Paul McCartney: a safe but satisfying Glastonbury headliner

Having long since embraced a Beatles-heavy set list, McCartney still has what it takes to send a crowd into rapturous singalongs

The main takeaway from the news that Paul McCartney is headlining Glastonbury in 2020 may be that the festival is running out of authentic rock legends that have never before graced the Worthy Farm stage. The last remaining hold-outs are Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and, for the dementedly hopeful out there, Kate Bush or a reformed Pink Floyd. Instead, it is opting to recall those with what the police would called “previous”. McCartney’s Saturday night headlining performance in 2004 was a widely acclaimed triumph, its success potentiated by a lacklustre Oasis set the previous night.

It’s a substantially less risky choice than booking Stormzy for the headlining slot – a gamble, it’s worth pointing out, that paid off in considerable style. Indeed, it seems about as close to a nailed-on success as you can imagine, questions about McCartney’s voice – which has taken on a thinner quality in recent years – notwithstanding. Much as people like to talk about the mystical “Glastonbury moment”, where music, weather, atmosphere and intoxication combine to create a transcendental collective experience that Glastonbury-goers contend is of a nonpareil quality, there isn’t any great secret to successfully headlining the Pyramid stage at the world’s biggest music festival. You can, if you wish, try something special to mark the occasion – an unexpected guest appearance, an eye-popping visual accompaniment, an unprecedented cover – but ultimately, it’s about turning up armed with a set filled with classic songs that everyone knows.

McCartney famously began his solo career by refusing point-blank to play Beatles songs live – presumably in the doomed belief that he might yet outrun his former band’s shadow – but long ago he came to a pragmatic, audience-pleasing accommodation with his past. By the mid-70s, he was already slipping a handful of Beatles numbers into Wings’ performances, and in more recent years, they’ve comprised the bulk of his live shows.

Paul McCartney playing live in 2017.
Playing wider-ranging sets … McCartney. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

He has toured almost yearly since 2002, a period during which he’s dabbled in classical music, ambient experimentation under his Fireman alias and prewar pop, as well as working with Mark Ronson, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, mashup creator the Freelance Hellraiser, and mainstream pop songwriters Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, among others. But his live show has been honed, rather than radically overhauled. A few, lesser-known, solo songs have found their way into his sets; the Beatles selections have got more wide-ranging and he’s shown a willingness to play Lennon-penned material, including Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!. But the last time he played the UK, at the end of 2018, it still featured a number of elements familiar from his first Glastonbury appearance: a solo rendition of In Spite of All the Danger, the McCartney-Harrison composition recorded by the Quarrymen in 1958; a performance of a George Harrison song on ukulele in tribute to his late bandmate’s love of the instrument; and his John Lennon elegy, Here Today.

It would be better if he didn’t repeat them all again, although he could probably get away with it. Such was the effect of the barrage of Beatles’ hits last time, that the crowd chose to ignore his between-song patter (a lot of “hey wow man” stuff about ley lines, his vision of Glastonbury apparently having been fixed in the early 70s) and instead streamed away from the Pyramid stage still singing en masse the refrain from Hey Jude. It would be a brave person who bet against something similar happening this time around.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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