up with the Beatles.
When the Beatles dissolved, McCartney was approaching 30, he had his
whole life ahead of him and he’d already experienced the highest level
of notoriety that any one person could experience. It would seem natural
then, that he would stick to the things that seemed normal and real—his
farm in Scotland, his wife, his children, his ramshackle band. However,
in doing that, in moving so strongly towards those things, he ended up
constructing a kind of artifice that was different from the Beatles. He
was a larger than life figure who just wanted to be a regular guy:
whether making music with his family or as just another guy in a band
called Wings. But he wasn’t “just another guy,” he was Paul McCartney.
With all this said, I still have to return to Wild Life and the idea of feigned ordinariness. There is nothing remarkable about Wild Life.
The album opens with a grating rocker called “Mumbo.” Paul screams and
“woos” all over the track, there’s a wonky guitar and messy drums, but
nothing that really sticks with you. The second song is called “Bip
Bap.” The lyrics consist of Paul scatting, in a strange raspy voice, the
words “bip bap” along with a bunch of other barely distinguishable
lyrics while a vaguely country guitar and simple drum rhythm plod along.
“Love is Strange” is a reggae-influenced cover of the Mickey & Sylvia song from 1956 that alternates between annoying and pleasing upon repeated listens. The title track
is a slow, hypnotic song about picnics and animals in the zoo that
should be terrible, but somehow ends up being fascinating. “Some People
Never Know” is tossed off pop that Paul seems to come up with while he’s
eating breakfast. “I Am Your Singer” feels as though you are walking in
on Paul and Linda lying in bed after a long day giving interviews to
the press. “Tomorrow” is an underrated classic; only Paul can write and
sing a song like “Tomorrow.” And, finally, “Dear Friend” is a haunting,
out-of-place album closer that at some moments feels painful, but at
others makes you think it might be the best, most artistic song that Paul has ever written. As you can see, it’s clearly a mixed bag.
However, what sticks with you is how ordinary it all sounds and feels. In another classic line from his review, Erlewine describes Wild Life
as the sound of McCartney “trying to make a record that sounds as
pastoral and relaxed as the album’s cover photo.” And he’s right! The
entire record seems to flow from Paul and Linda’s following
construction: have their newly formed band sit on a branch above a
peaceful English stream, snap a cute “band photo” and then make the
record that would most likely accompany the picture. In some perverted
way, Wild Life represents the same line of thinking that brought Paul to come up with the idea of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This time, though, instead of inventing a psychedelic band that stood
out of history and time, his vision was a band sitting perched on a tree
branch just feet above a dappling stream on an autumnal, slightly
overcast Saturday. And there is a charm, a merit in that feigned ordinariness. It may not be inherent in the music Paul made on Wild Life or his other albums from his first post-Beatles decade, but it’s certainly there in his approach.
both myself and Mr. Erlewine are reading a little too much into a
mediocre album from 1971. I’ll never be Paul McCartney or experience his
level of fame, but I know what its like to sit looking at the age of
30, feeling as though your life is both fully ahead of you and somehow
completely behind you; and wondering what to do next. Wondering which
desires are real and which ones aren’t. Sometimes while you’re figuring
out where life went and where it’s going, you have to decide if maybe
its time to let certain ambitions go. And while you’re doing that, maybe
you just want to feel comfortable; you want to pretend for a minute
that life really can be simple. And that’s all right, even if in the end
it is a conscious, artistic decision and perhaps just another way of
fighting off self-doubt.