Paul McCartney on the Beatles break-up, Linda – and Kanye West

The legendary musician reflects on the 28 pop albums he's released since 1970

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The man introduced as “the greatest living songwriter of all time” is in the BBC Maida Vale Studios and taking questions from the floor. And Noel Gallagher has the microphone.

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“Hello, sir!” he beams at Paul McCartney. “I was out with two of your wonderful daughters on Thursday, Stella and Mary, and I told them I was coming here today and they said, ‘Are you going to ask something?’ And I said I didn’t know what to ask so, on behalf of them, they’ve asked me to ask you, out of the two of them… which is your favourite?”

Cue much laughter and applause.

“And I can say for the record that Stella said you’d say ‘Mary’… and Mary agreed!”

McCartney’s response is exquisitely fair, a fond rumination on the notion of “neither”, but it’s one of very few diplomatic moments in this 90-minute recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes (with your reporter, delightfully, in the front row). Whatever the subject – the tortuous separation of the Beatles, the mangled misconceptions of biographers, the brutal reviews of Wings – his answers are thoughtful, confessional and charmingly illuminating, a mood possibly coloured by the moving and philosophical tribute I’d heard him deliver at his producer George Martin’s memorial a few hours earlier.

“If George hadn’t signed us, there would be no Beatles recordings, so I have a lot to thank him for,” he told the congregation in St-Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. “He could take any of our songs and improve them, which was fantastic if you wanted to experiment: if we wanted half-speed or backwards recordings, he’d say, ‘We’ll have to do that manually – in other words, once a year.’”

A rare and visible quiver of excitement ripples though the room as we take our seats and the presenter, John Wilson, introduces “the man who’s created the soundtrack for people around the world for successive generations and who’s one quarter of the greatest group of all time”. Brad Pitt leans sideways to get a better look. James Bay is in the row in front, near Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, and a powerfully sun-tanned Paul Weller is about to ask a question beginning with the immortal words “Your Highness”.

Trim, alert and still vigorously thatched and well preserved at 73, McCartney is here to reflect on the 28 pop albums he’s released since 1970, alone, with Wings, or his collaborations including electronic side-project the Fireman, now rebooted with a new series of compilations.

The first thing you notice is his effortless gift for mimicry, stories told in a flurry of hand gestures and wide-eyed looks of mock innocence or astonishment. He plays invisible saxophones. He mimes his first wife Linda’s on-stage rabbit-in-the-headlights horror as she forgets the keyboard intro to Wild Life. He re-enacts his youthful self “in short trousers” haranguing the support group at the Liverpool Odeon while waiting for Bill Haley & His Comets. He telegraphs the tumbling chaos of the Beatles’ van in a blizzard of snow “slipping off the motorway and down the embankment – aaargh!” He pretends to be a panicked violinist asked to improvise on A Day in the Life. He impersonates John Lennon in the mid-70s – “I’d ring him up and he’d say [grumpily], ‘What do you want?’, although by then he’d got a bit of an American accent, so it was ‘Whadahyawahn?’ and I’d go, ‘All right Kojak!’”

He describes the audience reaction to old and new songs – if he plays And I Love Her, the iPhones light up “like a starry night”; if he plays a song from the new album there’s “a black hole” and deafening silence. And when asked if he’s constantly composing in his head, he emits a series of bleeps and whistles as if about to explode with creativity.

At one telling moment, he reveals that he came close to packing it all in when the Beatles fell apart. “I was breaking from my lifelong friends, not knowing whether I was going to continue in music. I took to the bevvies. I took to a
wee dram. It was great at first, then
suddenly I wasn’t having a good time. It wasn’t working. I wanted to get back to square one, so I ended up forming Wings.”

The critics were unkind. Does he remember the press reaction?

“To be fair we weren’t that good. We were terrible. We knew Linda couldn’t play but she learnt and, looking back on it, I’m really glad we did it. I could have just formed a supergroup and rung up Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and John Bonham, but we graduated from playing universities to town halls, which was quite funny as I’d been at Shea Stadium quite recently. But you still remember the names of the people who gave you really bad, vicious reviews: Charles Shaar Murray shall ever be hated!”

He is extraordinarily candid about Allen Klein, who was hired by the three other Beatles to take over the group’s business affairs after manager Brian Epstein’s death. “A charming man,” he declares with maximum sarcasm. “I had to fight to keep what today is the Beatles’ company. It would have been Allen Klein’s company and that was really happening. He wanted 20 per cent and ten per cent is what managers take. I had to fight the others, which was the most difficult decision of my life.”

Does it get harder to write songs as he gets older, an audience member asks? “In concerts I’m singing these songs by this 20-something-year-old kid and I’m thinking: ‘Why are these songs so good?’ He said modestly! And I think it’s because when you’re young you listen to everything that’s going on around you and you take it all in. You’re very excited with the world, you’re not all jaded and all the information – Elvis, Sinatra, the BBC news – all that stuff that’s been through your mind gets printed out in a song. When you’re younger, more magical things come to you – being in a band, the competition with John, being kids, suddenly getting famous… all that lent itself to good work. If John came up with a brilliant song, I’d go, ‘OK, let’s try and be brillianter.’ But I still do it and it’s great.”

After the recording I ask him if there was a McCartney song that Lennon wished he’d written, or one of John’s songs he’d like to have written himself. He says he remembered being “out in Austria filming Help! and John telling me he thought Here, There and Everywhere was really good. Julia was very beautiful and Imagine is a great song, but I’m happy he wrote them, not me.”

What’s left to do, I wondered. “Who knows? I don’t sit around thinking, ‘What’s next?’ but if something interesting comes along you might find me doing it.” Is there anything left to prove? “To myself perhaps.”

One of his most absorbing and original projects was last year’s collaboration with the powerfully fashionable Kanye West (you can imagine Elton John vibrating with envy). West tends to record on his iPhone, McCartney tells the Maida Vale crowd: when he heard the Kanye-produced Rihanna track FourFiveSeconds, he barely noticed his own voice and guitar as they’d been speeded up.

“But I love Kanye,” he says, “and he loves me. He’s a monster, he’s a crazy guy
who comes up with great stuff
so he inspires me. It was definitely different, because we never appeared to
write a song; a lot of
what we did was just telling each other stories.”

McCartney 
told West how he’d become fascinated with the Picasso painting Man with a Guitar, and how its subject was playing a chord with only two fingers. He sang Kanye a gentle, ambient tune backed entirely by two-fingered chords “and he didn’t appear to really notice, and then after Christmas I get this track back, a thing called All Day: he’s taken my melody and he’s made it seriously urban, which is funny because the lyrics use the n-word – a lot! ‘How long have you been at the mall?’ ‘All day, n-word!’

“It’s a great record, sonically it’s brilliant, but quite a few people said, ‘You can’t be connected with this, there’s, like, 40 n-words! People like Oprah, who’s a little conservative about that stuff, said, ‘You shouldn’t do it, even black people shouldn’t use that word.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s Kanye! And he’s talking about an urban generation that uses that word in a completely different way.’ It’s the context. So I was actually pleased with it.”

The most supercharged moments in Mastertapes are reserved for his memories of Lennon, their relationship frayed by the Beatles’ business tensions of the early 70s, “so I was really grateful that we got it back together before he died. Because it would have been very difficult to deal with if… well, it was very difficult anyway.” He plays a few bars of Here Today, the song he wrote about his friend and collaborator in 1982, “when I was thinking of all the things I never said to him. I’m quite private and don’t like to give too much away. Why should people know my inner-most thoughts? But a song is the place to put them. In Here Today I say to John, ‘I love you’. I couldn’t have said that to him unless we were extremely drunk – [comically slurred] I love you, man! But you can put these emotions, these deeper and sometimes awkward truths, in a song.

“Early Days [on his 2013 album New] was about me remembering walking down Mather Avenue in Liverpool where I was the other day giving someone the tour, driving around, ‘That’s where our first gig was, that’s where John’s mum lived, that’s where I lived.’ That song was about me and John in our drainies, the black jackets, the guitars over our shoulders, before we were discovered, going into record shops, listening to songs in the little booths, looking at the posters, dreaming of our future.

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Listen to Paul on Radio 4’s Mastertapes on BBC iPlayer