June 1, 1987, I’m at Abbey Road Studios in London. Musical venues don’t get much more inspiring. I grew up watching pictures of the Beatles walking up these steps, ready for their next session.
What’s more, I’m in Studio Two, the sanctuary where most of their greatest productions were made. The high ceiling and staircase are strangely familiar. I look out the window of the production room, where George Martin was watching the work.
And surprisingly, George is here today. The same goes for Peter Blake, the artist who worked on the cover design for the 1967 record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club group. Someone made a huge 3D copy of the album cover and we’re staring at it too.
When new guests arrive, there is a commotion. Paul McCartney is here with his wife Linda. He wears a green jacket and a burgundy shirt. He seems relaxed and, as always, casual about his talent.
Guest journalists in the soap, trying to extract quotes and capture the moment. It’s hardly a moment to be cold-blooded, so I go over and nudge Paul’s elbow as casually as I can. This is me standing next to the most famous songwriter of the twentieth century.
There’s a huge cake decorated like Sgt. Pepper bass drum. McCartney cuts himself off and gives a short speech about the Beatles, their high intentions, how they fought social ills like apartheid in South Africa. “We have to keep our faith, keep pushing,” he says.
And then the newly minted CD begins to play, reminding us why we are gathered here, at this momentous time. We all know the words:
“Today was 20 years ago…”
There have been many Beatles anniversaries since then. Today Pavel celebrates his 80th birthday. Sometimes we can feel fed up with his work, and other times the stories lose a bit of their luster. But, without a doubt, the work of his life is incomparable.
The recent series of archives Get Back reminded of this. How he seemed to concoct the title song from random news and scattered notes, putting them into the best possible shape. As usual, he put in care, perseverance and so much imagination.
He previously recorded Blackbird in a six hour session, bird sound effects and all. As a young artist, he sang I Saw Her Standing There in a cheer he had learned in Hamburg from Little Richard. He could also impersonate John Lennon. Let Me Roll This was his cold-blooded response to his old buddy, which was overly obnoxious.
The flow of McCartney was so relentless in 1967 that Penny Lane didn’t even appear on the Sgt Pepper album. Here is such an omission – a vivid picture of Liverpool with a trumpet part that Macca borrowed from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. High art, melodic inspiration and blue suburban skies. Perfection.
His best collaborator was, of course, John Lennon, but there were also Kanye, Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello. Oh, and Stevie Wonder. His 1970 solo album McCartney is a wobbly template for lo-fi indie rock, while 1980’s Temporary Secret sounds like acid house, almost a decade earlier.
The artistic value of Give Ireland Back to the Irish—its reaction to Bloody Sunday in 1972—is more of a push.
It was recorded and released in a rush, and he was stubborn enough to reject EMI Records and all their Establishment connections.
Henry McCullough played the tune on guitar and later spoke of Paul’s “wool politics”. But our man Henry was more generous to Paul’s other work, even if he insisted on playing his own solo on My Love. Boss McCullough was kind enough to see the value in it.
I watched Paul rehearse at the Docklands Arena in London in 1993. It was before a world tour and he was hard at work training his musicians. He played a few Beatles songs and couldn’t resist the urge to wave and charm this little party. We were delighted, of course.
He raised his children well and mourned Linda with several painful recordings. Before that, he gave her beautiful love songs.
Since 1980, he has constantly wrestled with the specter of John Lennon’s death and has dealt with this difficult matter with dignity and heart.
Some critics argue that he micro-managed his legacy and downplayed the importance of his old bandmates. There may be some elements in it, conscious or not. But he is hardly Stalinist. The collective value of The Beatles is well-known, and you can easily try alternative histories.
These records from the sixties and this tumultuous line of development are endlessly absorbing. Yet Paul McCartney didn’t let a decade define him.
Henry McCullough spoke fondly of Wings’ first tour in 1972, when they drove up to the campus in a van and offered to play for pennies. It was anti-star behavior and also the best entertainment.
Happy birthday Paul. What songbook, work rate and personal code. As promised, you continued to insist. Future listeners will be amazed many years from now.