- Published by:
- Los Angeles Times
- Robert Hilburn
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Tug Of War Official album.
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I like to convey optimism. There already seems to be so much pessimism around that you don’t figure the world needs more of it. Besides, I don’t like it when people around me are negative. I know death is there but I don’t like to sit around all night and talk about itPaul McCartney
The new Paul McCartney album, Tug of War, due this week, contains a song about John Lennon. Titled “Here Today,” it’s a deeply personal ballad in the “Yesterday” tradition.
McCartney, who’ll be 40 in June, reconstructs a final dialogue with Lennon, trying to break through the public feud of the post-Beatles years to reestablish the strong emotional bonds that he felt still existed.
During a brief stop in L.A. to record some vocal tracks for the next Michael Jackson album, McCartney spoke about the song.
Paul McCartney – Keeping the Faith
“One of the feelings you always have when someone close to you dies like that is that you wish you could have seen him the day before to square everything up and make sure he knew how much you really cared.
“The song is about saying to John, ‘Do we really have to keep this sort of thing [the feud] up?’ But we never got around to doing it. I guess we never felt any urgency about it. We were behaving like we were going to live forever, which is what everyone thought in the Beatles days, right? I mean, we never thought we were going to die.”
Will you still need meFrom the Beatles’ “When I’m 64”
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty four?
McCartney was 25 in 1967 when we wrote “When I’m 64.” He was the most popular member of the most beloved team in the history of pop music — a group whose exuberant message was built around youth, innocence, and optimism. So what could have been more playful in those days than a song about retirement — something that seemed a lifetime away?
McCartney still exhibits the charm and disarming smile that made him such a favorite in the 60s. But you could also see grey in his hair and lines around the eyes as he sat in the back yard of a friend’s Brentwood house the other day.
He’s gone through much in recent years. Besides the trauma of Lennon’s death, there was also the Tokyo drug bust (marijuana possession) in 1980 that could have resulted in a lengthy prison sentence. Plus: the death of Elvis Presley, McCartney’s first rock hero. And the responsibilities of raising four children.
So it’s no wonder there’s a lot of reflection in the new “Tug of War” album, easily the most satisfying work from McCartney since his “Band on the Run“/”Venus and Mars” period in the mid-70s. The album should be in stores Monday.
For all his craftsmanship, McCartney has been frequently ridiculed by critics for the lack of substance in his music. But “Tug of War” abounds with commentary, though much of it is packaged in such bright colors that the LPs tone remains hopeful. The album, which reunites McCartney with Beatles producer George Martin, features such guest musicians as Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, Carl (“Blue Suede Shoes“) Perkins, and bassist Stanley Clarke.
The tracks on “Tug of War” range from the reassuring “Somebody Who Cares” to the title tune, a richly designed but melancholy statement that outlines the album’s primary theme about life’s struggles. The most immediately accessible number is “Ebony and Ivory,” a graceful expression of brotherhood that features a duet with Stevie Wonder. Released as a single, “Ebony and Ivory” is the fastest-selling record, ironically, since John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a decade ago.
About the album’s reflective theme, McCartney said, “At one time, I didn’t think life was a tug of war. Even when I wrote ‘When I’m 64,’ I had the feeling that everything was possible. The age 64 seemed as far away to me as 150.
“It’s not until you get into your 30s that you start seeing the other side of it. You see how your life can be affected by things that are irrational and beyond your control. You suddenly begin to realize how delicate everything is.”
Still, McCartney had to overcome some of his own attitudes in the making of this album.
“I like to convey optimism,” he acknowledged. “There already seems to be so much pessimism around that you don’t figure the world needs more of it. Besides, I don’t like it when people around me are negative. I know death is there but I don’t like to sit around all night and talk about it. When I started making this album, though, I realized that these feelings are real, too, and that I shouldn’t try to ignore them.”
What about the time we met?– from “Here Today”
Well, I suppose you could say that
We were playing hard to get
Didn’t understand a thing
But we could always sing
McCartney and his wife Linda had spent the morning touring Universal Studios with their four children. He stopped by the Brentwood house for lunch and to tape a spot for the “Fridays” TV show. Afterward, he planned to go back into the studio with Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones and then head that evening to New York for a brief stop before returning home to London.
McCartney, always the gentleman, is courteous in interviews, but he seemed much more at ease this day than during the other times we’ve met. In 1974, for instance, he was especially uncomfortable when discussing the Beatles. After a few questions on the old group, he flatly refused to consider any more.
By his 1976 tour with Wings, however, he was more open to the early days. One reason is the success of the tour and the “Band on the Run” album eased of some the insecurity about his solo career. Yet McCartney still seemed guarded at the time, weighing answers in his head before speaking to make sure it all sounded OK.
This time, however, McCartney responded quickly and no subject in the brief time he had available was off-limits. He seemed especially pleased with his new album and was excited about working with musicians the caliber of Wonder and Jackson.
Why did you decide to work with (Beatles producer) George Martin again? Do you think you may have avoided working with him before because of his ties to the Beatles days?
Sure. I did ‘Live and Let Die’ with him, but never a whole album. I don’t think I could have for a while. After the Beatles broke up, everything was so weird. Everyone was warring, and we didn’t want to be around anything or anyone who reminded us of the pain. In my shows, I wouldn’t even do Beatles songs at first. They almost had to break my arm to get me to do ‘Yesterday,’ which was silly because I loved a lot of those songs. The thing is, I had to convince myself there was life for me after the Beatles, so I couldn’t very well go back to George [Martin] because he was part of the Beatles. Eventually, though, you just get over all that.
Did you approach the new album differently from the others with Wings?
Yes. Normally, I just sort of run in and start the album, but this time we did a lot of preparation ahead of time. For one thing, we decided not to use the other guys in Wings. I wanted the freedom to use anyone. If I made another album with Wings, I felt I’d be limiting myself. If I wanted a certain guitar sound, I wanted to be able to get the right guitarist. So we ended up casting each part just the way you might in a movie.
When you wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four,” what did you think you’d be doing at 40?
We used to laugh at the idea of still rocking at 40. I remember when I was a kid and there’d be these pop guys, like Frank Ifield, who seemed ancient and he was only 25. We were sure the whole thing would be over at 30. Then, you start pushing it back to 35 and 40 and, now…45? The truth is I’m still very excited about the future musically. I suddenly realized I’ve got millions of musical ambitions. There are so many things I still haven’t done. It’s been real liberating working with some new musicians.
What about touring? It’s been since 1976 in this country.
Before John’s death, I had been thinking about it, but his death changed a lot of that stuff because it made you…I don’t know…it just sort of changed my plans. Now, I’m not really bothering to have any plans about it. But I do still enjoy performing. I’d eventually like to go out with some of the musicians I’ve been working with lately. They’re so good that they challenge you to do your best — just like I used to get with the Beatles.
When you were recording the album on the island of Montserrat, people got the idea you were putting together a tribute album to John and reporters seemed to invade the place. How distracting was all that?
The only real problem was the paparazzi. Newspapers tend to go for the best story whether it’s true or not, and the best “story” on this album seemed to be that it was a tribute to John. So they went after that angle though I tried to tell them it wasnt true.
Did all the commotion disturb you?
Not really. You have to learn to filter yourself from things like that. I’ve been doing it for so long now that I sort of know the rules. If I let a few days of this get to me, you can imagine what the “Paul is dead” fuss would have done to me. But I do remember these two guys who were following me in a car so ran into them. It was a great feeling.
You ran into them?
They were following us, so I stopped and asked them to leave us alone. But they kept following us, so I turned the car around and sort of ran into them, scraping the side of their car. I just had to do it. Usually, you’re the animal and they’re sort of the observers. You’ve got to turn it around sometimes and bite back. You can’t live your whole life and this hunted animal.
There seems to be a more ambitious concept involved in “Tug of War” than most of your albums.
I didn’t want a formal concept, but I did have this idea about a tug-of-war, which is the struggle of all types…man-woman, yes-no, life-death, countries, anything…It’s nice to have a general theme to an album because it gives you a direction. If we can have a song about crying, we could immediately follow with one about laughing. Everything really is a tug-of-war. I eventually wrote a song to go along with the idea.
Why the reflective tone?
I think it’s just something that happens naturally as you get older. You don’t have to have a certain birthday to make you realize the changes in your life. One big thing is having children and being a parent. Your worry quotient automatically goes up with that. You can’t help it. For instance, our doctor in London advised against giving a whooping cough vaccination to the children because there’s reportedly a slight chance of brain damage. He said ‘Just let him go.’ So, of course, James got it. And it lasted for months. It was like something from the Victorian ages…the baby was coughing and getting blue. You’re standing there helpless. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what you’ve got, you’re helpless. It’s a terrible feeling. You can’t go through too many episodes like that, because you start to go, “Jesus Christ, what’s all this about?”
Did you resist writing a song about John at first?
Yes. I worried that it might not be good enough and that someone might think I was trying to cash in on it or something. I could just picture all these people sitting down after John’s death and saying, “I’m going to write a song about this…it’s a great idea.” None of the three of us [ex-Beatles] would think like that, but I had these worries in the back of my mind. I figured it was better to just avoid it. But eventually I just realized it was silly. I figured I’d just let it happen naturally, if I wrote a song about John, OK. If I didn’t, it’s OK, too. I’ve always had two sides to me: the creative and judicial. The creative starts to do something and the judicial starts to question and second-guess: ‘Is that right? Does that make sense? What will people think?’ I’ve begun trying to make sure the judicial doesn’t interfere with the creative. Anyway, I kind of forgot about the whole thing until I sat down one day and struck the beginning chords of “Here Today” and it fell out.
It must have been quite moving for you.
I was kind of crying when I wrote it. I’m sure you understand why without me going into it all. His death is something that the three of us find very difficult to talk about even to each other.
The song is like a dialogue with John.
One of my feelings even when he used to lay into me was that he really didn’t mean it. I could always see why he was doing it. There was this attempt [on John’s part] to get rid of the spectre of me, which I understand, because he had to clear the decks just like I did. At least that’s my feeling. And Yoko may read it and think, “That’s not how it was at all.” In the song, John would hear me saying that and say, “Oh, piss off. You don’t know me at all. We’re worlds apart. You used to know me, but I’ve changed.” But I feel I still knew him. The song is me trying to talk back to him, but realizing the futility of it because he’s no longer here — even though that’s a fact I can’t quite believe to this day.
Was the ‘I love you’ part hard to say?
Of course. Part of me said, “Wait a minute: Are you really going to say that?” I finally just said, “Yeah, I’ve got to. It’s true.”
Last updated on March 10, 2019