The joke used to be that you knew somebody was young if they thought The Beatles were Paul McCartney’s backup band before Wings. Well, now that Wings themselves have been defunct for nearly a quarter of a century, and The Beatles have joined Billie Holiday and Hank Williams in the misty distance of music history, perhaps the joke should now be that young people think of McCartney as that dotty old Englishman who, whenever he comes around, prompts their grandparents to smack down a couple hundred bucks and go to a rock concert.
Those of us who’ve listened, though, know that there’s much more to Macca than “oldies”. He may look back affectionately, but he has never become a nostalgia act, and although it can be argued that he wrote his strongest work while under the influence of the late John Lennon (and vice-versa), there is an abundance of excellent material that he produced (sometimes absolutely) on his own.
A nice slice of this solo output came in the interim between The Beatles and Wings. Pop music is richer for such songs as Maybe I’m Amazed, Too Many People, Another Day, and even Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey. (I mean, we all knew what happened when the butter wouldn’t melt, right?)
Later on, after Wings disbanded, and the shock and the pain of Lennon’s murder had receded, Paul got back up there and began making waves again. Shrewdly, McCartney used collaborations with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson (at the time one of the hottest names on Earth), and Elvis Costello, and employed everything from MTV videos to a motion picture musical showcasing himself, to keep from being dismissed. His efforts paid off. The collaborations were huge hits, and although the movie was a bomb, the soundtrack sold like crazy. Macca had made his mark on yet another decade.
With the 90s came a shift in focus, perhaps in atonement for all the silly love songs, maybe a sign of wisdom that comes with maturity, possibly a flash of mid-life panic. Whatever the case, McCartney wrote an oratorio, a quasi-symphony, and several shorter orchestral pieces. Serious music critics scoffed, of course, but then they nearly always do, when popular artists get ambitious. Paul was stretching, striving to remain fresh and important, never mind that he had already attained immortality with Yesterday and Michelle and the rest of the standards he’d penned as part of the Fab Four.
There was also new pop music from Macca in the 90s, of course, some not so hot (Off The Ground) and some very much on fire (Flaming Pie). Most of the rest of his time was taken up with The Beatles Anthology project, a magnificent multi-media framing of the Mop Top legacy, and coping with the tragedy of the slow, painful loss of his wife Linda, felled by cancer in the prime of her life.
The 00s find McCartney still connected, still thinking, still composing in a creative and innovative manner. Whether it is the wildly experimental electronica of Liverpool Sound Collage or the smart progressive pop of Driving Rain, Paul still has the old je ne sais quoi. He is still not ready for the K-Tel Not-Available-In-Stores Collections, or those free Remember When concerts at the speedway every SundaySundaySunday. When he played in Rome in 2003, it was to a crowd of several hundred thousand.