PAUL MCCARTNEY AT THE 02
I owe Paul McCartney an apology. I had to leave his gig at 02 Arena early so missed the last hour of former Beatle Song et Lumiere spectacle. Though my excuse was good (catching the last sensible train back to Cambridge) it was in retrospect a foolish decision. By all accounts I missed Oo-bla-dee (once described by John Lennon as music for Paul’s granny). I am a sucker for his tuneful ditties like this one though less enamoured of his later excursions into purer (and louder) rock and roll. I may also have missed a guest appearance by Ringo Starr and a rousing Yuletide rendering of Wonderful Christmas Time.
What I did managed to see and hear in the first 90 minutes of Paul’s exhausting (surely for him?) 3-hour set, was a surprising mix of oldies and new stuff wrought from the legendary mophead’s pen. The evening was a series of firsts for me: my first sight of the gargantuan 02 space, the first time in this Beatle’s fan long life that I have seen any of them live and in the flesh. I think it was flesh - McCartney appeared as a far-off figure with his back to those of us perched stratospherically high up in the arena version of the gods. Looking down on the tiny dots of humanity way down in the stalls the colossal coliseum took on the appearance of space filled with CGI figures.
After a long build up of Fab Four hits hosted by a DJ and a rather tedious animation of Paul’s life as a slowly rising edifice layered by Terry Gilliam-like images drawn from his 60 year life as a performer, a stir of sound and kind of gravity wave spread through the dots in the stalls. Something was about to happen. The lighting effects changed to near black out and the piped music took on a more dramatic fanfarey mode. A moment of silence and then the lights shone on the stage – our music god had arrived as if from the cloud-covered mountain tops (probably somewhere just above our seats). A huge cacophony of cheers, whistles, yelps and cries greeted the man himself backed by four session men. Paul went straight into A Hard Day’s Night much beefed up by the heavy metal backing of the band not least the drummer who flamboyantly attacked his skins with all the fierceness of rampaging warrior. Gone the lighter and balanced accompaniments of the original 45 rpm and in its place something much more designed to fill up all the molecular spaces of the Galactic Star Ship 02. It was very loud, and Paul struggled to make his voice heard. He has without doubt lost some of the range and power of his earlier days but the powerhouse arrangements did little to help him out. Still it was an undoubted thrill to see (OK on a giant screen) the composer singing a song that has been with me much of my waking life.
McCartney played songs from his new album Egypt Station – foot-tapping rock numbers but nothing distinctively his. There were some numbers from his Wings days - good to hear that madly ear-worm hit Let ‘Em In but the biggest cheers were for his Beatles hits – Lady Madonna, I’ve Just Seen a Face, Blackbird, Love Me Do (complete with harmonica) and more. He was at his most endearing when playing acoustic guitar (thus turning the sound down on his over-energised band). He was unexpectedly brilliant when telling the audience anecdotes about his early days in Liverpool. He has a natural ability to speak as a mere mortal – modest and funny. He told of his jangling nerves the first time he encountered George Martin at Abbey Road studios, we heard about his early days with the Quarry Men and how a former band member kept hold of the only recording made by them which according to Paul, ‘He later sold at a considerable profit.’ He spoke to an audience of 20,000 with an intimate and confiding sense that made it sound like we were in a tiny music club.
It made me wish for another show in which Paul would talk more about his life and work (he spoke affectionately of his friendship with John) and pepper it with low-key arrangements of his songbook. As for that last hour of his set, the one I missed, it may have been utterly top notch. Alas I shall never know. And for that I apologise.