My wife, Rhonda, gave me a great Christmas present last year: a two-volume book, written by Paul McCartney and edited by Paul Muldoon, simply titled “The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present.”
It was a big present by Judd family standards. They are hardcover books, printed in full color on high-quality paper in boxed packaging at a not-so-cheap price, with 92% of its Amazon ratings being five stars.
In both volumes, McCartney provides context and creative details for more than 150 songs from his Beatles and post-Beatles career. They also contain many photos and illustrations related to the songs, including many full-page images of the lyrics as originally scribbled by McCartney’s hand.
Rhonda and I had heard an NPR interview with McCartney when the books came out, and I made a comment or another indicating my interest, and then forgot all about it. This resulted in a pleasant surprise on Christmas morning 2021, when Rhonda gave me the box set.
My first awareness of Paul McCartney came when I was a little boy of around 6 or 7 and the Beatles were just becoming a “thing”, as they say. You know, Ed Sullivan and “yeah yeah yeah” and Beatlemania and all that. I remember adult conversations like, “What do you think of The Beatles and that long hair?”
The “long hair” at this time only reached the top of their ears and their bangs reached their eyebrows when they had not had a recent haircut. Shocking, huh? But as many traditional-minded Americans of the day perceived, the Liverpool “guys” were extreme and just another youthful fad that came and went quickly. We all know it didn’t quite work out that way.
I am one of those people who is fascinated by the process of creativity and how it happens. I’ve watched and enjoyed TV documentaries about authors I’ve never read and musicians I’ve never heard. The interest is naturally stronger when I know the author, the band or the musician, so “The Lyrics” books are ideal for me.
There are many songs among these McCartney addresses in “The Lyrics” that are completely unknown to me. Honestly, I’ve never bought a Beatles record beyond the ‘greatest hits’ compilations. So naturally, the first songs I looked up in the McCartney volumes were the most obvious: “Hey Jude”, “Eleanor Rigby”, etc.
One of the songs that I was most interested in because of its distinct style and beauty is the one that only reached No. 45 on the US easy-listening charts, but was much more successful in Britain than in the United States. It was a 1977 Paul McCartney and Wings recording made long after the Beatles broke up. And unlike so many McCartney songs, its co-writer was not John Lennon, but Denny Laine, a former Moody Blues member who became a key member of McCartney’s Wings.
The song is titled “Mull of Kintyre” and Laine appears in the video, accompanying McCartney on harmonies and guitar. The song also features Paul’s then-wife Linda, and notably the Campbeltown Pipe Band who provide the song’s famous bagpipe accompaniment.
As is usually the case with music videos, the music heard was not recorded at the same time as the video. McCartney’s text to the song indicates that the pipes’ audio was actually recorded earlier in the garden of his Scottish farmhouse. The vocals were also recorded earlier, outdoors.
Explaining the song’s origins, McCartney writes that “we were already spending a lot of time on our farm in Scotland in the mid-seventies. It’s in Kintyre, actually, not really on the Mull of Kintyre.
What is a “muller”? In Scottish geographical terms it means a promontory of land, usually one extending into a sea, such as the Mull of Kintyre.
McCartney reveals his initial concern about whether the Scots would appreciate an Englishman writing a distinctly Scottish song.
“One day it occurred to me that there were no new Scottish songs; there were a lot of good old songs that the pipe bands played, but no one had written anything new. So it was an opportunity to see if I was capable of it. A new Scottish song written by a Sassenach? It would be fun.”
And what is a “Sassenach?” I had never heard or seen the term until I read about it in McCartney’s book. It turns out to be a term referring to someone or something that is completely English in a somewhat cliched and perhaps slightly obnoxious way. It was once an insulting term when used by the Scots towards the English, but over time it has been adopted by the English in the same way that a proud rural Tennessean might unhesitatingly describe himself as a “redneck” or a “hillbilly”.
So, Paul McCartney, thank you for giving me some information! Thanks to you, I now know the meaning of “mull” and “Sassenach”. (You pronounce the latter roughly like “sess-eh-neck,” the Internet says.) And while the term apparently isn’t considered particularly harsh anymore, it’s probably best not to slap one of your friends. English in front of her, just in case.
Back to the song: Over the years, ‘Mull of Kintyre’ has become something of an anthem for Scottish expats around the world, a moving celebration of their home memories. It is a moving piece of music for everyone, regardless of Scottish ties or lack thereof.
“Mull of Kintyre, oh mist that comes from the sea. My desire is always to be here, oh, Mull of Kintyre.
McCartney notes in his book that part of the security team he uses during concerts is Scottish, and when this song is performed, “you see them spouting”.
If you haven’t heard “Mull of Kintyre”, look it up on YouTube. Look for the video which begins with Paul McCartney sitting on a fence with his guitar in his lap and a small Scottish farmhouse in the background. I think you’ll find one of those songs that’s impossible not to like.
Illuminating what some thought: McCartney ends his chapter on “Mull of Kintyre” with a fun and true anecdote about one person’s unexpected reaction to the song.
McCartney writes: “One day Linda and I were in traffic in London in the West End somewhere, and there was a big gang of punks who looked very aggressive, and we were kind of hunkered down a bit, trying not to get noticed. …and then they noticed us, and one of them walked up to the car, so I rolled the window down a bit, and he said, ‘Oy, Paul, this ‘Mull of Kintyre’ is f—–g great!”
Whatever you think of his language, this “punk” was absolutely right.