As Paul McCartney recounts his life to acclaimed NI poet Paul Muldoon through a hefty book of lyrics due out next month, we ask why the songwriter still feels so anxious to put the record straight
Before anyone says anything, let me assure you that I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.
I bow to no one in my admiration of Paul McCartney. There’s a good argument to be made for him as the greatest songwriter of the last 100 years, perhaps even the last couple of thousand years.
Will our descendants still delight in his deathless work as they insert the 200-year anniversary implant of Revolver into the port at the base of their skulls? I don’t doubt it. He has provided the soundtrack to our everyday, elevating us, however temporarily, out of the mundane.
His awe-inspiring talent has granted him an immortality that ancient kings could only dream of.
Given all that, it is both a little confusing, yet somehow reassuring, that he still seems to feel slightly insecure about his place in history; still anxious to put the record straight, as he sees it. He might just be human after all.
Perhaps the first sign of this in living memory was the mighty Beatles Anthology multimedia blitz that bombarded us all in the mid-1990s.
Across eight engrossing episodes, it was McCartney, in particular, who seemed intent on setting out his stall. “It were a grand thing, The Beatles,” he’s quoted as saying in the best-selling book that formed part of the campaign. It’s a variation on the unnecessary modesty of his “we were a good little band” schtick.
Following close on Anthology’s money-printing heels was Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Macca’s mate Barry Miles. Formed from hours of extensive interviews with Sir Paul — he was awarded the knighthood in 1997, the same year the book was published — it was criticised as revisionism of the highest order. One can’t help but see this as his response to the beatification of John Lennon following his tragic murder.
Ignore the slightly petty who-wrote-what examination of songwriting percentages; the story, as told to Miles, proves who the cool one was, but most people knew that already.
When I say this kind of thing, as I have many times on various high-stools, detractors usually chime in with the Silly Love Songs/Frog Chorus argument. Let me kick this into touch. I’d wager you’re probably humming one or both of those tunes right now, because McCartney has been blessed with a facility for melody that is akin to the ease with which most of us tie our shoelaces. He is a genius.
And let me also say this, and further invite your ire: McCartney’s solo years are demonstrably better than Lennon’s. I’ll go all the way and point out, before I duck for cover, that after Imagine, Lennon’s output went over a cliff in terms of quality, and even those first two albums after the band broke up might have been better as EPs.
As Miles’ book tells us, it was McCartney who was living in London with the arty Ashers, attending gallery openings and avant-garde recitals, while Lennon sat around in his country pile. These are the facts, but was it just a tad uncouth to shout about it? Furthermore, during the same period, McCartney tried to have the credit on perhaps his most successful song, Yesterday, altered to ‘McCartney/Lennon’ rather than the universally recognised — and alphabetical — ‘Lennon/McCartney’.
Yoko Ono, the keeper of the Lennon flame, was having none of it. The request was later withdrawn, but why bother with such squabbling in the first place? Nobody who has ever heard even a whispered rumour of that song could believe that Lennon had anything to do with it.
There was more retouching when Apple Records released Let It Be… Naked in 2003. Instigated by McCartney himself, this offered another view of the red-headed stepchild of The Beatles oeuvre.
Gone were the schmaltzy contributions of Phil Spector, which had tarnished The Long And Winding Road in particular, a song that is much better than its reputation suggests. Absent also were the inconsequential Maggie Mae and Dig It, replaced by Lennon’s infinitely superior Don’t Let Me Down.
McCartney claimed it was closer to the original artistic vision, and surely he would know? It was a definite improvement on the original release, although there were inevitable critical grumbles about leaving the past alone.
Surprisingly, this version was not included in the recent re-release of Let It Be. What was bequeathed to us instead is the latest in a line of excellent Giles Martin remixes. The inclusion of the long-bootlegged Glynn Johns Get Back mix, which was the “original artistic vision”, is interesting, but it proves that The Beatles were right to reject it. An extra three minutes of Dig It? You’re grand, thanks. Let It Be... Naked sounds better. McCartney was, as usual, right.
The box is a precursor to the TV event we’re all waiting for: Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, which premieres on Disney+ at the end of November. I am, like anyone else in their right mind, counting off the days like a prisoner approaching release. The trailer alone offered blessed relief after the times we’ve lived through.
But is this revisionist McCartney at it again? I saw the original, long-buried Let It Be movie once or twice, on dodgy bootlegs. None of the band came out of it shining — and that goes for McCartney as much as any of them. I’ll bet Jackson leaves them gleaming like new pennies. What immortal hand or eye is framing this symmetry? The one who’s often photographed giving the thumbs up. Probably.
Remember too that this is the second McCartney TV event of 2021. McCartney 3, 2, 1 was a gift to Maccolytes everywhere and, to be fair, he gave credit where it was due to Lennon, Harrison, Starr and George Martin, but interviewer Rick Rubin, while he did extract some good yarns, could have thrown the odd curveball. His obsequiousness grated after a while.
Still though, you couldn’t argue with McCartney up out of his chair, gesticulating along, while glancing sideways at Rubin as if to say: “The Beatles — pretty great, yeah?”
With timing that can in no way be described as “coincidental”, the mammoth, gargantuan The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by acclaimed Northern Ireland poet Paul Muldoon, in which McCartney “recounts his life and art through the prism of 154 songs from all stages of his career”, lands with a meteoric thud next month.
As I’m sure you’ve gleaned by now, I think McCartney is a God, but his lyrics might not be the best way to appreciate his brilliance.
Though he is underrated in this department, he’s no Dylan or Cohen, or even a Joe Strummer for that matter. While the lyrics of Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby are beautiful in and of themselves, something like Check My Machine does not stand up to scrutiny on the printed page.
But that, as a pal pointed out, is not what McCartney is here for. He, to paraphrase another worthy tunesmith, wrote the songs that make the whole world sing.
Mind you, it is a thing of beauty, replete with photos from the author’s archive and fascinating reminiscences brought on by each song. If your loved ones don’t buy it for you during the coming season, then disavow, divorce, and disown them, because you, and McCartney, surely warrant its luxuriant price tag. “Do I really need another Beatles book?” you might ask, in a passing moment of doubt. Yes. You do. Don’t be daft.
He’s at it again, though.
There are several instances of record-straightening, with multiple references to Lennon’s guardedness, brought on by the various tragedies in his upbringing.
Perhaps these assertions are justified, but can we accept McCartney’s explanation of The End — which opens “John never had anything like my interest in literature” — without sighing?
That said, if he wants to compare the couplet “And in the end the love you take / Is equal to the love you make” to Shakespeare, then let him. After all, the bard never came up with anything nearly as whistleable as All My Loving.
Allow me to get back to where we started. McCartney can do whatever he wants, and the rest of us are neither fit to carry his bags nor shine his shoes.
The millions he has accrued seem small recompense for the joy he has given to the world.
Surely he knows this, and surely he knows that we know this and have no need of a further elbow in the ribs about it?
His work will be celebrated and cherished as long as there are souls to dance and hearts to feel.
What’s that? He’s having a go at the Stones again? Relax, Paul. Let it be.
The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney and Paul Muldoon is published by Allen Lane on November 2, priced £75