The Other Side Of Paul McCartney • 2001

Interview of Paul McCartney

Album This interview has been made to promote the Wingspan Hits And History Official album.

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In the 1970s the Beatles were dead . . . long live Wings Paul McCartney talks to Patrick Humphries about the forgotten half of his career Paul McCartney was always determined to prove that there was life after the Beatles. Two underrated solo albums — “McCartney” and “Ram” — had eased the pressure; but with Wings he was back with a proper band, just like the one that had split so acrimoniously in 1970. During their decade-long career Wings surprised many: equalling and, in some cases, even surpassing the success of their bass player’s former group. Now, with that former group temporarily laid to rest following the release of the Anthology book and the “1” album, McCartney looks forward to looking back again, with a 2-CD Wings retrospective released on 7th May. Following in the footsteps of 1978’s “Wings Greatest” and 1987’s “All The Best”, “Wingspan” is a powerful reminder of just how successfully McCartney laid to rest the ghost of the Beatles during the 1970s. Its 40 tracks gather together the hit singles as well as the best material from Wings’ albums: “Let ‘Em In”, “Live And Let Die”, “Silly Love Songs”, “Bluebird” and a whole lot more, all of which sound pretty good 30 years on. McCartney is planning an “Anthology”-style Wings box set for a Christmas release, promising out-takes, demos, live tracks and hard-to-find official releases. In the meantime, listen to what the man said about his band on the run …

Q: After the bitter demise of the Beatles, what mode you decide to get another group going?

A: I wanted to continue doing music, and I didn’t want to do a Blind Faith type of supergroup. I don’t know why I didn’t want to do that — that would have been easy, and more profitable, probably. But I realised, first of all, that I didn’t know how you got groups together, because before I’d always joined a ready-made one. It seemed to me that the best way to do it was to start something just for fun, really, and see if anything serious developed out of it. So that was what I did. I just got together a bunch of mates, including my wife, who I thought I’d feel comfortable with. I think that’s how most people start groups.

Q: Were you ever tempted to just go out as Paul & Linda?

A: Paul & Linda would have been a duo, and then we’d have needed a drummer, or you might have needed a pianist, then you might have needed another guitar player, another voice. No, it didn’t occur to me to go out as a duo. I don’t think that would have been good. It would have been too Nina & Frederick — which is not an act I ever was big on.

Q: Iremember reading the accounts of Wings’ first university tour in Melody Maker, and I couldn’t believe that you could pay 50p and go and see this new band. I heard that when you set off front your home in London, it was decided on the flick of a coin whether you went north or south.

A: I’m not sure about that. I think we were just looking for a motorway, and the nearest one was the M1 — which was one I knew the route on as well. I didn’t know how to go west or south on a motorway. So having gone up the M1, we turned off at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and tried to find a university, but they didn’t have one. So we proceeded until we found Nottingham, which is close by, and they did have a university, so we played there. The thing was, if we weren’t going to do a supergroup type thing, then it seemed to me that what everyone else did was just try to get some gigs. Most people in their early formative weeks get the gigs for themselves — then they realise it’s very difficult, and they get an agent. But I wanted to tread the path that would remind us where it was all at. So rather than the cosseted ‘why don’t you start at the London Palladium with an orchestra, or with some very famous people alongside you’, we literally did what crappy little groups do, and started off with — not just no gigs — but no hotels! That was always the most difficult thing on that tour — finding hotels. If you hit a place where there was a conference, as we occasionally did, there weren’t any vacancies. So we had to stay at some very peculiar little places!

Q: Like old-fashioned B&Bs?

A: No, B&Bs would have been great! These were like really dark little hotels, with very Strange character actors behind the reception desk. One strange little bald man hunched over reception — and very small rooms — and he actually reported the two roadies we had with us to the police for homosexuality, because they slept in the same bed! But it was only because he didn’t have two beds for them or one of them could have been ‘straight’ and slept on the floor, perhaps! But he didn’t like our late night fun and carousing. It wasn’t even like going back to square one, it was going back to minus square one. Because at least at square one we’d always gone home at night, and had something to eat. We had dogs with us, which we didn’t have at square one; we had children with us, which we didn’t have at square one. It was very bizarre, but it got a great camaraderie going with-in the band, so we had some good laughs. Our roadie was a hoot, he kept us very amused. But we decided eventually, after a few weeks of touring, that we had to have more than 11 songs!

Q: You felt the audience weren’t getting their money’s worth?

A: We like to try to give our 50p’s worth, where possible! And we did, in fact, repeat “Lucilie” and “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” a few times, pretending that we’d had requests from the geography department, which was invariably a lie! It was an early version of remixes — you got the songs a couple of times, and they were slightly different the second time! But we gave them a grand show, albeit with one or two repeats, but you know, we were there. One or two people have shown up since who saw us then — one of Stock, Aitken and Waterman was there on that tour, and he remembers it well. He said it was a great, fun gig. And he went on to great things, didn’t he? You put out “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” which got a lot of stick for being political and then followed it up “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, which surprised people. I couldn’t begin to explain it — I don’t plan these things. I’m a great believer in just doing what you fancy. “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” — for me, the excuse was that I perceived that our soldiers had done something bad in our name, so as a British citizen I wanted to protest about that. I still think that is valid, and allowed under our constitution. And it was No. 1 in Ireland, and in Spain. Then, completely unrelated in my mind, came “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. Now, the reason for that was that I had a child called Mary, who was most amused by the fact that I sang this nursery rhyme to her, and I didn’t know the tune . . . I’m not sure if anyone does know the tune — it’s like a nursery rhyme, it doesn’t have a tune. So I decided that it needed a tune, just to sing to my daughter. And having thought of a tune, I recorded it. It turned out to be a catchy little pop song, with a singable refrain. And that was really all it meant to me, it wasn’t of any more significance than that. But, of course, following on the heels of a banned political protest record, to an analyst that would seem significant. To me, it didn’t seem the least bit significant, because I’d forgotten what I’d released last anyway. I didn’t do it, as was said at the time, as a sort of ‘fuck you’ — although I think it would have been very smart to have done it as that, and I’m glad people perceived it as that, because it looks like a rather clever move on my part. I probably shouldn’t give the game away, but it actually wasn’t like that, it was just me doing the next thing…

Q: And the next big thing was glam?

A: It wasn’t planned that Wings developed the way it did, going through the sort of glam phase. It was just how we were then: we wore our hair funny, we wore girls’ clothes, a bit of glitter . . . It was a laugh, man — it was hysterical, looking back on it. I don’t think I’d really want to change a thing. There’s stuff that it would be very wise to change, but it would mean falsifying the record. I’d rather just let it stand and say: we were having a laugh, we were having a good time . . . And I think the thing that this record proves, is that there was a lot of good music in there. That’s what I like about this record: it puts before you a lot of the good stuff we did. Some very souly stuff, some pretty good singing, some really good harmonies, some great instrumental stuff and some quite well-structured songwriting. So I think it stands up. The problem with Wings, or anything else you do now, is that group of four mates you were in before, that just cast its shadow over everything. I think the bad rap Wings got was largely because it followed the Beatles. And the worst thing about it is, we believed it — me and Wings … I always thought everything we did wasn’t successful, on any level. When in actual fact, looking back on it — and listening to it — it’s really pretty good. And it did very well, that’s the amazing thing. I thought “Back To The Egg” was the world’s worst-selling album ever, but I remember looking it up with Bowie in one of those hit books, when we finally got uncoy enough to look ourselves up, and it said No. 8 in America. And that’s not bad in anybody’s book. I thought it was outside the Top 100, you know? But it worked … I have this enduring image of some hippie in a camper on Sunset Strip waving it at me, and going, ‘fucking great, man’. That’s enough, really. We should have been very happy with that, but the detractors forced us into a corner — and the worst thing, as I say, is that we believed them. We bought it.

Q: In the 60s you had the optimism and the idealism and the buoyancy, and then in the 70s you had the terrorism; and I think people expected their rock heroes — the ex-Beatles, the Dylans, the Bowies — to have all the answers.

A: Yeah, they really did. Then they found out that the dream is over, as John says. We weren’t the answer, but I’m always surprised to find that people thought we were. We were an answer for certain things, and mainly what we were trying to be an answer for was to entertain you when you got home at night. We weren’t trying to give you a bible to live by. Some of it was pretty good, but we certainly weren’t a religious organisation.

Q: The key album that many people associate with Wings is “Band On The Run”, which came out in 1973 and seemed very cohesive. But when you look at the way it was recorded, it literally was all over the place.

A: In Lagos. All over Lagos! It was a very strange album really, a real ‘we’ll show you’ album. The straw had broken the camel’s back, the worm had turned, and now it was time to just put two fingers up to the two band members who’d left and to anyone else who thought we couldn’t do it. The studio was kind of half-finished. It wasn’t sunny Africa, in fact it was monsoon season. We got mugged in the street, and the studio manager said, you’re lucky you’re white, or they would have killed you. I sort of fainted and thought I’d died and gone to heaven — but I hadn’t, I’d gone to Lagos! I was at the studio recording, came over all funny, went outside and just flaked out. Fainted, for the first time in my life. Went through the crazy African traffic and market noise to find a doctor, who said it was some sort of bronchial spasm. I’d been smoking too much or something. So it was a real trauma-ridden period, but we kept thinking, ‘we’ll show you’. Even though I had all my demos stolen in that robbery, I managed to remember enough of the songs to make the album. There were a lot of things like that. Being told when I got back, ‘don’t go to Lagos — there’s been an outbreak of cholera’. Being told your three-year-old kid couldn’t swim in the swimming pool because she didn’t have swimming trunks on. It was all very sort of strange, like a funny dream. But some nice music came out of it, which is the thing in the end, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what happens …

Q: “Jet” and “Band On The Run”, the two opening tracks, really kick in, don’t they?

A: And “Bluebird” is nice. Howie Casey came and played the solo, and he was an old mate from Liverpool, a sax player. We ran through it once, just so he could roughly get the chords, and he listened to it quietly once and went out and did a run-through and I just got on the intercom and said, “I think that’s it, Howie”. And he said, “well, I was just running through — can I do another?”. So I said, “yeah, by all means, but I think that was it”. And it was. If you listen to the solo with that in mind, it’s a blinder of a solo.

Q: The band was getting more and more confident and “Venus & Mars” came out and did very well — despite the Crossroads theme!

A: But Crossroads is back, you see. We were waiting for this day! IVe no idea why that was included — I think it’s as simple as: I liked the tune. Tony Hatch will be pleased to hear me say that. I just liked the tune — and I thought it was a good tongue-in-cheek thing to do. It brought a smile to many people’s grimacing mouths; it was just a bit of nonsense, really. But it got used on Crossroads, how’s that for fame? The thing is, we often did do things for a laugh. We had quite a fun time. We had to, just to survive.

Q: When “Wings At The Speed Of Sound” came out, you did that massive tour — your first time back in America for 10 years, and you were met with real hysteria.

A: That was sort of the culmination of Wings as a successful band. We’d been trying to put together an act since playing our 11 songs at the university and, finally, we had a pretty good show — that people flocked to, and didn’t go away disappointed. And that was all we’d been trying to do, really. On the Wingspan TV special I explained: we were a music group doing songs, we weren’t nuclear scientists trying to invent an atomic bomb. So I think under those circumstances, a degree of fun is OK.

Q: You felt confident enough to include some songs you’d written earlier…

A: With the Beatles, yeah. We were keen for Wings to get a kind of identity of its own, and not rely on the Beatles, which I think was a pretty brave thing to do, really. There’s many a person who would have just gone out and done Beatles stuff. But we resisted the temptation for years. Finally, once Wings had kind of proved itself, I just thought: ‘well, other people are doing it, there’s no reason now why I shouldn’t. They made for some quite nice little inclusions — because, by then, you could look at them just as songs, not as statements. And not as an admission of failure — by then it was clear that we’d proved our point. So they could creep into the act, and people liked them. Still do . . .

Q: Someone else who was around at that time was Percy “Thrills” Thrillington — I don’t know if you’re still in touch with him . . .

A: Yeah, I bought his records. But then I think he vanished into the Irish hills. He was an enigmatic character, Percy — he used to leave little messages in the personal column of the Evening Standard.

Q: One of the highlights of your professional career was the rhodium disc presentation in 1979. That must have been a moment to savour?

A: Yeah, but it kills you if you look at it, that disc . . . You’re not allowed to handle or look at it! I mean, maybe Superman can handle it.. . I’m not sure it has magical powers, but someone said to me that rhodium’s poisonous. I’ve still got it somewhere. Luckily, I don’t handle it.

Q: “Back To The Egg” turned out to be the last Wings album.

A: It has a nice little ring to it — “Back To The Egg” — which came first, Wings or the egg? That was a strange little album — then again, I’ve been involved with a few strange little albums. The interesting thing for me is having done all that and now being able to look back on it all. I will occasionally hear people of a young ilk playing them, and be surprised that they’re into it. And they actually turn me onto it again. They’ll say, “no, that’s a great album, that one”. Because they like its roughness and its noncommerciality.

Q: Wings was your second bite of the cherry. Now “Wingspan” has drawn a line under that period of your life, are there any plans for more bites?

A: Definitely . . . I’m still chomping! Y’know, it’s that whole thing that when we were 17, we thought it would end when you were 24 — that was like the cut-off age. It was just unseemly to be 24. Then, you get a bit older, you stretch the envelope a little bit — and it keeps on stretching. You look at Ray Charles and Muddy Waters and you realise that they’re still great . . . B.B. King is just great, he still sings and plays great. It doesn’t really matter that he’s older; in fact, in many ways it’d be kind of disappointing if he was younger. It’s kind of gratifying that that does happen in life — even though, when you’re 17, you don’t think it does. So, with that in mind, I’ve just been to LA doing recordings that I really think are pretty cool. I’m working with modern technology, but that doesn’t mean I’m going dinga-donga-disco, ‘cos modern technology still likes songs and bands. But I think it’s very exciting — I’ve just had a really cool couple of weeks.

Q: So is there going to be a solo project?

A: Well, who knows? We’ll see after “Wingspan”.

Last updated on January 21, 2021


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