Paul McCartney on loving John Lennon, the Beatles break-up and his Irish family

It’s a big misconception ‘that I broke The Beatles up … Once a headline is out it sticks’

Paul McCartney, trim, grey haired and stylishly unshaven, appeared in London at his first live event in two years on Friday night to a rapturous reception. “Thank you,” the 79-year-old said simply as nearly 3,000 mostly-masked people in the Royal Festival Hall rose to give the former Beatle a standing ovation when he emerged on stage.

McCartney was at the Southbank Centre venue to discuss his collaboration with Co Armagh poet Paul Muldoon on The Lyrics, 1956 to the present, the Liverpool songwriter's new two volume book published by Penguin and exploring his inspiration for some of the best loved songs ever written, beginning in childhood, taking in The Beatles and Wings and his continuing solo career.

“The four of us miraculously found each other,” McCartney said of The Beatles in a wide ranging conversation that touched on growing up in a loving, working class, musical family in Liverpool in the 1950s, the death of his mother when he was 14 and the literary influences that informed his songwriting.

In one moving section of the 90-minute conversation facilitated by broadcaster Samira Ahmed, McCartney told a rapt audience about the personal and working relationship with his late songwriting partner John Lennon.

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"We grew up together," he said. "It's like walking up a staircase and we've always been side by side on that staircase. I'm like a fan. I just remember how great it was to work with him and how great he was. Because you are not just messing around, you are not singing with Joe Bloggs you are singing with John Lennon."

Sitting beside him on stage, Muldoon suggested to McCartney that what came across in their conversations, despite the occasional “wobble” in the relationship, was McCartney’s love for Lennon. “It’s very true,” said McCartney. “You say that I loved him and as 17-year-old Liverpool kids you could never say that. It just wasn’t done. So I never really said, ‘John, love you mate’ I never got around to it so now it’s great to realise how much I love this man.”

It was clear Muldoon and the former Beatle had developed an easy friendship over five years exploring McCartney’s lyrics. At one point McCartney, the son of Irish immigrants, gently teased Portadown-born Muldoon for always searching for an Irish angle on his life and work – even wondering whether McCartney took inspiration from Irish ballads with the “beyond compare” lyric in I Saw Her Standing There. (He didn’t).

"When we talked, I was always trying to give you a bit more Irish" the man who once wrote a song called Give Ireland Back to The Irish told Muldoon. "My whole family is Irish, so there is a lot there, but I was hoping to throw you more bones."

It was wonderful, said Muldoon who edited the book, to “get under the skin of the lyrics” of songs over those conversations. He described the five year process where he would meet McCartney for three hour sessions to discuss his songs. “We were determined to come out of it with something fresh,” he said. Beatles fan Muldoon, who is 11 years younger than his subject, adding endearingly that he had to pinch himself at times during the process. “You pinched me,” quipped McCartney.

Speaking of something fresh, even Beatles nerds might not have heard the story of McCartney and Lennon, sleeping top and tail in the bed in McCartney's cousin Betty and her husband Mike's house in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. (Ryde was the inspiration for Ticket to Ride, the song the friends wrote there after hitchhiking to cousin Betty's from Liverpool.) "Even though we were in our late teens, they'd come in at night and tuck us in," said McCartney, fondly of the memory.

The audience was deeply attentive and clearly ecstatic to be in a room with the songwriting legend. One woman waving a sign that read Fans On The Run Love You Paul, had travelled from the US. The 71-year-old had seen The Beatles play the Hollywood Bowl. Her friends, who all met on fan forums and gigs over the years, had travelled from Brazil and Germany. "He's a renaissance man," one of the women said tearfully.

Celebrity fans in the audience included Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg and Caitlin Moran.

There were never any controversial moments, although asked what the biggest misconception was about being Paul McCartney, he answered “that I had broken The Beatles up … so I lived with that because once a headline is out there it sticks. That was a big one that I’ve only finally just got over”.

McCartney also gave an interesting response to Ahmed's question about a proposed a new Beatles-themed tourist attraction for Liverpool, recently announced by the British government. Ahmed asked what he thought, suggesting that "some might say that there are people who might try and co-opt The Beatles into some kind of nationalistic, patriotic ideal of what it is to be British".

"I don't mind because I know that people from Japan, America, South America, all know The Beatles. If they come to Liverpool, that's a lot of what they come to see. I think it's fine," he said, recalling that "in the early days of our fame the Liverpool Council filled in The Cavern – really like the Joni Mitchell song, to make a parking lot.

“So I’m quite happy that they’re recognising that it’s a tourist attraction, but I think they could also spend the money on something else.”

Responding to an audience question on race and support by The Beatles of the civil rights movement in America, McCartney said Liverpool had welcomed the first Caribbean community in the UK “so it was just a given. Nobody thought anything of it. A lot of the guys in the groups were black, so we didn’t think much of it. We just thought they were mates, we just thought they were equal – because they were.”

“When we went to America, there was this time when we were going to play Jacksonville or somewhere and the promoter said, ‘OK, get ready because tomorrow night you’re going to be playing, the black people will sit over there and the white people will sit over there’. We said, ‘Excuse me?’, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s how we do it down here’, so we said, ‘Oh no no no! You can’t do that’.”

In an amusing turn of events, broadcaster Ahmed was the only person not called Paul on the stage on Friday night. There was the main man Paul (McCartney), the poet Paul (Muldoon) while both of the men providing sign language for the event were called Paul. "Why have two Pauls when you can have four?" said Elaine Bedell, Festival Hall chief executive, when introducing the event earlier.

Welcoming McCartney to the Festival Hall, she said it had been a long road to getting the venue open again after 20 dark pandemic months. “You might say a long and winding road,” she told the audience who, on the night that was in it, cheered appreciatively.