CHICAGO — Paul McCartney isn’t one to undermine his fans’ expectations. With tickets as pricey as $250 plus service fees for his concerts July 31 and Aug. 1 at Wrigley Field, he is certain to deliver plenty of vintage Beatles and Wings-era hits.
McCartney in stadium-pleasing mode remains formidable, a brilliant musician with an excellent band anchored by drummer Abe Laboriel. But he’s also a rare ‘60s icon: one who still is making vital albums.
One of the frustrating aspects of the modern, over-priced stadium show is that it often precludes risk-taking by veteran performers. In many cases, there’s a good reason for that: Their recent material is drab if not embarrassing. McCartney’s a different story, however. Those who wrote him off in the ‘80s and ‘90s need to take another look. Those who loved the bold experimentation of his Beatles work have some catching up to do.
With McCartney touring again, it’s time to bust some long-standing myths about him and examine the relatively underappreciated corners of his music, including some of the stuff he won’t play in his stadium shows.
—Myth No. 1: John was the edgy one
John Lennon was the edgy rocker, McCartney the lightweight balladeer. That’s bunk.
Sure, Lennon battered down the doors of perception in Beatles songs such as “Strawberry Fields,” “I Am the Walrus” and “Rain,” and confronted reality with jarring directness in solo tracks such as “Cold Turkey,” “Mother” and “God.” But he also wrote some gloriously sentimental tunes about how “love is all you need,” and later, once he left the Beatles, allowed himself to get positively mushy about his newfound domesticity.
McCartney was more likely to dispense group hugs — rare was the ‘60s rocker who empathized with the older generation in songs such as “She’s Leaving Home.” His very English tributes to dancehall music (“When I’m 64”) or his sheepdog (“Martha My Dear”) are about as un-rock ‘n’ roll as you can get. But McCartney balanced these moments with more than his share of experimentation, daring and, yes, Lennon-like intensity.
“Helter Skelter,” in many ways a forerunner of heavy metal, was McCartney unhinged — the throat-shredding vocal, the distortion-saturated attack, the clenched-teeth tension in the studio relieved only by drummer Ringo Starr blurting “I got blisters on me fingers!” as the song crashes to a close.
McCartney helped invent progressive rock, too, by conceptualizing and then stitching together (along with producer George Martin) the song fragments that make up Side 2 of the 1969 masterpiece “Abbey Road.”
The gonzo guitar solo in George Harrison’s “Taxman”? McCartney.
That ferocious soul shouter on “I’m Down” — the screams, the demented laugh, the increasingly hysterical outro? McCartney again, giving Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins their due.
But above all, McCartney was a studio-as-instrument chemist of the first order. It was McCartney who gave Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” its mind-blowing atmosphere by creating and altering sound-effect tape loops at his home. He was the Beatle paying closest attention to the experimental fringe of classical and electronic music at the time, lapping up Stockhausen and Cage alongside the Shirelles and Motown as influences. One of the finest examples of McCartney’s ability to bend space, time and minds, the 14-minute collage “Carnival of Light,” remains locked in the Beatles vaults.
After the Beatles broke up, the amiable gentleman of pastoral leisure could still get downright weird amid bouts of schmaltz and indifference; his solo work shows far greater range than Lennon’s, from the whimsical yet dazzling inscrutability of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” to his ahead-of-their-time electronic albums as the Fireman with the producer Youth.
—Myth No. 2: Paul’s just the bass player
Sure, and Mozart was just a hack piano player from Salzburg. The bass may be an unsung instrument, but it’s the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll and soul. What’s more, McCartney reinvented its role in the Beatles, not just laying down a foundation for the song but often playing a strong counterpoint to the lead vocal. One of the reasons the Beatles’ songs sound so rich is the depth of composition, the melodic and harmonic layers — and McCartney’s ability to straddle rhythm and melody on bass was critical.
His flair was already apparent on the band’s earliest hits; on “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964), the bass is on equal footing with the guitars, and it’s like a song in itself on “Michelle” (1965). By the time of “Paperback Writer” (1966), McCartney is the lead instrumentalist, ushering in each verse like Britain’s answer to Motown’s James Jamerson. He’s nearly in subterranean funk territory with the deep tones of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” (1967) and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (1968), and stomps like Godzilla through “Rain” (1966) and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (1968).
His knack for adapting his approach to whatever the song and the times demanded was key to the Beatles’ wide-ranging catalog, and it’s evident in his post-Beatles recordings as well. Denigrate “Silly Love Songs” (1976) all you want, but that bass line will pull you on the dance floor every time. He’s a soul-man extraordinaire on the slow-burn “Let Me Roll It” (1973) and a machine-gunning rocker on “Soily” (1976). He navigates “Lonely Road” (2001) with a thrilling authority; listen closely and you can his amplifier buzzing.
—Myth No. 3: His music’s gone downhill ever since Wings broke up
After some strong albums with his band Wings in the ‘70s, McCartney put things on cruise control during much of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In that sense, his career followed the arch of many ‘60s greats whose music nose-dived, never to regain its potency. But McCartney rediscovered his mojo in recent years, joining a handful of artists — Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Paul Simon and Neil Young come immediately to mind — whose late-career work blows past nostalgia.
On “Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard” (2005), McCartney revisited the one-man-band approach he took on his 1970 solo debut and its 1980 follow-up, “McCartney II,” and trumped them both. It’s an album of small, intimate chamber-pop songs, with McCartney playing everything from drums to a flugelhorn. McCartney probably hasn’t heard the word “no” much the last few decades, but in this case producer Nigel Godrich deserves credit for not letting the bassist slide. Cool details abound: piano and strings melting into a dream-like bridge on “Fine Line”; the way two recurring notes on a toy glockenspiel become a beacon on “Riding to Vanity Fair”; the acoustic reverie “Jenny Wren,” with its wordless vocal and mournful duduk melody.
“Memory Almost Full” (2007) is even better, an unusually personal album by McCartney standards. He touches on mortality and his recent divorce without melodrama, and “Nod Your Head” and “Only Mama Knows” rock as hard as anything he’s done. In “The End of the End,” he imagines his own wake, and manages to pull it off with grace, humility and humor.
His third Fireman collaboration with Youth, “Electric Arguments” (2008), is the best of all, an accomplished combination of melody and experimental mirth.
It’s the first Fireman album with vocals, and McCartney role-plays to the hilt: a mischievous elf, a growling blues patriarch, even a hint of Bono-esque bombast. “Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight” blows open the album like the son of “Helter Skelter,” and ends with McCartney barking like a dog. No, this is not your cuddly ‘60s icon coasting gracefully on his past accomplishments.