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Now seems an apt moment once again to listen to what the man said. In an era marked by cynicism and rife with pop music that melds misogyny and other bigotries with seductive beats, it’s instructive to reconsider the singular career path of Sir James Paul McCartney.
Not only a legendary songwriting force in the Beatles — whose “1” album has either been at or near the top of The Billboard 200 albums chart for more than 16 weeks — McCartney was also the founder of the popular follow-up to the Fab Four, a plucky outfit he called Wings.
“We had certainly decided to just go and wing it — no wonder we ended up calling the band Wings,” McCartney mused with a grin during a March afternoon of conversation and recording at Jim Henson Studios (i.e., the one-time A&M Records compound that began as Charlie Chaplin’s landmark movie lot), located just off LaBrea Avenue.
Rather than aping the sound McCartney helped shape with the Beatles, Wings was more personal and stylistically prismatic in tone, its often ruminative sense of diversity tempered by considerable pop/rock craft. As made clear on “Wingspan” (MPL/Capitol/EMI) — a two-CD commemorative anthology due May 8 that will be accompanied by an ABC-TV special and followed by a holiday boxed set of Wings rarities, studio outtakes, and previously unissued performance documents — Wings’ signature was a colorful and welcoming power-pop sound, meant to be heard live to a greater extent than ultimately possible with the superfame-encumbered Beatles, and its songs celebrated the peaks, valleys, and consoling plateaus of everyday life.
As the ensuing conversation reveals, McCartney’s personal life has proved a wellspring for his public art, with the period that “Wingspan” preserves being an especially dramatic, fulfilling chapter. It’s only fitting that during our talk this family man was periodically — and happily-interrupted by contact with his children, specifically a phone call from 31-year-old daughter Mary, who produced, directed, and co-wrote the “Wingspan” TV documentary with husband Allaster Donald, and a studio visit by her half-sister Heather, 37, from Linda’s first marriage (she was adopted by Paul in ’69). Linda died of cancer April 17, 1998, six months after the world premiere of the acclaimed “Standing Stone” classical tone poem he composed in tribute to her and the family they raised together.
McCartney’s son, James, 23, is a musician who guested on Paul’s 1997 “Flaming Pie” album, and fashion designer Stella McCartney, Paul’s second daughter by Linda, was born in September 1971 in King’s College Hospital, London — the band name Wings originally sprang to her dad’s mind as he waited outside the delivery room, “praying like mad.”
McCartney took this writer downstairs to hear some works in progress he was cutting with producer David Kahne for a future solo album. One of the most touching was a hymnlike homage to his late wife, with a refrain that included the poignant line “You’re still here.” Just as McCartney’s music — whether with the Beatles, on his own, or in Wings — seems uncommonly worthy of chronicling, so is his quietly compelling legacy as a public figure, private citizen, husband, and father.
Explain the basic plan for “Wingspan.”
The album comes out in May, and the TV show of no more than two hours comes out around the same time; they’re editing as we speak. Then the box set comes later in the year. The priority has been the album, and then one or two funky mixes that we’re doing for radio. There are songs on there that strictly speaking aren’t Wings. We’ve stretched the envelope a little bit — it’s called Paul McCartney and Wings. And I always like value for money. You get all this music — over two-and-a-half hours of it-for the price of one CD.
When will the solo album you’re working on now be released?
I don’t know, really. I will be finished before the summer, so it could possibly come later in the year.
Really, along with the Wings boxed set?
Well, really they’re quite different things. The box set is a big Christmas gift item. This [solo album] is a regular CD. So I’m not sure they’d interfere with each other. But this is the kind of thing I talk with the record company about. If they’ve got major worries, then I listen to them. We’ll see.
How do you feel about the success of the Beatles’ “1”?
It’s fantastic, lovely. I took the time over Christmas to listen to it, and I really liked it. I thought, “Shit, this is good.” The single most impressive thing to me was the structure of the songs. I was very seriously reimpressed by the fact that there didn’t seem a spare inch of fat on them. It seemed like what ought to be there was there, and what didn’t wasn’t. And I thought the sound on it was great; the guys did a really good job at Abbey Road on the sound, remastering it and cleaning it up.
I saw a guy yesterday who was [dance hall/pop singer] Shaggy’s producer — his name’s Shaun [Pizzonia]. I said, [slyly] “I’m really sorry we kept you off the top spot [on The Billboard 200 albums chart until mid-February].”
He said, “Yeah, you were really sitting there.” I said, “We were sitting there, and I really must apologize to Shaggy — not” [laughs].
But it’s a good record. Young kids love it, and nobody’s twisting their arms. The kids were buying it for their parents — but not giving it to them [grins], saying, “I’ll hang on to this, man!” It introduces it to a whole new group of people. And it’s crazy to see us on the cover of magazines now as the world’s hottest band! This Shaun guy was saying that the kids don’t know and they don’t care when the record was made. They just love the songs.
Some things have been said lately regarding current music that’s considered offensive, with the assertion being made that in previous generations people were also upset by the Beatles or Elvis. But I don’t think that people were upset back then in the way that tactical point was intended. The fact is that you have always been very humanistic in your music, and in an organic way you’re a champion of human dignity. There isn’t any bigotry in the Beatles’ music, and I don’t remember Elvis being a bigot in his music, or anyone being upset with the Beatles because they were diminishing the human spirit. Do you think that’s fair to say?
That’s very nicely said. Thank you. And, yes, I think that’s fair to say, and I’m quite proud of it. We had pretty black humor, but in what we presented to the public and what we did, we do champion peace, love, human values. And we do put down avarice and hatred.
Why do you think you did that?
I think it just came naturally. I think that’s who we were and who we are. I think we were reasonable people. When you think about it, John did “Give Peace a Chance”; George was doing a thing against the “Taxman.”
But it took a little courage. People have to be lonely in their ideals. You didn’t know if people were going to like this stuff.
Well … [shyly, after a short pause] we were very courageous people. I mean, the nice thing about the Beatles’ stuff, and Wings’, is that they’re complete bodies of work, so you can talk about them now as if it’s not you and sort of step outside them. And I really do think, even though it may seem to some people very immodest, that the Beatles were a fantastic band, and I think Wings were a great band and did great stuff. You can now step back, and the record is there to be examined.
On “Wingspan,” there are 19 tracks on the “Hits” disc and 22 on the “History” disc. Each is a memorable song, but people may have the criticism of “I wish this …” or “I wish that …”
“… they’d put that song on,” yeah. But that’s physically just time limitations. But then they should buy the box set — that’ll have more, is basically the idea. But I think there’s a lot of good stuff here, a pretty good selection.
Let talk about Wings, its formation, and your first 11-gig college tour [in February ’72], which hit schools like Nottingham University and ended at Oxford.
It’s nice now because I meet up with people who were kids at the schools, and they’re all grown up and have jobs now, and they say, “Oh man, you came to our college!”
For me, it was like, “What do you do — how do you follow the Beatles?” We’d always thought it’s impossible. And we were always in the shadow of the Beatles. That was the big difficulty with Wings. So it was a question of, Do you just try and get a bunch of great musicians around you-which is probably the most logical thing to do — and just pick up where you left off?
Like a Blind Faith.
Exactly, yeah. And that was the option, to do a Blind Faith. But I didn’t fancy that, and I thought that to get a real band and to get a new direction, you’ve got to start at the bottom, square one — start there. So we got a band like the Beatles had formed, which was really just a couple of friends, and in this case one of them was my new wife. And it was just a poky little affair, because new bands are. You don’t have to answer to anyone. So we just took off in a van and did this real crazy little thing.
Denny Laine you had known [from the Moody Blues], but did you previously know Denny Seiwell?
I auditioned drummers and guitarists when I came to New York to do “Ram” . I knew I wanted to work in New York, because Linda was from New York and fancied spending some time here, and I liked the idea of working with American musicians, so I just put the word out through my office that I was in town and wanted to look at drummers. People like Bernard Purdie came along, but I was looking for a new band rather than the Blind Faith thing, so I didn’t really want heavyweights.
Denny Seiwell came along, and he was just great, the best. He had a great attitude, and we got on great; he was a real good all-arounder and he was funky, and we had a laugh. Then Hugh McCracken came around as a guitar player, and we worked on “Ram” together. He nearly joined Wings, and he came to Scotland. But I think it was all a little bit too distant from his New York base, and so I don’t think he wanted to go that far out with his life. I worked also with Dave Spinozza, a New York cat. But then eventually we got Denny out of that as the first Wings drummer.
The college tour was crazy. I hadn’t got a [booking] agent, and I was really working from home, just doing stuff for myself. So I thought that we’d just get a van, and like a little, nondescript, unknown group we did exactly that. We just went up the motorway; we thought we’d go to look for universities because there are captive audiences there.
So these were all surprise dates?
[Smiles] Yeah! We didn’t book ’em! We literally went up the M1, which is the big central motorway, and we said, “Let’s go north.” So we went far enough away from London to be “away,” and then we’d just turn off the motorway and look for a gig. We saw a sign that said Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and we asked, “Have they got a university or a college here?” and they said no. So we were near Nottingham, and we said, “Have you got a university?” They said yeah, so we said, “Where is it?”
We just showed up, and our road manager went in and met the guy from the students’ union. He said, “I’ve got Paul McCartney outside in the van.” The guy said, “Sure. Pull the other one” [laughs]. Then the students’ union guy came out to the van to verify it, and I was sitting in the van and said, “Hello! Do you want us to do a gig?” So we sent him into a blind panic, but we would always help arrange. We said, “How about tomorrow at lunchtime? We’ll go and find a hotel now, and we’ll come back tomorrow at lunch, and you’ve got time to stick up posters and put the word ’round the university, and we’ll have an instant gig.”
Then we went to find a hotel. It was that disorganized; it was a surprise hotel tour as well. And we often couldn’t find them, because if you haven’t been there before or go to a town where there’s conferences going, you’ll have to go to some pretty crappy hotels. There was a place called Preston Park, and the guy called the police, because our two roadies got in late and there was only one room and they had to sleep in the bed, so the guy reported them to the police — he thought they were homosexuals, and he didn’t like that. They weren’t, but the police did have to come and investigate. It was a real little place, and the guy was weird; it was like suddenly being in one of those old British movies.
Like “Carry On, Road Manager” [as if part of the ’50s/’60s British “Carry On” comedy film series].
[Laughs] It really was, man! Honestly, there were people we found on that tour who were like British character actors! It was wild, but we just went ’round, and with some people [at certain colleges], we got turned away because they had exams, so they couldn’t have us. And at some places, there were power cuts [outages], so it was like a minefield we were going through.
Is that where the song “Power Cut” came from [on Wings’ 1973 “Red Rose Speedway” album]?
[Nods] Yeah, uh-huh. So we just hopped from here to there, wherever we could find a gig, and the idea was to break in the band. The joke was we only had 11 songs! We were hoping to do an hour [set], but 11 times three [minutes], which is the average length of the songs, is only just over half an hour, so we had to repeat the songs, which we did often. But we had to draw on all our resources, so we’d say, “We’ve had a request” — and we’d just find somebody’s name — “from somebody in the physics department to do ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ again, because it’s such a controversial song!” We’d always do that twice, and [Little Richard’s 1957 hit] “Lucille” twice, because we were pretty good at “Lucille”; it was a stormer, so we’d open with that and close with it [laughs]. It was like a remix; you got the song twice in a slightly different version.
What would be the earliest live stuff from Wings that was kept?
There’s some stuff in the TV special which is from our early rehearsals at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where you get rehearsal space if you qualify as an artist, so it was a nice room, and we used to go along there. And that will probably get in the box set — some of those outtakes, some of those early recordings.
We were asked to do a lot of Beatles songs on the Wings tours. The promoters would say, “Wouldn’t you do some Beatles songs?” We said, “Nope.” It was like a rule, even if we’ve only got 11 songs. Obviously, we could have packed the act out with plenty of Beatles songs, and the audience would have loved it. But we just thought that it’s not down to what the audience loves, even though that’s part of it. It’s down to what we’re trying here, and we’re trying to make a band called Wings. And it’s just got to do its own thing, even though there’s this legendary past that I was connected with.
So we just went out on our own, and it doesn’t always work, and I’ve often gotten a lot of criticism for it [smiles]. But I’m still here.
Yet, along the trail, it must have been hard.
Sure. I even changed my writing style. I could have, obviously on the first Wings record, had a number of tracks that were “Eleanor Rigby”-esque. I could have done that thing. I would see other people do it, and there’s always been people who’ve done Beatle-y type things. Look at some of the bands who came out in the last five years; there’s a lot of Beatle-ish stuff. It’s good that they like it. I had to move on, but there were many people saying, “Don’t do this, stick with your old stuff, don’t take a new road.” To us, that seemed like a cop-out.
As time went by and the pressure was off, I could nod and wink at the Beatles stuff, so I could now do “Yesterday” on a Wings tour [as preserved on the 1976 live “Wings Over America” album], and it didn’t hurt. But until we had enough Wings songs and an identity as a group, I didn’t do any of that, even though the promoters were weeping, “Please finish with ‘Yesterday.’ ” And I’d say, “No, we’re not even gonna do it.”
We really were trying to get good as a band, and we really never thought we did, because everything was always stacked up against the Beatles. So it was, “Well, that’s not quite as good as the Beatles tour” or “That’s not quite as good as a Beatles record.”
I remember meeting up with David Bowie, and we were looking through one of those Billboard chart books that shows you what record was a hit when. After being coy and looking up people like James Brown, we looked up ourselves, and when it came to Wings, I said, “Shit, I didn’t know we were that successful.” I’d been slightly embarrassed by it, because the critical furor was something you do sometimes listen to. You try not to, but you can’t help it if it’s loud enough.
But it’s great looking back on it now with this kind of record and thinking, “Hey, we did OK.”
Let’s talk about some other songs on “Wingspan,” like “Let Me Roll It.”
“Let Me Roll It” was a riff, originally, a great riff to play, and whenever we played it live, it goes down great. We’d play it on two guitars, and people saw it later as a kind of John pastiche, as Lennon-ish, Lennon-esque. Which I don’t mind. That could have been a Beatles song. Me and John would have sung that good.
How about “The Lovely Linda”?
That was when Linda and I first got together. The record is me playing around the house. You hear her walking through the living room doorway out to the garden, and the door squeaks at the end of the tape. That’s one of the songs from my personal experience, with “the flowers in her hair.” She often used to wear flowers in her hair, so it’s a direct diary. I was always going to finish it, and I had another bit that went into a Spanish song, almost mariachi, but it just appeared as a fragment and was quite nice for that reason. It opened the “McCartney” album, so it’s evocative of it now.
“Daytime Nightime Suffering,” a 1979 B-side, was a great song.
That’s a pro-women song. “What does she get” for all of this? “Daytime nightime suffering.” It’s like the plight of women. You were saying about the Beatles stuff and my stuff being very humanistic. And I say that’s what I would be most proud of — as would any artist.
You’re a parent, so you understand the difficulty of that role.
I’m a son, as well — I’m a son and I’m a parent, so it comes from both ends. And I loved my parents. I was very lucky, unlike some people who’ve had lots of problems. I didn’t have too many problems with them, except me mum died, which was a major problem. But I didn’t have any problems in my relationship with them, and then my kids, similarly.
We always thought we made a good record there with “Daytime.” That was one where the critics could say whatever they wanted; we thought that was good. So when I was compiling my list of favorite Wings tracks that weren’t necessarily million-sellers, that had to be on it.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” was a big hit and a beautiful song that could likely be covered again and again over the next 50 years.
[Pensive] I wonder. It was for Linda and was about her. It was to try and get a little deeper into a love song: “Maybe I’m amazed the way you hang me on a line, pulled me out of time.” The sort of stuff that you don’t say to a girl except in a song. I think a lot of people relate to it. It’s a quirky song, but people know what it means — it’s the “maybe” I’m amazed.
A straight love song would say, “I’m amazed at the way you love me.” That would be the Sinatra thing, and it would be called, “I’m Amazed.” But the “maybe” is like a guy not quite wanting to admit it.
It was honest.
I think so. You try to be.
“Man We Was Lonely” from “McCartney” and “Back Seat of My Car” from “Ram” are both great unsung Wings songs. “Lonely” sounds like it’s been around American folk music for 150 years.
The first song’s countryish, like from a couple of hicks. It’s nice when little words come out, like “And we was hard-pressed to find a smile.” I like that line. It’s a hokey thing. I think I’m remembering it wasn’t that easy when I left the Beatles, “Man, we was lonely.” I think it was a little bit of a reflection of those times.
My biggest problem was I had to sue the Beatles; I tried to sue [Apple Group business manager] Allen Klein, but he wasn’t a party to any of the agreements, so I ended up having to sue my best friends as a technical matter. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but it was pointed out to me that it was the only way to do it.
I knew I had to get out [of the Beatles], and I knew I would apologize to them, and I knew once I got out, they’d get out. So if I got out of prison, I’d free them. It was a very difficult call. I went through a lot of tough times emotionally, so something like “Man We Was Lonely” reflects that.
“Back Seat of My Car” is the ultimate teenage song, and even though it was a long time since I was a teenager and had to go to a girl’s dad and explain myself, it’s that kind of meet-the-parents song. It’s a good old driving song. [Sings] “We can make it to Mexico City.” I’ve never driven to Mexico City, but it’s imagination. And obviously “back seat” is snogging, making love.
Tell me about “Tomorrow” [from Wings’ debut “Wild Life” album in 1971].
“Tomorrow” was a song Linda’s dad really loved, and he said, “You should do a version of that really slow.” But I could never get it slow enough for him! It’s very much like going into a local shop in France and buying a baguette and some cheese and going and sitting under a tree in a vineyard — sounds all right to me!
“Silly Love Songs” , coming after your No. 1 in 1973 with “My Love,” was your answer to critics, obviously, but it also seemed to make a larger point in terms of the actual heritage you drew from.
See, “My Love” was my definitive one for Linda, written in the early days of our relationship, and that came easily. We had an interesting moment on the session where we were going to cut it live at Abbey Road Studios, and the guitar player [Henry McCullough] came over to me right before the take — we knew what we were going to do as a band, and the orchestra was arranged — and he said, “Do you mind if I try something different on the solo?” It was one of those moments where I could have said, “I’d rather you didn’t, stick to the script,” but I thought he sounded like he’s got an idea, and I said, “Sure.” He came out with the really good guitar solo on the record; it’s one of the best things he played. So that was like, “Wow.”
But over the years people have said, “Aw, he sings love songs, he writes love songs, he’s so soppy at times.” I thought, Well, I know what they mean, but, people have been doing love songs forever. I like ’em, other people like ’em, and there’s a lot of people I love — I’m lucky enough to have that in my life. So the idea was that “you” may call them silly, but what’s wrong with that?
The song was, in a way, to answer people who just accuse me of being soppy. The nice payoff now is that a lot of the people I meet who are at the age where they’ve just got a couple of kids and have grown up a bit, settling down, they’ll say to me, “I thought you were really soppy for years, but I get it now! I see what you were doing!” [big laugh].
By the way, “Silly Love Songs” also had a good bassline and worked well live.
Lastly, “Coming Up” was a No. 1 U.S. hit [in 1980] that you cut live in Scotland [at the Glasgow Apollo]. The B-side was the studio version.
On the American “Wingspan” album, we’re gonna have the live version; on the English album, I think we’re gonna have the studio version. I originally cut it on my farm in Scotland; I did a little version with just me as the nutty professor, doing everything and getting into my own world like a laboratory. The absent-minded professor is what I go like when I’m doing those; you get so into yourself it’s weird, crazy. But I liked it.
You know, I heard a story recently from a guy who used to record with John [Lennon] in New York, and he said that John would get lazy — but then he’d hear a song of mine where he thought, “Oh, shit, Paul’s putting it in, Paul’s working!”
Apparently that was one song that got John recording again. I think John just thought, “Uh-oh, I better get working, too” [beams]. I thought that was a nice story.
Last updated on March 9, 2019