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.
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!