Saturday, 26 June 2010

McCartney Live 35 Years On

They're still selling tickets for Paul McCartney's Hyde Park show tomorrow at a mere £29.99, according to this morning's paper. It's an enticing bill for those of us over a certain age, with Elvis Costello and Crosby, Stills & Nash among the supporting cast. But I won't be there. Nothing against McCartney, you understand; but 12 hours under the blistering sun is about 11 hours and 55 minutes more than I can take, no matter what the attraction.

In my book, I note the marked deterioration in McCartney's speaking voice around the time of his traumatic divorce from Heather Mills. But the brief clips I've seen on Youtube from his US shows earlier this year demonstrated a remarkable durability for a man who has just celebrated his 68th birthday. Check out, for example, this rousing debut for a 45-year-old Beatles standard:

I've been fortunate enough to see McCartney in several much more intimate venues than Hyde Park down the years, from Westcliff Pavilion to the Mean Fiddler in North London. But nothing would ever be able to match the emotional impact of the first rock gig I ever attended: Paul McCartney & Wings at the Southampton Gaumont in 1975.

It had been a long wait. In 1973, McCartney had announced tour dates that included Southampton, but then cancelled them because his James Paul McCartney TV special wasn't finished. When the schedule was revised, he played Bournemouth instead, which was too far for me to travel on a school night. Two years later, I obeyed the mid-70s etiquette for obtaining concert tickets, trekking to the nearest post office to buy postal orders, and sending them off hopefully with a stamped addressed envelope. To my amazement, I received two seats about ten rows back, in a cinema that couldn't have held more than about 3,000.

I still couldn't quite comprehend that I was going to be in the same building as a Beatle. Outside the cinema, there were desperate Americans who had travelled thousands of miles in the vain hope of obtaining a ticket. McCartney was unable at the time to get into America because of a drugs bust, and so US fans assumed that a speculative flight across the Atlantic represented their only chance of ever seeing him in concert.

The show was meant to start at 8.00, but the headliners (there was no support act) took the stage a few minutes early - because, I discovered later, McCartney was so nervous about the first night of the tour that he couldn't bear to wait in the dressing-room a second longer. They opened with the 'Venus And Mars' and 'Rock Show' medley from their recent album. I vividly remember the first time McCartney's fingers touched the strings of his Hofner bass guitar, and a vast percussive thud cannoned into my chest. All night I kept feel ing my ribs to make sure they were still intact. It wasn't hard to guess which member of the band had ultimate control over the sound system . . .

Most of the show passed in a thrilled, disbelieving haze. But after a handful of songs, someone shouted from behind me, "What about John Lennon?". It had been five years since the Beatles' split, but McCartney was still widely resented as the chief culprit. He glared back in the direction of the heckler, vigorously chewed his gum for a few seconds, and then said contemptuously, "What about John Lennon?".

The other hot topic in 1975 was whether McCartney would ever perform Beatles material in public again. We had our answer after about 30 minutes, when he sat behind a piano and bashed out the familiar intro to 'Lady Madonna' - one of five Fab songs that night. As I recall it, my reaction wasn't the glow of nostalgia that the same song would evoke today, but an almost numbing sense of disbelief.

The show was tight, efficient, and probably (in hindsight) too controlled to be genuinely exciting. But its symbolic importance, for me and everyone else who was there, was huge. Maybe it was, after all, possible for the Beatles to reclaim their past. And if Paul McCartney, the man who (so I presumed then) had chosen to break up the group, could step back into the past, then surely a reunion couldn't be that far away?

There was only one disappointment. Back in 1973, when James Paul McCartney was premiered in the States, Melody Maker and NME reviewed the TV special and mentioned Wings' rowdy performance of 'Long Tall Sally'. When it was screened in Britain a few weeks later, I sat with thrilled anticipation, waiting for this song - and was let down when the British 'mix' of the show included 'Hi Hi Hi' instead. During the encores at Southampton in 1975, the band duly played 'Hi Hi Hi' again, and then prepared for one more song. This was it, I thought - 'Long Tall Sally' at last. But no. Instead, they launched into an unfamiliar riff which, I discovered a year or two later, was called 'Soily', and barely deserved to be called a song. To this day, I still haven't seen McCartney perform 'Long Tall Sally' in the flesh, and I probably never will.

35 years on, if I was in Hyde Park tomorrow, I'm sure I'd relish McCartney's return to the Beatles catalogue. But I'd have been far more likely to brave the body-sapping sunshine if I thought that he'd play a set that wasn't purely an exercise in collective nostalgia. Wings in 1975 were a functioning band, with a repertoire that didn't depend on the past, fired by their leader's desperate desire to prove himself as a contemporary artist. Paul McCartney's 2010 stage act is purely a celebration of the past - remarkable in its way, but with nothing more at stake than sunburn and dehydration. One consolation: at least the crowd won't have to endure 'Soily' . . .

1 comment:

  1. Peter,

    I think you mean "Rickenbacker bass guitar" no?

    (And the bassline and vocal gymnastics on "Soily" are surely worth it, no?)

    All the best,