Paul McCartney Shares Behind-the-Scenes Stories From 18 Beatles, Wings, and Solo Songs
Paul McCartney Shares Behind-the-Scenes Stories From 18 Beatles, Wings, and Solo Songs
Legendary musician returns to the Stern Show to discuss his new book, “The Lyrics: 1956 to Present”
Sir Paul McCartney, one of the world’s most beloved songwriters, returned to the Stern Show following the release of his new memoir “The Lyrics: 1956 to Present.” The book offers first-person commentary on over 150 tunes the Rock and Roll Hall of famer crafted throughout his unrivaled career as a solo artist, the frontman of Wings, and, of course, one of the Beatles. Sitting down with Howard on Wednesday, the 79-year-old legend bared his not-so-rubber soul about everything from his love for Marmite and hummus bagels to how he went about composing so many of his timeless hits.
“I’ve pretty much got an instrument nearly everywhere we go,” McCartney told Howard. “I don’t go and try and write a song every day, but sometimes you get a little idea or sometimes it’s late at night and you’ve had a little drink and you … make these terrible demos like this old drunken uncle,” he added with a laugh.
Here is every song he and Howard discussed:
The first track the two tackled was “Confidante” off Paul’s 2018 solo album “Egypt Station.” Paul confirmed “Confidante” was an ode not to an old friend or lover but to the trusty Martin guitar which had stayed by his side for years.
“[The Martin] was just leaning in the corner of the room and I looked at it and thought … let me tell the guitar how I feel. So, I just started talking to the guitar, you know? ‘You used to be my underneath-the-staircase friend,” he said. “There’s something very intimate about that.
He went on to compare holding his guitar to holding a woman. “It’s very special. The shape … is very womanly, and the fact that you kind of cradle it, and you tell it all your secrets,” he said.
‘For No One’
While continuing to talk about the relationship he enjoyed with his instrument, Paul revealed he wrote the Beatles’ classic “Revolver” song “For No One” while enduring a rough patch with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher.
“We’re on holiday together. We’d had a … little bit of a disagreement. I was feeling a bit low, so I … put my feelings into a song through the guitar,” Paul recounted for Howard. “It’s kind of nice because once you finish it you’ve had a psychiatric session and you’ve told all your secrets. Now you feel much better.”
Despite composing more well-regarded songs than perhaps any rock and roll band in history, the Beatles infamously never learned to properly read and write music. Paul told Howard their musical illiteracy was only problematic when laying tracks with string sections, like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday.” Thankfully, legendary producer George Martin was there to lend a hand.
“We’d just go around to George’s house and go, ‘Here are the chords.’” Paul said. “And he’d write it down.”
When it came to “Eleanor Rigby,” Paul also admitted he originally wasn’t sure he’d be able to nail its vocals. “I’ve got to listen to these strings and insert myself into the middle of this beautiful little arrangement that George Martin had done, and it wasn’t that easy,” he recalled. “It was one of those songs where I just didn’t think I was nailing it. That happens a lot … You sometimes get a wee crisis of confidence.”
Several of Paul’s stories on Wednesday involved George Martin, including one humorous anecdote pertaining to the making of “Penny Lane.” Martin thought the song needed a high-pitched bridge solo, so he brought renowned piccolo trumpeter David Mason into the studio to lend a hand. But things took a strange turn after Paul hummed for David the solo’s proposed melody.
“He said, ‘It’s outside the range of the instrument.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s only one [note] higher. You can do it.’ I gave him a mischievous look and he gave me a mischievous look back, and we went, ‘Yeah, come on—let’s go for it.’ And he did it,” Paul recalled, adding, “I think it plagued him his whole career because everyone would say, ‘Play the “Penny Lane” thing!’ And he’d go, ‘Bloody hell, there’s that note again.’”
Looking back on it, Paul admitted “Penny Lane” might not have sounded the same if the Fab Four had paid more attention in music class. “If I was classically trained I probably would’ve never asked him to do that note because I’d have known it was off the range of the instrument,” he said.
Even someone who lays claim to some all-time great songs can occasionally miss the mark. Paul told Howard he had long felt self-conscious about his 1975 Wings tune “Rock Show” which he thought was filled with “suspect lyrics,” including a line where he refers to his guitar as an “axe.” “I was trying to be in the period. There’s a lot of that in that song,” Paul said.
His opinion evolved, however, after his current band suggested they perform “Rock Show” in concert. “They said, ‘Oh, it’s great, we love all that’ because they were sort of younger and it seemed to them like it was a good lyric. So, that kind of almost changes my mind,” McCartney said.
‘All My Loving’
“All My Loving” stands as yet another example of the Beatles’ lack of formal music training resulting in a unique sound. The 1963 tune famously begins with a quickly strummed rhythm guitar intro, courtesy of John Lennon. As far as Paul was concerned, that intro was the direct result of the guys’ relative naivety.
“We didn’t know what we were supposed to do. Nobody [else] would’ve written that as a guitar part,” he laughed.
‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’
In “The Lyric,” Paul writes that he encouraged the Beatles to stay in Europe until after they’d exported a big hit stateside. On Wednesday, he told Howard that was because he’d seen too many talented British artists fall flat on their faces across the pond.
“It’s because Americans had Elvis and they had Little Richard and they had all the big rock ‘n’ roll stars,” he suggested. “So, I said to my manager, ‘We can’t go to America until we’ve got a Number One’ … I said, ‘We’ve just got to wait.’”
Thankfully, they didn’t have to wait long. In 1963, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” topped the charts.
“That was a huge moment,” Paul told Howard, explaining he and his bandmates found out via telegram while touring in Paris. “We’d waited and it was maybe a dangerous strategy. Maybe we were going to wait and fall off the vine … but here it was, this telegram: ‘Congratulations, boys. You’re number one in the U.S.A.’”
‘I Saw Her Standing There’
Paul considers “I Saw Her Standing There” one of the best songs he ever wrote, but in “The Lyrics” he revealed the line “She was just 17 / You know what I mean” was originally very different. The first pass at the lyric ended with “Never been a beauty queen,” but after playing it for Lennon they realized it wasn’t going to work.
“I was like ‘Oops, this is not good,’” he recalled for Howard.
“Years later, I was getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Neil Young was there … and I told him that story,” McCartney continued. “He was playing that night … and he did the song and he used that line, of course. He was the only one to ever use that line, I think.”
‘And I Love Her’
Another guitar intro which stands out amidst the Beatles catalog hails from the track “And I Love Her.” Though Paul is credited as the songwriter, he told Howard that George Harrison came up with the intro all by himself.
“What would that song be without that little thing he just came up with on the spot?” Paul wondered.
He told Howard those kinds of collaborations is where the band really excelled. “We really knew each other so well. That’s one of the big secrets of the Beatles. We lived in each other’s pockets for years, and it just gives you this kind of intimacy where you just know what the other guy is going to think a lot of the time,” he said.
‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ & Bernard Webb’s ‘A World Without Love’
Paul wrote “A World Without Love” when he was just 16, but the song didn’t find the light of day until 1964 when he lent the track to the duo Peter and Gordon, whose Peter Asher was brother to Paul’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher. Afraid “A World Without Love” might only make it big because it had a famous Beatle’s name on it, Paul used the pseudonym Bernard Webb. Sure enough, the song went straight to the top of the charts.
“It was Bernard who got to Number One,” Paul laughed. “It wasn’t me.”
Peter and Gordon’s rendition of “A World Without Love” only reached No. 1 by climbing over the Beatles’ own hit song “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
“That’s just wild,” Howard said. “Were you pissed?”
“No. I was the writer on it, so I didn’t mind,” Paul said. “We were confident enough that the well wasn’t dry. We knew we were coming up with better songs.”
When the Beatles released “Yesterday” in 1965 with just Paul at the helm, it was the first solo song in the band’s history. “It was a little bit embarrassing,” he admitted to Howard. “I didn’t want to be the guy who’s out on the stage on his own because there’s a lot of comfort being in a group of mates.”
Considering the idea for “Yesterday” came to him in a dream and the lyrics came together while Paul was on holiday, the song was largely put together by the time he presented it to the rest of the band. “When I brought it in it was just me, solo guitar, and that was it,” he revealed. The guys just said, ‘Well, we can’t put drums on that … and the one guitar is doing enough.’”
Though the band did put the track out as a single in the United States, they opted not to do so back home in Britain “[We] said, ‘No we can’t put that out, we’re a rock group,’” he recalled thinking of the ballad. “We liked it and stuff, but it wasn’t a big feature of our stage act.”
Though the protest song “Taxman” from “Revolver” was part of a select group of tracks written by George Harrison and not Lennon and McCartney, it was bassist Paul who played the guitar solo. “It [was] very generous of him,” Paul said of the late lead guitarist. “I think, you know, in the studio, the best idea won. It would be like, ‘Well what are we going to do here?’”
Harrison was pleased with the outcome, and the Beatles would go on to swap instruments on several subsequent songs. Howard wondered if Paul thought Ringo got bothered when he took over drumming duties, but Paul didn’t believe that to be the case. “It could have been a bit of that, but it didn’t seem like that,” he figured. “If it had really been like that, that would have led to a bit of a row and a bit of bad feeling between us, but it wasn’t.”
‘We Can Work It Out’
Another fight Paul had with then-girlfriend and muse Jane Asher inspired the “Rubber Soul”-era “We Can Work It Out”—though Paul didn’t appear confident in how the lyrics might hold up today.
“Looking back on it … it’s a bit, you know, ‘Come on girl, you know I’m right,’” he noted. “You know, in a feminist world you may be just as right as I am, [but] this song is like, ‘Nah, you know come on, you’ll find out I was right. Don’t worry about it, just let me work it out.’”
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
David Mason and his piccolo trumpet weren’t the only outside musicians the Beatles used on their tracks. Guitar legend Eric Clapton assisted on the guitar-heavy George Harrison tune “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” even going so far as to perform the song’s lead solo. According to Paul, Harrison could’ve absolutely nailed the solo himself if he’d wanted to and it wasn’t a big deal that they let Clapton give it a go.
“I think the spirit of the times, people always talk about the rivalry between groups, particularly the Stones and Beatles—it wasn’t like that,” he insisted. “We’d come down to London, we’re all buying smart clothes and all that, and we realize there’s all these cool guys who aren’t from Liverpool but they’re all mates, and Eric was one of them … we just thought, ‘Wow, he’s really great.’”
The collaboration made for an iconic song and solo, but as Paul put it the friendship between Harrison and Clapton “didn’t end up well.” Clapton eventually married George’s first wife, Patti. “It was pretty scandalous … It’s a rock and roll group and people get a little crazy occasionally and things like that can happen,” he cautioned before recalling what his RSVP status was to the ceremony and reception. “I did not go to the wedding. I would not have gone to it.”
“Dear Friend,” the original closer to Wings’ 1971 debut “Wild Life,” addressed Paul’s contentious relationship with Lennon. When Howard wondered if life was in a way easier without the bully dynamic that John could sometimes bring, Paul was quick to respond. “That’s true, but I’d swap it all out for him to be alive,” he confirmed of their rocky post-Beatles relationship before noting he tried to not let it bother him. “Sometimes you’d get annoyed back, but not often … You’d just go, ‘That’s John–what a dick.’”
That’s not to say John’s attacks never hurt. “After the breakup of the Beatles, there were some very sad moments for me in there,” Paul confessed. “You would get really down and, you know, I’m sure I cried a few times going, ‘What the fuck?’ … ‘Why did we have to get like this?’”
Of all things, it was a bread shortage in 1970s England that brought arguably the greatest songwriting duo ever back on good terms. “I was baking bread and got quite good at it, so when I heard John was doing it, it was great … we could just talk about something so ordinary,” Paul recalled. “It was really nice, and I was so glad that we got back to that relationship that we always had when we were kids.”
Despite being highly requested, there’s at least one song Paul has never performed live: “Rocky Raccoon.” Howard wondered if fans could expect to hear it anytime soon.
“I don’t know, it’s an awful lot of words to learn,” the rocker joked before adding, “I could just go to the movies instead.”
Paul eventually offered a glimmer of hope. “I would like to do it and I have thought of doing it,” he remarked. “One of these days we’ll get around to it.”
For “Birthday,” from “the White Album,” the Beatles made a very deliberate choice to stutter through some of the lyrics. In fact, it was a direct response to Roger Daltrey’s vocals on the Who’s “My Generation.”
“It’s just a good little trick,” Paul said of the technique. “You can’t be around as long as I have without learning just a couple of tricks. You just get these little things, you think, ‘That’s good, throw that one in.’”
Roy Orbison’s ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’
Speaking of tricks, Paul gave credit for borrowing some from early rocker Roy Orbison, who later in life became bandmates with George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. When Paul occasionally teaches songwriting to students at his former Liverpool school, he educates them on the legend. “I go, ‘Let me tell you about Roy Orbison,’” he said of students who could use advice on performing. “The last note is the big note … everyone knows to clap … Roy was the master of that … I learned a lot of tricks from him.”
Paul’s relationship with Roy went back to the early 1960s, when the Beatles gigged around England with him. After a bathroom break while on tour one day, Paul and John returned to the bus to find the singer working on the eventual hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
“There’s an empty bus but right at the back of it, on the back seat, there’s Roy, and he’s got his guitar and he’s writing this,” Paul remembered. “We just sort of stood there and just watched him do it. It was a special moment. You never know whether it’s going to be a good song or not, but he was inspired.”
Paul McCartney’s “The Lyrics: 1956 to Present” is available now.