Candid conversation with ex-Beatle, including speculation on what 2016 may bring
Paul McCartney once asked the musical question, “Will you still need me…When I’m 64.” He’s nearly a decade on from that now, and the answer is still yes, we do.
As a Beatle, a Wing and a solo artist, McCartney has been impressively consistent and prolific, the writer and singer of myriad timeless pop hits – standards, even, in the case of something like “Yesterday” – and a bit of a renaissance man who also paints, directs films, acts (sort of) and writes children’s books, as well as being an activist fighting for animal rights, poverty relief and environmental concerns.
And the creativity never stops. In addition to playing dates on his continuing “Out There” tour, 2015 found Sir Paul (yes, he’s been knighted) collaborating with rapper Kanye West – even earning a Grammy nomination for their single “FourFiveSeconds” with Rihanna.
And then there’s his bass playing. Since taking over, reluctantly, for Stuart Sutcliffe in 1961, no conversation about rock’s top bassist – or music’s, for that matter – is complete without mentioning McCartney in its Top 5. His nimble style, the rockabilly drive of heroes such as Bill Black and Connie Smith with the melodic complexity of Motown’s James Jamerson, McCartney’s approach has a forceful presence that’s both dominant and complementary, integral to any song he’s playing.
His long and winding road shows no signs of abating any time soon. We don’t know what 2016 will hold, but we thought we’d take this opportunity to cherry pick a few decades’ worth of chats with the man to immerse in a bit of his always charming wit and wisdom…
FBPO: You have been really creatively consistent for – well, forever, it seems. Where does that drive come from?
Paul: It’s simple – I really enjoy what I do. And every so often I just get sort of inspired. I never know why or how, but I think one of the great things is that music is a great healer and it’s a great sort of therapy. Often if you’re going through something difficult, to get into your music is a great thing. So I’ve always been very glad to have my music and I’ve been putting stuff into it that seems to have added up to something.
FBPO: There is, however, an overwhelming positivity in general to your songs.
Paul: That’s funny, isn’t it? I still seem to come out positive and optimistic. I think that’s my character. You look at the lives of the great composers and they were not a lot of fun, some of them. Great painters, too. I was looking at a fantastic painting by Rembrandt in a museum, and I was reminded by the blurb next to it that he died penniless and had a terribly bloody time, but he was one hell of a painter. So that’s why I say therapy. You’re feeling bad, you skulk off to a corner with your guitar and you write something, and somehow you seem to take yourself through it and you work through it with your music. So I thank heaven for that. I feel very, very blessed. People always used to call it a gift, the gift of music, and I think that’s very much, more and more, how I see it.
FBPO: You once said you couldn’t imagine writing songs when you were 40. Now we’re well past that. How does it feel?
Paul: Y’know, I always thought you’d have to finish in rock ‘n’ roll at about 24 or so. It just keeps on going. When you’re 30 you think, “I better finish at about 40” and when you’re 40 you think, “I definitely better finish at 45.” And when you get to 50, I don’t know – you just stop thinking, I guess.
FBPO: Do you take into account the work you’ve already done when you’re working on something new?
Paul: Yeah, I think you do. It would be kind of silly to think that you wouldn’t, really. It’s there. You don’t want to copy it. I think what happens more nowadays is I’m not trying to avoid styles that I used in the past. What I would normally do is, “Oh, no, I’ve done that. I’ve done that sort of string quartet thing, therefore I should never do it again.” But it didn’t bother me after “Yesterday” to kind of do a stringy thing on “Eleanor Rigby.”
FBPO: Was there a time when you consciously avoided trying to sound like the Beatles?
Paul: I remember when the Beatles broke up, we all insisted on being called ex-Beatle. We said, “I won’t do an interview with you unless you write ex-Beatle.” We were very touchy at the time. But enough water has gone under the bridge now for me. I think it was really the advent of Wings and me thinking “Oh, I mustn’t sound anything like the Beatles anymore. I must establish a new direction.” Once I realized that I’d done that and that stood as its own little body of work, then I started more recently to think, “Well, yeah, why not revisit some of these styles and just see if there’s anything interesting in them.” So I’ve done that.
As you say, you’ve got this body of work and you could get very intimidated by it and go, “Oh my God, I’ve done all this. I can never write again.” But I like the process so much that, perhaps foolishly, that doesn’t occur to me. I just go, “Yeah, I’m gonna have a go,” like I always did. I mean, when you reach a degree of fame, whether you like it or not, people remember you like that. John did some greater things after the Beatles – “Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine,” were certainly as good if not better. But nobody really saw it that way.
FBPO: One of the more interesting Beatles stories was the success of the Beatles 1 album, which was re-released yet again in November as a more deluxe package. Was that as much of a surprise for you as it was for everybody else?
Paul: We just thought it was kind of a cool thing to do. The record company wanted to do it, so what were we gonna do – say “No?” You can’t do it. It’s a cool record, I think. It proves we had a lot of No. 1’s, if nothing else. You spend your life making all your records, and you don’t count `til a project like this comes along and you go, `Whoa, we did that many? That’s fantastic!’ And when it came out, I met a lot of people who said to me, “Gosh, my six-year-old, my eight-year-old, my 10-year-old’s really into you guys from the 1 album.” I was being asked to sign to all these kids, a lot of stuff, which was really interesting to me.
FBPO: People love it when you play those songs, don’t they?
Paul: You see people in the audience, with kids and stuff, and you see grown men crying and stuff, a lot of emotion coming out. It reminds people of a better time or when they were first courting each other or something, which is what these songs seem to do. They take them back to a good place. It’s really good to be the person singing that thing when you see them going through all that stuff. It feels great. To have kids come up to me in the street or in places like this saying, “I wouldn’t have ever been in music if not for you” and stuff like that, it’s really nice. It’s gratifying.
FBPO: It’s a big question, but what’s your sense of the Beatles in general?
Paul: I feel like an Olympic champion who got a gold medal. I got a gold with the Beatles, so I’m not going to say, “No, I didn’t” or “I hate them for getting me a gold.” I love them. I love what I did with them and I’m very proud of what we did. We started off as four kids from Liverpool hoping that we could find a place in this huge thing that we admired so much, and we not only found a place, we sort of got to the top of the pile.
FBPO: How hard was it to move on from the Beatles and even consider doing something else?
Paul: I was quite broken up by the end of the Beatles. I’d been trying to hold (the Beatles) together, but it was something that wasn’t to be. So I went into a bit of a depression after that. I’m normally optimistic, but I’d just lost the best job in the world – really the only job I’d ever had besides being a second man on a truck when I was a kid, and a paper (route). It was quite a shock. I mean, the Beatles career itself was a struggle, and then having reached those heights, to try and do it over and at the same time bring up a young family was quite an interesting human interest story. In the end, I think, you realize that Wings was a pretty good band. I hope so, at least, because it really was.
FBPO: Speaking of struggles, having your first wife Linda in Wings was a bit of a hard sell.
Paul: Oh, for sure. She took some shit, major league – not only from critics, but from fans. We had stuff daubed on our front walls in large letters, and it was highly offensive. Luckily, she was a strong woman and she was able to overcome it, and the period passed and as she went on people started to appreciate her more and more. But I really hated it, ’cause it’s painful to sort of be part of the reason why these wounds are inflicted on your partner. But she’s a very strong force in the whole thing. After I watched (the documentary) Wingspan the first time, I said, “I thought Wings was my band. It was hers.”
FBPO: You’ve been working with the same band of players since 2002 and the Driving Rain album. What appeals to you about this particular group of musicians?
Paul: When I was first introduced to them for (Driving Rain), I said “I’d love to try these guys.” I returned to the role of being the bass player, and we got on like a house on fire. We had no time for anything but music. We just played music all the time and really enjoyed it so much. I feel there’s something special about it.
FBPO: You also occasionally still do work where you play most of the instruments yourself. How is that different from working with the band?
Paul: It’s a subtle thing, really. I think it just tends to sound different from a band playing it, just in essence there’s a sort of different thing going on. Obviously I know the bass player well, and the drummer knows the bass player – you know what I mean? I either know what I’m going to do or what I have done. It gives it a slightly different feel.
FBPO: Have you ever lost or do you worry about losing your muse?
Paul: I’ve never really worried about it. I’ve had one or two times where I felt I better start worrying, ’cause it’s bound to happen. But I generally just sort of go, “Oh no, don’t worry about it” and go and do something else. If you’re lucky you just kind of sit down and something comes out. It’s not always the best thing you’ve ever written, but it doesn’t have to be.
FBPO: How do you balance all of your material together for your concert repertoire?
Paul: We try to make it something that interests us, and by doing so, hopefully we get it to be something the people will like. You’ve just got to judge it between the rare stuff and the kind of stuff people still know. If you just do a whole big bunch of songs that nobody knows, that’s all right for a club, especially if you explain to people “Hey, we’re just gonna do deep stuff tonight,” but I think when you’ve got these big arenas, I always feel like I’ve got to give them the kind of night out that I would always want, so that includes hits.
FBPO: The 30th anniversary of Live Aid was celebrated during the past year. That was an auspicious performance for you. What are your memories?
Paul: Oh my God, the Live Aid was just one of those things I’d sooner forget. I came in from the country and sort of drove in and every window in Britain was open with televisions on and Live Aid blaring out. It was a national event and I knew I was gonna be on it, but I didn’t take anyone with me. I didn’t have a roadie. I didn’t even have anyone to make sure my mic or speakers were working. And Bob Geldof just said, “Well, your piano’s behind that curtain. You’re on.” There I was in front of the world, and I heard in my monitor very ominous sounds of roadies talking, “Is this the plug?” I figured, “I’ll just keep plugging on,” but I couldn’t hear myself. I couldn’t hear anything. And then it suddenly became clear my mic wasn’t on, but the dear old audience helped me out, God bless ’em. They all sang it. So I escaped by the skin of my teeth. It was sort of a nightmare. If you asked me for three nervous moments, I think that’d be top.
FBPO: You paint as well as make music – and write children’s books, for that matter. Is there a similarity between them?
Paul: It’s the same sort of magical process that I like, where you conjure something out of nothing. You get a little idea that leads you through. But I think it’s slightly different from music; it’s slightly more like a world you can go through to, like a sort of door you can go through into another world, which is quite nice. You can go into a little bit of a trance while you’re doing it, so it’s a nice contrast to real life. I think a song is a little more present – not much, ‘cause you’re dealing with words and notes and chords and things like that. It’s a little more specific. With the painting, there’s maybe not quite so many considerations.
FBPO: How long do you think you’ll go on actively making music?
Paul: I don’t know. As long as I enjoy it, I suppose, which seems to be now and the foreseeable future. It’s crazy, really. It’s very paradoxical. You would think the natural thing is I’d be completely bored. I was talking to someone the other day, and we were saying that with the Beatles, I used to perform for about half an hour a night, and if you cut those numbers in half, dividing them between me and John – and then there’s even another aspect with George and Ringo – but if you cut them in half, it means I was doing a quarter-hour a night. And so now, to be doing more like two and-a-half or three hours, you would think it wouldn’t work. But it does.
Gary Graff is an award-winning music journalist and author based in Detroit. In addition to FBPO, Gary writes regularly for Billboard, the New York Times Features Syndicate, Digital First Media, Revolver, Classic Rock, United Stations Radio Networks and Greater Media Interactive, and he reports on music news for WCSX-FM in Detroit and WHQG-FM in Milwaukee. Graff has authored, co-authored and edited books on Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and others and was the founding editor of the MusicHound Essential Album Guide series. Graff is also the co-founder and co-producer of the annual Detroit Music Awards.
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