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Music

Paul McCartney at 80: The 10 most pioneering McCartney moments

@SamWKemp

It’s hard not to gush about Paul McCartney. The songwriter was in one of the world’s most popular rock outfits at a time when 20th-century popular music was going through an astonishing transformation. in the 1950s, the likes of Elvis Presley, Hill Haley, and Chuck Berry streamlined the music of black blues musicians, interfusing it with white country music to craft a genre that would define the post-war era. The Beatles, who had grown up on the music of Presley and the like, made their name by imbuing this American art form with a uniquely British flavour.

Over the course of their comparatively short career, The Beatles continued to push rock ‘n’ roll in new and surprising directions, remodelling it time and time again. And at the centre of it all: Paul McCartney, the affable, charming, and frighteningly creative multi-instrumentalist who gave us such hits as ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Blackbird’.

As you will discover, Paul was responsible for some of the most pioneering moments in The Beatles’ career, many of which are often assumed to be the work of John Lennon. This historical error is an example of how the Beatles’ individual mythologies blind us to the reality of their roles within the group.

Lennon was tagged as the intellectual of The Beatles from the off, but it was the cherubic Paul who was the sharpest when it came to crafting songs in the studio. Indeed, even after The Beatles parted ways, Paul continued to explore new lyrical, instrumental, and technological methods, always searching to broaden his creative horizons. From introducing new recording techniques to redefining the pop star, these are Paul McCartney’s most pioneering moments.

The 10 most pioneering Paul McCartney moments:

The concept for Sgt. Pepper’s

With Sgt. Pepper’s The Beatles held a mirror up to the countercultural age, offering an idealised image of hippiedom. In willingly ignoring the various absurdities and foibles of the era, The Beatle distilled and bottled the optimism of the day, capturing that sense of possibility that reached its climax during the summer of love.

It was Paul who came up with the initial concept that sparked the creation of Sgt. Pepper’s. As the very last member of The Beatles to take LSD, his decision to step into the world of hallucinogens was a watershed moment. Not only did it allow for a new camaraderie among the ‘Fab Four’ but it also afforded McCartney a new sense of possibility. With his imagination reinvigorated, the Beatle boarded a return flight to England from Kenya. During the flight, he had an idea for a song involving an Edwardian-era military band. On arrival in England, McCartney suggested that the new album should centre around a fictional performance by the said band. And with that, Sgt. Pepper’s was born.

The Mellotron on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’

While it’s George Harrison we have to thank for The Beatles’ absorption of early synth technology, it was Paul McCartney who ended up using the Mellotron most effectively. Paul was responsible for crafting what has to be one of the most famous synth arrangements in music: the opening chords of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

In Summer Of Love, George Martin recalls how Paul’s knack for coming up with imaginative quick-fixes defined the sound of the 1967 Magical Mystery Tour track: “The song made you share an intriguing journey, instead of beginning with an abstract moment. It was as if John was grabbing people in off the street, to go with him to a party. But it still did need an introduction. Paul had been doodling around with the chords of the verse, and he turned up a sequence of notes which were really the song’s chords, but stretched in an arpeggio style.” After returning to the studio the next day to record another take, which was then stitched to a previous take recorded in a different key, the first master of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was complete. Today, the track endures as the perfect encapsulation of the inventiveness of the psychedelic era.

Home recording and lo-fi on McCartney

Paul McCartney’s debut solo effort was far from what fans were expecting. Unlike his work with the Beatles, McCartney was cobbled together from a selection of home recordings, rejected Beatles songs, and improvised throwaways. Some fans were disappointed by the effort, accusing McCartney of handing them a collection of half-finished ditties. In retrospect, McCartney appears remarkably prescient, seeming to foreshadow the lo-fi imperfections of artists loke like Daniel Johnston, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Mac Demarco.

Paul’s ambition was to craft an album with a distinct personality. Speaking about the tracks on that solo debut he said “They were almost throwaways, you know? But that’s why they were included. They weren’t quite throwaways. That was the whole idea of the album: all the normal things that you record that are great and have all this atmosphere but aren’t that good as recording or production jobs. Normally that stuff ends up with the rest of your demos, but all that stuff is often stuff I love.”

Releasing an album in the Soviet Union

Over the course of two days in the July of 1987, Paul McCartney recorded no less than 20 songs. Paul originally wanted to release this bulky offering in the United Kingdom outside of regular distribution channels, giving off the impression that it had been smuggled across the Iron Curtain. Unsurprisingly, McCartney’s label was not taken with the idea. The difficulty was that his manager had already had a batch of LPs pressed with special Russian-language covers.

To remedy the situation, McCartney came up with the idea of releasing the album in the Soviet Union. The timing was perfect. Mikhail Gorbachev had just ushered in a new age of “openness and transparency,” giving the people of the Soviet Union more freedom than ever before. Soviet officials licensed 400,000 copies of the album. There was one rule: the album was to be released solely in the USSR and nowhere else. Снова в СССР, or Back In The USSR was lapped up by the Soviet people, marking a watershed moment in the cultural relationship between East and West during the Cold War.

The orchestral glissando on ‘A Day in The Life’

‘A Day In The Life’ is surely one of the most spectacularly mind-bending songs The Beatles ever produced. Even more astonishing is that most would happily describe it as a pop song despite those swooping, atonal orchestral arrangements.

One of the most bewitching elements of the Sgt. Pepper’s track is its patchwork structure. While recording ‘A Day In The Life’ in the studio, The Beatles decided to leave a long gap after Paul’s “I’d love to turn you on” lines. Mal Evans counted 24 bars of silence, which remained on record until Paul came up with the idea of filling the gaps with an orchestral build-up. McCartney joined George Martin in conducting the 40 or so musicians who had been ferried to Abbey Road Studios, many of whom were hired from the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras. The discordant passages were recorded four times on two synced tape machines, and history was made.

The definitive chord in ‘Please Please Me’

The Beatles’ early hits are deceptively simple. Tracks like ‘She Loves You’, ‘Please Please Me’, and ‘Twist and Shout’ tend to follow a common structure and adhere to the “three chords and the truth” ideology of ’50s country music. This imbued their hits with a certain familiarity and accessibility that was necessary for them to do well on the charts. But, not being classically trained, there was never any obligation for Lennon and McCartney to conform to traditional harmonic principles.

‘Please Please Me’ saw the songwriting duo pursue shock value above all else, teasing their audience with an array of half-bar phrases before plunging from a dominant G Major chord to an unstable B Minor towards the end of the verse. Lennon would go on to describe the chord as “making” the song. Remembering composing the single eye-to-eye with McCartney, Lennon said: “We were in Jane Asher’s house downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had ‘Oh you-u-u…got that something’ And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’. ‘Please Please Me’ would go on to soar to the top of the charts in both the UK and the US, helping to spark the wave of Beatlemania that rolled over America in 1964.

The fuzz box on ‘Think For Yourself’

Another game-changing Paul McCartney moment came during the creation of ‘Think For Yourself’, one of Geroge Harrison’s lesser-known songs for The Beatles. During the studio sessions for the Rubber Soul track, Paul made pioneering use of the fuzz pedal. After recording a clean take of his bass part, Paul double-tracked the same arrangement with a fuzz effect. The fuzz-bass technique has since come to define the sound of contemporary groups like Royal Blood, who use the bass guitar to deliver lead guitar lines.

McCartney’s bright idea marked the first moment in music history a bass had been recorded using a fuzz effect. “Paul used a fuzz box on the bass on ‘Think For Yourself’,” George Harrison later recalled in his autobiography I, Me, Mine. “When Phil Spector was making ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’, the engineer who’s set up the track overloaded the microphone on the guitar player and it became very distorted. Phil Spector said, ‘Leave it like that, it’s great'”, George continued. “Some years later everyone started to try to copy that sound and so they invented the fuzz box. We had one and tried the bass through it and it sounded really good.” McCartney’s use of the fuzz bass was subsequently adopted by everyone from Black Sabbath and Metallica to Tame Impala. Today, it is one of the most iconic sounds in rock music.

The tape loops in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

With its thunderous drum pattern, dense Tambura drones, and super-compressed master mix, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ sounded like nothing else. A dizzying range of pioneering production techniques were used on the Revolver track, but one of the most imaginative was Paul McCartney’s decision to embed a selection of tape loops in the mix

During one of the sessions for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, McCartney realised that he could saturate a recording by removing the erase head of his reel-to-reel tape machine. He quickly informed the other Beatles, who spent the remainder of the session crafting tape loops. Paul had made loops before but the others needed some assistance.

Recalling the discovery in Many Years From Now, Paul said: “We ran the loops and then we ran the track of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and we played the faders, and just before you could tell it was a loop, before it began to repeat a lot, I’d pull in one of the other faders, and so, using the other people, ‘You pull that in there,’ ‘You pull that in,’ we did a half random, half orchestrated playing of the things and recorded that to a track on the actual master tape, so that if we got a good one, that would be the solo. We played it through a few times and changed some of the tapes till we got what we thought was a real good one.”

The Sgt. Pepper’s moustaches

The Beatles were trendsetters from the off. Their bowl haircuts were quickly adopted by the amorous youth of the 1960s, as where the broad moustaches Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and Harrison sported for the cover of Sgt. Peppers’. The minimalism of the Beatles’ early album covers was a reflection of the furious speed with which the recordings were made. By the time they got to Sgt. Pepper’s, however, things had slowed down a bit, giving Lennon, McCartney and co the time to expand their musical vision as well as their facial hair.

Explaining how the Sgt. Pepper‘s moustaches came about, Paul told the audience of the South Bank Show: “I had an accident on a moped and bust my lip…and bring always in photo sessions, we always had to do that, it was very embarrassing to have this big fat lip, so I started to grow a moustache to hide it, and then the others sort of said ‘Hey, that’s good’, and so without anyone knowing we all just grew these moustaches.” The look soon caught on. In a Daily Mirror article published around the time of Sgt. Pepper’s, Christopher Ward wrote: “This shaggy rash is spreading over the face of Britain. On the face of it, you’re nobody in England these days if you haven’t got half an inch of nicotine-stained hair hanging from your stiff upper lip.”

Redefining the pop star

With The Beatles, Paul McCartney played a key role in forming the blueprint for pop stardom. The ‘Fab Four’ were one of the first groups to spark the kind of erotically-charged adoration that boy bands like BTS inspire today. In Beatlemania: Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs observe: “In its intensity, as well as its scale, Beatlemania surpassed all previous outbreaks of star-centred hysteria. For those who participated in Beatlemania, sex was an obvious part of the excitement. The Beatles were sexy; the girls were the ones who received them as sexy.”

Unlike Elvis Presley and Little Richard, the second generation of pop music idols were selected for their ability to mimic the aesthetics of rock ‘n’ roll: the hip-action, the putting lips, the piercing eyes – basically everything that made Presley so popular. As Sheila Whiteley points out in Reading The Beatles, the music industry’s intention was to commercialise this previously improvised musical personality and “bring to the fore the manufactured pop-idol, single boyish, white, good-looking, and replaceable.”

To an extent The Beatles – initially at least – reflected this model. However, John, Paul, Ringo, and George also subverted it, bringing four unique personalities that allowed them to gain popularity among a diverse fanbase. For the last 30 years or so manufactured boy bands like Take That, Westlife, and One Direction have been constructed in the Beatles’ image, with each member being selected on the basis of their unique, marketable characteristics.