Black and white promo of Paul McCartney singing into a microphone

Paul McCartney

© Bob Gruen

Like his songwriting foil John Lennon, Paul McCartney cherishes his Beatles legacy but isn't burdened by it.

First with his post-Beatles band Wings and later as a solo artist, Macca has strived to challenge himself, both as a songwriter and collaborator, and isn't afraid of throwing a curveball here and there to keep fans on their toes.

This commitment to progress has not only kept McCartney relevant—it's ensured he's had one of the most intriguing, varied music careers ever.


To the top

How does a musician move on after being in the biggest band in the world? If you're Beatles bassist Paul McCartney, you follow in bandmate John Lennon's footsteps and immediately jump into a solo career.

1970's McCartney was as straight-shooting and unadorned as Lennon's solo bow, Plastic Ono Band—if not even more DIY-sounding and rough-around-the-edges, perhaps because McCartney basically made the entire album himself. Still, the scratchy piano ballad "Maybe I'm Amazed," a love song to wife Linda McCartney—with whom he collaborated on 1971's barnstorming solo album Ram—pointed in the direction McCartney would go next with his newly minted band, Wings.

Free from the Beatles pressure cooker, McCartney worked closely with Linda and multi-instrumentalist Denny Laine and wrote contemporary-sounding songs with a tender romantic side. (Not for nothing was Wings' first No. 1 hit the torchy, sentimental "My Love.") It took a few years for the band to find their footing—and successfully balance sentimental schmaltz with more rock-oriented flourishes—but once they did, it was all systems go.

The dramatic, orchestra-trilled James Bond theme "Live And Let Die" was a massive hit, while 1973's landmark Band On The Run LP remains a McCartney career high point. Boasting the exuberant shout-along "Jet" and the freedom-touting title track—as well as the rollicking piano curio "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five"—the record boosted Wings' momentum.

More than that, however, McCartney and co. sounded like they jelled as a band. The freewheeling Venus And Mars followed in 1975, while Wings At The Speed Of Sound arrived in 1976. And while the latter half of the decade wasn't quite as successful, the bagpipes-driven, Scotland tribute song "Mull of Kintyre" took the U.K. charts by storm.

After Wings' 1981 dissolution, McCartney continued to be prolific. He released a steady stream of solo albums and appeared frequently in videos on then-new MTV, thanks to duets with Michael Jackson ("Say Say Say," "The Girl Is Mine") and Stevie Wonder ("Ebony And Ivory"). Near the end of the decade, he even returned to the road for the first time since the mid-'70s, in support of 1989's well-received Flowers In The Dirt.

Yet McCartney wasn't content to simply crank out rock-oriented albums. The soundtrack to his ambitious 1984 film project Give My Regards to Broad Street featured jaunty re-dos of Beatles and solo work. With noted conductor Carl Davis, he composed a series of classical pieces which appeared on the 1991 live album Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio. And several years later, he released Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, his first electronic record as the Fireman, a moniker he still occasionally uses.

These eclectic curveballs made it clear that McCartney both disliked resting on his laurels and doing what was expected of him. That's become even clearer in the last two decades: While the Beatles are never far away from his music—after all, 1997's back-to-roots triumph Flaming Pie emerged after being immersed in the Beatles Anthology—he's relentless about forward motion and eclectic musical detours.

In 2011 saw the release of a classical score for ballet, Ocean's Kingdom, while in recent times he's completed a standards album, and recorded music with Dave Grohl, Kanye West and Rihanna, and Alice Cooper's Hollywood Vampires. Collaboration has always suited McCartney well, in fact, and been central to his career endurance.

Yet when it comes down to it, McCartney most of all still adores playing music. He tours regularly, banging out marathon sets full of Beatles chestnuts and solo work. In fact, in spring 2016, he dusted off "A Hard Day's Night," which he hadn't played since the Beatles' 1965 tour.

It's a testament to the depth of McCartney's catalog that he only got around to performing of the Beatles' best-known songs after decades of solo touring. But it was just the latest delightful surprise for his fans, who've come to expect nothing less than the unexpected from one of rock & roll's most legendary figures.