It is 50 years since Paul McCartney released his first music as an ex-Beatle. To mark the occasion, I sat down with one of the world’s undersung McCartney experts, Dr. Nick Coates*, to compile the ultimate, ranked list of Macca’s fifty best post-Beatle songs.
Like all of these lists, there’s a hefty amount of arbitrary ordering going on – is #35 really better than #38, for example? Probably not, but we did make an effort to consider as many aspects of each song as possible – lyrics, melody, instrumentation, how successful it was (difficult to ignore) and whether or not there was a decent story behind it – but we also tried to not take the whole thing too seriously. It is McCartney, after all.
*Nick didn’t attain his PhD in the work of McCartney, but perhaps he should have.
N.B. We said “songs” – i.e. they’re all written by, but not necessarily performed by Paul McCartney.
- Dance Tonight – Paul McCartney (2007)
McCartney explained that his toddler daughter began to dance whenever he played the mandolin, and from there “the song wrote itself”. A satisfying stomp that provided McCartney with his last, to date, solo UK top 40 single.
- We All Stand Together – Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus (1984)
Nowadays usually proffered as an example of the depths to which the ubiquitous McCartney plunged in the mid-1980s, few rock stars could have created something this irritatingly infectious, scored a top three hit, and still (eventually) reclaimed their credibility.
- Beautiful Night – Paul McCartney (1997)
It has its teeth-grinding moments, but as a celebration of both friendship and love – Ringo is on drums, and it was one of the last songs to which Linda McCartney contributed – this capable ballad turned rockout is inescapably likeable.
- My Love – Paul McCartney and Wings (1973)
In its sweeping romanticism, could this love song betray the influence of George Harrison’s classic Something? Similarities are hard to miss, not least Henry McCullough’s inspired guitar solo, easily matching Harrison’s.
- Wonderful Christmastime – Paul McCartney (1979)
The melody is anodyne and the synths irritating, but Christmas as we know it probably wouldn’t be Christmas without it. It’s been said Macca earns a cool £300k from this song each year: simply put, you can’t knock the hustle.
- C-Moon – Wings (1972)
Even in McCartney’s flippant moments he’s capable of harmonic tricks lesser songwriters would kill for. In this cod-reggae ditty’s case it’s the bridging sections, lending the piece a dreamy gracefulness that the choruses probably don’t deserve.
- Queenie Eye – Paul McCartney (2013)
McCartney dug out a children’s chant and a few covert Beatles references (“I had to get it worked out, had nobody who could help”) for this bouncy number written with producer du jour Paul Epworth. The video, featuring a bewildering parade of celebrities, could be avoided.
- With A Little Luck – Wings (1978)
A synth-laden jaunt that hits its stride in the minor-key bridges, recalling the “Life is very short” section of We Can Work It Out (John Lennon’s part, naturally). Otherwise, close your eyes and pretend it’s Boards Of Canada.
- Junior’s Farm – Paul McCartney and Wings (1974)
Wings often sounded best when recording as a full band; the energy this setup affords to Junior’s Farm propels it to something beyond the sum of its parts. In Jimmy McCulloch’s twin guitar motifs, the influence of Bowie’s Mick Ronson is conspicuous.
- The World Tonight – Paul McCartney (1997)
Perky Jeff Lynne collaboration from the well-regarded Flaming Pie album, the lyrics concern a young star not enjoying the spotlight, with McCartney clearly relishing his role of experienced elder: “I go back so far, I’m in front of me”.
- The Song We Were Singing – Paul McCartney (1997)
Energetic contemplation of early-days hangouts with Lennon. The waltz-time choruses, with their blend of accordion, double bass and thumping drums, reveal a fondness for The Waterboys.
- Another Day – Paul McCartney (1971)
At first, McCartney’s debut solo single sounds like a tame second act of the domestic story begun in She’s Leaving Home. But the “So sad” section betrays greater ambition: shifting rhythms, full-bodied guitar phrases and soaring vocal interplay between Linda and Paul, aiming for their own distinctive, post-Beatles sound.
- Wanderlust – Paul McCartney (1982)
McCartney might be justifying something fairly mundane on this stately ballad – opting for home life rather than perpetually touring the world – but the power of the melody lifts it well above the banal. One can even forgive the horn section.
- Little Willow – Paul McCartney (1997)
Written following the death of Ringo Starr’s first wife Maureen, with their children in mind, Little Willow’s meditative melody is thankfully garnished with nothing more than tasteful synths and reflective harmonies.
- Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five – Paul McCartney and Wings (1974)
Yes, there are vocals. But really, it’s all about that piano riff, like the Lady Madonna phrase twisted into the insistent soundtrack of a TV car chase. A 2016 remix by Timo Maas and James Teej received a Grammy nomination.
- This Never Happened Before – Paul McCartney (2005)
At least McCartney’s brief marriage to Heather Mills inspired him to write this fine love song, with a lilting melody worthy of Here, There and Everywhere. But there’s an unavoidable note of melancholy in Paul’s voice, as if he never quite believed it all along.
- Early Days – Paul McCartney (2013)
Producer Ethan Johns was the perfect choice for this earthy rumination on the embryonic Beatles, with depictions of long Liverpool walks, plus sly digs at those who believe they know the facts better (“I don’t see how they can remember, when they weren’t where it was at”).
- Mull of Kintyre – Wings (1977)
McCartney always wanted to bring the nation together in song, and with Mull of Kintyre, he did it: until Band Aid in 1984, this was the UK’s best-selling single. It’s easy to see why: a tune both a granny and a toddler could sing, and bagpipes to stir even the meanest of hearts. But in the peak year of punk, McCartney was about as far from the thrills of rock’n’roll as he’d ever get.
- Put It There – Paul McCartney (1989)
A masterclass in not letting a song outstay its welcome, Put It There turns the Blackbird template of foot-tapping and finger-picking into a sweet, string-accompanied rumination on McCartney’s father and one of his favourite sayings.
- Pipes Of Peace – Paul McCartney (1983)
As with Ebony and Ivory, hearing this song today prompts mixed feelings: the temptation to cringe is offset by bafflement that we still, some thirty-six years later, haven’t absorbed its basic message. Possibly the biggest ever hit single to feature a tabla solo.
- Take It Away – Paul McCartney (1982)
An overlooked pop nugget from the George Martin-produced Tug Of War album, although it’s perhaps a touch too complex for chart-topping status. The presence of McCartney’s new chum, 10cc’s Eric Stewart, is evident in the multi-layered backing vocals.
- Ram On – Percy “Thrills” Thrillington (1977)
Pragmatic as he is, McCartney’s still capable of taking the piss. Thrillington, an entirely instrumental, easy-listening version of his and Linda’s variously received 1971 album Ram, is arguably superior to its source material, particularly the title track: its lonely tones might have been the theme to an ITV drama along the lines of Van der Valk.
- Waterfalls – Paul McCartney (1980)
If it felt like McCartney were leaving the innovation to other artists during the 1970s, he made up for it on his second completely solo album, McCartney II. Waterfalls, with its plaintive synths and Rhodes piano, is eerily futuristic; one can hear its traces in the work of James Blake.
- Despite Repeated Warnings – Paul McCartney (2018)
It’s heartening to think that in his 76th year, McCartney could still bring out the spikes for politicians he believed were leading us to our doom. The barbs are shrouded in seafaring imagery on this A-Day-In-The-Life shaped epic: Trump himself is labelled a “mad captain”.
- Sing The Changes – The Fireman (2008)
The Fireman, an occasional project with Killing Joke bassist Youth, provided the answer to a question no one asked: “What if Paul McCartney sang for a 1980s goth-rock band?” A solid offering that could be slipped onto the turntable down the indie disco without too much disquiet.
- Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey – Paul and Linda McCartney (1971)
As a humorous takedown of the stuffy ruling class that the sixties were supposed to have banished, this blast of whimsy might be best aired between a Peter Sellers record and an episode of Monty Python. Inexplicably, it managed to hit number one in the USA, which probably says more about the prevailing Beatles hysteria than anything else.
- Ebony and Ivory – Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder (1982)
The melodies can be exasperating and the politics simplistic, yet there’s something endearing about Ebony and Ivory: decent performances from both vocalists, and it’s hard to find fault with a line like “We learn to live when we learn to give each other what we need to survive”. Also, the song’s ban by the Apartheid-era South African Broadcasting Corporation is something of a badge of honour.
- Calico Skies – Paul McCartney (1997)
Occasionally McCartney writes a song that sounds like it could have sprung from the same writing session as Mother Nature’s Son or even Blackbird. This gem, written during a hurricane power cut at McCartney’s Long Island home, hints at gentle tones of protest along early Joan Baez lines.
- Too Many People – Paul and Linda McCartney (1971)
John and Paul’s feud era made for some great pop songs, like this little blast of vitriol. Perhaps intentionally, McCartney sounds more like Lennon than ever on the verses, and are those the chords to Dear Prudence in the bridge? This track also introduced the world to the dubious concept of a “piss-off cake”.
- Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me) – Paul McCartney and Wings (1974)
Challenged by Dustin Hoffman over dinner to instantly “write a song about anything”, McCartney banged out this tongue-in-cheek drinking song based on Pablo Picasso’s actual last words. Its pleasantly rambling nature mainly reveals the high old time Wings undoubtedly had at Ginger Baker’s Lagos recording studio, where Baker himself added percussion to the track (a tin can full of gravel).
- No More Lonely Nights – Paul McCartney (1984)
McCartney’s feature film Give My Regards To Broad Street has but one redeeming feature: this power ballad. A masterclass melody and even a searing Dave Gilmour guitar solo, this was proof that Macca – deep into his “Frog Song” period – could still perform the old alchemy.
- Junk – Paul McCartney (1970)
The Beatles declining to include Junk on any of their own albums speaks volumes about the nuances of their own internal editing process; the inflections of the chorus are plainly more McCartney than anyone else. Also noteworthy are Linda’s perfectly delivered harmonies.
- What’s That You’re Doing – Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder (1982)
Following Lennon’s death, it must have been a tonic to collaborate with a talent as compelling as Wonder on this cracking duet. Macca holds his own in the funky sections and, no doubt, arranged the soaring backing vocals in the chorus, but it’s Wonder’s synths and fabulous voice that elevate the piece well above the routine.
- Check My Machine – Paul McCartney (1980)
A little-known B-side of an almost-as-little-known A-side (Waterfalls), this enjoyably discombobulating moment is perhaps the result of McCartney’s fondness for David Byrne. While its banjo and reggae groove nod to the past, the scratchy, effected vocal loop and samples foreshadow the likes of Gorillaz and even Flying Lotus.
- Songbird In A Cage – Charlotte Gainsbourg (2017)
When McCartney composes for other artists – Cilla Blacks’ Step Inside Love, for instance – he often follows a more complex path. Gainsbourg asked him to write her a song and received a demo in return, which she described as “like having a treasure”. With producer SebastiAN, she created an otherworldly slice of alt-disco from McCartney’s trippy words and melodies.
- Let Me Roll It – Paul McCartney and Wings (1974)
The chorus is pure Wings, but the verses see McCartney possessed by the instincts of both Lennon and Harrison: the tape-echo vocals, the brash guitar riffs. One of his signature rock tracks, it’s welded to McCartney’s live setlist to this day.
- Let ‘Em In – Billy Paul (1976)
Inspired by the mention of “Martin Luther [King]” in the original, Philadelphia soul singer Billy Paul took Wings’ lightweight head-nodder and converted it into a full-on anthem for the civil rights movement, complete with references to Louis Armstrong, JFK, and excerpts from Malcolm X speeches. McCartney responded by augmenting the song’s future live performances with video footage of same.
- Temporary Secretary – Paul McCartney (1980)
As Wings finally disintegrated, McCartney seemed mainly interested in sounding like anyone but himself, as on this invigorating blip of electropop. Underneath the synths, however, lies a fairly standard piece of Macca ephemera, with conventional instrumentation and a playful vocal in which lurk ghosts of Rocky Raccoon and Honey Pie.
- Goodnight Tonight – Wings (1979)
Few rock acts resisted the temptation to go disco in 1979, from Blondie’s Heart Of Glass to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2). McCartney’s own attempt, despite flamenco guitar solo, never strayed too far from his specialities: insistent chorus and an insanely hummable bass-line. The video, with Paul and colleagues decked out in 1930s tango band costumes, is worth a chuckle.
- Fine Line – Paul McCartney (2005)
Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich notoriously dismissed all of McCartney’s backing band and any songs he didn’t think worthy of the 2005 album Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. This rocker, with its urgent chord progression and pounding piano, sailed through the auditions.
- Silly Love Songs – Wings (1976)
The famously genial Macca hasn’t been afraid to get spiky with criticisms over the years. Silly Love Songs sees him hitting back in the best way he knows: to write, record and have a massive hit with another one. The splendid revolving vocal section in the song’s closing quarter is less silly, as is the fantastic bass-line.
- Back Seat Of My Car – Paul and Linda McCartney (1971)
Opinions abound regarding McCartney’s first truly post-Beatles album Ram, but this ode to various forms of escape, elevated by one of McCartney’s sweetest vocal melodies, is usually judged the highlight. The line “We believe that we can’t be wrong” evokes genuine yearning.
- Here Today – Paul McCartney (1982)
This moving tribute to John Lennon could be about any lost old friend; that it concerns McCartney’s celebrated musical partner is almost immaterial. It pinpoints perhaps the one moment in their friendship when – drunk, unsurprisingly – the pair admitted the love they felt for one another “because there wasn’t any reason left to keep it all inside”.
- Band On The Run – Paul McCartney and Wings (1974)
McCartney adores his medleys: this three-part track coheres around an intoxicatingly shady atmosphere – indeed, a band of escaped criminals – assisted by wails of analogue synth and bluesy guitar licks. The song’s most memorable line, “If we ever get out of here”, originates from a George Harrison comment about an Apple Records business meeting.
- Jenny Wren – McCartney (2005)
It wasn’t the first time McCartney used his classic Blackbird as the outline for an arrangement, but it might have been the first time a producer (Nigel Godrich) prevented him from slathering the track with frills. The beauty of the song, along with the soft thud of a floor tom and the reedy melancholy of an Armenian duduk, were deemed the sole requirements.
- Jet – Paul McCartney and Wings (1974)
Three years and several singles in, Wings were now sounding like themselves. After an unapologetic saxophone-led reggae intro, the song transforms into a bracing blast of fuzz guitar and surreal lyrics, at once concerning a Labrador puppy and McCartney’s stern father-in-law.
- Say Say Say – Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson (1983)
This dazzling pop-soul duet was based on a tried and tested formula: McCartney sings the calmer, more melodic sections, while his partner infuses the piece with a fiery exasperation. What emerged was one of those rare, effortless hit songs on which all involved – particularly producer George Martin – were allowed to shine.
- Coming Up – Paul McCartney (1980)
Latterly adopted as the Macca track of choice by the LCD Soundsystem set, Coming Up had always been one of his strongest: a rare example of McCartney hitting a good groove and staying there, letting other sounds – percussion, synths and vocal motifs – wander in and out as required. Its charms were not lost on John Lennon, who allegedly resolved to finally return to the recording studio after hearing it.
2. Maybe I’m Amazed – Paul McCartney (1970)
If observers of McCartney’s early solo efforts were preoccupied with the question “is it as good as The Beatles?” then it’s unsurprising that the triumphs lay in songs that transcended his former group, at least in terms of scale and soul-bearing. Written for Linda in the Beatles’ final weeks, if not days, Maybe I’m Amazed is essentially cut from the same sonic cloth as Let It Be, but the desperate words (“Maybe you’re the only woman who can ever help me”) and singlehanded recording permitted McCartney to access hitherto rationed reserves of passion. The joyful walls of organ and screaming vocals remain breathtaking to behold, fifty years later.
- Live and Let Die – Wings (1973)
Despite his celebrity and track record, the producers of the James Bond series took a chance when they asked McCartney to come up with a theme song for Live and Let Die. The film was to feature the first John Barry-less soundtrack since Dr. No, not to mention Roger Moore’s debut in the title role, so the stakes couldn’t have been higher. But hell, did McCartney deliver. Written with Linda and steered by the safe hands of George Martin, it somehow managed to squeeze three disparate styles – piano ballad, orchestral rock and reggae – into barely three minutes, and still sound like a naturally unified pop song. Much like the movie it accompanies, it’s thrilling, absurd and incredibly appealing: one of a handful of post-Beatles songs on which McCartney excels at everything he tries. Just don’t mention that Guns N’ Roses version.