It’s a pretty good trick growing up to become one quarter of the most influential pop group of the 20th century. But to remain relevant at age 73, killing it on the festival circuit in 2015 and playing for the grandkids of the kids who saw you play the first time around pretty much puts you in a class by yourself. While George went off the spiritual deep end and John got in bed with Yoko after the breakup of the Beatles, Paul was all about the music, strapping on his Höfner bass and looking for a place to play. The secret to his longevity may lie in his ability to collaborate and plug into the latest musical zeitgeist (he was seen hanging with a certain Mr. West earlier this year). We dove into the five McCartney solo tunes that just might make him the best Beatle of them all.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” (1970)
If this song from his first solo album, McCartney, sounds a little like “Hey Jude,” there’s a good reason—it was written in 1969, just before the Fab Four officially called it quits. It’s got all the elements we’ve come to associate with Paul: a pretty piano-based ballad with an infectious melody and a great vocal performance, built around a clever turn of phrase. It was the standout track from an otherwise sketchy first record; a live version released as a single in ’77 became a Top 10 hit in the U.S.
“Jet” (1973, with Wings)
After a few years in the wilderness following the acrimonious Beatles separation, McCartney longed for the rush of making music in a band again, so he formed Wings with his wife Linda and Denny Laine from the Moody Blues. Their third album, Band on the Run, contains some of the best work of Paul’s career, including this straight-ahead power-pop tune with impenetrable lyrics. Turns out Jet was a little Labrador retriever puppy, but you’d never know it if you listened to the song a thousand times. McCartney has explained how he often puts in nonsense words at first to go along with new melodies he’s created. Like the original lyrics to “Yesterday”: “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs …”
“Say Say Say” (1983, with Michael Jackson)
Recorded just before and released in the wake of Jackson’s historic Thriller album, this admittedly lightweight track (one of three the pop icons composed together) highlights PM’s collaborative abilities, mirroring the way he used to work with Lennon to such great effect. He starts things off with a trademark vocal/melody line, which is answered by a grittier, funkier passage from MJ, echoing about half a dozen other Jackson hits already in heavy rotation on the radio that year. The companion concept video, directed by the same guy who did “Billie Jean,” has zero to do with the lyrics, but makes for a quaint artifact from the MTV era.
“Venus and Mars/Rock Show” (1975, with Wings)
Sometime after the Summer of Love in ‘67 and before the world started to go to hell in the mid ’70s (war, recession, Watergate), arena rock was born. Here, McCartney perfectly captures the sense of anticipation/elation experienced by a generation of young concertgoers, “sitting in the stand of the sports arena, waiting for the show to begin.” There’s even a bit of a glam-rock feel to the second section—maybe a nod to glitter gods David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Breathe in deeply during the acoustic intro and you’re liable to get a contact high.
“Cut Me Some Slack” (2012, with Nirvana)
The hardest the man has rocked since “Helter Skelter.” The heavy riff presented itself during a jam session arranged by Dave Grohl for his documentary Sound City, a tribute to an old L.A. recording studio. As the story goes, Dave told Paul he’d also invited a couple of old friends along to play that day—Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and tour guitarist Pat Smear. McCartney had no idea who they were—only later did he understand he was in the middle of a full-blown Nirvana reunion.