Certain Songs #1447: Paul McCartney & Wings – “Live and Let Die”

Single, 1973

Of course, the James Bond films have always been ridiculous. That’s part of the fun, and while a half-century and gaps between production has lessened the impact, part of the ridiculousness has always been the foofaraw surrounding the theme song.

For reasons, I guess, it’s always been a thing, so when in 1973, the producers were able to convince an ex-Beatle to provide the theme song for the first film where Roger Moore played Bond, it was a huge huge thing indeed.

And while writing a song to order was a weird thing for Paul McCartney, he was more than up to the task, providing a massive gigantic epic that, honestly, still sounds pretty fucking great all these years later, probably because it knew just exactly how ridiculous it was.

A master class in dynamics, “Live and Let Die” starts off with just Paul at the piano:

When you were young
And your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
But if this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry

To live and let die
(Live and let die)
Live and let die
(Live and let die)

Heh. There are so many thing to love here: first off, the scolding background vocals in the verse of “you know you did, you know you did, you know you did” you know, like “live and let live” was a bad thing or something. And even better than that, there’s “if this ever changing world in which we live in,” which of course, is hilariously non-grammatical.

And while Paul has tried to claim that the lyric is “if this ever changing world in which we’re living,” but that is complete and total horseshit, because that ain’t what he’s singing. And the more grammatical take is way way way less fun. And way less ridiculous.

And speaking of ridiculous, the phrase “Live and let die” makes no fucking sense, either, completely devoid of actual meaning, which is why it’s utterly perfect — and in the grand tradition of Bond titles that seem like they make sense but really don’t — and besides before you can go “‘live and let die,’ what does that even mean?” The song has literally skyrocketed away from you, thanks to an insane orchestral arrangement from one George Martin.

I don’t know if this was the only time that Martin & Macca worked together after the Beatles split, but it sure as shit was the first time, and the instrumental section after the first chorus is an utter monster, a soaring mix of horns, strings, guitars and percussion that goes and goes and goes and goes until it collapses under its own massiveness into the bridge. Which is fucking reggae. Or “reggae,” really.

Why? No that’s not the question. The question is “why not?” Because it’s fucking brilliant.

What does it matter to you?
When you got a job to do
You got to do it well
You got to give the other fellow
HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL

McCartney’s scream of “HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL” is somehow a combination of totally controlled and completely unhinged, and leads back into another bout of orchestral insanity followed by the second half of the first verse repeated, and one last chorus followed yet one more orchestral buildup. Because why the hell not?

It’s so completely over-the-top that noted over-the-top enthusiasts Guns N’ Roses — whom you might remember, I totally love — couldn’t figure out anything new to add to it when they covered it on Use Your Illusion I. Sidebar: I do remember when it was announced that GN’R were covering both “Live and Let Die” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” I was excited about the former and rolled at my eyes at the latter, because it had been covered so many times already. So, naturally, I was surprised when the “Live and Let Die” cover was kinda rote while the “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” cover kinda killed.

The summer of 1973 was also the summer I turned into a music freak full-stop, listening to KYNO every moment I possibly could, and I heard “Live and Let Die” countless countless times, as it rode to #2 on the Billboard charts. At that point, The Beatles were still kind of an ungraspable legend, as I didn’t get to experience them in real time, but “Live and Let Die” was happening to me right there right then, and when it was followed by the rocking if lyrically incomprehensible “Helen Wheels,” it struck me that this Paul McCartney guy was pretty good. Maybe even as good as my beloved Elton John!

What I didn’t know what that my love for his music was about to hit a fever pitch.

“Live and Let Die”

“Live and Let Die” performed live, 1976

“Live and Let Die” performed live, 2009

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