- Published by:
- Club Sandwich
- Laura Gross
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Off The Ground Official album.
Songs mentioned in this interview
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On listening to Off The Ground / was struck with the idea that the album features the idealism of the 1960s tinged with the realism and anger of the 1990s. Does that seem like a fair assessment to you?
Maybe. It’s probably true of me – I’ve certainly got a tinge of the Sixties and the anger of the Nineties. The anger of the Nineties in my case is being a parent with all this terrible stuff going on in the world. If it’s not ecology it’s wars, if it’s not wars it’s disease, if it’s not disease it’s the politicians not giving us what we want. After all, they’re only our elected representatives, they’re not gods! We put them there. So I think that the album reflects a bit of that, that it is time for a change. And I sense anyway a lot of the Sixties thoughts coming back – they weren’t really new ideas then actually, they were old, but now they’re coming back again. I mean, the Eighties answer wasn’t it – all those ideas came home to roost, didn’t they.
I’m told that you have poet-proof lyrics on this album.
When I came to do this album one of the things I thought was that it might be good to be a little less casual and make sure I’d done my homework, make sure that I liked all the words in the songs. So I got a friend of mine, a poet called Adrian Mitchell, to look through the lyrics as if he was an English teacher checking my homework. He didn’t hate anything but there were one or two little moments where he suggested a change. In ‘C’mon People’ I had written “we’ve got a future and it’s coming in” and he said “Do you want to use a stronger word than ‘coming’? Do you want to describe it?” So I sat down and re-wrote “we’ve got a future and it’s rushing in”. It seems to me to be rushing in, and charging in, which are the two words I used there. So that was great, I went through it all with him and I can now say that they’re poet-proof.
You also have some live takes, or something very dose to live takes?
‘Biker Like An Icon’ is a first take and there are a couple of others too. ‘Peace In The Neighbourhood’ is a rehearsal take. We were just kicking numbers around, so that the band would get to know how they went, and we just got a really nice casual take of ‘Peace In The Neighbourhood’. We thought later that we could make it a little bit more professional and did try a couple of times but never got the same vibe again. It was getting a little bit too stiff so we listened again to the rehearsal take and it was fine. I really love the drum sound on it. As for ‘Biker’, it’s such a simple little song that you can ruin it if you go over it 50 times. Everyone understood how it went, and Robbie must have had some idea what he was going to do on slide guitar because he just delivered a solo – I didn’t tell him when to do it, he just felt it.
This, I think, is the secret of the album. With Flowers In The Dirt I experimented with computers, and working with producers who take a long time over everything. There are some interesting aspects to working like that but not enough to excite me. That’s what happened with something like ‘Biker’ – we just did it and got lucky. And the more you listen to the album the more you get to feel that we were enjoying ourselves.
When we came to record this album I thought back to the favourite times I’ve ever had in a recording studio, and it was the best of the Beatles stuff, where we were restricted by time and had to work fast. In one day we did ‘I’m Down’, ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘Yesterday’ and they were pretty good tracks! I mean, you never do three tracks in a day now. We did get near to it one day when I came in and said to Julian Mendelsohn [co-producer with Paul] that we should knock off a couple of songs that day, and we got a couple of nice ones.
What can you tell me about ‘Hope Of Deliverance’?
I went up into the attic of our house, just to get away from everyone. There’s a trap door, you go up a little ladder and then close it and no one can get at you, so then you know you’ve got a couple of hours to yourself. So I went up into the attic and took with me a Martin 12-string guitar and, just for a bit of fun, I put a capo on it – the little bar that comes half way up the strings and changes the length of the guitar neck. On a 12-string it makes for a very jingly sound, which reminds me of Cathedrals and Christmas. So that led me into the field of hope, of deliverance, and then I added about the darkness that surrounds us. You know, if you’re involved in rescuing people in Somalia then that’s the deliverance – you want to get out of there safely, if you are involved in poverty then that’s your deliverance, to get out of that trap. Homelessness, disease, whatever, big or little, we’ve all got them. So that was it really, it just became a kind of optimistic song, either to, perhaps, a girlfriend, or to a God-figure. I do like leaving things ambiguous – I’ve often done that in my songs, so that people say to me “I always thought it meant something else…”.
People probably come up with things you probably hadn’t even thought of…
They do, they do. It’s great, actually. Some people even come up with new lyrics. Elvis Costello’s manager, Jake Riviera, thought that the “Living is easy with eyes closed” line in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was “Living is easy with nice clothes”!
Let’s talk about the title song ‘Off The Ground’.
Yes. Well, right at the end of doing the album Wix said to me “We’ve worked very naturally on this album but there’s one thing we haven’t tried and that is a computer thing”. And I said “Well, I don’t really want to waste a lot of time on it” and he said “You might want to spend a day on it, though, for a change, just to do something a bit different now that we’ve already got most of the album”, so I thought yeah, it might be fun, actually. So we gave the rest of the band a day off, and just me, Wix and the production team went into the control room for the day – that’s where you mainly do computer stuff.
One of the songs that had been on my list but hadn’t got onto the album was ‘Off The Ground’, which at that time was a little folk song. I liked it but it didn’t really fit onto the album so I thought that if we were just going to play around and experiment, maybe even waste a song, we might as well do it with that one. So I brought it in and we started to kick it around. We soon started to get a rhythm track in the computer that changed the song’s direction a bit and made it more exciting. Then I said “OK, let me go in and put a little heavy guitar on it”. So we really started enjoying it: we put a bit of machine bass on, which started to make it more funky, then percussion, then I sang on it and it really started to come together as a track. By the end of the day we’d pretty much finished it, with just a few little harmonies and a solo from Robbie still to come.
After I got home that night I happened to be speaking to one of my daughters on the phone and she asked what I’d done that day, and when I said ‘Off The Ground’ she said “That’s a great album title!” and it made me think of it in that way for the first time. So it became the title of the album.
How did you write ‘C’mon People’?
I was on holiday in Jamaica. I love the people there, it’s very laid back and I feel very musical when I’m there, so I always try to get a piano or something in case I want to write. Often, in the afternoons, I sit around and see if I fancy writing a song, and one day I just started chugging on this little riff and ‘C’mon People’ came out. I think of it as very Sixties, a bit Beatley; I used to resist any Beatles influences in my writing, thinking that I’d done that bit in my career and that maybe I should now do something completely different, but that means denying some stuff that might be very good. I mean, I’ve got a reasonable claim to the Beatles’ style, so there’s probably nobody out there who’s going to bother if I or George or Ringo do stuff in the Beatles’ style. So that’s the way I left ‘C’mon People’ – I finished it up and it became, I think, a very optimistic song. It’s the same idea: that if enough people get together and tell the politicians how we want this world to progress – and I think it is beginning to happen, by the way -we can make a difference.
And you worked with George Martin on this song?
That’s right. We’d recorded the track of ‘C’mon People’ and were quite pleased with it. It came quite naturally. Our engineer, Bob Kraushaar, was ill, he had the flu, so Julian Mendelsohn – who used to be an engineer – did both jobs that night. We thought we’d fix it when Bob got back but, as so often happens in these situations, we got a good take. Then we thought we’d like to have an arrangement done on it. It was one of the only songs on the album that felt like it could take an orchestra. The rest of them, felt right with just the band, but this one felt like it needed to go a touch bigger, to make it a bit more of an anthem. So I called George Martin and he was very sweet. He said, “Are you sure you want to use me?”, because he’s almost trying to retire now, and I said “Of course I want to use you! It would be brilliant. We’ll work the same way we always did – sit down together and decide what to do, then you’ll write and conduct it.”
So we did just that, and held the session at Abbey Road. He got up on the rostrum and conducted like a young man, he put all his spirit into it. And it was lovely – halfway through the session he just leaned over to me and said “Super song, Paul”. That is praise indeed. Later, Wix noticed that on the score George had written ‘”C’mon People’, arranged by Paul McCartney and George Martin, 30 June 1962″, which he’d then crossed out and changed to “1992”. It was like a Freudian slip – he went right back. I think he did a great job and really enhanced the track.
What about ‘Looking For Changes’?
When Linda and I met we discovered that we’d both been nature lovers as kids, and still were. Then we became vegetarians, which makes you even more aware of animals and their rights, and makes you want to explain to other people how you feel about seeing animals being carted off to the slaughterhouse. Protest songs are quite hard to do. Love songs come easier, at least to someone like me, but in this case I’d been looking through magazines like The Animal’s Voice and Animal Agenda, pretty heavy magazines that show some of the experim entation that goes on in the name of cosmetics, and started to write the song after I saw a picture of a cat with a machine implanted in its head. They just took off the top of its skull and plugged in a machine to find some data. I’m not sure what they were expecting to find inside a cat’s head. So I started to write the song and came up with the line “I saw a cat -with a machine in his brain” and just made it up from there – how the bloke who fed him didn’t feel any pain so I’d like to see him take out the machine and stick it in his own brain. You know, if you need the information so badly, do it to yourself.
The rest came quite easily. I had another couple of verses about rabbits and then used a bit of poetic licence about monkeys being taught to smoke. They normally use beagles for smoking experiments but it doesn’t matter -it’s still some poor defenceless animal with no rights in the world. Then I got the hook looking for changes, which sort of sums it up in my mind. It really is my feeling that we are all here on this little ball in the universe, humans are the dominant species and we tend to despise everything else. I think it’s “change or die” time for this planet.
I don’t usually use swear words in a song because it can sometimes seem a bit gratuitous, like you’re just trying to shock, but then again I don’t normally go for songs about animal experimentation and when you’re in that hard area these words start to creep in. I’m certainly not a great user of swear words in front of the kids but occasionally – like in ‘Looking For Changes’ – it’s essential to the plot.
The only strange thing is that I haven’t done it before. I mean, I played ‘Big Boys Bickering’, with the “f’ word, to Paul Simon and he said “Have you ever used that word before?” and I said no. But that doesn’t matter – I think I’m allowed to use it once in every 50 years, don’t you? Once in every 50 years I’ll use that word – stick around for the next time.
People seem to think of you as being all sweet hut a lot of Off The Ground is sexy, gritty. Did you consciously think about being grittier this time?
No, not really. I’m never really aware of what my image is, but when you’ve done songs like ‘Yesterday’ and ‘My Love’ and ‘The Long And Winding Road’ an image sort of grows on you. I think the truth is, though, that anybody who really knows what I’ve done over the years doesn’t think of me like that at all. People who know me well know that I wrote ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’ and all sorts of disgraceful stuff. I’ve done some gritty things! I tended to be known as the cute one in the Beatles and these things stick, but I don’t mind – it’s just an image and you’ve got to have one image or another. But I am glad that this album doesn’t adhere to that, and maybe gets me away from it. I mean, when I did the Russian album someone said to me “I didn’t know you sang like that” and I thought “Where have you been for the last 20-odd years?”
Tell me about the song ‘Get Out Of My Way’.
That was really an attempt at writing a straightforward rock and roll song. A lot of people will tell you that they’re often the hardest songs to write, even though they sound very simple. To get them to sound authentic is difficult. So I just put the character in a car and he’s basically talking to the blues – saying “get out of my way, don’t tell me what to do, I know what’s happening, I’m going to see my woman tonight”. So it’s a kind of rock and roll love song.
Let’s talk about ‘The Lovers That Never Were’, one of two songs on this album that you co-wrote with Elvis Costello.
A few years ago Elvis and I got together to see if we could write a few songs. First of all, just to see if we could stand the sight of each other, or if we annoyed each other too much, I fixed one of his songs up, then he fixed up one of mine. That led us to find that it was quite easy and we enjoyed it, so one day we decided to write one from scratch. The question then was, where do we start? We had the whole musical universe to choose from – a rock and roll song, a love song, what would it be? – so I said, “Well, let’s start with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Let’s think of them”, so we started off and ‘The Lovers That Never Were’ came out. It was our first song together.
We did a nice but very, very rough demo of it, just Elvis and me, but when we tried to record it properly it didn’t really work out. So I ignored it for Flowers In The Dirt and decided to try it again for this album. And we thought of bringing in a 4/4 bass drum over a 3/4 song ~ this is for the musicians among you – which just makes it swing. It’s an old rhythm trick but it made it come alive, and we then had a version that we liked.
What’s the story behind the album cover?
Once we had the title Off The Ground I kept getting this image in my head of a very plain cover, perhaps a landscape or something. But I wanted the band to be in it too, because it is a band album rather than a Paul McCartney solo album, so instead of having us all just standing there I had this idea of everyone vanishing off the top of the CD cover, so that you just see the feet. Then I thought that if we all took our shoes off and were photographed with bare feet it would show that Blair is black – there’d be five pairs of white feet and one pair of black, which I thought would be one in the eye for anyone who is racist. Clive Arrowsmith took the photograph – we all got up on a little scaffold and the feet dangled down. Later, when we looked at the photos, we couldn’t even see which one Blair was, which is a nicer pay off…it shows what rubbish racism is.
Please give me a thumbnail sketch about the band members, beginning with Linda.
Linda’s in the band as a friend, really, not for some high degree of musical prowess, but that’s alright because you can sometimes get too slick and too professional, and a lot of the music I like, particularly early rock and roll, is very unprofessional really, simple stuff simply recorded. Linda plays the keyboards and does harmonies – her voice blends very well with mine and also Hamish’s. Even when I worked with Michael Jackson he would request that Linda did the harmonies. People make fun of her and she gets easily picked on because the others are real professionals but I like the quality and the special little ingredient she brings.
Robbie is a really good guitar player who I’ve noticed for a long time and who I think really comes to the fore on this album. He’s very good, very enthusiastic, very funny – I mean, he knows the complete works of Tony Hancock or any British television series, particularly the obscure ones. And what’s very handy is that he knows all the Beatles songs because he was at just the right age to learn them all in the Sixties. So sometimes I’ll ask “What’s the chord…?” and he’ll say “I always thought it was A minor” and I’ll reply “Yes, that’s right!”.
Hamish is a really good soul singer. I think our voices blend amazingly well together when we sing harmonies. He’s also a really good guitar player, so if I’m ever looking for some rhythm guitar parts he’s the obvious person to give them to. He used to play a lot of the rhythm riffs in the Average White Band. And again, he’s really keen, he’s always up for whatever you’re doing. He’s good to work with and he’s a good friend.
Wix is technically very good and also a really nice bloke. All of the people in the band are really nice, actually, which is something I tend not to mention but is certainly a key factor. We all get on very well. Wix is like our MD [musical director], so if we have to rehearse he’ll take us through it. He’s like the boss “when it comes to rehearsals because I’m a bit lax – any excuse to have a cup of tea, I will, so he’s our slavedriver. He’s also a great pianist and comes up with some very original ideas. On ‘Hope Of Deliverance’ he’s playing guitar too.
Blair is a really smashing drummer. He comes from a long line of drummers, all his brothers are drummers and all his nephews are going to become drummers! We met his mum, actually, in LA, and she’s really nice too. Blair doesn’t try to get too complicated with big solos, and his feel is great. He also has a great personality, he’s always smiling and willing to work, and that means a lot.
And then there’s Paul. How do you see his role?
Well, he’s not much good. I think he lets the band down and we’d be a lot better off without him.
After so many years of touring what is it that makes you want to go back on the road again?
I think it’s the audience, because when you write a song you do it on your own. Similarly, with recording, you just do it with a few friends and there’s no big reaction. But when you get out in front of an audience and they like something it’s very obvious because they’ll cheer or clap or smile or weep, and that’s the pay off. You get the feedback. They say that showbiz people like applause but I think that everyone does. It’s like your boss saying “That’s great, that’s fantastic”. It’s an affirmation that what you’re doing is OK.