Paul McCartney at Glastonbury at 80? Why I've changed my mind about this ageing rock legend – Aidan Smith

Long, long ago, before Brexit and independence debates and masks, there was another big question which divided neighbours and defined who you were and what you stood for: Beatles or Rolling Stones?

Sir Paul McCartney performs at the Annual Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio last year. Next stop: Glastonbury just days after his 80th birthday (Picture: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)
Sir Paul McCartney performs at the Annual Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio last year. Next stop: Glastonbury just days after his 80th birthday (Picture: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

You could say you like both, of course, although that would lay you open to charges of being indecisive, timid and wet.

Then, assuming you’d made the correct choice, there was yet another question: John, Paul, George or Ringo? Of the Fab Four who was the fabbest?

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Ringo, the funny one (fogey interviewer: “What do you call your haircut?” Him: “Arthur”); John, the sarcastic one (“People in the cheap seats clap your hands. The rest of you rattle your jewellery”); George, the quiet one, the baby; or boy-next-door Paul?

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Beatles’ radio debut – on the BBC Light Programme’s The Teenager’s Turn (Here We Go!). Love Me Do would be released in the autumn of 1962 and soon after that the world would be theirs.

And yet incredibly, the act we’ve known for all these years is still challenging us in 2022 and requiring you and me to take sides. The question now is: should Sir Paul McCartney be playing Glastonbury at 80?

He was booked for 2020 but Covid did for the festival that year and again in 2021. When it was announced last week he’d retained his place on the bill, I assumed he’d be in the Sunday teatime “legends” slot filled previously by the likes of Tom Jones, Neil Diamond and Shirley Bassey. But, no, he’s to be Glasto’s oldest-ever headliner.

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Aged 14 in 1956, the year he wrote When I’m Sixty-Four, McCartney probably couldn’t envisage being so ancient that he’d be about to draw his pension, far less sticking around to become the most famous name at the most famous rock festival as an octogenarian.

When will he be expected on stage – 10pm? I mean, that’s Ovaltine hour, when surely he should be humming the lullaby off the White Album to himself: “Close your eyes and I’ll close mine/Good night, sleep tight.”

But why the heck shouldn’t he be out there with contemporary acts like Kendrick Lamar and Billie Eilish, the latter being a mere 20? Look at the rest of rock and the state of previous headliners: Bono admits he’s embarrassed by some of U2’s music, Coldplay intend to quit soon and Ed Sheeran has just been accused of being a “magpie”, appropriating sounds from others. Someone has got to carry that weight, dig a pony, follow the sun.

Now here I have to confess to changing my tune. Ten years ago, McCartney performed for the Queen to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee, also at the London Olympics. Both were celebrations of the best of British so if Robbie Williams and Snow Patrol were invited then an artist routinely compared to Beethoven and Picasso had to be there, too.

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But for those who hadn’t heard him sing in a while, the renditions from the greatest songbook in popular music came as something of a shock. “Screeching wail… Hey Jude murdered… When will someone take courage and tell McCartney he can’t – and shouldn’t – sing any more? …Do us a favour, Paul, let it be.”

These comments appeared on the Daily Mail’s letters page and, for possibly the first time in my life, I found myself agreeing with people from Kent, Surrey and Herts. That perfect pop voice – so soft on songs inspired by Martin Luther King, so electrifying on those about Charles Manson – was not what it was.

Really, how could it be? Macca at that point was 70 and some faltering would have been expected – hair dye can’t do anything about that. So perhaps after a farewell thumbs-up, it was time to acknowledge, in the words of the final track on the Beatles’ last recorded album Abbey Road, that he’d reached “The End” and to vacate the spotlight for the next generation.

Except that the best young band in Britain in 2012 were the Arctic Monkeys who, despite also playing at the Olympics and like the Beatles being silly-named humourists from a northern town, have hardly ripped up the scene since by releasing a paltry two albums – half the output of James Paul McCartney of Allerton, Liverpool, over the same period.

Macca’s workrate, creativity and the sheer number of occasions when the magic touched him have always been mind-blowing. John Lennon may have been the driving force in the first half of the Beatles’ blessed time together but then in those Space Race years McCartney zoomed right past him.

We glimpsed this in the Get Back docuseries when, assembling for rehearsals, Paul asked “got any songs?” and John was forced to admit he didn’t. And was there a more thrilling moment anywhere in the cultural realm last year than McCartney taking a simple riff and a few words and emerging mere minutes later with yet another solid-gold Fabs classic?

Conspiracy theorists – the anti-Paul lobby – believed that “Get back to where you once belonged” was aimed at Yoko Ono. In fact, the target of the lyric was Enoch Powell. And McCartney came out of Peter Jackson’s epic well.

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As Ian Leslie, a writer on human behaviour, put it in his essay, 64 Reasons to Celebrate Paul McCartney: “No doubt [he] was overbearing, pushy and annoying. But that’s not why the Beatles split up; it’s why they stayed together.”

I’ve now watched Get Back – all seven hours and 48 minutes – three times. It’s like being in the same room as the lords of all pop-cultural creation, or a reality show you might call Big Beatles. A childhood obsession has exploded again, and the love I take is equal to the love they make. Now I can’t wait for Macca to rock Glasto.

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