Paul McCartney - The McCartney Years

Paul McCartney
The McCartney Years


#3 Boxed Set/Live Album/Music DVD for 2007

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Fri, December 14, 2007, 07:15 AM CST


Everyone gives Paul McCartney such a hard time. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel sorry for a knighted multi-billionaire who has co-written some of the most enduring pop classics of all time and whose hardest work presently seems to be choosing with which beautiful actress to become engaged in a secret liaison. On the other hand, there has never been another artist of McCartney’s stature whose work has been so consistently and maliciously maligned in the press. No matter how thick one’s skin is, some of what has been written — regardless of how justifiable the criticisms may have been — must have hurt.

Over the years, McCartney certainly hasn’t made it easy on himself either. The public nature of his life has left everything that he ever has done open to scrutiny. His desire to switch writing credits on some of The Beatles’ songs — from the traditional Lennon-McCartney authorship to McCartney-Lennon — struck many as egoistical and shallow. Furthermore, his embarrassing pleas in the press to be loved and taken seriously as an artist have made many of his fans feel uncomfortable. McCartney’s persona often rubs the wrong way, and the perception of his art has suffered as a result.

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 didn’t help matters. In death, Lennon immediately attained rock ’n‘ roll sainthood. His work and life have been elevated to a mythical status, and in the process, both his diffidence and his hesitancy suddenly were repainted as indications of a higher calling. Rock ’n‘ roll loves a rebel, though — especially a dead one — and from the moment of Lennon’s untimely demise, McCartney has been doomed to play the role of second fiddle. Forget his solo work and his noble efforts to create something new with Wings. As tragic as it was, by dying young, Lennon was delivered from the pressures of aging. Consequently, his legacy endures, and his iconic image has been left safely intact. He became rock’s Che Guevera while McCartney became its Gilbert and Sullivan, and Sir Paul has struggled under this designation ever since. In many ways, this has been unfair. As the years have passed, Lennon’s insurgent stance has calcified into a corporate brand while McCartney has continued toiling away at his craft in the increasingly long shadow of his former partner’s recalibrated image. All of this has made an honest assessment of McCartney’s work very difficult, at least until now.

The new, three-DVD boxed set, The McCartney Years goes a long way toward making a reevaluation of his career possible. When looking over the contents of the collection, the first thing that impresses is the sheer volume of his work. Clocking in with more than 400 minutes of music, The McCartney Years is certainly a good value for the money, and it is the anthology for which his fans have been waiting. Moving from the 1970s to present day, the first two discs are essentially videos of many of McCartney’s solo songs as well as material from his days fronting Wings. The final — and the most interesting — disc in the collection compiles of an abundance of concert recordings that begin with the Wings Over America tour and end with his wonderful Glastonbury appearance in 2004.

Growing up as a teenager in the 1970s, it was impossible to avoid the songs of Paul McCartney and Wings. The group was ever present on the radio, but as the decade wore on, so many more interesting things started happening in music that Wings disappeared off my radar. With the emergence of punk, new wave, and reggae, it was really hard to care or, for that matter, to "listen to what the man says." There has been so much cultural revisionism in the intervening years that it is important to note that by the late 1970s, the work of Lennon and the other surviving Beatles was considered as irrelevant as McCartney’s radio-friendly ditties are today. Prior to the death of Lennon, interest in their collective outputs was at an all-time low.

Taking this into account, I have to admit that I approached The McCartney Years with an extreme bias. After not hearing many of these songs for quite some time, I was prepared to hate everything about the set, and I already had composed a disparaging review in my head before I even put the first disc into my DVD player. Over the course of watching these videos, however, something happened. There’s certainly a lot of second-rate pap in the collection — for every Maybe I’m Amazed or live Beatles cut, there’s a Say, Say, Say or Coming Up to bring the proceedings down a notch. Yet, the overall impression of McCartney that emerges is different from the one I’d expected.

Behind the baby-faced earnestness of his singing and his palpable desire to be adored, there resides a musical genius. Has there ever been an artist with such an innate and seemingly effortless sense of melody? On song after song, the tunes are maddeningly perfect and without parallel. The arrangements also are soaring and bold, and an exquisite sense of rhythm and counterpoint is at the service of the divine melodies that McCartney seems to have plucked from thin air. Certainly an angel must have been whispering to him. How many artists would give their lives to create material such as this? No human, this side of Mozart, has ever been blessed with an ear that could give form and substance to these seraphic sounds taken from the ether. McCartney and Mozart in the same sentence! My brain must be going soft.

The further I got into The McCartney Years, the more my preconceptions about McCartney’s work were upset. There was something about the appeal of this strange cherub’s work that previously had remained elusive, but now had begun to impress itself upon me. Over the decades, McCartney quietly has endured, and he has kept working at his craft regardless of prevailing fashion. He has made concessions and worked with other artists, perhaps hoping to rekindle some of the chemistry he enjoyed with Lennon during The Beatles’ heyday. Though Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello are both artists of great stature — regardless of what one might think of their efforts — neither of them added much to McCartney’s oeuvre when they made music together. McCartney’s resolute stubbornness and his adherence to his muse serve as proof of a vision that he has no choice but to follow.

This portrait of Paul as consummate artist gelled for me as I watched the live material featured on The McCartney Years. Whether he’s performing with Wings, at Live Aid, on MTV’s Unplugged, or with his own band at Glastonbury in 2004, it is impossible not to marvel at the former Beatle’s focus and commitment. Even though most of his albums are at least half-full of inferior material, McCartney still has penned so many classic songs that he has no trouble putting together a killer concert set. Indeed, when watching him in action, there is no doubt about what he was placed on Earth to do. From rocking out with Wings while standing a platform that is obscured by dry ice and lasers to delivering a career-spanning and truly revelatory show in Glastonbury, McCartney is a man who is transformed once he hits the stage. He can’t help that goofy grin. He’s in a transcendent state that lets everyone know that there isn’t a soul anywhere in the universe who, at that moment, is having more fun than he. When he tells people, before launching into Hey Jude, that they may know the words and want to sing along, it initially seems pretentious, but then one has to admit that everyone does know the words, and it would be false modesty to claim otherwise. After all, McCartney was a Beatle, and the songs are ubiquitous. At times, it must be a hell of a burden to carry, yet when he is on stage, he rises to the occasion by singing, playing, and performing like a man on fire. The way in which he manages to make Yesterday sound — well, like it was written yesterday — is an amazing testament to his showmanship. To hear him engage in some truly wicked grungy guitar dueling with his band mates on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is enough to bring a smile to the face of the most jaded music critic.

The McCartney Years is an astonishing document. Far from being dull or calculated, this collection has the effect of bringing a fresh perspective to a body of work that admittedly is overexposed and underappreciated. Many of life’s formative experiences take only a brief amount of time to unfold, but their impact sometimes can send ripples across time. The Beatles’ music was the work of four very young men, but it left this sort of enormous impression. Although they were together for little more than a decade, the group’s members ever since have existed in the shadow of their former glory, and — in one way or another — they have spent the intervening years recovering from the experience. McCartney, in this sense, has been trapped in a Catch-22. The music of The Beatles is so deeply embedded in our culture’s consciousness that it has been all but impossible to hear the band’s music and the subsequent solo work of John, Paul, George, and Ringo clearly. Hopefully, The McCartney Years will help to establish some clarity. If one can approach the music contained on these three discs and hear these songs anew, by forgetting for a minute from where McCartney emerged — if such a thing is even possible — perhaps Sir Paul will finally get the recognition he has been after. starstarstarstar

The McCartney Years is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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