Shoes off, long legs stretched out, Paul McCartney is making full use of the sofa in the elevated control room of Abbey Road’s studio two. Outside, a gaggle of tourists hang around like Apple Scruffs in training. Inside, George Martin is pottering around the canteen, the Fab Four’s likenesses hang in every corridor, and the very walls of the studio secrete historical significance. It’s all vaguely oppressive. “Yeah,” grins McCartney, glancing around. “Get out of that, man!”
It’s late summer 2005 and McCartney has just completed Chaos And Creation In The Back Yard, a two-hander with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The experience appears to have left him somewhat tenderised. Having bumped into Godrich earlier, I can see why. As McCartney’s PR man raved about his 1980 album track “Temporary Secretary”, Godrich interrupted to briskly dismiss the song as “dreadful, awful.”
McCartney, it transpires, has had a bit of a rough ride on his thirteenth solo album. “I’d bring songs in and Nigel would say, ‘No, I don’t like that. It’s a bit ordinary, can you think of a new tune for it?’ ‘Whaaaat?!!’ One day he said something about a song we’d been doing. I’m not sure if he said, ‘I think it’s crap,’ but it sounded like that to me, and we had a bit of a plunge into the darkness. I ended up saying, ‘Look, I think I’ll knock it on the head for today.’
“We came in the next day and talked. He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t think you’d take it like that.’ I said, ‘Come on man. What do you think I am? I’m like you. If you knock my confidence then it’s knocked.’ If you’ve been around long enough and done well and had hits, you put on a face, a front. It’s not necessarily the truth.”
As the afternoon wears on, McCartney is persuaded to contemplate the twists and turns of a deceptively varied post-Beatles career. “I don’t really see a thread running through it,” he says. “I was just trying to make a path away from the Beatles. We were all feeling a bit, ‘Oh, fucking Beatles.’ Some of the very early stuff now sounds sort of hippy, a little bit ‘Glastonbury’. McCartney was a home-baked pie. I was plugged into the back of a Studer four-track, so it’s very, very raw. It was great fun, very therapeutic and quite a brave, nutty thing to do, I suppose. Ram was echoing my lifestyle, going to Scotland with a new family and being very free. It was good to break out in other directions that I hadn’t necessarily experimented with. It seemed like too soft an option to just do Beatles songs and get a big super band around me.”
When he finally formed a band, McCartney experimented with democracy. “Coming out of The Beatles, I’d got burned by being told I was too overbearing, so I really backed off too far in the early days of Wings. Having to be diplomatic and say ‘Um, perhaps we should do this?’ doesn’t work. Eventually somebody says: ‘Why don’t you tell us what you want?’ and I’d think, ‘I just got a bollocking for doing that!’ There was a bit of that in early Wings which caused difficulties.”
It’s been a recurring theme, the difficulty in finding collaborators who won’t wilt in the shadow of the McCartney legacy. After all, how can any writing partner follow John Lennon? “Well, he was certainly the best. Just a bit! We came through our evolution together, so we knew what each other was thinking.”
I always got the sense your creative dialogue lasted as long as Lennon was alive.
“Yes, I was very aware of that. I remember reading that when John heard ‘Coming Up’ he said, ‘Oh, bastard McCartney. I’ve gotta write again!’ It reminded him of the standards we both could reach. It’s interesting that it was a little song like that, not particularly earth-shattering. It would happen to me too. I’d hear something and go, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ It was a great thing, like a see-saw.
“Elvis [Costello] was good fun to work with. Very forthright! We would sit around for a few hours with acoustic guitars and scribble something down, kind of like John and I had done. It was cool, because we could go downstairs into the studio and immediately make raw demos – some of which are better than the finished records. They’re hot off the stove and really pretty cool. But I’ve certainly had other collaborations when I’ve thought, ‘This is just not working,’ just because it wasn’t that interesting.” I ask for names. He smiles a refusal. “I don’t want to say who, because it would be a put down on the person. It’s like telling out of school.”
With that, he stretches, slips on his shoes, ruffles his suspiciously dark hair, and lopes off downstairs for some “veggie nosh”. Later, slightly lost in the labyrinth of Abbey Road, I bump into him again. “Alright, Graeme?” he asks, “Can I help? I’ve been here a couple of times, I think I know the way…”