But Seriously

You know Paul McCartney can turn out a tune (he composes in his sleep). But you may not know he can write classical music, too. And he's not half bad at it.
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The Independent Culture
Paul McCartney's dad had a motto: D.I.N - "Do it now". There has to be a song in there somewhere. You can feel it, you can hear it. But you know better than to second-guess it. Not a McCartney. The man's too full of surprises. He's been doing it his dad's way for longer than most of us care to remember. And still he acts like he's just arrived, ready when you are, eager to please, wide-eyed at the thought that someone, somewhere might actually be enjoying one of his "tunes", perhaps even setting down the sheet-music on the piano for the first time. He can get really sentimental about things like that. He even likes those orchestral arrangements of Beatles' songs. After more than 30 years "aboard the music caravan", he's flattered by the compliment. Somehow or other, with all his history, the business hasn't got to him. Just the music. And still it goes round and round and comes out .... well, who knows where.

There are those who would write him off. They've been working on it ever since the Beatles split up. He lost something when he lost John Lennon, they said. There was a dynamic in that partnership that made the difference. "I knew there'd be people out there sharpening their pencils", he says, "Even before the Beatles disbanded, it was always a question of 'follow that' ". But he has, and he does. And just when you think the old rock and roller's going stale on you (and we all know which songs we're talking about), he comes from nowhere to take you by surprise. His terrific "Flowers in the Dirt" album (and if you've ever doubted his range, this is the one). Or the number Mistress and Maid from his latest, "Off the Ground": a sardonic little waltz song with a piranha's bite. And, of course, there's always a great McCartney ballad waiting in the wings. Golden Earth Girl, same album, is as sweet as anything he's written in years. When the oboe takes up that tune, its like you've known it all your life.

And now there's something else. Four years ago, McCartney went "classical" on us, hooking up with Carl Davis to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his home town. The Liverpool Oratorio (named thus after he'd read about Handel's Messiah in a magazine article) was a curious beast. McCartney's enduring lyricism sat somewhat uneasily amidst the overblown formality of it all. At least that was the general consensus: "Free the songs", we all cried. But it was an awfully big adventure for him. He kind of liked the incongruity of it. He was moved by it. His Dad would probably have hated it. He was a Jazz man, played by ear. He was always making fun of those operatic voices. But he'd have encouraged Paul to boldly go ... and all that. The learning's in the doing. D.I.N. "It's the only way I know how. I fall in love with an idea and I do it, right or wrong. A few years ago, I took up sailing. I didn't have lessons. I just sort of got on a boat, and me and the wind worked it out."

Music's been a bit like that. The first thing he says to me as we shake hands is "Now you're not going to ask me about Aeolian cadences are you? You do know I don't read music, don't you?" He's quite up-front about it. No pretence. No embarrassment. No regrets? A few. Sure it would be an experience knowing why and wherefore before, rather than after, doing something ("William Mann of The Times told us it was pentatonic. 'What?, we said. 'The bit at the end of "She Loves You"'. Oh, that"). And sure he'd like to have cracked musical notation. He's tried at key points in his career, but each time the little black dots on the page have failed to match up to what he was hearing - the music has romped way, way ahead of the notes. He tried at 16, having already written the tune of "When I'm Sixty-Four"; and again at 21, around the time of "Eleanor Rigby". So you see, there was no going back to five-finger exercises. And it's too late now. The whole process, he believes, would only inhibit him. Perhaps it always would have done. At least, with computer technology, his inventions can now go straight from keyboard to page.

But McCartney has instincts most musicians would kill for. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking him musically naive. Primitive, perhaps, but not naive. Actually, "primitive" is the word he himself uses. And he can stop you in your tracks with the untutored wisdom of his musicality. At one point during our conversation, Monteverdi popped into the equation. "Now he didn't know many chords, did he, and they tended to be the chords that we (the Beatles) knew. And at that time we were very happy working within this little group of chords; in the beginning we found everything we ever wanted in them."

Centuries of musicology distilled in a couple of short sentences. McCartney speaks a lot about chords, the chords that rolled out from his Dad's piano when friends came round for a jam, the time spent lying on the floor just listening to their progressions. And later, with the Beatles, the sheer excitement of re-discovering them: "We knew so little. We didn't even know you could own songs - hence our disastrous publishing agreement. We thought songs just floated in the air. Everything we did came out of this lovely primitive passion. Oh, listen to the way that chord sets off that melody." Melody, and harmony, the key to unlocking it. There's magic in that alliance. But melody is given to very few, and we live in an age where the vertical in music cares more for texture than harmony.

Musicians of all persuasions recognise McCartney as the great natural melodist he is. It's not something they teach in the conservatories. It's not something that can be taught. It's a feeling - for the listener, too - a feeling that the next note is somehow inevitable the split-second after you've heard it. McCartney likes that definition. He's always had an easy time with melody. And he knows from composers who aren't so blessed what a gift that is. He and John Lennon could lay on the rhythmic displacements, the switches of time-signature, the harmonic intrigue, the unexpected blue notes, the disguised modulations - they could be as complex as hell and still take their audience with them. There's a lesson in there somewhere. Look at John's "Strawberry Fields Forever". Or Paul's "Here, There, and Everywhere". Or "Yesterday", the most famous of all his songs, shortly to celebrate its 30th anniversary. How did he dream that one up? Well, he did actually - dream it.

"I was living in a little attic flat at the time, and I woke up with it in my head. I literally fell out of bed and went to the piano, and the whole tune was there. I said, let's see what key this is in: it was G. Well, OK, what chords. And I just sort of fell into the F-sharp minor that follows the G, which is the big chord in it. I mean, without that you haven't got the tune. But then it goes very nicely into the B and E minor and so on, and this tune is sitting on top of it all. And I was amazed. I can't tell you how that gave me faith in my natural instincts. I mean, I literally wrote it in my sleep. For about two weeks, I kept asking people - what is this tune? I can't have written it."

But he had. And many more - almost as many as Schubert (musicologist Wilfred Mellors once called him and John "the most important songwriters since Schubert"). And since we're talking "classical" again (for want of a better word - he doesn't like it any more than I do, but we're agreed it's better than "serious"), what is the lure for him? Not self-aggrandizement, surely? No, an hour in his company and the very idea is ridiculous. McCartney comes from "peoply people", and it shows. So why? Why put himself on the line? "I'll tell you why. I'm used to writing songs - intro, verse, verse, chorus, middle-eight (or "the bit in the middle", as we used to call it) fade or end - normally ending on the chorus, the hook, or whatever. There's a formula. So for me it's incredibly exciting that music can be open-ended, that I can start with an idea and never go back - ever. That's liberating."

But in his little piano piece "A Leaf' just out on an EMI CD-single), he does go back. Call it human nature, call it the irresistible pull of classical form, but we do so like to "come home again". With a little help from his friend, EMI producer John Fraser, McCartney's Satie-esque tune (and yes, Sate was the inspiration) gets to break free of the two middle octaves that pop musicians tend to confine themselves to. "You can spread it around a bit...and you can play with harmonic crunches to create a bit of tension. In the rock world, if you're in C and somebody plays C-sharp, all heads will turn - he's played the wrong note." So "A Leaf" is the latest leg in his voyage of discovery: improvisations on a theme. The "show-off bits" reflect McCartney, the performer's performer (he can't actually play those, but the tune he'll play again and again "with soul"). He wants it to be functional, he wants it to be played. They're even putting in "ossias' (alternatives) for grade examinations.

One of the advantages of being a legend in your own time is that they'll never take that away from you. You can dare. You can even fail. The Beatles dared. When they brought a string quartet into Abbey Road for "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby"; when Paul saw Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on the telly and asked George Martin about the "little trumpet", prompting David Mason's solos on "Penny Lane"; when he took Alan Civil off the top of the horn register for "No One" (an accident which turned into a game); when George brought in Indian music ("incredible, you could stay on one chord all night!"); or when they did a John Cage, or was it a Stockhausen, on "A Day in the Life Of" and had an entire symphony orchestra move at random from the bottom to the top of its register (aleatoric - "Is that so?"). That's quite a legacy of daring to build upon.

But like most self-taught self-made men, McCartney is inquisitive by nature. To celebrate EMI's 100th Anniversary in 1997, he's preparing a "magnum opus" - full orchestra and chorus. And this time - armed with his dreams, his instincts, and Walter Piston's textbook on orchestration (and remember, Paul, you don't have to mark up the score in Italian) he's on his own. And the only rule is that there are no rules. That's hugely reassuring to him. And exciting. The awfully big adventure continues.

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