- Interview by:
- David Leaf
- Timeline More from year 1990
More from year 1990
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This interview was included in 1997’s The Pet Sounds Sessions box set. As explained by the interviewer, David Leaf:
The equally powerful and emotional if more cerebral addition to the history of Pet Sounds is an interview with Paul McCartney that was intended for inclusion in the 1990 CD package but didn’t make it due to production problems. I think there has never been a more heartfelt endorsement of any work of art by a creative peer, and we are indebted to Mr. McCartney for his contribution.
In 1990, when I had the honor of talking with Paul about Pet Sounds, he said that he had given each of his children a copy of the album because he believed that nobody’s musical education is complete until they’ve heard Pet Sounds. As that is the truth, then this box set is designed to be our post-graduate degree in music history, and, if it is possible, given how we already feel about this record, a quantum leap forward in our understanding of and appreciation for this remarkable musical achievement. Listen. Laugh. Cry. And feel Brian’s love. As he always says about his music, “I’m there for you if you need me.” There is no other place in which that comes across stronger, so just listen to his Pet Sounds heart…beat.
WHEN DID YOU BECOME AWARE OF THE BEACH BOYS?
PAUL: “The early surf records…I was aware of them as a musical act, and I used to like all that, but I didn’t get deeply interested in it—it was just a real nice sound…We used to admire the singing, the high falsetto really and the very sort of ‘California’ lyrics.
“It was later…it was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs.
“The other thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines on Pet Sounds. If you were in the key of C, you would normally use—the root note would be, like, a C on the bass (demonstrates vocally). You’d always be on the C. I’d done a little bit of work, like on ‘Michelle,’ where you don’t use the obvious bass line. And you just get a completely different effect if you play a G when the band is playing in C. There’s a kind of tension created.
“I don’t really understand how it happens musically, because I’m not very technical musically. But something special happens. And I noticed that throughout that Brian would be using notes that weren’t the obvious notes to use. As I say, ‘the G if you’re in C—that kind of thing. And also putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines.”
ITS BEEN SAID THAT “HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE” WAS INFLUENCED BY THE BEACH BOYS. IS THAT ACCURATE?
PAUL: “It’s actually just the introduction that’s influenced…John and I used to be interested in what the old fashioned writers used to call the verse, which we nowadays would call the intro…this whole preamble to a song, and I wanted to have one of those on the front of ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ John and I were quite into those from the old-fashioned songs that used to have them, and in putting that [sings “To lead a better life”] on the front of ‘Here, There and Everywhere,’ we were doing harmonies, and the inspiration for that was the Beach Boys. We had that in our minds during the introduction to ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’
“I don’t think anyone, unless I told them, would even notice, but we’d often do that, get something off an artist or artists that you really liked and have them in your mind while you were recording things, to give you the inspiration and give you the direction…nearly always, it ended up sounding more like us than them anyway.”
TRY TAKING THE ALBUM TRACK BY TRACK AND COMMENTING ON EACH SONG.
PAUL: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ [hums the first verse up to ‘know it’s gonna make it that much better]. That’s the bit of melody I love. [sings ‘When we can say goodnight and stay together, wouldn’t it be nice]. I’ll tell you what I was telling my kids, is that on most of the tracks on Pet Sounds, and it applies on this one, is that the orchestration, the instrumentation that’s used on it, I was very fascinated by. Yeah, I love that one.”
“YOU STILL BELIEVE IN ME”
PAUL: “I love that melody. That kills me, that melody. [hums the first verse, bursts into song at ‘I wanna cry.’ ] That’s my favorite, I think. The way that’s arranged, where it goes away very quietly. I was in the car the other night, and I was telling the kids, saying, ‘wait, wait, here it comes.’ And then it comes back, and it’s so beautiful right at the end, comes surging back in these multi-colored harmonies. Sends shivers up my spine. That’s one of my favorite tracks.”
“THAT’S NOT ME”
PAUL: “[hums a verse, then sings “just one girl] Lovely melody. I took my kids through the album. We were playing it in the car coming back from the airport, and I was just picking out ‘Ooh, ooh. This bit. Listen to this bit. Ooh, listen to this.’ I must say, they were impressed. They’ve been in love with the album ever since.”
WHAT ABOUT THE LYRICS?
PAUL: “Lyrics to me are kind of secondary, but some of them are really spot on. ‘God Only Knows’ lyrics are great. Those do it to me every time. And [sings ‘just one girl’ from ‘That’s Not Me]. There’s something very touching about that little bit of lyric there.”
YOU WERE ONCE QUOTED AS SAYING SOMETHING LIKE “GOD ONLY KNOWS” IS THE GREATEST SONG EVER WRITTEN.
PAUL: “It’s a really, really great song—it’s a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top ten favorite songs for a Japanese radio station…I didn’t think long and hard on it, but I popped that [“God Only Knows”] on the top of my list. [Thinks for a moment] It’s very deep. [Quotes the lyrics to “God Only Knows”] Very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. There are certain songs that just hit home with me, and they’re the strangest collection of songs…but that is high on the list, I must say.”
HOW ABOUT THE INSTRUMENTALS?
PAUL: “Say, I love the orchestra, the arrangements. I love the instrumentation. I mean, I love the way he uses harmonicas, the way he uses harpsichords. I love the way he uses timps and snare drums, and they’re often on odd little patterns. And I mentioned the bass. The writing for the harmonies is brilliant. I love the melodies.
Now, having mentioned that, I don’t think there’s an awful lot left in music, is there?
“If you can pop all of those together in one album, I figure you’ve got it. It really is…I don’t know, it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of this century, but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways.”
SO IT’S HELD UP OVER THE YEARS?
PAUL: “It more than holds up. It’s better than ever. When Sgt Pepper came out on CD, it awakened interest in that album for me. I have a two-hour drive normally to London; I played Sgt. Pepper on the way in, and then Pet Sounds on the way out, and both of them have more than held up. To me it’s like, ‘What have people been doing in meantime? Where’s the progress?’ I can’t see anything as modern as that around at the moment. Obviously, one of them, I’m being slightly immodest on, but I think they’re very exciting, even though they’re really recorded quite primitively compared to now.”
YOU’VE TALKED ABOUT HOW PET SOUNDS INFLUENCED YOU. WHAT KIND OF IMPACT DID IT HAVE ON JOHN?
PAUL: “I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence. If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed Pepper. And my influence was basically the Pet Sounds album. John was influenced by it, perhaps not as much as me. It was certainly a record we all played – it was the record of the time, you know?”
FROM THAT SAME PERIOD, HOW ABOUT “GOOD VIBRATIONS”?
PAUL: “I thought it was a great record. It didn’t quite have the emotional thing that Pet Sounds had for me. I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. It’s that kind of an album for me.
ANY LAST THOUGHTS?
PAUL: “I’m still a big fan. I figure with what you’re gonna write here, he’ll know that. Just let Brian know that I love him, and that I still think he’s gonna do great things. Tell him good luck, stay healthy for me, and think good, positive thoughts.”