Monday, January 11, 2010

Paul McCartney: As a Musician (Reprint From 2010)

Lots of thing are said about Paul McCartney these days, but it seems that very little of what's said is about his music.  Most of what I see involves his social life, and personal matters, none of which are of my interest or concern.  And really shouldn't be anyone else's either.

What interests me is wondering if possibly Paul is the finest musician that ever lived, and why.  I can already hear the naysayers, and the Lennon fans.  I love Lennon's music, don't get me wrong, but I also am not under the impression that he was anywhere near the level of McCartney in pure musicianship, nor did he have any interest in such.  Before you dismiss this possibility, ask yourself this:

Has anyone ever done as many different things musically as well as McCartney?  Sure, there might be better singers, but Paul's a great one.  There are writers as good, but perhaps none better over the long haul.  As a pianist, he's as facile as rock's best ( Martha My Dear, Maybe I'm Amazed, Let It Be, Hey Jude)....pretty good, eh?).  His arranging skills are superb.  As a guitarist, he's a brilliant lead player, and no one sounds like him on an acoustic: beautiful and unique.  Paul the Bassist?  The capitalization is intentional.  He's almost inarguably the best bassist in the history of rock and roll.

Often overlooked is McCartney's fantastic abilities as an accompaniest.  Listen to his bass work and background vocals on George Harrison's Something.  Wow.  Listen to his playing on Lennon's songs.  Paul was much more of a team player than he's ever been given credit for.  How many cool songs did he write for Ringo Starr to sing?  How many writers give away an A Little Help from My Friends, or a Yellow Submarine (granted a weird one, but was it not perfect for what it was?).

His mastery of style is awesome ( a word that's become terribly misused, but I mean it here as intended - awe inspiring).  Early on he rocked I'm Down, then crooned Yesterday. He did Michelle around the same time he did, Got to Get You into My Life. Later, he gave Linda My Love, and Maybe I'm Amazed, while banging out Let Me Roll It, and Live and Let Die.  He even tackled country rock with Rocky Racoon. He also regularly travelled the well paved roads of Ray Charles and Little Richard with piano fueled rythym and blues.  Seems there's no style he can't do and do well.

As a bassist, Paul is not in a league of his own, but he's got scant company.  It may be said that James Jamerson played as inventively, and as beautifully on most of the Motown hits of the '60s and early '70s.  John Entwistle also is a member of the small group of bassists I'd consider truly as great.  I'd throw in the underrated John Paul Jones as well.  While these guys are in McCartney's league as a bass player, none of them sang while they played for the most part, nor performed their own compositions, either, with the exception of Entwistle, occasionally.

McCartney's bass work is all you could ever asked for from a player.  Even the reasonably rather easily tossed off later hit, Coming Up, has a stunningly great bass line.  His playing is perpulsive, melodic, inventive, and unpredictable.  I recently enjoyed Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick's performance of the whole of the Sgt. Pepper album, and as impressed as I was with his playing,  I was more taken by the fact that McCartney had originally conceived and performed such wonders.  There's not a song on the record in which Paul sounds like he did anything but laboriously think out, and contribute his best effort.  On most every track from his long career Paul has made an effort to play a great part, as opposed to a tagged on bass line.  That's where his skills as an accompaniest shine through most brightly.  He always played his heart out, never once mailed it in.

I wonder how many people listened to The Beatles's, Taxman, then went on to rave about George Harrison's ripping guitar solo, never realizing that the indeed ripping solo had been laid down by Paul McCartney.  His electric lead guitar playing is brilliant, and mostly overlooked when people discuss great guitarists.  While he's never made an appearance in any top 100 guitarists type polls, that's both a shame and a crime.  Listen to his lead lines on his solo track, Maybe I'm Amazed.  I'm absolutely amazed, alright.  There's loads of great guitarists who've never played a solo as beautiful, succinct, or better for a song.  Paul played lead guitar on a great many Beatles tracks, as confirmed in several books that chronicle the band's recordings.  Geoff Emerick, who engineered much of The Beatles's catalogue, discusses this a great deal in his excellent book, Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording The Beatles.  While to a discernible degree a McCartney apologist, Emerick's personal opinions may be one thing, but I can't question his veracity.  His facts are indisputable.  Fact is, McCartney is a tremendous guitar player, and that fact has been given short shrift.  He's a great, great guitarist, regardless of how you look at it.

McCartney the singer?  If you fancy yourself any type of capable singer, try a few McCartney tunes on for size.  His range and abilities are stunning.  Wimpy?  Tell me that what he sang on Helter Skelter is in any way wimpy.  You kidding me?  The man has been critically derided for most of his career because he happens to be as good a singer of love songs as anyone ever.  We can't go about supporting someone actually espousing the beauty of love, now can we?  Paul's performance on the end The Beatle's final recording, Abbey Road, should end any discussion concerning his abilities as a vocalist.

Not often mentioned (people rarely discuss such matters), is McCartney's skills as a background vocalist.  He's perhaps the greatest that ever lived.  Again, give a listen to his accompaniment of George Harrison on Something, and you will be amazed.  Throughout the entire history of The Beatles, Paul sang his heart out every time he contributed a harmony to someone else's tunes.  The art of harmonization is finally returning to the world of rock after a long absence, and this is a beautiful thing.  No one did it better than the Beatles.  From day one they were performing wonderfully complex and sophisticated harmonies.  McCartney's vocals not onlt boast great tone and range, his note selection also cannot be overlooked.

Martha My Dear, a love song Paul wrote to his sheepdog, started out as a piano playing exercise.  McCartney, a musician always seeking to improve his skills, devised the piano on this track as a way to sharpen his chops, and the results are obvious.  One would never know that this is not the work of a brilliant pianist, which, of course, it is.  Paul wrote more hit songs on his piano than perhaps anyone but Cole Porter, and his playing is always spot on.  I listed but a few of these hits earlier in this article, but go back and listen to his piano playing.  It stands up to the work of such greats as Nicky Hopkins, Leon Russell, or any other great rock and roll piano player.

Arrangement is an art that many listeners never consider, but one that can't be overlooked (using that word a lot, aren't I?).  In the history of recorded music, has anyone ever recorded a better suite of songs than that which wraps up Abbey Road?  Or, how about the middle eight, bridge section of Lennon's, A Day in The Life, where McCartney supplied the brilliant, "Woke up, Fell out of bed" section?  Much of Lennon and McCartney's shared brilliance lies in their ability to arrange their songs, not just play them as written.  This may speak to work ethic as much as it does to talent, but they had that in spades, and it can never be forgotten that hard work is what develops great skills.  Later on, McCartney showed the brilliance of his arranging and producing skills by reuniting with George Martin on the incredible, Live and Let Die, which is so seamless that you almost don't notice how complex and majestic the composition and recording are.  It's a musical marvel made to sound effortless by Paul's great talents.

Did I mention that he's also a very competent drummer?  I didn't even go into his marvelous acoustic guitar playing, simply because that deserves it's an article of it's own, he's that good.

Yeah, for my money, Paul McCartney may just be the all round greatest musician who ever lived.  Beethoven never sang his compositions, Sinatra never wrote his songs, and no one I can think of ever so ably contributed to the work of bandmates.  He wrote them, played them, sang them, and produced them.  Who ever did it all, better? It's an interesting question.        


Anonymous said...
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kmouse said...

Very good! I agree! Paul is pretty fucking amazing. And when he's gone, those naysayers and Lennon worshippers will realize this. I love John's work too and he was a genius as well. Paul is his own artist and what he's done with The Beatles and on his own is pretty astounding.

Anonymous said...

Kmouse, I couldn't agree with you
more! And Tony Conley, thank you for your brillaint article. About damn time Paul McCartney got his due! Shame it's taken a lifetime and he won't live forever although I wish he would, he's that amazingly talented!

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Let's take this commercially to prove that McCartney is the greatest over-all musician in popular music history:

He's had numerous number 1's as the lead guitarist.
He's had numerous number 1's as the drummer
Numerous 1's as the piano or keyboardist
Numerous 1's as the back up singer
Numerous 1's as the lead singer
Numerous 1's as the co-singer
Numerous 1's as the duet singer
Numerous 1's as the bass player

Name it...he's done it. No one else can say all that.
And that's not counting the other hits and songs. Just the #1's

He's been involved in at least 34 #1 songs in the US that I can count off the top of my head.

Anonymous said...

This article is amazing. Given how difficult it is to put his endless accomplishments in such a short and succinct manner, you did it incredibly well. Paul McCartney IS the greatest musician who ever lived; let's celebrate and appreciate that while he is still with is. I listen to his music in some form or another every day as a tribute to him while we are still lucky enough to have him with us. Well done. Thank you.