Everyone has a favourite Paul McCartney. His 45-year career has played out in the glare of the world’s media, more so now than ever, but meanwhile everyone cherishes the Paul they love. Whether it’s the cute doe-eyed moptop, the homely family man or the British national treasure, we hold him with such high regard that there’s almost nothing that we don’t know about the most musical knight of the realm.
Which proves somewhat of a challenge to any journalist faced with the prospect of interviewing him. For one thing, where do you start? It’s such a long and illustrious and influential career that is unparalleled in music it is almost intimidating to confront. And his fame, so global and immense, must be for any music magazine the ticket to instant success and something you’d never consider passing up.
But when Clash was approached to interview McCartney for the release of his new solo album, ‘Memory Almost Full’, it caused contention among the team, with some arguing over his place in modern music and his relevancy to the readers of Clash. Was he cool enough to sit alongside Kings Of Leon and Arctic Monkeys to the younger generation, was it a risk we were prepared to take, would his music stand up to the quality we like to adhere to in our pages, and what could we ask him that hadn’t been asked before?
Those discussions didn’t last long. I mean, come on; it’s PAUL McCARTNEY we’re talking about. Of course we were gonna do it, but the fact remained that we had to retain that Clash edge in the interview, and not be afraid to put to him the things that perhaps other people feared to. In particular, there were two main points of agenda: firstly, why did he presume he’d fit in Clash, and secondly, the fact that he had just left his record label of over 40 years to release through that most corporate of high street merchants, Starbucks.
He wasn’t in for an easy ride, and we were in for one of the most candid interviews he’d conducted for years.
The only topic off limits, I was previously warned, was the ongoing divorce and legal affairs pertaining to Paul and Heather’s high profile split. No worries, I had explained, as Clash was here to talk purely about the music, and anyway, with only 45 minutes to ask the 156 questions I’d spent weeks collating, we had enough to talk about.
Looking out at all the flags and the banners at Glastonbury it was like the Battle of Agincourt. It was like, ‘Yeah man! People have come together!’
‘Memory Almost Full’ is Paul’s 21st solo album since The Beatles, and oddly enough, he is the cover star of the 21st issue of Clash. The album is perhaps the most personal in the sexagenarian’s canon, and deals with regression into the past, his childhood, his parents, Linda and his own mortality. It is not, as reported, his reaction to his current troubles, but is in fact a compellingly touching and poignant glimpse into a man’s stark review of his long and rich life. He is 65 years old, and although understandably weary looking for a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, he sounds so impassioned on this record that it’s timeless, ageless and enchanting.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, the record on which he sang ‘When I’m 64’. Had he known back then that his sixty-fourth year would be so bothersome and difficult, one doubts the song would have been so jollily optimistic.
Nonetheless, the future is still bright for McCartney. A new record deal, a cracking new album, the digital release of his full back catalogue and a rejuvenation of his creative spirit, for Sir Paul, it’s all a case of life goes on. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.
So why did you decide to speak to Clash?
I just wanted to do interesting things. There are a few publications that I like that are just a little bit off the beaten track, a little bit less obvious, and I like that. It’s more exciting than just doing the same old same old all the time. So that was it really.
We did question whether you were a suitable cover star and whether you’d appeal to our audience. So what makes you think that your new album is going to be relevant to a younger audience?
Well, I don’t know if it is, that’s the truth. I suppose that’s for you to decide. If you do this article and it’s crap, you won’t use it. (Laughs) Which is fair enough, you know. Um… I don’t wanna have to justify it, but as I am going to have to, I would say that, um, like a lot of music that people do today is rooted in the music that we did in the Sixties. A lot of it kinda comes from then. So… I dunno, something I’m doing, there may be some sort of crossover relevance or something. It depends if people like it. I like it so, you know, it’s okay by me.
This will be your first release on Hear Music, the new Starbucks label, which has proved to be a controversial move to some. What made you leave your label of so many years to go with them?
About a year ago I was making the record, this ‘Memory Almost Full’ record, and really enjoying being in the studio singing and writing, and it suddenly hit me that the minute it was gonna be released I was gonna get really bored by entering the machine and the corporate world and was gonna be talking to people who were semi-enthusiastic about what was going on in the world. So I started talking to my producer, David Kahne, who’s a cool guy, and I just said, you know, “We should do something so that it isn’t boring. No matter what it is. We should maybe talk to people who’ve got a different slant on it”, hence Clash. “We should look at another way to release it, so that it just doesn’t go through all the old boring moves that you do.” And he had a mate who had just been appointed one of the heads of music at Starbucks. So he said, “You should talk to him.” So I started talking to him. He said, “Oh, we do albums. We’ve got 400 stores in China…” So he started actually just sounding interesting. It was nothing more than that really, it was just it was more interesting than what was going to happen, more interesting than the bad dream. So I just went, ‘Oh okay, let’s have a look into that.’ So we looked into that, and you know what happened? They had a passion. They actually were wide-awake – well, doing all that coffee! (Laughs) They were like: (speaks very fast and excitedly) “Yeah, we can do this man! I love that track! This is great! That’s a really cool track, man!” And I was like, “Yeah, okay, well I can work with you.” So that happened and then iTunes happened. There had been a dispute with The Beatles and Apple – our Apple and Mr Jobs’ Apple – and that was getting settled, that’s gonna be settled, so I knew I could do stuff with iTunes, so that became exciting. So we got the Starbucks release, the iTunes thing, talking to different magazines, doing different radio shows, doing different TV things – promoting it in just a different way, all with really one thought in mind: keep it exciting. Because releasing a record used to be really exciting. It probably is for like a young band for the first time. But in actual fact, I still think even for a young band it’s a little less exciting than it used to be. It used to be a buzz and a half you know? So we just said, “Well, we’re gonna make that happen.” So that’s what all this stuff is about.
You’re being accused of aligning with this global corporate business rather than a major label…
Well, you know, they’re ALL corporate businesses. The minute you get inside an office it’s a corporate business. Even indies these days are pretty corporate. It doesn’t matter to me. What you’re looking for is a machine to get your music to the people, and generally speaking that’s got to be a shop or a string of shops or a computer network, and the more people you want to reach, the more of a machine you have to deal with. But if it’s an exciting machine then I don’t think that matters.
Do you think it’s another nail in the coffin for the major labels?
Yeah. David Kahne said that the majors now – God bless em, cos, you know, they’re cool, they’re good people, they’ve lost their way a bit, they’re floundering, they don’t quite know what’s happening – he said it’s like the dinosaurs sitting around discussing the asteroid. And there is a bit of a feeling of that. Even the companies themselves will tell you that. I mean, it IS changing. It’s a changing world. And now a lot of music is bought via the Internet, a lot of stuff is bought in Tescos or in coffee shops and things; it’s not record shops anymore. So the idea was either change with it or don’t. And to me, the idea of just doing something different fitted with all of that.
Do you still feel pressured to deliver a new product to the market? Is there such a demand…
I don’t think of it like as a new product. I don’t like all those words: the record industry, the music business, a new product… I don’t like to think of it like that. To me, it’s songs of mine that I want people to hear just cos I think they’re good.
Is there a pressure from yourself then? Is there a build up of songs that you need to get out?
Yeah. It’s what I do. And I could not record them if that’s what you mean. I could just record them on to a little tape cassette and demo and that would be fine. But, you know, come on man, I know there’s enough people out there wants to check them out. It’s not like there isn’t anyone out there. And then, you know, it’s what you do. It’s the same reason you always do it for. Why does a young band want people to hear them? Why do they? Because they think they’re good and that’s what they do, so they go out and they play. And if they’re lucky they make a record of it, or they get on MySpace or something. You get it out. That’s the trick, to just get it out. Yeah, it’s some kind of addiction, but it’s a good one.
Have you joined the MySpace revolution yourself?
No. (Laughs) I’ve got my own MySpace, I’ve got one called Meyesight. But I think it’s a good idea, all that stuff; it’s kind of nice there being all that access for people. I’m like not computery, I’m really not. The only thing I use is I’ve got a music programme, I write on music programmes, so I’m pretty good with it, I can operate that, and I’ve been doing that long enough to kind of know my way around that. The rest of the time, I’m not really interested in walking through a virtual world. I want to walk through the square here and see these real trees, I don’t really wanna walk through a picture of it. So Second Life isn’t something that I’m gonna sit at home and live in. I’m in this one, this First Life. It smells better! It’s fresh air.
MySpace is a great place for discovering new music. If you were interested in trying to find some new music or check out some new bands, how would you go about it?
Look on MySpace and do that kind of thing…
I presume that you can’t really go out to a gig?
No, I can get out anywhere. That’s a myth about me and about people with a certain degree of fame. You’d be surprised. I can get out anywhere I wanna get out. Okay, if I fall down a little club, if I happen down some club one night, yeah I’ll get noticed. I’ll get looks that they won’t give to other people, because it’s ‘Paul McCartney’ down here and it’s kind of weird to see him down here. But then, people get over it really quick, and it’s just like, ‘Oh well, it’s only Paul McCartney down here, and we’re still having the same buzz…’ As long as I don’t wreck the vibe! (Laughs) ‘Oh, really bring down, man!’ Which I generally don’t! There is this myth that you can’t get out shopping, that somebody brings stuff to you all the time, but it’s not true. I do all that. I go to the pictures regularly. Just saw Meet The Robinsons, in fact. Thought it was rather cool myself. But the point being, I get out. If I want to go and see a band and stuff, I can do that. It’s maybe not what I do as much as I would have when I was actually on the band scene as a young band. We would go up to Station Hotel and in our case see like the Stones, we’d go and catch The Yardbirds, go and catch Georgie Fame, whatever, the people of our generation. I just don’t happen to do that that much now, just cos my life’s different. I’ll go out for dinner instead, that kind of thing. But I can do it. You’d be surprised. It’s great. I just make sure I can do it. All you have to do to do it is go and do it. I’ll go on a bus and people will look at me a bit weird, you know, ‘What is he doing on a bus?’ And then they go, ‘Well he’s on a bus’, and I go, ‘I’m on a bus’.
Do some people think it’s not you and tell you that you look like Paul McCartney?
Yeah. (Laughs) I say, “Yeah, I get told that all the time.”
You do look like him to be honest.
I’ve given up saying it cos I think it’s a little bit over the top, but there was a time in the late Sixties when I used to be in New York and people would say to me, “Hey man, you look just like Paul McCartney”, and I’d say: “I wish I had his money!” And it was like so vulgar that they thought, ‘Well, that can’t be him. He wouldn’t say that.’ I told that to Dylan once, Bob Dylan. He said, “I must use that line, man.” He liked that.
For this album, did you have a specific idea or goal that you wanted to achieve? You started these songs back in 2003, but ditched them to start all over again on new songs that would become ‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’ with producer Nigel Godrich. You must have had an idea for these songs that were different that you wanted to keep for later?
Yeah, making music is some kind of addiction, but it’s a good one.
Yeah. I was working on these and this was just my new songs and I was working on them with the band, my band I tour with. We’d just come off tour and we just said, ‘We’ll have a little break and then we’ll get in the studio.’ So I had a few songs and we were doing that, and then the idea to work with Nigel came up, and I thought that would be quite cool, so I just transferred the whole thing and went in to work with him with the band. We just moved studios really and went to work with him. But then he started to say, “Look, maybe you should try playing all the instruments yourself”. He’d got a concept of where he wanted it go; he wanted me to drum, play bass and stuff. So it gradually became that album, my last album, ‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’. So then, after I’d finished that, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t leave this other stuff half finished’, so I went back and finished that. That’s why it’s quite quickly after the other one.
What role does a producer have with someone like you? Are they intimidated by you…
…or do they see it as a challenge that’s something for them to achieve?
They’re not really, and I encourage them not to be intimidated. I mean most of them aren’t anyway because, you know, they’re good producers. Someone like Nigel definitely isn’t. He comes into a project knowing that that’s the risk, knowing that if there’s one thing he must do it’s not be intimidated. So he comes in as a bit of a hard nut, which is good, I like that. I don’t like Yes Men. People will accuse you: ‘Well, you’ve got Yes Men all around you’. But if you actually sit in on any of the things I do, it’s not like that. We all just have ideas, some of the younger guys will come up with an idea and we go, ‘That’s good. Wait a minute…’ And it gets adopted as the idea. So anyway, yeah, it could have been intimidating, except for the fact that the producers themselves know that and so they fight that, and also I don’t want them to do it. So even if they start doing it, I stop ’em doing it. I say, “Wait a minute, look, is that what you really think?” So that’s a danger, but it’s one that we can overcome, you know?
More so in The Beatles years, people never really dissected your lyrics, they always said that John was the wordsmith. And then in later years after he went through his primal scream therapy, his lyrics became even more honest and personal. You were never thought of as being this honest songwriter, people perhaps thought you were more about melodies and storytelling. This album sounds very honest; it seems to be you almost bearing your soul. Would you say that this is the real you?
Yeah, probably. That’s a process that you’re not necessarily aware of yourself, because you’re just living life. I know John and me, we never used to class ourselves as, ‘He’s that one and I’m that one’, that’s just a perception. I think to some degree it’s true, you know, because John’s personality was John, my personality was Paul, and we’re quite different. That’s actually why we were so good together: we complimented each other. But yeah, I think this new album is honest. What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t mean to be dishonest in any of the others, it’s just that, I dunno, maybe it’s just come out this way this time. I suppose writing a song about death – there’s a song called ‘The End Of The End’, which is just about “On the day that I die I’d like jokes to be told” – well, that’s pretty honest. It just happened that the subjects I chose were like that. Whereas in other times I might be choosing a subject like, um, ‘When I’m 64’ or something, which is much more tongue in cheek. It’s still quite, um… I mean, obviously I hear that song quite a bit this year! (Laughs) But it’s not a bad little song, you know? It’s just a genre that I fell into because of my personality. But I’m glad I did. But in answer to your question, I think yeah, probably this one is more honest. I didn’t mean it to be, it just panned out that way.
One track on your new album, ‘Vintage Clothes’, has a great beat on it, like a modern rhythm loop that’s ripe for remixing. Back in The Beatles, you were using the latest cutting-edge technology to experiment with sounds, but nowadays, when a band is regarded as the heirs to The Beatles, it’s usually a guitar band who aren’t breaking genres. Surely the modern equivalent of such boundary breaking would be found in the technology embracing dance fraternity?
You’re right, that’s where it happens. It’s like an obvious platform for it, dance music, because you’ve got a trance thing that’s gonna go on for 10 minutes, so you better experiment somewhere, or it’s gonna be awfully boring! Whereas if you’re looking at shorter songs, then it’s actually not as easy to just break the song and come in with something. So I think it’s probably true that it happens more in dance music. I’ve always been interested in that. I always loved that ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the tape loops on the Beatles track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. That was like, ‘Yes!’ It’s the same thing I’m trying to do now though, which is just do something to interest and excite myself. It’s very selfish really, but why not? I mean, why else do you write music and write songs? It’s not really for any other reason than to turn yourself on, you know? On this album there’s a few more bits like that, just cos I wanted to… I think the bit you’re talking about is a Mellotron thing. I’ve still got an old Mellotron; I think it’s THE original one! But it’s a great sound! It’s not actually a loop, but it sounds like a loop, so you can get that kind of experimenty sound. There’s some backwards stuff. Some of it is kind of revisiting that [Beatles] thing, just cos I haven’t done that for a little while.
Within The Beatles, your bass lines always seemed to be better or more melodic on those songs that weren’t yours. Was this because you had more time to think about what you wanted to do, or did the others have an idea for you?
It’s probably like…um… When someone else is singing, I’d realise my role was to play a bass part to compliment what he’s singing. Whereas when it’s my thing, I probably… I mean, I’m not so sure this is true, by the way; this is like your analysis of it. I’d have to go back and listen to them all. Was I more boring on my tracks? But if it’s true, which it could easily be – cos I don’t analyse – I would think it’s because someone else is singing, I see my role as the bass player and I’ll come up with something inventive. When I’m singing, I think, ‘Well, all you’ve gotta do is just play a bass part, mate’, and I might not think, ‘Ooh, I’ve gotta pull it out the bag’. Yeah, so what’s some good bass parts? ‘Taxman’ was good, that was George…
That was good; that was George. ‘Come Together’ was good; that was John… Yeah, it’s probably true!
On many of George’s songs, you can be heard with the most support, whether it be with instrumentation or backing vocals. It’s often hard to detect John’s input. How supportive of George’s songs was John and how creative would he be in bringing them to life?
We were very supportive of anything any of us did. There wasn’t really much of a rivalry once it came down to doing it, it was just whatever was best for the song. A lot of the stuff is three-part [harmonies], and so that would be the three of us, me, John and George. I don’t think any one was more supportive than the others, we all just mucked in. It’s just whatever was best for the record. I probably just… You see, me, I’m very enthusiastic so, for instance, on ‘Something’ it’s me doing harmonies to George’s lead vocal, probably because I just piped up. I think that’s what it was. “What about a harmony here?” That’s just probably my enthusiasm. Whereas John might have just been into just grooving with it. If he’d have said, “What about a harmony here?”… I probably just had the idea first or something, you know. That’s the way it would happen.
Even with all your experimentation, The Beatles’ sound never lapsed into the self-indulgent, a frequent risk in experimental music. How did you achieve this?
We were just very good. We were just really good. We were just really, really cool people! (Laughs) No, we just got it right. We followed our noses and if it didn’t sound good we would blow it out and just say, “That’s rubbish”. The good thing about being in a band with four like-minded people was that there was always someone to say, “I don’t like that” if it was just slightly not making it. Whereas yourself, you might think, ‘Well it only slightly not makes it. I can still do it.’ There would always be someone with us who’d go, “Hmm, it’s crap”. So generally whatever stuff we’d do would go beyond self-indulgent and it would just have to work. And also, we had George Martin, remember, as the kind of final arbiter. We were like the boss. We were like the four –headed boss, but then George was the producer and it had to pass his test as well. So we had five pretty good heads on anything we did. It was only the good stuff that made it to the final cut.
In the ‘Anthology’ documentary, Ringo confessed that during the recording of ‘Sgt Pepper’ he learnt to play chess, as he was mostly waiting around. Do you think that you tended to exclude him from the adventures in the studio, or could he simply not – or didn’t want – to keep up?
I’m not sure why it was, but I was a bit on fire during the ‘Sgt Pepper’ time. I was living in London and I was going to everything. You talk about going to clubs, you can’t get out, well obviously we were in a way more famous, more hot then, but I would just go to everything. I would go to experimental stuff, avant-garde stuff, all this sort of stuff. So I was like very energetic. So when it came to doing this album, I would be talking it to all my mates [speaks hurried, excited mumbles], and I think then the guys would come in from suburbia and I’d be going, [jabbers again]. I’d be speeding away. So I can see that if the boot had been on the other foot and Ringo had been buzzing away, I might have gone, ‘Oh okay, yeah. Well, what do you want me to do, man? What do you want me to drum? Okay, I’ll do that then’. I think Ringo wasn’t as involved in the process. I think it was only just a physical thing. It wasn’t for any other reason other than he wasn’t going to all these things I was going to. Seeing Cornelius Cardew [English avant-garde electronic composer] down at the University of London, going to the Wigmore Hall to see Luciano Berio [Italian experimental composer], picking up Stockhausen records, getting strange books – Flann O’Brien… Just a load of stuff, being turned on by some of my mates who were in the avant-garde crowd. There was a guy called Barry Miles, who later wrote my biography, whose flat was filled with books and records and stuff and every time I’d go over to see him he’d say, “Have you heard this?” and turn you on. So I was getting a lot of that; I was getting a lot of stimulus. So I suppose I would be a bit on fire, and then it would then look to Ringo like, ‘Well, alright (laughs), you can do it then’. I mean, I don’t know cos I was just doing my thing, but I think that’s probably what it was.
Also, George said that his heart wasn’t in the album, that it was still in India, and that he felt it was becoming more like a job and he was losing his enthusiasm for being a Beatle. To this end, with little interest from George, minimum participation from Ringo and John’s dismissal of a concept album, would you say that ‘Sgt Pepper’ is primarily your album?
I don’t know. I kind of started off with the concept thing – we never called it ‘concept’ by the way, just like we never called it ‘Merseybeat’; these are just words. “It’s a concept album”. Oh, is it? No, it was an idea. And I suppose you could say that it’s kind of similar to this new album, ‘Memory Almost Full’. It’s me trying to turn myself on most of the time, which I think if you look at any band, any musician, any artist, it’s sort of often what they’re trying to do in a way, trying to reach people with their ideas. But in doing so they’re trying to make it alive for them. So the whole thing of a concept thing, I just happened to have this idea that what we should do is just pretend to be some other band. It was kind of as simple as that. We had the idea – or I had the idea – for ‘Sgt Pepper’, and then just sold it to the guys. I said, “What if we all do this thing?” And they all said, “Yeah, okay, it looks quite interesting”, you know? But it was me sort of pushing the idea. I think to analyse it and to break it down to who did what is really a bit of a red herring. We all were making this album and it was a crazy idea and it was the summer and we all wanted to do it. The media were all saying, ‘They’ve dried up. The Beatles have dried up. They’re finished.’ We were all sitting like the seven dwarves – the four dwarves – tinkering away in the diamond mine going, ‘Hee hee, we haven’t finished you know!’ We knew what was coming, you know? And then it broke. BANG! Mid summer in London, a day like today and man, it just went on fire! We released it on the Friday and Jimi Hendrix opened with ‘Sgt Peppers’ opening song on the Sunday. He’d learned it – Jimi Hendrix had learned it? Come on, man! Give it up! Not bad. So, you know, it was my idea, but we all executed and we’re all very much a part of it.
Your headline set at Glastonbury 2004 was a huge renaissance for your career. What were your thoughts when asked to play?
I’d had my eye on playing Glastonbury forever, because it’s like an iconic festival, and if you play music that’s something you’ve got to look at. You think, ‘Oh it would be great to do Glastonbury!’ So many of my friends and so many people I know make the pilgrimage. But I’d been a little bit put off. I thought maybe it’s not my scene. What happened was somebody had been there one year, a couple of guys I knew, and I was like, “How was it?” And they were saying, “Oh great, it’s cool, a great festival”. And somebody said to me, they said, “We were coming back at midnight from watching…” whoever it was, it was a few years ago, I think it might have been Radiohead, “and all the people were sitting around their campfires singing Beatles songs.” I went – ding! A little lightbulb went off. I said, “Well, I can do that!” So I just thought, ‘It’s okay. I should do it.’ So I was up and running with my band - we were touring; we’d done Russia and a few places like that, so we were all fired up. I got the offer to do it. Michael Eavis said, “Do you want to do it this year?” I said, “Yeah, go on!” And it was great, man, really cool.
You had grown men in tears – in a good way, of course! Some people still name it as their best ever festival moment. Had you planned anything special or did you know that the songs themselves would make it?
Yeah, we were just gonna do a Glastonbury set. We chose the songs a bit, because it was slightly shorter a set than we would normally do. We just chose the songs we thought might work. And then just went and enjoyed it. That was one of the things, it was like, “Whatever we do, we’re not gonna get uptight. This is Glastonbury. We’re gonna get in with the vibe.” It was a good night for us though, it was a blast, and the audience seemed to love it. It was raining, of course, but looking out at all the flags and the banners it was like the Battle of Agincourt. It was like, ‘Yeah man! People have come together!’ That’s great; it’s very uplifting.
Finally, The Beatles were innovators in and out of the studio and revolutionised music to the point where there’s nearly nothing left to do. Do you think you ruined it for other bands to push the limits of music?
Well, you know, not really. (Laughs) You do what you do. There was a period, maybe like the end of the Seventies into the beginning of the Eighties, where people said, ‘Well what can you do? You’ve done it all. There’s nowhere left to go.’ And you’d go, ‘Um…’ But there is now. There’s always somewhere left to go. You’ve got the people who give homage, heirs to The Beatles – bands, and then you’ve got people who throw that over and have got a different thing going. So I don’t think that we’ve cleared the pitch for anyone wanting to do something new, it’s just they’ve got to find it, that’s all. We found it, now they’ve got to find it. And hey, with my new album I’ve got to find it too. It’s the same deal for everyone. But that’s the fun, that’s the excitement; you’ve got to find it. You can’t just sit around waiting for it to come to you. If you’re a player you’ve got to find something that’s cool. It’s all there; it’s just down to finding it.