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Paul McCartney knew he'd never top The Beatles — and that's just fine with him

Paul McCartney, shown here in 1963, says the initial rush of Beatlemania "was the fulfillment of all our dreams."
Paul McCartney, shown here in 1963, says the initial rush of Beatlemania "was the fulfillment of all our dreams."

It's been more than 50 years since The Beatles disbanded, and Paul McCartney wants to set the record straight: "It's always looked like I broke up The Beatles, and that wasn't the case," he says.

McCartney traces the rumor to the 1970 documentary Let It Be, which followed the bandmates as they wrote, rehearsed and recorded the songs for their final album. The film and the subsequent press coverage created a narrative that pointed to Paul as the instigator of the breakup, and the story was so pervasive that McCartney even began to doubt himself.

"I kind of bought into that a little bit," he says. "And although I knew it wasn't true, it affected me enough for me to just be unsure of myself."

Now, the new documentary Get Back, releasing Nov. 25 on Disney+, revisits that period, drawing on previously unused footage to tell a different story. McCartney says seeing the new footage has helped him reframe his own story.

"We're just doing goofy things and everyone's behaving very normally and in a very friendly manner," he says. "The film is really great for me, because I see me and John [Lennon] messing around pretending to be ventriloquists instead of being sensible and singing the song."

In addition to the documentary, McCartney has a new, two-volume set of books called The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. It's a collection of his lyrics and the stories behind them, starting with songs he wrote before The Beatles and ending with songs from his latest album, McCartney III, which was released in 2020.

McCartney describes writing songs with Lennon as a "kind of pingpong," in which the two men would go back and forth with melodies and lyrics.

"He'd be sitting there and I'd be sitting here, and one of us would suggest an opening line. And then the other one would go, 'OK' and would make a suggestion for the second line," McCartney says. "It was just easier with me and John, just because you could iron out any wrinkles there and then."

Now 79, McCartney is focused on his family and his music — and he's feeling somewhat incredulous about where life has taken him. "I can't believe I'm a grandparent," he says. "I'm 25 years old, actually. I just look older. I think my birth certificate was falsified!"


Interview highlights

The Lyrics, by Paul McCartney
/ WW Norton

On the Beatles going from normal teenage boys to being the most desired men on the planet

"We were just like most young guys. We just wanted to have a girlfriend and basically do as much as we could, was the idea. So as we got fans, that became our motivation, which was, we were trying to be attractive in any way you like — visually, physically, sexually. We didn't mind, as long as we were attractive, because as kids, we were apparently not very attractive and we certainly weren't the big kind of quarterback who attracted all the girls in town. It was kind of the opposite for us, so I suppose, as we got more and more popular and the girls started screaming, to tell you the truth, we just enjoyed it. It was the fulfillment of all our dreams. ... It really was just we young guys trying to get laid, as Americans would say."

On how the screaming of Beatlemania got old

"Later then, it got a bit worrying because now the first sort of flush of the excitement had been going for quite a few years and we were maturing and we were sort of out of that phase. It was like, OK, it would be quite nice to be able to hear the song we're playing. And we couldn't because it was just a million seagulls screaming."

On why they chose to go with a persona on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

"We'd been The Beatles for quite a while. And when you made a record, you knew you were making a Beatles record, and so you imposed certain parameters on it. So we can't get too far out because people just go, 'What the hell's going on? They've gone mad!' So you had certain standards for Beatles records [and] you were always trying to advance those standards, but there were limits that you felt. And also when you stepped up to a microphone, you were conscious of all that background of, 'I'm Beatle Paul, and I'm going to do a Beatle Paul song.'

"I don't think it really was terrifying or even boring, but I had this idea to just change our identity and make ourselves think that we were kind of another band. So it meant now anything goes, we don't have to sing like The Beatles. We can sing like whoever they saw the band is. In the end, the name came out of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. So the idea was so that when you stepped up to a microphone, it was not now John Lennon Beatle doing his song. It was a guy out of this strange band, and in some way, it was just liberating."

On experimenting with an orchestra in Sgt. Pepper's "A Day in the Life"

"Because I'd been listening to a lot of avant-garde music at that time, just for my own pleasure and just to examine the scene and just see if I liked it, I thought that this orchestral cascade, this sort of mountain of orchestra and kind of quite chaotic, would be a good idea at this point in the song 'A Day in the Life.' So I came into the studio and said, 'OK, this is what we'd like you to do,' because we had a big symphony orchestra, which [producer] George Martin had sort of said, 'Oh no, we don't need that!' And we said, 'No, come on, George! We're The Beatles. It's time! We're allowed a symphony orchestra!' ...

"Anyway, so I got in the studio and said to each musician, start on your lowest note of your instrument and go up till you reach your highest note, but go in your own time. The idea being this is Sgt. Pepper's Band, this is a completely new idea. So that was what they did. ... It ended up, as you know, if you listen to it, it's very chaotic and it's really quite crazy. I heard it the other day, actually. It's madness!"

The Beatles and their family and friends visit with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the Rishikesh in India in March 1968.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
The Beatles and their family and friends visit with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the Rishikesh in India in 1968.

On The Beatles' time in India to learn meditation

"Everyone, including us, was doing a lot of drugs and that can burn you out, as anyone who's done it knows. And so we were in the London scene and it was getting a little bit wearing, really, so I remember feeling very tired. All this activity, you never stopped. So when Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi] arrived on the scene, as he did in London after he was doing the kind of world tour trying to sell the idea of meditation, we went to see him and it was like a breath of fresh air because instead of just getting crazy, this was the opposite. This was going un-crazy. And I think all of us liked it. I certainly did. John and George [Harrison] did, too. And I think Ringo [Starr] did, too. And we ended up going out to India, to Rishikesh, for a retreat kind of thing. And it was a very nice experience. It was calming, which I think all of us needed, and it was spiritual, although it wasn't like you were worshipping a god. You were finding the truth or the calmness, I would say, inside yourself. So that was very good for us, particularly post-psychedelic."

George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, share a bag of popcorn at London's Lewisham Theatre in 1963.
Terry Fincher / Getty Images
George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney share a bag of popcorn at London's Lewisham Theatre in 1963.

On correcting the record that Paul didn't break up The Beatles

"When I put my first album out, after The Beatles, I was sent a questionnaire that asked various questions about The Beatles. And there was something like, 'Will The Beatles get back together again?' ... and I sort of said, 'No, I don't think so,' ... it was something like that. And then that became, as it does, blown up into the big headline, 'Paul says The Beatles finished!' or whatever. ... So I didn't really have a chance to say 'No, wait a minute!'

I think we wondered whether [the band] would get together again, and when it didn't, it left us all, in one way, without a job, because this had been our job. It was bad news. It was shocking.

"There was a meeting and John walked into it, and the other Beatles and me were in this room and John walked in and said, 'I'm leaving The Beatles.' ... We were gobsmacked. We were very shocked. I think the first question in our minds was, is this going to last? Or is this just something very John-ish where he would just say, 'Hey, Big Dramatic Statement!' And then you go off and then a couple of weeks later, you go, 'Oh, maybe we should get together again.' It was quite shocking. You can imagine someone just walks in and tells you, 'The factory is closing.' It was big. ... I think we wondered whether [the band] would get together again, and when it didn't, it left us all, in one way, without a job, because this had been our job. It was bad news. It was shocking. But later I realized that it was John had this new relationship with Yoko [Ono], and he had to clear the decks in order to give her full-time attention."

On John's obsession with Yoko and John being ready for something new

"At the time, it was very difficult, because we knew John was infatuated with Yoko and having known John so long personally, I knew what he liked in a woman, and he liked strong women. ... So when he met Yoko, I think he was very attracted to her, and I think it was a great thing for him. I think he needed it. It was time for him to break loose and do some new things. And I knew it was exciting for him. But at first, we were not too keen on it at all because it was like, 'Who is this? And why is she sitting on my amp?' ... I came to realize that that is something you mustn't stand in the way of — this guy is absolutely 100% in love with this woman — and you have to let it be. For me, this having been my employment and my artistic world for quite a number of years, and having known John since we were teenagers together, to this point, it finally coming to an end was very challenging. The first question became, 'OK, what do I do now?' "

On feeling lost after The Beatles, before he formed his next band, Wings

"It was quite difficult, because I didn't know what to do at all. And I didn't really have any brainy ideas, except if I want to continue in music, maybe I'll form another band. But then, how do you do that after The Beatles? How could anything I do be as good as The Beatles? The Beatles had a very special combination of talents ... as has been proved by its longevity. The stuff we did together still sounds good and still lives today. So it was a question of how can you get better than that? And I think I just have to say, 'Well, you can't. But if you want to keep going, you should maybe think about starting something else.' So I did."

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Andrew Flanagan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: November 2, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this story, in addition to a previous digital story, we incorrectly describe the Let It Be film as a 1969 documentary. It was released in 1970.