A week has passed since Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday, and on Saturday he will play to a huge crowd at the Glastonbury festival. The great surge of reminiscence and celebration these two events have triggered – not least online, where millions of pictures, playlists and personal tributes have been shared – has felt like a rerouting of some of the feelings the public were encouraged to project on to the Queen’s platinum jubilee.
But instead of flags, pageantry and a final connection to the second world war, McCartney’s big week has been all about rather different touchstones: the popular culture that he and the Beatles helped create in the 1960s, the fact that their music has endured, and the sense of optimism and empathy that has run through almost all his work, both with and without his three former colleagues. In times as uncertain and acrimonious as ours, these things inevitably mean a lot.
Over the past 15 or so years, the received view of McCartney has changed. The idea that John Lennon was somehow artistically superior has given way to an accurate appreciation of the two of them as creative equals. Whereas the music he made after the Beatles’ break up was once sneered at, the best of it (the album Ram from 1971 is a good example) is now seen as rich, exploratory stuff that had a big influence on later generations of musicians. Moreover, there is now an understanding that the way McCartney has lived has set an example to other superstars, and the rest of us. He and his wife, Linda, ensured that their three children went to state schools. They were early adopters of vegetarianism, and then high-profile champions of living meat-free. In a lot of what he does, there is still a deep drive to simply connect: on past tours, for example, he has made a point of being briskly tutored in the language of whichever country he finds himself, so as to get closer to communicating meaningfully with his audiences.
To reduce his vast body of work to an essential idea or principle is absurd: he has written everything from the nightmarish proto-heavy metal of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter, through such idyllic solo songs as My Love and Waterfalls, to From a Lover to a Friend, one of the most moving evocations of bereavement any songwriter has ever created. But one theme does seem to run through his life and work. In Get Back, the acclaimed three-part documentary series that the director Peter Jackson edited from hours of Beatles footage filmed in early 1969, McCartney is revealed as a sensitive, worldly man, with a level of emotional literacy that was rare back then.
In keeping with these qualities, there is something he has always seemed to understand as a matter of instinct: that serially sending his audience redemptive, hopeful messages enriches their lives, and his. Put another way, he passionately believes something that Britons in 2022 would do well to remember, captured aphoristically on the piece of Beatles music that will probably close his Glastonbury performance: “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make”.