Composition Blog #7: Paul McCartney

Composition Blog #7: Paul McCartney

I had the fortune of attending a Paul McCartney concert at the Barclays Center last night, courtesy of my block association. This was one of the greatest concert experiences of my life.

I had attended part of an outdoor McCartney show in the early 90’s, and left half way through. Whether my age, or the sound outdoors, or the set list, who knows, I didn’t enjoy it. So I was quite surprised to feel so thrilled.

This cynical old dog had tears in his eyes several times. My wife had a wading pool going! I wish to reflect on the music, both personally and compositionally.

First, I know it is natural for people in their twenties and thirties to feel a backlash towards The Beatles, their insufferable iconic status, perpetually rammed down teenage throats by parents, endlessly touted as the greatest rock band ever. But to those who never “got The Beatles”, get over it.

There are so many things that McCartney does incredibly well, objectively speaking it is pretty hard not to be amazed by his genius hearing him live.  And that’s just HIS pieces, never mind Lennon and Harrison. In a rock band? I’d say that something you do has some root in The Beatles. Perhaps I over-generalize, but not much

Here is a partial list of why McCartney slayed me (please note I am not as familiar with his later work as I could be…need to catch up. Also, I have no doubt Lennon made his contributions to some tunes mentioned.):

1) Many of his melodies are as perfect as a melody can get, equal to any throughout the ages. Witness the architecture and emotional resonance of  the tunes “Hey Jude” or “Blackbird”, or “Let it Be”. But never mind the famous pieces- virtually all his melodies have an amazing satisfaction to them, even the ditzy ones that we make fun of. He played “All Together Now” last night, arguably a dumb song, but the melody is unforgettable. Writing ONE great melody in one’s whole life eludes most of us, even most songwriters. In fact, I would say melody quite often appears to be an after-thought in Indie Rock, and “New Folk”. It’s still prized in Nashville, but most of the hit tunes being cranked out there sound exactly like one you heard last year. It’s like they all use the same ten cards to deal 5 card stud. McCartney has a SOUND, 52 cards worth, quite unmistakable, built from his appreciation of the best that gospel, R&B, country, classical, jazz, and British folk had to offer. Note that Black music was huge for him, as it should be for any worthwhile songwriter in my opinion.

2) He brings joy to the world. How was this being blessed with this ability in such profusion?Seriously, what a gift this is, to be able to sail straight into the hearts of millions of people, over and over again? He does so with charm, intellect, and wit, so except in one or two songs last night, his soul and love seemed completely genuine. You walk away feeling deeply emotionally gratified. I remember that feeling from his music as a little kid. It made me want to be a musician. It is the rarest of qualities, most precious.

3) Harmony- he has a lot of sly harmony going on. So MANY bands today have no feel for harmony. It drives me nuts. It’s like Irving Berlin or Gershwin never existed. A few songs stand out in this regard: Live and Let Die, Maybe I’m Amazed,  Blackbird, Eleanor Rigby, and the ever-present Yesterday.

4) Diversity: It is incredible how deep his bag of tricks is after 50 years: soaring gospel numbers (Let it Be), Latin grooves (And I Love Her),  balls-out rockers (Helter Skelter), agonizingly beautiful ballads (Long and Winding Road), finger-picking masterpieces (Blackbird), beer-hall/ circus vibe (Lady Madonna or Your Mother Should Know), goofy (Hands Across the Water), psychedelic (Benefit of Mr. Kite),  and so on.

5) His voice- it is shocking that he is in his 70’s and still singing so well. How is it that you could be born not only one of the century’s greatest writers, but a great singer too? God was feeling REAL generous that day. Plus good-looking, charming,  AND he plays at least three instruments well.

6) The band- I cannot imagine how his band could be better. Vocals were flawless, guitarists ripped it up when needed, perfectly supportive other times, and the drummer was a machine, driving the grooves with tons of magnetic energy. The keyboard player did the work of three people.

7) “B” sections: any songwriter knows that “B” sections can be challenging to write. McCartney delivers bridges that seem inevitable, carved in granite, time after time. The “release” you feel in “Hey Jude” or  “Yesterday” is incredibly satisfying.

On a more personal note:

I loved The Beatles as a kid, as deeply as I have loved any music since. (I wrote a three page “letter” to them when I was eight that my parents kept, of course telling me they mailed it. In it I invited them to my house after their Washington D.C. concert, and informed them I spent $1.29 on their new album Rubber Soul.)

After this concert experience I see  more fully what I learned  from that passionate attachment, some of which I’d almost forgotten.

Seeing the level of connection McCartney had with his audience made me think, again, how important that it is to me, no matter how intellectual the undertaking. In the end, touching the listener, opening a door (the same we’ve opened in ourselves), is a goal never to lose sight of. I also thought about how important melody has always been to me, and I think his songs are partially responsible. I miss melody in a lot of new jazz. I know that may sound corny, but it’s true. I also had a refresher on what a great singer is all about, and how wonderful it is to be sung to. Of course, most of my records are instrumental, but I started as a songwriter, and I want to go back to using more voice. And then there is the pure joy of a kick-ass rock groove, my roots, my first love, something I still keep in my tool box.

More to come- in the meantime, see him while you can.

Question: what makes a great melody?

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