April 04, 2003
Why don't I do it on the road?
On the eve of his first British tour for ten years, Paul McCartney tells Patrick Humphries why he feels the time is right to return to the Beatles songbook
WHEN ROCK bands prepare for a tour, they hire a hall to check out their PA and lighting systems. The bigger the band, the bigger the room. It says much that when Paul McCartney rehearses, he takes over the 12,000-capacity London Arena in East London.
In the main hall generators throb with a low expectant hum. There’s a lighting rig that looks as if it might double as the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And on the floor of the venue, which has been cleared to create a vast rehearsal space, the crew while away the hours of waiting by playing touch football on the echoing concrete.
Someone walks across the stage balancing on a huge inflatable globe. Dancers do things with their bodies that would give David Lynch nightmares, moving with a fluency that makes them look as if they’re made of mercury. Backstage, it is — literally — a circus as jugglers, dancers and high-wire artistes compete for space to perfect their part of the extravaganza that will open the forthcoming McCartney concerts.
Onstage the young four-piece band works out beneath an arch of video screens filled with dazzling images, while the sound and lighting engineers sit silently in the auditorium, staring intently at consoles of blinking lights. Everyone is fuelled by coffee, just waiting for the man.
When Paul McCartney first toured Britain with the Beatles in 1963, the group squeezed on to a tour bus alongside Kenny Lynch and Helen Shapiro, and their stage gear was squashed into the boot. For this, his first British tour in ten years, McCartney will have the use of 40 trucks and 116 road crew to help ease him back on the road.
McCartney is coming to Europe on the back of last year’s triumphant American tour, easily the most financially successful of the year. But, at the age of 60, what motivated him to tour again? “After making Driving Rain — we did a lot of that live — I was starting to think that it would be a good idea to play with these guys again, because every time I did it was fun. So we did the Superbowl, and it seemed silly to leave it there . . . It was going to be Russia — I was thinking of doing a number of big event things and we were going to start by doing a big one-off in Russia.
“But then I started to think, it’s a bit unsatisfying, this one-off thing, it might be nice to do a tour. I talked to the promoter and said: ‘Well, what would you do if you were sticking us out on tour?’ And he said: ‘America! They’re dying to see you out there.’
“So we stuck some tickets out on sale, and they went bananas: 15,000 tickets in nine minutes! People say you must know they’re going to sell, but I say no way, don’t ever think that. So we were very chuffed when we heard the figures, but then you get to this point where it was taking longer than an hour to sell out. It’s like: ‘An hour? Dear me, we’d better cancel that one!’”
Even in this cold and cavernous rehearsal space, you can’t help but be stirred as McCartney finally takes to the stage and straps on his hallmark Hofner violin bass — the one that caught his eye in a shop window when he was barely out of his teens and which took him from the cellars of Liverpool and Hamburg to the roof of the world.
Back in harness he immediately delivers a blistering version of Birthday — a vintage Beatle rocker which, in ordinary circumstances, would have brought a capacity crowd to its feet. Today, though, there are only about a dozen in the audience and just a smattering of applause. “Thank you, small but dedicated group of fans,” cracks the bass player before moving on to She’s Leaving Home, the original harp duplicated on guitar, an orchestra conjured from the bank of keyboards.
It’s eerie sitting here, no more than a footstep away from a legend; and to hear him taking on a classic that you never expected to see performed anywhere only adds to the unreality of the situation. Nothing the Beatles released after Revolver was intended for playing live, so, incredible as it seems, they never performed anything in public from Sgt Pepper, the White Album, Abbey Road or, apart from the Apple rooftop concert, Let It Be. Which means that a number of the songs McCartney showcases on this tour have never been played on stage before.
Back then, there simply wasn’t the technology available to reproduce Sgt Pepper live — there wasn’t the will. In the dying embers of the Fabs, McCartney did try to persuade the splintering group that their only hope of staying together was a return to live performance, but it never happened. And the resultant split was both acrimonious and public, with McCartney cast as the bad guy, the one who split the Beatles.
Those scars ran deep, and it took him until the mid-1970s to first essay a Beatle song in concert.
Now, however, he is eager to reclaim that legacy. And as he lets rip on a 1950s rocker such as Honey Hush or pounds out a rollicking Lady Madonna or Back in the USSR, you are reminded just what a great rock’n’roll singer he is. Forget, if you can, the ballads for which he is famed, and just listen to what the man sings.
There’s a little acoustic interlude with Michelle and She’s Leaving Home, and then McCartney gets the rocker’s gleam back in his eye and tears into Can’t Buy Me Love and All My Loving. The band take it short, sweet and sassy — no unnecessary fillers, no extraneous solos; while McCartney exudes the puppy-like enthusiasm of someone right at the beginning of a career. And this is just the rehearsal.
McCartney has played some of these songs in concert before, but this time round his treatment of the Beatle classics is less reverent, distinctly more edgy. “I used to have a very, very strict view that the Beatles stuff was sacrosanct. It’s slightly different this time and that mainly came from the band. I didn’t give the guys a brief. I didn’t say to Rusty (Anderson): ‘You must copy George’s solo.’ He just started playing a solo, and I thought that’s nice. I like what he plays — and I like the idea that he varies it each night.”
So, if working with this new, young band has upped McCartney’s game, what is it like for them playing alongside a bona-fide rock’n’roll legend? “It’s incredible,” admits Anderson, the guitarist, who also worked with McCartney on the Driving Rain album. “We’ve been doing rehearsals, and we’ve done a trillion shows — but all of a sudden, it just hits me, bam! Oh my God, look where I am! He definitely knows what he wants, but there’s a lot of freedom. And I think everyone really respects the integrity of the original songs.”
An explosive Live and Let Die suddenly roars through the auditorium while the screens flash out a montage of 007 images. Fireworks flare above the stage; thunder flashes illuminate the stage front; and in the silence that follows, clouds of smoke drift across the empty hall. Ears ring and walkie-talkies crackle, there’s a smell of cordite in the air, the amps hum like helicopters. It’s getting like Apocalypse Now out here now.
But up on stage McCartney’s only just getting started. He straps on an electric guitar and rocks out on Matchbox, a half-century-old Carl Perkins number that the Beatles pumped out in the cellars of Hamburg and Liverpool during those long-ago, amphetamine-fuelled nights, when rock’n’roll was still in short trousers.
Which prompts the question: with such a mighty and illustrious back catalogue to choose from, just how does he decide what to play? “Very simple. Everything I do, I always just try to visualise it. And this was the same: just sit down and visualise that first night, as if I’m in the audience, and say: what do we want to have happen? Maybe I’m Amazed; Live and Let Die; then some interesting little things came in, like Here Today (from 1982’s Tug of War album) as a tribute to John.
“When you do a show like this, you always want to come on with something to settle you. So we’ll come on with Hello Goodbye, then by the time you’ve done Jet, you’ve met the audience, they’ve met you, and you can go somewhere else. But you need those buffer-zone numbers just to get you onstage, and if you are a little bit nervous, it helps you crash through a little bit, settles you.”
And for the future? In Rome on May 10 McCartney plays a charity gig to an invited audience of 300 inside the Colosseum. The day after he will play a free gig outside the 2,000-year-old venue. The Italians are expecting an audience of 300,000, which will make it the biggest crowd McCartney has ever played to. Rio? A barely-discernible 184,000. So there are still worlds to conquer.
As I sort my notes, I hear McCartney say from the stage: “We’ve had a request for this one . . .” before leading the band into Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, I’d mentioned earlier in the day, I was hoping to hear. It’s a tumultuous version (“we hope you have enjoyed the show”). The pre-show dancers are bopping like hamsters on a griddle and even the road crew join in to applaud this one. McCartney takes note of their enthusiasm, and concludes: “Thank you on behalf of the group and I hope we passed the audition.”
It’s doubly moving, hearing him repeat Lennon’s joke from the end of Let It Be, the closing words on the last album the Beatles released before their final split. There was no stopping the man now, as he finished with the finale from Abbey Road (“And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”). Almost certainly one of the musical highlights of my life.
The UK leg of Paul McCartney’s Back In The World tour launches at Hallam Arena, Sheffield, tomorrow and concludes with a homecoming show at King’s Dock, Liverpool, on June 1. Full details can be found at www.paulmccartney.com.