Is this man worth $268.50?

April 7, 2002


The frustrating thing about Paul McCartney is that he really should know better. As Chicago gears up to welcome Sir Paul to the United Center for two sold-out shows Wednesday and Thursday, some would argue (McCartney first among them) that it's unfair to compare his solo work to the group that made him an icon. The Beatles were a unique combination of extraordinary talents who arrived at a juncture when their impact transcended mere music (as influential as that was), and they have became inextricably linked with the vast social and cultural sea change of the '60s.

Time moves on, the '60s are history and fodder for endless nostalgic TV commercials, and we have now had Solo Paul (1970 to the present) for three times as long as we had Beatle Paul (the Quarry Men became the Silver Beetles in May 1960). But McCartney's solo output has been so famously and frustratingly uneven that a critic has to ask: Would anyone care about this guy if he hadn't once been a Mop Top?

  The case for solo Paul

Please, before you write that angry letter, let me say a few good things about Macca post-Beatles. Here are the tracks and albums that I'd go to first when making the case for Solo Paul.

* "Every Night" from "McCartney," 1970--quiet, unassuming, and unforgettable.

* "Maybe I'm Amazed" from the same album--sparkling, transcendent pop.

* "Too Many People" from 1971's "Ram"--ditto the above.

* "Jet" from 1973's "Band On the Run"--driving '70s arena-rock, whatever the heck the words mean.

* "Live and Let Die"--ditto.

* "Band on the Run"--one of those tunes that strings together several unfinished ideas, but this one works.

* "The Russian Album," 1991--Paul rocks hard, with an obvious and abiding love for his '50s rock heroes.

* "Run Devil Run," 1999--ditto.

* "strawberries oceans ships forest," 1993--this collaboration with DJ Youth isn't as good as the Orb, but it works as pleasantly swirling ambient background music.

* "Flaming Pie," 1997--not earth-shaking, but a solid pop effort.

* "Driving Rain"--ditto.


The answer: Sure, to some extent. While he may not be the consummate pop craftsman that he'd have us believe (the Cole Porter or George Gershwin of his generation?), his ear for seductive melodies is undeniable. But his songs are often so slight, trifling, hyper-romantic, and shticky, his reputation would probably be akin that of Tom Jones if he'd never met and joined forces with John Lennon, once upon a time.

"What? Blasphemy!" scream the faithful. To which I reply: "Say Say Say," "Ebony and Ivory," "Silly Love Songs," "Listen to What the Man Said," "Magneto and Titanium Man," "Monkberry Moon Delight," "Oobu Joobu We Love You," "Getting Closer," "Old Siam Sir," "Let 'Em In," "Freedom," "Vanilla Sky"... to name but a few of his less than stellar moments.

The truth is, the roots of Macca's problems were there all through the Beatles. Yes, he recorded one of the strongest rock vocals ever ("I Saw Her Standing There"). And no, Lennon wasn't the group's only psychedelic groundbreaker and studio genius; "Helter Skelter," "Paperback Writer," "Fixing a Hole," "Penny Lane," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Magical Mystery Tour" were all McCartney at his best, and he made great contributions to "A Day in the Life" and "Baby, You're a Rich Man."

Macca could also be unbeatable when he was in romantic ballad mode. "For No One," "Here, There and Everywhere," and "Hey Jude" are timeless, beautiful, and much stronger songs than the more often-cited "Michelle" and "Yesterday," which are a bit too saccharine for my tastes.

Beatle Paul also gave us maudlin schlock ("She's Leaving Home"), reactionary turncoatism ("Lovely Rita" is, after all, a song in praise of ticket-writing cop--and this at the height of the Summer of Love!), and nostalgic nonsense ("When I'm Sixty-Four"). And on careful, honest examination sans the rose-colored glasses, alleged innovations such as the interlocking suites of songs on "Sgt. Pepper's" or the second side of "Abbey Road" are really a bunch of half-baked ideas strung together in place of full-born tunes.

The collaboration of the Beatles tended to diffuse or at least offset McCartney's worst tendencies. On his own, he's never really tried or dared to recruit backing bands up to the task of challenging or pushing him--witness Wings, or the current combo of generic Gen Xers joining him on the Driving USA tour. He has also made the deadly-to-all-great-art mistake of disconnecting or compromising whatever "B.S. detector" he once had, so that he now believes all his ideas are brilliant and equally worthy of our time.

Hence we get pompous silliness such as the foray into classical music with "The Liverpool Oratorio"; fabulous failures such as "Back to the Egg" and "Red Rose Speedway," and annoyingly cheesy throwaways such as "Loving Flame" and "There Must Have Been Magic" from the 2001 album, "Driving Rain."

The frustration sets in when we a catch a glimpse of something better and realize that McCartney could still be capable of greatness, if only he cared enough to strive a little bit harder.

Overall, "Driving Rain" is a solid if un-earthshaking pop effort, as was 1997's "Flaming Pie," though that album also boasted its share of stinkers. "Run Devil Run," his fiery 1999 set of '50s covers, is his finest recent offering, thanks to his level of passion for the tunes and a supporting cast that was actually on his level. He should have asked Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Deep Purple's Ian Paice to play on "Driving Rain"--though even talented peers tend to be dwarfed or overwhelmed by the looming Beatles myth. Remember his unremarkable collaborations with Elvis Costello and Michael Jackson?

In recent years, McCartney has made several odd but illuminating low-key detours into the underground. He recorded two unextraordinary but ambitious ambient house efforts as The Fireman (1994's "strawberries oceans ships forests" and 1998's "Rushes"), and he compiled the impressionistic pastiche of "Liverpool Sound Collage," which was then mixed by indie/electronic art-rockers Super Furry Animals.

If the bassist is aware of underground trends and the cutting edge of modern rock, why are his more hyped recordings so conservative? If he can still feel the rush of great rock a la "Run Devil Run," why does he play it so safe so much of the time on his own tunes? Where is the man who gave us "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Helter Skelter"?

Charming and lovable though his public persona may be, ego remains the artist's Achilles' Heel, and the saddest proof of this can be seen in the ticket prices for the current tour. McCartney is one of the richest men in pop-music history, thanks to the success of the Beatles and the enduring strength of their catalog. He does not need the money from the Driving USA tour, and there are no charity givebacks.

Yet the top ticket price for his shows in Chicago is $268.50, including Ticketmaster service fees for phone and Internet sales. The least expensive seats, in the highest tier of the United Center and with obstructed views, are $62. The other prices are $140.50 and $98.50.

Fans may be tempted to blame the promoters, Clear Channel Entertainment, but the fact is that McCartney set the price. He could have charged $25 a ticket, Clear Channel would have made the shows happen, and he and the promoter would have still made a heck of a lot of money. But with artists such as Madonna and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young selling seats at the high end of the spectrum, how would it look if a former Beatle wasn't commanding top dollar from his fans?

It's a bit hard to swallow Sir Paul in a fireman's T-shirt singing about our God-given right to live in freedom when you realize that rare indeed is the fireman or other working Joe in this country who can afford a night out with his wife that will easily cost him $600 or more, once you factor in parking and a babysitter. Free? Hardly!

Then again, at the Beatles' Royal Variety Performance in 1963, it was Lennon, not McCartney, who famously cracked, "Those of you in the cheaper seats can clap. The rest of you just rattle your jewelry."

Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis writes about Rock's Great Albums every other Sunday in Showcase. E-mail him at jimdero@ or visit him on the Web at www.


They saw him standing there





Chicagoans Patti Kunz, Linda Cerqua, and Angie Albano first saw Paul McCartney in concert on Sept. 5, 1964. The 13-year-olds sat in the third row of the International Amphitheatre and were captured in a famous Sun-Times photo illustrating the frenzied height of Beatlemania.

Thirty-eight years later, a lot has changed in the women's lives. But they are still friends and still big McCartney fans (though only two of them were lucky enough to score tickets to this week's concert). I asked them about their fandom then and now.

Q. How were you three lucky enough to get Beatles tickets in '64?

Cerqua: Back then, the only way you could get tickets was to send in your money and they picked winners like a lottery.

Kunz: I think the tickets cost like $7.50. I have the stubs.


Q. OK, take off the rose-colored glasses: How good was that concert, really?

Cerqua: Oh, of course they were wonderful!

Kunz: They were so good! I remember John Lennon looking right at us. We were throwing little balls of paper up on the stage with our phone numbers. You can see them in the picture.

Q. It's been said that fans couldn't even hear the music over the screaming. Is that true?

Cerqua: It was a lot of screaming and crying, and you can see by our picture that we were doing the same thing. But I remember their music; they sang "She Loves You," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," all the earlier Beatles songs, and everyone knew all the words. We were close, in the third row, so maybe we heard better. But it was like they were singing to us.

Albano: There was a lot of screaming, but you could hear them, and they were wonderful. When Paul sang "Yesterday" [the next time we say the Beatles here in 1966], there was silence, and I heard every word. I was a John Lennon fan, but everyone knew Paul was the cutest.

Q. Solo Paul vs. Beatle Paul--do you think he measures up?

Cerqua: Well, back then, he was like an idol. Now, I look at him as a musician. I've been to his solo concerts, and of course I thought he was great. But he still did a lot of Beatles songs, and when he does those, it just hits something special.

Albano: When he went into Wings, I thought he was pretty great. I just think he's so talented, and everything about him is good.

Q. How do you feel about him charging a top price of $268.50 for these tickets?

Cerqua: I don't understand it. He has so much money. When I heard he was coming, I was thinking, "There's no way I can afford that." But Angie got two tickets for her birthday from her brother. He's a lawyer and his firm gets tickets.

Albano: I don't understand why the tickets are this price. I didn't think any group that plays at the United Center was getting this kind of money. But I think the people who are really big fans are gonna be there no matter what.

Kunz: The prices are why I'm not going: We can't afford it. I mean, we could, but ... not really. He used to have a fan club, back when Linda was alive. I sent money to that, and when he came last time, maybe 10 years ago, anybody who was in the club, he gave the tickets away for almost nothing. I got third row again, and I got to see him play in Milwaukee Stadium, which was excellent. I thought, "Boy, he was doing pretty good back then." Now, I'm thinking, "What the heck happened? He must be so rich, and I didn't hear that he's giving it away to charity!"