Interview for ShortList • Sunday, July 22, 2012

Paul McCartney - Master of Ceremonies

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
Interview by:
Andrew Dickens
Read interview on ShortList
Timeline More from year 2012

Songs mentioned in this interview

Hey Jude

Officially appears on Hey Jude / Revolution

Scrambled Eggs

Officially appears on Blow Your Pants Off


Officially appears on Help! (Mono)

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He’s Britain’s greatest musical export, a living legend and, when the Olympics finally arrive, the man who will say, “Hello, World.” In the meantime, ShortList’s Andrew Dickens says, “Hello, Sir Paul”

The subject of this interview needs no introduction, but he’s going to get one anyway. He is Sir Paul McCartney. Knight, Beatle, Wing. The most successful songwriter of all time. A living demigod who’s caused women to faint with his mere presence and rock legends to pick up their first guitar.

He’s conquered America – all the Americas, in fact – and every other continent on the planet. He’s also the man who, when it came to Danny Boyle choosing a fitting finale to the Olympic opening ceremony, was the only conceivable choice. And here he’s sat, still channelling the cheeky Liverpool lad that charmed the world with his friends, still working the most knowing eyebrow-raise in showbusiness, still in possession of that famous mop haircut. But, unbelievably, despite his peerless past 50 years, this concert is a rare career first…

You’re closing the Olympic opening ceremony…

Closing the opening…

Closing the opening – where does that rank among the gigs you have played?

Oh, extremely high. When you do these things, like a command performance or Jubilee or Olympics, it’s a completely different beast. It’s not your crowd and, normally, by the time I do the big crowd numbers, it’s at the end of my set. With something like the Olympics, there’s no warm-up, you just come in cold and you’ve got to get up to speed. It’s like asking an athlete to do his thing without a warm-up: run in, do 100m and you’re off.

What’s your sporting pedigree like – were you an athletic young man?

In a word, no. I was the kid who would be in the outfield at cricket and the ball would hardly ever come to me, so I just sort of daydreamed. My interests lay in other directions. It was the same for all The Beatles, actually. If there was a big match, we’d kind of watch it – the FA Cup or a big international – but we never kicked a football around or played a game of cricket on the beach.

You ran around a lot in films such as A Hard Day’s Night. Who was the fastest Beatle?

Well, I’ve got to say me, but it’s not necessarily true. We never raced each other. The only time we raced, we were filming a scene out of Help! at Cliveden House [Berkshire], which has the big gardens. The crew said, “We should have a relay race. Beatles against the crew.” So we said, “Yeah, OK.” I think I was second in the relay and it was Ringo who passed the baton to me. I legged it like a bat out of hell and we won. We were kind of proud of that. So we were fit, but it was never organised into any sport.

Are you disappointed David Beckham isn’t in the Games?

Yeah, I am actually. I understand there were three places [in the football squad] for over-23s, and I would’ve thought first choice would be Beckham because of his huge contribution to getting the Olympics. But, you know, some idiot decided otherwise. I feel a bit sorry for the three over-23-year-olds, because we’re going to be looking at them and going, “That should’ve been Beckham.” Let’s face it: it’s not the World Cup. It’s not like anyone’s really going to be bothered.

And he’s a crowd-puller…

He’s a national hero. And it would’ve been great for him to lead out our British team, but someone somewhere said… What did they say? So-and-so’s playing better. Like it matters. Anyway, yeah, I would have liked David to be in.

As you said, he’s a national hero, a national treasure. Do you feel like a national treasure?

Well, people say it, I see it written, so it has to cross your brain. But no. Me, really me, feels like when I was a kid in Liverpool, still. A kid who’s done loads of things and is now a different person, but internally I still feel the same. So national treasure? I mean, I get a great reaction from people. People are very nice to me. I get asked to do national treasure work [laughs], for no pay, by the way. That’s the trick with national treasures, you don’t have to pay them. Personally I don’t feel like that at all. I’m happy to be a family treasure.

Do you have any concept of your status and influence? Because the rest of the world looks at you as Paul McCartney, as a Beatle, but can you see yourself through other people’s eyes?

When you were growing up in Liverpool, you wanted to be famous, to do well. With The Beatles, we did that; we did extremely well. We became phenomenally well-known. And as time passes, when I do shows you see the unbelievable effect this has had on people. I get stopped in the street quite often with somebody saying, “I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me, for the music and for the effect you’ve had on my life.” I can’t ignore that. And it’s great. But it is with some sort of disbelief and some wonder that I look at that. I often talk about that with mates: “Can you believe I was one of The Beatles, man?” I was talking to Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen… am I name-dropping or what?

You’re doing quite well…

I am doing well. And then, as I said to the Queen… [laughs]. But as I said to them, it’s amazing to me to be singing the songs that a 24-year-old guy wrote. And as I’m singing them, I’m thinking, “He was a pretty good writer. He wasn’t bad. This band was not bad.” So I think I appreciate it almost as if it’s not me. But of course I realise it is me. And I’m very happy with that.

You say you sing the songs you’ve been singing for 50 years: do you ever forget the words to something such as Hey Jude or Jet?

It’s funny. “Na na na, na na na na na [he talks through Hey Jude].” I sometimes forget those. It’s a devilish lyric. I occasionally do forget them. But the great thing is, I used to panic about that, but I realise now that the audiences don’t mind. In fact, they quite like it. They’re at the show where I forgot the words, and it makes that show special.

Do you still get nervous before gigs?

Generally I don’t. I rationalise it. I’ll say to Barry Marshall, my promoter, just put one show on and he’ll say, “I want to do two.” And I’ll say, “Put one on and let’s see how it goes.” And I’ll get an email from him saying, “Chicago sold out in two minutes!” So the thing I rationalise is, I know they want to see me and that helps me not be nervous. But having said that, you never quite know. You can do something such as the Jubilee or the Olympics and get the old collywobbles.

And like you said, it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake…

Oh God, that’d be good, wouldn’t it? Make a mistake at the Olympics. “Hi there. Listen, welcome to Britain. I just wanted to stop the song, just for a minute. We’ll start again…”

When you write, what percentage is inspiration and what percentage is perspiration?

It depends how lucky you get. If you’re lucky, it’s pure inspiration. Those are great, because they just sort of fall out and you can’t believe you’re writing it so easily. Then some of them, it’s 50-50, where you get a sense that you’re having to work at it. But I’m lucky, because the way I used to write with John, it was normally a three-hour affair. It was never much longer than that. I’m kind of trained in that. There were oddities such as Yesterday, which I dreamt. People say, “Do you believe in magic?” and I say, “I have to.” Because I woke up one morning with this [hums the tune to Yesterday], and I went, “I love that. What was that?” I thought I was dreaming someone else’s song. So for about two weeks I asked John, George Martin, George and Ringo, “What is this? Do you know this song?” There were no lyrics. I bluffed it out with “Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs.” That was just to remember it.

So how long did it take to write the lyrics?

I wrote the words on a car journey while on holiday in Portugal, during a three-hour drive from Lisbon to the south coast, where I was staying in [The Shadows’] Bruce Welch’s flat. Bruce, not so long ago, said to me, “The first thing you said was, ‘Have you got a guitar?’” So there I was singing it, and he couldn’t believe it. So he was the first person in the world to hear Yesterday.

The Rolling Stones have just celebrated 50 years as a band. Do you think that, if John and George were still alive, The Beatles might have reformed for your 50th anniversary?

Yeah, I think all things are possible. Anything could’ve happened. We could’ve decided we’d reform by now or we could’ve got together for big anniversaries or a big charity gig or something. It would’ve been a great thing to do. But obviously we can’t do that, so that’s that. But the thing with The Beatles was that we realised that we’d come full circle. We had offers to reform and we said, “You know what? It won’t be as good.” Because that period when we were The Beatles, it was damn good and we never really ruined it. So, actually, to do it as older guys, being a bit rusty, in a way I’m glad we didn’t.

Do you notice your own ‘cool factor’?

Not really. But occasionally it’ll get shown to me. If someone such as Dave Grohl wants me to play with him then I think that’s pretty cool, because he’s a cool guy and he likes me and he likes my playing and he wants me to sing with him. So that kind of keeps it topped up. A few years ago we did Coachella and that was very cool. I did it for the same reason that we did Glastonbury. Someone said, “I was at Glastonbury last year. It was great. Late at night, walking around all the campfires, everyone singing Beatles songs…” I thought, “Oh, right. I could do that.” They may be young, they may be old, but they still know Beatles stuff, they still like the songs.

Is that what keeps you going?

Well, I love it, I love it. Trying to get away from name-dropping, but I was talking to Paul Simon – and I know Ringo’s said it – and we all agree that it’s what we do, and we love it. So we’re never really any more at home than when we’re doing our thing. And when you get that feedback from an audience, it’s very special. You know, you go home to you partner and you say, “Hello darling!” and it feels great. Well, 300,000 people doing that feels even better.

Last updated on December 12, 2020


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