Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney - Howard Sounes (2010)
PART TWO. AFTER THE BEATLES
Chapter 23. MUSIC IS MUSIC
THE LIVERPOOL ORATORIO
Back in 1988, Carla Lane had persuaded the McCartneys to make a guest appearance in an episode of her television show, Bread. The storyline was that Linda was opening an animal rescue centre in Liverpool. During filming Paul and Lin met the actress Jean Boht, who played the matriarch Nellie Boswell in the series and was married in real life to the composer Carl Davis. When Carl, Carla and Jean subsequently collaborated on a short orchestral work, The Pigeon’s Progress, staged at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Paul and Linda sent a telegram of support - ‘Here’s to you and all the pigeons in the world’ - which caused Carl to think about writing music with Paul. During a visit to the McCartneys’ farm in Sussex, the composer asked if Paul would like to collaborate on an orchestral piece for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, for whom he was guest conductor, and which was due to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The idea of creating music with a Liverpool theme appealed to Paul, who began telling Carl his life story, starting with how he’d been born in Liverpool during the Second World War. ‘That’s good!’ remarked Davis brightly, seeing the beginning of an oratorio - a word Paul wasn’t familiar with.
‘Is this a symphony we’re writing?’
‘No, that’s slightly different.’
‘Is is a concerto then?’
‘No, it’s not,’ said Davis, explaining that an oratorio is a piece of music based on a religious story, sung by soloists and chorus; Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius for example. The outcome of Davis’s and McCartney’s collaboration - the Liverpool Oratorio - was indeed to contain an element of pluralistic religiosity, but had much more to do with Paul’s life.
The story starts with a character named Shanty, like Paul born in Liverpool during the last war, and having the same good fortune to attend the Liverpool Institute, which is evoked fondly in the second movement, with a reference to Paul’s Spanish teacher Miss Inkley teaching the boys a rhyme about three rabbits. The story then veers off into a confusing section about Shanty meeting a ghost named Mary, who assumes corporeal form and becomes Shanty’s wife in the fifth movement, their marriage reaching a crisis when Mary falls pregnant and Shanty takes to drink (wouldn’t you if you married a ghost named after your mum!), their problems resolved in the final movement when husband and wife praise the overarching importance of family life. With a movement devoted to Shanty’s father, and references to a kindly nurse, the oratorio gathered together the talismans of Paul’s early life in a typically sentimental 90-minute work.
To take on such a project showed ambition, some might say hubris, on Paul’s part, and was a surprising departure from rock. In his childhood, the McCartneys turned off the wireless when classical music came on the air. In the Sixties, Paul dipped into Berio and Stockhausen, as we have seen, becoming sufficiently enthused by their experimental compositions to create avant-garde music of his own. He also became friendly with Stockhausen and Tavener. He’d never shown much interest in mainstream ‘classical’ music, though. On the contrary, Paul and Linda walked out of a New York production of La Bohème when they were courting because they were bored. When the journalist Ray Connolly interviewed Wings at the time of Back to the Egg, he asked if anyone in the band liked classical music; Denny Laine nodded vigorously, which as Coleman noted ‘contrasted strongly with Paul’s bemused frown’. Yet an appreciation of classical music often develops with maturity - Paul chose Benjamin Britten’s Country Dances as one of his records on the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs a couple of years later in 1982 - and there is no reason why an innately musical person shouldn’t like, understand and indeed make orchestral music as well as pop, which is not necessarily a lesser form. Music is music, as Alban Berg observed, while another modernist composer, Gunther Schuller, called for a blending of traditional and pop, ‘in a beautiful brotherhood/ sisterhood of musics that complement and fructify each other’. This is what Paul proceeded to do.
There was a problem, however. When Paul needed to create music for players who went by notes on a page, he had to employ an amanuensis to orchestrate his music. George Martin had filled that role in the Beatles and afterwards. It was George who scored ‘Yesterday’, The Family Way and the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sequence in Give My Regards to Broad Street, among other pieces with Paul’s name attached, raising the question of how much credit is actually due to McCartney on such projects. Modest man that he is, Martin has always been content to stand in the background. Carl Davis was a different personality. An American, born in New York in 1936, one like Linda who’d made his home in England, Carl had enjoyed a long and successful career, best known for his 1980 score for the revived silent movie Napoleon, and he was used to getting due credit. He assumed he would at least share co-credit with Paul on their oratorio, which he had suggested and would essentially write, because Paul couldn’t. ‘I naturally assumed it would be The Liverpool Oratorio by McCartney and Davis.’ So Carl was ‘very taken aback when he [Paul] said, quite emphatically, that he wanted it to be called Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio’.
Work on the oratorio started around the time of Paul’s 1989/90 world tour, after which the star had a live album to oversee, the serviceable Tripping the Live Fantastic, and other projects to attend to, including campaigning with Linda to save their local cottage hospital in Sussex. He also helped Lin launch a range of frozen veggie food; and sat for interviews with Barry Miles for their forthcoming book, Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. In addition to these and other commitments, Paul found time to meet Carl Davis regularly, supplying him with the essential story of the oratorio, humming and playing tunes for it on the piano. It was Carl’s task to transcribe these tunes, and do the detailed work of scoring the piece, Paul coming back with comments.
By January 1991, the composers had been working together in this way for two years, with the première of the oratorio scheduled for June. During final preparations, a documentary camera team followed Paul, the footage revealing tensions between McCartney and Davis, with Paul overruling his partner in a polite but firm way that must have been difficult for Davis to take, being so much more knowledgeable about the world that he, like Virgil with Dante, was leading Paul into. At the same time, Paul was capable of rolling out melodies on the piano that sounded so delightful Davis was scrabbling around for a pencil to note them down before Paul moved on to something else. Davis, who already had the look of a Mad Professor, appeared increasingly frazzled by the experience of working with a man who didn’t technically know what he was doing, but knew exactly what he wanted, and wasn’t to be brooked in argument. After all, Paul was paying for everything, giving him a crushing financial grip on proceedings. Paul’s unassailable economic strength, by dint of which almost everybody working with him is in his pocket, becomes ever more pronounced as we move into the latter part of his career.
Even more than when he was a young man, the mature McCartney was also characterised by his habit of doing many things at once, which is why the MPL logo depicts a juggler. While working with Carl Davis on the oratorio, Paul was involved in various campaigns; working with Mark Featherstone-Witty on establishing LIPA; discussing animation projects - mostly films about little furry animals - with Geoff Dunbar; attending to Apple and MPL business; and working with his rock band on a new album in advance of another world tour. The band remained much as it was during the last tour, featuring Hamish Stuart, Robbie McIntosh and Wix Wickens, with a new (vegetarian) drummer named Blair Cunningham. One of the first projects they undertook together was the MTV show Unplugged.
MTV had become a significant force in the entertainment industry in the past few years, with Paul embracing the concept of video films to promote his songs, often commissioning lavish productions, such as the 1983 video for his single ‘Pipes of Peace’, in which Paul played both a British and German soldier in the trenches of the First World War, the video shot to feature-film standard with 100 extras. Recently, MTV had pioneered a spin-off concert series, whereby rock acts who normally used amplified equipment played live in front of small audiences using only acoustic instruments. Previous MTV Unplugged guests hadn’t adhered strictly to the format, using electric pick-ups, even some fully amplified instruments. ‘Paul decided this was cheating and [we] would do it absolutely straight, which was technically very challenging,’ says Robbie McIntosh; ‘there were no pick-ups, everything was done on microphone.’ Hamish Stuart recalls: ‘I had an acoustic bass. I had to be very static - if you move that much away from the [mike] the bottom would drop out of the band.’ Paul rehearsed with his band for three weeks in advance of the recording in London on 25 January 1991, and the show turned out to be one of the most enjoyable he’d played in a long time. McCartney helped make it special by choosing to début the very first song he wrote, ‘I Lost My Little Girl’, all one minute thirteen seconds of it. Rock ’n’ roll favourites and selections from his solo career and the Beatles also featured. By dint of being forced to put over old songs in a new format, the likes of ‘And I Love Her’ were rejuvenated. Paul was so pleased with the result that he asked for a recording of the event to be put out as an Unplugged album, the first of what became a very successful series of such records, with contemporaries including Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan following. So successful was the MTV experience that Paul took his band out on the road that summer to play a series of small gigs, in such out of the way places as St Austell in Cornwall, which included an ‘unplugged’, that is to say acoustic, set.
Linda continued to play with the band, though she was very much in the background during Unplugged, where mistakes would have been glaringly obvious. With the kids growing up (the youngest, James, was now 13), Linda’s energies outside the home were concentrated on her relentless ‘go veggie’ crusade, which had taken on a surprising commercial dimension. On the back of the success of Linda McCartney’s Home Cooking, reportedly the best-selling veggie cookbook ever, Linda had, as touched upon, linked up with Ross Young, a division of United Biscuits, to market a line of Linda McCartney frozen dinners, which she launched at the Savoy Hotel in April 1991. Consequently, Linda spent a great deal of time in her kitchen creating and testing new veggie recipes, giving samples of her meals to friends, family and neighbours to gain their reaction and, hopefully, convert them to a non-meat diet. Reactions were muted. On a trip to Kintyre, Linda gave the McCartneys’ vet, Alastair Cousin, samples of her veggie sausages. ‘I didn’t like them at all to be honest, but I didn’t say as much.’ Mike Robbins recalls an evening when Paul and Lin visited him and his wife Betton the Wirral, then walked down the lane with them to visit Joe and Joan McCartney.
[Paul] linked arms with [Bett] in the dark walking down the pavement, down the village, and I walked behind with Linda and she said, because she was always plugging, ‘When you going to go veggie, Mike?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ve never tried it. I’m always open to [the idea].’ ‘Oh you’ve gotta try veggie.’ A week went by, a bloody big van arrived at the front door with a box that big. It was all her products that she did, Linda McCartney products, every one, and we lived off it for about a week. As [Bett] said, ‘It’s all very nice but you’re still bloody hungry after veggie food.’ … So we ate it all and never went veggie, couldn’t be bothered.
Despite apathy from friends and family, Linda’s veggie food proved surprisingly successful with the British public, becoming a multi-million-pound business that made a rich woman even wealthier over the next few years. There were hiccups, notably when traces of meat were discovered in her pies in 1992, apparently an act of sabotage, while Ross Young found that Linda could be a demanding business partner. One day when Carla Lane was visiting Blossom Farm, she mentioned to Linda that a friend of hers had tried the veggie sausages and found them ‘a bit greasy’. Linda picked up the phone immediately.
She said, ‘Hi, is that Richard? OK. I want the sausages off.’ And he must have said, ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, OFF - O, double F!’ Then he must have said ‘Why?’ ‘Never mind why.’ Then a pause. ‘No, now. Not tomorrow. Now. Off the shelves. OK? I’ll be back with you. OK. Bye.’ And that was it. That’s how fast she moved when there was anything she was keen about. Off they came and they came back with less grease, apparently. It’s amazing how she did it [laughs] - she gave that man the Devil.
It was a different woman who sat in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral listening to a rehearsal of Paul’s oratorio in the spring of 1991, tears coursing down her handsome face as she allowed herself to be swept up in the music, causing daughter Mary (now an attractive young woman of 21, working for Dad at MPL) to look at Mum in surprise. Linda shrugged unapologetically.
The family were attending a full-scale run-through of Paul’s Liverpool Oratorio three months in advance of its première, Paul having decreed that he had to hear a performance because he couldn’t get the music from the score. This way he could change anything he didn’t like. Aunt Joan was one of the Liverpool ‘relies’ invited to the demo. ‘Who would ever have thought it would come to this? A McCartney in the cathedral! ’ she was heard to exclaim approvingly, looking around at the great building. Paul beamed back. Having achieved so much, he still felt the need to prove himself in front of his family. He was clever. He was talented. Look, he’d even written a noratorio, as he deliberately mispronounced the word in a self-mocking reference to his initial ignorance.
The première itself was held on a soft summer evening in late June, not at the Philharmonic Hall, though the Phil commissioned the work, but again in Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican Cathedral. Since its completion in 1978, the cathedral had become the dominant landmark on Merseyside, the grandest possible local venue for the première of Paul’s work, which was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Carl Davis, the featured soloists including two of the most famous singers in the classical world: soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and bass Willard White.
Beforehand, Paul found time to meet Michael Portillo MP, minister with responsibility for Merseyside in John Major’s Conservative Government, showing the minister around the Liverpool Institute. LIPA needed public sector backing, so it was important that politicians were onside. Paul showed the minister the class where Fanny Inkley had tried to teach him Spanish, reciting her rhyme about the ‘tres conejos [three rabbits] ’, which caused Portillo to reply in fluent Spanish, evidently enjoying Paul’s company. Few were immune from the charms of a Beatle, from being Beatled as it were, especially those now in middle life who’d grown up with the fab four. Paul’s ability to attract and win over influential figures in this way helped LIPA considerably. Several other eminent people had been lured to Liverpool for the première of the oratorio, including Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, and Paul didn’t waste the opportunity to promote his vision for LIPA with one and all.
Paul sat behind his celebrity guests for the actual performance, flanked by Linda and the kids. George Martin and Paul’s faithful roadie John Hammel sat nearby, John keeping an eye open for anybody making an uninvited approach to the boss. The first impression of the piece itself - which opens with ethereal strings and percussion - was that, despite Paul’s interest in the avant-garde, his Liverpool Oratorio was a traditional work, conventionally arranged and performed by orchestra, choir and soloists. As the story developed, one heard echoes of Edward Elgar as well as the Beatles. The music was varied, the playing and singing excellent, the second (‘School’) movement bright and engaging, with the same natural use of Liverpool vernacular language that characterised the Beatles’ lyrics: ‘The most important thing I found was/sagging off!’ There was humour here, and pathos, with a demanding violin part for Malcolm Stewart in the sixth movement, after which the ‘Crisis’ section seemed attenuated and melodramatic; then a big, warm-hearted ending, the ultimate message of which was:
… people still want a family life,
Nothing replaces the love and affection.
Hurrah! Applause. Paul bounded onto the rostrum to hug Carl Davis, congratulate the singers, and accept the acclaim of his audience, as he would at a rock concert. The oratorio was a success. Like ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, two of his best songs, the work was rooted in the place Paul knew and loved, with a concomitant authenticity in music and libretto, though it was hard to know how much credit was due to Carl Davis, how much to Paul himself. Paul had foreseen that critics would mock him for his classical pretensions, but the reviews weren’t at all bad. ‘The orchestral writing is too much like background music,’ wrote Michael John White in the Independent on Sunday, noting that the pace was slow and the texture thin. Yet White enjoyed the ‘honest innocence’ of the oratorio. Plans were made for further performances, in London and elsewhere, with a CD release on EMI Classics, by dint of which Paul crossed the Rubicon from pop to the classical division of the old firm, the management of which commissioned him to write a new orchestral piece for its 1997 centenary. Classical music would be part of Paul’s music-making for years to come.
TRYING TO GET OFF THE GROUND
Shortly after the Liverpool Oratorio première, Lee Eastman died of a stroke in New York aged 81. Eastman had enriched himself and his English son-in-law greatly during the past 21 years, not least by establishing the highly successful music-publishing side of MPL. The company now owned no fewer than 25,000 original compositions, songs as diverse and famous as ‘Unchained Melody’, ‘The Christmas Song’, ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ and ‘The Ugly Duckling’, in addition to the Buddy Holly catalogue and a portfolio of hit musicals including Grease, which alone made McCartney millions when it became a movie in 1978. Over the years, Paul had developed a high regard for his father-in-law’s acumen, marking his debt by giving the old man a Rolls Royce on one occasion, which was just about the most extravagant present Paul ever gave anyone.
Paul and Linda came to New York for the funeral, staying in Long Island into August when the area was hit by Hurricane Bob. (During the ensuing power cut Paul composed the song ‘Calico Skies’, which was put to one side for several years.) There were financial ramifications for Linda now her father had died. Lee had been an extremely rich man, his wealth mostly in publishing rights and art. Philip Sprayregen estimates the value of his stepfather’s estate in the hundreds of millions. So long as Lee’s widow survived him, most of this wealth was held in trust for Lee’s children and grandchildren, Linda standing to inherit her share as and when Monique Eastman predeceased her. In the meantime, John Eastman was a trustee of the estate, also taking over control of Eastman & Eastman, from the Manhattan office of which he continued to advise Paul. The men were close. Apart from being brothers-in-law, they had worked together since Apple days, and spent their summer holidays together, watching their children grow up. Paul’s partner in LIPA, Mark Featherstone-Witty, remarks that he found out early on in his dealings with Paul that, along with George Martin, John Eastman was ‘one of the relatively few people Paul wholly respected and would listen to’. Unfortunately, Mark’s own relationship with Paul was not nearly so good.
As we have seen, Paul promised £1 million to LIPA ($1.53m), but more than ten times that amount was needed to complete the project, and finding the money proved difficult, with Paul quickly becoming impatient. That November, Richard Ogden urged Mark to give Paul some good news soon. Under pressure, Featherstone-Witty sent out over 600 letters in Paul’s name asking the great and the good for donations, including, at Paul’s suggestion, Her Majesty the Queen. ‘It was like one of those wonderful English exercises, because I used to be an English teacher, Write in the style of … I tried to write in the style of Paul McCartney to the Queen. What an exercise. It was for real, too.’ Paul also wrote personally to select friends and public figures, including the Prince of Wales. As he noted in his letter to Charles, he felt some reluctance soliciting favours from well-known people, as he received such letters himself and knew how difficult they were to reply to. Also he didn’t often have cause to write personally to people in the normal course of his career, so he was out of practice. Composing the letter made him feel like he was back at school. His two-page, handwritten missive did have something of the schoolboy about it - the tone familiar and jokey to start with, but also businesslike in the detail - signed with an elaborate autograph and a smiley face, as if His Royal Highness would appreciate a Beatle’s signature. Or maybe not. The prince didn’t return any money.
The Queen did send a personal donation, however, not a huge amount, but a gesture that encouraged others to follow her. Celebrities ranging from Chevy Chase to David Hockney also gave to LIPA. George and Olivia Harrison gave an undisclosed donation, via their charitable foundation, but Mark Featherstone-Witty had no direct contact with George who, despite being a Liverpool Institute old boy, showed precious little interest in LIPA. Meanwhile many ordinary people sent in money, including fans who paid to have their name inscribed on an auditorium chair. Paul agreed to attend three fundraising lunches in London and Brussels in 1992 to drum up more money, leading EMI to donate £100,000 ($153,000), the biggest cheque yet. At a fundraising lunch at the Groucho Club in London Paul found himself sitting opposite a familiar-looking gentleman who turned out to be Donald Warren-Knott, formerly British consul to Japan, now running an Anglo-Japanese foundation. They’d last seen each other through a glass screen in Kojimachi Police Station. It was one of those Dickensian recrossings of paths that happen so often in Paul’s life. ‘We both thought it rather [funny],’ says Warren-Knott, regretting that his organisation wasn’t able to make LIPA a grant. Indeed, at the end of this fundraising drive Mark Featherstone-Witty had only collected £500,000 ($765,000) in addition to Paul’s £1 million pledge, which led to some awkward moments with his Lead Patron and staff.
One of the strangest of these incidents came at the end of 1992 when Mark Featherstone-Witty attended the MPL Christmas lunch. Mark took an accountant friend to the meal, a McCartney fan he’d known for years, which led to a strange and unpleasant row. By Mark’s recollection, Paul’s manager Richard Ogden summoned him into the MPL office the next day where he read him the riot act for bringing an unwelcome guest to Paul’s party. ‘What do you mean by bringing someone who was so obviously gay to Paul’s Christmas party? Have you any idea about the responsibility you carry in this project? ’ he allegedly asked.
‘What are you talking about?’ replied Featherstone-Witty, explaining who his friend was.
‘But he was gay, you stupid fucker!’
‘No, he isn’t.’
‘You’ve got to be careful. You can’t do anything that would embarrass Paul …’
That Mark would be admonished for bringing a gay friend to Paul’s party is extremely strange. Richard Ogden says Mark has the story wrong: he didn’t berate him for bringing a ‘gay’ friend to the party, just for bringing somebody who hadn’t been invited, and the conversation was not in his office, but at the party itself. He stoutly denies any homo-phobia on his or, for that matter, Paul’s part. But Mark stands by his story. He says he has no idea what motivated the outburst. Maybe Richard was over-reaching himself in an attempt to protect his boss at a time when their own relationship was becoming rocky. Whatever the reason, it was disconcerting. ‘I thought it was odd, but I never got to the bottom of it,’ says the LIPA chief, adding that it would be surprising if Paul was homophobic, ‘because he can’t be completely blind to the fact that so many people around him were gay, and lesbian for that matter …’ Yet Linda’s gay friend Danny Fields believes Paul did have such an antipathy, when he knew the star (though, as we have seen, Paul was good friends with the gay art dealer Robert Fraser for many years). ‘One of the reasons Paul didn’t like me, he didn’t like gay. Didn’t like gay near him,’ states Fields. ‘He knew that his wife would babble to the gay like a girlfriend and he didn’t want her to have girlfriends. He didn’t want her to have anyfriends, and they had no friends.’
Paul had started to think about doing something for Liverpool around the time he became 40. In the summer of ’92, he turned 50, and LIPA still seemed far from being a reality. As his chief fundraiser continued to try and raise the money required, Paul returned to what he knew and liked best, making rock ’n’ roll records. In advance of a new world tour, McCartney took his road band into Hog Hill Mill to make Off the Ground, a serviceable, tuneful, well-made CD that, like so many releases from the back end of Paul’s career, made little impact on any but his diehard fans, of whom, luckily, there were still many. Paul’s idea with Off the Ground was to make a band album, his first since Back to the Egg, recorded quickly with Hamish, Robbie, Wix, Blair and Linda, using a couple of songs left over from his collaboration with Elvis Costello, and getting Carl Davis to help with arrangements. The result is bland. ‘I think Flowers in the Dirt [is] a better album,’ opines Robbie McIntosh. ‘Off the Ground we recorded all in one place and it’s kind of got a slightly monochromatic feel to it, everything sort of sounds the same, one track after another.’ Yet the guitarist enjoyed working closely with Paul on the stand-out ‘Hope of Deliverance’, a call-and-response folk-style number that was released as a single in Britain and the US to little effect, but became a big hit in Germany, where Paul commands a considerable following. ‘Biker like an Icon’ benefited from an intriguing lyric, while the words of ‘Looking for Changes’ constitute an uncompromising attack on vivisectionists, the song sparked by a grotesque photograph of a cat with a scientific device implanted in its head. At a time when activists allied to the underground Animal Liberation Front were taking direct, sometimes violent action against British vivisectionists, Paul’s song seemed to encourage retribution:
I saw a rabbit with its eyes full of tears
The lab that owned her had
Been doing it for years
Why don’t we make them pay for every last eye …
There was a political dimension to another song, released as a single with ‘Hope of Deliverance’. The number ‘Big Boys Bickering’ admonished world leaders for fucking up the planet and became notable because the BBC and other broadcasters refused to play it on air because of the bad language. There was a sense that Paul was courting publicity in an increasingly desperate attempt to sell records in the numbers he once had. When Off the Ground was completed the star decided he wanted dance mixes of a couple of the songs for release as 12-inch vinyl singles, hoping to reach a younger audience this way. To undertake the work he hired Martin Glover, founder member of the band Killing Joke, who, despite being 31 years old, went by the name Youth. Youth quickly established a rapport with McCartney, the two musicians sharing a similar hippyish mindset and manner of speaking. Paul was of course one of the original hippies. Youth was part of a second generation who found inspiration in the same values, his conversation referencing bardic and pagan English traditions, talking about ‘the wheel of the year’ and other such new age stuff that Paul empathised with.
[So I ] went down there [to Hog Hill Mill] and I started sampling … I said, ‘What would be great if you could just add a couple of other things to the loops I’ve taken off the multi-tracks and just take it a bit further,’ and he was happy to do that. I got him jamming, got him on his guitar, and all these other [instruments]. He’s got such a great collection.
One of the instruments Paul played on this very modern record was Bill Black’s double bass, a relic from the creation of rock ’n’ roll.
Youth took the tapes to his home studio where he assembled alternate versions of what he expected to be one final track. Then Paul came over with the family to listen.
He and Linda and some of the kids would come down and just sit in on the sessions until three or four, and got a real buzz out of some of the alternative mixes I was doing for the ambient ones and really, really loved it, and then he came back and he said, ‘I want to put all these mixes out’ [laughs]. I said, ‘They’re actually for editing into one mix.’ ‘No, no.’ He’s often like this [laughs]. So the first album was really all the different mixes from that one session.
By the ‘first album’ Youth means the collaborative CD strawberries oceans ships forest. ‘It’s basically a magical reference in the English folk tradition,’ Youth says of the curious unpunctuated title, declining to elucidate. Paul decided to put this enigmatic recording out under a pseudonym, as he had with the Thrillington album in 1977. This time he chose the moniker the Fireman, in honour of the fact that his father had fire-watched in Liverpool during the Blitz. ‘This was supposed to be an antidote to him doing commercial releases or songs with record company pressure,’ comments Youth. ‘It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to imagine how much of a box being Paul McCartney could be, and the idea of wanting to do things outside of that box, with no previous association, anonymously, can be very attractive.’ There was no reference to Youth in the plain packaging of the CD, no clue who had made the music apart from the fact the album was copyright Juggler Records, Inc., a subsidiary of MPL Communications. Paul’s involvement became public only gradually. The album, comprising repetitive music without tunes or lyrics, the spacey voices fading in and out of an electronic sea of sound, was never going to command a big audience or make much money. ‘It is a dance record, but it’s also ambient, and it’s a little esoteric [with elements of] electronica,’ explains Youth. ‘But it’s also none of those things, cos it’s stuff he’s all played, and it’s all originally recorded and that makes it different.’
While Youth continued to work on the Fireman album, Paul embarked on his New World Tour, so named because he was visiting Australia and New Zealand, places he’d missed in 1989-91, as well as playing shows in Europe and North America. Having learned how well a Beatles-loaded show went down with modern audiences, Paul drew up a set list that was 50 per cent Beatles material, a slightly different selection than last time, opening with the perky ‘Drive My Car’, which got the crowd on its feet, incorporating ‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Penny Lane’ in the main set, along with songs from Wings and his solo career, including several selections from Off the Ground. As in 1989-91, playing Beatles songs with Paul on stage was a thrill for the band members who, in common with their audiences, had grown up with this music. ‘In the ’93 tour we did “Fixing a Hole” and that was always one of my favourite Beatles songs,’ says Robbie McIntosh. ‘Me and Hamish used to play the solo together to make it sound like the record, because it’s doubled on the record.’
One element of the New World Tour was to raise funds for LIPA and, just when he was starting to feel under enormous pressure to find sponsors, Mark Featherstone-Witty got lucky with Grundig. The German electronics company offered LIPA £2 million over five years ($3.06m) for ‘title sponsorship’, which meant the Grundig name would have to be used over LIPA on its literature. Featherstone-Witty’s excitement at the deal was quelled when Paul told him he didn’t want to endorse Grundig. He’d always rejected offers to advertise products, personally or with his songs, thinking it cheap, which was why he was so angry that Michael Jackson had licensed Beatles songs to advertise cookies and sneakers in the United States. In particular, Paul disliked the idea that Grundig would have its name over the institute. ‘I remember him saying, “I’m not having that. I don’t have my name on it, I don’t see why their name should be on it. You’ve got to find another way, it’s all too commercial.”’
Although Paul didn’t like endorsing products, it had become commonplace to have a corporate sponsor offset some of the costs of a rock tour, as Visa had in 1990. For this tour MPL had lined up a similar agreement with Volkswagen. It was all but signed when Linda scuppered this deal, too, saying the McCartneys couldn’t associate themselves with the car industry for ecological reasons. This left Richard Ogden scratching around for an eleventh-hour replacement sponsor Linda would approve of. ‘The story-boards had been done, everything had been done. You can imagine the cost,’ recalls Featherstone-Witty, who benefited indirectly when MPL remembered that another German firm wanted to link its name with Paul’s. ‘Ah, Grundig! They seem all right, it’s a tape recorder, no pollutants. Let’s do Grundig! And all of a sudden Grundig were good news …’ With Grundig now able to associate its name directly with Paul, a deal was struck whereby the company paid MPL to be the tour sponsor, which he accepted as part of how a modern tour was organised, as well as giving a smaller donation to LIPA, without having its name too prominently on the institute, the agreement formalised backstage at the Frankfurt Festhalle on 23 February 1993. Mark signed with an executive from Grundig, then waited with him outside Paul’s dressing room, shuffled fractionally closer to the presence by Paul’s minders as show time approached. With moments remaining, Paul emerged, shook hands quickly with the man whose company was giving him so much cash, posed for a thumbs-up photo, and went on stage.
When Paul reached Australia, his tour changed from an arena to a stadium concert, with the visuals and effects correspondingly enlarged. This included the huge montage screens on which a disturbing animal rights film was shown to audiences before the gig; also the pyrotechnics during ‘Live and Let Die’. Not everything worked properly at first. Says Hamish Stuart:
The most difficult time, I think, was when we hit Australia, because we were up-scaling the production at that point and there were a lot of visuals that were a little out of sync at the beginning of that and Paul got a little upset … But it all got sorted out. It was part of getting it right. Musically, there [was] never a problem.
There were other irritants, though. Paul had agreed that a special LIPA ticket could be sold at the concerts. Costing the equivalent of $1,000 US, this was a very expensive seat, and many fans who dug deep for the money assumed that a backstage meeting with Paul was included. Though this was never explicitly promised, McCartney did meet some LIPA ticketholders in Australia. When LIPA tickets were subsequently sold in the USA, promoters gave enquirers the impression they definitely would meet the star. When this didn’t automatically happen, ticketholders became angry, infuriated when they saw Paul on television meeting other, ordinary concert-goers as the whim took him. When Paul looked out from the stage during his set, he routinely saw banners declaring ‘WE LOVE YOU PAUL’ and so forth. Now there was a banner complaining about a ‘$1,000 LIPA SCAM’. One American fan wrote to Mark Featherstone-Witty in bitter complaint, explaining that she was part of a hardcore group who had supported Paul throughout his career, even when his records weren’t first rate. ‘Who do you think is buying Off the Ground?’ she asked pointedly, as if doing so was an act of charity. ‘It isn’t selling, but everyone who had a LIPA ticket knew all the words to all the songs.’
Even worse, not enough LIPA tickets were sold in America, part of a wider problem of selling out the North American shows. Following the tremendous success of the 1989 -91 US tour, when Paul had been backed by Visa’s television campaign, the New World Tour had been planned and budgeted on selling out the same vast venues, the likes of the Houston Astrodome and Giants Stadium. But there was no national TV campaign in 1993, and there were no takers for the last few blocks of seats in towns like Boulder and Toronto. These empty seats often meant the difference between profit and loss. While his motivation wasn’t purely financial, Paul didn’t want to work for peanuts (as he sang every night in ‘Drive My Car’). He blamed Richard Ogden, and Ogden resigned accordingly from MPL. Looking back on his six years managing the star, Ogden concludes that Paul
wanted to be successful. He wanted to be the toppermost of the poppermost. The Beatles thing. He wanted to be number one. He never lost that desire. Lost maybe the understanding of how to get that sometimes, but was prepared to listen to someone who could tell him, ‘Hey, let’s do this!’ ‘Oh, that seems like a good idea, man, let’s do that.’ … I had a wonderful time managing him.
He also discovered that if you made a mistake with Paul you were up shit creek.
To balance the books, Paul extended the tour into the winter of 1993. ‘Not that I need the money, but I still feel that if we bother to get out there then, like everyday working people, we’ll see some sort of reward.’ When Mark Featherstone-Witty came to visit Paul in Oslo in September, he found the musician in a lousy mood. Standing together at the backstage bar, Paul started berating the man from LIPA, demanding that he perform some Shakespeare on the spot to prove he’d been an actor as he claimed. ‘Come on, man, you say you were an actor, do something now.’ When Mark failed to rise to the challenge, Paul told him brusquely to go away. Mark was still with the tour the following week when Paul played Frankfurt again, just seven months after he’d last performed in the city, a testament to the size of his German fan base. Paul was still in a contrary mood, insisting that the Grundig sponsorship banners were hung in the Festhalle in such a way that he wouldn’t see them from the stage, apparently never having reconciled himself to the sponsorship deal, and summoning Mark to his dressing room before the show to give him a lecture.
From the start, Paul’s interest in the Liverpool Institute had been more to do with saving his old school than founding an educational establishment, with underlying doubts about the validity of teaching show business. On a recent trip to Liverpool Paul had met the band the Christians, a member of which asked McCartney why he was putting money into teaching middle-class kids what musicians from working-class backgrounds, like himself, had picked up by experience. Paul brooded on this conversation, venting his concerns in Frankfurt. ‘He was very angry,’ says Featherstone-Witty, who discovered that his Lead Patron was also contemptuous of some of the proposed LIPA courses, one of which, titled ‘Image and Style’, ‘infuriated and worried him’ because he thought it trivial. Unless Mark did better, Paul warned he might withdraw his support altogether.
Mark stumbled from Paul’s dressing room at the end of this harangue not knowing what to do. ‘I was so shaken that, putting my hand out to steady myself on the wall outside the dressing room door, I mistakenly placed it on Mary McCartney … who was standing outside waiting to go in,’ he wrote in his memoir Optimistic, Even Then. To his horror, Mark realised that his hand was on Mary McCartney’s breasts. ‘Aghast at the ramifications, I sprang back, white with apology.’
So the tour rolled on, Paul releasing a spin-off live LP, Paul is Live, that seemed redundant only three years after Tripping the Live Fantastic. On this new live album, ‘Let Me Roll It’ held its own especially well beside the Beatles material, while Paul showed his sense of humour by including a sound-check version of ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ sung in the style of Mick Jagger, whose career the song kick-started. The album got most attention for its cover, which saw Paul posing with one of his Old English sheepdogs on the Abbey Road crossing, the artwork and album title a riposte to the Sixties rumour that Paul was dead and a double had taken his place on the original Abbey Road sleeve.
That summer Paul’s school friend Ivan Vaughan died of heart failure aged 51. Although the news was not unexpected, in that Ivy had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years, the death of a contemporary always comes as a shock. ‘They had the same birthday. They’d known each other from school. They’d gone their different ways, but they had a lot of respect for each other,’ says Ivy’s widow Janet, who received a copy of a poem Paul wrote in response to his friend’s death. In ‘Ivan’ Paul describes how two doors opened in Liverpool on 18 June 1942 when he and Ivy were born; how they went on to become mates, playing music together, Ivy being ‘the ace on the bass’; before Ivan introduced him to a couple of other pals, a reference to the fact that Ivan had taken Paul along to the Woolton fête where John Lennon was playing with the Quarry Men. Now:
A tear is rolling
Down my eye
On the sixteenth of August
One door closed
The Cranlock rhyme is attractive and intriguing. ‘It was like a sort of jingle that they often used to say when they were together,’ explains Janet Vaughan. ‘I mean, it’s nonsense speak, but it’s something that was very familiar to them … I recognised it immediately [in the poem] as a familiar thing that they said to each other … If they were having a conversation, occasionally they would say it, and then burst out laughing. Haha! … It’s a lovely poem.’ There is indeed a simple, charming warmth to ‘Ivan’, a fitting and evidently heartfelt lament for a long and largely private friendship that had continued in the background of Paul’s public life.
Ivan’s death was followed by a scare closer to home on 13 September 1993, Stella McCartney’s 22nd birthday. Stella, studying in London for a career in fashion design, was home in Sussex with the family when the McCartneys received news that James, who’d celebrated his 16th birthday the previous day, had gone missing surfing off Camber Sands. A lifeboat was launched and an RAF helicopter sent up as Paul drove to the scene. ‘It’s a three-mile drive and all sorts of thoughts were going through my head,’ Paul later said. Fortunately, James was found alive and well, though it wouldn’t be the last time he frightened his parents.
In November Paul took his band to Japan, then South America, by which time everybody was road-weary. Playing with Paul had been a joy for his musicians, and the New World Tour had been brightened by the introduction of an acoustic set, yet the main show was the same every night, with Paul sticking to faithful recreations of the Beatles songs as heard on record. While this is initially thrilling, such rigid renditions become dull with repetition, for audience and band, pointing out the wisdom of Bob Dylan’s policy of remaking his songs constantly, even if audiences complain that the songs don’t sound like the records. Dylan says this doesn’t matter. The recording is just how the song sounded that particular day. Good songs can stand being altered. This was not Paul’s way. He presented his and the Beatles’ greatest hits like museum pieces, even making the same comments from the stage, such as encouraging his audience to sing along to ‘Hey Jude’, which they did eagerly and loudly every single night, first the girls, then the boys, the left side of the stadium, then the right, harmonising on the na na na na-na-na nas, an apparently delighted Paul complimenting everybody for singing so sweetly as though he’d never had this reaction before. As Hamish says, ‘When he knows that something works he sticks to it, which is true of [other artists]. It’s mainly a different audience every night, so I think you can get away with it.’
By the time they reached Santiago, Chile, for the final show, it was, in Hamish’s words, ‘a little tired’. They had played to 1.7 million people on five continents, with Paul transforming what looked like a loss-making tour into an earner. MPL turned over £14 million in the 12 months to December 1993 ($21.42m), squeezing a profit of £2.6 million on the year ($3.97m). Paul then said goodbye to his band, whom he’d been working with for almost six years, explaining that he was committed to a major new project that would keep him at home in 1994. ‘I’m off to be a Beatle now,’ he said.