Happy Paul McCartney’s 79th Birthday: Even His Mumbo Junk Songs are Luminous

Most of the world knows of the greatness of his masterpieces. But here on his 79th birthday it’s worth noting that even his lesser songs by Paul McCartney always possessed a singular spark of greatness.

“Of all the songwriters of our era,” Paul Simon said, “I think McCartney is the greatest melodist.” Sure, “greatest” is impossible to measure, but what is undeniable on his 79th birthday is that the man has created such a remarkable bounty of great melodies.. The world without all those tunes would not have been the same. Even his “granny tunes,” as Lennon disparagingly called them – the jaunty music-hall-inspired songs like “When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know” and “Martha My Dear” – are inspired, great songs. They brought a whole other dimension to Beatles music, that sweet evocation of yesteryear hearkening back to bygone days and simpler times from the same guy who wrote “Helter Skelter.”

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Even some of what are widely considerd his weakest songs and recordings are great. We compare them, naturally, to his greatest songs – standards such as “Yesterday,” the most recorded song of all time, and all the rest – and they pale compared to those. But in truth, even what was dismissed then is very alive. His first album Wild Life with Wings, after the break-up of The Beatles, had some songs with melodies, but no real words. Just nonsense. Critics at the time were outraged that he couldn’t take the time to turn these into real songs, as he did with “Scrambled Eggs” when it became “Yesterday.”

But even these nonsense songs are so sweetly melodic that they all shine with that singular McCartney melodic charm. I got Wild Life as a gift back then, Christmastime, 1971. Every album was momentous then, but some were simply luminous. This one was. I listened to it non-stop for weeks any chance I could. I loved “Bip Bop” and “Mumbo.” There was a joy beyond words which I loved. The nonsense to me was as engaging and cool as the odd British words in Beatles songs, which seemed exotic to a kid in suburban Illinois, such as the “yellow lorry rolling slow” in “You Never Give Me Your Money” or the “mac” that the Penny Lane banker never wears.

Some of his wordless melodies were composed while The Beatles were still unbroken, but never finished or recorded. Of these, few speaks to the poignant melodic sweetness of his essential spirit more than “Junk.” Composed also as pure melody, he wrote words for it and ultimately recorded it solo as “Singalong Junk.” That finished song resounds like a classic early Tom Waits song in the lyrics and music.

But even as pure melody it is great. That he would compose an entire melody like this shows the pure melodic focus he brought to his songs. He was also a great lyricist, obviously, and we don’t want to play into the myth that McCartney wrote the great melodies and Lennon the great lyrics. They both did both, and encouraged each other always to do something new with both words and music.

So in honor of his 79th birthday today, an offering of some of his great melodies, each created full-blown, and unattached to regular words.

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