Reconsidering the sacred cows of rock ‘n’ roll

Irony is often lost on the old, especially online. I say this especially in light of the December release of “Only One,” a Kanye West track that featured Paul McCartney. Nothing about “One” smacks of satire—in fact, it’s pretty self-serious—but its very existence inspired the music community on Twitter to trot out a particularly biting refrain: “Who’s this Paul McCartney?” 

For the most part, it was a joke—plenty of Kanye fans know who McCartney is—but the question still inflamed Beatle fans worldwide, leading to a series of foolish and excessive reports from seemingly legitimate news sources.

Speaking as someone well aware of McCartney’s legacy, I think it’s high time for his acolytes to accept a hard truth: In this day and age, it is not necessary to know who is Paul McCartney is to appreciate music.

No one can deny The Beatles’, and in turn, McCartney’s, massive contributions to the progression of rock ’n’ roll. However, that band sadly topped out 45 years ago with perhaps its weakest effort, the too-long and overstuffed Let It Be.

Barring Ram, an outlier in McCartney’s meaty solo oeuvre, he hasn’t put out anything halfway decent in nearly as many years. It’s not for lack of trying, as indicated by the bargain bin of McCartney CDs currently clogging your local record store. We’re talking about a man who has—perhaps unwittingly—spent nearly half a century laying waste to his creative goodwill and well-documented accomplishments with record after record of limp, unaffecting balladry.

Most artists on a run like McCartney’s would be remembered for the bad far more than the good, but then, most artists weren’t The Beatles. As such, McCartney’s legacy as an innovator remains intact. 

It goes further than that, though. If you self-identify as a music listener, you’re basically forced to accept Sir Paul’s greatness. There’s some sort of unspoken rule that shields him from negative critical opinion. The theory behind this phenomenon is baffling: You can’t knock McCartney’s work because Sgt. Pepper, a nearly 50-year-old album, was basically all his idea.

People may put up with his less-than-desirable solo efforts strictly because, when they put his records on, they would prefer to conjure up an idealized version of their hero—as if the ghost of The Beatles lives on, lurking behind his schlocky piano ballad pandering. Well, it doesn’t. That Paul McCartney is long gone, and he’s never coming back.

In the case of “Only One,” it might be in McCartney fans’ best interest to side with the tweets. Instead of chastising Kanye fans for riffing on their hero worship, maybe it’s time to start demanding more from the so-called “Cute Beatle.” In fact, blasphemous as it may sound, McCartney could probably learn a thing or two from Kanye about creative progression in the contemporary music landscape.

Boston indie rock legends The Pixies fall into this trap, too. Their album Surfer Rosa is essential college rock material, and it’s certainly on a short list for most influential independent records of all time. That aside, Indie Cindy, the new album they released in 2014, was hot garbage. We’re now eleven years into their “reunion”—a full three years longer than their initial run I may add—and all they have to show for themselves is a 13-song album culled from a trio of even poorer EPs that threatens to collapse their legacy.

Yet here they are headlining this spring’s Boston Calling Music Festival like it’s 2004 all over again. Worse still is the fact that their greatest member, Kim Deal, already jumped ship two years ago, back when the concept of new Pixies material seemed dubious at best. By their fourth run of Doolittle shows, it became all too easy to mistake them for the indie rock oldies circuit.

Having seemingly run through their batch of creative goodwill, one might logically think The Pixies would be subject to critical ire. They were, to an extent, but that hasn’t stopped fans—and apparently festival organizers—from staying put on the bandwagon, anyway. It’s clear to me, at least, that the magic that The Pixies captured in the studio all those years ago will never be replicated. It’s undoubtedly in the fans’ best interest to stop pretending.

Just like The Beatles’ discography, Surfer Rosa and The Pixies’ other albums are still there. My advice is to simply go back. They’re probably even better than you remember.