Paul McCartney is currently on the road, touring North America through mid-August with a show called One on One. The song selection, a deep dive into the ex-Beatle's entire catalog, is a dream come true for Macca die-hards and a perfect onstage complement to Pure McCartney, a recently released compilation that surveys the singer-songwriter's work with Wings, the Fireman and under his own name. We spoke with McCartney about the vintage classics and recent favorites that make up his One on One set.
At the opening night, in Fresno, California, McCartney played the song for the first time since 1965. "That chord is pretty iconic," he says. "I suggested that [we open with] it to the band and we all got a bit sort of goose-bumpy. If it excites us, it will probably excite an audience."
"I made this when I was experimenting with synthesizers and sequencers on McCartney II," he says of the obscure single, which has recently taken on a second life as a kind of cult hit. "It started getting picked up by a DJ in Brighton, England, then I heard it was being played in clubs. My piano player Wix had to figure out the sequencing. After a few false starts, we got it."
"It's the first one I made right after the Beatles – it has good associations for me," McCartney says of the ballad, which has long been a staple of his live shows. "Liza Minnelli once said it was her favorite song of mine. I would have expected more of a show song, but that's cool. This one's for Liza!"
During his acoustic set, McCartney takes the crowd back to the day his pre-Beatles band the Quarrymen – "me, John, George and two other guys" – cut their first song for £5. Each member agreed to keep the original master recording for a week at a time, except "[bandmate John] Duff had it for 23 years."
"Another song I'd never done before this tour," McCartney says of the Beatles' first single. "People would talk to me and say, 'Aw, I love that one.' And I say, 'But it's so simple!' Then they say, 'That's why I like it.' It's quite random how things wind up in our set."
The upbeat single from his most recent LP, New, is a great mood-lifter after the acoustic set – even if it's not one of McCartney's best-known songs. "If you play the hits, all the phones light up like a galaxy," he says. "When you play the new stuff, it's a black hole. I bust the audience for that: 'We know which ones you like!' But we enjoy doing it."
He usually follows "Queenie Eye" with this harpsichord-flavored song from the same LP. "There's part of me that wants to just do a show with deep cuts," McCartney says. "It would be a special series of concerts where you call it 'You're Not Going to Like This One!'"
McCartney was concerned how older fans would react to this Rihanna single, which he wrote with Kanye West. "They know more than you think," he says. "I started playing it in the key I'd originally [written] it in. Kanye sped it up for Rihanna and put it into her key. It's nice having something that recent in the show."
For decades, McCartney swore this Sgt. Pepper cut, sung by John Lennon, was one of two Beatles songs he'd never play live (the other was "Day Tripper"), but he reversed himself in 2013. "The bass parts are too intricate to sing the lead vocal alongside," he says. "It's almost impossible. But that makes it intriguing. Let's take the challenge up!"
For McCartney, this classic brings back memories of his ramshackle early Seventies tours with Wings. "I had a ban on Beatles songs, even though I knew people wanted to hear them," he says. "But once we had things like 'Jet' and 'Band on the Run,' we'd established that there is life after the Beatles."
McCartney has an odd relationship with perhaps his most famous song – but that doesn't stop him from playing it at nearly every show. "I'm often thinking, 'This is the work of a 22-year-old guy,'" he says. "It's like it's not mine. I'm getting the chords right, trying to sing in tune and thinking, 'You shouldn't be thinking about this guy. You've got to be in the now.' It's a very strange thing, performing."