Paul McCartney, “Silly Love Songs”
written by Dave Kopperman
Silly Love Songs That Matter
As I recall it, my friend Bran shoved his Fender Precision into my hands and said, “The only thing you need to know to play bass is this.” He demonstrated the riff from ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Paul McCartney & Wings on his battered acoustic 6-string. I played it back.
Not McCartney, not yet.
And I needed to be McCartney in the worst way. My new trio was just getting off the ground, and unless I took the hit and moved over to bass, we weren’t going to last more than another practice or two. There simply wasn’t any glue holding things together. We needed that bass and I needed to play it. But I also needed to keep singing, since I was the singer and we were emphatically not an instrumental ensemble.
Paul McCartney wasn’t originally the bass player in The Beatles. That was Stu Sutcliffe, who retired in 1961 during one of the band’s Hamburg residencies, so McCartney quickly ran out to purchase his now iconic Höfner violin bass (symmetrical, so he could play it left-handed without looking goofy). And McCartney being McCartney, he proceeded to make the bass as much of a lead instrument as could be done in the context of a pop combo.
Flash-forward fifteen years, McCartney time. Stu Sutcliffe, Hamburg, and even The Beatles are all in Paul’s rearview mirror. Being a solo Beatle is no doubt a fantastic thing, and Paul already has a string of number one albums and singles under his own name. But he still bristles at the usual criticism of his songs, especially his lyrics – shallow and silly, sometimes bordering on the nonsensical – and always in comparison to his former partner, John Lennon. So he writes:
You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs / But I look around me and I see it isn’t so / Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs / And what’s wrong with that? / I’d like to know / ‘Cause here I go again!
It’s a manifesto disguised as a pop song. And, as it turns out, that pop song is actually a disguise for a complete education in songwriting, performance, arranging, and production. And the funny thing is, Paul does it without following a single ‘rule’ of pop songwriting. Dispensing with the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure, he expands out a handful of melodic ideas to six minutes, without ever showing bloat. He does this first by stripping down the basic components of the band to just a sketch of drums, bass, and piano, then gradually filling in color, letting syrupy strings play straight man to the four piece horn section, whose slight New Orleans syncopation contrasts perfectly with the reggae bounce of the bass and the straight-ahead disco drums and gradually emerging percussion. And in the background stands the Tin Pan Alley ghost of his father, who died the month between the recording of the song and its release.
Next up, he breaks apart and reconfigures the vocal melody, fitting it back together as a three-part countermelody, with one descending question (“How can I tell you about my loved one?”) interlocking with an ascending declaration of three simple whole notes (“I love you”) tied together by a rising and falling middle part that answers the first question with another question – “I can’t explain, the feeling’s plain to me / can’t you see?”
‘Silly Love Songs’ is a sort of apotheosis of Paul McCartney pop trifles, a collision of all of the influences of this musical omnivore, an illustration of how to make something new by seamlessly synthesizing ideas from seemingly disparate sources. And that’s the McCartney method – vacuuming up music and art and overheard snippets of conversation and mashing it all together to make something completely new.
It’s the reason we offhandedly refer to things as ‘McCartneyesque’ and expect that people will know exactly what we mean. He wasn’t as strong as John in writing those early Beatle rockers, so he went ahead and created his own genre of music out of spare parts that he could be best at. And that genre is a flexible thing – this is a man who recently collaborated with a reformed Nirvana and then followed it up by a collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West. These might not have been the top of any of their respective catalogs, but there’s not a hint of pastiche about them.
I occasionally think of my bass playing as McCartneyesque, but I know I’m kidding myself. There is no such thing as McCartneyesque, simply because to be Paul McCartney is to ignore the boundaries between all genres of music by recognizing it all as one genre, and not giving a toss if people think any given artifact you produce on your return is silly.
Really, if the music you make isn’t occasionally a little silly, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Dave Kopperman is an artist and songwriter based in Rockland County, New York. He serves as Director of Communications and Social Media for Resonant Motion, and recently released his debut solo LP, Island off the Coast of America, on vinyl from RMI Records. Nepotism was involved, but it’s still a damn fine record (and maybe a little silly).