Jul/Aug 2022  •   Salon

The Love You Make: Thoughts on Paul McCartney's Got Back Tour

by Marko Fong

Public Domain image

A month ago, I watched a man, less than three weeks short of turning 80, perform 36 songs for more than two and a half uninterrupted hours in front of 20,000 fans in Knoxville's Thompson Boling Center, many of whom spent more than half the concert singing along to music they had grown up and grown old with. The performer, of course, was Paul McCartney, likely the most famous living musician, though Bob Dylan, also still touring, may come close. I found it an inspiring experience. At 66 myself, I had to marvel at Sir Paul's ability to walk up and down stairs hands free, the fact that he still had most of his hair, and his managing to go three hours without a bathroom break. More significantly, as part of a now politically fractured generation of Boomers who now see a time when we the young swore we'd save the world together as a distant memory, I ask—whether it was the soundtrack of your youth or just some licensed jingle for potato chips—is there anyone over 50 who doesn't at least admire one Paul McCartney song? In this sold out arena with much of the audience close to my age, the unison singing, dancing, and cheering to Beatles songs echoed that hopeful side of the '60s: the magically mysterious idea that we were all in this together, and it might be a good thing.

McCartney was just 28 when the Beatles broke up in 1970. Their last tour was in 1966. In the half century since, the "cute Beatle" continued to write and perform, including his ten year run with his own band Wings. Some perspective: Wings broke up in 1982. More than half the concert consisted of Beatles hits, each of which was met with thousands of cell phones flashes, souvenir videos of Beatles songs performed by a surviving Beatle to justify paying $250 and up for tickets, a fact noted by Paul himself: "We can tell what you want; we can see it" (he mimed blindness by cell phone by holding his hand in front of his face). The arena stayed several lumens darker for the six more recent McCartney compositions. These included "Fuh You," "New," and a tribute to his wife, Nancy, "My Valentine." As protective as he is of his later work, McCartney couldn't or wouldn't name one when an interviewer asked him if he had any favorites among his work from this century.

One oddity of seeing Paul in 2022 is that, in between, a now decades-old billion dollar industry in Beatles nostalgia popped up. In addition to endless books and articles by everyone who slept with or even hung out with members of the band, there have been Beatles movies about Hamburg and Stuart Sutcliffe, the night John and Paul almost appeared together on Saturday Night Live, and the Fab Four being deleted from collective memory along with Harry Potter and Coca Cola. An entire sub-industry of Beatles tribute acts has "Twisted and Shouted" their way into Las Vegas residencies and tours outselling even highly popular contemporary musicians. In fact, the best of those acts look and sound more like the Beatles than Paul and his current band.

It's not just that Paul's voice at 15 years past "When I'm Sixty Four" has lost some elasticity, though it retains its clarity and distinctiveness. Paul is pointedly not trying to recreate a sound from a time before anyone other than Gene Rodenberry imagined phones that played music and took pictures when most of us bought Beatles hits on 45 or requested them on AM radio: he's doing his own takes on his own music. Conscious or not, a song about one of the band's stalkers, "She Came in Through the Bathroom window," picks up resonances of John Lennon's murder and George Harrison and his wife's near fatal stabbing. "We Can Work it Out" becomes more wistful than hopeful when you know the group never did.

Paul has toured with the same top notch set of sidemen since 2000, longer than his Beatles and Wings tenures combined. I say sidemen rather than bandmates, because, beyond brief guitar and keyboard solos and a graceful bit of "Dance With Me" choreography from drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., the focus is almost solely on Sir Paul. The sidemen are younger but not youngsters. Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray his two guitarists look like they escaped from some '80s hair band and his keyboard player Wix Wickens's bald pate had me briefly wondering if Paul Schaffer had signed on to the tour.

Rock has changed since "Love Me Do" and "Can't Buy Me Love" whose harmonies hew closer to the Beatles' skiffle origins than they do to grunge, heavy metal, or modern alternative. Mainstream rock's textures have thickened—the ensemble included the first-rate stylings of the Hot Horns—have gotten louder, more electronic, and showier. Elder Paul et. al. incorporated it all along with high tech lighting, motorized stage platforms, fireworks ("Live and Let Die"), and digitally enhanced video duet with John Lennon footage ("I Got a Feeling") (he mentions Peter Jackon twice which was two more times than Ringo's name came up). The Beatles may have helped open the way to those things, but no actual Beatles record sounds like this.

One clear difference between the Beatles, the group that continuously evolved through the bouncy feel good innocence of the Fab Four to the darkness of "Eleanor Rigby" to psychedelia-laced "Strawberry Fields Forever" to the vaguely apocalyptic "The End," and current McCartney is that it's now Paul's narrative. The tension between John, Paul and later George (Harrison and Martin) for creative control arguably accounted for the band's greatness. Looking back, these distinct mini-eras in the Beatles' constantly mutating oeuvre resemble the restless creative arcs of Picasso, Miles Davis, and Stravinsky. If you survey Paul's post-Beatles music, it's a little more symphonic, literally so with Liverpool Oratorio, but it retains a hook-heavy quality, keeping one foot in pop and the lyrics range from silly to personal while never quite exploring the political undertones Lennon surfed or feeling all that restless. Consider Lennon's "Imagine" and McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" as markers of who they were as individual songwriters just before and after the group split apart. I suspect McCartney was the brake and Lennon and Harrison were the gas pedal. It makes sense that elder statesman Paul has a sort of bring everyone together quality; he's always appeared to be the stable one, the partner who held the middle, the surrogate uncle who wrote "Hey Jude" for Julian Lennon, the one who counseled "Let it Be."

After a spirited rendition of "Roll Em," Paul and sidemen broke into a fingers on fire jam on Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." He then retold a story he's shared for several tours before Got Back: two days after the release of "Sergeant Pepper," Hendrix opened his London concert with a rendition of the title track with the Beatles sitting almost front row center. I suspect Paul shares the story both to give a shout out to Hendrix's musical genius and to remind his audience the Beatles were closer to the progressive edge of the music than we remember.

I tracked down a YouTube of Hendrix playing "Sergeant Pepper," though obsessive fan commenters make it clear it's not from the night in the story due to details of Jimi's guitar. Here's my take: Hendrix still sounds startlingly modern whether it's Sergeant Pepper or Foxy Lady. Paul's 2022 cover is spirited yet curiously mainstream. I don't mean to imply he's neo- Lawrence Welk, who was actually in his early 60s when his show stayed on prime time throughout the supposedly turbulent '60s. Ironically, Welk's lone bow to the times took the form of occasional arrangements of Beatles songs for an audience still looking forward to the Champagne Lady and accordion duets with Myron Floren. McCartney remains a musical creative force. It's just that post-Beatles Paul has preferred to stay off the outer edges, both musically and lyrically.

Sir Paul's actually been outspoken about the environment, vegetarianism, and numerous other causes, but it's not much integrated into his music. As an interesting segue to the encores, Paul and sidemen appeared onstage bearing five flags: the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, the Tennessee state flag, the Ukrainian flag, and the Rainbow flag. Paul chose to carry the Ukrainian flag, an interesting statement given McCartney performed in Red Square in the early 2000's and Vladimir Putin, who met personally with the former Beatle, was very publicly in the audience. Putin may have promoted his Beatles fandom to contrast his rule with "Back in the USSR" days when the Soviets banned the Beatles; it's kind of a Coke Zero take on the Soviet past, none of the Communism with all the repression. Eleven days after the concert, I watched ABC interview Tim Burchett, Knoxville's Congressional representative, re-elected in 2020 with 63 percent of the vote, who managed to comment at length on the bias of the first January 6 hearing while somehow admitting he didn't actually watch any of it. The support in Knoxville for Paul's Ukrainian flag was clear and I didn't hear any boos for the Rainbow Flag either. Of course, my failing hearing might have simply missed the boos. I also didn't smell marijuana fumes, although a friend who was seated further from the stage told me she caught at least faint whiffs. Like 45's giving way to lossless files, this could just be due to gummies having become the delivery method of choice in public places. It struck me that one of Elder Paul's superpowers may include the ability to render controversy into something less polarizing. You just can't boo or even take umbrage at this Beatle, especially if some sign-bearing audience member had to teach two months of Pilates classes to afford the experience.

I have to mention the crowd was overwhelmingly white in a city that's 17 percent black, white enough that had they all been wearing red baseball caps it might have been another kind of gathering. I know plenty of non-whites, including myself, who love the Beatles and McCartney, but they maybe don't quite worship them. A few years ago, I was in a '50s-themed ice cream parlor and asked the owner, who didn't look old enough to remember the '50s, "Why then?" She told me the '50s were the "perfect happy time." Reflexively, I said, "But maybe not for people who weren't white." She turned away and ignored me until we left. When I brought up the crowd's relentless whiteness to my son-in-law who's white, but not American, he wasn't terribly happy with me either, possibly because it implied criticism of tickets my stepdaughter and he had given us. I've looked at other YouTubes of the Got Back tour and the crowds look similarly monochromatic. If you remember a time when there were separate black and white radio stations and playlists or that B.B. King opened for the Stones rather than the other way around, Beatles nostalgia may look a little different even though the group refused to perform for a segregated audience in Jacksonville, Florida way back in 1964. (If you happen to teach in Tennessee, please remember that discussing this paragraph at work is now illegal.)

This led me to wonder what a John Lennon concert might have been like in 2022. For one, I suspect he would have done "Happiness is a Warm Gun" as a comment on Uvalde and Buffalo. "Come Together" might also have made the set list and there might have been banter about today's gender fluidity before singing "Oh Bla Di Oh Bla Da." Had he, like Paul, opened with "Can’t Buy Me Love," I could see the not-always-sweet John joking that Paul wrote the song about the Heather Mills divorce settlement. The keystone scene of Danny Boyle's "Yesterday" is a living John Lennon who was never famous. While quite effective, it erases the anger that fueled Lennon the artist.

Where might Lennon's music have gone in a world headed in an even crazier direction since his death on the brink of Thatcher and Reagan in 1980. Paul performed a belated love song for Lennon "Here Today" that echoes the pair's most covered song "Yesterday." I'm not sure what John's take on his bandmates would be. I even wonder if he might have shifted from full time musician to full time protest figure. In any case, it's harder to imagine a geriactic John playing concerts packed with Beatles hits. I'm not sure an Elder John would be the universally beloved icon Elder McCartney has become; Lennon was just too drawn to controversy. I'm not even sure Paul would occupy this "everybody loves Sir Paul" plane of celebrity had John lived: the inevitable comparisons between their distinct creative visions would likely have devolved into opposing camps of fans arguing about who really made the Beatles great.

Simply put, Paul is not John or George, and that's a good thing. Fwiw, Harrison's "Something" was the only song other than "Foxy Lady" not at least co-written by McCartney (Paul played a ukulele Harrison gave him). To me, the gift of a late McCartney concert is I still thoroughly enjoyed nearly three hours of his music alongside thousands of possible Tim Burchett voters who were singing and dancing along with me instead of, say, storming the Capitol. My grandson's Congressman currently has a banner on his website celebrating the Dobbs abortion decision. Perhaps, it's not in the spirit of great art having the capacity to change hearts and minds or to open us to previously unconsidered possibilities, but the ability to love something in common may matter more than it ever has. Great art also keeps us connected.

Fans may remember the Lennon lyric, "We all want to change the world, but when you talk about destruction, you can count me out." My evening with Paul McCartney gave me the hope there are still things holding us together and not destroying us, and for that I'm thankful. Fittingly, the final lyric of the night was from the Beatles' last recorded song, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." It sounds like John, but it was Paul who wrote the couplet. Let us hope we never forget it.