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To mark what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday, BBC Radio 2 presented a series of interviews by Sean Lennon, with Elton John, Julian Lennon and Paul McCartney. The event was named “John Lennon At 80“.
I always say to people, one of the great things for me was that after all The Beatles rubbish and all the arguing and the business, you know, business differences really .. that even after all of that, I’m so happy that I got it back together with your dad. It really, really would have been a heartache to me if we hadn’t have reunited. It was so lovely to me that we did and it really gives me strength to know that.Paul McCartney
Sean: My dad’s songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney is unparalleled in the history of rock and roll. It is a very big deal to Beatles fans all over the world and it may come as no surprise that it is, in fact, a big deal to me too. When Paul and I got together to talk about dad, we spoke about many things I’d never heard before. I began by asking him when it was that he realised dad was a special guy?
Paul: Yeah, well, the funny thing about your dad was that I’d seen him around a couple of times, because I realised later what it was, my bus route, he would take that bus, but he would be going to see his mum who lived kind of in my area. And then he’d take the bus back up to his Auntie Mimi’s. So I’d seen him a couple of times and thought, ‘Wow, you know, he’s an interesting looking guy.’ And then I once also saw him in a queue for fish and chips and I said, ‘Oh, that’s that guy off the bus’. I’m talking to myself, in my mind I thought, ‘I saw that guy off the bus, oh he’s pretty cool looking. Yeah, you know, he’s a cool guy.’
Sean: And did you know he was a musician already at that point?
Paul: No, I knew nothing about him except that he looked pretty cool. He had long sideboards and greased back hair and everything.
Sean: Was that the Teddy Boy kind of look at the time?
Paul: Yeah, exactly. It was the Teddy Boy look, yeah.
Sean: Was that your look as well then or were you more of a rock guy?
Paul: I think all of us were trying to do a bit of that at that point, you know, so if you ever noticed anyone who was trying to do it, you thought, ‘Oh, yeah, probably get on well with him,’ but I didn’t know anything about him. And I didn’t know who he was accept that I’d seen him on the bus and I’d seen him the fish and chip shop. But then my friend Ivan, who I knew at school, was a friend of John’s and took me up to the village fete, introduced me there. So it was like, ‘Oh, that’s that guy who I’ve been seeing.’ And then obviously I knew he was a musician because he was in the little band, The Quarrymen, and I got to sort of hang with them in the interval.
Sean: And.. we’re talking about no guitar amplifiers, kind of a skiffle washboard thing.
Paul: No, it was very pre rock and roll it was. There’d been the old fashioned kind of music, which was my dad’s music, some of which I liked and enjoyed. And then there’d been skiffle which kind of broke it open. This was the kind of new kind of music to us. It was like bluesy, folksy but you only had to have an acoustic guitar, you didn’t need much equipment. And for the bass, they used to use a tea chest… all the tea came in it from India or somewhere and you had a broomstick on the top and a string. So their group was pretty basic, an acoustic-y kind of thing.
Sean: Was it good, though? I mean, did you think they sounded good?
Paul: I thought John was good. I thought the group wasn’t that good. You know, I didn’t think they were bad.
Sean: Because your dad played trumpet and you actually sort of had more of a real musical family in a way. I mean, right, you were more exposed to jazz?
Paul: I was lucky, my dad played music around the house a lot and it was a very musical family. I was in all the big family sing songs of New Years, you know were quite, quite huge occasions. And the funny thing about this was that I thought everyone had families like mine, just ordinary and just seemed to like each other and, or visited each other and sang and played the piano and stuff. And it was only later when I realised probably through your dad’s life of how a difficult upbringing he’d had compared to me.
Sean: My grandmother Juliet did play banjo and ukulele. Do you remember what she was like because I’ve actually never really spoken to anyone about my grandmother, who actually met her in person before. What was she like?
Paul: This is one of the sadness’s about life, you know, that you would have just loved her. She was a doll, she was just a very cool lady. She had long red hair and she was very spirited, and she would sort of joke and stuff. And she did play a little banjo thing and she taught John some chords. So when I met him he used to play these kind of banjo chords and so we had to swap it round to guitar. But she was lovely and he idolised her and it was so sad that he wasn’t living with her and his half-sisters. But yeah, she was a terrific lady, a lot of fun and we’d go around to their little council house which was in the area where I lived which was not quite as well off as the people up on the hill where John lived.
Sean: Right, he was in Menlove Avenue.
Paul: He was in Menlove Avenue and I was off, an avenue called Madison Avenue.
Sean: Which was posh, kind of relatively posh.
Paul: Right, compared to the rest of us in The Beatles. He was the posh one.
Sean: That’s so funny because people didn’t really think of it that way I think early on did they.
Paul: Exactly. Well, you know, and all the working class hero and all that. But no, so John would come down visit me and then we’d walk a mile or two down to where Julia’s house was. And we would just do a visit, it was in a little line of terraces, council house, very modest. And we’d just have a visit. So she’d make us a cup of tea and sandwiches and we’d sit around chatting. It’s very, very obvious to me that John absolutely loved her and she absolutely loved him. So, as I say, she was fun. She was really ready with a joke. She was witty. And I suspect that’s where he got a lot of his wit from.
Sean: And was Julia, she knew you guys were starting a band, was she supportive of it… and what about your dad? Did every, were the parents into it or were they thinking it was a bit of a waste of time?
Paul: Yeah, I think she thought it was fun, a fun idea, you know, because she could, she was a bit of a musician herself. So, and my dad was the other one who had actually been a musician in a little band so he was super supportive and we would go around there to rehearse, but sometimes we’d take our guitars around to Julia’s and sort of play a little something and she loved it. She was very supportive.
Sean: I always got the impression that dad felt, and it may be expressed in different ways over the years that somehow he wasn’t officially a true musician or something and that everyone else was. I mean, was there that kind of feeling that he thought, you know, I’m not a real musician?
Paul: I don’t think any of us were, tell you the truth. And I think that was a very good, strong thing about us actually, funnily enough. We all had to learn together. The nearest to John feeling like he wasn’t a true musician could have been that in the skiffle craze, when everyone else is playing guitar chords, he only knew a couple of banjo chords, but that only lasted a week or two. And I would just show him chords I knew which was very basic, but it was great bonding just learning chords off each other. And I think the minute he knew those chords, he was as good as anyone and he might have had a little bit of a hang up about not being sort of musically trained, but none of us were. And I think that was one of the strengths of The Beatles, that none of us knew what we were doing so we had to discover the root for ourselves and each of us discovered it together at the same time so that was lovely. It meant that when we came to record or play live we all were new at it and so we all learned at the same speed… which I think when we came to record with George Martin later on meant that John and I could bring in a song and just play it, [sings] ‘If there’s anything that you want,’ and then George and Ringo would immediately pick it up. There was no kind of, ‘Oh, wait a minute, show me, let me take those chords down.’ It was like, no, no, no, no, we’d grown up together so we just read each other.
Sean: And I remember the story of you learning B7 or something and that was sort of a big breakthrough.
Paul: It was a breakthrough, major breakthrough… it’s a kind of slightly complicated chord in that set of chords, because A, A and E, they’re not too bad.
Sean: But you can’t really play the blues if you don’t also have that last chord can you.
Paul: You gotta have that last chord so it was true. I mean, it’s a distant memory for me now and I’ve told this story so many times I begin to think it’s not true. But it is, it is true that we actually did go on a bus to some guy’s house, who somebody had said, ‘Oh, no, this guy is good. He knows B7,’ and we went and we learned it off him. It was kind of good that we didn’t know too much because you had to just say, ‘Oh, is this chord’ and show him this chord, ‘Yeah, okay,’ and even with this complicated timings in things, I don’t know like ‘Here Comes The Sun,’ there’s a [hums notes].
Paul: If you try and notate that, all of us wouldn’t have bothered, but we just went, ‘Okay, it goes, yeah, babada babada papapapapapa.’
Sean: Yeah, no, and dad wrote a few songs with odd time signatures, like Good Morning. Yeah. I mean Happiness Is A Warm Gun has a bunch of different tempo changes and stuff, which is quite progressive actually for a quote, unquote, non-musician or self-taught musician.
Paul: I think what was important, wasn’t who was more sophisticated than the other or whatever. And there may be is some truth that musically I had an edge because my dad had shown us some things and I’d learned the guitar chords a bit before John, but it wasn’t so much that, the sophistication, it was attitudes. So my attitude would be, this is what I want to do. And then John would bring another edge to it. So what was the great thing was the combination of those two attitudes, you know, and I look back on it now like, like a fan. I think, ‘Wow, how lucky was I to meet this strange Teddy Boy off the bus who turned out to play music like I did, and we get together and boy, we complemented each other,’ there’s a bit yin yang. They say with marriages opposites attract and I think, I mean, we weren’t like madly opposites, but I had some stuff he didn’t have and he had some stuff I didn’t have so when you put them together it made something extra.
Sean: It really did. When I look when I look at you guys, just as a fan myself, when you wrote Yesterday it just seems like a real, like a comet from outer space. It’s just really like a breakthrough for you guys musically. I also always felt that might be true. I’ve heard that that was true of my dad writing Strawberry Fields. Do you remember feeling anything special about him writing that or playing it for you?
Paul: Oh, yeah, yeah. In fact, it’s funny, I heard it on the radio coming in this morning.
Paul: Yeah, I thought this is a sign… It’s funny when you hear a thing on the radio and you haven’t analysed it recently, it was great to hear sort of what we did. I mean, I knew what Strawberry Fields was, it was this place right next to where John lived which had been an old Salvation Army kind of orphanage thing and we used to peep over the wall and look over the gates there… By the time I was there it had been closed down. And John would say, ‘Oh, look, you know this is Strawberry Fields. And there’s, used to be all kids playing in there and stuff.’ So when we came to get the song together, John – it was essentially John’s song – and he sort of brought it in. But it was such a lovely piece and I very, I think very ahead of its time, with all the lyrics I think, ‘Yes, I don’t, maybe, hello.’ It was really, like a sort of great poem and I suppose the other thing is that when you analyse it, it is John telling you his troubles, you know. We all sort of think about life and we go, ‘Is that true or is that? I don’t know, maybe, well, so and so,’ but he put it very succinctly in the song.
Sean: Yeah you guys seem to be also inventing that kind of interpersonal, reflective kind of song-writing. Was that something that you guys got a bit from Dylan a bit or I’ve heard that I just don’t know if it’s true?
Paul: We certainly got a lot from Dylan and I know I had one of his first LPs at home before The Beatles. I used to play that quite a lot so I was steeped in him and I think your dad was too, but that was just one of the influences. There’s an awful lot more because Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, those are very much us remembering our youth. And it’s a funny thing we used to say when we were little older, I mean, older, like 20 or something even – really young, like babies, you know – but we thought we were kind of men of the universe and big men by then as we get a little bit older. If ever there was like a problem with a song or recording, we’d often say, ‘What would our 17 year old self think?’ and we like refer back because that was the wisest age we reckoned, you know, ‘17 years, nah, it’s a load of crap!’
Sean: Right, you had it all figured out.
Paul: Yeah, ‘That’s great, needs more drums or,’ you know just very basic thinking. It’s a whole, very exciting time. And I say with Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane there, I’d say Penny Lane and talk about the barber shop, John would know exactly what I meant because that was his bus terminus where he had to, if he was coming from the city centre, he’d probably have to go to Penny Lane and then change to go up Menlove Avenue. So we were very intimate with that place. And the same as I say with Strawberry Fields. These were places from our lovely days of our youth. And so when we were writing later, maybe five years later or something, it was great to write about those things. I think it’s always good to write about memories.
Sean: I got to, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say, but I’ve had little glimpses of some of the studio banter from the Let It Be period and it just made me think like, ‘Wow’. You know growing up there was always this myth that things were a bit grumpy or whatever and there was this mythos around the film and everything. But actually what surprised me was that you guys, then and throughout your career, just always seem to actually be having so much fun. It’s very light hearted, you guys are joking around and enjoying yourselves, I think, is that true? Do you think it was a bit of a myth? And that looking back, do you feel like, do you notice how much more fun it seemed or something because I remember seeing in an interview with you saying.
Paul: I think it was the fact that The Beatles were breaking up which was a very difficult time for us. It was like a divorce so it’s very difficult to collect your thoughts and to just be jolly. And by the time Let It Be came about, that became the story of the film and then that, coupled with the fact that we’d broken up, left a gloomy left a sort of cloud in the room… I’d always bought into that. So for years when people say, ‘Oh, about Let It Be,’ I go, ‘Yeah, I didn’t really like it’, because it was such a gloomy period, but then talking to Peter Jackson when he was looking at the 58 hours of outtakes. I said, ‘Well, you know, what’s it like?’ kind of thing expecting him to say, ‘Well, it’s very gloomy. You’re all arguing all the time.’ He says, ‘No,’ he said exactly what you just said, ‘It’s amazing.’ He said this, ‘You’re like jolly and stuff.’ And he showed me some bits and it’s just great. And it really made me happy because I know for years, there, I thought, ‘Oh, God, The Beatles broke up and it was acrimonious. And we were arguing,’ which happens in a divorce.
Sean: I remember you saying that you saw a picture of you guys… I think it’s from the [Abbey Road] session, and you’re just obviously so close like you’re writing some song together and that reminded you.
Paul: It was a picture Linda had taken and it really gave me hope that picture. Before the Peter Jackson thing that was like one little picture I held onto. In fact we had an exhibition where Linda’s pictures were blown up and I bought one of them and it’s a great big one of that thing you’re talking about, me and John writing. And you can just see that we’re into each other and we’re like smiling, and I will write down something, so we’re engaged in doing something artistic, something interesting. And I say that every time I felt a bit down, I look at that picture and go, ‘No that’s the reality.’ And so I’m loving the fact that Peter Jackson discovered more of that reality.
Sean: I’m excited about it. And you guys famously started writing, I guess, more and more independently as the records progressed, but was there still a kind of input or influence happening anyway, would you say?
Paul: I think so.. the reason we originally wrote separately was because we were living separately. In the early days we’d been on tour all the time so we were kind of living together. Once the touring eased off, and we might have one tour a year or something, there would be plenty of time to be at home. And so you’d pick up a guitar or something and let’s say I wrote Yesterday or something like that, John would write Strawberry Fields, so you were writing separately then you bring it together for the record. But you would then get some collaboration to finish up the song and to bring it into the studio and then you collaborate in the studio. But the interesting thing is that ever since The Beatles broke up and we didn’t write together or even record together, I think each one of us referenced the others when we’re writing stuff. I often do it, I’m writing something and I go, ‘Oh, god, this is bloody awful,’… and I think what would John say? And you go, ‘Yeah, you’re right. It’s bloody awful. You got to change it.’ And so I’ll change it. And I know from reports that he did similar things to that, you know, if I’d have a record out he’d go, ‘Oh bloody hell, got to go into studio, got to try and do better than Paul.’
Sean: Yeah, I always felt like, even on Imagine, he has that song that’s just How question mark.
Sean: And there’s this one chord in it, that’s sort of I guess I don’t know what key, but it’s when you play like a C Major over D on the base and it’s kind of like a jazzier sound and I always felt like that was something that he would have been more influenced by your ears for. Like it sounds to me that he was paying attention to you, you know, throughout his career to me, but I don’t know. I mean, I can’t ask him, but it seems that way if I just listen to the chords and melodies, [he] seemed aware of what you were doing to me, even seemed still to be bit in sync. I listened to your first solo album, McCartney, and his Plastic Ono Band. In a way they are connected to me, maybe I’m stretching, but they’re connected because they’re both so raw and stripped down in a away and I feel like they don’t sound like The Beatles in the similar way in the way that they’re more kind of bare and I really love them both, but it seems like you weren’t as, you hadn’t completely drifted apart necessarily, like there was still a kind of, you’re on the same page to me.
Paul: Yeah, well, you know if you know someone that long from your early teenage years to your late twenties, that’s an awful long time to be collaborating with someone and you grow to know each other and even when you’re apart you’re still thinking about each other, you’re still referencing each other. So I like to think that. I always say to people, one of the great things for me was that after all The Beatles rubbish and all the arguing and the business, business differences really, that even after all of that I am so happy that I got it back together with your dad who really, really would have been a heartache to me if we hadn’t have reunited, was so lovely that we did. And it really gives me sort of strength to know that.
Sean: Yeah, well, that you kind of touched base again. I mean even, I’ve seen interviews with him around the time when he’s about to go and see you and he seems really genuinely happy that he’s about to see you. I think he says like, ‘Well actually I’m about to have a meeting with him, Paul, I’m on my way’, or something and he kind of jokes, but he sounds happy that he’s going to see you. I can tell that you guys were real friends.
Paul: I think so much of what he did just, obviously Imagine and Instant Karma is great and the nice thing was, when I listen to the records, I can imagine him in the studio and go, ‘Oh ok, I know what he’s done. He’s just said to the engineer, “Gimme some Elvis echo.. Bog echo.”’ Bog is the toilet in Liverpool, but we just called it bog echo… But I can imagine him saying, ‘I want that’ and getting in the headphones with that and recording a lot of his stuff that way.
Sean: I also heard that he was insecure about his voice, like I’ve heard that when he was doing the solo records he would turn his vocal down and then he’d go to the bathroom and come back and that engineers would have like snuck it back up. It’s just funny that he had these sort of insecurities, although he also came across as very confident didn’t he.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. Well, the confidence was the shield… I’d learned that early on was that if you have difficulties in your life it can kind of go two ways. You can just lie down and give up or you can put a shield up and you can guard yourself from the world in that way. So from the minute I met John I knew that was what was going on, was that he had this wit that would guard him from that. And so the thing is, you know, insecurities, I think so many people, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t have insecurities so I can relate to that. And I’m sure John would not think it was great enough. I remember doing a vocal on Eleanor Rigby and saying to George Martin, ‘God, this is terrible, oh I’m terrible,’ and I listen to it now and go, ‘Oh no, it’s pretty good. I like it.’
Sean: Pretty good, yeah. It’s ok.
Paul: But you know, we’re all full of insecurities and then… if you look at it rationally, you go, ‘Wait a minute. There’s this guy “John Lennon” whos like a genius, clever, witty, confident and everything. Why would he have insecurities?’, because we’re all fragile beings and I do that with myself. I think, ‘God, if I haven’t got enough awards, I should just look at these awards go. “Yeah, you’re OK,”’ but you don’t. It doesn’t work out like that, you as an artist I think you’re always questioning, thinking, I could do this better or could I… and then sometimes you’ll just hear it and go, ‘Oh no, it’s ok,’ but I think we were all a bit like that.
Sean: How did you guys decide to even be songwriters because I thought generally most groups would not necessarily write their own material. Was it Buddy Holly who really started that?
Paul: You know, it was independent of all of that. I’d started just when I got a guitar my natural instinct was to sort of try and learn songs that I liked, little blues songs or skiffle songs, but beyond that I tried to write little things myself and it turns out so did John. So what I would do is, I was just talking to someone about myself and they said, ’What are your hobbies?’ You know, going, ‘Oh I don’t know, I love drawing and I like song-writing, I try and write songs’, and instead of these days where someone might go, ‘Oh you do, that’s interesting’, people would go , ‘Oh, yeah, ok do you like football?’ and no one would pick up on that song-writing thing until I met John and then I said, ‘Well, you know I’ve written a couple of songs,’ he said, ‘So have I.’ So we had just independently, having our guitars it had struck us as a good idea to try and do something of our own and they were they were pretty basic little songs, but when we got together we used to go round to my house and we’d play these songs, and we had that really just before Buddy and then when Buddy came along, the Everlys came along, we took a lot of their style and put them into our style, but we had actually started to flirt with song-writing independent of one another without major influences, just the fact that it was a guitar, we loved this new kind of music and so we were having a go at it.
Sean: You wrote Love Me Do before The Beatles?
Paul: Yeah, we did we that. We did a few before The Beatles really – Love Me Do, One After 909. That was very much in my front room in our little house and I Saw Her Standing There. I’d started that and we worked on it together so we had those really before The Beatles broke.
Sean: It’s amazing that those songs are so strong and still hold up today. Did you have any throwaway songs that you don’t like, that were sort of bad? Or was this kind of like, you just struck gold from the beginning?
Paul: Yeah… there were a few songs that weren’t very good.
Sean: Well that’s nice to hear, actually, honestly.
Paul: There were there were a few that were clearly young songwriters who don’t quite know how to do it. There was one called Just Fun. How does it go… I’ve got my guitar here. It goes like ‘They say that our love is just fun…’ [sings some of the song]. Ok, Just Fun, so.
Sean: Wow. That sounds almost like country song.
Paul: Well, yeah there was a lot of country influence in our early stuff here… So eventually we started to write slightly better songs and then enjoyed the process of learning together so much that it really took off and became the huge success that was The Beatles.
Sean: For sure, but there’s a lot of bands that were successful and great, but you guys especially seemed to always evolve and grow exponentially if I look at their history from the first album all the way through to Abbey Road and Let It Be in and then you go on to write an oratorio and other stuff. Where did you guys get this kind of unique drive to just keep expanding? When I listen to Because and She’s So Heavy, it seems like even by the end of The Beatles my dad was still sort of expanding his ability, like, where did that come from ‘cos not everyone of that generation did the same thing?
Paul: Okay, number one, we were good. Right there. Number two, we’d grown up together. From little kids, we’d taken the first steps together. We kind of learned to walk together then we learned to run. And the fact that each of us was influencing the other was very important. And we were learning, not just about songs and stuff about life, we’d come down from Liverpool to London and so we were seeing the London scene together. Even though we weren’t living together, we would talk about it all and the same influences. We’d maybe go to the same clubs and we’d do this and do that. And so all those influences were always there. And the fact that we’d come along this journey together meant that, ‘Hey, we’re just gonna continue, and who knows, we might get better.’ And so we did and if I did something that was a little bit ahead of the curve then John would come up with something that was a bit ahead of my curve. And then so I’d go, ‘Well, how about this?’ and there was a lot of friendly competition.
Sean: Do you feel like you guys absorbed each other in a way that the other person influenced you to become who you wound up being as an artist?
Paul: Yeah, I do. Yeah. Really very much so. And as you say who knows, I mean I was looking at being a school teacher. And I don’t know what John was looking at, maybe an artist or something I don’t know, and I think we rescued each other.
Sean: Having said that… are there any solo records of dad’s that you kind of remember thinking like, ‘Oh, he’s doing a good job of that.’ Like I imagine you would have liked Mind Games, the song or something, but that’s just in my head or Number Nine Dream. Are there any songs or records that you remember being a fan of his when he was going solo?
Paul: Yeah, I mean, I’m often asked for my favourite tunes kind of thing, and I always include Beautiful Boy.
Sean: That’s a major six chord I think which he must have learned from you ‘cos you have a major 6 at the beginning of Fool On The Hill. And I think you did a 6 before he did one. I always think that.
Paul: [laughs] I invented the major 6!
Sean: You invented the major 6 chord.
Paul: No, you know, I love it. I love what I do. I say “Happy Birthday John”. A lovely, lovely boy and it’s great speaking to you, Sean, who’s also a lovely boy, on this occasion. It’s great, man.
Sean: Thanks a lot. I really appreciate, it’s been really fun, especially here at hearing about dad and hearing about my grandma too is nice.