Paul McCartney's music and art go under the microscope in author Martin Shough's recent book “Truant Boy: Art, Authenticity and Paul McCartney.” Shough takes a unique and far-reaching look at the former Beatle, which can be hinted at from the title. The book draws comparisons with great classical composers such as Puccini, Mozart and Handel, and poet W.B. Yeats – not to mention John Lennon. We asked him some questions about his book by email.
AXS: How does the title of the book relate to Paul McCartney?
Martin Shough: Well this is in the book, but maybe I don’t make enough of a meal of it. It’s in the opening quote from the famous Matthew Arnold poem ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, based on an old story of an Oxford boy who abandoned his studies and went off looking for magic. In the poem Arnold imagines him ageless and still seeking centuries later, as if a person in the single-minded innocence of his own dream-preoccupation becomes a wraith and can escape from time:
“Thou through the fields and through the woods dost stray,
Roaming the country-side, a truant boy,
Nursing thy project in unclouded joy, etc”
Like Arnold’s truant scholar, McCartney has in a sense been playing hooky (= playing truant = sagging off, always a feature of his Liverpool recollections) all his life, protected inside the bubble of his fame -and wealth. As I said in the last chapter: 'The ‘truant boy’ has spent his artistic life ‘still nursing the unconquerable hope’ in a kind of childlike play.”
AXS: Your book talks about McCartney's music and both the classical and pop music he has created. Are there similarities between the two?
MS: Yes, inevitably. The playfulness, curiosity, and indifference to ‘propriety’ when it comes to mixing idioms and genres, are traits common to both. Again there is the childlike thing, in the best sense. Music absorbs his sense of wonder. What I mean by that is that where another may be moved by some thought or feeling or argument and use music as a tool or medium to articulate it, McCartney is moved primarily by the music and uses that to articulate his feeling. In this sense his pop work is more like pure music. His focus on the music for music’s sake meant he was always better placed than most of his peers to learn to play the skilful games of arrangement needed for orchestral composition, and better able to appreciate the point of music as sound-sculpture in its own right – which is the principle of ‘serious, classical’ music – rather than as the secondary vehicle for some lyric message or argumentative ‘point.’
AXS: You discuss the open-heartedness in his music, that he's open to almost anything and he doesn't like to intellectualize. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
MS: It can be a bad thing for critics and interviewers insofar as it makes it hard for them to engage with him on their terms. He won’t settle in a pigeonhole and he isn’t equipped (partly by nature, partly by choice) to play their smart word games. It’s a good thing for him because it is his honest nature, and the perpetual truant doesn’t need to care anymore about how the teachers mark his work. It is part of how he keeps himself distant from ‘our feverish contact’ (see above) and retains a core of childlike pleasure in what he does. So in terms of what it allows him to do, it’s an admirable thing.
AXS: Do you rank his classical music as good as his pop music?
MS: What are we ranking each against? One against the other is chalk and cheese. And are we talking about all of it or the best of it? And what are the criteria for what is ‘good’ anyway?
It’s surely a fact that classical critics think less of his classical music than pop critics think of his Beatles music. Whether they think less of it than pop critics think of his solo music is more arguable, because both catalogues get similar sorts of ‘ho-hum with occasional bright spots’ reviews from their respective critics – both classical Paul and solo Paul get compared unfavorably with Beatle Paul, but no one can be objective about the Beatles and everything will always be in that shadow. No classical music anyone could write today could ever have a comparable cultural impact in our own time.
So I think the only way I can talk about it really is to analyze classical critics’ reasons for their ho-hum rankings of McCartney’s classics, and my opinion on that is that their objections – notwithstanding some technical quibbles that can be reasonably argued about – are mostly airing ideological prejudices. They probably think they have very advanced ideas of what ‘serious’ orchestral music ought to sound like - and particularly what it just damn well better not sound like! – but these ideas are really rooted in the near-sighted conventionalism of their own training. Why is it that so many know-all, do-nothing, music critics look down their noses condescendingly at McCartney for 'Standing Stone,' but fine composers like David Matthews and Richard Rodney Bennett who were actually involved in it show genuine admiration for what he did? I think I know the answer.
“I think when there is sufficient historical distance – say, in the year 2525 (hey, that could be a great song title!) – when the difference between 1890 and 1990 will look as shrunk and insignificant as the distance between 1390 and 1490 looks to us today, then Macca and the classical romantics will look like contemporaries and all the crap about whether stuff is ‘of its time’ or ‘old-fashioned’ in structure etc will evaporate, and if any of this music survives the digital tsunami and remains above water in 2525 (doubtful!) I reckon McCartney’s best will hold its own alongside the rest, and would actually outshine a great deal of today’s ‘classics’ on account of its strong and attractive material. But so much is at the mercy of historical accident.
AXS: How would you compare his Fireman work next to his pop and classical?
MS: Pffff, that’s even harder – chalk, cheese, and cherries! I think a lot of Fireman stuff is quite trivial, in that it won’t survive because it lacks really interesting structure and is not memorable. It is an ok sound-effect but you wouldn’t whistle it on the bus or choose it for your Desert Island Discs. Much of 'Electric Arguments' is different because it has strong memorable tunes and moods, a couple of potential classics on their there, and when he gets around to finishing it off it’s gonna be great (said with a laugh).
AXS: What keeps him going to put out new albums and tour? Do you think he'll keep going?
MS: Well as long as he’s still one of the biggest concerts draws on the planet, and his knees hold out, why wouldn’t he? He’s tremendously fit and enthusiastic. Every time he stops touring his voice is going to be weaker next time he starts again. It’s like the old joke about alcoholism – hard drinking is perfectly fine as long as you don’t stop suddenly. I can’t see him stopping until he’s got no voice left at all! But I do wish he’d build on his orchestral experience and maybe stay home to write some more of that in the years he has left.