Motivated by the Music

by Evan Jameson | Feb 17, 2021
Motivated by the Music

Decades after he took the world by storm and became a cultural icon, Paul McCartney is still having the time of his life.

With all the greats who have recently passed across the other side, it does leave you to imagine the reaction that will follow when Paul McCartney leaves us.
“I tend not to think about death too much,” he says, “but when you get to the age I am you have to accept your mortality; you have to realize it’s a finite thing and the idea you used to have of life that you believed would trip on forever isn’t quite accurate.”
In truth, McCartney’s grasp on the fragility of life has always been there; certainly since soulmate John Lennon was snatched away from him—and us—in 1980. The effect it has had on the songwriter and cultural bastion of the modern generation is certainly to enjoy each day as it comes, but also to go about his business with sensitivity, calm, light-heartedness and humility.
Paul McCartney in 2020 is as gentle and open now as at any point in his impossibly decorated past—the awards, the success, the money all pale into the background when speaking to a man entertained not by the trappings, but by the sheer art of his craft.
In the 1960s McCartney attributed his level of understanding, tolerance and acceptance of society to LSD; nowadays his appreciation has its basis in life and love, without a hint of chemical stimulation. How else can you explain the release of his new album, McCartney III, a record put together at the start of the pandemic back in March? It is a voyage into experimentation based on simplicity, and he suggests it contains some of his best work … and for someone who can boast 25 studio albums and well over 100 singles, that’s quite some claim.
Do you still get the same thrill out of releasing new material?
Of course, and I think what has moved it on in the modern era is the fact we don’t subscribe to the old rules. In the past it used to be singles as a prelude to the album, and then the tour after that.
I do miss physical formats, but that aside there are no hard and fast rules for promoting a record, apart from possibly being visible and getting your face and your voice out there. I’ve never been afraid to stand in front of a camera or pick up the phone and speak to a radio station, so this method of work actually really suits me.
As for the music itself, you always go in knowing what sort of reception you’ll get, and mine is usually pretty good. For some music you write you are writing it for the audience; for other records you feel as though you’re doing it more for yourself. You’ll always end up somewhere along that scale.
Do you miss touring?
I think I fear the uncertainty of when we’ll be able to do that again. That’s very frightening for the industry. I think it will all come back at some point, but like many things in life it is the not knowing that can often do your head in more than anything else.
Is it true you stopped touring with The Beatles because the screams were so loud you couldn’t hear yourselves play?
Only partly. Really, we stopped touring in 1966 because we were coming to the end of our life cycle as a band. We realized that we’d come full circle with everything we wanted to do, that was why one of the later albums we recreated the first shot we ever had, the red and blue one. We had a sense that we’d done everything we wanted to do; and at that point John had hooked up with Yoko and he wanted to go in that direction, so it became very unlikely that we would have got back together. If we had, sure, with better technology we might have actually been able to hear each other!
Back in the early days, what was the contrast like between the simplicity of home and going out into a great big world that many people in England didn’t know about … and by that, I mean the United States was just a place read about and seen on black and white television screens.
I mean the obvious thing to say was that is was incredibly exciting. I understand the slant of the question, of course—namely that we were stepping out into places that were familiar but very strange … it was almost like a parallel universe. The people looked the same but some of the customs were very different … the attitudes, even the architecture. It was very difficult to relax—you could never quite settle in your surroundings; but the excitement … wow!
Did you get a grasp quickly on just how big the whole thing was going to become?
Yeah, pretty much. What I will say is, ultimately, we were very lucky because we had a kind of staircase of fame. It’s not like now where you’re just an overnight success and you’ve got to deal with it. We started in Liverpool and we had to sort of schlep around, try to get some work, try to get a little bit more money, a bigger club.
We’d played a bit in Europe … Germany really took to us—Hamburg. By the time we had the offer to come to America, we were now kind of famous in Europe and we had a little handle on how to behave and how to do it. We’d met quite a lot of people who were likely to criticize us, and we kind of felt like we had a way to deal with it. So we were very excited to come to America because this is where all the music that we loved came from.
You sound as if you were grounded from the start.
Well, we had said to our manager, “Look, we’re not going to America until we have a No. 1 record,” which, actually, when you think about it, was really quite a sort of bold move. The reason was we’d seen other stars from Britain go to America and just fade into the general scene. It might be a male star and you’d have Elvis and you’d have plenty of sort of minor male stars like Frankie Avalon and people like that that were doing quite well. So for our stars it didn’t kind of work, it didn’t translate.
So we said to our manager we’re going to wait till we’d got a chart-topper. And we did eventually with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and we just hit the roof. We said, “Now we can go to America,” so we arrived on a bit of a wave of success. We kind of felt good about ourselves. But we were really, amazingly excited to come to the land of our music. And then we heard on the plane coming over I think the pilots, you know, radioed JFK, Idlewild as it was then. And they said, “Hey, there’s millions of people, there’s thousands of kids at the airport.” We’re going, “Oh, yeah? Quick, better have a shave.”
What a welcome…
Oh yes, so excited. We got off the plane to this amazing hysteria. And then we went into a press conference, and I think this is what I’m talking about. The press would say, you know, “How do you find America?” And we’d say, “You turn left at Greenland.” We kind of had it all down. We kind of knew what to expect. By then we were fairly sort of cocky kids, you know, which, I think, helped a lot. Instead of kind of saying, “Sorry, sir, we shouldn’t be in your country.”
Ultimately we were confident lads, but a lot of that was down to the fact we had a No. 1 record to back up the bravado with.
When you play live now, how do you divide a set between Beatles and solo tracks? Do you see harmonized music making a comeback?
Yeah, I’ve always loved harmonies. And, yeah, it is making a bit of a comeback. I don’t think it really went away. You know, what I love about harmonies and about choirs, I think like barber shop quartets, is they’re everywhere. You know, you go anywhere in the world, and there’s always a little group of people harmonizing. So I think it’s a very human thing, and I think that’s what I love about it. I think it is coming back with certain groups now using it more than it has been used in certain years. I don’t really think it went away.
As for the split, you’ve got to give an audience what they came to see.
I can read a crowd well and will sometimes mess about with a set to suit, but it’s a predominance of Beatles songs because, let’s be honest, that’s who I am.
You always seem to handle well the contrast between public and private life.
There are two sides to me. There’s the side when I’m hanging out with the kids, then I’m this massive rock star.
When I’m out for a meal I do get people who come up to me to ask for a photo or an autograph, and after all these years my response is still the same, and that’s to tell them that I’m having an evening with friends and family, and if they want to have a chat and exchange stories then that’s great, but I won’t typically do the photo thing in that situation.
At the end of a photo opp you kind of feel a bit empty and like the exchange is for nothing more than a kind of badge when you’ve got what’s usually a pretty ropey photo with a poor backdrop and me looking a bit miserable. Shouldn’t we be more excited about having a conversation—I love to do that and that’s always a better way to meet fans, and for fans a better way to remember me.
And people understand that, surely.
Well, you know, we are of course in an era of mobile phones, selfies and being seen with a celebrity or a musician, but I actually think that is lessening a little because a lot of famous names are so much more visible these days thanks to social media. What I’m saying is a lot of the mystery has gone away, and instead people are getting back to the raw value of actually having a conversation with someone, and that’s nice.
And I guess you don’t miss signing autographs. I wonder how many you must have signed over the years.
Well, I think the selfie has overtaken the autograph too, which is always a bit of a strange one isn’t it, when you think about it: “Here, can you write your name down on the back of this till receipt please?” “Why? We both know who I am.”
I guess there’s nothing stranger than celebrity culture, and I’m really not a fan of it. I’d much rather just meet people and talk to people on a level. You get to the point where all the bravado and status becomes terribly boring and you yearn for normality.
I’ve always been the guy who will go on the subway or will take a bus. Some famous friends of mine say, “Don’t you take your bodyguard?”, and I’ll say “No, I try to escape the bodyguard!” And one of the great things is a lot of people don’t actually believe it’s you. I mean, back in London, no one really looks at each other on public transport anyway, and when they do they’ll just assume it’s a lookalike or a vagrant or something. I’ve had people say, “Wow, man, you know you look really like Paul McCartney.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I’ve been told that!”
There are so many films made about The Beatles and even your own specific life—do you watch them, and what do you think of them?
I’ve seen a lot of them, and as always, reality is always very far removed from the film studio. It is interesting to watch yourself and I often have to give a pass to the actor because they are doing their best representation of you; but there will always be details that don’t sit right, or certain characterizations that feel a bit strange. That’s the way it is sometimes—it’s very flattering but I can’t invest in it so much because it always feels a bit awkward and strange, as it would do for anyone watching themselves.
Do you hear stories that are made up about you and go, you know what, that’s actually better than reality, let’s go with it?
Yeah often actually—but you know, that’s the fame game. You won’t change that; especially not now.
Is it true you can’t read music?
I can’t read music. It’s the strangest thing, when I took lessons as a kid I didn’t get too interested in the whole thing to be honest. I didn’t enjoy it, it seemed a bit too much like homework to me. It wasn’t until later I started to enjoy it, then I tried to take music lessons again a bit further down the line but I just couldn’t get my head around reading music and investing in that kind of strictness.
It seemed to go against something in my core, whereby I wanted the freedom and the creativity to make music and get that recorded—I didn’t want to toe the line, and I don’t think there are many musicians that do really. I mean, I don’t have the statistics, but I’m not sure how many of those in the charts at the moment can’t read music—you tend to leave that to those who need to know how to do it—backing musicians and session musicians—and the band do their own thing, perhaps.
I still don’t write music and can’t notate it—I do think it’s about time I learned, but I guess I’ve done OK without it!
It’s amazing that you still find such motivation to make and perform music.
I’ve had times where I’ve sat on a beach or gone horse riding or something else equally rewarding and relaxing … and pretty soon I sat there thinking to myself, “Why am I doing this, why am I not working?” The truth is I love it so much and I look forward to it. Performing is something I’ve always liked to do and of course I feel privileged to be able to do that for a living, and that is a feeling that never goes away no matter how old you get.
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 11 (February 2021).

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Author: Evan Jameson


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