Paul McCartney at 80: ‘We’re still in awe of his art’


June 1, 1987, and I’m in Abbey Road Studios in London. Music locations don’t get much more inspiring. I grew up watching images of the Beatles, striding up those steps, ready for another session.

ven better, I’m in Studio Two, the sanctum where much of their greatest output was made. The high ceiling and the staircase are oddly familiar. I glance up at the window of the production room where George Martin used to oversee the work.

And amazingly, George is here today. So too, is Peter Blake, the artist who worked on the cover design of the 1967 record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Somebody has made a huge, 3-D copy of the record sleeve and we gawp at that also.

There’s a kerfuffle as the new guests arrive. Paul McCartney is here with his wife Linda. He wears a green jacket and a burgundy shirt. He seems relaxed, and as ever, he carries his talent lightly.

The invited journalists are in a lather, trying to snatch quotes and record the moment. It’s hardly a moment to be cool and so I walk over and bump Paul’s elbow, as casually as I can. That’s me, standing beside the most celebrated songwriter of the Twentieth Century.

There’s a huge cake, designed like Sgt. Pepper’s bass drum. McCartney cuts himself a slice and makes a short speech about The Beatles, their high intentions, how they battled against social ills like apartheid in South Africa. “We have to keep our faith, keep pushing,” he says.

And then a newly-minted CD starts to play, reminding us why we are gathered in this very place, at this significant time. We all know the words:

“It was 20 years ago today…”

There have been many Beatles anniversaries since. Today, Paul celebrates his 80th birthday. Sometimes we may feel blasé about his work and occasionally the stories lose a bit of shine. But no doubt, his life work is peerless.

The recent Get Back archive series was a reminder of this. How he seemed to magic up the title song out of random news items and loose notes, herding them into the best shape. As per usual, he invested the care, the persistence and such a deal of imagination.

Previously, he recorded Blackbird in a six-hour session, bird sound effects and all. As a younger artist, he sang I Saw Her Standing There with a joyful whoop that he’d learned in Hamburg from Little Richard. He could also impersonate John Lennon. Let Me Roll It was his cool riposte to an old mate who was being excessively nasty.

McCartney’s flow was so unceasing in 1967 that Penny Lane didn’t even figure on the Sgt Pepper’s album. It’s such an omission — that vivid picture of Liverpool with a trumpet line that Macca borrowed from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. High art, melodic verve and the blue suburban skies. Perfection.

His best collaborator was of course John Lennon but also there has been Kanye, Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello. Oh, and Stevie Wonder. His 1970 solo album, McCartney, is a wonky template for lo-fi indie rock while the 1980 track Temporary Secretary sounds like acid house, nearly a decade early.

It’s a bit more of a push to see the artistic value in Give Ireland Back to the Irish, his response to Bloody Sunday in 1972.

It was recorded and released in haste and he was stubborn enough to override EMI Records and all their establishment connections.

Henry McCullough played guitar on that tune and later talked about Paul’s “cotton wool politics”. But our man Henry was more generous about Paul’s other art, even if he insisted on playing his own solo on the track My Love. McCullough’s boss was gracious enough to see value in it.

I watched Paul rehearsing at the Docklands Arena in London in 1993. It was ahead of a world tour and he was drilling his musicians with intent. He played a few Beatles songs and he couldn’t resist the impulse to wave and charm this small listening party. We were thrilled, of course.

He has raised his children well and has grieved for Linda with some painful recordings. Before that, he gifted her beautiful love songs.

Since 1980, he has constantly measured up against the spectre of John Lennon death and he has handled this difficult issue with decorum and heart.

Some critics argue that he’s micro-managed his legacy and relegated the importance of his old band mates. There may be some elements of this, conscious or not. But it’s hardly Stalinist. The collective worth of The Beatles is a matter of record and you can sample the alternative stories without much difficulty.

Those Sixties recordings and that fierce arc of development is endlessly absorbing. Yet Paul McCartney hasn’t let the decade define him.

Henry McCullough used to speak fondly about the first Wings tour in 1972, when they would roll up to a university venue in the van and offer to play for a pittance. It was anti-star behaviour, and also the best fun.

Happy birthday, Paul. What a songbook, a workrate and a personal code. As promised, you have kept pushing. Future listeners will be astounded, many years from now.

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