The Paul McCartney interview
The Paul McCartney interview
How did he become an icon? ShortList finds out
Posted: 17 June 2010, 08:06
It's not every day a Beatle phones the ShortList office. Andrew Dickens shares an encounter with a legend.
A 63-year-old man stands at the microphone. Hair slicked back and dressed impeccably in a dark suit, he raises his hands in an effort to hush the screaming cacophony of 55,600 infatuated young Americans, many of whom are passing out with excitement. Realising he’s got more chance of eating his own head, he carries on with his introduction. He may as well mime it.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen,” he begins. “Honoured by their country, decorated by their Queen, loved here in America… here are The Beatles!”
The man is legendary talk show host Ed Sullivan — and this is probably the first time nobody has listened to him. As he says the last two words, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr run towards the stage in New York’s Shea Stadium, raising the noise levels to what Lennon later described as “louder than God”. Still in their early 20s, these four English lads are already the biggest band in history.
That was 15 August 1965. This is a Monday in 2010 that probably won’t go down in history, but it is the date that I wrote in my diary “Interviewing Paul McCartney” and circled it in red pen.
“Paul will call you between 12pm and 3pm,” the nice man in his office had said. Vague, but I’m sure he’s very busy. As I wait, rooted to my desk, I begin to get unusually edgy. It slowly dawns on me that I’m not about to chat to some bloke with spring-loaded thumbs who sang with Jedward on The X Factor, I’m about to chat to a Beatle; the man who wrote Yesterday and invented heavy metal with Helter Skelter, the man behind Sgt Pepper. According to a poll I’ve just done in my head, he’s one of the five most famous people on Earth. Somebody puts Hey Jude on the stereo. He wrote that. I start to fidget.
At 3.30pm the phone rings. “Hi, could I speak to Andrew Dickens please?” says a Liverpudlian drawl. “Speaking,” I say, pretending not to know who it is. “This is Paul McCartney. I think you were expecting my call,” the drawl replies. “I love your grandad’s work, by the way.” It’s a gag I’ve heard a thousand times, but never from someone with a planet named after them (true — minor planet number 4,148), so I laugh.
He’s in a jovial mood, I reckon, so I kick off with an ice-breaker. Referring to the conspiracy theories that the real Paul McCartney died in a car crash in 1966 and was replaced by a doppelganger, I ask him: “Can you either confirm or deny that you are dead?” The line goes silent. It remains silent.
The office has heard the question, heard the worried “Hello? Hello?” Jaws drop everywhere. Nobody’s ever hung up on me before and this is not a good time to notch up a career first.
The phone rings again. “Sorry about that,” says that voice. “I’m driving on country roads and the reception’s bad. I can confirm that’s true, I am a doppelganger. I looked at my dental records and they don’t match.” Back in the game.
Once my heart rate levels, we begin talking about the early days. John Lennon, a man who clearly loved a religious comparison, famously once claimed The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. He may have been right, but this idolatry wasn’t handed to them on a plate. No Jedward were they. The Beatles earned their musical spurs by playing the dives of Hamburg’s notorious red-light district and blistering their fingers with a mighty 292 gigs at The Cavern club in Liverpool. And, despite all the Sheas and Wembleys since, it’s those times that stand out for McCartney.
"The lunchtime sessions at The Cavern were great,” he tells me with genuine enthusiasm. “It was very intimate and friendly. You’d do requests for ‘Billy and Joey in Walton Jail’ and their friends would ask us to do Shop Around because they were in jail for shoplifting. “And then there were dreadful gigs that were memorable. We played a little village near Stroud once, but not a lot of people turned up. A few unruly youths threw pennies at us, so that was kinda miserable, except at the end we decided to pick up the pennies and pocket them, which stopped that practice fairly quickly.”
If the UK was hard work, Hamburg was an awakening. Staying in rat-infested accommodation among brothels and bars, the band — then a five-piece with Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best on drums and no Ringo — would do several shows a night at local clubs. They were young men in a pit of hedonism; surely they played drunk half the time? Rock’n’roll and all that.
“Only by mistake,” says McCartney. “Occasionally, you’d think you had three shows in the evening and after the third one you might party down a bit. Then you were told you’d got four. So I do remember John coming on once in his underpants with a toilet seat around his neck.” Something, I suggest, he could use on stage. “Yeah, man. Come on, let’s do it.” I’m fairly certain he won’t.
"There was plenty of wildness back then,” he continues. “You were younger and could cope with it. But we were a fairly sober lot compared to some of the guys. We were so knackered, working the amount that we did, that we mainly slept. I remember a fashion designer told me about a party she went to and John came in and he was all ‘This is great’ and stuff. Then he got on a couch and went to sleep. And I could relate to that. But we had our fun.”
Their work ethic may have led to the odd bout of party pooping, but it paid off. You reap what you sow and, having scattered seeds on the sweaty soil of the music business, in 1963 The Beatles began to harvest a crop so huge you’d think they’d invented genetic modification.
That year saw their first UK tour, their first album (Please Please Me, which went to No1), their second album (With The Beatles, which, you guessed it, also went to No1), three consecutive No1 singles, and the birth of the term ‘Beatlemania’. It was also the year Ed Sullivan witnessed the hysterical crowds at Heathrow as the band returned from Stockholm. He subsequently signed them on a three-show contract. By the end of February 1964, The Beatles had notched up their first US No 1with I Want To Hold Your Hand and completed their stint with Sullivan. Now the whole world knew Paul McCartney, something he first realised, not when he saw himself on the cover of Time magazine, but when his holiday plans were scuppered.
“We used to go to Greece on holiday. I remember going with Ringo, my then-girlfriend Jane Asher and Ringo’s wife Maureen,” he tells me, producing mental images of a Carry On Abroad-style package holiday. “We were getting famous, but not mega-famous yet. I used to hang out with the hotel band. They didn’t know who The Beatles were at all and I remember thinking, ‘This is great, because no matter how famous I get I can always go to Greece.’ Then one day, about a year later, someone said ‘You’re No 1 in Greece’ and I thought, ‘Bang goes the escape route.’ That was a light bulb going off and saying, right, now you are famously famous and it’s not going to be easy to run away. At that point I just had to make a decision: get with it or give it up, and I decided to not give it up.”
The Beatles went on to become a phenomenon; the biggest and most influential group in pop and rock history. If you’re in a band, your music has without doubt been inspired in some way by The Beatles. As has your haircut. All good things, though, must come to an end. In April 1970 McCartney released his eponymous first solo album and, days later, publicly announced he’d left The Beatles. That December, he filed a lawsuit against the other members to officially dissolve the band.
The end of The Beatles, of course, didn’t mean the end of McCartney. He formed Wings (in the words of Alan Partridge, “the band The Beatles could’ve been”) and wrote Live & Let Die, arguably the greatest Bond theme of all time. He’s written orchestral music, duetted with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, and twice been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. He’s also never stopped performing, something he’ll be doing again at the age of 68 this summer. Surely stadium gigging is no pastime for a pensioner. I remind him that he wrote a song about being 64 and the line “doing world tours” was not in the lyrics.
“What do you know when you’re the age I was when I wrote it?” he says, laughing. “I don’t tour as rigorously as I used to. I have periods when I can tour and it makes me actually enjoy it better and therefore makes it seem a little easier than it used to. And also when the tickets sell out in four seconds, as some of them have done, it makes me think, ‘These people want to come and see me,’ and that helps.”
They come because if you don’t know a McCartney song then you’re in a minority of about 12 and will probably be joining the other 11 in this year’s Big Brother house. He’s responsible for 24 UK No 1 singles, 32 US No 1 singles and is listed by Guinness World Records as the “most successful musician and composer in popular music history”. If you think putting a playlist together on your iPod is tough, imagine coming up with a McCartney set-list. Bracing myself for a shower of clichés about them ‘all being special’, I ask if there are any of which he’s particularly proud.
“Strangely enough, one of the ones I’m most proud of we’re not doing at the moment, Here, There And Everywhere,” he answers, without hesitation or cliché. “I like Blackbird a lot because many people who learn to play guitar, learn that. So I’m often bumping into people who are sort of saying [adopts hippy drawl] ‘Show us Blackbird, man.’”
He apologises, but says he has time for only one more question. I want to know how he’d compare 2010’s Paul McCartney to the Paul McCartney of 1965. Is he, does he think, a better musician now?
“Yeah, I think technically better,” he admits. “But there’s something about the first flush of youth, where your computer prints out amazing stuff that you’ve fed it during your teenage years. I think there was something special about that that you can’t just keep doing.”
He apologises again for having to go and I thank him. “Goodbye,” he says. “Give my best to your granddad.” I laugh, again.
Paul McCartney is playing Hard Rock Calling at London’s Hyde Park on 27 June; ticketmaster.co.uk