Originally a lot of the best rock lyrics were gibberish like “Awopbopaloobop.” Then Bob Dylan married the poetry of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to the sound of the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and changed everything.
In the Sixties, Paul McCartney declared that he vaguely minded anybody knowing anything he didn’t know. He was the man about town in London with actress Jane Asher on his arm, seeing all the highbrow plays. He listened to Stockhausen and symphonies while poets William Burroughs and Richard Brautigan recorded spoken-word albums in his buddy Barry Miles’ Indica bookstore.
McCartney watched John Lennon pen “Revolution,” then wrote his own more subtle and universal ode to Black Power with “Blackbird.” Meanwhile, Mick Jagger was also doing his best to keep up with Dylan. His actress girlfriend Marianne Faithfull gave him the novel The Master and the Margarita, which Jagger transmogrified into “Sympathy for the Devil.”
A minority of rock critics like Nik Cohn lamented that Dylan and the Beatles corrupted the nonsensical purity of mindless rock and roll like “Tutti Fruti.” He felt the Sixties intellectual posers’ attempt to be profound to be infinitely more annoying. Later critics like Lester Bangs would clamor for more moronic fun and Iggy Stooge and the Ramones would provide it. With stupid lyrics about sniffin’ glue or having a “real cool time” and bein’ “Loose,” they were intelligent people masquerading as idiots to be funny and edgy.
But for the most part, as the Sixties became the Seventies, the rock intelligentsia was dominated by critics like intellectual visionary Greil Marcus and Jon Landau, who would become Bruce Springsteen‘s manager and prod him into becoming the successor to John Steinbeck. Their fast-moving brains demanded food for thought in the lyrics.
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However, by the mid-Seventies, McCartney and Linda just wanted to get stoned and chill with the kids on the farm. When he downshifted from “Eleanor Rigby” to odes to comic books like “Magneto and Titanium Man,” the critics lambasted him.
So he told the critics to stuff it with the most sublime disco-tinged mini-symphony any supermarket shopper ever heard. Opening with the sound of an automated assembly line like a craftsman clocking in on autopilot, he turned his supple bass into the lead instrument and proved he still had his ear to the ground by serving up the sweetest strings and tastiest horns this side of Philadelphia. Whereas in the Sixties the Beatles studied Motown, now McCartney took his cue from the current kings of slick soul, producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, whose label Philadelphia International featured acts like The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes (with lead singer Teddy Pendergrass), Lou Rawls, The Three Degrees and Billy Paul.
“You’re all just pizza and fairy tales,” Lennon once sneered at McCartney. But Lennon’s final statement for five years was a cover album of rock and roll oldies, so he was, too. “Silly Love Songs” marked the end of an era, just as Lennon’s hibernation did.
There would be no more visions, just consummately crafted pop rock like there was pre-1966. Only the beat had modernized and it was Linda, Denny and Paul chanting “I love you” instead of John, George and Paul.
The instrumentation was happy, dammit, because McCartney was happy touring the US with his family. And just as he had been in synch with his generation when they were desperate for wisdom from his mother’s ghost in “Let It Be,” he was in synch with them as they just wanted to take Quaaludes, live out Saturday Night Fever and forget the My Lai massacre.
Culturally, America had reached an accord. Long hair, denim jackets and pot were (sort of) accepted by the mainstream à la That ’70s Show. The Sexual Revolution was even assimilated with Fifties nostalgia, when Happy Days‘ mom Marian Cunningham asked her husband Howard if he was feeling frisky.
Still, the critics needling McCartney to “live up to his potential” could periodically get to him. In later decades, he would intermittently team with taskmasters like George Martin, Elvis Costello, or Radiohead‘s producer Nigel Godrich, or write a symphony, or bare his soul when his partner was murdered or his second wife betrayed him.
Had the critics of 1976 known how much more music McCartney still had in him, they would have understood that you couldn’t be heavy all the time.
From the book Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers by Andrew Grant Jackson. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Grant Jackson. Published by Scarecrow Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.