John Harris

Journalist & Author

Paul McCartney’s Olympic gig will crown a decade of continued success

He was a star turn at the jubilee concert and will close the London 2012 opening ceremony – what motivates him?

“When I’m on tour,” said Paul McCartney in 2010, “it’s very visible, and people say, ‘God, you’re so busy.’ I’m actually not. Compared to how the Beatles used to tour, it’s skiving off. It’s like sagging off school.”

John Lennon summed up his band’s most frantic phase as “one more stage, one more limo, one more run for your life” – and though McCartney’s current schedule is nowhere near as draining, his modesty about his workrate seems misplaced. Certainly, as he prepares to celebrate his 70th birthday on 18 June, his place in the culture feels close to a matter of omnipresence – and simple hard graft is at least part of the explanation.

This month, he played the Queen’s diamond jubilee concert. On 27 July, he will be the last act at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. This year has already seen him perform around the world and release an album largely composed of pre-war standards, entitled Kisses on the Bottom.

Since the great burst of 1960s nostalgia that erupted during the mid-90s Britpop era, McCartney has been elevated to a place even higher than the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. With John Lennon and George Harrison resident in the hereafter and Ringo Starr happy to put out dependably unremarkable albums, it is McCartney who almost single-handedly signifies the Beatles, and all the magic we still associate with them.

This autumn will mark the 50th anniversary of their first single, Love Me Do, released in October 1962, and their legend has probably never seemed so unfathomably huge. So, in concert, McCartney’s calling card is a keen sense of what his public wants: Beatles songs, mostly. At the Jubilee show, he bowed to the inevitable and delivered Magical Mystery Tour, All My Loving, Let It Be and Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da (and, just to bring things up to date, Live and Let Die, the Bond theme he released in 1973). “I’m basically talking hits,” he said this year. “Why are hits hits? It’s because we like them. They’re the best ones.”

The musicologist and composer Howard Goodall is working on a series for BBC2 that examines the history of music since ancient times – McCartney will be included. “He had an intuitive melodic gift: in terms of tunes, he’s one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.” This, Goodall says, set him apart from John Lennon; by way of comparison, he puts McCartney alongside Schubert, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. “In Puccini’s case, you’re talking about maybe 20 great tunes. In Schubert’s case, maybe 100. But Paul McCartney is up there in the 100+ category.”

Does it matter that Goodall talks about such achievements almost exclusively in the past tense? “The fact of the matter is,” he says, “no one can go on being different and fresh through their whole life. Nobody’s ever done that.”

That may be true, but the very fact that McCartney is making new music proves he still has to attend to a creative itch. Some of this seems driven by an unshakeable insecurity that applies not just to his efforts in the here and now, but his place in history. On occasion, this seems to verge on the neurotic: in 2002, a McCartney live album pointedly reversed the standard Lennon/McCartney songwriting credit, and prompted a threat of legal action from Yoko Ono. All this suggested something very interesting indeed: that as well as still playing Beatles songs, McCartney continued to feel the bite of the intense competition that drove them to their best work.

Beautifully human

The current phase of McCartney’s progress dates back to 2001, when he recorded and released an album titled Driving Rain, his first album of original songs released since his wife Linda died of breast cancer in 1998, which was trailed by a single titled From a Lover to a Friend. A fragile, beautifully human evocation of bereavement and its aftermath, it proved beyond question that McCartney was still capable of at least fleeting brilliance.

The album was produced by the LA-based producer David Kahne, who has also worked with Tony Bennett, James Brown and Stevie Nicks. It was Kahne who put together the four-piece band with whom McCartney still tours. “He met them the day we started [the album sessions],” he tells me. “We started recording 10 minutes later, and we had a song done in about half an hour.”

From the outside, one would imagine that McCartney’s past must hang heavy when he records new music, but Kahne insists not: whereas his live repertoire is dominated by past glories, in the studio he enjoys working from a blank canvas. “He doesn’t reference other parts of his music, which I thought was really cool,” says Kahne. “There’s only now and the future with him. In the studio, he’s in compositional mode, and anyone who’s a real composer knows that even if they’ve written The White Album that next song is … well, who knows?”

Soon after finishing that record, McCartney began touring with his new colleagues after eight years away from the stage, a process Kahne oversaw from the sound desk. “It’s kind of weird when you have to figure out whether to play Got to Get You Into My Life or Hello Goodbye,” he says. “We were working on the rehearsals, and at that point, I was also possibly going to work on the music for a film about Cole Porter. There were going to be 28 songs in that film: Tea for Two, Begin the Beguine, all those. I had a list of those songs on my table, and I came back from rehearsals, and I put the list of Paul’s songs next to them. And I went, ‘Holy shit! There’s more songs on Paul’s list than Cole Porter’s list!’ And he was singing the balls out of them. I mean, did you ever hear Cole Porter sing? He sounds like somebody strangling a frog.”

Reinvention

As he emerged from mourning for Linda and was evidently energised by his new relationship with Heather Mills, McCartney seemed to reinvent himself. In the mid-1990s, he had seemed to be happy to ease into his 50s, allowing his hair to turn grey, his middle to fill out a little, and his musical activities to slow down: between 1993 and 1997, he did not release any new records, opting instead to work on the Beatles’ vast Anthology project. Four years on, he was not just enjoying a revived solo career, but was also newly lithe and toned. In addition, his hair was dyed a slightly strange shade of chestnut brown, and has remained so.

Around 2007-08, as he and Mills went through their spectacularly acrimonious divorce and McCartney took up with Nancy Shevell, all these elements of his public persona became heightened signifiers for his very rarefied lifestyle. Shevell is the vice-president of the family-owned New England Motor Freight Corporation, and the heir to a fortune put at $250m (£161m); before marrying in 2011, they had first met in the Hamptons, and these days, McCartney looks and sounds like one of those primped, privileged people who flit between continents and calmly fight off the ravages of old age. That his net worth is put at a mind-boggling £665m only completes the picture (though as always, it’s worth mentioning that he and Linda sent their children to a comprehensive school).

In 1981, Philip Norman published his Beatles biography, Shout!, by far the best history of the group. It tended to portray McCartney as controlling, egotistical, and superficial: the man who put French lyrics in the Beatles’ Michelle “as a plain act of social climbing”, and was driven to make every Beatles album from Revolver onwards “an album with no one on it but Paul”. Thirty years on, Norman admits that this was all rather harsh: “This was McCartney at the end of the 1970s. He’d been around with Wings, making music that everyone was thought was pretty shitty, doing this Mr Thumbs-up act all the time. It was terribly annoying.”

His view of McCartney began to thaw when he was working on his biography of John Lennon, and McCartney unexpectedly phoned him, soon agreeing to verify a few important details. “I started to get the point of him, and began to realise why John would have wanted this person around,” says Norman.

Among a handful of other points of fact, McCartney confirmed that though Lennon was right-handed and McCartney played guitar the other way round, each could play the other’s guitar. “That explains the entire Lennon-McCartney relationship to me,” says Norman. “They could each become each other.”

Norman’s view of McCartney went the last few inches towards complete transformation when he became friendly with Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ one-time road manager, and the diligent custodian of their Apple empire – and, therefore, their legacy – up until 2007. When Aspinall finally retired, he says, McCartney gave him a gold watch inscribed with the very Liverpudlian legend “Ta, la”, and when Aspinall was diagnosed with lung cancer (he died in 2008), he paid for his treatment. “That,” says Norman, “was more than enough to change my view.”

One part of his understanding of McCartney, however, remains in place: however misplaced it may seem, he agrees that insecurity is at least part of what motivates him to carry on working.

“But everybody has that. I’ve just finished a book on Mick Jagger, and he has it. That’s what makes people carry on. With McCartney, it is extraordinary: in pop terms, he’s written the works of Shakespeare, but it’s not enough. It’s like George Orwell said: ‘Every life viewed from the inside is a series of defeats.’ Everybody festers.”

Pocket profile

Born 18 June, 1942

Age 69

Career Joined John Lennon’s band the Quarrymen in 1957, then formed the Beatles. Spent most of the 1970s as frontman of Wings, before going solo. Listed in Guinness World Records as the most successful musician and composer in pop history, with sales of 100m singles. Though not one of his most celebrated compositions, Wings’s 1977 single Mull of Kintyre was the first to sell over 2m copies in the UK, and is still the biggest-selling non-charity single ever.

High point The Beatles’ creative peak in the mid-60s has been unrivalled by any band. McCartney’s 1965 composition Yesterday is regularly cited as the most covered song of all time, and he came up with the concept for their groundbreaking 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Low point Feuded bitterly with his former musical soulmate Lennon throughout the 1970s; was jailed in Japan for possession of marijuana; suffered the death of his wife Linda in 1998; and went through a mortifying and acrimonious divorce from Heather Mills in 2008

What he says “It’s hard to follow my own act. But the only answer to that would be to give up after the Beatles. I only had two alternatives. Give up or carry on.”

What they say “Paul McCartney, one of the best songwriters of all time, has only produced manure for the past 25 years” Noel Gallager

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