– The phone rings: “Hi, this is Paul McCartney!” Now what?
Lilou tells the tale
You are about to go back to Paris for an exclusive gig at the Olympia. When was the first time you went to Paris?
The first time I went to Paris was shortly after John Lennon was 21. He was given what we thought was a huge sum of money, £100, by an aunt in Scotland. We decided to use the money to go on holiday and hitch-hike. We were supposed to only spend the night in Paris and carry on to Spain, but we liked it too much and stayed there for the week. We were just two little guys, unknown, wandering round Montmartre, asking the prostitutes if they knew how we could get a hotel, “avez-vous une hotel pour la nuit?”, unfortunately they didn’t. (laugh)
We were attracted to the French way generally. The clothes were interesting because it was the time of Juliette Greco, Françoise Hardy and the sort of bohemian thing which we rather liked, and we all fancied Juliette Greco like mad. And of course there was Brigitte Bardot, whom we idolised.
How was it to play the Olympia?
The Olympia was very unusual for us, we’d never seen so many guys in the audience. Normally it’d been mainly girls and a sprinkling of guys, and in Paris it seemed to be predominantly boys. The gendarmes were also hitting them with their sticks, which we thought was too heavy-handed. We were used to everybody jumping up and down and shouting and screaming, it felt normal to us, but the gendarmes obviously saw it as a bad case of insurrection.
We were on the bill with Sylvie Vartan who was very charming, but we didn’t hang with her much. She didn’t invite us back to her place either, don’t know why Sylvie, it would have been very much appreciated! (laugh). We also met Johnny Hallyday and Vince Taylor and people like that.
I didn’t realise then the significance of Bruno Coquatrix, i just thought “he’s got his name outside, so he must be important”. It is interesting for me to go back with a new sense of history, once you know the connection of the venue with Edith Piaf etc…
The song “Michelle” was actually influenced by Edith Piaf’s “Milord”, which was a big hit over in England. I had a very good school friend of mine whose wife taught French. So I talked to her and asked “could I get a rhyme with Michelle?” and she went “belle?”, and helped me with the rest of the French lyrics.
How early on did you feel you were developing your own style rather than borrowing from elders and peers?
Our big heroes were from America, Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, and then later, Motown because it was so inventive. Bob Dylan was also a huge influence and continues to be, I very much admire and respect Dylan.
It was a few years into writing when we realised we were starting to develop our own style. For me the big turning point was “From me to you”, because it is quite straightforward (starts to sing “if there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything…”), but then the middle (sings “I got arms that long to hold you”) and *that* chord that the middle goes to, was a little more sophisticated than anything we’d written.
You left the Beatles when you were 28, how did you manage the pressure?
What I did at the time was form a new group with Linda my wife. We put all our efforts into that and build the whole thing from the ground up again. It was pretty difficult because we were doing things in the shadow of the Beatles. But for any band nowadays there is an element of that, because the Beatles put down so many good tracks, that it is difficult to be better than them. For me it was a matter of regrouping and by the mid-70s, Wings had become a pretty good group.
The media landscape has changed beyond recognition, how do you manage the new type of exposure?
I always have the same attitude I’ve always had. I have a pretty good relationship with the press, really, compared to some people I don’t get too hard a ride. But when I do, I just have to take a philosophical view. I have no way of getting to people and say “look it is untrue”, unless I want to have a battle in the press. But there is no way I can stop the mighty press, it’s like an avalanche, I’m just one guy with a shovel, it takes an awful lot of digging. I let it happen, and trust that the truth will come out.
Paul McCartney has almost become a concept, it means so many different things to different people, you were referred to as “a British institution”, how do you reconcile that with your own self?
In a way, I think of Paul McCartney as “him”. I know it’s me, but I have a side of me that is very private, possibly more private than I would if I wasn’t Paul McCartney. But I know I need a balance to keep sane. I have a number of friends where I am just ordinary. If I go back up to Liverpool with my family there, I am as ordinary as I ever was. It’s quite annoying actually, “don’t you know how famous I am?- oh shut up Paul”. Not really, I’m kidding. But I have a lot of people who keep my feet on the ground and I think that is the trick. I know exactly what you are talking about though, I do wake up some mornings “Jesus Christ, am I really that guy, is it the same body I am inhabiting?” It is sort of strange. But I think all famous people experience that. It is part of the game. You become two people and it is important to keep them separate.
I try to keep myself and my public persona separate, I work quite hard at it. So if i am in a restaurant and I am eating, someone comes up for an autograph, I might say to them “look, this is a private moment for me, you’ve got to excuse me, I hope you understand” and most people do. Once they know you just want to be an ordinary guy, they’re very good, they understand privacy, because they require it for themselves. So it is not always as bad as you think it is.
Paul McCartney is also a musical signature, how do you try not to be a prisoner of your own style?
Well for example, Memory Almost Full opens with a mandolin track (“Dance Tonight”). I bought the mandolin in that favourite guitar shop of mine I always go in in London. For me it felt like a violin, not a traditional guitar tuning, so I didn’t know any chords. It took me back to when I was 16, trying to figure out chords on a guitar, and it is a very refreshing feeling. So that’s what I do, some of it comes out like me, some of it comes out different, hopefully I do enough different stuff to not be pigeonholed.
Have you ever tried to deconstruct the magic behind the Lennon/McCartney writing partnership? Why did it work the way it did?
The simple answer is that we were both very good. It is not very modest but I think now we can look back on it and I am allowed to say that, because it is not in question any more. Most of the early songs were written together up to “She Loves You”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.
But then I did “Eleanor Rigby” largely on my own and he did “Nowhere Man” on his own. The reason is simply that we started to live apart. It was physical. Early on, we lived in hotel rooms together, so a lot of writing happened then. When the Beatles split up, whilst both of us lost a songwriting partner, because we had been used to writing separately, it wasn’t as difficult.
But even we worked separately, we would nearly always bring the song to the other one before recording. I remember bringing in “Paperback Writer” to John. And I had finished it really. I just read the lyrics, which were going in the form of a letter: a young aspiring writer, writing to a publishing house, “dear Sir or Madam as the case may be…”. So I just read it out and John said “great, terrific”. And *that* sometimes is a very important part of the collaboration, just somebody to agree that it is finished. I could do that with him too. Sometimes there were little things to be fixed, an extra verse to be written and we’d sit down again. But we were very lucky, we never had a dry writing session, pretty amazing when you think of it.
What is your songwriting secret? Do you require a specific environment, mood?
You take yourself away somewhere, the room where the piano is, or a guitar if you want to be a bit more mobile. And my method is the same as it always was, which is to start playing the guitar or the piano, and see where it leads. You just have to have a good nose, like a bloodhound for tracking the good ideas.
I write when the mood hits me, it is often when I’ve written an album, I’ve finished it, it’s been released and I played it live. So I get a bit of a holiday, and I think, “it is time I wrote some more”. The good thing is because I left it for a little while, my batteries recharge, and the ideas come a bit fresh, informed by the period when I laid off for a while. I recently read “A moveable Feast” by Hemingway, his experiences in Paris as a young writer. He says this thing which I very much agree with: at the end of his day, he would finish work and either go home or go to a bar. But he would never think of his story or his characters, whereas some of his contemporaries stayed up all night, thrashing away. He believed it was a good thing to leave it and come back the next day, because all the ideas had a chance to marinate. It is a really cool idea, how your subconscious does the work. And you have to have a lot of faith to do that, but I very much believe in it.
Music was always a passion of mine, just listening to music. I talked to a lot of my friends about this, and we all agree, we all started off as listeners. When rock’n’roll hit, for some reason we got the idea that we could do it ourselves. It became possible. Once I did that, I became hooked on the process, just like a drug. It is very hard to escape. It is such a mysterious magical event. You sit down, you don’t have any idea of what you are going to do, and suddenly you put your thoughts into a tune, some chords and suddenly you’ve got an answer. Sometimes to problems in your life, sometimes it is just a bonus, you’ve created something magical. I just do it because I love it. I think it is very good therapy as well. So whenever you’re going through difficult times, I am at the moment, it’s really cool to be able to escape into music.
The phone rings: “Hi, this is Paul McCartney!” Now what?
Lilou tells the tale