Getting back to where he once belonged
HIS ARRIVAL IS announced by nervous, giggling laughter from the young women standing by the stairs. “Hey, how are you doing?” he says to them, before sharing a quiet joke. More laughter ensues.
Paul McCartney, ladies and gentlemen, has entered the Hempel Hotel in north London to promote his latest album, Kisses On The Bottom, an homage, mostly, to the music of his childhood.
Music journalists have come from Canada, Colombia, throughout Europe and beyond for an audience with the ex-Beatle, who, despite being surrounded by staff, conveys an air of informality. The mood is respectful, no, deferential; with one asking how it felt to be a British icon “alongside the Queen and Michael Caine”, while another wonders where he found his “sweet-spot” for the album.
Kisses On The Bottom, named from a line in a Fats Waller song, is a collection of the timeless classics McCartney listened to as a child in Liverpool, along with two new compositions.
In particular, it evokes memories of home-life on the Forthlin Road in Allerton, as his father, Jim, sat at the family’s piano, playing the songs of Fred Astaire and others. “He knew all these songs and he would play them, so I wanted to do them. He was a great guy. And he never thought that he was any good at music, because he was just an amateur and he had learned by ear.”
He refused to teach his son how to play, believing that a boy who would one day go on to write some of rock’n’roll’s greatest hits needed “to learn properly”. Three times McCartney tried and three times he failed, frustrated by music teachers’ obsession with “five-finger exercises” and homework.
By the time he went to his second teacher, McCartney “had already written, When I’m Sixty-Four”. By the third, he had already penned Eleanor Rigby.
Undoubtedly, it is a tale that McCartney has told before, and he just about manages to not sound boastful. Rather, it is pride in great things done. He knows he is going to get a laugh; the room unsurprisingly erupts.
“Nowadays, people don’t start you like that. They teach you stuff to get you interested, but then it was a strict thing, you had to go back and learn properly. I never got it: the stuff that I was hearing in my head was different from what I was seeing on the page. I couldn’t go backwards.”
The idea for the new album has been in gestation for more than four decades. “When I got into the recording world with the Beatles I thought it would be nice to do them, but I never got around to it because we were writing Sergeant Pepperand writing all of our new stuff.” The influence of others on McCartney’s actions is surprising. In 1970, Ringo Starr, produced his version of the classics with the Sentimental Journeyalbum.
Years later, he was put off because “every time I came to make this album someone else would make one”, such as Robbie Williams’s Big Band tribute Swing When You’re Winning. “So I thought, I can’t do it now, because it is going to look like I am jumping on his bandwagon and then that dust settled down and then Rod Stewart came out with one. So, ‘Whoops, I can’t do it now’, and then just when I thought it was okay to go back into the water Rod released his next one.”
In the end, he heeded the advice of producer Tommy LiPuma “to just go and make it”, with the help of Canadian singer and musician Diana Krall as well as Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton.
The delay of decades has wrought a different album from the one originally conceived: “The songs are not quite as well-known as some of the songs that Rod has been doing. His are the favourites out of the American song-book. Some of these are not that well-known. More I Cannot Wish Youis from Guys and Dolls.”
A myriad of influences made themselves felt by the time McCartney and others gathered in the Capitol Studios where Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra had laid down some of their greatest work. Despite near-unparalleled success, McCartney stills gets nervous. “To be there where all these guys recorded, I found it a little bit intimidating because I had no idea of what we were going to do. So we chose a song and then Diana worked out what she was going to do, so we did it very organically. We didn’t want to write charts, because that would make it too stiff. We just wanted to figure it out.”
The process of creation still fascinates, the seemingly insurmountable problems, the lack of inspiration, followed by “the moment when it all unlocks”. Like every 16-year-old, McCartney believed that 30 was ancient, but that perspective, predictably, has changed with the years: “I must admit that I didn’t expect to be singing, playing at the level I am now, but it just kept being interesting. It just keeps being fun. We were in South America last year and the crowds were just amazing, the best. When you come on-stage and you get that reception, it is very difficult to retire from it. Every time I go out on tour, someone says, ‘Is this your last tour?’ I don’t know if they are hoping it is, or what, but I think it is a rumour spread by some unscrupulous promoters: ‘Come and see it, it is his last tour.’ But I always say at the end of my concerts, ‘see you next time’. And I mean it, so I’ll keep going as long as they let me.”
None of that means life in the studios is easy, he says. On the first song performed in studio, Cheek to Cheek, which eventually ended up on the cutting-room floor, McCartney says he had used “a big voice” – he breaks into a high, full-throated version of the line “I’m in Heaven” to illustrate.
“God, no, it was terrible and I was feeling really uncomfortable because they were all playing great and I was singing badly. So, then, I started to think of people I liked, like Fred Astaire, and some records I had made in the past where you get into the mic, where there is hardly any effort. That way, the notes don’t seem high any more.
“That is what happened, I decided to use this ‘littler’ voice and I felt very good about it because it unlocked the whole album. That is what we wanted to do. We wanted to just get in the room and say, ‘Hey, Diana, what song are we going to do?’ So we’d choose that song. That was the first time anyone knew that we were going to do that song. So we’d all pull up the chords and I’d pull up the lyrics. And then I’d say: ‘How are we going to do it?’”
Weeks later, McCartney, by now back in London, was struck by a memory from the past: “I realised that that is how we recorded with the Beatles – bring a song in that nobody knew, figure it out, kick it around and then record it. So what you get is very fresh, something that you have all just figured out how to do. There isn’t anyone in there with more information than anyone else, so, yeah, I think that is why I had so much fun doing it. It was just made up on the spot.”
Fred Astaire, he says, is responsible for “a little bit of the signature” of the album: “Musically, his vocal style is very interesting. Everyone used to think he was a lousy vocalist, except the songwriters, who used to think that he did a really good job on their songs because he could sell a song well.” It is not the first time that Astaire has cast his shadow: “Yeah, who wouldn’t want to move like Fred? Baby, give it up. [He] was just a fantastic character from that era and he summed up so many things.
“He was so elegant. I remember in the 1960s when we were making Sergeant PepperI used to have a guy who would make my jackets and I used to say to them, ‘Could you make it like Fred Astaire’s?’ He figured out that Fred’s jackets were cut very close here,” the singer goes on, pointing to his upper arms as he does, “with very thin sleeves, so those kind of stylistic things came from people like him.”
Now 69 and recently re-married, McCartney is still competitive. Having Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton join him in the studio for Only Our Heart,in Wonder’s case, and for My Valentineand Get Yourself Another Fool,in Clapton’s case, helped to “lift your game”.
Wonder had not been part of the original plan, but was suggested by LiPuma as they struggled to find an appropriate solo for Only Our Hearts. “Tommy LiPuma said, ‘No, what about Stevie?’ I said, ‘Wow, that is a little bit out of left-field.’ So I rang him up and he very nicely offered to come along, so that was it.
“Stevie just came to the session and he just listened to the track and said, ‘Can you play it one more time?’, and he listened again and he just went to the microphone and he just started making solos and then he came up with the solo that you hear and it was all over in about half-an-hour. That’s talent.”
Besides Krall, who was happy to be listed as an accompanist on the album’s sleeve because McCartney did not want the record to look like a duets album, Kisses On The Bottombears the influence of two of his daughters – Mary, who took the photographs, and designer Stella, who provided advice on the sleeve. “I love women, I am always fascinated by them. They are quite different from us men, you know,” he tells a German (female) questioner.
McCartney was one of the guests at Krall’s marriage to Elvis Costello and admired her albums, but he had not worked with her before Kisses On The Bottom. “She’s great. You have to take this the right way, she’s like a guy. I mean that as the highest form of compliment. She’s like a woman, but she thinks like a guy. She’s a musician. Gender doesn’t come into it. We would just kick things around. She would just throw in suggestions and finally we would light on something. She brought a lot to the album.”
The German writer seems just a little perplexed, though politeness and, perhaps, a little awe, stops a follow-up. The audience with McCartney, for such it seemed to be, ends in applause.
Kisses On The Bottomis out this week