The Genius of Paul McCartney - As Told By Abbey Road's Cameron Colbeck

Sir Paul McCartney redefined popular music in many ways: creatively, technically, and spiritually just to name a few. His legacy remains deeply connected with Abbey Road Studios, and as Paul says in his own words: “whenever I go to Abbey Road, just the thought of how many creative moments happened there makes me want to sit and think”. Every day his music helps draw people from around the world to the Abbey Road crossing to pay homage. Abbey Road’s Cameron Colbeck gives us a deeper insight into the legacy of the songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer and one of the most successful artists of all time.
 
Of all the musicians and songwriters to grace Abbey Road Studios in it’s 89-year history, it would be hard to find a more influential individual than Sir Paul McCartney. To me he is undoubtedly the most important. My mother famously says, “I was the one to introduce you to The Beatles, while you were in the womb!” It’s true, I have so many memories from my childhood filled with their music, their films and lessons from their careers and personal lives. Immediately the songs which featured Paul stood out and inspired me.

His musical and songwriting prowess combined with a radiant lightheartedness, struck a chord that I attempt to sustain in my own life. I loved the fact that he plays by ear and doesn’t read music, so I felt like I didn’t have to. As I’ve grown up I can safely say he has been my largest influence as a musician. It is partly what brought me over to England after spending my first 19 years in California. Now somehow I find myself working at my own version of Mecca, Abbey Road Studios. Closer than ever to one of the most heroic figures in my life, the man himself, Macca.
 
 
He is and has always been unapologetically positive in his songwriting, partly stemming from his early musical exposure to old show tunes by his father. Paul has retained much of that nostalgia and romance throughout his recording career all the way from Please Please Me to Egypt Station. Not blindly so, that overriding positivity is lifted up and amplified by a deeper raw emotion. You can hear the influence of more rootsy music when he goes for his trademark growling vocal, or by his soulful, instinctual musicality. Brought over by travellers and sailors in Liverpool in the '50s, Paul was infatuated with blues and country music like Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Ray Charles, Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.

From Elvis, he and The Beatles learned to “have fun with it all, and be cheeky”. I feel like that this is the defining characteristic which radiates through the majority of his songs. I’ve heard many people dismiss him because of that very quality, calling his writing sappy or sentimental. To me, this is to blatantly ignore some amazing wordplay and poetry as well as the incredible feat of writing so many hit songs about that one undeniable theme, love. He’s likely the most prolific love-song writer of all time. Even his sadder songs seem to provide comfort. It’s as if he writes sad songs with an acceptance or resolution already reached, giving a sort of self-therapy. “This is one of my themes: take a sad song and make it better, let this song help you. ‘Empowerment’ is a good word for it.” - Paul McCartney from Many Years from Now by Barry Miles.
 
 
As early as 1963 he and The Beatles were already pushing technical processes to new heights, such as compressing John’s rhythm guitar to the point of it sounding more like an organ on I Want to Hold your Hand. Creativity on the technical side only increased as they were allowed more access to the studios and new technologies emerged. The progression of tape recording throughout The Beatles career played a large part in what they were able to accomplish. First with two-track for the majority of Please Please Me and With The Beatles, then to four-track for A Hard Day’s Night right the way through to Sgt. Pepper and part of the White Album, to eight track for Let it Be and Abbey Road.

Of course when talking about the technical advances of the Beatles recording career, we must also give credit to engineers Ken Townsend, Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott, as well as George Martin and the other members of the band John, George and Ringo. However I would argue it was Paul’s striving for difference that inspired the others around him to push themselves and consequently the so-called “norms” of traditional recording. Paul would often make sound collages using his Brenell tape recorder outside of the studios, always searching for odd sounds that might come in handy on a recording session.

The prime example of this is his tape-loops used on Tomorrow Never Knows. One of those loops, namely the “seagull” sound at the start of the track, is actually Paul laughing. He also had the idea to close-mic the strings on Eleanor Rigby to achieve a much fuller sound. Geoff Emerick has said that at the time in 1966, this was considered radical. Now it is a commonplace method for string recordings.
 
 
The space for experimentation Paul and The Beatles were given at Abbey Road undoubtedly allowed them freedom to come up with more and more creative ideas, and at a blistering pace. Paul’s songwriting was reaching new heights with classics like Blackbird and Hey Jude, both of which manage to hold quite serious subject matter while simultaneously spreading light on situations like civil rights or divorce’s effects on a child. Just as importantly as his songwriting, Paul has remained an incredible live bass player, piano player, guitar player, singer and performer way past The Beatles end to touring in 1966. I couldn’t possibly write about his career without mentioning Wings. Another 10-year project of McCartney's, inevitably slightly less well-received than The Beatles, but to me just as indicative of his capacity for creativity and fun.

Some of my favourite songs and footage of Wings are from a live concert at Abbey Road in 1974 featuring Junior’s Farm off of the Venus and Mars album. There is something undeniably special about the times Paul comes back to play at Abbey Road Studios, notably the Chaos and Creation concert in 2005, and the Spotify Sessions with his full touring band in 2018. I, with a little help from my friend Jack, was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of soundcheck on that day in Studio Two, and to hear those songs played by that man in the studio where they were realised was truly one of the highlights of my life.
 
 
Sir Paul McCartney redefined popular music in many ways: creatively, technically, and spiritually just to name a few. His legacy remains deeply connected with Abbey Road Studios. Even after all these years I suspect he’s still their proudest client. Every day his music helps draw people from around the world to the Abbey Road crossing to pay homage. To me his music remains a daily inspiration and is a pleasure to pass on to others. He’s a lover of show tunes and the blues, a performer, a songwriter, a painter, a poet, a vegetarian, and an all-round source of light to people in dark times. Cheers to you, Paul!

Cameron has also updated our Genius of Paul McCartney playlist which you can listen to here.