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Retirement? Pfeh. At 76, Paul McCartney – greatest living songwriter, all-round good guy and former member of the bloody Beatles – is about to embark on yet another world tour in support of new album ‘Egypt Station’. Dan Stubbs meets him in London to talk about Lennon, Manson, global warming, ageing and, er, fuh-ing.
Abbey Road’s Studio Two, July 23, 2018. On stage: Paul McCartney. In the audience: a selection of some of the most famous people in the world: Johnny Depp, Liv Tyler, Nile Rodgers, Stormzy, Kylie, Orlando Bloom, Stella McCartney. You’ll have heard about it by now. But also in that number is a solitary, middle-aged Scouse bloke, lingering near the front.
It’s a gig that takes the scenic route through McCartney’s incomparable career, incorporating his earliest compositions, lesser-heard album tracks, massive hits and a smash through ‘Lady Madonna’ on the very piano it was recorded on. It’s the kind of show that makes you feel like you are, to quote the title of an unplayed Macca song, coming up; one that leaves your jaw aching from beaming so much.
At one point, the world’s most famous, most successful living musician makes a comment about Liverpool. The Scouse man whoops. “Oh, you’re from Liverpool?” asks Paul. “Yeah,” says the man. “I’m from Liverpool,” says Paul. “I know,” says the man. “So am I.” Paul pauses, momentarily, as puzzled by the exchange as those of us in the crowd, then goes back to playing one of his gazillion world-beating songs. The moral, it seems, is you can be Sir Paul McCartney, but if you’re from Liverpool, well, you’re just another bloke from Liverpool.
And that, perhaps, explains a lot about the way Paul McCartney acts. At the age of 76, McCartney is today, here in Abbey Road, kicking off a promotional campaign that would make most contemporary artists look like the epitome of the entitled millennial stereotype. Not for him dropping an album with a Tweet reading “Tried not 2 overthink this 1… enjoy.” No, McCartney’s been working his arse off, and, mostly, going back to where he once belonged: taking a Magical Mystery Tour of Liverpool with James Corden, playing in the Philharmonic, an old watering hole he would visit with John and – days after the Abbey Road show – performing a special show at The Cavern, the legendary Liverpool sweatbox where The Beatles earned their stripes.
“It’s great for me going back to Liverpool, going back to my childhood places,” Paul says when we later meet. “I always drive myself around, and I’ll drive people on a route which was my bus route from school, one from Speke and one from Allerton. Whoever’s in the car gets the tourist trip past my old house, which is now a National Trust thing, and I’ll go, ‘There’s my bedroom there, that was the alleyway round the back that we called The Jigger,’ and all these things come flooding back. So that’s what it was like at The Cavern. It makes you play better, I think, being back in a little club like that, inches from your audience. It reminds you of how it was.”
Elephant in the room: it’s not actually the original Cavern – that was destroyed in 1973 to enable the construction of a railway.
“That’s the only trouble with The Cavern, that it isn’t the original Cavern,” says Paul. “We have to pretend it is, you know. To me, I hear that next door is buried in rubble and I want an archaeological dig. Come on, if you can dig the pyramids up, you’ve got to be able to dig The Cavern up. The bank above it might fall in, but you know! When we heard it had been filled in to make a parking lot, that was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Yellow Taxi’ song come true.”
Weeks later, on Monday September 10, we’re at McCartney’s office in Soho Square, London. His new record – his 17th solo album ‘Egypt Station’ – has been out for three days (Paul says he’s read “a couple” of reviews). On its release, McCartney played an impromptu gig inside New York’s Grand Central Station. Later, it will be revealed that the album is, improbably, in a chart battle for the Number One spot with Eminem’s scorched-earth comeback record, ‘Kamikaze’.
There are three of us here to do interviews; two outside and one already in the room. I think it feels like waiting to see the headmaster; McCartney prefers dentist. “I’ll just need another minute with this patient,” he says, appearing at the door. A minute later, he ushers out a female journalist assuring her she’ll feel better in the morning. “Root canal,” he mouths. “Very nasty.”
Then the next patient goes in, and NME is left to survey McCartney’s office alone. Everything is adorned with musical notes: the door handles are crotchets, the carpets and curtains are tessellated notes. The walls and shelves are filled with McCartney memorabilia: biographies, Wings tour posters, a small army of 3D printed models of McCartney in a variety of different colours. “I thought about updating the decor, but it’s kinda cool,” says McCartney as I’m ushered into the room. “It’s a proper music business office, isn’t it?”
One thing McCartney knows is this: fashions come back around. He’s seen his own catalogue reappraised numerous times, he’s watched The Beatles float in and out of being cool and – latterly – become simply untouchable.
When he plays live, he curates a selection for the times – on his last tour, he played ‘Temporary Secretary’, a 1980 synth oddity that had become a cult latter-day club hit. At big gigs he often ends on ‘Hey Jude’, but recently, his smaller shows have climaxed with The Beatles’ 1968 track ‘Helter Skelter’, a song that many claim is the first ever heavy metal song. Is he having that?
“No! I’ve never claimed it, you know. People said it, but, if you think about it, it was near the start of heavy metal, and it was us trying to be heavy. I’d heard [The Who’s] Pete Townshend saying they’d done the dirtiest, filthiest record ever, so we were trying to out-filth The Who. So if that communicated itself, there might have been some little guy living up in Rotherham thinking, Aye, we’ll have a group, we’ll just do that.”
‘Helter Skelter’ is a song that comes with bloody big baggage. American cult leader Charles Manson, whose followers were responsible for the Tate/LaBianca murders in 1969, appropriated its title for his prophecy of an apocalyptic race war between whites and blacks. “He was quite certain that The Beatles had tapped in to his spirit, the truth – that everything was gonna come down and the black man was going to rise,” said Catherine Share, one of Manson’s followers, in 2009.
For a man whose doctrine has always been one of peace – on Egypt Station, there’s a song about the Israel/Palestine conflict called ‘People Need Peace’ – it must have been a shocking association for McCartney. With two Charles Manson movies being made at the moment, I ask if he’s concerned about it all being dredged up again. “Well, that put me off doing it forever,” he says. “I thought, I’m not doing [‘Helter Skelter’], you know, because it was too close to that event, and immediately it would have seemed like I was, either I didn’t care about all the carnage that had gone on or whatever, so I kept away from it for a long time. But then in the end I thought, you know, that’d be good on stage, that’d be a nice one to do, so we brought it out of the bag and tried it and it works. It’s a good one to rock with, you know.”
‘Helter Skelter’ is the song McCartney acolytes often cite to silence those who argue that Lennon was the risk-taker in The Beatles. On ‘Egypt Station’ – and its attendant press campaign – there’s been plenty of risky behaviour from McCartney, not least the track ‘Fuh You’. The song, whose coy title should under no circumstances be assumed to imply a double meaning, is the work of a newly (publicly) randy McCartney. Which begs the question: what did his children and grandchildren say when they first heard it?
“To tell you the truth, my grandchildren just love it,” says Paul. “That’s cos I played it and they’re not going to notice what you’ve noticed, and what I’ve noticed, that sort of schoolboy, playing around stuff. So my grandkids didn’t notice at all, but one of my daughters, who’s a mum, came downstairs when I was playing it in the kitchen and said, ‘Did I just hear what I think I heard?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
“Actually, the truth is, we had that line that wasn’t finished, and I was just joking around. ‘I wanna know how you feel/I want a love that’s proud and real/you make me want to go out and steal/I wanna just…’ and I was kidding around, so I said, ‘I know, ‘I just wanna shag you’! That’s pretty good.’ And everyone said, ‘Nooo’. So I said, I know, we’ll make the line ‘I just want it fuh you’, but it’s going to sound like something else. The truth is you did that a lot in The Beatles.”
I’m instantly transported back to being a teenager, being told by my sister’s boyfriend that if you listen closely enough to Beatles songs then you can hear them sneaking swear words in, but never finding any. So that’s true?
“Yeah, I remember when we were doing the backing vocals in ‘Hey Jude’, someone says ‘Fuck off’ or something, and you can hear it in the final mix. We didn’t mean to leave it in, but we didn’t ever erase it. And we used to do things like we’d be singing ‘dit dit dit dit dit’ as a backing vocal and we’d change it to ‘tit tit tit tit tit’ for our own amusement. It’s schoolboy stuff. It’s pathetic really! But it gives you a laugh at that moment, and that’s valuable. You don’t want to sit around being too serious with music. The thing is, in any job to relieve the boredom, if you’re ever likely to feel it, it’s good to have little in-jokes.”
Two days after meeting McCartney, an interview with GQ comes out, in which McCartney does the full Quincy Jones, talking about the time The Beatles applauded George immediately after losing his virginity, Paul’s own Vegas threesome and a story about he and John Lennon masturbating in a darkened room while riffing out the names of women they fancied (and Winston Churchill), allowing the New York Post the quite unbeatable front page headline: Beat The Meatles.
Aside from ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’, we generally assume it’s love, not sex, that’s been McCartney’s primary muse, and it’s hard to square ‘Fuh You’ with the man who made it: today he looks a little like a Swiss clockmaker who might at any moment produce a Werther’s from a waistcoat pocket. ‘Who Cares’, another new track, hits a more grandfatherly note: it’s a song for the bullied. Is that something he ever suffered from?
“I didn’t really, but I’ve got children and grandchildren, and I think you’re always aware of that with kids,” says Paul.
Especially with social media?
“You talk about it, because you know it exists. And you hope they’re not going to have it in their lives, but I think whenever I’ve talked about it my kids seem pretty hip to it and – touch wood – haven’t really had the problem. But it is a problem, and I like the idea of being able to say to someone who’s vulnerable, here’s the song. As well as being a little rock ‘n’ roll song, hopefully the words will communicate with someone who’s going through problems and it might just help a little bit. Because the payoff is ‘Who cares about you? I do’. Don’t get hung up about it, you know, because there’s loads of people who care about you.”
You wonder if McCartney was ever subject to bullying in The Beatles. By some accounts, Lennon, older and undoubtedly spikier, was the more commanding personality; others say McCartney quietly pulled the strings. In one interview, McCartney said that he judges new material by imagining what the Beatles would have said about it had he brought it to the table. So, do they still talk to him?
“Haha. Yesssss… the bells! The bells! You know, what you do is you reference things. And not all the time, most of the time you don’t. That interview was probably from closer to the breakup of The Beatles.”
No, I say, it was from 2013’s ‘New’ album.
“Well, that’s a bit closer. You know, you do sometimes, particularly if you’re wondering about a line and you think, is this any good or is it crap, I sometimes will just think, oh right, OK, Beatles session, writing session with John, and I say, ‘What do you think of that?’ And he’ll either say, ‘It’s great, keep it,’ or, ‘No, it’s no good, re-write it.’ So you often, you know, look to the past for reference. But I don’t do it all the time. That’s just occasionally if I’m wondering if it’s going to work, remembering things like when I’m writing ‘Hey Jude’ and playing it to John for the first time; I said I’d change the line ‘The movement you need is on your shoulder’ and he said, ‘You won’t, you know’. So those are the little moments I refer to and think, ‘Is it one of those lines or is it rubbish’.”
The caricature of John now is that he was someone who was quite acid. We’d expect a withering put-down, but those were his two options: keep it or we’ll make it better?
“Oh yeah, you know. Working with John was great. Those are the kinds of things you remember. In a film, you remember that bit where the guy says ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ or whatever, and John definitely did have those withering putdowns, you know, but it was two percent of who he was and it’s the two percent people remember. Most of the time he was very generous, very loving, very easy to work with. But both of us had this sardonic streak that we could bring to each other’s things. I’m writing, ‘It’s getting better all the time’ and he chips in with, ‘Couldn’t get much worse’. And the song keeps moving ahead because of that. But he was a very warm guy actually, John. His reputation, cos of things like that, has gone a bit the other way.”
‘Egypt Station’ isn’t all spunk and fighting. In fact, it’s the kind of album that belies the cosy idea we may have that life gets easier, or at the very least more comfortable, with advancing years. “I mean, I think there’s a bit of both, you know, there’s some happy and some rocking, some melancholy,” says Paul. “But if you think back, ‘Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away…” I was singing about being “not half the man I used to be” when I’m like, 24 or something. I’d be 12 if I was half the man. People do sad songs, it doesn’t mean to say they’re melancholy, and I’ve done them forever, and I like it. It’s a good way, actually, to feel better.”
‘I Don’t Know’, in particular, finds McCartney singing about “crows at my window, dogs at my door”; metaphors frequently employed by the depressed, like Winston Churchill (him again) and his ‘black dog’. Is that what he was alluding to?
“Yeah, but I mean, if you think about it, they’re kind of bluesy, too,” he says. At this point, McCartney breaks out into song, and not for the first time. “I got crooooows at my window, my mama left me,” he croons, strumming an air guitar. “It’s that kind of thing, you know. So I just thought that was a good way to start: crows at the window, dogs barking at the door, it’s like a Swedish film, kind of a black and white… all of life’s piling in on me. Music is often a really good thing, if you’re feeling a bit pissed off. Sometimes you’ll take to a drumkit and thrash it, sometimes you go to the piano and start hammering the feelings into a song.”
Elsewhere, there’s a song about his relationship with third (and present) wife Nancy Shevell that has arrestingly direct lyrics about his other relationship: with drugs and drink: “I sat around all day/I liked to get stoned/I used to get wasted/But these days I don‘t/Cos I’m happy with you”.
It’s fair to say that recently McCartney has been remembering his fondness for drugs. He told The Times that he once took DMT and saw God (“As I said it, sat right here with the guy, I said, ‘Oh, I can see the headline now!’ And they did it. You open it and it goes, I Saw God. I thought of saying to them, ‘That wasn’t what I said.’ I said, I Was Dog, and they got it backwards”). Days after this interview, it’s revealed that he believes he once saw his own DNA helix in a trip – before the discovery of DNA. They’re kind of stories that make you think that if popular opinion is true and young people are taking fewer drugs now, then they’re probably missing out. But for someone who saw comrades have their lives cut short by addiction, what stopped McCartney falling prey?
“I’m a bit cautious by nature, I’m a little bit careful with things, whereas a lot of my mates weren’t the cautious types and were more just, ‘Yeah, go for it’. I remember in the very early days of Hamburg [where a pre-fame Beatles played residencies], the guys in the club, some of whom were gangsters who owned the club, wanted to see us playing and they knew we were working long hours so they’d give us this little pep drug called Preludrin. Prellies, ja! You’d take them and you’d be up all night chatting away. I remember someone saying to me, What are you on, man? And I’d say, ‘Nothing, I’m just high listening to you lot’. I never really had to do as much as the other guys because I get infected.”
Another track, ‘Despite Repeated Warnings’, is about global warming, but could equally be about Brexit or Trump. It’s a sci-fi analogy for the clusterfuck world we’re living in now. Is he sure it isn’t about Brexit?
“It was written pre-Brexit so that wasn’t even on the horizon,” says Paul. “Erm, yeah.” A pause. “Luckily it wasn’t, so I don’t have to go there. It was about climate change, the idea that some people think it’s a hoax, and some people – notably Trump – say it’s a conspiracy theory perpetrated by the Chinese. I could never believe people actually thought the Holocaust was a hoax, until I met people who did. In many ways, America is isolated, just because it’s its own place, and a lot of American people don’t travel, a lot of American people don’t have passports. You don’t have to – you just go to Vegas and you can be in Paris or London. So you can be a bit isolated, so someone can say, ‘Oh, the holocaust was a fake’, or ‘the moon landing was fake’. And there’s always going to be people who go, ‘Yeah, that sounds plausible’. But to me, I don’t agree, and I think that climate change is a reality. So the idea that [the American] leader was suggesting it wasn’t, I wanted to do something about that, try and find a way to address that. And I saw this phrase, ‘Despite Repeated Warnings’ and thought, OK, that’ll start me off.”
It strikes you that, for a man of an age when shifting moral stances unearths skeletons in the back yards of contemporaries, McCartney has managed to fall down on the right side of history for most of his career. The controversy of 1972’s banned single ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ notwithstanding, here’s a man who was vegetarian before it was fashionable, who preached acceptance in times of division and who teamed up with Stevie Wonder to sing 1982’s ‘Ebony And Ivory’ when racial tensions were at least as pronounced as they are now. His message chimes with these times, too.
“It’s something I’m quite proud of actually,” says Paul. “You look back on all The Beatles’ output and in the main it’s very positive. It is very life affirming. We’re saying ‘All You Need Is Love’. We advocated peace and love. People used to say to me, ‘Do you ever feel a sense of responsibility?’ And it’s not quite that, but it’s almost that. You know, when you’ve suddenly got a lot of people listening to you, and particularly younger people, you think, ‘It’d be cool if the body of our work suggested something good’, rather than, ‘Go out and rob a bank, man’.”
Talking to Paul McCartney, you can’t shift a certain feeling: you’re literally talking to actual Paul McCartney. It’s something McCartney himself has been dealing with for half a century – check out the videos of him on Jimmy Fallon this month, surprising people in a New York lift for a laugh, to see what effect he has on people. Which makes me wonder what it must be like to start working with him in a creative way. McCartney brought in producer Greg Kurstin for ‘Egypt Station’; how does he put new collaborators at ease?
“You try and just be yourself,” says Paul. “You realise they’re going to be a bit ill at ease. You know that people are: when you see them shaking, that’s a good clue. I just say to people and try and let people know, I’m just some guy. OK, I’ve got this reputation, but that’s not me. Me is just this guy you’re sitting down with. With producers that is something you have to do, because you want to be honest with their feedback. It can be dangerous for me that they’re just going to go, ‘That’s great’ – and it isn’t. But I try and do that myself as well, and indicate that I’m really keen to not bullshit. If something is a little bit feeble, let’s root it out. The first day is a little bit like that. The second day, we’ve had enough laughs, we’ve seen that I’m a nutcase and we all just settle down – or get excited when the chocolate chip cookies come in. We’re just in normal-land here, you know. It doesn’t take long, and then they do what they’re supposed to do. Greg was very good at that.”
While working on ‘Egypt Station’, McCartney was also working on Beatles reissues. The past five years has seen a glut of 50th anniversaries come and go; some, like 1967’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ have been marked with lavish reissues. The upcoming album anniversaries are from the latter years of the band, following the death of manager/mentor Brian Epstein, when Yoko, spiritualism, money and infighting was changing the dynamic. Somewhat embarrassingly, I reveal to Paul that, as a child, I used to have to listen to a ‘cheerful’ Beatles album (‘Help’! ‘Rubber Soul’!) after listening to ‘The White Album’, ‘Abbey Road’ or ‘Let It Be’, because on those records you can almost hear the band falling apart at the seams. Does he feel like those albums are hard to listen to?
“I had mixed feelings at the time. Looking back now, you can rationalise it. People I talk to about it say, That’s families. That’s what families do. Brothers argue. Kids argue with their parents. And that’s sort of what we were doing – it was brothers arguing. At the time it was very sad. But I can look back on it and go, do you know what, even though it was really sad, and really crazy times, we made bloody good albums. It’s that thing we were talking about before – you work out your problems through music. And the thing about The Beatles is we were always a great little band. I don’t even notice it now, I just listen to the songs and think, That was a good one.”
It’s easy to forget that McCartney was going through that storm at such a young age – he was only 28 when The Beatles split. Sage as he is now, what would he say to the 28-year-old McCartney, if he could?
“That’s difficult. I really don’t know,” he says. “What I first thought of was: listen to people’s opinions more, particularly within the group. But I did listen to people’s opinions and what would happen was I would feel like I had to give my opinion and not get too nervous, because you’ve got to be strong in those situations. There were times when John would bring a song in and I could have just gone, ‘That’s great John, let’s do it like that.’ But the producer in me would think, ‘No, that’s not going to work, why don’t we try it like that.’ So something like ‘Come Together’ would never have been as cool if I’d just been listening to the way John brought it in. And there were a few little instances like that where we would insist on it being one way. So I can’t actually think what I’d say to him. I’d say: You’re a good kid, I love you.”
Four days after the interview, and as you read this, McCartney will be in Canada for the start of another world tour. As Elton John – five years Paul’s junior – begins his official farewell jaunt, Paul McCartney is making no such grand statements. It’s just Paul on tour again, playing the hits. Has he ever thought about playing a Beatles album in full on tour, I ask, thinking wishfully? “No,” he says. “I think that’s kind of a cool idea but I’m not tempted at all to do that. It’d be too limiting. It’s the kind of thing other people do, and I wish them well with it, but to me if I’m doing one album and ‘Hey Jude’ isn’t on it, and I’m in a crowd of 40,000 people, I’m going to want to do ‘Hey Jude’ because it brings people together.”
Many of the reviews of ‘Egypt Station’ – NME’s included – note the puzzler at the heart of McCartney, accomplished and fabulously wealthy as he is: why still do it? Why release a new album? Why collaborate with Kanye and Rihanna? Why tour? What’s left to prove? Why put yourself on the line again?
“That’s the bit that I never remember,” he says. “Putting yourself on the line. I always forget. It’s like women having babies. They go through this terrible, terrible pain, then they go, ‘Let’s have another one, love’. It’s like they’ve forgotten. And it’s a bit like that with me. I’ve had 17 solo babies and I still want another one. I like what I do and I always did. It’s a process I enjoy and I kind of forget that there’s going to be an end product, because I’m too excited and wrapped up in something, playing a guitar riff, making up a nice little phrase on the guitar. I’m just involved in that, and you get blind to the thing that at the end of this road there’s going to be an exam. So you have to just push that aside and think sod it, it doesn’t matter. I’m really writing for the people who like what I do, and that includes me. So I think, OK, that’s pretty cool, you’re still pulling the rabbit out of the hat.”
That’s Paul McCartney, that is. He’s from Liverpool.
Last updated on March 9, 2019