If there’s anyone who ever had a tough act to follow, it’s Paul McCartney. Not only were The Beatles the most iconic rock’n’roll group of all time – a cultural phenomenon rivalled only by Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson – but McCartney was also widely (unfairly) considered the lesser of The Beatles’ two principals.
When The Beatles broke up in 1970, it was John Lennon who held the mantle of hipster, anti-establishment rebel and edgy rock’n’roller; McCartney, for all his gifts as a songwriter and performer, was shown as more straight and less cool than Lennon.
This perception of McCartney has stuck throughout his post-Beatles career. And certainly there have been times when Macca – or, as he is now officially titled, Sir Paul – has played into his critics’ hands.
McCartney has made some truly terrible records, the worst of which was his Frog Chorus movie theme We All Stand Together. The bulk of McCartney’s work in the 40 years since The Beatles, however, has been of high calibre. In the 70s he made a series of classic albums, first as a solo artist and then with Wings (the group formed around the nucleus of Paul, wife Linda and former Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine), and proclaimed by no lesser authority than Alan Partridge as “the band The Beatles could have been”.
It was during Wings’ peak years, from the mid-to-late 70s, that McCartney created many of his best-loved non-Beatles songs: Band On The Run, Let ’Em In, Jet, Bond theme Live And Let Die, and Mull Of Kintyre, the first ever single to sell two million copies in the UK. But, following a lengthy slump – he was pretty much creatively bankrupt between 1983 and 1996 – McCartney has lately restored his reputation with the acclaimed albums Flaming Pie and Memory Almost Full.
For many, Paul McCartney is simply the greatest songwriter of all time. And perhaps his greatest achievement has been to keep on making great music after The Beatles. Kiss’s Gene Simmons spoke for a whole generation of fans when he told Classic Rock: “Sir Paul McCartney is arguably the most successful songwriter in history, and I am stunned at the width and breath of his songwriting. A heartfelt salute to you, Sir Paul, for giving me all those marvellous songs that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Paul McCartney & Wings - Band On The Run (Apple, 1973)
McCartney’s greatest postBeatles work was a triumph over adversity. Just before Wings travelled to Nigeria to record it, guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell quit the group. And while in Nigeria, Paul and Linda survived being mugged at knifepoint.
Yet amid all the drama, McCartney fashioned a masterpiece – and the UK’s biggest-selling album of 1974. The title track, like several songs in one, ranks among Macca’s all-time classics, as does the hard-rocking Jet, among many other fine tunes. Plus there’s fun to be had spotting Macca’s celebrity mates on the cover.
Paul & Linda McCartney - Ram (Apple, 1971)
Revered by McCartney connoisseurs, Ram is the only album credited to Paul and the missus. Following his DIY solo debut, Ram featured three additional musicians including future Wings drummer Denny Seiwell.
The result was a more rounded, weighty album. But it was nothing like as grand as the triple-vinyl All Things Must Pass recently released by another former Beatle, George Harrison. And perhaps this explains Ram’s harsh reviews, with Rolling Stone notably dismissing the album as “incredibly inconsequential”. That, frankly, was bullshit. Ram is great from start to finish.
Paul McCartney - McCartney (Apple, 1970)
Released one week after McCartney announced his departure from The Beatles in May 1970, this was a solo album in the truest sense. Macca recorded the album at his home studio and played all the instruments himself. His only assistance came from Linda, who sang a few harmonies.
What surprised fans and critics alike was the loose, off-the-cuff nature of the album. Several tracks, including 45-second opener The Lovely Linda, were mere sketches. But even if McCartney was downplaying a little, there were songs here that measured up to The Beatles’ best.
Paul McCartney & Wings - Red Rose Speedway (Apple, 1973)
Certainly 1973 was a good year for McCartney. This album, his second with Wings, was a huge hit, as was the Bond theme Live And Let Die (not included here), which saw Macca reunited with Beatles producer George Martin. And Macca wasn’t short on tunes, having originally planned Red Rose Speedway as a double.
Featuring two classic ballads in My Love (a US No.1) and the less famous Little Lamb Dragonfly, this is essentially a mellow album. But with the CD reissue came a great bonus track: the non-album single Hi, Hi, Hi which was banned by the BBC for alleged references to drugs and sex.
Wings - Wings At The Speed Of Sound (Apple, 1976)
Democracy is overrated. This much was evident whenever The Beatles allowed Ringo to sing, and when Paul let the rest of Wings do likewise here. In fairness, the guys – Denny Laine, Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English – could sing. But Linda’s turn on the aptly named Cook Of The House proves that love can make you deaf as well as blind.
What rescued this album were three brilliant songs, all sung by Paul: the hits Let ‘Em In and Silly Love Songs, and the powerful hard rocker Beware My Love. The album topped the US chart for seven weeks.
Wings - London Town (Parlophone, 1978)
Echoing events of 1973, the defections of McCulloch and English reduced Wings to the trio of Paul, Linda and Denny for the making of London Town. But Macca wasn’t panicking. As the album was being recorded, Mull Of Kintyre topped the UK chart, outselling even The Beatles’ biggest hit, She Loves You.
London Town was a fine and well-judged album, utilising new-wave-style synthesisers to update his sound on the hit single With A Little Luck and the beautiful title track. Yet this was to be the last great Wings record. After 79’s disappointing Back To The Egg, Macca broke up his second great band.
Wings - Venus And Mars (Capitol, 1975)
This was another multi-million-selling success, hitting the top spot in the UK and US charts. As a whole it wasn’t quite as strong as its predecessor, but there were flashes of Macca’s brilliance in the classic single Listen To What The Man Said and the stage-setting Venus And Mars/Rockshow, a tongue-in-cheek rock‘n’roll anthem that made references to Jimmy Page and cocaine dealers.
There was also a bizarre ending to the album, with the medley Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People leading into a version of the theme to crap British soap opera Crossroads. The theme’s composer, Tony Hatch, felt that Macca was taking the piss. As if.
Wings - Wild Life (Apple, 1971)
Wings’ debut was McCartney’s second album of 1971, coming just six months after Ram. Recorded by Paul and Linda with the two Dennys, Wild Life was recorded quickly, with many tracks done in just one take.
As a result, it’s the most raw and lo-fi album of his career. But it wasn’t lacking in depth. Raucous opener Mumbo had Macca howling like he was back in a Hamburg sweat-box. On the title track he sang blues with more conviction than most white rock stars could muster. And with the sombre Dear Friend he appeared to be reaching out to Lennon in an effort to end a feud they had waged via coded lyrics in previous songs.
Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full (Hear Music, 2007)
Over the years, McCartney has made many surprising left turns, but the beauty of Memory Almost Full is its simplicity. It is the work of a master songwriter at ease with himself – so at ease, in fact, that the album even includes a love song, See Your Sunshine, written for his then wife Heather Mills.
McCartney described Memory Almost Full as “a very personal record”. What it proved, with powerfully emotive songs such as You Tell Me and House Of Wax, was that the greatest songwriter in the history of popular music still had something of that old magic.
And one to avoid...
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Paul McCartney - Give My Regards To Broad Street (Parlophone, 1984)
Only a very few rock stars make good actors, and McCartney is not among them. In the comedy caper Give My Regards To Broad Street, Macca took the starring role alongside Ringo Starr and esteemed thespian Ralph Richardson.
Predictably, the movie was savaged by the press and bombed at the box office. In contrast, the soundtrack album was a success, and yielded a great hit single in No More Lonely Nights. But the remainder of the album is rubbish, a collection of Beatles and post-Beatles songs unwisely re-recorded to fit the movie’s tenuous plot. It’s Macca pissing on his own legacy.