When the Beatles first arrived in America in 1964, it sparked a fervent debate among 14-year-old girls from Seattle to Miami: Who is your favorite Beatle? Was it Ringo, the goofy one; Paul, the cute one; George, the silent one; or John, the brainy one?
Music critics are really no different from those girls, and they’ve been engaged in the same debate for more than half a century. For most critics, the answer has been John, the Beatle who wrote books, led protests, attacked sacred cows and confessed his misery to the world—all activities that critics can relate to. His sainthood was confirmed when he was martyred by a forerunner of the modern era’s most dangerous cult: deluded people with guns.
As 2018 draws to a close, we have a new solo album from Paul McCartney and four box-set treatments of older albums: the Beatles’ White Album, John Lennon’s Imagine, Paul’s Wild Life and Paul’s Red Rose Speedway. And listening to all this music has prompted this critic to make the case for Paul as his favorite Beatle—the most important Beatle of all.
Such an argument might seem silly, but it highlights an important problem in the history of popular music: Critics find it much easier to write about lyrics and concepts, which were John’s specialties, than to write about melody and harmony, which were Paul’s. This isn’t surprising; critics work with words, and it’s far easier to describe John’s strengths in words than it is to discuss Paul’s. As a result, Paul’s achievement tends to get underrated and thus history gets distorted.
After all, these are songs we’re talking about, not books. If music supplies at least half the power of a song, the music should get at least half the credit. It’s easy to write about lyrics, of course, and fairly easy to write about arrangements and rhythm, but melody and harmony are elusive. How does one distinguish a great vocal line from a pedestrian one? But difficulty is no excuse for shrinking from the task. In fact, one can argue that melody is the listener’s first and most crucial link to the song’s emotion. So let’s recognize its role.
Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that John wrote many memorable melodies (just listen to “Don’t Let Me Down” or “Julia”), while Paul wrote some unforgettable lyrics (“Eleanor Rigby” and “Paperback Writer”). Both were superlative singers. For all that, though, John is championed for his verbal intellect, while Paul is underappreciated for his non-verbal inventions.
Both John and Paul were versatile songwriters and performers who could excel in many areas, but if you ask which one had a once-in-a-generation gift, the answer is Paul. John was a skillful lyricist, but he was eclipsed by the likes of such ‘60s peers as Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, even Ray Davies (though John was a better singer and composer than any of them). But no one was a better melodicist in the second half of the 20th century than Paul. Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson and Stephen Sondheim came close, but Paul was the best.
Another way to look at this is to ask which Beatles songs have endured. Of the songs most often recorded by other artists (“Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Blackbird,” “Let It Be,” “Michelle,” “Something,” “Help” and “Come Together”), only the latter two were written by John (“Something” was written by George Harrison). But it’s easier to write about the desperate plea for comfort in the lyrics for “Help” than it is to write about the astonishing intervals in the melody for “Yesterday,” so John’s psychodrama becomes history and Paul’s triumph is glossed over.
The most exciting revelation of the seven-disc box set for the White Album is the disc devoted to the Esher Demos, the acoustic demos that the Beatles made of 27 songs they’d written while on retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Back in England, in late May of 1968 (no one remembers the exact date), they gathered at George’s bungalow at Esher in Surrey to see what they had.
Amid George’s Hindu décor, sitting on the cushions that replaced chairs, the four friends formed a circle and hashed out the songs that might become their next album. No other recording in the Beatles’ history provides such a stripped-down, unplugged format; no other exudes such contagious camaraderie and playful enthusiasm. It was the last gasp before the feuding began in earnest.
Nineteen of the songs made it onto the White Album. Two (“Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” were recycled for Abbey Road; four (George’s “Not Guilty” and “Circles,” Paul’s “Junk,” and John’s “Child of Nature,” rewritten as “Jealous Guy”) showed up on post-Beatles solo albums; “Sour Milk Sea” became a George-produced single for Jackie Lomax and “What’s the New Mary Jane?” didn’t surface until Anthology 3 in 1996.
In these simple arrangements—some acoustic guitars and hand percussion—we get our best look at the band’s songwriting before producer George Martin helped them add those marvelous layers of studio framing. Even when caught naked like this, the songs are very good. But what you notice is that John’s and George’s songs grab our ears mostly with their ingenious chord changes and vocal character, while Paul grabs us with his forever-restless melodic movement.
Listen, for example, to John’s lovely ballad, “Dear Prudence,” which he uses ever-shifting guitar chords to make the repetition of the simple, descending vocal line more interesting than it would be otherwise. By contrast, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” Paul’s light-hearted look at a working-class family, is filled with dazzling melodic invention. Even with him bashing away on an acoustic guitar in George’s bungalow, you can hear how the vocal line leaps and dives in dizzying fashion without ever feeling forced. No wonder people can’t resist singing this song when they’re happy—even if its silliness offends their sense of cool.
On “Blackbird,” one of Paul’s most indelible melodies works its magic by offering a rush of climbing notes (“Blackbird singing in the dead of night”) that climaxes on the fifth note of a chord and holds there for a full measure, followed by another flurry of notes and another hold, again the same, and finally a different phrase that comes to rest on a chord’s root. Then he inverts the structure and slows it down for the chorus: each descending line (“Blackbird fly”) uses three syllables where the verse used nine with the held-out tone coming on the sixth note in a chord. The results are gorgeous and surprising—and yet seemingly casual, even conversational. That was Paul’s gift.
Paul’s sense of how the different melodic puzzle pieces fit together was so strong that when he demoed “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” he even scatted a tune for the guitar solo. Likewise, he played the guitar fills that counter the vocal phrases on “Mother Nature’s Son” and give the song its melodic symmetry. John’s songs would continue to evolve during the recording sessions to some (as you can hear on the box set’s three discs of alternate takes), but Paul’s were already complete conceptions. The 180-page coffee-table book that comes with the box set spells out the history of each song in detail, including the handwritten first drafts of the lyrics.
John was more of a trial-and-error creator, moving by instinct until he found the right tempo, the right lyric, the right feel. You can trace that evolution on this box set and how it led to some of his best recordings: “Dear Prudence,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “I’m So Tired,” “Sexy Sadie” and “Julia.” Paul, though, could sit down at a piano late in the sessions and introduce a song he’d just written called “Hey, Jude,” and it was all there, from the opening gospel chords, the avuncular verses, the transporting bridge and the irresistible “nah-nah-nah” coda.
A similar moment is captured on the new Imagine box set, when John sits down at a piano and sings an unadorned version of his own gospel hymn, the title track. There’s an emotional rawness to this version, as if he were afraid that his listeners might not share his vision, that he never matched again. On the other hand, “Imagine” never would have become as popular as it did without the improved piano track and string arrangement. As the rhythm section and Nicky Hopkins’ electric piano were added, John’s confidence grew—though the vocal now seemed to be coming from a preacher rather than a penitent.
The box set’s deluxe version includes two blu-ray discs, four audio discs and a 120-page, hard-cover book. The 11 songs from the original Imagine album and the six songs from the three singles recorded in the same period are presented in various stages of development and in remixed splendor. Included is John’s notorious slagging of Paul (“How Do You Sleep?”) and some clumsy agit-prop numbers (e.g. “Power to the People”), but also included are three of his most enduring creations: “Imagine,” “Jealous Guy” (a rewrite from the White Album sessions) and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
By contrast, the two new reissues of Paul’s 1971-73 albums, Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway contain only one enduring classic: “My Love.” It was a barren stretch for the composer, but he turned it around in dramatic fashion in late 1973 with Band on the Run, still the best solo album from any of the ex-Beatles in this writer’s opinion. Eight of the 10 tracks are melodic masterpieces that never get tiresome.
For a box set that sheds new light of Paul’s solo career, however, the most important package is the 2017 reissue of the 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt, if only for the inclusion of the original demos for nine of the songs that Paul co-wrote with Elvis Costello during that period. Each song is presented in both an acoustic-duo version and a full-band version. These songs are so good that it’s a crime that only four of them made the original album.
It’s also a shame that Paul didn’t pursue the collaboration further. Here was a songwriting partner who was a true equal, something he hadn’t had since the Beatles broke up. Here was someone who could push Paul to give his irrepressible melodies the words and arrangements they deserved. Here were the earworm tunes that made Elvis’s cerebral puzzles more emotional and pleasurable. It was a lost opportunity.
The Beatles songs keep getting recorded by other artists. Just this autumn, a younger generation of jazz artists has released A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper, a track-by-track reimagining of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. John’s original melodies tend to evaporate in the heat of improvisation, but Paul’s are too singular to bury, whether they’re attached to Mary Halvorson’s brittle, off-kilter guitar chords on “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Sullivan Fortner’s ragtime-piano on “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the jazz-funk fusion of “Lovely Rita” by Kamasi Washington’s bassist Milo Mosley, or the “Tusk”-like arrangement of the title track by Pat Metheny’s drummer Antonio Sanchez.
McCartney comes up with fresh hooks on this year’s Egypt Station, his best solo album since Flowers in the Dirt. It’s an unexpected return to form for a 76-year-old legend who could easily coast on his reputation. Instead he’s gone back to his late-’60s days, when he was mixing rock ’n’ roll as edgy as “Helter Skelter” and as tuneful as “Penny Lane.” The arrangements strike that same balance between bash-it-out energy and musical flourishes such as horn arrangements and vocal harmonies.
Best of all, the melody lines have all the unassuming surprises of his best inventions. It shouldn’t be long before jazz bands and R&B singers are covering songs such as “I Don’t Know,” “Come on to Me,” “Happy with You,” even the deliciously bawdy “Fuh You.” It’s proof that trends in pop music can come and go, but there’s still nothing harder than coming up with a melody that sounds new and irresistible. And no one over the past 60 years has done that better than Paul McCartney.