Though they never agreed to it or even discussed it, each member of the Beatles struck out on their own in an oddly similar way. No one wanted to be accused of trying to make a Beatles retread — Ringo first put out a big band record of old standards and then a straight country record produced in Nashville. John set out to completely deconstruct the mythos of the Beatles, releasing his brutally honest and bracingly stripped-down ode to alienation and isolation in late 1970, Plastic Ono Band.
Mostly, none of them wanted their new music to sound like the Beatles. George developed a whole new way of playing the slide guitar and coined a signature sound, which I like to call “melodic slide” playing (as opposed to the traditional blues-based version). Relegated to 1-2 songs per album for so long, George had developed a huge backlog of material and, freed from restraints, released his first post-Beatles solo album, the epic three-album, set All Things Must Pass in 1970. An incredibly rich and varied work — a true breakout album in every sense of the word. The whole world took notice, sent “My Sweet Lord” to #1, and acclimated itself to George’s new sound. That’s his melodic slide on Badfinger’s Harrison-produced “Day After Day.” From that point on, the signature guitar technique earned a permanent place in the rock lexicon. Here’s a nice sampling of rock songs through the decades that nick the “My Sweet Lord” round, mellow slide guitar sound:
Whereas Plastic Ono Band was minimalist and in your face, All Things Must Pass was opulent and a bit overproduced. Interestingly, neither sounded remotely like their previous band, even though Ringo was in the drummer’s seat for the Lennon album. Maybe some of this can be attributed to the absence of George Martin and the EMI production team — I think it’s mostly a matter of intention. Unlike his bandmates, Paul’s post-Beatles life took a while to get out of the starting gate but his hazy concept of a solo career eventually started to come into focus by the 1971 Ram album, along with his own unique post-Beatles sound.
The breakup moment of the Beatles can be traced back to a September 1969 private band meeting where John suddenly announced that he was leaving the group. In retrospect, it’s less surprising considering the arguing, tension, and power plays we all saw documented in the Let It Be movie, filmed in January of 1969 and released soon after the announcement of the Beatles’ split over a year later.
Interviewed recently, Paul finally talks about that once-secretive period of Beatles dissolution — how he found himself in a full-blown depression, self-medicating with marijuana and booze, drinking on waking, not shaving out of apathy, and confused as to how to carry on without the band. John and George burst out of the “divorce” (as John called it) with a lot of anti-Beatles energy, but even though the Beatles split was finally announced in April 1970 with the release of Paul’s solo album, McCartney, the breakup left Paul, the band’s motivating force since the death of Brian Epstein, bereft and devastated. In Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, Paul tells the harrowing tale of weakly waking up one hungover morning face down in his pillow and having to summon all of his strength to lift his head so as not to suffocate. As he tells it, it was Linda that slowly and persistently pulled him out of his downward spiral, eventually cajoling him back into their makeshift barn studio to write again. A lot of that first McCartney album is the sound of Paul getting his feet wet again. Yes, it’s informal and homespun, with a lot of half-formed ideas, but the album also features what could be the single greatest post-Beatles solo song of them all, Paul’s loving tribute to his wife, the majestic “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
To hear him tell it, Paul felt utterly worthless after the breakup of the Beatles. “Linda saved me.” Unlike the bulk of the McCartney album, “Maybe I’m Amazed” was recorded at Abbey Road (with Paul playing the entire track), but with extensive background vocals laid down by Paul and Linda, giving Paul a new sound that differed fundamentally from the Beatles, one that he would lean into in the years to come.
Critics brutalized Paul’s first solo album as being amateurish, slight, and haphazard. George and John slammed it too, George saying that apart from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “That Would Be Something” (which he described as “great”), “the rest don’t do much for me.” John merely dismissed the whole album as “rubbish.” The criticism stung, Paul later admitted. In response, McCartney auditioned musicians with the intent of bringing off a more fully realized and professional sounding second album.
In October 1970, Paul and Linda, with drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist David Spinozza entered Columbia Studio B in New York City and started recording tracks for what would become Ram, an album released by “Paul and Linda McCartney.” The first song laid down on the sessions was the ambitious “Another Day,” a charming, melancholy look at mundane life (not unlike “Eleanor Rigby”) that deftly toggles between duple and triple time (4/4 and 3/4 time signatures) with a nod to George Harrison’s signature “melodic slide” technique in an ascending arpeggiated eighth-note figure as a bridge between sections (John too would adopt the George-ish melodic slide sound in his “#9 Dream” a few years later). “Another Day” was released as a non-album single and climbed to #5 in the charts. Ram followed later in 1971 and scored a #1 hit with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” another multi-sectioned bit of symphonic pop, a song that is equal parts pot-inspired whimsy and musical ambition, which is a good way to describe the whole goofy but artistic Ram album. Most importantly, it’s here where Paul’s own unique post-Beatles sound comes to fruition, one that is rooted entirely in the vocal blend he was getting with Linda.
Paul’s lyrics on Ram are certainly swirling in clouds of pot smoke. Coherent thoughts are rare. It’s mostly chained ideas, most often sparked by rhyming wordplay or animal imagery, but in the most appealing way. That is unless you’re John Lennon, who picked up on the little digs at him, especially in the Ram opener, “Too Many People.” Turns out it was not his imagination; Paul later confessed that “too many people preaching practices” was his take on John and Yoko’s political activism. “You took your lucky break and broke it in two” was perceived by John as an even deeper cut (referring to John breaking up the band), but it was probably just Paul rhyming “piece of cake with “first mistake” and “lucky break.” He later rhymes “sharing party lines” with “paying parking fines” — great song (nice feel, really cool countermelodies), but clearly Paul playfully groping around for a lyric.
John responded by completely tearing Paul a new one on “How Do You Sleep?” — one of the most brutal, scathing musical attacks ever directed at any person — from his next solo album, Imagine, released four months later in September of 1971 (a song to which George contributed a stinging solo). In it, John is not playing, calling Paul “dead,” a has-been, surrounded by sycophants. He bluntly name-drops three Paul songs by their titles, but the most stinging rebuke was probably the characterization of Paul’s music as elevator music (“the sound you make is Muzak to my ears”), given their history and the perception that John was the raw and gritty one in the Beatles, something Paul has chafed at in interviews since their breakup.
It’s here where Paul’s own post-Beatles sound comes to fruition, one that is rooted entirely in the vocal blend he was getting with Linda.
Ram has justly undergone a critical revival recently as the prototype indie-pop album, but it was lambasted at the time as more incoherent fluff. Clearly, the ultra-serious critics of the heady early days of rock journalism were immune to the charms of Ram or the previous self-titled album, for that matter. Looking back, we can see that Paul’s response to the pressure of following up the epic run of Beatles albums was very Paul-like.
His next move, the assembling of a new band and quickly recording and releasing their debut album (as “Wings” without Paul’s name on the cover, just a distant outdoorsy picture of all four members), the slapdash, amusing, and highly democratic Wild Life was clearly Paul facing the pressure by looking for a bit of fun. As recounted by Wings drummer Denny Seiwell in Paul McCartney: A Life, Paul considers a band to be a family; he loved to hang out, laugh, goof off, and follow musical tangents — Wild Life was a document of four musical friends jamming happily in the studio and not much more. The critics were merciless, calling it rushed, focusing on Wild Life’s paltry songwriting. The Rolling Stone review wondered if the album was “intentionally second-rate.” Paul Mccartney entered 1972 under full-scale attack from previous bandmates and the rock press, while Beatles fans were left to wonder what happened to their ultra-talented Paul.
Paul’s response was to do with Wings what he offered to the Beatles when they were at low ebb near the end, to tour small clubs and colleges unannounced, just show up and play. His first move was to add seasoned lead guitarist, Irishman Henry McCullough (ex-Joe Cocker’s Grease band) to the quartet (Paul, Linda, ex-Moody Blues guitarist-singer Denny Laine, and Seiwell on drums). This version of Wings would last through a couple of tours, the recording of the Red Rose Speedway double album and a few significant non-album singles (including “Live and Let Die”), and act as a bridge between the jamband version of Wings on Wild Life to the world-class outfit that would be one of the biggest draws in 70s rock.
In February of 1972, Paul rented a van for the band members and a truck for the gear, and Wings spent two weeks on a completely impromptu tour of universities around the Midlands and north of England (11 shows in 14 days). When they’d get to a school, one of their two roadies would jump out of the van and head for the administrative building, and tried to schmooze someone remotely in charge, offering a 50-50% door split if they’d host a dance with Paul McCartney’s band, often having to drag Paul inside to close the deal. It was mostly just blues jamming and Little Richard covers, with a few originals thrown in, but the small audiences ate it up and it gave a chance for the band to gel as a unit.
In March, Paul and the band went into Olympic Sound to begin work on Red Rose Speedway, a double album with the famously ornery Glyn Johns producing. Johns left after a month, however, purportedly when the band confronted Johns about not taking a greater interest in their endless stoned-out jamming, something that the producer found to be a waste of tape and worse, a waste of his energies. After this abortive first attempt at recording, the group embarked on a proper tour, dubbed the “Wings Over Europe Tour,” after which they booked time at Abbey Road, Olympic, and a few other London studios in October to finish the album with Paul himself in the producer chair. Ultimately, the double LP was pared down to a single with a lot of the harder-edged band features ending up being left out, but Red Rose Speedway did offer one very focused gem of a song among the lighter, more whimsical fare.
A 50-piece orchestra supporting a slow-tempo electric piano-based ballad with jazz chords might not be anyone’s idea of an incandescent moment in rock and roll, but in my opinion, to dismiss “My Love” as drippy, saccharine, or lacking intensity would be grossly unfair. It’s a song of great emotional depth and commitment. The form is asymmetrical and seemingly simple, but with enough twists and turns to keep from feeling predictable, not unlike “Hey Jude,” another piano ballad of Paul’s whose complexities are only revealed when one sits down and tries to play it.
Emotionally, “My Love” in many ways feels to me like a companion to “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the other epic love song from Paul to Linda. They were written in the same late ‘69 to early ‘70 time period, but where “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a gutsy piano ballad that rocks out in the choruses, “My Love” is equally intense, but in a different way — they can both be seen as statements of wonder and gratitude for his wife’s ability to pull him out of his depression. Also, in a McCartney period of increasingly dippy, pot-inspired abstract Paul lyrics, here are two songs that are completely concrete in their imagery and are clear, naked even, as to what they are both about, down to each stanza. And even more to the point than any previous song, “My Love” is Paul’s unambiguous pledge of love to Linda, expressed simply but with great sincerity.
Musically, “My Love” has a beautiful arching melody and a set of sparse chord changes that underpin the sincerity of the lyric’s emotion. This is especially true under the lyric, “and my love does it good,” where the chords come faster and hang on the tension-filled half-diminished chord on “good,” only to cool out with simple chords on the “whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa” phrases, leading back to IV-I “church cadence” back to the home key at the end of the 11-bar A section. It’s an interesting, asymmetrical arch-like construction that repeats throughout the song, with a simple 8-bar bridge breaking up the AABAA structure.
Then, on returning from the bridge, we are treated to a loud, emotionally searing solo by Henry McCollough, cut live with the orchestra on the session. Paul originally wanted McCollough to overdub a pre-composed solo based on the vocal melody, but the guitarist put his foot down, insisting that he cut the solo live and that it be improvised, from the heart. Paul thankfully gave his okay, because the visceral, distorted solo provides the perfect anchor that keeps “My Love” from drifting gently into Easy Listening territory. Recording it live, one take, alongside the orchestra, with the amp sound bleeding into the strings and french horn mics raises the stakes of the whole song, and the gutsy, fully-committed solo matches the sentiment of the lyrics. Great idea, perfectly executed. After the solo, it’s one more time through the A section with an additional tag as an ending.
Released in late March of 1973, “My Love” rose to #1 in the US Billboard Hot 100, followed in June by “Live and Let Die” which reached #2 (also recorded on the Red Rose Speedway sessions), both successes seeding the ground for Paul’s best and most popular album, Band on the Run, released in December of the same year, the album that would redeem Paul’s reputation and restore his stature in the eyes of the rock world.
Despite his obvious talents, Paul McCartney has been a lightning rod and a magnet for criticism for nearly his whole career. The unavoidable comparisons to John Lennon continue to hound him, usually unfairly — both are genius-level musicians, songwriters, and singers. Contemporaneously, John seemed to set the frame by which the press, and subsequently, the public understood the Beatles and that dynamic continued after the breakup. John’s 1970 Rolling Stone free-flowing interviews with Jann Wenner, later published in book form as Lennon Remembers, helped to cement those perceptions into the future, burnishing John’s reputation as the great artist and unfairly casting Paul’s as some sort of vaudevillian entertainer (many of the Lennon anecdotes were later understood to be embellished, exaggerated, or outright falsehoods). Lennon’s senseless martyrdom at the hand of a crazed gunman has only made the contrasts to Paul that much more bold as Lennon lives on as an ideal while Paul lives on as a flawed human being.
In many ways, Paul McCartney seems to be a man out of sync with his times. With his innate taste for older “corny” styles of music, plus an industrious work ethic, he was not the best fit for the groovy 60s era (despite being a stylistic influence on so many around him). In the Beatles, Paul’s enthusiasm and drive often cast him as the square in the group, but after the death of manager, Brian Epstein, Paul’s leadership and corny “can-do” spirit are doubtlessly what held the group together in those centrifugal times, which is no small matter. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without McCartney’s dogged insistence, we would be deprived of not only the Paul-driven Magical Mystery Tour or Let It Be films and albums, but there would also be no White Album or Abbey Road. The Beatles would have dissolved long before those projects were ever imagined. Paul is stigmatized for his domineering ways in the studio and in the Beatles boardroom, but we all — each of us — owe a great debt to Paul and Paul alone for his willingness to suffer the scorn of his bandmates to keep the Beatles chugging on when no one else was feeling it.
As for Paul’s “featherweight” solo career before the arrival of Band on the Run, the jury still remains out as to its ultimate value. It’s for us all to decide. I’ve admittedly never been a huge fan, but here I’ve culled a 33-song playlist to shuffle from those three years and I’m loving the stoney, playful aesthetic of Paul just kicking around for a good time while John and George were making their profound post-Beatles statements. And of course, we get those deeper statements of love and gratitude for his “Lovely Linda,” including “My Love.” Like Ram, I think the whole era is due for a critical reassessment. See if you don’t agree:
Rings Photo by Megapixelstock from Pexels
Roses Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels
Lightning Photo by Kemal Christian Catovic #Cato from Pexels
Review of Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s:
Review of Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles:
Wings University Tour, February 1972:
Contemporaneous review of Red Rose Speedway, by Lenny Kaye in Rolling Stone: