In 1970, Paul McCartney launched his post Beatles career in earnest. That also began his ongoing challenge of competing with himself.
The McCartney album popped onto the “Billboard” record charts when the Beatles as a group were still very much a commanding presence.
Abbey Road had just left the top ten, and was still number twenty when McCartney’s album had its debut at number fourteen. The “Hey Jude” Beatles compilation was number three. The “Let It Be” single was still in the top five following its two weeks at number one.
The McCartney album did quickly top the charts, but was itself immediately succeeded there by the Let It Be Beatles album.
Promotionally all of this was perfect timing for Paul. Yet the context also set audience expectations. Despite the declaration that he was on his own apart from The Beatles, there were still Beatles-level expectations for Paul McCartney solo.
After all, during the previous year John Lennon had already dropped his markers, first with his Plastic Ono Band singles. His Live Peace in Toronto concert album had hit the top ten. Even though Lennon had yet to issue a full length studio album, his catchy “Instant Karma” single had carried the confident aura of a Beatles group recording and was still in the top ten when McCartney hit the charts.
McCartney could have pulled one of his best tracks from the McCartney sessions and issued a direct competitive single. Instead, for his solo debut, Paul assumed a familiar British Beatles stance: a stand-alone album, extracting no singles before or after its release. Thirteen tracks (fourteen titles), just like a regular Beatles album
Against such standards at the time, there was bound to be some disappointment. Yet five decades later, the strongest songs on the album remain so, and to varying degrees the others benefit from half a century’s reevaluation. There were top-tier songs, a couple just below that, a warm up, and five instrumentals.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” was Paul’s first solo anthem, a solid album showstopper. Six years later the live version hit the U.S. top ten. That’s often been pegged as the should-have-been single in 1970.
Yet I think McCartney was smart in keeping “Maybe I’m Amazed” as an album track draw, benefitting from the build-up of the album’s pacing, and even the “cool down” of the instrumental track (“Kreen-Akrore”) that followed. Like so many Beatles albums, it worked very well in context. By then McCartney had also seen that Beatles tracks did not have to be singles to be played like singles, as songs such as “Here Comes The Sun” from “Abbey Road” had demonstrated.
If there was to be a “McCartney” single, “Every Night” might have been the better contender: a catchy confection, easily suited for the Top Forty airwaves. (The Fifth Dimension included a cover of the song on their popish 1971 Loves, Lines, Angles, and Rhymes album.) Likewise, “Man We Was Lonely” and “That Would Be Something” also embraced mainstream radio sensibilities, just as Lennon had tapped with “Instant Karma.”
“Oo You” and “Junk” were best cast as what we would now dub as “deep tracks” –weaving musical hooks and vocal wordplay in building the complete album line-up. “Oo You” was Little Richard lyrical nonsense while “Junk” was a pleasant, reflective acoustic exercise in poetic imagery.
For ardent fans collecting bootlegs available at the time, “Teddy Boy” was already familiar from the aborted Get Back sessions as a loose, repeating riff. This official issuing tamed the song, not entirely to its advantage. For newcomers to the piece, it was still a story that begged for one more narrative verse.
At the core, these were a good mix to introduce Paul McCartney as a creditable solo artist. Unfortunately, that was only half an album. Sprinkled throughout were multiple instrumental exercises.
In and of themselves, these instrumentals were not bad. Had they been leaked out through bootleg sources, these musical exercises might have acquired an intriguing aura of “might have been.” What could Paul have done had he finished developing some of these riffs?
As part of a finished album release, for the general public the instrumentals came off as something unexpected for a “Beatles” record. Filler. “Singalong Junk” (on side two) was the most blatant. It was a different take of “Junk” (from side one) without the words. But the others also could be seen as time outs from the main show. Not quite in the same category as Lennon devoting B-side space to Yoko Ono performances in lieu of his own, but also not the continuous show that had been so much a part of the Beatles album world McCartney was competing with.
Today, far from that original context, the instrumentals come across much more as they were intended. They were opportunities for McCartney to explore multiple styles and to experiment with different instruments since he was the only one playing on that album. Functionally they helped to make the one-man-show of the album work better, providing space to breathe in between the vocals. Even recognizing that as a consistent vision for McCartney’s personal project that was still not what most people were expecting back then.
Still, the best songs had legs. Touring in Great Britain in 1979, McCartney brought a number of the McCartney songs to the stage with that strong line-up of Wings. There the instrumental “Hot As Sun” slipped comfortably into a full-group presentation along with such vocal numbers as “Every Night” and “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
In 1970 there was one more issue with the “McCartney” album: a sexist knock that has morphed into one of the album’s retrospective strengths. The presence of “The Lovely Linda” McCartney. In the accompanying press release ”official interview” to the album, McCartney noted that while it was a solo effort “Linda’s on it too, so it’s really a double act.”
In some fan circles already weary of the John and Yoko show, there was a cringing “Not him, too” at the prospect of another solo Beatle husband-and-wife act. That would fully blossom next with the Ram album, but on McCartney Linda’s presence was more subtle, which Paul described as “a shoulder to lean on” and “She believes in me – constantly.”
Appropriately the song “The Lovely Linda” was the opener to the album, a test recording, the first on his new Studer 4 track machine installed at their Scotland home. A lyrical ode to Linda, the forty-second warm-up signaled the family tone he intended for this new project, captured by Linda’s gentle laughter at the end.
While that track might have seemed a bit of fluff in 1970, an indulgence before the album proper began, more than a quarter century later it took on something more. It became a bridge across the years, offering an affectionate left bookend with McCartney’s “Great Day,” the closing song to the 1997 Flaming Pie album, on the right.
Paul and Linda’s unvarnished voices are there, spirited and bright, connecting with the public musical journey launched together in 1970. Home. Family. Love. That was what McCartney said his first album ultimately was all about. Looking back half a century later that was the best way possible for him to compete with himself.
Listening again in 2020, those charms have worn themselves well.
Copyright 2020 by Walter J. Podrazik. In edited form this article has also appeared in Beatlefan magazine