Sir Paul Rides Again

McCartney has made his best record in more than a decade. The secret: Hiring Radiohead and Beck's producer, who wasn't afraid to tell him no

Paul McCartney performs during the Super Bowl XXXIX halftime show in Jacksonville, Florida, on February 6th, 2005. Credit: Brian Bahr/Getty

PAUL McCARTNEY HAS JUST TAKEN A SEAT at his piano, center-stage at a sports arena in downtown Miami. Before he touches the keys, he glances idly at his audience, which, this afternoon, comprises approximately a dozen people, mostly security guards and members of his crew. Directly opposite McCartney, on the arena floor, one of the crew members sits at a long table making notes on a sheet of paper. McCartney furrows his brow and says into the mike, "With that guy sitting over there, I feel like I'm on Pop Idol." He's referring to the British version of American Idol. The small crowd chuckles, as McCartney, imitating Simon Cowell, barks, "You're no good!" Then, in the voice of a cringing novice, he says, "W-w-well, we been t-t-told we were all right." Once the laughter dies down, McCartney turns back to the piano and plays "Hey Jude."

The last time McCartney toured North America, in 2002, the shows grossed $126 million, which made him the top touring artist of the year. McCartney has just worked out the set list this morning for his current tour, which will begin in less than a week. "I like to keep things a little loose," he says with a shrug. "You don't want it to become like a Broadway show."

Fans, of course, will come to see the hits, which McCartney happily delivers. During this afternoon's rehearsal, he and his touring band run through "Penny Lane," "Good Day Sunshine," "Back in the USSR," "Band on the Run" and "Live and Let Die." They also play "Too Many People," a rare angry-McCartney track from his 1971 solo masterpiece, Ram. (Beatles fans interpreted lyrics like "You took your lucky break and broke it in two/Now what can be done for you?" as references to John Lennon; they also read something into the back-cover photograph of what appears to be one beetle sodomizing another.)

But however bottomless the love for McCartney's past glories, the most exciting thing about his latest tour may be the fact that — as with his peers in the Rolling Stones — it's in support of a new album people actually like. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard has been hailed by critics as McCartney's strongest effort since Flowers in the Dirt, the 1989 album on which he co-wrote a number of songs with Elvis Costello. For Chaos and Creation, Mc-Cartney chose another younger collaborator, producer Nigel Godrich, best known for his work on the past four Radiohead albums and Beck's Sea Change. McCartney played nearly every instrument on the album — not only guitar, bass, drums and piano but fluegelhorn, guiro, harpsichord, triangle, maracas, gong, toy glockenspiel, Moog organ and tubular bells — with a result that's always sonically captivating and often thrillingly weird. Because this is a Paul McCartney album, there are love songs, but most have a haunted, slightly mournful air, a seeming reflection — though McCartney insists none of his songs are directly autobiographical — of the death of his wife of twenty-nine years, Linda McCartney, from breast cancer in 1998, and of his subsequent marriage, in 2002, to former model Heather Mills.

"How Kind of You," for example, is decidedly downbeat, with lyrics from the point of view of a grateful older man surprised to find romance in the twilight of his life. "I thought my faith had gone," McCartney sings, as a sinister melody twists in ways that keep the listener as off-balance as the song's weary protagonist. There's a similar vibe on "At the Mercy," which plays upon one of McCartney's most famous lyrics — "The love you take is equal to the love you make," from "The End" — in the far more ambivalent overtures of a man reluctant to choose between "the love I've got and the love I'd lose."

Chaos and Creation also finds McCartney far more comfortable with his own musical past. The standout track "Jenny Wren" is a lovely acoustic ballad in the vein of "Blackbird" that could be an outtake from the White Album. And "Anyway" spins a simple "People Get Ready" vamp into a soaring arrangement that recalls the final suite of Abbey Road.

"Early on, say, with Wings, it was a necessity to not sound like the Beatles," says McCartney, who, for rehearsal, is casually dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt that reads EAST HAMPTON TOWN DUMP. "I didn't want to write another 'Eleanor Rigby.'" He hums the melody, as if I may not be familiar with the tune. "And it's only more recently that I've realized I did establish my own identity and said, 'Well, OK, what's the battle about, then? There's no need to keep fighting. You're a part of the Beatles, you're a part of Wings and you're a part of your new stuff now, and it's all your style.' And so, yeah, on 'Blackbird, I had done a kind of slightly folksy guitar part which had a top melody and an accompanying bass line, and the two going together gave it this certain character. And I've never done anything since along those lines. And so now, on this new album, I thought, 'Why not? What am I frightened of?' There could be two songs in the world like that. And I wrote the first one! So it's not like I'm nicking anyone's thing."

I interviewed McCartney in two sessions during rehearsals — as he snacked on broccoli, green beans and a heavily buttered slice of bread — and later after a photo shoot at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The day of the shoot, McCartney drove in from the Hamptons, where he spent part of his summer with his wife and their two-year-old daughter, Beatrice. At sixty-three, he's trim (a thirty-three-inch waist) and a bit gray at the temples (British tabloids delighted in accusing Mills of pushing hair dye on Sir Paul, who retorted with a post on Mills' Web site insisting he'd been dyeing his hair for years). We began by talking about Godrich, who was recommended to McCartney by Beatles producer George Martin.

Do you and George Martin still talk regularly?
Yeah, we meet up quite a bit, actually. Particularly because we used his studio for the London end of the recording. George always pops in, especially if he knows I'm there. He's one of the most important men in my life, and that's including my father, my brother, the Beatles — George Martin is right up there in the top five. Really, I would like to work with him forever. That would be my dream.

Does he still produce?
No. He's got a hearing problem, like a lot of us from the Sixties. 'Cause we did listen to it too loud. He just got to the stage where he thinks, very nobly, that he shouldn't produce. I say to him, "George, the engineers need the ears. You're the ideas man." But I think it's very cool of him to know when not to do it. So I just rang him up and said, "If I can't have you, who's the man?" He chatted it around, thought about it, talked to his son, and a couple of days later he came back and said Nigel.

Had you been aware of Nigel's work?
Yeah, but without knowing he was the man behind it. I liked the last couple of Radiohead albums, particularly the sound. And Travis, The Invisible Band, And Beck. So we just met up, chatted and liked each other — I think. I liked him. And then I sent him a couple of records that I thought might either turn him on or off, or might just be a direction to go.

Demos you'd made?
No, other people's records, I liked the idea of toying with a kind of Asian thing, a one-chord thing. There's an artist called Nitin Sawhney who I like — he's a British-Asian guy. It was just a vibe I was into at the time, that sort of droniness. I didn't know what I'd do with it. It was just a mood thing. And Nigel said, "Mmm, no. I know what album I want to make if I'm going to work with you. I want to make an album that's you." And I thought, "That's the kind of producer I need now."

So we agreed to meet up for a test period — two weeks in London. The first week was with my touring band, and we were quite excited to record together. But Nigel had this itching feeling, like he could do something else. He wanted to move in a bit more daring direction. He said, "I want to take you out of your safety zone, man," Kept saying that — "It's just too easy."

GODRICH EVENTUALLY TALKED McCARTNEY into saving his band for the tour and playing nearly every instrument himself, just as he'd done on his first solo effort, McCartney. The album was recorded in 1970 and released ten days after McCartney's official statement that the Beatles had broken up. McCartney's relationship with the group's manager, Allen Klein, had particularly soured. "I used to have dreams in which Allen Klein was an evil dentist," McCartney recalls. "That was a bad sign. I just wanted to be as far away from Apple [the Beatles' label and business office] as possible."

To that end, McCartney set up a Studer four-track recorder in his living room and, as he says, went from "everything to zero. It was liberating." McCartney made the entire album alone (save for some harmonies with his wife), using a single microphone, which he moved closer to the drum kit if he wanted a louder cymbal sound. Some tracks, like "The Lovely Linda," are mere fragments of a song, and background noises (giggling, doors opening, the clack of the tape) are audible throughout. McCartney called the album "kind of throwaway" in a 1974 ROLLING STONE interview, but today its loose, offhand feel is charming, a precursor to the low-fi home taping of indie-rock bands.

In coaxing McCartney to play multiple instruments on Chaos and Creation, Godrich began with percussion. "I love kicking around on the drums," McCartney admits. "I'll do it at the drop of a hat. So I started kicking, and he said, 'Yeah! This is it, man. It just turns the track around. It's you!' Then he said, 'Look, I'd like to hear you on guitar. What have you got?' I brought my old Epiphone electric guitar out, which was like a cheap Gibson in the early days. It's the guitar that I played the opening riff of 'Paperback Writer' on, so it's a lovely guitar. It can be quite varied — sort of horny and hard, like the 'Taxman' solo; that was the other thing I used it on. George let me have a go for the solo because I had an idea — it was the early Jimi Hendrix days and I was trying to persuade George to do something like that, feedback-y and crazy. And I was showing him what I wanted, and he said, 'Well, you do it.' Even though it was his song, he was happy for me to do it. And this became Nigel's big favorite guitar."

Do you have a lot of old guitars you end up pulling out?
I've got a few guitars that I like. The trouble with fame and riches is that you have more than one guitar. When you're a kid, you've only got one guitar, and you love it, and you string it and you cherish it, and you put it to bed at night and all that shit. You relate to it. When you've got more than one, you've got two [laughs]. And then you don't know which one to choose. It's an embarrassment of riches. Then you've suddenly got three and four, and then at my stage in the game, people give you guitars. So you've suddenly got a cellarful.

But my Epiphone, that's my electric guitar, that is the one. I like to play on it because it's oldish and a bit infirm. It won't stay in tune easily, like Jimi Hendrix's guitar didn't. Jimi was always, like, calling out to the audience, "Will you come tune this?" One night — it's an old story of mine and I love it — we released Sgt. Pepper's on a Friday, and on Sunday Jimi opened his show with it in London. He did this long solo like only Jimi could. And at the end of it, he had hopelessly gone out of tune. So he shambled over to the mike and said, "Is Eric [Clapton] in the house?" Eric shrunk down in his seat. Some girls said, "Yeah, he's here!" Jimi said, "Will you come and tune this for me?" Of course, Eric shrunk even lower and Jimi had to tune it himself.

Anyway, I was into that kind of thing, and that's why I bought my Epiphone. I went to the shop and said, "What have you got that feeds back great?" That was normally a disadvantage in the old days — in the older old days. I use the Les Paul onstage, because it doesn't go out of tune as much, and it has a nice sound. But Nigel would wrinkle his nose and say, "It's a bit heavy rock."

I'd imagine it's hard to find people, especially in the studio, who aren't intimidated by you, and who won't just be yesmen.
I suppose it is. With Nigel, I pretty much knew the minute I met him he was gearing himself up to tell me no. From the word go. When I first brought him some songs, he just passed a few by and went to the next one, like he was shopping. I brought them back later and said, "Well, you didn't look at this one." He said, "I like the other one better."

Did you wrestle with that kind of bluntness initially?
Yeah, I was well pissed. "You don't like my songs. How dare you? Who are you? Punk." But I realized he was looking for a vibe. So if one of my songs was a bit perky, maybe he didn't think we should do it this time around. I might have thought, "Well, I've heard a lot of good perky songs on the radio. And I'm in a perky mood!" But he was just like, "Nah."

And it was good for me, because it was like working with a band member. It was like working with … I mean, it's too heavy a comparison to say it was like working with John. Because if I say that in ROLLING STONE, it's a huge statement. But it was like working with a great band member. It was similar to me and John, back to when we were just kids, before we'd been discovered. There was one key moment when it all rose to the surface. I was in the studio, raring to go. Got my Hofner [bass guitar] out, tuned her up, knew what I was going to play. I was in a good mood. I was just about to listen to the track and find my way through a bass part when Nigel said, "You know that song you played the other day? I really didn't like it. I think it was crap." I said, "Oh, yeah?" And I thought, "What will I do now? Fucking … punch him? Or just spit at him? Tell him to fuck off? Or what?"

When was the last time somebody told you to your face that a song of yours was crap?
It's happened. But a while ago. I thought, "OK, we'll talk about it." It wouldn't be so bad if I thought the song was crap, too. But there was something there. I said, "Well look, I'll just try the bass, and we'll talk about the song in a little bit."

I tried the bass, and of course my energy had totally gone. And the hole that my energy used to be in was now floating with insecurity. The pool was filling up fast. I couldn't get anywhere on the bass. I said, "OK, look. I can't do this now. I'll tell you what — that was really terrible timing. I was all energized. Don't you know that that was not that diplomatic a moment to tell me?" I was slightly pissed that he told me, and I was probably turning it into a timing issue. Anyway, he said, "I didn't think you would take it like that." I said, "Well, come on, man, I'm human. You just told me something that I've worked on is crap." Anyway, I tried to do something else — just something fun, like wine glasses, anything, just some goof-off thing that I didn't need any talent for. But I couldn't even do that. I said, "You know what, I'm going home. Sorry, guys. Goodbye." I didn't storm out, but I just sort of said, "I can't cut it."

I got home and it totally just wrecked my mood. But I had a good evening, got over it all and came in the next day and said, "Put that track on, I'm doing the bass." I did the bass in, like, one take. But then we had the talk. I said, "I'm so spoiled. George Martin is the diplomat of all diplomats."

If George Martin didn't like something, what would he say?
He would say, "Oh, perhaps we ought to try another approach on this. What I was thinking was, we might try, for instance, a string quartet on 'Yesterday.'" And I'd go, "Oh, no!" He said, "But look, we could try it. I could be wrong. And if you don't like it, take it off." I told Nigel this, and he said, "I understand. But I'm not George Martin. This is who I am, and if we're to get on, we've got to find a way."

So after that one little incident, it was like, "Fuck off, Nigel! Fuck off!" It was great. We just shouted at each other after that. And that one song, interestingly enough — which was the perky song — I kept fighting for it. I said, "There's something here, I don't know what, but there's something. I like the chords. I like something about it." And then one evening, we decided to try it at half-speed. It took on a whole new meaning And it was like, "Ohhh, OK."

Did that song make the record?
Yeah, it's called "Riding to Vanity Fair."

Were the lyrics the same? Because the lyrics on the album version aren't perky. [They include "I think I've heard enough/Of your familiar song" and "You're not aware/Of what you put me through. You don't fool anyone."]
No, it wasn't the lyrics that were perky. That was probably one of its problems.

Is it about anyone specific?
People always ask me that. You know, "Who were you thinking of when you did that?" The way I write, I'm not always thinking of someone. So if you look at my stuff-"There's Desmond and Molly in the marketplace, ob-la-di, ob-la-da" — that actually just came from an expression that some guy, some black guy, a friend of mine in a club, said. [Assumes a Jamaican accent] "Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra." Jimmy Scott. He'd always say that. So I said, "I like that, I'm going to use it." The rest of the song is pure imagination. I don't know a Molly or a Desmond.

With my stuff, I know the place where it's coming from, but I don't try and reason with it. It's like abstract painting, like throwing paint. So you get a song of mine like "Monkberry Moon Delight" [from McCartney], which is talking about a piano up a guy's nose. And people go, "Wow — is that cocaine?" And I go, "No. It's a piano up his nose. Haven't you ever seen surrealist paintings?"

I like the meanness of the "Riding to Vanity Fair" lyrics.
I don't write many songs like that. On this album, I thought, instead of just not addressing that side of my life, it might be good to — well, you know, don't just tell everyone that you love them. Tell some people you can't stand them and don't need them around.

Have you written darker songs in the past that you've decided not to use because they didn't feel right to you?
I didn't think I was very good at them. John could write a great mean song. He had a lot of venom in him. Whereas I had a pretty happy childhood. I could write about the guys in the park who were going to beat the shit out of me. That would be pretty good. But my dad didn't leave home, and my mom died of cancer rather than being knocked over like John's mom. [Lennon's mother was killed by a drunken driver when John was seventeen.] So I didn't think I had it in me. But with this particular song, "Riding to Vanity Fair," I decided to work on it … and I got it wrong! I wrote the perky version. And that's why I don't write many mean songs — 'cause I get them wrong.

THOUGH THE PAST TWO DECADES or so of McCartney's solo career have often proved embarrassingly mawkish — see everything from "Ebony and Ivory" to the 9/11 anthem "Freedom" — he had an impressive run in the Seventies. He followed up McCartney with the pastoral psychedelia of Ram, then formed the hit machine that was Wings. Though songs like "Band on the Run" and "Let 'Em In" could be placed alongside McCartney's best work with the Beatles, Wings would become synonymous with the overblown arena rock of the day — and with easy-listening trifles like "Silly Love Songs." McCartney was also widely mocked for insisting Linda — an accomplished photographer but not a trained musician — sing with the band.

What the critics failed to acknowledge was that "Silly Love Songs" is a master-crafted easy-listening trifle, the platonic ideal of easy-listening trifles. And as for the overblown arena rock, well, fashions change. Backstage at this summer's Live 8 London concert, Bono greeted McCartney by asking, "You know what the fucking hippest band in this year?" When McCartney shrugged his shoulders, Bono exclaimed, "Wings!"

"I thought, 'If only Linda could hear this,' " McCartney says with a bemused shrug. "The vindication!"

Being younger, does Heather have very different musical references? Are there certain things she loves that you hate, or vice versa?
She was brought up with a lot of classical music — her dad was a classical music freak — so she knows a lot of Wagner and things like that. But the strangest area is the Beatles. Certain things she won't know at all. I thought it was a generational thing, but her younger sister does know the Beatles. It must have been where her life was at, at the time. She had a very complex life and troubled childhood. And I guess she sort of skipped a beat while everyone else was listening to the Beatles.

Was she really into punk or something like that?
No, her younger sister was punk rock. Heather liked AC/DC.

So was there one Beatles song she didn't know that just shocked you?
Yeah! Once "Get Back" was playing somewhere. She recognized my voice and said, "Is this you?" I said, "Yes, darling. It's called 'Get Back.' It's quite famous."

Michael Jackson bought much of the Beatles' publishing catalog in the Eighties. Now that he's having financial difficulties, have you considered buying it back?
No. Everyone else thinks I should, though. The thing is, I get some money from the publishing already. And in a few years, more of the rights automatically revert to me. The only annoying thing is, when I tour in America, I have to pay to play some of my own songs. But I don't think about that. Because if I did, it would be fucking annoying.

Back when you were investing in other people's publishing, would you always invest in songs that you liked? Or could you bring yourself to invest in, say, a Celine Dion song you hated but you knew would be profitable?
No. I would need to like the song. That's why I got into that sort of investing. You don't play music because you want to become a businessman. Early on, we got "Stormy Weather" and a lot of standards. We got Buddy Holly. One of the publishing deals we ended up passing on was Dylan's. We considered it, but it seemed like too much responsibility. I didn't want him ringing me up at three in the morning going, "Why have you screwed up my songs!"

Are you competitive with your contemporaries? When Dylan puts out an album like Love and Theft, do you think, "Man, this raises the bar"?
I don't feel competitive. I've been in enough competitions. I've been in enough competitions in my life [laughs]. I'm done with that.

I'm interested in what you said about finding someone to collaborate with. It seems to me that when two people who are so perfectly matched, like you and John Lennon, end up working together, and you're on this equal level, where you're battling each other and driving each other to do better work, after something like that, can you ever —
No. The answer's no. With John and I, it was so special, I think both of us knew we couldn't get that again. And it's proved itself, through time, to be as special as it felt when we were doing it. So I don't think that could happen again. We really were a complete fluke — just two kids who happened to meet up in Liverpool and share an interest and start writing songs together. And then developed, organically, together. And had the same sense of humor. And learned things at the same rate. Found out about Vietnam together. Little shit things.

All of these little awarenesses pretty much hit us at the same time over a period of years. And you really become soulmates when that happens. With writing, it was just too amazing, when we'd get on a roll with a song. We'd work so fast. We'd go in for about a three-hour session. We'd get a bit bored after three hours, although we never looked at the clock. But it was always about three hours. And at the end of every single session, we came out with a song.

One of us might get blocked, and the other would suggest something. The song "Drive My Car," which I brought in, was originally called "Golden Rings" — good meter, good rhythm, but lousy lyrics. "Baby, I get you golden rings/I can get you anything/And baby I love you." Whatever. And we tried. We tried so hard. And we got completely stuck. We couldn't live with these rings. So we just had a break, a cup of tea or something, and then came back and said, "All right, what the hell's going on here?" And we somehow just rethought it from the point of view of this girl who wanted a chauffeur. And suddenly we were in L.A, and the sun was shining, and it wrote itself.

Then there were songs like "A Day in the Life," where we wrote, "I'd love to turn you on," looking at each other like naughty little schoolboys, knowing what we were about to unleash with that lyric.

If you're not working on an album, do you still play music every day?
No, not every day. I'm not a great practicer at all. We were never great practicers. The Beatles would come together for about a day before we had a tour, to make sure the amp worked. Now I'll do two weeks, just because I'm the only vocalist now and it's a bigger affair.

Keith Richards once said to me, "Do you know the difference between your band and ours, man? You had four frontmen, and we only had one." And I must say, I had never thought of it that way. But he's right. Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do [the Beatles' cover of the Shirelles song] "Boys," which was a favorite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here's us doing a song, and it was really a girls' song.

"I talk about boys now!" Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It's just a great song. I think that's one of the great things about youth — you just don't even think about that shit. I love the innocence of those days.

Speaking of the Stones, it seems like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have a similar sort of contentious relationship as you and John did. Why do you think it still works?
Well, I don't know if they do have a contentious relationship. But John and I certainly didn't, not when it came to making music. Never in the studio. It was everything else — business, relationships, all that shit. But when we came into the studio, it was great. John could bring in a song like "Come Together," and I could tell him, "That sounds like a Chuck Berry tune" — it was fast when he brought it in, and it sounded like a Chuck Berry tune called "You Can't Catch Me." And I said that, not in a pissy way, like, "Oh, you're ripping off Chuck Berry." I just mentioned it and said, "What if we slow it down to bum bum ba da bum …." And he said, "Yeah!" That was the kind of relationship we had. Let It Be was the only album where things were contentious, but that was a one-off. That was the very end.

Are you bracing yourself for the slew of bad "When I'm Sixty-Four" articles when you turn sixty-four next year?
My kids have told me, "Dad, you must not be on the face of the planet next year." Or else, I'll be in the thick of it. I'm taking suggestions.