A lesser Paul McCartney track prompts some deeper Beatles-related thoughts at Popular.

Paul McCartney, “Pipes Of Peace”, 14 January 1984

Curious, really, that I never really latched onto this song, because I’d already had my first brush with the Beatles via a singles compilation released six months earlier, but the full-blown obsession really only took off later in 1984 when a friend taped me the White Album. I never even bought this album, which doesn’t seem any great loss, because I can’t see it standing up to 1968-vintage Paul; and yet somehow I ended up owning Give My Regards to Broad Street, which doesn’t stand up to Paul of almost any vintage.

“Pipes of Peace” strikes me now as standard solo McCartney fare, with musical call-backs to past glories (the faux mellotron) sitting alongside contemporary flourishes (is that R2D2 whistling a few notes?), all propping up a workmanlike tune. I can’t really get excited about it, unlike some other solo-Macca moments before and since. A middling 5.

I quite like the video, though, which is another I’m pretty sure I’d never seen. He should have forgotten about Broad Street and made McCartney Goes Forth.

It suddenly strikes me that I’m almost exactly the age Paul was when this hit number one. Oh God, now I’m going to have one of those what-had-you-done-by-this-age moments. He wrote workmanlike number ones, and I’m writing workmanlike blog comments.

Comments from others prompted further reflection...

This all makes me think again about the “Beatles-nut stage” that lasted for me from 1984–88. For those of us who weren’t around or old enough in the 1960s or ’70s to enjoy the Beatles first-hand, or even to appreciate the best of their 1970s solo work, there was a real sense in the early-to-mid-’80s of having missed the boat. There were (and still are) two ways of dealing with that: ignore the Beatles altogether, dismissing them as irrelevant to today’s musical concerns (and depending on your musical subgenre of choice, that may largely be true), or immerse yourself completely, as a way of making them part of your world. Our mums and dads might have been there, but they didn’t have Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions to pore over, which I spent much of the summer of ’87-’88 doing; they hadn’t read the same minutiae about the Fabs’ lives in a dozen different doorstop biographies; they hadn’t heard every track; and they’d probably lost interest after Imagine and Band on the Run, if not Let it Be. So we could catch up and overtake them, become more-Beatles-than-thou, just by studying hard—which a certain breed of teen/young adult has both the time and inclination to do.

After Lennon’s death, this was the only way to imagine and immerse oneself into a world where the Beatles themselves still existed, rather than just their legacy; throughout the 1970s, the Beatles weren’t just history, they were potentially the future, because there was always a chance they might reform. That dream was well over by ’84—we’d tidied away the Tug of Wars and the “All Those Years Ago”s—and until Lewisohn’s landmark book we didn’t realize that there could and would be a second coming in the form of the Anthologies. All that was left was the past, along with whatever new solo music emerged.

But new solo music carried risks for the nascent Beatles nut. If it was too “now” (1984, 1986) it would break the 1960s and 1970s spell that we were trying so hard to weave over ourselves. If it was too obviously “then” too soon, it would risk coming off as try-hard and inauthentic, which is why Broad Street was such a naff project for McCartney to attempt in 1984. The 1990s were so much more satisfying for the Beatles latecomer: the Anthologies were new, they were now, but they were then as well. They were ours (the young CD-buying public) more than they were theirs (our parents’ generation, apart from the subset who had maintained their fervour for three decades).

McCartney seems to have realised this by the late 1980s, when he recorded his much-heralded Flowers in the Dirt collaboration with Elvis Costello, an attempt to create a sound that built on his 1960s/1970s pop moment, rather than other people’s 1980s pop moments, without being an explicit homage to his past work. If he’d pulled it off it could have been one of his finest hours, but Flowers always felt a bit cold and distant to me (I much preferred Off the Ground, oddly enough). The one who really cracked the formula was George Harrison, tentatively with Cloud Nine and definitively with The Traveling Wilburys—a bunch of 1960s and 1970s rockers coming together as a new band creating new music that was definitely of its time, but which carried all sorts of pleasing connotations for the nostalgically inclined (and for latecomer Beatle nuts). Mind you, McCartney almost got there first with Rockestra on Back to the Egg, but that pudding was over-egged and under-cooked: too many musicians, on too few tracks, ten years too soon.

Too soon, Paul, too soon. Too soon in 1979 for Rockestra, too soon in 1984 for this “All You Need is Love”-revisited with its mellotrons harking back to Magical Mystery Tour. You had to give us time to study.

It did go to number one, though, so what do I know.

(I can’t say I listen to the Anthologies much anymore, although the odd track turns up on shuffle on the iPod. But like other albums that I once had on high rotation, I don’t really feel the need, I know them that well. So much of the Anthologies was so revelatory at the time that it infected my sense of the originals, creating new personal Platonic forms of “Strawberry Fields” and “Across the Universe” and so on... actually, I think the Anthology “Across the Universe” is its Platonic form.)

27 July 2009 · Music