Interview for Billboard • Friday, September 4, 2009

Paul McCartney: The Billboard Q&A

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
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Interview by:
Robert Levine
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Back in 1964, Beatles publicist Derek Taylor predicted that “the kids of AD 2000” would still dig the Fab Four. “For the magic of the Beatles is, I suspect, timeless and ageless… It is adored by the world.” When Taylor made this claim — in the liner notes of “Beatles for Sale” — AD 2000 was more than 35 years away. The magic of the Beatles was just 2 years old, at least on record, and the idea of a rock band finding an audience behind the Iron Curtain, let alone in China, must have seemed like a stretch. How could so many people agree on one band?

Forty-five years later — almost a decade after the millennium — Taylor’s prediction still sounds bold. The magic of the Beatles isn’t legally available on the Internet, the medium that really does bring the world together. With hundreds of channels and thousands of Web sites, how can so many people agree on one band?

And yet the music of the Beatles is still adored by the world — to a degree that might surprise anyone who has written off the idea of mass media for a mass audience. The Beatles’ “1” is the best-selling album of the decade so far, with 11.5 million copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The band has sold 28.2 million albums since 2000, second only to Eminem (with 32 million), who they could well pass before the end of the year. Last month a Pew Research survey revealed that the Beatles are one of the most popular acts among all age groups. Paul McCartney spent the summer playing stadiums, the Beatles’ “Rock Band” videogame made the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and the “9-9-09” reissues of the group’s catalog will be among the best-selling albums of the fall.

“It’s staggering, isn’t it?” McCartney says just before he takes the stage in Tulsa, Okla., sounding genuinely surprised that his old band could be the best-selling act of the decade.

There were times when some of the Beatles themselves seemed to disagree with Taylor’s assessment of their enduring appeal — John Lennon famously sang, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” But McCartney never stopped valuing the band’s legacy, which he guards carefully. Most recently, he approved the remastering for the “9-9-09” reissues and helped make “The Beatles: Rock Band” as accurate as possible, down to the color of the walls in Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club. He also spent some of the summer thinking about Beatles songs — which make up about half his set — and he says they’ve never sounded better than they do on the reissues. “It sounds,” he says, “like we were in the room.”I saw you play a few weeks ago in New York and it looked like you were having the time of your life.

Do you still get the same charge out of performing that you used to?

It’s been feeling very good at the moment. Because we’re not flogging away on a great big tour-we’re picking and choosing certain dates, some of which are events like the opening of Citi Field [in New York]-they’re special events. We’ve got plenty of time between them to hang, so we’re almost combining it with a holiday. And the band’s playing great. Also, the audiences are super fab. They’re going bananas. We haven’t been around too much, so they’re not fed up with us yet.

You’re playing some Beatles songs just as the remasters are about to come out. Does that bring back memories?

I always do songs I want to play and also songs the audience wants to hear. I think it’s interesting, when you have some time to consider things. I was talking to people at dinner the other night and they’d heard about the show or seen it and [we started talking about] the significance of the Beatles politically. So many people, in America particularly, come up to me and say, “You changed my life.”

This whole idea of the significance of the Beatles is incredible. Someone mentioned the Russian thing-the bringing down of the Iron Curtain. That was the whole ethos behind rock music-we just happened to symbolize it because we were possibly the most visible. It’s not often that that kind of a thing has such a global influence. We were lucky because we were at a time of global communications-TV and records and radio were stretching through borders. And the other day I was doing a bit of yoga and the yoga teacher said, “I have to thank you and the guys-I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the Beatles.” I feel that more as time goes on.

I don’t know if you know this, but the Beatles’ “1” is probably going to be the best-selling album of the decade in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the Beatles might be the best-selling act.

Wow. I’m staggered.

I think the “1” album had a lot to do with that. When that was out, I was noticing people coming up to me and saying, “My kids are going crazy over the ‘1’ album.” And you were getting the 7-year-olds! I listened to it-we got it ready before we put it out but that was for the business things-and the word I came up with was “structure.” It seemed to be well-structured. There didn’t seem to be anything on the record that shouldn’t be there. Kids can see that same structure in it that adults do and the kids who originally bought the records felt. But it’s amazing.

Did you pay a lot of attention to the remastering process?

We do the approving and the other guys do the real hard work. We needed a very good team to help with “Anthology” and Cirque du Soleil and now for “Rock Band.” So they do the work and then Ringo [Starr] and I go in and listen to the demos and usually go, “Wow, this is amazing.” [In this case] that’s what it sounded like in the room. That’s what’s nice about it. It’s not smarter or more sophisticated-it’s just more real. It’s more true to the noise we were actually making. I can listen to those records and see John [Lennon] right there.

You mentioned Cirque and “Rock Band,” and there was also the movie “Across the Universe.” Have you decided to do more of these projects?

It’s not us deciding so much as other people. Cirque du Soleil came to George [Harrison] and said, “We should do something,” and George came to us. Then the guys came up with the “Rock Band” thing and [said it would make a great game] and we said, “Prove it to us.” And over a series of meetings and approval sessions, they did. And we would say, “That’s not how I walk, I don’t play like that, that’s not how I hold the guitar, John doesn’t stand like that.” I think the fact that we were working so closely with them gave them a bit of a charge.

The ones that look interesting, we say, “Can you prove to us that you can do it?” And I think that’s good for them, too.

What do you look for?

I think it’s just class. Cirque du Soleil, you’re not going to get a more interesting group to put on a show in Las Vegas. We couldn’t do the Celine Dion thing. And Cirque du Soleil couldn’t play [the show, even though] they have their own band. That was the discussion: “Are you going to have your own band playing the Beatles songs?” That won’t satisfy people. “Are you going to just play the Beatles records?” That won’t satisfy people.

I happened to have been very excited about this Elvis Presley remix [the version of “A Little Less Conversation” remixed by Junkie XL] that went to No. 1. I loved that because it was Elvis but with a modern backing. So I was half looking for an excuse in my own mind to see if we could do anything like that with the Beatles. Then Cirque came along and we said, “This is it-and we can even go further now.” So we got George and Giles [Martin] in and said, “Go crazy.”

What about “Rock Band”? Is it weird having your music out there for people to interact with?

I think it’s great. It’s just the modern world and you either embrace it or you don’t. I’m happy to embrace good new ideas-it keeps things exciting. If kids-or anyone-want to play a videogame and someone like [“Rock Band” publisher] Harmonix wants to put together a great Beatles project, then it makes sense to me.

This is the same kind of thing [as the “1”] album. I’m sure the kids don’t care-and I don’t care-how they hear the music. To hear it is the fun. It’s very good quality-Giles Martin has been doing all the work, so I think it’s going to be an interesting phenomenon that will make another Beatles thing happen.

A “Rock Band” development executive told me a great story about how you corrected the background of the Cavern Club. He said you have a fantastic memory.

For certain things. I couldn’t tell you what I had for breakfast last week. But for those kind of things, yes.

I have to ask: Have you played the game?

[Laughs] The guys who demonstrate it are so good that I’ve got to play it on my own privately or they will just wipe the floor with me. I’m going to practice it and then challenge them. But I was on the original records-I don’t have to qualify.

One aspect of the modern world the Beatles haven’t embraced is iTunes. Have you thought about it? Or do you think that not having your music available there has helped you?

That originally was mentioned a number of years ago and we all sort of said we’d look at it. But there was a logjam with the people who took over EMI-there were some aspects of the whole thing that they became nervous about. So we’re just waiting. Meantime, as you say, it’s kind of interesting, because virtually the same kind of thing is going to happen with “Rock Band”-you’re going to be able to download albums from that. We bypassed the logjam-not really intentionally. But one day I think that it’s natural that it will be on iTunes.

Last updated on March 3, 2019


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