Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary body of work and a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I take a closer look at one of the pioneers of progressive rock who went on to become one of rock music’s most popular yet fractious bands ever:  Pink Floyd.

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June 1975.  The four members of Pink Floyd were hard at work in the Abbey Road studio putting finishing touches on the recording of “Wish You Were Here,” their eagerly awaited follow-up LP to “The Dark Side of the Moon,” which had made the band worldwide superstars.

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Syd Barrett, 1975

The centerpiece of the new album was “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 22-minute track broken into two 11-minute sections to open and close the album.  It was conceived as a tribute to Syd Barrett, their long-lost leader, their founder, their songwriter, their inspiration, who had fallen deep into “LSD-based mental disarray” shortly after the release of the group’s 1967 debut LP, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” and was dismissed from the band shortly thereafter.

As they worked that June night, Pink Floyd failed to notice when a strange-looking obese man wearing a white trenchcoat and shoes, clutching a white bag, wandered into the studio room.  His bald, eyebrow-less face looked ghostlike, and as he puttered around the band’s equipment, guitarist David Gilmour looked up and thought, “Who the hell is that, and why is he here?”

Roger Waters, the band’s bassist and chief songwriter, saw the interloper and stopped dead in his tracks.  He turned to keyboard player Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason and asked, “Do you know who that is?” Wright studied him for a moment, and then said, “Oh my God.  That’s Syd.”

It was an eerie coincidence, or creepy karma, that Barrett would suddenly appear after a five-year absence.  He stayed less than an hour, quietly listening and observing, and Waters said later he broke down in tears at the pitiful sight of his friend, not yet 30 but looking twice that old.  When Barrett left, they never saw him again.  (He had released two largely forgettable solo albums in 1970, and lived a strictly private life in Cambridge, dying of cancer in 2006.)

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Wright, Gilmour, Mason and Waters in 1970

Pink Floyd, born from the ashes of a group called The Tea Set in 1966, has had one of the most tumultuous yet successful careers in rock history.  Their story is fraught with epic internal tension, international #1 albums, clinical madness, floating pigs, bitter rifts between founding members, huge concert tours, and worldwide sales among the highest in the business.

Not bad for a bunch of wayward art students from Cambridge.

Let’s start with a caveat:  Despite the massive sales numbers, Pink Floyd’s oeuvre is certainly not for everyone.  There are broad swaths of music lovers who regard the band with disdain, sniffing, “It’s just boring stoner music.  Give me something I can dance to, dammit!”

Indeed, even Pink Floyd was smart enough to recognize this.  In 1981, they jokingly titled their compilation album “A Collection of Great Dance Songs.”

Floyd fans never got up and danced to their music.  That was most definitely not the point.  This was music that commanded you to sit down and listen.

Pink Floyd’s stock in trade began as experimental psychedelic rock that soon evolved into what came to be known as progressive rock, which uses rich musical textures and enigmatic lyrics to challenge the limits of rock and roll.  At its best, Pink Floyd’s music was almost overwhelming in its complexity and nuance, its mesmerizing grace and sublime brilliance, its experimentalism and radical departure.

Pink Floyd in concert, 1977

The fact that they ended up as commercially successful as they have been is, in many ways, puzzling.  Let’s examine the stats:  According to Business Insider, Pink Floyd ranks ninth in all-time sales in the US, with 75 million units sold (and worldwide sales of 250 million).  The group’s signature LP, “Dark Side of the Moon,” spent an absurd 741 weeks (that’s more than 14 years!) on the US Billboard Top 200 album chart, an achievement unlikely to be surpassed (in second place is Bob Marley’s “Legends” collection, at 386).  “Dark Side” has sold 40 million copies worldwide, and still sells about 200,000 a year.  It has been estimated that one in every six households in the US has a copy of the album, and that someone, somewhere, is playing it right this minute.

Pink Floyd’s story is much like a three-act play.  Act I covers its inception to the departure of Barrett.  Act II would be the period from roughly 1968 through their heyday to the point where Waters acrimoniously splits.  Act III takes us from 1984 to present day.

Act I:

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Syd Barrett, 1967

Syd Barrett had been a childhood friend of Roger Waters when they were growing up in Cambridge, and was asked to join the group Waters had started with Nick Mason and Richard Wright, who he had met in architecture school in London.  Barrett quickly emerged as the main songwriter, singer, guitarist and front man, and nearly every song they recorded was composed by Barrett.

Named after two obscure blues guitarists — Pink Anderson and Floyd Council — they were a huge success in England from the start, first in the clubs of the London Underground with their trippy performances, and then on the charts.  Two hit singles (“Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”) and the astonishing “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” LP were all Top Five on the charts there.  Musical peers like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson has said, “Pink Floyd was colorful, creative and meaningful.  Syd Barrett’s songs were strange and funny, and they stretched my boundaries.  It’s as if they presented paintings as words and sounds.”

“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” 1967
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But Barrett was quickly unraveling from his unfortunate penchant for taking LSD on nearly a daily basis in the summer and fall of 1967.  It made him unproductive, disruptive and maddeningly frustrating to deal with, both on stage and in the studio. Within months, it became abundantly clear that he had gone beyond the pale.  The rest of the group, desperate to keep their momentum, recruited Barrett’s old school chum David Gilmour, at first just to fill in Barrett’s guitar parts in concert, but ultimately, to take his place in the band’s permanent lineup.  It was a momentous change.

Waters in particular found it painful to cut Barrett loose, but he knew it was absolutely necessary.  “Pink Floyd couldn’t have happened without (Syd),” Waters said, “but on the other hand, it couldn’t have gone on with him.”

Act II:

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One of Pink Floyd’s most memorable album covers: “Ummagumma,” 1969

The new lineup forged ahead, with Waters taking over most of the songwriting, although several tracks on the next few albums were credited to all four members.  The material they recorded on “A Saucerful of Secrets,” “Ummagumma” and “Atom Heart Mother” continued to explore new and strange sounds in the same spacey, psychedelic vein they had introduced, and the British audiences and record buyers continued to lap it up.

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But all of these early records made barely a dent in the US, except among devotees listening to underground FM radio.  It wasn’t until 1971’s “Meddle,” which included the hypnotic, relentless, otherworldly “One Of These Days” and the 23-minute opus “Echoes” that American listeners started paying closer attention.  Still, the album stalled at #70, and its followup, “Obscured By Clouds,” a soundtrack to the French film “La Vallee,” managed only #46 here.

That all changed in March 1973 when “Dark Side of the Moon” was released. Now we were hearing heartbeats, ticking clocks, a cash register, a helicopter, maniacal laughter, mesmerizing synthesizer riffs, amazing guitar passages… and the voices.  Waters taped technicians, friends, even the studio door security guy, saying various things, scripted and unscripted, and dropped them strategically into the mix.

“There is no dark side of the moon…Matter of fact, it’s all dark…”

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The band in the studio, 1974

Most important, the music and lyrics had been carefully crafted over many months in the studio to be less eccentric and more appealing to a broader audience.  It hit a nerve among high school and college kids, who were spending untold hours in their bedrooms and dorm rooms under the headphones, spellbound by the lushly produced, technically proficient recordings.  Waters was now clearly in charge of the songwriting, and he was obsessed with the subject of madness and the things that make people insane — money, time, modern life.  Motivated partly by the sad fate of his old friend and partly by his own caustic view of societal injustices, Waters and the boys found a way, as Rolling Stone‘s Mikal Gilmore put it, “to make a thoughtful and imaginative statement about grim modern realities that somehow managed to soothe you with its nightmares.”

It should be mentioned that each Pink Floyd album cover broke new ground in artistic audacity.  Hipgnosis, a London-based outfit, collaborated with the band to devise extraordinarily astounding images that contributed mightily to the excitement of every new Floyd release. The artwork for “Dark Side” is one of the most recognizable covers in rock music history.

The band spent more than a year on the road worldwide doing sold-out shows in promotion of “Dark Side,” with increasingly arresting visuals augmenting the mind-bending music.  But as often happens to bands who achieve such widespread success seemingly overnight, they struggled mightily about what to do next.  Waters and Gilmour were already at odds about the direction they should take, and Waters’ uncomfortable moodiness made life difficult in the creative laboratory of the recording studio.  But Gilmour had come up with a mesmerizing four-note riff that Waters thought was a perfect foundation for a long piece he wanted to write about both the loneliness and brotherhood he felt for Barrett and his dissolution.

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From the “Wish You Were Here” album cover photo shoot

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” — and the acoustic guitar-based “Wish You Were Here” — were the Barrett tributes that became the centerpieces for the “Wish You Were Here” LP, widely regarded as a thoroughly worthy follow-up to “Dark Side.”  Just as important were the tracks that decried the submission of the human race (“Welcome to the Machine”) and the way the band was now treated by the profit-motivated record label (“Have a Cigar”).  The group felt no need to sit for interviews, and in fact, they cherished their individual privacy, something most bands were happily willing to sacrifice in the name of fame.  No matter:  The album went straight to #1 in multiple countries.

As Wright put it, “I particularly like that record, the atmospherics.  I think the best material from the Floyd was when two or three of us co-wrote something together.  Afterwards, we lost that.  There was no longer that interplay of ideas.”

Indeed, Waters took control almost completely for “Animals” (1977) and the sprawling “The Wall” (1979), Pink Floyd’s next two LPs.  He insisted on handling virtually all the music and lyrics, and even stage design, props (a gigantic inflatable pig?) and laser-show lighting.  Their lyrics — particularly for the bloated double album “The Wall” —  continued Waters’ increasingly bleak worldview and his obsession with gloom, mental breakdowns and alienation, which, in turn, alienated the rest of the band.  “Do we have to revisit all this yet again?” questioned Wright, who Waters fired during the album’s recording, yet rehired “as a sideman” for the subsequent tour.

Both albums reinforced the band’s reign as the world’s top concert draw at the time.  “The Wall” gave them their improbable #1 hit single, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II).”  But the internal dissension was growing exponentially — “None of us has ever been the best of friends,” noted Gilmour — and communication was nearly nonexistent, much like the relationship between the band and its audience once Waters executed his desire to build an actual wall of imitation concrete blocks on stage, taking the message of isolation to its extreme.

Somehow, the band managed to stay together until, in 1982, Waters presented the group with another concept and a batch of mostly-completed songs.  This time Gilmour balked, saying he thought the material wasn’t up to snuff — and indeed, most of the tracks were rejects from “The Wall” sessions.  Nevertheless, they recorded the underwhelming “The Final Cut,” which turned out to be the final Pink Floyd album in which Waters participated.

It reached #6 and sold two million copies in the US, but you rarely hear any cuts from it, on classic radio or anywhere else.  It was a deflating end to a marvelous reign.

Act III:

“A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” 1987

In 1984-85, court battles over the rights to use the Pink Floyd name (the “brand”) pitted Waters against his former mates in one of the deepest, ugliest splits in rock history, more public even than The Beatles’ infamous breakup.  Waters lost, and Gilmour, Mason and Wright kept the Pink Floyd name in the news with 1987’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” a solid album and tour that maintained the band’s momentum for the rest of the ’80s. Gilmour’s immediately recognizable guitar and vocals carried the day (much to Waters’ consternation) on tracks like “Learning to Fly” and “On the Turning Away.”

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David Gilmour on stage, 2004

The threesome topped the charts yet again in 1994 with “The Division Bell,” not their best LP by a long shot but ravenously embraced by a fan base that only seemed to grow since the ’70s. One last Floyd LP, entitled “The Endless River,” was released in 2014, truly a “scraping the bottom of the barrel” collection of discarded snippets from previous sessions, barely worth mentioning.

Gilmour had been occasionally releasing solo albums since as far back as 1978, and his strong 2006 LP, “On an Island,” reached #6 in the US, a welcome rush of Floydian music for the band’s starved fans.  A tour at that time, and another in support of 2015’s “Rattle That Lock,” met with praise and enthusiastic crowds.

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Roger Waters performing, 2007

Waters, in the meantime, produced a series of far less successful solo albums — “The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking” (1982), “Radio K.A.O.S.” (1987) and “Amused to Death” (1992) — and a couple of well-received tours (including a star-studded tour promoting “The Wall”) featured new songs interspersed with the best of the Pink Floyd repertoire.  He’s still at it today, participating in the landmark Desert Tour shows on the Coachella grounds in 2016 (some say he was the highlight} and perhaps his best solo LP, “Is This the Life We Really Want?” in 2017.

Live 8 London - Stage

As is often the case when bands split up, the various entities did reasonably well, but certainly not as successful as they would have been together.  An uneasy truce was reached for a couple of one-off appearances in 2005-2007, and the band members no longer publicly badmouth each other.  But it’s clear they’ll never record together again, and the band’s catalog will not see any further entries (outside of endless re-packages).

But Pink Floyd’s legacy as one of rock’s true giants remains intact, and one of the music business’s most interesting tales, with a recorded output that rivals damn near any band in history.

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Live a little, be a gypsy, get around

From the very beginning, really, Paul McCartney has been a man of action.

He was an eager lad in his teens when he met John Lennon and formed a songwriting partnership that eventually transformed popular music.

He was the take-charge member of The Beatles when, in the wake of manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, he took the reins and worked to motivate the others to keep making music when they would’ve been happy to kick back and rest on their laurels for a while.

Upon the band’s breakup, he endured a bout of depression but quickly snapped out of it and kicked off a solo career marked by a relentless pursuit, year after year, of still more commercial success and artistic exploration.

And now, in 2022, Sir Paul has turned 80 years old…and where is he? He’s out on the road on yet another tour, performing three-hour extravaganzas with a full band before wildly appreciative audiences.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2012 when he was approaching 70 and embarking on an ambitious schedule of concerts, he was asked if it would be his final tour. “Why would I retire?” he replied. “What would I do then? Sit at home and watch TV? No thanks. I’d rather be out playing.”

I saw 81-year-old Bob Dylan in Hollywood last week, and although his performance was a far cry from the kind of show he was capable of in decades past, and his vocalizing can barely be called singing at this point, I was nonetheless thrilled to be in the same room with such a legend, sharing his songs with us as best he could.

Same goes for McCartney. His fans, some of whom have never seen him in concert before, are willing to pay upwards of $400 for a nosebleed seat just to be there to hear him perform the timeless, memorable songs he has written on his own and as part of The Beatles. They are evidently willing to concede that his once-versatile singing voice simply isn’t as strong these days. It’s often raspy, and he’s unable to hit the higher notes cleanly and sustain them. “So what?” they say in his defense, and they have a point. He’s still full of energy, leading his band through their paces and remaining the crowd-pleaser he has always been.

I could be a buzzkill and single out his cringeworthy vocal performance of “Maybe I’m Amazed” at one of the awards shows a few years back. I remember thinking, “That’s a challenging tune that requires serious vocal acrobatics. Why would he choose to perform that one, on live TV, at age 75 instead of something more safely within his range?”

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In this essay, I come to praise Paul McCartney, not to bury him. How can you not admire his longevity as a songwriter, a musician, an arranger, a producer, a performer? The breadth of his achievements during his 60-plus years in the music business is astonishing, leaving virtually all his contemporaries in the proverbial dust. Even his detractors admit that he has had an uncanny knack for composing, arranging and recording many dozens of instantly likable songs, seemingly effortlessly.

What makes McCartney so special is how music comes to him so naturally. “I’m always writing songs, and I’ve got a bunch that I want to record,” he noted in 2018. “I think people who create and write, it actually does flow – just flows into their head from who knows where, into their hand, and they write it down. Nothing pleases me more than to go into a room and come out with a piece of music. It’s simple, really, and for me it’s cathartic. Music is like a psychiatrist. You can tell your guitar things that you can’t tell people, and it will answer you with things people can’t tell you.” 

In the early years, though, as Beatlemania took flight in 1963-1964, it was Lennon who was the workhorse, churning out most of the singles and album tracks with McCartney playing more of a supporting role for the most part. It was Lennon’s band, and he was their leader. On their first three albums, Lennon sings lead vocals on more than 70 percent of their material.

But McCartney’s contributions were formidable: “I Saw Her Standing There,” “All My Loving,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her” and “Things We Said Today” are all mostly Paul’s songs, and his vocal range, shown in the contrast between the gentle “Till There Was You” and the raucous cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” was exceptional. Having such a keen musical ear, he was also the one who devised and sang the amazing harmonies on tracks like “This Boy,” “If I Fell” and “I’ll Be Back.”

Starting around 1966, three developments occurred more or less simultaneously: McCartney began showing a strong interest in, and an innate flair for, the recording studio process; his abilities on a range of musical instruments, most notably on bass guitar, leaped to the forefront on songs like “Paperback Writer” and “Good Day Sunshine”; and he successfully mastered a diversity of musical styles in the songs he was bringing to the sessions. Consider his songs from “Revolver”: the melancholy imagery and string arrangements for “Eleanor Rigby,” the Motown stomp of “Got to Get You Into My Life” and the exquisite balladry of “Here There and Everywhere” and “For No One.”

From “Sgt. Pepper” onward, McCartney became The Beatles’ de facto leader as Lennon withdrew more into drugs and his all-consuming relationship with Yoko Ono. Paul was firing on all cylinders at this point, shown so clearly in the recent “Get Back” film project when he was writing new songs almost every day as the cameras rolled. Some of his finest songs are from this 1967-1969 period — rockers like “Lovely Rita,” “Getting Better,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Back in the USSR,” “Birthday,” “Helter Skelter,” “Oh Darling,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Get Back,” and ballads like “She’s Leaving Home,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Blackbird,” “I Will,” “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Golden Slumbers” and “The Long and Winding Road.”

An important thing to remember about The Beatles was that the whole was far better than the individual components. I’ve always felt that a McCartney song tends to sounds better when followed by a Lennon song or a George Harrison song rather than another McCartney tune, and vice versa. That, in a nutshell, is why their solo work has never really measured up to their Beatles output.

Without Lennon’s cynical input to rough up the edges of Paul’s sweetness, McCartney’s solo albums (with or without Wings) tended to suffer from cloying melodies and terminal sentimentality. Certainly not every track, mind you. My Spotify list below is full of wonderful McCartney solo tunes like “Every Night,” “Another Day,” “Heart of the Country,” “The Back Seat of My Car,” “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five,” “Letting Go,” “Tug of War,” “Here Today,” “No More Lonely Nights,” “This One” and “The Songs We Were Singing.” But overall, I have found it challenging to listen to his solo LPs all the way through. (Even his 1971 classic album “Ram,” still my favorite of his solo work, has a few duds.) He seemed to always come up with at least one or two great songs on every album, but much of the remainder seemed unfinished, uninspiring, unworthy of someone with such talent.

In a 1974 interview, he defended his first two bland albums as Wings (“Wild Life” and “Red Rose Speedway”) by saying, “I kind of like the idea of doing something, and if it turns out in a few years to seem a bit sloppy, I’d say, ‘Oh well, sloppy. So what?” I think most people dig it.” The thing is, people bought those albums because of his name (I did, anyway) but soon filed them away and rarely revisited them. He conceded, “I must say, you had to like me to like the record (‘Wild Life’). I mean, if it’s just taken cold, I think it wasn’t that brilliant as a recording. We did it quickly, like Dylan would sometimes do, just come in and do everything in one take.”

McCartney has shown without a doubt that he knows how to craft perfect pop songs that will thrill the masses and sell millions: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “My Love,” “Band on the Run,” “Listen to What the Man Said,” “Silly Love Songs,” “With a Little Luck,” “Coming Up,” “Ebony and Ivory,” “Say Say Say.” Most of these are not my cup of tea, partly, I suppose, because they were hugely overplayed, but also because they’re too sing-songy for my tastes.

Those who critique music are often vilified as frustrated musicians who don’t have the talent or stamina to sustain a career in the music business. So whenever I start dissing someone like McCartney (in this case, about his propensity for too-cutesy fare), I must stop and remember I’m never going to enjoy everything the guy writes because I’m not always a part of the target audience for whom he’s writing.

There’s a great quote by Theodore Roosevelt that captures my point: “It is not the critic who counts; the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

McCartney has certainly dared greatly in his career:

He dared to wing it with the slapdash, home-movie approach for The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film that was roundly panned upon release.

The Beatles on location in England, 1967

He dared, in the aftermath of The Beatles’ breakup, to form a new group he called Wings and head out on a tour of colleges and small-town venues in England.

He dared to write a lyric that asks, “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, /And what’s wrong with that?…”, and had the last laugh when it was #1 in the US for five weeks.

He dared to try co-writing songs with other important musicians, most notably Stevie Wonder, Carl Perkins, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, Steve Miller, Rihanna and Kanye West.

He dared to be among the first to participate in the “MTV Unplugged” series, where rock stars performed their rock hits with acoustic instruments for an intimate crowd, performing Beatles and solo tunes, and a handful of early rockers like “Be Bop-a-Lula,” “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

He dared to go way outside his comfort zone five times between 1990 and 2010 to write classical and orchestral music that ended up well received among those who perform and enjoy these genres.

He dared to join the crowd of pop musicians (Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, among countless others) who have mined the songbook of ’30s and ’40s pop and jazz standards his musical father used to play on piano. Paul’s album, 2012’s “Kisses on the Bottom,” reached #2 on US pop charts.

In the last decade, he has really branched out, experimenting with new styles and techniques in an attempt to remain relevant and attract a new generation of listeners. Indeed, his 2013 LP is actually entitled “New.” His collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West in 2015 on the single “FourFiveSeconds” has amassed upwards of 850 million hits on Spotify. Cynics might say he partnered with them just because of their huge popularity, but I don’t think so. He’s truly interested in still learning, still trying.

His two most recent albums, 2018’s “Egypt Station” and 2020’s “McCartney III,” are full of fascinating departures from typical McCartney music (check out the audaciously titled “Fuh You”), juxtaposed next to the luscious melodies we’ve come to expect from this extraordinary tunesmith.

In addition to all this, he was deeply involved in “Paul McCartney, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present,” a gargantuan, two-volume hardcover tome published last year that’s full of his thoughts and narratives regarding 150 of the more meaningful songs from his life’s work. Equally fascinating is the video project “McCartney 3,2,1,” in which producer Rick Rubin sits down with Paul at a mixing board to dissect Beatles and McCartney tracks and hear stories of the recording process. If you’re a fan, you should really explore both of these behind-the-scenes undertakings.

I had a thought the other day: Would Lennon have still been recording and performing into his 80s? Perhaps…but almost certainly not as prolifically as workaholic Paul. I’ll bet the two of them would’ve found a way to make some records together, if only because Paul would’ve persuaded John to do it.

When asked a few months ago about his reputation for being such a hard-working chap, he had this modest response: “I look a lot busier than I am, as I’m actually a rather sporadic, random person. I’ll play a few gigs and then disappear for a while.”

Paul McCartney, the man of action, remains bloody well active today, and I, for one, salute his efforts.

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Because McCartney’s career catalog is so voluminous, I’ve decided to break it down into two Spotify playlists. The first one highlights his songs with The Beatles, while the second features my preferred selections from his repertoire on his own and with Wings.