IN the year of the Queen’s Coronation, Paul McCartney was a Liverpool grammar schoolboy who won a class competition to mark the event. In the year of her Jubilee, he is a millionaire, a knight and chief Crown crooner.
At tomorrow’s celebration concert in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, Sir Paul will lead the chorus of the Beatles’ 1967 hit ‘All You Need is Love’. The evening will be rich in sentiment. McCartney and Eric Clapton are to play ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ in memory of George Harrison, who died last year, while McCartney will be serenading his fiance, Heather Mills, whom he is to marry in a few days’ time. Prince Charles, hovering to pay tribute to his mother as the concert concludes, will be hard put to compete.
There are manifold ironies in this situation, as John Lennon’s acerbic ghost would appreciate. Although the Beatles accepted MBEs from the Queen in 1965, it is hard to imagine Lennon, even at near-pensionable age, volunteering for a Buck House sing-along with Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones.
His less than reverent attitude to royalty was best illustrated at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, when he invited the blue-bloods to "rattle your jewellery". Lennon sent his MBE back in 1969, with a telegram to the Queen protesting at Britain’s involvement in the Biafran war and support for America in Vietnam.
So it is a reasonable guess that McCartney’s co-writer would not have been thrilled about his lyrics - ‘All You Need is Love’ was his song - being used to buttress what he liked to describe as "the class system and the bullshit bourgeois scene". Lennon’s relationship with the British state was scarcely friendly. MI5, as well the FBI, kept files listing his donations to left-wing groups.
As for Harrison, the composer of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ nursed a lifelong resentment that Lennon and McCartney refused to take the song seriously until he brought Eric Clapton into the studio to help play it. With half the group dead, Sir Paul is now semi-official custodian of the legend. Sometimes the copyright is literal. He recently blocked the handwritten lyrics of ‘Hey Jude’ from being auctioned at Christie’s, and complained about Julian Lennon’s use of ‘When I’m 64’ as an advertising jingle.
Sometimes it is emotional. His characterisation of Harrison as "my baby brother", while touching, over-simplified a relationship that was more complex and edgy than the description suggests. Unlike Harrison, who stayed in the shadows tending the garden of his Oxfordshire mansion, exploring spirituality and funding quirky comedy films, Sir Paul, now approaching his 60th birthday, has emerged as a senior member of that lite club, the elder statesmen of pop.
From the Royals’ point of view, this puts him in the same category as the Cliff Richards and Chris de Burghs, the Phil Collinses and the George Michaels. The palace has learned that the music of these mellow, middle-brow millionaires can stand in nicely for the National Anthem.
The Princess of Wales did her in-laws a favour with her determined but much-derided love of Top Ten tunes. Since Elton John reduced the nation to tears from Westminster Abbey there has been a niche market for soft-pop as a proxy for patriotism.
Of course, only certain artists and certain songs need apply. Geri Halliwell fits the mould of cheeky, unthreatening goodwill, but not Madonna; Robbie Williams, but not So Solid Crew. McCartney could not sing ‘Revolution’ at tomorrow’s celebration, or ‘Taxman’ - or even ‘Imagine’, given the international situation.
In a culture that worships youth it is hard for rock stars to inhabit an older skin with dignity. The romantic thing is to die young, like Jim Morrison. But for those who stay alive, the alternatives are to ignore the years (like Mick Jagger, still chasing the girls), to drop out or to make the best of your name and your back-catalogue. On his recent US tour Sir Paul said that he could imagine being wheeled on stage at the age of 90 to croak out ‘Yesterday’.
What McCartney has managed is an image of sane celebrity. On a circuit dominated by death, drink, drugs and divorce, he sustained a long and apparently happy marriage, bringing up talented and apparently well-adjusted children. His music, robbed of Lennon’s caustic input and the early impetus of Wings, has sunk into banality, but his faith in romance could teach Prince Charles a thing or two.
Would Lennon have worn so well? If he had lived, would he be a Manhattan recluse or an anti-globalisation guru? Would he be out there campaigning with Bono, experimenting with new media like Bowie, or expanding his musical boundaries like Elvis Costello? At the time of his death in 1980, Lennon’s former headmaster said he simply could not imagine him being old.
It is quite possible, however, to imagine Lennon being sardonic about McCartney, not just for his royal renditions but for his increasingly fuzzy politics. The sight of Sir Paul donning a fireman’s helmet in New York was one thing; the unthinking sloganising of his post-September 11 song, ‘Freedom’, was another. Lennon might have been confused about politics but he would have recognised that freedom is not a property to which the US can lay exclusive claim.
Understandably, McCartney does not like being portrayed as the straight, saccharine foil to Lennon’s angry sophisticate. Recently he has been stressing that his simple-seeming songs carry "veiled" meanings, telling US audiences on his recent tour that Blackbird refers to the struggle for civil rights in America.
The Queen need not fear being bothered by politics tomorrow. The worst the palace should worry about is McCartney offering an impromptu rendering of ‘Her Majesty’, a track from Abbey Road which begins, not inappropriately, "Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl/But she doesn’t have a lot to say."
Don’t be surprised to hear a faint hissing sound off-stage. That will be the sarcastic spectre of Lennon, dropping acid in the Royal Mews, jeering and corrupting the courtiers.