This interview first appeared in the August 2015 issue of Esquire.
By the time it reached Osaka, Japan, in late April, Paul McCartney's "Out There" tour had been on the road for nearly two years. It had played to close to two million people, from Montevideo to Winnipeg, Nashville to Warsaw, with crowds in Seoul and Marseille and Stockholm still awaiting its arrival. "Out There" succeeded the "On the Run" tour, which itself followed closely on the heels of the "Up and Coming" tour, which began at the start of this decade. I could keep rewinding through his past in this way to make my point about McCartney's tireless globetrotting, but not with anything like the energy and enthusiasm the man himself can summon for each retrospective spectacular. He plays up to 40 songs at each gig, from a catalogue that stretches back more than 50 years. Each show lasts nearly three hours. The intense demands this places on him would have been remarkable in 1965, when he was 23, so it's anyone's guess how he does it now. Not that he shows any signs of stopping, or even slowing down.
There are long breaks in the schedule, of course, and there have been years when McCartney didn't perform in public at all, but at least since the turn of the century he has been out there (if not, until recently, "Out There"), with much the same band and much the same crew and friends and associates in tow, singing the songs that made him rich and famous and adored, many of which you and everyone you know and millions of people you'll never meet can sing word for word. Really, who doesn't know the opening lines to 'Yesterday'?
McCartney's flight landed at Kansai International at 7am on 20 April, and was met with the same tightly controlled arrivals-hall hysteria he's been causing since the early Sixties. One suspects an unsparing internal investigation would be launched inside Camp Macca were the boss ever to arrive anywhere unnoticed. How would Japan learn of his presence without a minor scuffle at the airport? What's a rock star without a hyperventilating frenzy to follow him around?
It's hard to get a sense, from the shaky video clip I see on his publicist Stuart Bell's phone later that day, of the number of people who greeted him at the airport (estimates vary between 500 and 800). What's certain is that most had been waiting for him since the early hours, in heavy rain, holding aloft notably polite homemade placards – YOU ARE MY SINGER; THANK YOU PAUL, YOU CAME BACK – and that when he did at length appear, in the traditional manner they screamed and shook and palpitated and covered their mouths with their hands in tremulous overexcitement.
Accompanied by his wife, Nancy, McCartney stepped off the plane in his current off-duty uniform: dark jeans and a denim jacket over a white shirt, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. He was carrying the Hofner violin bass guitar that is one of his trademarks – he has had this one since the Royal Variety performance of 1963 – and that travels everywhere with his personal assistant, John Hammel, who has been with him almost as long. Like Hammel, the Hofner gets its own seat. (Later, backstage, a friendly guitar tech lets me inspect it and, expert that I am, I can confirm that it is indeed a guitar.)
McCartney had flown in from Cleveland, Ohio, where the previous evening he had inducted Ringo Starr into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (McCartney: "As my daughter said when I got inducted, 'About fucking time.'") He slept well on the plane, he said, and by the time he arrived at the Kyocera Dome, a baseball stadium where the following evening he and his band were booked to play to a sell-out crowd of 55,000, he seemed rested and relaxed.
His touring routine is well established: breakfast, a workout, perhaps a massage, then meetings with his team. If the weather's clement and security conditions are favourable, a bike ride around the locality of the hotel. If there's water nearby, he might try to get out on it in a boat. Today, he will rehearse with the band, then have a quiet early dinner with Nancy and a few friends from the touring party. Tomorrow's soundcheck will be any time between 3pm and 4:30pm. Then, as show time approaches, he will retreat to his dressing room to watch trashy American TV. After the concert, a drink, dinner, bed. And up early to travel to Tokyo for the next show.
"It's what I do," he told me, when I asked what kept him at it all after all these years. "It's my life."
I am introduced to McCartney in a corridor backstage at the concert venue, on the afternoon of his arrival in the city. As expected, he is slim and spry, his handshake vigorous, his gaze direct, his movements swift and decisive; this is not a man who wants to be detained long, in a corridor or anywhere else.
Any of us should be so lucky to make it to McCartney's age – 73 by the time you read this – in such fine fettle. But there's a cruelty to growing old in public. McCartney was the most cherubic of the Fabs, doe of eye and cheeky of grin. No septuagenarian looks the same as he did at 20, and McCartney is not an exception. He dresses like a younger man: today, grey jeans, a casual blue shirt with the cuffs rolled back, black skate-style slip-ons. The chestnut hair is reliably ageless: flicky, collar-length, grey only at the sideburns. But the Bambi eyes are hooded now, the lips, once pouty, are pursed. His face is lined, craggy. Those high, arched eyebrows seem coolly appraising; one gets the feeling of being sized up: Is he OK? Can we trust him? Should we let him in?
The (mostly) fond caricature of McCartney as pop culture's slightly embarrassing uncle – Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft, as Smash Hits famously had it – seems pretty comprehensively wide of the mark. Yes, in public when the mood takes him he makes silly faces and strikes ironic poses and gives the double thumbs-up. But in private, it seems to me, there is a seriousness of purpose to him. Nobody suffers fools gladly – that's a ridiculous idea – but most of us do suffer them, out of necessity if for no other reason. McCartney, one guesses from his brisk, no-nonsense manner, is unwilling to suffer fools at all. He certainly has the effect on me of making me want to raise my game, so as not to irritate him, or bore him.
That said, once one is past the initial bedazzlement – Jesus Christ, it's Paul fucking McCartney! – he's extremely good at putting people at ease, loose and chatty and good humoured. He asks questions, makes small talk, cracks jokes, so that it's almost, almost possible to forget that you're looking into the eyes of one of the most recognisable people on the planet.
It's difficult to write about McCartney without falling back on bland superlatives, trite truisms such as the one in the previous sentence. The Beatles CHANGED THE WORLD. McCartney is our GREATEST LIVING SONGWRITER. He's a LEGEND, an ICON, a ROCK GOD. Not that these aren't all correct, just that you've heard it all before, to the point where it loses any meaning. You know the history, too, or you'll remember it if I prompt you. McCartney was – still is, he says – a working class boy from Liverpool, born in the summer of '42 to Jim and Mary, Protestant and Catholic, cotton salesman and midwife, both of Irish stock. Paul was clever: he went to the Liverpool Institute, one of the best state schools in the country, and one senses he's never quite lost the air of the ambitious grammar school boy, the sharp-elbowed striver determined to seize his chance.
The McCartney household was a happy one, lively and musical, until 1956, when 14-year-old Paul and his younger brother Mike lost their mother, to cancer. The following summer Paul saw John Lennon perform for the first time, as one of The Quarrymen.
The rest is noise, and static, and flashbulbs, and spinning headlines, not to mention libraries of books and movies and documentary box sets, and articles like this one: Hamburg, The Cavern, Brian Epstein, George Martin, Beatlemania, the British Invasion, the Swinging Sixties, LSD, the Maharishi, Yoko, Linda, Apple and, in 1970, the break up of the band. (I have a friend who, whenever someone states the bleeding obvious, responds with the immortal line: "Oh, yeah? And The Beatles have split up." It's something everyone knows already, Pop Culture 101.)
There's plenty more history after 1970, of course: the recriminations; the legal wranglings; the retreat to Scotland; fatherhood; the mullet years; Wings; the murder of John Lennon; the drug bust in Tokyo; the collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder; the Frog Chorus; the knighthood; The Beatles Anthology; Linda's death; George Harrison's death; the marriage to and divorce from Heather Mills; a third marriage, to Nancy Shevell; the unofficial position as our nation's bandleader-in-chief, duty bound to close all significant national occasions with a 'Hey Jude' singalong, to a firework accompaniment. But for all the drama since The Beatles, it is inevitably for his activities in the Sixties that McCartney will longest be remembered.
It's probably enough, then, to say that The Beatles were and will always remain the biggest pop group that this country – or any other – ever produced.
Popularity is not always the best measure of quality. But The Beatles were not simply popular. They were transformative, defining. Whether or not they really changed the world I don't know. Like most of you, I imagine, I wasn't there before them. What might be better to say is they created a world, a world of their own distinct from any that had previously existed – a suburban surrealism, a homely psychedelia – and also that they made it not just OK but insanely desirable to be a stylish, successful, smartarse British man. And to care about your hair. It's too much, perhaps, to say that they created us. But they had a hand in it, for sure.
At the risk of sounding softer still, the qualities they promoted – youth, friendship, openness, acting the goat, staying up late, having a good time, and, yes, peace and love – remain important things to celebrate. They were funny and sharp and they were charming and charismatic.
Which isn't to say they were or are universally appreciated. From their first mainstream popular success, The Beatles were the acceptable face of youth culture, not like those dangerous, switchblade teddy boys who preceded them or the oafish, longhaired Rolling Stones who followed. A good part of the world fell in love with them, but to an awkward squad of wannabe subversives and Velvet Underground fans, The Beatles were then and will always be, for all the drugs and the girls and the courageous trousers and the sitar-picking and the avant-garde flirtations, too squeaky clean, too careerist, just too damn cute.
And McCartney, with his good-blokeishness, his eagerness to please, appeared the least edgy of the four. He was civil, courteous, businesslike. Later, as the band broke apart and he took the lead in decision-making, an image of him as controlling, domineering even, began to take hold.
The man once described as "the most Beatley Beatle of them all" came close to a breakdown when the band split. And he has been stung, ever since, by negative commentary. A single disobliging line in an otherwise positive review, he tells me, still has the potential to darken his mood.
Like Lennon, McCartney spent years struggling to escape the shadow of his former band. For some, the rap sheet against him begins not with the break up but in its aftermath, when he took to the road with Wings. Chaotic, sporadically terrific, often critically derided, hugely successful, Wings were not The Beatles – that was the idea – and their uncool, vaguely hippyish, family man vibes did not always endear them to the younger and hipper. In the summer of 1977, while punk raged, Wings recorded 'Mull of Kintyre', with the Campbeltown Pipe Band. It was the Christmas Number One. Which, for some, closes the case.
In his book Man on the Run, about McCartney in the Seventies, the journalist Tom Doyle makes the case for post-Beatles Macca as a fascinating eccentric, not so much the beardie rural dad of reputation, but a musical maverick, whimsical in the most exhilarating ways, hence his decisions to record 'Mary Had a Little Lamb', his attempt to smuggle half a pound of marijuana into Japan, and his idea to disappear to war-ravaged Lagos, Nigeria to make an album. But while others were fêted for such grandiose oddness, Macca, the former Beatle, was frequently derided. He seemed a crank, popular but out of touch.
Each generation struggles to escape the shadow of the one before it. McCartney, I think, rather than an embarrassing uncle, is a sort of dad figure to pop culture, someone whose influence we can't help but acknowledge, someone we admire – love, even, without always wanting to admit it – but also someone to criticise; someone whose minor faults are exaggerated and whose abundant qualities are diminished or overlooked. Dads can be mortifying, and our relationships with them can be fraught. Paul McCartney, unlike Keith Richards or Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or, for that matter, John Lennon, grew up to be a respectable family man, happily married, nicely turned out with lovely manners and clean fingernails. He is not a rock renegade. He was never a drug addict, or a womaniser, or a trasher of hotel rooms. He's a great cultural ambassador for Britain – which is admirable, but not very rock'n'roll.
Whatever feelings you have about McCartney, conflicted, contradictory, or otherwise, before you file him away consider this. He wrote, among many others, the following songs: 'Hey Jude', 'Blackbird', 'Jet', 'Band on the Run', 'Good Day Sunshine', 'Yesterday', 'Penny Lane', 'And I Love Her', 'Helter Skelter', 'Hello Goodbye', 'Eleanor Rigby', 'Maybe I'm Amazed', 'Live and Let Die', 'Let it Be'. And he kept it together well enough to be able to play them to millions of people around the world into his seventies.
How to fit it all into a magazine interview? What to ask the man who's been asked everything? And, worse luck, answered it all obligingly, and at considerable length.
McCartney is a talker. He is a storyteller. His anecdotes are big productions. He does the funny voices (Scouse, especially, but also, in my presence, Japanese, American, posh English), he goes into character, he leaps to his feet to act out scenes. During a story about his father, he briefly leaves the room we're in, then reappears, poking his head around the door and drumming a beat on it with his knuckles, in imitation of his dad when the old man suspected there was something "groovy" going on at home.
McCartney's conversation is a free flowing river, gentle but unstoppable. You can put your waders on and stand in the middle of it, which is a pleasant thing to do, but it's very hard to divert its course. Unless you interrupt, quite purposefully, he will talk and talk and talk, without pause. So, as an interviewer with the clock ticking, it is necessary to butt in, quite rudely, to get one's next question in.
I met McCartney on two occasions for this story. Each interview lasted a few minutes over half an hour, and it was made clear to me that this was far more than most journalists are permitted. The standard arrangement, I was reassured, is one sit-down of 20 minutes. Plenty have to make do with a phone call.
The first interview took place in Osaka. He started by telling me that preparing to talk to me was a bit like going to the dentist. He meant it as an icebreaker (I think) but it made me slightly fearful. Then he ushered me into his "palacious" dressing room. "Palacious? Palatial! Fuck it, I like 'palacious'. Come on! It was a long plane journey."
It wasn't palacious or palatial. It was a functional holding pen with a collapsible table holding bottles of wine and a fruit plate, rugs on the wall, a red retro telephone in one corner and a big TV. We sat on a squishy chocolate sofa, knees almost touching. And in case you wonder as the interview progresses, the answer is yes: it is weirdly thrilling, and not a little disconcerting to be sung snippets from some of the most popular songs ever composed by the man who wrote and recorded them.
Esquire: Clearly you don't need the money and you don't need the fame. So what are you doing here playing a series of concerts in Japan, when you could be at home with your feet up?
Paul McCartney: Two reasons: I love it, and it's my job. Three reasons: the audience. You sing something and you get this incredible warmth back, this adulation. And who doesn't like that? It's amazing. Plus, the band's very good. And having said there were three answers there are now about seven. Another thing is I kind of get to review my songs, and they go back quite a way. So if I'm singing 'Eleanor Rigby', I'm me now reviewing the work of a twentysomething and I'm going, "Whoa, that's good." [sings] "Wearing the face that she keeps in the jar by the door". Ooh! And you see it all again flashing by you… like drowning. In the nicest possible way.
ESQ: You've never seriously contemplated retirement?
PM: Sit at home and watch telly? That's what people do, man. Gardening, golf… no thanks. Occasionally, I do think, "You should have got fed up by now, you should be jaded." My manager, who I don't have any more, glad to say, suggested quite a long time ago that I retire at 50. He sort of said it's not a good look. I went, "Oh, God, he could be right." But then I still enjoy writing, I still enjoy singing. What am I gonna do? You see so many people who retire and then immediately expire.
ESQ: Is it that you feel you still have something to prove?
PM: Yeah, all the time. And it is a silly feeling. And I do actually sometimes talk to myself and say, "Wait a minute: look at this little mountain of achievements. There's an awful lot of them. Isn't that enough?" But maybe I could do it a bit better. Maybe I could write something that's just more relevant or new. And that always drags you forward. I mean, I never really felt like, "Oh, I did good." Nobody does. Even at the height of The Beatles. I prefer to think there's something I'm not doing quite right, so I'm constantly working on it. I always was, we always were. I mean, look at John [Lennon], a mass of paranoia and worries about whether he's doing it right. You only have to listen to his lyrics. I think that's just artists in general.
ESQ: They say happiness writes white.
PM: Domesticity is the enemy of art. I don't know if that's true. You can write good happy songs. So, I don't think it's necessarily happiness. But I think self-satisfaction is maybe the enemy. It's kind of better to think, "Tomorrow night I'm gonna sing it better." There is this forward effort. It feels to me right, it feels human.
ESQ: Your shows are long: 40 songs, three hours. It's unusual.
PM: Springsteen overdoes it, too. You know what it is? We've got a lot of songs.
ESQ: It's a retrospective, with a heavy emphasis on The Beatles. You spent many years not playing Beatles' songs, trying to escape from that. What changed?
PM: Well, that was very specifically the period after The Beatles when I was trying to establish Wings and I had to say to myself, "Yeah, you're an ex-Beatle but you're trying to do something new so you've got to leave that alone." It's a risky business because the promoters didn't like that. They said, "Can't you just do 'Yesterday' at the end of the show?" "No!"
ESQ: Presumably it wasn't just the promoters. The audience must have wanted 'Yesterday', too.
PM: That's right. But for me it was, "Too bad, I've got to do it this way. I don't want to rely on the Beatles' stuff." It was round about 1976 when Wings had a big successful American tour that I thought, "You know what? It's OK now." I felt that I'd succeeded in having a life after The Beatles. And then I was able to think what I'd known all along and you touched on there. Which is, "If I'm in an audience I wanna hear the hits. I don't want to see the Stones do their new album. I want 'Satisfaction', 'Honky Tonk Women', 'Ruby Tuesday'." I rationalised that at a certain point.
ESQ: Many of your songs are autobiographical. One of the reasons they resonate is people know what they're about: 'Let it Be', about your mum; 'Maybe I'm Amazed', about Linda. Are you thinking about those people when you play those songs? Isn't it painful?
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PM: No, not always. I'm really doing them just because they're songs. I mean, when I do 'Let it Be' I'm not thinking about my mum. If there's one thing I know it's that everyone in that audience is thinking something different. And that's 50,000 different thoughts, depending on the capacity of the hall. Obviously, when I do 'Here Today' as I do, that is very personal. That is me talking to John. But as you sing them you review them. So I go, [sings] "What about the night we cried?" And I'm thinking, "Oh, yeah: Key West". We were all drunk. We'd delayed Jacksonville because of a hurricane. We got parked in Key West and we stayed up all night and we got drunk – "Let me tell you, man, you're fucking great" – so I know that's what I'm talking about. I know the night. I do think of that.
ESQ: So you don't find yourself moved, in the way the crowd is, by the emotional content of the songs?
PM: Not all the time. You wouldn't be able to sing. You'd just be crying. But yeah, there are moments. I think it was in South America. There was a very tall, statuesque man with a beard, very good-looking man. And he had his arm round what was apparently his daughter. Might not have been! No, it was, it was clearly his daughter. I'm singing 'Let it Be' and I look out there and I see him standing and she's looking up at him and he glances down at her and they share a moment, and I'm like, "Whoa!" [He shivers.] It really hit me. It's hard to sing through that. You see quite a bit of that. If I ever spot anyone crying during 'Here Today', that can set me off. I mean, on one level it's only a song and on another it's a very emotional thing for me. And when I see some girl totally reduced to tears and looking at me singing it catches me by surprise. This really means something to her. I'm not just a singer. I'm doing something more here.
ESQ: When I'm interviewing actors or writers or whoever, I often ask them to quote a song lyric that means something to them. It can be quite revealing. I'm not sure if you're the best person to ask or the worst, because you've written so many yourself.
PM: I'll have a go.
ESQ: Right then, what's the Paul McCartney lyric that means the most?
PM: "Why don't we do it in the road?"
ESQ: Nope, I wasn't expecting that one. For me it's a soppy one: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." The last words of the last Beatles song. That's quite a sentiment to bow out with.
PM: That little one, it surprises me. I don't remember coming up with it. It just sort of popped out, like a lot of my stuff. People say to me, "How do you feel about The Beatles?" I'm kind of proud of it, because it was generally a good message. Now it wraps up the show, and the interview. Come on, give it up man!
At this point I receive a Macca high-five, and am taken from his presence and back into the corridor where I tell anyone who'll listen that I need more time with him. Instead, I am put in the unusual position of watching him and his band rehearse for an hour. (Unusual in the sense that not many of my Monday afternoons are spent as the only spectator at a concert played by the most famous musician in the world; usually it's a packet of Maltesers at my desk and a gossip with Catherine from fashion, if I'm lucky.)
On stage, McCartney banters with his band, invites comment, takes suggestions, tries new things. They run through a song called 'Temporary Secretary', from the album McCartney II (1980). This is lesser-known Macca, the kind of thing that belies his reputation as a straightforward crowd-pleaser. It's weird, early electronica, and it sounds appealingly strange and awkward. They don't play it at the gig.
The next day, I watch again as the band soundchecks. McCartney is limber, whipping through rock'n'roll ('Blue Suede Shoes'), country blues ('Midnight Special'), pulling out a ukulele for Wings' 'Big Barn Bed' and then strapping on an acoustic for the lovely 'Bluebird'. It's a show in itself, but without a crucial component: the fans.
That night I watch the gig with kids in Sgt Pepper uniforms, a woman in a Union Jack kimono. A man across the aisle from me has drawn a picture of a younger and more musclebound McCartney as a samurai. Along from him a rather matronly woman holds a huge yellow sign: I'M DYING TO SEE YOU YOU ARE MY KIND OF MAN.
Later, trying not to trip over any wires or disappear down a trapdoor, I make my way to the side of the stage for the encore – "And in the end, the love you make…" – and stand alongside a very smiley Nancy, McCartney's wife, having spent the earlier part of the concert worrying about a woman next to me, in her early thirties, who seemed to be having an elective breakdown, seesawing wildly between wracking sobs ('Let it Be') and bouncy euphoria ('Live and Let Die').
I mention her to McCartney that night, in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton, where he's relaxing with a margarita. With another, more jaded performer this might seem somewhat gauche – oh, yeah, big deal, the fans were really into it – but with McCartney I have a feeling that he, more than any musician I've met, has not and will never tire of hearing it.
A month later, we reconvene in a suite at Rosewood London, a grand hotel in Holborn where he has been posing for the photos on these pages. He's wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, and as we talk he munches his way through a toasted bagel with hummus, and sips a cup of milky tea. As ever, he is in expansive mood. This time I'm determined to move him along fast, to pack as many questions into half an hour as possible. This necessitates much interrupting and changing of topic, all of which he takes in his stride. In the end we get about 40 minutes, and it's highly enjoyable, at least for me. He is forthright, feisty, rude, funny, unpredictable, impassioned, exasperated and misty-eyed. And if you don't like all that in a man, frankly there's something wrong with you.
ESQ: Can you remember what it's like to not be famous?
PM: Yes. You can't get in any clubs, you can't pull any birds. It's all very nerve-wracking. You don't have any money. No! I can remember it. School, growing up in Liverpool. I remember a lot of being a kid. And then starting off with The Beatles, trying to get famous, writing letters, "Dear Sir, we are a semi-professional rock combo. We think we're very good. We've got a future…"
ESQ: Was fame all it was cracked up to be, when you found it?
PM: It sort of was really, yeah. Because part of what it's cracked up to be is difficult as well as great. They'd warned that. I remember making a very conscious choice: "OK, we're getting really famous now, you've got to decide, whether or not to go for it." For some reason Marilyn Monroe came into my mind. Like: this could be horrible. It was actually after a trip to Greece. We weren't famous in Greece, and I'd hung out with the hotel band and was chatting to them: "I'm in a band, too, you know? We're called The Beatles." And I got a glazed look from them. I thought, "This is OK, if the fame gets too much we can always come to Greece." Then, of course, the next year it was like, "Oh, no, you're famous in Greece, too. Oh, God." And I remember thinking, "Do you want to do this or don't you?" And it was, "I like it too much to stop."
ESQ: Some people struggle greatly with being famous. It screws them up. You seem to have taken to fame with a certain amount of ease. You embraced it.
PM: I think to some degree that's true. What happens is, if your life goes wrong, like with the breakup of The Beatles, then fame is a nightmare because you can't escape it, and you've created it. That's when the difficulty kicks in. But what you're saying is, some people it kicks in anyway, even if they're doing all right.
ESQ: They can't handle the attention.
PM: I don't mind that. I have a joke with my daughter Mary: sometimes I won't be in a great mood and we'll go somewhere and the people will be all over me and she'll turn to Nancy and say, "He likes a bit of adulation. It cheers him up," and the thing is, yep, that is true. All my life I've been trying to win a school prize or trying to do OK in an exam or trying to get a good job. I've always been trying to do something where people go: you're good. When you get it, it seems a shame to me to go, oh, shit. To me it's like, this is what I wanted. I do like it, I must say. The attention's never really bothered me. I've always thought, "OK, you're famous, you've chosen that path. You can't blame anyone else." As long as you're enjoying it that's good. And when it goes wrong you're just going to have to deal with it.
ESQ: You come from a modest background, in Liverpool.
PM: It was quite poor, actually.
ESQ: Do you still feel a connection to that world? Do you still recognise its influence on you, in your tastes and attitudes and opinions?
PM: I still feel like that guy. It used to be like a religious thing where I would go up every year for our family New Year's Eve party. Particularly while all the elders were still alive. We always had a party when I was a kid. My dad was the pianist, all the uncles and aunties were there. Me and my brother would be on the bar. I have millions of great memories from then. It was a very lovely family. People sometimes say to me, how come [fame] hasn't affected you so much? And I think it is a lot to do with that. I don't do it quite as much now. Probably because the uncles and aunties have all died off. But I still do it and it always grounds me. [Thick Scouse accent] "Alright, Paul? How you doin', la'? Eh! What's up?" I always feel like, I'm one of them. That is who I am.
ESQ: We're told the Sixties created a classless society. Is that true?
PM: No. I think it helped towards that. There was a very good period of hanging with anyone: musicians, painters, aristocrats, playwrights. Didn't matter, really. I liked that about it. But I think ultimately the nobs still stayed on top. As long as Eton and Harrow are still there that'll always be so.
ESQ: You've been knighted. Do you feel part of the Establishment now?
PM: No, not really. I don't hang out with many aristocratic people. I just don't know that many. When I was made a Sir, it did come up. I thought to myself, now probably I'll have to go to banquets with all the other Sirs. But the thing is with me, the women I happen to be attracted to really don't fancy that. They're not social aspirants, really. I sometimes say, "Maybe we should go! It could be good!" But it's like, "Nah, let's not. Let's go to the pictures." I've never really run with that crowd.
ESQ: Like it or not, you're a national treasure. That can blunt your edges, it makes you seem cosy and tame.
PM: Like Geldof. Got knighted, never sold another record. That was it!
ESQ: Exactly. Are you aware of this image of you as this rather cuddly figure?
PM: It's something I've not cultivated. But I think when you become a family man, when you've got grandkids and you openly admire them, that gets cuddly. With the knighthood, you have to consider whether you're going to accept it or not. Someone said, "There's a certain cachet in turning it down, you know?" I went [exasperated], "I know, I've read a bit, you know?" I was thinking, "Oh God, what do you do?" Then I saw Bobby Charlton. And his attitude was, "I'm really proud to be British." And I thought, "That's the one." So, I just said I'm proud to accept it. I like the Queen. When we grew up she was a babe. Oh, yeah. We were like 11, she was 21 and good looking. And she had a figure on her. I shouldn't say this about Her Majesty but we, as schoolboys, we said, "Look at the fuckin' heave on her!"
ESQ: Have you taken the opportunity at one of your many meetings with the Queen to tell her this?
PM: No! But I say it regularly in the press hoping she'll read it.
ESQ: Flirting by proxy…
PM: Listen, she was a very pretty girl. Look at the old photos. We definitely admired her physical attributes.
ESQ: Your name and John Lennon's will forever be linked.
ESQ: But it's something you chafed against for some time. Did it frustrate you, the constant comparisons between you two?
PM: Yeah. I always looked at life from a point of view of the public. I think I've got a good sense of that. The Beatles split up and we were sort of all equal. George did his record, John did his, I did mine, Ringo did his. It was as we were during the Beatles' times. We were equal. When John got shot, aside from the pure horror of it, the lingering thing was, OK, well now John's a martyr. A JFK. So what happened was, I started to get frustrated because people started to say, "Well, he was The Beatles." And me, George and Ringo would go, "Er, hang on. It's only a year ago we were all equal-ish." Yeah, John was the witty one, sure. John did a lot of great work, yeah. And post-Beatles he did more great work, but he also did a lot of not-great work. Now the fact that he's now martyred has elevated him to a James Dean, and beyond. So whilst I didn't mind that – I agreed with it – I understood that now there was going to be revisionism. It was going to be: John was the one. That was basically the thing. And when I would talk to mates they'd say, "Don't worry. People know [the truth]. It's OK, they know what you did." But then strange things would happen. Like Yoko would appear in the press, and I'd read it, and it said [comedy Yoko accent], "Paul did nothing! All he did was book the studio..." Like, "Fuck you, darling! Hang on! All I did was book the fucking studio?" Well, OK, now people know that's not true. But that was just part of it. There was a lot of revisionism: John did this, John did that. I mean, if you just pull out all his great stuff and then stack it up against my not-so-great stuff, it's an easy case to make.
ESQ: There was some controversy over the fact that the songs are credited to Lennon-McCartney, rather than the other way around.
PM: What happened, when we were kids we were looking for what to call our songs. We had a meeting with Brian Epstein, John and me. I arrived late. John and Brian had been talking. "We were thinking we ought to call the songs, Lennon and McCartney." I said, "That's OK, but what about McCartney and Lennon? If I write it, what about that? It sounds good, too." They said, "OK, what we'll do is we'll alternate it: Lennon and McCartney, McCartney and Lennon." Well, that didn't happen. And I didn't mind. It's a good logo, like Rogers and Hammerstein. Hammerstein and Rogers doesn't work. So I thought, "OK". But what happened was the Anthology came out [in 1996, with Epstein and Lennon now long dead]. And I said, "OK, what they're now saying is, 'Song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.'" I said, if you're doing that, it's not Lennon and McCartney, it's not the logo any more. So, in particular cases like 'Yesterday', which John actually had nothing to do with, none of the other Beatles had anything to do with – I wrote it on my own, sang it on my own, they're not on the record, nobody is even involved with it, and they didn't mind that and I didn't mind, nobody minded, but that's very much mine – so I said, "Could we have 'By Paul McCartney and John Lennon', wouldn't that be a good idea? And then on 'Strawberry Fields' we'll have, 'By John Lennon and Paul McCartney'. 'Nowhere Man', 'John Lennon and Paul McCartney'. 'Penny Lane', 'Paul McCartney and John Lennon'. Seeing as we're breaking it up, can we do that?" And at first Yoko said yeah. And then she rang back a few days later and she had this guy Sam Havadtoy who she was living with – she was co-Havadtoying – and she said she'd decided it wasn't a good idea and no, no, no, no. And it became a bit of an issue for me. Particularly on that particular song, because the original artwork had 'Yesterday' by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and a photo of John above it. And I went, "Argh! Come on, lads!" Anyway they wouldn't do it.
ESQ: Did you ever get to a point where you were able to stop worrying about this?
PM: Well, what happened was there was a backlash from people who didn't see where I was coming from. "Dancing on a dead man's grave" was one of the phrases that came up. "What a bighead!" "Why does he want his name in front of John's?" But it was nothing to do with bighead. It's just to do with identifying who wrote what. John did a really good Playboy interview where he did that: "This is mine, this is Paul's." So I thought, "Just use that! John said it!" I thought that was perfectly reasonable and I still do, by the way. But I don't think it's achievable for some reason. The arguments I used was these days I'll get a cinema ticket and I will go to a film called "Miss Congeni-". The "-ality" is missed off. What starts to happen is, "A song by John Lennon and-". You know how on your iPad there's never enough room? So it's kind of important who comes first. Late at night I was in a hotel room looking online and I happened to see this music book, which has got all the songs in it, and it was 'Hey Jude' by John Lennon and…" and the space ran out. There's a poetry book, Blackbird by John Lennon and Paul McCartney." No! He didn't write those lyrics! So, at the risk of seeming like… I tell you what, if John was here he would definitely say that's OK. Because he didn't give a damn. It wasn't anything that worried him. But I've given up on it. Suffice to say. In case it seems like I'm trying to do something to John.
ESQ: 'Yesterday', 'Hey Jude', 'Let it Be'. It is impossible to conceive of your writing anything with that impact again. Perhaps no one could now.
PM: I think that's true. When you sit down to write a song it does cross your mind. You go, "This isn't going to be like 'Eleanor Rigby'." Bob Dylan was asked why didn't he write another 'Tambourine Man' and he goes, "Because I'm not that guy any more." I think that's the truth. Some of it is also to do with the circumstances. Those songs were launched by The Beatles, the biggest band ever. If I had 'Let it Be' now, it just might not get as much attention. You might not be able to make a record as Beatle-y or as harmonious as the record we made. But it doesn't stop me trying.
ESQ: Not to diminish your achievements, but The Beatles' success came at a very specific moment. Clearly, the world was ready for it. Could a band ever have that kind of impact again or has the culture changed too much?
PM: We don't live in that culture any more, that's true. We came out of a very rich period. But let's not forgot, those four boys were fucking good. It wasn't just to do with the period. You name me another group of four chaps, or chapesses, who had what The Beatles had. Lennon's skill, intelligence, acerbic wit, McCartney's melody, whatever he's got, Harrison's spirituality, Ringo's spirit of fun, great drumming. We all played, which is pretty hard. You don't get a lot of that these days. The noise we made was just those four people playing. We came at the right time. We wrote some pretty good stuff, our own material. We didn't have writers. Could that happen again? I don't know. I wish people well but I have a feeling it couldn't.
ESQ: Do you feel lucky? It's weird, cosmically: how the hell did you four manage to bump into each other?
PM: Cosmic, man. It is! Dead cosmic. I know that. The more I go on, the more I realise. I mean, I know how I saw John. He was just a ted, on the bus – greasy hair, long sideburns, shuffling around like he was Mr Hard. And I saw him on the top deck of the bus often, before I met him. Saw him in the queue at a chip shop once. And I thought, "He looks cool." Turned out my best friend from school knew him. We went and met. I happened to know this song, 'Twenty Flight Rock'. John admired that. I happened to get on a bus one stop before this kid called George Harrison. We happened to chat, because we went to the same school. We happened to like guitars. I happened to say to John, he'd be good to get in the group, even though he's young. Then we happened in with this guy called Ringo, you know?
ESQ: So what is that? Do you believe in fate, in God, or just dumb luck?
PM: I don't know. I actually just don't know. But I know it's amazing. Really amazing. Four guys from basically three different areas (me and George lived in the same area of Liverpool), who might never have met. And yet we came together and honed our thing. And we did feel we were special, from the word go. We knew we were different. We knew we were something other groups weren't. And that was it.
There was plenty I intended to ask McCartney about but didn't have time for: women (McCartney is a serial monogamist, and clearly his relationships with wives and girlfriends have been central to his life); fatherhood (he has five kids); money (£730m and counting, according to the Sunday Times Rich List) and more about the music, too. The conversation went the way it went; I hadn't intended for it to focus on Lennon and The Beatles to the exclusion of other subjects, but obviously these remain crucial concerns for him. ("You can see it's always exciting for me, talking about it all," he said as we packed up to go. "Because, you know, it's a pretty cool thing…")
I left with the impression of a powerful man of energy and intelligence, by turns warm and generous but also sensitive, prickly. He cares deeply what the world thinks of him, he basks in the approbation and he finds the criticism – particularly the Lennon business – maddening and unfair. (Meanwhile, I googled images of the Queen aged 21 and I can confirm that whatever a "fucking heave" is, she likely had one.)
But if the Q&A makes him sound a bit of a ranter, my brief exchanges with him outside the interviews showed a more playful side. Twice I found myself passing the time with McCartney, backstage in Osaka and between set-ups on the Esquire shoot. Both times he told me a brief anecdote. Both – joyfully – involved dancing.
In Osaka, he regaled me and a few others with details of an end-of-tour bacchanal in Brazil, late last year, at which he threw some shapes on the dancefloor. When I pressed him for details he demonstrated his – quite impressive – 'Gangnam Style' dance. "Oh, I can bust a move, man," he said. "Don't you worry about that."
Then, in London, when I asked if he'd been able to get out and about much in Tokyo, he told me that one afternoon he and Nancy found themselves in a park, standing outside some sort of municipal hall. Inside was a man with a load of 78 records and an old-fashioned gramophone to play them on. He beckoned them over and put on a record for them. 'The Sunny Side of the Street.' Paul and Nancy danced, just the two of them. It was one of those special moments, unexpected and all the more precious for that. It felt magical.
Seventy-two years young, skinny as a teenager, eyes – I imagine – ablaze, Paul sang as they moved. He knew all the words:
"Grab your coat and get your hat, Leave your worries on the doorstep, Life can be so sweet, On the sunny side of the street…"
Nancy (surprised): "You know this song?"
Paul: "Oh, yeah."
Photography by Tom Craig