It’s hard to think of how Paul McCartney could have given his first solo album a bigger publicity hurdle to overcome, unless he’d been arrested for some vile crime on the week of its release in April 1970.
The newly ex-Beatle distributed a questionnaire that was treated by fans and the media as definitive word that the world’s most beloved rock band – true today as it was back then – had broken up. The music in “McCartney” was quickly overshadowed by anger and disappointment.
Forty-one years later, McCartney is asking for a second listen with a remastered disc that includes some alternative song versions, live cuts and film clips. “McCartney” is revealed for what it was: a warm, do-it-yourself project with one genuine classic (“Maybe I’m Amazed”), a couple of Beatles outtakes and a good dose of filler from a newlywed who sounds ready to cut loose from his musical moorings.
Approaching his 69th birthday this month, McCartney is a busy man. He’s preparing for a concert tour that will take him to Yankee Stadium. He’s preparing for his third marriage, to longtime girlfriend Nancy Shevell, although he’s keeping the details of that impending wedding private.
“We’re just starting to make plans at the moment,” he said.
Back in 1970, things were less pleasant.
McCartney had completed the album at the London home he shared with his wife Linda and growing family. He didn’t feel like doing interviews when the release date approached, so he asked Apple Records’ Peter Brown to draw up a list of questions that he would provide answers to. It was included in review copies of the disc sent to journalists.
When McCartney answered “no” to Brown’s question of “are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?” it was seized on by the media as proof that the Beatles were done.
The reaction distressed McCartney at the time because other statements he made in the questionnaire were actually less definitive about the group’s future, said Peter Ames Carlin, author of “McCartney: A Life.”
Indeed, elsewhere in the questionnaire McCartney said that he didn’t know whether the break from the Beatles was temporary or permanent, and when asked if the solo album was a rest from the Beatles, he replied, “Time will tell.”
“He didn’t intend it to be the breakup of the Beatles,” Carlin said. “He was the one guy, maybe aside from Ringo, who wanted to keep the group together.”
In a private meeting a month earlier, John Lennon had informed his fellow Beatles he was leaving the group, McCartney recalled in a recent interview with The Associated Press. Skittish management had advised members to lie when asked if the group was still together, he said.
Today, it sounds like McCartney regrets that questionnaire. It’s nowhere to be found in the re-released “McCartney” package.
“It’s possible to read all sorts of other things into it, read all sorts of motives of mine into it, which is I think what happened,” McCartney said. “For me, it was simply a way to answer some questions I might have been asked if I had done interviews.”
The atmosphere with his fellow Beatles was poisonous enough at the time. McCartney was battling with Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr over management issues. The other three wanted McCartney to put off release of his solo disc for a couple of months so it wouldn’t conflict with the Beatles’ “Let it Be” album, itself a project dripping with bad feelings, and McCartney refused. “Let it Be” came out a few weeks later.
Lennon was furious with McCartney about the questionnaire because it meant Paul – not John, who started the group – had scooped him with the announcement that the band was ending, author Bob Spitz wrote in his book “The Beatles.”
Echoes of those bad feelings could be seen in the questionnaire. Asked if he missed the other Beatles, or wish Ringo had been there for a drum break on “McCartney,” Paul answered, “No.” He gave the same one-word reply when asked if he could see a time when Lennon-McCartney would become an active songwriting partnership again.
McCartney says now that he was excited about the music he made and wanted to get it out quickly.
“I’ve been accused of not thinking things through enough,” he said. “I get enthusiastic about something and say I’d like to do it, so let’s do it. And that’s mainly a good thing, because you get things done. It can occasionally create difficulties because you don’t think of the implications. And to me, I hadn’t thought of the implications. I was just putting out an album of some stuff that I liked.”
The atmosphere made people mad and unwilling to accept his new music, McCartney said. “I was not a popular bunny,” he said.
That’s plainly evident in a Rolling Stone magazine review of “McCartney” by Langdon Winner, published May 14, 1970: “If one can accept the album in its own terms, `McCartney’ stands as a very good, although not astounding, piece of work. My problem is that all of the publicity surrounding the record makes it difficult for me to believe `McCartney’ is what it appears to be.”
“If I had been entirely honest, I just would have said that John has folded the group,” McCartney said. “But I’m not sure that would have gone down well, either.”
“Maybe I’m Amazed” was written after the Beatles had stopped working together, but would have fit seamlessly into the series of McCartney-penned singles like “Let it Be,” “Hey Jude” and “The Long and Winding Road” that was part of the group’s later work.
The “McCartney” songs “Junk” and “Teddy Boy” were both written with the Beatles in mind and rehearsed with the group, but never finished. The lovely tribute to domesticity “Every Night,” something of a theme song for the disc, stands up to the test of time.
That’s a pretty strong backbone for a disc, even one filled out with song fragments and instrumentals.
McCartney handled all of the instruments, with some harmony vocal help from Linda. He released a similar DIY album, “McCartney II,” in 1980 after Wings broke up, and that’s also being re-released with bonus material this month. He won’t rule out a “McCartney III,” although that would take far more free time than he can see on the horizon.
At the time of “McCartney,” the author considered it an experimental work.
“It’s easier in retrospect to look back and say I was doing something that laid the ground rules for people to follow,” he said. “When you think about it, that’s how an awful lot of records get made now – people are in their bedrooms or their garages – because the equipment’s better. So I was actually starting a bit of a trend, without knowing it or really intending to.”