Interview for The Independent • Friday, December 14, 1990

The Epistles of Paul

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
The Independent
Interview by:
Giles Smith
Read interview on The Independent
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Prior to selecting the songs he would play on his recent world tour, Paul McCartney made a small policy decision. “I basically thought, don’t get subtle, and don’t medley your hits into two and a half seconds, like Prince does. When I go to Prince’s show, I want to hear ‘Purple Rain,’ ‘When Doves Cry’ – the hits. So I asked myself, what would I want to hear McCartney play. And I decided, well, his best stuff, basically. So I took out a piece of paper and thought, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed,’ pretty good, ‘Let It Be’ was good, ‘Hey Jude,’ not bad, ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ yeah…”

And so on, until the songs on the list numbered 35. But even that would have to rank as a modest sample from the available catalogue. McCartney doesn’t know how many hits he has written in the last 30 years, let alone how many misses. (He talks about them casually – as he talks about much else, for that matter: with a nod and a wink, dipping in and out of funny voices, performing a fairly thorough impersonation of an ordinary bloke.) “It’s just, like, a lot. And I did a couple last week, so it’s always adding up.” It’s worth recalling at this point that, while his early career was hardly sluggish, once The Beatles split up, McCartney really took off. The statistics go hay-wire at this point. The record industry, giving up on the traditional gold and silver discs with which they reward sales, simply handed him one made of rhodium, hoping to call it quits. McCartney has sold more records as a solo artist and as a member of his post-Beatle band, Wings, than he did in all the previous years.

Until this last tour, though, he had supposed that a certain portion of his work – in fact, the most popular part – was, for concert purposes, out of bounds. “I’d shied away from Beatles stuff with Wings – it was a bit near to the break up of The Beatles and it was a painful break-up – a bit like, I hear, a divorce. And the idea was that you don’t want to sing any of the ex-wife’s songs. And all of us had that feeling independently, wanted to establish a new life after The Beatles. Now, I thought, I don’t have to do that anymore, I don’t have to deny The Beatles songs – or the McCartney songs, because some of them were recorded by The Beatles but I wrote them. So that was a great unblocking.”

Enough time had passed, it seems, to unpack in public at least part of the “Lennon/McCartney” myth. The songs continued to be credited to the pair of them long after they had ceased collaborating, and the specific details about who did what have remained cloudy – as prone to distortion as the tales about the personal stresses within the group’s fracture. Now it seemed somehow easier to assign the spoils. “I didn’t want to do John’s stuff – except as a separate tribute. That’s for Julian, or for Yoko to put together – that’s for his side of things. I figured there was enough stuff with ‘Fool on the Hill’ which was mine, with ‘Let It Be’ which was mine, ‘Long and Winding Road,’ ‘Yesterday’ – there’s a lot of stuff which is definitely mine, like ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ These are the ones which are basically acknowledged to be mine, the ones I knew were mine. So I thought, that’s fine – what I’m doing is going out as a performer and showing you wot I writ.”

He took a band and wot he writ into a studio and began to whittle the material down. “Certain things in rehearsal weren’t as fun as they were on records, it wasn’t fun to play them – and that was a pretty big criterion. If it’s not fun to play, I’m not taking it out on tour. It had better be fun now, because it’s going to get boring later. But the best thing about it was that there were certain old songs that I’d never done before. I kept thinking, why does this feel fresh, doing ‘Sgt Pepper?’ And I suddenly realised I only sang it once, at Abbey Road the night we recorded it. That was the vocal take and I never had any cause to do it after that – nobody ever asked me, and The Beatles had stopped touring by then.”

Some of the songs seemed particularly geared to live performance, a fact which probably wouldn’t have surprised the average Beatles fan, but somehow caught out McCartney. “What’s nice about ‘Sgt Pepper’ is, the way John and I conceived it, it’s all directed to an audience: ‘Splendid times guaranteed for all,’ or whatever. The whole idea of Pepper is a show, a circus. So this song works great live, ‘cos you’re saying, You’re such a lovely audience we’d like to take you home with us. It’s like, wow, Shirley Bassey time!

“And then ‘Hey Jude’ I realised I’d never done. God, I thought, this is great – nah na na na-na-na nah – I’ve got an audience participation number, which I always wanted. I love them.”

Slightly more obscurely, the show (like the recently-released album, Tripping the Live Fantastic, which documents the tour) included the three-song medley sequence from the close of The Beatles’ Abbey Road LP. It was suggested for inclusion, not by McCartney, but by his keyboard player. “When we did the Abbey Road medley in rehearsal, one of my old mates, who manages my studio now, had to excuse himself. He started crying during it because it brought back so many memories – he was there when we recorded it, and that was 20 years ago and so much water has gone under so many bridges. You catch your breath a bit when you hear it sung, as one of the guys in the group said, by the real voice – the fella you heard on the record.”

As the material fell into place, so did a notion about the parameters of the band. “We thought, are we going to have an army of backing singers? Or an army of people on gongs? But we kept it to six of us and one of the things I was proud of is, at the end of each night, there were only six people holding up their hands. ‘Got to Get You into My Life’ would have been real cool with a horn section, but we made a decision to keep it to six.

“My philosophy about a band is, if you can play your stuff in a pub, then you’re a good band. It’s a very old-fashioned philosophy, but it seems to me like an earthy philosophy which might last. We had one or two nights when the computers broke down, and that’s so alien to me, because in The Beatles, if anything broke it was a string or an amp, and the rest of us could still fiddle it. But if it’s a big integral drum part, and it’s got all the rhythms, as happened once…That’s why we kept it, where we could, stripped right down.”

He kept the stage business to a minimum, too – at least technically. Aside from a keyboard on a hydraulic platform which rose and span during “The Fool on the Hill,” the show was propelled by now-traditional McCartney means – furious waving and raising of the thumbs to those in the furthest seats. It’s the sort of behaviour which gets him a bad name in some circles, particularly amongst those who set him in opposition to Lennon – the latter a wit and philosopher, McCartney merely an entertainer, a crowd-pleaser. (It was principally McCartney, it is said, who wanted to keep The Beatles on the road, and it’s McCartney, or so it is claimed, who is behind the periodic calls for the remaining Beatles to reform and play.) But this approach involves a somewhat generous appraisal of Lennon (there is a chance to assess the “wit” and “philosophy” of John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace at the Amsterdam Hilton on a newly released video) and to set curiously small store by what might be involved in pleasing a crowd.

“The Beatles were a little club act. Put me in front of an audience and I’m afraid I won’t ignore them – I can’t do the sort of thing Pink Floyd might do. One thing which turned out to be a big inspiration for this tour was going to see Merchant of Venice just before we went out. I just got this feeling, when Dustin Hoffman came on, that he was coming in to the room we were all in. I was like I could just go, ‘Hey-up, Dustin,’ I could shout and he’d have to hear me, it wasn’t like a film. So I used this announcement every night: I’d tell the audience, ‘It’s nice to be in the same room as you,’ just to get something of that across.”

It was perhaps a long-shot in venues that were holding anything up to 180,000 people, yet McCartney still claims to have noticed an intimacy with the audience, even if only at close range. “You see about the first 20 rows, and these little things flash by, these cameos. We’d often see couples necking – during ‘Let It Be’, for some reason, people would neck. Which was great, because suddenly you could be a voyeur. And in Rio, carrying on the theme, they were said to be bonking in the audience, which is highly unlikely I think, but then, you know, Latin temperament…And you would have broads throwing themselves at you. But I’m a married man, sorry dear. That was very strange because in The Beatles you were always looking to pull. Now it’s a vicarious thrill. Terrible, really.”

In Sweden, McCartney remembers watching a man tending his girlfriend’s fingers after she burned them on the cigarette lighter she was holding aloft during “Let It Be.” “It’s strange how you can take in a story like that, be singing ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ be playing a bass…I could be singing ‘Yesterday’ and wondering what we were going to have for dinner. It’s like driving – that thing when you almost fall asleep for a second. That can happen when you’re performing.

“What I like about it is the speed with which your brain reacts. The weirdest one was during the Live Aid concert, when I was singing ‘Let It Be,’ and the mike wasn’t on, but I didn’t know. This was, like, the finale of a mega mega event, piped to every country with television. I’ve arrived with no roadies, I’ve just driven there. ‘Where’s the piano?’ is all I’ve said. I hadn’t been touring. It would have been easier this year, I would have grabbed a couple of guys off the tour. But then I was just freelancing.

“So, I’m singing, and I’ve got a little monitor, and I can hear nothing but two roadies shouting at one another, and I think, I wonder if that’s coming over on the telly. But then you think, no – it’s the Beeb – everything will be fine, this mike will be working. It wasn’t, though. The two Queen guys had done a thing and their roadies had inadvertently pulled the plug on my mike, tidying up after them.

“And as I’m going through the song, I suddenly hear feedback. And it occurred to me to sing, ‘There will be some feedback, Let It Be.’ And another part of my brain said, no, don’t, this is a serious event, that will be perceived as frivolous. And yet another part of my brain said – feedback, Ethiopa, marvellous, a conceptual link. And in the split second, I decided and didn’t do it. Thank God. But it gives me hot flushes to think about it.”

McCartney is currently working, in conjunction with Carl Davis, on an Oratorio to mark the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s 150th year. He adopts a thick, mocking Liverpudlian accent when he talks about it (“Oratorio? O right Paul, what’s an Oratorio when it’s out? Wasn’t he the guy who shot Moby Dick?”), but you could call it a project with precedents. “With ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Yesterday’ and ‘For No One,’ I flirted with classical instruments. That was very different from the piano and the guitar on which I compose all the pop stuff. As a kid, when depressed I would go off with the guitar – often to the bathroom, because it had the best acoustics – and hold the guitar to myself. That’s one of my little hammy theories, incidentally – a guitar you hold to you, like another body: a piano you push away from you – they’re two different physical acts.

“I’ve been composing melodies long enough to understand the mechanics of it. I just can’t notate and I don’t want to learn to. It’s almost a superstition. Richard Lester said, ‘The thing about your music is, it takes unexpected twists.’ At the end of ‘Ticket to Ride’ where we sing, ‘My baby don’t care,’ suddenly there’s a new song popped in out of nowhere that’s just a fade section. That’s very classical, that.”

He doesn’t intend to leave pop behind, though, and is working concurrently on a new album, “to remind me that I haven’t deserted it.” (Ten days ago, “three nice songs” emerged from a writing session with Elvis Costello). “I thought 24 was the end of the line when I was 18. It was actually the latest you could be in art school and that was my back-up plan: if everything else failed, I was going to go to art school at about 23. God knows how I thought they were going to accept me. But the horizons just continually expanded.”

So, too, the hit list. “There’s a certain bunch of songs I’ve got which I think are very good songs, without being too egotistical: one, because people have told me they’re good songs and have bought them and still remember them, and two because they were very satisfying to write. ‘Here There and Everywhere’ was a very satisfying song to write. It has a beginning a middle and an end, like essays in school – and I could never do that with essays: always a good beginning, but it petered out, and I could never end it – disastrous travelogue ends.

“And ‘Yesterday’ was very satisfying to write. I actually dreamt ‘Yesterday.’ Dead jammy. I actually woke up one morning here in London in Wimpole Street in an attic flat. Just woke up and I had that tune of ‘Yesterday’ in my head, with no idea where it came from. I put words to it later. I’ve just got an award for it: it’s been played 5 million times – and the next song down the list is 3 million, so it’s way out ahead. And I dreamt it, so if that’s not magic, what is?”


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