Interview for New Statesman • Saturday, November 29, 1997

Interview: Paul McCartney

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
New Statesman
Interview by:
Steve Richards
Read interview on New Statesman
Timeline More from year 1997

Album This interview has been made to promote the Standing Stone Official album.

Master release

Songs mentioned in this interview

Carnival of Light

Unreleased song

Eleanor Rigby

Officially appears on Revolver (UK Mono)

For No One

Officially appears on Revolver (UK Mono)

Revolution 9

Officially appears on The Beatles (Mono)


Officially appears on Help! (Mono)

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Several of the staff at Paul McCartney’s London base are exhausted. It is late afternoon and they are still talking about the night before, when they went to the Royal Albert Hall to see McCartney and others perform to raise money for Montserrat. The one person who shows no sign of tiredness is McCartney himself. He looks younger than his 55 years and says he enjoyed the evening with what he calls “the peer group” (Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Sting). When I remind him that the last time we met I had just come from an interview with Gordon Brown, he produces his excellent impression of the Chancellor, which includes the unexpected, fleeting smile in the middle of a dour soundbite.

In spite of his ebullience McCartney is on the defensive. In an authorised biography to be published next week, Many Years from Now, he is quoted as saying that, without detracting from John Lennon, he wants to put “his side of the story”, suggesting he is not entirely happy with the many accounts of their relationship already in print. Next week, too, his most ambitious album yet will be released, a symphonic work called Standing Stone. He is wary of the critical reaction from the classical reviewers, not used to rock stars moving on to their territory.

McCartney’s motives for co-operating with a life story and his concern about the reaction to his new work are linked. He has always been a musical risk-taker and Standing Stone pushes the boundaries of his music further than before. Yet it is Lennon who is still regarded as the more imaginative, experimental Beatle. As McCartney prepares for reaction to his new musical venture he seeks recognition for his past daring.

“Since giving the interviews a couple of years ago for the biography, I have thought about whether or not I should have done it. I don’t want to carry on trying to justify myself. But I don’t regret co-operating with the book. You see, John and I grew up like twins although he was a year and a half older than me. We grew up literally in the same bed because when we were on holiday, hitchhiking or whatever, we would share a bed. Or when we were writing songs as kids he’d be in my bedroom or I’d be in his. Or he’d be in my front parlour or I’d be in his, although his Aunt Mimi sometimes kicked us out into the vestibule!

“So we grew up like twins and in the sixties we both started to get into avant-garde stuff. Now I did want people to know that while John was at the golf club in Weybridge I was doing a lot of stuff living in London. I was going to meet Allen Ginsberg and Bertrand Russell, who was living near me in Chelsea. It was a very rich period for me. My girlfriend [Jane Asher] was an actress and we saw a lot of plays. I did some work with William Burroughs. I did just happen to be doing this a couple of years before John met Yoko and he used to come in from the country and say ‘Wow…you’re doing this. It’s really interesting.”

McCartney feels he has not been given the credit for musical innovation that arose from his, rather than Lennon’s, lifestyle at the time. “‘Revolution 9’ is probably John’s most experimental song with the Beatles, but the year before, I wrote a piece called ‘Carnival of Light’, which was very avant-garde. It didn’t get on the recent Beatles Anthology because some of the people involved thought it was too far out. But it’s a 15-minute avant-garde piece which has so far been unheard. I liked it, but you’ve got to think John Cage was important to appreciate it, which I do. He was a big influence on me. John could only do ‘Revolution 9’ because I put a couple of tape recorders together and showed him how to do it. That’s how he came to make ‘Two Virgins.’ John could never have done it otherwise. He was hopelessly untechnical.

“But I got this reputation of being the balladeer. The one who’s into love. I was called ‘The cute one’. Well I can tell you when I went home I wasn’t cute at all. So without wanting to put John down, or to look as if I was justifying myself I did want to put the record straight: don’t just put me down as an idiot who didn’t know any of it and John taught me it all. So there you go, if anyone historically wants to delve into that period they will know that I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs while John was informing me of all this stuff.”

It is hard to imagine McCartney looking on in a state of idleness either in the frenetic atmosphere of the sixties or now, 30 years later. This summer he released his latest album, the largely well-received Flaming Pie. An exhibition of his paintings is opening in Germany shortly. And after Standing Stone is released next week, the London Symphony Orchestra will perform it at the Royal Albert Hall later in the month.

Standing Stone is a hugely ambitious piece that lasts 75 minutes, and which McCartney describes as a symphonic poem. While McCartney-style melodies are discernible, the structure and scale of the composition differs from anything he has previously attempted. When Lennon and McCartney wrote a song, separately or together, it took three hours. “John and I just knew the form: a couple of verses, a chorus, middle eight, a new verse, chorus. Now instead of the short story this is the novel. I think it’s good coming to it only now, having written a lot of short stories. It’s a question of scale, to keep an interest for 75 minutes, compared with seven minutes on ‘Hey Jude’, one of the longer Beatles’ songs.”

It is all the more remarkable given that McCartney can neither read nor write music. The way in which the work has evolved, starting with him working alone at a piano, to becoming a full orchestral work is unique. It has also been expensive and labour intensive. McCartney brought in trained musicians, Richard Rodney Bennett, John Harle and David Matthews, to help with the orchestration. He knows that critics will suspect they were the real composers, but anyone who attended the recording of the work, as I did, can testify that it is McCartney’s piece. He dominated proceedings at the Abbey Road recording studio, while his collaborators were in a small alcove at the side.

Nonetheless there were times when the process was humbling for him. Whenever he records a rock album he is totally in charge, expert in all fields including production. He could have spent the rest of his life lording it as a former Beatle. Instead he has opted to learn new techniques from some of the most distinguished classically trained composers. “There were one or two difficult moments. I would often fax sections of music from my computer to Richard Rodney Bennet. I sent him one, thinking it was pretty good. A few minutes later I got a fax back with the word FEEBLE scribbled across it. I phoned him straight back and said, ‘Richard that’s what my teacher wrote on essays. You’re a sensitive artist. If you don’t like something could you please write “That’s a little below par.'”

But although McCartney often placed himself in the position of pupil, he regards the work as a natural development. “There is a thread going through it all. My interest began with the rock ‘n’ roll people: Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry. We then moved on to composing our own songs with the Beatles, which developed when George Martin [the band’s producer] suggested putting a string quartet on ‘Yesterday’. I helped him orchestrate it and realised I was getting into a different type of music. We put a French Horn solo on ‘For No One’ and a string arrangement for ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ with no band backing it at all.

“Now I’m taking a huge risk, although Elvis Costello and one or two others have done classical pieces. You see in the end we know and love music and I just don’t see the dividing lines.”

McCartney has an outsider’s curiosity about classical music, combined with an almost childlike enthusiasm for parts of the repertoire. “In our house, my dad always turned classical music off. Now I know it is often the other way round, but he was a great jazz fan. So it’s always seemed a mysterious world, where the people involved are well scrubbed. 

“I’m listening a lot to Monteverdi. I can hear what he’s trying to do musically. He didn’t know many chords, like early Beatles. I love Chopin. There is so much more. I’ve no idea what’s in store for me musically, but I know it’s going to be interesting, a fascinating voyage. It’s like someone said to me the other day, I would really like Messiaen. Well I don’t know Messiaen, as a mate of mine used to say, from a bar of soap!”

He confesses this in his thickest Liverpool accent, which has remained undiluted through the years. Similary he clings to many memories of pre-fame days. He constantly refers to his dad, to John Lennon, to homework, to school. Not surprisingly in his first big “risk” with classical music, the Liverpool Oratorio, he took refuge in these familiar themes. Now he wants to continue writing classical music without stopping the rock albums either. “I like to do a lot of things at once. It’s like my dad used to say to me: you can’t watch TV and do homework at the same time. Well I managed to pull it off. Anyway I was doing Standing Stone and Flaming Pie at the same time. I just don’t see the boundaries.”

Indeed on the way into London he had been listening to Radio 1. “Most of the time I hate it, but today there were so many sixties-style songs I actually quite liked it. It’s a nice style that we created in the sixties. We laid down what I call great lines of research. If you take a song like ‘Revolution 9’, no one’s really developed that and yet that type of music has got more potential.”

Which brings us to the band that has, in some ways, brought the Beatles to a new teenage audience. Oasis do not hide their adoration of Lennon/McCartney. Nor do their songs. McCartney does not altogether reciprocate. He reflects on them slowly, rather than dismissively. “They’re derivative and they think too much of themselves. I hope for their sakes they’re right. But really they mean nothing to me. They’re not my problem. Oasis’s future is their problem. I sometimes hear their songs and think that’s OK. But I hope they don’t make too much of it and start to believe their own legend because that can start to cause problems as others have discovered. But I wish them luck. I don’t want to see them as rivals. You know I’ve come to the conclusion there’s room for us all. Let the Spice Girls do what they want to do. I don’t want to do that. Nor have I got the attributes to do that. But there’s room for us all.”

Oasis have not just followed the Beatles musically. Noel Gallagher enjoys making the odd political statement (his appearance at a drinks party given by Tony Blair captured all the headlines) as Lennon and McCartney did. Again, Lennon is better known than McCartney for political crusades. But McCartney has followed several causes.

After a few years of equivocation, he is firm once more on supporting the decriminalisation of cannabis. “I support decriminalisation. People are smoking pot anyway and to make them criminals is wrong. You’re filling all the jails and yet it’s when you’re in jail that you really become a criminal. That’s where you learn all the tricks. When I was jailed in Japan for having pot there was no attempt at rehabilitation. They just stuck me in a box for nine days. I just thought, so this is what happens when you’re put in a box. I didn’t learn anything. Decriminalisation would take the sting out of the issue. I still get letters from lawyers saying, ‘On a Saturday night we like to have a glass of red wine and smoke a joint, and yet if we get caught we’ve had it. As lawyers we’d lose our jobs.'”

He is equally strong about supporting the current bill aimed at banning foxhunting. As with some of Lennon’s statements, his argument is unsophisticated, but his endorsement is worth more than that of most politicians. “It’s a very good idea. Here’s an example why. I know farmers who hate rabbits on their land. Well I say to them poor you because you’ll never see any rabbits. But the point is what keeps down rabbits, which this hunting fraternity wants, are the foxes. So it’s in their interests not to shoot the foxes. They can’t have their cake and eat it. I’m sure they having a lot of fun riding around on horses shooting animals, but I’m sure they could have fun doing something else instead.”

McCartney will not be spending much time on his Sussex farm in the coming weeks. As well as Standing Stone there are other projects, more songs, more albums. A friend of his told me: “He has the energy and enthusiasm of someone in his early twenties. God knows what it was like when he and Lennon were together in the studio.”

McCartney continues to work at a furious pace because he enjoys it, because he is still buzzing with ideas. But he also has another explanation. “I think there’s an urge in us to stop the terrible fleetingness of time. Music. Paintings. It’s the same with Linda’s photos. Try and capture one bloody moment please. The night we blew the candles out on a birthday with the kids. Capture it please.”


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