In an exclusive interview, Sir Paul McCartney discusses his classic solo LP in conversation with the Manic Street Preachers’ frontman.
Back when Manic Street Preachers supported Sir Paul McCartney at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in 2010, James Dean Bradfield went up to the Beatle and “made a complete arse” of himself. He told McCartney he had bought a copy of his solo album ‘Pipes of Peace’ from the Record Club mail-order service the year it came out, in 1983, and that he wished he had brought it with him to be autographed. McCartney responded with raised eyebrows, and a fairly to the point “you taking the piss, lad?”
Now, five years on from that fateful first exchange, Paul McCartney is re-issuing James Dean Bradfield’s favourite album as part of his on-going archive series, and naturally the Manics frontman was first in line to chat to McCartney about his experiences working on the now-iconic solo record. Arriving in the aftermath of Beatlemania, and shortly after McCartney disbanded his band Wings to focus on his own material, it’s also fair to say that ‘Pipes of Peace’ didn’t originally blow critics away in quite the same way as ‘Tug of War’; the troubled, violent, and openly political McCartney solo record that came before it. Answering all of that previous anger in the only way he saw fit, Paul McCartney responded to ‘Tug of War’ by doing the opposite; celebrating peace and love. Since its release in 1983, ‘Pipes of Peace’ has gradually evolved from a collection of ‘Tug of War’ outtakes, into a classic in its own right.
As well as delving into Paul McCartney’s songwriting process, his post-Beatles mindset, and his experiences writing together with a then pre-‘Thriller’ Michael Jackson on ‘Say Say Say,’ during this exclusive interview, James Dean Bradfield also, finally, managed to get his copy of ‘Pipes of Peace’ signed.
James Dean Bradfield: I bought ‘Pipes of Peace’ when I was 14, and by then I was already obsessed with music, and melody. I won’t talk about me for the rest of the interview - I’m just giving you a frame of reference! I was obviously the runt of the litter, I was very short, with big National Health specs, and the only thing that was medicine for my soul was melody.
I suppose what I’m trying to ask you is this; there are so many songs on the first side of ‘Pipes of Peace’ that seem to deal with darkness, the whole record seems to be dealing with emotionally fragile and vulnerable issues. Did it feel like a fraught personal time for you? The first side of that record feels like it, lyrically.
Paul McCartney: I never know what I’m going to write about, so I think there is a psychological aspect; just what mood you’re in. Early on, when we started writing, we used to say, it’s like a psychiatrist - you know, you talk into your guitar, you’re telling your problems to your guitar, and it comes out as a song. Sometimes it gets disguised along the way, with melody, or some optimism along with the pessimism. To tell you the truth, though, I never think about it now. It’s sort of just the mood I’m in that day. [With ‘Tug of War’ track,] ‘The Pound Is Sinking’ - god, I’ve just read that there’s a recession or something. I’d start with a joke, “the pound is sinking/ the peso’s failing,” you know, whatever. I don’t actually start by thinking, ok, this is going to address a dark mood or subject. I find myself just putting what’s in me into the song. Often, sometimes, I don’t know what I’ve written.
JDB: And you don’t even dare call it a sub-conscious reaction?
PM: It probably is. What happens is, then, people will listen to a song, and they’ll tell me what they got from it. That’s often when I find out! I will have done it very spontaneously, following whatever the words seem to be suggesting, or what my mood is, what the melody feels like, where to go. The end result isn’t something I’ve thought of before.
I mean, I wrote the song ‘Yesterday,’ and years later someone said to me, that’s probably about your mum dying ten years before. “Why she had to go/ I don’t know she didn’t say.” I never thought that, but now, I think, it might be. All this psychological stuff finds its way into your songs. Because I don’t think them out too much, I let them just fall out, sometimes this stuff is in there without me knowing.
JDB: There’s another song on the first side called ‘The Other Me’ which is an apology for making a mistake, for being you - the dark, negative version of yourself. The time I got into this record, aged 14, I had a lot of confidence issues. I was bullied and everything, and of course, I latched onto this record; melody was like medicine.
Whether it was Electric Light Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, or Motown stuff, and then you - especially Wings stuff - it was like a balm for my soul from 9 to 14. That first side of ‘Pipes of Peace,’ it was comforting for me. You know that you come with a very loaded image when people meet you. It was very soothing for me to know that someone who achieved so much was actually being so open and vulnerable. How does that make you feel, that somebody reads it like that?
PM: I like that. I like that someone sees that, because that’s the truth about me. When you’re successful - I mean, especially Beatles success - everyone assumes you just have a great life, you’re totally confident about everything you do, the success must make you like that. At the end of the day, though, you’re still a guy, with daily problems.
JDB: What I was trying to angle at, is - compared to other records - the first side of [‘Pipes of Peace’] seems to be working through something. I was thinking, this guy’s really thinking his way through life; he’s still vulnerable.
PM: I’m glad. You throw your baby out, and people make something of it. I just thought recently, at a concert for 40,000 people, every single one of them’s got a different perception of this show. I used to think, make a record, do a concert, everyone thinks pretty much the same thing. They like that song, they’ll clap along. But they’re not, they’re all going, “oh, that line!” or “when I was 9 I remember thinking this.” I really like that about human experience, and the experience of being a writer. Whatever I do, someone’s going to see it their own way.
JDB: By this age [when I’d picked up ‘Pipes of Peace’] I was thinking of buying my first guitar, etcetera, and I was so desperate to write melodies, actually; I didn’t even care about songs at that point. I think the first thing I hooked upon was this; I was trying to understand in my head if you and Michael Jackson actually wrote together, face to face, on ‘Say Say Say’ and ‘The Man’. How did you actually write those songs?
PM: It was actually upstairs, here. In this office. Michael originally rang me, and said ‘do you want to make some hits?’ I didn’t know who it was, I didn’t recognise his voice at first, but I dug into it, and then I said ‘yeah, sure.’ He came along, we agreed to meet in here, at the piano upstairs. We just sat around with a guitar, at the piano, and we just sort of went ‘what shall we do?’. We just started, and it came very easily. I was quite excited to write with him, he was excited to write with me, so we were just popping off each other. We just did it, it was a very short session, and we were in the same room.
JDB: I’m surprised. I thought it was going to be a correspondence thing.
PM: No, no, it was live. Michael and I just wrote the lyrics down, and said, that’s it.
JDB: This [‘Pipes of Peace’] is my gateway into you as solo artist. I loved [title-track] ‘Pipes of Peace’ and ‘Say Say Say,’ so I bought the record. What surprised me was this. The session players, apart from yourself, would be thinking, ‘Paul McCartney’s making a record’. In the studio control room, he’s going to be a very dominant force. But what’s really encouraging is, in the record, I can hear that you’re open to collaborators. On songs like ‘Hey Hey’ and ‘Tug of Peace’ you can hear Steve Gadd’s drum chops - jazz-fusion rock chops - and Stanley Clarke’s chops coming through. On ‘Hey Hey’ I can almost hear an echo of [long-time Beatles collaborator, and ‘Pipes of Peace’ producer] George Martin’s production work with Jeff Beck on ‘Blow by Blow’. And [former 10cc member] Eric Stewart, as a guitarist, he’s got that rock n’ roll playfulness to him. It’s remarkable to see that you will take cue from them.
PM: I think people assume that when I’m making a record with someone, that I’m going to have all the pre-formed ideas. Sometimes I do, but if I’m going to collaborate with someone like Stevie Wonder - and for instance, Stevie sort of just says he’s going to play drums - I’m not going to say no. So I say, ok. If it turns out he’s a terrible drummer, then I’ll have to work out a way to tell him, eh, Stevie, look...
JDB: I love his drumming, it’s so four on the floor.
PM: Stevie’s a great drummer. Similarly with Stanley [Clarke], he’s a great bass player - no point having him unless I use his style. Same with Steve Gadd, this great distinctive style. And you can identify the tracks that Steve played, as opposed to the tracks that Ringo [Starr] played, yet it meshes together. Steve started off as a military drummer, and you can kind of see that, once you know. He’s got a military precision, and he does all the [makes drum roll noise] all that stuff. His style, and the way he sets up his kit - a low, to the ground kit - he’s very individual. Working with him, I didn’t know what to expect, too much. I’d heard these people, and I just knew I liked their work. So, we were in the studio together, and I said, here’s the song, let’s sit down, start it off, and see what we come up with. They’ve got free reign, and George Martin’s there to oversee it.
JDB: I love what George Martin did with Jeff Beck, and I can hear him imposing just a bit of his style upon it. It still sounds like you, but you can hear the experience coming through.
PM: That’s something I like. If you’re going to work with people, I like to not close them down. I like to open them up. In The Beatles, the way that we worked was, if it was my song, I was kind of the boss. If it was George [Harrison’s] song, he was the boss, John [Lennon’s] song, he was the boss...
JDB: I think that’s why people make the assumption. Because obviously there are so many stories about how you’d build a track up from the bottom if Ringo wasn’t in the studio. It does feel open though, but you’re still in control.
PM: Yeah, these were pretty live, these tracks.
JDB: There’s a beautifully placed and well-chosen quote [“I light a candle to our love, in love our problems disappear,” in the introduction to opening track ‘Pipes of Peace’] from you, referencing [Indian poet] Rabindranath Tagore. Obviously, he wrote some amazing poems, and there’s always an edge of reconciliation; he always talked about love. I just thought that the quote on the record actually seems like it informed the lyrics of ‘Through Our Love,’ too. That is unbelievable, it’s like conducting open heart surgery with feathers instead of scalpels. Is it hard to write like that when you have no bounds of cynicism? It’s so open, it becomes an easy target in itself, the lyric. Do you know what I mean?
PM: My stuff is an easy target. I always have to make a decision - am I going to try to be clever, or am I just going to write from my heart? I nearly always make the decision to write from the heart, because a lot of the music I like is from the heart. I figured, in the end, when you’re done with all the cynicism, people go back to loving each other. You can have all the cleverness in the world, but people go home at night. If they’re married, they go home to their wife, they go home to their kids. I think that’s a very central point. I’m not shy to write about it. As you say, I’d been reading a lot of Tagore, and there’s a line, “I light a candle to our love,” - something similar to that - and I’ve never been able to find the quote. I talk to people about this, and they say, oh I’ll look it up’. They get back to me and they can’t find it.
JDB: There’s a Rabindranath Tagore poem, ‘My Country Awake,’ that the actor Martin Sheen quotes, and it’s obviously talking about his country and what it can be. It’s a beautiful poem. I actually feel shy about saying go and look it up, but you actually should.
PM: You know, it’s one of those things. You have a choice between being clever stroke cynical - which is a great option, and I like people who write like that - or, just being more what I see as me. Writing about my feelings from the heart. Writing with John [Lennon] that was always a good thing because we balanced each other. I would write “it’s getting better all the time,” and he would say “it couldn’t get no worse” [on ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club’ track ‘Getting Better’]. We had that balance. On my own, I do tend to just blurt out things I feel about love. It can be a bit of an easy target, I feel. People go, love, schmuve, you know?
JDB: It works amazingly, though, on ‘Through Our Love’. It really does.
PM: I’m always glad, particularly listening to them years later, thinking, I’m glad I stuck to it. I’m glad I did that, cos it works, it feels relevant.
JDB: You talked recently about rehabilitating the reputation of George Martin. Does it feel like serendipity that you started working with him again at this point, on songs like ‘Through Our Love’?
PM: It’s always good to work with George, but it was really good on this album to get back together again.
JDB: It almost sounds like he’s there telling you, don’t be scared to be you. Sometimes, it’s very reminiscent of The Beatles...
PM: At the end of The Beatles, it was all a bit sticky. George got a bit sidelined. I think John said a few things about him he didn’t mean, and I remember John saying ‘I didn’t mean that, I was just mouthing off’. But it got out in print, that George Martin was maybe not as good as he had cracked up to be. We all knew he was. When I got back together with him it was just a delight, to see the old mate who I thought was so clever, and so skilled, and the great personality to have in the room. If you’re making a song, and you want the decision, I did - I don’t know what, countless vocals - and he’d go ‘this is good’. That was it.
JDB: That’s one of my other questions - it’s an amazing vocal performance on the entire record, but did it shock you, texturally, how close your voice was to Jacko’s voice. Did you have problems trying to separate them?
PM: Yeah, and on the new mix, you can’t tell, I think. When we were writing it, we were in this [launches into Michael Jackson impression] “oooh, yeah,” thing, that’s kind of how he sings anyway. I was just going along with that, I didn’t want to suddenly go [adopts deep, operatic voice] “say, say, say” while he’s doing this little voice. So I like doing that little voice as well, and we were very similar. I must agree, on the new mix we’re going to have to say “Michael, Paul, Michael.” Once you know, you know, but it’s very similar. Our voices match very well, that’s one of the great things about working with him.
JDB: How do you feel about the critical reaction to ‘Pipes of Peace’?
PM: Do you know, I don’t remember what it was. From the way you’re saying it, it doesn’t sound good.
JDB: No, but at the time, in my head, I was getting ready to be a musician. I remember thinking, jesus, these guys..
PM: I think a lot of what happened, post-Beatles, is that The Beatles had so much success - recognised success - that anything any of us did post-Beatles, wasn’t the same, wasn’t as good. We felt that keenly. It was like, ahh, we’re never going to get a good review round here, no matter how much you sell, no matter how many fan letters you get. Round about that time, I just stopped reading them. You just think, I’ll do my best, I’ll sing it as good as I can, make the best record I can, and once it flies away like a little bird out of a cage, I’m not going to monitor its flight. To answer your question, I hate it.
JDB: I remember thinking, if that guy can still be a fan of music, it really does show - if he hasn’t been encumbered by the arrogance of his success, that’s my bag. I’ve been reading a lot into this record!
PM: You were, when you were 14. But listen, man, that reminds me of listening to Elvis when I was 14, it was a great time to listen to music.
JDB: Can I ask you a silly question at the end? This is more for me than anyone else. I’m a gigantic fan of Badfinger, so you know what I’m going to ask. You obviously wrote ‘Come And Get It’ for them, and you played a lot of the song, let’s face facts here. Did you feel that they were going to get confidence, after you gave them that initial step up?
PM: Yeah, we’d just started Apple Records, and we’d signed them. They were great guys, Pete Ham and Joey and some of the other boys, we hung out, and listened to some of the stuff they were writing. I thought, this is really good, but to get them introduced, they’re going to need a big hit - particularly in America. It’s a difficult place to break. I was in bed one night, twilighty thinking - you know, if you’re a musician it’s always going round in your head. I just got this whole idea of ‘Come And Get It’. I ran downstairs, quietly, so as not to disturb anyone, and started doing this little thing, and did it. The next day we had a Beatles session. It was right round the corner from Abbey Road, where I lived. I knew everyone was coming in at, whatever it was, 2 o’clock, so I’d gone in at half 1, because I knew the engineer would be in, Phil McDonald. Phil was there, and I did one demo. Stuck everything on, sang it, did the harmonies, finished it, The Beatles came in, and that was it, thank you. So then I played this to the guys, and they said, ok, we’ll vary this, we’ll change that, and I said no. I really don’t want you to. Listen, one track, you’ve got to do exactly the way I laid it down. The rest of the album, b-sides, everything, you do what you like.
JDB: This is your foot in the door, sort of thing?
PM: This is the thing. So they were cool, they did it, and they played it exactly.
JDB: I read, I think, that they took it later, with a bit more grace, than they did initially. And Badfinger had an amazing songwriter in Pete Ham, too.
PM: Yeah, such a tragedy, old Pete. To write ‘Without You’ and nobody knew. To this day. Everyone thinks Harry Nilsson wrote it.
JDB: Well, that’s me done. Sorry I yabbered on a bit.
PM: It’s alright. You’re Welsh.