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Monday, May 28, 2012

Interview for Drowned In Sound

Paul McCartney discusses songwriting and RAM with Mansun's Paul Draper

Interview of Paul McCartney

Last updated on November 11, 2020



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I spent a fascinating afternoon with Sir Paul McCartney last week. As a life-long fan, I had few things I had been dying to always ask him. We discussed the reissue of RAM, his much underrated and now reappraised record with Linda McCartney from 1971 (just listen to ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ to see how good this record is and sounds.) For me, it was fascinating to hear Paul discuss the origins of prog-rock. However, for Sir Paul to pick up a guitar while just the two of us are sitting there and to start strumming away at jazz chords, which he still doesn’t seem to know the name of, it made him suddenly a very human figure. A living legend indeed.

I have to say RAM sounds mighty fine remastered and reissued in this tuneless age, its a record that catalogues his exit from The Beatles, shows all that he’s learnt in those Beatle Years and is a fine historical document of his Journey from Beatles, to Scottish recluse to New York recording artist. Time has been kind to RAM because of the depth of melody of the songs which you can come back to no matter how many times fashion turns. I wanted to know a few things for myself from Sir Paul, about where he got his songwriting ideas from, the prog-rock influence on ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ and why he chose to play an Epiphone Casino guitar, my favourite guitar ever made! I hope you enjoy Sir Paul’s answers as much as I did. Thanks to Sir Paul and all at Soho Square for making it a memorable day. Ram On!

Paul Draper

Paul Draper: I met you in 2000 at Air Studios, when my band Mansun were recording with Hugh Padgham and we met in the canteen. And we released three albums on Parlophone…

Paul McCartney: Oh, so we’re label mates!

And I’m from Wavertree in Liverpool originally…

As long as you’ve still got your health, nevermind…

Ha, yeah, that sounds exactly like something my mum would say… ok, so first question… can you remember what you were doing on the day RAM was released first time around?

I can’t really remember, no. Those were “wooly years” [Sir Paul does a half-wink]. I don’t really remember release days. They are kind of important to people in the business, but they are not really that important to artists because you’ve done your thing, you have mixed it, you’ve done your cover, you’ve chatted to all the people at the label, and then I sort of go off into the sunset. I can’t really remember the day, but I can remember a lot of things about making the album and writing things, but the release day, I can’t remember what that was like.

Can you remember an average day of your life. I believe you spent a lot of time in Scotland.

Yeah, at the beginning of the album, when I was writing it, I spent a lot of time in Scotland, and the average day there would be: get up, have breakfast with the family, then maybe go into my little studio. I always had a little four track studio, which is what The Beatles always used to record on. That’s a real discipline recording on a four track, you’ve either gotta know exactly what you’re doing or you have got to start bouncing tracks. You can imagine, when you get into that, it’s addictive.

On a average day, I could have done that. I could have gone for a horse ride, as Linda was a big horse rider. At some point in the day we would have gone for a horse ride. I might have played with the kids, and they liked to go on horse rides too. Then in the evening, I’d drink whisky, of which there was a large supply in Scotland.

I do remember watching an interview where you said you maybe drank a little bit too much Whisky…

Yeah… no I did, yeah. That was kind of a feature of that time, because what happened was The Beatles, towards the end, was very constricting. You were in a corporate world suddenly, and I’m sure you know all about that. It’s not what you get into music for, but it’s there, it’s a fact of life, especially when you were the label. We were doing Apple, The Beatles ‘Apple’, and it got very heavy, so me and Linda escaped with the kids, but the business hassles were still there. So I think I was just trying to escape in my own mind. I had the freedom to have just have a drink whenever I fancied it. I’d go into the studio, maybe have another drink and so on. I over did it, basically, I got to a point where Linda had to say ‘look, you should cool it’.

Did you find at that time that you had a structured way of working? When you did McCartney I through to RAM, was that from a backlog of a big wealth of material or did you stop and have a writer’s block and then write a bunch of new material?

Some of it I had from just sitting around my house with my acoustic. Most of them, I would just sit down and write. Having written with John for all those years, we had a kind of system, which was: you just sat with a pad of paper and a pencil, and you sat at your guitar or your piano, and you make a song, and within about three hours, you should have finished the song. That’s how we always did it. So I continued to do it that way.

I remember with some songs, I would go out into the fields if it was a nice day with my guitar, so those would probably be like ‘Heart of the Country’ and the more pastoral efforts. It was mainly just what I’ve always done. Then, if I would have a writer’s block, I look back now and can say that was the over stimulation. I’d be getting like ‘heeyyyy, nice and fuzzy’ and it’s not a good thing to write. Least for me it’s not. Me and John were always very straight when we wrote, and it was normally in the middle of the day when you had your wits about you.

Looking back on it, the writer’s block that I would have occasionally, would just be getting hung up on a phrase. You know, ‘sweet little long-haired lady’, ‘fine little long-haired baby’, and you’d just go on for hours on this one phrase. What I’d do now – and I was just saying this up in Liverpool to some of my ‘songwriter students’ – is that if you ever get a block, just steamroll through it and fix it later.

RAM on!

[Laughs] RAM on! So you get from A to Z. If there’s a big mistake in the middle of it, it doesn’t matter, just don’t get stuck at that mistake. I think I got some writer’s blocks, a bit, around that time, but mainly I would just steam through and write a song, write the lyrics down and just remember them. Then when I’d go off with a band, like I did with RAM in New York, I’d know them all.

Did you have them all on dictaphone or did you just know them from memory?

I don’t think I had a dictaphone. I don’t think they even had dictaphones then, but the rule was ‘if you can’t remember them, they’re no good’ and it’s actually a very good rule! It came out of necessity, because me and John would write at his place in Weybridge or my place, and we’d sit down for about three hours and write something like ‘I once had a girl or should I say, she once had me’. John would come up with that line and then we’d sit down and finish it all out, we’d go ‘yeah’ and laugh, and do little nudges and winks as we filled out the song. Eventually she’s got a nice flat, Norwegian wood, and then we’d light a fire, isn’t it good. We figured we’d burn her place down, that’ll show her!

So anyway, we’d finish that and go our separate ways and I’d probably drive back to London and he’d just go about his day, and then in the evening, you’d sometimes think, how did that song go? You’d look at the lyrics and go ‘Norwegian wood, I once had a girl…’ and that was the risky moment, when you could have forgotten it, because there was nothing down, it was just in our two heads, his head or mine, and nobody else heard it until we took it to the studio.

What would always happen – thank you lord – would be the next morning, you’d wake up and you’d remember it, like it had marinated in your brain, and you kind of forget what’s in there marinating and you wake up the next day and you kind of go ‘oh, I once had a girl, oh yeah…’ and you’d play it a couple of times, and that would marinate for that day. So we just learned them all, and the only thing we had was the lyric sheet, he’d write one out, I’d write one out.

Talking about the songs you’ve written. There seems to be two types of songs you were writing at the time around RAM, and that probably went on from the late 60s. To me, having had a go at songwriting in my life, there’s the really organic ones, like, as you say ‘Heart of the Country’, and then you’ve got the ones like ‘Uncle Albert’ with the tempo changes and really structured, and really complex things. Do you think you were influenced by the early prog-rock movement, I guess you wouldn’t say RAM was a prog-rock album? Do you think you were influenced by seeing Pink Floyd at the Roundhouse…

What I take the influence back to was A Teenage Opera. That was a very early record in the late 60s, by Keith West… it was his only, like, big hit. That was episodic, there was a bit and it went ‘buh-buh-bum’, then it went there, and there, and there [Sir Paul makes some stacking gestures with his hands]. I think that was the first record I heard, and we heard, and we thought ‘that’s interesting’. You can have a song here, then you can cut like a film to another song, and you can even cut the tempo and go slow and so on. That was really the one that was the biggest influence, and then lots of people started doing it. We’d do it a bit, prog-rock did it, Townshend started doing it a bit, The Who opera and all that. I think it was just that one record that made you realise that it didn’t have to be the same tempo or the same key all the way through, you could cut like a film.

Was that two different ways of writing that you were trying to employ? Because ‘Heart of the Country’ seems to me, as you say, to be something that you just sat down and wrote…

Yeah, it’s like a little folk country song.

…whereas with other songs you seem it’s so complicated and intricate that it would have to be mapped out. Even something like where you would change the chord on every two beats in the bar on a track like ‘Lovely Rita’ or something like that, and I think it’s one of the hardest things for a writer to do. So many modern songs just change on the beat, and some of the stuff you were doing was so complex…

Yeah, well, you know, I think the thing is, we started, in early rock ‘n’ roll with three chords. We learned those three chords in a number of keys, A, D, E, was the first. Then E, A, B7, which meant you could be in E and do three chords. C, F, G7, but it was always the three chords but in different keys. Then we started to nick C out of its world, the world of C, and put it into the E world, so instead of just E ‘dun-dum-dunna’, A ‘doo-doo-doo’, B ‘doo-dunna’, E. Then you’d go E to A to C or whatever and you’d just see other chords you could stick in.

So it was a gradual development and you were just learning other chords. Then if there was a song that you wanted to do, that was, really chordy… I was just thinking the other day, I liked the song ‘Till There Was You’, I didn’t realise at the time that it was out of a musical called The Music Man, I just heard it as a song and I kinda liked it, so I just learned it. I think have even got the sheet music or something. The chords were quite [shrugs]. This was in F, and you were learning the demented chord or whatever. This was like F demen-ted! And C dee-luded! And E distracted! So there was all these kind of weird little chords that were adding to our armory of where we could go, you know. Like you say, once we got a lot of those then you would even try changing in the middle of a bar and that’s another advance.

Was that a conscious thing that you were doing while you were writing?

Yeah, you would just see where you could go with the thing. We never wanted to do the same thing twice. So, you know, even if Ringo would play the same drum kit and beat, for the second song of the day – because we’d usually end up doing four songs a day, in the early days of The Beatles – and we’d say ‘didn’t you just play that snare drum’ he’d go ‘yeah’ and we’d say ‘can’t you hit on the back of a packing case then’. We just didn’t want the same sound on the next record. Whereas now, you’ll get a guy who’ll use the whole of his kit for the whole album, there’s nothing wrong with that, but we were always just trying to make a different sound and see how far we could push it.

So all of that came into play and on ‘Till There Was You’ there was a guy in Hessy’s, do you remember Hessy’s?

Yeah, I sure do. I could only afford to buy plectrums there when I was a kid…

We were the same.

It’s not there now.

It was the golden palace, with all those guitars. Just to walk in it was enough. There was a guy who worked there called Jim Gretty. We’d all hang out with Jim, and he was like an older guy. He was a jazz guitar player and he played this chord, that he showed us, this big F bar thing, but [Sir Paul leans over and picks up his acoustic guitar] and he do this little things and it was like a monster chord, but we learned it you know. It was like [strums] waaah, you know… so I stuck it in ‘Michelle’ then.

Once you’d learnt a chord, we’d go home and we’d practice it. It was only that Jim would just show us it in the shop. He had a guitar and he’d show aspiring young guitarists who went ‘hang on a minute, how’s that played’ and he’d show us like a 7th [strums] and our little fingers could barely reach to there [nods]

Then you’d work that chord in. That appeared in ‘Till There Was You’ and then ‘Michelle’ so that’s how it all worked, you’d just be learning new chords and would try to vary it.

Paul Draper: When you were working on RAM, I read your recording sessions were pretty regimented, did you find that once you had a family and you were putting your work schedule into your life, that it was different than when you first started out, when you had the hunger, when you got that deal with Parlophone? I wondered, did that change of process, when you got to RAM, make it feel more like a regimented job?

Paul McCartney: I don’t think I ever allowed it to be a regimental job, but it changed with the family just because early on you were single, so you would be going to clubs and you would be hearing all the soul records, like you do when you’re that age, you know? You begin to hear loads and loads of influences, all the American stuff: Phil Spector, Motown, Stax, Blues, all that stuff would come piling in and you’d just nick little bits of it, you know? You’d be inspired to play in that style or something. Then I think later, when you’re not going to all the clubs, when you have settled down a bit I think that’s what alters it.

It’s never been a job though for me. Never let it be a job! People say to me ‘ooh, you work really hard’ I say ‘well, it looks like I do because you see a picture of me in South America, in Mexico City, then the next week you’ll see me somewhere else, and it looks like I’m working real hard, but I actually have quite a few days off!’ The thing I say to them, and it is a bit facile, but I say ‘we don’t work music, we play music’ and I really have got that thought firmly in my head. When I get onstage with the band, I’m ‘playing’ and it makes a big difference so we’re not working, we have fun you know? It takes a bit of energy. You’re knackered after it but not during it. People say ‘you were onstage for three hours’ and girls always say ‘and you don’t even have a drink of water’ ‘yeah?’ ‘well, how do you do that?’ and I say ‘well, firstly, can you imagine The Beatles in the middle of the set going “She loves you Yeah! Yeah…” wait a sec, hang on, glug, glug, glug…’ we didn’t do that! I go as far as to say ‘we didn’t drink water where I came from!’ I mean seriously, as a kid, we never drank water, it was lemonade, tea, whatever. Nowadays they say it’s like eight gallons a day you’re supposed to drink, but anyway…

I just enjoy it. I’m lucky because the audiences are brilliant, so it is not so much a fight anymore.

Can I ask you about guitars… my all-time favourite guitar is the Epiphone Casino, through either an AC30 or a Fender Deluxe…

Oh yeah, baby!

…and, that’s the guitar solo sound on ‘Taxman’. There’s some photographs of you with your sunburst Casino in the box set of RAM. I just wanted to know if that was a guitar that you were using a lot around that period?

I got that while I was with The Beatles, basically, because I love Jimi Hendrix, and I’d seen Jimi down the Bag O’ Nails down the back of Liberties off Regent’s Street. It was a club we used to goto because the clubs were our pubs. Instead of going to the pub at seven thirty ‘til ten thirty we’d go eleven thirty ‘til two. So I’d seen Jimi down there and I was blown away. I wanted to get something that would feedback. So I went down to Charing Cross road here [Sir Paul points out the window across Soho Square toward Denmark Street] to ‘the mecca’. Where it just used to be all guitar shops. We’d usually just go and window shop.

Anyway, I went into the shop and said to the guy that I wanted something that would really feedback and it said ‘well, this one will’. It had a hollow body and that was the reason I got it originally. I used it for the ‘Tax Man’ solo originally, and ‘Paperback Writer’ because it just… like you say, through a Vox it just gave a nice little dirty noise. I use that on stage now.

I just wanted to ask about Linda [McCartney]. The album’s credited to you and Linda, what was Linda’s role in songwriting and the process of it and more than that, helping you to get back up and write as a solo writer for the first time?

I look back and that was really the most important role, getting me to write and getting me motivated. When I would sit down and write, she was often there. We’ve got some bonus tracks and you can hear her just harmonizing a little bit. So she was really there to give little suggestions if I get a bit stuck. Like ‘was it long-haired lady’ or ‘longer baby lady’ ‘oh yeah’ ‘ok’ or whatever. It was a good feedback situation, but a lot of it was just motivation. So I’d do the song and I probably, certainly, did most of the work on the songs, but she’d throw in ideas. It’s always good to have a second sounding board. So I thought, in the end, she should get credited, so it was the both of us.

On the bonus disc you’ve got a very long version of ‘Rode All Night’, which is you sort of jamming and singing, and it reminded me of the way you did ‘Helter Skelter’, which was to do a really long thing and then to edit it down. The fascinating thing about it is there’s no bass on it and that really reminds me of how you would record – like we were talking right at the start of this conversation about recording onto a four track, and you would overdub the bass line later. Hearing that, being a fan, I was fascinated to hear something without the bass on it. Is that because of the fact you were jamming and that was an idea that would maybe be developed at a later stage, edited, bass added, etc?

The thing about anything without bass, was that when we first started off, in the really early four track days, we pretty much played as a band, but then as things developed, what would happen would be, like, let’s say something like ‘Lady Madonna’, I would of developed that as a little piano part, and singing part. So I’d bring that to the guys, and it wasn’t anything I could hand over, I could say ‘now you play the piano, and I’ll go on bass’. So I would always play it on what I’d written it on. Sometimes the guys would play bass. John played bass on ‘Let it Be’, and ‘All You Need is Love’, I think he played the bass.

I think we had to do it that way, because, for instance, anyone else playing the ‘Lady Madonna’ thing wouldn’t get the feel. George Martin was a good pianist, but he wouldn’t get the feel. It was essential, like, to get the feel, so I’d have to do that, sing it, and then everyone would be kind of done, and I’d sometimes stay behind and work on the bass part, and sort of try to fit it in. It did piss ‘em off a bit, the guys, you know, because we had been used to playing as a unit, and I was bass… when there’s ka-chang-ker-ker-chang-chang and there’s no bass, you haven’t got the bottom on your record, so, [errr] I was a bit embarrassed about that, but it worked out ok, once you got over that embarrassment. That meant I had a lot of time to consider, like, the final thing that would be put on there would be my bass or maybe next to final, if we put some saxs on or something.

So that’s why that’ll happen. Even on guitar, the feel, would be something I’d want to get down.

So something like ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ you’re playing to your own feel there, because you’re reported to be playing, everything?

I’m not playing ‘everything’. I’m playing drums, and I think bass, and probably guitar, but I think the guys are in on it, George and John are playing along. It’s such a difficult thing, you know – well, you’d know, being in a band – it’s kind of difficult because if you know the way a thing should go in your own mind, and if you’ve written it… our kind of unwritten law was whoever has written it kind of produces it within the band. So if it was John’s song he’d say what he wanted and we’d all play for John, we’d be his sidemen, if it was my song, they’d be mine, if it was George’s, we’d be his. So yeah, that sort of did happen, but in ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ I’d heard the drums being a certain way, and Ringo wasn’t getting it, and it was really embarrassing, because the last thing I wanted was to go ‘let me have a go, let me see if I can get the feel, I’ll show you how I want it to be’. So you’d sit down, and go ‘dum-dum-doff’, kind of like that [Sir Paul air drums] and then Ringo would sometimes go ‘why don’t you do it then?’ slightly pissed, probably, ‘why don’t you do it then?’ and I’d be like ‘you sure, you ok with that?’ you know, that’s the band thing. So I ended up doing the odds and sods on tracks, like the ‘Taxman’ solo, I’d just got my Epiphone Casino, it was howling away, I was grooving and I’d say ‘I just want something like this’ [makes high-pitched guitar solo noise] and I kind of had a feel, and George would say ‘well, you do it then’.

I also wanted to ask you about your motivations for RAM, and writing songs. Am I right in saying you went in with about 23 songs for the recording sessions in New York?


I know from my experience, when we were talking about the structure of recording, you go in and you’re there with other people, but to write a song is a really lonely process. You have to get up in the morning and it’s only yourself that can make you do it. What was your motivation for writing RAM, because it was pre-Wings and you weren’t in a band with other people to depend on you, and then your motivation for writing them first early Beatles’ songs, did that change? Was something inside you?

Yeah, it came in stages, like phases. The first thing was writing a little bit of stuff on my own in Liverpool, meeting John, and he said ‘I’ve written a couple of songs’, as it come up in conversation and I said ‘so have I!’ So it was like ooh, that was the first person I’d ever met who’d said that, so we said ‘let’s get together’. So that started. Then everything then was written by the two of us. We’d meet up, we’d write something. Up until a certain stage where we got a bit more freedom when he moved out to Weybridge and I was still living in the city [London] with my girlfriend then, so I’d have a day when I’d get a bit of inspiration. Or something like ‘Yesterday’, I just woke up with that in a dream, so I’d write that and he would be in Weybridge writing a song like ‘Nowhere Man’. We’d kind of get together after that, so that next stage, where we’d start to write individually and then we’d get together, like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, I remember I kind of write that in London and I’d get with him and sort of say ‘I need the second verse, we’ve got to have this other character, I can’t decide what to call him’ but I’m calling him Father McCartney and John said ‘That’s great!’ and I said ‘Nah, I can’t call him my name’ it would just embarrass me, and that’s my dad. So we got the phone book and we looked up M-m-m-Mc-Mcar-Ma-Mackenzie ‘ah, that’ll be good!’ We’d polish off each other’s work, and that was kind of the next phase.

Then there was a phase when each of us would just write completely individually and then just bring the song in and say ‘what do you think of this?’ and that was it.

After The Beatles, when I was no longer writing with John, it went back to that, it was just writing on your own, but the motivation is the love of it, that’s what it is, so it doesn’t really matter, you know, I’ll wake up some days, and I never really have a problem sitting down with a guitar, there’s always something, you know? I mean, I can do it now. It may not be good, but I can get something together. I love the fact I can do that. They talk about a gift and all that, but the more I go on I realise that it is, like, a gift. We used to say like, you know, ‘he’s got the gift of the gab’ or ‘he’s got the gift of music’ and when you think of it as a gift, it really is very special. So I feel very privileged because not everyone out in that square and can do that, in fact, there’s probably hardly any of them walking around there can do it. You can do it. And so, it’s like a magical skill that I’ve somehow locked into since I was at school, you know? I’ve got this thing going around all the time, so that’s the motivation, it’s just the love of it, you know? As you say, some of them come easier than others. Sometimes you can sit down and it just falls out, and those are normally the best. I wrote one for my wife, ‘My Valentine’ off the new Kisses on the Bottom album, and that just kind of just wrote itself almost, you know? It was just there, for the taking.

Paul McCartney writing

Talk more talk, chat more chat

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