Legendary singer-songwriter, bassist and former Beatle Paul McCartney turns 79 today. In all of popular music history, no single person has sold more records than McCartney, who found historic success during his time with The Beatles in the 1960s, and continued his incredible run by establishing himself as perhaps the most popular songwriter of the 1970s. Not only is the commercial success of McCartney’s catalogue unmatched, but it is hard to think of any other songwriter whose music has received such widespread and consistent critical acclaim throughout their career. In what may be one of the most difficult tasks for a music writer, the Tribune has attempted to rank his 20 greatest songs, in an ode to the finest songwriting career of modern history. To avoid any ambiguity, this list will not include any classic ‘Lennon-McCartney’ collaborations (see: ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), ‘We Can Work It Out’ or ‘A Day In The Life’) but will rather focus on songs penned by Paul for the Beatles, his own solo career, or Wings.
20: No Words
An oft-overlooked moment from Wings’ opus Band On The Run, ‘No Words’ is a unique moment in Paul McCartney’s songwriting career. Often so articulate when talking about love (particularly his love for his wife Linda McCartney), McCartney finds himself surrendering to the fact he feels so strongly about his love that he can’t even find the words to put it all together. The lyrics are, at times, gut-wrenchingly hopeless, with McCartney begging his love to stop turning her back on him (“I wish you’d see / it’s only me, I love you”), and the sense of surrender is paired with a typically brilliant orchestral arrangement from former Beatles producer and proverbial ‘Fifth Beatle’ George Martin. Only a songwriter like Paul McCartney could put out a song this beautiful and then basically never mention it again.
19: Calico Skies
‘Calico Skies’ is a beautiful acoustic guitar song in which McCartney ponders war, peace and love, before confessing his undying love for his beloved Linda McCartney. There isn’t anything too complex about the song – rather it finds its beauty in its simplicity. McCartney’s picking-style guitar playing carries the melody throughout the whole song and leaves space for his voice to shine through. The song was released in 1997, only a year before his wife Linda McCartney tragically lost her battle with cancer, giving the song an entirely new, painfully beautiful meaning (“I will hold you for as long as you like / I will hold you for the rest of my life”).
18: Lovely Rita
‘Lovely Rita’ is one of Paul’s finer moments on the seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. While Sgt. Pepper is undoubtedly one of the most impressive albums in music history, its main critique is that the album is far greater than the sum of its parts. One of a handful of songs on the album that stand out, however, is Paul McCartney’s ‘Lovely Rita’. In typical McCartney fashion, ‘Lovely Rita’ was written about a real meter maid who had given him a parking ticket outside EMI Studios on Abbey Road. McCartney admits he had no clue what the woman’s name actually was, and claimed that she simply looked like a ‘Rita’. ‘Lovely Rita’ is perhaps the most danceable tune on Sgt. Pepper, with its incredibly groovy, clever bassline, simple drumming and catchy hook. Not to mention, that piano solo halfway through is very, very good. In many ways, ‘Lovely Rita’ is a quintessential McCartney song. It’s an incredibly fun song about virtually nothing, which provides listeners with a chance to dance along without having to think about it all too much.
17: Coming Up
The lead single off the experimental McCartney II, ‘Coming Up’ is a pulsing, groovy quasi-electronic song that is great in so many ways. Firstly, the song seems like an unintentional precursor to the funk-inspired direction taken by Talking Heads and other New Wave bands later that year, and then further into the 80s. The bassline is thumping, and provides a cool groove to an otherwise chaotic song. While the sound machine-generated trumpets may seem a bit of their time, they provide a fun high end to the song. Perhaps most impressive of all, this song, like all the others on McCartney II, was written, performed and produced entirely by McCartney himself with no outside assistance apart from some backing vocals, courtesy of his wife Linda. Not only is this an incredibly fun song, ‘Coming Up’ will always go down as the song which inspired John Lennon to break a five year hiatus from public life to begin recording music again. Lennon even called the song “a good piece of work” which, for John Lennon, was about as high as praise got.
16: Helter Skelter
‘Helter Skelter’ has become a legendary Beatles song for so many reasons. Not least, it has now entered the canon of ‘songs that unknowingly inspired punk rock’ along with The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, virtually every Velvet Underground song, and The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’, the song which challenged McCartney to write this thumping, yelping proto-metal classic. Having read Pete Townshend declare that ‘I Can See For Miles’ was the heaviest, dirtiest song The Who had recorded to date, McCartney jumped into Abbey Road studios and decided to blow them out of the water, without ever even hearing Townshend’s song. ‘Helter Skelter’ is probably the heaviest song in popular 60s rock music. McCartney’s intense head-voice yelling, matched by his and George Harrison’s grimy guitar playing, Ringo’s chaotic drumming and John Lennon’s amateurish bass playing all combine to create a messy yet mesmerizing precursor to heavy metal. Legend has it that some takes of the song lasted up to 20 minutes long, but ultimately, they got it right. Recording the song took such a toll on the band that the final take includes Ringo yelling “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” at the very end, a quote which has become a sort of fan-favorite moment for Beatles fans. Not to mention, this song also goes down in history for its connection to Charles Manson, who believed the Beatles were speaking to him through the song (they weren’t, obviously).
15: All My Loving
Almost the antithesis to ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘All My Loving’ is a beautifully crafted love song Paul wrote to his then-girlfriend Jane Asher about going away on tour and always keeping her in his thoughts (a sentiment which Johnny Cash echoed on the classic ‘I Walk The Line’). ‘All My Loving’ is a far more complex song than it may appear, however. McCartney’s walking bassline is nothing short of brilliant, especially when considering he would perform that bassline live while singing at the same time. George Harrison’s guitar solo halfway through is well thought out and perfectly executed, as if anyone would expect anything else from Harrison. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of this song, however, is John Lennon’s rhythm guitar. Lennon’s fast-paced triplet guitar playing gives the song a desperate quality to it which hammers home McCartney’s lyrics. Despite the collective brilliance of the song’s execution, however, it’s a Paul McCartney song first and foremost, and a brilliant one at that.
14: For No One
Revolver saw Paul McCartney delve deeper than ever before into the avant-garde and baroque sides of pop music, and ‘For No One’ is one of his finest forays into the baroque sound. The melody is simple, but the use of a harpsichord rather than a piano leans into Revolver’s psychedelic sound, providing the tune with an otherworldly quality. The French horn solo doubles down on the song’s baroque stylings and fits perfectly into the middle of the song. McCartney’s lyrics are simple, but they sum up perfectly the experience of seeing someone lose their love for you right before your eyes. A very pretty tune that carries a truly heartbroken message, ‘For No One’ proved to be a springboard for him to go on and create some truly classic baroque pop songs such as ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Penny Lane’ (but we’ll get to those later).
13: Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Medley)
Paul McCartney loves a medley. From ‘The Long One’ on Abbey Road to Band On The Run’s title track, the medley has become a staple of Paul McCartney’s discography, bringing about some of his finest songwriting moments. This is one of those moments. There’s so much going on in this song that it’s difficult to fit it all into one short description. The plaintive, apologetic first half makes way for a loud, anthemic chorus that acts as a message of unity around the world (“hands across the water / heads across the sky”). Once again, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ is a ludicrously fun, yet inconsequential, song. The hook gets stuck in your ear and is incredibly easy to sing along to. The bridge in the second half is bouncy and fun. Of all the songs McCartney wrote after The Beatles split up, this might be his most fun. The instrumentation and vocal arrangements are so lush and luxurious that it’s no wonder it won a Grammy for Best Arrangement in 1971.
12: Band On The Run
Another medley, ‘Band On The Run’ is by and large the most popular, and perhaps the best, song McCartney released with Wings. Impressively, Paul wrote and performed the vocals, drums, bass, synthesizers and guitars. Essentially, apart from some guitar work from Denny Laine and orchestration from Tony Visconti, Paul McCartney made this cinematic epic almost entirely his own. The three parts of the medley match the lyrical narrative perfectly to the point where you can pinpoint where the ‘Band On The Run’ are plotting their way out until the point where they break free from jail. ‘Band On The Run’ has stood the test of time as one of McCartney’s finest moments, and for good reason. The Beatles were so good at opening their albums with big songs that set the tone (‘Come Together’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’). With ‘Band On The Run’, Paul McCartney was able to compete with such classics.
11: I Saw Her Standing There
If there was any way to introduce yourself to the world on your first album, this was how. Despite being a far cry from the experimentation of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, or the symphonic beauty of ‘Something’, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ is an outrageously fun song that captures the essence of early 60s R&B. The catchy chorus, the dancing bassline (lifted from Chuck Berry’s ‘Talkin About You’) and the infectious energy of the song make it one of McCartney’s finest moments as a performer. Despite all of The Beatles’ artistic growth as a group throughout the 60s and beyond as individuals, sometimes you just can’t beat a fun song like this one.
10: Maybe I’m Amazed
McCartney’s greatest post-Beatles song, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ is a beautiful ballad written for his wife, Linda, who saw Paul through his darkest times following the end of The Beatles. Following the chaotic release of Let It Be, and the subsequently messy and bitter breakup of The Beatles, Paul McCartney found himself turning to consistent substance abuse, ultimately falling into a deep depression. Through it all, however, was Linda McCartney, who helped Paul through it all, and inspired him to start writing and performing again. Essentially, this song was a thank you to Linda, and an affirmation of his love for her. ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ is a beautiful song and, were he never a Beatle, this would likely stand as his greatest achievement. Most artists would die to ever write a song this brilliant, and it’s a true testament to McCartney’s talents that this song is only 10th on this list.
9: The Long One (You Never Give Me Your Money / Sun King / Mean Mr. Mustard / Polythene Pam / She Came In Through The Bathroom Window / Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End)
Side B of Abbey Road is an absolute triumph. Paul McCartney turned 8 songs into one towering medley which provided the perfect end to The Beatles’ recording career together. Although ‘Sun King’, ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’ were written by John Lennon (with assistance from George Harrison on ‘Sun King’), it was McCartney’s vision to stitch them all together which proved to be the stroke of genius. Not to mention McCartney wrote all the other songs in the medley, including the beautiful ‘Golden Slumbers’. ‘The Long One’ has gone down as one of the great pieces of popular music. Funnily enough, John Lennon would later go on to call it “garbage”. At least it was Ringo’s favourite Beatles work, though.
8: The Long And Winding Road
The story of ‘The Long And Winding Road’ is an interesting one. Initially a stripped-back piano ballad with some light instrumental accompaniment from John, George and Ringo, the official release in 1970 was given Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ treatment, much to McCartney’s dismay. Regardless, ‘The Long And Winding Road’ is a deeply beautiful song which appropriately symbolized the closure of The Beatles’ career. McCartney is more lyrically candid than ever before, pouring his heart out over the Beatles’ split (“many times I’ve been alone / and many times I’ve cried”). Despite McCartney’s obvious heartbreak, he affirms that the memories of The Beatles will always come back to him, whether he wants them to or not. The Beatles were the most significant years of Paul McCartney’s life, and ‘The Long And Winding Road’ is him coming to terms with the fact that it, like everything else in our lives, must come to an end. It’s a shame we can’t all articulate our feelings of loss and heartbreak like this, but it’s a gift to us all that at least someone can.
7: Here, There And Everywhere
‘Here, There And Everywhere’ is a beautifully airy and whimsical love song. Its sparse instrumentation creates space for The Beatles to harmonize beautifully. The three part harmony which surrounds Paul McCartney’s light voice is textbook Beatles. ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ is just one of those songs you need to listen to to take in its beauty. It isn’t a towering symphonic masterpiece, or a bouncing R&B hit. It’s sparseness is what makes it great, and ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ evokes a feeling of bliss very few, if any, songs throughout history have ever matched. John Lennon went on to call it one of his favorite ever Beatles songs, and even told Paul McCartney it was better than any song he’d written until that point, a quip which McCartney enjoys bringing up in interviews. A testament to the song’s everlasting impact is how it found a new home on Frank Ocean’s incredible 2016 release Blonde. The first verse of ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ is interpolated in Ocean’s ‘White Ferrari’. Even without knowing it, most of us have all heard this song in some capacity before, and we’re all better off for it.
Paul McCartney claims he was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to write ‘Blackbird’. Whether you want to believe him is up to you to decide (although it’s probably true, to be fair). What can’t be contested, however, is the beauty of this song. The White Album recording sessions were fractured and fraught with discontent. John, Paul and George would often write and record songs on their own in separate studios, resulting in a massive 30-song album that, despite its brilliance, is fairly hit or miss (see: ‘Wild Honey Pie’ and a handful of other fairly forgettable tracks). Amidst it all, however, is one of The Beatles’, and Paul McCartney’s, greatest feats: a simple yet beautiful guitar ballad titled ‘Blackbird’. ‘Blackbird’ is an early look into the simple, pastoral sound McCartney would dive into on 1971’s ‘Ram’, but in 1968, Paul was arguably at the peak of his songwriting powers. ‘Blackbird ‘is uncharacteristically lyrically ambiguous for McCartney, with the potential for the song to be interpreted in a million different ways, similar to ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ or a number of other beautifully vague Bob Dylan songs. There’s a beauty in that ambiguity. You can take McCartney’s claims about the song’s inspirations at face value and it remains a powerful and beautiful ballad, but there is also something to be said for how the ambiguous nature of the lyrics enable anyone and everyone to relate the song to their own stories of hardship and perseverance. One of the great songs of all time, it is incredible that McCartney makes this song seem so effortless.
5: Let It Be
The story goes that Paul McCartney saw his late mother, Mary, in a dream at a turbulent time in his life. The advice she gave him? “Let it be”. And the rest is history, as people love to say. Inspired by the words of comfort he received from his mother, McCartney began writing, and took the song to The Beatles. ‘Let It Be’ is a beautiful song that, at times, sounds like gospel. McCartney’s powerful voice and dogmatic lyrics, coupled with Billy Preston’s enchanting organ playing, as well as the typical brilliant harmonies on show give the song a truly spiritual quality. ‘Let It Be’ is an experience in and of itself, and is proof that McCartney could write more than silly love songs or “granny music” as Lennon coldly put it one time. Similarly to ‘The Long And Winding Road’, however, this song was altered by Phil Spector, much to McCartney, and George Martin’s, disappointment. A stripped-back ‘Naked’ version of the song, and the rest of the Let It Be album, was released in 2013 in an attempt to fulfil the group’s original vision for the project. Both versions are brilliant, though.
4: Penny Lane
Paul McCartney’s best songs weren’t all ballads (although a lot of them were). ‘Penny Lane’ is one of the greatest baroque pop songs of all time, perhaps beaten only by another Paul McCartney composition (which we’ll get to). Inspired by ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, John Lennon’s psychedelic ode to the band’s hometown of Liverpool, Paul McCartney wrote his own love letter to Liverpool with ‘Penny Lane’. The singles were so brilliant that the band began working on a concept album about Liverpool which unfortunately never saw the light of day (although they both appear on the psychedelic trip that is Magical Mystery Tour). The song’s melody is infectious, and the bouncing bassline gives the song a truly catchy rhythm. The orchestral arrangements are quaint in the best way possible, helping McCartney paint the whimsical picture of life on and around Penny Lane. The piccolo trumpet solo throughout the song has become legendary, and plays into the childlike nature of the song. After all, ‘Penny Lane’ is a reflection of Paul’s childhood, and the fun baroque instrumentation makes perfect sense in the context of this song. Similarly to ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, ‘Penny Lane’ is such an oddly unique song that you have to listen to it to really understand how people talk about it.
It’s incredible to think that just two years before this, The Beatles were performing simple pop songs like ‘Love Me Do’. ‘Yesterday’, written by Paul McCartney when he was just 23 years old, is a deeply plaintive song that captures the same longing for times passed that we all experience. We all wonder why love ends, what we could have done differently, and how to get back to where we once were, in happier times. It’s that same universality of this song that has made it the most covered song in history. Paul McCartney didn’t have to write ‘Yesterday’. In 1965, The Beatles were the biggest band in the world by and large, and they could have easily stuck to their R&B inspired sound and continued selling out stadiums singing fun pop songs. Part of what makes this song so brilliant is how much of a step outside of their comfort zone it was. This was the first Beatles song to include orchestral arrangements, and it worked an absolute charm. That longing for another time is perfectly portrayed by the weeping violins supporting Paul’s guitar. ‘Yesterday’ is a triumph in both songwriting and personal growth. When he wished to go back to times passed, Paul McCartney took his skills and his sound forward, resulting in one of pop music’s most beautiful songs.
2: Eleanor Rigby
‘Eleanor Rigby’ is perhaps the only song that can challenge The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ for the title of Best Baroque Pop Song. Revolver is full of bouncing and enchanting psychedelic moments (‘Taxman’, ‘Doctor Robert’, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ to name a few), but the album’s clear standout moment is ‘Eleanor Rigby’. What originally started as a song inspired by a lonely old lady Paul McCartney used to know in Liverpool quickly became a hauntingly beautiful exploration of loneliness and isolation, and what it means to be alone. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” is the lyric of a lifetime. It isn’t a particularly clever, cheeky or even poetic line, but it’s sincere. Where does loneliness come from? How does one even end up lonely in the first place? These are the questions McCartney asks on ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and that fear of falling into loneliness is a universal human fear. We all depend on our connections with one another to make life truly worthwhile – but those connections aren’t always a guarantee. Musically speaking, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is perhaps the most unique song in the Beatles’ discography. For the first and only time, no Beatles played any instruments on this song. Paul McCartney and George Martin worked on the orchestral arrangements together, and George and John aided Paul with backing vocals. The staccato violins are beautiful, yet somewhat unsettling. It comes as no surprise, then, that the punchy violins were inspired by the theme tune to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic ‘Psycho’. Only someone like Paul McCartney could listen to ‘Psycho’ and hear ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Much like ‘Yesterday’, the brilliance of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is found not just in its sound, but its exploration of universal themes and worries. One day we could all be Eleanor Rigby. But when you’re one of those lonely people, where do you belong?
1: Hey Jude
To avoid writing an entire essay on this song, I promise I’ll do my best to stick to the fundamentals here. ‘Hey Jude’, simply put, is one of the greatest songs of all time. At a towering seven minutes long, ‘Hey Jude’ is the longest number 1 single of all time, yet throughout its runtime, it never feels stale – even if they do spend half of the song repeating the same refrain. One of the recurring words you’ll have found towards the end of this list is ‘universal’ or some variation of such. That’s because Paul McCartney is at his absolute best when bringing people together, and ‘Hey Jude’ does just that. Football matches, pubs, weddings, and countless other social settings have become makeshift concerts where people lock arms and sing the “na na na na”s of ‘Hey Jude’ until their voices give out. ‘Hey Jude’ brings people together in a way that perhaps no other song ever has, or ever will. There are other songs that are perhaps equally beautiful, but no other song brings people together like this one. Your parents love this song, as do their parents, and if you’re reading this, you probably do too. And your children, nieces, nephews or younger siblings will probably come to love it too. Without being too dogmatic about music bringing people of all walks of life together, there is something special about this song in how one day you might hear your parents listening to it, and the very next you might see a crowd of 20-something-year-olds in a pub, shoulder to shoulder singing ‘Hey Jude’ together. Virtually everyone will have a memory soundtracked to this song, and it’s hard to say that about any other song in music history. And amidst all this, ‘Hey Jude’ was originally written for John Lennon’s somewhat-estranged child, Julian. A song written as words of consolation to a child has gone down as one of rock and roll’s greatest hits. There’s something quite nice about that.
Nicolas Murphy – E&L Editor