To commemorate Paul McCartney's 70th birthday this past week, here is a list of one writer's favorite songs from each proper Beatles album.
Paul McCartney is, no matter where you stand on rock music, the Beatles or list-making, indisputably one of the best -- and most important -- popular musicians of the last century. Our artistic landscape would be inconceivably altered without his work, and the myriad minds he inspired.
I have written many (many) words about the Beatles, and before I'm done I will undoubtedly write many more. The Beatles are like the sea or the sky; they are there, life is impossible to imagine (or live) without them, so they must be recognized and celebrated. A little is never enough.
To commemorate Macca's 70th birthday this past week, rather than write (too many) more words, I figured an appropriate way to pay tribute was by selecting my favorite song of his from each proper Beatles album (note: not the ones I necessarily think are the best; just the ones I personally like the most, the ones that have given me ceaseless joy over the decades).
(Please Please Me, 1963)
Talk about an opening statement. The countdown that kicks off the first album (one, two, three, FAH!) is one of the most exhilarating few seconds in early '60s rock. Plus, where Chuck Berry brilliantly danced around the obvious in his lascivious love letters, McCartney -- with a wink and a nod -- minces neither words nor intentions: "Well she was just seventeen / And you know what I mean…." It's both fair and accurate to say that nothing was ever the same after this.
(With the Beatles, 1963)
The Beatles were still, arguably, too buttoned-up and safe by half on their second album, at least considering what was just around the corner. At this point they were systematically focused on one thing: writing perfect hit songs. That is what "All My Loving" is: a pure, unfiltered distillation of their songwriting genius.
(A Hard Day's Night, 1964)
It is still astonishing to consider how quickly the Beatles went from very good to great (after that, they went somewhere else we are still not capable of properly quantifying). This McCartney masterpiece, on an album fairly dominated by some of Lennon's stronger early writing, is wise beyond its years, typically bittersweet (Lennon without Mac too often went bitter, Mac without Lennon too often got syrupy sweet, but when both found the right balance nobody could touch them) and overflowing with confidence. It's a short statement of purpose that cries: "I am genius, hear me roar" and it's over before you know it.
(Beatles For Sale, 1964)
The band's fourth album is proof that the Beatles were human. It could not have been more obvious that they were burning out, exhausted, and running low on ideas (almost half the album is covers). Proof that even on half-a-tank, Macca's engine could still kick into overdrive: not terribly deep or profound, "I'll Follow the Sun" is nothing more or less than a catchy, irresistible tune.
Now we're talking. The year 1965 was the ultimate sweet-spot for the Lennon/McCartney collaboration: at no other time before or after did they write so prolifically and sing together so beautifully. So many tracks on both Help! and Rubber Soul feature them harmonizing in ways that should make even lukewarm fans acknowledge that these two men were placed on this earth to do exactly what they did and, for a time, do it together better than anyone else ever did.
(Rubber Soul, 1965)
This was, possibly, the last album where Lennon clearly dominated in terms of quality and originality. It is very likely (if probable) that it was the sheer strength of Lennon's songwriting in '65 that motivated Mac to push himself and, in the process, go to another level and become the de facto leader of the band. In hindsight, haters can say it was this exact turn of events that signaled the beginning of the end. Maybe. But looking at what McCartney achieved from '66 to '70, it's difficult to deny that this was not both a necessary and wonderful thing.
Still straining -- albeit effortlessly (or making it sound as such, which is one handy definition of virtuosity) -- for increasingly mature material, Macca renders a topic that could be -- and often is -- reduced to soap opera melodrama into something at once ambivalent and devastating. "For No One" is the story of a relationship that ended because... well, because relationships end. Is it her fault? His? Who knows. It's ambiguous, painful, and unforgettable, like love can be. This economic track evinces insight and empathy that McCartney would fully develop on the next album with "She's Leaving Home".
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and more...
(Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
For the hype and praise (all of it warranted, obviously) heaped on Sgt. Pepper in particular, and 1967 in general, this particular tune seems to slip under the radar. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop perfection (ho hum), it is an extremely laid-back and convincing statement of individuality. To his credit, even though he wore the outfit (look at the album cover), McCartney did not easily pay allegiance to any particular cause. He may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn't name names or slag off any institutions and he did not need to. In one of the seminal years in rock 'n' roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave.
(Magical Mystery Tour, 1967)
Of course, this is not from a "proper" album; winding up on the American release of Magical Mystery Tour, it was introduced to a not-quite-suspecting world as one half of the most brilliant/influential single of all time, on the flip side of Lennon's four-minute revolution, "Strawberry Fields Forever".
Debate has raged as to how much "better" Sgt. Pepper would be had the lads saved those two songs for it. No question the quality of the album would have improved but... well, it wouldn't be the same. And there is something almost heroic about the Beatles, already the biggest band in the universe, putting out a single just to let the world know they were still in charge. Ever-unappreciated fifth Beatle George Martin's presence is particularly felt on this one, courtesy of the trumpet flourishes (the idea of which came to McCartney in a burst of inspiration while listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos). There is no shortage of delightful irony that Mac, easily one of the most famous and beloved rock stars on the scene, sings wistfully about his childhood. Nostalgic without being sentimental, McCartney illustrates that he was king, culturally and creatively, circa 1967.
(non-album single, 1968)
(Two songs from the double-album The Beatles, 1968)
Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that (white) whale around all the continents and hunting him down: it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9" (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Due to not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer?
Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" for God’s sake), the bottom line is that the Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, the Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.
(Yellow Submarine, 1969)
Yes, this is a Lennon song. Yes, it would not sound remotely the same without McCartney.
The video below represents one of the unfortunately rare instances when the band filmed themselves in the studio. It's a near miraculous moment in time captured for posterity: priceless because it affords a brief but beautiful window into this other world, the laboratory where the magic got made. And this is most definitely magical; it is also exceedingly bittersweet. This track was cut as the group was beginning to put together the puzzle pieces that ultimately comprised The Beatles and things had begun to unravel. This, then, is not merely an illustration -- albeit a wonderful one -- of the organic process of inspiration and improvisation, but a document of the Lennon/McCartney engine powering along at full steam. Watching the interaction (look at Mac’s ebullient body language at the 2.50 mark!) removes any doubt that at their best, these two amigos required ingredients that were always lacking once they went their separate ways.
(Abbey Road 1969)
Whenever I listen to Abbey Road, I find myself feeling grateful that the collective world of musicians did not, upon hearing it for the first time, throw up their hands and get day jobs. Why bother, they did not ask, allowing us to remain thankful for everything that keeps filling our ears, all these years later. But what must it have sounded like, to mortals simply trying to occupy the same planet, when this one originally dropped?
And what can I possibly say about this song that it doesn't say quite nicely for itself? Personally, I would put this one at the very top of the heap if asked, "Why do you insist Paul McCartney is a genius?"
(Let It Be, 1970)
And I would put "Let It Be" next to the top, if asked the same question.
There is only one thing to add, and it says everything that needs to be said: McCartney was not yet 30 years old when he wrote and recorded this song.
As we get older we gradually and however reluctantly acknowledge that we will, one day, cease to exist. For anyone not yet born when the Beatles broke up, we will most likely end up watching many of our musical gods expire on our watch. I don't know how I'm going to react when Paul McCartney eventually goes, but here's hoping it's not for a very long time indeed. Happy 70th, Macca!