Three of four days before I started writing this, I was driving down a highway, listening to “Silly Love Songs.” More than listening, I felt like I was merging with it. A scan of my brain would have revealed something that looked like a city lit up at night. I was back in the McCartney mania, a condition that has afflicted me, on and off, since I was six years old.
The main melody line of “Silly Love Songs,” a №1 hit from 1976, leaps out of a spacious arrangement — minimalist piano, crisp horns, a rubbery bass line informed by disco, steady drumming that gets the job done without fanfare. Occasional strings, as sugary as the orchestral parts in a Barry White hit or a Douglas Sirk melodrama, add some sonic variety.
The lyrics start with a focus on songwriting.
You’d think the people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
The narrator seems to be a figure out of a backstage movie musical, something like Busby Berkeley’s “Gold Diggers of 1933.” He sits in an office furnished with a battered desk, an upright piano, faded flowers in a jar. Surprisingly, the words he comes up with for the opening of this new love song — which include the phrase that gives the song its title — will not come back until the very end, more than five minutes later. What registers as a first verse, or perhaps a chorus placed at the top of the song in manner of later hits by Chic, is really just part one of a musical bookend.
“Silly Love Songs” is brave in that it dares you to mock it, as well as its composer. Paul McCartney, age thirty-three at the time of its release, took the main criticism of his work — that it was lightweight; that it was pop, rather than rock; that much of it was, as his most famous collaborator had put it, “granny music” — and defied it with humor and, beneath the genre trappings, some real tenderness.
After establishing the songwriter’s dilemma, McCartney takes us into the rounds. How can I tell you about my loved one? (I love you.) How. (I.) Can I tell. (Love.) You about. (You.) My loved one? Repetitions send the listener back to nursery rhymes, playground songs, nonsense talk with parents. This may explain why “Silly Love Songs” was the highest selling single in America during the year of its release. Aside from being catchy and expertly made, it is primal.
Two elements give post-Beatles McCartney its particular sound. Number one is what seems to be a conscious move away from Beatles-style melodies. Number two is the addition of Linda McCartney on harmony vocal.
She has been unfairly maligned. In “Silly Love Songs,” as in “Monkberry Moon Delight,” “Hey Diddle,” and other tracks, she complements her husband’s virtuosity, serving as a stand-in for you and me. She plays a role similar to that of Wendy and Lisa on the tracks Prince made around the time of “Parade.” She brings a musical demigod down to the earth, making him approachable and binding him to the rest of us. And I would submit to the jury that when she sings “I love you,” you are more likely to believe it, because her rendering of those words is simple, because it is plain, because it is not delivered with the professional vocalist’s tricks and techniques that can make you doubt the meaning.
A bootleg tape that made the rounds in the early 1990s included a concert recording that isolated Linda’s vocal during “Hey, Jude.” She was off-key, and commentators used it as proof of Paul’s deafness to her faults. But anyone who has sung onstage knows that if you can’t hear yourself, which can happen when you have no earpiece or monitor pointing in your direction, your voice may wander.
Women’s voices rarely figured in Beatles recordings. The addition of Linda’s voice to the McCartney sound was a signal to his listeners that he had moved on from the frankly male camaraderie of the early Beatles years and the sharply divided gender roles that defined Beatlemania (girls chasing; boys running). It also presents a McCartney who is no longer the man-about-London and grand pop genius of the late Beatles period who, when he wasn’t sleeping around, was writing and performing ambitious songs that were also huge hits in “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.”
In a People magazine story that captured him when “Silly Love Songs” was in the charts and he was touring the U.S. with his wife, his daughters, and his Wings bandmates, McCartney addressed the change: “I’m not happier than I was as a single man with the Beatles. But as happy, in a different way. I used to wake up to chicks and old drinks, but that horror has been removed from my life. Now it’s a whole other thing.”
The solo career started, in the waning Beatle days, as a furtive enterprise. He made much of the first album, “McCartney,” on home equipment; the slightly more polished studio songs he recorded under an assumed name. The second album, “Ram,” was more elaborately and expensively produced, but it still has a looseness and messiness that contrasts with the polish of the last album recorded by the Beatles, “Abbey Road.” And the first Wings album, “Wildlife,” was a warts-and-all recording made in less than a week.
The early Wings tours were barebones, with McCartney handling the bookings and traveling with band and chidren by van or bus. Making good on the plan he had presented, with no luck, to his fellow Beatles years earlier, he was at last creating music with an amateur spirit — a strategy that he may have thought would allow him to duck the scrutiny that went with the great expectations of fans and critics.
This casual, or seemingly casual, approach threw off interesting sparks when it went up against his abundance of talent, and he tried to see how far he could push it. At the risk of confounding his audience, he released gentle songs with not much to say, like “Bip Bop,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “Hey Diddle,” alongside the raw rock singles “Hi Hi Hi,” “Helen Wheels” and “Junior’s Farm.” The idea of McCartney as one-man jukebox seemed a challenge to listeners in the 1970s who had perhaps forgotten that the same person who wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” had also been responsible for “Helter Skelter” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”
By the time of “Silly Love Songs,” the production was again pristine, the aim commercial: He had a growing family to support and a world tour of arenas and stadiums on his schedule. But Linda’s voice, a reminder of the homemade strain in McCartney’s work, remained prominent. With zero vibrato, it brought back the days when McCartney was on the run from stardom, living in a house with no heat or running water among kids, dogs, horses, sheep, and marijuana in the hills of Scotland.
At the same time “Silly Love Songs” has a state-of-the-art bass line, touched with funk, that tells us McCartney was not sequestered by fame or temperament from what was going on in the wider world. He had found a new manner on his main instrument, one he would break out again on “Arrow Through Me” and “Goodnight Tonight.”
Almost nobody believes in “Silly Love Songs.” Its opening sounds are mechanical. When I was a kid, I thought they were supposed to represent a steam train, but now the rhythmic cacophony puts me in mind of a factory floor. Suggesting that he knows he is treading the line between cynicism (I could use a №1 song) and sincerity (I. Love. You.), the sounds suggest a music factory in the process of stamping out another hit.
Whatever the meaning of the noises at the song’s start, they struck my ears, when I was young, as purposely uncool, bringing us away from the rock that filled FM radio in the 1970s toward music for the stage, or novelty records, or children’s songs.
Twelve years after the song was a hit, I started making the case for it while drunk at a party. This was in 1988, when “Silly Love Songs” and McCartney himself were probably at their critical nadir. (I ended up getting peeled off a driveway and persuading no one.)
The McCartney mania had started when I was six, with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” It was the strangest song, a cinematic soundscape punctuated by sudden melodic shifts, and yet it was welcoming. There was an idea, in the words, of having disappointed an elder, of having misbehaved, and now it was time to make amends — which strikes me as an odd topic for a pop song, more like something out of a Brothers Grimm tale than a Top 10 single, but also seems like something that any child would naturally understand and respond to.
I was side by side with another boy on the swings during school recess. It must have been 10:15 in the morning. Some girls had linked arms and were crossing the field, chanting, “We won’t stop, we won’t stop.” They would run you over if you didn’t get out of their way. The boy and I had found a refuge from the prepubescent sexual warfare on the swings.
As we looked down, while swinging, at the oval puddles in the mud, we were singing a particular part of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” which is one of those McCartney compositions made up of miniature suites. (This method of piecing together a song makes sense when you consider that McCartney was raised in a bombed-out city and was therefore something of a scrimper.) The part we were singing, some 30 years after the birth of McCartney, in suburban New Jersey, was “Hands across the water, heads across the sky.”
The melody soars, a blast of joy. What other songwriter bothers to attempt joy, or even happiness, or contentment, in a song? There’s McCartney. There’s Stevie Wonder. Prince. That’s about it, or sometimes that’s how it seems. Ray Charles. Roger Miller. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Hoagy Carmichael.
As we were singing, I could hear the full production filling my brain like an aural hallucination. It was like the music I would sometimes hear floating through my mind as I fell asleep.
A year or so before that, a babysitter named Debbie introduced me to the idea of the Beatles. She gave me bubblegum and told me the tales. She was seventeen. She smelled like Clearasil and perfume. She told me about the “Paul-is-dead” rumor. I didn’t understand any of it.
Later, we had a family stereo in the living room with an Ampex tape deck. On Sundays I would record Casey Casem’s American Top 40 show. I would get a funny feeling when a song would rise to, say, No. 31 on the chart and then slip back down. (What was wrong with it? Was it a hit or not?) One week the Electric Light Orchestra song “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” made the top twenty. I was sure it was the Beatles in disguise. I imagined the great trick they were playing on the world.
Soon “Band on the Run” followed me through the weeks I spent at a summer camp set at a boarding school. In the deep heat I had “stuck inside these four walls” often in my head. Then came the winter when “Junior’s Farm” appeared out of nowhere. It had a nastiness softened by McCartney’s melodiousness and the harmony vocals.
I played in a church basketball league one night a week. In the cold darkness, a vehicle would approach as I waited outside the house; and in the heat of the car I would smell the kitchen smoke on the clothes and hair of the driver, who was someone’s mother or father, and the song on the radio was “Junior’s Farm” when it wasn’t “You’re No Good” by Linda Rondstadt, with its long outro, the strings slipping in beneath the chiming guitar line. McCartney, in the lyrics of “Junior’s Farm,” seems, for a rich man, unduly concerned with the prices of grocery-store items. But in songwriting and in life he was a scrimper, a combiner of left-behind parts.
The bass throbbed, as if it was loosely strung. The harsh guitar solo, by Jimmy McCullough, comes unexpectedly early, right after the first iteration of the chorus. “Junior’s Farm” was a non-album single, like Elton John’s remake of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” You had to tide the people over between full-length works, or they might go crazy.
One of McCartney’s loveliest early solo songs was, like “Junior’s Farm,” the product of a mind forged in the rubble: “Junk.” In it, he expresses longing and love for “the junk in the yard.” In the verses, he lists discarded items. I didn’t get to “Junk” until I was older than McCartney was when he wrote it.
And not so long after the roughness of “Junior’s Farm” came a triple shot of easier pleasure in the form of “Listen to What the Man Said,” “Silly Love Songs” and “Let ’Em In.”
Soon after the rein of “Silly Love Songs,” I grew old. Meaning I became a teenager who was embarrassed of his prior affection for Wings. And when “Goodnight Tonight” was a hit, I was doomed to admitting how much I liked it only in the privacy of my own head. Same with “Coming Up.”
The embarrassment faded when I was seventeen. That’s when I had the good fortuned to run into the McCartney disciples. These people were like the scattered nobles of an exiled regime. They lived in Clifton, New Jersey, one town away from mine.
I was in a garage band at the time, as the singer. Our leader was named John. He could play drums, guitar, bass and piano. He told the rest of us what to do.
We played the usual stuff. Some Stones. Bachman Turner Overdrive. A Clash song. We didn’t do any Beatles or McCartney because they were sacred to John.
One day he led me to the house next door, where Frank, our organ player, lived. Frank was not the best musician in the world, but his older brother was supposed to be the real thing. I had never met him before I saw him coming down the beige-carpeted staircase. He moved easily, elegantly, even, toward an upright piano against a living room wall. He had a beard. When he sat on the piano bench I saw that he had long fingers. And when he spoke, there was the touch of a Liverpudlian accent.
I learned he had no job, no college classes. What apparently got him through the days was his musical talent and a beard very much like McCartney’s in the immediate Beatles aftermath.
After a rather dramatic pause, he started “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the big one from “McCartney,” which had a presence on American radio thanks to the version on the triple live album “Wings Over America.” In the singing and the playing, he sounded like a replica of McCartney. And thanks to the possibly insane older brother of our organ player, any lingering embarrassment I felt over my old love for McCartney went away.
When he reached the end of the song, he seemed worn out. Then he trudged up the stairs. That’s when I noticed someone I hadn’t seen: his grandmother, a woman from the old country, hiding in the drapes.