Happy 80th, Paul – you are the soundtrack of our lives
ONE day at the height of the punk era, Paul McCartney and his wife Linda were in traffic in London’s West End when a gang of aggressive-looking punks hove into view.
“We were”, McCartney would later recall, “kind of crouching down a little bit, trying not to get noticed, and thinking, ‘Jesus, what are they gonna do?’
And then they noticed us, and one of them comes to the car, so I wound down the window a little bit, and he goes, ‘Oi, Paul, that ‘Mull of Kintyre is f----- great!’”
That’s the thing about McCartney. It’s hard not to be starstruck by him, impossible not to admire the outstanding quality of the countless songs he has written in his time.
As author Mark Hertsgaard puts it in his Beatles book, A Day in the Life, the Liverpool quartet put together “a body of work that equals any in twentieth-century popular music”.
Though George Harrison had contributed some fine songs to the group’s catalogue, he added, it was the compositions of Lennon and McCartney that made the Beatles the outstanding musical phenomenon.
McCartney emerged from the wreckage of the Fab Four to release an impressively lengthy series of albums – some with Wings, others solo or as collaborations. He’s still touring, too: this Thursday he plays the last in a succession of dates in North America on his hugely popular Got Back tour.
He headlines Glastonbury on Saturday, June 25. And, before then, this Saturday, Sir James Paul McCartney turns 80. He has been world famous since the age of 22 or 23.
I’ve seen McCartney twice in concert, both times in Glasgow, almost 40 years apart. And both times (the first was at the Apollo in December 1979) but particularly on the second occasion – a sold-out Hydro, December 14, 2018 – I was struck time and again by the mere fact that on stage, just a few hundred yards away, was one of the truly pivotal figures of pop and rock music.
There aren’t many of them left now who are still on the road, still visible. It’s a privilege to be able to see them in concert. Bob Dylan, 81, is on a world tour that will take him up to 2024. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 78, are playing stadium shows to mark the Rolling Stones’ 60th anniversary. Eric Clapton, at 77, is currently on tour. Neil Young, 76, Elton John, 75, and Robert Plant, 73 are still working. Beach Boys Brian Wilson, 79, and Mike Love, 81, are, too.
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The Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, 77 and 78 respectively, are playing dates across North America in October (Daltrey himself is at the Armadillo on July 6). Don Henley, 74, is with the Eagles at Murrayfield on June 22. Bruce Springsteen, a relative stripling at 72, recently announced an international tour with his E Street Band, starting next year. Van Morrison, 76, is still playing live and releasing albums.
But there’s something about seeing McCartney on stage, mock-chiding the audience for whipping out their phones to record the classic songs and putting them away when he dares play a newer one.
You think of his storied past as you watch him in action. It’s almost as if the soundtrack to your life is being played out in front of you. The songs he plays, the songs he doesn’t: they all remind you of his signal achievements, his restless creative genius: Sgt Pepper. Yesterday. Eleanor Rigby. Hey Jude. Abbey Road. Penny Lane. Get Back. A Day in the Life. A Hard Day’s Night. Can’t Buy Me Love. Ticket to Ride. Maybe I’m Amazed.
You think of the band’s Hamburg gigs, when they honed their craft. You think of the early Fabs, wowing America on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and already on top of the world. You think of Macca’s post-Beatles band, Wings, and all their hits. Live and Let Die. Band on the Run. Oh, yes, and Mull of Kintyre. It stirs the blood, even now.
“Sometimes we do this song in concert when we’re in expat places like Canada and New Zealand”, McCartney recalls in The Lyrics, a two-volume book about his songs that was published late last year. “We’ve got some security guys who are Scottish, and you can see them welling up”.
But those Beatles songs …. As Mojo magazine observed earlier this year, the band’s 12 albums (13 if you count Magical Mystery Tour, which was released in America) really did lay the foundations of the five decades of pop and rock music that followed.
McCartney himself makes a revealing but justified assertion in The Lyrics: Lennon, he says, had been the collaborator “with whom I’d done some of the best work of the twentieth century (he said, modestly)”. Who can gainsay him?
Hamish Stuart, once of the Average White Band, and a member of McCartney’s touring band in the late eighties and early nineties, told author Ken McNab for his book, The Beatles in Scotland, that he genuinely believed that McCartney could get a tune from a stone.
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“Music’s in his DNA – it just flows out of him, almost like a curse”, said Stuart. “But what a curse”.
It’s amazing, too, to think of the industry that has sprung up around the Beatles. Hundreds of books have been written about them since 1964. Music magazines bring out commemorative issues retelling and repackaging the story of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
There have been films and documentaries, the most recent being Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic docu-series covering the making of the 1970 album of the same name, with treasurable footage of the rooftop concert the band played atop the Apple Corps building in Savile Row.
The documentary caused a huge stir when Disney+ premiered it late in 2021 – and after a long wait it will finally be released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 12.
Today there are many online radio stations that play nothing but Beatles songs. These same songs feature on audio-streaming platforms (they have 26 million monthly listeners on Spotify, for example). The official Beatles website offers a multiplicity of gift ideas.
Fans continue to pay homage to the Abbey Road studios and, on the street outside, recreate the band’s walk across the zebra crossing.
The new book, The Lyrics, is worth reading, by the way. It sheds interesting light on McCartney’s creative process, on the joys he derived from the simple pleasures of his farm on Kintyre, and on his relationship with Lennon, whom he had first met at a Liverpool church fete on July 6, 1957.
He touches on the band’s controversial break-up and the involvement of Allen Klein, the hard-nosed New York businessman who took control of the band’s business affairs in 1969. McCartney loathed Klein.
In the aftermath of the break-up, Lennon wrote How Do You Sleep?, a none-too-subtle attack on McCartney. Its line, “The only thing you done was yesterday”, was, says McCartney, apparently suggested by Klein.
“ … At the back of my mind”, McCartney says, the hurt still evident, “I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute, All I ever did was ‘Yesterday’? I suppose that’s a funny pun, but all I ever did was ‘Yesterday’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Lady Madonna’,… f--- you, John”.
Elsewhere in the book, however, McCartney alights on Here Today, a love song to Lennon, written shortly after his friend was shot dead in 1980. There is, says McCartney, a longing in the lines, ‘If you were here today’ and ‘I am holding back the tears no more’, “because it was very emotional, writing this song.
“I was just sitting there in that bare room, thinking of John and realising I’d lost him”. Performing the song, on his own, in concert is, he adds, “a very charged experience”.
McCartney says he could have approached his new band, Wings, in one of two ways – either “coming in at the top as a Beatle alongside a former member of Small Faces or Cream and make what they used to call a ‘supergroup’, or I could just start something that felt good and try to build it up like The Beatles had. I chose the latter”.
The songs have continued to pour out of McCartney in the decades since. His website lists his decade-by-decade track record, from 12 albums and four tours in the Seventies and eight albums in the Eighties through to three albums and one tour (so far) in the 2020s.
He was knighted in 1997 and made a Companion of Honour in 2018.
Why does he keep touring and recording? He certainly doesn’t need the money: the latest Sunday Times Rich List puts his joint wealth with wife Nancy Shevell at £865m (she has an estimated £50m).
He has said in interviews that he loves making music so much. It really is in his blood. “If I retired, I’d still do exactly what I do”, he said in one interview. “So I may as well not retire…Retire from what? I’d do this for nothing”.
He plainly loves engaging with audiences – they are, he says, what keeps things fresh, night after night. In the end, as he puts it, “the people are the main thing”.
There was certainly never any sense of McCartney going through the motions when he played the Hydro in December 2018. The sheer quality of the songs helped, of course – how could they not? – but McCartney’s engaging personality, his sense of humour, his stagecraft, his mere presence, all made it a memorable night.
In the crowd that evening was the journalist and author Ken McNab. McCartney’s imprint on modern music, he believes, is simply immeasurable.
“Comparisons between musical artists are a futile and often glib exercise, but McCartney stands alone by simple virtue of his gifts that have touched so many people’s lives through six decades.
“The only genuine point of reference is Mozart but I think Paul trumps even him”, he said this week.
“No-one in popular music can match his almost surreal facility for crafting songs with the kind of ear-worm melody and hook that, even after just one listen, draws you into his world. It’s an unfathomable and magical well of talent that even now continues to mine new songs.
“Even Dylan, not a man known for fawning endorsements of his contemporaries, is on record as saying McCartney is the only musician he is in awe of. Quite a compliment”.
McNab says that while Lennon was the beating heart of the Beatles, McCartney was the unapologetic cheerleader-in-chief, forever corralling them back to the studio and encouraging them to reach new heights of creativity. But it’s an ineluctable truth; without McCartney you don’t have the Beatles.
The Get Back documentary “captures in real time how he began writing the titular song on his bass guitar in the studio and within an hour or so it had reached a mighty bloom. Remember, too, this is the guy who wrote Yesterday, still the world’s most recorded song, when he was just 21. Let that sink in for a moment.
“And then let your mind leaf through the pages of a catalogue of some 1,500 songs that includes Eleanor Rigby, Blackbird, All My Loving, For No One, Hey Jude and Let It Be, the song that has grown into an anthem for the world alongside Lennon’s Imagine”.
The dissolution of the Beatles in 1970, a move instigated by Lennon, hit McCartney hard and forced him to take stock of his life. But, McNab adds, “anyone who thinks that McCartney really did die with the end of the Beatles hasn’t been listening.
Band On the Run may remain for many the high watermark of his solo albums, but that bar was often reached with the likes of Ram, Flowers In the Dirt, Venus and Mars, the peerless Tug of War, Flaming Pie, Chaos and Creation In The Backyard, and Memory Almost Full”.
With his 2018 album, Egypt Station, McCartney earned his first Billboard No1 in several decades. Two years ago, he released McCartney III to worldwide acclaim.
“It’s easy to dismiss his music as a lightweight confection”, McNab concludes. “But that would be to do him an enormous disservice. If you take a deep dive into his work, you’ll see an irrepressible musician who is impossible to delineate. Anyone looking to go off the Macca track would be advised to listen to his work with the producer Youth, which showed Paul at his avant-garde best. Yes, there has been the occasional tapering-off in quality, but surely that’s inevitable with any artist whose longevity is part of their appeal.
“Their true worth is in the songs we remember and treasure and on that point Paul McCartney remains unrivalled. I doubt his output will ever be matched”.
A tough question to end with, but does McNab have a favourite McCartney track? He pauses, and acknowledges that it’s an impossible task.
“Over the years I’ve become increasingly fond of Let It Be. But ask me tomorrow and I might pick something like Maybe I’m Amazed or Listen To What The Man Said. There are simply so many. But I will say this; I never tire of hearing him. The reason is simple…the songs make me happy, and that is his true legacy. McCartney at 80 should give us all pause for thought.
“At the Hydro no-one could deny that his vocal gifts, once so sublime, are in irrefutable decline. But if he wants to keep playing live – and people still want to see him perform – after six decades he’s surely earned that right. Besides, one day the candle will go out. So enjoy him while you can. His records will never be beaten”.