A Conversation With George Harrison
Up for the day from his home in Oxfordshire, some thirty miles from London, George Harrison had spent the morning in the recording studio with Paul McCartney. It was not, he hastened to explain, a meeting that presaged any sort of Beatles reunion. (‘Fab Four’ is the term Harrison prefers, used with an affectionate irony, as if to reduce the implications of the name to a manageable level.) Indeed, it is a sign of the times that even the most stubborn Beatles fans no longer hold it as an article of faith to entertain that particular idea. The old antagonisms attending the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, and the protracted legal wrangles that went on for years afterward, have long been mended, but a musical realignment is as unlikely as Richard Nixon regaining the presidency.
Of all the former Beatles, it is Harrison whose interests have proved to be the most far ranging over the past ten years, from organizing the Concert for Bangla Desh to aiding and abetting Monty Python’s Flying Circus. His own musical career has encompassed eight solo albums and just one tour – of America in 1974. Since the release of his last album, ’33-1/3,’ more than two years ago, Harrison has endeavored to maintain as low a public profile as possible. He married Olivia Arias, his girlfriend of some four years standing, in September 1978, and they have a baby son, Dhani. When he’s not at his English country home (the author of “Taxman” brazens out England’s punitive taxation rate for the sake of “the countryside and the seasons”), Harrison is often traveling on the international Grand Prix circuit, where he indulges a passion for watching car racing he has held since his childhood days in Liverpool.
Harrison has long been reluctant to give interviews, acquiescing on this occasion only in the interests of discussing his new album, ‘George Harrison.’ But despite his professed disinterest in dialogue with the media, he proved to be a genial and good-humored subject – happy to discuss his music, his personal and professional tribulations of the past few years, the Beatles and more. The interview took place one afternoon in late February, over French cigarettes and cups of tea, in the London office of Warner/Elektra/Asylum Records. We broke off our conversation at one point to watch the early evening TV news broadcast of an interview Harrison had taped earlier that day. In the clip, Harrison was shown pulling up outside the TV studio in his black Porsche and clambering out for an abbreviated discussion about the new album and his reactions to the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ film, which had opened in London that week. The news item concluded not with a musical extract from the ‘George Harrison’ album but with vintage newsreel footage of the Beatles receiving their Member of the Order of the British Empire awards in June 1965, to the accompaniment of “Help!” Harrison heaved a deep sigh of resignation. All things must pass, perhaps, but after almost ten years George Harrison has come to learn that some things take longer to pass than others . . .
When did you actually start work on ‘George Harrison’?
I started working on it midway through April 1978 and finished it at the beginning of October. It’s been a bit late coming out because the artwork wasn’t ready; then it was a bit late to get it in for Christmas. And then everybody and their aunties had one coming out at Christmas, so we decided to take our time over getting everything ready.
Has it been long in the gestation stage?
Well, all of 1977 I didn’t write a song, I didn’t do anything; I was not working at all really, so I decided I’d better start doing something. I’d just turned off from the music business altogether. I am a bit out of touch with the other music. There’re certain artists that I always like to listen to, but I don’t listen a great deal to the radio. I just got out of it – I was “skiving,” as the English say. Everybody else doesn’t notice, because if your past records still get played on the radio, people don’t notice that you’re not really there. But I just got sick of all that . . .
Sick of all what?
Just sick of the whole thing. If you look at the trade papers, everybody’s changing companies, and this artist has gone to that label and that artist to this one, and everybody’s doing this and that. [Sighing] Having been in this business now for so long – it was 1961 when we first made a record, I think, so it’s eighteen years now – the novelty’s worn off. Really, it comes down to ego. You have to have a big ego in order to keep plodding on being in the public eye. If you want to be popular and famous, you can do it; it’s dead easy if you have that ego desire. But most of my ego desires as far as being famous and successful were fulfilled a long time ago.
I still enjoy writing a tune and enjoy in a way making a record. But I hate that whole thing of when you put it out, you become a part of the overall framework of the business. And I was a bit bored with that. If I write a tune and people think it’s nice then that’s fine by me; but I hate having to compete and promote the thing. I really don’t like promotion. In the Sixties we overdosed on that, and then I consciously went out of my way at the end of the Sixties, early Seventies, to try and be a bit more obscure. What you find is that you have a hit and suddenly everybody’s knocking on your door and bugging you again. I enjoy being low profile and having a peaceful sort of life.
So anyway, to answer your original question, it got to be the end of 1977 and I thought, “God, I’d better do something.”
Were you getting bored with yourself, bored with your inactivity?
I was getting embarrassed because I was going to all these motor races, and everybody was talking to me like George, the ex-Beatle, the musician, asking me if I was making a record and whether I was going to write some songs about racing, and yet musical thoughts were just a million miles away from my mind.
And then what really touched me was meeting Niki Lauda. I have a great respect for him. After that crash he went through in 1976, I felt really bad for him and I was very happy when he didn’t die. You have to read about his life, his books and things, to realize what he was put through – people trying to photograph him with his face all scarred, trying to break into his hospital room, all that very unpleasant reporting stuff. I could really relate to that. Anyway, I talked to him once after he had won the world championship again, in 1977 at Watkins Glen, and he was talking about all the bullshit in his business – the politics and the hassles – and he was saying how he just likes to go home and relax and play some nice music. And I thought, “Shit, I’m going to go and write some tunes, because these people are all relating to me as a musician, and yet I’m here just skiving; maybe I can write a song that Niki on his day off may enjoy.” So that was it.
The other side of it, too, is that my friends at Warner Bros., who I have a deal with, they never ask, “Why aren’t you doing anything?” They always treat me very civil, but at the same time I was thinking, “Well, it’s been awhile . . . ” They may start to think, “What are we doin’ with this fella?”
So was the album prompted more by other people’s expectations of you, a sense of obligation on your part, rather than an inherent desire to make music again?
Well, partly perhaps. But once you do write a tune, I don’t know why, but there is that desire to have it made into a proper record. If I were to die, I’d rather people find a good finished master of my songs than a crummy old demo on a cassette. Maybe originally it was other people’s expectations that prompted me, but once I got writing tunes I got my motor ticking over again and it’s fun – you get in the studio, you get going and you can enjoy it all over again.
The other thing is that I decided to get somebody to help me produce this record. So I went to Warners in Burbank and spoke to the three staff producers there – Ted Templeman, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman. And I played them some demos of the tunes I’d written and said, “Come on, you guys, give me a clue. Tell me what songs you’ve liked in the past, what songs you didn’t like; give me a few ideas of what you think.” And they didn’t know what to say. Templeman said he had liked “Deep Blue,” the B side of the “Bangla Desh” single, which is a bit obscure – so I went home and wrote a song with a similar sort of chord structure to that, “Soft-Hearted Hana.” But in the end I decided I’d work with Russ Titelman. He did the first Little Feat album and, with Lenny Waronker, he’s coproduced Randy Newman, James Taylor and Ry Cooder – he’s Ry Cooder’s brother-in-law, in fact. And he’s a nice, easy person to get along with, which is more important than the person’s musical taste, because you spend five months together – you’ve got to like each other a bit. He helped me decide what sort of tunes to use, encouraged me to actually finish certain songs, and helped actually lay the tracks down. It’s hard for an artist to be in the booth and in the studio.
Did you feel that, in that period when you weren’t writing and recording, you might have lost a feel for the public ear?
Yeah, I had that feeling because they’d told me stories about Randy Newman, about how he can’t write songs and feels as though he’s dried up, then suddenly he’s written an album that’s successful and now he’s writing ten songs a day. So it’s just your own problem. When they mentioned that to me, I did think, “Hey, maybe I could dry up.”
How much has your inactivity, and your disenchantment with the music business, had to do with the various lawsuits you’ve had to fight over the past years? For instance, the plagiarism lawsuit over “My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine.”
Well, that has been going on for years. It’s like a running joke now. The guy who actually wrote “He’s So Fine” had died years before, Ronnie Mack. Bright Tunes Music, his publisher, was suing me. So we went through the court case, and in the end the judge said, yes, it is similar, but you’re not guilty of stealing the tune. We do think there’s been a copyright infringement, though, so get your lawyers together and work out some sort of compensation. But Bright Tunes wouldn’t settle for that; they kept trying to bring the case back into court. They even tried to bring it back into court when I did “This Song.”
It’s difficult to just start writing again after you’ve been through that. Even now when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else. But most of the lawsuits are gone. Now we’re gearing up for the next batch.
There are more to come?
There’s not much more we [the Beatles] can be sued for, but we can sue a lot of other people. Being split and diversified over the years has made it difficult to consolidate certain Beatles interests. For example, all those naughty Broadway shows and stupid movies that have been made about the Beatles, using Beatles names and ideas, are all illegal. But because we’ve been arguing among ourselves all these years, people have had a free-for-all. Now we’ve gotten to the point where everybody’s agreed and we’ve allocated a company to go out and sue them all. It’s terrible, really. People think we’re giving all these producers and people permission to do it and that we’re making money out of it, but we don’t make a nickel. So it’s time that should be stopped.
Maybe we should go and do The Robert Stigwood Story or something [laughing], although I suppose the Sgt. Pepper film is all right because they’ve paid the copyright on the songs and made up their own story line.
Have you seen the film?
No. The reports on it were so bad that I didn’t want to see it. But maybe it’s good. I don’t know.
Do you see it as an insult to the memory?
No. I just feel sorry for Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees and Pete Frampton for doing it, because they had established themselves in their own right as decent artists and suddenly . . . it’s like the classic thing of greed. The more you make the more you want to make, until you become so greedy that ultimately you put a foot wrong. And even though Sgt. Pepper is no doubt a financial success, I think it’s damaged their images, their careers, and they didn’t need to do that. It’s just like the Beatles trying to do the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones can do it better.
How does it feel to be an object of nostalgia already?
We’ve been nostalgia since 1967. It’s fine. There was a time when I don’t think any of us liked it – that 1968 to 1969 period. But now it’s funny. [Grinning] It’s like being Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. But the music still stands up, still sounds very good, a lot of it.
Apart from films and stage productions done without the Beatles’ permission, are you happy with the way the actual Beatles recordings have been repackaged and promoted over the years?
It doesn’t bother me anymore. At first it was pretty crummy. We always had complete artistic control from the outset, and we took great care over running orders, having the right songs in the right places and good sleeves – it was all done with a bit of taste. But straightaway they started screwing that up in the States, holding back tracks from albums so that, for every two albums released in Britain, they could release three over there. But still, everything we did continued to be in pretty good taste until the contract expired, and then they started shoving out all these repackages with crummy sleeves and everything. It doesn’t bother me as long as they keep paying the royalties.
Another subindustry that’s grown up in the Beatles’ wake is all that personal reminiscence about the band. There seems to be an extraordinary number of people who were either your manager, your road manager, delivered the milk . . .
[Laughing] Yeah, and the fifth Beatle . . . there’re about 10 million fifth Beatles. No, really, that’s sickening. All those Beatlefests and things are a terrible rip-off. These people – “the man who gave away the Beatles” – none of them know what they’re talking about. It’s like Britain has always been hung up talking about the Second World War – even now you turn on the TV and they love to talk about the war. It’s like that. The Beatles were in and out of these people’s lives in a flash, and yet they’re still there fifteen years later talking about the ten minutes we were in their lives, and robbing the money of innocent kids while doing it. It’s pathetic. It’s immoral; it shouldn’t be allowed.
But the fact that those people can prosper suggests that people still don’t want the memory of the Beatles to die. There’s an incredible need people still feel to have the Beatles.
Well, they’ve got ’em. They’ve got the films – Help!, A Hard Day’s Night, Let It Rot, Tragical History Tour. They’ve got lots and lots of songs they can play forever. But what do they want? Blood? They want us all to die like Elvis Presley? Elvis got stuck in a rut where the only thing he could do was to keep on doing the same old thing, and in the end his health suffered and that was it.
The Beatles fortunately did that hit-and-run. But every year we were Beatling was like twenty years; so although it might only have been five or six years it seemed like eternity. That was enough for me, I don’t have any desire to do all that. It might have been fun for everybody else, but we never saw the Beatles. We’re the only four people who never got to see us. [Laughing] Everybody got on a trip, you see, that was the thing. We were just four relatively sane people in the middle of madness. People used us as an excuse to trip out, and we were the victims of that. That’s why they want the Beatles to go on, so they can all get silly again. But they don’t have consideration for our well-being when they say, “Let’s have the Fab Four again.”
You wouldn’t want to go through it again?
Never. Not in this life or any other life. I mean, a lot of the time it was fantastic, but when it really got into the mania it was a question of either stop or end up dead. We almost got killed in a number of situations – planes catching on fire, people trying to shoot the plane down and riots everywhere we went. It was aging me.
But we had a great time. I think fondly of it all, especially as we’ve been through all the aftermath of Apple. Everybody’s sued each other to their hearts’ content, and now we’re all good friends.
Do you see the others often?
Paul and Ringo I see from time to time. I haven’t seen John for a couple of years. I get post cards from him – it sounds like the Rutles [smiling], but he keeps in touch with tapping on the table and post cards.
Why is he so inactive?
He’s probably not. Just because he’s not Beatling doesn’t mean he’s inactive. It’s like, for me to do this interview now people can see that I’m here talking. But if I’m not doing the interview I’m inactive. But I’m not really – I’m at home doing other things, or going places doing various things . . .
But John is publicly inactive, not making records.
Well, I don’t blame him. I’ve found if I take a two-week holiday, by the end of those two weeks, I’m just about ready to enjoy the holiday and I have to get back to work. If you retire or knock off the work, then there’s a while of feeling, “Wow, I should be doing something,” until you slowly mellow out and think, “Wow, this is good. I don’t have to be mad all my life, I don’t have to live in the public eye.” And I’m sure that’s all he’s doing, enjoying his life.
Fans feel almost cheated when the performer stops performing . . .
I know, but that’s their own concept. It’s a selfish concept to think, “Go out and kill yourself for me . . . ” But I myself would be interested to know whether John still writes tunes and puts them on a cassette, or does he just forget all about music and not touch the guitar. Because that’s what I did, all of 1977 I never picked up a guitar, never even thought about it. And I didn’t miss it.
Do you like the music Paul is making now?
I think it’s inoffensive. I’ve always preferred Paul’s good melodies to his screaming rock & roll tunes. The tune I thought was sensational on the London Town album was “I’m Carrying,” but all the noisy, beaty things I’m not into at all. But then that’s not only with Paul’s music, that goes right across the board. I’m not a fan of that sort of punky, heavy, tinny stuff. I like a nice melody.
But the Beatles could turn out a fair rock & roll song in their day.
Yeah, we used to do all that, but as far as listening to it, I’d rather hear someone like Little Richard or Larry Williams. I never liked all that stuff in the late Sixties after Cream had broken up – all those Les Paul guitars screaming and distorting. I like more subtlety – like Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton. Eric is fantastic. He could blow all those people off the stage if he wanted to, but he’s more subtle than that. Sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s what you don’t do that counts. And personally I’d rather hear three notes hit really sweet than to hear a whole lot of notes from some guitar player whose ears are so blown out he can’t hear the difference between a flat and a sharp.
It seems as if Paul was the Beatle with whom you were least compatible musically – you’ve gone on record as saying you wouldn’t play with him again.
Yeah, well now we don’t have any problems whatsoever as far as being people is concerned, and it’s quite nice to see him. But I don’t know about being in a band with him, how that would work out. It’s like, we all have our own tunes to do. And my problem was that it would always be very difficult to get in on the act, because Paul was very pushy in that respect. When he succumbed to playing on one of your tunes, he’d always do good. But you’d have to do fifty-nine of Paul’s songs before he’d even listen to one of yours. So, in that respect, it would be very difficult to ever play with him. But, you know, we’re cool as far as being pals goes.
Do you miss not playing with a regular band and going on the road?
No. I don’t like going on the road. Sometimes I feel physically very frail. I can feel knackered, really tired, just having to get up early to get an airplane – I can feel ill having to travel. On the road there’re all these medicines flying about to help you catch the plane on time, all that sort of stuff. And I’m a sucker for that. I could do myself in.
That was the problem in 1974, when I toured America. I’d done three albums before I went on the road, and I was still trying to finish my own album as we were rehearsing, and also we’d done this other tour in Europe with these classical Indian musicians. By the time it came to going on the road I was already exhausted. With the Beatles we used to do thirty minutes onstage, and we could get it down to twenty-five minutes if we did it fast. We were on and off and “thank you,” and back to the hotel. Suddenly to have to be playing two and one-half hours for forty-seven gigs, flying all round, I was wasted.
But I had that choice of canceling the tour and getting everybody uptight, or going through with it. So I decided, “Sod it, it’s probably better to do it.” But no, I don’t miss it at all – being in crummy hotels, eating lousy food, always having to be somewhere else.
There was a lot of flak about that tour. Did you think the criticisms were justified?
The flak about the tour was terrible. [Exasperated] There’re always people who don’t like something, but on the average it wasn’t a disaster. I wanted it made clear that it was a tour with Ravi Shankar, but Bill Graham wouldn’t do that. They tried to make it look like it was just me coming, that sort of trip. But even in the Indian music section there was a part of that, every place we played, where the audiences were up on their feet screaming and shouting their approval.
But the press clippings were unbelievable. By the time I got back to England people were saying, “That’s it, you’re finished, man.” It was the worst thing I’d ever done in my life according to the papers. But really, there were moments of that show that were fantastic. So all the negativity about that was a bit depressing, but [grinning triumphantly] I fought my way back to recovery!
That tour coincided with the formation of your own record label, Dark Horse. You were signing and producing other performers such as Ravi Shankar and Splinter, and seemed very active in promoting other artists’ careers.
Yeah, right, and that was another reason why 1975 wasn’t so good . . . why I was so wiped out, and it resulted in me saying, “Sod it, I don’t want a record company.” I don’t mind me being on the label because, all right, I can release an album and it makes some profit, and I don’t phone myself in the middle of the night to complain about different things. But artists are never satisfied. They spend maybe $50,000 more than I’d spend making an album, then they won’t do any interviews or go on the road – whatever you’d organize for them, they’d foul it up. It was just too much bullshit. They think a record company is like a bank that they can go and draw money out of whenever they want. But, nevertheless, there were some good things that came out of it: the Attitudes album, Good News, is really good. And I’m happy about the Indian music we did – the Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India and the Shankar Family and Friends albums. But generally the record company was too much of a problem.
Was there a lot of resistance from the other Beatles when you first introduced sitar on the group’s albums?
Not a lot, because at that time it was all experiments and stuff. In fact, I think it was John who really urged me to play sitar on “Norwegian Wood,” which was the first time we used it. Now, Paul has just asked me recently whether I’d written any more of those “Indian type of tunes.” He suddenly likes them now. But at the time he wouldn’t play on them. “Within You, without You” was just me and some Indian musicians in the studio by ourselves. It sounds a bit dopey now in retrospect, except the sitar solo’s good.
Your interest in Indian music and, particularly, in mysticism and the disciplines of spiritual development has always been the most misunderstood and most derided facet of your life. Do you have any theories as to why that should be?
It’s ignorance. They say ignorance is bliss, but bliss is not ignorance – it’s the opposite of that, which is knowledge. And there’s a lot of people who have fear. It’s like I was saying earlier about all those guys in Liverpool who knew us in the early days and are now running Beatlefests. All of those guys had a good opportunity when the Beatles left Liverpool to leave, too; they could have been running their own TV shows and doing all kinds of things now. But they were like big fish in a little pond. And the fear of failure is a bad thing in life; it stops people from gaining more knowledge or just understanding deeper things. So when somebody presents them with a whole set of ideas they don’t understand, fear takes over. They want to destroy it, chop it down. Just like that loony guy in America who claims to go round deprogramming people from Krishna and the Divine Light Mission and that. That’s his fear coming out, because if you understand something, you don’t have to fear it – there’s no panic, no problem.
Basically I feel fortunate to have realized what the goal is in life. There’s no point in dying having gone through your life without knowing who you are, what you are or what the purpose of life is. And that’s all it is. People started getting uptight when I started shooting off my mouth and saying the goal is to manifest love of God – self-realization. I must admit, there was a period when I was trying to tell everybody about it; now, I don’t bother unless somebody asks specifically. I still write about it in my songs, but it’s less blatant, more hidden now. I’m a very poor example of a spiritual person. I don’t really want anything in my life except knowledge, but I’m not a very good practitioner of that.
Has remarrying and having a child significantly changed your life?
Yeah, that’s been a wonderful thing for me. Everybody who has a baby thinks their child is wonderful, and it is. I’m enjoying it a lot and, again, that’s probably why John isn’t working. After a long time of waiting, he and Yoko finally had a child and I think he wants to give most of his time to watching the child grow up.
You met your wife, Olivia, at the end of what seems to have been a pretty low period for you personally – 1974.
Yeah, well after I split up from Patti [Boyd, Harrison’s first wife], I went on a bit of a bender to make up for all the years I’d been married. If you listen to “Simply Shady,” on Dark Horse, it’s all in there – my whole life at that time was a bit like [laughing] Mrs. Dale’s Diary [a now defunct British radio soap opera].
Were you going down fast?
Well, I wasn’t ready to join Alcoholics Anonymous or anything – I don’t think I was that far gone – but I could put back a bottle of brandy occasionally, plus all the other naughty things that fly around. I just went on a binge, went on the road . . . all that sort of thing, until it got to the point where I had no voice and almost no body at times. Then I met Olivia and it all worked out fine. There’s a song on the new album, “Dark Sweet Lady”: “You came and helped me through/When I’d let go/You came from out the blue/Never have known what I’d done without you.” That sums it up.
There are a number of love songs on the album – in fact, it’s a very positive record altogether. Is there any one song that you’re happiest with, or means more to you than the others?
I like them all really, but the two I least like are “If You Believe” – I like the sentiment of that, but it’s a bit obvious as a tune – and “Soft Touch,” which is just pleasant but there’s nothing special about it, I feel. All the others I like for various reasons. “Blow Away” I like because it’s so catchy; in fact, I was a bit embarrassed about it at first, but it turned our good and people seem to like it. That was the first new tune I wrote. I was in the garden and it was pouring down with rain, and I suddenly became aware that I was feeling depressed, being affected by the weather. And it’s important to remember that while everything else around you changes, the soul within remains the same; you have to constantly remember that and fight for the right to be happy.
And I like “Faster” because I fulfilled the thing the Formula One motor-racing people kept asking me – to write a song about racing – and I did it in a way I’m happy about because it wasn’t just corny. It’s easy to write about V-8 engines and vroom vroom – that would have been bullshit. But I’m happy with the lyrics because it can be seen to be about one driver specifically or any of them, and if it didn’t have the motor-racing noises, it could be about the Fab Four really – the jealousies and things like that.
Is that the Beatles’ life story?
Exactly, and when people keep asking, “Why don’t the Beatles keep on going?” they don’t realize that you can kill yourself. Or maybe they do realize that; maybe they want you to. There’s a lot of that in motor racing. I’ve seen people say they want somebody they don’t like to crash, which is crazy.
“Not Guilty” is an interesting song, a rebuff to your critics.
Actually, I wrote that in 1968. It was after we got back from Rishikesh in the Himalayas on the Maharishi trip, and it was for the White Album. We recorded it but we didn’t get it down right or something. Then I forgot all about it until a year ago, when I found this old demo I’d made in the Sixties. The lyrics are a bit passé – all about upsetting “Apple carts” and stuff – but it’s a bit about what was happening at the time. “Not guilty for getting in your way/While you’re trying to steal the day” – which was me trying to get a space. “Not guilty/ For looking like a freak/Making friends with every Sikh/For leading you astray/On the road to Mandalay” – which is the Maharishi and going to the Himalayas and all that was said about that. I like the tune a lot; it would make a great tune for Peggy Lee or someone.
Critical reaction to the album in England has been exceptionally good. People have said it’s the best since ‘All Things Must Pass.’ Is that your feeling?
Well, I hope it does as well as All Things Must Pass. I think this album is very pleasant. It’s like I was saying earlier, when I went and asked the guys at Warner Bros. “You’re so smart, tell me what’s happening,” because I really don’t follow the charts and all that anymore. When it came down to it they don’t know any more than I do. But I think even without following trends, paying no real attention to what’s going on and just writing your own songs, you still have as much chance as if you follow things closely. In fact, you probably have a better chance, because you’re less affected by superficial change. It’s more likely to be original.
Do you listen to any current music?
I listen to Clapton, Elton John, Bob Dylan, those sort of people. I couldn’t stand punk rock; it never did anything for me at all.
Do you feel very estranged from what is happening musically and socially at a grass-roots, youth-culture level?
Well, musically the punks have been and gone, haven’t they, and it all seems to be very musical again. Elvis Costello is very good – very good melodies, good chord changes. I’m pleased about his success, but I never liked those monotone kinds of yelling records.
Didn’t they say the same thing about Larry Williams and Little Richard?
Yeah, but those guys were inventing something at the time and I don’t think punk was inventing anything except negativity. The old rock & roll singers sang fantastically, they had great drummers, great sax players. As far as musicianship goes, the punk bands were just rubbish – no finesse in the drumming, just a lot of noise and nothing.
Did the lyrical preoccupations of British punk – the way it was addressing itself to contemporary social issues – did that excite or depress you?
Well, I felt very sorry when the Sex Pistols were on television and one of them was saying, “We’re educated to go into the factories and work on assembly lines . . . ” and that’s their future. It is awful, and it’s especially awful that it should come out of England, because England is continually going through depression; it’s a very negative country. Everybody wants everything and nobody wants to do anything for it. But it’s a very simple thing; how do you give people money if there is none? The only way you make more money is to work harder. Now that may be all right for me to say because I don’t have to work in a factory, but it’s true. But out of all that is born the punk thing, so it’s understandable. But you don’t fight negativity with negativity. You have to overpower hatred with love, not more hatred.
Could you personally afford not to work again?
Yes. It’s not for the money that I do what I do; it was never for the money really. We hoped we’d make a living out of it when we [the Beatles] were teenagers, we hoped we’d get by [smiling], but we weren’t doing it for the money. In fact, the moment we realized we were doing it for the money was just before we stopped touring, because we were getting no pleasure out of it. Then we found out we weren’t even getting the money. The Americans were keeping it all, and we were paying so much tax – ninety-five percent or more. So it’s never been for the money really, although it can be nice to have some money. I mean, there’s nothing worse than standing at a bus stop in the pouring rain, wishing you had a car.
You’ve invested in the new Monty Python film, The Life of Brian.
Well, I’m what they call the executive producer. What happened was that I helped to raise the money for them in order to make the film when the previous backer pulled out. As I’m a Monty Python fan, I wanted to see the movie – I like to go and have a laugh too – and a friend suggested that I try and raise the money. So we just got a loan from a bank. It’s a risk I suppose.
I first met Michael Palin and Terry Jones in 1972, I think. I met Eric Idle in 1975, at the California premierè of the Holy Grail film. And although that was the first time I’d ever met him, I felt like I’d known them all for years, because I’d watched all the programs and had had them on videotape. So it only took ten minutes before we were the best of friends.
I think after the Beatles, Monty Python was my favorite thing. It bridged the years when there was nothing really doing, and they were the only ones who could see that everything was a big joke.
You were involved in the TV production of the Rutles’ All You Need Is Cash as well. Did Eric consult you on some facts?
Yes. I slipped him the odd movie here and there that nobody had seen, so he could have more to draw from. I loved the Rutles because in the end the Beatles for the Beatles is just tiresome; it needs to be deflated a bit, and I loved the idea of the Rutles taking that burden off us in a way. Everything can be seen as comedy, and the Fab Four are no exception to that. And there were so many good jokes in it. Belushi as Ron Decline: “You ask me where the money is. I don’t know where the money is, but if you want money I’ll give it to you,” and “You ask me where the money is. You know I was never any good at maths . . . ” [Laughing] It was just like Klein. Even Allen Klein himself thought it was just like him. I think he liked it. One thing you can say about Klein is that he’s got his good side, too. Even though we’ve sued each other for years I still like the man.
How do you spend your time when you’re not recording?
I stay home and dig – not so much with a spade – but I dig the garden, putting trees in. I like gardens; I like the pleasure they give you. It’s like a meditation in a way – you can get everything out of your mind groveling in the soil! I spend a lot of time with the wife and the baby.
For the last year, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on this book of song manuscripts. The idea came from some guy who does these limited-edition books that are leather bound, printed on nice, thick parchment paper – the whole works. He approached Eric Manchester, the Rutles’ press officer [alias Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer], and asked if I’d be inclined to do a book of my own songs. I’d been meaning to put together as many of the songs I’d written as I could find, just for my own archives, anyway. I’ve spent a year collecting together all the old songs. Eric Manchester is writing an intro. The problem was to think of a title, but we’ve called it I Me Mine, because it’s the old ego problem of “This is my book.” [Grinning] So this is like a little ego detour of mine really.
It’s rather expensive, isn’t it?
Well, the price is about $250, I think. But the original idea was just to do one for myself, for my own interest, and it’s grown a bit from that. It’s limited now to 1000 copies, but I don’t think anyone will make any money out of it. Each one is handmade, and it’s a very expensive sort of thing to do. But we’ll probably do a cheaper paperback version as well if anybody’s interested.
You haven’t had a major chart success for a while; is it important to you that the new album is a hit?
Not really. It would be nice, but I’m not into that competitive type of thing with the record business anymore. It would be nice just because there are a lot of records out that sell a lot that are no better – put it that way. Also it would be nice to have a hit because it would make me feel more like doing another one. But if it’s not, I won’t be in tears or be upset.
So it’s not important for your self-esteem?
No. But the thing is, the general public thinks if you have a hit and you’re on the TV and in the papers, then you’re more successful than if none of those things are happening. Out of all the ex-Beatles, that is most evident with Paul, because Paul is continually making records, films of himself onstage and more records – keeping in the public eye. And to the public that constitutes success. In the record business that is success. Whereas I choose not to be on TV so much or that much in the public eye, and so therefore my record sales must suffer because there’s less exposure.
But you plan to continue making records?
Oh, I’ll make another couple, I think, before I call it a day.
You can foresee a time when you will call it a day?
So you’re not going to die for rock & roll?
[Emphatic] Oh no. I’m not going to die for rock & roll. Not at all.
This story is from the April 19th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.