McCartney At 50

Because The Beatles remain so present in popular culture, it’s easy to forget how the band was once more like omnipresent. The Beatles essentially were pop culture for tens of millions of fans.

And in April of 1970, those fans had their worlds shattered when the press release accompanying Paul McCartney’s first solo album, McCartney, included the bombshell news that he was no longer planning on working with the Beatles. He didn’t exactly say that the band was splitting up, but the implications were clear and no one could conceive of a world without the Beatles.

It was probably the most impactful album press release ever written, and it turned McCartney into the villain of a melodrama about the band ending that had been playing out behind closed doors for months. It also set an impossibly high bar for the album, which was released on April 17.

Fifty years later, McCartney no longer carries the weight assigned to it in 1970, when it was largely considered a major disappointment. We can now hear it for what it is: a modest, unassuming record, albeit one with a pronounced psychological subtext.

Is it a great record? No, but it is one with plenty of low-key charm balanced by several absolutely throwaway moments. Because it’s almost entirely a one-man show recorded with a minimal amount of equipment, McCartney is the antithesis of the elaborate studio production that the Beatles had been pioneering with the guidance of George Martin. It’s the definition of lo-fi.

Was that a reaction to the hugeness of the Beatles? An attempt by McCartney to ground himself? He said in the press release that the album was dedicated to home, family and love — three things that he must have felt were slipping away from him as the Beatles slowly dissolved — and the album’s homemade quality reflects that dedication. Then again, McCartney has never shown a lack of confidence in even his most banal songs so maybe he thought the entire record was a prettily wrapped gift.

Dissecting someone else’s motives is a fool’s game so what we’re left with is the music, and when simply accepted at face value it holds up as a gentle, unpretentious record with a handful of songs that are minor gems in McCartney’s extraordinary catalogue.

The album begins with the trifling “The Lovely Linda,” a 0:44 second snippet that seems designed to set the twin themes of family and demo-quality production. “That Would Be Something,” the album’s first full song, is far more typical of the album’s appeal. It’s a simple blues, with an adorable vocal performance that includes scat drumming, and it just feels good. It feels right.

It’s followed by a complete toss-off of an instrumental called “Valentine Day” that’s spectacularly forgettable — it barely exists, as do a few other tracks — and that makes it easy to see why the album was greeted so harshly. I mean, this was Paul McCartney and the Beatles were gods. It wasn’t unreasonable to expect a seamless collection of jewels but McCartney seemed to know exactly what he was doing; he even called one song “Singalong Junk.” That shit is meta.

“Man We Was Lonely” is a legitimate singalong, an irresistible pub ditty with Linda doing passable background vocals and a slinky guitar part that sounds like a drunk slack key picker in a Hawaiian lounge band. “Oo You” might be the nastiest funk McCartney ever laid down, and while there isn’t much to the song other than its groove, the groove is enough.

“Junk,” the basis for the instrumental “Singalong Junk,” is an almost impossibly tender ballad in the McCartney tradition. The song first surfaced when The Beatles was being made in 1968 and while it’s gorgeous as-is, one could easily imagine what it might have become if John Lennon and Martin had been around to prod McCartney and embellish the arrangement. “Every Night,” first offered up during the Let It Be sessions, has a similar vibe.

The album’s clear highlight, in terms of commercial appeal, is “Maybe I’m Amazed,” one of four songs recorded at an actual studio. It remains a classic rock radio staple, and because it was one of the last songs recorded it seems that McCartney, the consummate Top 10 artist, realized that the album needed a single.

It’s a great song and it helped the album sell a million copies in very short order but, again, try to imagine what it was like to hear that song on the radio, buy the album and then hear crap like “The Lovely Linda,” “Valentine Day,” “Momma Miss America,” “Teddy Boy” and “Kreen-Akrore.” Hearing “Hot As Sun/Glasses,” combined with the assumption that McCartney had just ended the world’s most beloved band, must have been a real buzzkill.

But context is everything, and the context, in this case, is historic.

Lennon had first talked about leaving the Beatles in the fall of 1969, although by January of 1970 he seemed to be waffling when he told a journalist that the band would record again. Feeling stuck in a limbo of Lennon’s creation, McCartney fell into a drunken depression and secluded himself in Scotland with his wife, Linda, her daughter, and their newborn daughter.

He began writing and recording by himself while growing increasingly distant from the Beatles even as he was also helping George Harrison and Ringo Starr finish songs for the Beatles’ Let It Be album. If it’s possible to put yourself in the place of a global superstar beloved by millions, that must have sucked and it’s remarkable that McCartney sounds so unforced and relaxed.

The Beatles were the most popular and influential band in the world and nearly everything about the modest McCartney pales in comparison (joining a very big club). But it started a post-Beatles career that stands at more than 35 albums and counting, and it’s well worth spinning as we celebrate its 50th birthday.

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