I’ll be among the many wishing Paul McCartney a happy birthday today as he turns 79.
I’ve mentioned before that the first rock and roll I remember hearing was Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It for the Money and Absolutely Free when I was three or four years old. However, another track I remember from my little kid days was Macca’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” which hit Number 1 on the Billboard charts a few weeks before my sixth birthday. Oddly, I have no recollection at all of the “Uncle Albert” part — all my childhood memories of the song start with the trumpet riff. I didn’t even know about the first section until I was in fifth grade or so.
I began to take music seriously in fourth grade when I discovered the Beatles, thanks to an article on the McCartney death hoax that attracted my morbid interest (even as a nine-year-old) and my friendship with Michael Dearing, who introduced me to “I Am the Walrus,” which connected to my taste for the weird. Ever since then, the Beatles have been a major part of the soundtrack of my life. I can remember asking my sixth-grade English teacher what he thought about the band’s work. He said he didn’t think they’d stand up to Cole Porter’s (which meant that I had to learn about Cole Porter — education takes a variety of forms). In retrospect, he had a point, but I still think that fifty or even a hundred years from now, one might do better to put one’s money on the kid from Liverpool.
For a good while, it was fashionable to downgrade Paul’s work for its sentimentality, occasional corniness, and relative disengagement with the various agons of the post-Beatles era. This was particularly true when people compared his work to that of his former partner John Lennon. Of course, these days, we recognize that much of Lennon’s radicalism was somewhere between calculated and posed, and an album like Some Time in New York City is a spectacular example of selling one’s birthright for a pot of message. Throughout the decades, however, McCartney has continued to write and experiment with musical styles and a wide array of collaborators, from Elvis Costello to Youth and Kanye West. While he may be the guy who wrote (and writes) “Silly Love Songs,” he’s also continued to put his work into the world on his own terms, and occasionally paying perhaps a bit more attention to the outside world than we might have noticed.
And at this point I haven’t even mentioned the fact that along with John Entwistle, McCartney redefined the role of the bass guitar in popular music. Every bassist who has stepped beyond playing roots and fifths or has come up in the mix owes something to Paul, whether consciously or not.
I’ll wrap this up with my favorite of Paul’s compositions. “For No One” is a track from Revolver, still the greatest album of the rock era for my money. The finished version is perhaps best remembered for the wonderfully mournful French Horn solo by Alan Civil (a performance that in fact took the instrument to notes outside its normal range, challenging even a musician of Civil’s caliber.) In any case, it’s my favorite song of Paul’s, and to realize that he wrote and recorded it when he was 23 is to remind us of how quickly he became brilliant.
So happy birthday, Paul. You’ve brought a lot of beauty to a lot of people’s lives, and you’ve given them moments that have made them smile or cry.
Nice work, that.