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Paul McCartney curls up on the couch and relives the Beatles’ story for the first time since the death of John Lennon. “He was one great guy, but part of his greatness was that he wasn’t a saint.”
by Chris Salewicz
Paul McCartney is 44. He was 20 when his first composition appeared on record. Today he’s just returned from remixing a second single from his new LP Press To Play, his 27th solo or group studio album in 24 years.
He’s sitting on a sofa on the second floor of the building in Central London from which he directs his activities. Outside, on this sunny early afternoon, lie the neatly trimmed lawns of Soho Square; inside a forest of deco mahogany woodwork, a De Kooning on the wall and a chrome and neon-garlanded Wurlitzer jukebox of quite archetypal proportions and splendour. He’s wearing fawn moccasins, yellow socks, and a blue and white striped shirt and trousers and, despite the omnipresent grey hair, he looks in immensely good shape for someone who was still in the studio at three in the morning.
Part of McCartney’s agility as a communicator has been the paradoxical mastery of revealing nothing whatsoever of himself to journalists. This was particularly notable during the interviews he gave for Give My Regards To Broad Street, an almost unprecedented barrage of publicity in which it seemed that the more people he spoke to, the less he said. This was perhaps connected with a comprehension of the transparent unsubstantiality of the work. “Broad Street?” he says now. “You don’t stop things just because they’re not good; if you’ve done a bit of work, you put it out. I mean, if Picasso’s painted a thing…”
Today, however, on this Friday afternoon, Paul McCartney is immensely forthcoming. Possibly this is a reflection of the confidence he feels in his new LP, a work that stands almost on a par with Band On The Run, his finest solo record and one which, in many ways, seems to have a direct conduit to post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles albums.
The interview has a relaxed, conversational tone with no sense of formally structured questions and answers. In the cold light of print, his replies can occasionally take on a tone that seems almost petty in its self-justification, but such an emphasis is completely absent when he’s delivering these words to you in person.
The principle strength of the new LP is the quality of the songs, six of which McCartney co-wrote with Eric Stewart, the former 10cc singer and writer of such classics as ‘I’m Not In Love’, a song that is almost a parody of a McCartney love ballad.
The numbers were written, he says, in the manner in which he would work with John Lennon, sitting side-by-side, watching each other search for appropriate chords.
You’ve been in the studio all night re-mixing tracks from the new album for single release. How do you feel about the new LP?
I like it. I have a lot of trouble saying, ‘I think it’s great.’ I wish I was just a fan and I could genuinely like it without seeming wildly immodest. I can’t be objective yet. It’s going to take me a couple of months. I can listen to McCartney, I can just listen to that. I like that one; it’s growing on me. It’s a touchy subject. You’ve done a thing and there it is, it’s your presentation. You mean to get every bit of it right.
So how do you react to criticism?
When I see bad reviews, it’ll hurt me. I am giving myself a bit easier time in life these days. I’ve gone through so much criticism, and not just from critics. From people like John, over so many things, that like a fool I just stood there and said, ‘Yeah, you must be right.’ All those things I was said to be the cause of, I just accepted that I was to blame. I’m beginning to see it a bit differently now. I’m beginning to see a lot of what they say is their problem, not mine.
John was going through a lot of pain when he said a lot of that stuff, and he felt that we were being vindictive towards him and Yoko. In fact I think we were quite good, looking back on it; many people would’ve just downed tools in a situation like that, would’ve just said: ‘Look man, she’s not sitting on our amps while we’re making a film.’ That wouldn’t be unheard of. Most people just say, ‘We’re not having this person here, don’t care how much you love her.’
But we were actually quite supportive. Not supportive enough, you know; it would have been nice to have been really supportive because then we could look back and say, Weren’t we really terrific? But looking back on it, I think we were OK. We were never really that mean to them, but I think a lot of the time John suspected meanness where it wasn’t really there.
He was presumably fairly paranoid.
I think so. He warned me off Yoko once: ‘Look, this is my chick!’ Just because he knew my reputation. We knew each other rather well. I just said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ But I did feel he ought to have known I wouldn’t. That was John; just a jealous guy. He was a paranoid guy. And he was into drugs … heavy. He was into heroin, the extent of which I hadn’t realised, till just now.
It’s all starting to click a bit in my brain. I just figured, Oh, there’s John, my buddy, and he’s turning on me. He once said to me, ‘Oh, they’re all on the McCartney bandwagon.’ Yet things like that were hurting him, and looking back on it now I just think that it’s a bit sad really.
I saw that thing in The Observer the other week, about the manuscript of the Apple Beatles biography and the vitriolic comments John made in the margins.
I think that shows the sort of pain he was going through. Look, he was a great guy, great sense of humour and I’d do it all again. I’d go through it all again, and have him slagging me off again just because he was so great; those are all the down moments, there was much more pleasure than has really come out. I had a wonderful time, with one of the world’s most talented people. We had all that craziness, but if someone took one of your wedding photos and put ‘funeral’ on it, as he did on that manuscript, you’d tend to feel a bit sorry for the guy. I’ll tell you what, if I’d ever done that to him, he would’ve just hit the roof. But I just sat through it all like mild-mannered Clark Kent.
This was hurting you, presumably.
When did you actually get a perspective on it?
I still haven’t. It’s still inside me. John was lucky. He got all his hurt out. I’m a different sort of a personality. There’s still a lot inside me that’s trying to work it out. And that’s why it’s good to see that wedding-funeral bit, because I started to think, ‘Wait a minute, this is someone who’s going over the top. This is paranoia manifesting itself.’ And so my feeling is just like it was at the time, which is like, He’s my buddy, I don’t really want to do anything to hurt him, or his memory, or anything. I don’t want to hurt Yoko. But, at the same time, it doesn’t mean that I understand what went down.
I went at Yoko’s request to New York recently. She said she wanted to see me, I said I was going through New York and so I stopped off and rang her, and she said she couldn’t see me that day. I was 400 yards away from her. I said, ‘Well, I’ll pop over any time today; five minutes, ten minutes, whenever you can squeeze me in.’ She said. ‘It’s going to be very difficult.’ I said, ‘Well, OK, I understand; what is the reason, by the way?’ She said, ‘I was up all night with Sean.’ I said, ‘Well, I understand that. I’ve got four kids, you know. But you’re bound to have a minute today, sometime.’
She asked me to come. I’d flown in specially to see her, and she wouldn’t even see me. So I felt a little humiliated, but I said, ‘OK, 9.30 tomorrow morning, let’s make an appointment.’ She rang up at about 9.00 and said, ‘Could you make it tomorrow morning?’
So that’s the kind of thing. I’m beginning to think it wasn’t all my fault. I’m beginning to let myself off a lot of the guilt. I always felt guilty, but looking back on it I can say OK, let’s try and outline some things. John was hurt; what was he hurt by? What is the single biggest thing that we can find in all our research that hurt John? And the biggest thing that I can find is that I told the world that The Beatles were finished. I don’t think that’s so hurtful.
I’ll tell you what was unfortunate was the method of announcing it all. I said to the guy at the office. Peter Brown, of book fame, I’ve got an album coming out called McCartney. And I don’t really want to see too much press. Can you do me some question-and-answer things?
So he sent all those questions over and I answered them all. We had them printed up and put in the press copies of the album. It wasn’t a number. I see it now and shudder. At the time it was me trying to answer some questions that were being asked and I decided not to fudge those questions.
We didn’t accept Yoko totally, but how many groups do you know who would? It’s a joke, like Spinal Tap. You know, I loved John, I was his best mate for a long time. Then the group started to break up. It was very sad. I got the rap as the guy who broke the group up. It wasn’t actually true.
But legally you had to do that to get out of the contract with Allen Klein, didn’t you?
Yeah, legally I had to. I had to take the other Beatles to court. And I got a lot of guilt off that. But you tell me what you would have done if the entire earnings that you’d made — and it was something like The Beatles’ entire earnings, a big figure, everything we’d ever done up to somewhere round about ‘Hey Jude’ — was about to disappear into someone’s pocket. The guy I’m talking about, Allen Klein, had £5 million the first year he managed The Beatles. So I smelled a rat and thought, £5 million in one year, how long’s it going to take him to get rid of it all?
So I started to resist, and I was given a lot of pressure. The others said, ‘Oh, you’re always stalling’ when I kept refusing to sign Klein’s contract.
But the others suspected you of looking after number one by wanting to bring in your wife’s family as managers.
Obviously everyone worried that because it was my father-in-law, I’d be the one he’d look after. Quite naturally, they said, ‘No, we can’t have him.’ So in the end it turned out to be Klein. And I said, ‘Well, I want out of this. I want to sue this guy Klein.’
They said, ‘You can’t, because he’s not party to any of the agreements.’ So it became clear that I had to sue The Beatles. So obviously I became the baddie. I did take The Beatles to the High Court, which was a highly traumatic period for me, living to front that one out. Imagine, seriously, having to front that one out.
How did you feel through all that?
Crazy, just insane. So insecure. Half the reason I grew the beard.
People often put hair on their faces to hide.
It’s often a cover-up. And I had this big beard and I went to the High Court and actually managed to save the situation. But my whole life was on the line at that point. I felt this was the fire, this was the furnace. It had finally arrived. And we used to get shakes in our voices in court. We used to get the Nixon shakes, something we’d never ever had before. So we went through a lot of those problems. But the nice thing was afterwards each one of them in turn very, very quietly and very briefly said, ‘Oh, thanks for that.’ That was about all I ever heard about it.
But again, John turned it round. He said, ‘But you’re always right, aren’t you?’ See, there was always this thing. I mean, it seemed crazy for me because I thought the idea was to try and get it right, you know. It was quite surprising to find that if you did get it right, people could then turn that one around and say: ‘But you’re always right aren’t you?’ It’s like moving the goal posts.
I mean, it occurred quite a few times because I’m pretty ruthless, ambitious, all that stuff. No more than anyone trying to break into showbiz, but I can be pretty forceful. If we’ve gotta make a record, I’ll actually sit down and write songs. This could be interpreted as being overpowering and forceful.
I’d heard that you were the driving force of The Beatles, but that John would be more interested in doing anything but what The Beatles were supposed to be doing.
Yeah, I remember doing Let It Be and we sat around the table in Apple and I came up with this idea that we should get it on film. I remember John said, ‘Why? What for?’ I explained a bit more. He said, ‘I get it. You want a job!’ Yeah, that’s it! But it seemed strange to me that he didn’t. He seemed quite happy languishing out in St George’s Hill in Weybridge.
I always wanted to make the group great, and even greater. When we made the Let It Be album, and it was a bit crummy, I insisted that we made Abbey Road because I knew what we were capable of. I didn’t think that we’d pulled it off on Let It Be and then with the Phil Spector remix, we kinda walked away from that LP. In fact, the best version of it was before anyone got hold of it: the Glyn Johns early mixes were great but they were very spartan; it would be one of the hippest records going if they brought it out. Before it had all its raw edges off it, that was one of the best Beatles albums because it was a bit avant-garde. I loved it.
So then it was Abbey Road we were doing and I got some grief on that because it took three days to do ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. You know how long Trevor Horn takes to do a mix for Frankie Goes to Hollywood? It takes two days to switch on the Fairlight! I had a group in the other day, spent two days trying to find the ON switch! That’s what we’re into these days, you know.
I’m sure I did piss people off at the time, much as I tried not to. It just seemed to me when we had a session booked it was a cool idea to turn up. Like Sgt. Pepper: George turned up for his number and a couple of other sessions but not for very much else.
George was supposed to have resented you for always getting on his back.
He did resent it. Two examples; one on Abbey Road. I was beginning to get too producery for everyone. George Martin was the actual producer and I was beginning to be too definite, and George and Ringo turned around and said, ‘Look, piss off, we’re grown-ups and we can do it without you fine.’ People like me who don’t realise when they’re being very overbearing, it comes as a great surprise to be told.
So I completely clammed up and backed off: right, ‘OK, they’re right, I’m a turd.’ So a day or so went by and the session started to flag a bit and so eventually Ringo turned round to me and said, ‘Come on… produce’, and so it was like you couldn’t have it both ways. You either had to have me doing what I did, which, let’s face it, I hadn’t done too bad, or I was going to back off and become paranoid myself, which was what happened.
A lot of Wings was to do with that; I’d been told that I was so overbearing. If the guitarists in Wings wanted to play a solo a certain way, I wouldn’t dare tell them that it wasn’t good.
The other example that really pissed George off was when we were making ‘Hey Jude’. To me it had to have a sparse opening and it was going to build. So I started off ‘Hey Jude’ (sings) and George went ‘durnurnawnaww’ (makes guitar noise), and then ‘Don’t make it bad’, and he’d go ‘Derdlederlederdle’ and he was answering every line through the whole song and I just said, ‘No, man, I really don’t want that, it’s my song.’ The rule was whoever’s song it was to say how we did the arrangement for them.
That pissed him off, and I’m sure it pissed Ringo off when he couldn’t quite get the drums to ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’, and I sat in. I remember sitting for hours thinking, ‘Should I say this thing?’ In the end it always came down to, ‘You should have said something,’ so it’s very hard to balance that. In the end I have to say that sometimes I was overbearing and sometimes they liked it.
Do you have much to do with them now?
I’m just starting to get back with them. It’s all business troubles. If we don’t talk about Apple then we get on like a house on fire. So I’ve just started to see them again. I had a great day the other day when George came down to visit me and for the first time in billions of years we had a really nice time. George was my original mate in The Beatles.
More than John?
He lived near me in Upton Green and I lived in Ardwick Road, and it was like half a mile away, so we took the same bus to the same school — the 500, which was the express — and then we got guitars at about the same time. We went through the Bert Weedon books and learned D and A together and we were quite big buddies then, so that was something I’d missed for all these years. We’d got all professional and Beatles and everything, and you lose that obviously, and he just came down the other day and we didn’t talk about Apple and we didn’t touch an instrument. It was just back as mates, like on the bus. He’s very into trees and planting and horticulture, as I am more now, and so we talked about planting trees. It was great to actually relate as two people and try and get all that crap out the window.
But that seems to be part of the process; he seems to be emerging more now anyway.
We’re all kind of coming to. We all brushed off this whole Beatles episode and sort of said, Well, it’s no big deal. Obviously it’s a big deal… it was a huge deal… if there ever was a big deal, that was it! So I don’t think half of us know what happened to us, really. I can never tell you what year anything was; literally they all go into a haze for me, the years and stuff. I keep seeing pictures of myself shaking hands with Mitzi Gaynor and I think, I didn’t know I met her. It’s that vague. And yet I look as straight as a die in there.
Were you on speed or something?
I don’t think so. I think it was just that life was speeding; you just met Mitzi Gaynor for five minutes and then you’d go and meet Jerry Lewis’s kids. It becomes very difficult after a while to know if you met 50 of them. I keep seeing weird photos of me with people that I didn’t even know I’d met. It’s quite embarrassing. Bowie’s got that problem too; he’s got huge periods of his life where he just does not know what happened.
When the money started to come in, were you aware of that or were you just living your life and you’d hear suddenly you were worth so much?
We used to ask them, ‘Am I a millionaire yet?’ and they used to say cryptic things like ‘On paper you are’ and we’d say, ‘Well, what does that mean? Am I or aren’t I? Are there more than a million of those green things in my bank yet?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, it’s not actually in a bank… we think you are.’ It was actually very difficult to get anything out of these people and the accountants never made you feel successful.
I remember we had the whole top five in America and I decided I wanted to buy a country house. I wasn’t asking for the world. In those days it would have cost about £30,000, top whack, and so I went to the accountants and they said, ‘You’ll have to get a mortgage’ and I said, ‘What do you mean, a mortgage? Aren’t we doing well yet? We’ve got the whole top five in the biggest market in the world! There’s gotta be some money coming in off that!’
They always try and keep you down. So you didn’t actually get much of a feeling of being very rich. The first time I actually saw cheques was when I left Apple, and it wasn’t me that saw them, it was Linda, because we’d co-written a few of our early things.
There are lots of stories about you and money. Miles, once the editor of International Times, who was a friend of yours in the mid-‘60s, told me about finding your MBE and a bunch of £20 notes stuffed into a sock drawer in your bedroom at the Asher house.
Yeah, I’ve heard that story too. I never remember actually having a wad of money like that. Still, it was nice of him not to nick it anyway, wasn’t it? I did know Miles very well. He was my mate. We had many a wondrous stoned evening in his place listening to all sorts of stuff.
That was another of the interesting things. I think that I’ve got a certain personality and if I give charity I don’t like to shout about it. If I get into avant-garde stuff, I don’t particularly shout about that either. I just get on with it. So way before John met Yoko and got avant-garde, I was like the avant-garde London bachelor with Miles in my pad in St. John’s Wood. I was making 8mm movies and showing them to Antonioni. I had all sorts of theories of music — we’d put on a Ravi Shankar record to our home movies and it’d synchronise and John used to come from Weybridge, kind of looking slightly goofy and saying ‘Wow! This is great! We should do more of this!’
I used to sit in a basement in Montagu Square with William Burroughs and a couple of gay guys he knew from Morocco and that Marianne Faithfull-John Dunbar crowd doing little tapes, crazy stuff with guitar and cello. But it didn’t occur to me in the next NME interview I did to rave about William Burroughs. Maybe it would have been good for me to do that.
It’s like Yoko met me before she met John. She turned up for a charity thing, she wanted manuscripts, any spare lyric sheets you had around. Ours tended to be on the backs of envelopes and to tell you the truth I didn’t want to give her any. They were very precious to me and the cause didn’t seem so great. So I said, ‘Look, my mate might be interested,’ and I gave her John’s address, and I think that’s how they first hooked up, and then she had her exhibition and stuff and then their side of the story started to happen.
I feel as though I have to justify living, you know, which is a bit of a piss-off. I don’t really want to have to sit around and justify myself; it’s a bit humiliating. But there are lots of things that haven’t come out. For instance, when they bust up their marriage, she came through London. He was in LA doing Pussy Cats with Nilsson and having a generally quite crazy time of it all, fighting with photographers and haranguing the Smothers Brothers, all because he genuinely loved Yoko and they had a very, very deep, strong relationship, but they were into all sorts of crazy stuff, stuff I don’t know the half of. A lot of people don’t know the half of that. Hints of it keep coming out in books but you never know if you can believe them.
You mean occultism?
All sorts. I certainly did get a postcard from Yoko saying ‘Go round the world in a South-Easterly direction. It’d be good for you. You’re allowed to stop at four places.’ George Martin got one of those and he sort of said, ‘Would it be alright if I go to Montserrat?’, and she said, ‘No.’ Actually, John did the voyage. John went in a South-Easterly direction around the world, but we all kind of went, ‘Sure, sure, we’ll go round the South-East.’ There are so many memories that come flooding in and it’s like a psycho session, the minute I get on this stuff. I’m on a couch and I’m just trying to purge it all.
Linda and me came over for dinner once and John said, ‘You fancy getting the trepanning tiling done?’ I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ and he said, ‘Well, you kind of have a hole bored in your skull and it relieves the pressure.’ We’re sitting at dinner and this is seriously being offered! Now this wasn’t a joke, this was like, ‘Let’s go next week, we know a guy who can do it and maybe we could all go together.’ So I said. ‘Look, you go and have it done, and if it works, great. Tell us all about it and we’ll all have it.’
But I’m afraid I’ve always been a little bit cynical about stuff like that — thank God! — because I think that there’s so much crap that you’ve got to be careful of. But John was more open to things like that.
Anyway, I was telling you about the marriage break-up thing. Yoko came through London and visited us, which was very nice. Linda and I were just married and living in this big old house in St John’s Wood. She came by and we started talking, and obviously the important subject for us is: ‘What’s happened? You’ve broken up then? I mean, you’re here and he’s there.’
She was very nice and confided in us but she was being very strong about it. She said, ‘No, he’s got to work his way back.’ I said, ‘Well look, do you still love him?’, and she said, ‘Yes.’ So I said, ‘Well, would you think it was an intrusion if I said to him, “Look, man, she loves you and there’s a way to get back”— sounds like a Beatles’ song — and I said ‘Would that be OK?’
She said she didn’t mind and we went out to visit him in L.A. in that house where all the crazy things went on and I took him into the back room and said, ‘This girl of yours, she really still loves you. Do you love her?’ And he said he did but he didn’t know what to do.
So I said, ‘You’re going to have to work your little ass off, man. You have to get back to New York, you have to take a separate flat, you have to send her roses every fucking day, you have to work at it like a bitch! Then you just might get her back.’ And he did. I mean, if you hear it from John’s point of view, it’ll just be that he spoke to Yoko on the phone and she said to him, ‘Come back.’
I always found it interesting that he got married a month after you.
I think we spurred each other into marriage. They were very strong together which left me out of the picture, so then I got together with Linda and we got our own kind of strength. I think again that they were a little bit peeved that we got married first.
Was it the kind of thing where there are two blokes who are good mates and one of them finds a girl and then the friendship breaks up?
‘Wedding Bells’ is what it was. ‘Wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.’ We used to sing that song, Gene Vincent did it. It was like an army song and for us the Beatles became the army. We always knew that one day ‘Wedding Bells’ would come true, and that was when it did.
Trouble is, in trying to set the record straight I don’t want to blame John. I did this thing recently with Hunter Davies and they pulled out the one line, ‘John could be a manoeuvring swine.’ Well, I still stick to that, but I’d better not say it to The Sun because I’m just going to get hauled over the coals again.
I’ll tell you exactly why I said that. We had a business meeting to break up The Beatles, one of the famous ones that we’d been having — we’re stillhaving them 17 years later, actually. We all flew in to New York specially. George came off his disastrous tour, Ring of flew in and we were at the Plaza for the big final settlement meeting. John was half a mile away at the Dakota and he sent a balloon over with a note that said ‘Listen to this balloon.’ I mean, you’ve got to be pretty cool to handle that kind of stuff.
George blew his cool and rang him up: ’You fucking maniac!! You take your fucking dark glasses off and come and look at us, man!!’ and gave him a whole load of that shit. Around the same time at another meeting we had it all settled, and John asked for an extra million pounds at the last minute. So of course that meeting blew up in disarray. Later, when we got a bit friendlier — and from time to time there would be these little stepping-stones of friendship in the Apple sea — I asked him why he’d actually wanted that million and he said, I just wanted cards to play with. It’s absolutely standard business practice. He wanted a couple of jacks to up your pair of nines. He was one great guy, but part of his greatness was that he wasn’t a saint.
You got an awful lot of shit for saying “It’s a drag” after he’d been killed.
Yea. I think why some politicians are so successful is that they have a little bleeper box in their heads and before they say something they run things through and they can see it as a headline. If it doesn’t look good they edit it. I have that sometimes, but in moments like that all my bleepers go out the window. I just came out of the place and somebody just stuck the proverbial microphone in the window of the car, which I’m mad enough to have open because, you see, I’m quite outgoing and I was telling the fans ‘Thank you, it’s alright.’ You know. Fab Macca, thumbs aloft, wacky… to me that’s just being nice… that’s just ordinary. I’m not going to carry any can for that kind of shit, for me that was OK… Sticking my thumb up isn’t some armour against the fans, it’s just a perfectly straightforward way of being friendly with people.
But, anyway, I said, ‘It’s a dra-a-ag.’ If I could’ve I might’ve just lengthened that word ‘drag’ for about a thousand years, to get the full meaning. Hunter Davies was on television that night, giving a very reasoned account of John, and all the puppets sprang right up there. I thought it was well tasteless. Jesus Christ, ready with the answers, aren’t we? Aren’t we just ready with a summary? Mind you, Hunter admitted to us years ago that he already had our obituaries written. They’re on file at The Times and they just update them, which is chilling to learn.
The question is, which is the more sensitive: my thing or his thing? He was the one I rang up about ‘manoeuvring swine’ too, so it shows what a buddy he is, he immediately put it in print.
That incident reminded me of John saying ‘We’re bigger than Jesus,’ which was a Maureen Cleave article for the Evening Standard. John and Maureen were good friends and in context it was actually John saying to the church, ‘Hey, wake up! We’re bigger than you.’
But you take it out of context, you send it to Selma, Alabama, you put it on the front page and you’ve got little 11-year-olds thumping on your coach window saying, ‘Blasphemer! Devil Worshipper!’ and I’ll never forget the sight of a little blond kid trying to get to us, and he would have done it, if he’d have got to us. I mean, at 11, what does this kid know of life and religion or anything? He’d just been whipped up.
It’s like Phillip Norman’s book Shout. It’s shameful the way it says that George spent the whole of his career holding a plectrum waiting for a solo. To dismiss George like that is just stupid, nothing less. George was a major influence musically. Trouble is with all these guys, when they come to interview you they come with a clipboard of facts that they’ve got from the files. That’s how Willie Russell wrote his play, John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert. That’s how I’ve become known as the one who broke up the Beatles.
The only thing I’m thankful for is that now the truth is starting to come out, and when I see that wedding changed to funeral, I start to realise that it was John’s problem, not mine.
What was his problem, do you think?
Heroin, a slight problem.
When did you know he was doing heroin?
When he was living in Montagu Square with Yoko after he’d split up with Cynthia. He never actually told us, no one ever actually saw him take it, but we heard. I was very lucky to miss that whole scene. I was the first one on coke in the group, which horrified the whole group, and I just thought, No sweat. The minute I stopped, the whole record industry got into it and has never stopped since.
I knew the time was up when I saw Jim Webb — Up Up And Away! — offering me a toot. I thought, ‘Hello, this is getting way too popular.’
When was this that you were doing it?
In LA, it was Sgt. Pepper time, it was my circle of friends: the William Burroughs, the Robert Frasers, the Rolling Stones crowd, and we’d use it to wake up after the pot. But that was quite shortlived and I hated it. I soon got the message that it was a big downer.
There’s a story that sums up all that drugs thing. When I went out to LA at the time of that Pussy Cats album I was offered angel dust. I said, ‘What is it?’ and they said, ‘It’s an elephant tranquillizer,’ and I said to the guy, ‘Is it fun?’ He thought for a moment and said, ‘No it’s not fun.’ So I said, ‘OK, I won’t have any then.’ That sums it up, you know. You had anything, man, even if it wasn’t fun! You sort of had to do it — peer pressure.
I was given a lot of stick for being the last one to take acid. I wish I’d held out now in a way, Although it was the times. I don’t really regret anything actually. I remember John going on The Old Grey Whistle Test and saying, ‘Paul only took it four times! We all took it twenty times!!’ It was as if you’d scored points…
Real twenty pints a night stuff, isn’t it?
It really is!! That’s it, exactly! Very northern. It’s the same thing. If you get it right with one crowd; of people, it’s wrong with another crowd, so you can’t win, basically. But it was great times and I really don’t regret it. I love a lot of what we did; we had screwed-up moments too, but who doesn’t?
Like Geldof — there’s this guy who does great stuff, but that doesn’t mean that he’s a saint. In fact, it’s often the opposite with these people; it just means that they’ve got Go Power.
I love the story where they finished the USA For Africa record and Geldof is buzzing and Michael Jackson and his family were having a light meal at about three in the morning. They’re all devout Jehovah’s Witnesses and they were all sitting there and Bob walks in and says, ‘You lot fucking disgust me!!’ The jaws just drop.
He didn’t make himself too wildly popular. I think that’s why he got a bit elbowed in the States. They never mention him. It’s the American guy they always mention. I don’t even know what his name is. Ken something. They all thank him. They never say, ‘And by the way, he got the idea off this mad Irish bog bandit.’
How did you feel at Live Aid? The first time you’d been on stage for ages and it all went wrong.
When the mic went? I felt very strange. It was very loosely organised and I turned up not knowing quite what was expected of me, other than that I had to do ‘Let It Be’. So I sat down at the piano, looked around for a cue to go, and there was just one roadie, and I looked at him for a signal. I started and the monitor was off and I thought, No sweat, this is BBC, this is world television, someone’s bound to have a feed, it’s just that my monitor’s off.
Then I wondered if the audience could hear because I knew some of the words of ‘Let It Be’ were kind of relevant to what we were doing. Anyway, I thought, This is OK, they can hear me, they’re singing along. I just had to keep going, so it was very embarrassing. The terrible thing was that in the middle I heard the roadies come through on the monitor, shouting, ’No, this plug doesn’t go here!‘ I thought, Hello, we have problems. The worst moment was watching it on telly later.
The event itself was so great, but it wasn’t for my ego. It was for people who are dying and it raised over £50 million, and so it was like having been at the battle of Agincourt. It’s something you’ll tell your grandchildren about. I know Paul Simon slightly regrets that he didn’t do it. He was asked, but he had other things to do. I very nearly didn’t do it; Bob just badgered me into it.
That’s your mother invoked in ‘Let It Be’, isn’t it?
Yeah, well, I had a lot of bad times in the ‘60s there, and we used to sort of — probably all the drugs — lie in bed and wonder what was going on and feel quite paranoid. I had a dream one night about my mother. She died when I was 14 so I hadn’t really heard from her in quite a while, and it was very good. It gave me some strength. In my darkest hour Mother Mary comes to me. I don’t know whether you’ve got parents that are still living, but if you do… I get dreams with John in, and my Dad. It’s very nice because you meet them again. It’s wondrous, it’s like magic. Of course, you’re not meeting them, you’re meeting yourself, or whatever…
What about ‘Lady Madonna’?
Lady Madonna’s all women. How do they do it? — bless ‘em — it’s that one, you know. Baby at your breast, how do they get the time to feed them? Where do you get the money? How do you do this thing that women do?
Was your mother a very strong force in your life?
Well, I loved her, you know, yeah.
Was it very traumatic when she died?
Yeah, but I’m a bit of a cover-up. There are many people like me in the world who don’t find it easy to have public grief. But that was one of the things that brought John and I very close together. We used to actually talk about it, being 16 or 17. We actually used to know, not in a cynical way, but a way that was accepting the reality of the situation, how people felt when they said, ‘How’s your mother?’ And we’d say, ‘Well, she’s dead.’ We almost had a sort of joke, we’d have to say, ‘It’s alright, don’t worry.’ We’d both lost our mothers. It was never really spoken about much; no-one really spoke about anything real. There was a famous expression: ‘Don’t get real on me, man.’
How did you feel about all the stick Linda got?
I feel sorry for her. She got a lot of stick, more than we admit to.
It presumably affected your relationship in some way?
It made us stronger, really; the thing I’m beginning to understand now about Linda was that we were just two people who liked each other and found a lot in common and fell in love, got married and found that we liked it. To the world, of course, she was the girl that Paul McCartney had married, and she was a divorcee, which didn’t seem right. People preferred Jane Asher. Jane Asher fitted. She was a better Fergie.
Linda wasn’t a very good Fergie for me, and people generally tended to disapprove of me marrying a divorcee and an American. That wasn’t too clever. None of that made a blind bit of difference; I actually just liked her, I still do and that’s all it’s to do with.
I mean, we got married in the craziest clothes when I look back on it. We didn’t even bother to buy her a decent outfit. I can see it all now; I can see why people were amazed that I’d put her in the group. At the time it didn’t seem the least bit unusual. I even had quotes from Jagger saying, ‘Oh, he’s got his old lady up onstage man.’
A lot of people give her stick for playing with one finger, but as a matter of fact they weren’t polyphonic, the Moogs, in those days. You can only play them with one finger; you can play them with five if you like, but only one’s gonna register, so it’s things like that all added to the picture, and by the time she did the ’76 tour with Wings, she was well good at stuff and actually I was quite surprised, I mean, she was holding down the keyboard job with one of the big bands in the world. From knowing nothing! I mean, the balls of the girl!
But along with the public condemnations, there were always millions of people who liked her. Our shows always did OK, and our records occasionally did OK. Occasionally we’d have a whopper burger that’d suddenly make it worthwhile. Then we’d have our big whopper failures, but as long as you measure them against your successes, it’s alright.
How do you feel about the Wings output?
I was never very happy with the whole thing but I’m actually starting to think that it was a bit churlish of me, because I’m meeting a lot of people now who had a completely different perception of the whole thing. I met a nurse recently who was a Wings fan! I mean, forget me, forget The Beatles,she was an actual die-hard Wings fan. I didn’t think they existed.
A lot of the younger people coming up didn’t really know the Beatles history. There are people who don’t know what Sgt. Pepper was. We find it a bit difficult to understand. It’s like not knowing what War And Peace is.So it’s OK. I was never very pleased with the whole thing, but I’m warming to it now. I’m starting to look at it through my own eyes, and saying, Wait a minute. What did we do? Where did we go wrong? Most people would give their right arm for the Wings career, to have hits as big as ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, ‘My Love’, ‘Band On The Run’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’.
But it came to an end when you were busted in Japan. How did that happen?
It happened because we got some good grass in America and no-one could face putting it down the toilet. It was an absolutely crazy move. We knew we weren’t going to get any in Japan. Anybody else would have given it to their roadies, but I didn’t want them to take the rap. It was lying on top of the bloody suitcase. I’ll never forget the guy’s face as he pulled it out. He almost put it back. He just did not want the embarrassment. But it’s a hysterical subject and I’d prefer to skirt round it these days, because I don’t want any of the pressures that go with it, so I’m telling everyone, stay clean, be cool.
I’m pretty straight. I know what crazy is.
Last updated on August 5, 2020