Paul McCartney on The Beatles’ early days
The Beatles are on the cover of this month’s new issue of Uncut (March 2012) – inside is the story of the debauched Hamburg days that truly forged the 'Fab Four'. So we thought we’d delve back into July 2004’s Uncut (Take 86) to find Paul McCartney reliving the band’s formation – taking in the end of Victorian thought, the spectre of National Service and, yes, knee-tremblers – in conversation with Jon Wilde…
UNCUT: Paul, do you ever have days when you think to yourself, “The Beatles… we weren’t really that good”?
McCARTNEY: "Everyone has those moments, don’t they? 'Am I as good as people say I am? Were we as good as people say we were?' As soon as I start thinking it, I tell myself I’m just being bloody daft. I could sit here and try convincing you that The Beatles weren’t really that good. And you’d be sitting there, telling me that we were really fabulous. It would be a bullshit conversation. The jury’s in, and I don’t think there’s any argument. Basically, The Beatles were a shit hot band. We were very, very good. We were…"
The best ever?
"OK, stack us up against James Brown, record for record, he’s definitely hotter because he’s James Brown. But he didn’t do the stuff we did. He’s James Brown and he’s sodding fantastic. We can all agree on that. But there’s something else to The Beatles. Look, we did a lot of good music. You look at Revolver or Rubber Soul, they are decent efforts by any standards. If they’re not good, then has anyone ever been any good? Because, if they’re not good, then no-one has ever really been that good. It’s when you get to the question of whether The Beatles were about more than music. When you get to what The Beatles came to…"
"That’s exactly it. We were a strangely different kind of animal that mutated in England somewhere after the Second World War. There’d never been this four-headed monster, this cultural phenomenon. There’d never been anything like The Beatles, who were about music but also about something more far-reaching. See, we’ve never properly taken credit for it. We’ve always taken the line that what happened in the ’60s was about an astonishing movement that came in the wake of the Second World War, the end of all that repressive Victorian thought and it all came together at a certain time. We just happened to become leaders of whatever cosmic thing was going on. We came to symbolise the start of a whole new way of thinking."
Philip Larkin famously wrote: “Sexual intercourse began/In Nineteen Sixty-Three (which was rather late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. What do you make of that?
"I know the poem. I guess Larkin was saying that, between those two things, Chatterley and The Beatles, something crucial happened. For The Beatles and for anyone who was around at that time, life had been very much in black and white. For myself, I’d been to a particularly Dickensian school. When I look back on that school, I do see it all in monochrome. I remember winter in short trousers with the harsh wind whipping around my poor young frazzled knees. Looking back now, especially sitting here in the cool warmth of LA, it feels so deprived, like it was 6,000 years ago. I just remember it being dark all the time back then. It was a post-war thing. Our parents had all had to join the army, as National Service had been compulsory. Growing up, we were all looking at that as a grim possibility. To say the least, it wasn’t the cheeriest of prospects unless you were an army type of guy. Which I wasn’t. Nor were the rest of The Beatles. I got to a certain age and was seriously looking at the prospect of going overseas in some bloody ship and having to kill someone. That was a very real prospect and I didn’t fancy it one bit. After all, I was always a pacifist at heart and I’d have been jailed for refusing to fight. Along with so many other things, that made life very black and white. But that was about to radically change."
What was the turning point for you?
"The end of National Service. Not just for me. For anyone of a certain age. Without that, there could have been no Beatles. To me, that was like God opening the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites to come pouring through. It was like God decreed there would be no National Service. Well, that was extremely handy. Nice one, mate. That certainly changes things. It meant that we were the first generation for so many years that didn’t have that we’ll-make-a-man-of-you threat hanging over them. We weren’t going to be threaded through the system like so many before us. You have to remember that we’d watched all that happen to Elvis. Because, y’know, the army had kind of ruined Elvis. He’d been this ultimate rebel figure who we’d all worshipped. Then they made him cut his hair and he had to call everyone 'sir', and he was never really the same again. You can imagine that going into the army would have done it for us, too. Before we knew what was happening, we were like errant schoolkids off the leash. As The Beatles, we went off to Hamburg, which was still a bit black and white. But it was getting a little brighter. Then we came back to England and we were a proper working band. So we’d avoided this dreadful thing of having to get a job. Now we’d had a little practice and we were getting, well, quite good. And the colour began to fill into the whole thing. By that time, we were beginning to make a bit of a splash. We knew that we had a chance of making it."
In terms of being in a band, were you thinking much further than avoiding jobs and getting girls?
"Those were the main reasons. Being in a band meant you had a chance of avoiding a boring job and, as a nice bonus, you’d get the occasional knee-trembler after a gig. It went beyond that pretty quickly. Almost as soon as me and John started writing together, we thought we could be the next great songwriting team. The next Rodgers and Hammerstein. When we wrote songs, I’d jot down ideas in a school notebook. At the top of every page I’d write, 'A Lennon-McCartney Original', which was some indication of how committed we were. Looking back, it was always about the craft, the art of it. From early on, we always wanted to go in an artistic direction."
Writing songs seemed to come easy to you and John.
"Not so much easily as quickly. It was out of necessity as much as anything. We’d sag off school and write songs at my house. We’d start at two in the afternoon and we had to be finished by five so we could clean up and clear out before my dad got home. We wrote loads of stuff. We’d stuff some Twinings tea in a pipe, smoke that and write songs. It wasn’t all good. But we always came up with something. In all the years I wrote with John, I can’t remember a single occasion when we didn’t come up with a song. At worst, we’d write at least one every day. It all happened at an amazing pace. Because it had to. When we came to record the first Beatles album [Please Please Me], we did it in a single day because that’s all the time there was. That’s how things were done in those days. The studio was booked for one day. We went in at 10 in the morning, played our live set all the way through, then we went home. The following day, we had two gigs to do. There was no time for messing about. It’s great when you do it like that. It’s quite magical, really. You just grab hold of stuff. Your driver says, 'Have I been busy? I’ve been working eight days a week, mate.' And you think, 'Hello, that sounds like a song title.' So you write it, filling in from the title."
Did you see The Beatles differently from John Lennon?
"Hmm. I don’t think so. We all had a common vision, at least in the early days. Then everyone seemed to think that we wanted to go in different directions. But I’m not even sure that’s true. The thing about me and John is that we were different, but we weren’t that different. I think Linda put her finger on it when she said me and John were like mirror images of each other. Even down to how we started writing together, facing each other, eyeball to eyeball, exactly like looking in the mirror. That’s how songs like 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' were written."
You were like two sides of the same person?
"Well said. But the sides would switch. On the surface, I was very easy-going, always accommodating. That came easy to me. That’s how I’d been brought up. But, at certain times, I would very much be the hard man of the duo. At certain moments, I could bite. But that would be when no one outside the group was watching. John would allow me to take that role because it enabled him to drop his guard and be vulnerable. On the surface, he was this hard, witty guy, always on hand with a cutting witticism. He appeared caustic, even cruel at times. But really he was very soft. John was very insecure. He carried a lot of that from his upbringing, what with his father leaving when he was five. Then, of course, we’d both lost our mothers so we had that in common. Ultimately, we were equals. All The Beatles were equals. If things got too deep, Ringo would crack a one-liner and that kept us on a level. If things were getting too sentimental, John would harden it up. If John was getting too hostile, I’d soften it down. Then George was always on hand with his own kind of unique wisdom."
How competitive were you and John?
"There was amazing competition between us and we both thrived on it. In terms of music, you cannot beat a bit of competition. Of course, there’s times when it hurts, and it’s inevitably going to reach a stage where it’s hard to live with. Sooner or later, it’s going to burn itself out. I think that’s what happened at the end of The Beatles. But, for those early years, the competition was great. It was a great way for us to keep each other on our toes. I’d write 'Yesterday' and John would go away and write 'Norwegian Wood'. I’d come up with 'Paperback Writer' and John would come back with 'I’m Only Sleeping'. If he wrote 'Strawberry Fields', it was like he’d upped the ante, so I had to come up with something as good as 'Penny Lane'."
On the subject of “Yesterday”, does it surprise you that as many people violently hate that song as love it?
"My personal take on it is that it’s not a bad little song. Whether it’s the most popular or whatever, it’s certainly loved by quite a few people. When you get a song like that, whether it’s 'Yesterday' or 'I Will Always Love You', a lot of people will react against it. Because it’s always on the radio or at the top of the chart or always playing in restaurants, some people will get annoyed having to listen to it. It’s a bit of a British thing, that. We Brits are not that big on success, especially when someone else is having it [laughs]."