Turning 80 on June 18 2022, Paul McCartney has enjoyed an immense level of fame for 60 years. It’s to his credit that he continues relatively humble, sensible and creative. He may be the greatest popular song-writer of the 20th century. His melodic and harmonic gifts, demonstrated over decades, seem unmatched by his near-competitors and he still writes songs that invite people to sing along.
McCartney’s continuous productivity and popularity have a solid basis in attitudes — a loving celebration of people and places, together with optimism and a desire to add beauty to life — that are worth honouring and emulating because they are no longer common among artists.
Love for people…
The famous Beatle isn’t embarrassed to write romantic ballads, offending critics who think rock should aspire beyond love ditties to social commentary and philosophical depth. He defied these critics with his 1976 hit Silly Love Songs.
Bruce Springsteen reported that he was disappointed with this song at first. It seemed a bit mawkish for a Beatle. But years later Springsteen, now married with children, confessed that he had come to appreciate the hit’s message: what was wrong with love songs? McCartney knew the unfashionable sentiment would be criticised, but he persisted and still writes sincerely-felt romantic songs.
His instincts are sound. Christians, among others, affirm God is love; the Ultimate is love. McCartney explained his perspective, saying love songs are eternal because people are always falling into or out of love. It’s impossible to imagine a world without love.
A pose of world-weary cynicism may be de rigueur for “serious” rock musicians but McCartney is free from this pretence. Why shouldn’t he celebrate his wife’s affection or his love for his family and friends?
… and places
In the same way, why shouldn’t he celebrate the places he loves?
McCartney is a quiet patriot. He is proudly English, travelling and holidaying across the world, staying for periods in the US but at home in England. He saw the beauties in his lower middle-class neighbourhood when it had become more fashionable among artists to scorn one’s neighbourhood as boring, ugly or provincial. This scorn — for example, the bleak realism of 1960s English playwrights and film-makers — was pointedly directed to the working- and middle-class northern cities like Liverpool.
McCartney didn’t share their contempt. His delight in local wonders is perfectly expressed in Penny Lane. The harmonic, instrumental and melodic brilliance all serve to celebrate a Scouser street portraying it as a magical place. Likewise English Tea, from 2010’s Chaos and Creativity in the Backyard, rejoices in the prosaic custom of tea-time amid the beauties of an English garden. Again, the melody is delightful — once heard, never forgotten — while the lyrics unashamedly invoke a wholesome sentiment: sharing a cuppa in our own yard as one of life’s joys.
For fifty years McCartney owned a farm for holidays in Scotland. His love for the village inspired Mull of Kintyre, another of his songs with a melody that sounds as old as the seaside. In the aftermath of punk’s abrasive revolution, Mull of Kintyre seemed old-hat, but millions loved the song and still do. It quickly took its place in — and enlivened — the centuries-deep tradition of Scottish folk music.
… country and family
In 1968, he wrote the minute-long Her Majesty, an irreverent but affectionate ode to Queen Elizabeth II. Contrast Her Majesty with the Sex Pistol’s 1977 sneering punk anthem God Save the Queen, less than ten years after McCartney’s playful effort. His senses are too decently loyal to a good Queen — to anybody for that matter — to be so anarchic. He felt honoured to be knighted. He didn’t return his CBE to make a passing political point, as John Lennon did. He said being knighted in 1997 for services to music made him “proud to be British.”
In 1996 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opened Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), a college initiated by McCartney to develop the talents of Liverpool’s young people. The LIPA is partly housed in McCartney’s old school which he revisited in the mid-1980s; he was dismayed to see it empty and derelict.
He wanted to rescue the old building, working with keen educators and Liverpool City Council to refurbish it as an innovative college. McCartney was a key financial supporter. LIPA is unapologetically elitist concerning student talent, aptitude and attitude. Not surprisingly, LIPA has become one of Britain’s most-acclaimed academies with very high levels of graduates gaining employment.
McCartney’s solid family background and the humble ordinariness of post-war Liverpool combined to encourage an attitude of humour and sympathetic fellow-feeling. He’s never lost those characteristics. Friends, family and easily-overlooked people are far more important to him than ideologies or politics. His first post-Beatles album, McCartney (1970), was about family, home and love. He and wife Linda determined to maintain their marriage and the careful nurture of their four children. The McCartneys are a tight bunch: loyal and mutually supportive.
Family, love and ordinary people matter to Paul McCartney because, he says, there’s nothing better. And this assessment comes from a man incredibly famous and wealthy. He explored extravagant living but found ordinary people were quietly dignified and wise, and there was nothing better than an ordinary life, as much as he and Linda could manage.
It’s appropriate that McCartney’s favourite author is Charles Dickens, who celebrated the dignity, humour and good sense of common people.
Beauty plus innovation
McCartney never used his gifts to serve ugliness. He didn’t embrace the fashion of ear-grating music. Even on his three Fireman albums — the pseudonym allowed him freedom to experiment without McCartney-brand expectations — he explored melody and attractive rhythms, putting unmusical sounds to musical effect. It’s unfortunate that such innovations have been eclipsed by his wide appeal, as if immense popularity must be at odds with genuine artistry.
It was McCartney who brought tape loops to the Beatles. He (along with Brian Wilson) moved the rock bassist from providing the extra bump of the rhythm to a much more prominent, contrapuntal place in songs. It was McCartney and his fellow Beatles’ idea in 1966 to furnish fans with new songs via pre-recorded televised clips — an idea that birthed a huge industry.
In 1967, McCartney had classical trumpeter David Mason play a piccolo trumpet solo in Penny Lane and at one stroke added all the instruments of the classical orchestra to the resources of rock bands. Even the lo-fi, play all the instruments and record it yourself movement was pioneered by McCartney with his first post-Beatles album. He released similar do-it-yourself albums in 1980 and 2020.
Please, please them
McCartney loves to play for people. This isn’t as common among musicians as one would think. He knows when fans come to his shows they’d like to hear his classics and he doesn’t disappoint. And he isn’t content — unlike Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones among too many others — with a sloppy performance, bad sound, mumbled lyrics or on-stage hauteur. McCartney aims to please people, and while this does have some traps for an artist, it’s never a wholly bad aim. Credibility certainly doesn’t lodge exclusively with artists who want to offend or disappoint.
He knows that people don’t have to attend his concerts or buy his albums. Their presence at a hall or the money they spend buying a record is their judgement of his music’s worth. He knows people could spend money in other ways. They fact that they choose to spend money to see and hear him expresses real approval.
In an age when the standards of art have become confused and ideas of beauty, excellence, accessibility, meaning and basic human sympathies are all routinely disputed, the free market at least provides a sifting mechanism. It’s not an infallible indicator of consistent high quality but — in the absence of any other standard — having millions of people across the generations valuing an artist’s output for sixty years indicates that he or she’s doing a lot right.
Many contemporary artists, particularly in the visual arts, have to rely on government-based grants, or sales to publicly-funded galleries, because their art simply isn’t good enough to fend for itself in the free market. No problems there for Sir Paul, whose latest albums still sell by the million.
Hope, sorrow and wit
One reason for his long love affair with his multitudinous public is obvious: his vibrant, melody-resplendent music breathes hope. This is refreshing and realistic. Maybe the best expressions of his optimistic spirit are the 1978 hit, With a Little Luck, 1992’s Hope of Deliverance or 2015’s Hope for the Future. He says his positive outlook was absorbed from the Liverpudlians’ war-time attitude of defiant joy. Despite the bombs and the bereavements, happiness was still possible, love could still blossom, neighbours could still care.
This doesn’t mean McCartney shies away from troubling subjects. He’s written moving songs of grief: for his mother and father, for his wife Linda, for John Lennon. 1997’s Little Willow is one of these elegiac gems, composed as a consolation for children after the death of their mother, a close friend of the McCartney clan. In 2007, he sang about his own demise, the affective The End of the End. He’s written many songs about loneliness and entrapment, especially as experienced by commoners whose troubles will never make even tiny ripples in the shallow puddles of the mass media.
It’s important to remember that McCartney’s childhood was pre-rock ‘n’ roll. He grew up hearing songs from Hollywood and British musicals, the fifties crooners like Nat King Cole and Fred Astaire, vocal groups like the Mills Brothers and the comic musicians George Formby, Ken Dodd and Harry Secombe.
The example of those artists, loved by Britain’s lower classes, was important to the Beatles; the fab four were seen as fresh partly because they were witty. Their sense of humour came — in no small way — from waggish entertainers they heard on the front parlour radio. The influence stayed with McCartney. He still admires the old performers whose jesting songs brightened his boyhood with laughter.
An intuitive musician
McCartney describes himself as a primitive musician: he can’t read music and had no formal training. He’s self-taught all the way. He also describes himself as bright, but intuitively bright. His musical instincts are acute, with comparatively few lapses of judgement. Sixty-five years of making music day in and day out has sharpened and trained these instincts, although not every piece he’s written is faultless.
He admits that song-writing is a fascinating mystery: he never knows if he can do it again today. So far, his gifts have stayed with him, long nurtured by habit, thankfulness, skill and being open to happenstance. And for that, tens of millions of people are grateful. He’s a rare talent. It’s possible that in the decades and centuries ahead he will be seen as one of the great artists of his time.
Highlighting McCartney’s achievements doesn’t mean he’s a secular saint. He has flaws and has committed follies. His marijuana use over decades, for example, provides no model for anyone, as he himself recognised and eventually desisted. But it’s important to differentiate between the faults of a person and the excellence of their work, acknowledging both without excusing one or cancelling the other. With McCartney, there is excellence in abundance.
Copyright November 2021. Gary Furnell
Gary Furnell is a former librarian. His stories, essays and book reviews sometimes appear in Quadrant, The Chesterton Review, Studio, The Defendant and The Catholic Weekly. His new book The Hardest path…
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