Paul McCartney was shameless. The Beatle who right from the start was doing puppy dog covers of stuff like “‘Til There Was You.” Who literally drove the band into a ditch with the haphazard Magical Mystery Tour bus film. Who dragged them back into the studio on the heels of a double album to compose new material in front of a camera crew, effectively breaking up the band. Then there’s this 1973 special – solo Paul tap dancing and syrupy ballading surrounded by a bunch of actual lambs which I’m about ninety percent sure is not a Christ reference.
So what’s wrong with that? Because you look closer: “‘Til There Was You” was campy but musically a bit more sophisticated, just the sort of influence the Beatles soaked up like sponges. MMT always was and still is a bad film, but its accompanying soundtrack is the Beatles absolutely owning psychedelia, a stone classic EP. And yes, the Get Back concept was a flop, but not really Paul’s fault. That era was George Harrison’s extra resentful period, a bad look for a guy just a notch above coattail status. Because George was (A) never a good lead guitar player, ever, except for the occasional hood ornament on the Big Boys’ songs, nor (B) anything more than an interesting songwriter, with a few real gems, but often quite worse, just preachy and dull.
By 1973 the other Beatles were touching ground, dropped back into the real world. John, George, and Ringo were effectively done in pop music. Meanwhile here’s Paul serving up this kitschy TV special, miles away from cool hard rock or even glam. There’s an airy version of “My Love” with string section and sparkly 70s gauze, then a ridiculous “Mary Had A Little Lamb” which is so half-assed that it doesn’t work at all, the lambs just milling around the piano probably smelling like shit, the guitarists looking ashamed to be involved. Another segment is like an Austin Powers ego trip, Linda snapping pictures while Paul plays acoustic guitar.
The weirdest thing about this special is its timing. It comes at an unfocused point in his career, mired in some gimmicky singles, awkward band chemistry, and the Red Rose Speedway album. RRS tries to put a sheen on the quirky pop of 1971’s Ram, which has aged as Paul’s solo masterpiece. Ram was humble and intimate and bursting with creative ideas. RRS comes off more like a talent show with no filter. Every other song you’re looking at your watch. By this special Paul is drifting, still ably doing his pop-for-potheads thing, but to what end? 1973 seems like a year of paranoia, as not even the US President was safe from the new surveillance state. Not that Nixon should ever be mistaken as a martyr but more like the first domino to fall in a game we’ve been playing ever since – open corruption, resignation, rinse and repeat along down the line. Ultimately, his downfall was meaningless, and I think people knew it back then, an eerie awareness of how shit things really were. Meanwhile Paul is doing “Gotta Sing Gotta Dance.” You get the sense he’d happily play the Titanic down, mugging at the piano.
Soon after this special this version of Wings busted up. You can see it here – neither of the Scrub Spots (Denny Seiwell on drums, Henry McCullough on guitar) contribute much. Henry in particular looks humiliated in some scenes, and kind of flubs the “My Love” solo. Like if you’re not game to stroll around with a flock of lambs and you can barely play your own solo, what are you doing with Paul McCartney, bro? They both got dropped or quit right before Paul was set to take the band to Nigeria to record their next album. Which ended up being Band On The Run, which would have made much more sense to film as a TV special.
Except for me this music is still a guilty pleasure. There’s another loaded word, guilty, like shameless. When it’s like, who cares? During the Austin Powers segment, he does a strummy folk version of “Michelle” that I can dig way more than the stilted Beatles original. We get a B-side medley with “Little Woman Love” and the loopy reggae classic “C Moon,” which is almost ruined by stupid Henry and his out of tune guitar. Man, that guy stunk. Get another Denny in there, anybody. And I actually like “Mary Had A Little Lamb” – it’s fun to play on the piano, and it has that bass riff bit that I have to practice to get right. Just let a McCartney show roll and you will be won over, he’s got too many classy melodies, too much folksy charisma. Sometimes he’s cringe but he’s genuine, he believes in his work. You could maybe recontextualize James Paul McCartney as revolutionary in its evocation of humble creative freedom over the constraints of cool. Take the lamb metaphor for what it is. He’s leading us back into the garden.