Take Five: Outside-the-box Paul McCartney Tracks

If Paul McCartney isn’t the greatest songwriter who has ever lived, he’s right up near the top of the list. Continuing his prolific output right into his 81st year, McCartney has been writing enduring melodies since the late 1950s (though audiences outside of Liverpool and Hamburg wouldn’t hear any of them until 1962). To date McCartney has written or co-written 32 songs that reached #1 on Billboard’s singles charts, with sales in excess of 25 million units.

Most listeners know a Paul McCartney tune when they hear one. But along the way, McCartney has embarked upon a number of unusual projects, producing results that don’t always sound like what one might expect. One of those, Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, made in a pseudonymous collaboration with Youth as The Fireman, was released just over 30 years ago. Here are five notable (but unlikely-sounding) Paul McCartney releases.

The Country Hams – “Walking in the Park with Eloise” (single, 1974)
Written by Paul’s dad Jim McCartney, this jazz tune was released as a single in 1974. The band on the instrumental recording included Paul on bass and washboard, along with his Wings bandmates Denny Laine (acoustic guitar) and Geoff Britton on drums. The one-day Nashville session for the track also featured a superstar lineup of session players that included Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano.

The George Martin Orchestra – “Love in the Open Air” from The Family Way soundtrack (1967)
The Beatles were at the height of their popularity (and creative powers) when McCartney was asked to provide a score to a comedy-drama motion picture starring Hayley Mills and Hywell Bennett. In practice, McCartney’s involvement took the form of rough musical sketches that George Martin fleshed out to create music for the movie. “Love in the Open Air” provides the audio backdrop for a key love scene in the film. A remastered version of the 1967 soundtrack was released on CD in 2011.

Percy “Thrills” Thrillington – “The Back Seat of My Car” from Thrillington (1977)
Paul and Linda’s 1971 LP Ram is rightly considered among McCartney’s best works. Around the time of its creation, Paul embarked upon a somewhat idiosyncratic side-project: using studio musicians and an orchestra conducted by Richard Hewson, he produced an “easy listening” version of Ram. It wouldn’t see release until some seven years later. Mostly instrumental, Thrillington does include some vocals, courtesy members of both the Mike Sammes Singers (who sang backing on The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” and “Good Night”) and The Swingle Singers. The album has been reissued on CD; original vinyl copies are rare.

London Symphony Orchestra – “Celebration” from Standing Stone (1997)
By the 1990s, Paul McCartney had nothing to prove, but his creative ambitions hadn’t left him. In 1991 he collaborated with conductor-composer Carl Davis to create Liverpool Oratorio, a modern classical work for vocal and orchestra. Eight years later he created Standing Stone, enlisting the talents of the 80-piece London Symphony Orchestra and 120-member Chorus. The work premiered at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October 1997, weeks after the release of the album; it was subsequently broadcast on television in the UK and U.S.

The Fireman – “Sing the Changes” from Electric Arguments (2008)
Perhaps the most “McCartney” sounding of all Paul’s side projects, “Sing the Changes” is a supremely catchy selection from Electric Arguments, the third album he made as The Fireman with Killing Joke bassist Youth (Martin Glover). The Fireman began as a sample-based project with limited involvement from McCartney, but on subsequent albums he took on a greater role; his sessions with Youth emphasized spontaneity over preparedness.