He almost didn’t make it. When Mary McCartney gave birth in Liverpool’s Walton General Hospital on June 18, 1942, her baby wasn’t moving, and didn’t appear to be breathing.
Paul was in a state of white asphyxia, caused by oxygen deficiency in the brain. The obstetrician was all set to pronounce him dead, but the midwife, a friend of Mary, held out hope. A Roman Catholic, like Mary, she began to pray. After a few seconds, the baby started to holler.
At first, Mary’s husband Jim, a first-time father at the age of 40, was horrified by the sight of his new baby. ‘He looked awful,’ he recalled. ‘Horrible. He had one eye open and just squawked all the time. When I got home I cried for the first time for years and years.’
But all that squawking paid off. Eighty years later, Sir Paul McCartney might justly be described as our Greatest Living Englishman. His songs are in all our heads, and are part of the fabric of our lives.
Rocking through the years: Sir Paul McCartney is still performing at 80. Pictured at the Henry Maier Festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2016
Presenting Paul with the Library of Congress Gershwin Medal for Popular Song at the White House back in 2010, President Obama proclaimed it fitting to give it to ‘a man whose father played Gershwin compositions for him on the piano; a man who grew up to become the most successful songwriter in history . . . his gifts have touched billions of lives’.
Paul’s achievements are far too numerous to list. If he had only composed one song in his life — Yesterday — he would still be a very wealthy man. It has been recorded by over 3,000 artists, from Marvin Gaye to the Band of Irish Guards and from Frank Sinatra to Billie Eilish.
Is there any famous singer who hasn’t recorded at least one song by Paul? I particularly relish the oddest combinations of song and singers, though some better than others: Barbra Streisand’s With A Little Help From My Friends, The Cure’s Hello Goodbye, Alice Cooper’s Eleanor Rigby, Fats Domino’s Lady Madonna, and Slade’s little-known version of Martha My Dear.
From an early age, Paul was driven. Paul and John Lennon had a deep sadness in common: both their mothers had died when they were young — John’s when he was 17, and Paul’s when he was just 14. For both youngsters, this left a gaping hole that for the rest of their lives they tried to fill with song.
‘The fact that my mother Mary died when I was 14 is something I never got over,’ Paul confessed in his recent book, The Lyrics. His grief cast its shadow over many songs, often in unexpected ways. For instance, he says that the Lady Madonna, which ‘portrays a very present, nurturing mother has got to be influenced by that terrible sense of loss’. There is often a sadness at the heart of even his jolliest songs, and joy at the heart of even his saddest songs. This is what gives them their edge, and their emotional complexity.
Famously, Let It Be, like Yesterday, came to him in a dream. In the midst of wrangles with the other three Beatles, Paul fell asleep and had a dream in which she appeared.
Paul McCartney, front, is pictured with fellow Beatles George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in June 1967
‘Seeing my mum’s beautiful, kind face and being with her in a peaceful place was very comforting. I immediately felt at ease, and loved and protected . . . She seemed to realise I was worried about what was going on in my life and what would happen, and she said to me, “Everything will be all right. Let it be.” ’
John and Paul’s characters were formed by their very different reactions to the sudden deaths of their mothers.
John, who felt unloved, converted his grief into a creative anger; Paul, who felt loved, converted his grief into melody. The peculiar power of the music they composed together, its magic and its beauty, lies in the intermingling of these opposites. Paul once explained how the two of them had become what they were.
‘John, because of his upbringing and his unstable family life, had to be hard, witty, always ready for the cover up, ready for the riposte, ready with the sharp little witticism. Whereas with my rather comfortable upbringing, a lot of family, a lot of people, very northern “Cup of tea, love?”, my surface grew to be easygoing. Put people at their ease. Chat to people, be nice, nice to be nice . . .’
Nice, but also single-minded. All the greatest artists are blessed not only with genius but with ambition. Paul has always been very driven. Why else embark on your first musical — an adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life — when you are 79? Why else agree to headline at Glastonbury a week after your 80th birthday?
‘All my life, I’ve been trying to win a school prize,’ he recently confessed.
You can witness his drive in Peter Jackson’s recent documentary Get Back. The other three Beatles can always be seen slouching around the studio, waiting for something to happen. Meanwhile, Paul is pushing them on, trying to goad them into action.
It was Paul who had the bounce, the get-up-and-go, the inexhaustible need to achieve. The other three sometimes resented him for it, but without it, they might never have got off the ground, and would certainly never have lasted as long as they did.
Paul was what would now be known as a culture vulture. For three years, from 1964 to 1967, while the others lived in their Surrey mansions, he lived in the centre of London with the Ashers, the remarkable family of his girlfriend, Jane. With their encouragement, he hoovered up all that the London art scene could offer. ‘I’m trying to cram everything in, all the things I’ve missed,’ he told the journalist Maureen Cleave in 1966.
Family man: Paul with wife Linda and daughters (from left) Heather, Stella and Mary in Sussex in 1976
Dr Richard Asher was a pioneering endocrinologist, famous for identifying and naming Munchausen’s Syndrome. His wife Margaret was a professor at the Guildhall School of Music, who, coincidentally, had taught the oboe to the Beatles’ producer George Martin back in 1948. Jane’s brother Peter was an actor and singer; their sister Clare had acted in the BBC’s long-running soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary. And Jane herself was already a well-known actress, and a household name through her appearances on Juke Box Jury.
The Ashers expanded Paul’s mind, introducing him to new worlds of music and literature. This, in turn, expanded his ambition. ‘I often felt the guys were sort of partying, whereas I was learning a lot; learning an awful lot.’ He read Jung and Huxley, watched plays by Alfred Jarry and Harold Pinter, and listened to avant-garde composers like Stockhausen and John Cage.
These influences seeped into the Beatles’ music, giving it a fresh depth and complexity: The Things We Said Today, And I Love Her, We Can Work It Out, Yesterday and Here, There and Everywhere were all composed in the little music room in the Ashers’ basement.
The documentary Get Back also demonstrates Paul’s love of children: while the others slouch and Yoko Ono shrieks and wails into the microphone, Paul plays happily with his little stepdaughter, Heather.
When John left his wife Cynthia for Yoko, his son Julian was five, the same age John had been when his own father left home. Paul had always been close to Julian, playing Cowboys and Indians with him while John read the newspapers.
Once, John asked Paul how he managed to play with children so easily, as though it were a lesson you had to learn. ‘I remember a wave of sorrow coming over me,’ remembers Paul.
Julian remembers seeing more of Paul than of his father: ‘We had a great friendship going, and there seem to be far more pictures of me and Paul playing together at that age than there are pictures of me and my dad.’
Driving down to the Lennons’ house in Weybridge to comfort Cynthia after her break-up with John, Paul started thinking of the consequences of the split on Julian. ‘I knew it was not going to be easy for him. I always feel sorry for kids in divorces.’ From out of nowhere, a beautiful song of consolation came into his head. ‘Hey Jules,’ it began, ‘don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better.’
Love me do: Paul is pictured, right, with his parents Mary and Jim, as well as his younger brother Michael, left
It became a message of hope not just for Julian, but for the world. The great American novelist John Updike chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs. For him, the sound of it was like ‘the sun coming up on Easter morning’.
The Beatles broke up in 1970. Paul, normally so buoyant and self-sufficient, suffered something akin to a breakdown. At the tender age of 27, he felt ‘I’d outlived my usefulness’.
He retreated to his farm in Scotland. Too depressed to get up in the morning, he would lie in bed shaking uncontrollably, often drinking whisky upon waking.
His wife Linda found the change in him ‘scary beyond belief’. Slowly but surely, she pulled him through it. He celebrated her constancy in one of his greatest love songs. ‘Maybe I’m amazed at the way you pulled me out of time / Hung me on the line / Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you.’
What do you do when you stop being a Beatle? Ever the pragmatist, Paul went back to basics.
He formed a new band, Wings, and took them on the road in a van, turning up unannounced in university cities and offering to play. From the age of 21 he had been a millionaire, so he didn’t have to worry about money, but this way of living must have been hard for the lesser known members of Wings, particularly as he paid each of them just £70 a week, and coughed up for their bed and breakfast, but nothing else.
Small wonder that he has earned himself a reputation for being careful with his money — but, then again, he can also be extraordinarily generous. After his beloved Linda died in 1998, aged only 56, he silently donated £2 million pounds to the two hospitals that had cared for her.
Four years earlier, he had heard that the manager of the seedy Hamburg club where The Beatles had performed in the early 1960s had an 11-month-old daughter with a serious heart defect. Immediately, he flew the little girl and her parents to London, and paid for a team of specialists from New York to operate on her at Great Ormond Street hospital.
But his day-to-day life has remained modest and unshowy. How else could a normal man have, against all the odds, managed to deal with such an abnormal talent, and such universal adoration? People sometimes poke fun at him for what they see as his excessive chumminess. What the wave is to the Queen, the thumbs-up is to Paul McCartney.
Lesser stars may prefer to act cool and distant, but the greatest star of all remains friendly and approachable. He is held in such awe that even experienced session musicians have found themselves unable to play their instruments in his presence. This may explain why he has always been so keen to seem like an ordinary bloke when, in reality, he is anything but.
Paul McCartney and his girlfriend Jane Asher pictured with Julian Lennon in 1967. McCartney is carrying a copy of the Evening Standard newspaper
An American friend of mine was introduced to Paul at a party recently. He told Paul: ‘I saw you with the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966.’ To which Paul replied: ‘I knew I recognised your face!’ No doubt it’s a quip he’s used before, but it’s still a sweet way of breaking the ice.
In his Alan Partridge persona, Steve Coogan once joked that Wings were ‘the band the Beatles could have been’, yet Paul’s achievements in the half-century since the Beatles broke up have been remarkable. On top of his seven albums with Wings, he has recorded 16 solo albums, plus a further five classical albums.
A measure of his popularity can be seen in the fact that he is the only artist to have achieved a UK number one as a soloist (Pipes Of Peace), a duo (Ebony And Ivory with Stevie Wonder), a trio (Mull Of Kintyre with Wings), a quartet (She Loves You and many others with The Beatles), a quintet (Get Back, the Beatles with Billy Preston) and as part of a musical ensemble (Ferry Cross The Mersey with Ferry Aid, for the Hillsborough Disaster Fund).
And, just in case you think his popularity may be on the wane, I should add that his last solo album, McCartney III, on which he wrote all the songs and played all the instruments, went straight to number one.
As a solo artist, he has been so prolific that many of his finest songs remain relatively unnoticed, and certainly undervalued. Only the other day, I chanced upon a lovely one — Little Willow — written back in 1995, as a lament for Ringo’s first wife, Maureen, who had just died of leukaemia.
In the same vein, his song about John — Here Today — is one of the most beautiful he has ever written, which necessarily means it is one of the most beautiful songs anyone has ever written.
At the grand old age of 80, Paul McCartney is one of the few Britons alive who can be assured his place in history. If you travel back 80 years from his birth in 1942, you arrive at 1862. The year Debussy, Edith Wharton, Klimt and Delius were all born. Les Miserables was published that year, and so was Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm.
It’s funny to think that, in another 80 years, many people will struggle to remember whether Paul McCartney came before them, or after them.
He is part of our British heritage, an inspiration for generations to come. Speaking in 1997, at a celebration of her golden wedding anniversary, the Queen said: ‘Think what we would have missed if we had never heard the Beatles.’
And so say all of us. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!
- Craig Brown is the author of One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time (4th Estate).