Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sorry kids, but Uncle Macca's still got it: Paul McCartney - New

In the barmy world that was Smash Hits magazine, pop stars who were, in the 1980s, considered venerable then, were given nicknames of affection. 

Thus, David Bowie became 'The Dame' (a handle that has universally pursued him ever since), Freddie Mercury was known as 'Lord Frederick of Mercury' (and, on occasion, 'Lord Lucan of Mercury' on account of his resemblance to the absconding, moustachioed nobleman), and Kate Bush was regularly referred to as Kate 'Hello Trees, Hello Sky' Bush. Because she was nuts.

Paul McCartney, on the other hand - and before he was appropriately knighted by HRH - was simply Paul 'Sir Wacky Macca Thumbs Aloft' McCartney, thanks to his noticeable habit of raising one or both of his preaxial digits every time a camera came into proximity. Strangely, Ringo Starr, who has his own 'double peace sign' signature affectation, never received the honour of a Hits nickname. I mean, what could you do to a name like Ringo?

The point of all this was that back in the 80s, to a Smash Hits audience, SWMTA was already considered a tad on the crusty side, if you get my drift. To be in his 40s was beyond the comprehension of a readership who considered their 18th birthday the ultimate milestone in life.

On June 18 this year, Paul McCartney turned 71. A month later Mick Jagger celebrated his 70th birthday. On paper, you have to question what either of them are still doing being rock stars. But the truth of the matter is that, on recent evidence, they're both doing it quite well. You could even claim they're doing it better than much of the talent a quarter of their ages. OK, that's a dangerously middle-aged thing to say, but on the evidence of both the Stones' shows in the last 12 months, and McCartney continuing to tour more now than he ever did as a grown-up Beatle, there is certainly a case to answer that these national treasures are still putting the hours in.

Still, though, the cynics maintain that such artists are no longer relevant, that despite Jagger's annoyingly lithe frame, and despite McCartney's continued passion for making new music - as evidenced by the release this week of New - there's something of the embarrassing uncle about both of them. Indeed, most of the 60s and early 70s-era performers who are still performing - be they Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Daltrey and Townshend, Stewart, Plant, Page - are frequent targets of "give it up mate" trollery.

Odd, then, that BB King (88) and Chuck Berry (86) don't suffer such snarkiness, nor Britain's original rock stars, Sir Cliff Richard (known to Smash Hits readers as...er..."Sir" Cliff Richard, and 73) and Tommy Steele (76).

The Beatles are long gone. In the context of human history, they were a blink of the eye. 1957 - McCartney meets Lennon at Woolton village fĂȘte; 1963 - Love Me Do; 1966 - Revolver; 1967 - - Sgt. Pepper; 1969 - Abbey Road; 1970 - McCartney quits. 13 years between a teenage skiffle group and cynical, bearded, warring bandmates. Having, in between, turned the world - no exaggeration - on its head.

McCartney has been tilting at windmills ever since. Lennon was the radical, but cool, maverick; Ringo remained the jester; Harrison the serious and ever so slightly dull muso, right up until his death. But Macca?

Recent reissues of McCartney's Ram and Wings' Band On The Run have reminded us that post-Fabs, McCartney didn't lose any of his natural gift for writing brain-burrowing melodies, he just took it in different directions. 

Ignore the supposed follies of The Frog Chorus or Give My Regards To Broad Street, forget the winsome Mull Of Kintyre or the cheesy Say, Say, Say duet with "Jacko" (yes, the Hits again). When he walked out on The Beatles in 1970, aged 32, McCartney needn't have picked up a guitar or sat down at a piano ever again.

But to get back to the point of this rant, he's released an album at the age of 71 which is as vibrant and as enjoyable as anything he's put out in decades. And I mean that. His last four - Driving Rain, Chaos And Creation In The BackyardMemory Almost Full and last year's standards covers album Kisses on the Bottom - have all been OK, but not thrilling. And while, of course, nothing could ever compare with anything he did with The You-Know-Whos, New is different. Plenty different. So new that it had to be called New, which I presume wasn't a holding title for something better.

There may also be some significance in the fact McCartney has gone from his 60s to his 70s in the period between an album called Memory Almost Full and an album called New, the 70s being the new 50s, or whatever ageist guff the Daily Mail has come up with recently. 

And while it could be tempting to suggest that, with a history of working with 'name' producers in the past, his choice of Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth and Giles (son of George) Martin for New is an attempt at hedging his bets with credibility, the foundation of any Paul McCartney album is going to be its songwriting. Which, on New, is easily his best in more than 30 years.

The album stomps to life with Save Us, an angry protest (well, as angry as Macca will ever get) which draws some comparison to the fuzzbox guitar of the Fabs' Revolution. Being A) a former Beatle and B) Paul McCartney, such comparisons with that little rock'n'roll band from Liverpool are inevitable. McCartney, however, has never tried shying away from his past, but not wishing to be ironic or cute, he embraces his heritage, even using it as a platform for broader reflection. Thus Early Days seeks to reset perceptions of who did what in the L&M partnership, both lyrically and melodically through the kind of acoustic balladry that made Fool On The Hill and Blackbird such fragrant entries to the Beatle body of work. 

It's here you become acutely aware that Paul McCartney may be the only living, working musician who can justifiably carry the tag Beatlesque' (sorry Liam), but that doesn't mean he feels compelled to slavishly follow the formula. True, Queenie Eye walks into the The Beatles' whimsy, and its rhythm track bears more than a passing resemblance to the Starr/McCartney forerunner of drum'n'bass, but here the listener starts thinking: "Am I listening to a Paul McCartney song that references The Beatles, or am I listening to a Paul McCartney song that I expect to reference The Beatles?"

Overall, there is a compelling energy about New, and none more so than on its title track, which dances through a pop sensibility that straddles both the old (Swinging Sixties) and the new (the not-so swinging...erm...whatever decade we're in now). Appreciate is a brave stab at modernity that might not work quite so well, but it is still a more present McCartney than some of the doe-eyed family-friendly fare of his recent musical history.

It can't be easy being Paul McCartney. It can't be easy being a living legend, a national treasure and one of the most famous human beings in the 20th century or indeed any century rolled into one. He is, or at least appears to be, normal, and if that is just act - as his critics have said it is - he's managed to maintain it for more than 50 years. He will maintain that it is down to his working class Liverpudlian roots, that he's just carrying on doing what he does because that's all he's known, and all he's known is to carry on doing what he does best. And while the earnest intent hasn't always been matched by the output, on New, it's there in spades.

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