Interview for Time • Monday, June 9, 1997

Gray in a Golden Voice

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
Interview by:
Christopher John Farley
Timeline More from year 1997

Album This interview has been made to promote the Flaming Pie Official album.

Master release

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I can very clearly remember seeing [Lennon] in the band [then called the Quarrymen] and later after that rehearsing with them and trying to impress them. And the beery smell on his breath, which, as I was a little younger than he, I thought, ‘Gosh — he’s a heretic.

Paul McCartney

Here’s hoping it’s out of Paul McCartney’s system. The three Beatles Anthology albums, which came out in 1995-96, were an exhaustive, exhausting exploration of the Fab Four’s musical past, featuring the reunion of surviving Beatles McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison with the one late Beatle, John Lennon, on a beyond-the-grave ballad, Free as a Bird, and the release of obscure tracks such as the fifth take of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the seventh take of Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! By now, it seems, the Beatles’ entire recording history has been exhumed and made public, except perhaps for outtakes from Ringo’s answering machine. But with the anthologies fading in the rearview mirror, we can finally hear some new music from McCartney. And although his Beatles glory years may be boxed and packaged along with those anthologies, McCartney’s just released solo album, Flaming Pie (Capitol), shows his muse is still very much with him.

Much of Flaming Pie was composed while McCartney was helping compile the songs on the anthologies. “The main thing about it is I didn’t have to do [an album], so it kind of changed the whole attitude,” says McCartney. “So I ended up just stockpiling those songs and just going and recording them for my own fun. Which is a slightly different attitude. I just recorded them song by song rather than ‘A Collection of Songs I’m Going In to Do.’

As a result, Flaming Pie is a relaxed, easygoing album; the songs sail blithely along, like boats on a lake on a bright, breezy day. The knock on McCartney’s solo work has always been that it is overly sweet; too much light, not enough illumination. Now that McCartney is 54, however, age has brought to his work a welcome melancholy; there’s a streak of gray in his golden voice. The Song We Were Singing, a gentle number looking back at the psychedelic bull sessions of the 1960s, has a jaunty feel but also a wistful one; Heaven on a Sunday finds McCartney at his most angelic, his voice gliding peacefully over a sadly sweet melody. The song has familial warmth to it, and no wonder: McCartney’s wife Linda sings backing vocals on the track, and his son James, 20, plays electric guitar.

One might expect McCartney, as an elder statesman of rock, to be a grump about the state of today’s pop music, but he actually thinks it’s going along quite fine. He even has (mostly) generous things to say about Oasis, the aggressively youthful British rock band that in recent years has been accused of ripping off the Beatles’ sound. Says McCartney: “I like the fact that they’re live and they can play their instruments. I like the fact that they honor us by using us as their source, so it’s a tribute. I certainly don’t go the direction some people go and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a rip-off, they’re no good.’ I think they’re good. The worst I could say about them is their stuff is derivative. [But] when I started off, I sang like Little Richard. I still do…John was coming from Buddy Holly and the Isley Brothers, various other people. So what’s the harm in [Oasis] coming from the Beatles?

McCartney reacts in mock horror when a reporter observes that it has been 40 years since he first met Lennon–“I’m not actually 40 years old. I’m sorry, you must be mistaking me for someone else“–but he soon begins to reminisce. “Some things 40 years ago seem fresher than last year’s memories, for me,” he says. “It’s a very formative period in your life, and your memories get etched in stone. I can very clearly remember seeing [Lennon] in the band [then called the Quarrymen] and later after that rehearsing with them and trying to impress them. And the beery smell on his breath, which, as I was a little younger than he, I thought, ‘Gosh — he’s a heretic.’

McCartney has been married now for 28 years; his net worth has been estimated at $600 million; early this year Queen Elizabeth made him a Knight of the British Empire. What might his life have been like if he had never met Lennon? “Who knows?” he answers. “That’s like my daughter Mary [now 28] always used to say: ‘What would you do if a giant television came crashing out of the sky and landed on you?’ Lord only knows. I had very basic qualifications from the school I’d gone to. I’d kinda done O.K. but hadn’t applied myself, as the teachers used to say. What would I have done? The only thing I could have done is become a teacher; that’s the only thing I could qualify for.

Hearing McCartney’s voice on Flaming Pie–a little wiser, a trifle wizened, at moments touching on the sublime–one can’t help thinking that he could teach today’s pop performers a thing or two about rock ‘n’ roll. Passion is easier for the young; it’s reflexive, sometimes glandular. When McCartney hits those high notes now, it’s not as carefree; there’s even some strain. But that’s how we know his zeal is no accident of age; it’s something reached for–and attained.

Last updated on March 9, 2019


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