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Political Bass: The Legacy of Paul McCartney’s Message Songs

Sir Paul isn’t the first Beatle that comes to mind when you think of protest anthems, but the 76-year-old has a surprisingly deep catalog of political tracks—including a few on his latest album

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If anyone still needed a primer on Paul McCartney 60 years after he, John, and George laid down their first tracks, this month’s Egypt Station, the 18th and latest studio album of McCartney’s solo career, wouldn’t be a bad pick for a first listen. At 76, McCartney has finally let himself go gray, but he’s never needed dye to seem younger than his years; more than a decade after recording his own elegy, he’s active, vital, and viral, flitting from Fallon to Maron and selling out a stadium somewhere near you. On his first studio release in five years, and his first ever to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard chart, he’s similarly restless and, worn voice aside, resisting senescence: Except for his classical records and his collaborations with Youth, it’s his second-longest non-soundtrack album (after 2001’s Driving Rain), and it features two tracks that fall somewhere on the thirstiness scale between “Press” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?,” which could have been embarrassing if both the songs and the singer weren’t so silly and infectiously fun.

Egypt Station’s 16 tracks evoke the vast McCatalog without ever appearing to pilfer from it. If “clapping,” “foot stamping,” “ankle bells,” and “bird recording” count, McCartney is credited with producing 25 separate sounds on the album, hearkening back to his self-titled DIY days in the aftermaths of his famous bands’ breakups. The collage-looking art, pulled from his own palette, is reminiscent of Ram’s, and the representative array of rockers, acoustic cuts, and piano-backed ballads culminates in two vintage McCartney medleys, much like the lengthy record-closers on Red Rose Speedway and Venus and Mars (as well as one earlier album that’s a bit better known). As he has throughout his career, and especially since his solo sales started to slacken, McCartney chose to work with partners who’ve pushed him toward a more modern sound — in this case, producers du jour Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia, Beck, Chvrches) and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran), the latter of whom presides over the cheeky, corny, catchy-in-spite-of-itself single “Fuh You.” If there’s a bit of backward guitar, a snippet of sitar, and a few “yeah yeahs” along the almost-hour-long whistle-stop tour, it’s not so much because McCartney is consciously trying to mimic his earlier eras as it is because he’s still making the same sort of music, mostly with welcome results.

There’s one other box on the ex-Beatle’s album bingo card that Egypt Station checks off: the “message” song. Never McCartney’s métier, the message song is still a staple of his work, and Egypt Station contains two new examples: “People Want Peace,” a plea for — well, what does it sound like? — and “Despite Repeated Warnings,” a tsk-tsk to Trump-era climate-change denialism. One can’t quite call them protest songs, although they’re both attempts to say something political. Really, though, they’re Paul-itical, evincing a kind of commentary that’s familiar to McCartney’s fans: critical without being confrontational, referring to real-life events without calling out particular parties, and veering close to sensitive subjects without running the risk of offense. They’re the latest entries in a surprisingly long line of message songs — some successful, some forgettable, and some kind of cringey — that won’t appear on any compilation of McCartney’s classics but have nonetheless shaped how he’s perceived by the public. In comparison to more rabble-rousing ’60s icons, including John Lennon, McCartney’s less outspoken and somewhat self-effacing style makes him seem insubstantial, more “Listen to What the Man Said” than “Stick it to the Man.” But while McCartney, who’s morphed from Cute Beatle to adorable grandad, is deservedly celebrated more for his melodies than his message, he’s persistently strayed far from silly love songs even as he’s kept his concerts apolitical and his persona nonthreatening enough to be beloved by all — a difficult balance to strike when one is world-famous in a time as hyperpartisan and turbulent as 2018.

That balance wasn’t any easier, or the Beatles’ bassist any less famous, in a time as turbulent as 1968, when the lineage of McCartney message songs arguably began. When one thinks of message songs by the Beatles, Lennon compositions likely come to mind: “Revolution,” perhaps, or “All You Need Is Love,” the latter of which Lennon later lumped together with “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” in proclaiming, “I’m a revolutionary artist. My art is dedicated to change.” The Beatles had taken a stand against audience segregation earlier in the ’60s, but then, too, Lennon had tended to be the Beatle making public pronouncements; in 1964, he said, “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now.” McCartney, meanwhile, had forgotten that the band wrote its refusal to play segregated concerts into its contracts until researchers turned up the documents while working on Ron Howard’s 2016 Beatles doc Eight Days a Week, a discovery that McCartney called “very cool.”

McCartney has neither the revolutionary résumé nor the temerity to portray himself as an artist whose output is “dedicated to change,” but he may have made a statement of sorts in 1968 with “Blackbird,” although one wouldn’t necessarily have known it when the White Album came out. In a 1997 authorized biography, Barry Miles’s Many Years From Now, McCartney claimed that “Blackbird” was inspired by the civil-rights movement and that the “bird” (British slang for “girl”) symbolized an oppressed black woman, an origin story he soon started repeating in concert. Because he hadn’t publicly said so in the ’60s, it sounded like revisionist history, but receipts exist: On a tape of McCartney and Donovan recorded during the 1968 sessions for Mary Hopkin’s Postcard LP, McCartney can be heard joking that he’d played the song for Diana Ross and that she’d taken offense to his use of “bird.” He then clarifies that he’s kidding. “But I did mean it like that originally,” he adds, explaining that he’d “read something in the paper about the riots.”

In a 2002 interview, McCartney told DJ Chris Douridas that only recently had he “remembered why I’d written ‘Blackbird,’” which explains why he hadn’t discussed the song’s inspiration before. Strange as it sounds, McCartney seemingly wrote a civil-rights song and then forgot that it was one, which may say something either about the subordinate role that politics have played in his process or the amount of weed he was smoking (or possibly both). Once forgotten, the song’s ties to current events were easy to overlook; it’s not exactly “Southern Man.” “As is often the case with my things, a veiling took place, so rather than say ‘black woman living in Little Rock’ and be very specific, she became a bird, became symbolic, so you could apply it to your particular problem,” McCartney said in Many Years From Now.

The best of McCartney’s message songs — and, for that matter, most artists’ message songs — are the ones where the message is subtle and somehow disguised. “Strange Fruit” made use of metaphor; “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” didn’t directly reference racism; “Joe Hill” didn’t mention “unions” or explicitly instruct the audience to organize. They all let the listener do some of the work. An on-the-nose anthem might serve in certain circumstances, but it had better be as angry and cathartic as “Masters of War.” Raw, righteous rage isn’t a gear that McCartney, who specializes in what Lennon called “the pretty stuff,” can comfortably shift into, and for a time, he didn’t try.

“Get Back,” McCartney’s second-to-last single as a Beatle, began life as an anti-anti-immigrant song, but at the start of his solo years, McCartney’s music embraced the rock equivalent of “sticking to sports.” On Ram’s Too Many People,” he sang, “Too many people preaching practices,” a critique of Lennon’s activism; on “Wild Life,” the eponymous track from Wings’ debut album, he wailed, “You’re breathing a lot of political nonsense in the air.” But McCartney soon opted for the polar opposite of keeping quiet (or staying subtle) in penning the most overtly political protest of his career. On January 29, 1972, McCartney met with Lennon in New York, where the pair of feuding friends agreed to stop sniping publicly about the Beatles’ breakup. The next day, January 30, was Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers in Northern Ireland shot 28 unarmed civilians (half of whom died) during a peaceful protest march. McCartney, temporarily radicalized by his hobnobbing with Lennon in Greenwich Village, immediately wrote a response and recorded it with Wings on February 1.

“Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was released as the band’s first single before the end of the month. “I’m not really a controversial person,” McCartney said in a syndicated interview in December ’72, explaining that he had “merely wanted to get over how I felt about the Irish thing” — namely, that “I like the Irish … and the violence was getting a little too close to our own front door.” In a 1974 Rolling Stone interview, McCartney said that before Bloody Sunday, he’d thought, “‘God, John’s crackers, doing all these political songs,’” adding, “I always used to think it’s still cool to not say anything about it, because it’s not going to sell anyway and no one’s gonna be interested.” Much later, he recalled, “I wasn’t really into protest songs — John had done that — but this time I felt that I had to write something, to use my art to protest.”

The song, which sold poorly by his standards, was banned by the BBC, but as BBC DJ John Peel said at the time, “the act of banning it is a much stronger political act than the contents of the record itself.” Strangely upbeat and, well, Wings-sounding for a song inspired by a slaughter, the single was also shallow lyrically, reflecting both how quickly it came together and, perhaps, some self-consciousness on the part of a writer who wasn’t accustomed to singing on a soapbox. The instrumental version is better, partly because it’s free of lines like these:

Great Britain you are tremendous
And nobody knows like me
But really what are you doing
In the land across the sea

Compare that to a verse from Lennon’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which appeared on his and Yoko Ono’s album Some Time in New York City later that year:

You Anglo pigs and Scotties
Sent to colonize the north
You wave your bloody Union Jacks
And you know what it’s worth!
How dare you hold on to ransom
A people proud and free
Keep Ireland for the Irish
Put the English back to sea!

That was one of two Lennon numbers about Ireland on the album. The other, “The Luck of the Irish,” also wiped the floor with Wings in wordplay, delivery, and lyrical conviction.

A thousand years of torture and hunger
Drove the people away from their land
A land full of beauty and wonder
Was raped by the British brigands! Goddamn! Goddamn!

It’s important to point out that Some Time in New York City was the weakest album of Lennon’s career, a critical and commercial flop that put politics over songcraft. Writing in Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden said, “The tunes are shallow and derivative and the words little more than sloppy nursery rhymes.” On his next album, Mind Games, Lennon retreated from politics, although not quite as completely as McCartney did; ironically, an actual nursery rhyme would be Wings’ next single, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which didn’t earn McCartney any critical cred, either. According to McCartney, the choice of single was not, as some had speculated, a response to the previous BBC ban, but a tribute to his daughter Mary. In 2001, a grown-up Mary produced a documentary called Wingspan about her father’s post-Beatles band, which came out in conjunction with the Wingspan greatest-hits collection. McCartney intended the collection to include “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” but he acquiesced to EMI’s request to omit it, not wanting to be seen as supporting IRA violence. Nursery rhymes are simple; politics can be complicated.

“Ireland” single aside, McCartney’s early post-Beatles life didn’t often find him in “angry young man” mode. On one occasion, a ram butted one of McCartney’s kids on their family farm in Scotland, prompting a reprisal from Paul. “The animal in me said, ‘How bloody dare you! Right, mate!’ and I had a go at him,” he later recalled. In 1972, his posh London neighbors, apparently unappeased by his sheepdog’s contribution to the Beatles songbook, complained about barking, allegedly leaving McCartney a note that was returned to sender with what the AP called “a crudely scrawled, four-letter-word reply.” “They’re all mad around here,” McCartney said. “They’re a load of colonels — I don’t care what they say.” In 1976, he stood up for his right to keep singing silly love songs, which gave him his 27th no. 1 hit. In 1979, he helped organize the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea; Wings performed, but they left “Silly Love Songs” out of their set.

McCartney’s 28th (and second-to-last) no. 1 was 1982’s pro-racial-harmony duet with Stevie Wonder, “Ebony and Ivory.” The song would eventually be banned in apartheid-era South Africa after Wonder dedicated an Oscar win to Nelson Mandela. It might more justifiably have been banned for being among the most mawkish of McCartney’s songs, a pat and oft-parodied effort that undeniably has hooks but suffers from its strained keyboard comp and an excess of synths. (The B-side holds up better.) In the video for the duet, McCartney and Wonder ironically aren’t “side by side,” having filmed their parts separately; the video for the solo version clumsily comments on black incarceration, slightly touchier territory than the song itself strays into.

Pipes of Peace” (1983) and “We All Stand Together” (1984) extended McCartney’s mid-’80s run of catchy-but-borderline-saccharine songs about unity, a genre he successfully skirted through the rest of the decade. But the sequel to his 1989 “comeback” album Flowers in the Dirt, 1993’s Off the Ground, stands out as the most socially conscious collection of songs in McCartney’s career — and, perhaps not by coincidence, yielded so-so sales and reviews and no notable hits. “Looking for Changes” and B-side “Long Leather Coat” (cowritten with his late wife Linda) were anti-animal-cruelty anthems, championing a cause that became important to McCartney after his conversion to vegetarianism in the mid-’70s but hadn’t before made it into much of his music. (Another reason McCartney’s causes aren’t very divisive: Animals are cute, and no one really likes landmines.) An assortment of other Off the Ground songs — Hope of Deliverance,” “Peace in the Neighborhood,” “C’mon People” — yearned for a return to ’60s-style idealism and urged people to pull together. Some of the songs were overly long and others were overly earnest, although none were totally wince-worthy. But it was on a B-side, “Big Boys Bickering,” that McCartney caused his biggest stir since his response to Bloody Sunday.

“Big Boys Bickering” was written in reaction to President George H.W. Bush’s refusal to sign an ecological treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit. “It makes me angry that governments are the only elected representatives of the people, and yet they don’t do what the people who elected them want — and who wants a five-mile-wide hole in the sky?” McCartney said through a publicist. Uncharacteristically, he actually sounded angry on the song, dropping six f-bombs. Consequently, the song was banned by the BBC and some U.S. radio stations, and MTV banned the video.

An early-’90s news clip captures the controversy over the song and the cuddly McCartney’s foray into profanity.

The segment includes a clip of a canned interview that McCartney released, in which the then-50-year-old — who hadn’t even publicly resorted to swear words to describe Lennon’s killer, whom he’d labeled the “jerk of all jerks” — explained that he couldn’t pull his punches with the planet at stake. Later in the clip, DJ Pete Fornatale scolded “an artist of Paul McCartney’s stature” for uttering words that would be “scribbled on a subway wall,” even though Lennon had broken the seal when he worked blue on his first solo album in 1970. Finally, Rolling Stone’s Alan Light criticized the song as a publicity grab designed to counter McCartney’s soft image. The clip makes clear that because of his history, McCartney can’t win when he lets his anger out: Some listeners see the product as a desecration of his dignified image, while others interpret it as inauthentic.

In 1992, the same year “Big Boys Bickering” was banned, McCartney recorded the lilting “Calico Skies,” which included the lines, “May we never be called to handle / All the weapons of war we despise.” McCartney called it “a gentle love song that becomes a 1960s protest song.” But four years after “Calico Skies” came out on 1997’s Flaming Pie, McCartney conceived a song that seemed to depart from his typical pacifistic stance: “Freedom.”

McCartney wrote “Freedom” on September 12, 2001, the day after he witnessed the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center from the window of a plane, which was sitting on the tarmac at JFK. He performed it at the Concert for New York City in October, released it as a single on November 5 (with the proceeds going to the families of 9/11 victims), and played it live again before Super Bowl XXXVI. There’s a clip of McCartney from before the Concert for New York City, introducing “Freedom” to Eric Clapton, who would play lead on the studio version. “I’ve written another little song,” he says sheepishly.

The title and editing are unkind to McCartney, making it seem as if Clapton is humoring him and giving the video the look of a cross between Spinal Tap and David Brent singing “Free Love Freeway.” (McCartney’s brief vocal impression of Harvey Weinstein doesn’t help, in light of later events.) But one can hear his apprehension as he discusses debuting the song, which has no nuance and which he admits that Mick Jagger had doubts about. Musically, it’s a simplistic, Lennonesque anthem, but it talks tough, declaring, “I will fight for the right / To live in freedom,” and that “Anyone tries to take it away / They’ll have to answer.”

In the emotional aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the song’s slightly jingoistic sentiment seemed fitting. But McCartney later said that the song “got hijacked” (phrasing!), explaining, “it got a bit of a militaristic meaning attached itself to it, and you found Mr. Bush using that kind of idea rather a lot in [a way] I felt altered the meaning of the song.” Asked in a 2009 interview whether he’d allowed his “passion to overrun” in the wake of 9/11, McCartney confessed, “Definitely, yes.”

Perhaps chastened by that experience, McCartney mostly stayed away from message songs and sentiments in the years between “Freedom” and Egypt Station. On an October weekend in 2004, McCartney played back-to-back charity shows at the more radical Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit. After finishing “Let It Be” at the Saturday show, he added, “Here’s a thought. Let it be Kerry!” The audience responded with scattered applause. When he repeated the line at the Sunday show, though, a segment of the crowd booed audibly, and McCartney backed off, putting up his hands. “All right,” he said. “It was just a thought.” Six years later, when McCartney went to the White House to get the Gershwin Prize from President Obama, he threw a late jab at Bush. “After the last eight years, it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is,” McCartney said. House Minority Leader John Boehner demanded an apology, which McCartney didn’t deliver.

In December 2008, a number of outlets ran misleading excerpts from an upcoming interview with McCartney in Protest Magazine. The headlines seemed to quote McCartney claiming that he, not Lennon, had “politicized the Beatles.” In the actual interview, he said nothing of the sort. “A Political Paul,” its title reads, although the URL, as if hesitant to present Paul in a political light, compresses the title to “apoliticalpaul.” “I do not have a massive program, a mission,” McCartney said within, adding, “There is a danger of you looking like a man with a mission; it starts to separate you from people.” He went on to explain that he can’t clutter his head with causes, because “there has to be a big empty bit in my head that tunes can fall into.” On The Tonight Show earlier this month, he seemed to say something similar when another entertainer who’s been labeled a lightweight, the almost offensively inoffensive Jimmy Fallon, admiringly asked him, “How do you stay cool with everything?” McCartney thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said. “You just have to, so you do.”

Despite his fortune and notoriety, McCartney rides the train alone (in economy class), shares his stress dreams, and prefers to drive himself because, as he said in a new GQ interview, “I feel like a Lord Mayor when I’m being driven.” Perhaps there’s a performative element to McCartney’s everyman persona, but considering how long he’s lived in the public eye, the performance may match the reality; as he sings on Egypt Station’s last track, “I’ve been naked for so long, so long” (literally). Plus, he’s rich enough not to need to be phony. If that desire to mingle with the masses is genuine, it must make it harder to hold his opinions above theirs just because people keep putting microphones in front of his face. “I wouldn’t want someone to be bossing me, saying, ‘You should be a Buddhist,’” he said in 2010. “I’d say, ‘Lay off, I’ll make my own mind up, thank you!’ Similarly, I don’t want to go laying it on people — ‘You really should be vegetarian.’ I like them to come to it themselves.” On a fundamental level, McCartney doesn’t want to be a bother. The same ethos presumably applies to talking politics, which he does from time to time in interviews but rarely will when making music.

In 2009, McCartney sounded disillusioned with European politics; in 2016, he admitted to being confused and undecided about Brexit, and he didn’t cast a vote. (Ringo didn’t either, although he did pick a position.) Later that year, McCartney posed with Hillary Clinton, although Clinton’s camp was cagey about whether he’d officially endorsed her. In his latest interview, he said he’s tried to tune out Trump (for whom he’s had harsh words) for his own peace of mind: “Boycott’s the only answer, I think.” But reluctantly, he wrote about him and his ilk, because, he explained, “Sometimes the situation in the world is so crazy that you’ve got to address it.” The resulting track, “Despite Repeated Warnings” — a top-tier McCartney message song — doesn’t mention Trump by name, like Lennon did “Tricky Dicky” in “Gimme Some Truth.” Even in a video about the song, McCartney doesn’t get more specific about its subject than “certain politicians,” although the song itself includes the line, “Grab the keys and lock him up.” But the barely buried symbolism should serve the song well; if it doesn’t name names, it won’t sound dated or need a rewrite when the next “crazy captain” comes along.

Lennon, one imagines, would have listed and lambasted every politician he deplored, just like he listed all the idols he’d dismissed in “God.” But McCartney was the one who sang, “It’s getting better all the time,” while Lennon was the one who responded, “It couldn’t get much worse.” (The admittedly abusive Lennon also seemingly did much more than McCartney to make it worse for many around him.) Maybe that’s the difference; McCartney is an artist whose hope for the future has always outstripped his fear of the present. Within the GQ interview, McCartney said that compared to Lennon, “I’m more careful in everything. My dad is a very strong factor in this. He was an ordinary working-class guy, very intelligent, very good with words, but his whole philosophy was to think it out a bit. So that turned out to be my sort of way. … He was always spouting to be tolerant. Moderation. These were words he used a lot, and I think I listened.” “People want peace” is another phrase of his father’s, which McCartney repurposed for the title of Egypt Station’s other message song.

“People Want Peace,” which was inspired by a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, opens with a direct address to the audience, à la “Sgt. Pepper’s,” that encapsulates McCartney’s hit-or-miss message-song style.

Ladies and gentlemen
I’m standing before you with something important to say
With some trepidation I crave your attention but
I’m not gonna let anything get in my way
The message is simple, it’s straight from my heart
And I know that you’ve heard it before
But what does it matter, we’re in it together
And I’m not quitting while people are crying for more

In the span of a single verse, McCartney hesitates to say “something important,” psyches himself up to proceed, and acknowledges that he isn’t saying anything new. We’re left to wonder whether a message so trite can possibly still be important, and what would get in his way: People who don’t want peace, or people who are sick of aging rock stars singing songs about it.

McCartney may not be as brilliant a lyricist as he is a maker of melodies, and when he consciously sets out to say something, his normally natural gifts sometimes start to seem effortful. But he’s managed to say something emotional, meaningful, and universal about a host of significant subjects: breakups (“Yesterday,” “For No One”), love (“Here, There, and Everywhere,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”), loneliness (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Another Day”), Lennon (“Dear Friend,” “Here Today”), aging (“Lonely Old People,” “Footprints”), comfort (“Hey Jude,” “Let It Be”), loss (“Little Willow,” “Jenny Wren”), parenthood (“Put It There”), misunderstanding (“The Fool on the Hill”). In recent years, he’s increasingly looked inward and revealed vulnerabilities — not Rocky Raccoon’s or Eleanor Rigby’s or Lovely Rita’s, but Paul McCartney’s, as he does on “I Don’t Know,” an Egypt Station single. But on the whole, he’s happy and he knows it, and sometimes he has to clap his hands. Whether sappy or serious, he’s been better than anyone else alive at making music that people like to listen to, which brings benefits of its own.

A few days before his death, Lennon condescended to say about his former bandmate, “If he wants to, he can think,” the kind of cutting comment that the less judgmental McCartney mostly doesn’t make. If McCartney were wired a different way, he might release a levitating Trump pig at his concerts, like Roger Waters, or pump out protest albums on an annual basis, like Young. But it’s hard to imagine a more mind-opening or uplifting experience than the three-hour outpouring of affection that already greets him and reverberates back to the crowd whenever he and his band roll through, even if — or maybe because — he’s rarely preaching practices. The problem with preaching practices, especially in a hyperpartisan period, is that it often ends up as preaching to the choir. McCartney is still singing to everyone. And as he asked in the ’70s, “What’s wrong with that?”

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