Paul McCartney: my lockdown ‘messing around’

Record breaking: It’s 50 years since McCartney released his first solo record. © Universal Music

Is he the greatest songwriter of all time? Paul McCartney has announced a new solo album, nearly six decades on from the height of Beatlemania. It is already being tipped as a Christmas hit.

In the first days of March, the picturesque English town of Peasmarsh, East Sussex, was bustling with the sounds of everyday village life. But by the end of the month, the pubs were empty, the shops were shut, the cars sat still on the driveways and silence reigned.

As the world entered lockdown, the town’s most famous resident, Paul McCartney, was alone for the first time in decades. So, he picked up one of his many instruments and began to play.

Now, after an energetic burst of “rockdown” songwriting, the former Beatle is set to release a new album, McCartney III, on 11 December.

He faces stiff competition in his bid for Christmas number one: rappers Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Drake are all rumoured to be recording new music, while pop star Ariana Grande is due to release the first single from her upcoming album today.

But although he may not be the only superstar, music critics believe the 78-year-old has an edge in the race to the top of the charts. McCartney III, built from live takes of the singer on vocals, guitar and piano layered over pre-recorded tapes of his drumming and bass-playing, is likely to be the only completely solo album in the line-up.

For many musicians, being your own back-up artist might be a challenge – but not McCartney, who plays an astonishing 54 instruments, including the flugelhorn, harpsichord and vibraphone and has composed everything from classical music to electronica.

Beatles producer Sir George Martin once described him as the most naturally gifted musician he had ever known. It is a gift that has led to extraordinary commercial success. In his six decades as a recording artist, McCartney has sold more than 100 million albums, written 32 number one hits and won 18 Grammys.

For fans and critics alike, he is not only one of the most prolific songwriters of this era, but also an innovator. His debut one-man album, McCartney, an early example of lo-fi indie pop written during the Beatles’ tense final months, was the first major album by a leading musician to be recorded completely single-handed. It was a lead that others, including superstar Stevie Wonder, would soon follow.

Despite his huge popularity, McCartney’s music has not always been well received. When his second solo offering, McCartney II, was released in 1980, Rolling Stone magazine dismissed it as “an album of aural doodles designed for the amusement of very young children”.The artist’s voice, they added, sounded “like a cross between an insect and a wind up toy”.

Yet strangely, in the years following its release, the album took on a life of its own. The obscure single, Temporary Secretary, became a surprise dance floor hit at hipster nightclubs in the 2000s, and in May 2015, McCartney performed the song in concert for the first time at the O2 Arena in London.

Now, 40 years on from McCartney II and 15 albums later, the Liverpudlian shows no sign of slowing down.

So, is he the greatest songwriter of all time?

Solo success

Yes, say some. It has been nearly 60 years since Beatlemania swept across the world, but the band’s former co-lead vocalist has still not stopped writing songs. In 1979, the Guinness Book of World Records named Paul McCartney as the most successful songwriter ever – and today he has another 40 years worth of music to add to an already impressive list of chart-toppers.

No, say others. There are plenty of other incredible musicians, from early-20th-century American composer Cole Porter to Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan and modern-day legend Adele, who are more deserving of the title. McCartney may have achieved commercial success, but not all of his songs were brilliant – even he has admitted that Wings, the band he formed with first wife Linda, was “terrible”.

You Decide

  1. Has lockdown sparked the greatest period of creativity this century?
  2. Which is more important – the melody of a song, or its lyrics?

Activities

  1. Design a poster for Paul McCartney’s next post-pandemic album tour.
  2. McCartney III is about “freedom and love”, but some reviewers see the lyric “When the cold days come, we’ll wish that we had seized the day” as a reference to lockdown itself. Write your own song or poem inspired by your experience during the pandemic.

Some People Say...

“Songwriters write songs, but they really belong to the listener.”

Jimmy Buffett, American singer and songwriter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that some of the world’s most famous pieces of music were written while the artist was going through a difficult or turbulent time. Paul McCartney wrote his first completely solo album, McCartney, in the Beatles’ dramatic final days, and the follow-up, McCartney II, just before the break-up of his next band, Wings. His latest one-man album, McCartney III, was recorded during nine weeks of national lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds how McCartney III will be received by fans when it is released in December. Although his latest album, Egypt Station, debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 in 2018, McCartney’s two previous totally solo albums were both initially rejected by reviewers and even his old band mates. John Lennon dismissed McCartney as “rubbish” while in 1980 NME reviewer Danny Baker said McCartney II was not “worth the plastic it’s printed on”.

Word Watch

Flugelhorn
A brass instrument, developed in the early 19th century, that resembles a trumpet.
Beatles
An English rock band formed in Liverpool in 1960, and widely regarded as one of the most influential bands of all time. They played for ten years between 1960 and 1970, with Paul McCartney as co-lead vocalist, bassist and songwriter.
Lo-fi
Lo-fi, or “low fidelity”, refers to music where listeners can hear imperfections that would normally be considered errors in the recording process.
Stevie Wonder
An African-American singer and songwriter who has sold over 100 million records worldwide and won 25 Grammy Awards. He has been blind since birth.
Cole Porter
An American composer, born in 1891, who found success on Broadway. He is remembered as one of the wittiest lyricists of all time, but a horse–riding accident in 1937 cut short his song-writing days.
Bob Dylan
An American singer and songwriter who released his first album in 1962. Now aged 79, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
Vibraphone
Part of the wider glockenspiel family, the vibraphone is a percussion instrument that resembles a xylophone. Musicians are known as vibraphonists, vibraharpists or vibists.

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