For Whom The Bell Tells: A Year In The Life…
2016 has been the year of many things, lots of them not particularly positive. But one thing that has spread joy and brought a smile to people’s faces – and in fact continues to spread joy and bring a smile to people’s faces – has been the mannequin challenge. A viral video craze that follows in the footsteps of Planking from 2011 and the Ice Bucket Challenge from 2014, it has seen everyone from Michelle Obama to James Corden to Beyoncé freezing themselves for the camera, while Rae Sremmurd’s ‘Black Beatles’ plays in the background.
But ask the co-creator of said track – rapper Swae Lee – which participant in the craze that helped make his and his brother’s song a huge global hit most blew his mind, and his answer is instantaneous.
“McCartney, of course!” he says.
“When you've reached a real Beatle,” he told Rolling Stone magazine, shortly after Paul uploaded his clip to Instagram in November, “it’s the ultimate co-sign. It's like dang, respect. And the fact that he said ‘Love those Black Beatles’: it's crazy!”
In fact, though, this was not Rare Stemmurd’s first connection with Paul: they’d had an inspiring meeting years before at Coachella."The first time we went with Mike Will, before we blew up, we met him,” Swae recalled. “And he gave us some uplifting words of wisdom. We were humbled. It was a rock star moment to have this dude telling us that. He didn't even know us, but he was just talking to us. I guess it was our aura or I don't know what it was. He just took the time to speak with us before we even made the song. It was crazy.”
Given ‘Black Beatles’ continued dominance of the airwaves, this uplifting story seemed like a good place to start my latest post. It shows how even when he is not spreading love and thrilling fans the world over with his live shows or records, Macca still somehow manages to be here, there and everywhere.
Another (very different) artist who talked recently about being inspired by Paul was Michael Bublé. Appearing on the BBC’s prestigious Desert Island Discs show a few weeks ago, he picked ‘My Love’ as one of his all-time favourite tracks, and also shared his own memory of meeting him. “I was in Toronto and Sir Paul knew I was there,” he said. “He asked if I’d like to come and say hello, and what a beautiful, funny, reverent, humble man… and when I say cool, I mean, I think if you look up the word ‘swagger’ in the dictionary you should see that man’s picture next to it: it’s just one of my favourite moments of all time, getting to meet him and hang with him."
Back in the present, and as of memories of the holidays start to fade and as I’m preparing for another big year I’m spending time in the office doing some much needed filing, I am once again staggered by what Paul got up to in 2016. As I open various project files (touring, Pure McCartney, etc), I find scribbled post-it notes with details of what seem like endless achievements and accolades (not my own by the way: I mean Paul’s!).
Having played 41 shows across 12 different countries to over 1.2 million people alone this year on his new 'One On One' tour, you might think that Paul deserves to put his feet up this Christmas. But this is without taking into account all his other activities in the last 12 months. He composed and launched his own set of emojis for Skype; he made a series of VR documentaries about some of his landmark compositions; he made a guest appearance in Michael Crawford’s 'Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em' Sport Relief special, and also filmed a cameo in the next ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ film.
There were his Grammy nominations (in rap categories this year – more on his 2017 nominations in a minute), his smashing of the charts with his career retrospective Pure McCartney (he was also named the UK’s most successful album artist of all time) and his Rolling Stone cover interview. He re-signed with Capital Records, wrote and recorded a brand new song 'In The Blink Of An Eye' for the 'Ethel & Ernest' soundtrack, and then there was the small little matter of the universally acclaimed Ron Howard film ‘The Beatles: Eight Days A Week’.
Another extraordinary year I think you’ll agree, containing what would surely be a careers worth of activity for most artists. But then as we all know, Paul is not most artists!
I’ve already written a lot about the 'One On One' tour this year so I won’t dwell on it too long. But suffice to say, as it continued, Paul brought joy with him wherever he went this year – and you never quite knew what surprises might be in store. From set list changes to the special guests who popped up now and again to the audience interaction, no two shows were the same. Launching his all new 'One On One' production in Fresno on the 13th April, the tour took in a variety of venues, from huge stadiums (breaking attendance records in Argentina) and arenas to festival sites and – in a McCartney first – a tipi!
Live song debuts this year included ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Love Me Do’, 'Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ and, returning to the set, The Quarrymen’s ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’: the first ever Beatles original, recorded all the way back in 1958. The set included this and his 2015 global smash with Rihanna and Kanye, ‘FourFiveSeconds’, meaning that the setlist spanned nearly 60 years.
There were incredibly poignant moments: from meeting two of the Little Rock Nine, to a spontaneous live tribute to Prince in Minneapolis, to performing the largest ever concert in Argentina’s Córdoba, to inviting a ten year old girl on stage to play bass in Buenos Aires, to draping himself in a rainbow flag and pledging his support to the people of Orlando on stage in Berlin. Those who have joined Paul onstage in 2016 include Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, New England Patriot’s Rob Gronkowski, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Jimmy Fallon. Plus of course, most recently, there was the mega festival that was the Desert Trip, which saw him team up with both Neil Young and Rihanna. In the same week, in-between and in contrast to these two huge festival appearances, Paul also popped up in the tiny Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace for one of his smallest shows ever.
Watch highlights from Paul's Desert Trip performance below:
So 2016 was a year in which the McCartney live experience only became more legendary. It might seem a weird thing to say, but sometimes it feels as though Paul’s unparalleled live achievements get overshadowed by his back catalogue. Back when he was launching the tour, I was thinking about this, so I asked him how important his live career is in comparison to his recording career.
“The truth is that both of them are very important,” he told me. “You’ve got to have the songs and you’ve got to record them well. So you need to have an audience. But then when you actually get out and play them it’s really the other half of the job, which is very enjoyable and because of the feedback you get from your fans… and also it’s great as a musician playing your instrument with the band. You know, that’s something that’s very invigorating and healthy, I think!"
The live career of The Beatles is something, too, that often gets overshadowed by their recorded legend. This story was something explored brilliantly in Ron Howard’s film, which chronicled their amazing times as a touring band (and even if you’ve seen it, I urge you to get the DVD, which has some incredible extras!).
I have been lucky enough to again witness so many unbelievable moments with Paul this year, but one of the standouts was the launch of ‘Eight Days A Week’ back in September. I knew at the time it was going to be special, so I kept some notes which I’ve just tidied up and am going to share here now with you.
It is a deliciously beautiful hot day. The sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky outside Abbey Road studios on the morning on 14th September. In fact it is the hottest September since 1911: breaking all records. But never mind the weather: today is really all about some other record breakers, the record breakers that changed the world forever.
Outside Abbey Road, fans are hanging around and taking pictures of themselves at the most photographed zebra crossing in the world (to a mixture of amusement and annoyance from the morning traffic). Inside, media crews are working away, preparing for a day that will involve Paul and his friend Ringo undertaking a couple of hours promotional duties for ‘Eight Days A Week’, which will also have its premiere the following evening in London’s Leicester Square. In the corridor outside Studio 2, Ron Howard is hanging out chatting to Giles Martin. Both are doing their bit for the PR campaign, but in truth they and everyone else are waiting for the main event – the arrival of Paul and Ringo.
As I start to put my thoughts and memories down on paper from these special days, I realise I’m in danger of over using words like iconic, legendary, historic, celebrated, distinguished and illustrious. But for someone who grew up in total adoration of The Beatles (and I know I'm not alone), this was to be a truly unforgettable day.
At 11:45am, Paul’s car pulls up to the studio’s side entrance just seconds after the arrival of Ringo. The pair embrace, and it’s beyond special to see them smiling as they walk through the door of Studio 2. As they drink in their surroundings, it’s clear that the moment is not lost on them. If these walls could talk I think to myself – but actually I am about to get better than the walls talking.
“Man, it’s always such a trip being back here,” says Paul walking through the studio door. “Although we did use to start work a little earlier than midday back then!”
Once inside, standing in the middle of Studio 2 he takes stock: “I always try to resist going wow this is where it all happened man but you can’t. It’s just too trippy.”
Meanwhile, Ringo has now gone up the stairs in the studio to the control room. “Hey Paul, we’re up here,” he shouts. “We’re not allowed up there: adults only!” Paul shouts back instantly, demonstrating that the Beatle humour is still alive and well.
Paul then makes his way upstairs to a room that will be used as his dressing room today, saying hi to anyone that comes into contact with him. As he walks through a tiny space between the studio’s control room and his dressing room, he stops, his memory jogged. “We recorded a song in this space,” he says. “I was over here, Ringo over there (pointing), John there and George there.”
Pinching myself I remember the Rolling Stone cover interview which ran recently in which Paul talks about ‘Yer Blues’. “We were talking about this tightness, this packed-in-a-tin thing," he had said. “So we got in a little cupboard – a closet that had microphone leads and things, with a drum kit, amps turned to the walls, one mic for John. We did 'Yer Blues' live and it was really good."
And so stood in this tiny space, with this first hand recollection from one of the four people who was actually there, I’m getting these images in my head of the greatest band of all time packed into this space in 1968 rocking out 'Yer Blues'. Wow. Just wow. History!
Midday, and it’s "call time" for Paul: he’s needed in the studio with Ringo and Ron Howard to start two hours of back-to-back interviews. Taking his seat between Ringo and Ron in front of the TV cameras, Paul looks at Ringo. “Abbey Road! This is cool, baby!” he says as he affectionately puts his hand on his former bandmate’s knee.
Another of the afternoon’s duties is a Facebook Live chat with broadcaster Edith Bowman at the helm. Paul, Ringo and Ron answer questions from fans all over the world, and then, with interviews concluded, it’s time for Paul to head off. With the promotional work done, the next stop is the red – sorry blue! – carpet the following night.
Despite the weather warnings that have been running all day, it’s another beautiful evening, and at 7pm in Leicester Square there is no sign of rain. I’m waiting at the “talent drop off” point with an army of publicists: all waiting for their respective clients to arrive. The excitement buzzes through the air as Beatles songs blast out across the Square, which tonight is hosting thousands of fans, swarms of paparazzi, A-list celebrities, international news crews and a replica Abbey Road crossing for good measure.
The crowd goes mad as people like Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Eric Clapton, Liam Gallagher, Jools Holland, Bob Geldolf and Madonna arrive. But just as they do in the film, the screams go up a gear when Paul and Ringo arrive at about 7:45pm. Working their way round the Square, the pair are on top form, and it is clearly an emotional experience for them.
Speaking to media on the blue carpet about the film, Paul said: “We’re getting great memories obviously of playing with John and George, so that’s very emotional and very special to see that again. There’s some great things that we’d kind of half forgotten, like we refused to play a show in Jacksonville in the south of America because we heard it was segregated, with blacks on one side and whites on the other – we thought that’s stupid and so won’t play it and we didn’t, so they had to change the rules. That’s the first integrated show that Jacksonville had, so looking back now that’s very cool”
On the blue carpet Paul also reveals that the jacket he is wearing is exactly the same jacket he wore for the premiere of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ when he was 22. And that’s without any alterations: so another frankly unbelievable achievement!
The final media commitment before heading in to watch the film is a live interview with comedian John Bishop (which is being broadcast live around the world on The Beatles Facebook page as well as being beamed into cinemas globally), and Paul is then ushered along the rest of the Blue Carpet into the cinema where, before taking his seat, he’ll be introduced on stage along with Ringo. As the pair are waiting backstage for their introduction, they giggle away like school boys together. It’s great to watch them back together, and there is so much affection: the uniqueness of the experiences they shared together forging an unbelievable bond. Onstage introductions over, Paul can finally take his seat where, like the majority of the audience, he will watch the film for the first time, and I can only imagine what it must be like for him to watch ‘Eight Days A Week’.
I find it fascinating watching videos of Paul from this period of his career, because all his mannerisms are the same as they are now, and you can see the way he is with people is the same, with the same excitement and sense of wonder. His energy and enthusiasm is as strong now as it clearly was then. His sense of right and wrong is still never compromised, and this is never so clear as it is in the scene in the film about the segregated audience in Jacksonville. It is this bit where it hits me even harder just how huge the impact Paul has had on the world at large. It goes way beyond the incredible melodies. It’s one thing being insanely gifted – but the responsibility that comes with the gift is equally as insane.
‘The Beatles: Eight Days A Week’ is a triumph. Like many, I’ve read a lot about The Beatles, and seen a lot of footage of The Beatles, but this is a film that offers a different perspective, and feels fresh. In many ways, it’s like Paul himself: always happy to celebrate all the wonderful things that have happened in the past, while also constantly looking for new ways to move forward.
All of which brings me nicely on to those Grammy nominations for 2017. As well as ‘Eight Days A Week’ being nominated for best film, Paul’s deluxe edition of Tug Of War is up for best boxed or special limited edition package, and he also features in two other categories. John Daversa's album Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles on the BFM Jazz label has been nominated as best large jazz ensemble album, while two tracks taken from it are also shortlisted: 'Do You Want to Know a Secret', (featuring Renee Olstead) is up for best arrangement, instrument and vocals, while 'Lucy in the Sky (With Diamonds)' gets a nod in the best arrangement, instrumental or a cappella category. And if that wasn’t enough, the Timo Mass-James remix of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five’ will also compete for best remixed recording.
Add to this the fact that Paul has also just announced the reissue of 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt for March and new Japanese tour dates, you just know that 2017 is already shaping up to be another great year packed full of surprises and memories created for a lifetime. I guess I had better go and stock up on post-it notes!
Happy New Year!