Paul McCartney Talks Reuniting With Ringo Starr, Feuding With John Lennon, and Why He Underestimated George Harrison’s Skills as a Songwriter

Beatles legend calls into the Stern Show from the English countryside

April 14, 2020

One of music’s great living legends Sir Paul McCartney called into the Stern Show on Tuesday to raise listeners spirits during the coronavirus pandemic and answer several questions about his legacy, songwriting process, and time with the Beatles. Connecting with Howard from the English countryside, the 77-year-old icon revealed the outbreak has left him and his wife Nancy quarantining on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Like most musicians, Sir Paul’s upcoming concerts—including a much-anticipated headlining set at the U.K.’s Glastonbury Festival—have also been postponed or canceled as officials across the globe clamp down on large public gatherings.

“Paul, is that torture for you, not being able to perform live?” Howard asked. “I mean, you love it.”

“I do love it, but what’s disappointing for me is all the people who bought tickets and were looking forward to this and thinking, ‘Okay, here’s something groovy to do in the summer,’ you know?” Paul said. “It’s sad for us, too, because we were looking forward to that.”

However, the rocker did manage to find a silver lining. “I’m from the generation that had just come out of World War II … and the spirit that they showed, you know, this kind of, ‘We’ll get on with it, we’ll do whatever’s necessary, we’ll all pull together, and we’ll try and stay happy,’” he said. “That spirit is kind of what they needed and it’s what we need now … That’s what we’re seeing now, a lot of people pulling together. In a way, it’s a great thing because if we don’t, we’re finished.”

Howard and Paul also spent a couple minutes discussing wet markets in China, which recently re-opened despite the fact many believe the coronavirus originated there. “I really hope that this will mean that the Chinese government … will say, ‘Okay guys, we really got to get super hygienic around here,’ you know?” McCartney said, suggesting it might help if celebrities like him and Howard spoke out about what was happening. “They might as well be, you know, letting off atomic bombs because this is affecting the whole world,” he added.

COVID-19 is certainly at the forefront of everyone’s mind right now, but with a once-in-a-generation talent like Sir Paul on the line it was hard to talk about anything but music. As listeners may recall, recent Stern Show guest Jimmy Fallon recently declared the Beatles a more essential band than fellow rock legends the Rolling Stones. Howard asked Sir Paul if he agreed.

“You know Howard, you’re gonna persuade me to agree with you on that one,” he joked before suggesting it might be unfair to compare the two bands in the first place. “The Stones are a fantastic group. I go and see them every time they come out because they’re just a great, great band and Mick [Jagger] can really do it, the singing and the moves and everything, and Keith [Moon] and now Ronnie [Wood] and Charlie [Watts]. I mean, they’re great. They really are great. So, I love them, but their stuff’s rooted in the blues.”

“I love the Stones, but I’m with you—the Beatles are better,” McCartney added with a laugh.

One argument giving the Beatles an edge in Howard’s mind is how much they influenced the Stones over the years. Howard wondered if Paul thought it was annoying the Rolling Stones so frequently followed in his band’s footsteps.

“No, you know, it wasn’t,” Paul said. “To tell you the truth, we always used to say that. We started to notice that whatever we did the Stones did shortly thereafter. Like, we went to America and we had huge success, well then the Stones went to America. We did ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ then the Stones did a sort of psychedelic album. There was a lot of that.”

“But we were great friends—still are—and we admire each other, so it didn’t matter,” he added. “It was kind of cool.”

Considering how popular the Beatles were at the height of their stardom, Howard wondered if Paul was ever offered any leading man roles in Hollywood. As it turned out, he never got an offer from Hollywood but did get one from renowned Italian director Franco Zeffirelli.

“He was making the film ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and he was hanging out in London and I met him somewhere and he said, ‘Oh, you know, I want to offer you the lead role as Romeo,’” McCartney recalled. “I said, ‘No, what are you talking about? I’m not an actor. I mean, that’s Romeo & Juliet—you’re going to need an actor for that.’”

“It’s kind of tempting on one level because it’s like huge ego boost,” he admitted.

Over 60 years after their inception, the Beatles are still influencing many of today’s popular artists. Teenage phenom Billie Eilish, for example, covered “Yesterday” earlier this year during her Oscars debut. During Billie’s September sit down with Howard, she and her brother Finneas O’Connell opened up about writing and recording her debut effort “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” which later won Album of the Year at the Grammys. They said they recorded the whole thing without ever leaving their bedroom. Howard couldn’t help but wonder if Paul wished that kind of technology existed back when he, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were first starting out.

“I think for them it’s brilliance and, you know, what they produced from the bedroom is really very special,” he said, explaining that Billie and his daughter Stella McCartney are actually friends, so he’s had the opportunity to chat with her in the past.

“I listened to their stuff and I think it’s really great, but the truth is that for me the memories of going into EMI studios and to Abbey Road and the thrill of, you know, being some kid who did it in his bedroom long enough, thank you very much … it’s so exciting and you’re sort of learning as you go along, so I wouldn’t swap that for anything,” he continued.

Always happy to hear more about the Beatles’ writing and recording process, Howard asked if the band ever experienced writer’s block. Paul said they didn’t. “We were so lucky, looking back at it,” he explained. “Nobody knew those words ‘writer’s block.’”

What about the rumor he and John had crafted several of their hits in just 20 minutes, Howard wondered.

“It wasn’t 20 minutes,” Paul said, explaining his writing sessions with John usually lasted a couple hours. “The amazing thing, and I look back on it and it still blows my mind, is to think we wrote something short of 300 songs together and every time we had one of these two or three-hour sessions we came out with a song.”

Howard asked him if it was true each band member was empowered to speak up about songs they didn’t like and prevent them from appearing on an album.

“That was the rule, you’re right. It was sort of very democratic that way,” McCartney said. “I must say, it didn’t happen. I can’t remember that happening.”

While the four may not have vetoed each other’s tunes, he admitted they did sometimes bicker over how they should, well, come together. “Sometimes there’d be a dispute about, I don’t know, the instrumentation or how a drum should go. We’d say, ‘Okay Ringo, now you gotta do a drum solo,’ and he’d say, ‘No, I’m not going to,’ and he’d refuse and that was it,” Paul said. Later, he offered an example of how one of the band’s more guitar-driven rock songs initially came about: “[Lennon] brought ‘Come Together’ in and it was a crazy little sort of folk song, so we rearranged it and made it the record that it is.”

He also debunked the rumors that Lennon initially balked at one of Macca’s most beloved contributions to the band’s oeuvre, “Let It Be.”

“John didn’t mind ‘Let It Be,’” he said. “The thing about John is that he would just take the piss out of anything he wanted to. So, you know, he would make fun of things and you just knew that was John.”

Paul admitted he was hurt when John publicly criticized his songwriting abilities after the band broke up. “I think it was mainly, like, sadness,” he said, adding, “Knowing John, you have to love him. He’s a crazy dude. John is a crazy dude—you know, the most lovable crazy dude you ever met—but he’d just say what he felt, whatever he wanted, and a lot of it wasn’t true.”

Along those lines, he’s excited for the world to get a behind-the-scenes look at Lennon’s eccentricities in all their glory with the eventual release of Peter Jackson’s documentary “The Beatles: Get Back.” Like the 1970 Beatles doc “Let It Be,” the film draws from over 50 hours of video footage and 140 hours of audio recordings captured while the Beatles recorded their 12th and final studio album.

“I’ll tell you, Howard. It’s great. I’m not boasting … It’s bloody great,” Paul said. “It’s so lovely for me because I’d kind of bought into this whole idea of—oh, you know—me and John were rivals and didn’t like each other and stuff, but you see the film and it’s like, ‘Thank god that’s not true!’”

“You can see we respect each other and we’re making music together, and it’s a joy to see it unfold,” he continued. “It’s much nicer and sort of more friendly than the story has become.”

The coronavirus pandemic has shut down theaters everywhere, so Paul had no idea when the doc might be available, but he did have several nice things to say about the work Jackson had done on the film. “He’s a bit of a fan and he’s just a really great guy,” he said.

Jackson obviously isn’t the first Beatles enthusiast to take a deep dive into the band. The Fab Four have been the subject of countless documentaries, books, and specials over the years. Looking back on it, Paul couldn’t help but be surprised by how it all turned out.

“You’re just a little person trying to earn a living, and that’s sort of all we were,” he told Howard. “You get better at it, better at it, better at it, and then suddenly people notice and, in our case, we were so successful that it’s kind of gone down in history.”

“But while we were doing this it was just fun … You never thought it was historical. That’s why we left lyrics lying around in the studio,” Paul said. “There was this one guy, who will be nameless, he used to pick them up and now you see them in sales and they’re going for like $700,000.”

The Beatles shocked the world when they broke up in 1969. During Sir Paul’s 2018 Stern Show visit, he was candid about what went wrong and who ultimately was to blame. Considering each member had incredibly successful solo careers after going their separate ways, Howard couldn’t help but wonder whether McCartney wished he could turn back time and keep the Beatles going without John.

“When families break up, it’s to do with the emotion and the emotional pain. You can’t just think of a smart idea like that at the time. You’re hurting too much. So, it wasn’t going to happen,” Paul said. “We’d been through too much and I think we were just fed up with the whole thing.”

Howard further wondered if Paul had underestimated the songwriting abilities of George, his childhood friend, who eventually penned Beatles classics like “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” before recording multiple platinum solo records.

“It was easy to underestimate George because me and John, like you said, had always written most of the stuff, and had had most of the singles, and George was a late bloomer as far as writing was concerned,” McCartney admitted. “He wasn’t that interested in the beginning but then he started to get interested and, boy, did he bloom, you know? He wrote some of the greatest songs ever.”

“‘Here Comes the Sun’—how appropriate is that for now?” he added.

A full Beatles reunion is no longer possible since the passing of George and John, but Paul told Howard he was excited to share the stage with Ringo on several occasions during a recent tour.

“It is fantastic for us. When so much time goes by you do get to reflect on some of the great things in your life and, to me, the other guys in the Beatles are three of the great things in my life—there’s no denying it,” Paul said. “So, if I get a chance now to play with Ringo, it’s magical.”

He recalled being especially moved while they performed “Helter Skelter.” “Half the time, the minute I finished a line of vocals, I kind of wanted to just turn around and look at him and just drink it all in and go, ‘This is Ringo, man. This is my brother. I love this guy,’” he said.

“And I’ll tell you what, we listened to the tapes afterward and when he comes in on the drums, boy, it makes a huge difference,” he added.

Howard asked if Ringo considered joining Paul’s band full-time after they played together. He said no before wondering if it should’ve been the other way around. “It is great to play with him. I mean, maybe I’ll join the All-Starrs,” Paul laughed.

Howard and co-host Robin Quivers were beyond grateful to once again interview one of rock’s greatest songwriters and didn’t want to let him go without saying a few nice words. “I want to thank you for calling in. You know I love you for doing this. I hope you’re safe and sound—you’re a treasure and I don’t want any coronavirus getting near you,” Howard said.

“I feel the same about you and Robin and, you know, I’ve got so many friends in the States who are all going through this together. I hope everyone is coping and staying safe and keeping some optimism in these dark days because the clouds will roll away,” Paul responded, adding, “I happen to know that my wife Nancy is listening to the show, she’s a big fan of the show. So, hey Nance. Love you, baby.”

Catch more of Sir Paul McCartney on SiriusXM’s The Beatles Channel.