It goes without saying that Paul McCartney is one of — if not the — greatest songwriter of our time. That’s not to negate the efforts of those that clearly come close — Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Irving Berlin, Lerner and Lowe, Rogers and Hammerstein, or, for that matter, the late John Lennon. But given the sheer length and breath of his career — which at present spans some 55 years, the songs McCartney has added to the popular musical vocabulary stand apart in a way few have equalled. Indeed, other than Dylan, it’s almost impossible to name another artist who can claim to have written as many standards over such an expanded length of time.
That said, it’s especially striking when Macca throws us a curve ball. While he may not be known as an experimental artist per se — certainly Frank Zappa has him beaten on that score hands down — his playful instincts occasionally come to the fore. Perhaps it’s the result of restless muse, or merely a desire to push his parameters. But whatever the case, there have been certain songs that have caused fans and admirers to raise a wary eyebrow and wonder, just what the heck is he doing? Some unlikely collaborations of late have also made us wonder, but it’s to Paulie’s credit that his artistic inclinations continue to lead him fearlessly into uncharted waters.
All of this is even more astonishing considering the fact that Sir Paul turned 75 this past Sunday (6/20). So let’s give him credit not only for durability and persistence but also for continuing to defy expectations, no mean feat at any age.
Consequently, in honour of this major Macca milestone, here is our picks for Sir Paul’s most unusual offerings…
10. “Monkberry Moon Delight”
An unabashed rocker first released on the Ram album, its lyrics make little sense (“So I sat in the attic, a piano up my nose/And the wind played a dreadful cantata (cantata, cantata)”) Still, there is something unabashedly infectious about the song, and while it may not find its way into any list of McCartney’s greatest compositions, it’s also clear he had a ball while recording it. While there is some literal meaning here — “Monkberry Moon Delight” is supposedly a home-brewed whiskey similar to White Lightning — others have theorized that Macca’s referring to his feud with John Lennon and, in an odd way, summing up the insanity of the Beatles and how it affected their collective psyche. That seems a stretch, but then again, it’s not uncommon for fans to try to read into something that seems out of the ordinary. (Read: “Paul is dead”) We prefer to think Paul and Linda got a bit tipsy one night and ran with their instincts.
9. “Temporary Secretary”
A song culled from McCartney II and clearly one of the most avant-garde albums in McCartney’s catalogue, “Temporary Secretary” could be considered a toss off of sorts, but it’s pulsating rhythm — consisting mostly of an ongoing series of electronic blips — is strangely infectious in an incoherent way. The lyrics don’t provide too much insight other than to express the fact that Macca needs some help around the office. Not one that bears repeated listens, but an enjoyable respite all the same.
8: “Cut Me Some Slack”
For years, the big buzz was about the Beatles getting back together. Of course, that’s no longer a possibility, but who would have thought that Sir Paul would play an integral part in a Nirvana reunion just the same? Not us certainly. But nevertheless, with the right cause and setting — the 12-12-12 concert to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy — anything was possible. Macca connected with Dave Grohl, Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic to come up with this searing rocker that qualifies Paul as a punk with all the right intentions. Yes, he may be fairly advanced in years, but watching him wail and rock with those three has him looking and sounding at least 35 years younger. Grohl claims the studio version was recorded in under three hours, and granted, as a raw, raucous rocker, that’s easy to believe. But in terms of keeping that smell of teen spirit, it’s ageless all the same.
Who would have thought — or would wish to think — that Paul McCartney would collaborate with notorious rapper Kanye West to come up with a song for pop star Rhianna? Then again, what better way to prove you’re still relevant than to connect with one the world’s biggest selling recording artists? While many of McCartney’s fans were initially taken aback, the results seemed to justify the intent. The song made it up to the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, giving Rihanna her 26th top-ten song and allowing Macca to set a record by ending the longest break between top-ten singles in chart history. The song went on to hit number one on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and make the top spot in several countries around the world, helped no doubt by the trio’s performance at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards show. The reviews were sterling as well, proving that a union of a Beatle and a bad-ass isn’t as farfetched as one might think. And it’s not a bad song to boot…
6. “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”
A throwaway number seemingly recorded spontaneously by the Beatles to fill in the B-side of the “Let It Be” single, the track features each member of the Fab Four crooning the title in an offbeat and boozy way while confirming the fact that no one was really taking matters too seriously. Still, as a Beatles obscurity, it offers collectors an opportunity to probe a bit below the surface. Paul McCartney described the song to one interviewer this way: “It’s so insane. I mean, what would you do if a guy like John Lennon turned up at the studio and said, ‘I’ve got a new song’. I said, ‘What’s the words?’ and he replied ‘You know my name look up the number’. I asked, ‘What’s the rest of it?’ ‘No, no other words, those are the words. And I want to do it like a mantra!” Yeah, it’s pretty weird, but then again, it’s the Beatles. Trivia note: That’s Brian Jones playing sax. Sadly, he died four months before the release of the record.
5. “We All Stand Together”
McCartney was a self-professed fan of the popular Rupert the Bear children’s books, so it was only natural that he’d get around to recording a tune for a film. Also known as “The Frog Song,” it featured the talents of the King’s Singers choral group and the choir of the St. Paul’s Cathedral who were deputized to sing the role of the Frog Chorus. The B-side was a humming version credited to Macca and the Finchley Frogettes. Granted, it’s off the beaten path but it is a charming tune with a gently swaying chorus and a lilting refrain. Perfect for the kids, natch.
4. “Sun Is Shining”
Paul adopted the guise of the Fireman for his collaboration with Youth, a British producer whose efforts in the far reaches of modern rock established him as an art rock auteur. While the albums the two put out under the Fireman moniker were decidedly left of center, in many ways the melodies could have found a place on a Macca album proper. Still, due to the experimental nature of the project, it was probably a wise move to put some distance between this and his day job. “Sun Is Shining” is a lovely example of the duo’s more adventurous intents, and its ethereal ambiance allows it, “Lifelong Passion” and Is This Love?,” — all culled from the pair’s second album Electric Arguments — to give it a blurry haze that’s at once accessible and also atmospheric.
3. “Universal Here, Everlasting Now”
There are weirder songs that were formulated by Fireman, and this particular track, also taken from Electric Arguments, finds McCartney in full cosmic cacophony. Mainly a mix of odd instrumentation with an abstract execution, it’s one of the more amorphous entries of the entire McCartney catalog.
2. “Coming Up”
A one-off single provided in both studio and a live version of the same single, “Coming Up” took fans by surprise when it was originally released in 1979. While it’s giddy rhythm and techno trappings were odd enough, it was the video that accompanied it that proved especially unusual. It found McCartney playing an entire orchestra in various guises, including a cuddly Mop Top Paul, a shifty Ron Mael of Sparks fame, and other Brit Rock heroes of present and past. Seemingly a final nod to disco, its persuasive pulse proved enticing enough, although it certainly stands alone as a Macca oddity all its own.
1. “Mary Had a Little Land”
If the critics needed any evidence that McCartney had sunk to odious depths of banality, his reworking of this evergreen nursery rhyme made the case. Watching the video, it’s clear that his Wings mates were more than slightly embarrassed but carrying on gamely just the same. Paul had two explanations for why he recorded the song. At first, he said it was a reaction to the BBC banning “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” but given the fact that this song was recorded prior to its release, that really doesn’t hold up. Later, he said he wanted to make up for the lack of children’s songs recorded as rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that he enlisted daughters Stella and Mary to sing back-up makes that a viable excuse. Still, it remains both an embarrassment and clearly his oddest choice ever.