Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing Albums: McCartney

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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Introduction to the series: A Year of Disappointing Albums (and Why You Need to Hear Them)

I’m always intrigued when a writer invokes the idea of disappointment in a record review. How is an album disappointing? Is it the follow up to a hit that doesn’t quite fulfil the band’s early promise or a ‘rough diamond’ as someone once very generously dubbed Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait?

Is it the final weary breath of a once great band or the first stumbling effort that cleared the way for the classic? Maybe it’s a misunderstood or poorly conceived experiment, a sidestep that confounds listeners.

Then there are the difficult second albums and those ill-advised comebacks. It is not a simple concept but one that I am keen to unpack over the coming months. One thing must be made clear: This is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but, as the subtitle says, they are records that you ‘need to hear’. In other words, I come not to bury these albums but to understand them in all their disappointing glory.

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McCartney by Paul McCartney, 1970

The Beatles’ respective solo careers are all in their own way confounding. Paul’s has been by far the most successful commercially, though artistically he has had some ups and downs, to put it mildly.

He was the last Beatle to release a proper record under his own name. His first solo album is remembered reasonably fondly now but at the time, it was considered very disappointing. Yoko has come and gone as the bad guy in The Beatles breakup story but at the time, Paul was the villain. I don’t care to revisit the entire episode, only to say that it was nasty, brutish, and prolonged by a vampiric cult otherwise known as lawyers. In the course of it there were a lot of unpleasant interviews where the band members – okay, mainly John – took pot shots at Paul. However, George and Ringo joined in too when it came to the topic of Paul’s first solo album, McCartney.

One nasty fellow wondered if it was really worth breaking up The Beatles for such a lacklustre collection. Ouch.

The scheduling of release dates for The Beatles’ various projects in 1970 was a serious point of contention at the time and one more thing to fuel the fire burning down the band. A quick scan of Apple LP releases that year shows that in just over a six-month period, six Beatles-related albums were released. A solo set each from John, Paul, and George, two from Ringo, and the final Beatles LP, Let It Be. Those were the days! Paul’s effort turned up in April, a couple of weeks after Ringo’s Sentimental Journey.

Including this record under the banner of ‘disappointing’ feels a tad disloyal. When I went through my initial Beatles freak out at 14, I became fascinated by Paul, who I still associated with the Wings hits of my childhood. Yes, I was one of those Gen Xers, so beloved of baby boomer talk show comedians at the time, who “didn’t know Paul was in a band before Wings,” as the joke went.

Everyone has a favourite Beatle. Mine was, and is, Paul. All of their early solo records are interesting because they are as close as we’re ever going to get to the record they never made in 1971. McCartney’s however might be the most intriguing of the lot.

An older kid at school proclaimed that McCartney and Jagger were the pop influences in their bands. They were ‘commercial’, a word we used to use to describe music that we considered too slick. Then I bought a copy of this album in a used record store. It was an original apple release. I loved the look of it, the photos of Paul and Linda as old folks at home, the one of Paul with the baby in his jacket.

The obvious paradox, and it was one which utterly confounded critics of the time, was the rawness of it. If he had released, say, Band on the Run, it would have been panned outright as the expected sell-out. But this sounded like a slightly more focused version of the Dylan Great White Wonder bootleg that was floating around. Noodly jams, unfinished songs, ragged production and only one musician, Paul, on every instrument. It was like his version of Skip Spence’s Oar. The critics panned it anyway, and every album of Paul’s for some time to come. One nasty fellow wondered if it was really worth breaking up The Beatles for such a lacklustre collection. Ouch.

Why is it disappointing?

There are so many wonderful melodies here, not surprisingly. Songs like Teddy Boy, written in India in 1968, are lovely but are lost in the roughhewn production. Every Night, which Paul continued to play live, is another classic that isn’t served all that well by the garage level production. I suppose this is part of the paradox and thus the charm of the album. Paul, the Beatle you would most expect to turn in a slightly overproduced pop masterpiece comes up with something that sounds like a bootleg, while George brings in Phil Spector for his post break up triple album. Paul is up to something here. He’s making a statement about The Beatles and perhaps some unwillingness to play the game. Nothing wrong with a statement but this one is a bit frustrating when the songs are so beautiful.

Why should you hear it?

There is a level of intimacy here that Paul will rarely revisit. This is Paul, the genius songwriter at work while his principle vehicle, The Beatles, falls to pieces. It’s an intensely personal album with all kinds of intriguing little fragments alongside Maybe I’m Amazed, one of his finest songs. It points the way forward on songs like Hot As Sun/Glasses and hints at what might have been if John had sung with him on Man We Was Lonely. Junk, another old one penned in India, is heart-stopping and filled with the sort of pathos that critics ignore in his work. I have noticed that McCartney is on its way to becoming something of a ‘classic’, and that critics are far kinder to it these days. But make no mistake, this album disappointed the hell out of everyone when it appeared, and its reevaluation has taken nearly half a century.

10 responses to “51 Disappointing Albums: McCartney

  1. Mate, McCartney is a great album for anyone on their debut and an great album for someone moving on from the wall of sound that had become the Beatles. Pared back, melodic, beautiful and heartfelt.

  2. My sister bought McCartney when it came out. We both loved it as much or more than any Beatle album. Everyone I knew thought it was great. The local radio station ran a call-in contest to pick the best song. Four songs headed the list with Maybe I’m Amazed taking the win.

    Not everyone read Rolling Stone in the seventies.

  3. More disappointing than, say, Back To The Egg? Really? What’s your take on Off The Ground? Where does Liverpool Oratorio figure? Your standards are clearly very high, sir. Are there disappointing Beatles albums too? Hendrix records that don’t quite make the grade? Pink Floyd albums that fall short? I guess we’ll find out.

  4. What a joy to read such an erudite defence of this album. Paul is my favourite Beatle too, and I’ve been troubled for years by the critical and societal consensus that tends to disparage him. It’s not cool to like Paul. You’re supposed to like John. I’ve often wondered what this says about the things we are allowed to value if we don’t want to be embarrassed by our own opinions—apparently we must choose John’s anger, wit, bitterness, even misogyny over Paul’s benign, empathic, heart-on-his-sleeve love of and commentary on life and ordinary people. Reading Rolling Stone in the 70s (good point, debjorgo!), especially as a girl, initiated me into mysteries of male rock criticism which haunt and confuse me still.

    1. I have been playing and composing music for over fifty years and in my humble opinion many of Paul’s classic songs are the works of a genius. I saw Billie Eilish singing ‘I Will’ on Carpool Karaoke and was reminded of not just how good Paul is as a composer but how timeless are his songs. I wish I could wake up in the morning with a song as good as Scrambled Eggs (aka Yesterday) in my head.

  5. Maybe I’m amazed – what a great song, and I agree probably Paul’s finest. I was around at the time but quite young, but with older brothers, and commercial radio was the thing at the time.

    Never quite got the ‘you have to have a favourite Beatle thing, or any of the other comparative assessments. they’re different. George was certainly the most interesting person of the lot, IMHO, and wrote their most soulful songs.

    Also didn’t understand the Beatles versus Stones thing. Thought it was performative fandom, but I came to realise how good the Stones were later in life. Took a while, proper R & B takes a while for the ears to mature.

    I look back on Beatles music now as mostly tame, and not particularly interesting.

  6. In my opinion only two good songs on the album maybe I’m amazed and every night he was well well below par especially to John Lennon but then again John Lennon was in a different League in the Beatles

  7. As for me Back to the Egg is a good album. But if you are searching a disappointing one, I’d choose Press or Off the Ground.

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