His music has been loved for half a century, but Paul McCartney has probably never been more admired than he is on Monday, his 70th birthday – and with good reason. His performance at the Queen's jubilee concert earlier this month was not his best, but it was an unerringly powerful reminder of his unique and deserved status in the national culture. So, likewise, will be his place at the climax of next month's Olympic games opening ceremony. Paul McCartney is the top of the bill for a reason.
That reason is his songs. Dozens, even hundreds, lots written with John Lennon, many written on his own, a few duds certainly but, all in all, the greatest songwriting career of the era. Where to start? Perhaps with PS, I Love You in 1962. Or maybe All My Loving, Can't Buy Me Love, I've Just Seen a Face, and loads more; you all know them, make your own list – it will be a long one. He defined and moved with the swing of the 60s, morphing from besuited moptop to kaftanned hippie, as he broke out of the confines of the rock'n'roll ditty to dream up the Technicolour glories of Sgt Pepper. Through the dope and facial hair, there was always regard for deeper traditions, and – from Penny Lane to Blackbird – the one constant was craftsmanship in fusing melody and verse. The greatest songwriter since Schubert, the Times music critic William Mann boldly asserted back then. That claim doesn't seem hubristic now. No one has a back catalogue to touch his. But back catalogue doesn't do justice to the sheer artistic generosity he has bequeathed. His songs are our songs too.He has gone through periods of being uncool – but then McCartney is a working-class northerner in a London posh-boy dominated country and he has lived a long time. There was a time when the Stones had more attitude, then punk, then hip-hop. But whose songs will last longest? No contest. Lennon, edgier, more aggressive and dead, was more rebellious, more political. But it was the two of them together who led the revolution. And McCartney stayed in Britain, fought to save his local NHS hospital, sent his kids to state schools and would have been entitled to say "I earn a lot of money, so I pay a lot of taxes," even if, frustratingly, Google doesn't confirm the clear memory that he did.
Watching him at the jubilee concert was to be reminded that McCartney too is a national figure. If the Queen is an embodiment of one sort of Britain, McCartney is the embodiment of another, the egalitarian achieving social democratic optimism of the 1960s. From Love Me Do right through to Abbey Road's The End, his songs say I love you and I want you to love me – a better philosophy than much that came later, not just in music. What makes you proud to be British? Well, Paul McCartney does, for one. Number one, yet again.
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