Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Tomorrow Never Knows: The Private Music of Paul McCartney

Be prepared to be shocked. Paul McCartney considered as an avant-garde musician? As usual, truth is stranger than fiction, and certainly more interesting than myth. Thrillington, recorded in 1971, was merely the second of several secret identities that McCartney cleverly used to further his creative ambitions while still delivering the bright and shiny pop goods we have all come to identify with his illustrious name. The first persona was the world famous Sergeant Pepper, the second was Percy Thrillington, the third was the relatively unknown and more recent Fireman: all are reflections of the complicated artistic world of this highly innovative and experimental musician. Yes, that’s right, Paul is experimental. Even Thrillington, an orchestral concurrent rendition of his complete 1971 Ram album under a completely fictional composer’s name, is, in its own quirky way, a totally avant-garde experiment in anti-pop.

But he’s even far more innovative than you might imagine, given that most of his most adventurous work has either been done in secret or has been held back for a variety of reasons, both legal and commercial.The time is thus long overdue for a fresh and critical reassessment of the avant-side of McCartney and his solo music, along with an in-depth appreciation for the almost unknown creatively daring side to this profoundly successful popular musician.

A reassessment of McCartney also has the parallel side effect of reconsidering John Lennon, and determining just who was the cutting-edge composer and cultural risk-taker between them. There is really no contest. Both were geniuses but only one of them was and is truly comfortable being a genius, and that was Paul.

McCartney has been unfairly labelled a commercial sell-out over the years due to the scintillating perfection of his admittedly perfect pop songs, and this has occurred at the expense of his other secret side, the side that was a far more accomplished experimental artist than his late addled partner could ever hope to be.

In fact, John Lennon’s own famous tape loop experiments in musique concrète (“Revolution #9” from The Beatles' White Album, for instance) were pale solipsistic imitations of McCartney’s much more confident excursions, with which he prepared a context for the source material from the BBC library that Lennon would later toy with after staying up too late one year. Someone had too much to think last night.

Indeed, many of their innovations together, such as the rushing tape reversals on “Rain,” the wonky guitars on “Taxman,” even the loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and of course the Pepper excursions, to name but a few, were all generated by the open confidence of McCartney and not by the notorious insecurities of his brilliant but disturbed partner. It was McCartney who firmly believed that taking chances was part of his job description, even as a Beatle and definitely since then, though much of his most interesting work was overlooked by a huge public for the more appetizing feel-good material that he himself helped create.

Lennon spent most of his precious time attempting to catch up to and surpass his partner’s obvious penchant for pushing the artistic envelope, his Ono alliance being only the most blatant attempt to do so. Few people Lennon encountered would ever catch a glimpse the soft soul crushed under that hard shell of his. Two people who did both feel it and fully appreciate it would later become his first songwriting partner and his second wife. It gives the term love triangle a whole new meaning.

Like so many others, I fell for the myth that Lennon was the experimental half of the legendary partnership, and indeed many of his songs were on the edge of a certain sonic border. But his was a personal and social radicalism, and it was one that became entangled in the same sad web as all his other precious gifts. I was a victim of this mythical Lennon hoax right up until about 2008, when my good friend and fellow music journalist Kevin Courrier woke me up by playing me a little McCartney gem called Twin Freaks, from 2005, and also some of the earlier and extremely uncharacteristic bootlegged material from his second solo album in 1980. "What the . . .?," I recall saying back then.

Yet surprisingly to some, myself included at first, it was always McCartney who had the deep prior knowledge of serious new contemporary music required to even dream of incorporating it into his rock or pop music, let alone explore its outer limits authentically, as he did in his later orchestral compositions.

It was McCartney who knew and loved the new music compositions of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, a sonic landscape that no other Beatle even wanted to visit briefly. In fact, George Harrison’s typically cheeky response was “I avant-garde a clue!” (Even though he did a solo voyage of his own on Electronic Sound, on Zapple in 1969.)

It appears there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind that believes the world is divided into two kinds of people, and the kind that doesn’t. But often, whether we like it or not, those two inevitably find each other. McCartney was half of one kind of person, Lennon was half of another kind. And then, each of them had their secret sides. One was just more obvious about it than the other.

His best-known recent innovations definitely need to be re-examined in the context of his astonishing collaborations within The Beatles format. Rock’n’roll, that remarkable black American invention, was already inherently dissonant and, along with jazz and blues, represents what could be seen as an artistic rejection of classicism. But McCartney, by reinventing its traditions, would push rock to an exquisite limit that transformed it forever. He then went on to explore the much less commercial realms far outside those early pop traditions.

While Lennon was the revolutionary person, McCartney was the revolutionary artist, and since he was relatively healthy and hugely happy with his genius instead of being fixated, potentially in the closet and as misanthropic as John appeared to be, he therefore thrived. Yet ironically, they also each had two fully developed but split sides of themselves, one of which they submerged and sublimated in order to collaborate with their partners in that swift magic they were capable of creating, but only together.

Sometimes I wonder which is the real world and which is the imagined one in these songs. But more importantly, both kinds of songs are only made possible through the active agency of the other partner, even if only one or the other is considered the official author of the song itself.

This essay is all about that secret side. It’s a side celebrated in certain albums, and hidden away in others, so therefore it is through the ongoing recorded body of work that we can best trace these secret tendencies. The creative arc both begins and ends with "Carnival of Light," a composition which The Beatles refused to let him release under their group name when he created it in 1967, so experimental was it, even to their own somewhat advanced ears. Created at the same time as my favourite Beatle song “Penny Lane,” it was also obviously a long time before Lennon’s later collaborative work with the legitimately avant-garde Yoko Ono.

McCartney only allowed all the rough edges of his conception to be memorialized in the music on his first three solo efforts from 1970 to 1973. In retrospect, this was very Jack White-like of him. The mid-career maturity phase is ironically also one of mid-life crisis, reflected in the abstract edges and slightly punk-edgy urges of McCartney II, in 1980. His label would not let him release McCartney II as he designed it, a demanding double record of considerable scope and scale, because the second disc was so utterly experimental that, they explained, "this was not the Paul that people want to hear," and surprisingly he caved in.

He does like to please, of course. But a big part of him also likes to let his musical mind go wandering where it will go. Yet look where his mind goes if he lets it, or if we let him. “And the fireman rushes in, from the pouring rain, very strange . . .," he cryptically sang in “Penny Lane.” No one knew who or what The Fireman was back in 1993 when McCartney used one of his favourite motifs, donning the mask of an alter ego within which he might go further than he could by himself, or perhaps more importantly, as himself, in order to collaborate with a gifted young producer-wizard (Youth) and reinvent himself as a dance-mix master. For Paul it must have been just another form of Pepper-like sound collage after all, a stylistic device that has long absorbed him. That very randomness of his current free form band is the element he most cherishes about it. 

Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest (1993) was particularly exhilarating before the media and public discovered who The Fireman wasFlaming Pie (1997) is one of the finest pieces of songwriting he has done in years, directly from his heart to you, in his most elegant of packages. It’s what he does best. But then he boldly followed up with both Rushes (1998), his second outing as The Fireman, a wordless and muscular dance experiment for people with alien hand syndrome, and Liverpool Sound Collage (2000), which harks back to his early tape experiments on Revolver and Pepper. McCartney rushes in, get it?

As a matter of fact, McCartney has often remarked that he’d like to release the album everyone is afraid of, the one called Paul Goes Too Far. One of the purposes of this essay is to encourage him do so. As a matter of fact, the subtitle to a recent release may well have used that tongue-in-cheek line quite seriously, except that for our purposes he has already gone just far enough, thank you.

The Fireman has three albums so far, including the latest one from December 2008. That record, Electric Arguments, was a brilliant return to form which merges the two sides of his character into an almost conventional rock-band format. But the music he has composed behind that persona mask is far from conventional. Contrary to his myth, McCartney always was and still is a shockingly innovative and dissonant contemporary artist. He just hides it so well behind that beatific smile.

In fact, I'm still amazed that McCartney hasn't yet sought out Jack White to play with him, since White is just about the only person capable of matching Lennon's wicked voice and matching his astonishing charisma. But that might yet come to pass. I think White could ably counteract with Paul and together they might make something exceptional and unexpected happen.

Several able music journalists have contributed important insights into the paradox that is Paul but they focused largely on the difficulty of a mass public ever accessing the more experimental side of the man they thought they knew so well. As such he remains an unknown enigma. I’m much more interested in the exotic fact that the artist himself created both the difficulty and the ensuing distance, as a means of creative survival and evolution, and as a method of escape from the burden of his historic persona.

Yes, it was the restlessly experimental McCartney who went on to so effortlessly express himself for forty-five more creatively compelling years as a solo artist, perfectly balancing both sides of his genius with a versatility nearly unheard of in the world of popular culture. We need to begin to appreciate the quieter but often even more volatile pathology of the solo artist at war with himself, and most importantly, how it was possible for McCartney to devise an artistic strategy that allowed both creative sides of himself, and all of us, to win. That, in the end, is what makes his overall musical and creative accomplishment unique and so special. He’s never really been about yesterday at all; it was always tomorrow. And as his late partner’s most compelling Revolver-song once opined, tomorrow never knows.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.


  1. This a courageously excellent commentary. In addition to spot on coverage of McCartney's career, the suggested collaboration with Jack White does sound like it would be promising.

  2. Great article indeed and about time, I bought Strawberries on clear vinyl and recall playing it at both 33 and 45 speed, Marcus