Paul McCartney always kept it together better.
Be it a band, the wrong relationship, the right one, or himself, he manages his work and life with a pointillated hyper-control that his emotional equal John Lennon found impossible to match. This has informed his public persona in confounding manners–no one has or ever will get a bead on Paul–but the track record of his intended successes speaks without words. The man’s a titan, a business maven blessed by creative genius, and when his stars are aligned and he sets on a target, he is not someone to be crossed. When he’s got his wits about him (everybody makes mistakes), he gets what he seeks. Whether you like it or not.
That bone of contention is a femur for a reason; Lennon, late, legendary, the founder, the dreamer, has forever eclipsed his partner, in life and what’s come after. McCartney’s precision in veneer-maintenance, never giving an inch, leaves him to untrained eyes the less dynamic of an eternal pair. “The cute one,” is he, “Macca,” domestic sheepdog, populist sugar bear catering to mass audience and mass audience alone, ruthless boardroom cutthroat. These are of course incredible contradictions, which put the lie to just about any Authoritative Opinion On Paul McCartney, but persist nonetheless they do. John, arbiter of love, gets just that. Paul gets a nodding tut-tut. “Oh yes, he was very good, not bad, yes, quite.” It’s an old game and it’s tired, and by the grace of God has subsided a bit as McCartney has reached the age when politicians, ugly buildings and whores, etc., so the saying goes. There’s love to be had for ol’ Paul now that he’s ol’. It should’ve come decades ago. It would, on occasion, but an invariable ebb would follow. Most times, it had nothing to do with the music and everything to do with the perception (though Tug Of War into Pipes Of Peace was a little hard to take), and triumphs Accepted By Everybody were followed by quick, nasty and uninformed deconstructions of whatever came next.
Enter Venus And Mars. At long last validated by the acceptance of his great and classic Band On The Run, McCartney felt with justification that he at long last could do just a little bit of what he wanted. Take on a project and make it a whole kind of package, the way he’d done with Ram (the masterpiece it only took thirty years for people to appreciate), but on a grander, sturdier scale. Emboldened with deserved confidence, rubbed raw by the outrageous process that facilitated Run, he beefed up his band with some ringers, ducked into a studio proper this time (Sea Saint in New Orleans), opened up to a little collaboration (two songs are written by bandmates), let the inspirations, and rolled tape.
It’s not productive to rifle through period reviews of McCartney work, so the opening graph from Rolling Stone’s review of Venus And Mars will do fine enough. Take it away, “Paul Nelson.”
“As time goes by, John Lennon’s importance to the Beatles becomes more and more self-evident. The same old story we’ve been hearing for years — that Lennon’s wit and abrasive probing were needed to balance Paul McCartney’s melodic charm and sweetness — is obvious but true; Lennon’s career has certainly had fewer ups and downs (the first Plastic Ono Band LP being his only real success), but his strivings, if at times embarrassing, have never seemed to be the product of assembly-line manufacture. None of the ex-Beatles has survived the first half of the Seventies heroically — George Harrison has become a musical Kahlil Gibran, Ringo Starr, a likably mediocre Everyman, Lennon, the confused method actor unsure of what role to play, and McCartney, a latter-day Burt Bacharach trying to invent his Angie Dickinson — but, of the four, only Lennon’s plight still reaches the rock & roll part of the heart.”
Same old story indeed. (And good Lord, look at that, that’s three sentences! Ever hear of pacing, Nelson?) To read the rest of that review is to invite one’s blood to boiling (“Band on the Run wasn’t great, but it was good and did suggest that its creator wasn’t all vacuum-packed smugness and unmatched ego. Now, I don’t know.” Yes. Smugness.), an unworthy pursuit in any milieu, not least because the author takes yet another in an unceasing line of terrible shots at the subject’s fucking wife, for God’s sakes. (Yes, Paul made Linda part of the band, but A. her contributions were measured and valid and B. “These are two geese who have laid a golden egg in a land where Michelangelo Antonioni and Norman Rockwell have somehow become soulmates, and all of us are going to be expected to pay the price.”? Dude, fuck off.) Such is the burden that has been Paul McCartney’s to bear since he made the apparently unacceptable step to put a dying dog out of its misery by announcing the Beatles’ breakup. Of course, if John had done it nobody would’ve batted an eye.
Thankfully, there is the music. And what Paul spun together in assembling the deceptive, cunning Mars is its own masterpiece. The title and introductory track, a paean to cosmic otherworldly connections, can be seen as an ode to that lovely Linda, and it is. But, as with so many great things, “Venus And Mars” can slice any number of other ways. It doesn’t take much to find a John corollary, not least as the two brothers were enjoying a brief (if musically absurd, really, don’t listen, don’t do it) reconstitution due to Lennon’s separation from Yoko Ono. “Sitting in the stan of the sports arena,” Paul teases at the jump, “waiting for the show to begin.” It’s a taste of what his widened audience expects–plucking guitars, gentle pace–but it toys on those gloppy expectations with dexterous theming you have to seek to find. (A majority of rock fans in the ’70s weren’t exactly “seekers.” It’s also one hell of a misdirecting lead-in to the album’s “real” lead-off tune, “Rockshow.” “Rockshow” exists as if McCartney had surveyed the new class of popular around him, mused “the kids like the obvious anthems, do they?”, and in about five minutes cranked out the bones of an obvious anthem better than anyone else who tried. (Plenty tried.) Name-dropping like a bastard (he actually says “Jimmy Page”), rib-punching with his self-achievements (Hollywood Bowl, anybody?), he does what he smartly figures is expected from a rock outfit in 1975, and makes sure to make the music actually rock. Mind the ferocious slide guitar, the timpanic piano, the terrific boil-down coda. In one-and-a-half songs, McCartney and Wings call back to and match what their prior album did in two, and do so with an obvious intended nod toward the greater stardom at hand. Last time around, the band was on the run. Now they’re warming up backstage.
From there it’s a festival. A fantastic one. The languid “Love In Song” follows, an acher of a ballad that may as well have been eponymous, stating as it does right there in the title what is the LP’s intended theme, playing on listener’s deafness to any interpretation of a McCartney ballad as “about Paul and Linda, so fuck this pussy shit.” Praise the Lord, McCartney is playing fuck-you right back, as follows right away a song derived from the creative thinking “Oh, hated ‘Honey Pie,’ did you? Well, here’s some double-sweets, I call this one ‘You Gave Me The Answer.’ Do yourself a favor and mind the lyrics for once, no? In the meantime I am going to whistle, dum-ta-dum and hambone my ass off, all within what’s a very proper song.”
The talent spills out of him. Paul’s tired of the short shrift, the sub-byline; he’s mustering all the equipment at his disposal and throwing nuance wherever it’ll take, subtle or not. After “Answer” is “Magneto And Titanium Man,” a wonderful pop shimmy inspired by a chance (ha) stack of Marvel Comics, riddled with riffs from instrument to instrument, lain together with absolute precision, firing one wild lyric after another, roping in the Crimson Dynamo, daring the audience to make even a semblance of sense of it all. “I’ve got the keys to the toolshed?,” McCartney is not-asking. “Good. I’m gonna use ’em.” Up next is a song that’s unmissably about Linda through and through (“I wanna put her on the radio”), “Letting Go,” the title complete deception, the song a swank, dank sleaze-chunk of expression that: Paul McCartney adores his wife. Up and down. Backwards, forwards. Any which way you’d care to imagine. He feels like letting go, alright. With vigor, on the reg.
One slow fade-out and a side-flip later, “Venus & Mars” is reprised with its galactic intentions foregrounded, spacespeak, “the great cathedral,” “a strange vacation, holiday hardly begun,” and another nod to “a good friend of mine.” Captive spectators may not know what’s captivating them, but–provided they’re listening–McCartney has them by the balls. What does he do? He turns over the reins and lets in a bit of sideshow. Denny Laine takes over the verses with the very capable “Spirits Of Ancient Egypt” (continuing the themes, albeit clunkily, what with its “pound of love” and “I’m your baby” and “I can drive a Cadillac” and whatnot), leaving Paul to play with harmonies (he can do those too, remember?) and lock down the dizzying chorus. New guitarist Jimmy McCulloch follows up with “Medicine Jar,” an anti-drug raver, also not as expert, though it’s propulsive, it fits and, in the long run, is quite poignant, as McCulloch would later pass of a heroin overdose some years after leaving Wings. (McCulloch’s onetime bandmate Colin Allen wrote “Jar”‘s lyrics. A damn worthy effort on the latter’s part.) Diplomacy, yet another of McCartney’s Many Weaknesses, is forefronted. This is a band, he’s saying, no, it really is, look around and listen. The girl with the haunting middle-eight on that “Medicine Jar?” She’s not bad, is she? That’s what I thought.
After the diptych for his mates, then, Paul roars back, roars, with bombast. “Call Me Back Again” is all polish, Stax and Motown on its mind, and foregrounds its creator’s desperation for John’s friendship. “Well when I–when I wa-aw-aw-aws…just a little…baby boy,” he emotes, doing work nobody noted, “just another love song, I see,” the reading half-right but the object all wrong. McCartney, as he had in the past with “Dear Friend,” “Let Me Roll It,” even the acid “Too Many People,” is opening his heart and cracking the granite facade with purpose, asking his ever-mercurial, impossible to predict partner-in-crime, pleading, really, “We’re cool, right? If you just tell me we’re cool it’s cool. I ain’t never heard you calling me; c’mon. C’mon and call me back again?”
Of course, the laminate must be raised back up, and next in sequence is the single, “Listen To What The Man Said,” playing with that final word and its counterpart, “says,” nudging at what we say in the present as opposed to the past, with one particular prior mission statement in mind. “If we’re not cool–are you still cool?” The song is built for FM ubiquity, at least one per album had to be, and it’s catchy as such things should be, but it’s more than a ditty for the kids. “The wonder of it all, bay-bay,” the author muses, staggered, left with nothing but an instrumental coda into “Treat Her Gently.”
“Treat Her Gently.” “Take it slow.” “Make it easy.” “Let her know, you’ll never find another way.” This into “Lonely Old People,” an “Eleanor Rigby” tandem-ride, the songs an inseparable pair of lamentations. “Nobody asks us to play,” McCartney’s narrator sighs, all too aware that work so often appears all there is, no matter your age, no matter your station. It’s a devastating finale to an album of and about emotion. (“Crossroads Theme,” an instrumental tack-on written for a British television show, is the new “Her Majesty.”) It’s as if he knew, Paul did, he’d take a fall. For all his optimism, the man in his heart had and has the weary sadness of the soul-smart. Life is wonderful, but it’s also a thresher. Paul made it through (as did Linda, as did John, until bastards broke the pattern), but he was wise beyond his years before the years spread wisdom about him out.
So it goes. Appreciating McCartney’s solo work is a gem of an underrated, undersold task that is much-maligned for reasons holding nothing to do with sense. He’s Paul McCartney. He was a Beatle, yes, and that beast is its own glorious reward. But the effort on his own, the stuff so often just as good–it staggers the imagination. It’s a thrill for the heart. It’s its own Liverpudlian breed of mottled, lunatic perfection.
Which is something the man himself knows, of course, though perish the thought that he’d say it aloud. He wasn’t fucking around. Run (and the phenomenal James Bond theme song “Live And Let Die”) gave him a taste of the new rock world and he wanted more. He wanted more and he wanted to make it better. He knew he could even if not everybody understood. Line up the tour buses, fuel them planes, Paul McCartney was on a mission. Love in song, and Wings over the world.
Not everybody got it. Sucks to be them. ‘Cause the plan worked.
DUDS and/or DISASTERS
“Venus And Mars/Rockshow.” “Hello Goodbye” nothin’. These songs have been set aside for pretty obvious respective reasons (some of the planets have left us; you can’t update dated reference, and thank GOD Paul hasn’t tried), but it would be spectacular for the fantastic rejuvenated Paul Is Live experience to once, even once, rip into the goings-on with this classic pair.
Available in all the standard formats, recommended as ever on the original vinyl, in dire need of a remaster and deluxe rerelease package. Paging Apple, paging Apple please.
IN THE MEANTIME…
John, as noted, was finding his way back to Yoko.
George was finding his way with Olivia.
Ringo was hanging out with his friends waiting for Barbara to enter stage-right.
ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE
From the 1976 Wings world-tour documentary Rockshow. Seriously, what an opener. Enjoy the added bonus that is “Jet,” because JET! You know the rest.