November 28, 2021

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Paul McCartney Doesn’t Really Want to Stop the Show 

8 min read

His father, Jim, was a cotton salesman and an amateur jazz musician. Although Paul grew up in Liverpool on a working-class housing estate, he went to a good secondary school where he caught the bug for literature from his teacher Alan Durband, who had studied with F. R. Leavis at Cambridge. But, after a “pretty idyllic” childhood, his mother’s death cast a pall over the house that lasted for many months. Paul could hear “this sort of muffled sobbing coming from the next room, and the only person in that room was your dad.”

His own room was filling with music. In “The Lyrics,” McCartney talks about his delight early on in matching a descending chord progression (G to G7 to C) with an ascending melody and speculates that he might have picked up maneuvers like that from listening to his father, who had led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band—and from his “aunties” singing at holiday parties at home. In those days, though, a kid playing his first chords on a guitar and furtively writing his first lyrics was unusual. To turn this lonely preoccupation into something bigger, he had to go out looking for a friend and a band.

On July 6, 1957, McCartney, now fifteen, rode his bike to a nearby fair to hear a local skiffle group called the Quarry Men. He paid the threepence admission and watched them play “Come Go with Me,” by the Del Vikings, as well as “Maggie Mae” and “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie.” He noticed that there was one kid onstage who had real presence and talent. After the set, McCartney got himself an introduction; the kid’s name was John Lennon. McCartney nervily asked to have a go at his guitar, banging out a credible version of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.”

They had more in common than their talent and ambition. Lennon’s mother, Julia, died after being hit by a car, in 1958. (His father left the family when John was a child.) Lennon, more than a year older than McCartney, masked his wound with cocksure wit. And now he made a cunning, history-altering calculation. “It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line if I let him join,” Lennon said years later, “but he was good, so he was worth having.” McCartney was now part of the band.

Not long afterward, McCartney brought in a school friend, George Harrison, a younger guitar player. “George was the baby,” McCartney says. In 1960, the Quarry Men renamed themselves the Beatles and, two years later, nicked a crack drummer from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes named Richard Starkey, who went by Ringo Starr. All were working-class Liverpudlians (though John was posher, Ringo poorer). They had grown up listening to Frank Sinatra and Billy Cotton on the BBC. They heard their first rock-and-roll performers—Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter—on Radio Luxembourg, a commercial station that broadcast American music. They liked what McCartney calls the “slim and elegant” shape of Chuck Berry’s songwriting. Together, they figured out guitar chords as if they were ancient runes. When Paul and George heard that someone across town knew the fingering for the B7 chord—the essential chord to go with E and A for every blues-based song in the rock repertoire—they got on a bus to meet the guy and learn it.

First in Liverpool, and then for seven, eight hours a night in Hamburg, the Beatles cut their teeth, learning scores of covers and building a reputation. When they grew bored with singing other people’s songs and wanted to avoid overlapping with the set lists of other bands on the bill, they became more serious about their own songwriting. At first, the songs were nothing special. McCartney heard Joey Dee’s hit “Peppermint Twist” and answered it, writing “Pinwheel Twist.” But the seeds of originality were there. Lennon had worked out “One After 909,” which ended up on the “Let It Be” album, when he was about fifteen. “Fancy Me Chances with You,” a comic song they slapped together in 1958, ended up on the “Get Back” tapes, complete with exaggerated Scouse accents. What was clear from the start was that writing would be a matter of Lennon and McCartney.

“I remember walking through Woolton, the village where John was from, and saying to John, ‘Look, you know, it should just be you and me who are the writers,’ ” McCartney recalled. “We never said, ‘Let’s keep George out of it,’ but it was implied.”

As the Beatles gained a following, the sophistication of their songwriting deepened. McCartney, for instance, was taken with epistolary songs like Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” On a tour bus, he thought of the imperative phrase “Close your eyes” and went on from there. “We arrived at the venue, and with all the hustle and bustle around me—all the various bands and tour crews running about—I made my way to the piano and then somehow found the chords,” he recalls in “The Lyrics.” At first, it was “a straight country-and-western love song,” but then Lennon provided a unique swing to the verses by strumming his guitar in a tricky triplet rhythm. The result was “All My Loving.” The Beatles recorded the song in 1963, and when they came to New York the following year they played it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” More than seventy million people watched. Within two months, they had the Top Five songs on the Billboard charts and Beatlemania was under way.

“You know, it’s not too late to go back to school, sweetie, and become a statue of law or medicine.”
Cartoon by Liana Finck

The Beatles revelled not only in their music but in the fun, the just-us camaraderie, the inside jokes. “I don’t actually want to be a living legend,” McCartney once said. Fun had been the idea. “I came in this to get out of having a job. And to pull birds. And I pulled quite a few birds, and got out of having a job.” Lennon compared their tours to Fellini’s “Satyricon.”

What was striking about the Beatles was the inventiveness of their melodies and chord progressions. Every month, it seemed, they became more distinct from everyone else. The development from album to album—from three-chord teen-age love songs to intricate ballads to the tape loops and synthesizers of their psychedelic moment—both caught the Zeitgeist and created it. And they had a sense of style to match: the suits, the boots, the haircuts all became era-defining. Even classical mavens were impressed. Leonard Bernstein went on television to analyze the structure of “Good Day Sunshine.” Ned Rorem, writing in The New York Review of Books, compared a “minute harmonic shift” in “Here, There and Everywhere” to Monteverdi’s madrigal “A un giro sol,” and a deft key change in “Michelle” to a moment in Poulenc.

McCartney waves away such high-flown talk, but he isn’t above suggesting that the Beatles worked from a broader range of musical languages than their peers—not least the Rolling Stones. “I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are,” he told me. “I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.”

The Beatles worked at a furious pace. Their producer, George Martin, brought deep experience to the process, along with an unerring ability to help the band translate their ideas into reality. As McCartney recalls, “George would say, ‘Be here at ten, tune up, have a cup of tea.’ At ten-thirty you’d start.” Two songs were recorded by lunch, and often two more afterward. “Once you get into that little routine, it’s hard, but then you enjoy it. It’s a very good way to work. Because suddenly at the end of every day you’ve got four songs.”

By 1966, the Beatles had tired of the road. The fans nightly screaming their hysterical adulation sounded to McCartney like “a million seagulls.” As the band came to think of themselves more as artists than as pop stars, they saw performing in stadiums as an indignity. “It had been sort of brewing, you know, this distaste for schlepping around and playing in the rain with the danger of electricity killing you,” McCartney told me. “You kind of just look at yourself and go, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a musician, you know. I’m not a rag doll for children to scream at.’ ”

On August 29, 1966, the Beatles played Candlestick Park, in San Francisco. The band stood on a stage at second base, far removed from their fans, and ended their half-hour set with Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “It was just a dispiriting show, we just went through the motions,” McCartney told me. They came off the stage, he said, and “we got loaded into a kind of meat wagon, just a chrome box with nothing in it, except doors. We were the meat.” The Beatles never played for a paying audience again.

The divorce rate among musical collaborators is high, and the breaking point is hard to predict. In 1881, Richard D’Oyly Carte, a leading impresario of the West End, built the Savoy Theatre, on the Strand, to showcase the comic operas that made W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan famous. Nine years and many triumphant openings later, Gilbert, the librettist, took umbrage at the extravagance of the rug that Carte had installed in the Savoy’s lobby, and wound up in an intense dispute with Sullivan, the composer. After the inevitable unearthing of other resentments, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan, “The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived.” They soldiered miserably on for a little longer, petering out with a mediocrity, “The Grand Duke.”

The Beatles never sank to mediocre work; they went out on the mastery of “Let It Be” and “Abbey Road.” Nor did the band’s dissolution have any singular trigger—any carpet. But perhaps the problems started when in August, 1967, their manager, Brian Epstein, died of a drug overdose. Although Epstein was only thirty-two, the band saw him as a unifying, even paternal, figure. Eventually, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr hired the Stones’ manager, Allen Klein, to run the group’s affairs; McCartney sensed that Klein wasn’t to be trusted, and insisted on doing business with Lee and John Eastman, the father and the brother of Linda Eastman, his soon-to-be wife.

The band’s creative core was also drifting apart. Lennon-McCartney was no longer an “eyeball to eyeball” collaboration. Once, they had worked in constant proximity—on tour buses or in shared hotel rooms. Now Lennon wrote at his estate in the suburbs, McCartney at his house in North London. They still got together to give each other’s most recent songs a polish, or to suggest a different line, or a bridge—the “middle eight.” The results could be sublime, as when McCartney added “woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head . . .” to Lennon’s “A Day in the Life.” But the process had changed. And Harrison, who was developing as a songwriter, was growing frustrated with his modest quota of songs per album. After hanging out in upstate New York with The Band, he believed he had glimpsed a more communal and equitable version of musical life.

David Remnick
2021-10-11 06:00:00

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