Paul McCartney has sued the Beatles, fought Yoko and been called 'petty' by his old mate Ringo. But, preparing to headline this year's Glastonbury festival, he tells John Harris why the insults will never grind him down
Friday June 11, 2004
The girl is mine: Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Photo: PA
Prague's T-Mobile Park is a pretty grim place: a scrappy rectangle of land some 20 minutes' drive from the city centre, surrounded by the rusting remains of communist-era industry. Today, it is also spread with a layer of sticky mud, and rendered yet more unpleasant by the imminent prospect of rain.
Some people, however, have managed to erect their own small bit of sunshine. Pressed up against a security barrier is a fantastically excited middle-aged Russian man, dressed in the international uniform of those who have been hopelessly afflicted by rock music (black drainpipe jeans, Converse trainers, threadbare tour T-shirt), and accompanied by the obligatory embarrassed female partner. Watched anxiously by a gaggle of Czech security staff, he simply spends an hour shouting. "Paul! You are de best!" he yelps. "You still are de best! From Russia with love! You are de greatest!"
Up on the stage, Paul McCartney is leading his band through a soundcheck that takes in an apparently random array of music. To start with, he plays Coming Up, a 1980 solo single released some six months before John Lennon's death, and rather grudgingly described by McCartney's one-time songwriting partner as "a good piece of work". He goes on to Honey Don't and Matchbox, 1950s rockabilly covers perfected during the Beatles' brain-pounding trips to Hamburg, whose recorded versions were sung by Ringo Starr. And he ends with a song from Abbey Road, the album knowingly created as the group's last word to their public.
Written as the Beatles' internal bond was ripped apart by the entry into their lives of the notoriously shady impresario Allen Klein, it still sounds wonderfully crestfallen. "You never give me your money," he sings. "You only give me your funny paper/ And in the middle of negotiations/ You break down." It's a compelling sound: proof that a great song is something you can momentarily live in, a place populated by all kinds of ghosts.
The show that follows five hours later only proves the point. When McCartney sings She's a Woman and I Saw Her Standing There, the vast screens on either side of the stage are filled with the image of the moptop-era Beatles, sprinting from yet another fan ambush, or obediently mugging for the camera. A rendition of Band on the Run is accompanied by film of Wings, the post-Beatles enterprise that briefly gripped the 1970s mainstream just before the arrival of punk.
At the show's end, by contrast, McCartney stands at the lip of the stage alone. This is a relatively new thing for him: the Beatles took their famously low bows as an unbreakable quartet; with Wings and beyond, he was always accompanied by his first wife, Linda. It also represents a final reminder of the contrasting fates of McCartney and his two most celebrated colleagues - for while John Lennon and George Harrison have been divested of any imperfections and installed in that part of the hereafter reserved for musicians who somehow come close to being saints, Paul McCartney must still go about his labours in the Real World.
This, of course, brings forth all kinds of malign consequences. For every virtue posthumously attached to Lennon, McCartney's detractors can come up with a corresponding vice. John luxuriated in his genius; Paul is hideously unsure of himself. John sailed out to avant-garde extremes; Paul is a sugary balladeer. John was always dismissive of Beatles nostalgia; Paul clings to it like a security blanket.
Precious little of this stuff adds up, of course: listen to a Lennon song as saccharine as Woman, or as paranoid as his anti-Paul tirade How Do You Sleep?, and you soon understand that the Beatles' famous belief that they were somehow "four sides of the same person" meant that their abiding characteristics were shared rather than split. But in the UK, some of this stuff has coloured the more negative perceptions of McCartney, as he well knows. Unlike Lennon's work, the sentiments of his songs have usually been founded in magnanimity and generosity of spirit, but it's perhaps telling that on four occasions during our interview, his descriptions of his place in the public mind include the word "bastard".
Interestingly, he traces much of this not to Lennon's death in 1980, but to December 1970 - when, desperate to extricate himself from the aforementioned Allen Klein, he took the last resort of legal action against John, George and Ringo. "The fact that I had to sue the Beatles was something that was very, very difficult, 'cos I could see what that would do in terms of perception of me," he says. "People could quite easily say, 'You know what? I'd never do that, no matter if it meant losing everything. He's a hard-hearted bastard. And a mean bastard. And a money-grabbing bastard.'
"And doing well didn't help. We'd tried to get Apple going, and in the short term, it had failed spectacularly. And I started doing my own business, and it started to do quite well. That's what happened, and it resulted in that split: 'John's really cool, and Paul isn't.'"
His recent cuttings files have, lest we forget, taken in two splurges of coverage that only heightened the sense of smouldering hostility. First came the upsurge of enmity that accompanied his marriage to Heather Mills, later manifested in gleeful dissections of both her alleged tendency to embroider her personal history, and rumoured spats with McCartney's children. Meanwhile, 2002 saw a splurge of coverage around McCartney's crediting of 19 songs on a live album to "Paul McCartney and John Lennon", in brazen contravention of the supposedly unimpeachable Lennon-McCartney brand-name. The latter brought forth a threat of legal action from Yoko Ono, and criticism even from Ringo Starr, who curtly declared McCartney's actions to be "p