Skip to content

‘McCartney: A Life in Lyrics’ is criminal tosh

Creating a podcast about the lyrics of Paul McCartney will always be a potentially dodgy scheme. Paul has not exercised consistent quality control in this area. The man behind Blackbird is also the man behind Ob La Di Ob La Da. The man behind Fixing a Hole is also the man behind Hello Goodbye.

That is no criticism, it is just that there is a risk that a two series podcast might find itself reaching too far and too often to find meaning, where in fact there is more often a Scouse genius playing with words with no more intent than to feed a mood and fill a space.

Paul is undeniably capable of poetry. But it seems impulsive, with words more often chosen for their music than their message – every bit as much as Lennon’s best known lyrics were often little more than words cobbled together and blitzed into crazy forms for his own amusement, and to tease the critics.

If the Get Back documentary tells us anything, it’s that Paul will just go with what comes out of his mouth. That in itself is a kind of genius: what maniac doesn’t love the lyrics to the off-the-cuff Get Back? But then, how much is there really to be mined from that process in a podcast?

Well, maybe quite a bit, if it’s done right, if the mountainous ego is approached with due care and attenton. Get Back, after all, has an interesting if blindingly obvious story to unpack, or at least the refrain does: sure, Paul made it up on the spur of the moment; but it’s an obvious expression of what was playing on his mind at the time: yearning for the good old days. There’s meat to chew on there.

An interviewer is not going to find this stuff easy to broach though: Paul has opened up more for others than he did in his anthology days, but he remains a man who over the years has honed intricate narratives about his life and work, a rather unconvincing but strictly adhered to personality cult – legends which are hard to pick apart, even for him.

Pushing to do so could backfire. Macca needs no encouragement to be fascinated by himself, and there is a real risk he is provoked by this exercise into finding reasons for his word choices that aren’t really there.

What’s the use of worrying?

Listening to the first series of the podcast, sparks of interest do emerge. Back in the USSR is one of Paul’s better lyrical moments, with a sense of humour that doesn’t make the listener cringe.

It’s fascinating to learn that he played the tune in Red Square back in 2003, and chit-chatted with Putin afterwards. It’s an insight into the tremendous power that Western culture could still weild back then, the doors it could open and the good it could do, far more than any president or prime minister. But we don’t learn much about the meaning of some self-evidently fun and light-hearted lyrics.

Some of the stuff around Band on the Run is diverting. It’s interesting to think that he produced his best solo album out of fury, at the band members who refused to travel with him – and kind of amusing to think that these quitting Wings members simply couldn’t tolerate the thought of being locked up with stoned Paul for weeks in a foreign land.

There are other titbits: you learn that it’s Ringo yelling ‘I’ve got blisters on my fingers!’ on Helter Skleter (always thought that was John); that Paul says ‘fuck’ a lot in conversation.

But it is too often stretching. Attempting to analyse Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey, to turn it into a meditation on his early life, feels absurd. ‘We’re so sorry but we have heard a thing all day’ does not refer to the relative poverty of his relatives. Paul just playfully jumbles stuff up to fit his tune. It works because it fits, because it sounds right, not necessarily because it means anything.

On one track Paul is honest about this: discussing a lyric in Too Many People is the one occassion Paul admits: ‘I don’t know what that means’. The fact is, a lot of Paul’s lyrics don’t mean a damn thing. He is too often steered on this podcast, led into finding connections that feel tenuous or ultimately irrelevant.

We’re so sorry

This might not matter too much. This podcast could still be fun. But A Life in Lyrics is treacly, chummy, and occassionally laughable. It’s hagiography.

Maybe it’s the format. Most of the interviews are recordings Muldoon made as part of his research for the bestselling accompanying book – apparently over a period of three years.

This contributes to a rather meandering style. Sometimes Paul appears to be eating, or otherwise distracted. These are not two people arriving with a brief to have a focussed discussion. They have more the quality of highly edited bits and pieces of rambling, hour-long chats.

Muldoon’s narration is cosy, his interviewing style built on flattery, soliciting Paul with fasincated awe – you can find yourself thinking of Putin again, that ridiculous ‘audience with history’ quality that Tucker interview had.

This extends to the structure of the podcast, in which interviews are strung together with cheesy, fawning narration, particularly with reference to Paul’s Scottish farm life: ‘instead of wrangling Beatles fans he was wrangling sheep’; ‘as well as renovating the farm they were renovating his songwriting’. Oh give me a break, Muldoon.

Muldoon is evidently an accomplished poet and clearly a huge fan. He obviously doesn’t arrive with bad intentions, and his book and podcast are both successes. But we really don’t learn much about Paul here. Rather we’re subjected to an exercise in icon worship that Putin’s lads could surely admire.

That creates an insufferable experience that often brings out the worst of Paul: an exercise every bit as delusional, sickly-sweet and questionable as Press to Play – and a reminder of that other, unreconstructed cringe-King version of Paul, who never quite seems to fade away.