Even the jokes are cliché. Paul McCartney is so famous—so iconic, so influential a pop cultural figure—that we can’t even make “maybe you’ve heard of him” quips or slap a sarcastic label like “promising singer/songwriter from Liverpool” on a record-store display of his work without being trite. His fame is so transcendent, it’s immune to humor. It’s not fleeting like most celebrity; after more than 50 years, it’s a universally accepted fact of life. Joking about it is like joking about the sky being blue or water being wet. Even at age 76, it’s hard to imagine a room he could walk into and not be among its most well-known occupants. Presidents and other heads of state who grew up listening to his music geek out in his presence (hey, an especially apt performance of “Michelle” will do that). “Yesterday” remains the most recorded song of all time. Just last week, on the heels of announcing a new album due this fall, he made James Corden cry.
So yes, I know you know Sir Paul. If you’re old enough to read these words, you’ve undoubtedly heard his music before (hell, even if you aren’t, there’s a good chance your parents sang it to you as a baby or played it while you were in utero). Do you really need a Guide to Getting Into Paul McCartney?
Maybe you’re more of a John or a George fan. (Sorry, but you’re not more of a Ringo fan.) Maybe you haven’t gotten into Wings or the solo stuff yet. Maybe you grew up thinking the Beatles were lame because your parents liked them, or maybe you have a hard time getting past the hokeyness of some of his “silly love songs.” As Rob Sheffield writes in his excellent book Dreaming the Beatles, “Paul is the most Beatlesque of the Beatles. If you dislike the Beatles, it’s because you dislike Paul. If you love them despite those flaws, you mean Paul’s flaws.”
Truly appreciating Paul means accepting one of his most Beatlesque qualities: that he contains multitudes. He is responsible for some of the most devastatingly beautiful songs of all time as well as some of the schmalziest duds. He slaved over some songs for days but knocked out others on a whim. The same Paul who excelled at what John would famously dismiss as “granny music” nudged his bandmates towards Revolver by putting together an experimental Christmas mix for them full of tape loops, weird sketches and songs they hadn’t heard yet in 1965. With that in mind—and over five decades of material to sift through—it can be difficult for Macca novices to know where to start. There are dozens of potential entry points, but here are the six facets of Paul McCartney to consider if you’ve got to get him into your life.
So you want to get into: Classic Sing-Along Paul?
Even McCartney’s harshest critics have to admit he can write a melody like nobody’s business. Most artists would kill to come up with just one as catchy as these, but he’s managed to pen more modern pop standards than we can fully wrap our minds around. When you crunch the numbers—32 No. 1 singles, 43 platinum songs between 1962 and 1978, over 700 million albums sold worldwide—it’s hard to accept any explanation other than some sort of Robert Johnson-style deal with the devil, but ultimately what it comes down to is an uncanny knack for writing songs that resonate with people from all walks of life.
Sometimes that’s because he’s imparting wisdom (“don’t carry the world upon your shoulders,” “let it be,” “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”), but often it’s something as simple and universal as young lust (“I Saw Her Standing There”) or missing someone and sending them all your loving. Whether you favor the hits punctuated by teenaged screams from the Beatlemania era, the piano ballads or the Bond theme that lends itself impeccably well to some light pyrotechnics, these are the classics you’re highly likely to hear at a Paul McCartney concert. Study up if you’re concerned about being able to properly sing along, but McCartney is for the masses—as long as you can master “na na na na na na na,” you’re golden.
Playlist: “Hey Jude” / “Let It Be” / “Yesterday” / “The Long and Winding Road” / “Penny Lane” / “Live and Let Die” / “All My Loving” / “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” / “Blackbird” / “Lady Madonna” / “Band on the Run” / “I Saw Her Standing There”
So you want to get into: Tin Pan Alley/Music Hall Paul?
Paul McCartney’s affinity for the Tin Pan Alley and British music hall tunes he grew up listening to is one of his most divisive qualities, so much so that it often led to bickering amongst the Beatles. Lennon especially hated it, but even George Harrison and Ringo Starr have complained about “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which took weeks to complete. Harrison called it “fruity,” and Starr told Rolling Stone in 2008 that “It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for fucking weeks. I thought it was mad.”
Tracks like “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Honey Pie” make no bones about what they are, but even when it’s shrouded in psychedelia on “Lovely Rita” or given a calypso twist on “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” the style creeps its way into a significant chunk of McCartney’s work. Whether you find it to be endearing or annoying depends entirely on you (although, to be fair, it’s easy to understand why one would want to pull their hair out after 16 takes of the anvil clang on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”).
Playlist: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” / “When I’m Sixty-Four” / “Lovely Rita” / “Honey Pie” / “Martha My Dear” / “You Gave Me the Answer” / “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” / “Your Mother Should Know” / “Her Majesty”
So you want to get into: Romantic Paul?
McCartney’s earnestness and sentimentality would sometimes tip a bit too far toward the saccharine side of the spectrum and bite him in the ass as a songwriter, but ultimately they are his greatest gift. With early Beatles efforts like “And I Love Her” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” he established romanticism as his wheelhouse, and since then he hasn’t stopped churning out lovely odes to those closest to him.
Some of them are masterpieces, like Revolver‘s tender “Here, There and Everywhere” or “Maybe I’m Amazed,” his passionate post-Beatles tribute to his wife Linda. Others, like “I Will” and “I’m Carrying,” are simple acoustic songs that pack a punch with their emotion nonetheless. McCartney himself is well aware of the role these songs play in his catalog, writing the tongue-in-cheek “Silly Love Songs” in 1976 to address the criticism that he relies on them a little too heavily, singing “you’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, I look around me and see it isn’t so” before breaking the fourth wall and announcing “here I go agaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn!”
But Paul’s love songs aren’t limited to romantic love, and some of his best celebrate the complicated, platonic love between him and John Lennon. “Two of Us” is allegedly about Linda, but it’s hard not to read it as a nostalgic reflection on his friendship with John as the two of them share a microphone for one of the last times and sing lines like “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” And 1982’s “Here Today,” released two years after Lennon’s murder but written less than a year after the tragic death, is a conversation with John he never got to have, just as touching as any of his other love songs and certainly not even close to silly.
Playlist: “Maybe I’m Amazed” / “And I Love Her” / “Here, There and Everywhere” / “Two of Us” / “My Love” / “Silly Love Songs” / “My Valentine” / “Here Today” / “I’ve Just Seen a Face” / “Love in Song” / “I Will” / “I’m Carrying”
So you want to get into: Paul’s John Songs?
One of the worst misconceptions about Paul is that he can’t rock as hard as John Lennon could, that he lacks grit and is all love songs and pretty melodies. Lennon himself believed this to some degree, especially in later years as their relationship became more and more fractured, and he was never shy about saying so to Paul, to the other Beatles, and to the press. “When I’m Sixty-Four” was “granny music.” “Lovely Rita” was boring to him because “I’m not interested in writing about people like that.” “Let It Be” “had nothing to do with the Beatles.”
But Lennon and McCartney had more in common than just their egos, and some of Paul’s best songs are the result of pushing himself out of his comfort zone and more into John territory. “Paperback Writer” is allegedly a bass-heavy response to an aunt who had asked if he could write a single that wasn’t about love, and even John had to praise it (albeit by comparing it to his own work), telling Playboy in 1980 that “‘Paperback Writer’ is son of ‘Day Tripper,’ but it is Paul’s song.” That same year, McCartney surprised everyone with “For No One,” a breakup song featuring some of his most mature lyrics to that point (“in her eyes you see nothing, no sign of love behind the tears, cried for no one, a love that should have lasted years”). Lennon called it “one of my favorites of his.”
Later came “Helter Skelter,” his rawest, loudest song, a proto-metal romp that featured some of his best vocals and later gained some tragic notoriety from its connection to the Manson murders. Other songs pissed Lennon off with how John-like they were. The passionate growls on “Oh! Darling”—which McCartney sang every day in the studio for a week to achieve the right amount of grit in his voice—might’ve made Lennon a bit of a jealous guy, as he called it “a great one of Paul’s that he didn’t sing too well” and said “I always thought I could have done it better—it was more my style than his.” He was similarly irritated that Paul and Ringo went off and recorded “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” on a whim without him. The artiness and lyrical depth of “Eleanor Rigby” must’ve appealed to Lennon too, because in later years he’d claim he wrote all but the first verse of it. That was refuted by McCartney and Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton, who was present for the writing process and claimed John’s contribution was “absolutely nil.”
For better or for worse, the influence Lennon and McCartney had on each other is obvious, even in their post-Beatles careers. The most obvious example of this for Paul is Wings’ “Let Me Roll It,” a Lennon pastiche if ever there was one, though Paul would never admit he intentionally wrote a John song. “My use of tape echo did sound more like John than me,” he told Club Sandwich in 1994. “But tape echo was not John’s exclusive territory! And you have to remember that, despite the myth, there was a lot of commonality between us in the way that we thought and the way that we worked.”
Playlist: “Helter Skelter” / “Oh! Darling” / “Let Me Roll It” / “Get Back” / “Paperback Writer” / “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” / “Monkberry Moon Delight” / “For No One” / “Eleanor Rigby”
So you want to get into: Weird Paul?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but The Cute Beatle is actually a big ol’ weirdo. Only Paul could travel to India with his bandmates to study transcendental meditation, go up to the roof of the ashram in Rishikesh and come up with “Rocky Raccoon.” Whether it’s the goofy faux-American accented delivery of that track or a sproing-y experiment with multitracking like “Wild Honey Pie,” there are hints of Weird Paul peppered throughout his Beatles catalog. He’d get even stranger later on, stitching together disparate song fragments and sound effects with his wife Linda on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” singing about Marvel Comics characters and recording a version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with Wings.
But if you’re looking for the height of his eccentricity, you’ve gotta put on McCartney II. Released after Wings’ final record and his nine-day jail stint in Japan and recorded essentially by himself (save for a few vocals from Linda), the album is a huge departure, heavy on synth-pop, New Wave and electronica with a bit of krautrock influence mixed in for good measure. Even a more accessible track like lead single “Coming Up” features sped-up, chipmunk-esque vocals courtesy of a vari-speed tape machine. The cover of the record—McCartney staring directly at the camera, his brow furrowed and mouth slightly agape, as if to say “what the hell is this?“—is a pretty accurate representation of the reaction it received at the time, but it’s now considered a cult favorite ahead of its time.
Playlist: “Rocky Raccoon” / “Coming Up” / “Kreen – Akore” / “Check My Machine” / “Temporary Secretary” / “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” / “Wild Honey Pie” / “Magneto and Titanium Man” / “Mary Had A Little Lamb”
So you want to get into: Paul’s Collaborations?
McCartney’s eagerness to go for the unexpected hasn’t been limited to his solo career. One of the upsides to being a Beatle is that the biggest stars of the day will occasionally call you up out of the blue asking to collaborate (and one of the downsides is that sometimes they’ll later buy the publishing rights to your back catalog without telling you, but we don’t have time to get into that here). McCartney’s never been one to shy away from working with other musicians, whether it’s a pairing that makes total sense on paper like his partnership with Elvis Costello on Flowers in the Dirt or something that’ll leave his Baby Boomer fans scratching their heads, like his recent work with Kanye West and Rihanna or Italian EDM project The Bloody Beetroots.
Sometimes they fall flat—”Ebony and Ivory” is Paul at his absolute corniest, and in 2009 Blender named it the tenth-worst song of all time—but frequently McCartney’s collaborations with other artists are far better than they have any business being. Take, for example, his lesser known but superior duet with Stevie Wonder, “What’s That You’re Doing,” or “Cut Me Some Slack,” his jam with the surviving members of Nirvana, which was performed at the Hurricane Sandy benefit concert and later earned the group a Grammy for Best Rock Song. “If you wanna stick around, you gotta cut me some slack,” he wails on that track, begging to be set free and adding “Come on, I just want to have some fun.” It’s a fitting lyric for later-period McCartney; half a century and gazillions of dollars into his career, there’s really nothing left for him to do but have fun, and as fans, we’ve got to indulge him. Writing “Hey Jude” should earn you a lifetime of slack, right?
Playlist: “What’s That You’re Doing” (with Stevie Wonder) / “Only One” (with Kanye West) / “The Girl Is Mine” (with Michael Jackson) / “You Want Her Too” (with Elvis Costello) / “Ebony and Ivory” (with Stevie Wonder) / “Sing the Changes” (with Youth, as The Firemen) / “FourFiveSeconds” (with Rihanna and Kanye West) / “Out of Sight” (with The Bloody Beetroots) / “Say Say Say” (with Michael Jackson) / “Cut Me Some Slack” (with Nirvana)