The “kid from Liverpool,” as he often refers to himself, has a career as celebrated as any in human history. Paul McCartney is arguably the most listened-to and photographed person ever, and he’s surely among those who have performed the most live shows. Musically and commercially, he’s in every elite company.
We know about his Beatles life, so let’s leave that off the table. His post-Beatles trajectory, starting in 1970, is epic in its own right. Macca has released 26 albums since those days with the lads and has gone out on 16 major tours, picking up a treasure chest of Grammy Awards along the way.
The Guinness Book of World Records certified Paul as the most successful songwriter ever, and he even became the first artist to broadcast live to space.
Of course, he’s led an impossibly cool life. From 1970 through today, McCartney has had no peers when it comes to the same metrics of success. Paul’s never been idle, and fans have never kept him off the radio or stage. To better understand his post-Beatles phase, we look at the five greatest calendar years in Paul McCartney’s professional life since he’s been on his own.
Paul McCartney’s strongest post-Beatles years:
McCartney’s first album of the 1990s, Off The Ground, had a lot going on. He was making social statements, like the anti-animal cruelty rocker ‘Looking For Changes’, and was yearning for a better world on ‘Hope Of Deliverance’. ‘Big Boys Bickering’ even contained a rare F-bomb from Macca. He also had some more Beatley fun, recording ‘Cosmically Conscious’, which he wrote in 1968 during the group’s sojourn in Rishikesh. All the while, Off The Ground was on the same album charts as Dr. Dre, Pearl Jam and Metallica.
Paul also toured the world again that year, playing almost 80 shows from Italy to Chile and everywhere in between. Another album that year, Paul Is Live, captured tour highlights and saw him having more fun with his Beatle legacy on an album cover that mimicked the Abbey Road cover.
Off The Ground, a gem of a record, came in the “driest” period of Paul’s career to date, with just three albums in eight years. The 1993 world tour also would be his last for nine years. Sadly, a cancer diagnosis for Linda McCartney came two years later.
Artistically, McCartney allowed a producer into the mix. Radiohead and Beck collaborator Nigel Godrich came into the control room, and the result, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, brought Paul his first top ten album in eight years and his first of the 2000s in the UK and US. It was his first record in 12 years to go gold in at least five countries and was the first time in 21 years he wasn’t credited as producer or co-producer of one of his own studio albums.
Obviously liberated, McCartney played almost 30 different instruments on the album, earning four Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. Macca was definitely still celebrating Beatles magic by penning a tune, ‘Friends To Go’, inspired by the recent passing of George Harrison. “To me, it just started to sound like a George Harrison song,” he said at the time. “So I was writing with that in the back of my mind.” McCartney also taped a wonderful promotional concert for the album in front of a spellbound audience inside Studio 2 at Abbey Road.
His tour that year featured 37 shows across North America, with three sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden. He continued to raid the Beatles vault for stage debuts like ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ which opened shows that tour.
The year started in January when Paul booked time at Abbey Road Studios to record Wings At The Speed Of Sound, which became his most successful US chart album since his days with the Beatles. The album spent seven weeks at number one in the States and even kept the Beatles’ packaged compilation Rock’ n’ Roll Music, which peaked at number two, from the top spot.
His subsequent North American tour leg marked McCartney’s first live performances there since the Beatles’ final tour a decade earlier. It yielded a triple-live album, Wings Over America, which was released that December and became the first triple album by a group to reach number one in the US.
For the first time, McCartney also started sprinkling some Beatles tunes into his live set. Only five, though, and he made the not-cool decision to credit them to “McCartney-Lennon” on the live album. But a huge year for Macca.
The year would see two album releases, Band On The Run and Red Rose Speedway, as well as one of Paul’s grandest singles, ‘Live And Let Die’. It piloted the soundtrack to that year’s James Bond flick of the same name and gave Macca’s live shows a fan favourite that would last forever.
Wings embarked on their biggest tour to that point and gave McCartney a joyful stop at the Empire Theatre in the heart of Liverpool, which took him to his hometown venue for the first time since the Beatles had played their last-ever Liverpool show there in 1965. That tour also saw Wings close the show each night with McCartney’s take on ‘Long Tall Sally’, a regular of his on Beatles’ live setlists, in an early indication that perhaps some frost was thawing.
In addition, that year was marked by the release of the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ Beatles compilation albums which gave the band’s catalogue a new boost. Meanwhile, on a personal note for McCartney, the number one Band On The Run album would mark his last release on Apple, so that mess was getting behind him. John, George and Ringo that year filed suit against Allen Klein, which probably gave Paul an overdue sense of vindication.
The world tour that started in 1989 was McCartney’s first in over a decade, and the trek – and its setlists – amounted to a new phase in Paul’s career that is still burning bright. For the first time, he included a heavy sampling of Beatles tunes into his live shows, and fans (and The Man himself) got to hear songs never before played live, like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Tunes like those and the likes of ‘Hey Jude’ and the Abbey Road closing medley are staples of his live shows now. That’s why younger fans can’t fathom what a quantum leap that represented in Beatle culture at the time.
McCartney had come to terms with years of post-breakup bad vibes, having officially exorcised them. “The interesting thing about some of the Beatles stuff was I’ve never actually performed it onstage before — and we never got to do it with the Beatles, ’cause we stopped touring at that time,” he’d said. “I got up on stage and said, ‘I’ve never done this one before.’ So that’s nice, cause they’re fresh.”
His album that year, Flowers In The Dirt, went gold in seven countries and platinum in his UK home. It featured even more of a branch to his Beatles past with the touching video for his single ‘My Brave Face’, which had loads of fun Beatles references. Another highlight was ‘Figure Of Eight’, which swung on his best bass line of the ’80s and was more proof that his collaboration with Elvis Costello was terrific.
That tour went on for more than 100 shows and would include two concerts in the Beatles’ pre-fame haunt of Hamburg. His last show of the 1980s came just before Christmas at Madison Square Garden. That tour also saw keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens’ first roll-up, and he’s been anchoring Paul’s backing band ever since.
In 1989, Paul officially became the ultimate Beatles ambassador and chief steward of their legacy.