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The Untold Stories of Paul McCartney

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.”

Watch Now:

Paul McCartney Breaks Down His Most Iconic Songs


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.

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