“Well there you have it, if you didn’t enjoy that, you don’t like football; goodnight.” I always loved this pithy sign-off by consummate TV sports anchor Des Lynam after a particularly exciting Champions’ League semi-final. Substitute the word “football” for “music” and Paul McCartney might well have exited the stage to these words after his magnificent set at Glastonbury 2022.
Even from the sobering distance of morning-after catch-up TV, I found Paul’s performance enthralling and enchanting. From the first bars of inspired opener “Can’t Buy Me Love”, through solo and Beatles classics, intriguing rarities, the opinion-dividing “novelty” songs, to newer songs I don’t know and the life affirming anthems that everyone knows, I thought this was about as joyous as music gets. I even loved the songs I don’t like.
By turns, these jewels of pop perfection made me feel happy, sad, wistful, troubled, optimistic, enthused, amused and in awe. They made me tap my feet, move my ass, lose myself, listen enraptured, laugh, cry, think, feel, smile, sing and believe that the most elemental of things – like empathy with and compassion for our fellow humans – are not just possible but can also be given strong voice and clear expression. They made me feel just about everything music should make you feel.
This was a celebration of music – the simple, uncomplicated beauty of it. Had he have launched into a fifteen-minute solo kazoo rendition of “The Frog Chorus”, I doubt even that would have dampened my enthusiasm.
For all the peace and love though, there was a good deal of challenge in McCartney’s performance – in the delivery, in the choice of songs and in the fact that an eighty-year-old cast himself centre stage for nearly two and a half hours. I’m still here, he seemed to be saying, I am who I am and I’ll do what I want. Wherever your loyalties lie, wherever you come from and whatever tastes and preconceptions you brought to this musical banquet, for me, there was surely enough here for everyone to feast on.
I am not a seasoned Macca-watcher but it often surprises me how readily he divides opinion. Maybe he just doesn’t fit some people’s vision of the archetypal composer/poet. Many of the songwriters we all love and admire appear cast adrift on the precipice of their pained existence – clinging to the volcano’s edge as they dredge beauty and meaning from the magma of their troubled soul. So instead of looking at everything he has done, some choose to judge Paul for what he is not; and he is not, apparently, a tortured soul, Byronic, mystic and effortlessly romantic. He is not really a spokesperson for anything, an obvious champion of lost causes or anyone’s idea of a saviour. Perhaps for some, most damning of all, he is guilty simply of not being John.
Paul makes it all seem so easy. At its best, his songwriting is terse, on point and undemonstrative. He doesn’t try too hard and he doesn’t pretend too much. And is there another songwriter who could play arguably one of the greatest, and certainly one of the most iconic, songs ever written and leave you wondering if it would even make it into your list of his top three compositions? Not many songs can survive at the dizzying altitude of “Let It Be”, though there are a fair few by McCartney himself that readily thrive there.
Similarly, Paul’s delivery is pure, straightforward and devoid of histrionics. It’s not that this is the right way to sing a song, it’s just one perfectly good way to do it. I often remind myself, if I’m losing the plot in a vocal: think about the words – each one as you sing them – and when all else fails, try singing.
To me at least, his Glastonbury tributes to fellow Beatles George and John sounded genuine. They were, after all, his friends, companions and co-conspirators who, with Ringo in tow, changed the world. And who outside his family is better equipped to know what it was like to be John Lennon than Paul? Maybe there was challenge here too, to the doubters. Perhaps these tributes were also tentative lifelines cast in the general direction of those prepared to see ripples of reconciliation in a sea of division.
I recently watched the “Get Back” films with my nephew Tom, a young man on his third run through an 8-hour trilogy about a band that split up twenty years before he was born. Like Tom, I loved these films from start to finish but two things affected me most strongly. The first was listening to John, Paul and George as they wrote, experimented with and enjoyed those famous three-part harmonies, often for the first time. The second was seeing Paul and John messing about and having fun – singing comedy words in silly voices to songs that have become some of the most famous ever written. They are magnificent films and I commend them to anyone who, as Des might have said, likes music.
Of course, it seemed right that the Glastonbury crowd should want to pay homage to McCartney’s past but I wonder how many in that audience were, like me watching at home, surprised by just how entertaining Paul and his magnificent band remain today. Few songwriters are as worthy of celebration as Paul McCartney, and what a joy it was to see he still has the health, energy and courage to do the celebrating himself.