Issue: October 1997
Title: If I Fell
Author: Neil McCormick
It is refreshing and somewhat surprising that when you ask Paul McCartney
a delicate question, he will give you as straightforward and honest an
answer as he can. Even when asked how the man partly responsible for the
Beatles catalog (surely the greatest canon of rock songs this century has
seen) could also be responsible for the McCartney solo catalog (surely
some of the most
cringe-inducing songs in pop history), McCartney is nothing if not graciously self-effacing. It could be that it is easier for him to look back at his failures with a degree of good humor, as his latest studio album, Flaming Pie (Capitol), has been widely hailed as his best solo work since the Wings albums of the Seventies. But whatever are the undercurrents driving McCartney's easygoing,
self-critical and confident outlook, by the end of this interviews, fans of McCartney the Beatle will surely be equally impressed with McCartney the man.
GUITAR WORLD: Were you aware, when you were recording Flaming Pie, that it was a definite improvement on your other recent efforts?
PAUL McCARTNEY: You do get a feeling that something is working, though you can always be wrong. I've thought I was working on something good, and then it turned out people thought it was average. I don't know if I was right or they were right. Time will tell.
GW: What did you do differently this time?
PAUL McCARTNEY: I was checking the songs in my own mind against some of the early Beatles stuff, because I'd just been doing the Anthology and it surprised me how simple, and yet complete, some of the early Beatles work was. I didn't see any reason why my new stuff shouldn't be just as simple and complete. So whereas I might have been a little bit lazy in the past and just thought, "Ah, near enough!", which is very tempting to do, I made it a point to go in and sharpen the chisel and get it a bit tighter.
GW: Do the Beatles hang as a shadow over you, in the sense that you are always being measured against your past?
PAUL McCARTNEY:: That's a very difficult question. I am not four people, therefore I can never do as well as the four of us. And in that way the Beatles can be a bit of a ghost that constantly haunts you. But I was partly responsible for what I see as a great body of work, and that can't but give you a feeling of great confidence. Okay, I've gotta live up to it, but so does everyone else in the world. I figure I've probably got a better chance of coming up with a good Paul McCartney song than Oasis has -- and I mean that with no disrespect, because I like Oasis. I must say I'm not really haunted by the specter of the Beatles. We wouldn't have done the Anthology had we been paranoid about the whole thing. It's a ghost, but it's not a malevolent ghost. It's a friendly one. A bit of a Casper.
GW: The Beatles broke up when you were 28. Do you ever get the feeling that you peaked early and you're never going to reach those heights again?
PAUL McCARTNEY: It really depends
on what mood I'm in. There is a minority of occasions when I think, "Oh
s***!" But in actual fact, rather than thinking I could never do it again,
the feeling I get is "Why do it again?" I can't be bothered trying to do
it one more time. But it comes back to the question, "Why do it at all?"
We started really for fame and fortune and then it developed into actual
musical inquisitiveness. And that's where I'm at now. I'm still very inquisitive
to see what I can do with music. People often say,
"Do you still enjoy your music?" I can't believe they think I could ever have gone off it!
GW: Do you think that your lyric writing is an area that you have generally let slip? When I listen to a Beatles track like "For No One," which has such a sharp and mature lyric, I find it hard to understand how the writer of that could also be the writer of some of your more whimsical material.
PAUL McCARTNEY: You could be right, but you gotta realize that when I wrote "For No One" I was in a very secure position. We are not masters of the universe, and if I have things in my life that affect me badly, they do affect my writing. The breakup of the Beatles was tantamount to having a nervous breakdown. You can't just say, "Well, okay, I'm in exactly as cool a position as I was." And a bit of it was a haze too, the post-Beatle trauma, and the partying. I went through a lot -- a bit of drink and drugs and stuff. And you know it wasn't always the greatest stuff that came out. But I think it's natural. You can let things slip.
GW: But how do you slip from "Eleanor Rigby" to "Biker Like An Icon"?
PAUL McCARTNEY: Well, you can be drunk when you're writing, for instance. And, I don't think there is an artist who can say every single line he ever wrote is as good as the best of his work. For example, I heard a recording of Chopin's "Nocturnes" the other day. There's really one cool track on it, which is the one we all know, and the rest was very good and interesting musically, but none of it is up to the same standard. There are one or two pieces I think I should've done better, but I'm not about to whip myself for it.
GW: There's certainly a hell of a lot of stuff. Not including greatest hits and live sets, you've released 20 albums since the Beatles broke up.
PAUL McCARTNEY: Yeah, too large an output is probably a major reason for a slip in quality. I did a bloody record a bloody year for a long time. But I think there may be some revisionism to come on these sloppy lyrics. Take Back To The Egg [the final Wings album, released in 1979]. Linda and I were so disappointed, thinking, "God this is a terrible bloody record." But my son pulled it out recently and it's really not as bad as I thought it was. It's not easy to do your tightest, most succinct work all the time, and I think if my work does slip it probably is in the lyrics. And I hate to tell you, but I put a lot of it down to laziness, where I just thought "Yeah, that'll do." And in mitigation, I think that sometimes I probably was right.
GW: What kind of music do you tend to listen to at home?
PAUL McCARTNEY: I listen to all sorts of stuff, depending on my mood. Nat King Cole the other night, Chopin the other morning. Montiverdi, choral stuff. I like reggae. I've got a lot of old 45's. Not a lot of new bands, that tends to come through my son. I like Beck, he's quite good. Some of these Seattle bands are good. I like Nirvana a lot. To see [Kurt Cobain], he was anguished, he was a traumatic character, but unfortunately that's often what makes good music.
GW: Do you think, as is often suggested, it is harder to produce great art when you are happy?
PAUL McCARTNEY: I don't know. It's
an eternal query and we're not gonna solve it here. But the thing is, all
you're seeing of me is the surface. It's like when I was talking to Ringo
and I was trying to help him because he was going through all sorts of
problems. I was saying, "It's okay, man, you're great, you're fantastic,
you're having a great life." He said, "Don't you f***ing tell me what's
going on inside my head!" And he was right. I was looking at his surface.
You don't know what people are going through. I'm very private.
I don't let everyone know what's going on inside. But I was brought up in Liverpool and there are lots of Irish connections there; thank God there is a very happy-go-lucky side to it all, and an optimistic side -- which is the main side of my character. I'm very lucky to have had a great family that was always pretty upbeat. But that doesn't mean to say that's the whole story. And when you do write songs you draw more on the whole story rather than just the surface. I mean, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" is nice, very cheery. But "Helter
Skelter" isn't quite as cheery!
GW: Do you get bored with answering questions about the Beatles?
PAUL McCARTNEY: Sometimes you don't wanna go through that f***ing stuff again. You hear yourself for the 50th time go into your routine. But it's an occupational hazard. Like being a doctor at a party -- everyone's going to ask you about their health problems.
GW: Do you enjoy your fame?
PAUL McCARTNEY:You know what? When
we were in our mid-twenties, we were trying to build the Beatles thing
and we were just barely out of Liverpool and it was very exciting. But
I remember going on holiday and there were one or two places where you
still wouldn't be recognized. Greece was one of them, and then we went
back there on one holiday and suddenly it had all broken loose. And I realized
right then that I was cutting off all my exits. I was burning every single
bridge of privacy that had been quite important to me. And I remember consciously
facing a decision: "You're at the point of no return -- you either wind
it all down or you're going to be a Beatle for the rest of your life."
And I decided that would be okay. And by the way, don't tell anyone, but
I really do get a lot of privacy. The other bit of my life that isn't the
famous bit is more low-key than most people. You'll find me doing very,
very private stuff, like writing poetry and making trails in the woods.
Once, the Maharishi [the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru who
taught the Beatles transcendental meditation] gave us a book that he'd
written, and he wrote a message in it. It was one word: "Enjoy." I was
totally freaked out because this guruish guy's best advice was "enjoy."
But I think it is seriously great advice. If at the end of today we have
enjoyed it, it's better than having a s***ty day. That sounds horrifically
simplistic, but I'm a believer in that.
Unfortunately, I suddenly regret having said that, because I know what it's going to look like in print. It's going down in posterity that John was the cool one, and Paul was a bit soppy. But I do try to enjoy my life. It's out of choice and it's out of my background. And I figure it's better if you're at the end of you life and you can say, "I sort of enjoyed that." I know I'm not going to be able to go much further than "sort of." I can't say "That was just a f***ing great laugh, ha ha ha," because I would be lying. There would be other elements, or else you're just not human.
GW: What's next for Paul McCartney?
PAUL McCARTNEY: I don't know. Something
will happen. I've told this story before, but once in the early days of
the Beatles, we broke down on the motorway going back to Liverpool. One
of us said, "what are we gonna do now?" And another said, "Well, something'll
happen." Immediately a lorry came up and said, "Wanna lift, lads?" We all
piled in. I'm a great believer in "Something will happen." You can look
at it two ways, like the "enjoy" thing with the Maharishi. It's either
true, or you're totally naive. We always used to say, "Something will happen."
That's like the village idiots, but something always did happen. There's
a lot of magic about, you know what I mean? You've gotta believe that s***.
If you've come from where I've come, and what's happened to me has happened,
then you've gotta believe that.