“Obviously, we can’t keep playing the same sort of music until we’re about 40….When we’re old men playing ‘From Me to You’—nobody’s gonna want to know about that sort of thing”
—Paul McCartney, The Mersey Sound documentary, 1963
It seems Paul McCartney has changed his opinion… just a little.
At 72 years old, he continues to play his classic hits — even, at times, “From Me To You” — to huge crowds of multi-generational audiences, while steadily writing and recording new material when he’s not on the road. And he’s certainly not the only veteran rocker to do so. Pete Townshend, who famously declared, “I hope I die before I get old,” has toured with the Who for decades, and the Rolling Stones are one of the hottest tickets in the world. Billy Joel has an ongoing residency at Madison Square Garden, and iconic artists such as the Beach Boys, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen still play and record for massive — and, in some cases, growing — fanbases. And, of course, we can’t forget Ringo and his All-Starr Band, the ever-changing supergroup that has toured continuously since 1989. For most of these artists, the pattern is the same: play the nostalgic hits for the masses while quietly produce new music that only reaches a minority of the most hardcore fans.
But, lately, McCartney has stood out from his peers, doing what few of his contemporaries even attempt: keeping up with — and participating in — current trends. Between recording with some of today’s most current and edgy musicians, experimenting with a variety of genres and media, and running aggressive promotional campaigns designed to target a young and plugged-in audience, McCartney is redefining what it means to be a veteran rocker.
A recent example that’s received a great deal of publicity is his rumored collaboration with Kanye West. Though most of the details are still unconfirmed, sources say the sessions have produced a number of songs, notably one with the very un-McCartney-like title, “Piss on my Grave.” The rumor’s credibility remains in question, but what we do know is that Macca and West have become close — a leaked clip from the sessions went viral before it was swiftly pulled down across the Internet — and that McCartney’s a hip-hop fan who’s often expressed his desire to collaborate with both West and Jay-Z.
McCartney also drew a surprising amount of attention for his latest single, “Hope for the Future.” Unlike the West collaboration, it’s not the content or style that made headlines, but the song’s purpose. “Hope” was written for the closing credits of Destiny, a first-person shooter game wildly anticipated by hardcore gamers. Rumors of McCartney’s collaboration with Bungie, the creators of Destiny, have been floating around since 2010, but the extent of his involvement was not known until the single’s recent unofficial release. McCartney wasn’t paid a cent for his contributions, which also included writing some of Destiny’s background music. At first it seemed odd that McCartney, who’s not much of a gamer (he’s said that his grandchildren routinely beat him at The Beatles: Rock Band), wanted to write music for a shoot-‘em-up video game. But as Bungie’s Community Manager Eric Osbourne noted, “He’s in it for the creativity. He got a wonderful opportunity to reach an audience that wouldn’t typically be immersed in Paul McCartney.”
We’ve also seen some impressive publicity for 2013’s New album. Starting with cryptic tweets designed to pique followers’ interest and a “leaked” title track that appeared months before the release date (followed, of course, by the official release and a pre-order option), initial promotion harnessed the power of social media to engage fans and make New go viral. And once the album dropped, marketing was aggressive and contemporary. Two more New songs premiered at the 2013 I Heart Radio Festival in Las Vegas, as McCartney performed in a lineup that included Katy Perry, Chris Brown, and Ke$ha — not the typical bill for a veteran rocker. Other promotional ventures included surprise concerts in NYC’s Times Square and London’s Covent Garden, with Macca and the band showing up in a bus with almost no notice and playing songs from New to a huge crowd of (mostly) surprised passers-by. In true renegade fashion, the Times Square appearance was so unplanned that police only gave the band 15 minutes to perform before clearing them out.
The Times Square event took place a day after another surprise concert, this time to 400 students at NYC’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. The students, who knew there was a concert but were expecting Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, or Lady Gaga, “went bananas” when they found out it was McCartney, said the school’s production manager Andre Vasquez. Despite being born decades after the Beatles broke up, the students were awed by McCartney and excited by the new music. As with the Destiny game and the impromptu promotional concerts, McCartney chose another unconventional means of introducing his current work to an audience that may not have been aware of it on its own.
But perhaps the most daring promotional stunt came last February, when McCartney and Ringo Starr reunited on stage at the 2014 GRAMMY Awards. Rather than bringing out a classic Beatles song — surely what the audience wanted and expected — McCartney played New‘s “”Queenie Eye” with Ringo on drums. Pulling out new material to a huge captive audience while playing with the only other surviving Beatle on national television was a pretty ballsy move, again clearly intending to expose a large and unsuspecting audience to music they might otherwise ignore.
Is all this just posing? A last grasp for relevancy at the end of a dwindling career? Not likely. Experimentation has always been an intrinsic part of who McCartney is as an artist, going back to the pre-Beatles years. Even when he’s not the one creating the trends, he tends to meld the vibe of the times with his signature style, whether it’s the new wave feel of “Temporary Secretary” from 1980’s McCartney II (reviled in its day but now a cult classic), the synthesized keyboards and drums of 1986’s Press to Play, the three albums of experimental music released under the pseudonym the Fireman, or the electronica vibe of New’s “Appreciate.” And on the other side of the spectrum, he’s composed four classical oratorios, a ballet score, and recorded an album of pre-1950 jazz standards. The results of these projects vary, but nonetheless, McCartney is continually willing to experiment with anything he finds new or interesting.
Considering his immense range of musical interests, it seems natural that McCartney would avidly look for new challenges, embrace the most contemporary styles, and seek out new ways to increase his reach and fanbase. That drive to explore may be what helps him redefine what it means to be a veteran rocker — and likely what has kept his creativity and energy so high for so long.
In his song “Sing the Changes” from the Fireman’s 2008 album Electric Arguments, McCartney asks listeners to “feel the sense of childlike wonder” in the world. It appears that he’s taking his own advice. And how cool is that?
(Cover photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.)