Listen to this track by post-Beatles Paul McCartney songwriting vehicle and bona fide top forty behemoth Wings. It’s “Silly Love Songs” a smash single that appeared on the band’s 1976 LP Wings At The Speed of Sound. The song proved its own thesis by spending five non-consecutive weeks on the number one spot of the Billboard 100. It would be McCartney’s twenty-seventh number one song, helping to place him in the Guinness World Book of Records as the world’s most successful songwriter by 1979.
By this time, McCartney and Wings were on an upswing with a number of hits behind them and with many in front as well before the band ended in 1981. However even during this peak period where chart action was concerned, the songwriter was not without his critics. Even his former songwriting partner John Lennon had levelled an opinion that McCartney had gone soft, writing lightweight, crowd-pleasing love songs rather than turning his talents to more substantial subjects. This song was a self-aware reaction to that. Crowd-pleasing? What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?
Having said that, there’s something else going on in this song that I think a lot of rock fans had complained about where McCartney was concerned by 1976; that it just doesn’t rock in the way that, say, “Helter Skelter” or Back In The USSR” does. I think there’s plenty to unpack there that reveals something about McCartney the writer, and maybe something about his audience, too.
By 1976, McCartney had strayed away from a pure pop-rock approach on much of his output, and would continue to do so into the eighties. He still had pretty catholic tastes when it came to his influences at the time, and was still musically curious as he had been as a young man learning his craft as a songwriter. One big influence on McCartney was that he loved R&B. Of course by 1976, that grand tradition of pop music had undergone quite a transformation even when compared to the previous decade.
That’s what we’re hearing here on “Silly Love Songs”; sumptuous disco strings, funky brass, call-and-response vocals, and a loping, melodic bassline that even those of hardened hearts cannot deny if they want to stay honest. This isn’t really pure rock music in the Beatles sense. And as much as critics make a lot of noise about lightweight subject matter, and with this song perceived as being very white-bread by many (check out Carlton’s version from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to prove that latter point), this tune is a full-on R&B song carrying more of Thom Bell’s and Al Green’s influence than it does The Beatles. For many, maybe even including John Lennon, this was a cardinal sin.
With some artists, the burden of style is just a part of who an audience perceives that artist to be. If Willie Nelson records a standards album (which he’s done!), it’s still kind of considered to be a country record, even if the music itself doesn’t really carry the hallmarks of that style. If Ray Charles records a country album (which he’s done!), it still strikes some people as a soul record, just because Ray Charles is doing the singing. The music is then judged by that perception, not on its contents. McCartney is one of those artists locked into a certain set of perceptions when it comes to style and approach when putting out records. He’s supposed to make Beatle records. He’s not supposed to try his hand at a Philly Soul-influenced number like “Silly Love Songs”. When the music is judged by the perceived standard, the way critics react to it reflect that. But, it’s often a disconnect.
Yet, maybe the point there isn’t relevant to anyone outside of a specific critical bent. And although I don’t think that a well-charting song is necessarily correlated to its quality, “Silly Love Songs” was a hit. There is a legitimacy to resisting the cheese factor in a lot of McCartney’s seventies and eighties work, for certain. Even he was aware of that tendency of his as evidenced by this very song. But there have always been more shadowy corners to the criticism of the kind that painted McCartney as having “gone soft” because of writing a song like this that aren’t so savoury, and perhaps aren’t much related to what the record actually sounds like.
Here’s the thing about that, by my reckoning. How we perceive musical style is very much tied to our biases around race. That is the society in which we still live. We tend to draw things along racial lines on some level no matter how much we feel things have progressed when it comes to who makes what kind of record, or any kind of art. Artists are meant to stay in their artistic lanes a lot of the time, particularly black artists. And where white artists like McCartney are much freer to put out a song like this full of musical references to that of many black artists more so than the reverse, they often do so at their own peril when it comes to the critical ire of rock snobbery. In this, I think it’s important to underline the point that rock music criticism has often conveniently forgotten its debt to R&B, which is something that seems to endure even today. I think music critics, and we music fans, need to check the impulse to deride when the aesthetics of R&B are found in music that we expect to rock, and ask ourselves where that impulse comes from.
Paul McCartney recently celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday (!) this past June. He’s still an active musician very much interested in R&B in the form it takes today, having recently collaborated with Rhianna and Kanye West.
You can learn more about Macca’s activities by visiting paulmccartney.com.
And to carry this discussion about the musical validity of this song even further, here’s a trailer to a documentary called What’s Wrong With That? that traces the curious life of one of McCartney’s most successful compositions, which he hasn’t played live in 40 years!