It all began here. Yes, on Feb. 11, 1964, two days after their famous appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Beatles played their first Stateside gig at the Washington Coliseum (now Uline Arena). The space hasn’t been used for concerts for decades, but Paul McCartney, who just returned to America for the final leg of his “One on One” tour, still remembers it. We spoke with McCartney during a tour stop in Denmark.
It’s been 52 years ago, but do you remember anything about that first show?
What do you mean?
When you asked us kids, what’s your favorite toothpaste or what’s your favorite breakfast, what are your favorite sweets or candies . . . we said jelly babies or jelly beans. It was just a flippant remark, but the fans latched on to it and it went global. So what happened is they started throwing it at us. Which would sometimes hit you in the eye or would melt but worst of all, they would land on the stage and you would walk on them all and you would be walking through this glutinous mess of jelly babies. After that, we said, you know what, we don’t like jelly babies anymore.
On this tour, you’re playing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Love Me Do” live for the first time as a solo artist. What made you hold off, and why now?
Normally, I used to resist something that wasn’t sort of my song. I would do “Drive My Car,” but then I would avoid “Help” or something like that because I felt it was more John than me. But I happened to relax that theory, and I’m just very happy to just do stuff that I think is a good song. I heard “A Hard Day’s Night” on the radio and thought, “Wow, great song,” and I realized John and I were both so excited about the song we both sang the lead vocal. Something that doesn’t happen these days. And that chord is one of the most iconic chords in music.
There are whole seminars on how you learn to play that chord.
It’s actually impossible. There’s a lot of archaeology involved.
Your last new album came out a couple of years ago. Do you have a songwriting routine? Do you sit down and write?
The thing is, because I’m touring quite a bit this year, it’s a question of making time. We were in Sao Paulo, I think it was last year. [McCartney played two concerts there in late 2014.] I had a day off with absolutely nothing to do. My wife, Nancy, wasn’t with me. I slept in late, got up, hung out and I suddenly had three or four hours with absolutely nothing to do. That’s the ideal time. So I wrote a song in that period.
Then there’s turning that into a releasable song, right?
Sometimes I will go into my recording studio and look through demos. Because I have way too many little half-finished demos. With the luxury of being able to stick things down on a Dictaphone, make voice memos, that’s actually a very bad thing. You make millions of half-finished songs.
Do you walk around with an iPhone and record bits when you get them?
Yeah, if you get a good idea. Or you see something. I either make a note in my notepad or do a little voice memo. Just to remind myself exactly the feel of the song. But it does mean you have a lot of fragments and you’ve got to figure out a way of piecing those together. So what I’ve done with our promoter is I’ve said, I think the last gigs are the end of October sometime. After that, I don’t want to take any more engagements this year. I’d like to get an album by next year.
What exactly are you working on in the studio?
I’m working on a film project that I’m writing some songs for. An animated film thing. The film thing, I don’t like it. Because you’re totally gung-ho and you’re doing it and somebody rings you up and says, “Well, it’s on hold.” One of the characters in our film, I’d rung up Lady Gaga and asked her to sing this song. It came out really good, but we can’t do anything with it until the film gets made. You feel like sometimes you’re walking in treacle. We made a start on it and once we get the go-ahead I will finish up the other songs and record them, and there’s one more I’d like Gaga to do.
You’ve made music just sitting in a room by yourself playing all the instruments. I love your drummer for some reason. But you’ve also recorded with everyone from Kanye to Michael Jackson to Elvis Costello. Do you like one more than the other? Do you get into a different groove doing one or the other?
I’m very lucky really. Rather than getting into a groove, you can get into a rut. I like to avoid that at all costs. So for me it’s the groove over the rut. Which happens when you do quite varied projects. I really had a great time working with Kanye. And I admire him as an artist and a producer. It was completely different from anything I’ve ever done before, but I think we got some good music out of it. The Rihanna song, “FourFiveSeconds.” And then I’ll come to work by myself. And I’ll sit down as I traditionally have done with a guitar, and so that now is freshened up by the experience with Kanye, and then I’ll go in the studio and work with [Adele producer] Greg [Kurstin] and that again is freshened up. And then I’ll tour. I think all those inspirations rub off on each other.
Some people might say, why even worry about putting out new records? You had this funny thing happen where you and Beck couldn’t get into that post-Grammys party and you said something like, “We better start working on some new songs.”
No, I said, ‘We better come up with some hits.’ It was irony, I hope people understood. Because Beck, who I was hanging with, just got the Grammy for album of the year. And also we were hanging with Woody Harrelson, who was currently in “The Hunger Games.” It wasn’t like I was with a gang of no-hopers. The truth about that story is, we weren’t even trying to get in that place. We were trying to establish whether that was Mark Ronson’s party or not. It turned out not to be. But the bouncer didn’t get it. I said, ‘Look, all I want to know is this Mark Ronson’s party.’ [He said:] ‘You can’t come in.’ ‘I don’t want to come in. Is this Mark Ronson’s party?’ The thing is, the guy was a bit thick. And he didn’t even see who anyone was. If you had flashed the big laminates he’d been told to accept, then you’d get in. And then suddenly, this is not the place and we’re talking to the guy and we’re just about to leave and what do I see, the ubiquitous TMZ camera focused on us.
I want to get to this new compilation you put out, “Pure McCartney.” What I like is that it feels like a mix tape.
That was the original thought. It was like a playlist. The ideal thing is if you’ve got a three-hour car journey and you’ve got the perfect thing to listen to, he said modestly.
How involved did you get in the song selection?
To tell you the truth, this was an idea that was put to me by one of my girls in my New York office, who I respect and is sort of a great music fan and connoisseur. She said, I’ve been listening and putting together playlists and I think it would be great to do this. So she came up with the first playlist. Then I got involved.
What’s her name?
Her name is Nancy Jeffries.
I want to lodge just one complaint with Nancy Jeffries. “Flowers in the Dirt.” I could go on and on about what’s wonderful about that album. And there’s not a song from it.
You know why, because it’s about to be reissued. It’s our next big box set. We’re working on that at the moment. So she would avoid that.
Will it be released in its entirety? There are all those songs you wrote and recorded with Elvis Costello, many of them not officially released.
That’s one of the real exciting things. Those demos. We’re releasing them as part of this package. I’m not sure I’m supposed to be telling you this. . . . It’s great that you’re a fan of “Flowers in the Dirt.” Cause you’ve got a real nice release coming out. We showed it all to Elvis, and he was just tickled pink.
I do have to ask you about Brexit. Where’d you land? And are you having E.U. remorse?
I think like a lot people I was very confused. I was so confused that I couldn’t vote.
I was actually doing concerts and I physically couldn’t get to it. But even if I had have been able to, I was so confused. You were hearing what seemed to be good arguments on both sides. I think I would have come down on the remain side because people like the governor of the Bank of England, a lot of financial experts, were saying that.
Paul, one last thing. My son, who just turned 6, asked me what I was doing today and I said I was talking to Paul McCartney. And he asked if I could ask you one question. And the question is . . . Where’s Ringo?
What was the question?
Oh, I believe he’s out on tour. [Pause] You tell him, he’s in Paul’s heart.