- Published by:
- Club Sandwich
- Interview by:
- Mark Lewisohn / Geoff Baker
- Timeline More from year 1995
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Anthology 1 Official album.
More from year 1995
Songs mentioned in this interview
Officially appears on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Mono)
Officially appears on Please Please Me (Mono)
Officially appears on Anthology 1
Officially appears on Revolver (UK Mono)
Officially appears on Anthology 1
Officially appears on Concert For George
Officially appears on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Mono)
Officially appears on The Ballad Of John And Yoko / Old Brown Shoe (UK - 1969)
Officially appears on With the Beatles (Mono)
Officially appears on Help! (Mono)
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Paul recently invited Geoff Baker and Mark Lewisohn to ask him questions about The Beatles Anthology. Here’s the result, exclusive to Club Sandwich
What do you think would have appealed to John Lennon about the Anthology?
That we’d finally put something together, that we’d finally got it out of the way. John was a great do-er, he didn’t like to hang around and think about things, he just liked to get them done. Obviously I’m guessing, but I suspect that he would have been glad it was done. And that we’d had our say.
I think it might have been, in fact I’m sure it would have been different if John had been alive to have his say. Strangely enough, I think there wouldn’t have been quite as many compromises. But because John is not around to give his opinion, we had to err on the side of compromise. There were certain little stories that were removed from the Anthology because, one, they might offend people or give the wrong idea, and, two, we wondered, “Is it absolutely necessary to have the warts and all version?”
Was the original intention to tell the full story, unexpurgated?
We started off speaking as much truth as we could remember and it was first assembled straight, with no compromises. And then each one of us was asked if there was anything that bothered us. And there were little things that wouldn’t have bothered me but bothered other people. For instance, Ringo now has given up booze and is very much happier for it. Like anyone in rehab, he’s trying to stay sober one day at a time and doesn’t remember his booze days with great pleasure. So he wanted to take out a reference to where, before he joined the Beatles, he used to a come into our Hamburg club late at night and a little the worse for drink and ask for a song called ‘Three-Thirty Blues’. He just didn’t want that in. It wasn’t so much “removing the truth” as “not putting in something unnecessary”. We don’t need to know that Ringo was slurring his speech: the joke of the story, the body of it, is that he asked for ‘Three-Thirty Blues’ late at night. We don’t really need to know what he did after it or before it. It’s interesting if you want to know but it’s not necessary.
I don’t think there was a whitewash, although I was concerned that there would be – mainly because I thought there were certain people who would really feel it was me whitewashing. Strangely enough, I’m probably the only person who didn’t. But it’s not a heavy whitewash. I pretty much let all my stuff go through, all the stuff I said go through.
I was slightly dreading looking at the last episode because that’s sort of “Who broke up the Beatles?” territory, and actually I’m glad that we didn’t deal with it that way. The director, I think, has done a much more clever thing, where he says it happened – we came full cycle, there were problems – but we don’t go surgically into them and expose the blood and gore. We just mention them and then we lean on the affectionate stuff, the kind of stuff I love, where Ringo just says, “It was just about four guys who loved each other” and he slightly chokes up when he says, “Pretty sensational.” In the end I think that’s more important. It’s how I want to remember it. There were lots of hard moments but generally I’m just very proud and happy that I was in the Beatles and I have very fond memories, so you’ve got to reflect that as well.
Obviously “the truth and nothing but the truth” is not what you get in the Anthology: you get the truth and some compromises. But I don’t think that’s bad, although there will be people who will be dismayed that the truth isn’t there in every single detail, with every “t” crossed.
There were some bad moments, but even after all the crap we went through, and all the stuff John laid on me, all that “How do you sleep at night” and the real bitter stuff that he came out with in the press, we were able to end up, thank God, chatting about putting the cat out and baking bread and raising Sean. It says something for our relationship that we were able to go through all of that and yet come back and still be friends.
And make Free As A Bird
And then for the three of us to make ‘Free As A Bird’, yes. There was some comment I read in the press recently where someone wrote “In the mood Lennon was in when he wrote this he certainly wouldn’t have wanted McCartney to get his mitts all over it”, you know, the old chestnut. In actual fact, the journalist has got his history wrong. What he means is, “In the mood John was in a couple of years before he wrote it, he might not have wanted McCartney to get his hands on it…”. Which brings me to something I remembered when reading that: John phoned me once to try and get the Beatles back together again, after we’d broken up. And I wasn’t for it, because I thought that we’d come too far and I was too deeply hurt by it all. I thought, “Nah, what’ll happen is that we’ll get together for another three days and all hell will break loose again. Maybe we just should leave it alone.”
But the press, the media, outsiders, are always at least one step behind. We know what you’ve said in your last interview and so might think that you’re all getting on great, but last night you might have had an incredibly awkward phone call. Or, we might think you’re not talking to each other but last night you might have had a wonderfully happy phone call. We just don’t know how it really is between you guys. And the journalist you’re talking about certainly couldn’t have known what John was thinking.
That’s right. That’s the point. In which case, why did he write it? He could have written, “I speculate, that possibly, from what we heard about John, around about that time he might not have wanted Paul to get his mitts on it…” In actual fact, I think John would have been very happy, but that’s a guess. And it’s my guess. And I think it’s an educated guess, and I’m pretty confident about that. As you say, I know what the last phone calls were about, and that is one of the saving graces, to this day, for me, that we had healed our wounds before he died. I really don’t know how we’d be dealing with it now if we hadn’t. I think it would be ten times more difficult.
That journalist also talked about how unusual it was for the three of you to work together, but ‘Yesterday’ was done on your own, initially…
‘She’s Leaving Home’ the Beatles “weren’t even on, instrumentally. There was just an orchestra and two voices, mine and John’s. At least ‘Yesterday’ I played guitar, so there was a Beatle playing on it. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is the same: the Beatles don’t play on it. So there’s plenty of precedent for this. ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’ was just me and Ringo.
The Ballad Of John And Yoko’…
That’s just me and John. Again, you see, John wanted to do things quickly, and that was the very exciting thing about working with him. He didn’t like to hang about. I hate to hang about but I will do it, I will steel myself and say “Oh well, it’s the nature of the beast, we’ve got to hang about”. John wouldn’t do it. And he just came around to my house and said, “Hey, come on, let’s go around Abbey Road and do ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko'”. We didn’t really feel that we had to ask whether it was OK to do this, we just went ahead and did it.
During the making of the Anthology it’s been fascinating to observe the level of diplomacy and democracy that has to exist now, that wasn’t necessarily present in the sixties.
No, it was. Democracy was. There was no diplomacy whatsoever but democracy, yes. You’re right about the diplomacy thing. We weren’t diplomatic with each other and that does have to exist now. But democracy was one of the great things about the Beatles: if Ringo didn’t like one of the songs we were doing we didn’t do it. Whether John and I were the great writers and Ringo was not, he still had a vote. We each had a veto. And that was very important for the Beatles.
But now there seems to be the scenario of: we’re using your choice of studio so we’re using my choice of producer, your choice of engineer, my choice of art director, your choice of press agent, and so on.
Yes, that’s true. You have to do that. I think it’s only right. We’re more diplomatic as people. As you get older you learn this. I think it’s OK where we’re at now. It sometimes is a bit annoying when you really think that someone has got hold of the wrong end of the stick, as I have once or twice in this project. One example we all found slightly amusing was when we came to say who thought of the name Beatles. George and I both had a very concrete memory of meeting John and Stuart shortly after they’d thought of the name, and them saying, “We thought of a good name for the group: Beatles, with an ‘a’.” And we went, “Well that’s interesting, why?” And they said, “The double meaning, like the Crickets,” and so on. There was some thought about it being to do with The Wild Ones too, and we knew they were into all of that.
Well, when the paper Mersey Beat first came out, Bill Harry, the editor, asked John, who was a college mate of his, to write a piece for it, and he did a piece of what I would call “comic writing”. That was John’s thing. He didn’t write serious prose, he wrote In His Own Write and “in the early hours of the morecambe”. So he wrote a piece called ‘On The Dubious Origins Of Beatles’, and the basic line that we all laughed at was something like “I had a vision and a man came unto me on a flaming pie and said ‘You shall be Beatles with an ‘a’, and so it was.” We took this to be Goon humour and a sort of Biblical joking – “and God said unto thee ‘come forth’, and he came fifth”. That’s very much the humour that was going around Liverpool at the time.
Now, it turned out that we couldn’t have this in the Anthology because Yoko believes that John did have a vision. I’m very friendly with Yoko now so I don’t want this to look like a snide thing, but it genuinely intrigues me that she thinks this. And the way I tried to put it to her was, you can say, “I had a vision” and people will go “OK”. You could say, “A man came unto me”. “OK, it’s starting to sound a little biblical, but it’s all right, still.” “On a flaming…”. “Yes, this is OK, it’s even more biblical”. Now, if you’d have gone to the word “chariot”, we would be all right. Or if you’d gone to the word “phoenix” we would be all right. But the word “pie” is a dead giveaway. “A man came to me on a flaming pie?” I know, in my mind, that John didn’t have a vision about this, but the way Yoko puts it is, “If it’s OK for Paul to dream ‘Yesterday’ then it’s OK for John to have a vision.” So these are the kind of things that cropped up. It’s only a difference of opinion so it doesn’t matter vastly. We’ve tried to make our point, she’s made her point and we’ve arrived somewhere in the middle.
Was doing Free As A Bird cathartic?
‘Free As A Bird’ was good to do, yes. It was the nearest I was ever going to get to writing with John again. A lot of pundits have got the wrong idea, they think it’s just the three of us, I don’t know where they’ve been for the last year, but they appear to think it’s just three of us on it. I went off the idea of the three of us together, it seemed like we needed John and the more we thought of that the more exciting it became.
Didn’t that frighten you, though, didn’t that perturb you?
No, not really. The only thing I had to do was to get this scenario, that I’ve talked about in a number of places, of “How would we deal with this? Would it be the sacred memory of our dear friend who’s virtually become a martyr?” or would it just be “Our mate John”. And to make it “Our mate John” we got this scenario going of “He’s asked us to finish a tape”. And the key words for me were, I imagined him saying, “I trust you. Just do your thing, I trust you.” And the trust was what I needed to know. So I made up a fiction and believed it and it was fine. I went in there – I think we all did – fully believing that this is something John would have wanted us to do.
But that’s on one level, that’s about working with John. What about putting out the first Beatles single in 25 years. Didn’t that perturb you?
I swear to God, the backwards stuff says, “Made by John Lennon”. None of us had heard it when we compiled it … we could not in a million years have known what that phrase would be backwards. It’s impossible. So there is real magic going on.
Nah. It never really perturbed us to put any Beatles stuff out, and it still doesn’t. It’s the Beatles. And, to me, when I work with the Beatles it’s very special. When I work with George Martin again it’s very special. The whole thing becomes bathed in a special light. I’ve think you’ve found this, you two guys: working on this project is a little more special than most of the stuff we work on. It has its own magic. The Beatles is the Beatles.
By the way, have you heard: it really is true, the Beatles are magic! It’s official: on the end of ‘Free As A Bird’, just for a joke – in case people were thinking, “God, they really mean it, this is so serious, this isn’t like all their other records, this is serious homage” – we re-entered with the drums, then George did his George Formby stuff on the ukulele and then, to even take it one stage further, we put in something backwards. We got the guys at the film production office to find a clip of John talking – we gave them a certain phrase to look for, which I’m not giving away – and then we put it in backwards, just as little joke, a bit of fun that ties in with the ending. Anyway, the incredible thing is, the other day Eddie [Klein, Paul’s studio manager] was working on the tape and he said, “Paul, listen to this” and he played it to me and, I swear to God, the backwards stuff says, “Made by John Lennon”. None of us had heard it when we compiled it, but when I spoke to the others and said “You’ll never guess…” they said, “We know, we’ve just heard it too”. They’d heard it, independently. And I swear to God, he definitely says it! We could not in a million years have known “what that phrase would be backwards. It’s impossible. So there is real magic going on. Hare Krishna!
Tell us about the ‘Free As A Bird’ sessions.
We agreed to do it at my studio because this is really the only studio that was up and running. I’d been working here regularly so it was all cleaned and ready to go and in full working order. Also, because my studio is slightly off the beaten track – off the Beatle track! – it meant that we’d have privacy. And the press were doing a lot of talk at the time – “It’ll be in Abbey Road” – and we figured they’d be watching places like that. So this became the perfect place to do it and we were very lucky both the times we did it: we didn’t have anybody notice that the guys were here, and I accommodated them all locally so the word didn’t get out too much.
So they came down here and we just started listening to the cassette, which, as you know, was just a mono cassette with John’s voice and his piano locked in. Anyone who knows anything about recording knows that, for a mix, you try to isolate the voice and the piano on separate tracks to give yourself a bit of control. But we had a fixed tape. First of all, George and I tried to put some acoustics on, and play along with it as it stood, because we wanted to be as faithful as possible to the original. But because he was doing a demo John went out of time a bit. Unless you’re working to a click track you don’t concentrate on tempo when you’re doing demos. And because he was trying to find the song on the demo the middle-eights weren’t filled out, lyrically. His vocal quality was nice and he’d put a funny phasing effect on, which there was no getting rid of, but it was a nice effect actually, very Sixties, very evocative. I think it’s one of the things that gives the record a nostalgic feel. But eventually, because George and I had to keep looking at each other and giving signs through our eyes, like “he slows down here, he speeds up here”, it became difficult. It became quite annoying to try and keep up with the speed changes.
So it was decided that we had to take another approach. We had to isolate John’s voice as best we could and then lay it back in on the tape to a click track that would not be heard on the record but would be strict tempo. Jeff Lynne and the engineers did that. (Even though he’s credited as co-producer Jeff was the producer, in effect, of ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’.) Once that had been done we were able to play with it because John was now perfectly in time and there were just little gaps where he’d sped up or gone out a bit.
After that we did acoustic guitars and I learned John’s piano part. I’d been studying it a little bit the week before we did the session, and Jeff Lynne had studied it very hard and showed me one or two interesting little variations that John had put in there, that I hadn’t picked up. Then I played it – John and I had very similar piano styles because we learned together – which meant that we now had a voice and a piano separate and could get control over them.
Then I put the bass on, which I kept very, very simple: I didn’t want to do any of my trademark swoops or get it too melodic, I just wanted to anchor the piece. I did one or two little tricks but they’re very subtle, like I used my five-string bass, which has got a very low string on it, and saved the low string till the tune does a big key change in the solo, and it really lifts off there. So instead of doing the same bass note I went right down to my second lowest note on the instrument.
Then Ringo did some great drumming on it, and Jeff Lynne – being very, very precise – made sure that every single snare was exactly correct and he and the engineer Geoff Emerick got a really great sound. And then George and I did harmonies, -which was finally when Ringo was chortling with glee in the control room saying, “It sounds like a Beatle record!”. It finally did, really, sound like a Beatle record, and we were becoming more and more convinced that we were doing the right thing.
Then George started to work on his guitar parts, and he did a secondary guitar part, between a lead and a rhythm, sort of arpeggio rhythm you’d have to call it. He came up with some nice little phrases there which are very subtle on the record: I tend to hear them about the third time through. And then finally he came up with his slide guitar. I told Jeff Lynne that I was slightly worried about this because I thought it might get to sound a little bit like ‘My Sweet Lord’ or one of George’s signature things. I felt that the song shouldn’t be pulled in any way, it should stay very Beatles, it shouldn’t get to sound like me solo or George solo, or Ringo for that matter. It should sound like a Beatles song. So the suggestion was made that George might play a very simple bluesy lick rather than get too melodic. And he did: what he played was almost like a Muddy Waters riff. And that really sealed the project. I thought – I still think – that George played an absolute blinder, because it’s difficult to play something very simple, you’re so exposed. But it was fantastic and Jeff Lynne and Geoff Emerick got a great sound on him.
And so that was it. We did the end bit, put little extra vocal things on that, and then the ukuleles, which was a tip of the hat to George Formby, whom George [Harrison] is particularly enamoured of. And I like George Formby a lot too, he’s a great British tradition – and John’s mum, Julia, used to play the ukulele so I suppose there was a point of contact there too. And then we got the phrase of John’s to turn backwards, laid it into the mix and thought, “That’s it, it really sounds like a Beatles record.” I’d said to Yoko and Sean that if they didn’t like it we wouldn’t put it out, but it was great, it all worked.
Many people had said that you shouldn’t do it. Did this affect you?
Before the first session there were a couple of pieces in the newspaper that I noticed. Both of them said, “They shouldn’t do it” – I think, to give them the benefit of the doubt, on the understanding that there was only going to be three of us. We had the newspapers in the studio when the three of us got together, and they got us fired up, they got me fired up anyway, I don’t know about the others. I thought, “Right! We’ll show you! How dare you say what we should do. If you’d have been there when we did ‘A Day In The Life’ would you have said ‘They shouldn’t do a funny orchestra bit in the middle’, or would you have said ‘They shouldn’t do a song like “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road'” because it’s not of enough consequence for the Beatles?'” It annoyed me when my Dad told me what to do, so when a pundit I’ve never met tells me what to do that is really quite annoying.
There’s been a bit of that reappearing now – “Why are they doing it?” “Oh, I hate these songs with dead guys” and so on. My answer to that is “Look, do you think we’re stupid enough not to have checked all these angles out, that you, as some casual pundit, throw out? You don’t think that we, as the professionals who are engaged in this, check that out a hundred times more than you ever would?” Because we did, we checked it out amongst ourselves, we made sure that we were happy to do it. We checked it out with Yoko, or else we couldn’t have had the cassette. We checked it out with Sean, who said, “It’s going to be a little spooky hearing a dead guy on lead vocal” and I said to him, “So you mean we shouldn’t do it?” and he said, “No, no, you should try it.” We checked it out on every conceivable level.
We told ourselves that we’d try it but that if it was no good we wouldn’t release it, it will have just been a project that sucked, end of story. If, however, it works, it will have been worth it.
I’m really very glad we did it, for a million reasons. For my own personal satisfaction I think it’s a damn good track, I’m really very proud of it and I’m proud of the emotion that’s on it, because I need something like that with John. I think it’s been good for all of us, and I think it’s good for Sean – it was important to me that he liked it.
Did the sessions for ‘Free As A Bird’ and “Real Love’ go entirely without a hitch?
No, not really. The biggest hitch for me was when we came to the middle-eight of ‘Free As A Bird’, which John had blocked out. He had a little germ of an idea but hadn’t finished it, so we decided that we would have to write some lyrics of our own.
What happened was: Ringo, having done all his stuff, left me and George to it, and Ringo is a very good balance, he’s a very good pivot for us. When he’s there the atmosphere is more complete. But it was fine, you sometimes need a little tension. Anyway, I brought in some words that I thought might do the trick but when I went and sang them I was having a little trouble and didn’t think they were that good. And so, rightly enough, George and Jeff Lynne said this and then George started hacking them to pieces. I must admit, as a pride thing, that got a little difficult. I had to live with it, though, and I say now that he was absolutely right to do it and I’m glad he did it, but whilst it was going on it was a little bit hairy. It was like: here’s George savaging my lyrics, am I happy about this? And I had to keep saying, “Yeah, sure, sure, he’s right, he’s right, he’s right”, and he was.
Are you happy with the Anthology albums?
Yes. What’s happened in putting together the albums is that we’ve tried this and that and eventually distilled it down to what we feel works about the best. And the great thing for me is, because we’ve all approved it, it then becomes it. And I’m always happy at that point. I’ve never had a Beatles record and said, “Oh, I wish we’d done that”. There might have been a track of mine where I’ve thought, “Oh, I wish I could have sung that a bit better” but it doesn’t matter, it’s now fixed in cement, it’s it. I never had any regrets, and it’s the same with this project.
In Volume One there are a few songs that I would have preferred not being there, like ‘Besame Mucho’ which portrays me as a cabaret artist, whereas in my soul I am a rock and roller – although of course I have done ‘Till There Was You’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘A Taste Of Honey’ and all these other things. But because the others wanted it in, because George Martin wanted it in, because everyone else was happy with it, I could put down my slight reservation and say, “Cool. If you guys like it then it’s got to be alright”. And it’s a very nice feeling to be on a team like that. The minute a thing is done and it’s the Beatles, I’m happy with it, because we go through so much to get it finished that I’m always convinced. I always have been and I am on this occasion.
We’ve all been in there, we’ve all said our bit, George Martin has tried his best with difficult material and I think he’s put together a very exciting story. People will have differences of opinion about what should have been included – like, should there have been as much of the Morecambe and Wise piece? Will that mean a lot to the Americans? But what was decided was, it shows the humour of the Beatles, it shows the kind of work we were doing at the time and it shows something about our personalities, so it’s valid.
Is there something we could learn from the Beatles’ story?
No, I don’t think so! [Laughs.] I wish we’d learned something from it! No, I’m joking. I don’t think it’s that significant, really. It’s just good that our hearts were in the right place, that we nearly always talked about love and peace as a main subject, not anger.
I often say that we weren’t leaders, we were more spokesmen, but looking back on it, in the Anthology, you can see why we were taken as the leaders. I don’t really claim any significance, I don’t think any of us set out to give the world a message, but we did. I leave it at that, really.
The thing for me about the Anthology is, it’s my life story. It’s the Beatles story but because I was one of them it’s my life story, and because it goes back as far as it can go it’s like having my life rolled out in front of me, the whole thing. And it came as a shock, I must say. I knew what we were doing, I knew we were writing our memoirs, as it were, but to see it, it’s overwhelming for me. I get to see my Dad again, he’s been dead a number of years, I get to see my Mum again, I get to remember what she did again… not that I’ve forgotten, but it’s there, all laid out in front of me again. It’s like what they say about when you’re drowning: your life flashes in front of you!
So, you know, it’s exciting, it’s shocking, it’s frightening, it’s sad, it’s happy, and it’s the Beatles story.
But is it the last word?
I don’t know. That’s the difficult thing. In the electronic press kit we all enigmatically said, “Where does the circle end and where does it begin? An end is a beginning, of sorts”. But to me, for now, it’s an end.
Last updated on September 5, 2020
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