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Sir Paul McCartney continues to be worshipped abroad, while we too often treat him as an embarrassing uncle. Now an exciting new album has brought him back home. He invites Miranda Sawyer round to his studio for a chat about the Liverpool that shaped him – and how he fell in love with Nancy
The road to Paul McCartney, if not long and winding, does involve a train ride to Hastings. Plenty of time to read his latest press release. And you need that time: it takes up four and a half sides of A4, and only one eight-line paragraph is about the Beatles.
It’s too tiring to list all Sir Paul has done in the past five years, but let’s pick some highlights: two trips to the White House for prizes (Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, Kennedy Center Honor), off to Paris to get the Légion d’Honneur from François Hollande, as well as trousering a Brit in 2008 for Outstanding Contribution to Music and, last year, the MusiCares Person of the Year award. Which doesn’t sound like much, but the ceremony was packed with musicians from the Foo Fighters to Tony Bennett, all singing McCartney songs, and straight after, he went on to close the Grammys with the medley from Abbey Road. Live, he’s performed in front of 400,000 people in Kiev, 300,000 in Quebec, 400,000 in Mexico City… actually, he’s been on a world tour since summer 2009, playing to enormous stadiums stuffed with joyful multitudes doing the la-la-la bit to “Hey Jude”.
It’s noticeable, though, that his recent accolades have tended to come from outside Britain. Abroad he is revered: one recent Italian review described going to a McCartney concert as being on a cultural par with visiting the Louvre. Meanwhile at home there’s a tendency to regard Sir Paul like an embarrassing uncle. We love him, but he will keep showing us up at parties.
There was sniping after his Olympics opening ceremony miscue (a massive bell rang, he couldn’t hear and started singing a couple of bars off from the backing track), and when he played the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert, he chose “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” to finish, which caused eyes to roll. Such Macca fatigue seems peculiarly British – our national sense of cool is so nuanced as to be completely baffling to the rest of the world. Every other country would be proud to claim the 71-year-old McCartney as their own, to celebrate him as an actual living legend who changed the world through his talent. Whereas I feel as though I’m going to interview the NHS or the BBC, some well-loved British institution that inspires immense gratitude for past glories but is considered exasperating in its current form. Not necessarily by me, but that’s the general air.
We arrive at Hastings, where a tousle-haired lady named Louise is waiting in a small, very dirty red car – there’s mud all over it; it’s like it’s been basted – to drive the 20 minutes to Sir Paul’s recording studio, Hogg Hill Mill. A genuine windmill, on a hill looking out to sea, with several small outbuildings close by containing McCartney’s studio and rehearsal space.
Don Letts – filmmaker, 6 Music presenter – is here doing some filming and has still got a little more to do. So we wait in the kitchen, which is small, not modern, with sketches of Hogg Hill Mill on the wall and a hodgepodge of books on the shelf: Linda McCartney vegetarian cookery books and other non-meaty tomes, but also The Bodyguard’s Story (about Princess Diana) and one entitled The Social Biology of Ants. The room is very normal: homely, a bit bashed up, unworthy of a spread in Country Life. McCartney’s support people are friendly and funny. There is an array of sandwiches and fruit on the table – cheese and coleslaw, veggie ham – but nothing fancy. You’d get a posher selection at Pret.
We hear some tuneful humming and into the kitchen comes Paul McCartney: “Hello, hello!” He’s wearing jeans and a pastel shirt and he moves like a 30-something, casually energetic. Above his youthful figure, though, his face appears old: delicate, freckly, framed with that daft dyed hair. You think: why does he still do that? And then you think: because Paul McCartney isn’t allowed to have white hair! And all your images of him tumble in on themselves, from the cover of A Hard Day’s Night to the Olympics, until they merge and become one with the lined, puppy-eyed, young-old grown-up in front of you.
He extends his hand. He vaguely recognises me: “The Culture Show? That’ll be it!” Someone makes him hummus on toast, and we clamber up wooden stairs to an open-plan room with two striped yellow sofas and instruments and clutter all over the place: a double bass, an electric bass, books… (McCartney isn’t known for his domestic preciousness. His daughter Mary recalls her childhood in Scotland as being like growing up in a lumber yard.)
So. Let’s ignore the press release, the past, the prizes. The thing to talk to Paul McCartney about is… his new album, New. “Great!” he says, munching on his toast. “Sounds like a good plan!” He’s just as cheerful as you’d hope.
New is his first LP of original songs since 2007’s Memory Almost Full and is a sparky, upbeat piece of work. Several tracks have a Beatlesy feel, including the single, also called “New”. The big news – for music buffs, though I’m not sure how much most listeners will care – is that there are four producers. They are Paul Epworth, who produced Adele’s 21; Mark Ronson, known for his work with Amy Winehouse; Ethan Johns, an acoustic, folky musician who is Laura Marling’s producer; and Giles Martin, who worked on the Beatles’s awful Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas (still running; a naff-a-mungo cash pumper). Johns and Martin have an intergenerational connection to McCartney: Johns is the son of Glyn Johns, who was hired to do production work with Wings but walked out, and Martin’s father is Sir George Martin, the Beatles producer.
Why four producers? “The idea,” says Paul, “was that during recording, one of them would reveal himself as the ‘proper’ producer of the album. But I liked them all.”
He gives quick character sketches, assessments of their capabilities (Epworth made him write songs on the spot; Ronson was enthusiastic, willing to play around; Johns went with the first take, even though McCartney’s voice wasn’t perfect; Martin is good with “Beatles sounds”). Of course, whatever approach they had, McCartney could go with it: he played every instrument other than the drums on the Epworth tracks – “And I would have played drums as well, but he kept sitting down there,” he jokes.
He keeps up with music through listening to the radio – Radios 1, 2, 3, Heart, Absolute –and he has a chap who makes him up playlists of club or student sounds. He brought an Usher track to the Ronson sessions, not because he wanted to emulate the pants-dropping R&B star, but because the track had “this whoosh – you’re out of one room and into somewhere completely different. It’s something sonically I’m always trying to do.”
In the end the album was made up of a song or two from each producer, though he was worried it might sound too disparate. “But then I thought back to the Beatles, where you would have like a satirical thing, then a heavy, dark, rock thing, then a lighter acoustic thing… ‘Blackbird’, followed by ‘Piggies’ – I can’t remember the sequence – followed by ‘She’s So Heavy’!” (This isn’t quite right. ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Piggies’ are next to each other on the White Album; ‘She’s So Heavy’ is on Abbey Road: funny that he doesn’t remember.) “Anyway, the thing that will hold it all together will be my voice. It’s all me singing these different things.”
Lyrically the album hops about, too: there’s some rabble-rousers, some love songs and a couple of tracks that refer to the past. “On My Way to Work” is one. “That’s all remembrances from Liverpool. The bus, top deck, me going to work… The specific work I was thinking of was my first job, as a second man on a lorry. The second man helps the driver unload when you get to the destination; the driver is the first man. He was very nice, my first man, because I was always knackered, and he would let me sleep. I would help load up the lorry, then get in and just sleep until we got half an hour from the destination, when he’d wake me up: ‘Oi, look lively!’
“So, that was one of my jobs. I was also a coil winder in a factory. But there was always the bus involved to get there, you know; nobody had a car. Big green buses, always the upper deck, for a ciggie, getting to work, clocking on…”
Another song that sprung from his Liverpool past is “Queenie Eye”, the result of a Paul Epworth improv session. It’s based on a children’s chant.
“‘Queenie Eye, Queenie Eye, who’s got the ball? I haven’t got it, it isn’t in my pocket, O-U-T spells OUT!’ Someone stood with their back to the group and you had to approach gingerly, and if they looked around and saw you moving, you were out.”
That’s What’s the Time, Mr Wolf, I say: McCartney shrugs. Queenie Eye is similar, I discover later, but the person who turns away throws a ball over their shoulder and when they turn back they have to guess who caught it. It’s an example, I suppose, of how your past feeds your present if you’re a songwriter. Not with pin-sharp incident or anecdote, but with an odd rhythm or a half-feeling that you put to whatever use you want. (Anyhow, with McCartney, everyone else remembers for him: there are so many books written about him, so much theorising and analysis.) McCartney himself admits that he doesn’t always recall specifics – “and I don’t tend to write directly about myself; I take on characters” – but everything feeds into his work. “You always draw on your past. Writers, they’re in the here and now, but it’s this guy that’s writing or this girl that’s writing, with their past. Like Dickens, going back into his father’s debt.”
What about melody and sound, though? He’s had periods of avoiding making anything too Beatlesy, but can he ever write a song that doesn’t sound like what he’s done before?
“Can you? Can you? I don’t think you can, and in the end I’m not sure I would want to. It’s learning your trade. If you’re an around-the-world sailor, you’re going to remember the sailing lessons you had, hopefully, or it’s not going to work out too good. I’m very lucky, obviously, because it was great training.”
It’s a bizarre analogy, but you know what he means. By great training, he’s obviously referring to the Beatles and their astonishing work rate. But also McCartney talks a lot about his school: he passed the 11-plus and went to the Liverpool Institute, now the LIPA, to be taught by Alan Durband, one of the founders of the Everyman Theatre. So by the time he joined the Beatles, “I had a love of literacy. With ‘Eleanor Rigby’, I was trying to write like a good poet. And John [Lennon] loved that.
“Also, with the Beatles we wanted to experiment, to change. That was the aim. People like the Supremes, it was always the same record: ‘Stop! In the Name of Love…’ ‘Baby Love…’ And we loved the Supremes, we bought all their records, but we consciously said: ‘We don’t want to do that.’ We would even change the drum sound from track to track. I remember, clearly, saying to Ringo [Starr]: ‘Did you use that snare drum on the last track? We’ve been there, so now let’s cover it with a tea towel and take the snare off.’ Or, let’s clap. Or… cardboard boxes, we were always using. We established that experimental policy very early on.”
He talks about “Penny Lane”, writing the piccolo trumpet part too high because he didn’t know any better, and then getting the trumpet player, David Mason, to have a crack anyway. His training is, then, to work hard, produce the goods, but don’t forget to experiment. You can see this in the way he’s approached the past few years. There’s the slick-as-you-like world tour of stadiums, but he’s also been playing with younger, more alternative musicians. This stuff is less noticed: a collaborative album with Youth as The Fireman in 2008, cutting a track with the remaining members of Nirvana, jamming with Gruff Rhys, Damon Albarn and Africa Express.
Anyway, the stadium gigs. McCartney’s current, pre-New-set, is three hours long. Thirty-eight songs, played straight through, without a break even for water.
“Ah, you know, a three-hour set, it’s not so long,” he says. “We start off raucous and up-tempo, to make sure they know it’s a rock ‘n’ roll show… Then I go to the piano, so I get to sit down, and I play some quieter things, a couple of up things… The pace that the show has got, by the time we’re finished, I don’t really feel like I’ve had a strenuous evening. And water? We never stopped for water during the Beatles, can you imagine?” He shakes his head; you youngsters don’t know you’re born.
He clearly loves touring. He seems to treat it like a working version of a Saga cruise: he gets excited about going to places he hasn’t been before, makes sure that he has a day off after each show, so he can cycle round the sights. And, he smiles, “it’s not like we’re schlepping about on a Greyhound bus. The travel is presidential.” In South America, he’s given police escorts with sirens and flashing lights, as though he really is a president.
His life is nicely balanced between home and work, he says, “because of my custody arrangement”: he means with Heather Mills over Beatrice, their daughter. “I have time when I’m raising her and then time when she is with her mum. When I’m at home, I ride my horse, but once I’ve ridden the horse and read a book and watched Jeremy Kyle, what am I going to do? Then I’ve got to write a song or make a record or go and play or something. I look busier than I am. And when I’m not looking after my daughter then I’m like, single: well, not single, but guy on the loose, you know. So it’s just me and Nancy going around Brazil, or Russia, or Japan. Which is great. The other week, I was in the Four Seasons in LA, walking down the corridor, and I got a feeling that I had when I was first in the Beatles, going to America in posh hotels. Just thinking, ‘I like this.’ I’m not jaded.”
Nancy is Nancy Shevell, who he has been with since 2007. We could say that she’s the new in New: despite all the palaver about the producers, it’s the vim and spark, the fresh energy in the album that’s noticeable after Memory Almost Full, which was like a memorial to his and Mills’s relationship. Also, there is a hidden track at the end of New – “Scared” – that seems to be specifically about Nancy. It’s McCartney admitting that he’s frightened to say he loves her.
“Well, I’m just like anybody else, man! You know? You get those moments. I don’t normally write about them; but it’s a good thing to use. I was feeling it, as well. I was newly in love with Nancy, and I was finding it a little difficult to say, ‘I love you.’ Number one, I’m a guy, and that’s a big excuse, I know, but it is a bit true to form… That song is basically about she and I, and the middle eight is about when we met. And we did exactly as I say in the song, we welled up.”
They met in a surf shop in Long Island: McCartney was on holiday, cycling around, looking for sun cream. The reason they both had tears in their eyes was that Nancy had known Linda, Paul’s first wife.
“Out of the blue, I met this girl and we started talking and she happened to say, ‘I knew Linda.’ So that was emotional. I wouldn’t meet, typically, many people who knew Linda, and who knew her during her cancer treatment – and Nancy did. She’s a cancer survivor herself. So it got very deep, very quickly, and it was like, ‘What the hell was that?’ And then I ran into her a couple of more times on the holiday, and we got to know each other and started dating. So the song is about that, about this depth of emotion, of feeling – but totally being scared to say or do anything about it. Like a tongue-tied teenager.”
Nancy, whom he married in 2011, met with approval from McCartney’s children, which is clearly important to him. He sees a lot of them and his grandchildren, not only through supporting their work – he’s always on the front row at Stella’s shows – but just having holidays, what he calls “hanging out where I’m just granddad, which none of you [he means the press] know about.” His life is more active workwise, and yet more private than when he was with Heather Mills, whose paranoia and love of attention made for a tough day-to-day existence. Heather, for instance, insisted that he didn’t sing any songs that referred to Linda: a tall order given that Linda was in Wings and they were married for nearly 30 years. Nancy has no such hang-ups. Like Linda (and Jane Asher –they were engaged to in 1967), she’s well-educated, with her own money (she is vice-president of a US freight company). She understands the pressures of being the CEO and helps Paul unwind.
You mean, she doesn’t mind watching Masterchef with you.
“Ha, you’ve hit the nail on the head with that one! That’s the truth. Here’s a thing: no matter how accomplished you get – and I know a lot of people who are very accomplished – you feel that everyone is doing better than you, that it’s easier for them. You’ve got to the top of your profession – you’re now prime minister – but you still get shit off everyone. And you need somebody to set you free from that. That’s one of Nancy’s things, and funnily enough, that was very much one of Linda’s things, too. Linda, when I came in worrying, she had this great expression: ‘It’s allowed.’ It’s allowed! I was like, ‘Yes!’ It was liberating.”
From Nancy and his family, we somehow end up talking about McCartney’s dad, Jim. Jim was fond of sayings and epithets. “Do it now” was one – “DIN – I’ve always thought it would be a good name for a record label” – and “Put it there, if it weighs a ton”, “There’s no hairs on a seagull’s chest.” “Tolerance was his big thing. And I sort of rammed that one home with all my kids. But they are naturally, more tolerant than I ever was. Because people in this modern world are.”
Jim left school at 14, to help support his family, but educated himself. “He would break down words so you could spell them, you know, hand me that ker-niff-ey’ and I do the same with my daughter. She’s nearly nine and she’s a great speller, I’m very proud of that.”
He tells me a sad story about his uncle Harry, who, with his brother, had to go to the Bluecoat School, a live-in school for orphans, because his mum could only afford to keep her daughter. “So Harry and his brother never saw their mother except on a Sunday, where she came to the church service, and they weren’t officially allowed to turn around and look at her. Though they did.” Harry learnt Shakespeare at Bluecoats, and used to recite it to Paul.
“I get quite emotional about that, because I have met Thatchers and Blairs and Obamas and Clintons… and each of them has got some kind of greatness. But to me, I respect these old Liverpool people. My dad, my uncle Harry, who loved Shakespeare. Bert, my cousin, became a crossword compiler because my dad taught him to love crosswords.”
What his background did, of course, was let him progress out of the working class: the Liverpool Institute, his wordsmith dad, his Shakespeare-loving uncle…
“And then I meet John, who’s a bit more middle-class, he was the sort of middle-class guy in the band, and so there was another aspect there that came in. He had an uncle in Scotland who was a dentist! We didn’t know people like that! A dentist! And then, coming down to London and going out with Jane Asher, and seeing her family, which was Wimpole Street, her mum, Mrs Asher, was a professor who taught oboe at the Guildhall School of Music. Her dad was a doctor who practised in Wimpole Street. Jane herself had a very full diary – acting, voice coaches and all that sort of stuff – so it was amazing for me. An awakening, all this sort of… unfolding of lifestyles, all coming together at the time of the Beatles, when you’re going to write something.”
This all comes out in a rush, at the end of our conversation. I wonder why. It’s like he’s trying to explain something. That learning is important, that practice makes perfect, that you can transcend your circumstances. None of us can become Paul McCartney, of course, but his aspiration to excellence is inspiring. Not embarrassing, but liberating.
Anyway. We go downstairs – he has to pick up his daughter from school – and I grab my bag to leave. Before I go, Paul McCartney wraps up a few sandwiches in silver paper and presses them into my hands. Whether you think he’s a hero, or a fool, a national institution, or a constantly morphing experimenter – or just a nice human being – he’s been very well brought up.
Last updated on February 20, 2022