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7 Moody McCartney Marvels

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While perhaps most often characterized (or even sometimes dismissed) as the cheerful Beatle, known for songs of optimism and resiliency like “Penny Lane,” “We Can Work it Out,” and “Good Day Sunshine,” some of Paul McCartney’s strongest compositions are those that sprang from a much darker place. Listeners are no doubt quite familiar with some of these, including “Let it Be,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and, of course, “Yesterday.” The seven pieces described below provide further evidence, however, that Macca is much more than simply the composer of silly love songs.

#7 “That Day is Done” (Flowers in the Dirt, 1989) Apparently a cry of regret from beyond the grave, this doleful and mysterious song describes the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with the fact that he has broken a covenant. Images of his impotence are repeated throughout the piece, and while the listener can ultimately only guess at the cryptic meaning of the song, it is a powerful reminder of McCartney’s ability to convey the loneliness and desperation of the human condition.

Related: “‘Flowers In The Dirt’: An Appreciation”

#6 “Jenny Wren” (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005) Along with “Michelle,” “Little Willow,” and “Eleanor Rigby,” this song is another example of McCartney’s considerable skill as a portraitist. Loosely based on the character from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend, “Jenny Wren” succinctly identifies the source for both the loss and the renewal of inspiration. Pedro Eustache’s pensive duduk solo precedes the song’s final verses, where McCartney introduces hope, both for our broken world, and for Jenny, one of the few able to understand and surmount life’s challenges.

#5 “You Won’t See Me” (Rubber Soul, 1965) Often overlooked on an album full of classic songs about women, this composition details McCartney’s frustrations with his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. Longer and more developed than many of Paul’s previous songs, it portrays his gradual recognition that since communications have broken down and precious opportunities have been squandered, the relationship may be in its death throes.

#4 I’m Down” (single, 1965) The Beatles closed many of their concerts with this shouter, McCartney’s homage to Little Richard, whose “Long Tall Sally” had previously concluded many of their performances. There is nothing so disconcerting to a young man as being pushed away and laughed at, and, both in its lyrics and performance, “I’m Down” powerfully captures these twin blows to youth’s pride. McCartney’s closing vocal gymnastics may provide partial catharsis.

#3 “The Fool on the Hill” (Magical Mystery Tour, 1967) McCartney’s strongest contribution to the ill-fated film is another wonderful character study. Like both Lennon’s “Nowhere Man” and his own “Eleanor Rigby,” the fool is both isolated and lonely. But there is a certain pride to the fool’s stance, a strength that indicates he is comfortable in his own skin and content to watch the world go round and round, detached though he may be from its inhabitants and the mainstream. Rather than frustration, the man with the foolish grin instead shows great resolve. One feels his creator approves and understands the grounds for his secret smile.

#2 “The Long and Winding Road” (Let it Be, 1970) Though it may well have contributed to the song becoming a #1 hit, Phil Spector’s elaborate arrangement earned McCartney’s lasting ire. Clearly the orchestration lends the piece a more sentimental tone than the composer intended. The production cheapens the strength of the stark plea which forms the song’s center. A lost soul, the forsaken narrator seeks reassurance; McCartney’s phrase “let me know the way” has an almost biblical feel to it. This is a man in pain, who, at song’s end, is left still wondering if any door remains open to him.

#1 “For No One” (Revolver, 1966)  If another song of frustration inspired by Jane Asher, “For No One” is presented in a more stately and restrained manner than “You Won’t See Me.” McCartney’s brilliant use of the second person aptly portrays the contrast between the reactions of the song’s two lovers and may have provided him the distance necessary to express his bafflement and eventual resignation. The simple piano accompaniment and Alan Civil’s French horn lend a controlled feel to the song, and one suspects that the composer is striving to match Jane Asher’s apparent sense of detachment with a certain iciness of his own.

-Paul Jenkins

Photo: Paul McCartney (Getty Images)

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11 comments on “7 Moody McCartney Marvels

  1. Excellent article!
    I have long been a fan of Sir Paul, and your article strengthens my feelings.
    His compositions, on ALL of his recordings show the depth of talent, melody and performance throughout his career.

  2. Tex McFinn

    Good to see “For No One” getting some recognition — perhaps my most favorite McCartney tune of all.

  3. Great list, Paul. But I think you missed one that would usurp most of these – “I Don’t Know” from Egypt Station. Pretty damned moody, and pretty damned perfect.

  4. Paul is far deeper than his persona suggests.

    John knew that, or he wouldn’t have bonded with him.

    We still miss John. To learn how his murder could have been prevented, read the Op/Ed at safercountry.org/blog. We can still save others.

  5. WilltheThrill Nastali

    Happiness is a Warm Gun should’ve made the list!

  6. Russ MacKechnie

    Sorry, Paul, but a major omission‑‑-and one that should be near if not at the top of your list: “Biker Like an Icon” from the 1993 album Off the Ground. Have you ever listened to the lyrics? Just think about what happened to that poor biker groupie at the end of the song. Not just “moody.” Positively dark.

  7. I just replayed the “naked version” of “The Long and Winding Road” on YouTube, the one with the Spector orchestration stripped out. You’re right, it is more melancholy and powerful.

  8. A great list and happy to see it covers several decades of his compositions. I always thought the French horn on For No One was the perfect touch and gives me chills every time. Would love to know the photo credit for the swoonworthy photo of Paul at the top of this article!

  9. Roberta karp

    That day is Done is one of my favorites. It is eerie and mysterious and I guess I will never be able to figure it out. Another amazing song, though not moody is Calico Skies. His simply beautiful love song to Linda. Take a listen again. Paul’s talent is unmatchable.

  10. Excellent article and I personally concur with the list (of course there are so many more, we all know this- but this is Paul McCartney after all…)

    One of the things that struck me was the rapid maturity and poignancy of Macca’s writing during the Beatles years (he was 24 when he wrote For No One 24!!! GOoD GRIEF!!!) Having always loved that song, it took on a very knife’s edge meaning when I went through a divorce in my 30s and the true genius of the depth of For No One was brutally apparent. This of course is the hallmark of a timeless classic- anyone can identify with it on an almost physiological level – and it never goes out of style.

    A couple quibbles (as a nerd level Beatleophile)
    Several interviews and articles I’ve read confirm that:
    1) Fool on the Hill was autobiographical. Paul was starting to feel the alienation from his Beatle brothers at the time if it’s composition – the others were all married (or meeting Yoko), becoming less concerned with the Beatles machine, and Paul, the hard working one, would try to keep everyone to task – which started to irritate the others. Paul could see (on his hill) what was coming – the pop and music world spinning round and round and they were going to fall if they didn’t keep up. He could only watch as the “sun went down”.

    I always assumed For No One was about his impending breakup with Jane Asher as well, but in a couple more recent interviews he revealed it was actually more directly pulled from memories about a much earlier love interest – being a gentleman he doesn’t reveal her name, but based on the time he insinuated it was probably Dot Rhone. That’s not to say he didn’t blend in his current strife with Asher for emotional content, but the ‘story’ seemed to come from the other time in his life.

    Thank you for this article!!

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