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Paul McCartney at 80: The long and winding life and times of the greatest musician of all time


The Beatles undoubtedly changed the world. How many artists in history can you say that about? Not bad for a Norfolk-handful of working-class lads from Liverpool. Since then, Paul McCartney has continued to blaze a trail of booming liberation.

Now, into his 80th year, McCartney shows no signs of slowing. Thus, below, we are looking at the pivotal moments in his scintillating life and times, and prying at the songs that define them. After all, if it can be said about anyone, then it can be said about ‘Macca’, that man and music are one and the same.

Here’s to you Mr McCartney…

All You Need is Love: In 1967, 200 million people saw The Beatles play ‘All You Need is Love’ via a ground-breaking satellite link-up. At the time, that wasn’t far from one in 16 people on the entire planet receiving a message of unified peace in one fell swoop of sonic beauty. Capturing such an audience was an untold feat in human history, and amid tempestuous times, the ‘Fab Four’ broke through clouds of uncertainty with an assegai of hope and exultation that basked blue skies and Godspeed over a flowery movement we are still positively reeling from to this day. 55 years on, as Paul McCartney turns 80, he asserts, “I still believe that love is all you need. I don’t know a better message than that.”

Blackbird Sings: Ten years earlier, McCartney had been idly dossing around St. Peter’s Church Hall fête in Woolton when he bumped into a bespectacled boy so short-sighted that without his glasses, he wasn’t far from being legally blind. The boy was John Lennon, and he was about to play a second set of the day with the Quarrymen, when their tea-chest bass player Ivan Vaughan, introduced him to his classmate ‘Macca’. When Vaughan passed away in 1993, it prompted McCartney to start writing poetry again. In his anthology Blackbird Singing, he penned the following: “Sadness isn’t sadness. It’s happiness in a black jacket. Tears are not tears. They’re balls of laughter dipped in salt. Death is not death. It’s life that’s jumped off a tall cliff.”

Let it Be: There has been a lot of loss in the life of McCartney, but it is a mark of his fortitude and the ethos of love above all – which he has clung to throughout – that defines his output as an artist and outlook as a man. A year prior to the fateful church fête meeting, McCartney’s mother tragically passed away at the age of 47 when Paul was only 14. 12 years later, McCartney would recall, “I had a dream in the sixties, where my mum who died came to me in a dream and was reassuring me saying: It’s going to be okay. Just let it be.”

In many ways, this makes ‘Let It Be’ his defining anthem. We view Paul McCartney now as a beaming edifice of unimpeached joy. In the ‘60s he was the chipper smile of a bolshie generation of liberating youth, and when the Rome of The Beatles was left in glorious rubble, he quickly moved on to green pastures anew, and he has remained buoyantly prolific ever since, happily searching for melodies like a squirrel in a Snickers factory. The fact that this long and winding road of endless creativity has been pitted with potholes of unimaginable hardship is a sign of the effortless ease with which he transfigures troubles into musical triumphs, just as ‘Let It Be’ declares with transcendent jubilation—the sort that will live on in the rafters of pop music’s growing mausoleum forevermore.

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Yesterday: It was also this sense of joy that kept him grounded when only five years on from meeting Lennon, in 1962, The Beatles began their global takeover. Their dominance was a world first, never seen before, and probably never to be seen again. Three years into their pop-culture revolution, they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the fourth and final time. McCartney was set to debut ‘Yesterday’ in a solo capacity. “So, I was standing there – ‘come on, get it together, it’s OK’,” McCartney once recalled, “and the floor manager, the guy on the curtain, came up to me and said, ‘You nervous?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You should be, there’s 73 million people watching.’”

Nowadays, the impact of ‘Yesterday’ has been eroded with endless exposure. It’s the sort of song kids have abseiled from the womb humming, but that it is merely a measure of how you couldn’t imagine a world without it—the same feat that many of The Beatles’ finest anthems have transcendently achieved. However, the first time it graced a stage must have left 73 million mouths agog as though the Queen had just strolled onto the screen in her damned undies, as the fellow once said. 

The End: However, nobody can keep scoring hattricks forever, and like a candle that blazes twice as bright, The Beatles were destined to burn out. The parting couplet ‘Macca’ penned with the working-class lads from Liverpool, who grabbed pop culture by the lapels and shook it like jelly-laden Skoda travelling at 70 over a cattle-grid was: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.” It’s a line that I’ve never really understood to be perfectly honest, but c’est la vie, you can’t please all the people all the time. Nevertheless, it is clear that they reached out to the world with ‘Love Me Do’ and they let their legacy unfurl with a handshake that declared a rosy message once more. 

Maybe I’m Amazed: In the aftermath, McCartney was quietly struggling to come to terms with the breakup of The Beatles. He later told his daughter, Mary: “I nearly had a breakdown. I suppose the hurt of it all, and the disappointment, and the sorrow of losing this great band, these great friends… I was going crazy.” Nevertheless, McCartney was in search of some exultation once more, something to lift him from his hardship. As he has since stated: “Nothing pleases me more than to go into a room and come out with a piece of music.”

That’s just as well for him, because as his own hero Bob Dylan once said, “He can scream and shout as good as anybody […] he’s just so damn effortless. I mean I just wish he’d quit, you know? [Laughs] Just everything and anything that comes out of his mouth is just framed in a melody.” If you love nothing more than making music, then it helps to be the eponymous melody man. And during a low point in 1970, McCartney went into a little room with the set-up “like a professor in his laboratory” and produced ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ whereby he shouted and screamed a melodic gem that may well be his greatest performance on record. Proving himself as a solo act, in the same way that Michael Phelps might prove himself to be a viable lifeguard, he sunk into family life with Linda McCartney and his daughter Mary and entered a new chapter. 

Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey: However, McCartney’s new chapter was bound to prognosticate a new chapter for music too. Ram was ahead of its time. Channelling matrimony bliss, Paul and Linda forecast the forthcoming blue skies of indie with a record that proclaimed the melody man as a pioneer on his lonesome too. Troubles were no longer in sight on this azure album got its pointed finger out of the way early with ‘Too Many People’, which in reality barely probed, and thereafter ‘Macca’ slunk back into the deckchair of a sanguine future.

During times of trouble, the former Beatle recalled, “the lightbulb went off one day when we realised that we could just run away.” With that epiphany, McCartney allowed himself to recline into the fruits of his honest toil and the justly paid dues and basked in the harvest of munificent concessions. He was now ready to enjoy the peaceful pastures of a rightful home, and we have been the benefactors of this ever since because as he acquiesced from the strife of The Beatles’ breakup, he fell in line with turning folly into fortified triumph once more and has continued to produce brilliant music in his natural vein ever since. 

Here Today: Throughout the ‘70s, McCartney might have been a man on the run, but the undertow of his legacy was always there, and he was tragically forced to redress it when Lennon was murdered. On his first record since his passing, McCartney penned the song ‘Here Today’ which included the line, “What about the night we cried”. Later, he spoke about the being holed up in Key West, Florida in ’64 as a hurricane raged outside: “It was during that night, when we’d all stayed up way too late, and we got so pissed that we ended up crying—about, you know, how wonderful we were, and how much we loved each other, even though we’d never said anything. It was a good one: you never say anything like that. Especially if you’re a northern man.”

Once more, amid torment, a semblance of beauty shone through on his honest reflection. As he once said, “Whatever bad things John said about me, he would also slip his glasses down to the end of his nose and say: ‘I love you’.” Notes like this are what make them so special: Paul McCartney and The Beatles are far bigger than their music—they pretty much birthed that pop culture notion themselves. And it is a great joy that that legacy is so truly humanised, fraught with friendship, folly and forgiveness—all of which McCartney has poured into his music like spiritual honey, always sweet but never saccharine and served up with a sincere smile. 

Beyond that, there is nothing but brilliance. As one of the many musicians he inspired, Andy Bell, recently told us: “Paul McCartney is, in my opinion, the greatest living musician. He’s also one of the very few people truly worthy of the term ‘genius’. His talent, in multiple areas of music, is astounding, actually almost unbelievable, and although he is rightly respected and loved for his music all over the world, if anything, he is also the most criminally underrated musician on the planet as well. Best bass player ever. Part of the best songwriting team ever. One of the greatest singers ever. He keeps on moving forward and isn’t afraid to experiment, but really you feel like he is primarily making music to please himself. It’s just very lucky that we all get to share it as well.”

Many musicians and fans will be sharing in that sentiment as his long and winding life arrives at 80 and the forthcoming ‘na na na nas’ at Glastonbury that seem so fitting in hopefully paving a way to a brighter future. But above all, people will be celebrating the man himself, and that is the true mark of his story to date. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest musicians of all time, McCartney is a man who has taken so little and given so much. Happy Birthday!

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