“I was round at George’s house,” says Paul, before breaking off, “let’s hear it for George!” It takes a while for the applause to die down enough for him to continue: “And we were playing these songs on ukuleles. I played this song then, and I’d like to play it for you now.”
The old man in the centre of the stage gets out a ukulele, and starts a solo acoustic performance of the sublime Something In The Way She Moves. He’s still lean, and still has those perfectly semi-circular eyebrows that give him an expression of permanent surprise; only the stoop of his shoulders betray his 72 years. The rendition is incongruous, but beautiful. You’d be happy to listen to the whole song like that, but then a third of the way through the drums kick in, the backing band step forward, Paul ditches the uke for a guitar, and the whole of the cavernous O2 Arena is bathed in a thrillingly huge, warm wave of sound.
I paid £125 to see Paul play last night . If this had been the only song, it would have been worth the price of admission, but there were nearly 40 others over the course of nearly three hours, almost every single one a gold-plated hit.
There was, I think, just one other song that was written by someone else. As the guitars started in on an instrumental, I thought, “What the —? That sounds like….” When the three stood in a circle, bending over their guitars as though circle-jerking over a biscuit, there could be no doubt: Paul McCartney was playing Purple Haze.
“I was lucky enough to know Jimi Hendrix in the ‘60s,” explained Paul afterwards. “We released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a Friday night, and he played it on Sunday – he’d learned it all overnight. But he’s playing it with all this vibration and feedback, it sounds awful, and he calls out, ‘Is Eric out there?’ Clapton, of course. And he was! ‘Will you tune this for me, man?’” Paul purses his lips and mimes Clapton’s head-shake: “‘No.’”
There were a couple of times, notably when introducing Here Today – “The next song is a song I wrote about John. Let’s hear it for John! I wrote it after he passed away, and you know there are things you need to say but never get to say” – when Paul was choked with emotion, eyes welling with tears. (It’s certainly a kinder tribute than the song John wrote for Paul, How Do You Sleep?)
“When I’m playing all these songs,” Paul reflects, after he’s just ripped through Lovely Rita, Eleanor Rigby and Mr Kite in one glorious trilogy, “all the memories come back. Fifty years! I’m surprised I don’t faint.”
And you realise that, as astonished and awed as the audience are to be in the presence of an ACTUAL FRIGGING BEATLE, Paul is too. The young teens who took speed to get them through back-to-back gigs in Hamburg, who then released 12 albums in just seven years that changed the course of music several times over before splitting up when Paul was not yet even 30, who were idolised not just in the West but also behind the Iron Curtain where they became symbols of freedom that helped topple the Berlin Wall (see Leslie Woodhead’s book How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin), whose joint leader (pun intended) John Lennon was shot dead by a lone gunman, whose peace-seeking guitarist George Harrison was stabbed multiple times in his home by a crazed intruder… how do you top all that? How do you live for the next 45 years in the shadow cast by your younger self?
You could become bitter. You could drink yourself into oblivion. You could play your own song, Yesterday, on repeat. Not Paul. He not only married happily, but went on to found Wings who broke the Beatles’ own record, unchallenged in 14 years, for best-selling single. Band On The Run still sounds new-minted when they play it at the O2, as does Let Me Roll It, with its huge choruses and lyrics that would be risible coming from any but Paul’s permanently puckered, heart-shaped lips: “My heart is like a wheel/Let me roll it to you.”
Paul’s family are in the audience, and he gives a shout-out to his grandchildren. While other grandparents are in the rocking chair, he’s rocking the O2. “Imagine you think your granddad’s just an ordinary guy,” he says, now behind a piano, “and then you come here, and see ‘Hey! Rockin’ grandpa!’ So, kids, this is what I’ve been telling you about!”
When the stage explodes with fireballs and pyrotechnics for a massive rendition of Live And Let Die, and the whole audience join in with the chorus on Hey Jude, many holding up signs that read “Na” for the “na-na-na-nas”, you can only imagine the grandkids have got the message.
But that’s not the end. Paul returns for the obligatory encore waving a Union Jack, and belts out disposable but up-tempo oldie Another Girl and Hi, Hi, Hi from Wings, before calling on stage a couple from the audience, as he often does. The man had been holding up a sign that reads, “Please sign my wife of 32 years.” Below the “32”, “30” and “31” are crossed out – he’s been trying to get Macca’s attention for three years. Paul dutifully signs Cynthia’s left shoulder. Apparently this is a thing: the devoted fan then has the autograph made into a tattoo.
And then Paul brings another surprise to the stage… and it’s only bleedin’ Dave Grohl! The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman joins in on I Saw Her Standing There, grinning from ear to ear, bouncing around like an eager puppy and hair flapping like a spaniel’s ears, squooching in so close to Paul on the harmonies that they could be about to kiss. You can tell Grohl knows he’s on stage with an ACTUAL FRIGGING BEATLE.
And that’s it… strange song to end with, so no wonder they had to get a special guest… 11pm, finish time.
The lights don’t come back up. The few who have left their seats to beat the Tube rush pause. And Paul’s back…
It’s got to be a slow one now, for the pace, I think. And there it is: Yesterday, a song written when Paul was in his early twenties, but which must have so much more resonance for him now. And then, totally unexpectedly, Helter Skelter, that demented wall of sound with its screeching vocals and throbbing guitar that sounds like an army of sinister electric crickets, whose title Charlie Manson scrawled on the fridge of the La Bianca residence in blood after slaughtering its inhabitants. Paul’s a bit scrappy now on the vocals, but it still blows the roof off.
And finally, and this really is the end, the most apt closing song imaginable: the aching Golden Slumbers. Time to go home, says Paul, before singing the opening, “Once there was a way/To get back homeward”.
On “Golden slumbers fill your eyes/Smiles awake you when you rise”, my own eyes fill with tears. I’ve been a Beatles fan literally since the crib – my babysitter was an original Beatlemaniac, and carried around with her a hallowed sod of earth upon which Beatlefeet had trod – and their albums were the only rock/pop in the house when I was growing up, a rare generational bond between father and son. I know not just every word of every song, but every bassline and every drumbeat. And before I even knew what love was, Golden Slumbers would fill me with an inchoate yearning for its future pleasures and pains.
The closing line drifts across the arena and lodges, one can only hope, into the hearts of the 20,000 there assembled:
“And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”