‘Paul McCartney & Wings’ (1977)

As 1977 dawned, Wings were – if you can forgive the timeworn pun – flying high. Soaring, in fact. On the back of three consecutive chart-topping albums and a seemingly endless barrage of hit singles, they had undertaken a triumphant year-long world tour, playing to around a million people. The resulting live album, Wings Over America, hit #1 in the US charts (one of only three triple-LP sets ever to do so) and made the top ten in most other countries.  Paul had achieved what many thought would be impossible after The Beatles, and conquered the music world a second time. This period was probably the commercial peak of his solo career, with Wings established as one of the biggest bands on the planet (and their most popular global single, ‘Mull of Kintyre’, was still to come). And this elite status was reflected in the fact that, even though the rock biography market was still in its infancy in the mid-70s, his group was the subject of not one, but two books that year. Both large format, hardback productions, both telling the story of the band’s inception and rise to the top, and both – rather confusingly – entitled Paul McCartney & Wings.

The one I picked up first, at some point in the mid-80s, was the one written by Jeremy Pascall. By the time I got it, Wings had long since disbanded as Paul decided to focus on solo ventures, and the band – like much of the ‘70s in general – had become something of a symbol of naffness. Swaddled in flared trousers, feather-cut hairstyles and double-necked guitars, and now best remembered for the aforementioned love-it-or-hate-it ‘Mull of Kintyre’, they were unhip as could be and well on the way to becoming Alan Partridge’s favourite group. In the shiny, sleek 1980s, even Paul seemed vaguely embarrassed  by his former act, telling Q Magazine in 1986: “I met a nurse recently who was a Wings fan!….an actual die-hard Wings fan. I didn’t think they existed.” But I didn’t care. For my teenage self, eager for information on the Fabs’ solo careers, this book was a bit of a goldmine. And, revisiting it recently, it still stands up fairly well today.

Sure, it’s not an in-depth biography that more discerning readers would expect today, with lots of fresh interviews and insights. It’s more like a quickie, commissioned by a publisher to cash in on someone’s sudden or large-scale success, the kind of volumes which became common in the 1980s and which you’ll still find in bargain bookshops today. A sort of basic introduction to an artist, if you like. It’s a cut-and-paste job, with the author scouring the mainstream press and music papers to assemble his narrative and cherry-pick his quotes. But, for all that, it’s very diligently done. The story is cohesive, engagingly written and comprehensive, in terms of the key facts. The quotes are well chosen and informative, and offer perspectives from all members of the band (though it’s telling Macca is the only one to feature on the cover). It’s a long way from the official Paul-and-Linda-centric Wingspan documentary/book project from the early 2000s.

Inevitably, though, the focus is on Paul, and the first two chapters deal solely with the protracted break-up of The Beatles. Pascall does a terrific job of pulling together the main strands of that murky, uber-complex story and presenting them in simple yet thoughtful manner. He approaches it from the McCartney perspective, true, but it’s quite balanced and doesn’t whitewash any aspect of it. He weaves in lots of salient quotes from interviews the Fabs gave in the years that followed and, interestingly, refers to the September 1969 boardroom summit between John, Paul and George – the tape recording of which heralded as recently as 2019 as a momentous discovery in Fabs history, even though its content has clearly been hiding in plain sight since the mid-1970s. The 1971 High Court case to dissolve The Beatles’ business partnership is also summarised extremely well, and Pascall throws up some points that many subsequent authors either missed or ignored, such as the fact that Macca’s famous ‘self-interview’ which resulted in “Paul is Quitting The Beatles!” headlines around the world in April 1970 never actually said any such thing. The story was even refuted by the Apple press office the very next day.

Wings Mark 1, on ‘Top of the Pops’, 1973. An undoubted high point for fashion

From there on, we get a recap of Paul and Linda’s romance (with some interesting tidbits about Linda’s early life) and how their marriage weathered the twin storms of The Beatles’ split and the hostile critical reaction to Paul’s early solo forays (which these days, of course, are lauded to the skies). Then it’s a straight romp through the Wings story – the patchy first couple of albums; the rough-and-ready, low-key early tours; the regular drug busts; the abrupt departure of drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough; the enormous breakthrough of Band On The Run and subsequent global domination, culminating in that record-busting world tour. It’s an fascinating tale, well told, showcasing Paul’s determination to reinvent himself from scratch and not rely on former glories. But, as I mentioned earlier, it gives weight to the other members too, filling in their back stories and so giving you more context about the make-up of the group. For instance, many books will simply tell you that Henry was “formerly of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band” and leave it at that, whereas this gives you more detail and helps to explain why the Irishman’s freewheeling style was probably doomed never to fit in with the well-drilled, ultra-professional unit Paul wanted Wings to become.

Another part of the book’s value is that it’s a contemporary reading of the group. It came out at the height of Wings’ popularity, and so gives you a feeling of how big they were at that point. The facts and figures for the 1975-76 tour really are staggering, from the world record attendance they scored for an indoor gig at Seattle’s Kingdome (67,000) to them becoming the first Western rock band to play behind the Iron Curtain (Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia). To say nothing of a tune they knocked off during quick sessions between legs of the tour, ‘Silly Love Songs’, going on to become the USA’s biggest selling single of 1976. Towards the end, Pascall also digs into the McCartneys’ family life, an oft-overlooked component of the band’s appeal. Inviting your wife to join your band wasn’t really the done thing in an era of macho, promiscuous rock stars, with Mick Jagger among those questioning the wisdom of “taking your old lady” on stage. The book does reflect some of the antipathy towards Linda, particularly in the early days of the band when her singing wasn’t always great. But Paul laudably stuck to his guns, giving his critics the middle finger and achieving success on his own terms.

Paul and Linda in harmony during the ’76 US tour

The downside of the book coming out when it did, though, is that the story is incomplete; there’s nothing about ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or 1978’s London Town album and the further personnel reshuffles which accompanied it, nor the last hurrah of Back To The Egg and the UK tour of 1979, never mind Macca’s infamous 1980 Japan drug arrest which ultimately signalled the band’s death knell. Each chapter of Wings’ history has a different flavour and trajectory, and it’s a pity the last one is missing – a bit like a novel that finishes before you get to the end.

The real problem, though, is that the book doesn’t really diverge from the facts and give you any opinions or analysis. There is only the most cursory appraisal of the group’s musical output or live performances – you do get a good sample of the reviews at the time (often quite damning), which is enlightening, but it would have been quite nice for Pascall to offer his own thoughts from time to time, and make some effort to plot the band’s creative evolution. Macca’s forging of a very different style and sound after The Beatles was no mean feat, and still doesn’t really get the credit it deserves. But I suspect that wasn’t really part of the author’s brief.

Wings, circa 1975

Where it does shine, however, is in the wealth of great photographs throughout. My view is that the 1970s were actually anti-fashion, the style was that there was no style (which makes it so hard for TV and film drama producers to accurately reproduce it), but at the same time that makes for some utterly beguiling, colourful and unique visuals. Wings were no exception to that, and the images here are a feast for the eyes. The proliferation of unfeasibly wide lapels, tartan, unkempt hair, garish colours, platform heels, braces, sequins, check trousers and the like will leave you scratching your head at the mismatched anarchy of it all. Paul’s stage suit for the 1976 US shows still looks pretty cool, though, flares notwithstanding. Certainly better than the odd kimono-style outfit he wore on some earlier legs of the tour.

The photos are the perfect accompaniment to the text which, for just 96 pages, crams in a surprising amount of detail. A lot of Macca bios tend to skim over his solo career, so if you’re looking for an illustrated primer on the Wings era – albeit an truncated one – you could do a lot worse than this. We all know how big The Beatles were; Wings, like pretty much every other band since, didn’t approach that level of impact and influence, but they were still improbably successful in their own right and among the biggest acts of their day. Paul McCartney & Wings is like a printed time capsule of those heady times, and still warrants a 7

Beatles for sale? An ad man’s dream

It was at my 50th birthday party, shortly before COVID-19 hit. As part of my ‘intro playlist’, to welcome guests to the venue, I had chosen Paul’s 1976 Wings smash, ‘Let ‘Em In’ (clever, eh?). While it was playing, a friend of mine who’s not a massive follower of pop music said: “Ah. I know this one. It’s the Postcode Lottery song.” For those of you who don’t live in the UK, the tune is indeed licenced by Macca’s company MPL for TV ads promoting the People’s Postcode Lottery. The 1977 hit cover version by Billy Paul plays in the background while people are shown, erm, knocking on doors and ringing bells to give winners the good news. It made me laugh that this was how my mate recognised the tune, but it did get me thinking – was that recognition a good thing, or should I be appalled that he (and presumably other, younger guests) associated it with a tacky, cheesy advert?

They always agreed using their songs in commercials was a no-no

The Beatles’ stance on using their music in advertising, along with my own views on it, used to be pretty clear cut. No, no, and thrice no. The band always seemed dead set against it, arguing that it would tarnish the integrity of the work if their songs were repurposed to sell fast food, underwear, sofas, cars, package deals or whatever. As a fan, I was always proud of that position, and stood full square behind it. I’m sure mutual back-scratching between pop and advertising was going on before, but the corporate cash-in seemed to begin in earnest during the 1980s. Inspired by MTV and Miami Vice, the money men saw the tie-in potential and the dollar signs, and began to exert a grisly grip on the music scene – often aided and abetted by some of its leading lights. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Madonna all gleefully hitched their wagons and lent their tunes to the lucrative soft drinks juggernaut, adding more millions to their bulging bank accounts (I don’t begrudge anyone making money but, seriously, how much did they need?). At the same time, hits from yesteryear were dredged up to flog everything from insurance to jeans, and put people like Marvin Gaye, The Hollies and Nina Simone back in the charts (in the UK, at least). Fizzy drinks all round.

Of course, The Beatles represented the fattest cash cow of all. Their music was already embedded in public consciousness across the globe, and the wildly successful relaunch of their back catalogue on CD in the late 1980s reaffirmed their timeless, cross-generational appeal. Quite literally, they represented the gold standard in popular music. But monetising that love for the band proved tricky. People of a certain age will probably recall the furore which greeted Nike’s decision to use ‘Revolution’ in a 1987 commercial for its sports shoes. It was the company’s first major TV ad (so my research tells me), and certainly made a splash – coincidentally or not, sales doubled over the next two years, the ‘brand’ took hold and Nike was soon established as the market leader.

The infamous Nike ad. Other sports shoes are available

The backlash, however, was huge. I think what stuck in the craw was not only that John’s brilliant counter-culture rallying cry had been commodified and turned into a symbol of big business avarice, but that they had the cheek to use the actual Beatles recording as well. Instead of advising you to “change your head”, John Lennon was now urging you to go out and buy some new trainers. As Time magazine wrote: “Mark David Chapman killed him. But it took a couple of record execs, one sneaker company and a soul brother to turn him into a jingle writer.” Although Yoko had given her consent for the ad, The Beatles’ own company, Apple, filed a lawsuit over the use of the track. Apparently settled out of court, it ensured that no recording by the group would ever again be used to sell product without permission. In 1987 George said: “If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent.” And, during his promotional rounds for Flowers in the Dirt two years later, Paul also reiterated his opposition to the band’s music being commandeered for commercial purposes, saying it would “devalue the whole thing”.

Paul discussing his unhappiness with Beatles ad licensing in 1989

The problem was, of course, that they had lost control of the publishing/licensing rights to almost all their songs at the end of the 1960s. It’s too long and convoluted a story to go into here, but British TV company ATV acquired majority shares in the band’s Northern Songs catalogue in 1969. And, in 1985, ATV’s owners famously sold it off to Thriller cash-rich Michael Jackson for a little over £24 million. You may have thought a fellow musician would’ve been happy just to let the royalties from this little goldmine continue to flow in, but the Nike episode showed Jacko wanted his acquisition to ‘work’ for him a little more strenuously. Worse was to follow in 1995. Clearly all that money he’d acquired from those 1980s soft drinks ads had not been enough to pay for the continued upkeep of the exotic animals on his Neverland ranch or the latest accessories for his pet chimp, as a now cash-strapped Jacko sold half his stake in ATV to corporate giant Sony Music Publishing. And there was no way the people running that weren’t going to maximise their Fab Four asset.

Sure enough, in 2008, it was announced that the band’s back catalogue was up for grabs to advertisers (though, thankfully, not the original recordings), and the use of ‘All You Need Is Love’ to sell a brand of nappies effectively, er, opened the floodgates. More and more Beatles songs have found their way into ad campaigns in the years since – though, to be fair, I haven’t noticed market saturation, at least not here in the UK. In recent years, I can recall seeing ads featuring ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’, ‘Real Love’, ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Come Together’, but not too many others. Maybe the Sony money men realise that a little goes a long way.

The Lennon estate seems a lot more relaxed about this kind of thing. Despite the uproar about the Nike ‘Revolution’ commercial, Yoko allowed them to use John’s 1970 single ‘Instant Karma!’ soon afterwards. The shit really hit the fan, though, in 2010 when she gave car manufacturer Citroen permission to use actual (dubbed) footage of John in an ad for its DS3 motor. Responding to the inevitable avalanche of criticism, Sean Lennon said she took the decision not for financial reasons, but to keep John in the public consciousness and give him exposure to younger generations.

The 2010 Citroen ad. The worst thing is the dreadful ‘scouse’ voiceover

Which brings us to the concept of ‘legacy’. A lot of time has passed since The Beatles were a functioning band (for a 15-year-old today, 50 years is ancient history), and two of them are long since dead. Isn’t advertising just one way of keeping their music alive? I remember reading an interview with Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen a few years’ back in which they said Apple was missing a trick by not utilising the commercial market to generate interest in the the Fabs’ back catalogue (something which has certainly paid healthy dividends for Queen). And maybe that argument eventually led Macca to a change of heart as, a few years ago, it was quietly announced that his solo work was available for licensing – hence the joys of the People’s Postcode Lottery (though the only other McCartney song I can recall being used in this way was ‘We All Stand Together’, in a Christmas ad for department store Debenhams). So what happened to his staunch resistance to such exploitation? And, in this day and age, does it matter?

First of all, I have no objections to The Beatles earning as much money as they can off their work. The idea (which holds strong in some minds) that the band were somehow anti-materialistic is preposterous. Yes, they never equated money with happiness (it can’t buy you love, after all) nor as an end in itself, and tried to be altruistic with it as much as they could (resulting in the ill-fated early aspirations of Apple). But becoming wealthy and independent was always pretty high on their list of ambitions. As Paul once said: “John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now let’s write a swimming pool.’…For the first time in our lives, we could actually do something and earn money.” And by 1980, John had overcome his earlier guilt about being wealthy (“I worked for money and wanted to be rich….What would you suggest I do? Give everything away and walk the streets?”) Hell, by the mid-’80s, Ringo – admittedly at something of a loose end in his life – was even starring in a series of TV ads. But, crucially, they didn’t involve either his or The Beatles’ music. And for me, that’s the key point.

One of Ringo’s Japanese TV ads in the 1980s. I think he was on something stronger than apple juice when he agreed to do this

My attitude to this, perhaps like Paul’s, is probably no longer as black and white as it used to be. If it does turn some younger people on to their music, that can’t be a bad thing. I remember being in a cinema once when a rocking rendition of ‘Come Together’ was promoting something or other to a youthful demographic, and I actually felt a sliver of pride that the Fabs’ music is still seen as a way to win hearts and minds, and make money. There’s also an element of just having to accept that it’s the way of the world we live in, and will probably only happen more over time. As musicians make barely any money from sales or streaming any more, the line between hits and jingles will probably become more blurred. As long as it’s not in my face all the time, I can probably live with it. After all, the use of Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ to sell chocolate (with most people under a certain age now equating it with a gorilla playing drums) hasn’t stopped that being a great song; nor has Lloyds Bank’s appropriation of The Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ diminished that number – perhaps because, amazingly, it actually started out as a TV commercial tune before it was ever a hit.

At least this was an ad for their music

And yet, using Beatles music for adverts still doesn’t sit well with me. They are a special case, though I guess anyone who loves a particular band or artist could say that. I just think their songs carry such meaning to so many, it’s hard to swallow hearing them being reduced to earworm advertising clickbait. Paul was right to begin with – using them in adverts does cheapen the brand, and can strip a little bit of value away. I’m not saying they’re sacred texts or anything like that, but does everything have to be viewed through the prism of sales value? More to the point, from a legacy point of view, they don’t really need it. While we should never take anything for granted (and I’m sure the marketing people at Apple and EMI never will), The Beatles’ canon of work is uniquely saturated into world culture. As someone once said to me, their songs now seem part of everyone’s DNA, new generations included. And, thanks to the internet, there are so many more opportunities for young people to discover them. Is hearing some crummy cover version on a hackneyed detergent ad ten times a day likely to send them scurrying to Spotify to listen to Revolver?

I understand that Paul might think, after years of unfair critical battering, radio apathy and lazy assumptions, that his solo work might be more easily forgotten. But, again, is the People’s Postcode Lottery really going to change that? Playing more solo songs in his concerts and having more cohesive, properly promoted greatest hits packages over the past 20 years would have probably been a better strategy. But, either way, I don’t think he needs to worry. Long after we’re all gone, Beatles songs (including their best solo material) will still be in people’s minds and on their lips, and I’ll wager their power and honesty will withstand whatever the advertising world can throw at them. People will always need nappies, true, but they will need a song like ‘All You Need Is Love’ just as much.

My Top Ten Ringo drumming performances with The Beatles

My appreciation for Ringo’s contribution to The Beatles as a drummer grows every year. When I first got into the band it was quite fashionable to mock or traduce his role in their success, with lots of people quick to single him out at the weak link or claim he just got lucky and rode on the coattails of the others’ brilliance. I think the fact that his own music career had dried up at that point and that he was more famous for narrating children’s show Thomas The Tank Engine probably had a lot to do with that attitude, along with general ignorance and a perhaps understandable search for some mortal aspect of the group’s all-conquering, almost super-human prowess. Part of Ringo’s appeal had always been that he was the ‘everyman’ in their ranks, the bloke next door who didn’t write an endless flow of astonishing songs, whose singing wasn’t all that removed from what you’d hear in your local pub, and who kept his feet on the ground while the others were seduced by psychedelia, Transcendental Meditation, LSD, avant garde art and the like (as John once said: “When I feel my head start to swell, I look at Ringo and know perfectly well we’re not supermen.”) It may be that people just started to assume that he probably couldn’t drum very well either, but they were wrong. Boy, were they wrong.

At Abbey Road, around the time of ‘Rubber Soul’

Over the years, as each new remaster or remix of the group’s music has made the drums more prominent and players from Phil Collins to Dave Grohl have lined up to praise his talent and enduring influence, Ringo’s cachet has slowly grown. Of course, there are still some lazy, ill-informed assumptions, but gradually facts are coming more to the fore. Mark Lewisohn’s brilliant biography Tune In makes it absolutely clear that Ringo was undoubtedly the best drummer Liverpool had to offer in the early 1960s, which is one reason why the city’s biggest band wanted him. Recalling the moment he first played with The Beatles, Paul later said: “I remember the moment, standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like, fuck you. What is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of The Beatles.” Ringo played on solo records by John, Paul and George after the split, and even when he wasn’t there his influence was still keenly felt, with Lennon regularly telling session drummers in the studio to “play it like Ringo”. He didn’t stumble into this group by accident.

You have only to listen to The Beatles’ (failed) audition tapes for Decca Records at the start of 1962 and compare it with their performance at the Star Club in Hamburg just under 12 months later to understand what the Starr man brought to the table. I’m not here to trash Pete Best, but the difference is colossal. Even allowing for the fact they were in an unfamiliar recording studio on a chilly winter’s day (as opposed to a sweaty club filled with well-oiled admirers), the band on the Decca recordings sounds tentative, stuck in a low gear; the drumming basic, samey, even tepid at points. On the Star Club album, by contrast, it’s a different beast altogether. A snarling, persuasive, confident beast, driven relentlessly forward by a dynamic, dynamite set of rhythms pumping out of the drum kit. The band’s startling synergy was now in place and would remain ever after, as Ringo kept pace with the others’ spiralling musical aspirations and effortlessly dealt with whatever was thrown at him over the next seven years. Indeed, there’s an argument that he didn’t even peak until their final recording sessions, so crammed is Abbey Road with fluid, memorable drum parts.

During the ‘Let It Be’ sessions, 1969

I’m no expert when it comes to drumming, but I thing Ringo’s qualities are pretty evident. He was versatile, inventive, reliable. He has a recognisable sound, a “feel”, and yet could turn his hand to just about anything – from ‘When I’m 64’ to ‘I Am The Walrus’. He’s not a flash, busy player, like The Who’s Keith Moon was, for example. It’s all about what the song needs, what the band needs. He’s selfless, a team player who provides that steady centre, the anchor which allows the others to go on their incredible flights of fancy and return safely to earth. In fact, most of the The Beatles’ recordings are such fine ensemble pieces, with each member providing an important piece of the jigsaw, it’s hard to take Ringo’s contributions out of context. Nonetheless, what follows are ten of my favourite drumming performances in their catalogue – moments of real Starr quality, if you like, exceptional even by his superlative standards. I’ve opted to do this list in chronological order, to illustrate the way he developed over the years.

 1.  I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)  (Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, 1962)

As I mentioned earlier, the lo-fi live album recorded in Germany in late December 1962 is a great showcase for Ringo’s power and precision, demonstrating how he instantly moved the band up to another level. The primitive nature of the recording means the drums are really in your face here, and the energy of the playing on tracks like ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset is exhilarating, like proto-punk (but with more musicality). He can be loose and lithe when the material calls for it, too (his playing on the lilting ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’ is just achingly right), but on the more rocking numbers he really delivers fireworks – none more so than on this Elvis cover. The song careers around wildly on his frantic beat and rapid-fire fills, but he never loses control. Quite showy, by Ringo standards, but brilliant. The first version I had of this album in the mid-1980s (on cassette) erroneously featured an old shot of the band with Pete Best on the cover. My Dad duly assumed he was the man behind the kit and, when this song came on, said: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with this drumming, is there?” He wasn’t wrong.

2.  Twist and Shout (Please Please Me, 1963)

After a shaky start in his first recording session with the band at Abbey Road, which led to George Martin booking a session drummer as insurance when they came to record debut single ‘Love Me Do’, Ringo quickly found his feet in the studio, as his fantastic playing on their follow-up, ‘Please Please Me’, demonstrates. Likewise, their first album is laced with terrific drumming, notably on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Anna’. But he saved the best until last, on this classic cover of the Isley Brothers’ hit. The drums are such an integral part of its appeal, and it sounds like he’s smashing through brick walls at some points. But what I really love is the way he tracks and underpins the vocals, helping the others build to a frenzy during the climbing harmonies section, and supporting John’s rasping lead. The rat-tat ending is just right, too. Magic.

3.  Little Child (With The Beatles, 1963)

This isn’t one of their finest early compositions; in fact, I’d say it’s the weakest track on their second album. What saves it, however, is the performance – and Ringo’s playing, in particular. There’s nothing especially clever about it, especially during the regular verse/chorus sections. But during the instrumental break in the middle it explodes, as he bashes the hell out of his kit amid a flurry of cymbals (he’s always great on his cymbals). It meshes fantastically with the piano and harmonica parts, and by the time John starts singing again, you feel quite giddy.

4.  Ticket to Ride (Help!, 1965)

While the drums are quite prominent on their first two albums, by Beatles For Sale at the end of 1964, they seem to have been downgraded a little, buried in the mix. However, this tune – their first release of 1965 – returns them to centrestage, and is unquestionably one of Ringo’s finest moments with the group. While it was apparently Paul who came up with the quirky rhythm which propels the song, as Ringo likes to say, it’s all about the fills (the bits where drummers veer off from the song’s main beat to do their own thing) – and the fills here are extraordinary. In keeping with The Beatles’ creative ethos, every time John sings “a ticket to ri-hi-hide” on the chorus, Ringo comes up with something different, keeping the listener on their toes. And, after a series of drum rolls, the way he echoes the sense of emotional exhaustion and resignation in John’s voice on the final chorus with just a single hit of the skins is genius.

5.  You Won’t See Me (Rubber Soul, 1965)

This has long been one of my Fabs favourites, and if any Beatles numbers can be said to be criminally underrated, this is surely it. Listening to it again recently, I realised how the drumming is so integral to its charms. Right from the opening crash, Ringo’s playing is artful, direct and elegant, once again perfectly in tune with the needs of the song. The core beat is decorated with subtle cymbals and endless fills, and the way he leads the band into the middle eight part (“Time after time…”) keeps everything flowing so naturally, you don’t notice how clever it is.

6.  Rain (b-side, 1966)

One of Ringo’s personal favourites and among his most highly regarded efforts, the flip side of ‘Paperback Writer’ is an obvious choice. His performance is just dazzling. As the others brought in ever-more complex songs, he rose to the challenge time and time again. I can’t even tell you how he achieves some of this, it’s like he’s on another plain here. The drums are almost the lead instrument, and pull off the amazing trick of anchoring the song but somehow disorienting you at the same time. Kudos goes to George Martin’s production, Paul’s stupendous bass playing and (of course) John’s hazy, trippy song, but Ringo is the Starr of the show on this.

7.  A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper, 1967)

Another inevitable pick, I suppose.There is so much going on in this track, but it just wouldn’t be the same without Ringo’s contributions. He doesn’t even appear until almost 50 seconds in, but what an introduction – the deft little fill behind “He blew his mind out in a car”. Then the rhythm starts in earnest, leaning heavily on tom-toms to build the song as John ethereal observations gather momentum. His playing here is so skillful and sensitive, it’s like a little work of art in itself. The pace picks up for Paul’s bouncy middle eight, then it’s back to the original pattern for the final verse, only a little faster as the song nears its crescendo. Ringo’s work gives it all a deep, sonorous ‘bottom end’, yet is lively and articulate in its own right. It’s just perfect.

8.  It’s All Too Much (Yellow Submarine, 1967)

Ringo goes epic on George’s psychedelic tour de force, recorded in 1967 but not released until early 1969. It’s such a grandiose, powerhouse number, it needed drums to match or the whole enterprise would’ve collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. Ringo doesn’t disappoint, attacking his kit from the get-go with real vigour, and the whole thing bristles with energy. It’s one of his more muscular, busy outings, and he sounds like he’s having a blast. It’s certainly a long way from ‘Love Me Do’.

9.  Here Comes The Sun (Abbey Road, 1969)

The Beatles’ final recorded album might just be Ringo’s finest hour (or 47 minutes). It’s a masterclass of drumming, from the adroit rumblings of ‘Come Together’ to the simple but expertly executed solo which kicks off ‘The End’. I could’ve chosen almost any track here, but have gone for this Harrison tune because it illustrates, for the umpteenth time, how Ringo instinctively knew what his bandmates needed. His drums (intertwined with Paul’s bass) are like galloping horses pulling the song into sunlit uplands, giving it the joyful impetus the lyrics demand. And his dexterity and imagination are in full bloom during the “sun sun, here it comes” instrumental section, leading us on a merry dance before returning us home for the breezy finale. Breathtaking stuff.

10.  You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road, 1969)

One thing that definitely showcases Ringo’s playing on this album is the production – he never sounded better. It highlights how good he was, and this number is another stellar example. Again, for the first minute or so, you hear only some delicate cymbals here and there, but when he comes in on the “out of college…” section, it’s just electrifying. And listen to the way he shifts gears slightly to set up the “one sweet dream…” part, and then dives into fill heaven during the extended fade-out, dropping cymbal bombs all over the place. It’s majestic. It’s awesome. It’s Ringo.

Honourable mentions: ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’, ‘Wait’, ‘She Said, She Said’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Something’….. in fact, pretty much everything they recorded. He scarcely missed a beat during their entire career. Ringo didn’t get lucky getting into The Beatles. The Beatles got lucky getting him.

Paul’s iTunes Festival concert, 2007

The recent BBC screening of Macca’s 2018 ‘homecoming’ gig at the Cavern crystalised the fantasy I guess most of us have about seeing The Beatles – or one of them – at a small, intimate venue. How cool would it have been to see them up close in Liverpool, or in one of the Hamburg clubs? Once Beatlemania took off in mid-1963 and demand for tickets soared, those days were over, something all members of the group later said they regretted. But when Paul suggested they returned to the club circuit incognito to recapture their collective mojo in 1969, it was rejected out of hand by John and inadvertently led to Lennon announcing he was quitting the group. Paul revived the idea a couple of years later, however, when he broke in the fledgling Wings with an impromptu tour of university dance halls. Inevitably, history repeated itself and he was soon back playing before stadium crowds, but he never forgot the special connection of performing in front of hundreds, rather than tens of thousands, of people. It’s an itch he’s periodically scratched since a short run of ‘secret gigs’ in Europe during 1991.

In the summer/autumn of 2007, there was a flurry of small shows to promote the release of Memory Almost Full. A recording of one, made at the Amoeba Music store in Los Angeles on 27 June, was eventually released in 2019 and found Paul and his band not only in fine form but also playing a few songs that have rarely made it onto a more ‘official’ setlist. I don’t think an authorised film of the gig has ever surfaced, but the cameras were there when he performed at the inaugural iTunes Festival in London eight days later. The show, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), was recorded by Channel 4 in the UK, and edited highlights were broadcast soon afterwards. You can watch it on YouTube and, if you want to get a feel for what a latter-day McCartney club  gig would be like, it’s well worth a look.

A bootleg featuring the ICA show

For a start, Paul’s voice was still consistently strong during this period. It began to falter in some shows soon afterwards, but he rips through the material here with confidence and ease. He also looks good, at a youthful 65, and seems a little more relaxed and casual than on the bigger stages. Likewise, he and the band seem to thrive in the more compact setting, and feed off the energy of the crowd. There’s a looser, more spontaneous feel to their playing, and they attack the songs with real zip. The likes of Kasabian also performed during the festival that month, but I’d be surprised if there was a more punchy, tight-knit, rocking band than this one.

This is nowhere more evident than on the trio of pulsating numbers which kick things off. First up is a turbo-charged ‘Coming Up’. For some reason, this has been absent from his main setlists since 2003, despite being a staple of previous tours. It’s strange, because the song is perfectly suited to this line-up, who deliver a slick, swaggering rendition here. It’s followed by another tune Paul sadly doesn’t perform all that often, ‘Drive My Car’. I’m perplexed that this isn’t one of his go-to live rockers, it always sounds so great whenever he does it. And the band keeps up the pace with a storming version of ‘Only Mama Knows’, a highlight of Memory and one of his all-time great rock songs. Again, like almost all of his ‘new’ numbers of the past 30 years or so, this got discarded from his stage shows as soon as there was a newer album to promote. A pity, because it really captures the band at its pounding best and, on this occasion, a quite brilliant vocal from Macca.

A rocking image used to promote the subsequent iTunes digital EP

He slows things down for the next number, bringing out a mandolin for Memory’s lead single and best-known track, ‘Dance Tonight’. Whether performed in an arena or a club setting (I’ve heard it in both; delivered in the latter by McCartney tribute acts), it’s a perfect crowd-pleaser. Not a major composition, perhaps, but majorly infectious, a fluffy, feel-good song in the classic Macca tradition. After that, we get a real surprise – ‘Midnight Special’, the folk song from the American Deep South which closed 1988’s rock ‘n’ roll covers album Choba B CCCP. Another one normally confined to pre-concert soundchecks, this has a suitably Cajun feel, with keyboard player Wix switching to accordion and Paul on acoustic guitar. The album take always felt a bit flimsy to me, but it’s markedly better here, benefiting from a solid groove, carefree lead vocal and an acapella section near the end which the crowd gleefully joins in on. Then the audience goes seriously nuts when the other band members retreat and Macca delivers a masterful ‘Blackbird’. I wish he’d swap this one out of his set for another tune once in a while, but I have to admit it never fails to hit the spot.

On the grand piano. Not something they had at The Cavern

He stays with the White Album as his bandmates return for a crunching ‘Back in the USSR’ (another track that always gets the motor running). The group is really cooking by this point, and even the old warhorse ‘Jet’ – another great song which could do with a rest from his shows now and again – is given a new lease of life. This slightly rough-hewn, sweaty rendition is one of his best since the heyday of Wings, with Abe Laboriel Jnr really giving it some welly on the drums. Next, Macca moves to a grand piano and dips back into Memory Almost Full for another treat, the brooding ‘House of Wax’. For me, this is his greatest song of the past 20 years, and among the best of his career, but it’s never made any of his main concert selections. In fact, I think this is one of only two times we’ve ever seen him perform it (the other being at the BBC Electric Proms show later that same year), and it’s a real highlight of this show. True, it can’t match the pyrotechnics of the studio version (try as he might, guitarist Rusty Anderson doesn’t get anywhere near Paul’s scorching solos on the record), but it’s still a wonderful moment, one to send shivers down the spine. Wish I’d been there for that.

The rest of the show is effectively a victory lap, as Macca brings out a couple of his big guns, starting with a rip-roaring ‘Get Back’. The keyboards seem a little high in the mix here, but second guitarist Brian Ray reproduces the original Lennon solos with some aplomb. Then, inevitably, it’s time for a real howitzer as he launches into ‘Hey Jude’. We’re so used to seeing it echoing around huge stadiums, it’s nice to hear it at closer quarters, where it works just as well – audience participation and all. No matter how many times he does it, it still weaves its magic, and makes for a fitting, bring-the-house-down finale (though the actual gig continued with a hit-packed encore).

Taking the applause

All in all, it’s a great show. Paul sounds and looks good (though a combination of sweat and air conditioning plays havoc with his hair during the later stages), and is in bouncy, playful form, clearly relishing standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his bandmates and being within touching distance of his audience. A digital EP was made available on iTunes soon afterwards featuring six tracks from the gig, but the film has never been officially released. That’s a shame, as the Channel 4 footage documents only 11 of the 25 numbers played and – while I know some people will groan at the thought of another McCartney live DVD – I think the full set would be a worthy addition to the catalogue (in fact, it would’ve been the perfect companion to the Amoeba CD, but we’ll just have to add that to the missed opportunities list). I think it’s a stronger show than either of his Cavern appearances – it has a better setlist than the covers-oriented concert in 1999, and more bite than the 2018 one – and gives a real flavour of what it must’ve been like to see The Beatles up close and personal. If only….

Highlights of the show broadcast by Channel 4