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In a glass case on the desk in Sir Paul McCartney’s office sits a pair of spectacles that used to belong to the surrealist painter René Magritte.
Sir Paul was given them by his late wife, Linda, who’d bought them at a sale staged by Magritte’s widow, Georgette. And they’re under glass because, he tells me: ‘I managed to break them once, just by playing with them. And I thought, “I shouldn’t be breaking Magritte’s spectacles!”’
Indeed, the 67 year-old adores Magritte (as does Yoko Ono, who has a remarkable collection of the Belgian-born artist’s work) and the thought of it brings back a Magritte-related memory from the Fab Four’s psychedelic heyday:
‘Yeah, that was the coolest thing ever,’ McCartney says, the Scouse still evident in his voice, a voice that mixes joviality with steeliness (a reminder that the cheeky chappie of his ‘thumbs up’ photographs is also the tough cookie who dared to sue his three fellow Beatles). ‘Yeah,’ he continues, ‘I’d say that was the best conceptual moment of the Sixties.
‘I was out in the garden in my London house, making a little film for Mary Hopkin [the Welsh folk singer whom McCartney had signed up after Twiggy saw her on Opportunity Knocks, and recommended her]. And it’s a very buzzy summer’s day – hot, lots of little insects in the air, and she was just sittin’, playing with an acoustic. And Robert [Fraser, the hip art dealer of the time] showed up and he knew I liked Magritte. And he’d found this fantastic little painting. He could see I was busy, so instead of just blurting in, saying, “Ooh, ooh, er, er um, I’ve got this painting”, he just left. So when I went back in the house, there, propped on the table, was this Magritte of a giant apple, with the words “au revoir” written across it. He’d just left it, and I thought: “That is super cool.” ‘I still get a great feeling when I remember that moment. And it’s one of my favourite paintings.’ (Others in the McCartney collection include works by de Kooning and Peter Blake.)
So there you have it, in one anecdote: on the one hand, McCartney the hipster who hangs out with avant-garde art dealers and buys, just like that, one of the grooviest paintings around (a painting, incidentally, that Mick Jagger had spurned on the grounds that he didn’t have the money). And on the other, the McCartney who’s capable of signing up one of the soupiest and most saccharine songbirds ever, dear old Mary Hopkin.
As another rock legend (who prefers to remain anonymous) puts it: ‘He does walk that line between hip and naff. His whole oeuvre is quite extraordinary – if you pick out the best bits. The problem is he doesn’t really know what the best bits are: he’s not massively good at self-editing.’
Indeed: a little later in our conversation McCartney remarks that he’s just started playing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da at his (always sold-out) concerts, and that it seems ‘to go down really well. People seem to have a jolly time.’
Ob-La-Di! Honestly! But then McCartney is so prolific. Today, he’s driving through the countryside near his 1,500 acre East Sussex estate. It was sunny at first, but now, on the day that Cameron and Clegg finally begin their courtship, the weather is unsettled – ‘like the political position,’ as McCartney puts it.
He didn’t vote in the last general election: what outcome is he holding out for today?
‘I suppose,’ he says, ‘the only one that makes sense is a Lib-Con alliance.’
Earlier he’d been ‘in my studio, on my music program, writing some orchestral music – which I love doing: it’s like a musical crossword. I think I’d do that as a hobby: I almost count it as a day off.’
And who wouldn’t take a day off when they’re said to be worth £475 million and also have homes in St John’s Wood, Los Angeles, Long Island, Manhattan and – naturally – the Mull of Kintyre?
But McCartney is determinedly ‘normal’, as he proved a few weeks ago with his confession to Radio 4 that he regularly pops out to B&Q to buy nails.
Now, though, it’s time to zoom off and ‘pick up my six year-old from school’, that being Beatrice, the child of his volatile union with Heather Mills. Now he’s stepping out with American heiress Nancy Shevell, an old friend who became his girlfriend three years ago.
How’s his love life at the moment? Is it all right? He laughs: ‘Yeah, thank you. How about yours?’ Remarkably good, I say. ‘Great,’ he replies, amusement and mockery present in his voice – a line is being audibly drawn under the subject. ‘Well done. Well done. Well done us.’
But his ‘custody situation’ is, he tells me, why I’m wrong to suggest that he’s now like Bob Dylan, seemingly engaged on a never-ending tour.
‘What happens is that I don’t work when I have my little one. I’m actually on the road very much half the time. So when I do tour, I’m kind of hungry, and the gigs are normally quite choice – it’s Hyde Park, or it’s the Isle of Wight, or it’s Coachella, or it’s Hampden Park. The thing is, when I am on tour, it’s very visible, and people say: “God, you’re so busy.” I’m actually not. Compared to how the Beatles used to tour, it’s skiving off. It’s like saggin’ off school.’
The Beatles, of course, played and played and played in Liverpool and Hamburg before they reached what John Lennon always urged them to strive for: ‘the toppermost of the poppermost’.
Indeed, they’d probably played together, live, 1,200 times by 1964, and The Tipping Point writer, Malcolm Gladwell, uses this effectively vast expanse of rehearsal time to bolster his thesis that success (be it in computing or music) depends on practising for 10,000 hours before you hit the big time.
‘I read that,’ McCartney says, ‘and I thought: yeah, that’s probably true. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise, practise, practise. But of course there were other groups out in Hamburg that played the same amount of hours that didn’t make it. And I think you’ve got to have an awful lot of talent to then go and do what the Beatles did – he says modestly. But it’s OK: I can say that because there were four of us.’
Well, I say, he certainly can: when I saw him at Glastonbury in 2004, I thought: ‘What a back catalogue!’
‘I know!’ He laughs. ‘It’s like I can’t believe it. So it’s a joy to choose a set list. You think: “Let’s do that one”, or “I’ve never done that one”.’
In Beatlemania days, of course, neither band nor audience could hear anything but screams and the sound of girls’ panties hitting the stage. Now McCartney can relish the sound of 20,000 Mexicans ‘clicking their lighters, in time, on the off beat’ to the ‘little “Ooh” chorus’ of Every Night.
‘It’s a beautiful little noise,’ he says, ‘so I just stopped playing. And they just kept on, spot on rhythm. We were just blown away. When you get an audience that hip,’ he broods, briefly, ‘and even when they’re not, the feedback, the warmth. And my audience now, strangely, is this multigenerational thing that I’d never expected. So you’re getting people that are older than me – if that’s possible – people of my age, people of my kids’ – my elder kids’ – age, and then their kids’ ages. So there are normally about four generations. I find it quite emotional. Amazing.’
At the same time, that back catalogue has created its own set of problems, and did so even in the Sixties.
‘The idea of us pretending to be another band – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – was a strategy to free yourself from the restraints of being a famous Beatle. You could pretend to be someone else, as if you were a character in a play. So that was good, very freeing.’
It’s a strategy he’s adopted since: once as Percy Thrillington, to release a big band version of Ram, one of his Wings’ albums; and thrice as the Fireman – a persona he’s taken on when, in collaboration with the producer Youth, he’s recorded more avant-garde music:
‘The idea is that I can do anything I want. And on the early [Nineties] Fireman records, they were basically dance records: you know, they were grooves, really. Youth would just say to me, go out and be a DJ. But what happened on the latest record, Electric Arguments , was he asked me to do a vocal. So I said: “Well, there’s no words, no song.” And he just looked at me, as if to say: “Well yeah. But that won’t bother you, will it?” Hah! So I just went out, and words started coming.’
But for McCartney there can be difficulties with words. After 9/11, he wrote the song Freedom and sang it at the Concert for New York he organised at Madison Square Garden.
The chorus enjoins us to ‘Fight for the right/to live in freedom’, and he enjoyed singing it; audiences lapped it up, too, especially in the United States.
‘But I think it got hijacked a bit, and [turned into something] a bit militaristic. Mine was in the spirit of “We Shall Overcome”; you know, “fight for your rights”, in the Civil Rights sense, doesn’t mean “Go out and hit people.” It was a pity: it kind of stopped me doing it, actually.’
That, presumably, is always a problem for McCartney. If people can believe that his out-of-step bare feet on the cover of Abbey Road signify that he is in truth, dead, how much more can be attributed to his lyrics, even by those saner than Charles Manson finding murderous inspiration in Helter Skelter.
McCartney sighs: ‘That is a problem. Because when I write things, I think of them quite generally – even love songs. People say: “Who’s that about?” And for me it might be just about the spirit of love, the idea, the dream of love, rather than aimed at a specific person. Some of the early ones were aimed at Linda, but often, well, I don’t know anyone named Michelle, but I wrote “to her”, in the spirit of love.’
It’s that adopted persona, again – a trait also observable in McCartney’s frequent excursions into what seems almost like Northern music/dance hall (Honey Pie, Rocky Raccoon, even When I’m Sixty-Four).
‘Well, my dad was in a band in the Twenties, and he used to play piano at home. So he would play [McCartney breaks into song], Chicago, Chicago – all those old things.’ He pauses, chuckles.
‘Paul Whiteman was a thing he used to play, a thing called Stairway to Paradise – a precursor to Stairway to Heaven, obviously. And he used to tell us we should record that one, and we used to joke: “Yeah, we will, one day we will.” So I knew all that, Carolina Moon, Red, Red Robin – all that sort of thing was in my ears and in my soul.’ (As opposed to Penny Lane, which was, ‘in my ears and in my eyes’.) But there was more to the Northern heritage than that: ‘And John and I were both big fans of that “Albert In the Lion’s Den” sort of thing. You’d feel all that, and you’d go: “Adada, adada, adada – He’d a stick with a horse’s hair handle/ The finest that Woolworth’s could sell. There’s quite a bit of that in our rhyming patterns. So you could call it music hall – my dad was actually a spotlight operator in a music hall, the Hippodrome,’ McCartney says.
‘He used to trim the limelight – you know, the lime: they had lime in there they burnt and then focused it on the stage. So he’d come home, singing these things. And my aunties [McCartney’s mother died when he was 14] would learn them, so our family sing-songs had all those songs.’
There have, of course, been other, more exotic, influences at work: marijuana, for example, and LSD. How important were they?
‘Um, er, probably quite important. It was a development thing.’ He thinks more. ‘It’s difficult: I think the answer is quite. It certainly made us stretch further than we might otherwise, from Rubber Soul onwards. But I have the problem now – now that things have got a bit out of control – of not wanting to be seen advocating it. ’Cuz we did some pretty good work before that, as well. It’s not a requirement.’
What is a requirement is the school run: ‘I’m getting a couple of minutes late,’ he says, sternly, ‘and the school run doesn’t let you be late.’
Spoken like one of his aunties – or, at least, like John Lennon’s strict Aunt Mimi, in Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Nowhere Boy, which chronicles the pre-Hamburg life of Lennon and, by extension, McCartney.
It’s yet another addition to the enormous industry built on the foundations of the Beatles and there’s more in the pipeline – a 3D version of Yellow Submarine and a film called Paul is Undead, which, its producers say, ‘re-imagines the history of the Beatles’, with John, Paul, George and Ringo cast as zombies, ‘pursued by England’s greatest zombie hunter, Mick Jagger.’
How fed up is McCartney with the whole archaeology of the Beatles? And did he like Nowhere Boy?
‘The thing is, I haven’t actually seen it, but I hear I’m OK in it. But you know what I’m slightly peeved about? My character, my actor, is shorter than John!’ he laughs.
‘And I don’t like that! I’m the same size as John, please. Put John in a trench! Or put me in platforms! But you know what? All in all…’
All in all, Paul McCartney’s just fine. Thumbs up!
Last updated on November 21, 2020