- Album This interview has been made to promote the McCartney III Official album.
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From BBC Media Centre, November 27, 2020:
BBC One and BBC Music are proud to announce Idris Elba meets Paul McCartney, a world exclusive show featuring music legend Paul McCartney in conversation with one of the most popular British actors of his generation, Idris Elba, to be broadcast on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in December, and on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Sounds.
This 60-minute entertainment special, to be recorded in London in the coming weeks, will see Idris interview Paul about his peerless career as the most successful musician and composer in pop music history, which began when he wrote his first song at the age of 14. The show will span Paul’s incredible history-making journey right up to the present day, as he continues to influence new generations, including Paul’s solo material and collaborations.
Paul will talk about his writing process which has produced some of the best loved and most performed songs ever. Idris will seek to find out what inspires Paul to continue to innovate creatively, on the eve of the release of his 26th post-Beatles album McCartney III, the third album in a trilogy of classics featuring Paul playing every instrument and writing and recording every song. Paul launched his solo career in 1970 with the release of McCartney.
Idris is a Golden Globe winning and multi Emmy nominated actor, producer, director, and musician who is the first male actor to receive dual Screen Actors Guild awards in one evening. Elba recently received the Bafta Special Award in recognition of his exceptional career and commitment to championing diversity and new talent in the industry. He can next be seen in Concrete Cowboy, The Suicide Squad and The Harder They Fall and is currently in production on George Miller’s Three Thousand Years Of Longing with Tilda Swilton. Idris is best known to BBC One viewers as DCI John Luther in Luther, the psychological crime drama which debuted in 2010. During the five series, Idris has been awarded with a Critic’s Choice television award, Golden Globe award and Screen Actors Guild award for his performance as John Luther, as well as four nominations for outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie at the Primetime Emmy awards.
Paul has sold over 100 million solo singles and over 700 million albums, generating over 1 billion worldwide record sales whilst winning over 70 major global awards – including 18 Grammys and 8 Brit awards. In 1990, Paul set the world record for largest concert attendance ever in Brazil 184,000 people and since the turn of the century alone Paul has played almost 500 concerts around the world.
Idris says: “When I was asked if I wanted to speak to Paul McCartney, after I realised it wasn’t a joke, I immediately said yes… who wouldn’t?! I am a massive fan of Paul’s! His work has inspired and driven me as a musician, and once I get through the shock of sharing the stage with him, I’m excited to talk about his music and craft. What an honour! Looking forward to sitting with you Paul.”
Paul says: “I’m looking forward to sitting down to a chat with the mighty Idris!”
Kate Phillips, Acting Controller, BBC One, says: “Paul McCartney has undoubtedly created some of the UK’s best loved songs, songs which are known throughout the world, so I’m thrilled that he’ll lift the lid on how he continues to create lyrics and music that will forever stand the test of time. The must see combination of Paul in conversation with one of our best loved actors and super fan, Idris Elba, as well as an incredible live performance from the Cavern, are the perfect Christmas presents for BBC audiences.” […]
Idris: Congratulations on your album. “McCartney III” is ready to drop. How many songs did you record to get to your 10? Or did you just record 10?
Paul: I think it was just the 10 because I didn’t know I was making an album. Somebody said to me the other day, you know why did everyone in lockdown do all this stuff they’d be meaning to get around to. And so that was my equivalent. I wasn’t trying to make an album. So suddenly, I had like these 10 songs. I thought, what I’m going to do with these, and I realized because I played them myself, and I recorded “McCartney I” and “McCartney II” in the same vein, that this will be “McCarney III”. So then it was like, “Okay, I see what I’m doing now”.
Idris: Lockdown for a lot of people has been a struggle, and a place where they either sort of find themselves unplugging from normal and making a new normal, or really struggling with it. For you, you go to a creative place.
Paul: I was very lucky, yeah. So I was locked down with my daughter and her family. And then I was able to go to the studio to work. So then I just started thinking more about that song I had a few months ago that I never finished. So we pull that out. And I’d work on that.
Idris: When you say “pull that out”, was it on a computer, or ?
Paul: Yeah, it was on a computer. I’m pretending to the old days or is it tape box? You pulled it out, sort of like that. That was more satisfying to take the tape off a shelf.
Idris: I was thinking about that, because you’ve seen decades of generations of technology shifts. You’re making an album – your first one you made in 1970, ‘McCartney I’. And then the technology you know, you’ve made the second one ten years later. Technology has changed. Do you remember what was different? Even though you played all the instruments, but do you remember what was different about the process?
Paul: Yeah, you know, the first one was… The Beatles are just broken up. So I was at a loss. What are we gonna do… Do I now try and find like another career or…? No, I like music too much. I’m gonna continue in music. But how do I do it? You know? So I was at home. I got a big four track Studer machine from EMI and they just showed me how to plug a microphone right into the machine, which was what we used in those days. We’d made Sgt Pepper on such a machine, you know. So I just got it and plug the mic right in the back, you normally go through a desk. So this is great they show me, you could just do that. So that was one track. And I just sat around and just played a bit of guitar or something. And then I moved through to the next track there, and then played a bit of drums. And if I didn’t like the sound of the drums, if I thought there was too much snare, or not enough bass drum, you just move the mic.
Idris: So there was no equalizer or…?
Paul: No, no, no, that was just what you heard. So yeah, it was very basic. So I made this little album at home actually in the front room. And that was “McCartney I”. It was just, you know, I just had to keep going.
Idris: Did you feel daunted about the sort of the massive success of The Beatles and then who you are about to write something on your own? Did you feel trepidation about that nervousness? Or do you just…
Paul: Yeah, yeah, I mean, the writing wasn’t so bad. Because by that time, me and John and George, we’d started to write things on our own, and then bring them to each other, to finish them up, or bring them to the group to record them. So here there was no band to record them with. So it’s like, it’s just me. But fortunately, I do love to drum. Yeah, it’s the kind of thing I’d been doing for years. The drums, the bass, the guitar, sang a bit. So that was very primitive, that first album. The second one was more technical, because, by then, synthesizers arrived.
Idris: I was reading up about the idea of melodies, and there’s an infinite amount of melodies except there isn’t an infinite of melodies. They’re all sort-of versions of themselves, minus a couple of notes. You are melody God…
Paul: Yeah, I like melodies.
Idris: You sit at a piano, you get a guitar… What does that melody come from? Can you do thinking melody? Do you hear it? Or is it – do you feel like a vessel, like sort-of like it just comes out of nowhere?
Paul: I think it’s a bit of all of those. For me, I always loved music as a kid. And the BBC was always played as it does now. There is obviously theme tunes. So you’d hear a classical thing, you’d hear a pop thing. It’s a lot of music going on as I was a kid, and my dad’s playing the piano. So it’s all kind of feeding into my computer. I don’t realize this. But later, when I got my own guitar, or I’m starting to make music and write songs, I start to realize that it’s all that stuff that I heard, it’s giving me all my data, it’s like a computer. When I sit down, it’s always kind-of magical for me. This idea of you know, “Wait a minute, I can just do Dum-dum-dum… Oooh… No, I don’t like that… Dom-dom.. Yeah, that’s better”. And you just find something you like. And then for me, I’m very lucky because I don’t find it hard… Melodies just suggest themselves. It’s like “oh, wow”, you know, just check I didn’t just steal this from West Side Story or something.
Idris: That it is not a memory, but it is a memory because it’s influenced from different parts of your brain…
Paul: You know what, Idris… It’s magic. It’s a very magical thing. You know, when you actually break down music, it’s frequencies. But we don’t see it like that. We’re so sophisticated as humans nowadays. I’m still fascinated by it. Yeah, I keep thinking I should be a bit sort-of fed up by now…
Idris: No, we can tell that you still like music. you are still putting out albums…
Paul: Yeah, well, you know, it’s something I love. And luckily, it kind of comes easy.
Idris: The song on your album that I love is “Pretty Boys”. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. And I just want to understand like, that song has probably four instruments. There’s some drums, guitars, bass, maybe something else? Where did that song start? Was it the bass, the drums or the lyrics?
Paul: Guitar. Sometimes you’ll get a little riff when you’re playing around on a guitar that you like, and it inspires you to write a song over. That’s what you’re always looking for. Just a little sequence… “Pretty boys” is about male models. One of the models was suing a famous photographer, because he’d been abusive on the session. Now I don’t know how abusive but I do know from having been photographed by some of the top guys that they can get pretty crazy. “God, come on, give me this, give me that”. If you’re gonna put yourself for hire to a photographer, you’ve got to expect a bit of craziness. And these guys have reputations.
Idris: Have you ever written verses that you’ve listened to and you’re gonna I’m not interested in that and redone the whole thing?
Paul: Yeah, one of the songs I’d forgotten that happened with this song, it’s called “Find My Way”. And I had the chorus “I can find my way, I know my left from right. No, I don’t get lost at night”. So that was like a positive. You know, “I can do it” type-of verse. And then I had some rubbish stuff about going on holiday with someone and it didn’t work out. And she left and it was like… it was terrible. And so I came back and wipe it all that bit and put another middle int it, which is better.
Idris: Stories behind some of the big Beatles songs that are like that, like literally came from something you read or something that happened to you…
Paul: Yeah, a lot of a lot of our stuff was that way.. “A Day in the Life”… That was just me and John sat around and kind-of looked at newspapers, stories, and then just adapted them. You know, we didn’t want to just put it exactly the same. But there was some story about potholes in Blackburn in Lancashire. So that became now you know “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”. Blackburn, Lancashire, you know you would just nick an idea from a news story or something, you often do that. If you’re stuck for an idea, just look in the newspaper to try and work that in.
Idris: Well, we haven’t talked about Blackbird and the inspiration in this beautiful song, this famous song. But obviously it comes from a place where there was a lot of thought, a lot of dark time and stuff that was really sort of influencing you. I’d love to just hear the story about that song and how it came to you.
Paul: It was because of the the civil rights movement and the Little Rock incident, because we were seeing that over here on the news. And you would see two black girls, particularly, going into a school and seeing this howling mob of white rednecks… And the girls just bravely going into the school, you know. And I just thought it’s kind-of cool that I wrote this idea of Blackbird “singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings, learn to fly”, who is a very emotional response to it, you know, “take these sunken eyes and learn to see”. Now, you know the raising thing was I did play recently, just a couple of years ago… I played Little Rock, Arkansas. And those two girls showed up.
Paul: Yes. They are old ladies now. But they showed up. The actual girls you see going into the school..
Idris: Did they know that that was the inspiration for “Blackbird”?
Paul: I don’t think they did. No, I don’t think they did. But I think someone sort-of said to them, “Did you know that song of us was about that incident of you girls?” So they came along? And man… It was beautiful. Because of that education. They’re fine upstanding girls… ladies. Once we went to America, and we were going to play Jacksonville, I think it was. And they told us it was a segregated audience. And we said, “what do you mean?” They said, “well, the blacks sit in one side and the whites in another.” We’re going, “Why? That’s so stupid”. “Well, you know, it’s the rules down south.” It is what you see all the movies about now, you know? Anyway, we said, “well, we’re not playing it”. And we refuse to play it. So the promoters got scared. And of course, little bit of measures were involved. And sure enough, they desegregated the audience for the first time. But the great story I liked about it was one of the black girls who went there, she’s telling her story and you saying, “it was the first time I sat around a concert with white people”. She said, “I couldn’t believe it”. But we’re all like, “Yeah, The Beatles”, but it didn’t matter. But so for her, it was like an awakening. And she went on, and now she’s like… She showed up. She’s like, a professor. So you know, I love those little things we didn’t kind of mean to change the world, or do anything inspiring. Really, it was just what they were suggesting was so stupid.
Idris: It was against your fabric, againt what you were.
Idris: Even during times like this, I think people sort of think that lockdown only affects certain people. Everyone’s locked down. Even this interview right now, we work via the rules of Tier Three but the perspective that you’ve got to be able to stay with your family, make an album at a time when most might say, “well, Paul doesn’t need to do that anymore”. But you feel like you’ve got to go to work, right?
Paul: I like it, you know. If I wasn’t allowed to do it, I’d still do it as a hobby. That’s the truth, you know, but that work ethic, I think it’s a great thing. I do, you know.
Idris: It comes from when you first wrote your first song.
Paul: I think so, it comes from the family. For me. I had a really good, cool, big Liverpool family because my dad was from seven kids in his family. He was one of seven. So when they married, that was like 14 when I had kids. So they’re like a lot of a New Year’s Eve party. There was a lot. It was great. You know, and my recollection, they were all great people. And each of them had a special little thing about their personality. One of them would be a great singer. My dad is a great pianist.
Idris: There’s no doubt right? Like music and words that are in your family somewhere. Like your dad…
Paul: Well talking about words with my dad… My dad left school at 14 because the family didn’t have any money. He got to get out and earn some money. But he was really into words. Very. He used to be big into crosswords. So he was very good at anagrams and cryptic crosswords and stuff. But he was really into words and I was the only kid in our class who knew how to spell “phlegm”. One day it came up. I mean, it’s never gonna come up… “p. h l. e. g. m. Flag them”. That’s what he used to do. So you know, almost I mean, they’re all kind of pointless, each little thing, but put them all together. It gives you a love of words.
Idris: You and your dad, you were close, right. You had a good relationship?
Paul: Yeah. We were very lucky and a great family… My dad was previously the family piano player, New Year’s Eve parties mainly….
Idris: Where did he learn to play?
Paul: He just picked it up. Same as me. And I said to him “teach me”. He said, “No, no, no, you gotta learn properly”. So he never told me but I learned by ear as well.
Idris: Because I read somewhere that your dad got you a trumpet.
Paul: He did. Well, he used to play… he had a little jazz band in the 1920s, the roaring 20s. So he played trumpet and piano in the band. He used to say to me “I’ll played trumpet till my teeth gave out”. So he got me one anyway for my birthday. And I started to try and learn. I learned a little bit, I learned “When the saints go marching in”.
Idris: How old are you by them?
Paul: 12, 13, in the teenage. But you know, I enjoyed it. But the thing is, I couldn’t sing with it stuck in my mouth. So you know this, I said to him, can I swap it for a guitar? Yeah. Which he said, Yeah, of course.
Idris: And that was the beginning of it.
Paul: It is the beginning. Yeah. It was a big craze – skiffle. But a big craze then, you know?
Idris: Yeah. Did you imagine making a living music back then, when you were younger?
Paul: No, it was kind of a teenage thing to be in a band and earn some extra money. Because, you know, people sort of say, the Muse and the art. It wasn’t, it was just to get some money. You know, Liverpool kids, we just need a little bit to go the pictures. But now, we couldn’t have imagined what happened. You know, with that little group. We got pretty famous.
Idris: In terms of what will happen in Liverpool, trying to make money, what was the sort of state of the nation? What was the sort of pinnacles, what was the inspiration to move up in Liverpool different at the time?
Paul: I think I’d have to say it was meeting John, suddenly having this friendship with this cool guy who was like a year and a half older than me. And when you’re a teenager, that’s a big thing. Big, big thing. You know, he was slightly ashamed of me, and very ashamed of George being with another hour. Not really, but you know what I mean, at that age, he kind of must have asked himself, why am I hanging out with these little boys? Anyway, but so I met him and, you know, we had a great friendship. And he was the only person when we’re talking about hobbies. And I would say to other people, “Well, you know, I like swimming and I like playing football and I like…”, but songwriting, I’ve written a couple of songs, and people will go, “Oh, yeah, tell me about the football”. You know, no one was interested. But when I saw him, he said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve written a couple too”.
Idris: You’ve worked with everyone. I mean, do you find it easy to collaborate, sort of looked up how you and John would sit somewhere to make a song, and he’d finish your lines, and you’d finish his lines. But other collaborative processes? Are they like that?
Paul: No. In a word. You know me and John was special. We grew up, wrote our first little songs cappetta together, so that was totally something else. And you can’t repeat.
Idris: You can’t do that with everyone.
Paul: You can’t. When we first went to America, people say who writes the words and who writes the music, Lennon and McCartney? And we said, well, we both write both. And they would say “What?”, because it wasn’t the tradition. There was always a lyricist in music. We said, “there’s no formula”. And we always said, The day we get a formula, we’ll break it. Because it’s not a good idea to have one.
Idris: But if you if you do get a formula, just pass it on. Don’t rip it up quite!
Paul: But yeah, I’ve worked with other people, you know, and it’s nothing like working with John. And the funny thing is, if someone says “should we write together?”, I expect it to just be like John. I expect I’ll start a little bit of something, and they’ll carry on. I worked with Kanye. And I bring my guitar. And I’m sitting around thinking “Okay, well, how do we do this?” And there was no rules. Obviously. I was sitting there wondering what we’re going to happen. I thought “if I go want to go, boom, bam, maybe that will go”. But it wasn’t like that. It was just… We talked, talked a lot. And his engineer recorded everything. But I came away thinking “Well, that didn’t work. It was nice to meet him but we didn’t write anything”. But then, like, about a month later, I got a song called “FourFiveSeconds” with Rihanna singing. And Kanye sent me that. So seriously I had to ring up and say “am I on this? Because I couldn’t hear me, you know?” Well, it turns out they said “Yeah, you’re the guitar player”. So there’s virtually only that one instrument. But that’s a way of working with Kanye, he’s a curator, he started as a producer. So he just takes all these ideas and pulls them together. He’s really good at that.
Idris: When you were in the Beatles, that three part harmony was a big part of your song pan out, right?
Paul: Yeah, we love to. I mean, we liked harmony. Anyway, my dad taught me and my brother harmony. On the piano, he says “you sing that note – Ting – and you sing that note – Ting – and you sing it together”. That’s harmony. So I was always fascinated with that. And then the Everly Brothers came along. And so they were perfect to us. And so what can we copy them? Me and John would dawn on Phil. We were the Everly’s and then George’s. So we had to do three parts. We got the idea to do three part. And that was fascinating. You haven’t written it obviously, in three part. Sometimes you refine it in the studio. And there’s George Martin, our producer, was great with that. Because it’s easy to give “Okay, you got the melody”, “now you, this is your harmony”. So that’s easy. But then there’s this third one. Which it’s got to fit with these two, and that’s quite a feat. you know.
Idris: That’s a game right? You got to get that right.
Paul: Yeah. We did some nice ones, we did “This Boy”, one of our first. And then I think the song “Because” was like “Really?” I thought we really – he said modestly – nailed it.
Idris: Stella asked me to ask you a question, she said, “Who’s your favorite child?”
Paul: The answer is Mary. No, did I say that? No, no, I meant to say Stella… I don’t have any favorites. You cannot have favorites.
Idris: It’s like asking what your favorite song, you couldn’t answer that, could you?
Paul: So it’s difficult cuz you do get asked that. People are normally asked me “What’s my most favorite song of my own?” Yeah. That’s kind of difficult. I think the one I kind of like the most is “Here, There And Everywhere”. I kind of think it’s got quite a good structure. It goes through and then comes back on itself. And I just thought that’s gonna be quite a nice tune. The craziest was “Yesterday”, because I dreamed it.
Idris: Did you dream the melody or just the words?
Paul: The melody and no words. Just the tune. I always kind of talk about it being magical. And it sounds a bit hippy, but I really do think it is. If there is a definition of magical, that kind of thing is. I’m asleep. I’m in bed. I’m dreaming and I wake up, and go “What… What’s that tune”. Surely I’d just heard somebody playing this tune. Or what is that? So I had a little piano in the room. So I worked out the chords, and I remember, I blocked it out with words. “Scrambled eggs, my baby how I love your legs”. Which at least made me remember it.
Idris: And that’s not the first song that’s come to you as a dream… “Let It Be”…
Paul: “Let It Be” was another but that was just the title. No melody that time. “Yesterday” was the melody. I told I must have borrowed or stolen it. It took a couple of weeks for me to realize it was mine. But “Let It Be”, there was a dream I had about my mother who died when I was 14. And I was now 22 or something probably. And yeah, I was having a kind of difficult time. Everyone was getting stoned and everyone was overdoing everything at that time. I was not in a great place and I’ve gone to bed and dreamed and I saw my mom. And that’s great. I’m with my mom. I’m actually in the same room kind of even though it’s my head. And she could tell I was worried. And she said “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be all right”. And she said, “Just let it be”.
Idris: You’ve been famous since you were – what… – 21? And you were just like very, very, very famous. What’s that like juggling that with reality?
Paul: I mean, you know, I like it. (laugh) Does that answer your question? The truth is there was a point where I realized we were getting really famous. And it was like, you either got to stop this, or you better get with it. You’re gonna get famous. But I kind of try and enjoy it. Well, there’s nuisance moments. You know, if you’re in a restaurant with your wife, and someone comes up “I hate to interrupt”. Really? Those are not great moments. But all in all, it’s great.
Idris: I think you can consider yourself sort of a working class background. As I do. And I think our relationship in terms of coming from working class backgrounds, to a place where people recognize you, you have a slightly different life. I think, speaking for myself, it’s a very different experience. I feel very connected, still to where I come from. I’m always “none of this means much”. Do you agree with that?
Paul: Yeah, exactly. I really do. That’s where you learn it all, where you got your values.
Idris: Are you gonna do more, are you gonna do another album?
Paul: Yeah. You can’t stop me. I mean, I never think about the next album, but when am I going to do it? But I just write songs and when you’ve gotten enough, then you go “that’s an album”.
Idris: Do you do you write every day at the minute?
Paul: Not every day, but I write a lot. Probably a week doesn’t go by without me writing something. The thing is now though, with iPhones and your voice memos, you can put fragments down which is dangerous. So you just got a little bit of an idea. And, suddenly, you’ve got a lot of these ideas. And you’ve got to try and think “Am I going to do some of these?” But yeah, if ever I see a piano, I always want to try and tune or something.
Idris: It’s been a real pleasure just to listen to you as a man, as a person. We all know Paul McCartney, but getting to understand you and having this time has been like a real… It’s been great to hear you tell stories about your life.
Paul: Well, you know, I was looking forward to this. I’ve loved it.
Idris: I really genuinely do love your album. It’s really good work. Some great songs on there. So congratulations with that. Good luck of it.
Last updated on January 10, 2021