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Fool on the Hill: The Myth of Perfectionist Paul
In which Faith gets it wrong and makes it right
I got it wrong.
Back in April, I wrote a piece for HeyDullblog about Paul’s choice to put Linda in his band (“I’m Gonna Go WIth Linda on Keyboards”). It included this paragraph:
Paul seems to have been the one who protested loudest about Stu’s and Pete’s musical shortcomings. That guy matures into Studio Obsessive Paul. Which then turns into Micromanaging Paul, the Paul of “let’s do sixty-two fun-filled takes of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer!’” royally pissing off everyone in service of a song he apparently didn’t even like. We admire Paul for this attention to detail, and we should. For one thing, we don’t get Sgt. Pepper without it. But mistakes were, you know, made. Damage was, you know, done.
Later in the same piece, I twice use the term that we’re all familiar with, “Perfectionist Paul.”
I shorthanded Paul this way because I made a mistake I try very hard not to make -- I did the lazy thing and believed a trope of the Standard Narrative, without double checking it first.
I was wrong to blindly trust the Standard Narrative — it’s probably wise never to blindly trust anything, really. Putting aside for the moment that there weren’t 62 full-band takes of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, there were 21 (we’ll come back to that), I believe now that “Perfectionist Paul” is most likely a myth, and a derogatory and damaging one that does a disservice to our ability to understand Paul, the band, and how they made their music.
This article, then, is an attempt to repair my dented Beatles karma, and to do my part to mythbust the persistent fallacy of “Perfectionist Paul.”
Please bear with me because in order to do this, I’ll need to break a social taboo. A stupid social taboo, but a taboo nonetheless.
We live in a culture where only rap stars and baby-fascist presidents are allowed to take full credit (and then some) for their own merits. Other than that, it’s not allowed, to say you’re brilliant or talented, any more than it’s allowed to say you’re beautiful or sexy. It’s woven into the fabric of our culture, especially for women, this muzzling of our ability to love ourselves more publicly, more daringly, more honestly.
But in the service of pursuing the truth of this story and rectifying a wrong, I’m going to take the hit and violate this social taboo by sharing a bit of my own story.
What you need to know for all of this to make sense is that I’m — for lack of a better term — a prodigy of words and language, first identified as such when, in second grade, I scored off the scale on a series of college-level reading/writing tests. Words are and have always been my superpower. No surprise, then, that I’ve worked as a professional wordsmith in various capacities for most of my adult life — as a songwriter, a screenwriter/script doctor, and a political speechwriter, to name a few. (I’m not, you’ll notice, a prodigy when it comes to focus...). Of course, I’ve never recorded iconic albums at Abbey Road or played at Shea or on the Rooftop, but I do have extensive and diverse experience in a variety of different, often high-stakes creative situations. And I have far too much experience being accused of perfectionism by professional colleagues.
If you have a superpower of your own — and I suspect many of you do, since serious Beatles study seems to attract such people — you might know a bit about this problem. If so, my sincerest empathy and condolences. If not, I invite you to walk in my world... and Paul’s... for a few minutes. To experience the creative process the way a prodigy does.
As is the case with so much of the Beatles’ story, at the heart of all of this lies a paradox.
Being a prodigy doesn’t mean everything you do is brilliant (I wish!) and it certainly doesn’t mean everything (or really anything) you do is perfect. What it does mean is that prodigies often have the ability to perceive extreme detail in their area of exceptional talent — extreme detail that people who don’t have that particular exceptional talent aren’t able to perceive. As such, it’s not that our creative standards as prodigies are necessarily higher, although sometimes they are — it’s that because of our ultra-heightened perception of detail, it often takes — paradoxically — more time and effort for us to reach the same standard of quality than it does for someone who isn’t a prodigy.
If you’re confused by that last paragraph, it’s okay. Like all paradoxes, this one can be a little hard to wrap one’s mind around in the abstract, so let’s look at a hypothetical example.
Let’s imagine that a band is recording a new song. And that the “perfection” of that song is measured on a scale from one to five, with one being complete shite and five being perfect — whatever “perfect” means, which is largely irrelevant since there’s no such thing as a perfectly recorded song anyway.
Let’s now also say that, because there’s no such thing as a perfectly recorded song, four is the highest possible rating. We’ll call a four “near perfect” and that’s as good as it gets, really.
Now let’s say, just hypothetically, that the band in question is the most famous and influential band in history, and as such, has very high standards. Nothing goes out the door, ideally, without being rated a four, with all of the individual latitude that standard contains.
Next, let’s suppose that two members of this hypothetical band are recording this new song. Let’s call them Juan and Pablo, y’know, just to conceal their identities. (For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the other two band members, Jorge and Ricardo, are off in the bog getting high.)
Juan is a phenomenally talented singer/songwriter who may also be a word prodigy, but he isn’t a musical prodigy and therefore doesn’t have a finely tuned ear for sonic detail. He listens to the latest take of the song and, from what he hears and by his elevated-but-not-musical prodigy standards, he gives it a four. Near perfect. Good on, then, the song has met his standards, and Juan doesn’t need another take. Time to move on.
Pablo has the same high standards as Juan -- he’s also looking for a “near perfect” four. But unlike Juan, Pablo is a musical prodigy. When he listens to the same take, he hears details... musical flaws... that Juan, for all his wordsmithing brilliance, isn’t able to hear. So for Pablo — using the exact same “near perfect” standard as Juan — the song isn’t a four yet. It’s maybe a high three. More work will be required to make the song sound as good to Pablo as it does to Juan. Not better than. Not perfect. As good as.
Maybe at this point, Juan gets frustrated. Maybe he’s tired and wants to go home and drop some acid and listen to the latest Dylan album, and he thinks Pablo is just being, well, a perfectionist. After all, Juan listened to the song and it’s clearly a “near perfect” four. What the hell’s wrong with Pablo, making them do another take?
But what Juan isn’t getting is that this isn’t Pablo being a perfectionist. Remember, Pablo is judging the song using the same standard as Juan. Neither of them is looking for a perfect five. They’re both after a “near perfect” four. But because Pablo hears more detail than Juan does, he also hears more imperfections. So it’s going to take more work on the song before Pablo’s ears can hear the song as the “near perfect” four that Juan is currently hearing.
Same standards. Different ears.
Now is a good time to remind you, dear reader, that virtually every problem in this dumpster fire we call human civilization stems from an inability to understand what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes.
Geoff Emerick demonstrates this inability to understand or validate another person’s experience when he talks about Paul working on the vocal for Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da: “Richard and I began the long, tedious process of rolling and rerolling the tape as [Paul] experimented endlessly, making minute changes to the lead vocal, in search of some kind of elusive perfection that only he could hear in his head.” (Here, There and Everywhere, p. 254) That’s Emerick imposing his non-prodigy experience onto Paul. It doesn’t seem to occur to Emerick that Paul’s not trying for perfect, but for “near perfect” — just like Emerick presumably is — or that Paul can hear actual flaws “in his own head” that Emerick simply doesn’t have the ears to hear. And notice Emerick’s not very gracious about it, either, with words like “tedious” and “endlessly” and, yes, “perfection[ist].”
But calling someone a name doesn’t make it so. I can call you a monkey, that doesn’t mean you swing from the trees and eat a lot of bananas. I can call someone a perfectionist, that doesn’t mean they’re actually aiming for perfection. It just means I lack the imagination or empathy to put myself in their shoes and understand that the other person has skills that I don’t have and is thus able to perceive things I can’t perceive.
Anyone can call anyone anything — and they often do, when tensions are already high for other reasons, like, say, mysterious things that happened in India and someone in a tiara eating your digestive biscuit and feeling unappreciated as a songwriter and also other Bigger Problems that we won’t get into here.
People get pissed at each other, and things that they used to feel fine about start to annoy them, and they start to put nasty names to those things. That's human nature, when a relationship is strained — to wound by weaponizing whatever’s to hand, especially when the people involved don’t seem especially good at talking about their real feelings. All normal if unfortunate behavior, but none of it makes the nasty names true. In other words, someone calling someone a name doesn’t constitute any kind of credible evidence that the name is accurate. Understanding that starts to clear away a lot of the confusion here.
I hope this at least offers cause for reflection when it comes to the “perfectionist Paul” trope, but...
What if the reasoning above is 100% wrong? What if it turns out that Pablo... Paul... actually was looking for perfection whereas the others weren’t? Mind you, nothing I’ve found in anything Paul has shared re: his creative process suggests this is the case, and he’s released lots of material that could have, by his own admission, benefited from another pass, starting with McCartney.
So, seriously, is this just me creating a convoluted excuse to apologize for Paul’s creative process? Well, the thing is, I don't need a convoluted excuse — I’ll unapologetically apologize for Paul McCartney’s creative process anytime. Because even if Paul is or was at some point a perfectionist (and again I don't think the record supports this), we’d still be wise to think twice before calling him — or anyone, really — a perfectionist.
We throw a lot of words around in Beatledom, not all of them kind. It seems to me that, at the very least, if we can't be kind, we’d perhaps do well to throw those words around a bit more mindfully — and I’m including myself in that “we.” Because “perfectionist” is almost always used as a pejorative term. A slur. You can tell this right off, because it’s usually paired with the word “accuse.”
If I may go back to my personal story one last time here, I know firsthand how much it hurts, to have that accusation hurled at me by someone who has no interest in learning what the world looks like through my eyes... or in our case here, through Paul McCartney’s ears. How much easier just to hurl the accusation and move on, leaving someone else to deal with the damage.
In truth, labeling Paul a perfectionist because he has the ability to hear musical flaws we can’t hear says more about us than it does about Paul. It’s us projecting our discomfort with our lack of musical prodigy-ness onto him, demanding that he bend to our limited viewpoint and slapping a disparaging label on him when he (thankfully) refuses to sacrifice his gift to our lack of one. It's our arrogant and narrow-minded insistence on dragging him down to our level of ordinariness. It’s Geoff Emerick resenting having to do the work of rerolling the tape (which BTW, it’s literally his job to do, in service of Paul’s creative process.)
Inherent in accusing someone of perfectionism, whether it’s true or not, is a sort of reverse classism. It’s not far off from the “don’t get above your raising” attitude that permeates the rural culture I grew up in — the belief that someone who has more education or talent is somehow behaving inappropriately when they use that education or talent in a way that puts them ahead of everyone else. By calling Paul a perfectionist, we’re essentially saying, “don’t get above your raising.” Don’t use your superior ears, and if you do, we’ll call you names, even as we’re busy venerating the results.
Calling Paul a perfectionist is essentially demanding that he diminish his talent in exchange for being liked. It’s bullying, really, though we perhaps don’t intend it to be. And we’d all be better served in Beatledom to stop enabling that kind of nonsense. We’re better than that. Or we ought to be. All of us, self included.
One more thing. Here’s a spreadsheet of the number of full-band takes for every song from Rubber Soul on, because yes, this is what I spend my spare time doing:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1AY0JhyOmm__9gmGPovWfAT86oGc4B2rCAFL-7lJwCSs/edit?usp=sharing (source: The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, EMI 1988, Mark Lewisohn)
Notice that Paul’s not in any way unusual relative to the others in terms of number of full-band takes for any of his songs. Notice that Maxwell, which John once claimed they did “a million takes” of, doesn’t even make the Top 20, nor does Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da. Top chart position? George, with a song that didn’t even appear on any Beatles albums. Most appearances in the Top 20? That would be John.
Now, of course, the number of full-band takes isn’t the only way to determine how much work a song took, but that’s the thing usually cited by the Standard Narrative and by John and George when they were in post-breakup “nasty names” mode. Paul’s prodigy-ears did mean he often overdubbed more than the others, particularly his own parts, but that’s not perfectionism. That’s because his ability to hear more detail meant that it also took him more takes to reach the same “near perfect” standard that the others were using.
So here’s the thing then — if the Standard Narrative got something this easy to check wrong... well, we’re back to the thing we started with. Just because the Standard Narrative tells us it’s so doesn’t make it true. Maybe it’s time to start questioning the gospel on other, bigger things as well.
This article, by the way, is not perfect and was never intended to be.
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With my deepest gratitude,