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There’s a lovely scene in Peter Jackson’s recent documentary The Beatles: Get Back that sums up the taken-for-granted brilliance of Paul McCartney. It’s another day in Twickenham studios, where McCartney is single-handedly wrestling the Beatles into recording a new album. John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are at best semi-detached but McCartney is grafting away, writing from scratch songs good enough to make them believe in the band again. In this particular scene he’s at the piano, guiding the band through a hymn-like new number while his fiancée Linda Eastman chats to Yoko Ono in the foreground. The song they are merrily ignoring is Let It Be.
McCartney has always been a doer. “He used to be the one to get things moving,” Starr said after the band’s break-up in 1970. More driven and more cautious than the others, he became a kind of parent and taskmaster. Sometimes this made him a pain but, as Get Back illustrates, a necessary pain. He knew better than any of them what an irreplaceably precious thing they had together. Five decades later, he is still forging ahead. He recently released a quasi-memoir, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, and embarked on yet another stadium tour. Next weekend he will headline Glastonbury for the second time, seven days after his 80th birthday. He has said that he considers retiring a prelude to expiring.
Born in Liverpool in 1942, James Paul McCartney lost his mother, Mary, when he was 14 – an experience that strengthened his bond with the similarly bereaved John Lennon. In 1957 McCartney joined Lennon’s skiffle band the Quarrymen, who evolved into the Beatles three years later. After cutting their teeth in Hamburg, they released Love Me Do in October 1962, launching themselves on a rocket trip that didn’t touch down for seven years. On holiday in Greece in 1963, McCartney realised he would probably be famous everywhere, for ever. He told himself, “You’ve gotta decide now: give it all up or be happy with it. And I thought, y’know what, I couldn’t give it all up.”
The Beatles became a global advertisement for youth and friendship – Paul and John wrote many of those early hits knee to knee, eyeball to eyeball – and their split was a generational trauma. McCartney took it hard. “The job was gone, and it was more than the job, obviously – it was the Beatles, the music, my musical life, my collaborator,” he told the New Yorker last year. “It was this idea of ‘What do I do now?’” His daughter Stella, the fashion designer, reflected that “we spent a lot of our childhood with dad recovering from the turmoil and the break-up”.
It wasn’t easy to move on, but it is easy to forget just how unfashionable McCartney once was. After the Beatles imploded, Lennon did a great job of talking up his contribution and talking down Paul’s, and this lopsided view solidified with his murder in 1980. While John was posthumously canonised as the Beatles’ soulful revolutionary (“Martin Luther Lennon,” McCartney snapped), Paul was derided as a showbiz people-pleaser who knocked out corny singalongs such as Mull of Kintyre and We All Stand Together: a “soppy arse”, he once complained. “I understood that now there was going to be revisionism,” he told Esquire in 2015. “It was going to be: John was the one.”
Even in 1997, the year McCartney was knighted for services to music, Alan Partridge’s claim that Wings were “the band the Beatles could have been” raised a big laugh. McCartney’s thin skin when it came to comparisons with Lennon, controversially reversing the credits on certain songs to read McCartney-Lennon in 2002, did him no favours. At his worst, he was an unwinning combination of tetchy and naff.
In 2022, however, McCartney is widely beloved. This is not just due to the sobering recognition that cultural giants will not be around forever. His reputation has also benefited from a cultural swing away from troubled rock’n’roll mavericks and towards artists who manage to combine brilliance with decency. In his book Dreaming the Beatles, the critic Rob Sheffield calls him “almost freakishly untortured”, a quality that was once uncool but now seems admirable. In an era of free love and buccaneering machismo McCartney was a dedicated father to Mary, Stella, James and stepdaughter Heather, and a devoted husband to Linda. Until her death in 1998, they never spent a night apart except for the week he was jailed in Japan for marijuana possession in 1980. He has another daughter, Beatrice, from his six-year marriage to Heather Mills and married American businesswoman Nancy Shevell in 2011.
McCartney’s progressive politics stem from a desire for inclusivity and mutual understanding. No celebrity did more than Paul and Linda to champion the cause of vegetarianism. Rarely does he decline a request to sprinkle some high-gradestardust on a charity record or concert. He likes to be helpful. He carries himself well with strangers, too. “People say, I’m really scared to meet you,” he told Q in 2001. “So I go, OK, let’s try to get past that. I’ve really done very well but, believe me, I’m just some geezer.” If anything, he has performed normality too well. Like his songs, he is tougher, cleverer and stranger than he appears on the surface.
McCartney’s emotional generosity defines his songwriting. While Lennon usually wrote in the first person, McCartney’s interest in other people and the quiet magic of everyday life is audible in the avuncular embrace of Hey Jude, the bustling street life of Penny Lane and the profound empathy of Eleanor Rigby. Lennon’s sense of humour was barbed and cryptic; McCartney’s beckons you into the joke.
Who else would write a song as charmingly daft as Back in the USSR and then record it alongside the tender Blackbird and the heavy thunder of Helter Skelter? Who else could come up with something as jaunty yet moving as When I’m Sixty-Four and, what’s more, do it when he was just a teenager? Standards such as Let It Be and Yesterday are almost too famous to appreciate as entities that a young man sat down and wrote rather than plucking out of the ether.
McCartney’s catalogue is far from spotless but he has been writing good-to-great songs since 1956. He is also a singular singer, bass player and producer who can turn his hand to piano, guitar, drums and electronics. “He can do it all,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2007. “And he’s never let up. He’s got the gift for melody, he’s got the rhythm, and he can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody… He’s just so damn effortless.”
What must be especially satisfying for McCartney is the long, ongoing reassessment of his post-Beatles work: the DIY farmhouse intimacy of his self-titled solo debut; the ambitious multi-part songwriting of Wings’ 1973 blockbuster Band on the Run, recorded in Lagos; the eccentric synthesizer experiments of 1980’s McCartney II. Tom Doyle’s biography Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s makes a strong case for McCartney as a risk-taking adventurer whose efforts to reinvent himself were far from cosy. His proto-techno oddity Temporary Secretary became a club anthem 23 years later. For someone so famous, McCartney has a remarkable amount of buried treasure.
He has aged with dignity but not too much of it. In recent decades, he has worked with younger producers including Mark Ronson, Nigel Godrich and Kanye West and recorded three freewheeling albums with Youth under the alias The Fireman. He is also a generous live performer who knows fans want to hear three hours of the songs that have soundtracked their lives. His first Glastonbury appearance, in 2004, remains one of the festival’s most euphoric highlights. He closed, as always, with The End, his simple valediction to the Beatles, Lennon’s favourite McCartney lyric, and the purest expression of his worldview: “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Rock stars are accustomed to receiving love: McCartney is just as good at giving it back.