Covering Paul McCartney is a right of passage for any musician over the past 60-plus years. The scope of his influence can be heard throughout admirers from a multitude of different genres, from Otis Redding and Bill Withers to The Cure and Elliott Smith. If you’re making rock or pop music of any kind, it’s nearly impossible to not recognise the genius of McCartney.
When attempting a cover, most artists go straight to the evergreen source: Beatles songs. While he had a highly successful – and largely underrated – run with Wings and a still-ongoing solo career, McCartney’s songs with the Fab Four are the ones most likely to inspire reimagining and tributes. Why more musicians aren’t giving their takes on ‘Listen to What the Man Said’ is baffling.
That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Dave Grohl ponied up a pretty great rendition of ‘Band on the Run’ at the White House in 2010 to celebrate McCartney’s bestowment of The Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and Guns N Roses did their bombastic best to match McCartney on ‘Live and Let Die’. But if there’s one cover that is more impressive and more ambitious than the others, it would be Red House Painters’ take on the Wings tune ‘Silly Love Songs’.
‘Silly Love Songs’ is not among McCartney’s most critically acclaimed songs. Despite hitting number one in America and basking in its own winking self-mockery, many took McCartney’s peddling of schlocky ballads at face value. Combined with the notion of Wings going disco, ‘Silly Love Songs’ was a bit too much for the McCartney faithful, and McCartney himself hasn’t performed the song since going solo in 1980. That makes the song ripe for rediscovery and, more importantly, reinterpretation.
Red House Painters were an American rock band who specialised in slow-churning fuzzy rock and roll. The band act as a precursor of sorts to lead singer Mark Kozelek’s later project Sun Kil Moon, but instead of the tender acoustic folk numbers that make up the latter’s discography, the Painters cranked up the volume and jammed for long stretches.
Their take on ‘Silly Love Songs’ removes pretty much everything recognisable from Wings’ original recording. No bouncy bass line, no chintzy string section, and no vibrant McCartney vocal performance. All that’s left is the song’s chord progression and a barebones skeleton from which the band unload a series of scuzzy riffs. Think Crazy Horse doing a 20-minute live rendition of ‘Cortez the Killer’: that’s the closest comparison that can be made to this version.
It takes almost five full minutes of guitar interplay before Kozelek enters with the song’s melody. Or rather, the song’s lyrics, imposed over a melody that somewhat resembles the original, if it was slowed to half speed and kept in a dank hole for a few years. When the song’s chorus comes, there’s none of the jubilance or goofiness from McCartney’s signature bray. That’s replaced by brewing intensity and whips of darkness, and as the song builds to its climax, Kozelek becomes more and more impassioned with staying firmly detached from any of the light breeziness that McCartney brought to all of his music.
Red House Painter’s version of ‘Silly Love Songs’ remains a masterclass in contrasts and contradictions, and the band should be applauded for having the gall to cover McCartney in the least conventional way possible. If a clash between Neil Young’s drawn-out jamming and McCartney’s impeccable songwriting doesn’t sound fascinating, then I can’t help you. Check out the 11 minute cover of ‘Silly Love Songs’ down below.