"They say it's your birthday, happy birthday to you!"
So this human being is eighty years old today. One of the outstanding figures of the twentieth century, still going strong well into the twenty first. In my life, to quote the words of his best mate, he’s always been there. Well, at least since I was nine years old and first saw those soulful, sad eyes on the cover of The Beatles Ballads that I received on cassette as a present for Christmas 1980. It may even have been before that. I think I have vague memories of watching the ‘Mull of Kintyre’ promo film. It was number one for so long I’m sure half the country saw it in the seventies.
Paul McCartney is so familiar and so ubiquitous today, like his songs, that it’s hard to step back and really get a perspective on just what this one man has achieved. This man of humble beginnings fortunate to be surrounded by a loving family but who tragically lost his dear mother aged fourteen. This man who was bestowed with a special gift of extraordinary musicality that was so irresistible he managed to share it with the whole world. This man who eschewed a steady career at a coil winding factory to skip over the wall when his bandmates called to go to a gig at the Cavern and never looked back.
‘Pipes of Peace’ is the first McCartney solo song I definitively remember hearing contemporaneously after making the connection that this chap was the same one who graced the cover of The Beatles Ballads. I thought it was a lovely song with a great message, emphasised by its moving video of British and German soldiers playing football together at Christmas 1914.
"Help them to see that the people here are like you and me."
Words that are just as relevant and important today. However, it was hard being a McCartney fan at school in the eighties. By the next year he had released the completely uncool Give My Regards to Broad Street (despite containing some excellent new songs, all of which I loved) and ‘We All Stand Together’, which I also liked, but it seemed everybody else in the country hated. After that, he couldn’t put a foot right. I thought Press to Play was brilliant – nobody else seemed to. Even The Beatles were still considered to be passé at this time, certainly by ‘trendy’ music biz folk. I didn’t care, I thought pop music (well, chart music) was terrible anyway in the mid-eighties. Gone were The Jam, The Specials and The Clash and nearly every classic sixties musician was being tempted to experiment with the prevailing trend for over the top, synth laden production with a horrible snare sound. (Not that I have got anything against synths, per se – my second favourite McCartney album is McCartney II, after RAM).
I don’t think Paul’s reputation recovered until sixties music in general found favour again in the late eighties and early nineties. Flowers in the Dirt was a return to form, certainly production value-wise, even if the collaboration with Elvis Costello came to an untimely end and the potential of the great songs they wrote together was not quite realised. The Beatles at the BBC and The Beatles Anthology series were the beginning of the public’s recognition of The Beatles as national treasures again and McCartney’s next album, Flaming Pie, managed to not ruin that restored reputation with a set of mostly top-notch songs. It was probably at around this time that I managed to muster up the courage to confess to people that I liked Wings!
I think it’s now finally safe, even sometimes cool, to say you like Macca. You can always talk about how RAM invented indie before its time, how Wild Life pioneered lo-fi twee, even about the new wave influences on Back to the Egg, without being chased out of town. Obviously, still avoid mentioning “The Frog Chorus”. Yes, long-term fans like me had to loyally endure the wilderness years, which let’s not forget included the likes of ‘Spies Like Us’ and ‘Biker Like an Icon’, but it's nice to finally be vindicated for buying Venus and Mars and London Town on vinyl in 1988.
What is it that makes him special? Many things – his voice (OK, his pre-1987 voice, his ‘Long Tall Sally’/'I've Got a Feeling'/‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ voice), his musicianship (what can’t he play? Arguably the most creative bass player of all time; where would the world be without his lead guitar breaks on ‘Taxman’ and ‘Ticket To Ride’; his drummer leaves Wings just before the recording of their best album, Band on the Run – no problem, says McCartney, happily picking up the sticks), his persona (good old thumbs-aloft Macca, one of the nicest guys in show-biz who loves happy endings and babies)? Surely, primarily, it’s his prodigious gift for melody. A gift that, at his best, he is able to combine with a warmth of spirit and empathy with and knowledge of everyday life and ordinary people, to create transcendent compositions which will undoubtedly remain in the human consciousness for centuries, even millennia. ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘Another Day’, ‘Dear Boy’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘No More Lonely Nights’, ‘Mull of Kintyre’, ‘Little Willow’, ‘Warm and Beautiful’, ‘I’m Carrying’, ‘Every Night’, ‘Wanderlust’, the list is endless without even including his Beatles songs. Red Rose Speedway is not one of my favourite McCartney albums by a long shot – if there’s one McCartney record that is crying out for Lennon’s no-nonsense input, this is it – but even this minor work in his canon contains the extraordinary ‘Single Pigeon’, a throwaway masterpiece. The kind of song you can imagine McCartney knocking off one day at the piano while Linda cooks dinner and the kids chase a lamb around the house. A song about a couple who have had a row and one of them walks out – something we can all relate to – but of course the tirelessly optimistic McCartney proceeds to have a conversation with a pigeon he meets and suddenly he is singing to his new friend. The thing is, you can even see him doing it! Perhaps he did? It doesn’t matter. It’s ridiculous but also quite brilliant! It’s an example of McCartney’s inclination for taking a sad song, a sad event, and making it better. Perhaps this goes back to the death of his mother and the need for everything to be alright. Perhaps it’s because Paul and his brother Mike’s dad Jim, did make everything alright for his boys, as tough as it must have been for him, for all of them. Fortunately, the large and close McCartney extended family were on hand to help out, too, and Auntie Gin, Uncle Ernie and Uncle Ian were later immortalised in ‘Let ‘Em In’.
Whatever the explanation, I’m sure it’s this sense of empathy and optimism that I and millions of others respond to in Paul McCartney’s music. It’s not music for the cynic, or for the too cool for school. There’s nothing wrong with writing silly love songs (if we listen to what the man said) and there’s nothing wrong with being happy and wanting to be happy. This is part of the reason he deserves to be celebrated, I think, for more than any other artist he has encouraged us to not be ashamed to want that.
Of course, he’s not perfect. No one is. I can’t comment on what he’s like as a person – I’ve never met him – but he has displayed frequent lapses of judgement in lyrical self-editing. I’m thinking Getting Closer’s “my salamander” (what??), The Other Me’s “I acted like a dustbin lid” (is that the only thing he could think of to rhyme with ‘did’?) and Distractions’ biologically baffling “distractions like butterflies are buzzing round my head”. He gets away with it due to the wonderful melodies but you can bet your life that Lennon would have been in like a shot excising those lines. I’m sure Paul would be the first to agree. However, more often than not, McCartney is a gifted lyricist and finds the perfect phrase: “you were only waiting for this moment to arise”, “something inside that was always denied for so many years”, “wearing a face that she leaves in a jar by the door”, “take a sad song and make it better”.
Listening to that compilation album, The Beatles Ballads, as a kid, it was the songs that McCartney sang which resonated with something in my nine year old brain first: ‘Blackbird’, ‘For No One’, ‘All My Loving’, ‘Till There Was You’ (I didn’t know that they didn’t write that one), ‘Let It Be’, ‘Michelle’, ‘Hey Jude’. I could write a dissertation on the profound impact that last song alone has had on my life. It has always been a song of comfort to me that has literally got me through some hard times in my life by reinforcing the belief that, actually, everything is going to be OK, ultimately (which is something I genuinely believe). When I listened to it as a young man, it felt like it was the universe/God/whatever speaking directly to me when I felt down or disillusioned and for a long time I didn’t even know that the original lyrics were “Hey Jules”! People seem to take ‘Hey Jude’ for granted these days, like a lot of McCartney’s great songs, because we are so over-familiar with them, but I still get shivers each time I hear that opening refrain. For me, it’s the most amazing piece of pop music ever recorded.
McCartney acknowledged in his recently published and gorgeously presented book, The Lyrics, that ‘Yesterday’ was written unconsciously about losing his mother, even though he didn’t realise so at the time. Everyone knows the genesis to that song – McCartney waking up with the melody in his head and stumbling over to the piano to transcribe it – and it is an example of his remarkable, magical, creative process. The phrase ‘Let It Be’ came to him in a dream in 1968 when the relationships amongst his fellow Beatles were breaking down, mainly due to the fact that they were attempting to manage themselves after Brian Epstein’s death. McCartney said he heard his mother, Mary, in the dream telling him it was going to be alright, to just “let it be”:
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be”
We were awarded a real-time glimpse of this enchanted state of creation with the release of Peter Jackson’s Get Back docu-drama in the scene where McCartney conjures up the title song out of thin air while strumming his bass guitar as George and Ringo look on. It’s absolutely unbelievable.
It’s undeniable. The Beatles were magic, they imparted something magical and it was because of the four of them, the blend. There wouldn’t have been the magic without Lennon or without McCartney. Those two brothers without mothers fighting with and for each other made something greater than the sum of their parts. I love both John and Paul’s solo careers, and those of George and Ringo, but it could never be the same after The Beatles and they each probably knew they would never scale the same heights again. Perhaps it was even a relief. They could instead focus on who they were as individuals and what they wanted in life. Paul, it turns out, was the family man, who, with Linda’s help, dragged himself out of the depression that followed the break-up of The Beatles, to create a unique solution – a band that was his family. Linda reluctantly agreed to join and Paul was able to keep his precious children with him at all times, even on lengthy world tours. Just having the guts to create a band who would have to follow ‘the greatest show on earth’ demands respect, but Paul went back to basics with Wings; they paid their dues on the road, got impromptu gigs at universities and within a few years had become one of the biggest selling acts of the seventies. It’s his resolve to carry on, to make things better and to enjoy life to the full that makes me admire him so much.
With the tragic death of Linda, Paul again found himself having to adjust to circumstances beyond his control and it’s fantastic that he is now in a loving and fulfilling relationship once more. Losing John and then George must have been so difficult but his reaction to these events, his readiness to express his pain in song as in the beautiful ‘Here Today’, as way of cathartic release, demonstrates he is someone who has found the key to living life as healthily as possible.
Words can only take you so far in expressing emotion, which is why pop music is such a fantastic invention. The combination of lyrics and melody lead to one of the purest forms of self-expression. McCartney, as even Dylan acknowledged in 2007, is the master:
“He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all. And he’s never let up… He’s just so damn effortless.”
I wrote my song ‘Pepper Man’ in 2020 as a homage and to show my gratitude for all the beauty and joy this man has given me in my life. McCartney will never hear it, but I felt I had to do something to exclaim that I am a fan and I’m not ashamed of it.
You’re a magical mystery genius
On a helter-skelter ride
You have lessened the distance between us
You sang the times of our lives
So happy 80th birthday, Sir James Paul McCartney. If I can get tickets to see you live in the UK this year, I will. You won’t hear me but I’ll be singing along because I know all the words. I will be listening to your songs today, like I do most days. Thank you for the music.
“It’s going to be a great day!”
 What one has to remember about that song is that it’s for kids; like ‘Yellow Submarine’, like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’; produced for the Rupert and the Frog Song animated film. It’s not supposed to be ‘Let It Be’! What it does demonstrate is his musical versatility: one minute ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’, the next, ‘Helter Skelter’.
 Although, I will say that watching his 1988 ‘The Power of Music’ documentary about his relationship with the Nordoff-Robbins music therapy charity planted a seed in my head about a career working with disabled children and adults.
Here's a playlist of some of my favourite post-Beatles Macca songs.