JAMES PAUL MCCARTNEY TURNS 80

Aquarian Weekly
6/22/22
 
Reality Check
 

James Campion
 
 
JAMES PAUL MCCARTNEY TURNS 80
 
I feel obligated to acknowledge the eightieth birthday of James Paul McCartney the day after I am writing this – June 18, 2022. Beyond the fact that I have noted certain milestones for many of popular music’s giants here over the years and for a while became the de facto eulogist for too many more, there has been a weird connection I’ve had with Sir Paul for the past three years. Not the least of which having conceived a book project around his greatest song (in my humble opinion) “Hey Jude” titled Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” which was released just a few weeks ago, mere days before

One of the things I learned hanging in the shadow of Paul McCartney these past years, is the importance of staying alive. For the longest time, especially after the death of his songwriting partner, the iconic and sainted John Lennon in 1980, McCartney’s significance in this little four-piece rock and roll combo he founded, the Beatles (have you heard of this?) was greatly and woefully diminished. Living was a bad career move for Macca. At first. Now it turns out having several lives after you’ve peaked at 26 years-old is a good thing. And an argument can be made that now that Paul has managed to make eighty and has completed his tour triumphantly in front of eighty-thousand or so fans in a massive stadium here in N.J. last evening, it was a tremendous career move. Not to mention a good personal one, because, you know, otherwise…   

Makes sense that Paul McCartney is still with us. I mean, what sixteen year-old boy – music-obsessed, sex fiend, ego loon – takes the time to write “When I’m Sixty-Four?” Then, instead of forgetting he ever did such a thing put it on an album (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – have you heard of this?) that came out eight years later when he was just twenty-four. The man had a plan. And it has gone way past sixty-four. If my math is correct, sixteen years past. The age he was when…

“No one else is remotely in this stratosphere.”

Okay, so Paul has lived and has made a lot of music. And as I write in my book, people seem to like this music. Some stats for these songs that Paul’s come up with – composed with and without some notable collaborators like the aforementioned Lennon (wowza) and Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash and Kanye West to name a few – include thirty-two that have gone to #1 in the United States and/or in the United Kingdom. A staggering 129 of his songs have charted in the United Kingdom, ninety-one reaching the Top 10. He is the Guinness Book of World Records’ Most Successful Songwriter of All Time. “No one else.” I wrote, “is remotely in this stratosphere.”

Paul McCartney might be the most prolific and influential songwriter of popular music ever. He is Gershwin and Porter and Ellington and Berlin and all those other guys and then some. Paul, as I discovered also in my research, is song. He has been song, and he will forever be song. I think it is possible if you look up the word “song” in Webster’s it might have Paul’s smiling face next to it. There is no daylight between a hummable tune and James Paul McCartney.

Oh, I also found out during this book journey that apparently the Campion men over a century-plus were fellow Liverpudlians who married a lot of Irish women from across the water. This is thanx to my Little Brother, PJ, who is now the family archaist. Before this, I was merely another of these Irish/Italian types from the Bronx by way of a large boat of people. Turns out there was a large boat or two or three, there was just a Liverpudlian Campion on it. 

I was already here in 1964 when the Beatles arrived via an airplane and changed the planet forever. There are pop stars and icons and then there is the inexplicable sonic boom of the Beatles, who were four scrums from that British port town that no one gave a flying fart about until they invaded every cover of everything. People coming from nowhere to dominate is the stuff of legend. And for some weird reason Paul, this old soul with his songs about retirement written before he could shave, rode it like he knew it all along. And this is the same boyish charm that pervades today. You see his glee when he performs and gets those cheers. He loves those cheers. His little dance when he stands up from the piano after serenading us with “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Let It Be” or the next masterpiece is pure unadulterated joy. Saw him for the second time in my nearly sixty years on the planet a few weeks ago in Syracuse, NY, where my wife is from and her amazing family that is my family and where I signed my books that afternoon with his visage on the cover, and all those the years between 1964 and 1968 and 1978 and 1989 (when I first saw him at MSG) and the rest melt away into one big Macca moment.

A musician friend of mine back in the mid-eighties once mused that it is strange that anyone can do an impression of almost any rock star from the 1950s onward, except McCarney. Paul doesn’t have a distinct sound (unless you listen to Badfinger or early Billy Joel or any boy band that has existed after the Beatles) but I kind of know what he meant. He meant that Paul could be a vocalist for any time and any occasion His songs demand that his voice run the gamut. It isn’t an affect he is doing; it is Paul being song, again and again, and, blessedly, again.

So, all those year ago, and the years in between and the ones to come, are right there for Paul, who is a time machine, an indelible mark on our sense memories in sound. He brings us there, time and again, with a melody for the ages. Because he has aged. 

So, fuck dying and leaving a good-looking corpse and all the bullshit about burning out and fading away. 

James Paul McCartney is eighty. 

Long may he be song.

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Paul Simon: The Life– Robert Hilburn (2018)

Robert Hilburn, respected music journalist from the L.A. Times for thirty-five years takes
on the life of the legendary Paul Simon, whose mercurial musical journey spans nearly
six decades in Paul Simon: The Life. Although at times the writing is as dry as a Bob
Woodward political exposé, the author provides new perspective on the life and times of
Simon by including the singer-songwriter’s commentary as late as 2017. And so, this is a
biography with a little memoir thrown in, which makes it unique. However, what makes
it a must read for fans of Simon and music history in general is it includes pages and
pages of how this genius of songcraft plies his trade. I need to point this out again,
because it is a glaring rarity in rock/pop bios; Hilburn writes, using copious Simon
quotes, how one of the great American songwriters of any generation does it. What a
concept! But don’t sleep on it, because this should be a template for every one of these
books going forward.

One of the elements of the book that really struck me is throughout an
uncompromising artistic career from chucking Simon & Garfunkel at the absolute height
of their earning and artistic powers, to working with eclectic musicians from all over the
globe across genres (Graceland – South African and Rhythm of the Saints – Brazilian),
and tackling film scores (One Trick Pony) and an ill-fated Broadway play (The
Capeman
), Simon, and thus Hilburn, are obsessed with winning awards, as each year’s
Grammy nominations arrive with Simon obsessively, almost to the point of shifting his
moods and future inspirations for a spate, tuning in. The bevy of awards that would come
Simon’s way meant so much to him it borders on the edge of creepy and self-serving, but
it also shows how in-tune the performer was with the shifting tides of music for sixty
years. Unlike many of his contempories, even Bob Dylan, who had a comeback in the
early aughts, Simon would return again and again as a seminal voice in the pop world.

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Life on Two Legs: Setting the Record Straight on Queen, The Beatles, Elton and Bowie
and the Ultimate Rock Studio, Trident – Norman J. Sheffield (2013)

There is a very convincing argument to made, and Norman Sheffield certainly makes it in
his page-turning Life on Two Legs, that his studio’s influence on the 1970s era of rock in
the UK and beyond has no peer. The founder and proprietor of the legendary Trident
Studios, tucked in a little alleyway in the Soho District of London, was the epicenter of
the rock/pop world, effectively launching the glam movement with the birth of Marc
Bolan and his T Rex, David Bowie, and Elton John, three massive British artists that
would dominate the charts and pop culture for years to come. And this is not even to
mention, which Sheffield does in great and gory detail, Trident’s discovering,
developing, and managing of Queen, a monster rock/pop outfit that would be an
international hit-making and touring phenomenon.

If Sheffield did nothing but discuss the history of Trident’s groundbreaking studio
period (the first of its kind in the UK to embrace what was going on in the U.S. in turning
the studio into a place of comfort to create like New York City’s Record Plant or L.A.’s
Sunset Sound) this would be required reading. But add Trident’s advent into 8-Track and
then 16-track recording, seducing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and a host of other epic
acts, and what you have the living evolution of rock and roll in its second generation.

Sheffield also duly covers he and his colleagues, some of them the most important
producers/engineers of the period, Ken Scott and Roy Thomas Baker, to name just two,
expanding the brand to film, video production, tour scheduling and more. Trident was the
most groundbreaking enterprise in pop music and Queen’s massive success underlines
this.

But, alas, Sheffield also describes the terrible business side of his creative venture, not
the least of which “the Queenies,” as he affectionately calls them, as their naiveté, greed,
and overall dumbness that led to a terrible split. More than half the book is dedicated to
this stirring saga and for good reason. It is, like most of Trident’s triumphs and tragedies,
a cautionary tale. One that needed to be told by the man who made it and lived it.

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Why Patti Smith Matters – Caryn Rose (2022)

Author Caryn Rose begins her framing of the import of Patti Smith with a note about this
not being a biography, but indeed, it very much is, but with the added tone and
perspective the subject deserves. Part of a series from University of Texas Press Music
Matters
books that include similar treatises on Marianne Faithful, Solange, Karen
Carpenter among others, Why Patti Smith Matters is fast-paced ride through the artistic
journey of one of the most influential artists of the mid-to-late 1970s New York punk
movement.

Rose is a fan, and more than that, she eloquently depicts the pertinence of Smith’s
appearance on her debut album, the iconic Horses black-and-white photograph of Smith
leering apathetically, and her intense Saturday Night Live appearance in the autumn of
1976, one that also blew yours truly away. Much of the background material has been
covered by Smith herself in Just Kids (which I reviewed here in 2010, and her follow-up
M Train in 2015), but it was Rose’s concentration on the time period Smith and her then
husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 married and decamped in a suburb of Detroit in
the 1980s that was special for me. We read how much it flummoxed the author as a fan
that Smith retreated from the public eye and essentially her art, but also how much the
author’s feminism and professional hindsight sees it as an afront to the (woman) artist’s
right to have a life outside of celebrity, something Patti Smith always claimed was not the
aim of her career, and how she might have been even more prolific because of it.

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U2’s The Joshua Tree – Planting Roots in Mythic America – Bradley Morgan (2021)

Arguably the most political of books about arguably the most political of bands, U2’s The
Joshua Tree – Planting Roots in Mythic America
dissects the aim and purpose, history
and influence of the legendary Irish band’s finest album and this reviewer’s selection in
his Top 5 of All-Time. Author Bradley Morgan is on a personal and political journey of
his own, which he covers with zero ambiguity in the book’s epilogue, something clearly
expressed in each of the ensuing chapters that break down each of the Joshua Tree’s
eleven brilliant tracks. This is a fan’s perspective, mixed with research and the voices of
those who have waxed poetic about its themes for decades, shedding light on one of the
most powerful statements ever presented by a rock band.

There is plenty to love here if you grew up, as I did, with U2 – a band that mattered
most for wearing the political and spiritual on its collective sleeve from day-one. But
Morgan goes to places deeper than perhaps even U2 perceived back in 1987 and came to
learn as they toured the record, specifically in America, as captured in the 1988 film,
Rattle and Hum. To wit: Morgan spends much of the book following U2’s 2017 tribute
concert tour for the thirtieth anniversary of the album and juxtaposing its messages of
America mythos and promise versus its hypocrisy – framed in the chaotic months of the
Donald Trump presidency and the critiques proffered by the band originally n the mid-
eighties of Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

As a fellow author of framing a rock album in its times and its effect on us all, I can
confidently state that Morgan succeeds in providing further meaning to U2’s finest work,
filling much of the book with furious sincerity to the music that moved him, hoping to
move the reader as dramatically.

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Aerosmith – On Tour, 1973-85 – Julian Gill (2021)

Author and rock historian extraordinaire Julian Gill has done it again. Aerosmith – On
Tour, 1973-85
is living antiquity, an exhaustive, extensive, unbelievably detailed trip across a decade of road stories, trinkets, facts, side stories, statistics and images that
frame one of the most impressive touring runs in the pantheon of rock and roll.

Laid out in a dual compendium with his online archives, much as Gill has
accomplished for Aerosmith’s contemporaries, KISS, this tome (and man is it ever, the
author warned me not to drop it on my foot) covers every aspect of Aerosmith’s journey
from Boston bar band to the heights of 1970s superstardom, the band’s implosion and
retooling, which culminates with their comeback pre-mid-1980s revival (previewing the
most unlikely and spectacular second acts in rock). I was at one of those reunion shows at
a stormy Orange County Fairgrounds in 1984, and it remains one of the best concerts I
have ever seen by any band. And Julian’s got it cold, even hinting that there might be a
recording of it!

No Aerosmith fan, hell, no fan of 1970s rock can live without this book. It is the
collection of all collections (he even has solo projects and ensuing tours), and to think
Gill is threatening to keep going – a follow-up volume into the second-act career – even
going so far as to reaching out to readers to contribute. This is a true grassroots
book/online effort that is so unique it may spawn imitators, but in no way duplicators.
Gill’s ability to mine minutia, find the gems, and get to the crux of the facts is without
peer, and this volume may be his finest achievement.

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Music is History – Questlove (2021)

At one point in his exceedingly enjoyable Music is History, Producer/Drummer/Educator/Author, and shameless fellow music geek, Questlove astutely quotes nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” This pretty much explains what music journalists (de facto historians) do when we attempt to frame music in the context of its times and beyond. Questlove brilliantly balances this axiom/call to arms in the personal and cultural for music is in his DNA as a musician and an intellectual. And if there is a more entertaining book on music as history, I defy anyone to name it.

To say I loved Music is History is an understatement. It spoke to me the way I usually speak to others, or more to the point write in this paper, magazine pieces, and my own books on music. Questlove has found a voice so filled with deep minutia and profound conclusions, it is quite intimidating. If I weren’t having so damn much fun discovering and rediscovering the songs/albums/artists that run a historical thread through Music is History, I might be pissed at him for this fantastic idea!

The highlights of his journey from birth (1971) to the present, include but are not beholden to the author’s deconstruction of samples through hip hop’s evolution to bridge the gap between generations of celebrated soul/funk artists whose work was reimagined and rediscovered through the art form. There is also the discussion of musical appropriation, the slow erosion of the cultural purpose behind rap/hip hop, the primacy of the Em bass line in dance music, musicians as confessors, and how history can be viewed through the prism of our personal connection to music.

Moreover, any book that dedicates a chapter to Prince and the Revolution’s underrated1985 masterpiece Around the World in a Day is a winner for yours truly. This was so much fun!

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Fab: The Intimate Life of Paul McCartney – Howard Sounes (2010)

I spent a lot of time with the songwriter, the musician, the icon that is Paul McCartney over the past year-plus whilst working on my upcoming book, Take a Sad Song… The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” and as such spent a ton of that time researching his life and times. The best of these I found is Howard Sounes’ Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney. This led me to asking Mr. Sounes to chime in on my project. Crucially, he did – and my book is better for it.

Sounes is a man who knows greatness. He has written about poet Charles Bukowski and icon Bob Dylan in serious detail. In Fab he sees where that greatness lies, its origins (nature to nurture) and where that lead – the Beatles and beyond. There is something you find in Sounes’ McCartney that is mostly absent from his other biographies. Each of McCartney’s biographers have their own spin; many of them are too busy worshipping (that affliction again) and others just trying to tear him down. Sounes works both angles with precision, refusing to ignore much of what is hard to describe about someone as prolific and famous and incessantly covered over six decades as Sir Paul. McCartney is a man of many shades, and they are all explored here.

I especially love how Sounes, a Brit, digs below McCartney’s surface play (a consummate salesman) to his funnier, grittier side; the one that would entrance a surly and focused teen John Lennon. That Paul McCartney is always there. More than any of his contemporaries he knows from whence he came and stays truer to his nature, which, as Sounces points out throughout his book. It is what gives him the antennae to find those brilliant songs.

There are a lot of books on Paul McCartney – not even counting Beatles’ books – many of which I have reviewed here. But after the deluge I have worked through, while there are merits to many out there, this is the one to read if you want to get past the noise and find the signal. 

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Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector – Mick Brown (2008)

If you’ve heard the rumors about Phil Spector that range from unhinged, narcissistic controlling master artist to drug-addled, wild-eyed half-mad gun-toting murderer, then it’s time to get the stories, good or ill, from Mick Brown’s translucent Tearing Down the Wall of Sound.

This was such a fun read, made possible by my friend, singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, whom I have written about in this paper since 2006, and gave me his copy. He is not only a wonderful human being, but another complete music geek and a sucker for early 1960s pop music. Love him or hate him, all of that all starts with Phil Spector, musician, songwriter, producer, and inventor of a style of music that bridged the incredible history of rock and roll from its infancy into the early to mid 1950s to the arrival of the culture-altering Beatles. And this book covers it all, with an unblinking objectivity.

The author begins the book with an interview he conducted at Spector’s Californian mansion, just months before the alleged murder of a woman in the same room. What Spector tells him will be unfurled with each chapter, giving you direct access to the reasons for his bizarre behavior, his mind-games, his obsession with violence, and the gnawing paranoia that comes from being a relentless perfectionist.

Man, the stories in here are epic and told with such detail, adding the anecdotes and memories by those who sat beside Spector at the control board or during meetings in the halls of the biggest record companies in the world. Spector is everywhere, through the seminal moments of rock music’s infancy, and Brown takes you on that journey. The humor, madness, travails, and triumphs of a complicated character is given its due in Tearing Down the Wall of Sound.

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Hard Rain: A Bob Dylan Commentary – Tim Riley (1993)

What a wonderful read. Author Tim Riley, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director at Emerson College, who has written extensively about the Beatles and other music from the period, takes a welcomed unique slant on the Bob Dylan story in Hard Rain: A Bob Dylan Commentary. It is indeed a “commentary” from the first paragraph, methodically taking apart the accepted narrative of this mysterious icon to concentrate on what made Dylan a musical force across generations. 

Riley begins with Dylan’s genuflecting to the blues more than folk, which makes sense with the budding songsmith’s teen obsessions with Little Richard and Elvis Presley and later with his dramatic move to an electric sound. Yet this creative foundation is wholly ignored in many depictions of Dylan’s initial absorption of Woody Guthrie and his later tap into the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk movement. It is also a solid footing for how the author follows the celebrated singer-songwriter’s zigzag artistic sojourn, always on the move, always challenging both his own talents and the expectations of his audience.

It was especially intriguing to read something this close to the bone before the later waves of Dylan comebacks over the past decades – some hit or miss. I agree with almost all of Riley’s assessments of Dylan’s eighties into nineties works and performances. I endured one of those erratic shows at Radio City Hall that was just awful. I brought a young friend whom I was tutoring in the Dylan canon and found myself apologizing for it throughout. 

Also, it is ironic that right before I read this (thanks to the author for gifting me a copy, and his inclusion as a voice in my next book) when I was finishing up Sinéad O’Connor’s memoir. In the book’s epilogue, Riley rightly takes to task Dylan’s silence in the wake of a New York City crowd booing O’Connor after her infamous Saturday Night Live performance in which she ripped up a picture of the pope. The hypocritical tone-deaf idea that during a Bob Dylan tribute show, which Dylan attended, the celebration would ignore his own bravery to shake the foundations of power and take on the status quo, is articulately deconstructed.

Hard Rain: A Bob Dylan Commentary is a must read for any Dylan fan not mired in rock star worship, something the artist would likely abhor.

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