Did we know that Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson were the exact same age? That save for a couple of days in June 1942, two history-changing songwriters – for whom the moniker “genius” is an understatement – both chose to enter this world? Well, if this synchronicity somehow passed you by for the undoubted euphoric twin tributes when they turned 75, 70, 60, 50, 40, 30 and 25, let it be known now: Paul McCartney was born on the 18th of June 1942, and Brian Wilson arrived just two days later on the 20th.
Fast forward a quarter of a century to 1967 and these two very different men – one affable and gregarious, the other fragile and shy – had already profoundly altered the pop cultural landscape in ways even the most ego-centric entertainer could never possibly fully comprehend. And everything we know about McCartney and Wilson is that there’s many a lesser talent who’s carried a heavier ego.
Ego or not, for the purposes of this article, I’m not going to attempt to explain nor reframe the how’s and the why’s of McCartney and Wilson, but instead to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes, coming up with a list! And given they’ve both just turned 80 (and McCartney has celebrated by somehow defying science to headline Glastonbury), here are eight songs by each of them that I truly adore.
When you’re talking not just about this rarefied level of genius, but this level of prolificness, choosing eight songs is nigh on impossible. This cannot be definitive, hence no Hey Jude or Here, There & Everywhere, nor I Get Around or God Only Knows. But these are my favourites and for that, they’re essential to me.
8 Essential Paul McCartney Tracks:
Tug Of War – 1982
The title track to McCartney’s first album after Lennon was shot dead in 1980, this devastating past-tense tale about two rivals who clearly loved and needed each other is just about as good as complicated, plutonic devotion gets on record.
Let It Be – 1970
So ubiquitous that it’s easy to overlook how this really only rivals Bridge Over Troubled Water (also 1970) as the greatest secular hymn of all time. “Mother Mary” is about Paul’s mother who died of cancer when her boy was just 14, but the intentional ambiguity of the lyrics gives the song a broad reaching, subtle spirituality.
Mull Of Kintyre – 1977
Speaking of secular hymns, structurally and cadence-wise, this bagpipe-led waltz is like a Scottish Amazing Grace. It must suck to be anyone who’s expended energy pretending to dislike this mega-selling late 70s smash, especially with that killer modulating chorus.
Lady Madonna – 1968
A piano-led R&B barnstormer that has so much going on its 2mins & 16secs that its brief run time is almost a physical necessity. Rollicking, melodic and yet still the sort of ditty you’d swear Macca could whip up in his sleep.
Put It There – 1989
Another 2-minute gem, this late career highlight was a modest hit in the UK, but its distinct guitar picking and reminisces of McCartney’s own relationship with his father have long made it a fan favourite.
Fool On The Hill – 1967
A sweet, soaring ballad from the maligned Magical Mystery Tour project, I’ll be gosh-darned if there’s a better usage of a recorder in a pop song.
Let Me Roll It – 1973/1977
A hard-rocking riff, a bluesy chorus, and a melodic sensibility that all add up to one of McCartney’s most beloved 70s album tracks. And then you discover the live version from 1977 and everything you liked about this song gets even better, especially the duel between the attacking electric guitars and McCartney’s huge, defiant bass. A remarkable live vocal too.
Arrow Through Me – 1979
Paul McCartney meets Michael McDonald, and the most genre-bending Beatle going Yacht Rock doesn’t disappoint.
8 Essential Brian Wilson Tracks:
Good Vibrations – 1966
Enormously complex and yet quite simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded. Multiple stanzas that never sound disconnected, 21 different recording sessions across four different studios, and at US $75,000, the most expensive single ever recorded when released. The Bohemian Rhapsody of the 60s.
California Girls – 1965
Close to being as significant an achievement as the following year’s Good Vibrations, California Girls’ ode to the women of the world is arguably a case of writing hit lyrics as well as a hit melody. Add to that some glorious layered harmonies and an instrumental intro as patient and perfect as any in pop and it’s an early mark of Wilson’s emerging genius.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice – 1967
Innocence never sounded so sophisticated with lyrics that long for being old enough to be married, to wake up together, spend the day together, and “hold each other close the whole night through”. And when you match that innocence with an arrangement worthy of Mozart, you get one of the most vital top 40 tunes of the decade.
Do It Again – 1968
Underrated despite being a UK #1 (and US top 20), Do It Again gets wrongfully dismissed as somehow being lightweight due to its intentional hark back to the group’s earlier sound. And yet there’s nothing as funky, low-fi and loose in the catalogue that compares. As far as wordless choruses go, it’s a cracker too.
I Should’ve Known Better – 1965
Do It Again may’ve found the band in funky, low-fi, loose territory, but three years earlier they’d done a full album in mock loose mode. “Mock”, because all the chatter and laughing on the album Party! was added later, and the seeming spontaneity of the record was staged. But what wasn’t fake was this brilliant acoustic take on one of the great Beatles’ number ones that never was. Originally the B’side to A Hard Day’s Night (and merely an album track in the UK), this improves on the original with some knockout harmonies. The only flaw is that at 1:40, it’s a good minute too short.
Til I Die – 1971
One of the few Beach Boys songs written in its entirety by Wilson, the trademark harmonies and melody are there, but this time matched to their leader’s most moving, most autobiographical lyrics.
Caroline No – 1967
An oddity for being a Brian Wilson solo song that appeared on the Beach Boys’ landmark Pet Sounds LP, this time Wilson ditched the harmonies of his bandmates and let the strength of this gorgeous melody stand on its own.
Surf’s Up – 1967/1971/2004
Part of the abandoned Smile album from 1967, then buried until being touched up as the title track (as well as closing track) of the band’s 1971 album, and then finally finished to Wilson’s satisfaction on the long awaited, much mythologised, finally released 21st Century version of Smile in 2004; many critics regard Surf’s Up as the single greatest ever Beach Boys song.
Arresting from the first lower-register note, Van Dyk Parks’ lyrics play on the band’s image, with the expression “surf’s up” referring to the end of an era rather than any beginning, and emphatically not anything to do with the beach. Sombre, serene and ultimately hopeful, a staggering achievement.