EXCLUSIVE: Is it time to start anew with Paul McCartney?
LONDON -- As a Filipino journalist, I was surprised to find myself in the same room with Sir Paul McCartney, who is currently promoting his latest album, "New." I grew up hearing stories about the infamous Beatles incident in Manila which, as urban legends would have it, forever stained the Philippines in the eyes of the legendary musician. But in the spirit of all things 'new," I can’t help but wonder: Is it time to make amends?
At a plush London hotel on a rainy October afternoon, I waited with the world’s press for an intimate group interview with the world’s most famous rock star, who was running late. I had so many questions about his new album: from his inspirations, to his musical choices, down to his favorite lyric. I wanted to ask for the stories behind his new songs like the wonderfully fragile “Early Days,” the revolutionary-sounding “Everybody Out There” and the foot-stomping opening track “Save Us.” Yet one topic kept nagging back at me.
Representing the Philippines on the day -- and the only Filipino journalist to have come so close to McCartney in a long while as far as I am aware -- I felt a weight of responsibility to refer to the 1966 incident which has lingered in Beatles folklore and remains largely unsettled.
I wanted to ask what he remembers and what he thinks of the Philippines now. I wanted to know, now that years have passed and things have changed, if he could ever see himself going back to Manila. Has the nation been forgiven? Or have we simply been forgotten?
The magnitude of this saga is so strong and enduring it has entered the realm of mythology as it passed through generations, making it harder and harder to separate fact from fiction as years go by.
As the story goes, The Beatles had a rough time at Manila airport where they were “bullied” by rude, disrespectful and menacing staff who seemed on a mission to “give them the worst time possible.” Martial Law was still a few years away, which started in 1972, but the political and social climate already seemed tense to the British visitors.
It is widely believed they unwittingly snubbed an official function at Malacanang Palace, which allegedly offended then First Lady Imelda Marcos. The group, it later came to light, was supposedly prohibited by their management to accept such invitations.
In an interview on their return to London, which still circulates to this day courtesy of YouTube, it was clear they had the worst time in Manila out of all the places they toured that year. It seems, at that time, it wasn’t more fun in the Philippines.
And this is precisely the crux of the matter. For a country that prides itself of its warmth and hospitality, the Beatles incident left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth that still haunts Filipinos to this day. We are, by no means, perfect, of course, but a few bad apples does not define a nation, and perhaps it is time to make amends. Will the Philippines ever get a chance to redeem itself and show McCartney what the country is really like?
Back at the press day in London, the music legend finally emerged. “It’s like a wedding,” he said, as he walked in and sat at the top of a long table which did look like a small wedding banquet. He seemed pleasant, relaxed and even charming.
It’s been six years since the release of "Memory Almost Full" in 2007, the last Paul McCartney album with original self-penned songs. Since then, popular music took a backseat as he worked on other projects like "Ocean’s Kingdom," his first orchestral score commissioned by the New York City Ballet, and "Kisses on the Bottom," a collection of standards from his father. So why now? Why this "New" album?
“What inspired me was Nancy,” he said, referring to his wife Nancy Shevell whom he married in 2011. “I had time, but I also had a new love in my life. So what I used to do, because she was in New York a lot of the time, I would wake up early, I’ll take my little girl to school, and then I would come back and write a song. And then when I finish it I knew I could ring her up and say, ‘Do you want to hear a song?’ And I’ll play it to her. It was an exciting motivation. I always knew who I was writing it for. She was the inspiration for a lot of the songs.”
The lead single and title track, “New,” reflects this excitement. Produced by Mark Ronson, most famous for his work with the late Amy Winehouse, it sounds sweet and optimistic but a little bit shy -- like a new romance, intense but coy.
Apart from Ronson, who was the DJ at his wedding in 2011, McCartney also enlisted other heavyweight producers, including Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine), Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontange) and Giles Martin (Kula Shaker, INXS). He originally intended to choose only one of them, but ended up working with all.
“I wanted to see what it’s like with each of these producers. Each one of them is really interesting for different reasons,” he said, proceeding to describe each one.
Epworth “likes to experiment” and they “just made it up” as they went along. Ronson would take a song and would “try to make it as good-sounding.” Johns is “very organic” and “a little bit more vulnerable.” Martin is “very musical” and “a little bit like his father. He’s like a new George Martin,” McCartney’s long-time collaborator.
For someone like McCartney who has an extensive back catalogue and an even richer history, the weight of everything that has gone on before in his career must be inescapable. So what was it like to work with new generations of musicians in this album?
“People often get a bit worried. Like engineers get a bit worried about my vocal -- it must be perfect. They want to record it just perfectly. And I want to screw it up,” he revealed while making an amusing gravelly sound.
“I always say: start from nothing. We’re all equal. You tell me your idea, I’ll tell you mine. And if yours is better we’ll go with it. Doesn’t matter. Don’t be inhibited. I want to encourage people to give any ideas they’ve got and not have too much respect.”
Like any artist, McCartney just wants to experiment and explore new things. He still loves music and enjoys what he does even after years in the business. But I was skeptical at first when I heard that he decided to try something “different” for the new album. The title itself -- "New" -- feels like a bold statement. And whenever established artists make statements like this, I feel a nervousness on their behalf for it could only go incredibly well or horribly wrong -- or worse still, just fall flat.
"New" sounds current enough and “fresh,” as McCartney himself described it on Twitter when asked by a fan. He said on a previous interview that people may not recognize some of the new songs as classic Paul McCartney, but he deliberately wanted to try new sounds and explore different directions. And he does manage to venture onto new territory, but he didn’t go too far out that it would alienate die-hard fans. It seems firmly within the Paul McCartney universe, but is close enough to the edges that it may just suck in new fans along the way.
“Artistically, I got a lot of freedom. I’m very lucky,” he admitted.
But with his level of fame, does he have the same kind of freedom in his personal life? His answer might surprise many.
“Yeah, you’d be surprised. People say because you’re well known you can’t do anything, but I do and I can. I go to the cinema just like anyone. I know some famous people who watch movies at home. But I love the cinema. I go shopping, I go to the gym and stuff. And people don’t bother me. So yeah, I can pretty much do what I want.”
He is, however, for all intents and purposes, Sir Paul McCartney and everything that entails. He has a past that everyone knows in some form or other, and despite his best efforts to stick with the new, the now and the future, many people will always look upon him in the context of his illustrious past. And McCartney himself seems at peace with this, with his past coming up naturally in his conversation as well as his music.
“One thing that writers address is the past. Even if you write about the future or the present, there’s always a big element of the past. And to me, it’s important because I enjoy the luxury of having a memory and exploring it,” he said.
He talked about writing "Early Days," one of the slower tracks in the new album, about his time with the late John Lennon as they walked along the streets of Liverpool as young musicians with instruments on their back and a heap of ideas.
“I do notice that I use the past or feelings from the past quite a lot, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. A lot of people use memories and emotions that have happened in their past. I think it’s part of a writer’s trade to use that stuff,” he said.
And it’s not just about nostalgia. Some of his songs also have a kind of sadness that speaks to a universal human condition. “It’s good to be sad,” he declared. “We all experience it in our lives. We can’t always be [happy]. And when you’re writing songs it’s good material. It’s good to examine those moments.”
Drawing from his personal experience, he recalled a time at the start of his career when his work didn’t matter yet. “People think The Beatles were always a success, but it’s not true. In our first concert it was quite difficult, because we had to get people to like us. And we had to get better. So sometimes, those were very sad stressful times. But you would laugh and joke about it. Sometimes you have to change the pain to laughter just to stop it from getting too painful,” he said.
But there is only so much one can write about from the past. He must have written hundreds if not thousands of songs at this point in his career, stretching back from "Please Please Me" in 1963 all the way to "New" in 2013. How does he keep things fresh?
“You just try not to repeat. When you write something, you hear something, you think, ‘Did I write that before?’ So you stop and think where it was from. We used to do that all the time since I started writing. You just have to check yourself.”
He then shared an anecdote about former bandmate Ringo Starr, the only other surviving Beatle. “I remember one of the first songs Ringo wrote. He came to us and he was very pleased and he played it, and it was a Bob Dylan song.” The room erupted with laughter.
“You have to be careful. You rely on your friends. Somebody said that’s great but I’ve heard that before, or you’ve written that before. You just have to check so you don’t repeat yourself.”
In the spirit of "New," however, we should honor McCartney’s effort to start afresh with his music, as his latest album seems to suggest. Perhaps it is time we look at his new music as exactly that -- new. Let’s forget about The Beatles, forget about Wings and the classic Paul McCartney. It’s time to start anew and let the man make music without the gravity of his past.
And in the same vein, I wondered if it is also time for him to start anew with the Philippines. As he talked about music, freedom, memories and love, I waited for a moment to talk about Manila. But time was running out. We were expecting an hour with him but after 20 minutes and only a handful of questions, our time was up.
Question after question, I waited for my chance to ask him what many Filipinos would probably want to know. I raised my hand several times like an eager but awkward school kid seeking attention, but to no avail. How does he feel about the Philippines now?
He mentioned in another interview of his eagerness to play his new songs live, and I wanted to ask if he would ever consider playing them in the Philippines. He is supposed to perform in Japan and Manila is not too far away. The city itself has gone through many changes since his last visit. Will he ever return and see his Filipino fans there?
I was desperately hoping for an answer, but it wasn’t meant to be. McCartney was ushered away and the moment was gone. I walk away from the room filled with disappointment and none the wiser about his thoughts on the Philippines.
More than anything else, I was disappointed on behalf of fans in the Philippines, old and new, who must have had this cloud hanging over them since 1966. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to this topic, aptly called “Bring Sir Paul McCartney Back To Manila,” with a tag line that reads, “Get back Paul. Manila loves you.”
“One of my life dreams is to watch Paul live in concert. And for him to perform here in Manila would be a dream come true. I'm sure many Filipino fans share the same sentiment,” said Bong Pedro, co-creator of the page and an avid fan.
The 44-year-old, who is also the creative director of advertising agency Draftfcb Manila, added: “I think it’s time for closure, especially at this point in Paul's career. It's time for him to know that Filipinos really do love and adore him. We owe it to him to prove that. Manila loves you Paul McCartney.”
Perhaps this part of music history is destined to remain lost in mythology with other unverified or unresolved stories about McCartney and The Beatles, meandering into distant history with details slowly twisted by the passage of time.
And it does happen. McCartney himself is all too aware of it. “People distort reality,” he noted, referring to stories that haunt some of his past work. “For me, in The Beatles or Wings or in present day, you just work with a group of people and it’s quite intimate. And you’re all very equal. And you don’t even remember who wrote what or who did what. Did I write that one? Was that my idea? Was that your idea? It doesn’t matter.”
Yet the questions remain for Filipino fans around the world: Will he ever consider coming back to Manila? Is everything forgiven or forgotten? Is it time to start anew with the Philippines? For now, however, the story of the Beatles in Manila will stay in music folklore as a grave incident that remains to be resolved between a nation and a superstar.
"New" by Paul McCartney will be released on October 14.