Paul McCartney joins Nile Rodgers for a fascinating masterclass discussion on songwriting in a new episode of Apple Music 1’s Deep Hidden Meaning Radio with Nile Rodgers.
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Situated in his home recording studio where he recorded his latest album McCartney III, the former Beatle takes listeners back into the songwriter’s room with John Lennon as the two wrote “A Day In The Life” before bringing it to the recording studio with George Martin.
He also recalls how he wrote the Wings hit “Jet,” his thoughts on how people interpret his songs, and a prized possession of his- the original double bass used by Bill Black on early Elvis Presley recordings. Rodgers in turn reveals how one of Paul’s songs altered the course of his life and the life-changing moment many teenagers experienced in February 1964- seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Nile Rodgers: “My first kiss was a girl from my elementary school who took me to see The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. This girl was like the most beautiful thing in the world, she was like an angel. I’m going, ‘she’s taking me?’ I’ve got these big thick glasses and I looked so funny and ridiculous. And I’d never heard of The Beatles and she drags me over and at the end of the show she’s screaming and going crazy. Now, we’re young teenagers and she kisses me and I’m like, ‘Woah, The Beatles are it!’”
Paul McCartney: “No wonder you liked The Beatles, yeah. Come on, man!” [laughs]
Rodgers: “I’m looking right behind you at a double bass but it’s a double bass that I’ve never seen before. Is there a story about that?”
McCartney: “You walked right into that one. You have seen this bass before, and I’ll tell you where you’ve seen it. If you’ve ever seen photographs of Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore and Bill Black – that is his bass. That is the Elvis Presley bass that’s on all those early records of Elvis’s. We knew a guy in Nashville. The bass was just in a barn, nobody bothered with it anymore ‘cause Bill Black himself, the player with Elvis, had died. So Linda actually got it for me for my birthday. So there it is man, you’ve seen it, the world has seen this bass. And you know what my ambition is? One of these days, maybe when I pop my clogs, this has got to end up, this bass side by side with my little Hofner bass, in a museum somewhere.”
McCartney: Do you want me to tell you about “Jet?”
Rodgers: “Please do!”
McCartney: “I was up in Scotland and it was a nice day, and I was on this little farm up there. So one day I just took my guitar out into the countryside and up this big mountain. And I find this beautiful little spot and I’m just making up a song. And what came to mind was we had a little pony for the kids, it was called Jet. A little black pony. So I thought, “OK, [sings] Jet!” and just shouted that and struck an A chord. “Jet!” So I got a little rhythm going.”
“Then I just started to think of this thing of when Linda and I had first got married, you know, I had her father to deal with. He was a great man, a lovely man, but he definitely was a father figure. He could be a little bit serious, a little bit restrictive, so this whole idea came into my mind, “Jet, your father was a Sergeant Major.” I started going off down that track of [sings] ‘Jet, I can almost remember the funny faces. That time you told him that you were going to be marrying soon.’ And I just made it up.”
“It’s largely fictional. Then it gets to the chorus, I go for some reason – and I really have no idea where this popped from – I do this ‘Ah, mater.’ And ‘mater’ is Latin for ‘mother.’ I don’t know why I stuck that in. Maybe it’s just a word I liked. It just developed and by the time I came down off that mountain with my guitar I had the song finished.”
“So it’s this crazy little song. Really, if you break it down, it’s about a little black pony and some marital troubles and a Latin mother [laughs] jumbled all into one. Now there’s a case where people can make up their own mind as to what they think that means.”
Rodgers: “Your songs could mean 80 million things to 80 million different people. And everyone would argue with you that this is what you meant.”
Paul McCartney: “I never mind that. Once I’ve finished with my song and I release it then I don’t mind who makes what interpretation of it. At least, for me, they’re thinking about it. They’re free to think it means this, that or the other. If they ask me what it means I’ll say, “OK, well this is what I think it means but you’re free, feel free to think of it as anything you wish.”
Rodgers: “What is the deep hidden meaning of “A Day In the Life,” what is that song all about? Is it as frontal as ‘a day in the life?’”
McCartney: “John came over as he often did and he said, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea.’ So, he started to play the first verse. Then we got a newspaper and we started to look at stories in the newspaper and we started to try to write a verse about it. And one of the stories was: it had been discovered that there were a lot of potholes in Blackburn in Lancashire, which was up north where we used to live. There had been, like, a thousand potholes (that) had been discovered. So we just took this and we kind of ran with it, like, ‘Now you know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.’ We were just taking a line or a name and just massaging it. And then there was a story about a guy we knew who was one of the Guinness family, a guy called Tara, who was a very good friend. A young boy, lovely guy, very sweet, very gentle, and he’d had a car crash, I think it was in Chelsea, and it had killed him. So suddenly this friend of ours was dead and, you know, being the 60’s we used to get high with him and stuff. So that just morphed itself into the story of ‘He blew his mind out in a car.’ We took that little incident and just massaged it and put that little poetic thought into the song.”
McCartney: “So there’s me and John sitting up in my little music room with the two guitars and we’re playing it, we’re writing it, we’re scribbling down the lyrics. And then we get to the middle bit and I start to get a little bit autobiographical then. I’ve got a story in my head which is about when I used to go to school in Liverpool. I used to have to get up early, used to have to take a half-hour bus journey into the city where the school was. And this actually is also the school George Harrison went to.”
“So that became [sings] ‘Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head.’ I get on the bus anyway, [sings] ‘Found my way upstairs and had a smoke.’ Now we’re going out of the autobiographical stuff because it’s poetic license. Like you said, you start off with something that may be real but then you don’t need to stay there. You’re writing poetry, you’re writing a song. So, once I get upstairs and said, ‘I had a smoke.’ In those days I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, all hell’s going to break loose.’ And so the song then was allowed to kind of go somewhere big, so we had this big orchestra on the session. So that goes into big chords to symbolize I’ve had a smoke and I’ve got high. So it was a mixture of all of those things but it was beautiful, it was just started off, the first verse and the melody was brought in by John. This so often happened with us, one of us would have something, bring it in, and we’d just sit and work for the next couple of hours and finish it up. So that was a beautiful one to do and one of the funny moments in it was – we were sitting there, as I say, just the two of us with guitars, and then we get to this bit and the line just came out naturally and it was like ‘I’d love to turn you on’ [sings it].”
Rodgers: “My favorite part of the record!”
McCartney: “So you could believe the look we gave each other across these two guitars. ‘Uh oh! Here we go. This is going to turn people on.’ [sings] ‘I’d love to turn you on.’ And you kind of know when you’re doing something like that, that you’re being a bit cheeky, you’re being a little bit rebellious by throwing in a line like that but, hey, it’s poetry, it’s a song.”
McCartney reveals how he directed the orchestra on “A Day In the Life”
McCartney: “I got this idea that it would be great for this orchestra, and a trip for us to watch them deal with it. But we get this orchestra and say, ‘OK guys, at this section all you’ve got to do is you go from the lowest note on your instrument, whatever it is, and you’ve got to reach the highest note on your instrument, whatever that is, by this point.’ I think it was roughly 23 bars or something. So we counted it out. And we said, ‘But between those two, you can go at any speed. You can go as slow as you like to reach it or you can just go [makes glissando noise] whatever, you’re free.’ And everyone’s looking at me like I’m mad because these are regular orchestral players. And in those days, they weren’t quite as open to ideas like this as they are now. Anyway, I saw this bewildered look.”
“George Martin, The Beatles’ producer, came in and George was very much a qualified musician and he said, ‘Well, let me explain it a bit.’ So George sort of segmented it up a little bit. He said, ‘OK, these first 10 bars, why don’t you get to there on your instrument? Then the next 10 bars get to there.’ But it was interesting because the violins – all the strings, the violins particularly – followed each other. They weren’t willing to go out on a limb and go crazy. So they’re going [mimics slow moving upward notes] all looking at each other, ‘What note are you on? I’d better get there!’ However, the brass and the trumpets and all those guys, they didn’t give a s***. So they’re like [mimics wild trumpet playing]. You know, they’re more jazz influenced. But it was great, it was such a great session to do.”
McCartney continues and discusses the final chord of “A Day In the Life”
McCartney: The final chord, which I think is the E chord – and one of the great things about working at EMI Abbey Road was there were loads of instruments always there for other sessions. So Daniel Barenboim would have a special Steinway – 11-foot Steinway, whatever the big classical Steinway is – and it would always be there in the studio. We’d have to ask for the key, we’d say, ‘Can we get this open?’ They’d go, ‘Yes, sure, Daniel won’t mind. He’ll never know!’ And there were lots of instruments like that, which is one of the reasons we were so multi-instrumentational with The Beatles because we had options of all these instruments. And I’d noticed this thing that if you held the loud pedal down on a piano, just hit a chord [mimics piano chord], and then just leave it, you’d be surprised at how long it goes on for. You’d think it would just go [mimics short, sustained chord], gone. But it goes forever! And so I was saying to the guys, ‘Listen, this is great I love this.’ So the last chord on ‘A Day In the Life’ we went [mimics long piano chord] and then George Martin’s skill and the engineers, what George did was, as the sound was receding, he was lifting the faders up. So he was compensating. So it was really cool. It was very experimental, the whole thing.
Nile Rodgers tells Paul McCartney how “A Day In the Life” was the first song he learned on guitar and how that changed his life.
Rodgers: “’A Day In the Life’ for me is insane. I was a classical musician when I was younger and I played many different instruments, and they were all woodwind instruments. And then – boom – hippies came into my life and the guitar became the instrument of choice. So I tried to play a song. I got a Beatles songbook and the favorite song in my world at that point was ‘A Day In the Life.’ And I kept trying to play it. My mom’s boyfriend comes home, and he sees me struggling over this thing. Now, I’d been working on it for a couple of weeks. He walks into the room and he says, ‘Man, what have you got that thing tuned like?’ I didn’t know anything about guitar, so I probably had it tuned like a violin or something like that. Anyway, he comes in, he retunes the guitar for me and then I play the chord positioning and all of a sudden it rings out perfectly, it’s in tune. I go [imitates guitar strum] and I go very slowly [sings] ‘I read the news today oh boy’ really slow ‘about a lucky man who made the grade.’ And I’m going, ‘Oh my God’ and it sounded incredible.”
McCartney: “This is it. You’ve arrived.”
Rodgers: “And the F chord comes up and I play it and I can hear it and it’s clear as a bell. And everyone in the room is look at me going, damn dude you can play an F chord!”
“And I swear to God I always say I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary, I was like, ‘Woah, I did this.’ And at that point I had thrown away every other instrument and I only concentrated on guitar for the rest of my life.”
McCartney: “Well, it helps to have it tuned like a guitar. Once you’ve got it tuned like a guitar you’re definitely on the way.”
Rodgers: “But Paul I have to say that this makes me feel like my musical life, like it’s a complete circle. I’m talking to the human being who caused a seismic shift in my life. And I have so much respect for you, but I mean this sincerely, sincerely, from a black kid in the ghetto who heard a song and had to figure it out, and just from figuring that song out it put me so far ahead of the other people at my level because I didn’t realize what I was doing. From ignorance and from chaos I wound up finding order and a direction.”
McCartney: “That’s a beautiful thing, man. So, from some little white boy from the ghetto to a little black boy from the ghetto I send you peace and love, brother.”