BUOYED BY CRITICAL APPROVAL AND TOURING WITH A STRONG NEW BAND, AN EX-BEATLE IS BACK IN STRIDE
England was basking in an unseasonably warm and bright afternoon one play last week. Paul McCartney, however, was spending it enveloped by darkness and fog, as he had done for most of the preceding month. Yet the famous ex-Beatle’s mood could hardly have been sunnier. On Soundstage 6 at the Goldcrest Elstree Studio complex north of London, shrouded by dry ice, McCartney enthusiastically kicked into a performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He was rehearsing for his most significant career move since the breakup of The Beatles in 1970. Buoyed by the critical success of his latest album, Flowers in the Dirt, and excited about the sound of his new band, McCartney is embarking on a world tour that opens this week in Oslo with a two-hour concert featuring many of The Beatles’ greatest hits—some, like Sgt. Pepper, which he has never before performed live. McCartney, 47, says that he finally feels comfortable performing Beatles material again. “It was just too painful, with all that went on after the breakup, to chirpily sing a little Beatle song,” he told Maclean's last week in an exclusive interview. “But time is a great healer.”
The Paul McCartney World Tour, which travels to Toronto on Dec. 7 and Montreal on Dec. 9, is a promising new chapter in the career of one of rock’s legendary performers. In a wide-ranging interview, he said that he had gained a new confidence since the June release of Flowers in the Dirt, which has won him back the critics’ favor. The album is partly the result of a collaboration with acerbic British rocker Elvis Costello, whom McCartney credits with helping him to sharpen his songwriting. But McCartney revealed one concern on the eve of his first tour in 13 years—a continuing struggle over control of some of The Beatles’ material. McCartney told Maclean’s that on the American leg of the tour, he intends to meet with singer Michael Jackson to complain about the way the American singer, who owns the rights to 159 Beatles songs, has allowed some of them to be used for TV commercials.
Like The Rolling Stones’ current Steel Wheels tour, the McCartney tour promises to offer something for young and old alike: a smattering of new songs among a wealth of classics, from I Saw Her Standing There and Can’t Buy Me Love to Get Back and Hey Jude. Although more modest than Steel Wheels in terms of pyrotechnics and audience size—the largest will be in Toronto’s 60,000-seat SkyDome—McCartney’s tour features some dazzling effects of its own. Each two-hour concert opens with an 11-minute film retrospective of McCartney’s career— projected on three giant screens and with synchronized images and music—compiled by director Richard Lester, who made The Beatles movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Later in the show, as the band performs Back in the U.S.S.R., a massive Soviet flag with flowers instead of a hammer rises from the back of the stage. And as McCartney sings his 1973 composition Jet, a replica of a Harrier bomber projects out from the stage and drops a load of roses on the audience.
During the rehearsal last week, McCartney and his talented new band ran through many of the 30 songs that each concert comprises. The group, which has been together since January, consists of musicians with whom McCartney has been making records for the past two years. Joining him and his 47-year-old wife, Linda, are Hamish Stuart, 39, formerly of the Average White Band; Robbie McIntosh, 31, a onetime member of The Pretenders; and Wix (Paul Wickens), 33, and Chris Whitten, 30, both of whom played recently with American singer Edie Brickell. The band gives a tougher sound to McCartney’s solo material, including Band on the Run and Live and Let Die, and a fresh approach to Beatles songs. On the tour, McCartney plays bass, piano and guitar. He performs on the electric guitar for the first time since The Beatles appeared in Hamburg in the early 1960s. And his vocals in the rehearsal had much of the raw energy that characterized his early singing.
The new band may be the best outfit McCartney has worked with since The Beatles. Stuart, who plays guitar and bass, is an adept singer who effortlessly provides harmony to McCartney. McIntosh offers guitar work that ranges from crisp leads to rugged solos, while Whitten provides a steady backbeat on drums. And Wix takes keyboard prominence over Linda, who has often been criticized for a lack of musical ability. Part of McCartney’s new assurance, as he embarks on his tour, clearly stems from the strength of the band. And last week, sitting in his trailer outside stage 6— where the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies were made—McCartney told Maclean’s that he is very comfortable working with those musicians. Dressed in a grey T-shirt, navy trousers, paisley suspenders and black suede shoes, he looked youthful and relaxed. “We enjoy each other,” McCartney said. “Everything seems easygoing. And whenever we sit down and play music, it seems to sound good.” He added: “This band’s good enough to learn a song fairly quickly. In fact, they know them better than I do.”
But the band’s talent is only part of what is propelling McCartney to new heights. For the first time since his days with The Beatles, McCartney has two consecutive albums that have fared well critically. Late in 1988, he made Back in the U.S.S.R., a collection of rock ’n’ roll standards that he released exclusively in the Soviet Union, on the state-run Melodiya label. But it quickly became a collector’s item in the West, selling for up to $250, and drew acclaim from Western critics for its full-blown versions of That’s Alright (Mama), Lawdy Miss Clawdy and Ain’t That a Shame. Then, this summer, Flowers in the Dirt brought McCartney renewed respect as an accomplished songwriter. Teaming up with pop’s prickly innovator Costello on four of the album’s 13 tracks, McCartney seemed to finally find a collaborator to compare with John Lennon. Their joint compositions, including My Brave Face and You Want Her Too, sparkle with McCartney’s melodic gems and Costello’s witty lyrics.
After The Beatles broke up, McCartney launched a solo career that has yielded 15 studio albums. He collaborated with songwriters including Denny Laine in Wings and later Eric Stewart of the band 10cc. But neither writer challenged McCartney, and his songs often veered into sentimental excess. McCartney says now that he suffered from working with people who, out of intimidation or deference to the composer of Yesterday and other pop classics, never challenged him.
Faced with years of negative reviews, some viciously so, McCartney has learned to be philosophical about his work. When asked how difficult it has been pursuing a solo career with The Beatles’ legacy hanging over him, he answered with surprising candor. “The difficulties were never feeling you were ever doing anything successful,” he said, “even when Mull of Kintyre was the biggest-selling record in Britain since the invention of the gramophone. You just didn’t feel like you were a success. You just sort of thought: ‘Yeah, but The Beatles were better.’ And that is the truth, in a way.”
McCartney credited Costello with helping him create songs on Flowers in the Dirt that he can be proud of. “Elvis is very much not a yes-man,” said McCartney, occasionally running a hand through his greying hair or biting a nail during the interview. “That’s one of the good things about him, he’s very opinionated. I’d ask him what he thought of this or that and he wouldn’t umm and ahh. He’d say, ‘I like it,’ or ‘I hate it.’ Certain elements of this toughness and upfrontness were good. Occasionally, they would annoy me, but that was good, too, because that was also challenging.”
Despite the uneven quality of his earlier solo work, McCartney has developed a steady and extremely lucrative business since The Beatles, and he is reportedly worth more than $600 million. His recordings have sold well, despite the critics, and he owns the copyright to all of his own compositions. McCartney’s company, MPL Communications Ltd., manages both his and his wife’s careers—including the publication of Linda’s photography books and her vegetarian cookbook, which is currently a best-seller in Britain. The company also owns the rights to the popular British cartoon character Rupert the Bear—McCartney has published a series of Rupert books and produced one short animated film, a pilot for a full-length feature that he is preparing. MPL also owns the rights to more than 3,000 songs, including numerous Broadway show tunes and compositions by Fats Waller and Duke Ellington and the entire Buddy Holly catalogue.
Ironically, while McCartney the multimillionaire has been able to buy others’ songs, he has consistently been thwarted in his attempts to buy back the precious Beatles songs that he wrote with Lennon. In the mid-1960s, he and Lennon sold the rights to 159 compositions in their Northern Songs catalogue when, he now says, they were “young and green.” But in an even stranger twist of irony, those songs are currently owned by Michael Jackson—whom McCartney advised to pursue song publishing for investment purposes while they were recording the song Say, Say, Say together in 1985. Now, when McCartney talks of the incident, he can barely conceal his bitterness. He imitated Jackson’s high-pitched whisper of a voice when he recalled how Jackson told him a few weeks later, “I’m going to buy your songs, Paul.” Said McCartney: "I was pretty sure he was joking, but then a guy rang me up and said, ‘No, he wasn’t joking— he’s bought them.’ ’’ He added: “Well, he [Jackson] didn’t ring me. There’s things he might have done.”
Particularly frustrating for McCartney is the fact that he wanted to print the lyrics to such songs as Can’t Buy Me Love and Eleanor Rigby in the program for his current tour, but discovered he would have to pay Jackson for the rights to do so. Even more galling for him and the other surviving Beatles—George Harrison and Ringo Starr—are Jackson’s licensing deals with advertisers who have used Beatles songs to sell everything from running shoes and beer to Oreo cookies. A protest from McCartney and the others recently led Jackson and Nike shoes to drop a commercial featuring the song Revolution. Now, said McCartney indignantly, “Michael apparently has drawn up a list of songs that he thinks could be used in commercials and songs that he doesn’t think ought to be. So, I mean, he sits there in judgment.” McCartney added that he hopes that a meeting with Jackson might help. “I think we’ve got to redress a couple of things here, and the way to do it is to talk to Michael,” he said. “He’s a very reasonable guy, and I think that he might understand.”
It is rare for McCartney to express such emotion in interviews. After years of facing the media and the public, he has acquired a reputation as the consummate charmer, highly adept at protecting his private side. For security reasons, he refuses to provide any details about his family—he has four children, Heather, 27, from Linda’s previous marriage, Mary, 20, Stella, 18, and James, 12. Little is known about the McCartney residences other than the fact that they include farms in Scotland and southern England, a London house, a Barbados retreat and a ranch in Arizona. But, by all accounts, McCartney has drawn strength in the wake of Beatlemania from his family life.
Last week, McCartney’s MPL offices in London’s fashionable Soho Square were abuzz with activity. On the eve of the tour, manager Richard Ogden was busy fielding phone calls from around the world while trying to conduct meetings with staff on tour itinerary, security and sponsorship. Meanwhile, over at the British Museum, a Beatles exhibit featuring handwritten lyrics to such songs as McCartney’s Michelle and Yesterday was attracting a large crowd. Right next to it, only a few tourists took any notice of an exhibit displaying a copy of the Magna Carta.
McCartney offers his own explanation of The Beatles’ historic stature. “Everything that’s gone down about The Beatles, whether it’s true or not, develops a little legendary status,” he said. “Take the song Hey Jude. It was as simple as me going out to see Cynthia [Lennon’s first wife] and Julian [their son]. And I wrote ‘Hey Jules, don’t make it bad,’ trying to help a young boy in a divorce case.” But, referring to how the song got reinterpreted by listeners, McCartney added: “Then it gets into a book, or a newspaper and it becomes a legend.”
Following the interview in his trailer, McCartney bounded back into the dank recesses of stage 6. There, onstage, he sat down at the piano and began to sing one of The Beatles’ most moving songs: “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad/Take a sad song and make it better/Re-member to let her into your heart/Then you can start to make it better.” As he approaches the 20th anniversary of the painful dissolution of The Beatles, a breakup for which he has often been blamed, McCartney appears to have hit a new artistic peak and put his own career in order. And, as he gets back to performing some of the most beloved songs in the English language, Paul McCartney is creating another chapter in Beatles history.