Paul McCartney strums an acoustic guitar on a sofa in his London office, humming to himself as he tries to recall a melody from his adolescence – one of the first, never-recorded songs he wrote with his teenage friend John Lennon, on their way to starting the Beatles in Liverpool. "It was like..." McCartney says, then hits a rockabilly rhythm on his guitar and sings in a familiar, robust voice: "They said our love was just fun/The day that our friendship begun/There's no blue moon that I can see/There's never been in history/Because our love was just fun."
"'Just Fun'," McCartney says, announcing the title proudly. "I had a little school-exercise book where I wrote those lyrics down. And in the top right-hand corner of the page, I put 'A Lennon-McCartney original'. It was humble beginnings," he admits. "We developed from that."
It's an extraordinary moment – but McCartney, 74 and currently on his latest tour of American arenas and stadiums, is never far from a performance.
Over two long interviews – first in London, then a week later in Philadelphia, backstage before a concert – McCartney often bursts into song to make a point: hitting chords from another of his teenage tunes on guitar, singing a slice of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say", and imitating the young Mick Jagger at an early Rolling Stones gig. On one occasion, McCartney does an impression of Lennon doing a Gene Vincent number during the Beatles' bar-band days in Hamburg, Germany.
"It's always held a fascination for me, getting up in front of people and performing," McCartney says in Philadelphia. "From the beginning, I was trying to figure it out: What's the best way to keep true to yourself yet have people on your side?" He is wearing a dark-blue short-sleeve shirt and jeans, his bare feet propped on a coffee table. His trailer has a curtain for a door, and visitors announce themselves by ringing a red cowbell on a table near the entrance because, he points out, "You can't knock on a curtain."
McCartney has just finished a soundcheck that was a show in itself: 12 songs, almost all of which won't be played at the concert that night, including the Beatles' 1964 ballad "I'll Follow the Sun" and his 1971 curio "Ram On". He is on the road again with his band of the past 15 years – guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray, keyboard player Paul "Wix" Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. – on the 50th anniversary of the summer that he, Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr quit the road. ("We'd had enough of playing rain-soaked stages with lousy PA's," McCartney says of the Beatles' last tour, which ended at San Francisco's Candlestick Park in August 1966.)
That manic era is celebrated in a new Ron Howard documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, and a companion album, The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, with newly mixed live songs from 1964 and '65. (Disclosure: I wrote liner notes for that record.) McCartney also put out Pure McCartney, a set that surveys his solo and Wings work. And in October, he caps his touring year at Desert Trip, the festival where he is appearing with old friends including Bob Dylan, the Stones and Neil Young.
"It's fossil rock," McCartney cracks, "but it's exciting. Definitely gotta ring Neil, say, 'What do you reckon, man?' "
In his London office, McCartney is surrounded by his roots and history – there is Beatles and Wings memorabilia, and a vintage jukebox loaded with 78s by Fats Domino, Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley – but he mostly speaks of his songwriting and the stage in the present tense. He dissects his recent collaborations with Kanye West and mentions that he was "looking at some lyric ideas" for his next album. "I can write all over the place. I've got a lot of ideas on the go."
But the Beatles are always nearby, as a touchstone and renewing memory. "It's good talking with you," McCartney says at the end of one session, then recalls an encounter with Lennon a few years after the band broke up. "He hugged me. It was great, because we didn't normally do that. He said, 'It's good to touch.' I always remembered that – it's good to touch."
Why is performing still so vital to you at this point in your life?
This idea of the great little band – it's quite attractive. A basic unit is at the heart of the music we all love. It's in the halls of Nashville, the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg. One of the pleasures for me, when we take our bow at the end of the evening, is there's five of us.
And I've learned some lessons. I used to be terrified of making a mistake. I've learned that it's OK. The audience actually likes it.
What was the last big mistake you made onstage?
I don't remember the last one. But I had a show in Paris where I started off with the second verse of "Penny Lane" instead of the first. It should have been "a barber showing photographs". So I thought, "I'll swap the verses – do verse two, then verse one and we'll go into the middle bit." But the band correctly thought, "He skipped verse one – we'll go into the middle."
It was a car crash in Penny Lane. I had to go, "Stop, stop. We've totally screwed it up. We're gonna start again." The audience went wild. A friend, Cilla Black, who just passed away, came to me after the show: "I loved that bit. Do you do it every night?"
Did you have that urge to entertain, to please, as a boy?
I suppose so. If you go into music, it's very rare that you're trying something that you don't care if people like it. It surprises me that there are some people who don't want to be liked – there are certain people, I'm sure, but I think it's just an image. It's the line in "Hey Jude" about being cool and making your world a bit colder.
In the Beatles, I was very much the guy who pushed it. It's a damn good job I did. No one would have got off their asses to come out from the suburbs into the city to make Let It Be. The film turned out pretty weird, but it's a good record.
A lot of the things we did in Hamburg were instigated by me, then taken up by the other guys. We worked in this little beer hall where nobody came in. There was a sign that said 'Beer, 1.50' marks or something. You'd see students come in and go, "Ooh, can't afford it." They were looking for something cheaper. So we really had to work. The manager of the place said, "Mach schau" ["Make show"]. We used to do "Dance in the Street", the Gene Vincent song. John was actually the one who said, "I'll do this – [claps hands] 'Gonna dance in the street tonight! Hey, yeah, everybody! C'mon, c'mon!' " That started to pull the students. We figured, "We got 'em sitting down. Now we'll play our stuff." And they liked it.
What is the dynamic in your band? Who challenges you? Can someone say, "We should do it this way"?
It doesn't work like that. That was the Beatles. Wings was less challenged. Now it's kind of understood: "It's your band." What I do to balance that is throw it open when we're rehearsing. Sometimes there's things I don't want to do. But the guys would say, "Gotta do it. This will work."
What have they suggested that worked?
"Golden Slumbers" through "The End" [from Abbey Road]. It was a bit of work. I was being lazy. Rusty suggested "Day Tripper". I didn't want to do it because the bass part's very hard. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is the same. Those are the two in the show I didn't want to do. But the guys said it would be great.
At the same time, I'm a dictator. And nobody has a problem with that – I don't think [laughs]. We've been together now longer than the Beatles or Wings. Something's happening right. And I think we get better, because we get simpler.
Can you imagine touring like this at 80? It used to be that doing this at 40 seemed...
Unimaginable – and unseemly. Mind you, when I was 17, there was a guy in John's art school who was 24 – who I felt so sorry for. I grieved for him [laughs]. He was so old.
Doris Day, who I know a little bit, once said to me, "Age is an illusion." I reminded her of it recently – I was wishing her a happy birthday. People say age is a number. It's a big number the older you get. But if it doesn't interfere, I'm not bothered. You can ignore it. That's what I do.
You mentioned the Let It Be film. Is there any chance it will ever be rereleased?
I keep thinking we've done it. We've talked about it for so long.
What's the holdup?
I've no bloody idea. I keep bringing it up, and everyone goes, "Yeah, we should do that." The objection should be me. I don't come off well.
It suggests that, with the Beatles' work, you are not as in control of the legacy as people would assume.
Apple [Corps] is a democracy. I'm one of the votes. The Beatles stuff does itself. Someone will say, "Ron Howard is interested in doing a film." I get to say yes or no. My preference is yes – he's good.
Does it have to be a unanimous decision – you, Ringo, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison?
Yeah. That's the secret of the Beatles – can't do three to one. During the breakup was when it got screwed up – we did three against one. But now it has to be unanimous. The two girls are Beatles.
Are there things where you automatically say no? And what kind of veto can you have over the Beatles' songs when you don't own the publishing?
We don't have a veto. But we made it clear that we like it to be treated tastefully – "If that's possible, sir." They can be great offers monetarily, but we draw the line on some things, like a gas-guzzling car. I personally wouldn't do McDonald's, just because of my [vegetarian] beliefs.
The Love show [in Las Vegas] was nearly that. George knew this Cirque du Soleil guy and took me to see a show. I was blown away. I was sold on the idea [of a Beatles production]. But the climate was, "No, it's sacrosanct. You can't do this. You must not." I went, "Hang on, it's not your music."
People can relate to the Beatles in a very—
Possessive way. We never listened to that. You would get fans who'd want something and you'd go, "No, I'm sorry. I'm eating dinner. You've got to go away." They'd go, "Well, we buy your records." We said, "Stop buying them, if that's the trade-off." We were always like that, Ringo more than anyone. They would come to his house, and he'd go, "Fuck off" and slam the door. He would not have any of it. You have to draw the line. Or your sanity goes.
How would you characterise your relationship with Yoko now?
It's really good, actually. We were kind of threatened [then]. She was sitting on the amps while we were recording. Most bands couldn't handle that. We handled it, but not amazingly well, because we were so tight. We weren't sexist, but girls didn't come to the studio – they tended to leave us to it. When John got with Yoko, she wasn't in the control room or to the side. It was in the middle of the four of us.
Yet you contributed that quote on the cover of John and Yoko's Two Virgins album ("When two great saints meet, it is a humbling experience").
My big awakening was, if John loves this woman, that's gotta be right. I realised any resistance was something I had to overcome. It was a little hard at first. Gradually, we did. Now it's like we're mates. I like Yoko. [Laughs] She's so Yoko.
How often do the four of you meet to discuss Beatles affairs?
Not often. I see Ringo a lot, because he's a lovely boy. We all see each other socially, go to parties. As for meetings, I'm a bit detached from it. I went off Apple during the heavy breakup period – I sent John Eastman in and said, "You tell me what everyone is saying, because I can't bear to be sitting at that table." It was too painful, like seeing the death of your favourite pet.
The way it works now, I listen to all the records. I will be in on the approval process. But most of the work for the Beatles has been done.
Is there anything left in the vaults that is worth releasing?
That's the question: Is it worthwhile? The thing about the Beatles – they were a damn hot little band. No matter what you hear, even stuff that we thought was really bad – it doesn't sound so bad now. Because it's the Beatles.
Could you do something with the raw tapes from the White Album or Sgt. Pepper, telling the story behind those albums the way Bob Dylan released his 1965-66 sessions as a box set last year?
The talk between the takes – I've always loved that. We always had this two-track tape recorder running in case we came up with a little jam. "Take 36, what was that like?" But it was actually a chronicle of our dialogue. There's one bit I particularly liked: We were doing "I Saw Her Standing There". I went, "I can't do it. I haven't got my plec." We didn't call them guitar picks, we called them plectrums. John said, "Where is it?" – this in our thick Liverpool accents. "I think I left it in my suitcase." John goes, "Ah, soft ass." "Soft ass? I'll give you a soft ass."
That's very schoolyard.
The Beatles became more worldly. But it's nice to see the school stuff, the banter. To answer your question, is there any more? There's a few things. Is it worthwhile? I don't know.
Would you ever consider doing a tour with Ringo?
It's never come up. We come together for things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But to actually tour together – leave well enough alone.
Too many wrong signals, like "Beatles reunion"?
I don't think either of us have ever thought why do it, or why not. It's just that our roads are parallel, with intersections and diversions. He's a great drummer, man. That's the thing about Ringo. He has a feel that nobody else has. As to going out on the road, it might be complicated.
You will be at Desert Trip with the Rolling Stones. What do you see when you go to a Stones show now?
It's a mirage. I see the little band I always knew. You've got Mick, Keith and Charlie, who were always there, and Ronnie – he's earned his Stone-ness. I see a good little rock & roll band – not as good as the Beatles [grins], but good.
What potential did you see in 1963, when you and John gave them "I Wanna Be Your Man" to record? It was the Stones' first Top 20 single in the U.K.
You looked at all of the other bands on the scene. We knew who was no good. We knew who was competition. It paid to know what was going on. We'd hear about the Stones. They played at the Station Hotel [in London]. We went down to see them one night, just stood in the audience. I remember Mick onstage in a grey jacket doing his hand-clappy thing [claps hands in quick rhythm].
The guy who turned the Beatles down at Decca Records happened to ask George if he knew anyone worth signing. We were friends with them, and I just thought "I Wanna Be Your Man" would be good for them. I knew they did Bo Diddley stuff. And they made a good job of it. And I like to show off, say we gave them their first hit. And we did.
Now great little bands like yours and the Stones play gargantuan venues. Can you imagine touring small halls with just new material? Is that a risk worth taking?
That is no risk. That is attractive. This is one of the things that makes you play great, when you're packed together. We knew that in the Beatles. We always used to record in Abbey Road, Studio 2. But for "Yer Blues", we were talking about this tightness, this packed-in-a-tin thing. So we got in a little cupboard – a closet that had microphone leads and things, with a drum kit, amps turned to the walls, one mic for John. We did "Yer Blues" live and it was really good.
To do new material – that's taking it one step further. This is what I am saying about the Beatles things – these ideas just arrive. I don't necessarily sit around thinking of them. That's a new idea that's just arrived. You proposed it. And we might take it up.
In "All Day", one of the tracks you did with Kanye West, there is a part that you originally wrote on guitar in 1969 but didn't use at the time. What is the story behind that lick?
Linda and I were having our first baby together, Mary. She was recuperating – I'm sitting around eating chips with my guitar in the clinic, goofing around with it. And there was a picture on the wall that I'd been looking at for days – Picasso, "The Old Guitarist". The guy held the guitar like this [strikes the pose from the painting], and a lightbulb went off in my head: "What chord is that?" It looked like it was two strings. "You know what would be cool? To write a song with only two fingers." So I wrote this thing [plays the melody].
I was telling Kanye this story. I whistled it for him. His engineer was recording it, and it went into the pool of ingredients. Kanye was just collecting things. We weren't going to sit down and write a song so much as talk and spark ideas off each other. It was only when I got this song, the Rihanna record ["FourFiveSeconds"] and "Only One", the three tracks we did, that I went, "I get it. He's taken my little whistle-y thing." It returned to me as an urban hip-hop riff. I love that record.
Did you feel like a true collaborator or a sideman? You're used to running a session, seeing a song all the way through.
We had a few afternoons at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The only deal I made with Kanye was that if it doesn't work, we won't tell anyone. I didn't know his system. I'd heard things like, "He's got a room full of guys working on riffs, and he walks around going, 'I like that one'." It reminded me of Andy Warhol, these artists who use students to paint their backgrounds and things. It's a well-used technique. I thought, "I don't know how I'm going to fit into that, but let's see. Here goes nothing."
Do you think Kanye is a genius?
I don't throw that word around [laughs]. I think he's a great artist. Take My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I played it when I was cooking, and it was like, "This is good. There's some really innovative stuff." When the word came from his people, through my people [laughs], I thought, "Let's give it a go."
Do you listen to much hip-hop for pleasure? Or to keep up?
I listen to it for, you could call it, education. I hear a lot of it and go to concerts occasionally. I went to see Jay Z and Kanye when they toured. I've seen Drake live. It's the music of now.
Does it feel as important to you in this era as the music you made in 1966 and '67? People often say rock is dead, that it's had its moment as a historical force.
Time will tell if it's as good. That's not for me to say. But I think it's exciting. You go to a club and hear a great hip-hop record – it definitely does the business. I wouldn't want to critique it versus "A Day in the Life". For me, it's like reggae in that I wouldn't particularly feel I could do it. I would leave that to Bob Marley, to the people that are it. It's the same with hip-hop. It was exciting to work with Kanye, to have a contribution to "All Day". [Smiles] It's the best riff on the record.
In your work with younger artists like Kanye or Dave Grohl, do you feel the challenge that you had within the Beatles, especially from John? Has that ever been replaced in any way?
No. I don't think it could be. At some point, you have to realise, some things just can't be. John and me, we were kids growing up together, in the same environment with the same influences: He knows the records I know, I know the records he knows. You're writing your first little innocent songs together. Then you're writing something that gets recorded. Each year goes by, and you get the cooler clothes. Then you write the cooler song to go with the cooler clothes. We were on the same escalator – on the same step of the escalator, all the way. It's irreplacable – that time, friendship and bonding.
Are there people you can turn to now for advice about a new song or album?
In music, no. I rely on the experience and knowledge of what would have happened if I'd brought it to the Beatles. That is the best gauge.
What about life in general?
I have some very good friends. Lorne Michaels and I are pretty close. I can always go for a drink with him – we can talk pretty genuinely. I have relatives, my brother and my wife. Nancy is very strong that way. But music, no. It's very difficult. You can't top John. And John couldn't top Paul.
Your last studio album, New, was a musically upbeat, emotionally positive record. But it came after a few albums that were much darker, even sadder, like Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Was it hard to write songs after Linda's death and during the personal difficulties that followed? [McCartney divorced his second wife, Heather Mills, in 2008.]
The thing about New was Nancy. That's who was new. It was a good awakening. It made me want to write positive songs. Music is like a psychiatrist. You can tell your guitar things that you can't tell people. And it will answer you with things people can't tell you. But there's a value to sad songs. Something bad happens – you don't want to repress it. So you unload it on yourself, with a guitar. I've got a couple on my next album which are a bit – [makes a shocked look]. But it works, because with songs, you can do that. That's the blues, where you put stuff.
Your youngest daughter, Beatrice, is turning 13 this year. How aware is she of your history?
It's a funny thing with your kids. "OK, Dad is famous – boring." It doesn't go much beyond that. If they come to a concert, it's like, "Oh, I liked 'Back in the U.S.S.R.' " Or "What was that song?" "It's called 'All My Loving'." "I liked that one." As they get older, it dawns on them. When they go to college, their friends will say, "I like Ram." "What's that?" "It's your dad's album."
What is your daily regimen as a father when you're not on tour?
My kids are grown up except the youngest, and that is half the time, because it's a custody situation. I try to be full-on. I get up in the morning and make her breakfast, drive to school. I check in with the teachers, see how it's going. I donate the prize at the silent auction. It's straightforward dad stuff. At the end of that period, I get on a plane, come to America and be a rock star.
How hard was it to balance your music and fame when you and Linda were raising a family in the Seventies on a farm?
It was more hippie culture. We were kind of home-schooling. I'd teach them to write. I enjoyed that. Once they got to school, we'd take tutors when we went on tour. I'd have to go to the school, find out what they were going to cover – geography, history, math – and organise it as sensibly as I could. We made it work. Linda and I always said, "The main thing is they have good hearts." They all do. They're also pretty smart.
The Beatles' children – yours, Sean and Julian Lennon, Dhani Harrison, Zak Starkey – have turned out strong and sensible, often with their own music careers. How did the biggest band in the world succeed as parents amid that madness?
It's the Liverpool roots. We had strong families. My family was particularly strong. John's aunt was strict, I thought, in a good way. Ringo was an only child, but his mum and dad were great. Growing up in Liverpool, which is very working-class, you can't get above yourself.
My family had loads of kids. You were always being handed a baby. You got used to it. John didn't have that, but he learned later. The four of us coming together, with all these roots – there was a sensibility that we would want to do it right, in the family way. We had a common goal, a common wisdom, in life and in music.
Do you have a favourite album that you feel has been underrated or misunderstood? When you reissued "Ram" in 2012, it got raves, but when it first came out, in 1971, it took a beating.
That album popped into my mind. But I never give myself time to sit down and go through the list. Nearest I get to that is looking for stuff to do in the show, like "Love Me Do" – "We should try that one."
You are at a rare juncture – old enough to see some of your work kicked around, then praised decades later.
I do albums and, like a fool, I listen to what people say about them. A New York Times critic damned Sgt. Pepper when it came out. The terrible thing is it puts you off your own stuff. It plays into your self-doubts, even though you overcame those self-doubts to write that song. You're left with this smell of the music – a whiff of something not very good – and that sticks with you. But then you get rescued. A while ago, one of my nephews, Jay, said, "Ram's my all-time favourite album." I thought it was dead and gone, stinking over there in the dung pit. So I listened to it. "Wow, I get what I was doing."
Were you disappointed that your last single, "Hope for the Future", was not a hit?
Yeah. It was something I thought would really do well. It didn't.
Have you had to change your expectations as to what constitutes a hit compared with what you knew in 1966?
I've given up trying to figure it out. You can't. Like this Pure album – I'll get rung up: "It's Number Three." "Wow, that's cool, man. What did it sell?" "15,000." I think inside, "It's a joke, man – 15,000 a day was not good then."
But that's the new world in record sales, unless you're Rihanna or Beyoncé. I'll put out my next album, but I won't think I'm gonna sell a lot. I'm putting it out because I have songs that I like. And I will do my best job. The scene has changed, but it doesn't disturb me, because I had the best of it – selling 100,000 a day on something like "Mull of Kintyre". I've had the joy of that. If I don't have it now, it's not just about me. All of my contemporaries, who are still pretty cool, don't have it, because things have moved on.
And you know what? We had it. And it was great.
From issue #779, available now. Top photo: Max Vadukul.