- 18 Jun 21
To celebrate his 79th birthday, we're revisiting Paul McCartney's classic interview with Dave Fanning. Originally published in Hot Press in 2002, Paul discusses life after Linda, 9/11 and the memories of his firefighter father, being 'lucky enough' to write with John Lennon, and his solo album Driving Rain.
“We grew up together, we did our careers together and he was a lovely, lovely man. No one knew he was ill for a while. We were just praying for some kind of miracle; it wasn’t to be. But I understand from his wife Livvy that he went peacefully, which is a great blessing. It was a very peaceful, golden moment, apparently. So I’ll just miss him. But rather than just dwell on the sadness, I’m just tending towards remembering the silly little stories – where we went, all the things we did, the laughs we had together. He was a very lovely man”.
That’s Paul McCartney talking about George Harrison. Today, in his London Soho Square offices, Paul’s up for anything, though his manager does suggest a little respect. He’s basically “a little too upset to talk about George right now”. Paul’s new album, Driving Rain, is his first studio album of new songs in four years. It boasts fifteen fresh McCartney songs that were all recorded in LA with a new producer, David Kahne (credits range from The Bangles to Sugar Ray to Tony Bennett) and a new three-piece American band.
Besides a number of standard framed Beatle prints which adorn the walls of the old-world offices on the first two floors there ain’t too many reminders of why Paul is one of the most famous faces on planet Earth, one of the richest men in Britain or why he’s a “Sir”. He was a Beatle, so unlike a lot of people, he can never escape from his past. When Beatle stuff surfaced in recent years – the Anthology collection, the 1 singles compilation – it was as though the previous few decades had never happened. Paul fronted Wings in the ’70s; their tours broke records, their records sold millions. But it’s still a footnote compared to the impact of the Fab Four. He knows that whenever he does anything - classical concerts, poetry books, painting exhibitions - he’s going to be judged differently (i.e. harshly, cynically). He never lets it get in the way of simply getting on with it. Today, he’s the most open and amiable interviewee beckoning myself and Jim Lockhart into his office in a mock crusty schoolhead manner.
The room which looks out over a busy Soho Square boasts a desk, a couch and an impressive and authentic Wurlitzer. The situation doesn’t demand an ice-breaker but there’s always room for a decent ‘knock-knock’ joke. (“Knock-knock”. “Who’s there?” “Wurlitzer”. “Wurlitzer who?” “Wurlitzer one for the money...” – you have to sing the last line). Paul is so affable and charming it’s easy to see why he’s often been described as someone who more than anything, wants to be liked. You need a strong constitution for that kind of pursuit; it’s easier to be difficult, diffident and, therefore, ‘arty’. You know better than to dwell to long on the pain of losing Linda or to hack away at the privacy he needs to let his new love life breathe but it’s very difficult to allow the opportunity to rake over the stuff we love to hear again and again, pass by. He knows we all have our take on The Beatles. But right now, he’s got a new album in the shops.
DAVE FANNING: Driving Rain comes across as a very positive album?
PAUL McCARTNEY: Yeah, it feels that way to me.
DF: So are these songs from recent times or are there many from, say, ten years ago?
PM: No, they’re all from the last couple of years. Even the songs that are about Linda, I was worried – well, I wasn’t worried – but I was wonderin’ if they were going to be really down, ‘I’m losin’ you/ I’ve lost you’ kinda songs, but as they sorta started to come about I realised they were more kind of ‘Oh what a great night it was when I met you’ songs. There’s a song on there called ‘Magic’ which is about the night I met her. So even those songs had a kind of a positive thing to them.
And then there’s some songs about meeting Heather – so those are pretty positive. And then there’s some rock‘n’roll things. I wrote a couple, or three, when I was on holiday in India. So, yeah, it’s pretty positive.
DF: Did Ringo have a hand in deciding the album’s first single?
PM: He was in LA and we’d been doing a bit of recording and me and Heather went round to see him and Barb for, like, dinner. We went out to dinner together and we ended up at their place. And, of course, I had me little cassette in me pocket. Or was it a CD? I think, actually, it was a cassette at that time. I just stuck it on and we ended up jumping around and dancing. When ‘From A Lover To A Friend’ came on, he said: “I like that one. You know me.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant and then I thought: “Yeah. I know you. You like that”. But then when the record companies started to hear some of the stuff they all went mad for that. They said, “great song”.
I must say I wouldn’t have picked it. I haven’t got a lot of faith in my own single-picking abilities ‘cos I never spotted say, ‘Get Back’. When that came out and everybody was going “Oh, ‘Get Back’, yeah, that’s great” and I’m going “but it’s just a little jam isn’t it, just a little blues thing?” and they went “yeah, but it’s good”. So I thought I should give up.
DF: So really it’s a case of ‘you make music, not singles’?
PM: Well, that’s the way it is for me. It’s not always the right choice but I don’t mind really. Hopefully it’s a good song.
DF: The band that plays on the album isn’t available to go on the road with you. So what do you do if you want to take this album on tour?
PM: Funny, isn’t it? You just don’t go on the road. You delay it. I was thinking of doing some stuff after Madison Square Gardens ‘cos I knew I could get the guys for that.
DF: That was a complete one-off, wasn’t it?
PM: Well, that was just a one-off. That was really for me just to see if I enjoyed playing. I knew I would and I knew I had to do that concert for New York. I just wanted to do it. I was there on Sept. 11th so it was just like that useless feeling everyone got like, “Well, what can we do?”. Well, we’re musicians, we can raise some money for the families and we could maybe raise the spirits of New Yorkers – that’d be a good thing – and of America generally. So I knew I wanted to do that and that’d also be like dipping my toe in the water to see if I fancied playing still. And I did.
And, yeah, I was going to do a bit of stuff round about now. I was going to do a couple of little one-off gigs. I was going to do one in London at The Astoria, actually. And, of course, I rang up the band and one of them said “No, I’m out with Sting.” So I said: “The bloody cheek of you – you’re supposed to be my band.” Anyway, I’m looking at what they’re doing and I’m hoping to try and book them for next year.
DF: You saw Sept 11th happen as you were about to take off on a plane from JFK. Would you have been as emotionally involved if you’d been in London or Liverpool at the time?
PM: Maybe not, no. We’d been in New York for a couple of days. Heather had been getting an award from Redbook magazine and it was one of those... it was Lincoln Centre, we’d been enjoying New York. I’ve got relatives there. We’d had a real good time. She’d got her award. Hilary Clinton had been there, we’d met Hilary and it was like, “Yeah, good old US, good old New York” – we were feeling very up on it and suddenly seeing this and thinking: “What is that. Oh it’s an accident”. Then half-an-hour later knowing that it wasn’t an accident and that The Pentagon had been hit, it was like, “Holy cow!”. And then the fact was we couldn’t leave ‘cos all the airports in the US were closed. So we became part of it, y’know? And then you saw the stuff live coming off the telly of the firefighters.
DF: Which had an extra resonance for you.
PM: Yeah, suddenly I remembered what I knew all along; my dad had been a firefighter in WWII when Liverpool was getting bombed. But of course, he never talked about it, like all his generation. And by the time I’d grown up he was a cotton salesman. He talked all about that. I can tell you all about taking a staple of a piece of cotton. You don’t wanna know about that, though. But he didn’t talk about the fireman stuff and it made me think “God, y’know, he did that. He went into those buildings.”
It’s funny – we went round a couple of the firestations in New York, Ladder 6 and Ladder 55 I think are the two we went to, and a lot of the New York fire guys, they’re real Guys firefighters – they’re real Guy guys. They’d wanna be. I’d rather run the other way, they’ve gotta go in. They’re all saying: “Those guys in Liverpool, in Europe , in Britain, they put out a whole block with a hose.”
So they’ve got a lot of respect for people like my dad. So when you put it like that, it is pretty cool.
DF: With your first solo album after The Beatles you played all the instruments yourself. You probably could have done that again. So why get a band together?
PM: Well, y’know what? I got with this producer called David Kahn ‘cos my New York office had asked who was going to produce my next record. I said “I dunno”. I mean, I was shaping up, getting songs together, but I’d no idea. So the office asked if they could give me some suggestions. So they did; they sent me some CDs. I listened to them all on a long car journey going up to Liverpool, actually. I had a lot of time there. So I listened to them all and this one by David Kahn, I thought “I like what he does.” I felt excited to work with him. I met him and he said he was gonna be out in LA. I didn’t know if I’d like him and so I said I’d come out for two weeks, thinking, y’know, limited risk here. If I hate it, I’ll have had a couple of weeks and I’m sure I can busk that in LA and then I’ll get out of it. But I really liked working with him.
He said, “Well, maybe you’ll multitrack, maybe you’ll play drums, you’ll play bass” and that was part of the plan but then he rang me up about a week or ten days before and he said: “In case you don’t want to do that , would it be handy if we had a band there?” And I said: “D’you know what, that’s not a bad idea”. But I was a little bit offhand about the whole thing. “Yeah we’ll have a band”, y’know. So he said: “Well I know some great players out here. I’ve thought of three guys. They’re really nice people. No attitude.” So I said: “Let’s try that”. And he said if it doesn’t work, second day we’ll go to multitracking and we can do it all. So I met them on a Monday morning… (sings) “I met him on a Monday”… it’s a song, isn’t it?
DF: It is. ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’.
PM: That’s what it is. But they were great. The drummer’s Abe, he’s a well-known LA guy, his dad’s a well-known R’n’B bass player. Abe Laborial Snr., he’s Abe Laborial Jr. And he’s a great guy. And so I was like, “Oh, I like him” and when he started playing I thought, “This is good , I can leave him alone”. Some drummers you’ve got to worry about, but someone like Ringo, you just leave him alone. He’s too good. You can turn the other way and just look at the audience and don’t worry about him.
And then there was this young keyboard player who’d been suggested. He’s a 23 year-old guy called Gabe Dixon from Nashville, and when he started playing I thought, “Wow, he’s pretty cool.” He was playing some funky Booker T things on the organ. He’s very all round. He could do some really flash stuff but I didn’t have very flash stuff to throw at him really. Quite a simple album. Then there was this guy called Rusty Anderson who again was an LA guy. And he was just a real nice guy, really good guitar player.
So I said, “Let’s just try one of the tracks”. So I pulled it kind of out of a hat. I said that I’ve got this song called ‘About You’, it goes like this. So I gave him a little acoustic thing and we just all ran into the studio like we used to do with The Beatles and started making a record and it was over in a couple of hours and we were like, “That’s cool; it sounds just like a record”. So I knew then that we were going to work together. We enjoyed it. And that was what we did.
DF: So the way you approached the Driving Rain album, there’s a link right back to early Beatles and early Wings?
PM: Yeah, there is, and the real link that happened was when I was doing an interview a few months ago and I heard myself say to this guy, “Well, y’know, me and John would arrive at 10:30 in the morning. We’d show George, Ringo and George Martin what the song was.” And I suddenly thought, “The cheek of him!”. Y’know, you’d think George or Ringo would ring us up and say, ‘Give us a clue’, y’know, but it was like we knew each other well enough and it was just the accepted way it fell out.
Like, for instance, the song ‘Girl’. (Paul sings ‘Girl’, complete with John’s deep intake of breath) So he’d say “I wanna do a breathing noise there” and we’d just tell George Martin how we wanted to make it and he would just go, “Hmm...okay”. Then we’d just split to our instruments and George would go, “Hey, what if I play this?” He’d make it up on the spot. Like ‘We Can Work it Out’. He’d say, “What if I put a harmonium here?” Now that’s a wacky idea, let’s try it. So you just tried everything on the spot and, like you say, we did that again with Wings and it’s always been my favourite way of working. It’s like improv, y’know, for a comedian. There’s something workshoppy about it that’s kind of exciting.
DF: Although more than anyone, you know you’ll never escape your past, is there some sense of a new beginning now ? You’ve closed off the past with the Anthology series, the 27 Beatles singles collection 1, and the Wings catalogue, Wingspan.
PM: Yeah, it’s true. When you do Anthology or Wingspan, particularly, there is a sort of “that’s that!”. We’ve put it together and anyone who ever wants to know about Wings can listen to that record or watch the DVD, that’s a fairly good representation of what it was. So you can say, “that’s that”, now let’s get on with the next thing.
The thing about Beatles 1 was not so much the closure thing but with me just listening to it and thinking that that system of working, that very simple system, made all those hits and I looked at them all and thought “God, they’re very well structured”. We didn’t spend long on them. We didn’t have the luxury of 48 tracks and months. Brian Epstein would just ring up and he’d say (posh voice), “Okay boys, you’re recording next week. Eh, John and Paul you can have a few days off; you can write the album”. And we’d go “Okay”. And you just go and do it ‘cos the grown-up fella said go and do it. Grown-up? I mean, the guy only lived till he was like thirty and here was us
DF: But was it as simple as that?
PM: He would just say, “Go in and do it” and we’d say, “OK” and so I’d go round to John’s, he’d go round to mine and we’d go ‘Paperback Writer’ ‘Eight Days A Week’, yeah, that’s good, ‘Nowhere Man’... You just run in and do it. You don’t mess, you don’t sweat, you don’t stay up till three in the morning worrying about a snare-drum sound. Y’know there was a period when everyone did it like that and that’s the most boring thing on earth.
With The Beatles – and this is one thing I liked ‘cos we did it with Driving Rain – you’d get the evening off. Well, now there’s a good idea for a kick-off! We’d finish at like half-five and we’d go, “Right, let’s go and have a spot of dinner”. We’d go to the pictures, I used to go to the National Theatre – whatever. Juno And The Paycock I remember going to see and comin’ in the next day and thinking “wow”, ‘cos in some way it would inform your next day’s work. Instead of that bad period when you’re working ‘till six in the morning. Then you’d run home, fall asleep for a couple of hours, wake up and go back into the studio - it’s like there was no life.
DF: So can we look forward to Juno And The Paycock – The Concept Album from Sir Paul?
PM: The concept album is coming next and I’m goin’ to stay up ‘till six every morning.
DF: You recently published Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics ‘65-’99. In amongst new stuff you have ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Yesterday’ etc. Is it strange to you to put writings that we all know so well as songs, together with new stuff that’s no more than page-poetry?
PM: I feel that very strongly. In fact, I wasn’t going to put lyrics in it but the guy who was editing the thing for me is a poet, Adrian Mitchell, he’s been a friend of ours for a long time – he was actually someone we originally met with The Beatles. He was a journalist but he sorta gave all that up – he met all of us and said, “Sod this” so he became a poet.
But he asked me if I’d consider putting a couple of my songs in as lyrics ‘cos he’s a great believer that lyrics are poems and I said, “Well, I’d rather not” and I remember that I had been hanging out with Alan Ginsberg in the last couple of years before Alan died and one of the things that I remember he said to me was, “You know that Eleanor Rigby is a helluva poem, Paul”, and I thought “Wow, that’s cool, coming from him who’s a great poet”.
And so little things like that started to come into play and I said to Adrian to show me the ones he wanted to put in. So he then told me a certain bunch and I knocked about half of them out, as in, I don’t really think that or that works. But then we even got down to things like ‘Yellow Submarine’ and I said: “You can’t put that in, that’s just a kid’s song” and he said, “But that’s the whole point!”. He said that it’s like a modern nursery rhyme. And he sold it to me. He sold the idea to me.
DF: And how do you feel about it now?
PM: In actual fact, I’m quite glad I did put it in. Some of them do work. I mean, for instance, Heather, my girlfriend, didn’t know ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ – she was brought up on classical music – her dad was really keen on Wagner and stuff. So she heard me read ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and said: “Ooh, that’s a really chilling poem” and I said: “Well no, actually, it’s just a daft song”. To those of us who know the songs, it is funny, but it actually works at a reading. Some of them do work.
DF: While there was a lot of black humour in the stuff you did with The Beatles, most of what you did was good peace and love stuff – there were no bad vibes. Are you happy that you have a catalogue that espoused those virtues or values?
PM: Yeah. I mean, that is one of the things I’m glad about regarding The Beatles. And in my case, individually, now. I’m still writing that way. I realised that somewhere along the way this idea of giving a good vibe off, giving a good message, crept in. I’m not sure where. It just crept in – we didn’t mean to do it – just something in the ’60s. ‘Cos we’d been listening to Elvis and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. It felt great but there wasn’t neccessarily, like, a message.
But then with ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Let It Be’ and things like that, I think it was probably the turmoil that we were going through and which the generation was going through, that suddenly there came this need for these songs. And then when John did things like ‘Give Peace A Chance’ there became very much this physical need for people to have something to sing at The White House and get Nixon out and end the Vietnam war.
So, I am very happy about that. I really like that. It makes you feel good. People come up to me in the street, no matter where I go, y’know, and they’ll say, “Oh, you saved me with your music” and I’ll say, “You mean The Beatles stuff?” and they say, ‘No, Flaming Pie (not well-known Paul solo album). Or whatever – y’know, some kid, some college kid. love that, but it wasn’t anything we planned really.
DF: Take two post-Beatle Paul songs, ‘My Love’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’. Lots of guys aren’t great at articulating affairs of the heart – as a writer, do you have an easy way out?
PM: That’s true, that’s very true. It’s also like your psychiatrist songs also. Writing songs can take care of a lot of those things. But, yeah, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, the fact that it doesn’t say, “Baby, I’m amazed”... and then it says, “You pulled me out of time” but then, “hung me on a line”; so it’s “wait a minute, what’s that about?” Well, y’know, it’s not all roses. As you say, that one was written early days with Lin and just being so in love and so chuffed at this idea of starting a family. If it’s going well, that’s a great, great moment in your life. And it was for us. But, yeah, there is a bit of that sort of, “Here’s a little disclaimer here”, I’m not going the whole way here whereas ‘My Love’ is. That’s roses: here’s a bunch of roses for you.
DF: People say that Paul is very ‘normal’ despite wealth, fame, title etc. If people who know you well were interviewed and said that you weren’t normal, would that disappoint you?
PM: I don’t know. It depends what you think of as normal. That’s always the trouble using that word. I always do think that my kind of character was set way back in Liverpool just being a kid on an estate and walking towards some hardknocks who were going to beat you up and the fear of that and all that sort of stuff and just getting on a bus and doing all those ordinary kind of things. I think that’s what I’m saying when I say I’m ordinary. I think that’s what I mean.
Now I think the difference between me and some people is that they kind of grow out of that or fall out of love with that and I never have and I remember talking to people, some of my mates, and I’d say, “Oh I love going on a bus” – in fact, I still love going on the tube here in London. People say, “You don’t go on the tube, do ya?” and I say, “Yeah, I love that smell when you go down the escalator”. It’s just my character. I always did like that when I was about fifteen. I’d get on a bus, go a few stops to somewhere I didn’t know, get off, sit enigmatically on a park bench and think I was an author and write things in my head.
DF: What about now?
PM: I don’t live very flash – I haven’t got gold-plated cadillacs. I’ve got a nice car but it doesn’t interest me to have a lot of them – but a lot of people would think it’s pretty flash. But in my head, I think I’m normal and I think most of the people who know me would say that. I think people who know me a little bit might say, “Well, how can you think he’s normal? He’s got a big house, he’s got a few of ’em, he makes all that money – I mean, how could anyone who was in The Beatles be normal?”.
So it depends on which way you’re approaching it. I mean me, myself as a character still gets very moved by the things I always got moved by. One of my favourite things is to go back up to Liverpool for a family do and there I am nothing, I’m just ‘our Paul’ if I’m lucky.
DF: So is there much correlation in the grief at Linda’s death in ’98 and how you felt when your mother died when you were fourteen?
PM: Are you kidding? There was every correlation with it. It was scary ‘cos of that, ‘cos I’d seen it happen as a fourteen year-old. I didn’t know what it was then ‘cos in those days they just said “your mum’s ill”. They didn’t tell us until much later that it was breast cancer. We didn’t know. She was in hospital and then she was gone, kinda thing. It was all very quick. It was just terrifying. You just didn’t have any information at all. But what I did have was this thing of noticing my mum getting tired and things like that and noticing my dad saying, “Well why don’t you go and have forty winks?”. Those are clear memories to me. And so one thing when Lin started to get tired with the chemo and stuff, one thing I never said to her was ,“Why don’t you go and have forty winks?”
So it was all those kind of echoes. It was quite scary because of that.
DF: For a longer period of time post-Beatles, particularly with Wings , you were much busier and more prolific than the other three. For the last five years of his life John steered clear of the music business. Do you think he missed the writing collaboration he had with you in The Beatles and that maybe there was a writer’s block factor with John between ‘75 and ‘80?
PM: It could be. It was great to write together ‘cos it just made it easy. Y’know I’d say a line, he’d say a line. He’d say one of his songs, I’d suggest an idea for it. I’d say, “It’s getting better all the time”, he’d say, “It couldn’t get no worse”. It was great. When we came to not writing together, I think it was difficult for both of us. But, y’know, he still did ‘Imagine’. He still did one of his best things ever.
Writer’s block? I don’t even know about that. I remember talking to him just about him getting a record contract during those years and I was sayin’, “Well, all you gotta do is a couple of songs like ‘Imagine’ and stuff, they’ll be cryin’ out for you” and he says, “Yeah, well who says I wanna do that though?”. And that was a bit of John’s character. He was very feisty and all that.
DF: Compared to some of the last conversations you had with John, the final one was really good...
PM: Yeah, the last few conversations were great. It really was like a saving grace for me. ‘Cos we’d had some terrible things where we’d just ring up one another and scream and take the mickey and insult one another and then hang up on each other. It was like real typical male ego stuff, y’know? But towards the end of his life – we had some great times ‘cos he’d just had Sean, so suddenly, he had something he could relate to me. He had a baby and he was a great dad. Finally. ‘Cos, y’know, he hadn’t been able to be a great dad to Julian and I think that saddened him.
It was really cool to get back to who we were, just two mates. Even though it was only on the end of a phone, it was very nice. It meant it was even more of a shock when he was killed, but we did have those last moments and it’s really something I am very thankful for.
DF: When John praised you (and he wasn’t really the praising type) did you really take it to heart?
PM: It’s true. Even now on the new album I’d do a track and sorta think “I wonder what he would have thought about this?” I’d pick out tracks like ‘She’s Given Up Talking’; he would have really loved that. There’s certain others too which would have grown on him ‘cos there’s growers in there. But you do kinda refer in your mind in some way ‘cos you’ve had such a great mate.
In truth, I was sitting around the other day and I thought, “D’you know how lucky I am?”. Not only was I in The Beatles – there were only four people in The Beatles, so that’s pretty lucky – that’s so cool. And then I was the main guy who wrote with John Lennon”. How cool is that?