Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Rock 'n Roll Thesis: The Power of Paul is Greater in Groups

If you should have a son and hope that he may grow up to become a skilled and successful rock 'n roll singer and songwriter, you really might want to name him Paul.

Buy him a guitar, encourage his interest in music, indoctrinate him with a sense of wry, witty wordplay and by all means, let him join a band.

And, should he enjoy considerable success and/or acclaim within that band (or at least a duo) and then come to you one day saying that the band is splitting and he's going solo, talk him out of it.


And, should young Paul plan on being a solo act from the very beginning, tell him to instead consider a career in acting--where Messrs. Newman, Scofield, Sorvino, Giamatti, Dooley, Walker, Rudd, Bettany, Hogan, Reubens, Robeson and Reiser have all made quite a name for themselves--or even painting, where Cezanne, Gauguin, Signac, Seruisier, Klee and Delvaux have all demonstrated a great Pa(u)lette.

For other than accomplished singer/songwriter Pauls in an easy listening vein--Anka, Williams--the only semi-successful singing Pauls known primarily as solo artists (that I can come up) with are Paul Davis ("65 Love Affair," "Cool Night") and Paul Young ("Come Back and Stay," "Everytime You Go Away").

But this story isn't about Paul Young. Nor is it about Pauls considered virtuosos at guitar (Gilbert), synthesizer (Hardcastle) or DJing (Oakenfold).

No, this rock 'n' roll thesis is about singer, songwriter Pauls who were clearly a principal--and often the primary--force behind the best rock band ever, the best British band never to make it big in America, the best duo ever, the best indie band ever and some other highly successful groups. And yet, despite reaching heights that will forever rank them high among my favorite musicians ever, and even enjoying considerable success and longevity as solo artists (and/or in subsequent bands)--typically for many more years than with their original group--their artistry never consistently, and in sum quite rarely, reached the strata that they enjoyed as part of their prevailing joint entity.

Indeed, as I will elucidate, The Power of Paul is Greater in Groups. As illustrated by...

Paul McCartney - Sir Paul has now been a solo artist (and/or a Wing) for more than four times longer than he was a Beatle. While his post-Beatles career often seems to be derided for its pop fluffiness, it is also highlighted by masterworks like "Maybe I'm Amazed," Band on the Run and "Live and Let Die." I also find his current string of albums since 1997--Flaming Pie, Run Baby Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (released under The Fireman pseudonym) to be consistently stellar, or even better.

I never mind hearing a selection of non-Beatles songs when seeing McCartney live, but when he pulls out "Eleanor Rigby," "Penny Lane," "Day Tripper," "Hello Goodbye," "We Can Work It Out," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Helter Skelter," "Get Back," "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "Let It Be" and myriad other Beatles classics he wrote (despite official credit to Lennon/McCartney), he reminds that he is probably the greatest songwriter rock 'n' roll has ever known. To me the only argument is not Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend or Brian Wilson, but John Lennon. And while I won't debate anyone who argues that John was "the best Beatle," to me, his distinction over Paul is very slight. In fact, I think, Paul's up & down solo career has prompted some decay in how his stature within the Beatles is viewed, but if you think about it, Lennon's solo career was just as up & down, if not more.

Paul Simon - Yes, Simon has had a marvelous solo career, with numerous Grammy's for Graceland, classics like "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and six albums gives 5 or 4-1/2 stars (plus Rhythm of the Saints, which it gives 4 and that I really like). He has remained an outstanding songwriter, but I much prefer his string of hits with Simon & Garfunkel to the bulk of what came since. And it seems I'm not alone. On his own, Simon seems to play theaters, such as he's booked into on his upcoming tour. On S&G reunion tours, he and Artie play basketball arenas for multiple nights, or fill up Central Park. Supposedly, they were supposed to tour and hit Wrigley Field in 2010, but it was canceled due to problems with Garfunkel's vocal cords.

So again, the work done by a Paul after his initial group (or in this case, duo) incarnation is nothing to sneeze at, but IMHO has not quite recaptured the heights of "Mrs. Robinson," "The Sounds of Silence," "The Boxer," "Cecilia," and the rest of the Simon & Garfunkel canon, even though Simon wrote virtually everything in it.

Paul Weller - If you are a fan of The Clash and Elvis Costello but have never heard of The Jam--as most Americans didn't during their 1977-82 run or in large part since--the band Paul Weller started while still in his teens is probably the best rock artist of which you are unaware. From what I've read, they were every bit as popular in their native England as the Clash, Police or Costello during the same span and in my mind, they were every bit as good (at least in consistency, if not quite matching the high water marks of the other three). Weller wrote virtually all the Jam songs and seemingly decided the group's direction, taking them from punk to Motown-influences in a span of just 6 years, never with a major dip in quality. Some of my favorite Jam songs include "Going Underground," "In the Crowd," "Eton Rifles," "Man About Town," "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," and "It's Too Bad." (Start with The Jam - Greatest Hits, but all six studio albums are great, especially All Mod Cons and "Setting Sons."

Despite phenomenal early success, Weller's ambitions grew beyond the Jam, and he disbanded the group in 1982 to form Style Council. Though the duo had some success, I don't like any of their stuff as much as that of The Jam. And while "The Modfather," as Weller is reverently referred, has subsequently put together a stellar and successful career as a solo artist, including many first-rate albums like 2010's Wake Up the Nation--which was my 4th favorite of last year-- here too the pattern plays out. For it's not that these Pauls have been failures after their initial joint successes; quite the contrary and I've continued to support them. It's just that in my mind, they never consistently reached the same pinnacle. And the same thing can be said about...
Paul Westerberg - Given that R.E.M. far surpassed their indie roots in a way that The Replacements never did--despite the latter also eventually getting signed to a major label--I consider the Westerberg-led 'Mats' the best indie band ever (their Minneapolis brethren Husker Du are a close second). And Westerberg's masterful, witty songwriting supplied the brilliance that the band's legendary drinking, discord and debauchery could never completely debunk. Tunes like "Hold My Life," "Unsatisfied," "Never Mind," "Alex Chilton," "Little Mascara," and "I'll Be You," were some of the best of the '80s, even if you've never heard any of them. (Start here but explore much further).

After the Replacements disbanded, literally on-stage at Grant Park on July 4, 1991, Westerberg initially showed the same sort of brilliance in his two contributions to the Singles soundtrack: "Dyslexic Heart" and "Waiting on Somebody." Although Westerberg has now put out numerous solo albums, including under the pseudonym Grandpaboy, almost all of which have some merit--Mono is my favorite--and several fine songs, give me his Replacements output any day. For whatever reason, even though the last official Replacements album, All Shook Down, was said to be largely a Westerberg solo effort, without the band name--at least--behind him, his writing just hasn't had the same consistent wit or appeal. 

Paul Rodgers - Long considered one of rock's great vocalists, Rodgers doesn't quite hold to my "Paul Thesis" in the same way the first four do. He isn't quite one of my personal favorites on a level like the others, he was in two successful bands--Free and Bad Company--before subsequent inconsistency and although he did co-write most of the major songs for the aforementioned groups, he wasn't composing on his own to the extent of McCartney (after the early collaborative John & Paul days), Simon, Weller or Westerberg.

But after having success with Free, whose "All Right Now" remains an FM staple, and forming Bad Company, whose first album is considered a classic, Rodgers' subsequent output, whether in Bad Company or since, has been largely mediocre. He's stayed relatively active, from forming so-so 1980's supergroup, The Firm, with Jimmy Page, to touring with Queen in the '00s as a substitute for Freddie Mercury, to releasing a smattering of solo albums to revisiting Bad Company. But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who'd suggest his best work has consistently come after 1975. 

Paul Smith - I'll excuse you for going, "Who?" but Smith is the lead singer for one of my favorite British bands of the last decade, Maximo Park. I even chose their 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, as My Favorite Album of the '00s. Even though their next two albums weren't quite as good, hopefully they're still a going concern. But they skipped out on a 2009 stateside tour and Smith released a solo album called Margins in late 2010. I never bothered to seek it out and you can't even find a review of it on nor readily purchase it in America. Hopefully he pays attention to the Paul Thesis. 

Paul Kelly - I hadn't heard of him until my friend Dave cited him when I queried about additional famous singing Pauls, but after Dave mentioned Paul Kelly & the Messengers, I liked what I found on YouTube enough to order two albums (already liking Comedy very much). Although AllMusic indicates that the Australian Kelly has released solid solo albums since disbanding the Messengers in 1992, Dave wasn't familiar with of any of them and I get the sense that the group phase was Kelly's commercial apex.

Paul Kantner - Although Kantner did release a well-regarded solo album in 1970 called Blows Against The Empire, he is the only member to have remained constant throughout both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, for whom he wrote and sang several songs. So it seems safe to assume he too is better off in a group setting.

Paul Carrack - The journeyman singer is the voice on "How Long" by Ace, "Tempted" by Squeeze and "The Living Years" by Mike and the Mechanics. He's also been a member and session vocalist for other groups in a career of 40 years, but "Don't Shed A Tear" is likely the only solo song of his you might know.

Paul Stanley - The man born Stanley Harvey Eisen has been almost exclusively the lead singer of KISS, but in addition to a 1978 solo album (released at the same time as those of his bandmates), Paul Stanley also released an album called Live To Win on his own in 2006. I never heard of it until looking him up just now, and if nothing else, it seems to prove that he does better with his makeup on.

Paul Hewson - Better known as Bono, he hasn't ever really strayed from the confines of U2 other than to write & record "Silver & Gold" for the Sun City anti-apartheid benefit album. Well that, and to occasionally save the world.

Paul Simonon - I only know of one song on which The Clash bassist sang, but "Guns of Brixton"--which he also wrote--is a pretty good one. Plus, he was the subject of the greatest photo in rock history, the one that made the cover of London Calling. He's done stints in Gorillaz and Damon Albarn's other supergroup, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, but nothing solo of which I'm aware.

So, as you can see, the Power of Paul is indeed greater in groups.

Still, I'm not really claiming that this proves anything; I am merely pointing out the coincidence that at least four of my favorite singer-songwriters are named Paul and have followed roughly similar career regressions. Plus, that almost all successful singing Pauls can be found within bands, rather than without.

Despite my abiding thesis about the Pauls--particularly McCartney, Simon, Weller and Westerberg--I realize that the trajectory of tremendous group output (and often success) followed by a substantial but lesser solo career is not limited to songwriting singers named Paul.

David Byrne, Sting and John Fogerty all became strong solo acts yet never quite equaled their work within Talking Heads, The Police or Creedence Clearwater Revival, despite their being the chief songwriters within those groups. And I'm sure you can think of others who fit the profile.

In fact, I find it a bit harder to come up with solo careers that were better than the (noteworthy) groups left behind, with Peter Gabriel (Genesis), Neil Young (Buffalo Springfield and CSNY) and Van Morrison (Them) being the only real obvious examples. You can argue amongst yourselves whether Lou Reed (Velvet Underground), Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath) and Morrissey (The Smiths) were better alone or within the bands that made them famous; I lean toward the latter. Rod Stewart doesn't count, because although he had some great solo records, the best came during the period that he was also the frontman for The Faces. And because I'm focusing on rock performers, I'll leave Beyonce out of the equation, although she seems more popular on her own than with Destiny's Child (I don't know enough to make a qualitative judgment).

So I guess my rock 'n roll thesis is best stated as:
Singing Pauls are almost always better in bands, and should never leave a successful one behind, but that's likely a bad decision whatever your name may be.


Anonymous said...


What a fascinating thesis. Don't think correlation implies causality..but yeah...there are a lot of "Pauls" who were better in their respective bands.

I wonder if the true causality has something to do about being in your 20s. For some reason it seems really creative people make their mark sometime in their 20s...and then spend a lifetime trying to equal their first achievements.

Along the lines of your "Power of Paul" post...what about one of your favorite guitarists (from your prior post), Eric Clapton? Acknowledged as doing stellar work in the Yardbirds he attained super stardom with Cream. Do you think his subsequent solo career matched his achievements with Cream?


Seth Arkin said...


Clapton's not such an easy corollary, since he was in The Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Derek & The Dominoes and Blind Faith before being exclusively solo.

I'm not sure that his solo output was ever a qualitative match for the best of his joint efforts, but from I Shot The Sheriff to Cocaine to Wonderful Tonight to some of his '80s and '90s output, he probably has just as many (or more) greatest hits on his own.