- Album This interview has been made to promote the Electric Arguments Official album.
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We’re used to Macca telling us how out-there he’s been as a Beatle and The Fireman. But, asks Michael Odell, did he really invent electro, too?
“Sometimes I am Sir Paul McCartney who got the Mega Lifetime Icon Award from Bono at the MTV Awards and was knighted by Her Maj,” says the man with appealing crinkled eyes. “And I like that role. But I am also James Paul McCartney a school kid from Liverpool who got sort of … elevated. Sometimes I have to let go of Sir Paul just to achieve creative freedom. That’s when I become The Fireman.”
On the third floor of his Soho offices, James Paul McCartney is shrugging off his often gratifying but occasionally burdensome legendariness. It’s a big task. Perhaps he ought to have a word with his housekeeper. After all, keepsakes and curios from the career of the greatest songwriter alive press in from the walls on every floor: three lovely pictures of the Fab Four and one of Paul hugging a sheepdog in reception, gold and silver discs everywhere. Upstairs in his office the references broaden: a huge de Kooning painting hangs behind his desk; a Wurlitzer jukebox awaits a dime; a two-foot black plastic Mutant Ninja Turtle sits close by.
Styled today like a particularly “with it” oldster on a cruise ship (navy jacket with epaulettes, T-shirt, cords, trainer/deck shoe hybrids), McCartney is promoting the latest offering from his avant garde alter ego The Fireman. Electric Arguments is the third Fireman album with longtime collaborator-producer Youth.
But it isn’t McCartney’s Kid A. Unlike the previous two Fireman albums there are vocals. And songs. In fact, it sounds like a good Paul McCartney solo album. Except when he growls as on Travelling Light. Or when he sounds like he’s lost his thumbs-up cool, massively exceeded his Viagra dosage and screams in a frightening libidinous rage, “The last thing to do was to try and betray me!” and then barks like a dog which all happens on Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight.
Reaffirming his counter-cultural mojo has long been a concern for Macca. Lennon was always seen as the edgy Beatle, the one who sent his MBE back and merited a deportment order from Nixon and a 300-page FBI file.
But Macca too has a worthy CV of cultural dissidence. Two weeks ago he announced that the McCartney-inspired “lost” Beatles track Carnival Of Light could finally see the light of day. Recorded in 1967 during a break from the Penny Lane sessions the 14-minute “song” features Lennon and McCartney pretending to be American Indians, coughing and chatting while the other two follow Macca’s totally far-out orders to “wander round all the stuff, bang it, shout, play it”.
It was McCartney who was deported from Hamburg after setting fire to a condom in a cinema in 1960. It was he who recorded under the aliases Apollo C Vermouth and Percy Thrillington. “We were the mop-tops,” he says as the Guide takes a tour of nine key tenets of Macca weirdness, a round 10 being too straight, man, “but we were always aware of the undercurrents around us. We always tried to explore our far-out side.”
Macca on … setting up an avant-garde label
The Apple label was for the Beatles’ music. But there was an undercurrent where John met Yoko [then an experimental artist] and I hung out with Allen Ginsberg. Andy Warhol came to my house and showed his film Empire there because I was the only one with a 16mm projector.
A key figure was Robert Fraser who was the ringleader of this underground scene through his art gallery. With Zapple [an experimental subsidiary of Apple] we wanted to do some spoken-word stuff and I had a little studio in Montague Square where I kept a ReVox [reel-to-reel] stereo machine which William Burroughs used. It was all cool then. His friend would call and say, “Can William use your machine?” and I’d think little of it. He’d go there and do tape cut-ups. In hindsight, our far-out side was all very connected to other far-out happenings in the 60s.
Messing with tape recorders
John’s Revolution 9 is very far out. It came out of a lot of experimentation I’d been doing with two Brenell tape recorders at home. My greatest regret is that I’ve lost them all now. I’d take them round to friends’ houses. John Dunbar [artist ex-husband of Marianne Faithfull] used to plug this little Philips tape recorder into his system and we’d play my avant-garde experiments. Someone might have my loop symphonies in a box of tapes somewhere. Can I have them back please?
Borrowing hipster slang
Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da wasn’t me trying to be far out. It was just that I knew this guy Jimmy Scott, an African guy from the London club scene, and he had this great turn of phrase. He’d say, “Ob-la-di ob-la-da, life goes on, bruv!” and I took that and created a story around two characters. That choppy, reggae sound was appealing and quite a new thing [Lennon reportedly derided the track as “Paul’s granny shit”]. The title of new Fireman track Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight derives from another Scott phrase.
Drawing on your instincts
Youth and I approached The Fireman in the same way that John and I did Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We were tired of being the Beatles and I was tired of walking up to a mic and thinking, “Oh my God. This is important. This is a Paul McCartney song. I’ve got to live up to what I’ve done.” With Sgt Pepper’s we took on alter egos. We became members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band and that gave us a freedom to write as “Dirk” or whoever you wanted to be. The rule is: never think about it too hard. Mike Leigh films spring to mind. The idea of going in a room and saying, “OK, you be Derek. Now go away and think about who Derek is. Make it all up. Draw on your instincts.” Well, that’s what we did for Sgt Pepper’s and that’s what we did for Electric Arguments, only with Youth as Mike Leigh.
Developing alter egos such as Percy Thrillington
I got it into my head that I wanted to hear a big band version of the songs I’d written for Ram [his second solo album]. A friend who had done the arrangements on the Mary Hopkin record Those Were The Days went into a studio secretly with me and a big band. And then to balance the mega-hype of Ram I decided to create an alter ego. We took personal ads in Private Eye and the Evening Standard saying, “Percy Thrillington seeks the love of his life.” People eventually began to ask, “Who is this Percy Thrillington who keeps taking out small ads?” And then on holiday in Ireland with Linda we decided to find an actual Percy. We found a lad working in a farmer’s field. We went up to him and asked, “Would you mind doing a photo shoot?” And so for a modelling fee we persuaded him to put on a dinner jacket and Linda took some pictures. And this Irish farmhand became Percy Thrillington.
Creating an electro anthem
A DJ in Brighton broke it and went mad on it. I hadn’t heard the track [Temporary Secretary from McCartney II, 1980] for years. The common perception of me is that I did some good work in the Beatles, I may be doing some good work now, but there was a very bad patch full of rubbish in the middle. When I look back I think maybe I didn’t work quite hard enough on that track as I could have. There is a period which maybe isn’t as good as the other stuff. But what I like is the hidden gems like that. Because the critics said the whole patch was lousy I’d forgotten it. And then when Temporary Secretary got picked up in the clubs it reassured me. That’s why I did it; I wanted to be different. I got a sequencer and I wanted to get into electro music.
Keeping Lisa Simpson veggie
The Simpsons people asked me and Linda to go on an episode where Lisa goes veggie. We said, “Yeah.” We thought it was very funny the way they wanted to send up the whole cult thing of secret messages on Beatles records. A secret lentil soup recipe seemed a nice parody of that. But we also thought they might stitch us up. We thought the following week Homer would persuade Lisa to eat meat – “You don’t want to eat that rubbish; have a steak!” – that sort of thing. We asked if Lisa could stay vegetarian and in the subsequent episodes she did.
Becoming a lumberjack
I became The Fireman partly because my dad was a fireman in Liverpool in the Second World War. But also because I used to make trails in the woods for Linda to ride her horses. I’d go out there with an axe or a chainsaw and cut a path for her. And I became very good at making fires with the wood. It’s as simple as that.
Wearing dead men’s specs
Linda bought me these for my birthday once [he produces the paint-spattered spectacles of surrealist painter René Magritte which he keeps in a Perspex box on his desk]. Georgette, his wife, was selling the contents of his studio and Linda bought me the easel and his spectacles and some small linen canvases which I didn’t dare paint on. I’m such a huge fan that was just mega. I was intimidated for weeks about painting on the canvases but in the end I just went, “Agghhhh!” and I did. Then I tried on the glasses which are a very powerful prescription; they’ll give you a headache! What I love about Magritte is he turned the world upside down and inside out in terms of meaning and significance. Science and philosophy and religion are starting to converge on this idea that, whatever hat you put on, you are still you. Dickens writes Little Dorrit but he still comes through in her character. Burroughs and Ginsberg show through in their writing. Magritte’s specs are a reminder: the world is a jungle of crazy interpretations.