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Revolutions in the head: Paul McCartney at 78

They say it’s his birthday? Yup, Sir James Paul McCartney CH MBE is indeed 78 today. Let’s take him for a spin…

The Beatles were a strange phenomenon: as a recording outfit, they spent a scant few years together—less than a quarter of the time a slightly less fabber four like U2 have been making records, for instance—but the Liverpool quartet churned out enough great music to fill a conservatory. And not one of those ghastly plastic ones that the tasteless Cilla Black had stuck on the side of her mansion either.

Fifty years since their parting of the ways, the shadow of The Beatles extends further and stronger than ever before. But as four self-contained individuals? Well, the truth be told, the solo Fabs catalogues are by and large underwhelming. Most disappointing is the catalogue of John Lennon, which consists of a few above-par tracks, almost nothing truly horrible, but plenty that are mediocre.

The same could be said for George Harrison too, but it’s less disappointing in his case, because expectations were lower. It might be true that George Harrison was the first one to break the Beatles mould, and the first one to have a solo hit (the truly transcendent My Sweet Lord), but he was also the first one to descend into a quagmire of humourless, samey-sounding tracks, like his leaden, lumpy cover of Got My Mind Set On You, which even featured that damned torture instrument of the nineteen eighties, the saxophone solo. Talking of which…

This is a particular riddle of the solo Beatles: why four people who, as individuals, had diverged to such an extraordinary degree would each find their principal early to mid-‘70s sonic template in the same source: The White Album’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Apple solo years are simply swimming in that glistening guitar sound, the same one the ‘Threetles’ returned to for the turgid Free As A Bird all those years later.

By the late seventies, it was difficult to imagine yourself caring at all about George Harrison, except as a producer of movies featuring midgets and/or Pythons. By what I’ll cruelly describe as a stroke of luck, the shocking murder of his ex-bandmate gave him a jolt of relevance with the admittedly wonderful All Those Years Ago, but it was then back to business as usual. 

Anyone remember what Paul McCartney’s first release was after Lennon’s death? Well, in June 2020 it’s somewhat topical: “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony.” Well, there seems fat chance of that. A song of self-empowerment that struggles with issues of racial equality, Ebony And Ivory was, of course, a black/white collaboration with an even greater talent than Macca, though admirable sentiment aside it doesn’t make the song any less corny. For the purposes of history, here’s the much rarer video for Paul’s solo version anyway.

The duet with Stevie Wonder illustrates two great truths – one: that there is rarely a relationship between a record’s quality and its popularity, and two: that the year 1982 exhibited a particularly inverse relationship between quality and popularity. What else can explain this cloying saccharine song making it all the way to number one on both sides of the Atlantic?

That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate McCartney at the time though. I’d certainly enjoyed seeing the videos for Goodnight Tonight and Coming Up on Top Of The Pops, then, sometime in 1982 my father—whose musical taste pretty much began with The Beatles and The Stones, and often ended there too — bought a cassette of Tug Of War, the album Ebony And Ivory was excerpted from.

But even though my two best friends at school were both black (howdy Andy Thelwell and Sean Smith: see, I was attracted to minorities even then, without realising I was one), I much preferred the one after Ebony And Ivory, the follow up 45 that was Take It Away. Critics derided it as lightweight froth but I was too young to care. The single was released at the end of June, the week I officially became a teenager, and eight days (a week) after Paul turned 40. Incidentally, his particular clip even features Ringo Starr, George Martin and, John Hurt playing a Brian Epstein-type character. It’s the Beatles story, obvs.

Shoot me now, but I’ve had a strangely off-on relationship with Macca’s music ever since, at least solo-wise. Despite having met him twice in very unexpected circumstances (an art gallery in Hackney and the premiere of a Pierce Brosnan era Bond film, both in the 1990s), the only post-Fabs albums of his I’ve ever owned in a physical format were the compilations All The Best and Wingspan. 

But before you jump to conclusions, if I can paraphrase that song David Bowie wrote for Mott The Hoople, All The Young Dudes, I never really got it off on that revolution stuff either. For me, Macca was easier on the ear and eyes than his bespectacled bandmate.

Despite the aforementioned lyrical sample, Bowie always came across as a bit over-enamoured with Lennon, and a bit sniffy about Macca, though I’m sure a lot of that was down to John’s edgier (OK, often downright rude and aggressive) drug-fuelled personality over Paul’s genial Everyman persona and folksy hippy cosiness, what with him hiding out in the heart of the country at his Scottish farmhouse on the mull of Kintyre (basically, the bell-end of the penis-shaped peninsula) with his “one of the boys” non-singing singer wife Linda and various state-schooled barefoot children.

But if you’re an admirer of the Fab Four you would be a fool to nail your colours to the mast of just one of them.

As was his wont, Bowie always seemed to remain in the Lennon camp (there’s a lot to be said for bonding over a love of cocaine), but the joys of McCartney’s ‘solo’ career are much more widely spread than people give him credit for: he had and still has a magical gift for melody; so much so that I can even derive a perverse pleasure from the defiant slush of Silly Love Songs. While Let ‘em In from the same album (1976’s Wings At The Speed Of Sound) totally reminds me of the only time my parents took us on a Butlin’s holiday (ahem) during that summer’s insane heatwave.

Having said that, you can see why too many people complained that he’s been trying to rewrite the second side of Abbey Road ever since 1969, most obviously on the epic Band On The Run. It must be bloody hard being Paul McCartney. Everything he does will — consciously or subconsciously — always be compared with what he did the. he was in his twenties, and nothing will ever quite compare.

On a visit to London in June 2018, somebody I met at a party in Covent Garden (freakily, I just checked the date of said bash and it was Macca’s birthday, 18 June) asked if I was planning on seeing Elton John on his newly announced farewell tour, as it would obviously be the last chance to do so. Famously, superannuated Paul and Elton don’t have much of their voices left. Though who’s brave enough to tell them? 

I thought for a minute, and realised that if I was going to go and see a legendary performer for the first time whose vocal prowess was famously past its prime, I’d be attending purely as a nostalgia bucket list tick thing. Yeah, I guess it’s a toss up between Elton and Paul then.

I chose Paul.

After all, any man who wrote Eleanor Rigby can’t be too shabby, right?

By the way, have you noticed how the month of June looms large in this story?

During my road trip to tick off the remaining states of America I’d yet to visit I found myself in Kentucky, the 41st state I’d set foot in. Only nine to go then.

Kentucky is known as the ‘Bluegrass State’, a nickname based on Kentucky bluegrass, a species of grass found in many of its pastures. I’m sure former (?) pot-smoking Paul would be bemused by that.

On 1 June 2019 I finally got to see the man that is McCartney in concert, at the Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington.

“Good evening, Lexington!” the thumbs aloft one said, after the rollicking show-opening glee of A Hard Day’s Night and the rock-a-boogie chestnut Junior’s Farm. With that pairing he set the tone from the outset, flawlessly alternating between Beatles and Wings material before playing the masterful Let Me Roll It and I’ve Got A Feeling back to back, both of which found the musician’s underrated guitar chops on full display.

One surprise during this segment included Letting Go, a gritty, hook-heavy slice of forgotten rock ’n’ roll from Wings’ Venus And Mars that ushered in his three-man horn section being dispatched into the lower section of the arena. The trio played the entire tune in the lap of the audience, much to the delight of the 20-odd-thousand capacity crowd.

But if you thought McCartney was going to slow down for what could be perceived as a midpoint lull in the show, you would be mistaken. The Quarrymen curio In Spite Of All The Danger was given an airing along with an effectively rootsy Love Me Do and an eloquent solo reading of Blackbird, a song of subtlety about race relations that was written in 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement in the US that sadly holds the same weight today.

While many musical septuagenarians are content to retire to their country estates, complain about “today’s music” and wait for their royalty checks and the odd Netflix documentary, Paul was two weeks shy of his 77th birthday while knee deep in the middle of a gruelling 30-stop worldwide tour which he’d named Freshen Up.

Macca looked match fit, sang with surprisingly unblemished gusto (yes, OK, the high notes are a problem) and flowed with the programme’s length and drive as it were a casual stroll. After an assured run through Let Me Roll It there was even a lovely anecdote about how “The Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Friday night, and by the Sunday Jimi Hendrix had learnt the entire album and opened his act with it.”

A quick check of the 1967 calendar on my phone revealed that the Friday in question was the 2nd of June, so if Macca was remembering rightly, the 52nd anniversary of both that album and David Bowie’s debut would actually be tomorrow and not today as I was led to believe. Ho hum.

The final portion of the main set read, appropriately enough, like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame resume of hit singles, as McCartney and his stellar backing band—led unofficially by the fabulously flamboyant percussionist extraordinaire Abe Laboriel Jr., whose charismatic, engaging performance acted as the perfect foil to Macca’s sprightly groovy grandpa schlick.

Jamming great with Paul and AL, the line up was rounded out by veteran guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray and keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, all of whom have been with Macca for a good decade and a half. The music was impressively tight as a result; the last few songs the group poured through before the encore were almost worth the price of admission alone, among them Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, Back In The USSR, Hey Jude, Let It Be and Live And Let Die.

I have to admit, the pyrotechnics that accompanied the latter were not only unbelievably loud but also from my decent vantage point, incredibly hot. And yeah, that’s a nice little collage of glam Bowie riffs that segued Let It Be, the song I learned to sing in the school choir aged seven, to the classic James Bond theme of 1973: among them Ziggy Stardust, The Width Of A Circle, Star and John I’m Only Dancing.

A testament to his stamina was the encore, which had him ripping through versions of Sgt. Pepper’s, Birthday, and the coruscating Helter Skelter, one of the Beatles’ most savage works that owed its raucous vocal delivery to the now departed Little Richard.

The concert concluded as it began with, coyly enough, the Abbey Road closing medley signalling The End. A recorded snippet of the song had brought McCartney to the stage. A full performance version sent the audience home with its lone verse reading like a time-honoured mantra.

After navigating an impressive 2 ¾ hour set with not even an intermission McCartney didn’t look even remotely winded afterward either. In fact, there was so many songs (37, count ‘em) that I didn’t even realise until we filed out that there was no Band On The Run or Get Back. Argh!

The lack of the Wings masterpiece was certainly a shocker, and as for Get Back, well it would have been a nice personal touch for me, being the song that was No.1 in America and Australia on the day I was born. I mean, I know it sounds churlish but I hardly expected The Ballad Of John & Yoko, which was top of the “hit parade” in Britain on the same day, and let’s be honest, was effectively a (typically self-referential) Lennon solo number in all but name, pun intended. Mind you, he did tackle George Harrison’s Something so anything was possible.

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Those are words that defy age and trends to enforce a sense of pop affirmation this septuagenarian’s programme overflowed with. There’s a reason Paul McCartney is the most famous living rock musician on the planet, and an (inter)national treasure. One of rock’s true masters, high notes or otherwise.

Happy birthday to ya.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: *C’ moon, I was only nine going on ten when Goodnight Tonight and Coming Up were released, so I make no apologies for having a sentimental attachment to the songs of my school years. With both cuts owing a considerable debt to unconventional experimentation, Goodnight Tonight is a butter-smooth romp recorded with Wings’ seventh and final lineup (and Macca’s unbelievably funky bassline), while Coming Up was a hyper-caffeinated quirk with a minimalist synth backbeat and vari-speeded vocals. By 1979, McCartney was frequently derided as “silly’ by critics. However, both tracks were huge hits on both sides of the Atlantic and made liberal use of the contemporary grooves of the day, ie latter period disco as it began to be superseded by New Romantic electronica. It was only later that I realised that both tracks are pretty much reviled by purist rock bores, which just made me enjoy them even more.

Though it didn’t occur to me that the delicious disco groove of Goodnight Tonight in particular would be a gay fave until I moved to Australia. A Sydney friend put the song on and proudly announced that it was his favourite Macca song, “because it’s a great feel good tune,” at which point everyone in the room was on their feet. Some of us even captured the moment while dancing furiously. I gotta go home.

Surry Hills, April 2014


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