Along with Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and Carole King, Sir James Paul McCartney is one of pop-rock’s most legendary and accomplished tunesmiths. His genius ear for instantly hummable melodies and timeless hooks has led to a recording career spanning six decades, resulting in more than 100 million albums and singles sold. According to Guinness Book of World Records, his composition “Yesterday” is the most covered song in the history of pop music.
From “Penny Lane” to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” Macca truly is a master of sonic cuteness and adorability. And let’s face it, nobody — and we mean nobody — pens tender ballads quite like the guy. “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Let It Be” — the mind-blowing list is damn near endless.
With The Beatles
Exposed to music at a young age thanks to his father, a traditional jazz musician, McCartney can be credited with having created many of The Beatles’ most infectious tunes, including “Hello, Goodbye,” “Blackbird” and the wonderfully romantic “All My Loving.” John Lennon and George Harrison were brilliant songwriters, yet neither possessed their mate’s knack for pure pop brilliance.
Even when the quartet entered their psychedelic period (1966 to ’68), Macca emphasized melody and sentiment in the pieces “Eleanor Rigby,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “She’s Leaving Home.” These songs spotlight a stunning fusion of trippy studio experiments, orchestral instrumentation and Tin Pan Alley pop that continue to exert a profound influence on musicians who explore the intersection of classical music and rock.
Despite his pop legacy, pigeonholing McCartney as The Beatles’ pop guy would be an insult to his diverse talents. Indeed, he unleashed some of their hardest swinging rock numbers. His exquisitely shredded howls and love for blistering guitars can be heard on “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I’m Down,” “Oh! Darling” and numerous other killer tracks. But far and away the most potent expression of his rock ’n’ roll edge is the screeching and downright frightening “Helter Skelter,” on which he pushes the outfit into proto-heavy metal and even atonal noise-rock.
McCartney’s Solo Career
Of the four Beatles, it’s McCartney who has achieved the greatest commercial success as a solo artist — though not at first. Immediately after their breakup in 1969, it was Harrison and Lennon who grabbed the love from both the rock press and record-buying public.
Macca, along with his new wife and collaborator Linda McCartney, spent those early solo days recording a pair of idiosyncratic albums in McCartney and Ram. Neither dominated the charts like Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, nor wowed the critics the way Lennon’s harrowing Plastic Ono Band did. Yet through the decades they’ve become cult classics whose warm, homemade sound can be credited as helping to lay the foundation for the lo-fi/D.I.Y./indie movement. Reviewing the 2012 reissue of Ram, Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene touches on the music’s uniquely prescient quality: “What 2012’s ears can find on Ram is a rock icon inventing an approach to pop music that would eventually become someone else’s indie pop.”
Not until the 1973 masterpiece Band on the Run, recorded with his newly formed ensemble Wings, did McCartney’s solo stock really skyrocket. After that the blockbusters came fast and furious: Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, London Town, Tug of War, Flowers in the Dirt and Flaming Pie comprise just a small sampling of his top-selling full-lengths.
He also has released a string of more experimental offerings that stand well apart from his pop fare. Released in 1980, McCartney II is a deeply oddball mix of new wave, punk power pop and synthesizer music. (The 2011 expanded edition contains some truly damaged extras, including “Check My Machine,” an utterly fried slab of electro-reggae.) Additionally, he has made forays into cutting-edge electronic music as one-half of The Fireman, cofounded with Youth of industrial metal pioneers Killing Joke.
The seemingly ageless McCartney continues to be a towering presence in pop music. In 2012, he hooked up with Nirvana icons Dave Grohl, Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic to record the post-grunge rager “Cut Me Some Slack”; it has to be the heaviest tune he’s recorded since “Helter Skelter.” Two years later, he and Kanye West collaborated on the hit single “Only One” shortly before they both appeared on Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds.” For a 73-year-old rocker from the ’60s to command such high respect from the latest hip-hop and R&B stars is really rather staggering.