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The corporate symbol of MPL Communications — the production company that oversees Paul McCartney’s endeavors in music, film and video — is a celestial harlequin tossing aloft several planets and moons. Whether or not the figure represents Mr. McCartney, his current agenda is surely a juggling act.
The 48-year-old former Beatle was in New York recently supervising what many rock stars consider a tour’s closing ceremony — the selling of the spinoffs, in this case a live album and concert film. The film, “Get Back,” is due in the spring, but the album, “Tripping the Live Fantastic” (Capitol 94778; all three formats), has made it to the bins in record time, three months after the tour’s final note was sounded.
Mr. McCartney is also writing songs for a studio album with his touring band — the guitarists Hamish Stuart and Robbie McIntosh, the drummer Chris Whitten and the keyboardists Wix (Paul Wickens) and Linda McCartney, his wife. Ahead lies another tour, as well as a plunge into classical music — an eight-movement oratorio for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and vocal soloists.
“I like work, I really do,” Mr. McCartney said during his New York visit. “I like being given a structure. I’m kind of secure in a framework. From the age of 5, it was school, Beatles, Wings, solo work, business, the new band and touring.”
The 10-month tour that Mr. McCartney’s new album documents was a statistical triumph. His show at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro is to be listed in the next “Guinness Book of World Records” as the largest paid audience — 184,000 — for a public event. Amusement Business magazine, which keeps track of ticket sales, lists his two Berkeley, Calif., concerts, which brought in $3.5 million, as the year’s top-selling shows.
Yet on artistic grounds, critics had strong reservations. Slick production made for tightly controlled performances that scarcely varied from night to night. Even between-songs patter seemed a function of how many seconds were needed to move the lighting arrays into place. The musical ramifications are evident on the live album, which includes numbers Mr. McCartney sang with the Beatles and Wings and on his solo albums, as well as a few pre-Beatles rock classics.
The album points up a paradox in Mr. McCartney’s work. The part of him that screamed “Helter Skelter” with the Beatles and shouted “Spin It On” with Wings yearns to be a freewheeling rocker. Yet he inevitably yields to a conflicting need — to control the musical face his public sees.
With few exceptions, concert versions of Mr. McCartney’s own songs were arranged as by-the-numbers re-creations of the original disks, without the suppleness that studio recording allows. But woven into the album’s concert sequence are six numbers recorded at the band’s rehearsals, among them a quirky, raucous instrumental, “Inner City Madness,” and an incendiary reworking of Carl Perkins’s “Matchbox.” Both tracks show that Mr. McCartney can rock when the spotlight is off (as he did on “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” a collection of rock-oldie jams recorded in 1987 and released only in the Soviet Union).
Mr. McCartney does not disagree with such criticism. “Some of the crew preferred the sound checks to the concerts, because they were very loose,” he said. “I had hoped to do that on the tour, but we were met with a bank of computers. Originally, my theory was that I could call out any number, any time. But as reality kicked in, and the tour got bigger, it became impossible to manage that. So, yeah, we did sacrifice some looseness for the light show.”
Why were the rock classics — the sound-check rendition of “Matchbox” and the concert versions of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” — played in free, inventive arrangements while Mr. McCartney’s own music was kept on a tight leash?
“I never jam on my own songs,” Mr. McCartney said. “But ‘Bring It on Home,’ ‘Matchbox,’ those are my roots, and if I’m going to be loose, that’s where I’ll do it. Dylan always rearranges. I don’t like that. If I want to hear ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ I wish he’d just sing it with an acoustic guitar. That’s all I need. But he gets bored. My decision was to make a few changes, but otherwise to leave it alone. I thought, ‘If I were going to a Paul McCartney show, how would I like it to be?’ “
To make “Tripping the Live Fantastic,” Mr. McCartney recorded most of the tour’s 102 shows and sent the tapes to his engineer in England, who selected the seven best performances of each song. Mr. McCartney and the producer Bob Clearmountain then chose the best of the seven. “Bob said he wanted the record to be as live as possible,” Mr. McCartney said, “and I thought that was great, because usually producers want to remake the tracks. With the current technology, what you can do with live recordings is, if I sang a flat note in ‘Hey, Jude’ in Chicago, we can take the correct note from Los Angeles and fly it in. But there are not many instances of that.”
With the album behind him, Mr. McCartney has moved on to other projects: he has nearly finished his “Liverpool Oratorio,” which was commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and is to have its premiere at the Liverpool Cathedral next June. It was his collaborator, Carl Davis, a London-based American conductor best known for his silent-film scores, who persuaded the orchestra to commission the work, and then talked Mr. McCartney into doing it. Mr. Davis has also helped him focus musical ideas and deal with technical matters like musical notation, which Mr. McCartney can neither read nor write.
Historically, such crossovers are perilous. The wreckage of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and Stewart Copeland’s opera, “Holy Blood and Crescent Moon,” loom ominously over Mr. McCartney’s semiautobiographical work, an 80-minute piece about growing up in Liverpool.
“We agreed that I had to lead the dance, that I could not just give in to Carl and let it become his piece,” Mr. McCartney said. “I like melodies, and I can produce a strange idea when it’s in danger of getting boring. Carl is a big help in giving me technical information — for example, whether a note in a soprano’s solo is in her range.”
There may be Beatles-related projects in Mr. McCartney’s future, too. A year ago, the group settled protracted lawsuits with EMI Records and one another, clearing the way for releases that draw on the band’s unissued audio and video archive. So far, an album of performances recorded in England for the BBC has been set for 1991. And the former Beatles may allow the release of some studio outtakes, about 400 hours of which were catalogued in Mark Lewisohn’s 1988 book, “The Beatles: Recording Sessions.”
When discussing the prospect, Mr. McCartney seems ambivalent about exposing his unpolished side. “If someone were to come to me and say, ‘Look, I’ve got this very charismatic little album of outtakes,’ I’d have no problem with that. I do like to hear some of the bootlegs, where we’re setting up things. And I often argue with people that if Picasso was great, then his sketches are great, too. But we tried to release the very best of our work. If you start making the alternate takes available, in 10 years people may not know which was the finished take and which wasn’t. I’d rather avoid the confusion.”
Today, 20 years after the breakup of the Beatles, Mr. McCartney has come to terms with the fact that his current efforts must compete with those of his youth. But he is pleased that in recent years, scholarly studies of the band’s work have proliferated, proving that the Beatles’ continuing appeal is not just nostalgia.
“No, it’s legend,” is how Mr. McCartney put it. “And I feel fine about that. If you were as diverse as we were, and you made up the chemistry that we did, you have to expect to be picked over. We wanted to become legends, and having achieved it, it would be churlish to now say, ‘Oh, I don’t want it.’
“I’m still trying. It pleases me that we had the top-selling show. I like being recognized on the street. I like having lorry drivers in New York lean out their windows saying, ‘Yo, Paul, thanks for the music.’ It’s a big city, the capital of the world almost, and they all know me. That’s what I did it for. I’m a ham.”