Take A Sad Song, And Make It Better

Kyiv, June 2008

The concert by Sir Paul McCartney on Independence Square on June 14th, the biggest outdoor event of Ukraine’s year, coincided with a spectacular storm. Rain fell out of a sky the colour of Donbass coal, and saturated our hair and clothes as soon as we stepped out of the metro. The street between Evropeiska Ploshcha and Independence Square flooded, in the time it took Ana and me to gratefully slurp a mug of hot tea from the canteen we were taking shelter in. As we tripped in ankle-deep puddles and hurried towards the stage, lightning lit up the sky behind the hotel “Ukrayina” and thunder crackled above us.

The rain was falling so hard that the couple behind us were wearing swimming goggles.

Despite the weather (that made it tempting to watch it on television at home instead), tens of thousands of people – hundreds of whom had flown in especially – had gathered on Independence Square. A dozen or so even perched on a narrow, five-foot high ledge outside the main post office to get a better view. The atmosphere was one of rare excitement – with a hint of awe, that one of the world’s most famous musicians would shortly be performing in a city that is barely a dot on Europe’s musical map.

As we waited for him to appear, black and white Beatles clips were shown on large screens at either side of the stage. The crowd jumped up and down to keep warm, in time with “A Hard Day’s Night” fused with the purposeful pattering of rain onto umbrellas. Soon we lost sight of the stage altogether behind the umbrellas, and trained our eyes on one of the screens instead.

The Beatles were adored in the Soviet Union, but their fans had given up hope years ago that even one of them would perform in Ukraine. Much of the crowd had grown up in the sixties, when their songs had represented freedom to a generation of Russians shut away from Western Europe. But many of the people dancing around us were under thirty; no-one can resist a free concert, and music is one of the many things in which young Ukrainians have impeccable taste. Perhaps my tipsy renditions of “Ticket To Ride”, on the escalators of Zoloti Vorota metro every Friday night for a month before the concert, had given them a taste for more.

In between videos, Ukrainian celebrities gave little soundbites about the occasion. Vyacheslav Vakarchuk, the singer from Okean El’zy, explained the influence that the Beatles had on his own music. He shares Lennon and McCartney’s talent for writing tunes that stay in the memory, even if the language is different; without “Yesterday”, there would be no “Ne Pytai”.

The concept of the concert was to give Ukraine’s east and west (who disagree on practically everything) something to share. Large screens had been set up in the main squares of five towns in different parts of the country, that broadcast the concert live, so that as many people as possible could be part of the occasion.

The concert was funded by the oligarkh Viktor Pinchuk, and organised by “contacts” of the family of former president Leonid Kuchma – whose brief appearance on the screens was greeted by hundreds of hisses and hostile whistles. People are right to hate the corrupt people who are strangling their own country, but this time the nepotism was worth it: money may not be able to buy you love, but for once it had bought something which the people of Ukraine could enjoy together.

In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, one fan said: “Politics and music are different things. The politicians are fools. But everyone loves McCartney”. It was better not to wonder whether the staging of the concert was generous or calculated, and just enjoy the music.

Sir Paul began the concert with some of his own songs, which nobody recognised, but which perfectly suited the big stage and bright lights. After a couple of tracks the rain stopped – most of the umbrellas came down, and the sound of thunder was replaced by excited chatter.

Between songs he spoke to the crowd in both Ukrainian and Russian. Each mildly mispronounced “dya-kúyu or “spa-séeba was met with appreciative applause, and he kept a sheet of longer phrases (“All together now!”) on top of his piano. It was evident that planning the concert was something that he had put a lot of time and effort into.

He sang 33 songs, including “All My Loving”, “Hey Jude”, “Drive My Car”, “Penny Lane”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, “The Long And Winding Road”, “Let It Be”,  and, of course, “Back In The USSR”. At the beginning of the third hour his voice became tired, but I wasn’t the only one too awestruck to notice. The songs sounded magnificent all the same.

As fireworks set the sky on fire and Sir Paul broke into “Live And Let Die”, I wondered how Ukraine looked through his eyes – a people who had lived through a revolution just three years ago, many of whom are more in need of a taste of freedom now than under Communism, and who had braved the rain to come to see him on a cold summer night. Did he know how many Ukrainian Eleanor Rigsbys there are?

I appreciated the chance to see him for a different reason: in the middle of a year when I have often felt severed from my own culture, hearing the songs which I listened to when I was a child meant a lot. The chance to listen to each almost-forgotten melody again, live and in the middle of a happy crowd, was priceless. Much has changed in the fifty years since the songs were created: I wondered whether the lyrics to a classic like “She Loves You” could be written in this greedy and cynical century.

“Yesterday” was the first encore. That Sir Paul would leave it until last was inevitable.  As the first chords drifted across the square the crowd fell absolutely quiet – then some began to sing along, and the less confident mouthed the words silently. We may have left Maidan well after midnight, with soaking jeans and aching bones, but we were all happy.

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