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When you’re an artist who started releasing albums in the 1960s and never stopped, you face a decision when going on tour: How do you select a set list?
That question may explain how Paul McCartney, at a very spry 74, wound up playing a nearly three-hour, 38-song show on his current “One on One” tour, which arrived on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and continues in various cities through October. He’ll play the Desert Trip festival alongside Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young — “A real nice little lineup,” he said — that month, too.
Having spent decades on the road with the Beatles, Wings and as a solo artist, Mr. McCartney acknowledges that concertgoers may have heard one of his well-worn stories before. “If you think of it like a Broadway show, they don’t alter their lines or their jokes every night,” he said. “Once you have some idea of what goes down well with an audience, you kind of stick to it. So if I’m telling a story about Jimi Hendrix that I’ve said before, then I’ll use little phrases, like ‘As I say’ or ‘I often tell the story’ to not sound like, oh my God, he’s on auto-repeat.”
The set list on this tour is stocked with 23 Beatles songs and six Wings tracks. It reaches back to “In Spite of All the Danger,” one of the first original songs recorded by the Quarrymen, the pre-Beatles band featuring John Lennon and Mr. McCartney. And it includes three songs off his most recent studio album, “New” from 2013, along with “FourFiveSeconds,” his 2015 collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna (who were not in attendance).
In a phone interview, Mr. McCartney discussed his philosophy for entertaining an audience and the re-emergence of Beatles songs in his show. These are excerpts from the conversation.
At your MetLife concert, there was a fan sitting in front who has seen you over 100 times. How do you please both him and a 20-year-old seeing you for the first time?
You know, I’m kind of aware that there are a few people that have seen the show before. I must say the biggest question I ask myself is, how can they afford it? You’re like, in the front row, and he’s been 107 times! What I really do for both of them is try to do a show that I would like to go and see. So I first of all sit down and think, if I was going to see him, I’d want him to do this, and he couldn’t leave out that, and I really hope he’ll do this. So those songs are the starting point. And then we start to kick things around in rehearsal, and my band will sometimes suggest an idea, or I’ll hear something on the radio and think, we should do that.
Bob Dylan is also on tour now, playing almost exclusively new songs. Can you imagine doing that?
I’ve thought about that a lot. Theoretically, the philosophy is good, because, well, you’re not playing songs you’ve played a lot. But my concern is for the audience. I remember when I went to concerts, particularly when I was a kid, it was a lot of money you had to save up. So I imagine myself going to my show: Would I like to hear him play all new songs? No. I wouldn’t want to do that. I would do a smaller gig and advertise the fact up front — I’d probably call the tour “Deep Cuts” or something, so you knew it was going to be just really deep cuts that only the aficionados would know. I think if I did that, it could be quite fun.
It’s interesting how much you think about the audience being entertained or disappointed.
Having been one, and having spent what for me was a lot of money. And that was very much the Beatles’ philosophy. If you think about our singles, there was an A and a B side. Normally people put a bit of rubbish on the B side, but the Beatles B sides are really always good. We used to call it “value for money.” Because we had all recently been those teenagers that we were now appealing to. It’s funny, Phil Spector, we were really sort of quite in awe of his records, so we met him once, and he said, “Why did you put a good song on the B side?” We said, come on Phil, you’ve got kids out there, you got to give them value for money. And he said, no, what you want to do is you want to put the A side out, and you want to take the vocal off, and put it on the B side, put the backing track on the B side, and call it “Sing Along With ‘She Loves You.’” And we go, no way!
When you first toured after the Beatles, you played very few Beatles songs. Now, they constitute over half the set. How did you grow to be more comfortable playing them?
The only reason I didn’t want to do them right after the Beatles was I had just started Wings, and I thought, there’s no way I can start Wings and still keep playing Beatles songs. So I kind of put an embargo on them, and all the promoters were quite upset. But then eventually we got well known. Right about 1976, Wings had a big American tour. And then I started to think, you know what, it’s O.K. now. Now that we’ve established ourselves, I can now acknowledge my other group.
I never used to do anything unless it was something that I had done the main vocal on. Which is still true, most of the songs, but now I’ve started to do things like “A Hard Day’s Night,” which was mainly John’s vocal. That I would have called a John song, but you know, I helped write it, and it’s a similar thing for a song called “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” In the end, it’s just down to whether it’s a good song to do. I had always said I could never do that song because it’s got such a complicated bass part that it’s almost impossible to sing the melody, which is kind of contrapuntal. But in the end, I thought, stop being a wimp, let’s try and see if you can do it. And I manned up and learned it.
Are there any Beatles songs you can’t or won’t play?
There’s a lot that I probably won’t play, just because there are other songs that I would rather play. I don’t have a sort of hatred for any of them. I’m pretty much a fan of everything the Beatles did. A man of good taste!
You introduced “Blackbird” by explaining you wrote the song while watching the Civil Rights struggles in the United States in the ’60s. Has it taken on renewed significance for you in a Black Lives Matter world?
Yeah. Definitely. We have a new film coming out that Ron Howard has put together called “Eight Days a Week” about the touring years of the Beatles. In doing his research, he brings out the fact that we refused to play in Jacksonville [Fla.] one time because the audience was segregated. And not only that, he found the contract — it said, like, point No. 12, the Beatles will not play to a segregated audience. I felt so proud for us to have done that then.
Are you familiar with the Guns N’ Roses version of “Live and Let Die”? They played it at MetLife two weeks before you got there (but your pyro was much more explosive).
It’s funny, because when their version came out, my kids were in school, and they had a lot of defending to do, because all the kids said, “Great song, ‘Live and Let Die!’” They said, “My dad did that!” “No way, it’s Guns N’ Roses!” I was happy they did it. I thought it was a nice little nod. I’m glad to hear our pyro is bigger and better.
In times of chaos, fans gravitate to the comfort and perspective of a song like “Let It Be.” Have the feelings you experience while playing it changed over the years?
You know, strangely it hasn’t changed that much. I always expect to reach a point where I’m really jaded, and I’ll think, Oh, not again! But as I start it up, I’m reviewing this young guy’s work. And maybe a line or a phrase will strike me, and I’ll think, the kid was good!
Last updated on March 7, 2019