Years ago, when I was a teenager and a keen listener to Radio Caroline, I came upon what I thought was a Michael Moorcock science fiction novel featuring the band Hawkwind.
Wait, come back.
Anyway, Moorcock’s bibliography is chaotic, to say the least, but this book was possibly The Time of the Hawklords, long disowned by Moorcock himself and more probably written by Michael Butterworth. A post-apocalyptic novel featuring the band Hawkwind as the only saviours of humanity. It was almost certainly terrible, as were Hawkwind, but there was a moment in it that struck me, a teenage Beatles fan in the late 70s.
Back then, the only Hawkwind songs I knew were “Spirit of the Age” from their album Quark, Strangeness and Charm; and “Silver Machine”, which was their hit. The former, extended album track turned up frequently on Radio Caroline and, okay, I liked it, because it sounded great swirling out of the faint nighttime airwaves, bouncing off the heavyside layer onto the transistor radio clutched in my hand under the bedclothes.
But anyway, I only remember vaguely this moment in a post-apocalyptic scene as a convoy passes in the distance, blaring music, observed by Hawkwind, and the music the convoy is playing is “Silly Love Songs”, the 1976 song by Paul McCartney and Wings. In the novel this was confirmation that the convoy was unfriendly, evil, or at least deeply compromised. “Silly Love Songs” was made to stand for all that was bland, nasty, and meaningless in 70s pop.
“Silly Love Songs”. I mean: I had probably only heard it the once. I’d been prejudiced against solo McCartney by a couple of things. In the main it was John Lennon’s obvious disdain for Paul’s solo work, as expressed in songs like “How Do You Sleep” and in many interviews. In fact, for the longest time, my awareness of Macca’s solo material was limited to “Band on the Run”, which was often played on Caroline, plus “Mull of Kintyre” and its companion A-side “Girls’ School”. Later on, in the early 2000s, when I burned my first Imaginary Beatles album, I listened to a bit of his first solo record McCartney. And wasn’t impressed.
All of this is a long preamble to the news that I’ve spent a lot of time this year listening to Macca. Partly this is because of the quite good Beatles podcast Nothing is Real, and partly because I thought I ought to give him a chance.
He’s playing Glastonbury in 2020, which, I don’t know. I mean, a bit of it will be on telly, won’t it? With endless interruptions for meaningless chat from presenters, and everything being “amazing” and then a frustrating cut to someone trendy playing in a tent, and then the actual footage itself will be marred by all the fucking flags.
On the latest episode of Nothing is Real, one of the presenters mentioned how different an experience it is to go to see Macca in the US, where his audience reacts with unalloyed joy and a complete absence of cycnicism. I’ve seen some YouTube videos this year that have reduced me to tears. When the man stands up and performs “All My Loving” there is simply nothing to beat it for sheer emotional punch. But of course, there’s going to be a huge difference between an uncynical American audience (which is to their credit) and the trustfunders at Glasto, who are going to be at best a mixed bag. We could probably predict 90% of the setlist, but that’s as it should be for this kind of gig.
I still struggle with much of his solo material, though I take the point that he has produced stuff that was ahead of its time, and that he was underappreciated for what he was doing, especially in terms of live work. I still think he needs an editor, and he always needed a creative foil to curb his excesses. He and Ringo have consistently gone out there and played live music. And it was a game effort, if a little insane, what with the shitty tour bus and the college gigs and everything, to pretend Wings was a proper band and not just a backing band for Paul. George did play live a bit, though his voice wasn’t up to it; and John barely did anything. After a while, Paul stopped fighting against his legacy and started doing Beatles songs live, and I’m pretty sure that this is something I ought to have seen – especially before his voice was shot.
I think that I’ve always felt resistant to Paul’s catchiness and his melodic gift, which is perverse, but I’ve always been suspicious of songs that appear to be catchy for the sake of it and about nothing. Unnecessary earworms. But that’s clearly a prejudice borne out of being an early Lennon fan, and still infected with his belief that art is about the artist. Then again, something like “You Never Give Me Your Money” (one of my favourite later Beatles songs) can easily be read as “about” the Alan Klein controversies, and I suppose Paul has always concealed his autobiographical stuff more than John bothered to.
I’ve still got a lot more to explore but I’ve come across quite a lot already that I like. Some of it familiar, some of it not. For example, his song, “No More Lonely Nights”, with Dave Gilmore on guitar, is very good. Apparently, he’s never done it live, and it’s tainted by association with Give My Regards to Broad Street, but it’s properly good. And “With a Little Luck” is a proper gem, which notwithstanding its slightly cheesy synth backing seems to move people in mysterious ways; and then there are things like “Souvenir” and “Early Days”, which show him struggling with his voice but producing some emotional depth.
He doesn’t need my patronage, and it now seems like an impossible job to go through it all, but Macca solo is better than I thought. As a bonus, and thanks to the podcast, I’m enjoying the pleasure of McGear, the solo album by Mike McCartney, with most of the songs co-written and performed with Paul and Wings. It’s surprisingly excellent.
And you know what? “Silly Love Songs” is great.