10 of the Best – Paul McCartney

I try not to think about the damage concert tickets have inflicted on my bank account over the years. I prefer reminding myself that by spending the equivalent of a small African nation’s GDP on tickets I’ve been able to tick off most of my concert bucket list. But one name–the name at the top of the list–has eluded me: Paul McCartney.

The reason he is top of the list is because he was the best member (yeah, you heard me right!) of the best band ever.

His music has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. The first album I ever owned was Off the Ground, which I got on cassette for my seventh birthday. Growing up, Dad would often play not just Beatles albums, but also Wings Greatest and Venus and Mars. I remember being about ten years old when some school mates came over and I put ‘Penny Lane’ on my Sanyo stereo and declared it my favourite song. They thought it was total shite, but I’m so glad to have grown up with good music in the house (although mum we could have done without the relentless Celine Dion albums at dinner time).

It’s 24 years since I got that Off the Ground  tape, which is also as long as it’s been since McCartney last toured Australia. He was meant to in 2002,  but cancelled after the Bali bombings. Since then… nothing. World tours came and went, Australia never on the itinerary. As the years passed I began to accept it would never happen and I’d have to be satisfied with seeing Ringo Starr a few years ago.

And then came the announcement last month that Paul’s One on One tour will be coming to Australia, stopping in Brisbane on December 9. I’ve got my ticket!

In anticipation, here at my top ten McCartney songs (Beatles, Wings and solo) in chronological order. The only rule is Paul either had to have written either all or most of the song.

We Can Work it Out (The Beatles, non-album single, 1965)

It’s cheating a bit including this one (it’s a Paul song but John helped finish it), but I couldn’t leave it off because it’s a favourite – one of those perfect, timelessly enjoyable Beatles pop songs. Even your Beatles-loathing nan probably likes it. A folksy, acoustic song clocking in at just over two minutes long, like many good pop songs it is deceptively simple. There’s a waltzy bit at the end, while the optimistic title belies the exasperation of the words (especially Lennon’s: “Life is very short, and there’s no time…”).

Hello Goodbye (The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, 1967)

Released as a single with Lennon’s ‘I am the Walrus’ as the B-Side, ‘Hello Goodbye’ couldn’t have been more different (incidentally ‘I am the Walrus’ is probably my favourite Lennon-penned Beatles song). Devoid of the psychedelic sounds that characterised the Beatles during the recording of Magical Mystery Tour, the contagious melody and nursery-rhyme lyrics (“you say yes / I say no / you say stop / I say go go go”) instead add up to pure fun. Best enjoyed via the accompanying promo video with the band decked out in their Sergeant Pepper outfits.

Hey Jude (The Beatles, non-album single, 1968)

Paul wrote ‘Hey Jude’ for John’s son Jules (“… [Jude] sounded a bit better”) while Lennon and first wife Cynthia were going through a divorce.  It would spend nine weeks at the top of the US charts, and also held the record for longest-run time for a number one UK single until Meat Loaf came along to do anything for love. The first half with Paul and piano is of course gorgeous, but it’s that four minute fade-out coda full of “na-na-na-nas” and gravelly Paul vocals that make it the best singalong song ever.

Back in the USSR (The Beatles, The Beatles, 1968)

Opening with the sound of a Vickers Viscount jet taking off from Heathrow, on ‘Back in the USSR’ Paul borrowed the title from Chuck Berry’s ‘Back in the USA’ and parodied lyrics from the Beach Boys—if they’d grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain (“those Ukraine Girls really knock me out”). The opening track on The Beatles, the passing years have added a layer of hipster Communist chic that has only added to its appeal.

Helter Skelter (The Beatles, The Beatles, 1968)

Written to try to out-do the Who’s ‘I Can See for Miles’ (which Pete Townshend had proclaimed the Who’s “loudest, rawest, dirtiest song”), Paul suceeded with a song so brutal that after one take Ringo, his fingers covered in blisters, threw his drumsticks across the studio. Heavy Metal a decade before the genre was a thing, ‘Helter Skelter’ received unwanted infamy from Charles Manson but has since been reclaimed by McCartney as a staple of his concerts.

Get Back (The Beatles, Let it Be, 1970)

Originally conceived to satirise late-sixties anti-immigrant sentiment, ‘Get Back’ morphed into a song referencing ‘California Grass’ and gender-bending over bluesy Lennon guitar. A Beatles song for Stones fans, ‘Get Back’ was typical of Let it Be’s more rock and blues sounds. The last song on the last album the Beatles ever released (but not the last they recorded), it finishes with audio of John at the infamous 1969 rooftop concert:  “I would like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.” 

Jet (Paul McCartney & Wings, Band on the Run, 1973)

I think it’s fair to say that Paul McCartney and Wings didn’t always get things right (there is NO excuse good enough to explain the existence of this). They were at their best though playing the type of rock music to fill football stadiums. ‘Jet’, from 1973’s Band on the Run, fits into that category. At different times Paul has said it was written about either a black Labrador or pony that he owned. In the context of the lyrics, neither explanation makes any sense. All I know is that it is scientifically impossible to listen to this song without shouting out the ‘JET!’ parts.

Band on the Run (Paul McCartney & Wings, Band on the Run, 1973)

What’s with Paul and stitching multiple songs together? (e.g. Side Two of Abbey Road).  The title track from Wings’ best album is really a medley of three songs linked by lyrics about imprisonment, freedom and escape. The first part, a despondent, Beatlesy-sounding ballad, precedes a funky mid-section before a finale section laced with triumphant lyrics over acoustic guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Eagles record. A three-part epic, ‘Band on the Run’ has grown in stature to become the third most-played song at McCartney concerts.

Venus and Mars / Rockshow (Paul McCartney & Wings, Venus and Mars, 1975)

The third Wings entry on this list. How many I can get away with before I turn into Alan Partridge? ‘Venus and Mars/Rockshow’ is another conjoined McCartney song (what’s with him and shoe-horning multiple songs into one?!). Written from the perspective of being in the audience at a concert (“sitting in the stand of a sports arena / waiting for the show to begin”), the ‘Venus and Mars’ part is really just a short folk warm-up act for the ‘Rockshow’ headliner which is a stadium rock song. It’s a bit dad rock (probably a popular song amongst the tucked in polo shirt community) but it’s also fantastic. Iconic album cover, too.

Calico Skies (Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie, 1997)

Paul authored many of the Beatles’ best acoustic songs (‘Yesterday’, ‘Blackbird’), but one of his best is ‘Calico Skies’ from 1997’s under-rated solo album, Flaming Pie. The accompanying video, which opens with Paul by himself playing guitar next to a campfire before cutting to  him in the studio sitting with late wife Linda, gets me every single time (“I will hold you for as long as you like / I’ll hold you for the rest of my life”).