1. In the photo used on the Abbey Road sleeve, Paul McCartney is out of stride with the other three Beatles, and is also the only Beatle barefoot. These chance details would later be taken as principal pieces of “evidence” for a conspiracy theory that still inspires a significant literature to this day: that in late 1966 the real McCartney had died in an accident and that at the time of this photo he had been replaced by an impostor who has played the role of “Paul McCartney” ever since. (He didn’t; he hadn’t.)
Ever since, fans and tourists have been lining up here, day in, day out, blocking traffic as they duplicate this photo. And so when, around lunchtime on a sunny day in July, one more man re-creates that iconic scene while his daughter films him, it would be nothing in the least unusual. Except that, on this occasion, the man doing so happens to be one of those original four walkers, following his own distant footsteps.
Paul McCartney is 76 years old. Today, he is on his way to the studio where most of the Beatles’ records were recorded, as well as a fair few of those he has made since, to play an invitation-only lunchtime concert. All of this—the concert (which, it now being 2018, is for Spotify), the video from the crosswalk (which, it now being 2018, swiftly radiates around the world from McCartney’s Instagram), and plenty else in the surrounding weeks—is to drum up excitement for a new Paul McCartney album called Egypt Station. If you imagine that by now McCartney might have reached the point where he would relax and look back with cozy satisfaction on his life’s achievements, only releasing new music just for the pure pleasure of it, happy to let it slip out into the world and find its own audience…well, then you’re already very wrong about both who Paul McCartney is and who he ever was.
One of the first things McCartney will say to me when we meet is “I’m still very competitive,” another is “Do you know anyone who doesn’t have insecurities?” and those are barely the beginning of it. A dominant but wrongheaded myth of the modern celebrity era is that great fame and success changes people. There are ways in which it sometimes can, of course, but what is far more notable is that we are who we are, and that—no matter how much fame and acclaim and money and experience are added to the equation—we tend to change very little, both for better and for worse. At the other side of it all, more often than not we discover ourselves to be who we already were. That’s one of the many subjects McCartney will reflect upon in a series of conversations we have over these weeks—conversations that will sometimes turn out to be far more intense, and flat-out weirder, than you might expect.
Right now, though, he has a concert to play. A raised stage is set up in Abbey Road’s studio 2, and a couple of hundred people stand in front of it, more than a few of them familiar faces, these mostly consorting with one another in a cluster on the right-hand side of the room, among them Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Kylie Minogue, J. J. Abrams, Amy Schumer, British grime superstar Stormzy, Nile Rodgers, and naturally, Stella McCartney.2
2. McCartney’s photographer daughter Mary, who shot the crosswalk moment, and his son, James, are also here, as is his wife, Nancy.
Performances like this are often as perfunctory as they are intimate and select—a few new songs to promote the project of the moment, a couple of old ones thrown in to sweeten the pot, and everyone can go home having had their special moment. But that’s not the Paul McCartney way. He and his band play for nearly an hour and three-quarters: new songs, Wings songs, early-period Beatles songs, later-period Beatles songs, peppered with lots of nostalgic between-song chat;3 luxuriating in the history he has created, even as he continues to extend a life beyond it.
3. For instance, between two songs that demonstrate how what the Beatles did in this building progressed (“Love Me Do” and “We Can Work It Out”), he begins to relate the traditional evolution-of-the-Beatles lore that “at a certain point, we started to like…smoking” and explains how this was something they needed to hide from their producer George Martin, “because he was a grown-up.” McCartney then turns and points to an entrance behind him. “There was a room round the back here through those doors, which was an echo chamber…,” he begins, and fills in the details. When they felt the need for relaxation and inspiration, that was where they would go, and although, at first, they thought this was a room that wasn’t being used, they soon discovered their mistake. The echo chamber was connected to every studio in the building, and whenever an echo was required during a recording session in any of these studios, audio would be fed without warning down into the echo chamber where they’d holed themselves up. So the Beatles learned to sit there and smoke in silence, and as they did this, every so often a disembodied boom of a voice would surround them (“all these big vocals coming, Tom Jones, Manfred Mann”) and echo round the chamber—also bouncing off some slightly spaced-out Beatles—before being recorded back in whichever studio it had come from. “Can you imagine us all sitting, a bloody great echo coming?” McCartney will say to me the next day, picking up the same thread. “Of course, when you’re a little bit stoned, it’s scary.…” He laughs. “We were mischievous little boys.” But these days, McCartney can sometimes sound almost wistful when he speaks about such things. “For us,” he says, “it was just a quiet place where no one would go.”
Paul McCartney Breaks Down His Most Iconic Songs
I first meet McCartney a few weeks earlier at the London office he has kept since the late ’70s in Soho Square in the center of town. Before we take a seat, he walks to the window; down below, Londoners are spread over the lawns in the square, eating and sunbathing.
“Welcome to my world,” he says. “This is where we stand and look at all the lunchtimers.”
Years ago I used to work close by, in my first real job, and this square was a place we’d sometimes go in the middle of the day, so—as much as anything to cover the oddity of standing here staring out a window with Paul McCartney—I mutter to him about how in the past I’ve been one of those people out there, lounging on the grass.
“Have you?” McCartney says evenly. “I haven’t. I’ve walked through, but I’ve not had the luxury of lounging. Probably not a good idea.”
We sit side by side on a sofa to talk. As we do, McCartney periodically reaches out and touches my shoulder to add some kind of emphasis to whichever point he is making. When he faces me, behind him is a rather disturbing sculpture in black leather of a wrestler wearing a balaclava. “I use it to intimidate people like you,” he says when I ask about it, then adds that actually he usually hangs his jacket over it.
It is not so difficult to get Paul McCartney to talk about the past, and this can be a problem. Anyone who has read more than a few interviews with him knows that he has a series of anecdotes, mostly Beatles-related, primed and ready to roll out in situations like these. Pretty good stories, some of them, too. But my goal is to guide McCartney to some less manicured memories—in part because I hope they’ll be fascinating in themselves, but also because I hope that if I can lure him off the most well-beaten tracks, that might prod him to genuinely think about, and reflect upon, his life.
And so that is how—and why—we spend most of the next hour talking about killing frogs, taking acid, and the pros and cons of drilling holes in one’s skull.
It begins gently enough, with McCartney taking measure of the distance he has come.
“Talk about: Pinch yourselver thof,” he says. “I neught I would be a singer-songwriter. Who dreams of that?”
I suggest that nonetheless there must have been a moment, back in his teens, when he began to imagine.
“I think with Elvis appearing I did think, ‘It’d be good to get a bit of that,'” he concedes. “And John was thinking that, and George was.4 When we got together, we sort of started to dream that. It was a bit of a far-off dream, and it was just a dream. It wasn’t anything that we really ever thought would turn out to be more than that.”
4. A history of the Beatles in 151 words: Paul McCartney met John Lennon and George Harrison when they were schoolboys in Liverpool. An early group, the Quarrymen, evolved into the Beatles. They learned their craft principally by playing cover versions in clubs in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany, and also in an underground Liverpool club, the Cavern. Ringo Starr replaced their previous drummer, Pete Best, in August 1962, and two months later the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” was released. They were soon the biggest group in the world. After making a series of increasingly innovative records that remain a template for much of what has come since, they split up acrimoniously in 1970. Lennon was shot in New York by a deranged fan in December 1980. Harrison died of cancer in November 2001. Since the Beatles’ split, McCartney has mostly made records as a solo artist but also, between 1971 and 1979, with his group Wings.
McCartney’s father was the kind of parent who had impressed upon his son the need to buckle down and get a job. At school, McCartney says, he was advised to think about going into teaching. That didn’t feel so great to him. He had a different fantasy, but one that in its own way shows a kind of eccentric pragmatism at work. The young Paul McCartney imagined himself as a long-distance truck driver—in particular as a truck driver fueled by a deep Catholic faith, a faith far stronger than the real McCartney had.
“Just driving forever, going on these long journeys, full of faith in God and the world,” he says, remembering how he had felt back then. “To me, that would be quite good.”
Thinking of all this leads McCartney to explain, unbidden, that his actual faith, such as it is, has always involved cherry-picking from different religions the parts he felt were most valuable. “I mean, Saint Francis of Assisi was my big favorite,” he says. “And I turned out to be for animal welfare, animal lover and nature lover. But the picture of him in the Bible sitting on his throne-like chair, birds all over him, and rabbits, and they’re all interested in him—that was magical to me.”
This—McCartney’s reverie about Saint Francis of Assisi—offers me a convenient opportunity to bring up an unusual and discordant moment that has stuck in my mind ever since I saw it mentioned long ago in the semi-official McCartney biography Many Years from Now. Once I do so, our discussion—as you will now see—will head off, unstoppably, in a series of improbable twists and spirals. Perhaps surprisingly so, given that my initial question is about a phase McCartney went through as a boy in Liverpool in which he would catch frogs and kill them.
“Yeah. I still try and block that. Because I’m now devout animal welfare, wouldn’t kill a fly.”5
5. For the record, McCartney actually qualifies his insect-care policy to me very precisely. “[I] rescue flies,” he says. “But mosquitoes [I] will kill, because they’re attacking me. So, you know, I have my parameters.”
But can you remember what that boy was, and why he did what he did?
“Yeah, I remember exactly why it was and what it was. We used to live on a housing estate called Speke, in Liverpool, just millions of houses, right on the border of woods and deep countryside. So I did a lot of that, went out in all that. But I was very aware that I would soon be joining the army, because all of us were called up for National Service.6 I was probably about 12, I was looking at being 17, which is kind of looming—it’s going to happen fast—and the one thing that I thought is: ‘I can’t kill anything—what am I going to do? Get a bayonet and hurt someone? I’ve got to kill someone? Shit, I’ve got to think about that. How do I do that?’ So I ended up killing frogs.”
6. When McCartney was growing up, British citizens were required to do National Service, a compulsory 18-month enrollment in the military, usually starting at the age of 17. Ultimately, National Service would be phased out just in time for McCartney to be able to avoid it.
What would you do?
“I do look for rational explanations—I do think, you know, kids are cruel. Kids swing cats. I was from Liverpool—you do that kind of shit. It’s dumb, it’s mean, it’s horrible, but you do that kind of shit. What is it? You’re trying to toughen yourself up? I don’t know. But I did. And I used to go out in the woods, and I killed a bunch of frogs and stuck them up on a barbed-wire fence. It was like a weird sort of thing that I kind of hated doing but thought: ‘I’m toughening myself up.’ I remember taking my brother there, once, to my secret place. And he was just horrified. Thought he had a nutter on his hands. And probably did.”
Did you think he’d be impressed?
“I wonder. I don’t know. He’s just my younger brother—I showed him what I was doing. I think he was horrified, but I think I was, too. It was a dark thing, but no darker than a lot of stuff that was going on on our estate. It was just my way. I remember very consciously thinking: ‘You’ve got to learn to harm things because you’re a sissy. So you’d better get in some practice.'”
So I guess that prompts the question: Did it stand you in good stead? Or was it a terrible thing?
“I don’t look back with pleasure on it, but I just think, you know, kids are mad. I did a lot of mad things when I was a kid that just maybe came with the territory. Stole things. Did all sorts of little things that little kids on our estate did. It’s all part of that weird thing of growing up. A lot of it I just don’t think about anymore, but suddenly something like that will come back and I go, ‘Shit.…’ But it was a little bit of a tough world, you know. Liverpool was no fairyland. We’d make catapults and put serious quarter-inch elastic on it from fan belts, and then you’d get a leather pouch, and you would put a fucking big, good-sized rock in there, and you would fire them at each other. Look back at it and you go, ‘Shit, lucky I never killed anyone.’ But it was a relatively tough world. Speke was quite a rough estate, and you were getting mugged and beaten up. You learn to be a runner.”
And now when you think about being that boy, inside your head are you thinking, “Yeah, that’s just me, and then a bit of shit’s happened since then,” or are you thinking, “Wow, that was a different person”?
“That is one of the things that intrigues me about a life. I just have a general sort of feeling of: I’m here now talking to you and this is this bit of life, a little while ago I was getting divorced and that was that weird bit of life,7 and before that I was living 30 years and raising a family with Linda,8 that was that bit of life, I’m now married to an American, Nancy,9 lovely girl, that’s this bit of life. And so if you keep rolling back, you go through Wings, you go through the Beatles, and then you get back to this wild territory which is youth, when you weren’t famous and you could get stopped in the street, or you’re in school and you were being abused—not in a sexual way but just in teachers being the mad nutcases they were and having that control over you and you had to go along with it. So there’s so much stuff been going on, and then I roll back before that, and I’m a really little kid. And I can almost feel that I remember things from my birth. I don’t know if this is true, this is probably just pure speculation, but I have a vision of a sort of white-tiled room, and chrome clinical instruments, and the clanking noise of those things on chrome trays…” (McCartney stops himself at this point and offers a commentary in the third person—”Come on! Is he crazy or not?”—before continuing.) “That couldn’t be me being born, could it? What I’m saying is, to me it’s a vast panoply of a wonderful legendary tapestry, life. There’s just so much in this story, and it’s still going on, it’s still changing, it’s still evolving. My feeling is that as long as I’m managing to proceed through it with some sort of pleasure, then that’s always been enough. Sometimes it’s been more than enough—it’s been vast prizes, vast satisfaction. I couldn’t really describe what it is, but it’s just time stretched out and all these millions of little occurrences that have happened, and that’s me. So yeah, I’m still that little kid. I really do still feel embarrassingly like that, because I know how old I am, and I look in the mirror, I see how old I am. It’s this ever changing thing, and I sort of vaguely find myself quite satisfied with it. I wouldn’t say totally, because that’s Valhalla. That’s asking for possibly too much. But, yeah, I have a lot of good things going on in my life and I generally have a pretty good time. And I feel amazed by all these things, you know. I mean, in the ’60s, when we were tripping away, I remember once in London taking acid and going through the trip—you know, all of that, as anyone who’s ever taken that shit knows what I’m talking about, just the whole intense vision of what the world is, other than how you see it normally. And I remember at the height of it seeing this thing that was like a spiral going up in, in my brain, and it was beautiful colors, like multicolored gems going up this spiral. And then, shortly thereafter, [scientists] discovered the DNA helix. I certainly have a feeling, not only my own birth, I’ve seen my own DNA.”
7. McCartney had a very public and rancorous divorce with his second wife, Heather Mills, in 2008 after nearly six years of marriage. (They have a daughter together, Beatrice, now 14.) 8. McCartney’s first wife, Linda Eastman, whom he married in 1969, died of cancer in 1998. 9. McCartney married his third wife, Nancy Shevell, in 2011.
So you’re saying you discovered the structure of DNA before anyone else—you just didn’t tell anyone?
“God, I’m so glad someone’s picked up on that!”10 He laughs.
10. This flight of fancy is only slightly spoiled—or perhaps, looked at another way, enhanced—by the fact that DNA’s double-helix structure was actually discovered in 1953, when McCartney was 11 years old.
In that case, I’m surprised you don’t still take it.…
“Yeah, well, no, I was with a friend the other day, and the latest thing is microdosing. And he was microdosing.”
So have you tried that?
Are you tempted?
“Well. I was asked just the other day, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve got the grandkids and stuff. There’s enough going on. I’m okay.'”
But you don’t rule it out.
He smiles devilishly. “I’m not ruling it out.”
McCartney goes on to say that, nonetheless, when he was encouraged to microdose by his friend, “it brought back that feeling of peer pressure from the ’60s,” and this reminds me that out of the Beatles, McCartney was always painted as the reluctant one, the sensible one—and, indeed, he was the last of the four to take acid.
“Yeah. I heard it changes you and you’ll never be the same again. I thought: ‘Well, that could be a double-edged sword.’ You know, we could be ending up in a loony bin, and ‘Sorry, Paul—I didn’t mean to give you so much’ or ‘It was the wrong batch’ or something. I’m very practical, and my father was very sensible and raised me to be a sensible cat.”
And when you eventually did take it, were they right? Were you never the same again?
“Mmmm.” He nods. “But it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined, it wasn’t a sort of horrific thing. But you certainly weren’t the same again. You certainly had insights into what life might be.”
“This is the good thing about John and I—I’d say no. And he knew me well enough that if I said no, I meant no, and I’m not frightened of being uncool to say no.”
But ultimately you were pleased you did it?
He nods again. “Mmmm. Mmmm. I often wished it would end sooner.”
Thinking about that balance between caution and going full tilt makes me think of what you once said about you and John Lennon and the cliff’s edge. (“John always wanted to jump over the cliff. He once said that to me. ‘Have you ever thought of jumping?’ I said, ‘Fuck off. You jump, and tell me how it is.’ That’s basically the difference in our personalities.”)
“Yeah, that’s true. I’m more careful in everything. My dad is a very strong factor in this. He was an ordinary working-class guy, very intelligent, very good with words, but his whole philosophy was to think it out a bit. So that, that turned out to be my sort of way. Whereas John, you’ve got to remember, didn’t have a father. John didn’t even have an uncle. He went to live with the uncle—the uncle died. His dad had run away. So John felt like he was a jinx on the male line, he told me. I had a father. He was always spouting to be tolerant. Moderation. These were words he used a lot, and I think I listened.”
So, to take an extreme example, is it really true that John tried to convince you that you should both do trepanning?11
11. Trepanning is the process of drilling through the skull to the brain. At various times, people have advocated the benefits of voluntary trepanning, though mainstream medicine considers these to be, at best, spurious.
He nods. “John was a kooky cat. We’d all read about it—you know, this is the ’60s. The ‘ancient art of trepanning,’ which lent a little bit of validity to it, because ancient must be good. And all you’d have to do is just bore a little hole in your skull and it lets the pressure off—well, that sounds very sensible. ‘But look, John, you try it and let me know how it goes.'”
But was he sitting there really seriously saying: ‘We should do this’?
“Yeah, but this is the good thing about John and I—I’d say no. And he knew me well enough that if I said no, I meant no, and I’m not frightened of being uncool to say no. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say, ‘You’re fucking crazy,’ because I didn’t need to say that. But, no, I’m not gonna trepan, thank you very much. It’s just not something I would like to do.”
And do you think if you’d said yes, the two of you would have done it?
“Who knows? I don’t think so. I don’t think he was really serious. He did say it, but he said all sorts of shit.”
Did he really come to that meeting near the end of the Beatles and say he was Jesus Christ?
“I don’t remember that. I think I would have remembered that. He was the kind of guy that could do that. I don’t remember him actually ever doing it. I mean, on the Sgt. Pepper cover he wanted Jesus Christ and Hitler on there. That was, ‘Okay, that’s John.’ You’d have to talk him down a bit—’No, probably not Hitler…’ I could say to him, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ He was a good enough guy to know when he was being told.”
Did he have a rationalization for why it was a good idea to put Hitler on there?
“No. It’s a laugh. We’re putting famous people on the cover: ‘Hitler! He’s famous!’ And it was like, ‘Yeah, but John, we’re trying to put heroes on the cover, and he’s not your hero. Winston Churchill’s your hero, John.’ He was a big fan of Winston. So he was just fucking about. That was John. He was very witty, very wonderful, and would like to push the envelope, and it was entertaining to be around someone like that. These are cool people. But you can’t always do everything they suggest.”12
12. In 2007, Peter Blake, the artist responsible for the sleeve, pointed out that actually the Hitler cutout Lennon had asked for was made, and can be seen in the session outtakes—in the finished version Hitler was completely obscured by the four Beatles standing in front of him.
13. Before our previous meeting, McCartney had just returned from a short holiday on the island of Ibiza. He shares with me a convoluted theory he subscribes to whereby instead of retiring (“which I don’t fancy at all—I’m just having too much fun”) he takes multiple holidays to spread his retirement time out between his ongoing work. (When I point out that he really doesn’t need to justify any of this, and that he would have every right to sit on the sofa for the rest of his life if he really wanted to, he retorts, “Yeah, but you’d get a sore arse.”)
“‘Sold out,’ best two words in the English language,” McCartney tells me.
Come now, I say, there are others.
“When you’re about to tour, there aren’t.”14 He reconsiders. “‘Stark naked’ is even better.”
14. He adds that it’s not just him—he’s just been reading a book about Shostakovich (Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time.) “Jesus Christ, he cared,” McCartney says. “He has self-loathing, if the book’s correct, to an incredible degree. And he’s considered okay.“
McCartney leans over a table laden with vegetarian sandwiches and snacks, lifts a corner of the clear wrap off a plate of coffee-cake slices, and tries to extract a segment so that it will look as though he hasn’t. “I’m going to not have this,” he declares, mostly talking to himself. “I’m going to so not have this that you won’t even see me not have it. There we are. See!”
A few minutes later, he holds a pink rose under my nose—one he has just picked from the bush outside, a rose that is officially called the McCartney Rose.15 (Smells pretty good.) He then points to a 3-D printout of his head someone sent him from Brazil that’s sitting on a shelf next to a smaller figurine that I can’t quite properly see.
15. His old record company, EMI, gave him the rose—which is to say that they paid for its creation and naming in his honor—on the occasion of his 50th birthday.
“I’m really embarrassed by this,” he says. “Especially as it’s alongside Mozart.”
“I notice,” observes Abe Laboriel Jr., the drummer in his band, “one head is a little bigger than the other.”
And so the midafternoon break goes, until McCartney straightens up and suggests to the others, “Shall we go and play some more?” There is also a shed-like outbuilding on this property—not a big one, but just big enough for McCartney and his band, crammed together, to rehearse in. That is what they are here to do today.
You’d have to be completely immune to the past 55 years of music history, and to Paul McCartney’s pivotal role in it, not to be somewhat mesmerized by watching him, just a few feet away, rehearse his way over several hours through 30 or so songs. Mostly, they are re-familiarizing themselves with old favorites, which they generally try to play as closely to the original records as possible, but they’re also still figuring out a handful of new songs, and occasionally they throw in fairly obscure cover versions—for instance, “Miss Ann,” a song from Little Richard’s first album that the Beatles would sometimes play in their pre-fame days. There are moments that seem even more surprising. When I walk in at the beginning of the rehearsal day, they are in the middle of a long instrumental jam, one that seems very loosely based around the verse chords of the Wings song “Letting Go,” during which McCartney noodles and solos on electric guitar16 at great length in a way that you never really see in public, as though he’s in a slightly more prim version of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.17At another point, near the end of the afternoon, McCartney calls for “We Can Work It Out,” but then, instead of starting the real song, he starts playing a weird robotic guitar riff over and over, and then singing in falsetto, to a completely different tune, first the phrase “check my machine,” then the complete lyrics to “We Can Work It Out,” chopping them up to fit in with this strange impromptu creation. It’s not a work of grand genius, but it’s captivating and deeply odd, and it exists only for these three or four minutes, never to exist again.18
16. McCartney mentions that when the Beatles first started out, John gave him a guitar solo and he totally blew it, after which he decided he’d never play lead again, and adds that he has only really started again in the past ten years. (This may be true as far as playing live. For evidence that McCartney has long had an impressive ability to do so when he must, see the original one-man studio version of “Maybe I’m Amazed.”) 17. McCartney and his band start every rehearsal doing some kind of impromptu jam, and they will also start shows like the Abbey Road performance in the same way, not with a big entrance and opening but simply by playing their way into the room for a while—a little window into the path not taken before Paul McCartney shows who he has actually decided to be. “We could be that kind of band, and it would be sort of interesting,” he explains to me, “but we’re not. We’re this kind of band, and we give people songs they know. But, yeah, there’s another life for us where we just retire to the Nevada desert and get a cabin and just jam.” 18. After this odd one-time-only creation finishes, guitarist Brian Ray says to McCartney that he thought the “check my machine” bit was a good idea; this has the side effect of exposing the fact that Ray, quite understandably, doesn’t know every last minor creation in McCartney’s extensive catalog, given that “Check My Machine” is the title of a slightlyexperimental electronic composition that McCartney released as a B side in 1980. McCartney explains. “It’s one of those that pops up occasionally,” he tells Ray. “You’ll find Will.i.am: ‘What’s that track, man? “Check My Machine?”‘ It came out of the clubs. It’s quite a nice little track. He says modestly.”
In between songs, McCartney keeps up an almost constant onomatopoeic babble of yelps and whoa whoa whoa‘s that seem to be for no one’s particular benefit, like an engine idling; during the songs, he’ll do occasional leg kicks, and at one point during an instrumental break in “Coming Up,” he actually starts pogoing backward. It’s hardly cool, but these kinds of moments, ones that can seem a little cheesy and over-eager in front of an audience, feel very different inside this room. As part of a private language of self-expression and enthusiasm, they seem sincere and touching.
When McCartney speaks during rehearsal, it’s often about minutiae of the songs, but sometimes other thoughts or memories will pop out. For instance this observation about the different terminology used by the Beatles’ peers. “We called it ‘rehearsing,'” he mentions to the band. “Whereas theWho called it ‘practicing.’ I like ‘practicing.'”19 And then sometimes, as people do, he’ll talk about something else entirely. “What about that guy in the newspaper, the L.A. guy?” he asks the band. “Was it cling film, wrapped up in? It was an S&M thing. He died. You’re gonna fucking die if you wrap yourself in cling film. He forgot to leave a hole.…”
19. McCartney later also points out to me that when the Beatles rehearsed for a tour, however big or important it was, they only ever did so for a single day.
The most striking moment of the afternoon comes, though, when they rehearse “A Hard Day’s Night.” They breeze through a version of the song, and then McCartney has a question, a surprising one given that he has played this song live in public at least 205 times.20 It is about what happens at the end of the first verse. McCartney, who is playing his famous Höfner bass, wonders whether he is supposed to stay on the G or move up to the D. The band debate it back and forth without coming to a firm conclusion. When McCartney says, “What did I do?” Brian Ray, one of the band’s guitarists, suggests that they listen.
20. Such Beatles-related matters tend to be assiduously documented. According to the website The Paul McCartney Project, the Beatles played “A Hard Day’s Night” in concert 127 times in 1964 and 1965. McCartney did not play the song again until 2016, but has played it 78 times since.
And so they do. Someone quickly finds the original recording, presses play, and suddenly I am watching the surreal sight of Paul McCartney, 76, standing there in a small shed in the south of England listening to Paul McCartney, 21, performing the same song 19,816 days earlier. By the time the song reaches its middle eight—when I’m home, everything seems to be right—McCartney is mouthing along to the words, as though he’s just enjoying listening to it. Interestingly, the result turns out to be slightly inconclusive—they think they can maybe hear a D in there, but it might just be a harmonic. McCartney decides he’ll “just ride through on the G.”
A while later, after a climactic medley of the reprise to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Helter Skelter,” which he commits to with full roaring fury, McCartney says, “Okay, I reckon that’ll do it, guys.”
On his way out of the room, he says, as though to no one and everyone:
“We play way too loud. We don’t care.”
The new song McCartney and the band work on most carefully today, playing it twice, is a song that is listed on his new album under the title “Fuh You.” In some ways the song, a collaboration with the über-pop producer and songwriter Ryan Tedder, is the most obviously commercial and contemporary song on the record;21 in other ways it’s one of the more peculiar songs ever to be released by someone like Paul McCartney, principally because the climactic line of the chorus is built around a crude homophone. While McCartney will tell me that the official lyric sheet will read “I just want it fuh you,” I think most listeners will hear what I heard long before I was told that there was an alternative: “I just want to fu[ck] you,” with the consonants at the end of the penultimate word allowed to drift away, unvoiced.
21. The rest of the album is produced by Greg Kurstin, whose touch is much less obviously obtrusive—rather than impose a signature sound, he seems mostly to have guided each song to find its own particular path.
I first bring up the subject by quoting to McCartney something he said in an interview about three years back: “Sex is something I prefer to do rather than sing about.… I suppose singing about sex is not really my genre.”
This no longer appears to be…
“…the case? Well, if I can work it in…” He guffaws. “Said the actress to the bishop. I mean, if I can do it, great. But it’s not that easy.” He offers examples: “‘You Can Leave Your Hat On,’ ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.'”
Or “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”
“‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ Who said that was about sex?”22
22. Well, he pretty much did. As McCartney explains in Barry Miles’s Many Years from Now, the song that appeared on The Beatles was inspired by something McCartney saw when the four of them were in India with the Maharishi: “I was up on the flat roof meditating and I’d seen a troupe of monkeys walking along in the jungle and a male just hopped on to the back of this female and gave her one, as they say in the vernacular.… And I thought, bloody hell, that puts it all into a cocked hat, that’s how simple the act of procreation is, this bloody monkey just hopping on and hopping off. There is an urge, they do it, and it’s done with. And it’s that simple. We have horrendous problems with it, and yet animals don’t. So that was basically it. ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ could have applied to either fucking or shitting, to put it roughly. Why don’t we do either of them in the road? Well, the answer is we’re civilised and we don’t. But the song was just to pose that question. ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ was a primitive statement to do with sex or to do with freedom really.”
Anyway, this new song is really called “Fuck You,” right?
“Not at all! I mean, if you’re lucky, when you’re creating you can have some fun. This song was coming to a close and we were just getting a bit hysterical in the studio, as you do when you’re locked away for long hours, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll just say, “I just wanna shag you.”‘ And we had a laugh. And I said, ‘No, I’ll tell you what we can do is, I can make it questionable as to what it is I’m singing.’ So the actual lyrics are You make me wanna go out and steal / I just want to fuck you or …I just want it for you.” It’s a schoolboy prank. Which we did a lot in the Beatles. And it brings some joy to your tawdry little life. If you listen to it, I don’t actually say ‘fuck,’ because I don’t particularly want to say ‘I just want to fuck you’—I’ve got, like, eight grandchildren.” He considers this. “Of course they’d probably like it better. But anyway.…” And continues. “So I just thought, I can fudge this easily. It was something to amuse ourselves. Hey, listen—when you make these things up, it’s not like writing a Shakespeare play. I mean, it’s intended as a popular song. So you don’t feel like you’ve got to adhere to any rules. And then you do ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ ‘tit-tit-tit-tit-tit-tit,’23 ‘She’s a prick teaser.’24 It’s kind of pathetic, but actually a great thing in its pathos because it’s something that makes you laugh. So what’s wrong with that?”
23. This is a reference to the backing vocals on the otherwise elegant and gorgeous Beatles song “Girl”; they lied to George Martin that what they were singing was dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit. “It was to get some light relief in the middle of this real big career that we were forging,” McCartney once said. “If we could put in something that was a little bit subversive then we would.” 24. This was the original version of the line She’s a big teaser in the Beatles song “Day Tripper,” one that somewhat sharpened, clarified, and focused the lyric’s caustic portrayal of tentative commitment.
And is doing it when you’re 76 in any way different from doing it when you’re 26?
“Apparently not.” He laughs again. “It’s the same pleasure.”
Of course the very same things that bring pleasure often bring problems too. The song “Fuh You” is scheduled to be a single before the album’s release. McCartney explains onstage at Abbey Road, and also to me in conversation, that he has been told there is an American radio DJ who is both deeply Christian and deeply influential; he says that his record label is worried that she won’t play it and that others will follow her cue. (McCartney is relatively safe in discussing this, as both the broadcast of the Spotify concert and the publication of this interview will come after the song’s fate as a single has been decided, one way or another.)
“Whatever,” he says to me, for some reason whispering, as though it might somehow make a difference. “Fuck it. I’m not sure I care.”
Which I’m pretty sure is best interpreted not as meaning that Paul McCartney doesn’t care, but that he’s been around the block too many times, and done too much already in his life, and has realized along the way that he’s usually ended up happier when he’s stuck to his guns and followed his instincts than when he hasn’t, and that he actually cares far too much to second-guess what he should do and how he should do it every single time someone else has an opinion about how Paul McCartney should best go about being Paul McCartney.
We are talking today in the office McCartney keeps upstairs in his windmill studio. I want to take him back in time some more, but, once again, not down the paths he finds most familiar. Sometimes I fail in this, and sometimes I don’t really mind failing, though it’s fascinating to me not just that McCartney often gravitates to certain kinds of Beatles stories anyway, which is maybe understandable given that it is probably what is usually expected of him, but that in doing so he often offers ripostes to slurs that haven’t been mentioned in the present conversation.
For instance, at one point today, even though I also never ask about this, I will suddenly find that I am listening to McCartney agitate about his angst around the circumstances of the Beatles’ split—still, it seems, a tender issue: “One of the sadnesses for me when the Beatles broke up, the only way to save the business side of it was me suing the Beatles, so that was like a total heartache. And the residue was that I was to blame. I was ‘the one who broke the Beatles up.’ And so I spent quite a bit of time—you know, still doing it—to sort of say: ‘No, I didn’t. John wanted Yoko, so he said we’re leaving the Beatles.…’ But because of that suing incident, the word got out that I was the baddie. And the worst thing was: I kind of bought into it. My psyche sort of said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no… Yes!… No, you weren’t.…You were!‘ I really wasn’t, but if everyone thinks you were, then maybe you were.”
But mostly I divert him to less discussed moments. There is all kinds of lore about the very early days of the various Beatles, pre-fame,25 and how they bonded and learned from one another, and McCartney had spoken about most of this endlessly, but there is one scenario that McCartney doesn’t tend to get asked about—for reasons, I suppose, that may become obvious, though he seems pretty comfortable when I do bring it up—a scenario that seems to give a strikingly vivid, spirited, and human insight into the essence of who these boys finding their way into manhood were.
25. For instance, here’s another story offered, unbidden, as a corrective. This one relates to the departure of the fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe, in the Hamburg years, and McCartney’s consequent move to the bass guitar: “When Stu left, I was the only person who would be the bass player. There were rumors that I’d tried to get him out, but it wasn’t true. He stayed in Hamburg with his girlfriend, Astrid, and so we were left without a bass player, and the other two wouldn’t do it…you know, because guitar’s groovy, bass isn’t. It was: The fat boy played bass.”
“What it was,” he explains after I have prompted him, “was over at John’s house, and it was just a group of us. And instead of just getting roaring drunk and partying—I don’t even know if we were staying over or anything—we were all just in these chairs, and the lights were out, and somebody started masturbating, so we all did.”
There would be about five of them: McCartney, Lennon, and maybe three of Lennon’s friends. As they each concentrated on their mission, anyone in the group was encouraged to shout out a name that would offer relevant inspiration.
“We were just, ‘Brigitte Bardot!’ ‘Whoo!'” McCartney says, “and then everyone would thrash a bit more.”
At least until one of them—the one you would perhaps expect—opted for disruption over stimulation.
“I think it was John sort of said, ‘Winston Churchill!'” McCartney remembers, and acts out the aghast, stymied reactions.
I ask whether this ritual took place often.
“There weren’t really orgies, to my knowledge. There were sexual encounters of the celestial kind, and there were groupies.”
“I think it was a one-off,” McCartney replies. “Or maybe it was like a two-off. It wasn’t a big thing. But, you know, it was just the kind of thing you didn’t think much of. It was just a group. Yeah, it’s quite raunchy when you think about it. There’s so many things like that from when you’re a kid that you look back on and you’re, ‘Did we do that?’ But it was good harmless fun. It didn’t hurt anyone. Not even Brigitte Bardot.”
There is a later moment of intimate intra-Beatle bonding that is a little more famous: when, all sharing a room in their pre-fame Hamburg days, the other Beatles kept quiet, listening, while the 17-year-old George Harrison dispensed with his virginity, and then all applauded at the end.
“I think that’s true,” says McCartney carefully. “The thing is, these stories, particularly Beatles stories, they get to be legendary, and I do have to check: Wait a minute. I know we had one bed and two sets of bunks, and if one of the guys brought a girl back, they could just be in the bed with a blanket over them, and you wouldn’t really notice much except a little bit of movement. I don’t know whether that was George losing his virginity—it might have been.26 I mean, I think in the end this was one of the strengths of the Beatles, this enforced closeness which I always liken to army buddies. Because you’re all in the same barracks. We were always very close and on top of each other, which meant you could totally read each other.”
26. If it was a myth, it was one that George Harrison, not a man known for encouraging Beatle-y myths, himself endorsed: “After I’d finished,” Harrison said, “they all applauded and cheered. At least they kept quiet whilst I was doing it.”
And that was a big advantage, going forward?
“So big, yeah. In music, it made us a very tight band, but as friends it made us able to read each other. When we were super close…examples being, like, going down the motorway and the van had no air-conditioning and it was bitter, in the middle of winter, and we lay on top of each other, literally. It was the only way we could stay warm. We suffered for a while, just shivering, and then someone said: Well, why don’t we…? So we did a Beatles sandwich.”
Who was on top?
“I don’t know. It would be lovely if I remembered. It warmed us. It was a good idea. But, you know, as I say that story, I question it: Is that just one of my stories? But then…did I meet Elvis Presley? Yes, I did! But my mind is sort of going: Really?27 I think that’s what happens in life. Some of them, they’re just so outrageous, you think: ‘Was that really true?’ But I try my best to do the true ones.”
27. The Beatles met Elvis Presley only once, spending several hours with him on the evening of August 27, 1965, at Presley’s mansion in Bel Air, though—and this is possibly why McCartney mentions meeting Elvis in this context—each Beatle would later have significantly differing memories of precisely what took place. For instance, Lennon remembered a guitar jam session with Elvis. In the 1990s, the three surviving Beatles dismissed this story, though a British newspaper journalist who was there maintains that it did happen.
A while later, I return to the semi-accidental trajectory I seem to have fallen into about changing forms of intimacy as the Beatles evolved, and read out to McCartney a quote from John Lennon, something he said soon after the Beatles’ split, decrying how sanitized the published accounts had been of what life was really like in the Beatles: “There was nothing about orgies and the shit that happened on tour.… The Beatles tours were like the Fellini film Satyricon.“
In his response to this, McCartney replies to every implied question in surprising detail:
“There weren’t really orgies, to my knowledge. There were sexual encounters of the celestial kind, and there were groupies. The nearest it got… See, this is my experience, because I’m just not into orgies. I don’t want anyone else there, personally. It ruins it! I would think—I’ve never actually done it. Didn’t appeal to me, the idea. There was once when we were in Vegas where the tour guy, a fixer, said, ‘You’re going to Vegas, guys—you want a hooker?’ We were all, ‘Yeah!’ And I requested two. And I had them, and it was a wonderful experience. But that’s the closest I ever came to an orgy. See, the thing is, in the next room I think the guys might have ordered something else off the menu. So that would figure if John was saying, yeah, it was all bacchanalian. I think John was a little more that way, because thinking back, I remember there was someone in a club that he’d met, and they’d gone back to the house because the wife fancied John, wanted to have sex with him, so that happened, and John discovered the husband was watching. That was called ‘kinky’ in those days.”
And was he okay with that?
“Yeah, he was fine. So I think maybe John experienced a bit more of that than I did. Tell you the truth, I just didn’t fancy it, that kind of thing. Someone else’s wife? I definitely wouldn’t want the husband to know. You know, that seems sensible to me. Am I too sensible? I don’t know. Mine wasn’t particularly crazy but it was a lot of fun. And there was a lot of it. So that was good enough for me.”
Today is also the day after Donald Trump’s calamitous press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, and what McCartney is talking about at first when he sits down is Trump’s brazen insistence this morning that when he said “would” he meant “wouldn’t.”
“What the fuck,” he says.28
28. “I think it’s very strange,” he further elaborates. “I think it’s a Saturday Night Live series: ‘What I Meant to Say Was…!'” McCartney says that in a previous era, when the news was always depressing, “it was so bad we decided to boycott it”—by “we” it’s clear he means Linda and he—”and that’s what we did for a year or so. And I’m in a bit of that mood now, with him. Boycott’s the only answer, I think.”
Though there is a song on McCartney’s new album called “Despite Repeated Warnings” that is inspired by Trump’s listen-to-no-one-else recklessness, it may actually be Putin into whom McCartney has the greater insight. In 2003, McCartney was invited to do a concert in Red Square; as he’d long wanted to sing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” in Russia, he accepted. He was also, at that time, heavily involved alongside his second wife in the campaign to ban land mines, and they saw an opportunity.
“We were going—probably naively, now I think back—to actually ask Vladimir Putin if he would ban land mines,” McCartney recalls. They asked for, and were granted, a meeting.29 “So we met him at the Kremlin, which was sort of exciting—you feel like you’re in a novel, a big Russian general leading you through to Putin’s inner quarters. We chatted—he had a translator, though we were later told he can perfectly well understand English.”30 Their request regarding the abolition of land mines was politely rebuffed: “He sort of said something like ‘The borders of Russia are vast and we need some.'”
29. In a 2006 documentary about the couple’s fight against the global fur trade, McCartney’s second wife quoted McCartney as believing—probably accurately, but perhaps also a little chillingly—”no one is Beatle-proof.” 30. The official website for the president of Russia carries an account of this Putin-McCartney summit from the local perspective. A characteristic extract: Answering Sir McCartney’s question whether the Beatles’ music was banned in Soviet times, Mr Putin said there was no ban on it, but many things were over-ideologised, and the Beatles’ trend did not fit into Soviet ideology.
Putin told them that he couldn’t come to McCartney’s show because “he had something to do,” and so when McCartney saw that there was a piano in the room where they were, he decided to use it: “I thought, Well, if he’s not coming, might as well sing something for him. So I gave him a private little recital of ‘Let It Be.'”
After all that, Putin did attend the concert, and for some time afterward, whenever people would ask McCartney what Putin was like, McCartney would tell them, notwithstanding his land-mine intransigence, that he “seems great, very nice, very friendly.”
“I’ve since revised my opinion,” he says.
The following week, we are back on the sofa in McCartney’s London office. When I mention that moment in rehearsal when he had realized that he might not be playing “A Hard Day’s Night” correctly, and wonder aloud how he could not know by now, he protests: “People aren’t you, and they don’t experience it. People haven’t written 300 songs. And that’s just with John. They haven’t written…too many songs. So you don’t remember them.” And he points out that when he and his band decided to play the song again in 2016, they realized that they didn’t know what the song’s famous opening chord was. “Nobody knows what that chord is,” he says. “It’s a mystical chord.”
As he says this, McCartney grabs the acoustic guitar that’s standing beside the sofa. “We had to investigate it,” he says. “I said, ‘I think it’s this.…'” He fingers a good approximation, and lets it ring out. “That’s sort of like it,” he says. “But it’s not.”
In the end, he says, they actually had to go back into the original multi-tracks, to analyze it, and discovered that there were a number of different things being played there, layered. “I think maybe even George Martin might have added something after our session,” McCartney says.
I ask him whether it was strange to stand there in the rehearsal, listening to the original record.
“No, I wouldn’t say strange,” he says. “It’s fun. Because you just go, ‘Oh shit, what a good group.’ I always think, ‘Wow, what energy.’ There was quite a lot of energy on Beatles things, because we were 20-something, and we were hungry.”
On the table in front of us is the artwork for his new album. Its title, Egypt Station, is taken from the name of the painting on its cover, one painted by McCartney many years ago in Arizona, largely based on a book of Egyptian iconography. (The lines along the bottom of the painting were taken from the decoration around a vase, but then he realized that they looked somewhat like the train tracks at a station, hence the picture’s—and now album’s—title.)31 It’s a record that in an alternate universe might have turned out very, very different: At one point McCartney mentions someone quite unlikely who “did very kindly offer to produce this album.” That was Kanye West.
31. This is not the most memorable title of an artwork from McCartney’s side career as a painter, a pastime he tells me he was particularly encouraged in by his first wife (who at one point bought him René Magritte’s easel and spectacles). That would surely be his 1990 work, Bowie Spewing.McCartney explains that he didn’t set out to do a portrait of one of his peers, he was just painting, and only as the work neared completion did he realize what his creation indisputably resembled: “It just looked like Bowie, and it looked like he was throwing up—there was nothing deeper than that.” McCartney planned to exhibit the painting under this title, and he thought it would be polite to let its accidental subject know about it. “I think he was much amused,” says McCartney, though he seems unaware, until I tell him, that Bowie did also himself actually address this subject once, in an interview he gave around that time to a Belgian magazine called Humo:“Paul sent me a picture of the painting, together with the question if I would mind the title of it. I answered ‘Of course not, but what a coincidence, I am currently working on a song that’s called “McCartney Shits.”‘ “Huh,” says McCartney, sounding perhaps ever so slightly put out when he is told this. “I never saw that. But, you know, he was a jovial character.”
Did you think about it?
“Yeah. And then I thought, no, I kind of knew what direction I wanted to go in. And I knew that would be very different from where Kanye would go with it.”
Did you discuss with him what that would be?
“No, I said, ‘That’s great, wow.’ I’m just amazed that he said it. And then we never talked about it again. It was just a thought that was thrown away. I certainly thought about it and got very excited and thought, ‘That’s something, there’s no denying that…but is it something I want to do?’ There’s the thing. And I thought, ‘Maybe not.'”
McCartney and West first met in 2008 at the European MTV awards in Liverpool: “I’d just gone through my divorce, and I was kind of a little bit raw from it, and I said something to him about it, and he’d just broken up with someone, and he just pulled out his phone and played this great little track—I don’t even remember what it’s called, but it’s one of his famous ones. So I sort of liked him, and I liked this tune. I’m not sure what he was doing there—I think he might have been hanging out with Bono.32 The other person I met at the same time was Amy Winehouse, walking down the corridor. And I knew she had a problem, and I ended up just saying hi, she said hi, but afterwards I thought I really should have just run after her—’Hey, Amy, listen, you’re really good, I really hope you…’—and say something that broke through the despair. And she’d remember and think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m good, I’ve got a life to lead.’ But you always have those little regrets. Anyway, that was when I saw Kanye for the first time.”
32. A little unfair. Bono was there, but West actually performed the song “American Boy” with the British singer Estelle and also picked up the weirdly named Ultimate Urban award.
Then, in 2014, McCartney received the unexpected message via his manager that Kanye had asked whether they might write together. McCartney said yes, with the proviso that they would tell no one what they were doing, and that if nothing came of it they never would. They met for two or three afternoons in a bungalow round the back of the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.
McCartney found these writing sessions, if they could even be called that, a little puzzling. They talked a lot,33 and McCartney occasionally played a little on an acoustic guitar and a piano. West’s engineer was recording everything, and West was also recording on his iPhone. “I had my bass ready in case we were going to get more serious,” says McCartney. “I thought we might actually sit down and write a song in the way I was used to writing a song—actually craft something there and then. It turned out we were creating an ‘ingredient pool,’ which is how he does it.”
33. West’s one substantive comment about these sessions when these songs were released was that he had asked McCartney, “What was pussy like in the ’60s?” McCartney seems amused when told of this but comments, perhaps diplomatically, “I don’t recall that question.”
McCartney went away thinking that they hadn’t really done anything, even if it had been an engaging experience: “I did leave the session liking him, and thinking he’s a very interesting guy.” When he didn’t hear anything for months, he decided not to even ask, but then results began to filter back his way. The first of these, West’s sparse lament to his mother “Only One,” was reasonably straightforward,34 but the second song to emerge, Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds,” was more of a puzzle. McCartney listened, and liked what he heard, but he had to call up to ask whether he was actually on it; only then did he realize that the riff at its center was something he had played on acoustic guitar that had been sped up and consequently raised in pitch, and that the Mickey Mouse–esque backing vocals he could hear were also him. It wasn’t a way of working he was used to, but he was happy to see where it went.
34. During one of those Beverly Hills Hotel ingredient-pool sessions, McCartney had told West the story of how he wrote “Let It Be” following a dream in which his late mother told him these words, and West, who had suffered his similar loss only recently, had said he wanted to write a song about his mother and, there and then, had started singing some of what became “Only One” over McCartney’s piano melody—McCartney’s playing that afternoon is the actual version you hear on the finished record.
Did you have to ask someone what “four five seconds from wilding” meant?
“‘Wilding,’ yeah,” he says. “But my stepson knew. He’s up with the hip-hop talk: ‘Wilding? Oh yeah, that’s like getting crazy and stuff.'”
And then the song became McCartney’s biggest hit single in 32 years.
“I mean, Rihanna is something else. She’s cool. So it was a great thrill, actually. I loved it. I feel a kind of privilege that they think I’m worthy of their world. I know I’m worthy of myworld, but I didn’t know that they think I could fit.”
A third song, West’s “All Day,” brought new challenges. “The big surprise was the use of the N-word,” McCartney says. (Multiple use, too. Forty-four times, to be precise.) Some people around McCartney saw this as a problem—”They said, ‘You can’t be connected to this'”—and McCartney suggests that he looked into the issue with some care. “There’s basically two schools of thought: One, that the N-word has been re-appropriated by black rappers and they’ve sort of taken the sting out of it. And the other point of view is Oprah’s point of view, which is that any use of the word denigrates black people, and I can see that, too.” In the end, he decided to go with it. “I thought, you know, ‘It’s urban poetry. It’s Kanye.’ I like the record. I thought he did a really good job on it.”
Later, he was also happy when he saw the credits for “All Day”—twenty writers!—and he realized who else had contributed to the ingredient pool. “Kendrick Lamar!” he says. “I didn’t know I was on a record with Kendrick. I’m very honored.” He shakes his head. “I have no idea what he or the other 18 did. But it’s how it’s done these days, and I’m pleased to be part of it. And slightly amazed.”35
35. McCartney says that he and West remain in intermittent contact: “I speak to him occasionally on the phone. And mainly texting.“
Not everyone, it turns out, approves of Sir Paul McCartney’s talents and reputation being used in this way. The British artist Damon Albarn, best known for Blur and Gorillaz, recently referred to what West and McCartney did as an “abusive collaboration,” and said that when he’d got wind of it at the time, he had sent McCartney a text saying: “beware.”
“I love the respect someone like Damon is attributing to me, but I’m not that fussed,” McCartney responds. “If I want to go somewhere else from where I normally go or where I’m expected to go, I’ll go. And if I enjoy it, that’s enough for me. The great thing is, all sorts of hysterical things come out of it. I mean, there’s a lot of people think Kanye discovered me. And that’s not a joke.”36
36. Though McCartney’s assertion may sound like a humblebrag, this may really be so, as in the modern world some of these songs have a far greater reach than anything else involving McCartney. For instance, “FourFiveSeconds” has ten times the Spotify plays of any other McCartney track and more than twice the plays of any Beatles song.
I ask whether he remembers Albarn really texting him “beware.”
“He might have. I don’t remember. But I wouldn’t listen to him. I don’t listen to people.”
To illustrate this point, McCartney proceeds to tell me that he recently used Auto-Tune on a song—one that’s not even on his new album—and how he worried for a moment about it. “Because I know people are going to go, ‘Oh no! Paul McCartney’s on bloody Auto-Tune! What have things come to?’… At the back of my mind I’ve got Elvis Costello saying, ‘Fucking hell, Paul!'” But then he considered it some more, and what he thought was: “You know what? If we’d had this in the Beatles, we’d have been—John, particularly—would be so all over it. All his freaking records would be…”
McCartney demonstrates a version of how he’d imagine a modern-day John Lennon singing in an extreme Auto-Tune warble, and then he gets out his iPhone and plays me some of the song in question, another collaboration with Ryan Tedder, called “Get Enough,” which has an emphatically full-on Auto-Tuned McCartney vocal, plenty more than would be required to horrify any passing purists. It also sounds pretty good.
“Come on, man,” says McCartney. “You can’t be so straitlaced to not expose yourself to experiences in life.”
Do you ever think about what relationship you’d have had with John Lennon if he’d stayed around?
“Yeah. Sometimes, yeah. I was very lucky because before he died we had a good relationship, so I think it would have just got better and better as we matured. I probably would have been able to tell him what a fan of his I was now. These days, I can tell everyone else, and I think I would have been able to tell him now. Whereas I implied it when we were together, I never said, ‘Oh, you’re fucking great, man, I’m such a fan of yours.’ We just hinted at it with each other. We were Liverpool guys, and you don’t do that—you don’t compliment each other. It’s just how you’re brought up.”
You make it sound as though you regret it now.
“Not really. I mean, we sort of indicated it, and it’s okay, because that was the world then. You asked me how it might have been now, and I think that I’ve certainly loosened up a hell of a lot, and I think John would have loosened up a hell of a lot.37 If Ringo’s anything to go by, we’re great: ‘I love you, man,’ ‘I love you, man,’ and we hug and everything. And we’re very complimentary to each other. We were at dinner the other night in London with some friends, and instead of saying something sort of clever, it just suddenly struck me, I said, ‘Me and this guy go back a long way, you know.’ What I meant wasn’t that factually we go back a long way, it’s like I was suddenly astounded to be sitting across from this guy who I had come all this way with and done all this stuff. At dinner everyone was being clever, all the stories are clever, everything’s got a punch line, but I just came out like this sort of total idiot: ‘Me and this guy go back a long way, you know.’ I think Nancy said, ‘Is that it?’ Yeah. That’s it.”
37. McCartney tells me he treasures a six-foot-tall print of a photo he has of himself and Lennon, taken by Linda during the White Album sessions. “I’ve got the pad and I’m writing, and he’s just looking over at me, and you can see the body language and everything: These guys love each other. That picture is just so emotional for me, because I’d started to think, ‘Oh, we did argue…’—yeah, we’d argue, but the upshot of it was that we really, all of us, had a pretty deep love for each other.”
And what did Ringo say?
“Oh, he got it. And then we started talking about how I never roomed with anyone as a kid, outside of me and my brother—we never had sleepovers—so consequently when I was on tour I would be in a room with a guy who I didn’t really know very well, our drummer, we were getting to know each other intensely, so it was great just seeing how he brushed his teeth, seeing whether like me he washed his socks if they smelled a bit with the soap provided and then rinsed and put them on the radiator, and in the morning they were fresh—silly things like that.”
You really talked about that—washing your socks—at that dinner?
“Yeah. Well, someone said, ‘Is that it?’ so we had to elaborate. I brought out socks and the fact he was an insomniac, because I’d never met anyone who couldn’t sleep.”
There’s something weirdly interesting about men in their 70s discussing how they used to wash their socks when they were young.
“Well, it got smelly on tour. And I only had one pair. There’s something, you know.”
“Yeah, one pair of black socks. Our touring kit was a pair of socks, pair of Beatle boots, a Beatle suit, white shirt, a toothbrush…”
One further issue relating to the Beatles’ early days: A few months ago, Quincy Jones gave two memorable interviews. In one of these, in New York magazine, Jones offered his initial impressions of the Beatles. He said this: “That they were the worst musicians in the world. They were no-playing motherfuckers. Paul was the worst bass player I ever heard.”
When I mention this to McCartney, and remind him of exactly what was said, he starts laughing.
“I love this guy,” he says. “He’s totally out of his tree. But the great thing was, he rang me after this. I’d only heard about it and I’d thought, I’m not sure it’s true. The joke is, I love Quincy, even after this. He’s a crazy motherfucker. But I respect him, he’s done a lot of very good things. So he rang me, and I’m at home on my own. And I’d finished work, so I had a drink, and now I’m grooving at home, I’m cooking, I’ve got a little bit of wine going, I’m in a good mood, and I don’t give a shit. So I get a phone call: ‘Is this Mr. McCartney?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Quincy would like to speak with you.’ Because he’s always worked through security guys. I said, ‘Hey, Quince!’ ‘Paul, how you doing, man?’ ‘I’m doing great—how are you, you motherfucker!’ I’m just jiving with him. ‘Paul, I didn’t really say that thing—I don’t know what happened, man. I never said that. You know I love you guys!’ I said, ‘If you had said that, you know what I would have said? Fuck you, Quincy Jones!’ And he laughed. I said, ‘You know I would say to that: Fuck you, Quincy Jones, you fucking crazy motherfucker!’ So actually we just had a laugh. And he was like, ‘Oh, Paul, you know I love you so much.’ ‘Yeah, I know you do, Quince.’ But he’s an old guy. I don’t know what it was. But I don’t think I’m the worst bass player he’s ever heard. Or maybe he’s never heard bad bass players. He’s talking all of this jazz and musicianship, and he’s an arranger and stuff. This is like Buddy Rich38 saying Ringo couldn’t drum. Because coming from Buddy Rich’s sensibility, Ringo can’t drum. But coming from our sensibility, Buddy Rich is a load of shit. But God bless him.”39
38. Buddy Rich was a legendary—and legendarily obstreperous—jazz drummer. 39. This “Bless him” is, McCartney explains, at least in part a private McCartney family joke. Within McCartney’s extended web of Liverpool relations, there was an actor with a particularly affected way of talking, and on one particular occasion, when someone had badly wronged him and when everyone else was consequently saying to him, “After what he did to you, what a fucking cunt he is, fucking cunt,” the actor simply said, “Bless him.” “So this became the thing,” McCartney explains. “If we ever said, ‘Bless him,’we all knew what you meant. It’s great—if you really hate someone, ‘Bless him.’It was a great euphemism for ‘What a cunt.’ So if you ever hear me say, ‘Bless him’…”
During Quincy Jones’s other recent interview, with GQ, he told me a different Beatles story—that Jones had had dinner with the Beatles at London’s May Fair Hotel very early in their career, and that “one of the nights we were there too we got full of wine, and Paul and John bet me a hundred dollars that the Beatles wouldn’t happen in America.”
When I relate this, McCartney simply shakes his head slowly.
“No, this is what I mean. I think memory is a fragile thing. And there’s a lot of stories about ‘When I met the Beatles…’ By the way, ‘me and John’ could mean ‘John,’ but we never thought we wouldn’t make it in America. We were arrogant/confident.”
Jones also said that when the Beatles got to America, he took you to the Apollo in Harlem.…
“No. That ain’t true, baby. Strike that one. We weren’t allowed to go to the Apollo. We had a publicist—Brian somebody, with a big cigar, real stereotypical American publicist—who said, ‘You can’t go, it’s too dangerous.’ So I don’t know what he’s talking about. Maybe he took George, maybe he took Ringo, maybe he took somebody, he just certainly didn’t take the Beatles. Because I was in them.”
McCartney had to cut short our first meeting in London because he was flying to Liverpool that evening so that the next day he could film an episode of Carpool Karaoke with James Corden. Beforehand, McCartney told me that he was a little reluctant to agree to this. “There’s been so many good ones,” he’d said. “I thought, ‘I’m not sure I want to do it.'” As he headed off to catch his plane, he still sounded unsure, but his reservations would be unfounded; it will be compelling TV and a huge success. (In its wake, the Beatles’ hits collection 1 will return to the Top 40 of the album chart.)
One of the more memorable moments, though in some ways also one of the more puzzling ones on-screen, is when McCartney returns to the childhood home, 20 Forthlin Road, where he had lived from the age of 12 or 13 until when he finally left home after the Beatles were famous. The illusion, though unstated, in the footage shown is that McCartney had just knocked on the door and the current owner has answered, though it’s not quite clear why, unless she is some kind of fan-stalker, every wall of her home is covered with McCartney photos, nor why she seems to have done so little modernizing. The answer is that this isn’t a home, and hasn’t been for more than 20 years; it is a tourist attraction preserved as a historic site and run by the UK’s National Trust.40
40. McCartney claims to me that as they left the house, the custodian asked him and Corden to pay the statutory entrance fee, so he did. “I had cash on me,” he says. “It was the cherry on the cake.”
But what is absolutely true is that it had been over half a century since McCartney had crossed its threshold. In the intervening years, he would often detour from the airport on his way into the city when he was showing Liverpool to anyone, park outside, and give the tour from the street: “I’d say, ‘That was my bedroom up there, and there’s the alleyway that leads through the back garden.'”41 He tells me that he hadn’t wanted the bother that would have come with going in, and he’d also worried that it might be a bit spooky. “You know, going back to old places is not always a good idea.”42
41. McCartney says that one time when he was parked outside this house, giving this private tour from within the car, an old local man—seeing yet another car lingering outside this spot, but not looking closely enough to see who was in it—wearily muttered “Yeah, he did used to live there” as he went past. 42. This was also the last house in which McCartney lived with his mother, who died of cancer when he was 14. He says that at the time it was something that for the most part was not addressed: “Being a teenager who lost his mom was a particular thing you didn’t really talk about much. When asked, of course you would talk about it, but you wouldn’t go on about it.”
Perhaps he was ready. “It was sort of super nostalgia—I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, there…there…there!'” Understandably, the TV people kept guiding him toward the big Beatle-y memories, and there were plenty of those, but McCartney says that for him “what was fun was I remembered all the little things. I kept going: ‘Oh, in that cupboard—that’s where we kept the condensed milk.'”
In the last week of July, a few weeks after his Carpool Karaoke adventures, McCartney returns to Liverpool for two events.43 This time, he drives himself, as he usually does when he comes home. Partly, it is a Liverpool thing. “I can make turns that other people wouldn’t make, and I know shortcuts and things,” he says. But it’s also a reflection of something more general. “I’m just more comfortable driving myself than being driven. I feel like a Lord Mayor when I’m being driven. And I feel like Paul McCartney when I’m driving.”
43. It is, he says, a city full of memories for him, from the moment he gets there. “I often arrive these days on an airplane at the John Lennon Airport,” McCartney begins to tell me, and I think that his point is going to be that even the airport has a Beatle-y name, but it’s something else, something far odder and less expected. “From the word go, there, I’m getting memories of me and John cycling to that airport to look at planes, me and George going to the Liverpool Air Show where some guy, birdman, flew out of an airplane and his parachute didn’t open,” he says. “And we watched him drop and went, ‘Uh-oh…I don’t think that was right.…’ We thought, ‘Any second now his parachute’s gonna open, and it never did. We went, ‘I don’t think he survived that.’ And he didn’t.” When McCartney tells me this, I wonder whether it’ll turn out to be one of those hazy, half-mythical recollections that don’t seem to have a real-life concordance, but it’s not. On May 21, 1956, a few weeks before McCartney’s 14th birthday, Léo Valentin, who was the most famous “birdman” of his time, and who billed himself as “Valentin, the Most Daring Man in the World,” was scheduled to fly using man-made wings in front of 100,000 spectators in Liverpool, but one of his wings hit the plane as he was exiting and was damaged, his backup parachute failed to deploy correctly, and Valentin fell to his death.
There are other examples that seem to fit into a similar pattern. “I quite like going on public transport,” he points out. “It’s just my character enjoys the sort of thing that I always did. It’s a roots thing. I’ll sometimes go on the Underground in London, which I did the other day.” He and his grandson went to see Ocean’s 8 at the cinema—”quite good”—and afterwards McCartney suggested they take the Underground back. Mostly, it went fine, though McCartney realised that the French guy (as he turned out to be) opposite them was surreptitiously trying to take his photo. McCartney tried to signal that this was unwelcome.
“Why not?” the man challenged him, out loud.
“Because I’d rather you didn’t,” McCartney reasoned to him, though of course the main reason was that he was with his grandson. And also that this was one of the moments where he was choosing to be someone other than the person who cheerily poses for those photographs.
“I’m being me,” McCartney says. “I’m not being the celebrity me. And those moments are quite precious. Obviously I understand that if were to see Elvis or David Bowie on the Tube, I’d kind of want a photo of him, so I get it. But I’ve figured I have to make certain rules for myself to give me a quality of life.”44
44. McCartney tells me a further such story of a time he took the Hampton Jitney, the slightly upmarket bus service that runs from the Hamptons into Manhattan, because he was deep into Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and he wanted to finish it, and how he then took a local bus uptown, and when a woman blurted from across the bus, “Hey! Are you Paul McCartney?” he invited her to sit next to him and chatted all the way uptown. “It’s a way of not worrying about your fame,” he says. “It’s a way of not turning into the reclusive rock star. I often say to Nancy: I get in their faces before they get a chance to get in mine.”
The centerpiece of this latest trip back to McCartney’s hometown is a performance at the Cavern Club. The Cavern, in an underground cellar in the middle of Liverpool, plays a key role in early Beatles mythology: They performed there 292 times between 1961 and 1963. The club is no longer as it was back then,45 but nonetheless the symbolism—Paul McCartney plays at the Cavern!—is potent. Crowds throng the streets when the word gets out, and news of what happens here today travels far and wide. During the show, from the first words he speaks—”Liverpool! Cavern! These are words that go together well!”—McCartney effectively plays up to that spirit of event and nostalgia, this time for very nearly two hours. Even when history is being recycled and repackaged, it can still be sincere and heartfelt—and it can still be thrilling to see, too. On the radio immediately afterward I hear the DJ describe those who had managed to get inside as “the 200 luckiest people in the world.”
45. The original Cavern was filled in during some work on the Liverpool railway network in 1973. When they later excavated, all of the original arches were gone, so they simply created a different club in the same general underground area.
The first of the two Liverpool events, the day before, is a much quieter, calmer, and cooler affair: a question-and-answer session for the students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, a school that McCartney helped found in the 1990s in the same buildings where McCartney’s own childhood high school once was. In what is billed as a “casual conversation” (though one that, it now being 2018, is streamed live on Facebook), he amiably answers questions put to him by the singer Jarvis Cocker, many of them about his school days and early musical education, and then a curtain opens to reveal a surprise acoustic performance from McCartney and his band.46
46. Every performance I see, private or public, is surprisingly different. At one point this afternoon, McCartney launches into a very odd blues song he wrote some time ago (unreleased, and perhaps best left so), a song that is usually known by its first word, “Blackpool,” and which involves saying the names of British towns followed by women’s body measurements, before the chorus: I like them heavy and tall / don’t like them skinny and small. But he also plays the Beatles song “From Me to You”—the first time he has done so, apparently, since May 1964.
Afterward, in the dressing room, mid-afternoon red wine is flowing, and triggered by a question about the recording of the Wings’ album Band on the Run in Nigeria, a destination chosen pretty much on a whim, McCartney gives a captivating account of their adventures and misadventures there, including a blow-by-blow account of how he and Linda were mugged when they ignored local advice and tried to walk home in Lagos after dark. His storytelling culminates in the tale of an evening where he finds himself in a place way out of town and way out of his depth and way out of his head…and then Fela Kuti’s band start up and play this hypnotic keyboard riff…and McCartney found himself just weeping.
“That music, I’ll never forget it,” he says. “I can still remember the riff.”
This climactic declaration sounds like a rhetorical one, but it is not. At that, McCartney goes over to the corner, where there is an electric piano, plugs it in, and—an improbable collision of time frames and history; the 76-year-old in the upstairs room of the building where he once went to school, remembering a piano riff that made him cry 45 years earlier in Nigeria—Paul McCartney starts playing exactly what he heard on that night long ago. It starts with a simple but insistent repetitive pattern being pounded out, a motif that then, in a release of tension, relaxes into some more expansive, much jazzier chords. In other words, it doesn’t sound like anything you’d expect to hear Paul McCartney play.
Imagine realizing one day that you’re a Beatle. Think about how you might decide to handle that for the next 50, 60, 70 years. Even when you have the talent and the ego and the drive, success is always some kind of a surprise, for no one can ever imagine exactly how it will be when it does arrive, and even less so what it will bring in its wake. When we see someone famous behaving in all the different ways that they behave, much of what we are seeing is someone continuing to work out how to deal with that surprise. It’s the lifetime job they never realized they’d applied for.
The public face that McCartney has tended to push forward is of someone who, even given the extraordinary circumstances of his life, is some kind of genial everyman. It’s a good bluff, and there may be some truth to it, though the more time I spent with him, the more I glimpsed other McCartneys—ones much weirder, or more fragile, or cockier, or harder, or needier, or nerdier, or more eccentric, or more playful than his advertised persona—and that made sense to me. Because I think it’s probably taken all of them to do what Paul McCartney has done, and to work out how to be who he is, as the glorious surprise of the life he made for himself has continued to unfold.
In our very first conversation, Paul McCartney alluded to how, when he was starting out—in other words when he would be striving to invent a future for himself, night after night after night, in places like the Cavern—he never intended any of this. It was never supposed to mean this much—not to everyone else, not to him, either. “Earn a few bob, get a car, pull some birds, but you suddenly realize,” he said, “there is this thing that’s happened.…”
Chris Heath is a GQ correspondent.
Styled by Jason Rider. Hair by Benjamin Muller using Redken. Grooming by Susie Sobol at Julian Watson Agency. Produced by Mary-Clancey Pace for Hen’s Tooth Productions.