In the beginning
The first song Paul McCartney remembers writing was a tribute to his mother, Mary, called I Lost My Little Girl. McCartney was 14 and Mary had died of cancer, at the age of 47, shortly before the song was written. It has never been recorded, of course, but one can imagine how it would sound – sweet, melodic and an arrow to the heart, the earliest outpouring of some of the qualities that would make Paul McCartney the most successful and popular composer of the 20th century.
Two years later, sitting at home in the family's council house while "sagging off" from school, McCartney would sketch out the framework of Love Me Do, the first songwriting collaboration with his friend John Lennon.
Released in October 1962, the song reached number 17 in the British charts. It was the striking of the match that would shortly launch the rocket that would become Beatlemania.
At Liverpool Institute, one of the city's top grammar schools, McCartney had been voted "head boy" by his classmates. He might have gone on to become an English teacher. But, in 1960, an offer to the Silver Beetles, as the group was then known, to perform in the nightclubs of the German port of Hamburg for £15 a week persuaded him that his future lay in music.
November 2 sees the publication of Paul McCartney: The Lyrics, a bulky (it's broken into two volumes) and exhaustive chronicle of McCartney's lyrical output over the years.
As my colleague Neil McCormick has pointed out, not all of McCartney's lyrics bear the weight of close examination in the way that, say, Leonard Cohen's, Bob Dylan's, Joni Mitchell's and, indeed, John Lennon's do. It is less a close study of McCartney as a wordsmith than, more interestingly, an opportunity for him to reflect on his life and career as a whole – and probably the closest thing he will ever write to an autobiography.
The bedrock of McCartney's genius – not a word to be used lightly – was the extraordinary breadth of influences he drew upon. The Everly Brothers; Chuck Berry; the Brill Building writers; English music hall and the Great American songbook. The songs that influenced him most were the product of songwriting partnerships – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Goffin and King and Leiber and Stoller – and it was with John Lennon that McCartney forged a partnership he has described as "nothing short of miraculous" – one in which, unusually, both were composers and lyricists.
While the songs usually originated with whomever can be heard singing the lead vocal on the records, and easily discerned by their mood – Lennon, direct, brimming with gusto, frequently sardonic; McCartney, melodic, sweeter, more carefully crafted – each was a foil to the other, the work polished and improved, gestating in hotel rooms and buses as they toured, before finally being brought into the world through the expert midwifery of producer George Martin.
The popular appeal of the Beatles was largely rooted in the strong definition of their individual personalities, which could easily be reduced to broad brushstroke caricature: John was the caustic one; George the "quiet" one, and Ringo the "zany" one. Paul was the "cute" one – the most obviously photogenic, the most amenable at public relations, the most at ease with journalists and fans. He was also, less obviously, the most ambitious and single-minded of the four, the group's de facto musical director whose perfectionism and sometimes hectoring manner would later become a source of irritation to the other Beatles – not least Lennon.
It was McCartney who broadened the group's musical palette, balancing the blissful exuberance of songs like Please Please Me, I Want to Hold Your Hand and A Hard Day's Night with classic ballads like Michelle and Yesterday, the most "covered" song in history. And McCartney, on the albums Rubber Soul and Revolver, who would steer the group into their most adventurous and innovative period.
The psychedelic years
While popular legend has it that Lennon was the insurrectionary figure in the Beatles, it was actually McCartney who was a much more active and engaged figure in the London counter-culture of the day. While Lennon was – as McCartney once put it – "living on a golf course in bloody Weybridge", McCartney was a financial backer of the underground newspaper International Times and the avant-garde Indica Gallery (where Lennon met Yoko). It was McCartney who, in 1967, caused a national outcry when he became the first Beatle to publicly admit to taking LSD (despite having been the last of the group to actually experiment with the drug).
No group better captured the sense of artistic freedom and joyous optimism of the late Sixties than the Beatles. The songs which emerged from this period, and which indelibly bear McCartney's fingerprint, are among the finest of his career – Fool on the Hill, She's Leaving Home, Eleanor Rigby: a mixture of English pastoral, childhood memories, the Victorian nursery and Play for Today, conjured in a luscious marijuana haze. Above all, there is Penny Lane with its litany of the commonplace – a barber showing photographs, a banker with motorcar, a nurse selling poppies, "there beneath the blue suburban skies", as if seen for the very first time through fresh and wondering eyes.
It is these songs, along with Hey Jude, Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road – the Beatles's last number one – that will endure for as long as music is played.
The solo years
Historians will deliberate on the break-up of the Beatles for decades to come. But as the group imploded, it was McCartney, rightly or wrongly, who was held to account, the first to release his debut solo album in April 1970, on the same day he formally announced his departure from the group – and a month before the release of the Beatles' final album, Let It Be.
The offspring of the marriage of Lennon and McCartney – their Northern Songs back catalogue – would ultimately go to Michael Jackson. (When McCartney contacted Jackson inquiring about an increase in the royalty rate – which had remained largely unchanged since the first contract in the early Sixties – Jackson refused, explaining: "That's just business, Paul.")
Following the murder of Lennon in 1980, McCartney increasingly spoke out about what he perceived as the widespread misunderstandings around their partnership, suggesting that the growing deification of Lennon had led to "a re-writing of history" in which McCartney's importance in the group had been under-played. At one point, he attempted to have the Beatles' songs that he had written retrospectively credited to "McCartney/Lennon", but permission was denied by Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. (He has achieved some satisfaction in The Lyrics by having the credits for "his" songs attributed to "Paul McCartney and John Lennon").
The establishment years
In any artistic life, be it in painting, writing or music, there is a pinnacle, and even the most devoted McCartney fan – and possibly McCartney himself – would surely acknowledge that his greatest and most enduring work stems from the Beatles era. His solo albums have pirouetted between sublime moments, silly love songs and popular monuments to the craft, such as Mull of Kintyre and his Bond theme Live and Let Die. The tendency towards whimsy, which had always been kept in check by the astringent Lennon (who referred to When I'm 64 and Maxwell's Silver Hammer as "Paul's granny music") reached its nadir with We All Stand Together, performed with the Frog Chorus.
But one senses McCartney would disdain such sniffiness. For he is, at heart, an entertainer who, as he told David Remnick in a recent New Yorker profile, likes to "please the average punter" and who never tires of playing the hits as we never tire of hearing them. He was awarded a knighthood in 1997, and as Sir Paul McCartney headlined the Queen's Silver Jubilee pop party at Buckingham Palace in 2002.
He marked that occasion by singing a song snippet from the Abbey Road album: "Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl / Someday I'm going to make her mine, oh yeah / Someday I'm going to make her mine." While hardly his finest work, the choice of song was a telling illustration of both his enduring cheekiness and his firm clasp in the national bosom.
For more than half a century, he has had to live with the burden of being the custodian of the Beatles' legacy, still one of the most famous and most recognisable people on Earth. Yet his manner has remained astonishingly unchanged, his public face perennially amiable, polite, unblemished. He has been happily married for 10 years to his third wife, Nancy, and is the proud father of five children. He continues to record and perform because, one imagines, that is what he's always done.
One thinks of another McCartney song, among the hundreds he has written, no more than a fragment, which says it best. It is the concluding moment of Abbey Road – the Beatles' valedictory words: "And in the end / The love you take, is equal to the love you make."
How to measure the love Paul McCartney has made? Love him, we do.