As the man who penned When I’m 64, it probably goes without saying that Sir Paul McCartney felt a twinge of trepidation as June 18, 2006 finally approached. The way McCartney tells it, the plan was to pay little attention to it, perhaps avoid going out of his way to hear his most vaudeville contribution to Sgt Pepper. But that very morning, he was greeted at his house by a delegation of younger McCartneys. “My kids did a version for me,” he exclaims in the kitchen of his Sussex recording studio, “I even had the baby doing it.” By way of illustration, McCartney lets forth a high-pitched imitation of Beatrice Milly McCartney singing When I’m 64 with atonal gusto. A prurient enquiry springs to mind at this point. You wonder if Heather was there, singing along with the Maccas, all the better to imagine the atmosphere on that mildly mythical morning. But you weigh up the risks of upsetting a Beatle and you let it pass.
By the time he reached a pensionable 65, this year, he turned into another one of his songs. Here, there and everywhere. No doubt, some of the attention was unwelcome. When red-top headlines weren’t trumpeting the latest instalment of his divorce, they were shining a light on his ensuing liaisons – a weekend apparently spent with Hamptons socialite Nancy Shevell, and his ensuing alleged relationship with Rosanna Arquette.
But even setting that aside, it was a period of productivity unprecedented since the days when he had three other Beatles beside him to share the burden. Fresh from winning a Classical Brit for Ecce Cor Meum, his memorial piece to Linda McCartney, he severed his 45 year relationship with EMI to venture uncharted territory – striking a deal for the release of his 14th solo album Memory Almost Full, not with a conventional record label, but with Starbucks’ music division Hear Music. The Linda years also seemed to loom large in much of Memory Almost Full – not just on Wings-style rockers like Only Mama Knows, but across a succession of confessional, contemplative tunes. Writing about his happiest years as though part of some increasingly intangible dream, he delivered You Tell Me and That Was Me.
With a renewed pride in his work that hasn’t always been apparent over the years, he set about promoting Memory Almost Full with some of his most intimate shows since 1972, when he blooded Wings with a low-key tour of student union halls: the Electric Ballroom and the ICA over here, and, in the States, the Hollywood branch of indie record store Amoeba. During a 50 minute conversation, there is one word he uses more than any other. If, as GQ recently declared, Paul McCartney is the man of the year – then “exciting” was his word of the year. And if something wasn’t exciting, Macca didn’t want to know about it.
It seems that excitement, or rather, the lack of it, struck the death-knell for what was already becoming a strained relationship with his old label. “Everybody at EMI had become a part of the furniture. I’d be a couch. Coldplay are an armchair. And Robbie Williams, I dread to think what he was,” he begins, “But the most important thing was [that] I’d felt [the people at EMI] had become really become very boring as people, y’know? And I dreaded going to see them.” Boring in what way? “Well, only because I could guess what they were going to say – ‘Love your record, Paul’ – and I’d say, ‘Well, what should we do with it?’ Then they’d go, ‘Well, we think you ought to go to Cologne’… which is what they always say. This idea became symbolic of the treadmill, you know? You go somewhere, speak to a million journalists for one day, and you get all the same questions. It’s just mind-numbing. So I started saying, ‘God, we’ve got to do something else.’”
Had his American producer David Kahne not been on hand to hear these grievances, then McCartney may never have got as far as working out what that “something else” was. Unluckily for EMI though, Kahne had friends at Hear Music. By the time McCartney got around to telling EMI the bad news, the deal was as good as done. Someone at the coffee chain told him that 400 Starbucks in China would be stocking the CD. He liked the idea almost as much as the fact that no-one had, at any point, mentioned Cologne. The clincher, though, was the meeting he had with assorted Starbucks executives, in which Memory Almost Full was played back in its entirety. “You Tell Me came on and one of the team started crying. It was weird. I thought, ‘Oh, this is real feedback.”
Not much crying at EMI then, lately? “Well, there is. But for other reasons,” says McCartney. It might be argued that, for an industry monolith like EMI – now owned by private equity firm Terra Firma – losing Paul McCartney in one year is unlucky. That the label went on to lose Radiohead – because in the words of guitarist Ed O’Brien, “Terra Firma doesn’t understand the music industry” – starts to look like recklessness. Though Thom Yorke may bristle at the idea of jumping ship to Naomi Klein’s least favourite coffee conglomerate, one thing he and McCartney have in common is their enthusiasm for new, faster ways of putting out music. And the news is that, actually… they’re strangely reminiscent of the old ways. Paying “something reasonable” for the album, McCartney was one of millions who downloaded Radiohead’s In Rainbows on the week it appeared. “This was how we used to operate,” he says, “I remember John [Lennon] for instance, writing Instant Karma and demanding it was released the following week.”
“[With EMI, at the end] I’d started saying to them, ‘Look, we could write a thing and have it released the next week.’ And they would say, ‘Well you can’t do that these days.’ So I would say, ‘Well, how much time do you need?’ And they’d say six months… So I said, ‘Why do you need that long?’ And do you know what they said? ‘To figure out how to market it’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you sure you need six months for that? Couldn’t some bright people do that in two days?’ Jesus Christ. I said, ‘Look boys, I’m sorry. I’m digging a new furrow.” And a fertile one at that. This year he bought the domain name www.meyesight.com (a pun on Myspace but pronounced so it rhymes with ‘eyesight’) as a platform for any poems, paintings or music he may feel a pressing urge to post up straight away. Far from making him retreat behind locked doors, the fallout from his divorce from Heather Mills has thrown him not just into work but into a whirl of social engagements. At the Q Awards in September, he got talking to Damon Albarn and congratulated him over the success of his Africa Express five hour “super-jam” at Glastonbury: “He had asked me to take part in it actually. I couldn’t do it because [of] my personal difficulties. I was actually looking after my daughter and I couldn’t really schlep her down and do that. But I think they’re gonna do another one, so I might get involved next year.”
The way his 2008 is shaping up, McCartney might find it no less of a struggle to fit the next one. In February he picks up a Outstanding Contribution To Music Award at the Brits. Between then and a string of stadium dates in the summer, he goes into the studio to assist his famously shy son James on an album of original songs by McCartney Jnr. This afternoon, the 65 year-old seems most animated about his almost completed guitar concerto and a new album with The Fireman – his ambient collaboration with former Killing Joke bassist Youth. While he’s under no illusions about the place these projects will have in the mainstream, you suspect that much of his current swagger stems from the reception accorded to Memory Almost Full. It didn’t go unmentioned in several quarters that, these days, McCartney seems to take just as much inspiration from his time in Wings as his time in The Beatles. No accident, this. The Beatles don’t need anyone to stick up for them. But the same can’t be said band formed by Paul and Linda in the hangover of the decade which The Beatles helped to define. Hence, then, the release of a triple DVD which spans every video that McCartney made with and beyond Wings. When talk turns to the subject of Wings, McCartney relays a favourite story concerning an encounter with Bruce Springsteen. “We were at the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame and we got talking. He said, ‘You know what? I rather like Silly Love Songs. I really didn’t get it at first, but now I’ve got a wife and kids I sort of get what you meant.”
It isn’t difficult to work out the subtext of this story. Having spent the 60s like you would expect a Beatle to spend the 60s – seeing Jane Asher, enjoying amphetamine-fuelled evenings with his arty mates at the Indica Gallery, being a Beatle – he changed with the new decade. And many of his contemporaries resented him for it, little realising that the changes he underwent would befall them too. Family. Kids. Mellow times. “Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs/And what’s wrong with that?”
It’s a question that becomes easier to understand with the passing of time. The older you get, the more you realize that songs are appropriate to certain situations. Helter Skelter is a great song, but when are you ever going to find an appropriate Sunday afternoon to play it in the house? McCartney seems amused by the notion: “Hahah! Well, it depends on your family, I suppose.”
Does he ever get bored of being portrayed as easy-going, thumbs-aloft Macca? I suggest that much of his glass-half-full persona must have been manufactured as a method for coping with his extraordinary fame. He bristles slightly at the word ‘manufactured’. In fact, he says, it was probably a mechanism that activated itself during a childhood which was overshadowed by the death of his mother. “If you knew anyone I went to school with, it was the same, you know. I was pretty optimistic.”
Besides, even happy songs have a way of turning sad as the years go by. Penny Lane pauses the videotape of memory on a moment to which its author knows he can never return. Even When I’m 64 carries a poignancy which he couldn’t have foreseen when he wrote it. “You know, I don’t think that’s unusual,” he says, “I think you’re getting to the philosophical core of things when you say that. I think things that are happy are also contain the seed of sadness.” By way of illustration, he pretends to be a brass band playing I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside. Images of Victorian ghosts in stripy bathing costumes suddenly abound. “See what I mean? One day, when we discover the meaning of life, that will somehow be contained within it. That happy is sad and sad is happy.”
At the risk of sounding like an enterprising Starbucks executive with a chopped onion secreted in his handkerchief, I tell Paul that the home movies on The McCartney Years movingly underscore the point – in particular the Super 8 footage of the McCartneys revelling in new-found anonymity at their Scottish farm retreat. After almost ten years of Beatlemania, it must have been incredible to raise children who had yet to rumble who exactly their dad was. “Exactly,” he says, “And, you know, there was one moment where they were riding on their little ponies in Scotland and Stella, who was the littler of the two, said to me, ‘Dad! You’re Paul McCartney, aren’t you?!’ ‘Yes darling, but I’m daddy, really.’”
Were any reminder needed that he’s still daddy, he has to leave his studio in a few minutes to pick up four year-old Beatrice from school. While Heather Mills wages war on the tabloids, he’s due to have Beatrice for the rest of the day. Maybe later, they’ll do some Christmas shopping – a ritual with which he is quite hands-on. “I like to do that myself, you know?” In terms of getting the kids excited, I tell him I can recommend the Argos catalogue. It’s got nearly 2000 pages.
“I don’t get the Argos,” he says, with the mock air of a man who might – now that the idea has occurred to him. “But I do have others. There are catalogues that are even better than Argos. Believe you me.”