- Published by:
- The Guardian
- Interview by:
- Sean O'Hagan
- Timeline More from year 2005
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Chaos and Creation in the Backyard Official album.
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I am sitting in the tiny kitchen that adjoins Paul McCartney’s recording studio in deepest Sussex waiting for the man himself to appear. He is running late, and I am growing nervous. Even my mum, who claims to have never heard of most of the people I interview, seemed thrilled when I told her on the phone that I was doing Paul McCartney. ‘A Beatle!’ she said. ‘You’re going to meet a Beatle!’
The Beatle in question is nowhere to be seen, but in evidence everywhere. On the wall opposite, there is a framed poster for Liverpool Oratorio, the classical work he co-composed in honour of his native city, and a framed Ordnance Survey map of that same city. On the table, there is a copy of Sound: The Liverpool Pop Quiz Book. I pick it up and open it at a random page. And my first question is: ‘Complete these song titles by Liverpool performers (a) ‘The Long and ……. Road’. I put it down again.
am here to talk to McCartney, not about ‘The Long and Winding Road’, literal or metaphorical, but about the intriguingly titled Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard, his new solo album. It is his 20th studio outing since the Beatles break-up, and the first since his debut, 1970’s McCartney, on which he played all the instruments himself. That was an easy-going, home-made affair, very much a reaction to the multilayered perfectionism of the Beatles’ best work; a retreat from the very idea of the Beatles. Thirty five years on, Chaos and Creation… is an altogether more polished, and occasionally mannered, album, the first McCartney effort in a long time where you can sense that he is trying to raise the creative stakes, trying, if you will, to get back to where he once belonged – in the highest echelons of songwriting genius.
Throughout, the songs are buoyed up, and occasionally padded out, by Nigel Godrich’s rich but restrained production, but this is a long way from the dense, sonic experiments of Radiohead or the boho musings of Beck, the artists with whom Godrich made his name, a long way even from the well-behaved rock-by-numbers of Travis, whose workmanlike songs he lifted up and dusted down in a similar manner. Nevertheless, Chaos and Creation… is a thing of quirky, if occasionally belaboured, charm, often intimate and honest in its delineation of love and loss. The sound of someone really trying after too long a time just cruising.
When McCartney finally breezes into the studio, my journalistic objectivity momentarily evaporates, and I suddenly feel exactly like my mum predicted I would feel. ‘A Beatle!’ I think, standing up to shake his hand, ‘an actual Beatle!’
For his part, he seems both relaxed and eager to please with that almost boyish charm that has somehow survived intact despite all that has happened to him since he and the other three took on the world, and, to his surprise, and our great delight, stood it on its head. ‘All right, la,’ he says, by way of greeting, and we’re off on a guided tour of his intimate little studio complex overlooking the gentle sweep of Sussex pasture that stretches down in the distance to the sky of blue and sea of green.
It’s a nice gaff, very McCartney in its cosiness, particularly the big upstairs room to which we convene, which is wood panelled and homely, with gold discs on the wall, and framed magazine covers, and a few paintings, perhaps by him. In a designery white shirt and well-cut blue jeans, he looks fitter than he has in years, and younger. And, though he still sports that generic old rockers’ haircut – short at the front, longish at the back – the post- Heather dye job that the tabloids had a field day with has banished those telltale flecks of grey, making him seem almost Beatleish once again. It strikes me suddenly that his speaking voice, like his young singing voice, has become a signature of sorts, as instantly recognisable as the Queen’s. Or John’s. Like them, he’s part of our collective experience: an iconic figure despite all his attempts at debunking his own myth. He bids me sit down on one of the two big sofas, and answers questions though mouthfuls of cheese and salad sandwich.
‘I wanted to make a really good record,’ he says, when I tell him as diplomatically as I can that he sounds more engaged than he has for a long time. ‘I kept telling myself, “I’m gonna make a good record”. It’s one of those arrogant statements you make when you want to really motivate yourself.’ Does he not normally say that before making an album? ‘No,’ he says, as if it never occurred to him that maybe he should. ‘Normally, you just cross your fingers and hope that you do.’
This low-key approach to songwriting has characterised much of McCartney’s post-Beatles output, but it still does not fully explain one of pop’s great mysteries: how the man who wrote ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ could come to write the likes of ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and ‘Bip Bop – Hey Diddle’? Godrich, though, seems to have pushed him to prove himself once again, rather than let him coast on his reputation. When I ask him about ‘Riding to Vanity Fair’, a song that sounds darker and deeper than anything he has written since ‘Let It Be’, he says: ‘Funnily enough, that was one of the stickiest moments on the whole project. I loved it, but when I initially brought it in, Nigel didn’t think much of it at all. In fact, he might even have used the word “crap”. So, I went away and changed it, then we worked on it together a bit, halved the tempo so it sounded sparse and eerie and dark. And he still didn’t like it!’
You can tell by McCartney’s animated way of telling this story that this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, may not, in fact, have happened at all since he last worked with the Beatles’ producer, George Martin. I ask him if he was happy to change his lyrics, his whole modus operandi, in fact, at the request of a producer who wasn’t even born when the Beatles were changing the rulebook of pop.
‘Well, we had our moments,’ he says, taking another chomp out of his sarnie. ‘At one point on that song, it was, like, deep breath, “OK, pal, before I lose it, let’s just sit down and work out exactly what you do and don’t like”. And he’d say: “Well, you could do better. Paul. It’s not as good as your best stuff “. I was really getting a bit pissed with the guy, and really having to bite my tongue. I mean, it would have been easy for me to say: “Who are you, mate? Who do you think you are, eh?” But then, why work with the guy in the first place if you’re not going to take on his advice? He was just raising the bar a bit.’
It seems to have worked. Here and there, the songs come close to vintage McCartney, some evoking past songs in style and subject matter. ‘Jenny Wren’ is by far the most Beatle-ish interlude, and has already been described by McCartney as a ‘daughter of ‘Blackbird”, which may have been a clever way of pre-empting the critics saying the same thing, albeit a bit more scathingly. One would have to be truly hard of heart, though, not to be moved by this long overdue glimpse of McCartney the melancholy minstrel of old, with just an acoustic guitar, a heart-tugging melody, and a wonderfully winsome George Martin-style flugelhorn solo for company. Elsewhere, there is genuine sadness (‘Too Much Rain’) and faux tweeness (‘English Tea’) in equal measure, which, as McCartney’s detractors will no doubt point out, has nearly always been the case.
‘I’m trying to keep it very simple now,’ he says at one point, ‘whereas before you’d go through phases where you’d try to be flavour of the month. I’ve been very conscious of trying to make a pop record from time to time, and so I’ve looked at the chart, and what’s been around, and I’ve thought, OK, I can do that. There’s quite a few things that make me cringe,’ he smiles, ‘but I’m not saying.’
Interestingly, ‘Fine Line’, the opening song, and first single, from the new album, is the one that sounds the most like a Wings song, being both bouncy and insanely catchy. The lyrics, though, suggest that rapprochement might be one of his current preoccupations. ‘Come here, brother, all is forgiven’, runs the chorus, and because of who he is, and what he’s been through, we go looking for possible subjects: his actual bother, Mike?; his lost soul brother, John? Likewise on ‘Riding to Vanity Fair’, where he sings: ‘I was open to friendship, but you didn’t seem to have any to spare’. Could this be aimed at Yoko, with whom he has never had the easiest of relationships? Or maybe at the tabloids, with whom he has waged a fitful war of attrition since his betrothal to the younger Heather Mills, whom they continue to view with a suspicion that suggests outright scorn? Are these lyrics directed at anyone in particular, I ask, and, if so, who?
‘Nah, I’m not so good if I vent it at an individual,’ he replies, shrugging off this line of questioning. ‘If you look at my stuff , it’s generally not specific. I’m not comfortable with finger-pointing. That said, it’s about people who reject friendship, me getting my own back on people like that.’
Does he find that this happens a lot, people rejecting his friendship? I’d have thought most people would love to have an ex-Beatle as a mate. ‘Well, if you’re a naturally friendly person like I am, you do find that it happens, yeah. That song is about certain instances that were hurtful, where the hand of friendship was rejected, and about certain things that were said that stuck with me. I’ve had a bunch of that in my life, but never really dealt with it, never talked about it.’
Does he think people are suspicious of his perceived niceness – the thumbs-up, fab Macca image? He shrugs. ‘Dunno, mate. Maybe it’s a Liverpool thing, or a family trait type of thing. My dad was like that, too, very hospitable, always gave people roses from the garden when they were leaving, that sort of thing. Lovely man, wanting to reach out all the time. Normal, really. But some people don’t want that, do they?’ he says, sounding, suddenly, witheringly Scouse. ‘They don’t like yer for it. Simple as that.’
It seems to me, from listening to the album, and reading some of his press cuttings, that McCartney has become more combative of late. Recently, he rang up certain columnists to complain about their constant attacks on his wife, Heather, who has been a tabloid target since they went public with their romance, and now seems to have taken Yoko’s place as the Beatle wife they love to hate.
‘Well, obviously, I don’t want to go on about this too much,’ he says, sighing, ‘because I really don’t want to go head to head with these people, but sometimes they’ve just massively overstepped the mark. And they know what they’re doing.’
Given what he went through with the Beatles, does he think the level of intrusion is worse now than it was then? ‘Well, yeah, I do. I really think so. It’s, like, we used to call them lovable rogues, but I’m not sure how lovable they are now. The word scurrilous is coming to mind. I mean, I don’t want them to rule my life, and it’s their job to a degree, but unfortunately the British press is known worldwide for not being the best. You go to LA and the paparazzi are British. They’ve infested the world with this thing.’ He sits back and shakes his head. ‘My attitude is, it’s their problem, really. I don’t read them as a rule, and I try not to let them get to me, but occasionally…’
Spend even a little time with Paul McCartney at the moment, and two things become apparent: that he is a survivor who, unlike many celebrities, has managed to somehow keep his soul – and his sense of self – intact; and that he has become re-energised of late. On 16 September he kicked off a three-month long US tour in the American Airlines Arena in Miami, with European shows sure to follow. Can he pinpoint the moment that this late surge of creativity began – his marriage to Heather, maybe, or the recent birth of baby Beatrice?
‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ he says, leaning forward and looking serious. ‘I think it has something to do with 9/11. That was really the beginning of it all. Before that, I was wondering if I wanted to tour again, dabbling a bit. Then 9/11 happened, and we did that concert for New York. There was something healing about that. I’d meet so many people on the street, and it’d be, “Yo Paul, great what you did for the city, man”. Well, it was my pleasure and an honour. And it reawakened something in me. In one way, it led to everything that has happened since, the tour of America, Live8, all that.’
At Live8, of course, McCartney topped and tailed the event, beginning with a declamatory ‘Sgt Pepper’s’, in the company of U2, and ending with ‘Hey Jude’, just himself and the piano, and a chorus of 200,000 raised voices. Even within the tricky context of that philanthropic egofest, the unspoken subtext was that there was only one performer big enough, and mythic enough, to capture in song the drama of this particular pop moment. It wasn’t Elton, it wasn’t Bono, and it certainly wasn’t Bob – it could only be Paul. And, more to the point, Paul the Beatle.
Was he nervous going out there to do ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ with Dublin’s Fab Four? ‘Not as nervous as I thought I would be. It thought it was a bit of a crack, really, as you guys say. I rehearsed it with my own band, and it sounded good, then U2 came in the night before the gig, and it didn’t sound too good to me to tell you the truth. We really had to work on the guitar bit, and I’m trying to think, “Shit, did I play it on the album?” I think I did but it’s so long ago. We had to get the bloody record out in the end, and have a listen to it through the monitors. It sounded great on the day, though, But just as we’re coming off , Edge says to me: “I screwed up the riff , Paul”. I told him not to worry, it was a rewrite.’
This December will bring the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I ask Paul if he thinks John would have done Live8 had he still been alive. ‘Well, that’s one of those hypothetical questions. So, hypothetically, I’d say yes. I’m sure John would have caught hold of an idea like this.’ He thinks about this some more. ‘The thing is, the actual idea was great, and I think the idea of the big philanthropic gig for a cause goes back to George, actually, and his Concert For Bangladesh. That was the first one. These things need doing, that’s my way of looking at it. People were a bit, “Oh, no, not that again” to begin with, but I’ve had so much good feedback since the show. Unbelievable. I was up in Liverpool last week, and everywhere I went, it was, “You were fuckin’ great on Live8, man”.’
What’s it like going back home? ‘Oh, I love it. People say you only remember the sunny days when you look back, never all the rainy ones. I’m lucky like that, my brain seems to retain all the good memories. So, I’ll be going round the place, and it’s “me and John walked down that road. I can see us now”. It’s great, man, just great.’
McCartney returns to Liverpool regularly to teach songwriting at the Institute of Performing Arts, which is situated in his old school. ‘It’s where me and George went to school, so I just have to walk in there, and I’m back there with him,’ he says fondly. ‘It’s George smoking behind the shelters, or George nodding one of my mates. We were all chatting this day, and this boy must have said something to annoy him and next minute, it’s BOOF! He’s nutted him.’ McCartney cracks up laughing. ‘He was a bit of a terror, young George was. Him and his quaff.’
You obviously miss him, I say, stating the obvious. ‘Oh, you know, it’s just very sad,’ he says, looking away. ‘Same with John. It’s that feeling of finality, isn’t it? Same with any death. For a long time, you just want to ring them up, you know, and you think, “Shit, I can’t!” Terrible, really.’
He pauses for a moment, perhaps weighing up how much he should say about the past, a past of course that we still cling to, even as he tries not to. ‘The thing is, I knew George longer than any of the guys in the Beatles. Doesn’t mean I knew him any better, mind, but I knew him longer. He was the kid in the school uniform with the big quiff who got on the bus the stop after mine. And sometimes he’d sit down next to me and we’d start talking rock’n’roll. We shared our records, we learnt chords together, we even tried to make a guitar together. We did the whole teenage bonding thing, trying to pull birds, hitchhiking to Harlech, all the formative stuff.’ He falls silent for a moment. ‘I can’t quite believe it’s over. It’s just a really sad feeling sometimes. Same with John, except with John’s death there was all this anger too. The jerk of all jerks,’ he hisses, referring to Mark Chapman, Lennon’s murderer, ‘to shoot someone like John Lennon.’ He shakes his head. ‘And now Georgie’s gone too,’ he says, quietly, ‘It’s not a nice feeling, really. Not nice. At all.’
On the way back downstairs, he pauses to show me a photograph on the wall, a portrait of George, Ringo and himself, standing under a tree. It was shot for a magazine cover in the grounds of this very studio while they were working on ‘Free As a Bird’ in 1995, the song, written and sung by Lennon as a demo tape in 1977, that subsequently became the first Beatles single in 25 years. There’s something ineffably sad about the photograph, the fact that it is just the three of them, and that since, another one of them has gone. Then McCartney points to a white peacock that seems to have sneaked into the picture, stage left, and is peering directly at the camera. ‘That’s John,’ he says, smiling. The bird, which had strayed from a neighbouring farm, walked into shot just as the photographer pressed the shutter. ‘Spooky, eh?’ says McCartney. ‘It was like John was hanging around. We felt that all through the recording. We even put one of those spoof backwards recordings on the end of the single for a laugh, to give all those Beatles nuts something to do. I think it was a line of a George Formby song. Then we’re listening to the finished single in the studio one night, and it gets to the end, and it goes “zzzwrk nggggwaaahh joooohn lennnnnon qwwwwk”. I swear to God. We were like, “It’s John. He likes it!”‘
Spending even a little time with McCartney is a salutary lesson in the art of survival. We tend to forget that, though. We forget that he, too – Fab Macca, forever grinning, thumbs aloft – is a fully qualified survivor. We forget that he survived the whirlwind of the Beatles, and the long years of living in their shadow, and the terrible fallouts and the recriminations. We forget that he has had to deal not just with the loss of John and George, but that he somehow has made it though the capsizing grief of losing his wife, and long-term soul mate, Linda. And, still, the tabloids scoff at his so-called cheeriness, and his choice of new partner. And still, we, the public, want more. We want ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Hey Jude’, as if those songs, and all the others like them, were not more than enough already. We want yesterday.
There’s a sense on Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard, though, that Paul McCartney is finally at ease with his legacy, with the weight of myth and history that he has had to carry, and has tried to shrug off, for so long. There’s a strange little song on the album called ‘How Kind of You’, on which he sings: ‘How kind of you to stick by me during the final bout / And listen to the referee when I was counted out’. It seems both poignant and pointed, sincere and yet sarcastic. It doesn’t seem half-hearted, half-baked, or half-finished.
‘Well, it’s about all the tragedies,’ he elaborates, ‘the Beatles’ break-up, things going wrong, and people writing me off . There’s this sort of therapy aspect in songwriting sometimes, and that’s one of the reasons I love it. If I’m feeling really low, I’ll take my guitar into the darkest corner I can find in the house, and go there and sit with it, and talk to the guitar, explain it all to the guitar. And it works,’ he says, as if he can barely believe it himself. ‘You come out of there, and it’s magical.’ With that, he starts singing another line from the same song: ‘I thought my time was up…’ And you can tell he really means it, even though, just by singing it, he seems to banish the very thought.
1. Avant-garde guardian
John Lennon once said: ‘Avant-garde is French for bullshit’, which may have been a dig at McCartney. Though Lennon was seen as the experimental Beatle, it was McCartney who immersed himself in the Sixties’ avant-garde. He hung out with art dealer Robert Fraser, helped start the radical Indica gallery and bookshop, and bought paintings by surrealist Rene Magritte. In 1967, while Lennon retreated to his big house in Weybridge, McCartney sought out musical inspiration in the experimentalism of Stockhausen, John Cage and Cornelius Cardew. ‘It was a very free, formless time for me’, he told his biographer, Barry Miles, later.
2. Up in smoke
Ex-Wings member Denny Laine once said that Macca got through an ounce of cannabis a day. In the mid-Nineties, Noel Gallagher was summoned to a party at McCartney’s house by Paul’s daughter, Stella. According to Oasis insider Ian Robertson, in his book What’s the Story?, the door was opened by Paul, who presented the asthmatic Noel with a spliff.
And thumbs down…
1. No self-control
From The Beatles’ ‘Ob La Di Ob La Da’ to Wings’s ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Mull of Kintyre’, to countless abominations like ‘Bip Bop – Hey Diddle’ and ‘Ode to a Koala Bear’, it is fair to say the Macca is not a man much given to exercising quality control. Maybe it’s the industrial amounts of spiff he has consumed over the years, or the absence of a Lennon-like creative foil, but Macca’s long post-Beatles fall from grace has been one of the enduring mysteries of modern pop.
2. …and complete control
Behind the thumbs aloft, grinning ‘Fab Macca’ mask, McCartney is a creative control freak. He was the one Beatle opposed to the appointment of Allan Klein as manager, putting forward his father-in-law instead. Having once said: ‘We are not in the business of singing jingles. We do not peddle sneakers, pantyhose or anything else’, he now claims: ‘The magic of music is something which unites all kinds of people – young, old, artistic and corporate.’ This month he agreed to star in a TV ad for an investment company.
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