christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Paul McCartney

10 reasons why George Martin deserves to be called the fifth Beatle

As well as being a man of taste, kindness and immense musical talent, George Martin also had an impeccable sense of humour. This was essential if he was going to get anything done with the Fab Four. But most importantly, in the words of Alan Parsons, ‘he had great ears.’ He listened to the band, nurtured their ideas and collaborated rather than competed with them. It’s impossible to know what The Beatles would have achieved without George Martin, but thankfully, we’ll never have to contemplate that particular fate.

George Martin

His contributions always served the song and not himself. While we mourn the passing of the gentleman whose accent was that of an Air Vice-Marshal and whose hair resembled the floppy mop of a wizard from Middle Earth (at least later on), it’s worth reminding ourselves of ten stunning contributions he made to The Beatles’ music.

1) His rock and roll piano

Before Paul and John could play proficiently themselves (Paul was still having lessons in 1965) George Martin provided the rock and roll piano on early tracks like Rock and Roll Music, Misery, Money, Slow Down, Long Tall Sally and A Hard Day’s Night. In plenty of other bands, these contributions alone would be enough to make him a fully paid up member.

2) His rule breaking

Often portrayed as the disapproving headmaster to The Beatles errant schoolboys, George Martin showed he was as anarchic as the rest them, allowing such studio tomfoolery as the sound distortions on She’s a Woman, the super-compressed drum and bass on Ticket to Ride (said to be the invention of heavy metal!) and famously, the feedback that begins I Feel Fine. Most other producers at the time would have called a halt when the needle slipped into the red.

3) The production on Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite

Responding to John’s request to make a record that ‘sounded like a fairground’ Martin pulled out all the stops for this song from Sergeant Pepper. The kaleidoscopic production is full of whizzes and whistles, steam organs, sound effects, crescendos and tumbling scales. You can taste the toffee apples.

4) The electric piano solo in In My Life

Out of nowhere, this astonishing, feather light and giddily melodic solo appears in the middle of John’s otherwise elegiac song, somehow capturing the nostalgia, colour and energy of the Beatle’s childhood. He had to sneak in and overdub it on, fearful the Beatles would disapprove of his suggestion.

5) The string quartet on Yesterday

Paul was initially skeptical about adding strings to his song; afraid it would become mawkish or treacly. To overcome this, George Martin astutely invited him to work with him on the arrangement. By playing the chords on the piano and with McCartney singing phrases that came to him, they collaborated to produce a beautifully restrained setting for an already sublime song.

6) The whole of Tomorrow Never Knows

To move from She Loves You to Tomorrow Never Knows in three years is the pop equivalent of inventing the wheel to designing the Apollo XI moon rocket in a similar space of time. Responding to another Lennon request to ‘sound like the Dalai Lama and a thousand Tibetan Monks chanting on a mountain top’ George Martin supervised a recording like no other. It is the sound of east and west colliding like the buckling of tectonic plates.

7) Achieving the impossible in Strawberry Fields Forever

Again it was John who was responsible for another extraordinary challenge for George Martin. He asked for two different versions of his song, each in a different key and tempo to be spliced together. Pushing the studio (and engineer Geoff Emerick to the limit) you can hardly see the join.

8) The brass on Martha My Dear

This has always been one of my favourite Beatles songs, although actually it is the work of just McCartney and George Martin, who provides the sympathetic brass orchestration. It is the perfect accompaniment to a perfectly formed song.

9) The orchestra crescendo at the end of A Day in the Life

Persuading classical musicians to abandon their charts and climb up the scale to provide the totemic finale to this extraordinary song (before ending on that thunderous E Major piano chord) George pulled out every stop, and presumably every ounce of his considerable charm. This surely ranks as one of the most memorable sounds of the 20th century.

10) Side two of Abbey Road

When The Beatles came back to George Martin cap in hand after the Let it Be fiasco, he agreed to produce their next album – but only if they allowed him to do it properly. The final medley was a showcase for everything The Beatles could do: the lush harmonies, the unorthodox chord progressions stitched together by gossamer melodies, sweeping orchestration and witty interplay of voices and instruments. It was also a showcase of everything they had learnt from George Martin. Think of the pedestrian plod of Love Me Do next to euphoric conclusion to The End. It’s the sound of a band that went to the moon.

With acknowledgements to Ian McDonald’s superb book on The Beatles’ music ‘Revolution in the Head.’


Protected: Music hall McCartney: the making of a balladeer

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

The toppermost of the poppermost: ‘New’ by Paul McCartney

It’s not cool, I know, but I couldn’t wait to finish work yesterday to get home and download ‘New.’ I stuck it on the iPod then went for a jog in the moonlight – a great way to get to know Paul’s new album. From irresistible crunchy power pop (Save Us, Queenie Eye, New, Turned Out, I Can Bet) to affecting acoustic ballads in the manner of Johnny Cash’s later albums (Early Days) and more experimental avant-garde groove-based pieces (Road, Looking at Her, Appreciate) it’s pure Macca magic.

Being Paul it’s stuffed full of hooks, often three or four in the same song, and there’s a real honesty and generosity of spirit throughout. The chorus of Looking at Her is wonderfully heartfelt – full of pride and admiration for his new wife, and has a sweet melody to match.

Early Days is a meditation on John and Paul’s early days together: ‘dressed in back from head to toe, two guitars across our backs.’ It’s full of images of the two of them posing on the streets of Liverpool and Hamburg, ‘hair slicked back with Vaseline.’ There’s amazing moment when Paul’s voice is double tracked, singing about memories of friends from the past when we hear the blessing/mantra: ‘Your inspiration, long may it last, may it come to you time and time again.’ It’s hard to resist the idea that’s this is John, egging his old mate on from beyond the grave. Paul responds to the challenge by following up with New – his best single since Coming Up and up there with his greatest Beatles and Wings work.

There are some misfires; I’m not as keen as some on the platitudinous Everybody Out There, but it’s undeniably tuneful and spirited and I’ve yet to fall for Hosanna’s charms. But there’s plenty of time to get to know these songs. Paul’s voice is not the rasping wonder it was during the 70’s when he had that powerful, pure upper chest range (Download Wings Over America if you want some of that) but it has other qualities now – a wonderful deep tone offset by a still bird like falsetto (a la Here There and Everywhere.) Elsewhere, Get Me Out of Here is a bluesy, throw away response, in part to the show of the same name and maybe a remote kissing cousin of Why Don’t We Do it in the Road. But perhaps it should have been left off.

These quibbles aside, New is full of inspiration, originality and invention. It’s more buoyant than Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which although full of good things, was overshadowed by an un-Paul like introspection. This contains the same thoughtful maturity, but with an optimism that album was missing. In that respect, it has more in common with Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (Light From Your Lighthouse from the Fireman side project is my current all time favourite Paul song!)

Here Paul’s new songs are aided and abetted by a great fuzzy electric guitar sound – either in full blow riff-mode (Save Us) or as clever tone and texture (see Alligator). You’ll remember that Taxman solo was by Paul after all. The songs also feature unexpected and delightfully varied arrangements.

On the ELO tribute (and very likable) Turned Out, he proves he would have been a more than capable Roy replacement for Travelling Wilbury (don’t forget to seek out Paul’s fab and Wilbury-like cover of Buddy Holly’s Maybe Baby on YouTube as an added treat).

But to hear him on Queenie Eye is to celebrate the return of a true pop master. From the teasing, Lucy in the Sky-like organ intro, nursery rhyme playfulness (a lyrical nod to John’s Cry Baby Cry perhaps) pop-bounce and soaring double chorus, here we have a reminder why Paul was in the best band there ever was. It is to experience the joy and delirium of pure pop as it was meant to be heard, on sunny mornings in 1966, by the man who invented it.

Rockshow – The rehabilitation of Paul McCartney and Wings

This great concert film, and soon to be re-released triple album Wings over America, captures Paul McCartney and Wings in their 70s pomp. From the clowning Denny Laine, resplendent in his pink flamingo suit, to the rake thin Jimmy McCulloch and Linda’s blonde peacock hairdo, it’s pretty rare to see a band so happy and relaxed. Yes, there is some posturing, but mostly it’s brilliantly played, melodic rock and roll, all delivered with smiles and reassuring winks from Macca.

Paul is on blistering form and he knows it. He celebrates a breakneck version of Lady Madonna (with extra helpings of boogie woogie) with mock bows. His playing is fantastic throughout, hammering the piano like Rowlf from the Muppets, his mullet flying in all directions. His bass on Silly Love Songs is laugh-out-loud good, his fingers appearing to find a completely different song to the one he’s singing.

But it is his voice that constantly astonishes. In recent years it has lowered and weathered, crumpling in the upper range, but here it is a thing of raw power. From the rasping blasts through Jet and Rock Show, when he unleashes his full Long Tall Sally voice, there is complete control of pitch and power. On Maybe I’m Amazed he ascends to helium level heights with complete ease. What amazes more is that can return almost immediately to more tender fare such as Yesterday and Blackbird without a trace of the vocal lacerations that came before.

There’s a generosity shown by McCartney throughout that sometimes threatens to backfire. He allows other members of the band, especially Denny Laine, several spotlight moments. On the face of it, why would we want to hear Denny’s songs from mid seventies Wings albums when we could hear McCartney sing Paperback Writer or Sgt. Pepper? But that isn’t in the spirit of the exercise. Paul is making the point that they are a ‘real band‘, in the same way as the Beatles, where a certain level of democracy and taking turns to show off was the accepted order of the day. He’s also smart enough to know that this makes for a happier band, more motivated and their total commitment to him and the music is obvious.

Denny is sometimes maligned, but his virtuosity here is impressive, moving between his twin necked electric guitar (’Just like the one played by Jimmy Page’) to bass, to piano. His singing is terrific too on Go Now (almost an upstaging moment) and it’s clear how important his harmonies were to the Wings’ sound. It’s easy to think of McCartney recruiting him to be another Paul McCartney, but his personality and distinctive contributions are spot on. His driving, Romany-inspired acoustic guitar contribution to the sing along (the drinking songs’) down the front is one of the many highlights. Songs like Bluebird with its swathes of three part harmonies, woodwind interludes shows their musical sophistication. They are easily as adept at folk and jazz as flexing their rock muscle.

The sound is rich and deep without being over driven; all of McCartney songs are melodic, but they are beautifully arranged too. The four piece horn section (profusely thanked by McCartney at the end) give a fantastic extra dimension. Some tunes are lightweight – Hi Hi Hi and Soily, but are played with such gusto – powered by the unstoppable Wings, including the lovable, Bear-like drummer Joe English, that it’s beside the point.

Linda is an unflappable, droopy eyed presence behind the Moog. Now totally confident with her instrument she is both all American cheerleader and backing singing. Her vocals are genuinely fantastic. There is surprisingly little husband and wife interaction on stage, partly because Paul is focusing on the music and partly because he doesn’t want to upset his female fan base. But when Paul and Linda share a mike (George and Paul style) for the backing vocals on Go Now, it’s clear they are still smitten.

Posterity brings added poignancy to this dazzling show. Not only do we know that Jimmy McCulloch was to die just three years later of a heroin overdose, but that we would later lose Linda too. Although there were further successes, including the squillion selling Mull of Kintyre the following year, the line up never gelled in quite the same way and Wings never commanded this kind of respect again. But for a time, as someone said, ‘It was like The Beatles never happened.’

Why I named my daughter after Paul McCartney’s sheepdog

Because of his voice, an unrivalled instrument in the sixties and seventies, when its soaring, piping tone could convey joy, heartache and yearning all at one.  Think: ‘my love does it good, woah woah, woah, my love does it good . . .’

Because of his songwriting; and yes he did compose amazing words as well as endlessly melodic tunes. Think: ‘And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make’

Because of all the forgotten gems like ‘I’m Carrying’ – the sweetest song you ever heard, written for Linda while she was pregnant with their son James. It’s an outstanding vocal, lyrical and instrumental performance. It could have been written anytime between 1500 and now . . .

Because of his mind bending bass playing; listen if you can to his elastic twang on Taxman or the wild line over the top of Everyone’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey

Because he made being fifteen a lot easier; listening to Abbey Road borrowed from Rugby Library and listening to the first ten seconds of She Came in Through the Bathroom Window made the world glow again

Because of the fantastic drums he plays on Ballad for John and Yoko; (it’s just John and Paul on the whole record) ‘Sing!’ Boom boom boom boom!  

Because he wrote Martha My Dear; the most addictive combination of piano, guitar and horn you’ll ever hear in the key of A flat about a sheepdog  … and now my daughter)

Happy 70th birthday Paul!

One of the photos Paul McCartney released to the press upon announcing that he was leaving The Beatles.

McCartney/Harrison – the forgotten partnership

One of the indelible images of the ‘Sixties is of Paul McCartney and George Harrison sharing a mike, their guitars akimbo, shaking their mop-tops while nailing their trademark falsetto.

While Paul’s left handed bass playing saved The Beatles the expense of a third microphone (and by 1963 they could probably afford it) very little has been said of the musical collaboration between the two youngest Beatles. Overshadowed by the all conquering Lennon/McCartney partnership, it seems a McCartney and Harrison teaming was given very little consideration.

In fact they were responsible for the very first Beatles’ original committed to disc. ‘In Spite of All the Danger’ was a slow, moody blues in the style of Gene Vincent recorded by Percy Phillips in his Liverpool living room. It was amateurish for sure, but an entirely competent pastiche; it would still have been the finest song Elvis never wrote.  Paul later took full credit for the song, claiming George simply played the guitar solo – at the time he said, they did not realise that this did not constitute part of the song itself. For such ancient history, this does seem a littl bit like nit picking. It did not bode well for future collaborations; they only again shared credit on such innocuous instrumental fare as ‘Flying’ from the Magical Mystery Tour Soundtrack, ‘Dig it’ and the back-from-the-dead track ‘Free as a Bird.’

Lennon and McCartney were, at least to begin with, in awe of each other’s talents; Lennon envious of McCartney’s seemingly endless supply of melodies while Paul admired John’s compellingly direct lyrical style. They were excited about their song writing, quickly realising they would benefit from each other. Their remarkable pact to credit everything they did to ‘Lennon/McCartney’ was made when they were sixteen and honoured (just about) to this day. In the glow of this attraction, it seems Harrison found himself the musical gooseberry. Their underestimation of Harrison’s gift was later a cause of regret (John thought that ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ were the only decent things on Abbey Road) and this early closing of ranks was a resentment Harrison carried with him beyond The Beatles’ demise.

Despite their lack of joint publishing credits however, their work together was still remarkable. Think of McCartney’s sizzling guitar solo in Taxman (perhaps returning the favour for In Spite of All the Danger) which was reversed to double the length. It became a source of irritation to George when fans declared it his best piece of work. George was equally careful with Paul’s songs; it was only in the last year or so that Paul confessed that the memorable four note signature in ‘And I Love Her’ was George’s work. It would have meant a co-writing credit in most other bands.

Both exciting players, they let rip together on such rockers as Birthday (1968) – their doubled bass and guitar lines powering this Cream-esque pot boiler. They traded similarly distorted guitar licks on Abbey Road’s ‘The End’ like members of The Eagles. 

Perhaps their finest collaboration was in George’s stellar ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (also 1968) with Paul’s fine high harmony and powerful juddering bass making it the closest they came to a duet. They repeated the trick on ‘Something,’ by which time Paul realised that it was he that was playing catch up in the song-writing stakes.

While their personalities clashed (the dour, acerbic Harrison irritated by the cheerful, driving McCartney) their bond was deep and enduring. Too much was made of their rift immediately after the Beatles break up when George wrote the mean-spirited ‘Wah Wah’ about Paul’s musical lecturing and played snide slide guitar on John poisonous character assassination ‘How Do You Sleep?’  When George Harrison died in 2002 Paul said ‘he was like a little brother to him.’  

Hearing their two voices together, pure and full of conviction, makes you realise that ‘McCartney/Harrison’ was a partnership of equally intriguing possibilities and lasting value.