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All You Need Is Paul

Will no one speak out on Paul McCartney's performing Beatles songs?

12:00 AM, Jun 6, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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TOPPING OFF FESTIVITIES at Buckingham Palace this past weekend in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's fifty years on the throne was a rock 'n' roll extravaganza featuring the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Phil Collins, Rod Stewart, Ricky Martin, and Aretha Franklin, just to name a few. But no doubt the biggest star of the evening was Sir Paul McCartney, fresh off his Driving USA tour. At the height of Her Majesty's concert, McCartney led 12,000 fans in a rendition of "All You Need Is Love" (as opposed to "Her Majesty"). I found it strange that Sir Paul would cap the night with this anthem since it's John Lennon's song.

Strange, but hardly surprising. By McCartney's own account, his recently concluded tour had a set list of more than twenty Beatles hits (out of about thirty-six songs per show). They included "Hello, Goodbye" (which he opened with), "Fool on the Hill," "Can't Buy Me Love," and "Lady Madonna." That he plays such songs is the primary reason fans have come out in droves to see him. Despite tickets costing up to $250 a piece, the 27-date U.S. tour sold out at almost every venue--and at record speed: It took 19 minutes for tickets to sell out in Philadelphia, 15 minutes in Boston. At some sites, tickets were being sold at a brisk rate of 867 per minute. All told, McCartney raked in more than $50 million. And with little help from his friends.

Let's face it: The hundreds of thousands of fans who came out to see the Driving USA tour didn't spend all that cash to hear songs from the "Driving Rain" album (which received mediocre reviews and has sold about 300,000 copies nationwide). They came to hear "Hey Jude" and "We Can Work It Out." They came as adoring fans, hoping to bring back some of that Magical Mystery. And had I been born when the Beatles were still a band, maybe I would feel the same way too.

But I'm a latecomer. I didn't get into the Beatles until the 1980s, having only then discovered my parents' vinyl recording of "Revolver" (one of the greatest albums of all time, and one that could have made an even greater double-album had it been paired with "Rubber Soul" as George Harrison once speculated it could have). I remember trying to slowly peel off the corner of the "Revolver" sleeve, having misunderstood the story about the pasted-over album cover on "Yesterday and Today." In any event, between my sister and me, we own almost all the Beatles records available on CD. Listening to such hits as "We Can Work It Out," however, makes me think of how talented and unique all the Beatles were, not just Paul McCartney. That Sir Paul is playing twenty of the greatest songs in rock 'n' roll with a band consisting of no-name (albeit highly professional) musicians strikes me as unseemly and downright inappropriate.

Beatles purists, I am guessing, would be against one man playing something that grew from the efforts of four. At this point, I understand the Paul loyalists are lining up their arguments; let me see if I can address them.

First, doesn't Paul McCartney have a right to sing the songs he wrote, some of which were recorded without the aid of John, George, or Ringo? Sure. "Blackbird" is one. "Yesterday" and "She's Leaving Home" work, too. But it is a slippery slope. Anything with percussion is questionable, as are songs featuring either rhythm or lead guitar. Suddenly you're playing "Revolution" and "Come Together."

Second, one can argue that it's open season on performing all the hits since half the Beatles are now deceased, playing that big gig in the sky along with Stu Sutcliffe and Brian Epstein. In fact, some might argue that only one of the original Beatles is still alive.1 But even when all four Beatles were alive, playing the old songs was generally considered taboo. Since I'm too young to remember what happened in those immediate post-Beatles years, I turned to one of the preeminent scholars of Beatleology, who has asked to remain nameless. Let's just call him the Walrus. (Calling him my Maharishi is probably a bit much.)

According to the Walrus, Lennon "studiously avoided doing Beatles songs. When he did perform live . . . he played either rock 'n' roll classics like 'Money' or hideous later solo political screeds, like 'John Sinclair' or 'Woman is the Nigger of the World.'" He tells me, however, that McCartney did start playing Beatles tunes by the time of his 1975 tour, including "Lady Madonna" and "Yesterday." "But in the 1970s, he avoided the huge iconic Beatles songs, even those like 'Let It Be' or 'Hey Jude' that were undeniably 'McCartney' songs. This delicacy only contributed to their image as museum pieces, fit only for reverence from a distance and certainly not to be commodified on the concert stage." The Walrus knows all. (Though I refuse to believe the Walrus was Paul.)