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Beatle or Bard?

03 June 2016

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FOR even the most celebrated rock star, there comes a moment of dread. Out in front of a heaving crowd of people, baying for the tunes they grew up with, the pop icon takes up the microphone and announces, “Now for something from my latest album.” The stadium, which had been starlit with the flashes of cameras, goes dark as the selfie-sticks retract, the noise subsides, and murmurs of disappointment fill the void.

“They love you for what you were, not for what you are.” This is the existential trauma that afflicts many an ageing rocker — one that the Rolling Stones have avoided by not recording a new studio record in more than a decade — but Sir Paul McCartney happily rolls with it. This millennium he has produced five albums; so there is no shortage of new material; but, as he admitted to John Wilson on Mastertapes (Radio 4, Saturday), he is content to give the crowd what they want. They have spent good money to hear the oldies, so the oldies is what he (mainly) gives them.

This interview did much the same: it gave us a good dollop of the old — the break-up of the Beatles, and the formation of Wings — judiciously interleaved with new material, such as his working relationship with Kanye West. He still has the charm of the enthusiast, willing to pick up any instrument and have a go; and he gave a convincing account of how one might teach classroom music so that the children come back for more.

The only bit of him that sounds tired is his voice, which is no longer capable of the suave registral manoeuvres required for his favourite songs. But there are benefits: not least a rapt audience, and an interviewer happy to compare you to Shakespeare.

It was McCartney who once wrote “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. What’s wrong with that?” On the other hand, as The Listening Service (Radio 3, Sunday) set out to demonstrate, there are some love songs that are deadly serious. The love songs of Verdi’s La Traviata, for instance, bristle with a bitter irony directed at the moral hypocrisy of 19th-century Italian society.

The Listening Service gives its presenter, Tom Service, the opportunity to go beyond the usual playlists and explore music through psychology, evolutionary biology, and sociology: the kinds of approaches that now jostle with traditional history and analysis for control of musicology faculties.

True to this ambition, last week’s programme featured Ted Gioia, whose book Love Songs: The hidden history takes us back 6000 years, to a time when our ancestors were performing fertility rites at least as explicit as your average Britney Spears track. The need for a punchline makes fools of even the most brazen academics, and I wonder if Gioia will have woken up the morning after his interview and regretted having compared Joni Mitchell to Sappho, or Miley Cyrus to an ancient Mesopotamian priestess.

Still, all was forgotten in the warm embrace of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, which Service described in a prose almost as seductive. It’s a silly love song, for sure, but one that seems to mean everything.

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