This piece was published in The Big Issue in December 2009.
Paul McCartney appears to have put the ageing process on hold. It could be the hair dye the 67-year-old concedes to using. Or the meat-free diet. Perhaps it’s some transcendental secret he picked up from the Maharishi in India all those years ago. More likely new girlfriend Nancy Shevell has restored his sunny disposition and boyish vigour, the messy end of his relationship with Heather Mills now a distant memory.
Macca is back on the road again, mining pop music’s greatest songbook to re-imagine unperformed Beatles recordings live. Of the Fab Four, McCartney has always been the most comfortable carrying the weight of the group’s uncommonly huge achievements. He remains happy to traverse the decades, reliving the days when he and his friends spilled colour across a black-and-white world with their hopeful, effervescent, joyously inventive songs.
We spoke between rehearsals shortly before his European tour kicked off in Germany.
Hello. Now, have we met before?
I don’t think we have…
Don’t give me that! ‘I don’t think we have’ [laughs].
I’m sure I would have remembered.
Yeah [laughs]. ‘I don’t think we have’. I like it. Very coy.
Are you looking forward to playing Hamburg again? It’s not quite the city of sin it was when you and The Beatles were there in the 60s…
I don’t really know how much it has changed. It’s been a long time. I was a Liverpool teenager then, with wide-open eyes. I imagine the Reeperbahn won’t be too different – a tourist strip club sort of area, but I won’t be going down there this time. Having a new girlfriend, it’d be more than my life’s worth.
A Day in the Life is now part of the repertoire – not something The Beatles ever performed live. Is it daunting to tackle?
There’ll be a couple of new numbers, because I’ve got a few Beatles and Wings songs I’ve never done live. It [A Day in the Life] is such a good song and I have enough reason to do it because I have vivid memories of writing it with John. He brought the first verse, and that made it his song, his inspiration. I remember we sat down in my music room in London and developed it into a second verse, and then ‘I’d love to turn you on’… and my little bit in the middle. Then came the orchestral cacophony…
The musical orgasm?
Well thank you very much but it’s a bit early for that! Steady on! Anyway – yes, that was kind of my idea. I’d been listening to a lot of avant-garde music and that was inspired by the composers I was going to see in London at the time.
You’re playing Give Peace a Chance now too. Does it feel a little strange to take on John’s songs for the first time?
It’s something I never thought I’d do because John did his songs, I did mine. If I’ve done Beatles songs it’s been ones I did the vocals on and did most of the writing on. I don’t really go with the co-written songs. So, Drive My Car – pretty much my thing, as Nowhere Man would have been John’s. But it did occur to me one day – why not? It’s always a bit refreshing to look at things differently.
You also play George’s great classic Something on the ukulele. Is it difficult to revisit memories of him on-stage?
It’s very emotional to do these songs. It’s marking losing family, which is terrible. But at the same time it’s great because in a way it puts me in touch with them. It focuses your emotions, so I’m thinking about them more than I might in an average day. Doing Here Today [a 1982 song about John Lennon] is very emotional. The version the editors wanted to use in the live DVD is the one where I lose it and I get overwhelmed. If I’d been 18 I wouldn’t have let them use that – I’d have been too ashamed, as a young guy, to be seen crying. But that stuff doesn’t matter anymore.
There seems to be a blend of all ages at your gigs now…
Yeah, more than ever. Parents often say to me, ‘My kids really love The Beatles – so we’ve got something in common’. I like the idea that instead of people being alienated by each other’s music, there’s something that brings them together. The music has become like a multi-generational glue. It is really cool. The Beatles story continues to shine. I often say, Churchill’s papers get older and crinklier but our music gets clearer and clearer. With the remastering, you’ve never heard them so good.
Are your kids and grandkids Beatles fans?
Yeah, absolutely. My youngest is only six and she’s only just getting into it. It’s really cute to see the youngest ones awakening to it.
Why is The Beatles’ appeal something close to universal? What makes the music survive changing trends?
I think it’s something to do with the structural quality of the songs. We weren’t actually trying to make stuff that was cool or of the moment, although a lot of it was. We were trying to make stuff that was good enough to stick around, and lo and behold it has. It’s a finished body of work, and for me it contains a million memories.
You and the other Beatles have astronomical objects named after you – 4148 McCartney is a big rock somewhere in the asteroid belt. Your songs are among the most covered of all time. It must be hard not to be overwhelmed by the incredible legacy…
Yeah, I know what you mean. There’s a safety valve you have to develop. I think in terms of – him, and me. He’s the guy with the star named after him. You kind of separate your public self from your private self. Sometimes some people are not able to do that, and they start to believe their own myth. I don’t let myself get taken in by it. I’m pleased and honoured and amazed by it all. But when I go home I don’t go (sings in a jaunty tone) ‘I’m the guy with the star named after him’. I still think of myself as the guy who rode the buses in Liverpool, which leaves me a sense of wonder about the whole thing.
At the end of the ’60s John described The Beatles as “only a rock group”. Would he have celebrated how revered the band has become?
There was that one very cynical period after the break-up, but he actually got over that once he got to New York. I was very lucky really because we got our relationship back together. Once he died, tragically… God I was so glad that we had managed to do that. It would have been the worst if we’d still been enemies when that happened. It would have haunted me. I tell you man, he wasn’t cynical. We used to talk about baking bread. He got very domesticated actually. Particularly after Sean was born, he was looking after the baby and loving it. His writing wasn’t cynical. If you think about the Double Fantasy album, with Woman and Beautiful Boy – it was very domestic, very real and loving. That’s actually harder than cynicism. Cynicism is a cheap shot. John had a very soft heart but like all of us, you get wounded, and you have to cover it up because you feel too exposed and vulnerable. He had his times when he had to do that. There are loads of things he’d have been having a laugh about. He’d have been quite tickled, I’m sure, about being in a video game. Like me, he’d have been rubbish at it.
Have you played The Beatles: Rock Band game much?
Every time I pick up a facsimile of a Hofner bass, I try to play bass. It’s no good for me trying to hit red or green buttons. I can’t relate to that. But it’s good fun and the kids cream me on it.
Are you a fan of The X Factor? Or is destroying the music business as we know it?
I actually don’t watch it that much but everyone else does, so if it’s on and I’m in the room then I’ll watch it. It’s a helluva big show. No denying that. Y’know, it’s like, 20 million people can’t all be wrong. I see the attraction. My grandkids will watch it and I see it through their eyes. You talk to people in the street and they’ll say, ‘Ooh, what d’you think about Jedward?’ I go, ‘Well it’s a laugh, isn’t it?’ Bless ’em. They’re a couple of young hopeful kids trying to make a buck. It has brought through some very good people. Leona Lewis is a serious talent.
Are there any bands you’d like to work with now? There must be a few…
I liked the idea of working with Take That. It was great fun to do that (at the Children in Need concert at The Royal Albert Hall). It was a great cause. Gary did the honour of asking me to finish the show. I was chuffed because he’s a good guy. The most intriguing one is Bob Dylan. He’s spoken of me very kindly in a couple of interviews and I’m a massive fan of his. But I still can’t get up the nerve to ring him. Y’know, it’s Bob Dylan man! He’s a great guy and I’ve known him over the years. So if anything kind of… organically happened, or I suddenly got the courage to ring him, then that would certainly be an intriguing prospect. I’m a great admirer of his and I think he’s a great poet. It would be interesting.
I hate to bring up age, but a lot of people comment on what great shape you’re in. How long can you keep touring and recording at this kind of pace?
As long as the drugs hold out. The drugs and the Zimmer frame! Y’know, I’m now doing five times more work than The Beatles did. We used to do half an hour in concert. I don’t want to tempt fate, but I find it easy to play. Some of the American girls I know say to me, [in a high-pitched American accent] ‘You don’t even take a drink of water!’ Well, nobody ever did that where I was from. Nobody drank water on stage. I’m old school.
There’s no plan to give it all up and paint in a cottage somewhere? Do you still have the place in Kintyre?
Yeah man. I’d never give that up. It’s a great place. I love it there. But it’s not a retirement cottage. My idea is that you keep working. A lot of people want to get the hell out of the factory and retire. But I’m doing my hobby, so I don’t want to give it up. I’m mean, I’m going off now and I’ll pick up the electric guitar and play some rock and roll. I still feel the same thrill I used to feel. I’m allowed to play this really cool guitar through a brilliant amp and turn it up as loud as I like. I still love it, and it still seems like a privilege.