there is a beautiful scene in the recent documentary by peter jackson The Beatles: Get Back that sums up the obviousness of Paul McCartney. It’s another day in the Twickenham studios, where McCartney single-handedly wrestles the Beatles to record a new album. John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are semi-detached at best, but McCartney is grafting, writing songs from the start 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 hymn-esque new song while his fiancée Linda Eastman is talking to 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 got things moving,” said Starr after the band broke up in 1970. More driven and cautious than the others, he became something of a parent and tutor. Sometimes this hurt him, but, as Get Back illustrates, a necessary pain. He knew better than any of them what an irreplaceable precious thing they had together. Five decades later, it is still moving forward. He recently released a quasi-memoir, The lyrics: 1956 to present, and embarked on yet another stadium tour. He will headline Glastonbury for the second time next weekend, seven days after his 80th birthdaye birthday. He has said he is considering retiring as a prelude to its expiration.
Born in Liverpool in 1942, James Paul McCartney lost his mother, Mary, when he was 14 – an experience that cemented his bond with the also grieving John Lennon. In 1957, McCartney joined Lennon’s skiffle band The Quarrymen, which became the Beatles three years later. After settling their teeth in Hamburg, they released Love Me Do in October 1962, launching themselves on a rocket journey that hadn’t landed for seven years. While vacationing in Greece in 1963, McCartney realized that he would probably become famous everywhere, forever. He said to himself, “You have to decide now: give it all up or be happy with it. And I thought, you know what, I couldn’t give it all up.”
The Beatles became a worldwide advertisement for youth and friendship—Paul and John wrote many of those early hits from knee to knee, eyeball to eyeball—and their breakup was a generational trauma. McCartney had a hard time with it. “The track was gone, and it was clearly more than the track — it was the Beatles, the music, my musical life, my collaborator,” he told the New Yorker last year. “It was this idea of ’What should I do now?’” His daughter Stella, the fashion designer, reflected that “we spent much of our childhood with Dad recovering from the turmoil and breakup”.
It wasn’t easy to move on, but it’s easy to forget how old-fashioned McCartney once was. After the Beatles imploded, Lennon did a great job discussing his contribution and downplaying Paul’s, and this one-sided view was cemented with his murder in 1980. While John was posthumously canonized as the Beatles’ soulful revolutionary (“Martin Luther Lennon”, McCartney snapped), Paul was mocked as a showbiz people-pleaser who knocked out corny sing-alongs like Mull of Kintyre and We All Stand Together: “a slack ass,” he once complained. “I understood that revisionism was coming now,” he said Esquire in 2015. “It would be: John it was.”
Even in 1997, the year McCartney was knighted for his contributions to music, Alan Partridge’s claim that Wings was “the band the Beatles could have been” was laughed at. McCartney’s thin skin when it came to comparisons to Lennon, controversially flipping the credits of certain songs to read McCartney-Lennon in 2002, didn’t do him any good. At his worst, he was a non-winning combination of irritable and dull.
In 2022, however, McCartney is widely loved. This isn’t just because of the sobering acknowledgment that cultural giants won’t be around forever. His reputation has also benefited from a cultural shift away from troubled rock’n’roll misfits and towards artists who combine genius with decency. In his book Dreaming of the Beatlescritic Rob Sheffield calls him “almost capriciously untortured,” a quality that was once uncool, but now seems admirable. In an era of free love and free-spirited machismo, McCartney was a devoted father to Mary, Stella, James and stepdaughter Heather, and a devoted husband to Linda. Until her death in 1998, they never spent a night without each other, except for the week he spent in 1980 in Japan for marijuana possession. He has another daughter, Beatrice, from his six-year marriage to Heather Mills and married American businesswoman Nancy Shevell in 2011.
McCartney’s progressive politics stem from a desire for inclusivity and mutual understanding. No celebrity did more than Paul and Linda to champion the cause of vegetarianism. He rarely turns down a request to sprinkle some high-quality stardust on a charity record or concert. He likes to be helpful. He also gets along well with strangers. “People say, I’m really scared to meet you,” he told Q in 2001. “So I’m going, okay, let’s try to get past that. i really did it very good but trust me, I’m just an idiot.” If anything, he’s outperformed normality. Like his songs, he is tougher, smarter and stranger than he appears at first glance.
McCartney’s emotional generosity defines his songwriting. While Lennon mostly wrote in the first person, McCartney’s interest in other people and the quiet magic of everyday life can be heard in the paternal embrace of Hey Jude, the bustling street life of Penny Lane, and the deep empathy of Eleanor Rigby. Lennon’s sense of humor was irritable and cryptic; McCartney’s beckons you in the joke.
Who else would write a song as charmingly crazy as Back in the USSR and then record it alongside the tender Blackbird and the heavy thunder of Helter Skelter? Who else could think of something as perky yet moving as When I’m Sixty-Four and, what’s more, doing it when he was just a teenager? Standards like Let It Be and Yesterday are almost too famous to appreciate as entities that a young man sat down and wrote rather than plucking from the airwaves.
McCartney’s catalog is far from spotless, but he’s been writing good to great songs since 1956. He is also an exceptional singer, bassist and producer who can turn his hand to piano, guitar, drums and electronics. “He can do it all,” said Bob Dylan rolling stone in 2007. “And he never gave up. He has the gift for melody, he has the rhythm and he can play any instrument. He can scream and yell just as much as anyone else… He’s just so damn effortless.”
What should be especially satisfying for McCartney is the long, ongoing re-evaluation of his post-Beatles work: the DIY farm intimacy of his self-titled solo debut; the ambitious multi-part songwriting of Wings’ 1973 blockbuster Band on the run, recorded in Lagos; the eccentric synthesizer experiments of the 80s McCartney II† Tom Doyle’s biography Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s makes a strong case for McCartney as a risky adventurer whose attempts to reinvent himself have been far from sociable. His proto-techno quirk of Temporary Secretary became a club song 23 years later. For someone so famous, McCartney has a remarkable amount of buried treasure.
He has aged with dignity, but not too much. Over the decades, he has collaborated with younger producers such as Mark Ronson, Nigel Godrich and Kanye West and recorded three freewheeling albums with Youth under the alias The Fireman. He is also a generous live performer who knows that fans want to hear three hours of the songs that have been soundtracked in their lives. His first performance at Glastonbury, in 2004, remains one of the festival’s most euphoric highlights. He concluded, as always, with The End, his simple farewell to the Beatles, Lennon’s favorite McCartney lyrics and the purest expression of his worldview: “And in the end, the love you take equals the love you make.” Rock stars are used to receiving love: McCartney is just as good at giving back.