Interview for The Sunday Times • Saturday, November 4, 2023

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr: We never thought the Beatles would last

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney

Album This interview has been made to promote the Now And Then / Love Me Do (Black 7" Vinyl) 7" Single.

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Paul McCartney never thought the Beatles would last — pop music, after all, was not always such an old man’s game.

“When we started,” he says, thinking back to 1960 in Liverpool, “we thought that, maybe, we’d have ten years — that was the maximum span for a rock’n’roll group.”

In one way he was right. He jumped ship in 1970 and the Beatles soon split amid rancour and financial wranglings. In another way, though, his band never really went away.

“I like the idea of not letting go of each other,” McCartney continues. “You know, when you have somebody you love so much. In many cases it’s a relative, and even though they go, you don’t want to let go — that’s what people say when somebody dies. They’re in your memory, always in your heart. And, yes, that’s certainly true of me and the boys.

“Obviously,” he says, “just to even look at photos of John or George is bittersweet. The sweet is ‘How lucky was I to have those men in my life’. But the fact that they’re not here is bitter. I see photos of George and remember how we went hitchhiking, sitting by the road, buying ourselves creamed rice. John and I went hitchhiking too. We ended up in Paris. All the memories flood back … But, oh God, it’s sad these guys are not here. It’s a bitter pill you just have to swallow and then get on with the sweetness, you know? That’s the way I do it.”

McCartney, 81, and Ringo Starr, 83, who were talking to their Apple Corps label, are the only survivors — the Fab Two. John Lennon was killed in 1980; George Harrison died of cancer in 2001. Starr says: “You know, I still miss them, man.” He was even more pessimistic than Paul about the Beatles’ prospects when they started.

“None of us thought it would last a week!” Starr says. “Paul was going to write, I was going to open a hairdresser’s, George would get a garage. But it went on and then it ended. And at the right time I think. But, you know, that didn’t stop us playing with each other.”

Starr mentions how both Harrison and McCartney produced his solo work. And he returned the favour by drumming on McCartney’s albums. I saw Starr perform with McCartney at the O2 in London five years ago, turning the arena into a volcano of adulation. It is heavily rumoured McCartney and Lennon had studio time booked together in 1981. “You know, the beat goes on,” Starr says. “The beat goes on.

And this week the beat got even louder. A gorgeous final Beatles song, Now and Then, was released on Thursday and next week freshly mixed and extended versions of the iconic Red and Blue compilation albums will be released. Will you still need me when I’m nearly 64? Turns out that millions of us do, and before anybody calls this another record company money grab, remember McCartney is worth almost a billion, and you can listen to all this new music free on the internet. Part of the enduring appeal of the Beatles is that they come from a less cynical time — ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.

Now and Then has been around since 1978, when Lennon wrote the song on his piano in the Dakota Building in New York. In 1994 Yoko Ono handed a tape to McCartney with sketchy demos of the track plus Free as a Bird and Real Love. After work by McCartney, Harrison and Starr, the latter two were released on the compilation The Beatles Anthology in 1995, to mixed reactions. But the sound quality of Now and Then was too murky. You could hear the noises of Lennon’s apartment as much as you could hear his words. The song was shelved indefinitely until the film director Peter Jackson used the technology honed on his epic documentary The Beatles: Get Back to separate Lennon’s vocals from his music — and so the Beatles’ final track became possible.

Ono has long been an enthusiast. She says: “I thought this song would release people from their sorrow of losing John.” The track has Lennon on vocals, Harrison on guitar (from those Anthology sessions) and last year Starr added drums and McCartney bass, piano and additional vocals. There is also an evocative string section arranged by McCartney and Giles Martin, son of George, the original Beatles producer, that’s inspired by Strawberry Fields ForeverYesterday and Eleanor Rigby.

And no one ever said boo [to them],” McCartney says. Put it all together and you get Now and Then, a song by the Beatles, 63 years after they formed.

“It’s strange when you think about it,” McCartney says. “There’s John, in his apartment, banging away at a piano doing a demo. And now we’ve restored it and it’s a crystal-clear, beautiful vocal. You still wonder, is it inferior, something we shouldn’t do? But every time I thought that, I thought, ‘Let’s say I had a chance to ask John.’ And John would have loved it. Of course, I’m never going to know, but I think mine’s the best guess we can have. And now it is a Beatles record. When we played it to people, some cried, some said, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s a Beatles record!’ ”

The real trick of Now and Then is that it sounds like it was recorded now, not then. It does not feel like a pastiche, more like something the band would have come up with in 2023, had life been different. It conjures up the great “What if?” If Lennon were alive, would the band have re-formed? (Probably, in the 1980s.) Would Britpop have happened had the Beatles still been going in the 1990s? When would they have headlined Glastonbury?

No one has done more to bring the Beatles back to life than Jackson. He has segued from taking JRR Tolkien to a younger audience to be the director preserving the Beatles for future generations. His Get Back three-parter in 2021 was a Christmas delight, turning hours of unseen footage from the Let It Be sessions into a documentary unlike any made before — with a lot of cigarettes and neatly cut toast.

Speaking from his home in New Zealand, Jackson tells how McCartney contacted him in July 2022 to talk about the mythical tape of Now and Then. He hoped that Jackson’s MAL audio software that was used to make Get Back would be able to separate Lennon’s vocal from the demo. If so, it could become a real song. The process proved surprisingly easy. Jackson’s methods are not AI. Everything is played by a Beatle or an orchestra in Los Angeles. Jackson also made the funny, moving, collage-style video. “I’d never made a music video before,” he says, laughing. “My brain’s wired to do three-hour special effects films, not four-minute videos. They intimidated me.

Jackson has a theory about Now and Then that made him say yes to the project — he thinks the song is Lennon writing about his bandmates, an alternative take to his earlier, staggeringly vitriolic How Do You Sleep? “It sounds like John is writing a message as an apology for however he may have behaved. I found that incredibly moving, that the final Beatles song is the Beatles singing to each other.

And it’s such a catchy tune!” he adds. “It felt so wrong to have a Beatles song all to myself. It’s not a classic in the sense of I Am the Walrus or Penny Lane — it’s not complex like that. It’s simple, but it’s got a haunting quality. Whenever anyone asks why I like the Beatles, I just say they make me happy. With the world in the state it is, we need the Beatles to appear again, as if a flying saucer has touched down and they’ve got off and are providing us with their one last song to cheer us up.

Which leads to the inevitable question — is this really the Beatles’ last song? Surely, I ask, there is footage from the Get Back vaults in which one of the Fab Four noodles a riff that could turn into yet another final song in a year or two? “It did cross my mind!” Jackson says with a laugh. “We can take a performance from Get Back, separate John and George, and then have Paul and Ringo add a chorus or harmonies. You might end up with a decent song but I haven’t had conversations with Paul about that. It’s fanboy stuff, but certainly conceivable.

The next decade feels crucial for the legacy of the Beatles. At some point McCartney and Starr will stop performing. Will music that has been the soundtrack to so many lives for so many decades just become the preserve of a diminishing number of older people? The Beatles need new generations of kids on their side. This is what lies behind the remixes of the Red and Blue albums, marshalled by Martin. It aims to make very old songs feel modern and dynamic. And Martin’s work is extraordinary, particularly on the Red album, which sounds so fresh it could be by some up-and-coming garage rock band.

Martin rejects the cynicism some people have about reissues. He also dismisses the significance of Harrison apparently once calling Now and Then “f***ing rubbish” in the late 1990s. He says Harrison was talking about the quality of the recording rather than the song — after all, the guitarist was the last person who would want to “scrape the barrel”. Jackson’s software changed that.

Few people know the Beatles like Martin does. He kept going where his father left off, and is the band’s right-hand man. Why are McCartney and Starr revisiting the past again? “I know Paul misses John,” Martin says. “He was his best mate. There was a falling-out and he died. It was so destructive for Paul. But here he had John’s song and thought he’d like to work with him again. I don’t think that’s cynical.

A lot of people were touched by the Beatles — and that feeling still exists,” McCartney says, in the understatement of the year.

People still come up to him and say he will never know what their songs did to help them. There is no danger the band will be forgotten, but how, in this ever-changing world, does he want the band to be remembered?

When I remember the Beatles, I remember joy, talent, humour and love,” McCartney says. “And if people remember us for those things I’d be very happy.

As for Starr? “With love,” the drummer says. “How many streams did we do last year? One billion? Three billion? It blows me away. The beat’s still going on, you know?

He talks about the band, all those many lifetimes ago. Only the four of them know what it was really like, striving through the fuss, fandom and fallings-out to create an indelible body of work that is still cherished, discussed — and tweaked. “And it wasn’t a dream every day,” Starr says. “But most days were.”


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