Legend, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney turned 80 this year in June and to celebrate he put together the mother of all box sets. This new box in it’s physical form was way over the top. It’s entitled The 7″ Singles. He went back and put together a box – actually if I’m being honest it was a wooden crate, I’m not sure I could lift the thing – with eighty (80) old school, vinyl, 7″ singles. In the days before CDs and MP3 artists released vinyl 7″ singles that were also known as 45s… Open this crate and you find the actual, physical copies of 80 of McCartney’s singles with the original artwork from back in the day on the single sleeve. The crate doesn’t have every single he ever put out but the 80 singles – to match his age – certainly cover his entire career from his first solo record McCartney to his latest McCartney III. To add to it’s rather massive packaging, it came with a massive price tag, over $600. There were only 3000 of these produced, I think? These will obviously be instant collectors items. But alas, too rich for me.
My dad had a rack of singles that my brother sort of took over when we were kids. We had a little record player, I hesitate to call it a turntable and we’d listen to my dad’s old Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Elvis records. Well he’d listen, I didn’t pay as close attention as he did. When an artist was going to put out an album – or an LP in industry vernacular – it was proceeded, like today, by the release of a single to get the buying public lathered up for the album. An album was vinyl, 12″ and spun at 33 rpms (revolutions per minute). In those days a single was also vinyl, but only 7″ and spun at 45 rpms. Singles ruled the world before the Beatles made albums artistically relevant instead of just mere collections of singles. The irony is not lost on me that one of the guys who made albums more relevant than singles has come back with a crate full of… singles. It’s the circle of life folks… All these years removed from sharing a room with my brother and I have such a complicated turntable I’m not sure I could even play a vinyl single any more. I would have to get under the hood and change some belts underneath to change the speed. Uh, no thank you… I’m not that technically proficient.
When I saw the price tag of this thing I was an immediate “No.” Even I have limits. But then I realized McCartney had also released it for purchase in MP3 format. That made me check the streaming service I use and yes, it was also released to all major streaming services. These “non-physical” formats contain 159 songs released over 80 singles during McCartney’s solo career. It’s close to 10 hours of music. Naturally, I knew I had to spend the next three or four days listening to it straight through. Someone had to do it, it might as well be your intrepid blogger. Who else is musically obsessed enough to endeavor to do this? I felt compelled to separate this collection from the gimmickry of the packaging and see if it had any merit as a listening experience. I’m just glad I didn’t have to get up and walk to the turn table 159 times to turn the records over and I’m a vinyl guy. In truth I don’t care how anybody gets their music as long as they listen!
As I listened to this thing, I couldn’t help but feel that this might be the biggest monolithic greatest hits album ever. I mean it has 80 of his singles. By definition, when an artist like McCartney releases a single it’s probably going to hit the charts, ergo it’s a hit, be it minor or major. But then he also included 79 B-sides. Those B-sides could be anything from unreleased gems to deep LP cuts that are throwaways, or deep LP cuts that are actually great songs, or remixed or mono versions of a song, or maybe a live track. B-sides can indeed be a mixed bag. Regardless of whether you consider this the largest greatest hits album ever released or not, it certainly tells us the story of McCartney’s solo career, post-Beatles in a pretty comprehensive way. And, when you think about McCartney’s solo career – he’s a legend but there were definitely low periods in his career – this is perhaps the most courageous box set ever released. This box really tells his story, warts and all, triumphs and misses.
I didn’t start listening to music until the late 70s when I was in junior high. We are a product of our past and at that point McCartney was the king of the ex-Beatles, charts-wise. Lennon had retreated into being a house-husband by 1975. Harrison had lost his way creatively and well, I never paid attention to Ringo’s solo music. I love Ringo but… McCartney was my favorite Beatle when I started listening to music because he was who we heard on the radio most often. He had more hits in that mid to late 70s era. Even before I had really listened to music McCartney’s music was ever present. I’d hear “Another Day” in my mom’s car while we were going to the market or “Band On The Run” over the loudspeakers at the neighborhood swimming pool. As I listened to the singles, arranged here in chronological order, I began to realize that McCartney’s music has been that way – ever present – my entire life. Whether he was producing chart topping, iconic LPs or critically panned schmaltz I have always been at least aware of what he was doing. If his latest LP was a dud (especially in the late 80s) there was always a good song or two on the album. McCartney was always such a master when it came to melody even at his worst I’d find myself humming his songs… “Press” comes to mind from when I was in college…
The start of this thing really is like listening to a greatest hits package. All of those iconic early hits from his early LPs – which were panned by the critics at the time – just roll out of the speakers. “Another Day,” one of my favorite B-sides “Oh Woman Oh Why,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Hi, Hi, Hi.” I even liked the B-side, live track “The Mess” that I’d never heard before. There are just so many great songs here. I loved hearing “Mull of Kintyre” a song that was the greatest selling single in the UK until 1984 (and they may play at my funeral). I didn’t realize that McCartney hadn’t released any singles from his solo debut McCartney. It wasn’t until I heard the live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” from Wings Over America that I realized that was the version that was the hit on radio. I couldn’t help but smile to think that bands used to actually release singles from live LPs!
Hearing “With A Little Luck” brought back memories of being in the backseat of dad’s Oldsmobile listening to Casey Kasem when that track was a huge hit. My brother had the album Back To The Egg which was supposed to be McCartney’s response to punk rock, and I used to go in his room to listen to that album just to hear the rocker “Old Siam Sir,” included here as well. My brother also had McCartney II and no one will ever be able to convince me that “Temporary Secretary” is a good song. I can’t believe it was a single.
The 80s are when the wheels came off a bit for McCartney. I have always felt that McCartney was more traumatized by the assassination of John Lennon than anybody ever realized. They were such dear friends at one time. He did respond with one of my favorite albums of his, Tug Of War. That was, for me, the highlight of McCartney’s 80s. I heard it playing in the record store when I’d gone to browse for music and I walked out with it. My girlfriend at the time was like, “You like “Ebony and Ivory”?” Well, no but listen to “Here Today.” While the 80s mostly sucked you’ll never find a better song than “No More Lonely Nights,” complete with David Gilmour on lead guitar. “Spies Like Us” from the movie of the same name is here too.
McCartney finished the 80s with his strongest LP since Tug Of War with Flowers In The Dirt where he collaborated with Elvis Costello. I love tracks from that era here – “My Brave Face,” and “Put It There” in particular. We all thought that was McCartney’s comeback but he continued to stumble until he immersed himself in the Beatles Anthology project in the 90s. He emerged from that project with (to me at least) his real comeback album Flaming Pie. Those singles are looser and rock more than anything he’d done since the 70s. Shortly after that we lost Linda McCartney and Paul recorded one of our favorite albums of cover songs and I was pleased “No Other Baby” was included here.
Since Flaming Pie McCartney has been on such a creative roll. There are so many great songs many of you may not have stuck around to hear after his creative dip in the 80s and early 90s. “Jenny Wren” with the great B-side “Summer of ’59,” “Fine Line,” “From A Lover To A Friend,” and all the tracks from Dance Tonight, especially the title track. They even included his hit from the side project The Firemen, “See The Changes.” For what it’s worth they also included tracks from his opera album(s) and his old pop standard album. There are a few non-album singles here as well. Artists used to not wait until the album was finished and would just put out a single and not include it on the next album, just a little something to keep them in the minds eye.
Over the course of listening to this monolithic collection of songs it dawned on me how breathtakingly wide the range of things McCartney can do is. Whether it’s a rocker, a classical pop song with strings, a ballad, folk, country, a few reggae moments, Christmas classics, opera, electronic pop – there’s not any genre of music that McCartney didn’t try. The man is truly fearless with a boundless imagination with a bold need to experiment and try new things. He is truly one of the most important artists of the rock era – in and out of the Beatles. While the set dips a bit in the middle, like his career, the singles are still very strong. While I can’t suggest anybody plunk down even the $80 for the MP3 version of this – it’s certainly a collection everyone should hear… maybe not all at once like I did – and explore. There may be a stray single you missed or a great B-side you’ve never heard. Like McCartney’s career in total, this set has so many gems and pleasures that I think everybody will find something to enjoy.
I want to wish everybody who celebrates it (or endures it like me) a very Merry Xmas and Happy Holidays. Having people read these crazy ramblings is the greatest gift I get every year so thank you all very much!