THE ART OF McCARTNEY
It all began at 20 Forthlin Road, in the Liverpool suburb of Allerton, in late 1956. That’s when a teenager called James Paul McCartney wrote his first song, I Lost My Little Girl. The following summer, Paul went along to the Woolton Village Fete, where he met John Winston Lennon for the first time, and the rest really is history…
More than half a century on, The Art Of McCartney project was the fruit of another chance meeting – this time between Sir Paul McCartney MBE and music producer Ralph Sall.
With a successful career working on such films as Sahara, Addams Family Values and Three Kings, Ralph was well established in the Hollywood firmament. Yet despite having worked alongside George Clooney, Anjelica Huston, Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Reynolds, even Ralph Sall was starstruck when he was asked to collaborate with Paul McCartney on the soundtrack for the 2003 Michael Douglas comedy The In-Laws. A long-time McCartney fan, Ralph was keen to include A Love For You, an out-take from Paul’s second album, Ram.
The two men met and hit it off, and after the film’s release Ralph contacted Paul’s London office to pitch an idea which had been fermenting for many years. Besides his film work, Ralph had already overseen a tribute album to the Grateful Dead; but it was his 1993 album, Common Thread: The Songs Of The Eagles – which had sold three million copies and led to the band reforming – that first put Ralph on the McCartney road. A subsequent Doors project, for which the three surviving members provided backing tracks, gave him a clearer framework for this very special celebration of Paul McCartney.
It was to be a long and winding road, but here it is at last: the project that testifies to the songwriting genius of Paul McCartney, and gathers together a glittering host of Paul’s peers paying tribute to… The Art Of McCartney.
* * *
Today, it is hard – if not impossible – to imagine a world without the music of Paul McCartney. With The Beatles, he redrew the pop landscape. Later, with Wings, he took a second bite at the cherry and dominated the charts of the 1970s. And when his solo career resumed in 1980 a whole new canon of McCartney classics entered the music lexicon.
And it is that incredible song catalogue to which the cream of musical aristocracy has now come to bend a knee: from country legend Willie Nelson’s take on Yesterday; music icon Bob Dylan (Things We Said Today); the genius behind the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson (Wanderlust); and legendary Bee Gee Barry Gibb (When I’m 64)… through to a dazzling array of today’s talent: Corinne Bailey Rae (Bluebird); Jamie Cullum (Every Night); The Airborne Toxic Event (No More Lonely Nights)…
In all, nearly 40 artists have gathered together for this project – and to pay homage to the Master. In order to bring some consistency to such disparate contributions, and to fit with the artists’ various other commitments, Ralph Sall used Paul’s touring band wherever possible. Providing this rock-solid musical foundation were guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray; keyboard player Paul “Wix” Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. Having toured and recorded with Paul for over a decade, these men already knew the McCartney back-catalogue inside out, but even they were surprised by some of the musical choices plucked from that gilded songbook.
But then we are talking about songs which formed the very foundations of popular music…
Yesterday – which famously began life on the set of A Hard Day’s Night as “Scrambled Eggs” (a phrase chosen by Paul to help him remember the melody), and went on to become the most covered song ever.
When I’m 64 – which was at the very heart of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – now routinely cited as the greatest rock album ever recorded.
All My Loving – the song that introduced The Beatles to the USA. When they made their US TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and opened with Paul’s song, they were seen by 73 million viewers – at the time, the largest TV audience America had ever seen.
The hymnal, perfect, Let It Be.
The irresistibly anthemic, Hey Jude – heard and sung everywhere, from the stage of the Woodstock festival to the close of the London 2012 Olympic Games’ Opening Ceremony.
* * *
When The Beatles broke up, Paul – still in his 20s – went on to create further musical landmarks. Maybe I’m Amazed (performed here by Billy Joel) was one of the highlights of his 1970 solo debut McCartney; Run Devil Run (Wanda Jackson) was a standout McCartney original from his 1999 album of largely rock & roll covers; Helen Wheels (Def Leppard), C Moon (The Cure’s Robert Smith) and Junior’s Farm (Steve Miller) all became worldwide hits for Wings.
Sung here by Billy Joel, Paul’s theme for the 1973 James Bond film Live And Let Die raised the benchmark for 007 themes, and also reunited Paul with legendary Beatle producer George Martin when they worked together on the original recording. Put It There (Peter, Bjorn & John) from Paul’s chart-topping 1989 album Flowers In The Dirt, took its title from a favourite saying of Paul’s dad, Jim. Smile Away (which Alice Cooper reinterprets here) comes from Paul’s 1971 album, Ram, while On The Way (B.B.King) was taken from his second solo outing, McCartney II.
* * *
Undeniably, one of the earliest highlights of The Art Of McCartney came when Brian Wilson, founding genius of the Beach Boys, became the first artist to commit to the project. As one of the few songwriters who could ever match the McCartney genius, Brian’s choice of song here is intriguing: Wanderlust was one of the highlights of Paul’s 1982 album Tug Of War.
Taking one of Paul’s most haunting melodies, Brian added layer upon layer of sun-drenched harmonies, using a unique fusion of styles to create a timeless moment of musical magnificence. It is genuinely humbling to experience one musical genius paying such heartfelt tribute to another.
But then, over the years Paul McCartney has enjoyed more than his fair share of appreciation from a spectacular range of admirers – many of them no slouches at songwriting themselves. Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Phil Collins, Chris Martin, Nick Cave, Dave Grohl, Florence Welch, Paul Weller and Ozzy Osbourne (the list goes on and on) – all have testified to Sir Paul’s songwriting brilliance. Oh, and some singers quite like his material too! Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett are just a few of those who have recorded his songs.
At home, the McCartney mantelpiece must groan under the awards this extraordinary songwriter has earned: Paul has already received an Oscar; the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize (presented to him by President Obama); the Legion of Honour (from President Francois Hollande); as well as innumerable Brit, Q and Grammy Awards. More recently, in February 2014, the UK’s New Musical Express proclaimed him: The Songwriters’ Songwriter – a one-off award for which he was nominated by fellow musicians.
Anyone who tried to squeeze all that into a single package, would struggle. But Ralph Sall has managed to come through with a genuinely impressive array of artists, matched with a nicely judged choice of songs. With the label Arctic Poppy, they make the multi-format The Art Of McCartney a thoroughly fitting tribute to a truly exceptional body of work.
* * *
Besides providing an insight into the care and complexity that were the hallmarks of this project throughout, the accompanying documentary about the making of the album catches some of pop music’s greatest ever performers in action. Bee Gee Barry Gibb’s touching explanation about why he chose to record his selection… The Cure in full Gothic mode tearing into the summer of love’s Hello Goodbye, with a very special guest pianist – Paul’s only son James.
Even the credits that preface the film are enough to make any true McCartney fan’s heart beat just a little faster. But then, when that familiar Höfner violin bass floats into view, you just know this is the real deal. Paul’s trademark bass, which he bought when penniless and struggling in Hamburg, is also the instrument that saw him through The Beatle years. He still has that guitar, complete with the set list from the last-ever Beatle concert (August 1966, in San Francisco) sellotaped to the top! And today, wherever and whenever he takes to the concert stage, that trusty old friend is with him as he weaves his way through a songwriting career stretching over half a century.
There are so many highlights in The Art Of McCartney that it’s impossible to pick just a few. But one of the most memorable moments comes from another iconic musician and his ageing guitar. As Willie Nelson tenderly recreates the sombre majesty of Yesterday, we witness this most affecting giant of country music delicately picking out one of the world’s favourite melodies on ‘Trigger’ – the trusty acoustic guitar Willie has been picking since 1969!
The artists gathered together for this project are themselves experts in the crafts of songwriting and performing, so it’s fascinating to hear their reflections on McCartney’s music and their interpretations of his songs. Watching The Who’s Roger Daltrey deliver a shattering Helter Skelter is simply breathtaking… Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott recalls that at the tender age of four he was already entertaining relatives with Love Me Do… While Dion reminisces about hearing The Beatles’ Drive My Car for the first time, while at the wheel of his Thunderbird Convertible driving round the Bronx… We even get to eavesdrop Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart comparing the parental similarities of the Wilsons and the McCartneys.
* * *
Inevitably, the logistics of assembling the different artists and recording all those tracks had to be planned with military precision (Arctic Poppy’s Chris Hutton laughed nervously as he recalled: “Harry Connick, Jr. laid down his version of My Love just 12 hours before the album was mastered!”) And bringing the project to fruition has been the challenge of a lifetime for long-time McCartney fan Ralph Sall. But one of the problems he failed to anticipate was that once he had made contact with an individual artist and asked them to choose their favourite Paul McCartney song, he would never be able to get them off the phone!
Sometimes, Ralph would choose a song himself. He suggested Junior’s Farm because to him “it recalled the vintage sound of the Steve Miller Band”; he also chose Run Devil Run for the “Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson, as Paul’s 1999 song seemed perfectly to capture the essence of what Wanda had done alongside Elvis Presley in the rock & rolling 1950s; and in his head, Paul’s Let Me Roll It recalled the strident, gutsy sounds of Bad Company – so who better to sing it than Paul Rodgers? Ralph also selected So Bad – a neglected ballad from Pipes Of Peace: “I just heard Smokey in my head, and it has become a Smokey Robinson song.”
There were times during the early stages of the project when even Ralph couldn’t believe his luck. When rock’s greatest singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, agreed to take part, for example. Perhaps the reflective song chosen by Bob – Things We Said Today, from A Hard Day’s Night – that Paul wrote when he was only 21 was actually what attracted Dylan to the project. His craggy vocals are certainly suited to the song’s sentiments, making it, as Ralph laughs: “so Dylanesque”. Or when musical legend and majestic emperor of the blues, B.B.King, sang the song of another musical legend (as Ralph marvelled: “It’s not like there’s a B.B.King type, there is only B.B.King!”)
For Chris Hutton, The Art Of McCartney was “A celebration, not a tribute. A celebration of this man and all his incredible music. I had the privilege of hearing that first playback, two and a half hours of amazing music, which was a very emotional moment for Ralph and me.”
Listening and watching, you will be amazed at the scope and sweep of this one man’s work: the quality and quantity of the Paul McCartney Songbook. Whoever you are, and wherever you have been, you can’t help but be impressed by The Art Of McCartney. And once again, in the company of these musical legends, just listen to what the man said…