I am sitting at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Florida, waiting for Paul McCartney to take the stage, staring at the jumbo screen flashing pictures from his long career and wondering how anyone could withstand the weight of such massive history without crumbling.
Consider this: exactly sixty years ago to the day, Paul McCartney was performing in Hamburg, Germany. He was about to turn twenty. His band was pretty good and pretty popular. In a few months time they’d earn a slot opening for their hero Little Richard (whose band featured a young Billy Preston). A recording survives of the Beatles at Hamburg’s Star Club from this same year, captured by a single mic placed in the center of the room, and it reveals a raucous, wild, forceful band, closer to what we’d call garage rock than the cleaned-up, suit-clad version of the Beatles the world would soon meet. Their set contained a haunting, screaming version of Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” followed by turbo-charged versions of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” and in those three songs it is clear who the Beatles were and what they came to do. No white boys had ever sung or played like that before, not even Elvis. In every bash of Ringo’s crash cymbal one can hear the influence of Black American music detonating halfway around the world.
In the interim between that night and this one lies the story of popular music. It is the story of a boy from Liverpool who grew up with the sounds and rhythms of jazz and Vaudeville and English folksong in his bones, who loved weepy ’30s crooner Al Bowlly and the sound of family singalongs, who might have been a teacher or an amateur trumpet player had his teenage mind not been blown by the ecstatic sounds of Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Elvis.
It is a story that connects literally billions of people over more than half a century, myself included. Like countless others I would not be a musician if not for him and the Beatles. Like countless others, I have spent hundreds of hours listening to his work, studying it, learning it, performing it. And so it was a pilgrimage to see McCartney. I had no real expectations of the concert. That night Paul was three weeks shy of his eightieth birthday, and even legends must bow to the brutal power of time. I came ready to forgive. I left blown away by how good he still is.
Sure, the voice that was perhaps the most versatile instrument in popular music—the one that could sing both the dulcet “Yesterday” and the wailing “Oh! Darling,” that could fit as seamlessly with John Lennon as it could with Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson—is now worn ragged from decades of use and abuse. But he still demands more of it, playing the songs as written, refusing to lower them even a half step. And there are still moments when he hits those old impossible notes with such force it brings you to your feet. And then there are the times you anticipate the impossible notes because you know he sang them on record fifty-odd years ago, and you think surely tonight he’s going to back off and give himself a little rest so he can make it through the rest of the tour, but those are the moments he goes even harder. Sometimes it sounds like his vocal chords are about to snap, and those are the times he goes hardest of all, sailing along on the power of his band (he’s been with them longer than any other group of musicians in his career) and a live horn section that evokes as needed the ghosts of Stax and Motown on “Got to Get You into My Life” or the classical bombast of “Golden Slumbers.”
It was inspiring, especially because you knew he wanted to be there. He has more money than the pope and his fame is as ubiquitous as the Holy Roman Empire. He has no reason to ever be in Hollywood, Florida, except that somewhere deep inside, he’s still the teenager who heard Little Richard sing and thought, “I could do that.” He’s still the twenty-something longhair who studied James Jamerson’s playing on Motown and used it as fuel to become arguably the greatest bass player in rock history (despite what Quincy Jones said). He’s still the masterful polymath who had space in his head for both “Honey Pie” and “Helter Skelter.” He is among the last living links to the explosion in music and culture that was rock and roll. And that’s why his Got Back tour was so important. He was there at ground zero. The blast still propels him.
That said, McCartney, like all great artists, is more than just a rehashing of his influences. He gave as much as he took, and a great deal more. By the time he caught up again with Billy Preston seven years after their Hamburg stint, the Beatles had already changed the course of popular music twice and were working on what would become their final release, Let It Be. And although much of McCartney’s early solo work was misunderstood at the time, it has been burnished in the hindsight of history, from the lo-fi bedroom rock of McCartney’s “Every Night,” to the batshit insanity of Wild Life’s “Mumbo”; from Ram’s “Monkberry Moon Delight,” which contains perhaps his most intense vocal performance, to McCartney II’s “Temporary Secretary,” which has only recently received its due recognition. The examples are nearly endless, and just when you think you’ve heard them all, you’ll be surprised by some long forgotten B-side or one-off project like “Check My Machine,” or Thrillington, or the Fireman, or “Goodnight Tonight,” or “Loup,” or “Cuff Link,” or “Wino Junko” and its vocoder breakdown, or the electro funk of “What’s That You’re Doing?” with Stevie Wonder.
Of course, it will surprise no one to read that Paul McCartney is an influential and successful musician. And it might seem strange for Wax Poetics, an outlet famous for telling stories that have slipped through the cracks, to highlight what is perhaps the most widely told story in the last century of popular music. But there is an untold—or at least undertold—part of McCartney’s story, and it lies not in his songwriting or singing, not even in his influence on popular culture, but rather in his rhythmic force as a bass player and a drummer. Use the word “pop” as much as you want, the Beatles were deep in the pocket. They were funky. They spoke the language of R&B. This is the reason they sound as natural on a YouTube mixtape behind the greatest rappers of all time, as they did on a hi-fi in 1969. This is the reason McCartney has been sampled or interpolated by the Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Common, the Roots, Guru, De La Soul, and Erykah Badu, among others. It is the reason Kanye West sought him out for a collaboration with Rihanna (which produced McCartney’s most streamed post-Beatles song). And it is a big reason his music continues to be relevant as he enters his ninth decade.
It is worth mentioning that Got Back was not just an oldies tour. McCartney doggedly performed his newer music too, including cuts from 2018’s Egypt Station and 2020’s McCartney III—which debuted at number one in America and England, respectively, his first time reaching those marks since the 1980s. And although they are not his best works by far, they are proof he is still truly engaged in the process of creation and his voice can still command the conversation in popular music.
But of course none of this would be possible without those four boys playing a dive in Hamburg in 1962. McCartney knows this. The height of the concert and perhaps the entire Got Back tour came during the encore, when he performed “I’ve Got a Feeling” along with a jumbo-screen projected John Lennon, edited from the iconic rooftop performance recently seen in Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary. The moment Lennon came on the screen, McCartney turned and watched his old friend, stars in his eyes. Then he turned to the microphone, and the weight of fifty years and an assassination were erased for a magic moment while Lennon and McCartney sang together in concert once again. Time collapsed. It was yesterday.