Reviewed by: Amy Hughes
Paul McCartney is his own definition. He inhabits an environment that pretty much everyone else that isn’t him, finds difficult to describe.
Approaching a study of his creative output in all its facets requires an open mind and an affinity akin to a history of sociology, pop culture and the mysterious process called songwriting.
What Paul McCartney and His Creative Practice (Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture, 2021) achieves is not solely a critical analysis of how he writes a song or a deconstruction of his life’s work. Instead, authors Phillip McIntyre and Paul Thompson couch the theory of flow with the outside influences of his world into a package that has many layers to uncover.
As an explanation to address this book’s function, it is a serious, academic-minded reader for those interested in McCartney’s one-of-a-kind creative process. And although The Beatles take up quite a portion of the text, the vital connections from the end of that tenure right up through 2020’s ‘McCartney III’ examines how he grew as a musician, songwriter, producer, and engineer with ‘a little help from his friends.’
Owing to considerable forethought, the authors bring to the table one of the more enigmatic, yet common perceptions attached to someone of McCartney’s stature: Romanticism. Like the label ‘genius,’ most people associate the concept of Romanticism with awe and reverence. To hold McCartney to that limited definition – minus the technical and personal achievements he gained from others – belies all the pieces that has formed his personal character and musical artistry.
While there is no doubt few individuals can amass the accolades in their lifetime associated with reverent creativity, McIntyre and Thompson also impart significant import to how McCartney’s sociocultural touch points – listening to his father’s piano playing, gregarious family singalongs, and his uncanny ear in picking out tunes – weigh into a system of interwoven related communal support and geographical upbringing.
Weighing this, one can start piecing together the early structure that brought a teenaged McCartney into the orbit of John Lennon and thru that into The Beatles. Often quoted yet undeniable, is the shared experiences all four individuals had as they grew into their musical roles.
While many outsiders gave them opportunities to test the waters, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison (and later) Starr inhabited their own world as they began in Hamburg – Starr with Rory Storm – and found their footing in the hazardous, grueling schedule that honed their playing skills. Critical to the genesis of The Beatles was the departure of Lennon’s classmate Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. McCartney inherited that position more as a “well, it better be you, then” attitude and thus his future was solidified.
As a bassist, his style is fluid and dynamic. However what the general public considers his greatest achievement is his songwriting. While McIntyre and Thompson address his process in three specific cases, his ultimate masterpiece has been and will be ‘Yesterday.’
Effective as McCartney continues to be in extolling the mystical inspiration of its origin, ‘Yesterday’ as deconstructed by the authors paints a more realistic history: McCartney while living with the Ashers in November 1963 did have the oft-told musical dream, and then awoke to play it on a nearby piano. Doubtful that he had actually concepted this original melody, McCartney played it to several people including John Lennon. All assured him it was of his own making.
Yet what became the driving force was McCartney’s belief that it might have come from somewhere in the past or that he had subconsciously heard it elsewhere. While the persona of his habitus instigated this internal questioning, McIntyre and Thompson adhere to many practical instances where McCartney’s childhood spent listening to the music around him imbibed a sense of familiar, encapsulated memories that stuck in his head where he could conveniently pull them out years later. Hence his dogged nature in pursuing this tune’s origin.
Living the professional musician life, McCartney continued to hone ‘Yesterday’ (most famously fine-tuning the “scrambled eggs” placeholder lyrics) over a two-year period. By mid-1965, he had it complete and ready to go. After presenting it to the band and producer George Martin, the consensus was, beyond McCartney and a guitar, there was nothing more to add. While Martin came up with the idea for the string accompaniment (much to the songwriter’s horror), the arrangement was through McCartney’s intuitive ear for tonality. The only surprise that has surfaced since then was what transpired at EMI Studios the day of the recording: McCartney’s first two vocals were ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and the larynx-shredding ‘I’m Down.’ The strings were overdubbed a few days later and ‘Yesterday’ – finished on June 17 – was infused into the lexicon of songs that will continue to mystify and polarize generations to come.
McIntyre and Thompson also delve into McCartney’s creative collaborations and help to clarify his partnership with John Lennon. As written about in the past fifty-plus years, the duo’s alliance – while popular to imagine as a person-centric perspective driven by mythical free-thinking, self-expression embedded with romanticism – has markedly changed to a more pragmatic, rational-based approach since the dissolution of The Beatles.
Debunking the myths surrounding their singular, isolated genius brainstorming, the authors lay out the dyad of their collaborative partnership. How these two individuals with starkly contrasted backgrounds found their common ground is not unfathomable: both had a shared geographical and sociological connection, a similar interest in songwriting and a love for rock ‘n’ roll.
As their status germinated and grew, both men were forced into tight deadlines and even tighter spaces that had them together with few contacts, except for the inner circle of Harrison, Starr, Mal Evans, Neil Aspinall and Brian Epstein. As the overall arc of their influence permeated the rest of the music scene, the ‘mid-period’ in their alliance afforded more focus, more time in the studio and for McCartney, a more disciplined approach to songwriting.
Although Lennon’s mindset was shifting towards introspective soul-searching, McCartney gave way to taking his fully-formed ideas to Lennon for input and constructive criticism. This worked on many levels, each dovetailing their own unique work habits into the others’ space of works. Each had – through their joined association – the ability to start or finish or bring together the possibilities surrounding them musically. But as they began the transition from simple pop band to respected, critically acclaimed songwriters, the duo drifted apart from their tight-knit bond of collaboration to one of competitive rivals.
Lennon, as the authors note, is one for endless speculative psychological analysis. But McCartney was far less interested in self-examination. While Lennon was the force of nature in the early years, his younger colleague quickly gained speed and surpassed him artistically. From this vantage point, it only seems natural that they would move on personally and professionally. While their global creative world was simultaneously shifting and constraining, it was uncertain at that juncture what was going to transpire for McCartney in the foreseeable future.
What did happen was that McCartney assumed the mantle of jack-of-all-trades. Free from social dynamics and power relationships, he began his complete immersion into the creative system. McCartney was fortunate to have as his mentor a skilled and multifaceted individual like George Martin to learn from. Thus it enabled him to move into a coworker mode, as he worked with Martin on ‘The Family Way’ soundtrack. Independently, he assumed producing duties under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth for The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and then when Apple Records formed, constructing a resume that included Badfinger, Mary Hopkin and The Black Dyke Mills Band.
McCartney moved on after The Beatles to become his own production boss, with gained confidence, and as he was more musically-inclined, trusted the judgment of engineers to help calibrate precisely the technicalities of recording. His esoteric choices in studios were sometimes called into question (cutting the basic tracks for ‘Band On The Run’ in the less-than-hospitable location of Lagos, Nigeria and laying down tracks on boats in the Virgin Islands for ‘London Town’), but no-one could argue that McCartney himself played safe.
He continued to hone his vision through several amalgamations of musical partners – Eric Stewart, Elvis Costello – and then most importantly, McCartney came together with Harrison and Starr to bring back their version of The Beatles (with Jeff Lynne as producer) to re-work demos of John Lennon’s for the ‘Anthology’ project starting in 1994.
Having said that, McCartney expanded his playground of sound to many locations and invited band members throughout the years to give input during those sessions. Even when he built his current studio Hog Hill Mill near his home in Sussex, England he could sometimes butt up against stronger personalities at the board or be at odds with collaborators; as previously mentioned, although Costello was a magical connection, it was a partnership fraught with tension that for whatever reason did not gel with his musical output.
The authors, however, make it crystal clear that despite the metallurgy process, McCartney has deftly blended his vintage leanings – continuing to play his beloved Hofner bass – with the stylistic turns in technology to this day. The authors note in detail McCartney’s musical processes in the studio (he likes to work quickly!) and his laser focus on creating the music at hand with the vast array of instruments he has at his home studio.
McCartney since the ‘60s had shown interest in the esoteric and experimental, in the studio and social situations. As he moved along, his musical output may not have equaled his stellar reputation as he ventured into areas that the general public and critics labeled ‘risky’ and ‘unbearably inept.’ But with his habitus in the singular mode, he forged ahead with electronic music (as The Fireman), orchestral presentations and organizing the Concert For New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Another less ventured avenue are his business practices. While a good portion of the popular media took to task his later struggles with Michael Jackson’s acquisition of his catalog, McIntyre and Thompson see with a keen eye the history of that timeline. Early on, his negotiating savvy took off as he acquired publishing rights to various songs that would generate phenomenal earnings. His foray into scriptwriting and acting wasn’t as successful, however his strong preservationist eye had him restoring his old school Liverpool Institute into the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. He also retains a dedicated team at his McCartney Productions Limited (MPL) to help keep in touch with engaging social media and manage his massive tours.
McIntyre and Thompson have undertaken an enormously complex personality such as Paul McCartney and pieced together the diverse domain that he has inhabited since his childhood. Having characterized his position in the musical ‘ecosystem’ as it pertains to the multiple components that he represents, his fully formed knowledge of music has enabled him to be continually relevant and deeply valued to this day.
I give this scholarly book 4 out of 4 beetles