SOME PEOPLE want to fill the world with silly love songs/And what's wrong with that?/I'd like to know.
Wings' "Silly Love Songs" begins with the rhythmic sounds of a factory: an industrial thunk, a steam-engine whistle, various metallic clinks and ratchets. There's no misinterpreting that this is the sound of Paul McCartney hard at work. Like any skilled laborer, he knows his craft—writing and recording amazingly successful and almost sickeningly catchy pop songs—and he takes full pride in it.
No reasonable person could argue that "Silly Love Songs" is one of the better songs Sir James Paul McCartney has written in his 73 years. It's corny and trite, and its chorus hook is an empty-headed and enervating "Iiiiiii... looooooooove... yooooooouuuu." But its craftsmanship is kind of awe-inspiring, and it makes use of twirling disco strings, tootling saxophones, and a Jenga stack of vocal harmonies to ornament a very simple sentiment. And underneath all its self-proclaimed silliness, of course, McCartney pops out a pretty terrific bassline.
It's as if McCartney knew how slight the tune was, and turned it into an extravaganza all the same. "Gimme three chords and the dumbest of hooks," he seems to be saying, "and I'll make you a monster." The factory sound effects and the over-the-top arrangement add a layer of self-aware irony, but none of that mattered very much to American record buyers in 1976. They made "Silly Love Songs" McCartney's biggest post-Beatles hit in the US, despite it being perhaps one of his worst. (In McCartney's UK homeland, Wings' 1977 drippy sing-along "Mull of Kintyre" takes that honor, and it's not particularly distinguished, either.)
Like a handful of other megastars, Paul McCartney always knew exactly what was expected of him. Unlike most of them, McCartney was entirely comfortable with it. His Beatles compatriots had their own issues with the limelight: John Lennon's confrontational personality was put in the service of social activism; Ringo Starr fell into a tragic but temporary cloud of drugs and booze and Caveman; George Harrison disdained fame and the public almost entirely.
Beatle Paul, however, never stopped wanting to be Beatle Paul, and he knew that's what we wanted from him, too. McCartney held the group together in the wake of manager Brian Epstein's death in 1967 by getting them back to work with the Magical Mystery Tour project. He wrote the song that finally illustrated the Beatles' soaring, almost inconceivable success: 1968's "Hey Jude," a gentle piano ballad that turned into a let's-all-join-hands monolith of chanted vocals. He conceived the string of miniature songs that elevated 1969's Abbey Road from what might have otherwise been a collection of half-finished throwaways into a definitive masterpiece (McCartney continued to make similar suites throughout his solo career, with varying degrees of success). And when the Beatles well was good and poisoned—by Allen Klein and acrimony and apathy—McCartney was the first to walk away from the band in 1970. The notion of "the Beatles" wasn't what it used to be, and Paul was the one to give it a mercy killing, Old Yeller-style behind the barn.
It was a pragmatic move, since McCartney already had a home-recorded solo album ready—the charmingly low-key McCartney—but according to his pseudo-autobiography Many Years from Now (culled from a series of interviews with writer Barry Miles), the end of the Beatles actually threw our Cuddly One into a pot-fueled depression. He puttered around New York City trying to figure out his new place in the world. More than anything, he longed for the camaraderie of being in a band with his best mates. It's hardly any wonder that when his three closest friendships turned into rotten Apples, McCartney turned to his new bestie—wife Linda—for a musical partnership, kicked off by 1971's fantastic Ram. When the first Wings album, Wild Life, followed later that year, McCartney appeared to be fully ensconced inside a new band, concealing his own outsized identity into a new group of supposed equals.
The Wings concept might have been the only miscalculation in McCartney's career. If they couldn't have the Beatles, the public clearly wanted solo McCartney, and he conceded by putting the "Paul McCartney and Wings" moniker on the spines of their album sleeves. Yet he refused to let Wings simply be his backing band, even when its ranks were reduced to a pair of McCartneys and the stalwart Denny Laine for 1973's Band on the Run; Paul simply took over the drum kit and overdubbed the rest. That album was deservedly huge, although its reputation as McCartney's "only" good post-Beatles album is unfair. (First of all, while it contains masterpieces like "Jet" and "Let Me Roll It," it's got some real doggerel on it, too. Albums like Ram, 1975's Venus and Mars, and 1979's flawed but totally enjoyable Back to the Egg are certainly equal to Band on the Run, if not superior.)
It wasn't until a well-publicized pot bust in 1980 and the dissolution of Wings (after McCartney and Laine's relationship went sideways in 1981) that McCartney finally seemed comfortable to plow forward as a solo act. Of course, Linda could still be found on all his albums—she's even on the cover of 1986's Press to Play—and in fact, understanding the McCartneys' marriage and musical partnership is key to understanding the nature of Paul McCartney's creativity. Poor Linda suffered years of criticism for her subpar backing vocals and keyboard skills; indeed, rockist types seemed to be offended by her very presence on the same stage as her more talented husband. But Paul wouldn't have wanted to do any of it without her; it could be argued he would have been unable to do any of it without her. Their marriage is one of the very few true love stories in the rock 'n' roll canon—one that met a tragic end when Linda died of breast cancer in 1998 at age 56. 1997's "Calico Skies," while ostensibly written years before Linda's diagnosis, is Paul's breathtaking eulogy, a heartbreaking declaration of devotion uttered before her departure. We should all be so lucky.
Indeed, these silly love songs are where Paul and the public share the most common ground. McCartney always had an adventurous musical spirit and a perversity that rivaled that of his famous songwriting partner. But Lennon never attempted anything as ambitious as McCartney's classical works, or anything as self-skewering as the lounge orchestra rework of Ram on 1977's Thrillington; Lennon's tape experiments with Yoko are unpleasant to listen to when compared with the electronic work McCartney released as the Fireman. And it's well known to Beatles aficionados, if not many others, that McCartney was the one who immersed himself in Swinging London's avant-garde scene while Lennon, married with child, languished in a large house in the leafy suburbs. Nevertheless, Lennon gets the credit for pushing the sonic envelope with creations like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Revolution 9," while Paul's heady "Carnival of Light" soundscape from 1967 remains unreleased. And McCartney is similarly dismissed as the "lightweight" Beatle, responsible for their treacliest ballads, even though rockers like "Helter Skelter" and his ace Little Richard impression on the blistering "Long Tall Sally" are far more characteristic.
Being misunderstood and denigrated, though, never really bothered Sir Paul all that much. He's at his happiest with a catchy tune, a goofy lyric, and some musical pals to help him drive it home. Whether it's the ecstasy in "Got to Get You into My Life" or "Maybe I'm Amazed," whether it's the spare acoustic guitar of "Yesterday" or the similarly stripped-down "FourFiveSeconds," whether he's stitching together tiny song fragments into patchworks like the "Golden Slumbers" medley or the Live and Let Die theme—McCartney simply exudes music. More importantly, he intertwines it with a genuine generosity of spirit—his "Silly Love Songs" could just as easily be directed at us, his audience. Paul has written many, many terrific pieces of music over the decades, and on Friday night he'll ask us to help him sing about 30 of them. I wouldn't miss it for the world.