The Beatles legend took it back to where it all started for a free gig for the world's luckiest fans
“Do you wanna get back?” Paul McCartney asked the crowd, towards the end of one of the smallest, longest, sweatiest shows he’s played since, well, probably last time he was here at Liverpool’s legendary Cavern Club. “Cos I do.”
McCartney’s been getting back a lot lately; on Monday he played a show in Studio Two of London’s Abbey Road, where The Beatles recorded much of their catalogue, with an audience including Johnny Depp, his daughter Stella McCartney, Liv Tyler, Stormzy, Maya Jama, Orlando Bloom and Nile Rodgers.
Yesterday, he was at LIPA, the performing arts academy he founded in the former home of his old school, the Liverpool Institute High School For Boys, where he spoke to students and performed an acoustic set. Earlier this year he swung by old homes and old haunts with James Corden, and played a show at Liverpool pub The Philharmonic, where he and John used to drink.
And today, he was back at the place where the Beatles legend was cemented: The Cavern Club, completing his Magical Mystery Tour with a gig announced at 9am this morning and done and dusted by 4pm.
Fans had already twigged. There were hundreds of them outside The Cavern at the crack of dawn, and they’d come from near and far. Thomas O’Keefe, who was there at 6am, described the scene. “Everyone was queuing outside The Cavern when this fella comes out and says the tickets aren’t there. I’d heard a rumour that they were going to be at The Echo Arena instead, so I just started running all the way over there, and all these people started running too. I was sweating, panting, nearly dying. It was like the start of A Hard Day’s Night.” But it was worth it? “Oh my god, yeah, it was worth it.” Two Argentine fans had heard the rumour and headed straight up on the coach from their holiday in London; a Californian fan got a plane over from LA.
And McCartney, who’s been in his home city for two days, took to the stage shortly after 2pm.
“Liverpool! Cavern!” he said. “These are words that go together well.”
For fans used to seeing McCartney play in stadiums, this was a looser, more intimate, and unrepeatable affair. The group began by warming up with a bluesy jam, but it was warm already – the hottest day of the year, in a club where, infamously, it would rain sweat during Beatles gigs.
The gig proper began with McCartney taking it right back to ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ the Eddie Cochran song he played to prove his chops to John Lennon at the garden fete at St Peter’s Church, Woolton, on July 6, 1957, a fated – or feted – day in Beatles lore. Later, he strapped on an acoustic guitar to play the first song The Beatles ever cut together, as a straight-to-vinyl demo, at Phillips in Kensington, Liverpool: ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’, with a story that begins with him being “bored – I mean, born” in Woolton hospital and ends with the band’s then-pianist John Lowe keeping the sole copy of it.
But during the former, the gig almost came to a crashing halt. McCartney stopped the band in their tracks to scold people using their phones. “You’ve all been told not to take photos,” he said. “You’re taking them, and you’re taking them, and it’s putting me off! So, you know, play by the rules, man!”
It had the feeling of a parent scalding their children then instantly feeling guilty. And for the crowd, it felt like being in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: invited into a wonderland and being too tempted to scoff the lot. After finishing the track, McCartney said, by way of context, “The phone thing, I went to a Prince concert and he really was serious about that, he wouldn’t start, you know. Put ‘em down! You know what I’m saying?”
And it was totally a fair point. This was a special thing for anyone lucky enough to get tickets, an intimate audience with arguably the greatest songwriter of all time. And as if to prove it, he launched into the joyous rush of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and cut through any foggy atmosphere from the telling off.
After, he reminisced about playing The Cavern. “When we played here, it was the big time,” he said. “We didn’t know if we’d ever have a future, but we did OK. Coming back here with all my gang, all my crew and stuff, it’s pretty amazing for me.”
It was pretty amazing for the crowd, too, but special in the way that only a gig in Liverpool could be, that sense of irreverence for the city’s most famous son. At one point, someone shouted for ‘The Frog Chorus’. At another, when McCartney asked if everyone was “hot enough already”, someone shouted “Yeah, get the round in, Paul!” “Chuck him out,” McCartney shot back.
Songs came accompanied by anecdotes; after ‘All My Loving’, he told a story about playing The Cavern in the early days, when the owner would send notes to the stage saying ‘this is not a blues song’. He told a story about bumping into Mick and Keith of The Rolling Stones on London’s Charing Cross Road and giving them the track ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ as a single, which he and his band proceeded to tear the shit out of. And he spoke about being on the Cavern stage and looking to his left, to John, and his right, to George, and the significance of this performance – his first at the venue since one with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour in 1999, his first proper one since the ‘60s, was lost on no one.
But it wasn’t all about nostalgia. Four new songs from the forthcoming ‘Egypt Station’ album (“I don’t know why it’s called that,” he said) were played: Recent single ‘Come Home To Me’, the grandchild-embarrassing ‘Fuh You’, and ‘Confidante’ a lovely, chiming, catchy track that you suspect says much about McCartney’s recent flurry of activity. It’s a love song written for his guitar which, he explained to the crowd, he’s lately left, unloved, in the corner of the room. “When I was a kid I’d be playing that guitar all the time,” he explained. “But I hadn’t done it for a while. It was there looking a bit forlorn. It used to be my confidante, my under-the-staircase friend.” There were titters in the crowd. “I HAD OTHER FRIENDS!”
Another, Wings-like, new song, ‘Who Cares’, summed up McCartney’s universal appeal: it’s about bullying, he said, “I wrote this thinking about kids at school who get bullied, but I think we all experience a bit of that.” The lyrics run: “Who cares what the idiots say/Who cares about you?/I do” and it’s quintessential McCartney, that directness of speech and emotion. Simplicity and sincerity, even now.
McCartney’s catalogue of songs is so vast it’s best thought of in any show as him presenting a snapshot of himself informed by the past but rooted in the future. So see him in an arena and you’ll get a Partridge-pleasing set with ‘Live & Let Die’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and all the bombastic tunes. Here, he dug a little deeper, showed a McCartney of more nuance: ‘Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five’, from Wings’s 1973 album ‘Band On The Run’, felt weirdly fresh, ‘Let Me Roll It’ was emotive and transcendent. Deep Beatles cuts such as ‘Things We Said Today’ pleased the heads, ‘Birthday’ was bonkers and brilliant and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, separated from the ‘Let It Be’ album is, you realise, perhaps the most perfect, most overlooked track of The Beatles’s sad swansong LP. “Everybody had a hard year/Everybody had a good time/Everybody had a wet dream/Everybody saw the sunshine,” it goes. It’s a song that has even his band, guitarist Rusty Anderson, Aerosmith-lipped bassist/guitarist Brian Ray and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. grinning like schoolkids.
The deep McCartney kept going until the end: the reprise – reprise! – version of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, and the proto heavy metal jam of ‘Helter Skelter’ – still the best argument against the Paul-was-crap Lennonite numbskulls, which brought the set to a stomping, head-banging close, and you’re just begging for Ringo to pop up and scream “I’ve got BLISTERS ON ME FINGERS”.
Around about that point you realise that, for nearly two hours, McCartney has had one drink of water and one towel-off. He’s played a gig in the sweatiest, tiniest room possible. He’s been heckled, he’s kicked back. He’s 76 years old. He wiggled his bum during ‘Love Me Do’. He’s in a room that’s about two degrees hotter than hell and he could have filled it 40,000 times over. He’s hardcore. He’s not played ‘Hey Jude’ and it doesn’t matter. Paul McCartney heads on stage likes he’s got something to prove, every time, even here at The Cavern. He only proves one thing: we’ll never see another like him.
Paul McCartney played:
Twenty Flight Rock
Magical Mystery Tour
All My Loving
Come On To Me
Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady
I’ve Got A Feeling
Nineteen-Hundred And Eighty-Five
In Spite Of All The Danger
Things We Said Today
Love Me Do
I Wanna Be Your Man
O Bladi O Blada
Band On The Run
Hi Hi Hi
I Saw Her Standing There
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)