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From the Virgin Islands to ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, Paul McCartney talks to Chris Welch about pipe bands and punk rock and explains why he will never play his most famous song ever again
Paul McCartney swears he will never play ‘Yesterday’ again. Not since a review in which, he claims, I said that I thought he would play it forever.
“Surely not,” quoth I. “Oh yes, you did. Prat,” says Paul. “Pranny.” And a lot worse besides. But I didn’t remember saying anything worse than the last Wings concert in London had lacked the spontaneity of their earlier round-Britain concerts.
Surely I didn’t slag off ‘Yesterday’, one of the great popular songs of our time? Why, it always brings a lump to my throat or a tear to the eye. “Oh yes you did,” insisted Paul. “I remember everything. All that stuff about ‘Yesterday’ – it’s engraved on me forehead. I’ll never play it again.”
But somehow I don’t think Paul would take such advice or a less than enthusiastic review too seriously. For someone who has been at the centre of the rock whirlpool for 15 years (count ’em) he is a bit too long in the tooth and experience to start getting belligerent or suicidal.
He reserved himself a go back, which was delivered in forthright, but unmalicious tones.
“I thought your review was shit,” he greeted me pleasantly, in the bowels of number two studio at Abbey Road last week. It was here that Paul and the rest of The Beatles recorded so many classics – ‘Yesterday’ included.
Now it was decorated like a Parisian pavement café with tables and umbrellas and plants.
“Just to give it a little atmosphere,” he explained. While Wings seem to have been quiet since those last concerts (still referred to by radio DJs as among the greatest they have ever seen), in fact, they have been busier than ever. Paul and Linda have added another child, baby James, to the family, but Paul kept on recording, first on a floating studio near the Virgin Islands, then up in Scotland. The results are a new album due out in February, and a new single, ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, out now.
Wings have also suffered the loss of two of their number in recent months. But as Paul explained, he wasn’t too worried. He would be quite happy to play at Joe’s Caff with Denny Laine, his old mate, on guitar. And they may even do that next year.
But first Paul gave me an ear-bashing for smiting his work. What could I say? If more artists spoke up for themselves instead of brooding or plotting violence, a good deal of the unpleasant tension that afflicts rock today would be dissipated. Paul explained how even his daughter, as a member of the public, had fallen foul of duff reviews.
“My daughter went to see The Stranglers. She’s into punk… well, she’s the right age. She came back a changed person, over the moon, just loved it.
“And the next week, a review appeared in one of the papers… and it was a terrible review. ‘The bass player was inefficient’, same old technical crap, y’know. Reviews are always wrong. But come on, let’s get off critics.”
Paul had been strangely inactive for a year.
“No,” he said firmly. “Not inactive. Very active. But in the studio and on boats. We went to the Virgin Islands.
“We hired a charter boat that people use for holidays. The captain went spare when he saw all the instruments. We remodelled his boat for him, which he wasn’t too keen on.
“We converted his lounge into a studio and we turned another deck into a sound control room, and it was fantastic.
“We had a recording boat and two others we stayed on. We didn’t have any problems with salt water in the machines or sharks attacking us. At night there was much merriment, leaping from top decks into uncharted waters and stuff. I had a couple too many one night and nearly broke something jumping from one boat to another. But then you always break yourself up on holiday.
“The studio worked out incredibly well and the very first day we got a track down. There was a nice free feeling. We’d swim in the day and record at night.
“We had written most of the songs beforehand. Denny and I wrote a lot of stuff last summer. We stayed a month on the boat and by the time we recorded it the songs just seemed to work.
“You’ll have to tell me when you’ve heard the record if there is any boat feeling in the music. I think there is.
“We’ve come back to Abbey Road here to finish it all off. We’re overdubbing and putting main vocals on. We did nine tracks on the boat.
“I’d like to play you some of the stuff but I can’t really, because it’s gonna be so far in advance of release it would be silly to play you anything now.
“You’ll hear a track and say it’s very nice and then we’ll change it all around. But there is an up feel to the music from being on a boat. We got moved on a lot for being naughty rock’n’roll people infesting the waters.
“We moored at the island called St Johns and it’s a national park. You must not play amplified music. I think they mean trannies.
“But we had a whole thing going. You could hear it for miles. We got fined $15.
“I’ve been working out of London for a long time and when it’s raining and it’s boring and there are power strikes, you do start to think, ‘It would be great to get away.’”
Did many great new songs come out of this aquatic experience?
“Well, I never really like talking about it. I like it. People who’ve heard it like it. It’s nothing like the live album of course. It’s just a new studio album with a lot of songs on it and no big concept idea.
“But you can never tell, you know. ‘Sgt Pepper’ wasn’t supposed to be a concept. That was just a collection of songs.”
But not a bad collection.
“You can’t tell, they may all suddenly run together and mean something. It won’t be out ’til February, so I don’t want to start dropping titles yet. It’s cooler to wait until the time comes.
“There’s no title for the album. I didn’t get where I am today by giving titles ahead of time.
“Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English (guitar and drums), who are not longer with us, did all their stuff before they split.
“They were on the boat, and now Denny and I are just finishing it off. Wings is a trio at the moment.
“A couple of years ago I used to worry if anyone left; ‘Oh God, I can’t keep a group together.’
“But I don’t worry now – there’s no need to keep it altogether all the time. I’m more interested in the music and, if we can do that, I don’t mind how it has to be done.
“Next year we won’t do anything live until the album is out, because we wanna go out with some new stuff.
“I mean, you didn’t like us playing all the old stuff. Yes, I could quote your bloody reviews to you, Welch. We’ll get some new stuff together and think about going out again.
“We’re not worried at the moment. Joe needed to go back to America because he is extremely American and isn’t struck on Britain.
“It’s not everyone you can persuade Britain is an OK place to live, you know. He’s used to things like late-night telly and hamburgers. Linda is not really American, in inverted commas. She doesn’t miss any of that at all, so she tells me anyway.
“Jimmy’s thing was… another type of thing. He wanted to make a move. I don’t know how long he was with us. I don’t keep track of time. Since before ‘Venus And Mars’, whenever that was.”
Jimmy was quite an extrovert I believe?
“Well, yeah. He’s a good lad, Jimmy, a good guitar player, but sometimes he’s a bit hard to live with. It’s pretty well known in the biz and we just decided it would be better if we didn’t bother any more.
“It got a bit fraught up in Scotland. He’s with the Small Faces now, but he’s done a lot of nice guitar on the new album and on the boat he was incredibly together. He’s really into playing heavy rock.”
Was Paul looking for a replacement guitarist?
“No, not really. I’m getting letters from guitar players. But me and Denny both play guitar, and if it’s not live we can work out the guitar things. And if we need to overdub, I can play drums too.
“I did the drumming on ‘Band On The Run’ and, er, that did all right. I can’t drum technically very well but I can hold the beat and to me that’s what you should be able to do if you’re a drummer.
“It’s nice to be a bit fresh but I like a drummer who just holds the beat. So here we are – back to being a trio! No sweat. We’ll just continue like this.
“It’s easier now there are less people to deal with. We can make decisions quicker among ourselves.”
But what will Paul do if concerts are planned? They can’t play live as three-piece surely?
“Well, gigs have started to come up. But with having the baby this year… that sounds a bit un-rock’n’roll, doesn’t it? But these are the realities you’ve got to face, and I just didn’t fancy Linda being onstage at the Peterborough Empire and having to rush off to hospital. It’s a big number, having a baby.
“So, we decided to get ourselves a drummer or guitarist. Or we may have another think. We might change the whole line-up and go out with something different.
“But seeing as we’re not accepting any dates at the moment, we’re not bothering. It’s no big sweat. We could always go on as me and Denny with a couple of acoustics. We’d have a laff anyway!
“Denny and I have written together on previous albums but never more than one tune. Then, in summer ’76, we sat down and wrote a bunch together. It’s good to have someone to bounce off.
“To tell you the truth, we haven’t got really into songwriting together yet, but we did write a few where we’d patch each other’s songs up.
“The next stuff we write will be more half and half. We haven’t actually tried sitting down and writing from square one. We’ve been helping arrange each others’ songs.”
At this point we are joined by Denny Laine and Paul introduced us thus: “This is that cunt who gave us that bad review. Fuckin’ ’it ’im.”
“No hard feelings,” said Denny with surprising warmth. I began to feel like a traitor to the cause. All we needed now was Miles Davis and Ian Anderson to walk in, waving back issues of the MM.
Denny joined us at the table and began strumming his guitar. Paul pointed out the various features in the famed studio. “‘Love Me Do’ was done about where Denny is playing right now.
“The studio hasn’t changed since then because they don’t want to change the sound.”
Meanwhile, here was Paul, 15 years later, talking about yet another single, in the room where so much history was launched. This time it’s ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ and, says Paul, “It’s Scottish. It’s different from the songs we did on the boat, we thought it should be a single, and it sounds very Christmassy and New Yeary.
“It’s kind of a glass of ale in your hand leaning up against the bar tune. We had the local pipe band join in and we took a mobile studio up to Scotland and put the equipment in an old barn.
“We had the Campbeltown Pipe Band and they were just great – just pipes and drums. It was interesting writing for them. You can’t just write any old tune because they can’t play every note in a normal scale.
“They’ve got the drone going all the time so you have to be careful what chord you change over the drone, so it’s a very simple song.
“I had to conduct them very heavily. It’s a waltz and an attempt at writing a new Scottish tune because all the other Scottish tunes are old, traditional stuff. And I like bagpipes anyway.
“But it’s a double A-side. The other one, ‘Girls’ School’, I wrote after reading the back pages of those American entertainment guides. These days there are whole pages of ‘X’-rated films, you know the porn page?
“It’s all titles like School Mistress and The Woman Trainer. I just put them all together in the lyrics and called it ‘Girls’ School’. It’s about a pornographic St Trinians.
“We made it a double because the B-sides always get swallowed. You never hear them. At least ‘Girls’ School’ will get played a bit.
“‘Mull Of Kintyre’ is different from anything we’ve done before… but sure, it’s Wings. It’s definitely not punk. No, I’ve not seen any punk bands. Yeah, it’s a good thing innit? Like everyone says?
“In interviews, everyone says, ‘It’s very good for der business… it’s for young people… it’s good to see it.’ Waaal, you’ve gotta have something of your own, haven’t you?”
Had Paul lost his audience in the meantime?
“What, to punk? Nah, it’s a different audience altogether. To me, punk is more important than glitter, and a lot of the stuff that’s been going down in the past few years, just because it’s got a bit more balls to it.
“It’s a fashion, so it would be silly for us to attempt to go along with it. It’s not what we’re about.
“We never even used to do that when The Who was doing it. Know what I mean? I can hear a lot of Who in it, Bryan Ferry and Dylan too, and Lou Reed.
“It’s Velvet Underground, New York stuff type stuff, but the British kids do it best at the moment. But I’m not into it, I wouldn’t pretend to be. It’s just a different kind of music.
“Instead of sitting down, they’re jumping up and down. Great, nice one.”
I thought I detected just the faintest hint of sarcasm in Paul’s otherwise encouraging noises.
A film is being prepared of Wings on the road in America. How was that progressing?
“It’s being mixed and the sound is being put on by Chris Thomas out at Wembley and they’re thinking of putting the concert stuff together with some documentary stuff and making a TV show.
“It’s working out great, but I don’t know when it will be released. You can’t worry, because other people have tried the same thing and it hasn’t worked.
“If you’ve got a film, you’ve just got to finish it and see if it works. That’s the stage we’re at.
“We’ve got all the stuff shot. It was going to be a concert movie but we decided, as we don’t go to concert movies ourselves, and we’d rather see One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, we’d make it a TV special, so at least you don’t have to go out of your nice warm house to see it.
“It sounds a bit boring, but it’s better than it sounds! I didn’t even see Gimme Shelter. I just don’t think they work somehow. I’ve seen so many psychedelic rock dreams – climbing mountains and stuff.”
In the New Year, would Linda want to go on the road again?
“Yeah, I think so. It’s just different for us. A couple of years ago, I used to read the papers and think, ‘You’ve got to be like everyone else. If everyone else is putting make-up on, well you’ve gotta do it.’
“But now I’ve grown out of that, realised whatever I do is my thing.
“There was one point where we felt we had to be onstage every night if we were going to be any good.
“But when it comes around to the right time, we’ll do it – go out and play.
“We actually fancy playing in some small, steamy clubs and get back to the people right there and playing to them for a laugh.
“So we’ll probably do that next year. We keep wanting to do a residency. We’d like to get a little club somewhere and build an audience. We’d like to get a great little scene going for a couple of weeks.
“We did it on our old university tour, which was the first thing we did. And cheap tickets. I love all that – if we could charge 50 pence or something. People expect bootleg prices all the time.
“There’s a scene in the film we’re doing where a fellow is offering a girl £3 tickets for £20. We’d like to get away from that situation of ‘You are now coming to see this extremely expensive group!’
“I’d much rather have people come in at lunchtime, or after work, have a little dance and a cheese roll. We might have a couple of lunchtime sessions next year.
“I fancy getting into all that, where it’s not as precious. That’s what ’appens when you get… big. I suppose that’s what the punks are up against.
“You can get trapped in all that tinsel and glitter, like Rod Stewart. I’m sure he doesn’t really want to be like that. The first thing you want to do when you see someone on a pedestal is knock ’em down isn’t it?
“But what we want to do is find a gig in the centre of London, so all the kids who are working in the offices can come and hear us.
“It’s based on the old Cavern idea. You tumble out of bed, play a couple of sets, have a couple of pints, and tumble back to bed. No, not at the posey places, somewhere like Joe’s Caff, in the basement.
“We’ll see. We’ll probably end up doing 50,000 dates in America! The real truth is, we’ll do what we fancy at the time.”
Was Paul happy to be in Wings as a working environment.
“Oh sure. We’ve actually done quite well, despite all the slagging off and the bad reviews. The main thing is the music, it’s not the bread, it’s not the fame, it’s not the acclaim, it’s not even the reviews, it’s down to whether you like the music or not. And this stuff we’re doing now… we like,” said Paul emphatically.