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.

All good things must end some day

What’s that pop culture superstition about celebrities dying in threes? It’s pretty much nonsense, is what it is. How close together must their death dates be for it to qualify as a hat trick of celebrity deaths, anyway?

Three notable people in the rock music world died within a few days of each other at the end of May, but then this week, there was a fourth… Or was it the first of the next group of three? I think you see my point. Regardless, four very different but similarly influential musicians have just passed away, and Hack’s Back Pages has decided to pay a modest tribute to each of them. Their individual careers, backgrounds and preferred musical genres had little to do with each other, but they all operated under the broad umbrella of classic rock music, and are consequently deserving of our attention here.

The Spotify playlist at the end includes a batch of songs from each honoree’s catalog. These are songs that typically wouldn’t ever be on the same playlist, but they do show the diversity to be found in the music of the classic rock era…

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Ronnie Hawkins

Referred to in a New York Times obituary as a “rockabilly road warrior,” Ronnie Hawkins was actually much more than that. Though he was born and raised in Arkansas, he relocated to Ontario, Canada, and is credited with kickstarting the Canadian rock music scene in the mid-’60s, bringing his infectious blend of gregarious rock ‘n’ roll and R&B.

Hawkins died May 29th of cancer at age 87.

Born in 1932, Hawkins came from a musical family that included his father, two uncles and a few cousins who played the honky-tonk circuit in Arkansas and Oklahoma in the ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s, cousin Dale Hawkins wrote and recorded “Suzie-Q” (later made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rendition in 1968). While serving in the Army, Hawkins was astounded when he heard a black group perform “a cross between the blues and rockabilly,” and ended up joining them for a while as the Blackhawks. “Instead of doing a kind of rockabilly that was closer to country music, I was doing rockabilly that was closer to soul music, which was exactly what I liked,” he recalled.

Hawkins (second from left) with The Hawks (Helm at far left)

In 1958, he formed a band of Arkansas-based players called The Hawks that included a young drummer named Levon Helm, still in high school. Country singer Conway Twitty urged Hawkins and his band to tour in Ontario, Canada, where rockabilly music was becoming popular at the time, so Hawkins and The Hawks split their time between Arkansas and Ontario, eventually releasing their first album there on Roulette Records. The album failed to chart, but the first single from it, “Forty Days” (a version of Chuck Berry’s 1955 hit “Thirty Days”), peaked at #4 on the Canadian charts and made it as far as #45 on the US pop charts. The follow-up, “Mary Lou,” was a Hawkins original that reached #26 in the US and was later covered by ’70s stars Steve Miller and Bob Seger, among others.

Once Hawkins moved permanently to Ontario and became a Canadian citizen, the rest of The Hawks dropped out, and their ranks were filled by guitarist Robbie Robertson, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko, who would go on to international fame as The Band, one of the most influential groups of the ’70s.

Ronnie Hawkins with Robbie Robertson circa 1964

Hawkins nurtured a reputation as a startling showman on stage, doing backflips and handstands, and something he called the “camel walk,” which some say was the progenitor of Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” move in the ’80s. The raw energy of his musical output made him a big draw in the Toronto club scene, playing a repertoire that included scorching renditions of classics like Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” Dion’s “Ruby Baby” and Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.”

You may recall seeing Hawkins as a featured performer in The Band’s celebrated concert film, “The Last Waltz,” or playing the role of Bob Dylan in Dylan’s 1976 experimental film “Renaldo and Clara,” or in Michael Cimino’s 1980 box-office bomb “Heaven’s Gate.”

Danko with Hawkins in “The Last Waltz”

In his later years, he became something of a respected “elder statesman” of Canadian rock music and, having made shrewd investments, lived handsomely and owned several prosperous businesses.

But he remained a devilish rascal at heart, chuckling as he summed up his life: “Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.”

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Jimmy Seals

With their precise high harmonies and deft use of guitars, mandolin and fiddle, Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts crafted some really gorgeous melodies that earned them mainstream success in 1972-73 and made them the darlings of the New Age crowd, thanks to lyrics that often emphasized a spiritual approach.

Seals, who died Monday at age 80, was a gentle soul from small-town Texas who learned fiddle and sax at a young age and began collaborating with the like-minded Crofts while they were still teenagers. By the early ’60s, they had moved to California and met session guitarist Glen Campbell, with whom they performed as part of The Champs and in other configurations. Seals and Crofts eventually became part of a band called The Dawnbreakers, named after a book chronicling the evolution of the Persian religion known as Baha’i, and soon became strong devotees of that faith.

“I think our music is a combination of the Eastern part of the world and the Western,” Seals said in 1971. “We’ve had people from Greece, Israel, England, France, China, everywhere, listen to our music and say, ‘Oh, it’s music from the old country.’ It really seemed strange to us because we didn’t realize it ourselves until we started comparing our work with, for example, Persian music, which, when you listen to it, is really very close to ours. We had no knowledge of this at all beforehand. So it’s just something that happened.”

Their first two LPs received little notice, but beginning with 1972’s “Summer Breeze,” they enjoyed a run of four Top 20 hits and two Top Ten albums that put them right up there with James Taylor and Cat Stevens in the singer-songwriter sweepstakes that dominated the early ’70s. “Hummingbird,” “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” each offering sunny, positive messages, received heavy airplay. These albums included an impressive diversity of styles and instrumentation on deeper tracks like “It’s Gonna Come Down on You,” “The Euphrates, “Wisdom” and “Say.”

Then Seals and Crofts let their fiercely held beliefs get the better of them. They took a calculated risk in 1974 when they released “Unborn Child,” which took a strong anti-abortion stance in the wake of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision a few months earlier. “Warner Brothers warned us against it,” said Seals. “They said, ‘This is a highly controversial subject, we advise that you don’t do this.’ But we said, ‘You’re in the business to make money; we’re doing it to save lives. We don’t care about the money.” The duo insisted the song’s message was simply “don’t take life too lightly,” and to reconsider abortion as an option. Conservative fans applauded their brave stance, but critics were merciless, and the controversy severely impeded their commercial momentum. The song stalled at #66, although the album of the same name did reasonably well at #14, thanks to other fine tunes like “Desert People” and “The Story of Her Love.”

“I figured either it (‘Unborn Child’) would be very much accepted on the strength of the song itself, or that it would be the biggest bomb that we ever had. But it was incidental by that point, because the music was gone. I was out of gas already,” Seals revealed years later.

Actually, Seals and Crofts continued making music throughout the ’70s, changing their style to match changing tastes. Singles like “I’ll Play For You” (1975), “Get Closer” (1976), “My Fair Share” (1977) and the disco-flavored “You’re the Love” (1978) kept them in the public eye, but the bloom seemed to be off the rose by 1980 when Warners dropped them and they called it quits.

Seals and his family subsequently split their time between their Tennessee home and their coffee farm in Costa Rica, only occasionally reuniting with Crofts for one-off shows, and one album in 2004 (“Traces”). A stroke in 2017 ended Seals’s public appearances.

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Alan White

In 1972, Yes was the biggest progressive rock band in the world. Riding high on the strength of “The Yes Album,” “Fragile” and the then-new opus “Close to the Edge,” the group was about to embark on a major U.S. tour when they found themselves in a serious quandary.

Bill Bruford, Yes’s brilliant drummer from the very beginning, had grown frustrated and impatient with the group’s internal squabbles and drawn-out songwriting/recording process. He decided to take a leap of faith and accept an invitation to become the drummer for prog rock pioneers King Crimson.

Yes needed a capable drummer, and fast. They turned to the most logical choice: Alan White, a prolific London session musician who had just completed a European tour in support of Joe Cocker. White had, in fact, been present during a Yes recording session a few months earlier for the track “Siberian Khatru,” filling in when Bruford had to leave early. White eagerly accepted, spent five intensive days learning the band’s concert setlist, including the dense, 20-minute “Close to the Edge,” and off he went.

Yes in 1973, with Alan White at lower right

White never looked back, holding on to the slot as Yes’s drummer for more than 40 years, through numerous personnel changes and reunions, more than 15 albums and nearly 30 tours.

White died May 26th at age 72 after a brief illness. He had already begged off participating in the upcoming Close to the Edge 50th Anniversary Tour.

As early as age 17, White was getting gigs with London area bands like Griffin and the Alan Price Set, and was called on to be the drummer in numerous studio sessions as well. Seemingly out of nowhere, in September 1969, White was approached by John Lennon to join him, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman for a quickly arranged trip to Toronto to perform as the Plastic Ono Band at a festival there. The appearance was captured and released as a live LP called “Live Peace in Toronto 1969.” Recalled White, “I thought for sure it was one of my mates pranking me, pretending to be Lennon, but it was the real deal. It was all very exciting for me.”

That experience brought about further collaborations between White and Lennon, including the early 1970 session for Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” single, and also some of the tracks for his #1 LP “Imagine” in 1971.

White in 2014

Following the death of bassist Chris Squire, one of Yes’s founders, in 2015, White became the band’s longest reigning member.

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Andy Fletcher

Despite being a founding member of Depeche Mode, one of the most successful and influential electronic music bands of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, Andy Fletcher is not a widely recognized name, even among fans of rock music. He was not the lead singer or the main songwriter, and even he would have admitted that his instrumental and vocal contributions were relatively inconsequential.

Indeed, in a scene from a 1989 documentary about the band, Fletcher had this to say: “Martin (Gore) is the songwriter, Alan (Wilder) is the good musician, Dave (Gahan) is the vocalist, and I bum around.”

Depeche Mode, L-R: Andy Fletcher, Gahan, Gore, Wilder, circa 1988

Upon the band’s founding in the early ’80s, Fletcher played bass, synth bass and synthesizer, and supervised the use of sampling. By his own design, he took a supportive role in Depeche Mode, sometimes serving as a tiebreaker in group discussions. Fletcher was typically described as the group’s figurehead, playing a mostly managerial role, taking care of the business affairs of this entity that has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. “I’m the tall guy in the background, without whom this international corporation called Depeche Mode would never work.”

Fletcher died on May 26 at age 60. Cause of death has yet to be officially announced.

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