As someone with a great love of music and a respect for the power of song, I try not to be too elitist about such things as style, or vintage. A good tune is a good tune not because of its style, its vintage or even its sound quality. It just needs to be good.
What most people consider to be good is invariably subject to all kinds of politics. Some remain consistent in their dismissal of a song like “Anarchy In The UK” while others, although fewer in number continue to think fondly of “Do The Freddie”.
Of course, history is littered with instances of good songs being rendered impotent through the misguided interpretation of others.
Fats Domino-Pat Boone. Nuff said?
Even Paul McCartney’s famous musical muse has not been impervious to flirtations with the banal. When he came up with “Biker Like An Icon” back in the ‘90s, I felt he’d crossed a line into the unacceptable. From “the most successful musician and composer in popular music history”, I had a right to expect more.
For years, Paul McCartney’s albums, whether solo, collaborative, or classical have had the misfortune to be compared with everything that preceded them. For starters, those albums he made with John, George and Ringo.
Some people now think of Paul as little more than a parody of himself: Pop’s glib elder statesman, with his knighthood and riches (both well-deserved) but nothing much more to offer.
“Can’t Buy Me Love” was his manifesto, “Penny Lane” his Mona Lisa and “Hey Jude” his General Theory of Relativity. What more could he possibly wish to achieve?
Being dubbed the most successful songwriter since the accretion of the Earth might seem a difficult cross to bear, but McCartney probably doesn’t dwell on it. He loves his music and he knows a good song, even if, occasionally, he has trouble writing one.
Apart from his solo records, he’s churned out five classical works so far, including more than one Oratorio, and last year, his first Ballet.
Maybe he’s just ticking off the boxes in an already illustrious career. But it doesn’t rule out the possibility of something exceptional, or merely special, from occurring.
Something exceptional did occur in 2008, while McCartney was hiding out under his sporadic alter ego of The Fireman, when he released, “Sing The Changes”. The Paul McCartney nay-sayers, quick to deny the man another nanosecond of credibility, would have been utterly silenced. But, of course, they didn’t hear about The Fireman. They never saw how Macca could take their all their crap, and just shine it.
[“Sing The Changes” – The Fireman]
“Sing The Changes” is the greatest few minutes in the sometimes, prosaic half-hours of Paul’s output in recent years.
But then, I did also insinuate the possibility of something, merely special, occurring.
Which brings us to McCartney’s latest album, ‘Kisses On The Bottom’, a perfect opportunity for the nay-sayers to be dismissive, yet again. But let me tell you, this time they will be wrong.
[‘Paul at the photo-shoot for ‘Kisses On The Bottom’]
Perhaps it’s simply a reaction to Rod Stewart’s ceaseless disembowelling of the Great American Songbook. Whatever their motivation, there are those who are openly questioning McCartney’s reasons for releasing this album of old chestnuts. And asking, does the world really need it?
The answer to the second point is obviously, “No” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t warrant our attention. The reason he made the record, is that he wanted to pay tribute to those formative tunes he first heard at home as a child, with his father at the piano. As a songwriter, McCartney learned to appreciate the simple magic in these songs, and the genius and charm in their structure.
More than forty years ago, McCartney showed himself as a lover of the great standards. He went on to write a few of them himself but its also fair to suggest that, without Macca, The Beatles would never have recorded the saccharine-drenched, “Til There Was You”. Rather than ask why he recorded ‘Kisses On The Bottom’, we might perhaps, wonder why he didn’t get around to it much sooner.
Almost ninety years ago, Thomas “Fats” Waller had a hit with, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”. Two decades on, it was a million-selling hit for Billy Williams. Its also been covered by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, and a multitude of others. For the same reason, Paul McCartney has also chosen to record it. It still stands as a composition of quality, many decades since it was written. Quite simply, it’s a good song.
[‘EPK for ‘Kisses On The Bottom’]
Some negative reviews of ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ have pointed to McCartney’s greatest achievements having been made in kicking down the edifices of the old and laying the foundations and ground-rules for all that would follow. That may well ring true but it still doesn’t mean ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ is a bad record. Even Quincy Jones has given the album some high praise saying, “I’ve heard a lot of records covering these songs, but none of them have the authenticity that Paul’s has.”
The supporting cast behind McCartney are among the best in the business including, Diana Krall and her band, Stevie Wonder (on one track) and Eric Clapton, at his most mellifluous in years. The musicianship, throughout, exudes great warmth and every nuance, captured with empathy by respected Jazz producer, Tommy LiPuma.
McCartney’s primary role in these proceedings is that of a vocalist and interpreter. He achieves this most admirably, and with obvious conviction. Rather than bending the songs to suit his own style, he pitches to each of them, in the spirit that they were written. On Irving Berlin’s “Always”, for example, his respect and restraint is clearly evident.
Even the two originals on the album are made to sit comfortably beside their neighbours. “My Valentine”, for one, can stand alongside any of McCartney’s best ballads, including, “Here There And Everywhere” and the much vaunted, “Yesterday”, while Eric Clapton’s contribution on acoustic guitar is sublime.
The songs that comprise ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ are from the golden age of 20th century music, a period long before McCartney and his colleagues ushered in the new Renaissance. They are among the titles that helped make that century great and deserve this kind of reverence in their re-imagining. Rod, and others from the Rock community, may continue to mine the endless rewards of the Great American Songbook with more commercial, if not artistic, returns but rarely will you hear the deference in their delivery that is apparent on McCartney’s record.
So, dismiss Macca all you like for being an old geezer who lost his Rock mojo somewhere on the road to Buckingham Palace, but not before you’ve heard “Sing The Changes”.
Or, dismiss ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ as further evidence of him going soft and straying into areas he doesn’t belong, but not before accepting that, as a writer of popular songs, McCartney stands with Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and not in their significant shadows. With ‘Kisses On The Bottom’, Paul McCartney is paying tribute to his peers, as well as their celebrated creations.