Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Paul McCartney
We thought we’d choose today, the legendary former Beatle’s birthday, to celebrate his time outside of the most famous group of all time. We’re bringing you the ultimate beginner’s guide to Paul McCartney’s solo career. Here are six definitive McCartney songs.
Even if Paul McCartney had never said yes in July 1957 to John Lennon’s invitation to join what was then only a local rock ‘n’ roll group — after the teenage McCartney had sufficiently impressed the future Beatles frontman with his rendition of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ backstage at Liverpool’s Woolton Village Fete — there’s a good chance he would have still enjoyed an iconic solo career that few of his contemporaries have matched.
For proof, well, just take a look at Macca’s post-Beatles body of work — a catalogue that keeps getting longer as the years go by. The starting point is April 1970, with the launch of the album titled simply McCartney (which, by the way, also means that 2020 marks the 50-year anniversary of Paul’s post-Beatle career.) Granted, that album’s collection of 13 tracks included some half-finished song sketches, a few instrumentals, and one all-time classic (which we’ll come to below), all of which had the shadow of The Beatles hanging over them.
The album was as noteworthy for the packaging as for the songs, since McCartney took the opportunity of his debut solo release to have The Beatles’ then-press officer type up a self-interview included with the record in which he makes a clean break with his past (“Q: “Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?” PAUL: “No.”).
Then again, he’d actually started workshopping some of the songs from his solo debut (like ‘Teddy Boy’ and ‘Junk’) during the Beatle years — which is to say, in other words, McCartney didn’t exactly start from scratch as a songwriter with his first record in 1970. He’d already perfected his craft thanks to his membership in the greatest rock group of all time.
Be that as it may, we can absolutely stop and appreciate the McCartney who stands separate and apart from The Beatles. The five decades since the group ended and solo Macca began have produced a bumper crop of material for fans of the Fab Four’s former bassist to enjoy. McCartney has established himself as a showman with an apparently infinite ability to sell out stadiums and arenas, and his prodigious work ethic has resulted in a whopping 25 albums in the years since he left The Beatles.
On several of them — such as 1970’s McCartney, 1980’s McCartney II, 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and his latest, Egypt Station — he writes, sings, and plays more or less every sound you hear on the record. (Speaking of Egypt Station, released in September 2018, how many artists can you name who could release an album when they’re well into their 70s and have it top the Billboard charts, as this record did?)
In honourof the 50th anniversary of McCartney’s run as a solo artist, we’re taking a look below at six of his songs that you should put on your radar, especially if you’re not as familiar with his post-Beatles body of work.
All of these songs are emblematic of various aspects of the McCartney catalogue, and the picks we’ve chosen are spread out by year to provide as comprehensive a representation of McCartney’s work from the 1970s to the 2000s — at least as far as six songs can. They’re not necessarily some of his best, though some are indeed classics. Others are simply just feel-good, throwaway fun.
We’ll start with the standout track from the McCartney album, released in April 1970:
‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – McCartney
Macca fans may roll their eyes at this gem’s inclusion on the list — ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ being one they’ve no doubt heard a thousand times by now — but this is arguably one of the ex-Beatle’s best songs of his entire career (counting his work both with The Beatles and after). This version of the song, as does a live version he released later in the 70s with his band Wings, features a powerful, raw vocal performance from the former Beatle—listen to the way he practically shreds his vocal cords in the chorus, when he sings “Maybe I’m a man, and maybe you’re the only woman who can ever help me …”.
McCartney also wrote and played every instrument on this recording, with backing vocals added from his wife Linda, making it all the more impressive. He released this during a dark period of his life, and the track reflects a man singing about how, even though he’d sunk to his lowest point, a time when The Beatles were breaking up, his friendships with the other three were in tatters, and he didn’t know what he was supposed to do next, at least he had the love of his wife. This could have easily been a Beatles tune, and if you have any interest in Macca at all, you need to have heard this song, full stop.
‘Arrow Through Me’ – Back to the Egg
One of the defining characteristics of McCartney’s work both during and post-The Beatles is that he’s a stylist. Sometimes, it’s clear he’s merely set out to write a reggae song. Or a straight-up rocker. Or a piece of quasi-classical music, a la ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ In the case of this song, from the criminally underrated 1979 Wings album Back to the Egg, you have McCartney at perhaps his funkiest and most groovy, with a track that also benefits from a fat bassline and loud, bright horns.
This was the song playing in the background in episode two of the recent Hulu series remake of High Fidelity, during a scene in which Zoe Kravitz’s character decides to cut loose and hang out with her friends for the night. The song follows along as they banter and make their way through the city streets. McCartney definitely comes in for a lot of stick at times because of his tendency toward the musical mainstream, but you can find plenty of instances throughout his career where he decides to try something off the wall and out of character, as he does here. In this case, it works — it’s a danceable track that might even belong on your Monday Motivation feel-good playlist.
‘Coming Up’ – McCartney II
Speaking of upbeat, danceable McCartney ephemera, this lead-off track from Macca’s 1980 album McCartney II is good enough that it may have even provided the spark for Lennon to get back to work on Double Fantasy, the final album he released just before he was killed in New York City. As the story is recounted in Tom Doyle’s McCartney biography Man on the Run, Lennon was in the car, being driven through Cold Spring Harbor on the north shore of Long Island when ‘Coming Up’ came on the radio. The song is, among other things, classic McCartney: Simple lyrics, with a fiendishly memorable melodic hook. As recounted in Doyle’s book, Lennon immediately perked up when he heard the tune coming through the radio. “Fuck a pig, it’s Paul,” he declared. Nodding along, he reportedly gave it a “Not bad” once the song was over.
McCartney himself likes it enough that ‘Coming Up’ is still a staple of his live shows today. The music video that accompanies this song is also worth noting. In it, McCartney has fun playing several different characters – himself, along with assorted guitarists, a keyboard player, and a horn quartet, to name a few.
‘Wanderlust’ – Tug of War
The late Beatles producer George Martin reportedly once described this as the best vocal performance McCartney ever committed to tape, which is probably the highest praise you can give to the song. We noted above that Paul’s 2018 album Egypt Station went to number one in the charts when it was released, the first time that had happened since 1982. That year is when Paul released Tug of War, an earlier number one album in the US containing this song, which was also his first proper release since the murder of Lennon. Brian Wilson later covered ‘Wanderlust,’ something I had in mind when I interviewed the Beach Boys co-founder several years ago. I can’t remember exactly how I phrased the question, but I asked what he was listening to or into at the moment, and he responded with just two words: “Paul McCartney.”
You can definitely hear a little bit of a Beach Boys vibe here, especially towards the end with the two countermelody vocal lines playing off each other. The lyrics, as is sometimes McCartney’s wont, are a bit esoteric. They actually describe a near drug-bust of McCartney and his band in the Virgin Islands on a boat called the Wanderlust: “Light out, Wanderlust / Head us out to sea / Captain says there’ll be a bust / This one’s not for me,” he sings, but it doesn’t really matter. Much of Paul’s best work is impressionistic. Don’t try to ascertain the point all the time. The only point is how it makes you feel. And this one feels truly sublime.
‘If You Wanna’ – Flaming Pie
Next month, Macca is re-releasing his 1997 album Flaming Pie as part of his ongoing Paul McCartney Archive Collection. This album was Paul’s first since the release of The Beatles Anthology project, which among other things featured the definitive story of the group told in their own words. In the liner notes for Flaming Pie, Paul explained how the Anthology project rejuvenated him creatively and reminded him of The Beatles’ standard of quality — a bar he set out to clear with Flaming Pie. The album title is even a humorous nod to the Beatles’ origin story, referring to the time when somebody asked Lennon where the band’s name came from. He answered the question with a bit of Beatle-esque silliness, that a man had supposedly descended from the heavens on a flaming pie and gave the group its name there and then.
In a summer 1997 edition of Paul’s fan club newsletter “Club Sandwich,” he explains about ‘If You Wanna,’ a song he recorded with help from Steve Miller — “We had a day off in Minneapolis when we were on tour. Linda was going off to do something and I stayed behind in the room and wrote a song on guitar. Recording wise, I used the same process as the other songs I did with Steve Miller: me on drums, Steve on guitar, both playing acoustic guitars, I did the vocals and produced Steve’s guitar stuff. This is the kind of song you might hear when you’re driving across the desert in America, Easy Rider country.”
‘Despite Repeated Warnings’ – Egypt Station
Now and then throughout his career, McCartney has played around with the typical format of a song to combine multiple fragments into one unified whole — similar to the movements that combine to form a symphonic work. Examples include Side 2 of The Beatles Abbey Road, McCartney’s solo masterpiece Band on the Run, and this song, a standout from his most recent studio album.
Does it reach the creative high of something like Band on the Run? Probably not, but it’s exciting to see McCartney trying, regardless. The song meanders from a piano-based ballad, swelling to a more propulsive, thumping snippet with guitars until the song reaches a crescendo with some help from a big and loud horn section. Lyrically, the song is about a nameless, out-of-control “captain” who Paul has said in at least one interview represents President Trump. The point of the song, Macca said in a BBC interview, was to “basically say, occasionally, we’ve got a mad captain sailing this boat we’re all on and he is just going to take us to the iceberg [despite] being warned it’s not a cool idea.” Pressed on who the captain is, Paul replied, “Well I mean, obviously, it’s Trump.”