- Published by:
- The Times of London
- Patrick Humphries
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The past just won’t leave Paul McCartney alone. Even though he has been pursuing a solo career for 15 years, longer by far than the time the Beatles spent together, he is still referred to primarily as an ex-member of that group, and only secondly as a rock star in his own right.
One of the problems, of course, is John Lennon. Only last night on television there was that image coming relentlessly from the screen yet again, in the first retrospective on Lennon’s life. It is as though death has transformed him from a waning memory into a legend, and virtually canonized him in a way that could never have happened otherwise. The living simply cannot compete with that.
No one is more aware of that than McCartney. He finds himself conniving in the process, even in the act, of trying to set the record straight. Only four weeks ago ther was the famous interview in Woman magazine in which he said Lennon could be a “manoeuvreing swine.” Then, the other day, came the re-issue of a history of the Beatles by the band’s “official biographer” Hunter Davies. Meanwhile, there are all the old songs poised in the background, classics impossible to follow, particularly by the author himself. In 1982 one of them, “Love Me Do,” had the nerve to re-enter the Top Twenty, like a corpse rising to the surface of a pond after nearly 20 years.
McCartney has even found himself back on the world’s famous zebra crossingg – the one on the cover of the Abbey Road LP – filming a video with Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd for the John Landis film, Spies Like US. Then there was the Live Aid concert at Wembley. And what did he choose to perform, but “Let It Be,” from the swansong period of the Beatles’ recording days.
One way and another, being Paul McCartney must feel like being the son of an over-achieving father. Except that in his case the two people are one and the same.
In 1971 he was singing that he was “looking for a home in the heart of the country;” today he has found it, in the form of a large house in rural Sussex. He has also found his first, very own recording studio, which is situated nearby. The pride of ownership is apparent, and he shows off the facilities of the 48-track set-up like a child with a lavish new toy. The face is not doing badly for 43, even if “cherubic,” that grossly over-worked adjective of the 1960s, has finally lost its relevance.
“I do hark back to the Beatles,” he says. “It’s more embarrassing than anything that conversations get drawn round to it. But it was a great time. Because of the pain of the separation, of the Beatles breaking up, there was that little time when we hated any mention of it.
“But that was always going to be vying with your natural nostalgia. The further you get from that period, the more you can look at it and say ‘Cor, did we do that? Course we did, wait a minute, we can still do that!’“
Nowadays the “we” does not take in Ringo Starr or George Harrison, and rumours of a reunion, with Julian Lennon standing in for his father, have been greatly exaggerated. Still, the “we” is not quite as loyal as it sounds, for McCartney has his hand in various projects, of which the Abbey Road video for Landis is the one which makes him most excited. But even while he talks of it, those old ghosts of the late 1960s seem to re-group and stand at his shoulder.
“I love Abbey Road. It’s a lovely studio, a perfect thing for this. There’s an awarenness level of it in America – if someone says ‘Abbey Road’, rather than another studio, it works. But we wanted to be careful, so that it wasn’t ‘oooh, sacrilegious.’ I think that’s so stupid anyway.
“I mean, I love loving the Beatles. I love loving what we did, but to be frightened of ever doing it again is a bit silly. I did get a moment of wondering during the video whether I ought to be posing on the crossing. The director has agreed it’s right, we want to do it, but is there something wrong with doing it? That is silly.
“A child won’t have these paranoias, these worried angles about things like that. But a news person will. That’s why they always come in with, ‘Well, Princess Diana, tell us about the troubles.’ They don’t want to present the pretty sugary picture all the time. If there’s any trouble they want to dig at it.“
As the last remark reveals, Paul is not the most ardent lover of the media, or rather of what the media do to him. That Woman interview provides one of the reasons for his edginess about the post-Beatles press he has been getting. The magazine quoted him as saying that Lennon “could be” a manoeuvring swine; but no sooner had it hit the news stands than headlines along the lines of “Lennon was a swine says Paul” were appearing around the world.
The partnership remains intriguing, and always will, not just because of the quality of the songs, but also because of the extraordinary competitiveness between the two, possibly arising from the lack of a clear division of labour – two lyricists and two composers.
“Even at the time,” McCartney recalls, “people would ask me ‘Are you conceited?’ I’d say no, not really, but if you ask me do I like Lennon and McCartney songs, then I say I have to be conceited!
“In my view you’d have to be stupid to say they’re not good…even silly little things – ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).’ Silly little song. Took years to record, piercing it together, finally thinking we’d better finish it up. Didn’t it come out on the B-side of ‘Let It Be? Great, what a place for it.
“It keeps turning up on ‘Beatles Rarities’ and ‘Beatles Even More Rarities,’ which I quite like, but the thing about those is that they’re using the wrong take, and calling that the rarity! I think that’s quite interesting, whole new areas of philosophy opened up by that one, where the take where you didn’t sing it right is a rarity!“
Without the spur of his old sparring partner McCartney’s writing may not have reached the same heights. And yet the best of the Wings albums have had their moments. So too have the singles: “Mull of Kintyre” recorded in November 1977 with the pipe band of Campbeltown near McCartney’s Scottish farm, oversold even “Yesterday.” No wonder he is now considered, in terms of pure sales, to be the most successful composer of all time, earning an estimated pounds 7 a minute, every day of the week of the year.
He has also had his critical failures, notably his 1984 film Give My Regards to Broad Street; and his business defeats. Earlier this year he lost out to Michael Jackson in a bid for the ownership rights on the Beatles’ compositions between 1964 and 1970.
Although the country life is not conductive to keeping abreast with the latest in pop music, McCartney has his views: “I’m not a mad radio listener. There are things I get hooked on, but because I don’t live up in London and I’m not out clubbing, I miss whole fads and fashions.
“I’m not sure what the last great album I heard was…that’s what I like about liking the 1960s. It’s roots music, from then. Nobody has done a hotter guitar thing than Hendrix. There’s no comparable Dylan figure. The nearest is Springsteen, I suppose.“
With the arrival of punk there came a kind of musical Stalinism, which virtually denied the significance of anything that had gone before. Now the pendulum has swung again and the music of the 1960s groups is being mined by today’s performers. Some would say ripped off.
“I don’t think ripped off,” says McCartney. “Ripped off suggests something wrong. I prefer to say ‘used,’ as as style, as an influence – that is great.” After all these years as a songwriter – one who is capable of producing his fair share of dross between the nuggest – McCartney still feels wary of talking about the craft; as though mere discussion will damage it. His sternest critics regard him as a jump-up jingle writer, but he sees it like this: “I was talking to this artist the other day, a painter, and he said he didn’t really enjoy talking about it – it’s a bit too magical. Because the minute you do start to talk about it, you lose it.
“I can’t tell you how I write songs. If we had to write something to stop the war, or whatever, I could give you a formula. It’s always the line you didn’t think fitted that seems to work. I wrote ‘Hey Jude, hey Jude, the movement you need is on your shoulder,’ which just fitted, and I was always going to fix it, it was always in line down to be reworked.
“I played it to John, and he said that’s the best line in it! I said don’t be silly, that’s the line I’ve got to change, like a bloody parrot on your shoulder. But he said, ‘I understand it,’ so, okay, it stayed.
“The basic thing you have to have is a tune that hasn’t been heard before, words that haven’t been said before. If you’ve been doing it for a few years, all those things are automatic. But then to try and make it something more than that…there’s another area then, to try and make it special for yourself.
“I could knock out 10 melodies for you today. I sometimes wonder if it might be good to work like that. While it would drive me mad, out of the 10 there might be one good one.
“I wouldn’t put myself in Dylan’s class with lyrics. Dylan is more of poet than I am. ‘Yesterday’ doesn’t seem as poetic to me as Dylan, but maybe that’s because what I’m using as terms of reference are wrong. Words were just words – then you heard people analysing them.“
McCartney is a great enthusiast for pop memorabilia, and one of the most prized possessions is the double bass played by Bill Black on “Heartbreak Hotel” and bought for him by his wife Linda. He took up the instrument and picked out the bass line from that most seminal of early rock singles. It was as though he was walking through a piece of popular history with his fingers.
I mentioned that when The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl was released people were astounded at just how good the group was at the height of Beatlemania, when you couldn’t hear what you were playing above the screams, there being no monitors.
“That was a lot of work from Geoff (Emerick) and George (Martin). Light years of work. I just heard a tape from The Cavern, which a fan took, and that’s the same thing. You realize just what a good little band we were. Really just popping, not bad at all.”
Last updated on March 9, 2019