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Clash magazine editor, Simon Harper, recently interviewed former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney about the behind the scenes stories of some of their classic songs.
Amid rumours of the Beatles back catalogue finally appearing on the iTunes store, the launch of the Rock Band: The Beatles console game and the extensive album re-issue campaign, McCartney shared memories of the stories behind some of their famous songs.
Clash: I don’t know if the guys told you what we’re planning on doing, because of the Beatles re-masters, I’d thought it would be a good chance to pull out a couple of your songs and kind of talk about them in a bit more detail.
Paul McCartney: Okay.
Clash: Well what I’ll do is I’ll run through the songs and then if we’ve got time I’ll come back to them if that’s alright. I’ve just picked out a dozen, pretty much at random, the ones that I’ve thought would be the most interesting. First one, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, that was the first song on the first Beatles’ album, was that the plan when it came to putting the tracks together?
Paul McCartney: That was always a last minute thing, the sequencing of the tracks. We’d just make the songs and then we’d kind of sit down with a little list. Actually, what we used to do is we’d cut up the list and then play with it like a little jigsaw, and then go, ‘Oh, that looks good, what about that?” So yeah, it was just a last minute thing with the group and George Martin. We would just lay it out and we’d go, ‘Yeah, that will be great great; that would be a good finisher to the album’, and we’d pick reasons with reasons for all the positions. I think that’s kind of how most people do this stuff.
Clash: Cos that song dates back to, you played it in the Cavern, was it written before then? Was it written quite a while before the album?
Paul McCartney: Yeah, it was one of our early ones. Actually, I’d kind of started it; it was like my song originally, and I played it to John in the very early days when we both… in a conversation we’d both said, ‘Yeah, I write songs’, and we hadn’t really written much, but at least we had written something. He said, ‘Yeah, I have too.’ So, we ended up getting together at my house in Forthlin Road in Liverpool and I played him that one. I had a bad line in the first verse: “She was just seventeen”, which worked fine, but then I had, “She’s never been a beauty queen”, and it was like [gasp of horror], and we cringed at that.
Clash: Quick re-write.
Paul McCartney: I was like, ‘This is wrong, and this is why you’re here; let’s figure something out.’ So, we were just kicking it around, and we just came up with “You know what I mean”, just because it rhymed with ‘queen’, and we just thought, ‘Well, that’s near enough for now.’ I mean, looking back on it, I think it works quite well cos it means a lot – ‘She was just seventeen, you know what I mean?’
Clash: Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Paul McCartney: Yeah, a bit that; it works as a kind of boy/girl song.
Clash: Moving onto ‘Yesterday’, that song was apparently a year in the making – what took so long getting that right?
Paul McCartney: Was it? I don’t remember it taking a year. It must have been from when I actually had the melody to when I’d finished it all. I dreamed the melody one day in London when I was staying at Jane Asher’s house, who was my girlfriend at the time, and I was staying there and I woke up one morning with the song in my head. So, I went round for weeks – first of all to John, and then to George, Ringo, George Martin, various people – and said, ‘What’s this tune, man? I can’t get it out of my head, what is it?’ And no one could figure it out, so for a couple of weeks I thought, ‘Well, I must have written it then’, cos all those people had pretty good knowledge of what songs were either around or had been. So, I had the tune, and then I blocked it out with, [sings verse melody] “Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby, how I love your legs”, which was the first lyric, and I just used to goof with that for a while. And then, I was reminded recently by Bruce Welch, of Cliff Richard’s band The Shadows, that he had a flat in the south of Portugal, and he was a mate and he said to me, ‘If you ever want to use the flat, be my guest.’ I don’t know if he ever expected me to show up, but I did! I landed in Lisbon with Jane Asher, and we had to drive from there down to the Algarve. It was a long, dusty, hot drive with nothing to do, so sitting in the back of this car I just started thinking of words, and over those three hours or so, I figured out what I wanted to do. I’d forgotten that bit, but Bruce reminded me recently; he said, ‘Yeah, don’t you remember? You came to the flat and I was just moving out, you were going to move in, and you said, ‘Have you got a guitar?’’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s right-handed – you’re left-handed.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I could just about fudge the chords. He said to me, ‘You sang ‘Yesterday’ – you had all the words to it.’ So yeah, he reminded me of that. And then I’m not sure how long it took to get it to the sessions – maybe we weren’t recording at that point; it sounds like we weren’t if I was on holiday… We’d be having a break or something. So probably when we got back in the studio in Abbey Road I then [started it], so I’m not sure if that whole process was a year but that was the story.
Clash: Moving on to ‘Paperback Writer’, the B-side was ‘Rain’, which has become a bit of a fan favourite; it’s a pre-psychedelic pop song. How did your song win the fight to be the A-side? How did you decide which song was strongest?
Paul McCartney: We always just had a talk about it. George Martin had a say, we kind of had a say… I think we in the Beatles had always liked ‘Rain’, but I think we thought that as a song, as a kind of radio thing, ‘Paperback Writer’ was a bit more immediate. I know we all liked ‘Rain’, but some of the things we liked were kind of, not ‘underground’, but underground, if you know what I mean; it was a little bit off the beat, leftfield, and ‘Rain’ was one of them. Why we particularly liked it was cos we did tricks with the speed; we recorded it fast and then slowed it down, the backing track. That was one of the first times we’d done that. I used to do a lot of experimentation with my tape recorder at that time, so a few of these ideas found their way into the studio. With my tape recorder, I had the ability to speed up or slow down – it was an old Brunel – so I sometimes recorded things fast and slowed them down just for experimental music I was doing at the time, for my own pleasure -it never saw the light of day. In fact it’s such a pity, because somewhere it got lost, and there was quite a lot of stuff which now would be really pretty interesting, cos I put together little tape loop symphonies and used to use the speed change a lot. So, we got that idea into the studio. We said, ‘Well, look, why don’t we just figure out what key we want ‘Rain’ to end up at and what speed we want it to end up at, and then we’ll just do it faster and then we’ll slow it back down to that key. So we did. If it ended up in G then we recorded it in A, about a tone difference. And we just recorded it like [hums song faster than usual], then slowed it down to that swampy kind of beat. So yeah, we loved it, and the answer your question is I think ‘Paperback’ was just a bit more suitable for radio play.
Clash: Bit more typical Beatles really wasn’t it. Moving onto ‘Eleanor Rigby’, that was completely recorded without traditional rock instruments. Is that how you imagined it when you were writing it, or is that how it became when you were recording it?
Paul McCartney: What had happened was, with ‘Yesterday’, George Martin suggested putting the string quartet on it and I’d kind of resisted his suggestion, but he very cleverly or astutely said, ‘Let’s try it. I’ve got a feeling it will work, and if you don’t like it we can take it off’ – cos I’d recorded it just as a solo thing; all the guys in the band had said, ‘Well, we can’t put drums or guitars or anything on it – why don’t you just do it on your own?’ So, I just did it on my own with George Martin and the quartet thing, and when we did that I liked it; I thought it worked. So, with ‘Eleanor’, I wrote it just on my guitar, then took it to John to finish it, and then brought it to George Martin and said, ‘I think this is another one we could do the string thing on’, but I wouldn’t want to do the same thing, so this time instead of there being four string instruments – a string quartet – I think this was like an octet – we might have even doubled that up to a sixteen-tet, whatever that’s called; a decasextet? But anyway, so that was it, and I just then went round to George (Martin’s) house as I always did, sat with him, showed him the song, showed him the chords, and showed him what I wanted. What I was interested in, which was basically the brief, was that I said that I was interested in Bach, because that was who we were all looking at in the classical world. Bach was so mathematical and I liked this idea that you could have one instrument going, ‘One, two, three, four’, and then you have another instrument going, [double time] ‘One, two, three four’, and another instrument going, [doubled again] ‘One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four’, so you could add twos and fours and eighths, and that happens a lot in Bach. So we worked it out, and then George made the arrangement from our session, which is pretty much how we always used to do it. I think in a way, for instance something like ‘I Am The Walrus’, someone like John probably doesn’t get enough credit, because those sessions, those preparatory sessions, were very important because they set the style and often gave very accurate briefs of what we wanted. For instance, all of John’s “Everybody’s got one” and “Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha” [from ‘I Am The Walrus], all that stuff was from John at a session with George Martin, a preparation session. We’d be around at John’s house or George’s house, and he’d say, ‘I want to go, ‘Ha ha ha’’. So, George would write that all that in the score, and John would sort of say, ‘Well, it could go like that or like that’, but we couldn’t write so we needed George to translate our thoughts. That was how it worked, and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ came about that way – its was going to be another classical foray, but different from ‘Yesterday’. So, in the end there was enough in the strings not to need me to put my guitar in. I put my guitar in now when I sing it on stage, just cos I’m not really comfortable singing without accompanying myself on stage – I’m not used to it – so yeah, we didn’t need it on the recording.
Clash: ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, you once professed that to be one of your personal favourites – was it a favourite when you were writing it or did it become your favourite because of how it turned out?
Paul McCartney: Sometimes when you write a thing you think, ‘Oh, this is good’, and it’s not a modesty or an immodesty thing, you just… it’s just the same with anything; when you write a piece you just figure, ‘Oh yeah, I’m on a roll here. This is good; I’m getting the hang of this’. Some pieces are better than others. I was round at John’s house – I’d shown up for a writing session – and he was late getting up, as often happened. So, what would happen was we’d just give him a shout, you know, ‘Paul’s here’, then I would get a cup of coffee or something, and hang out until he got up and showed up. I was sitting by the pool out in Weybridge where he used to live, at a house called Kenwood. I had my guitar for the writing session and I just started playing around and got this idea of, “Here… [sings melody].” Second verse: “There… [sings melody]” “Everywhere…” I sort of got the structure of it, and then he got up, he got his cup of coffee, and we set to actually working on it and completing it. That was a nice one for me, cos I liked the structure of it and the melody and I thought it worked. I suppose what else I liked was I remember being on a skiing holiday… Well, it wasn’t actually, it was when we were doing Help! It was a skiing thing in Austria. I remember John and I sharing a room, and we played that album, what was it, ‘Rubber Soul’ or ‘Revolver’?
Clash: That one was ‘Revolver’.
Paul McCartney: We played it on a tape cassette, and he just sort of said, ‘Oh, I really like that one.’ That was very rare for John; he didn’t throw compliments around, so I remember thinking, ‘Oh great, it must be good!’ I respected that he liked it.
Clash: ‘Penny Lane’: you didn’t get to return to Liverpool much, were you feeling particularly nostalgic around the time when you wrote that – and was that written as a reaction to John’s ‘Strawberry Fields’, or was it a coincidence?
Paul McCartney: No. I can’t remember really us ever reacting to stuff. I think it was more a question of if John had written a good one, I’d try and write a good one. I can’t remember who wrote what first actually. ‘Penny Lane’ was kind of nostalgic, but it was really a place that John and I knew; it was actually a bus terminus. I’d get a bus to his house and I’d have to change at Penny Lane, or the same with him to me, so we often hung out at that terminus, like a roundabout. It was a place that we both knew, and so we both knew the things that turned up in the story. There was a barber shop called Bioletti, and he did have – like all barber shops – pictures of the hairstyles, so I likened that to a photo gallery, like it was an art show. Snd there was a bank nearby, so we kind of brought them all together – the fire station was a litte bit down the road actually – but they were all our memories – my memories I suppose, basically – of that area. Then I think, I can’t remember, but I’m sure John and I just got together and we finished it up together.
Clash: ‘The End’ was the last song on the last album you made. Was it specific to end on that song – did you want to have a song called ‘The End’ at the end? How long did it take you to think up those lines that were going to finish the album?
Paul McCartney: I think when you’re making an album, as the songs are piling up, one of the good things about it is that you will often write the song that you need. So you think, ‘Well, we’ve got that, we know that, and that’s gonna be there…’ and then, when we got this idea – John and I – to do the compilation thing at the end, we basically pulled together loads of odds and sods that we had. He had ‘Polythene Pam’ and I had ‘[She Came In Through The] Bathroom Window’, and bits and pieces like that, that we hadn’t really finished. So, we hit upon the idea of, ‘Instead of finishing ’em, let’s use them all as fragments and put them all in a big stained glass window – that will be what joins them.’ I naturally just then thought, ‘What will we do at the end of that?’ Because it’s all going to be fairly monumental – all these bits and pieces – and we wanted a big end. We were working out all the arrangements on guitars. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure I just sort of said, ‘Right…’ When I’d got those couplets, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make”, I just thought that was a nice line. Someone pointed out to me recently, ‘Ah, it’s a Shakespearean rhyming couplet, which Shakespeare ended all the acts of his plays on.’ But I did study Shakespeare, that was sort of my thing; I got a Literature A-level, which is my only claim to academic fame. I’d studied, but I don’t remember thinking, ‘Aha yes, let’s end on a rhyming couplet’, but it is, and so, I dunno, just somewhere from my subconscious I thought ‘Yeah’, but then I’m sure it was just a very practical thing – ‘That’s the thing we should end on – that’s what we need to end.’ It worked out quite luckily really.
Clash: On the end of ‘Hey Jude’ you can quite clearly hear someone swearing. Why did you decide not to remove that?
Paul McCartney: I don’t think we noticed until later. We recorded it in Trident Studios, which is in Soho, which is a studio that we used if we couldn’t get in Abbey Road. So, we were all there and we did ‘Hey Jude’, and we were listening back on these six-foot tall tannoy speakers, and there were four of them in the room so it was like living in the song, which is how you can impair your hearing! So we just whacked it up real loud and listened to it. It was more of an experience than anything. Then we took it back to Abbey Road, and we were more preoccupied with the thing that we’d fooled ourselves with the sound – it sounded great on these great big speakers, but when we put it on the naff speakers that we always tested everything on, which was just a couple of very ordinary JBLs, it sounded crap. We had to put in like full bass and full treble; the engineers really had to load it back up, cos we’d fooled ourselves on the sound. I think we were so preoccupied with that, that we didn’t really listen to it until it was too late, and then we listened to it very carefully on headphones and sort of thought, ‘Oh, shit!’ Because there were a lot of vocal part harmonies, you know: [sings] “And any time you feel the… Aaaahhhhhh…” A lot of long notes, and I think probably someone made a mistake and went, ‘Aw, fuck it!’ or whatever, and that just found itself in the mix. It wasn’t intentional.
Last updated on March 7, 2019