Paul McCartney's New Album, New Life and How the Beatles Almost Reunited

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Up in Studio Two's control room, the most melodic songwriter of his generation is making some seriously horrifying noise. McCartney is twisting knobs on an ancient tape machine, messing with a loop of a guitar lick he just played. He speeds it up until it becomes a beyond-Yoko shriek, slows it down until it sounds like droning sludge. He punches "stop" and smiles. "We do have fun, don't we?"

He's working with producer Ethan Johns – the tall, bearded son of producer-engineer Glyn Johns, who worked on Let It Be – on potential tape-loop overdubs for "Hosannah." In the corner is a Pro Tools setup, though Johns is also recording on analog tape. "Is that enough?" McCartney says after a few more licks. "I could go all day!"

He puts down his '57 Les Paul ("There was a time when I had just one," he says when Johns admires it. "Changed me own strings!") and picks up a microphone. He loops some reverb-y "whoos" that sound like a ghostly Little Richard, then brings Johns over to harmonize on some "aaahs" and "mmms." Sped up or slowed down, they sound like a trippy nightmare. McCartney laughs as he heads down the staircase, ready to overdub some bass. "All that, and no drugs involved!"

McCartney says he's quit pot altogether, after many years and many inconvenient busts – most notably in Japan, when he famously ended up in jail for nine days. "I did a lot, and it was enough," he says. "I smoked my share. When you're bringing up a youngster, your sense of responsibility does kick in, if you're lucky, at some point. Enough's enough – you just don't seem to think it's necessary."

Did he expect it to be legal by now? "Well, I certainly requested it a bunch of times," he says. "I don't know, it's such a difficult argument. I feel like I've done my bit, and yeah, I am a bit surprised that it's not legalized. You know the argument that if booze is legal, why not that, and then the argument against it is that we don't need another [legal drug], but the argument against that is that you've got it, so don't pretend you haven't. I'm not going to be the judge of how to deal with it, somebody else can figure that out."

McCartney's "lavatory reading" these days is Keith Richards' Life. He hasn't gotten to the part about himself yet – and the book hasn't succeeded in persuading him to write a memoir of his own (though he did participate extensively in Barry Miles' authorized 1997 biography): "I've got really too much going on to sit around and write stuff about my past So all of that ends up with me going, 'I can't be bothered.'" He confirms that he and Richards struck up a belated friendship a couple of years back, and batted around ideas for collaborations that will most likely never come to be. "We had some really funny ideas, and I kept saying, 'You know, Keith, this is a dangerously good idea, this is ridiculous, bordering on the brilliant.'"

McCartney doesn't share Richards' self-image as a rock & roll outlaw. Unlike Lennon, McCartney never mailed back his Member of the British Empire medal in protest of anything, and he happily accepted a knighthood in 1997 – Richards was incensed when Mick Jagger received the same honor. "As a guy in a rock & roll band, you do ask yourself, 'Is this cool to do?'" McCartney says. "But I saw all sorts of working-class guys who were proud to be honored by the queen. That was more impressive than the supercool dudes who said, 'No way, man.' I see their argument, but it seemed to me that it's a pretty cool prize to be given by a pretty cool lady."

He's still convinced that Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl – and will perform at her Diamond Jubilee concert, marking 60 years on the throne, in June. "You have to see it from the perspective of kids who grew up with her coming to the throne," he says. "I remember being on a bus in Liverpool and hearing some kid yelling, 'The king is dead!' like in a movie. Suddenly it was this Princess Elizabeth, who we always saw as a bit of a babe. We were the right age, and we were quite impressed by her bust! Then when we met her, it was like, 'She's OK, she's cool.'

"I've always admired the way she's handled this massive job she's got. I see the argument of anti-monarchists, because it's an amazingly old-fashioned affair, but I say to people, 'Who are we going to have lead our country in the big celebrations, opening the Olympics: David Cameron? Tony Blair?' I'm not sure about that."

McCartney can be something of a small-c conservative: Chatting about the state of the world in Studio Two, he delivers a disquisition about government debt that's hard to imagine coming from any other rock god: "There's this whole idea of 'borrow forever,' whereas my theory, which was instilled in me by my dad, was, 'Don't get under an obligation to anyone, ever. If you need anything, wait until you can afford it, then get it.'"

He's no right-winger, however: McCartney is baffled and angered by climate-change deniers, and vastly prefers Barack Obama to George W. Bush. He infuriated Fox News pundits when he visited the White House in 2010: After playing "Michelle" for the First Lady, he said, "It's great to have a president who knows what a library is." He even removed his turgid post-9/11 anthem "Freedom" from his set lists in the wake of the Iraq War. "When I said, 'I will fight for the right,' I meant, 'We shall overcome.' But unfortunately, immediately after that, I realized it would get construed as more militaristic. So we don't play it."

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