Today marks the 50th anniversary of the brilliant ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ from Paul McCartney. An arty masterpiece, backed by wife and future Wings partner Linda, the song became the former Beatle’s first number one as a solo artist. A divisive but significant single in his solo career, it marked the start of a long trend of McCartney songs that would dominate the charts across the 1970s and ’80s. The first single from the iconic album Ram (1971), it became his first to be certified Gold after the demise of The Beatles.
The song is also significant in McCartney’s back catalogue as it outlined what would become Wings’ successful songwriting blueprint. A hazy, meandering piece, the song takes us on a journey featuring a wide range of instrumentation, and, to anyone vaguely familiar with Paul McCartney, it typically features numerous shifts in dynamics.
In a way, it can be viewed as a sonic representation of the book closing on the ’60s and the arrival of the ’70s. This can be heard in the darker sections of the song, a stark juxtaposition to a lot of the sunny, hopeful work that the Beatles et al. released in the ’60s. Given all the tumult stemming from The Beatles split and the death of the hippie dream owing to the likes of the Manson Family, the lyric, “We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert/ We’re so sorry if we caused you any pain” is made all the more apparent when taken as the younger generation apologising to their elders.
A catchy earworm of a track, it takes a lot of its cues from the songwriting process of the latter stage of The Beatles’ career. It comes as no surprise that ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ is composed of several fragments of unfinished songs that Paul sewed together — a trick that The Beatles used when writing the medleys on their penultimate album, Abbey Road. This was also used when writing the iconic ‘A Day In The Life’, from 1967’s Sgt. Pepper.
As well as shifting dynamics and varied instrumentation, the classic single is also memorable for its use of a wide range of sound effects. These include a thunderstorm and rain heard between the first and second verse, a telephone clicking and dialling, an answering machine and Paul’s voice augmented by the “telephone” effect. There is also the sound of birds and wind on the sea. Linda’s voice is heard throughout the song; her smooth vocals are heard underpinning the ethereal harmonies of the verses and in the bridge of the ‘Admiral Halsey’ section.
McCartney has said that Uncle Albert was based on his actual uncle: “He’s someone I recall fondly, and when the song was coming, it was like a nostalgia thing,” he once commented. McCartney has also expanded on the sentiment behind the song, coming back to the regret of the flower-power generation: “I had an uncle – Albert Kendall – who was a lot of fun, and when I came to write ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ it was loosely about addressing that older generation, half thinking, What would they think of the way my generation does things? That’s why I wrote the line ‘We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.'”
As for the ‘Admiral Halsey’ section of the song, the inspiration speaks for itself. It is an explicit reference to US war hero Fleet Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey. One of the South Pacific Theatre’s heroes, Halsey embodied the components of the older generation that McCartney and his swinging generation had protested against since the ’60s. McCartney explained: “Admiral Halsey is symbolic of authority and therefore not to be taken too seriously.”
Whilst the lyrics to the ‘Admiral Halsey’ section of the song are largely nonsensical, typical of McCartney, and possibly owing to the fact that the song was a mesh of various different songs, it represents the confusion inherent to McCartney and Linda’s generation. Now older than they once were, realising their own pitfalls, they feel the need to apologise to their elders even if they believed they needed to be challenged.
Given the patchwork of ideas that comprise ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, opinion on the song is divided amongst McCartney fans. It is praised for its invention but is also regarded as being “self-indulgent”. Marking out what would become Wings’ songwriting style, it has equally been singled out as the clearest example of the specific type of self-indulgence that McCartney exhibited throughout his post-Beatles career.
Despite what camp you sit in, or whether it’s a bit of both, given that the song is not meant to be entirely serious, in 1971, McCartney won the Grammy Award for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist. With the release of ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, McCartney set a then all-time songwriting record. He had spent the most consecutive years writing a number one hit. Starting in 1964 with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, this gave McCartney eight straight years of chart-toppers, leaving old partner John Lennon behind on seven.
Regardless of your opinion on the song itself, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ is a significant work within the vast back catalogue of Paul McCartney. Objectively a brilliant, well-written piece of music, covered in the mark of the former Beatle, it is characteristically divisive. However, it represents the start of the successful journey McCartney would go on throughout the ’70s and ’80s, carrying on his hitmaking run and canonising him as a legend.
Listen to the 1971 hit, below.