Interview: Annie Nightingale talks to Sir Paul McCartney

The music legends talk about growing up, hanging out and how music changed their lives

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Paul McCartney changed my life. I first met him and the other Beatles in the mid-1960s. More than 40 years on we are once again face to face. He is wearing a white shirt, and a sharp-cut charcoal jacket. He leans forward to air kiss. “Don’t want to spoil our make-up, do we?” he jokes.

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We are in his London office, a top-floor board- room overlooking the buzzing streets of Soho. He is clearly buzzing too, having just announced his engagement to be married for a third time, to an American, Nancy Shevell. I hand him a picture I took at Glastonbury, of his daughter Mary, the photographer. What can you give a man who must have pretty much everything he wants?

He slips the photograph into his breast pocket. He is seeing Mary later for dinner, he says, with his other daughter, the fashion designer Stella, and Nancy. Even in the presence of one of the most experienced interviewees in the world, it’s a good plan to make an ice-breaking gesture.

But in this case, it isn’t necessary. I first got to know Paul through interviewing the Beatles, and met his younger brother Mike when we worked on an ITV show together. Mike was in cult satirical band the Scaffold – they hit number one with Lily the Pink in 1968. We had driven crazily round Trafalgar Square after the show, jittery adrenaline disappearing into post-show euphoria. That was the moment I felt the McCartney brothers had drawn me into the incredible artis- tic and social revolution of the era.

The Beatles changed millions of people’s lives, not just mine. Once they were a band of Liverpool chancers, influenced by the fast-changing, post-war European underground arts scene of the early 1960s. Then they became the four most famous people in the world. How did that happen? And how did a suburban schoolgirl like me get mixed up in all of that?

I too grew up in that postwar period. It was an everyday occurrence seeing buildings with their fronts ripped off, fireplaces in the sky, piles of bricks across the streets. My home was near the National Physical Laboratory in south-west London, where Barnes Wallis developed the bouncing bomb.

Paul McCartney and his family grew up in another heavily targeted area for bombing, Liverpool, with its vitally important docks. My dad had hosed down the Blitz as part of the London Fire Brigade. My mum was in the Women’s Voluntary Service. Paul’s father James, aka Jim, had been a musician, and Paul and Mike’s mother had been a maternity nurse.

What do you remember of growing up in post- war Liverpool? Did the war still overshadow everything?

We grew up after World War Two, not think-king [he retains the accent, faintly] anything of it. The places we played we called “bombies”. “We’re going down the bombies, you know.” Only later realising these were bombsites. It still didn’t click with me. It was only later I thought: “Oh! There was a house there… a bomb destroyed it – and now we’re playing football on it.”

I remember all the servicemen coming back from the war. People sort of… twitching, and we would say to each other: “What’s that? What’s up with him?” And the grown-ups would say: “Oh, he’s got shellshock.” One also saw maybe the same guy in a rather smart pin-striped suit, and we would say: “He’s well dressed!” And we would be told, “Yes, that’s a demob suit.” All of that stuff was colouring my childhood, but it was
shellshock, bombies, demob suits. Words that were part of our language.

Was the war talked about a lot?

In some ways the grown-ups I knew didn’t talk about it. We knew there had been a war, you would have to have been really thick not to have known! It was on the news, in the cinemas, I was aware of Hitler, it was all around us. And later I thought, “Wow, these guys who had been in these horrible circumstances – why was it [they didn’t speak of it]?” Did they just want to shut it out? Did they just feel they had come home, and enough was enough? Did they not want to appear too heroic? We never knew, really.

I was very aware, at the age I was, that I was very likely to be called up into the Army. And one of the most amazing things for the Beatles is that we just missed it. A couple of years earlier, we would have been in the Army, and it’s very doubtful that the Beatles would have formed. We would have been at Aldershot, or wherever, in various camps, and might not have even met.

We’d escaped the call-up but the Americans hadn’t. So when we first went to America we were warned by our publicity guy, “Whatever you do, don’t talk about the war. Don’t talk about the Vietnam War, it’s a sore subject.” But of course you couldn’t do that with us, as the Beatles. Wrong way to go about it, to tell us not to do it! We would, and we did. At news conferences and press conferences people would say: “What do you think about America?” And we would say: “Well, the war in Vietnam is a bad war, that shouldn’t be happening.”

Did your childhood affect your views?

I do remember talking to my dad as a boy and asking, “Do people want peace?” And he said, “Yeah, people everywhere want peace. It’s the governments that screw it up.” That was a revelation to me. It has been borne out wherever I have travelled around the world, most recently in places like Russia and Ukraine, where you suddenly realise they are just the same as us, they all want to have kids and love each other and have a nice easy life. So he was right!

I do remember talking to my dad as a boy and asking, “Do people want peace?” And he said, “Yeah, people everywhere want peace. It’s the governments that screw it up.” That was a revelation to me. It has been borne out wherever I have travelled around the world, most recently in places like Russia and Ukraine, where you suddenly realise they are just the same as us, they all want to have kids and love each other and have a nice easy life. So he was right! 

As a matter of chance I had met Bertrand Russell, who was living in Chelsea. I knew some- body who knew somebody and I went round one day. An American intern, a studenty guy, came to the door. I asked if Mr Russell was in. “Just a minute, he said and kept me waiting before I could go in and meet the great philosopher. We had a half-hour conversation and that’s where I Iearnt about the Vietnam War. He put me onto it, and so we started talking about it among the group. John would later lead peace protests, but at the time we didn’t really know too much about it, so I credit Bertrand Russell. American friends of ours were being called up and were having to go to Canada to try to dodge the draft.

Did you feel you were growing up with American culture… Elvis, Coca-Cola?

American culture was there all the time. You would be seeing things on television like early Fred Astaire films, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, that kind of thing, of our parents’ generation. So a lot of what they liked was American; a lot of what we liked was, therefore, American. Often the British stars were pale imitations. But that was a bit later, after the appearance of Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent… that was the big shock to us. This was something completely new. It was something that came out of rhythm ’n’ blues, it came out of the blues, came out of the South, and it was a shock! We just fell in love with it.

At what point did you think: “We could be the biggest thing in the world”?

I don’t think we ever thought we could be as good as our heroes, but that wasn’t a bad thing, it kind of meant having to try a bit harder! But what did happen was, we saw a lot of British acts go to America, and come back not having had the great success we thought they would have. Because someone like Cliff Richard was really big over here so we thought, “He’ll kill them.” But he didn’t, and the explanation was: “No, they have that, they have plenty of sort of Elvis-type singers.” So it didn’t really happen for Cliff, for Adam Faith… some of the people who were really big here.

We were a bit surprised by that. But I remember my reaction: OK we have got to think about this. I remember saying to Brian Epstein, our manager: “We can’t go to America until we have a number one.” It was very clear in my mind. We cannot go there until we have cracked it with a record. It was like a stipulation. [The Beatles’ early releases in the US had flopped. But at Paul’s insistence Brian Epstein persuaded the Beatles’ record company to spend $40,000 promoting their next single, 1963’s I Want to Hold Your Hand. It was the turning point in their career.]

I Want to Hold Your Hand sold a quarter of a million copies in the first three days on release in the US, eventually topping the charts there for seven weeks and selling more than five million copies…

We were in Paris working at the Olympia Theatre, and we got what was then a telegram that said: “Number one in America.” We just hit the roof… I mean talk about party that night! It was wahey… It was like: “Ahh, we’ve done it! Now we can go!” We had a big cuddly bear of a guy, our roadie Mal Evans, with us, and I think we spent the evening riding round on his back in the suite in the Georges Cinq Hotel. You probably remember him. [I certainly do, and no doubt so do the Swat team from the Los Angeles Police Department, who shot him dead in his apartment there in 1976. Evans’s girlfriend had called the police because it appeared he was in possession of a gun. Mal was then 40 years old, the same age as John Lennon was when he was shot dead in New York four years later.]

We had done something with this American music, we had kind of morphed it a little bit. We put an English thing on it, it wasn’t pure. We did Twist and Shout having heard the Isleys do it… we thought we couldn’t do anything with that. But, John! When you listen to John’s version, and the Isleys’ version, there are people who argue that his is better. Because it’s got a sort of frantic energy to it.

But still the Beatles needed an extra dimension?

We had to find an identity so that when we went to America we were considered… the New Thing. We were considered “original”. And it’s funny that a lot of Americans didn’t know the originals. A lot of people to this day think that we wrote Twist and Shout [in fact it was written by Phil Medley and Bert Russell].

When people asked what kind of music we liked, we would say, “Black American music”, and they would say, “Like who?” and we would say, “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles”. They didn’t know these people… we would say, “Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, James Brown” and people would go, “Oh yeah?” It turned a lot of white Americans on to that music, because we were big fans. And I have had a lot of black guys say, “Hey man, cool.” We revitalised some of their careers unwittingly, just because we loved them so much.

Mick Jagger said to me the Stones couldn’t have done what they did without the Beatles.

Yeah? You know, I think it’s very true. We were fortunate enough in the Beatles to be just at the right time to be the leaders of this thing.
The four of us were unusual. I talked to Keith Richards recently… well, a couple of years ago, and his take on it was: “Man, you were lucky, you guys, you had four lead singers,” whereas the Rolling Stones only had one. I could sing, John could sing, George could sing and Ringo did numbers that he could sing. So it wasn’t just the front man and the back-up band. We were an entity. Mick used to call us the Four-headed Monster. We would show up at places all dressed the same.

What did you wear?

We had all the Hamburg gear, we would all be in black. But we kind of cobbled together this identity, which was happening anyway among the youth. There were millions of art students who looked like we looked. Our haircut had arrived because we knew this art student in Hamburg and he wore his hair a certain way. John and I were in Paris with kind of teddy-boy quiffs. We were with a photographer and we said, “Would you cut our hair like yours?” He said, “No, no, no – I like the way you look.” He was a mod himself, but he liked to photograph rockers. Anyway, he cut our hair.

We had all the Hamburg gear, we would all be in black. But we kind of cobbled together this identity, which was happening anyway among the youth. There were millions of art students who looked like we looked. Our haircut had arrived because we knew this art student in Hamburg and he wore his hair a certain way. John and I were in Paris with kind of teddy-boy quiffs. We were with a photographer and we said, “Would you cut our hair like yours?” He said, “No, no, no – I like the way you look.” He was a mod himself, but he liked to photograph rockers. Anyway, he cut our hair.

Back in Liverpool, everyone went, “What have you done?” We go, “Oh, it’s the new thing, man”, but it was a bit of a shocker. All these little influences through art school – John went to art school – through the kinds of people we were meeting, all our mates and stuff. The whole generation was going through a change. We sort of became the leaders and the spokesmen. We hadn’t set out to do that. But we were just there at the right time.

The first time I met you I got it, because I’d been hanging out with art students. I understood you were part of the revolution…

The art school was a very important phenomenon. It allowed kids like us to think more freely than we’d been encouraged to think. It’s the point of art school. You look at a thing, and… are you going to make an abstract painting of it? Or a figurative? It frees up your mind. Keith Richards and John Lennon were art school guys and I think that helped. The Beatles would do a thing, and then it gave everyone permission to do it.

We have this continuing youth culture in Britain. That began with you guys…

We were exposed to all sorts of things as part of our postwar generation that our parents hadn’t enjoyed. I think it gave us a very firm grounding. We felt it was our natural right to be free, to kick over the traces if we wanted to. To pursue new ideas. Then this feeling got to America, and I think we were very instrumental in opening the doors. I mean, we used to meet girls over there and we’d say: “What’s your boyfriend like?” And one of them would say: “Well, he has a crewcut, he’s a jock, he plays on the football team” and that was the kind of prototype that existed then. Suddenly there were these long-haired guys and they were into music and it heralded a new generation.

You set a precedent that continues to this day…

There have been a few generations since. So now you have hip-hop coming out of America, which comes via Africa, Jamaica, the urban cities and it’s great – a whole new thing that the young blacks feel, absolutely, the right to continue with. And I think the roots of that particular freedom, and musical freedom, artistic freedom, I think did start with the explosion we were part of in the 60s. In America people stop me almost every day. They say, “I just want to thank you for the music, and thank you for changing my life.”

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Excerpts from this interview appear in Annie Nightingale: Bird on the Wireless, tonight at 9.00pm on BBC4