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Macca's 'Mad Masterpieces'

One of McCartney's stronger sides is his continuing need to experiment, to try new things every time again and again. That innovativeness can be heard in many of his songs, but from time to time he’s pushing boundaries. The result of this is not always easy consumable. But if he manages to combine his experimentation with his unique sense of melody, it occasionally leads to surprising gems.

It’s something Lennon and McCartney have in common: From the moment they meet, the duo starts a search for just about everything there is in music at hand. That is what distinguishes them to others: they don’t limit themselves to a few genres; they are open to almost anything and are inspired by it. 
Consequently in the late fifties McCartney gets acquainted with the German musician Karlheinz Stockhausen, who is widely regarded as one of the main founders of electronic music. The influence of Stockhausen is heard for the first time in Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows, where Lennon and McCartney start using audio tape loops. Stockhausen is also the inspiration for the most experimental track by The Beatles: Carnival of Light. McCartney:
I was intrigued by all of that. So these things started to be part of my life. I was listening to Stockhausen; one piece was all little plink-plonks and interesting ideas. Perhaps our audience wouldn’t mind a bit of change, we thought, and anyway, tough if they do!  
The fourteen minute long song, recorded during the Sgt. Pepper's sessions in January 1967, doesn’t have any rhythm or melody and is best described as a collage of sounds. Due to the extreme experimental nature it’s never been released up till today. There are a couple of video's with different versions to be found on YouTube, although nobody knows if these are close to the original:

Video: The Beatles – Carnival of Light?

McCartney won’t make an extreme recording like Carnival of Light anymore during his solo career; the only thing that comes close is the ambient electronic album Liverpool Sound College in 2000. In addition there is the Fireman project with which McCartney takes the freedom to experiment in full. The first two albums consist of long ambient tracks. On the third Fireman album, Electric Arguments, he combines his experimental side with his ability to write great pop songs. As a result the album belongs to McCartney's best work.

McCartney's urge to experiment seems to come from a continuing need to discover new sounds

Through the years McCartney wrote some really weird stuff, which can be found on several albums. Songs like Kreen-Akrore on his debut album, The Broadcast from Wings-album Back To The Egg or Nod Your Head on Memory Almost Full. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey is another example, and this one even got number one in the US charts. It must be one of the weirdest number one hits in history op pop music.




McCartney's most experimental solo album is McCartney II, an album on which the 'freaking' McCartney can be heard; the man who goes crazy in the studio like a mad professor, as he puts it by himself. It's a McCartney that we already know from the time of The Beatles, through songs like Why Do not We Do It In The Road and Wild Honey Pie or through Paul's barking during the outro of Lennon's Hey Bulldog. 
Because he wants to record the album totally by himself, he gets the recording equipment installed at home. And what is the best way to test the stuff? In case of McCartney, he composes a song on the spot. Check My Machine is the first song from these sessions and it is about nothing else than trying out the equipment. But the result is wonderful: A wacky, swinging shuffle with strange sound effects, loops and a prominent audible banjo. Check My Machine is a great example of a McCartney track where his talent for strong melodies seamlessly merges with his urge to experiment. It is one of the stronger songs from the McCartney II sessions, although it wasn’t on the album. Eventually Check My Machine will be released as the B-side of the single Waterfalls.

Video: Check My Machine

McCartney's urge to experiment seems to come from a continuing need to discover new sounds, and then use these as an inspiration. In fact, every possible sound could be processed in a song by McCartney. Consider the hammer in Maxwell's Silver Hammer or the strange intro of Silly Love Songs. Typical is also Où Est Le Soleil, a bonus track from the album Flowers In The Dirt. Because in this case we can hear the handyman inside McCartney: The rhythm is supported by a saw.




Video: Où Est Le Soleil

In his search it's not just about exotic sounds. Through the years McCartney has been used a countless amount of instruments; and not all of them where that obvious. The most famous example is the piccolo trumpet during Penny Lane. The purchase of a new instrument can also lead to the creation of a new song; Like Dance Tonight, a song that came when Paul tried out his new mandolin. And I can also imagine that an unknown song like Love My Baby (from the unreleased movie One Hand Clapping) arose this way: McCartney sees a xylophone in a studio, starts to try out a bit, fooling around, and suddenly in doing so he creates a very charming song. The weird combination of high xylophone tones and his rough voice makes Love My Baby to a remarkable gem.

Video: Love My Baby

McCartney gives a nice insight on his experimental side when he was asked to create a commercial for BBC Radio 2 in 2003. The mission was to give a whole new arrangement to one of his old hits. The commercial shows how he builds a multi-layered track with wine glasses, a harmonium and other instruments. It doesn’t seem to lead to anywhere until the vocals are added and suddenly a familiar sound can be heard, a total new version of Band On The Run.

Video: Band On The Run, BBC Radio 2 Ad

Layering and the use of tape loops is a way of working that he still does on a regular base. As on his latest album New, when he manages to surprise producer Giles Martin:
With things like Appreciate, we had all these tape loops sounds that he’d brought in, and guitar loop sounds. And we started chopping it all together into this big collage, and I remember saying to him at one point ‘We should try and make this into a song’. And he just gave me this look, like, ‘You’re so boring!’ Then we found this chorus that he’d done previously over something completely different, and we spliced that together and it all just worked.
Video: Appreciate

Not everyone is equally enamoured of his experiments; these are often been criticized. Pretentious it is called sometimes. McCartney doesn’t seem to be really bothered: 
I don't know what it is, maybe being Gemini, but I definitely have different sides to my character. So I can love Nat King Cole singing a ballad, and then the next day I can wake up and I want to do 'Check My Machine'. I'm not a one pocket guy, I have loads of interests – and that does get you in trouble. People say, 'How dare you step outside your box!'Well I'm really sorry about it but I'm actually doing what I want with my life. I do sometime think I could just shut up and rest on my laurels and say: you know what guys, I'll operate out of the pocket you put me in.... but no way! No way I'm gonna do that! I'd just get bored stiff the first minute.
The result of that urge to keep experimenting is not just some striking gems, or a bunch of strange and sometimes outrageous tracks. The most important is the influence of this innovativeness to his 'regular' songs: it gives them just that extra twist.

Related posts:
McCartney II - Macca going loose
Electric Arguments: McCartney’s 21st Century Masterpiece

André Homan

André Homan is a Dutch writer and journalist.

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