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As a young boy, Paul McCartney soaked up the radio plays his mother listened to while cleaning around their house. They gave McCartney an expansive understanding of characterization, something he’s been able to do astonishingly well in his own work throughout his writing career. The song “Penny Lane” may sound like much of the psychedelic musings that was common by the late 60s, but the song is actually a beautifully abstract description of a Liverpool suburb well-known to both McCartney and John Lennon.
“McCartney: A Life in Lyrics” is a co-production between iHeart Media, MPL and Pushkin Industries.
The series was produced by Pejk Malinovski and Sara McCrea; written by Sara McCrea; edited by Dan O’Donnell and Sophie Crane; mastered by Jason Gambrell with sound design by Pejk Malinovski. The series is executive produced by Leital Molad, Justin Richmond, Lee Eastman and Scott Rodger.
Thanks to Lee Eastman, Richard Ewbank, Scott Rodger, Aoife Corbett and Steve Ithell.
Pushkin. Hi everyone, it’s Paul Moldoin. Before we get to this episode, I wanted to let you know that you can binge all twelve episodes of McCartney A Life and Lyrics right now, add free by becoming a Pushkin Plus subscriber. Find Pushkin Plus on the McCartney A Life and Lyrics Show, pedge in Apple Podcasts, or at pushkin dot Fm, slash plus under Milk would by Dylan Thomas. My mom would be doing the island and you have a play on play for Today or some sit here with her. Listen, Yes, blood in love the neighbor Paul missus Waldo. She puts up never sort of marriage. She didn’t have the same as her mother one his mother did the ironing. Young Paul McCartney would lie in front of the radio and conjure up images in his mind. And the characters, you know, they were all so well for trade, osh, love, hush, I’m a widower. Well no Now. From listening to the radio came an early understanding of how to draw a character so precisely that a blind person could see him. You just get into it. You can see the characters. It’s as if you’re in the room with them. I’m Paul muldoon. I’m a poet, a lover of not only the lyric poem, but the song lyric. Over the past several years, I’ve got to spend time with one of the greatest songwriters of our era. And will you look at me, I’m going on to it. I’m actually a performer, that is sir Paul McCartney. We worked together on a book looking at the lyrics of more than one hundred and fifty of his songs, and we recorded many hours of our conversations. She’m a songwriter, My god, well that crypt homie. This is McCartney, A life in lyrics, a masterclass, a memoir, and an improvised journey with one of the most iconic figures in popular music in this episode, Penny Dane. I mainly remember it as being where I would I would get a boss to Penny Lane in order to go to John’s house. No anonymous conurbation this but Liverpool, vital City and pot on the northwest Mersey, forty three square miles of teeming Mine. Throughout my meetings with Paul McCartney, it’s become clear to me just how important his childhood and Liverpool has been to his songwriting career. Has this Liverpool sprung from its people? I have the people sprung from Liverpool. It was a place that featured very much in my life and in John’s life. It was near a church where I was at Choie Corristal. What is there in the northwest to create this exciting atmosphere. A lot of stuff happened there. I use that terminus a lot to go to John’s for instance, and the roundavitors in there, so it’s all it’s the scenery. This is quite accurate. And the nice thing is writing is John knew exactly where I was talking about that Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to know, and all the people black Man, gum, stubborn sail. On one level, Penny Lane paints a picture of an ordinary suburban street with a barber, a farman, a banker, and a nurse selling flowers. But somehow, just below the surface, everything is a little strange. So I’d say Penny Lane’s barbers showing photographs. I thought that’s rather clever because it’s like a it’s like a gallery showing paintings. It’s an exhibition in this window, and you and I we know that. We just go by and say, I’ll have one of them. I’ll have a Tony Cursis, all have a crew couse or whatever. But I like the idea that he’s showing photographs. So really, all I’m saying here is there’s a barbershop and he’s got photos of hercut’s in his window. But that would be a little too mundane. But there is a barber shop still there. Rand’s changed hand. It was called Bioletti, the guy with Bioletti, mister Italian barber with the stripe pole outside and everything, and so we knew that. So when we evoked it later in this song, it was a pleasant thing for John and I to share again. Penny Lane was written while the Beatles were working on the Sergeant Pepper album. The band had stopped during and was putting all their energy into recording and working in the studio. John, George and Ringo had been experimenting with LSD and finally in the fall of nineteen sixty six convinced Paul to try it as well. The inner pictures and characters from the Street of McCartney’s childhood are projected with hallucinogenic clarity. I drive past it to this day, regularly showing everyone of the barbers, the bankers, the firemen, the church. I used to sing in And here’s where the girl stood with a tray of poppies as I waited for the bosses. On Remembrance Day, to honor the armed forces of the Commonwealth, it was common to see people selling poppies. The pretty nurse who sells them from a tray is drawn from real life, but she also has this strange feeling that she’s in a play. And now she did play geers anywhere. Funnily enough, a lot of Americans thought she was selling puppies. I say puppies. So it’s another interesting image, a tray full of puppies. I now she’s selling poppies. I know she feels interesting to play she is anyway. Yes, that’s that’s very sort of sixties. It is. And that’s what they would call the polite circles, a meta text, that is, it’s a description of one in fact is happening in the song that she is in a plane. There’s characters. There’s a bunch of characters, and you know, I’m proud of the way certain lines just fell out, but in retrospect were sort of good lines, like the the fireman who’s cleaning his fire engine. He likes the games are clean. It’s a clean machine. It’s a clean machine. Just you know, those kind of phrases sort of stick. It’s a clean machine. Amusing, it’s funny, it’s there’s something slightly ominous. So the old stuff that happened. They actually that the fire station is a little further away, right, But like any good play, you put it all in the wrong place. One of the wonderful things here we established the barber and we leave him, but then we come back to him. Yeah, which is extremely effective in that we think, well, I know that guy, so there he is again, and the customer we see the bank is the way to go, try fire and it’s a way of bringing every year the listener, I suppose, isn’t it. I mean, I’m it’s this kind of film. It is exactly. You know, it’s like we are. We thought we’d forgotten him because we are now going on to the banker. Now the banker, I mean, I’ve never seen any children laugh at him, so he’s I’ve never seen him I’ve seen his bank. I had no idea. The children laughing, and the mac and the pouring rain. It’s all fiction. On the corner is a banker, a motor car, the little children having him, and the bank and then Wes b in the boring rain. And here perhaps a brief explanation is needed. A mac is what the British called a raincoat, after Charles mac Andosh, who patented a waterproof material for rain coats. So the banker never wears a mac. It’s all very strange. It’s a play, yes, so play. It’s a little player. Yes. The stories of Penny Lane appeared to McCartney not just visually but through sound. Penny Lane is not just in his eyes, but also in his ears. Oral storytelling had been a large influence on his songwriting ever since he was a kid and would lie on the carpet listening to the radio. You would lie on the carpet and the radio would be in front of you and you to be in it. One of the plays a twelve year old McCartney might have listened to was a nineteen fifty four play by the poet Dylan Thomas called Under milk Wood, which portrays the fictitious time of Claragub. It is springing moonless night in the small town starlist and bible black. The cobble streets silent, and the hunch cotters and rabbits would limping invisible down to the slow bless, slow black crow bless fishing boat bobbing sea. As the time of Claragub slowly awakens, the narrative weaves in and out of the thoughts of its inhabitants. I was put by pajamas in the draw marked pa job. I must take my cold bath, which is good for me. I must wear my flannel violon toward off. I must dress behind the curtain and put on my apron. I must blow my note in the garden. You’ve already written eleanor Rigby? Oh did you feel mean? Would you have felt it all that you were maybe going back a little bit to that territory or no? I like that rise area. There’s an under milkwood aspect to both eleanor Rigby and this, And to some extent, isn’t there the character the cast of characters character as soon as a bunch of characters. This is the kind of thing I liked and still is. I must take my salts, which are nature’s breen. I must spoil the drinking water because the Germans. I must make my herb tea which is free from tannin, and have a charcoal discuit, which is good for me. I may smoke one pipe of asthma mixture in the woodshed. At the time of writing any then, Paul McCartney had become very interested in the London art scene. He was also dating the actress Jane Esher, which might have influenced the theatrical nature of the song. One of the people in their circle was the great playwright Harold Pinter. Pinter whose characters often have such complex psychologies. I think it was this era or two in our lives when if you’re going to write a play like these characters, I’d rather have it be like a Pinter play than something a bit straighter, right, you know. I like the idea that they’re a bit wonky, all these characters. There’s something a little bit strange about them, and you would have seen already some Pinter. Well, you know, by the time we’ve written this, we’ve been down in London for a while and I was going out with an actress. Yes, of course, so we would go regularly to the National Theater. How would you have met Pinter at that He was on the social She was on the scene with Vivian Merchant, his actress wife. Yes. Yeah, we went to a party at third Place. We lived in Regis Park and our enduring image was the bathtub was filled with bottles. So and people like Kenneth Tyne and various luminaries like that where they be pinted. Wescer would be there. It was very nice just talking to these sort of people on the London scene because I was one of those people on the under see me and James, She being the actress, May being the musician. It was a nice time to be around with an invite, so you would get painters, sculptors, actors, comedians, musicians, playwrights and just all these people who just were in on your scene. Would do you think you would have been conscious as you were writing this that this is maybe something that Harold Pinter might read, maybe maybe suddenly influenced by all of that. Yeah, and I think I’m not not that specifically. No, I understand someone someone like that, someone someone smart, basically someone smart. While Paul McCartney aspired to be recognized by the serious artists and writers of the day. The Beatles also nurtured a sense of playfulness in the studio, which to this day seems totally original. And you’re playing, you know, it’s it’s very important to play. People say to me why you work so hard to say I don’t work music. I play it. And you know, whilst that is a kind of kind of clip statement, I say it because it’s really true. I mean, obviously in the two meanings of playing music, playing an instrument, but playing it is really important. The ones who can play are more successful. I mean playing in the sense of playing playing games. Look about mucking about it. You know, it’s a good thing. Somebody could do that, you know, if they suddenly decide that it needs it there, you know, it’s idea of just playing around. It’s good and any music too. You know. We’ve had a very sort of cavalier attitude to a lot of things, very sort of offhand thing. I mean, I just what came to mind that I was just thinking when I did Penny Lane. There’s this lovely solo that I knew I wanted to do, and I talked to George Martin about a piccolo trumpet that I’d seen in the Brandenburg Concerto the night before, and I said, what was that? And he said, And so we got the top player called David Mason in the studio, and I just remember thinking that we didn’t know what he was going to play. We hadn’t written it, but he was booked and he was sitting there, so you’d better get something together me. So we just I just said, George, wait a minute, and wrote it down. I just a little. I played a ridiculously high note, and then David May said, well, that’s out of the range of the even the piccolo trumpet, which is a high, high high trumpet, set out of the range and which we had a little plate. For a moment, we just looked at each other and he sort of I’m giving him a kind of yeah, but you could probably do it, smile, and he’s giving me back, you Passtard smile kind of yeah, I probably could. Even though the song took a lot of its inspiration from the non visual medium of radio, in early nineteen sixty seven, Penny Lane was one of the first songs ever to have been accompanied by a music video. The Swedish director Peter Goldman, using techniques from underground filmmaking took the promotional film format to a new level. Fast montage editing shows Penny Lane and the band members dressed in red junics riding horses through a dreamlike landscape. But it’s the enduring power of radio to allow listeners to create their own images that shimmers at the heart of Penny Lane. What I love is you get your own picture. This is why when they came to film Sergeant Pepper with the Beg’s, I said, this is never going to work because everyone has their own image, from Sergeant Pepper to the album, and so if you select warn image, it’s never going to be enough because your vision is different from mine. I often think this with my audience is I think every single person in those forty thousand people is having a different experience. I’m singing this song. Someone thinks it’s sad, someone thinks it’s dramatic, someone thinks it’s funny. And I’m fascinated by that idea that everyone’s perception is completely different. Now behind the eyes and secrets of the dreamers in the street, Rucked to Sleep by the Sea, Sea tip bits and topsy turveys, bobs and buttontops, bags and bones, ash and grind and dender for nail perries, saliva and snowplates and bolted feathers are breed for the imagination. Radio was great and as I met friends like John George, we all hawke back to that. It was very much our period. We grew up without television. Tenny Lane is in my Tenny, my Guys. I said that wild Back Penny Lane, Hanny my Guys. Penny Lane. Penny Lane was released in nineteen sixty seven on a double a SyncE along with Strawberry Fields Forever. We’re so sorry, Uncle Elmer. We’re so sorry if we caust you anything. In the next episode, Paul McCartney pays tribute to his Liverpool origins. It up. It was so rich and I think a lot of what I am, a lot of what I write about. A lot of what I think is that Uncle Albert the piss artist. Next time on McCartney A Life in Lyrics. McCartney A Life in Lyrics is a co production between iHeartMedia, MPL and Pushkin Industries.