Paul McCartney is rubbing his eyes, literally and metaphorically. Literally, because when we meet this week he has just flown back from playing a private gig in Las Vegas. Metaphorically, because I put it to him that he should be rubbing his eyes over the fact that he still has a hectic touring schedule, is on TV tonight showcasing his latest album, has gigs and an album planned for next year and will be headlining a benefit gig for Hurricane Sandy shortly. And, his peers The Rolling Stones play in London next week, with other big names from his era also prominently in action.
With McCartney, the enthusiasm and passion for his day job is undimmed. “Yeah, I do rub my eyes at this,” he admits. “We all do. I didn't foresee it. The Beatles were on record as saying we didn't think it would last 10 years. But it kept on and kept on and it kept being good and we seemed to be the people who could do it. Now there is a great young generation of people who can also do it, but it tends to be that the people packing them in are the people who have the material, have hits and – I think that's important – songs that people know. I think they have stagecraft, they have an ability with an audience.
“I'm still cautious. I say, 'just put one show on sale'. I don't want to ever get too blasé. I don't want tickets not selling but then they ring me up and say Chicago's 40,000 seats sold out in six minutes, it's a record, and I didn't know it was even possible to sell out in six minutes, then you think of Madonna and Gaga and U2 and Coldplay and all the people who have played there and I just broke the record.
“What it does for me is that it's not that I'm being kind of cute about it, it's more the fact that when a big show like that sells out in six minutes, I then know when I go on to that stage that those people were that keen to buy a ticket that I know they are my friends and we can have a good time. It's a feeling that's not to be bettered. And I realise that in the early days half the reason for your nerves was you go on stage and think will they like me, will they like our songs?”
I'm talking to McCartney in his Soho Square office. He's excited about the TV special tonight, Live Kisses, in which he performs songs from his last album of standards Kisses on the Bottom, a mischievous title which is actually about signing kisses on a letter, a line from the opening number, “I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” In a stylish black-and-white film, he performs as vocalist with no guitar, alongside Diana Krall on piano, a top jazz band and guest stars Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. But we talk also (unusually for him) about his family, about John Lennon and The Beatles in the early days, about his happiness with his new(ish) wife Nancy, but also about the darker side to that era of innocence, the current clamour over Jimmy Savile, child abuse and inappropriate sexual relationships with adolescent girls in the Sixties and Seventies.
"Jimmy Savile was a little bit suspect"
Few rock stars have made any comment at all, though some must be more than a little worried. The biggest star of them all has said nothing until now. And, of course, he knew Jimmy Savile well, as Savile used to compere The Beatles' Christmas shows, and, well before their worldwide fame, travelled with them.
“It's very difficult to talk about it,” McCartney says. “The thing is we knew Jimmy and we worked with him, he was a DJ, an MC on some of the shows. We were working in Yorkshire and we were still living in Liverpool. And we were coming back from a gig and he came in our van over the Pennines. We gave him a lift. He told us all these stories about his wartime exploits how he had been buying chewing gum and nylons and all that, and selling them. He had all sorts of stuff going on. He was the older hustler guy, and we were very amused by these stories because he was a great entertainer, but we dropped him off at his place outside his house and we said, 'can we come in for a coffee?' and he said, 'oh, no, not tonight lads'.
“When he'd gone we thought, 'why doesn't he let us in, what is it, because most people would have let us in that we gave a lift to?'. So we always thought there was something a little bit suspect.”
Certainly, one cannot imagine that there would have been too many people who refused to have The Beatles in for a cup of coffee. McCartney adds: “More generally, then the whole sort of scene was not so PC. [In] that postwar boom, girls and guys, it was a much more open scene… free love and the Pill had just come in, so it was a completely different scene. The other aspect, of course, is that we, though not quite Jimmy, we were of the age of the girls, we were all young. So if you're now talking about a 17-, 18-year-old boy with a 15 year-old girl, we all knew that was illegal. We knew it and it was like, 'NO'. But the closer we were in age, of course, the less it seemed to matter. We knew with under-16s it was illegal, so we didn't do it.”
“What clean-living, law-abiding Beatles you were,” I say. But he is adamant. “We tried to make sure. We couldn't always be sure but there was a definite no-no involved in under-age kids. Hey, listen, we didn't have to worry. There were plenty of over-16-year-olds.”
We talk about days that predate Beatlemania, the very early days of him and John Lennon. McCartney tells a wonderful story, not in any of the many books about the group, of how, as a teenager, Lennon wouldn't wear his glasses if there was a risk that he might pass a pretty girl. One night after an evening at McCartney's house, he walked home and told a startled McCartney the next day that he had passed a family playing cards, outdoors at midnight in the winter. McCartney walked the route himself the next night. It was a nativity scene.
McCartney says touchingly: “There is this period of John which is all pre-Beatles, pre-huge fame, pre-drugs – and it is another John completely – that was always there right until the end. He got much sweeter, too, once he settled in New York. Once he was reunited with Yoko, and they had Sean, he became this sweet personalty again then when he was more comfortable with himself. But the acerbic John is the one we know and love, you know, because he was clever with it, so it was very attractive. But, for me, I have more than a slight affection for the John that I knew then, when we were first writing songs, when we would try and do things the old songwriters had done. I slightly regret the way John's image has formed, and because he died so tragically it has become set in concrete. The acerbic side was there but it was only part of him. He was also such a sweet, lovely man – a really sweet guy. ”
And would his songwriting partner have liked this album of standards and accompanying TV show? “Yes, he liked the songs of that era. He was brought up on them, too, and certainly we used to talk about them. One of his favourite songs was 'Little White Lies'. He would have liked some of the songs on this album. We thought of Lennon/McCartney as following on from Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
For McCartney, the love of those songs started when he was a child and the extended family gathered in his home every New Year's Eve. “My dad used to play piano on New Year's Eve and all the ladies would sit around sipping their rum and blackcurrant. After half an hour they would be singing, and I grew up associating those songs with family and good times. I thought these songs were so well-structured. So did John. We loved the craftsmanship.” But he agrees it was tricky in the Sixties to rave publicly about the old songs in the midst of the explosion of pop and youth culture. Instead, he brought the idiom into Beatles' songs almost by stealth, in pastiches like “Honey Pie” or “When I'm Sixty-Four”. Of the latter, he says he wrote the tune when he was 16; the lyrics came a lot later. “It was about myself, looking to the future. Retirement age of 65 felt too obvious, so I made it a year earlier.” He begins to half-say, half-sing the famous lyric: “'Will you still need me, will you still feed me' – I was a bit tongue-in-cheek there. I could have said, 'will you still love me'. Feed was funnier.”
In tonight's show, in which he is accompanied by Diana Krall on piano, a top jazz band and guests including Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton, McCartney sings “My Valentine”, one of his own songs from the album, which he wrote for his wife Nancy. The song is an instant classic, a standard written in the idiom of the other standards. Writing songs for the women in his life has long been a McCartney trait, from “I Will” and “Maybe I'm Amazed” for Linda, and before that “Here There And Everywhere”, “And I Love Her” and (in a negative moment) “I'm Looking Through You” for Jane Asher. Had he also, I wondered, written songs for his children?
“Yes, but they stay at home,” he says.
One standard he will sing tonight is “More I Cannot Wish You” from the musical Guys and Dolls. He mentions on the DVD that he related immediately to himself and his daughter [by Heather Mills] Beatrice. “It's a father talking to his daughter: 'Mansions I can wish you... but more I cannot wish you than you find your own true love'. So that from a father to a daughter, particularly me having an eight-year-old, was quite moving, very moving. Then he wishes her 'wisdom when your hair is turned to grey'. Well, me thinking about my eight-year-old with her hair turned to grey did me in.”
He has always had an enormously strong sense of family, and it strikes me that he has reached a point in his life where, at 70, still looking remarkably youthful, still genuinely with a twinkle in the eye and that seductive half-smile, with all the rifts between him and his former bandmates ancient history and only good feelings remaining, he is not just conspicuously comfortable with himself, but must be particularly happy. “Yeah, thank you, I am. I'm a very lucky guy. I have a very lovely wife, I've got a young daughter who is very lovely.” I ask if he sees much of her. “Yeah, I see her half the time. I have joint custody, and she's great, and my older kids are all lovely and [he beams] eight grandchildren, which amazes me as much as it amazes you.”
As he gets older, does religion play a part in his life? Mick Jagger once surprised me by telling me that it did for him. But for McCartney it seems not. “Not really. I have a kind of personal faith in something good, but it doesn't really go much further than that. It's certainly not subscribing to any organised religion. I think that is the cause of a lot of trouble – 'My god is better than yours'. But I do think there is something greater than me… and that's not easy to imagine. No, stop it, come on. Jesus I could see, that's a historical character. I was always really amused by the fact that he was Jewish. I loved that because I thought, 'that will stick it to all these anti-Semitic people'.”
Ironically, in retrospect, Lennon and McCartney predicted in the early days that they might end up writing a musical. With McCartney's public embrace of songbook classics, would he now be prepared to add to the musicals on the West End stage? “I've sort of gone off the idea,” he says. “It used to be because the old musicals, Oklahoma, West Side Story, Carousel, were too good, too well crafted for us to better. Now it's sort of We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia!. That's what people want these days, and it's not too cool.”
That's the thing about Paul McCartney. For all the passing years, and for all the attempts by some to typecast him too easily as the sentimental Beatle, he has managed to remain “cool”. He talks about the very early days, the period of “Love Me Do”, the 50th anniversary of which is now being commemorated, and even before; the time which was pre-cool and delightfully unworldly. “Writing songs we'd never done,” he recalls, “except that when John and I first met, one of our conversations was: 'What do you do? Oh you've written a couple of songs. Oh, I've written a couple too.' So we showed our songs to each other and agreed they weren't very good and maybe we could do better. And that was the start of our thing. We didn't know how to do this. We didn't know how to make a record. We had to rely on grown-ups, so it did give us this lovely innocence that now seems really very sweet. I'm so glad we had an innocent period.”
And does he think of John and George Harrison much? “Yes, pretty much every night on the show because I do tributes to them. I have big photographs of George behind me when I do the song 'Something', his song, and I look at them, and it's so sad because he's not here. But it's lovely to look at those pictures and think: 'God, my mate George, isn't he a good-looking boy!' You think all the things you couldn't think when you were a kid, because the bravado aspect forbade it. I do think of them quite a lot.”
'Live Kisses' is on ITV1 tonight at 11pm and is available on DVD
This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of the Independent's Radar magazine