Listening to McCartney

27 March 2016

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When the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, died recently, Richard Williams posted a note on his blog about the recording of ‘A Day In The Life’, based on a long interview he’d done with Martin for Melody Maker in the early ’70s. Martin explained:

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” … When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.”

After some toing and froing, Martin booked a 41-piece orchestra, and wrote some structure for the orchestra, but also got them, in effect, to improvise around a long glissando. There’s more detail in William’s post, but the video on Vevo gives some sense of the atmosphere on the recording.

Anyway, youtube being youtube, that led me into a couple of more recent videos with Paul McCartney which were useful reminders that he has always been smart and curious, and despite his fame and wealth remains a human being.

Writing

There’s a long interview at Rollins College in the US with the American poet, and former US Laureate – Billy Collins in which he talks among many other things  about writing the three hundred songs he co-wrote with Lennon, sitting down for writing sessions of three hours or so, sessions which always produced a song. In the interview he talks about one session where they got stuck on a lyric involving “golden rings.”. The clip starts at the right place in the interview.

One of the students has a question about what it takes to succeed in songwriting, and McCartney talks about doing a lot of writing—getting better through practice, which is fair enough. But several of the stories he tells are actually about keeping your ears open, about the importance of listening.

Presley

The other video was a one man show he did in front of an invited audience at Abbey Road Studios, where he displays a gift for telling stories, even some comic timing.

This moment, where he does a solo version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on the standup bass played by Presley’s first bassist, Bill Black, has some magic in it. Again, it starts at about the right place:

Beatle

And actually, it’s worth letting it run on a bit for this reason. After McCartney plays ‘Heartbreak Hotel” he wonders over to a Mellotron and does a nightclub style number, before talking about what the Beatles did with the Mellotron. He plays a few bars of the start of a fifty-year old song and the audience breaks into the applause of recognition.  (I’m not going to spoil the effect by saying which song it is.)

Billy Collins – who’s about the same age as McCartney – starts his interview by saying, “You were a Beatle weren’t you? That’s amazing to me,” and the students in the audience clap. Oddly, it’s only when the question gets put in that “Martian” way that you realise what a huge cultural space the Beatles still fill, half a century on.

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