Jhere is a beautiful scene in Peter Jackson’s recent documentary The Beatles: Come Back which encapsulates the taken-for-granted genius of Paul McCartney. It’s another day at Twickenham studios, where McCartney is battling the Beatles single-handedly to record a new album. John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are semi-detached at best, but McCartney is grafting on, writing songs from scratch that are good enough to make them believe in the band again. In this particular scene, he’s at the piano, guiding the band through a new anthem-like number while his fiancée Linda Eastman chats with Yoko Ono in the foreground. The song they happily ignore is Let It Be.
McCartney has always been a doer. “He was the one who made things happen,” Starr said after the group broke up in 1970. More driven and cautious than the rest, he became something of a parent and leader. Sometimes it hurt but, as Get Back illustrates, necessary pain. He knew better than any of them what irreplaceable and precious thing they had together. Five decades later, it continues to forge ahead. He recently published a quasi-memoir, The lyrics: from 1956 to the present day, and embarked on another stadium tour. Next weekend he will headline Glastonbury for the second time, seven days after his 80e birthday. He said he viewed the retreat as a prelude to the expiration.
Born in Liverpool in 1942, James Paul McCartney lost his mother, Mary, at the age of 14 – an experience that strengthened his bond with the also bereaved John Lennon. In 1957, McCartney joined Lennon’s skiffle band, the Quarrymen, which became The Beatles three years later. After cutting their teeth in Hamburg, they released Love Me Do in October 1962, embarking on a rocket journey that did not land for seven years. Vacationing in Greece in 1963, McCartney realized he would probably be famous everywhere, forever. He said to himself: “You have to decide now: give up all this or settle for it. And I thought, you know what, I can’t give it all up.
The Beatles became a global advertisement for youth and friendship – Paul and John wrote many of those early knee-to-knee, eyeball-to-eyeball hits – and their separation was a generational trauma. McCartney took it badly. “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?
It wasn’t easy to move on, but it’s easy to forget how old-fashioned McCartney was. After the Beatles implosion, Lennon did a great job talking about his contribution and disparaging Paul’s, and this lopsided view was solidified with his murder in 1980. While John was posthumously canonized as than a moving Beatles revolutionary (“Martin Luther Lennon,” McCartney broke), Paul was ridiculed as a showbiz fan who knocked out corny songs such as Mull of Kintyre and We All Stand Together: A “Soggy Ass,” s he once complained. “I understood that now there would be revisionism,” he said. Squire in 2015. “It was going to be: John was the only one.”
Even in 1997, the year McCartney was knighted for his services to music, Alan Partridge’s assertion that the Wings were “the band the Beatles could have been” caused a lot of laughter. McCartney’s thin skin when it comes to comparisons to Lennon, controversially reversing the credits of some songs to read McCartney-Lennon in 2002, did him a disservice. At worst, he was an unsuccessful combination of temperamental and naff.
In 2022, however, McCartney is widely loved. It’s not just the realization that the cultural giants won’t be around forever. His reputation has also benefited from a cultural shift away from troubled rock ‘n’ roll mavericks and towards artists who manage to combine brilliance and decency. In his book Dream the Beatles, reviewer Rob Sheffield calls it “almost oddly untortured”, a quality that was once uncool but now seems admirable. In an age of free love and filibuster machismo, McCartney was a devoted father to Mary, Stella, James, and stepdaughter Heather, and a devoted husband to Linda. Until his death in 1998, they never spent a night except for the week he was imprisoned in Japan for possession of marijuana in 1980. He has another daughter, Beatrice, from his marriage to six years with Heather Mills and married American businesswoman Nancy Shevell in 2011.
McCartney’s progressive politics stem from a desire for inclusiveness and mutual understanding. No celebrity has done more than Paul and Linda to champion the cause of vegetarianism. He rarely refuses a request to sprinkle high-quality stardust on a record or a charity concert. He likes to be helpful. He behaves well with strangers, too. “People say, I’m really scared to meet you,” he said Q in 2001. “So I’m going, OK, let’s try to get past that.” i really did very good but believe me, I’m just an asshole. If anything, he executed normalcy too well. Like his songs, he’s tougher, smarter, and weirder than he appears on the surface.
McCartney’s emotional generosity defines her writing. While Lennon generally wrote in the first person, McCartney’s concern for others 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 deep empathy of ‘Eleanor Rigby. Lennon’s sense of humor was sharp and enigmatic; McCartney’s invites you to joke.
Who else would write a song as deliciously silly 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 casual and moving as When I’m Sixty-Four and, what’s more, do it when they were just a teenager? Standards such as Let It Be and Yesterday are almost too famous to be appreciated as entities that a young man sat down and wrote rather than digging them out of the ether.
McCartney’s catalog is far from impeccable, but he has been writing good to excellent songs since 1956. He is also a singular singer, bassist and producer who can lean into piano, guitar, drums and electronics. “He can do anything,” said Bob Dylan rolling stone in 2007. “And he never let go. He has the gift of melody, he has rhythm and he can play any instrument. He can scream and scream as well as anyone… He’s so easy.
What must be particularly satisfying for McCartney is the long, ongoing re-evaluation of his post-Beatles work: the DIY farm intimacy of his self-titled debut solo album; the ambitious multi-part writing of Wings’ 1973 blockbuster Runaway group, registered in Lagos; the quirky synthesizer experiments of the 1980s McCartney II. Tom Doyle’s biography, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, makes the case for McCartney as a daring adventurer whose efforts to reinvent himself were far from comfortable. His bizarre proto-techno temporary secretary became the club’s anthem 23 years later. For someone so famous, McCartney has a remarkable amount of buried treasure.
It has aged with dignity but not too much. Over the past few decades he has worked with young producers including Mark Ronson, Nigel Godrich and Kanye West and recorded three freewheeling albums with Youth under the moniker The Fireman. He’s also a generous live performer who knows fans want to hear three hours of songs that have impacted their lives. His first appearance at Glastonbury, in 2004, remains one of the most euphoric highlights of the festival. He ended, as always, with The End, his simple appreciation of the Beatles, Lennon’s favorite McCartney lyrics and the purest expression of his worldview: “And in the end, the love you take to the love you make.” Rock stars are used to receiving love: McCartney knows how to give it back just as well.