Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Junk" / Paul McCartney

I can't remember my own phone number some days, but I'll always remember Paul McCartney's birthday -- the Beatlemaniac pre-teen in me still holds that faithful torch. Today Sir Paul turns 66; here's a birthday blog in his honor.

Actually, not one DJ I heard on the radio today mentioned his birthday, and the three Beatle songs I happened to hear played were all John songs -- what a disappointment. The intellectual snobs definitely favor John (and even George) over Paul, and I'm tired of it. You know the drill: "Oooh, John's lyrics are so much better, all Paul had was melodies" -- well, it's supposed to be MUSIC, folks, melodies matter.

Take this song, from Paul's solo debut album, McCartney. At first glance, the lyrics are just a free-associated list of visual images: "Motor cars / handlebars / bicycles for two," "Parachutes / army boots / sleeping bags for two," and "Candlesticks / building bricks." He could have -- and probably did -- doodled these rhymes while smoking grass. But it doesn't take much imagination to see them as the flotsam and jetsam of a life, and with just a couple more phrases -- "broken-hearted jubilee," "sentimental jamboree," "something old and new" -- Paul defines that nostalgic, romantic connection. (In 1970, when this album was released, mining thrift shops for their poignant glamor was standard operating procedure, as I recall.)

Which leads us to the plaintive chorus: "Buy / buy / Says the sign in the shop window / Why / Why / Says the junk in the yard." Sure, he's harking back to "Eleanor Rigby" here, summoning up a melancholy vision of life's castaways -- but he pulls it off with such economy, it's like a pointillist painting.

And what makes it work, of course, is the melody. It's a gently lilting waltz, the most romantic of time signatures, with just a dash of backbeat syncopation (nobody plays with rhythm better than Paul McCartney; it's second nature to him), and the arrangement is perfect simplicity -- just Paul on an acoustic guitar, later adding brushed drums, one verse of vibraphone counterpoint, and a few soft harmonies from his wife Linda. But artless as that sounds, the melody is much trickier than it seems. Each line in the verse flutters gaily around its opening note, but the opening notes steadily progress down the scale, with a sort of mournful inevitability.

Then, to counterpoint that downward progression, each verse starts with a minor chord, then a tentative 7th, and finally drops gratefully into major chords -- except for that last line of the chorus, which hangs troubled on a minor chord. It sets up a dynamic tension between scale and key, a complex interplay that perfectly mirrors the bittersweet lyrics. I'm not saying Paul thought this all out; my guess is he just instinctively knew what sounds would convey the wistful mood he wanted to evoke. He threw in a scatting verse or two of la-de-da's, and it was done.

It's worth noting that Paul recorded this whole album in his home studio, playing all the instruments himself. As a post-Beatles declaration of independence, it's utter simplicity is a stroke of genius -- most artists would strain to make their first solo LP a Big Statement Album. Paul's belief in his own material often leads him astray; John Lennon was always his best editor, and Paul's needed an editor ever since they split. But when he gets it right -- and he gets it right more often than the snobs are willing to admit -- there's no greater songwriter on earth.

Happy birthday, Paul.

Junk sample

4 comments:

Uncle E said...

Here here, Holly!
Even though we disagree on some stuff, even on Paul's solo work, I have to say that I prefer Paul's solo work overall to John's (and George's, for that matter). This'll probably make you mad, but I also have to say that I prefered John's stuff while they were still the Beatles, however. That's not to say that Paul didn't have his moments, he certainly did (his finest, actually), but for some reason or other...John edges him out.
OK, commence with the bashing...Happy B-Day, Paul!

Holly A Hughes said...

OK, I'm willing to admit that John wrote some good Beatle songs. Some genius songs, actually. But I think one problem is that we've all heard "Michelle" and "Yesterday" played so often, we forget what brilliant things they are. "Got To Get You Into My Life," or "In My Life" -- these are astonishingly wonderful pieces of music, but as rock 'n' roll they fall short -- and that makes some folks unwilling to admit we dig them.

Anyway, if you haven't figured out yet why I like Paul's music best, remember one thing: He was the cute Beatle. The fangirl always wins out over the music critic.

Mark said...

Hi Holly,

I never forget Paul McCartney's birthday either-okay, full disclosure, it's the same day as my uncle's, but still, I always remember it. "Junk" is a great song, it's one of those tunes that gets into my head every so often at completely random times.

I would bet that people who don't like Paul probably hate this song! "It's about junk, it's too sing-songy." But it's proof that Paul can write a song about literally anything, and still make it a really good song, and really catchy to boot. I think critics seem to resent this about him, for some reason. Anyway, Paul's brilliant, always has been, always will be.

Happy birthday, Sir Paul!

willdeuel said...

If Paul McCartney were to sit in a room alone in intentional silence audible, great music would be coming out his pores.

And I agree with your assertion that taken as a whole Paul's solo career tops John's and George's.

Maybe Paul didn't write an "Imagine," but he also never gave us anything as utterly pretentious and downright unlistenable as "Two Virgins" or "Life With the Lions."

Junk is a total earworm. I love Singalong Junk (the instrumental) and the version from "Unplugged" as well.

Great call, great commentary.