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Paul McCartney: The Rolling Stone Interview

The former Beatle gets personal

Singer, songwriter, Paul McCartney, Linda, rock, Wings, recording studio

Singer-songwriter Paul McCartney and his wife, Linda, of British rock group Wings, in a recording studio on November 21st, 1973.

Michael Putland/Getty

This January marks the tenth anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the American charts. Last month Rolling Stone conducted its first full-scale interview with Paul McCartney, in six sessions starting in a London recording studio and ending on a New York street. The New York sessions took place the day after McCartney had entered the US for the first time in two years, visa problems stemming from two marijuana violations now finally resolved.

McCartney was cautious in his responses during the first two sessions. He and Linda remembered being on vacation in Scotland when they were first shown John Lennon’s lengthy interview (Rolling Stone Number 74 and Number 75, January 21st and February 4th, 1971), and having been deeply hurt by it. At first he seemed to want to avoid the kind of controversy Lennon’s interview had generated but in later conversations he became freer with his answers.

Because the various sessions were necessarily disconnected, our text does not follow in all cases the actual sequence of questions. For example, McCartney’s discussion of his legal difficulties is compiled from three separate conversations. One of those discussions was prompted by an incident on a New York street. We were walking down 54th Street towards the New York office of Eastman and Eastman, attorneys—Lee and John Eastman, father and brother of Linda McCartney (whose photographs illustrate this interview).

A man in a gray suit with a colorful umbrella approached McCartney and asked, “Mr. McCartney? This is for you.” It was an American copy of a process from Allen Klein that had been served on Paul two weeks before in London. An outraged PR man howled; McCartney smiled and told the man, “Thank you very much.” He was being sarcastic.

The villain of the scenario, so far as he was concerned, was not the man in the gray suit, but Klein himself, whom McCartney calls a “punk.” McCartney claims he sued his fellow ex-Beatles in High Court because it was the only way to sue Klein. When we queried the head of ABKCO Industries about the suit, he seemed to relish the new confrontation. “He now has the opportunity to say anything he wants in court,” Klein told us. “He has his opportunity to fight me face to face. I am welcoming it. Now he’s in the same ring with me. Isn’t that what he wanted?”

John Eastman made this statement concerning the Beatles/Apple/Klein suits and Paul’s involvement in them:

“John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Apple and others started an action in England against ABKCO and Klein. This complaint alleges ABKCO and Klein took excessive commissions, practiced fraud, suggested conduct which would have been a fraud on the tax authorities in the US and UK, mismanaged Bangla Desh and otherwise mismanaged the affairs of the complainant. This action is now pending against ABKCO and Klein.

“ABKCO then sued Lennon, Harrison, Starr, Yoko Ono, Apple and other related companies in the US. It claims damages against them of $63,461,372.87 plus future earnings.

“ABKCO also joined Paul, claiming conspiracy. Its only claim against Paul is that Paul conspired with Yoko Ono, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as well as Bag Production and other corporations wantonly, maliciously, fraudulently, wrongfully and intentionally without justification in law or fact to damage or injure plaintiff (ABKCO).’ Damages are sought for this alleged conspiracy of $34 million plus interest.”

Our interviews were delayed some months, first by a Wings tour and later by a series of recording sessions in Nigeria. Even after that wait, the McCartneys seemed surprised at how much we wanted to know. In the end they were interviewed in a London recording studio, Paul’s Soho office, Lee Eastman’s offices and apartment in New York (where baby Stella McCartney wore the interviewer’s watch on her foot) and the studio of cover photographer Francesco Scavullo. As the interview begins, Paul is telling how he wrote one of the songs he recorded in Nigeria. —P.G.

***

We were in Jamaica on holiday and we were staying in a little house outside Montego Bay, and we read in the local newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, that Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen were in town filming Papillon. They were just along the coast from us. We were saying it would be great to meet him, have dinner with him, so Linda rang up. She’s good at that, I’m always a bit embarrassed.

We got friendly and were chatting away. We’d been talking about songwriting, and Dustin was saying he thought it was an incredible gift to be able to write a song about something. People think that, but I always maintain it’s the same as any gift. It probably is more magical because it’s music, and I think it is more magical. But take his acting talent. It’s great. I was saying, “It’s the same as you and acting, when the man says ‘Action!’ you just pull it out of the bag, don’t you? You don’t know where it comes from, you just do it! How do you get all of your characterizations? It’s just in you.

So he says, “You mean you can just do it, like that?” He was lovely, Dustin. [Does Dustin Hoffman impersonation.] “You can just do it?” We went back a couple of days later and he said, “I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve seen a little thing in Time magazine about Picasso, and it struck me as being very poetic. I think this would be really great set to music.” It was one of those Passed On bits, you know, Transition or whatever they call it. . . . [Sees unusually dressed studio assistant.] . . . Transvestite. . . . So he says there’s a little story here. In the article he supposedly said, “Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink any more.” He went to paint a bit, and then he went to bed at three in the morning. He didn’t wake up the next morning and they found him, dead.

I happened to have my guitar with me, I’d brought it around, and I said, yeah, sure. I strummed a couple of chords I knew I couldn’t go wrong on and started singing “Drink to me, drink to my health,” and he leaps out of his chair and says, “Annie! Annie!” That’s his wife. He says, “Annie! Annie! The most incredible thing! He’s doing it! He’s writing it! It’s coming out!” He’s leaping up and down, just like in the films, you know. And I’m knocked out because he’s so appreciative. I was writing the tune there and he was well-chuffed.

Then we went to Nigeria and we were working in Ginger’s studio—Ginger Baker/ARC Studio in Lagos, nice studio down there. We thought we’d do this Picasso number, and we started off doing it straight. Then we thought, Picasso was kind of far out in his pictures, he’d done all these different kinds of things, fragmented, Cubism and the whole bit. I thought it would be nice to get a track a bit like that, put it through different moods, cut it up, edit it, mess around with it—like he used to do with his pictures. You see the old films of him painting, he paints it once and if he doesn’t like it he paints it again, right on top of it, and by about 25 times he’s got his picture. So we tried to use this kind of idea, I don’t know much about it to tell you the truth, but what we did know we tried to get in the song, sort of a Cubist thing.

Then there was the trouble in Nigeria with Fela Ransome Kuti [Ex-Ginger Baker’s Air Force].
You heard about that? All it was was we were recording in Lagos. Lately we’ve gone to two different places to record, just for the fun of it. We’ve been to Lagos and to Paris and in both of the places they say, “Why did you come here? You’ve got much better studios in England or America, you must be daft!” And we say, “Well, it’s just for the fun, it’s just to come somewhere different for a different type of turn-on, that’s all.” They never really seem to be able to understand it. I think old Fela, when he found us in Lagos, thought, “Hello, why have they come to Lagos?” And the only reason he could think of was that we must be stealing black music, black African music, the Lagos sound, we’d come down there to pick it up. So I said, “Do us a favor, we do OK as it is, we’re not pinching your music.”

They felt that they have their own little ethnic thing going and these big foreigners are taking all their bit and beating them back to the West with it. Because they have a lot of difficulty getting their sound heard in the West. There’s not an awful lot of demand, except for things like, what was it, “Soul Makossa.” Except for that kind of thing they don’t really get heard.

And they are brilliant, it’s incredible music down there. I think it will come to the fore. And I thought my visit would, if anything, help them, because it would draw attention to Lagos and people would say, “Oh, by the way, what’s the music down there like?” and I’d say it was unbelievable. It is unbelievable. When I heard Fela Ransome Kuti the first time, it made me cry, it was that good.

You’ve just had some musicians leave, haven’t you?
Our drummer [Denny Seiwell] didn’t want to come to Africa. I don’t know quite why. He was a bit nervous about coming to Africa. We’re all going to Africa to record and if the drummer won’t come, what do you do? You don’t say, “Well, we’ll see you when we get back, thanks a lot we understand.” You say, “Well, er, ummm,” and he leaves.

I think [guitarist] Henry McCulloch came to a head one day when I was asking him to play something he didn’t really fancy playing. We all got a bit choked about it, and he rang up later and said he was leaving. I said, “Well, OK.” That’s how that happened. You know, with the kind of music we play, a guitarist has got to be a bit adaptable. It was just one of those things. I don’t think there was anything wrong with them as musicians, they were both good musicians, but they just didn’t fit in.

In the film ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ there were the stereotypes—if you remember John the thinker, Ringo the loner, and Paul the happy-go-lucky. Did you object to that?
No, I didn’t mind it. No, no; I still don’t. I was in a film. I don’t care what they picture me as. So far as I’m concerned I’m just doing a job in a film. If the film calls for me to be a cheerful chap, well, great; I’ll be a cheerful chap.

It does seem to have fallen in my role to be kind of a bit more that than others. I was always known in the Beatle thing as being the one who would kind of sit the press down and say, “Hello, how are you? Do you want a drink?” and make them comfortable. I guess that’s me. My family loop was like that. So I kind of used to do that, plus a little more polished than I might normally have done, but you’re aware you’re talking to the press. … You want a good article, don’t you, so you don’t want to go sluggin’ the guys off.

But I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve been, you know. I kind of like the idea of doing something and if it turns out in a few years to look a bit sloppy I’d say, “Oh well, sloppy. So what?” I think most people dig it. You get people livin’ out in Queens or say Red Creek, Minnesota, and they’re all wiped out themselves … you know, ordinary people. Once you get into the kind of critical bit, people analyzing you and then you start to look at yourself and start to analyze yourself, and you think, oh Christ, you got me, and things start to rebound on ya, why didn’t I put on a kind of smart image … you know, why wasn’t I kind of tougher? I’m not really tough. I’m not really lovable, either, but I don’t mind falling in the middle. My dad’s advice: moderation, son. Every father in the world tells you moderation. [Linda laughs hysterically in the background.]

British parents aren’t different . . .
No, they’re exactly the same. My dad could be the perfect American stereotype father. He’s a good lad, though; I like him, you know.

I tell you what. I think that a lot of people worried about that kind of stuff didn’t often have very good family scenes, and something happened in their family to make them bitter. OK, in the normal day-to-day life a lot of polished talk goes on . . . you don’t love everyone you meet, but you try and get on with people, you know, you don’t try and put ’em up-tight; most people don’t anyway.

So to me that’s always been the way. I mean, there’s nothin’ wrong with that; why should I go around slugging people? I really didn’t like all that John did. But I’m sure that he doesn’t now.

Have you talked to him about that?
No, but I know John and I know that most of it was just something to tell the newspapers. He was in that mood then and he wanted all that to be said. I think, now, whilst he probably doesn’t regret it, he didn’t mean every single syllable of it. I mean, he came out with all stuff like I’m like Engelbert Humperdinck. I know he doesn’t really think that. In the press, they really wanted me to come out and slam John back and I used to get pissed at the guys coming up to me and saying, “This is the latest thing John said and what’s your answer.” And I’d say, “Well, don’t really have much of an answer. He’s got a right to say . . .”—you know, really limp things, I’d answer. But I believe keep cool and that sort of thing and it passes over. I don’t believe if someone kind of punches you over you have to go kind of thumping him back to prove you’re a man and that kind of thing. I think, actually, you do win that way in the end, you know.

What was your reaction when you read that stuff at the time?
Oh, I hated it. You can imagine, I sat down and pored over every little paragraph, every little sentence. “Does he really think that of me?” I thought. And at the time, I thought, “It’s me. I am. That’s just what I’m like. He’s captured me so well; I’m a turd, you know.” I sat down and really thought, I’m just nothin’. But then, well, kind of people who dug me like Linda said, “Now you know that’s not true, you’re joking. He’s got a grudge, man; the guy’s trying to polish you off.” Gradually I started to think, great, that’s not true. I’m not really like Engelbert; I don’t just write ballads. And that kept me kind of hanging on; but at the time, I tell you, it hurt me. Whew. Deep.

Could you write a song or songs with John again?
I could. It’s totally fresh ground, right now, ’cause I just got my visa, too. About two or three days ago; and until then, I couldn’t physically write a song with John; he was in America. He couldn’t get out. I couldn’t get in. But now that’s changed so whole new possibilities are opening up. Anything could happen. I like to write with John. I like to write with anyone who’s good.

Right now you yourself are working on ‘The Mouse Gang.’
No, it’s not the Mouse Gang, it’s a show that will be called the Bruce McMouse Show.

I was thinking of ‘The Zoo Gang.’
The Zoo Gang, that’s right, that’s just a theme tune for a television show I was asked to do. Bruce McMouse is another thing. We filmed the last couple of dates at the end of Wings’ first European tour. Bruce lives under the stage, you see. [Bruce and his family are animated and their exploits are spliced in between Wings’ footage for a television film.]

Are you constantly deluged with this type of offer?
Not deluged. I get quite a few, you know. I just try and choose the ones I like the sound of. It’s not anything I plan out. I remember a thing in Rolling Stone—there’s a little bit of chat, I read the papers, you know—that said “McCartney’s going to do Live and Let Die, so it’s come to that, has it?” I thought, you silly sods. Because we were talking to another paper and when I said I was going to do Live and Let Die, the 007 thing, the reporter said, “Hey, man, that’s real hip.” So it just depends which way you look at it.

“Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was the first of your singles in eight years that didn’t sell in America and Britain.
Before I did that, I always used to think, God, John’s crackers, doing all these political songs. I understand he really feels deeply, you know. So do I. I hate all that Nixon bit, all that Ireland bit, and oppression anywhere. I think our mob do, our generation do hate that and wish it could be changed, but up until the actual time when the paratroopers went in and killed a few people, a bit like Kent State, the moment when it is actually there on the doorstep, I always used to think it’s still cool to not say anything about it, because it’s not going to sell anyway and no one’s gonna be interested.

So I tried it, it was Number One in Ireland and, funnily enough, it was Number One in Spain, of all places. I don’t think Franco could have understood.

[At this point Paul receives word that a playback of Bruce McMouse is beginning in the control room. He excuses himself and we chat with Linda while Denny Laine plays a medley of Tim Hardin songs on the studio piano.]

Did you feel scared when ‘McCartney’ was released, since that was your debut and the first song was pegged at you?
No. I didn’t take it as seriously as I probably should have. I think it was good copy at the time to slag everything. Everybody was getting slagged, the Beatles were getting slagged. I personally didn’t realize you had to explain yourself a lot once you get into the public eye. I just carried on with my normal life, like I had in New York, and I just got all this slagging. It never really brought me down much, though.

Do you think any Mrs. McCartney in that situation would have been slagged?
I think in what was going down then, yes. There was so much trouble for everybody, not done by one particular person, that everybody was getting blamed. I still can’t look at it from the angle that I’m Mrs. McCartney. You know what I mean? I still see me as the person I’ve always been, either you like me or you don’t. Paul likes me. [Laughter.]

And stood up for you during the slagging.
He was living with me, he knows I’m a good chick, he knows I don’t have any bad motives. I’m not a grabber, I’m not any of that. He wouldn’t have married me if I had been. So he stuck by me. I just read totally bizarre stuff about myself. People would do an article on me and then an article on Yoko from childhood on up. I couldn’t believe it. It was total fantasy. I mean, none of that happened, folks.

Unlike John, who went to a solo career, Paul went to a group.
John didn’t really go to a solo career, there was the Plastic Ono Band and that. But Paul is very much a teamwork person. He doesn’t like working just on his own. He still gets nervous. He likes working with people, bouncing off people and having them bounce off him. He likes helping people.

Have you ever entertained the thought of doing a record by yourself?
Not Linda McCartney’s Great Single, no. I fool around with the songs I write, but I don’t take it as a serious career.

You do have the novelty single coming up?
Yes. I did a song, “Seaside Woman,” right after we’d been to Jamaica, about three or four years ago, I guess. Very reggae-inspired. That’s when ATV was suing us saying I was incapable of writing, so Paul said, “Get out and write a song.” And then about a week ago we went in to do a B side for it of something I’d written in Africa, some chords I wrote in Africa, and we just talk over it. It’s very sort of Fifties R&B, the Doves, the Penguins. I love that, that was my era. I’m New York, you know, Alan Freed and the whole bit.

We’re going to put the single out under the name Suzi and the Red Stripes. When we were in Jamaica, there had been a fantastic reggae version of “Suzi Q,” so they used to call me Suzi. And the beer in Jamaica is called Red Stripe, so that makes it Suzi and the Red Stripes. It’ll be out someday, but I’ve been saying “Seaside Woman” will be released since 1971 and we still haven’t bothered. It’s a bit like my photography book. Someday there will be a book.

Was it strictly through you that your father became associated with Paul as his lawyer?
It’s through me, actually. I remember saying to my father, when I’d met Paul a few times but wasn’t living with him, after Brian died, that he had helped a lot of people out of messes, could he help? He said well, I don’t know. I said it would be great because I know you could help them out. So then I introduced Paul to my dad, and they got along instantly. If he hadn’t met my father, Klein would have just hawked right in there.

[At this point we retire to the control room. Linda goes over the Walt Disney Christmas show script, then talks on the phone to someone at EMI. “I think the only bit we’d like to add is a little bit from 101 Dalmatians . . .”

[Paul talks to the engineer of Dark Side of the Moon. They marvel at its sales record, and the engineer notes that Pink Floyd are going to give him a Christmas present. “Ask for a percentage,” McCartney recommends. “It’s the best present they could give you. What that album has done so far is amazing. In France, it’s outsold Abbey Road . . .”]

How did you meet Linda?
Linda and I met in a club in London called the Bag of Nails, which was right about the time that the club scene was going strong in London. She was down there with some friends. I think she was down there with Chas Chandler and some other people, and I was down there with some friends, including a guy who used to work at the office. I was in my little booth and she was in her little booth and we were giving each other the eye you know. Georgie Fame was playing that night and we were both right into Georgie Fame.

When did you first realize you wanted to marry her?
About a year later. We both thought it a bit crazy at the time, and we also thought it would be a gas. Linda was a bit dubious, because she had been married before and wasn’t too set on settling. In a way, she thought it tends to blow things, marrying ruins it. But we both fancied each other enough to do it. And now we’re glad we did it, you know. It’s great. I love it.

Some of the critical notices on her debut performances seemed to ask where she had come from.
Yeah. Well, the answer is, nowhere, really.

Mick Jagger had that quote. He wouldn’t let . . .
. . . his old lady in the band, yeah. That was all very understandable at the time because she did kind of appear out of nowhere. To most people, she was just some chick. I just figure she was the main help for me on the albums around that time. She was there every day, helping on harmonies and all of that stuff.

It’s like you write millions of love songs and finally when you’re in love you’d kind of like to write one for the person you’re in love with. So I think all this business about getting Linda in the billing was just a way of saying, “Listen, I don’t care what you think, this is what I think. I’m putting her right up there with me.”

Later we thought it might have been cooler not to introduce her so bluntly. Perhaps a little more show business: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to my better half. Isn’t she sweet and coy?”

It turns out it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter one bit. At the time it was a little rough, maybe. At the time it was rough for her. None of us realized what . . . it was like someone marrying Mick, you don’t realize . . . you know there’s going to be a lot of fans who are going to hate it, but you still end up thinking, well, it’s my life. I know of a lot of rock & roll stars or just even show business people who will regulate their life to their image. It can mess you up a lot. I know a lot of guys from the old days who wouldn’t get married, even if they wanted to. Wouldn’t get married because it might affect their careers. The old management thing—”You can’t get married, all your fans are going to desert you.” So the