If you're American, it was likely the The Ed Sulllivan in February 1964 (then the largest American television audience ever). If you're a Brit, it likely came a bit earlier, in 1963, with Sunday Night at the Palladium (then the largest British television audience ever). That is, your first glimpse of a certain dark-eyed, left-handed bass player in a band called the Bugs. Or something.
What came next has entered the cultural fabric so thoroughly, does it bear repeating? There was the biggest selling single ("She Loves You") and album (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) of the Sixties in the U.K. And the biggest selling single ("Hey Jude") and album (The White Album) of the Sixties in America. There were the drugs, the films, the Jesus controversy, the countless tours, the surprising retirement from the road, the studio innovations, the cheeky interviews, more drugs, the women, the rooftop concert, the bitter implosion. Oh, and it was all accompanied by the best and most groundbreaking pop music ever.
When the smoke finally cleared from the ashes of both the band and the decade they helped shape/create, the world was left with four men who hadn't even turned 30 yet. They took divergent (and occasionally convergent) paths - but for the purposes of this guide we'll only be following that aforementioned dark-eyed southpaw.
"There is one God; and it is music." -J.P. McCartney
James Paul McCartney arrived on June 18, 1942 in Walton Hospital, Liverpool, England. His Irish Catholic mother, Mary, was a nurse and midwife - and former head of the same maternity ward where she gave birth. Her husband and Paul's father, James, was a British Protestant cotton salesman by trade and amateur jazz musician by passion, who imparted in his young son a love and knowledge of music. From his mother, Paul got his ambition: Mary McCartney was extremely aspirational that her children rise from their council estate (housing project) roots, and she herself was the rare career woman of the time who was the chief financial breadwinner of the family. As would befit his later image, the young McCartney was both a choirboy and Boy Scout, as well as the head boy of his class (the equivalent of class president for us Yanks). After delighting relatives at family parties, he made his stage debut at age 11, singing "Bye Bye Love" at a summer camp talent show (he lost). Despite the family moving house almost constantly due to his mother's job, Paul had a fairly happy, working class childhood until October 1956, when Mary Mohin McCartney suddenly fell ill with breast cancer and died within the month.
No doubt his mother's death was the formative event in Paul's early life, not only because it drove him to music but also because of the psychological scars it inflicted. Despite his iconic status as a love balladeer and musical innovator, over the decades McCartney has been consistently criticized for his perceived stand-offishness and coldness: a refusal to lay bare his deepest emotions (especially in comparison to John Lennon). Paul himself has even acknowledged that fact, and to understand this, it helps to understand the ghastly circumstances of the time: Mary McCartney's illness was kept from her children until she was admitted to the hospital the day prior to her death, and Paul's most vivid memory of their last meeting is of watching his mother bleed onto her bedsheets and not knowing why. When their mother passed away shortly after, neither Paul nor his brother were told her cause of death, allowed at her funeral or told where she was buried. Eventually, that pain and confusion would be touched upon in two of his greatest songs, Yesterday and Let It Be, but at the time its most immediate effect was the rejection of his religious faith and the dawning of a deep depression. Michael McCartney wrote of his older brother in 1966: "[Paul's] very character seemed to change and for a while he behaved like a hermit. He wasn't very nice to live with at this period, I remember. He became completely wrapped up in himself and didn't seem to care about anything or anybody outside himself. He seemed interested only in his guitar, and his music...I would go looking for him and sometimes I would find him, up in his bedroom, perhaps, sitting in the dark, just strumming away on his guitar. Nothing, it seemed, mattered to him any more...Work and work alone - his school books and his guitar - appeared to be the only thing that could help him to forget." He was 14.
Paul's childhood ambition was to be "a Catholic lorry driver, so I would have a direction, literally, and a faith." He attended the Liverpool Institute for Boys - a prestigious grammar school - on scholarship, but would find his true calling elsewhere, for it was approximately nine months after his mother's death that Paul McCartney was introduced to John Lennon at a local church festival. John recruited the younger boy into his band, the Quarrymen, and Paul in turn recruited George Harrison, a friend of his since they met on the school bus at age 11. Several revolving band members, an apprenticeship in the seedy red light district of Hamburg and the clubs of Liverpool, some early (not very good) Lennon-McCartney compositions, and 22 separate rejections by record companies later, the band was finally signed to a recording contract with Parlophone (a subsidiary of EMI/Capitol) in 1962. Their first single, "Love Me Do," only hit the top twenty, but their next one, "Please Please Me," went to number one. And you know the rest: a whirling hurricane of stardom and pressure in which the band members lived about fifty lifetimes in the space of eight years.
In 1967, Paul branched out into his first solo work, a score for the film The Family Way (the theme, Love in the Open Air, netted him an Ivor Novello Award) but he had no desire to see the band end. When the Beatles officially broke up in April 1970, he was just 27 years old, and had written (with John) 20 #1 singles in the U.S. That astonishing achievement (among others) was no comfort, however, and Paul no doubt had the toughest time of all the band members in dealing with the breakup. Describing it as the the second worst period of his life up to that point, he later told Barry Miles, his authorized biographer: "I'd always been the kind of guy who could really pull himself together and think, Oh, fuck it, but at that time I felt I'd outlived my usefulness. This was the overall feeling: that it was good while I was in the Beatles, I was useful and I could play bass for their songs, I could write songs for them to sing and for me to sing, and we could make records of them. But the minute I wasn't with the Beatles any more it became really very difficult."
Self-medicating his depression with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol didn't work; what finally did (cue country music cliche) was the love of a good woman: his new bride, Linda Eastman. Wed in March 1969, when she was four months pregnant and he was in the midst of the Beatles' dissolution, by the time of Paul's breakdown they were basically broke (all the Beatles' money that had not been stolen from the band via shady business deals was tied up in litigation) with a newborn (named Mary) and a six-year old daughter (Heather) from Linda's previous marriage (and whom Paul adopted). Through Linda's reassurance (and/or ass-kicking, I suspect) Paul got himself together and went back to what had always been his salvation: music.
The result was his first solo album, McCartney: entirely homemade, it featured Paul playing all the instruments himself, with the undeniable highlight being his ode to Linda, Maybe I'm Amazed. Perhaps the best overall song he's ever written, it also encompasses his best musical talents: rollicking piano, strident guitar, melodic bass, and that voice! "McCartney has a voice," Phil Spector told Rolling Stone in 1968, "that can do anything."
In an interview released in tandem with the album, Paul was asked, "What are your plans now? A holiday? A musical? A movie?" To which he replied, "My only plans are to grow up." He got a good start when McCartney spent three weeks at #1 on the American charts, followed in 1971 by his first solo single, "Another Day," which was followed in turn by the melodically rich album Ram.
A more personal creation also came in 1971: a third daughter, Stella. When complications during the birth necessitated an emergency caesaran section, Paul found himself kicked out of the delivery room, and he spent his anxious time "praying like mad." It was then that the name "Wings" came to him (as in angels' wings), but that wasn't a suitable name for a child. So he decided to start a band instead.
His first recruit was also the most controversial one: his wife Linda. Despite the critical bludgeoning, it was clearly a personal decision on Paul's part to have his "old lady" in the band, rather than relegate her to the wife's traditional spot below groupies and stagehands on the rock hierarchy. (And no matter what anyone says about it professionally, it did work for them personally.) Wings was rounded out by former Moody Blues guitarist/vocalist Denny Laine and drummer Denny Seiwell, and they released their debut, Wild Life, that same year. It flopped, but they rebounded in 1972 by adding former Grease Band guitarist Henry McCullough and releasing the protest song "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" in Britain. It was promptly banned by the BBC for its politics, while another single, "Hi Hi Hi," was also banned, this time for drug references. Paul retaliated by releasing a cover version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." All three songs became hits.
Wings' second album, Red Rose Speedway (1973), also became Paul's second #1 album in the U.S., while the James Bond theme "Live and Let Die" was a hit on both side of the Atlantic (as well as earning an Oscar nomination for best song). In late 1973, the trio of Paul, Linda and Denny Laine travelled to Lagos, Nigeria to record the album Band on the Run, which was a massive commercial success and also gave Paul a good taste of critical acclaim, even being named Rolling Stone's Album of the Year. A classic of Seventies rock, it has several high points, including the jangly title track and the smooth grooves of Let Me Roll It.
1974 saw a changing of Wings' lineup and the release of hard-rocking single "Junior's Farm." A middling album, Venus and Mars, followed in 1975; perhaps most notable because of the fact that John Lennon was scheduled to join the sessions. As Lennon told Game magazine, "I was going down to New Orleans to help out on Paul's last album Venus and Mars, but I was too busy being happy at the time. If you're reading this Paul, I'm sorry I couldn't make it..."
At the Speed of Sound (1976) was also of middling quality, but a commercial triumph based on two massive hit singles, the simplistic "Let 'Em In" and Paul's answer to his critics, the delicious "Silly Love Songs." The most massive single of all was also released that year: Mull of Kintyre (which ironically displaced "She Loves You" as Britain's bestselling single of all time). While I gather that British people of a certain age are thoroughly sick of that song, this young American finds it incredibly gentle and evocative (and perhaps solely responsible for introducing bagpipes to pop music). Paul has also cited it as a sentimental favorite because Linda was pregnant with their son, James, during its recording.
London Town (1978) and Back to the Egg (1979) were both mediocre albums but commercial successes. In 1980, Wings embarked on a world tour, but it came to a dramatic halt when Paul was arrested for marijuana possession at Tokyo Airport. He spent nine days in a Japanese jail before being released and deported back to England, but his humiliation, along with Denny Laine's resentment about the missed tour, caused a formal disbanding of Wings. McCartney II (1980), his most experimental album to date, was so named because he once again played all the instruments (just as on his solo debut ten years earlier).
1981 was the first year in his entire career that Paul McCartney didn't release an album (amazing considering that he'd been recording since age 20). While partly due to the dissolution of Wings, it was mainly in reaction to the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. Both grief-stricken and fearing for his own safety, Paul shied away from both public appearances and touring, and instead ensconsed himself in the studio with Beatles' producer George Martin. The result was Tug of War (1982), his most critically acclaimed album since Band on the Run (Newsweek dubbed it a "pop masterpiece" on par with the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds). The songs on the album are distinguished by rich melodies, deft orchestral arrangements, and that voice, clear as a bell and still exhibiting astonishing range at age 40. Singled out for praise were Here Today, Paul's emotional tribute to John Lennon (featuring acoustic guitar and "Yesterday" like string quartet) and Wanderlust, an elegiac piano ballad. Tug of War also contained Paul's biggest smash hit in years, the Stevie Wonder duet "Ebony and Ivory."
Another successful partnership grew out of this same time period: in 1979, Paul had written the song "Girlfriend" for Michael Jackson's smash solo debut Off the Wall. He was recruited once again for the follow-up, 1983's Thriller, and "The Girl is Mine" became the album's lead single and a #1 hit. Paul and Jackson reteamed that same year for a second #1, "Say Say Say," (off Paul's album Pipes of Peace) but two years later Paul dissolved the relationship after Jackson bought the Beatles' publishing rights out from under him.
Other collaborations were more satisfying. Get It (1982) was Paul's playful acoustic duet with one of his idols, Carl Perkins, while "New Moon Over Jamaica" saw him singing with his old friend Johnny Cash. But his most successful post-Lennon collaboration was with Elvis Costello: their work included Costello's only American hit single, "Veronica," and one of Paul's best songs, the defiant Back On My Feet (1989). More of their work together subsequently appeared on Costello's album Spike and Paul's Flowers in the Dirt (both 1989).
Flowers in the Dirt gained the same critical respect afforded to Tug of War, and it was much needed after the tepid reception of 1986's Press to Play. Perhaps the most venomous critical reaction of Paul's career, however, was directed towards Give My Regards to Broadstreet, the 1984 film which illustrated that, as a filmmaker, Paul McCartney makes a very good singer/songwriter. Nonetheless, while the movie flopped, the soundtrack spawned the Top Ten hit "No More Lonely Nights" and contained one of Paul's most underrated songs, No Values, a biting attack against opportunistic relatives who tried to cash in on his fame: "I hear them telling me that you're selling off the furniture/ And even keep my personalized autographs..."
1989 saw Paul returning to the road for the first time in years with a successful world tour, while his 1991 appearance on MTV's Unplugged was well-received: numbers such as Blue Moon of Kentucky showed off both the excellent touring band and his still-supple voice. His next studio album, Off the Ground (1993), was disappointing both commercially and critically, but the successful New World Tour that followed cushioned the blow. 1994 and the first two thirds of 1995 had Paul occupied by the final stretch of preparation for The Beatles Anthology. He returned to the studio for his own solo work in November 1995, but was briefly sidelined by promotional duties for Anthology, which debuted later that same month. He intended to return to the project after Anthology's launch, but in early December 1995, Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer. As Paul noted later, "our lives turned round at that second....We then just embarked on a two-and-a-half year program of trying everything we possibly could to turn it round."
That initial album begun in November 1995 with producer (and former E.L.O. frontman) Jeff Lynne was put on hiatus for the next several months due to Linda's health. It was revisited at sporadic times (still with Lynne as producer) throughout 1996 when personal circumstances allowed, before finally culminating in the 1997 release of Flaming Pie. Critically acclaimed, the album was dubbed "pop music for grown-ups," and its sense of melancholy was interpreted by many fans as a reaction to Linda's illness, especially in the aching ballad Somedays (whose little echoing guitar flourishes are one of my favorite McCartney musical moments ever). Yet despite its seriousness, the album does have its fun moments, such as the acoustic ditty "Great Day" and the R&B tinged Souvenir.
Bolstered by good reviews and riding the success of The Beatles Anthology, Flaming Pie debuted at #2 on both the U.S. and U.K. album charts, giving Paul his best American debut ever (outside of the Beatles, of course). Rumors circulating in fan circles, however, said that EMI/Capitol was frustrated at Paul's lack of promotion for the record: he did a few television, radio and print interviews in London, but reportedly refused to travel to the States for essential publicity duty there. In an interview at the time, Paul himself put it down the fact that he "couldn't be bothered," and press reports had his refusal to tour supposedly having "Capitol executives looking for some creative promotion." Retrospectively, his refusal to travel was due to the fact that Linda was going through a bad spell in the spring/summer of 1997. In March, she was even too ill to accompany her husband when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Paul has described the period of 1996-1998 as "two full years of horror and doctor's offices and scares and diagnoses," and it came to a tragic end when Linda McCartney finally succumbed to breast cancer on April 17, 1998. As he was there for her in life (even sleeping in her hospital room during her cancer treatments), so he was in death. He told the Daily Telegraph, "Before she died I wondered whether life would even be possible without her. I was her left hand and she was my right hand. I wondered whether I would sleep. But I slept like a baby. I think I was so exhausted by the time she died."
For the next year, Paul entered into a period of intense mourning, the depths of which eventually caused him to seek psychiatric treatment. He began to emerge by focusing on his late wife's work; it was Linda's wish that he record an album of classic rock n' roll which finally compelled him back into the studio. With a band that included Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice, Paul crafted the unexpected: a covers album that elicited glowing reviews. Many heard his grief expressed in songs like No Other Baby (originally an obscure skiffle hit performed by the Vipers, now turned into a plaintive dirge) and especially Lonesome Town (the Ricky Nelson classic on which, as People magazine noted, Paul "wails...as if his heart is peeling"). Rolling Stone called it "simultaneously heartbreaking and life affirming," adding: "It's a hint that the upbeat optimism that has caused this man to so often be critically undervalued is tied to the same strength that is seeing him through. As for the rest of us, we get a great, unpretentious rock & roll record into the bargain."
What has long appealed to McCartney fans is Paul's versatility and fearlessness in his artistic explorations, such as his collaborations with producer Youth on ambient techno music under the guise of The Fireman. In 1993, they released ...strawberries oceans ships forest, followed in 1998 by Rushes. The latter album is a considered improvement over the former, with the best track being the ethereal Fluid: a simple piano melody, augmented by the sound of rushing waves, is soon joined by a light countermelody on guitar, flutterings of percussion, and vocal samples of a female voice asking, "What does the concept of time mean to you?" and "Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?" Followed by orgasmic moaning, the track ends with the woman's voice recounting an experience with a UFO and concluding with the statement, "When you least expect it, things are gonna start changin'."
He has also famously branched out into classical music, beginning with 1993's The Liverpool Oratorio, which told the semi-autobiographical story of a Liverpool man born during World War II who experiences various hardships, only to be redeemed by love in the end. Despite mixed-to-negative reviews, it vaunted to the top of Billboard's classical charts and has been performed over 100 times in 20 different countries. Paul followed the Oratorio with a short piece for solo piano (A Leaf, 1993) and a lengthier symphonic work (Standing Stone, 1997). Indeed, one of his first musical endeavors after Linda's death was classical: the choral composition Nova, written for A Garland for Linda, a thematic collection about the healing power of music. Britain's top classical composers were commissioned to write pieces for the concerts and subsequent album, which raised funds for both cancer research and promotion of the arts. The London Times described Nova: "The repeated question, 'Are you there?' from the sopranos and altos rises in unexpectedly jagged intervals, the questioning leaps of the melody neatly capturing the insistence of the demand. The appeal to the listener is potent; the form of address passionate: 'God, where are You?' And then, marvellously, God's meaty and thunderous response from the basses and tenors: 'I AM HERE.'"
In October 1999, Paul met ex-model and disability activist Heather Mills at the Mirror's Pride of Britain awards ceremony, and they began dating several months later. He has credited her with both helping him heal following Linda's death and inspiring his most recent studio album, 2001's Driving Rain, the sentiments of his recovery perhaps best expressed in the jazz and R&B mix of Back in the Sunshine Again: "Well, we're leavin' behind all our trouble and strife...Here we are, back in the sunshine again, no more worries and no more pain." Paul and Heather wed in 2002 and a daughter, Beatrice, was born the following year. The combination of his new relationship and live appearance at the Concert for New York 9/11 benefit inspired him to return to the road, and 2002's Back in the U.S. was named Tour of the Year by Billboard magazine. Coupled with the corresponding Back in the World tour, it made Paul McCartney 2002's highest grossing live act. That same year, he also nabbed Best Live Act honors from New Musical Express for his headlining performance at Britain's Glastonbury Music Festival and performed his 3,000th concert in St. Petersburg, Russia. On July 2 of this year, he celebrated the 20th anniversary of his headlining appearance at Live Aid by opening the Live 8 festival with U2, and is scheduled to return to the road later this fall with both a U.S. tour and the release of his 20th (post-Beatle) studio album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.
On the occasion of his 63rd birthday, Paul McCartney has to his credit fistfuls of Grammys, an Oscar, two entries in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, and a fortune of $1.2 billion. He has 32 American #1's to his credit, and even holds the Guinness world record for most Guinness world records (22). Yet this description of him at 24 (from a 1966 profile in the London Evening Standard) still seems apt: "He is tall, agile, neatly dressed and well-organized. His hair is never too long and he is never at a loss for words. He is a terrible tease, an excellent mimic. He has wicked charm, a shrivelling wit, a critical intelligence and enormous talent. With Paul you never get away with the ill-considered remark, the hazy recollection. He is self-conscious, nervy, restless and on the go.
He will surprise us all in the end."