The Billboard Q&A: Paul McCartney
As far as Sir Paul McCartney is concerned, words like "take it easy" are reserved for the Eagles.As far as Sir Paul McCartney is concerned, words like "take it easy" are reserved for the Eagles. During the past three years alone the ex-Beatle has released a pair of pop albums -- the Grammy-nominated "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" in 2005 and this year's "Memory Almost Full" -- as well as the 2006 classical piece "Ecce Cor Meum." He also collaborated on albums by Tony Bennett, George Benson and Al Jarreau, and George Michael.
This fall McCartney released an expanded edition of "Memory Almost Full," adding three bonus tracks and a second disc of videos and live footage, along with a three-DVD retrospective of his solo career, "The McCartney Years," that's loaded with rare and unreleased material. And he had a piece in the DVD rollout of the Beatles' "Help." There are musicians a third his age (65) who aren't working at nearly the same level, and we can rest assured that the days of "doing the garden, digging the weeds" are still a long way off for this knighted former mop top.
What accounts for the creative spurt you seem to be on the past few years?
Paul McCartney: It's simple: I really enjoy what I do. And every so often I just get sort of inspired. I never know why or how, but I think one of the great things is that music is a great healer and it's a great sort of therapy. Often if you're going through something difficult -- as you can imagine without me laying too much of a point on it, this last year's been pretty difficult -- to get into your music is a great thing. So I think the last couple years I've been very glad to have my music and I've been putting stuff into it that seems to have added up to something.
Do you feel like you're getting inspiration as well as healing from these hard times?
McCartney: I think that's true. You look at the lives of the great composers and they were not a lot of fun, some of them. Great painters, too; I was looking at a fantastic painting by Rembrandt the other day in a museum, and I was reminded by the blurb next to it that he died penniless and had a terribly bloody time, but he was one hell of a painter. So that's why I say therapy; you're feeling bad, you skulk off to a corner with your guitar and you write something, and somehow you seem to take yourself through it and you work through it with your music. I thank heaven for that. I feel very, very blessed. People always used to call it a gift, the gift of music, and I think that's very much, more and more, how I see it.
That being said, "Memory Almost Full" isn't exactly "Blood on the Tracks," is it?
McCartney: That's funny, isn't it? I still seem to come out positive and optimistic. I think that's my character. But [the divorce from Heather Mills] is something I don't want to talk about, and really for one reason. I have a baby daughter ... a four-year-old, and I do not want to excite the envelope in any direction whatsoever. I'm just sort of keeping the dignified silence.
So, how did "The McCartney Years" come about?
McCartney: For a long time people have been saying to me, "When can we get ahold of that video?" or "Is that video available? Is that released?" And I just sort of thought, "No..." I was always a little bit like, "One day, yeah, I'll do it. Don't worry." But then a couple of guys got in touch with me and said "Look, we think it's time. We want to work on it. Let us put forward a proposal of what we would do for you to look at."
It took a long time to put together. They started cleaning it all up, and then they cleaned the sound mixes up and then they started showing me and that was like, "Jeez, I've never heard it like this. I've never seen it like this." So I started to get excited and I fell for the whole idea. I just said, "Go to it boys, let's do it."
How involved did you stay while it was going on?
McCartney: I mostly sort of approved and smiled and admired what they were doing. I kind of went in every month and did an overview of what they were doing, and I just got fascinated with everything. Then they wanted me to do some commentaries, which is another option on the DVDs where you get my memories. So I was only too happy to do that. They just played them for me and I had headphones and a mic in front of me and I just said, "I remember this. Wow, this is amazing" and whatever memory it brought back to me. I enjoyed that.
And I didn't like the artwork originally, so we got a guy called Andie Airfix, who I've done quite a bit of work with. I asked him to try and come up with a concept, and he took this mad idea of using one of my eyes. I'm sort of amazed with the way people could tell it was me.
What did you encounter in doing the project that really blew you away?
McCartney: I think the short answer is, "everything." Obviously, everything with Linda in it was particularly heartwarming, realizing her major contribution to everything once you see it all en masse. I hadn't seen "Tug of War" in awhile, which was lovely. It was good to see things like "Say Say Say" with Michael Jackson, and of course Linda and our daughter Heather make an appearance in that, so that was really cool.
One of the menus is just this little thing I did in the back yard of Abbey Road... me singing old rock 'n' roll favorites of mine, a Buddy Holly number and things like that. I'm sure I could remember about 20 to 50 other moments, but I think I'll leave that to whoever gets it to check out.
You used Ringo pretty liberally as a guest star in your videos.
McCartney: Yeah, that was very good. "Take It Away" and "Beautiful Night," he kindly agreed to be the drummer in those, especially as he'd [played on] "Take It Away." It was just fabulous. [Beatles producer] George Martin even appears in one of them.
Are there any of the songs you felt were underexposed that may have a revived life from being in the package?
McCartney: I think "Take It Away" kind of stands out. There's one called "Come On People," which is not very well known, looks sort of reborn here. It's nice to just see them in today's light, they seem to stand up quite well. In truth, that's what I was dreading about the project and one of the reasons I put it off; "Oh no, God, there's not enough good stuff yet."
But looking at it, I think some of the stuff I was a bit scared of I didn't need to be scared of. I remember being particularly scared of "My Love," which was a sort of zany thing, but it's alright now. There were a couple where I thought, "Oh my God, they've over-made me up. I wanted to look natural and I look like someone out of vaudeville." But even that stuff looks alright. It's got a sort of vintage quality to it that seems to work. It's like an old snapshot album; you're looking at yourself from many years ago. I think it has quite a warm quality in the end. A lot of the stuff stands up.
You must have had an interesting perspective on videos in the '80s and beyond because it was no stranger to you. You did videos -- you even did movies -- with the Beatles, so it wasn't quite as revolutionary of a concept as it was in the U.S.
McCartney: The difference was you suddenly had to be a short filmmaker as well and not all of us liked it. The process was quite wearing. You'd sort of farm it out to three or four directors who you thought were hot and [one] would come back with -- it was a bit like a comedy sketch -- "I see you on a mountain top in Tibet wearing nothing but a loincloth. The Sun God shines down..." and you're going "Oh no..." Then the next one was, "I see you in a scene from the Keystone Cops. You're hanging off the back of a wagon, it's all shot in fast-motion black-and-white." Or it was, "I see you as a scene from 'Casablanca'...I see you as The Terminator." You're just desperate to get something where you can go, "This looks alright." Occasionally there would be a good idea... and the rest of the time there was an element of embarrassment 'cause you thought of yourself as a singer, not a film star.
Was it different when you were doing it in the '60s?
McCartney: Yeah, it wasn't quite so important, so we would say, "Oh, look, just get a camera and we'll get girls with grass skirts and we'll just stand there in our Sgt. Pepper's costumes and sing 'Hello Goodbye.'" There wasn't that much thought that went into it, which made it a little bit more innocent and less precious.
Of the live material on "The McCartney Years," it's kind of brave to include your Live Aid performance in the set.
McCartney: Oh my God, the Live Aid was just one of those things I'd sooner forget. I came in from the country and sort of drove in and every window in Britain was open with televisions on and Live Aid blaring out. It was a national event and I knew I was gonna be on it, but I didn't take anyone with me. I didn't have a roadie. I didn't even have anyone to make sure my mic or speakers were working. And Bob Geldof just said, "Well, your piano's behind that curtain. You're on." There I was in front of the world...and I heard in my monitor very ominous sounds of roadies talking, "Is this the plug?" I figured, "I'll just keep plugging on" but I couldn't hear myself. I couldn't hear anything. And then it suddenly became clear my mic wasn't on, but the dear old audience helped me out, God bless 'em. They all sang it. So I escaped by the skin of my teeth. It was sort of a nightmare. If you asked me for three nervous moments, I think that'd be top.
On top of "The McCartney Years" you also have the deluxe edition of "Memory Almost Full." How did that come about?
McCartney: That's really cool. A lot of people have heard and liked the album, which is very pleasing for me. But there's a lot of people who don't have it, so the idea was "Let's just sort of put together a deluxe package," seeing how the holiday season's coming up, and we put on some live stuff that I've been doing recently as a sort of bonus, and the two videos and some extra tracks, so it is a completely new album. And, for people who don't have the other one they get the regular album as well. I like the videos (for the singles "Dance Tonight" and "Ever Present Past") so they'll get a little more attention.
How did "Ever Present Past," your new single, come about?
McCartney: It was really me just sort of writing a pop song. I was just trying to keep it real simple and do something very basic, and when I got to the sort of "Every Present Past" idea it kind of took on a little more significance than I intended because I guess I do have an ever-present past. So it started to be about that and things I did when I was a kid and stuff. Then I got into a video, which I enjoyed doing very much; me dancing around with these girls who learned all my movies. It was very fun, actually.
Is there any news about the Beatles' catalog going online?
McCartney: I think it's all happening soon. There are contractual things, and you'll find that someone in the loop maybe doesn't want to give what they should give, so it's negotiating. But I think we're kinda set. I think that Apple is set to do their bit. The whole thing is primed, ready to go. There's just maybe sort of one little sticking point left, and I think that's being cleared up as we speak, so it shouldn't be too long. But, you know, you've got to get these things right. You don't want to do something that's as cool as that and in three years time you think, "Oh God, why did we do that?" So it's down to the fine-tuning, but I'm pretty sure it'll be happening next year, 2008.
What's next for you, musically?
McCartney: I'm actually doing some recording with my son [James]. We're just looking at the idea of him making an album. He's doing it all. He's writing it all, laying it all. It's sensational. But there's nothing set yet. We don't know if it'll work. The plan is for me to just do some recording with him, and it's really exciting. I'm really loving it.