On the Long and Winding Road With Paul McCartney

It is a freezing Thursday in December, and the scene at Toronto's spectacular Skydome facility looks like an ant farm. Hundreds of crew members, technicians, security guards, food caterers, ushers and select members of the press are running around, each with a job to do.
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Paul, Linda and bandmates (L to R): Chris Whitten (drums), Hamish Stuart (bass, guitar), Robbie McIntosh (guitar) and Paul Wickens (keys).

It is a freezing Thursday in December, and the scene at Toronto's spectacular Skydome facility looks like an ant farm. Hundreds of crew members, technicians, security guards, food caterers, ushers and select members of the press are running around, each with a job to do. The occasion for all this activity is the appearance of Paul McCartney at the 60,000-seat arena, surely one of Toronto's most anticipated concert events since John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared at The Peace Festival in 1969.

While the rest of the facility is in a state of controlled hyperactive energy, the scene backstage in the hospitality suite is totally relaxed. McCartney band members Hamish Stuart and Robbie McIntosh crack jokes over a friendly game of pool; McCartney's wife and keyboardist, Linda, is busy preparing a vegetarian meal; son James, age 11, is zapping foes on a video game machine.

In the doorway. Paul McCartney stands adjusting a baseball cap on his head and a wool scarf around his neck. He has just completed a 45-minute soundcheck for the show, but before he can eat dinner, he has one more interview to conduct, his fourth today.

There is concern that tonight's show, only the fourth stop on the initial North American leg of McCartney's 1989-1990 world tour, may suffer from poor sound.

"1 can't really tell you about that until tonight," says McCartney, who at age 47 still sports that unmistakable baby face he had during his years as a Beatle. "I know that I don't like going to shows of this size, normally. So, we'll have to see how we do in this. I haven't done one of these size halls in quite a while. The last one I did like this was the Seattle Kingdome (on the Wings tour of '76], which I think went down very well; nobody complained. I've got a suspicion that no one will complain tonight, but I'm not going to count my chickens.

"I saw Genesis in Wembley Stadium, and I couldn't tell whether Phil Collins was on the stage or not," he continues. "I think that's a problem. Then you come out and you realize you've been watching the telly all evening, when you thought you were watching a concert. I mean, you could have stayed at home and done this. That would have been warmer. We're trying to address those problems. We'll see. We're trying to make the show good wherever we are, whether it's in a pub or a venue this size. The idea is the music should be good enough to satisfy you. We'll see how you feel tomorrow. I hope no one feels ripped off."

He shouldn't worry. Ninety minutes later, the Skydome bursts into thunderous cheers and applause, as McCartney and his band stage a brilliant two-and-a-half-hour performance encompassing every phase of his musical career. The audience hears a crystal clear audio mix.

Featuring more than 17 Beatle songs, and only his best solo material, the show not only pays tribute to his rich musical history, but also firmly reestablishes McCartney as a contemporary pop music force.

Though "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Live and Let Die" (with a stunning display of laser lights and explosions) and "My Brave Face" are enthusiastically received, it is clearly the wide selection of Beatles material that most people came to hear. And when he closes the show with the line, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," from Abbey Road's side two medley, there isn't a dry eye in the house.

"You see grown men crying," McCartney says. "There is a lot of emotion, because I think it reminds people of a better time, or when they were first courting each other. That's what these songs do. They take people back."

In early 1989 McCartney decided to launch the tour. Rehearsals began in March of last year and stretched over five months. The big question for Paul and the band at the outset was, "Which songs should the show include?"

"It was pretty democratic," says guitarist Robbie McIntosh of the decision-making process for the set list. "We had a big list of 70 songs-all the Beatles ones, all the Wings ones, all the solo ones-and we just went through and said 'maybe,' 'yes,' 'definitely,' 'no.' There were a few that we did that didn't make it for one reason or another, that didn't fit in the set very well: 'We Can Work It Out,' 'Lady Madonna.' I really wanted to do 'Paperback Writer,' but that got cut."

Because McCartney moves around the stage so much, playing acoustic and electric guitars, piano, synthesizers and, of course, bass, the hardest part of putting the show together was working around the instruments he plays on each song.

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McIntosh, who was only 7 when the Beatles had their first Number One hit in the UK, says he was concerned about how his and the other musicians' interpretations of the Beatles and McCartney classics would be accepted by audiences.

"I worried about that for a while," he says. "It crossed my mind. You have to just get on with it. You do have to try and be faithful to the parts of the record that are important, and also have fun with it. A lot of guitar parts, especially on Beatles songs, were conceived when the record was conceived. They're just as important as the lyrics or the melodies. You don't mess with them.

"You've got to have the right amount of respect," he continues. "But you can't just paraphrase it, either. Like in 'Let It Be' I play a different solo every night; I just wing it. Whereas in 'Can't Buy Me Love,' Paul and I do the solo together as it is on the record."

The show is also heavy with material from Flowers in the Dirt, McCartney's critically acclaimed "comeback" album, which features his current band and songwriting collaborations with Elvis Costello. Although the album has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, McCartney is clearly disappointed with the response in America. He felt so strongly about the album, he decided to tour for the first time in 13 years to promote it.

The album is McCartney's most consistent work in years, and features not only strong material but an array of producers, including Neil Dorfsman (known for his work on Bruce Springsteen's The River and Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms); Trevor Horn (from Frankie Goes To Hollywood fame); Capitol Records house producer Mitchell Froom; Chris Hughes (Tears For Fears); and finally, longtime associate and Beatles producer George Martin.

Asked why he keeps going back to Martin, McCartney offers with a hearty laugh, "Well, I know his address!

"No, really. I love George Martin. He's a marvelous man and we get on very well. I've known him a long time, so we can sit down, and in half an hour we can do something that is very constructive. I don't have to go through meeting him and getting to know him and checking out his chemistry. Plus, he's a great musician."

McIntosh, who played many of the intricate guitar parts on the Flowers album, says that even though McCartney used several producers on the album and that he worked well with each of them, he never relinquished control of the project.

"No he doesn't leave it to the producer," he says. "He's got a lot more clout. If he's not happy with something, he's not going to let it out. He's really the producer, even if he's got a producer. But he uses their ideas. He's very open to their ideas. He's not dictatorial or anything.

"He tries things out, moves things around," McIntosh continues. "He's got the time; I think that's why. In the old days you didn't have open-ended budgets and you didn't have 24 tracks. I mean, all those limitations kind of forced you to come up with the goods a lot quicker."

But it is the old days of recording that McCartney says he wants to "get back" to. His 1989 album, Back in the USSR, a collection of 1950s rock 'n' roll chestnuts released only in the Soviet Union, was recorded in one day-as was the first Beatles album, Please, Please Me, 26 years ago.

"One of the main differences between then and now is it used to be a lot quicker to record." McCartney says. 'We recorded the first Beatles album in a day: 10 o'clock in the morning to 10 o'clock at night. And we did "Twist & Shout" last, because if we had done it first, we couldn't have done any of the other songs-John's voice would have gone.

"One day for an album-that was pretty fast," McCartney says. "Now it takes one day to switch on the machines, load the computer and find out where the 'on' switch is. That's the main difference. It just takes forever now to record one song.

"On that Russian album, we did 18 songs in a day, and it was really good. I think it's more fun to record that way: very spontaneous and immediate. The other way-God, it's terrible! You get all this computer downtime. It's like, 'Take five hours guys, while we fix the computer.' And the computer, you know, was introduced to make things cheaper and quicker," he notes with a boyish chuckle.

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McCartney attempted to bring back some of that spontaneity to Flowers. For example, he limited producer Trevor Horn to only two days to record and mix "Rough Ride," one of the hottest tracks on the LP.

Most of Flowers in the Dirt was done in the time-consuming, meticulous fashion of McCartney's other solo ventures, however. The time put in paid off-it is unquestionably one of his best records, sonically. It is also his most musically adventurous project in some time. With the help of Elvis Costello on a few tracks, he was able to re-create the "two-way conversation" approach to lyrics that was a Lennon-McCartney trademark. Though that wasn't the intention, McCartney acknowledges the material he wrote with Costello is closer in spirit to some Beatles songs than most of what he's written since the Fab Four fell apart.

"He's a Beatles fan and, I suspect, a John fan," McCartney says of Costello. "Because, you know, often guys who wear glasses identify with other guys who wear glasses," he laughs. "He's similar to John in a number of ways, and it wasn't a deterrent. It was good to work with him, mainly because he's a good writer and he's got a very strong opinion."

McCartney is confident the album will stand out in time as one of his best. But Flowers in the Dirt isn't the only reason for the tour. The McCartneys are also using the tour as a vehicle to help promote Friends of the Earth, a small but vocal organization dedicated to a number of pressing environmental issues. "I have a platform with my concerts and press conferences and interviews, where I can actually talk to radio, TV and journalists and press on the fact that Friends of the Earth do want [the planet] cleaned up," McCartney comments. "It's not for me that I'm doing it. It's for us all."

McCartney's tour, like many other big rock treks these days, is being sponsored by a large corporation, Visa, which is using McCartney's likeness to plug its charge card. For his services, Visa has underwritten the travel expenses of the entire tour and made a large cash contribution to Friends of the Earth.

"A big tour of this size has got to be sponsored by someone," McCartney says. "What we were doing was sticking out for a sponsor that we could keep our integrity with, so I didn't actually have to hold up anything and say 'Go out and buy this!'

"Someone said to me the other day that the Beatles were anti-commercial. We weren't. It's as if we never got paid in the '60s or we never accepted any money! We never did commercials, but this is not really me doing a commercial. This is a commercial about the tour. I've been offered a lot of money to hold up a whiskey bottle in Japan. That I don't want to do. That is what I call a commercial."

No matter what is said, the fact remains: Paul and Linda McCartney will never need to do anything for the money. With a net worth estimated at nearly $500 million, they remain the richest musicians in the history of show business.

Inside the hospitality suite at the Skydome, the evening news is being shown on a big-screen TV. The news this night is dominated by the story of a mentally disturbed young man who shot 14 college women in Montreal. Tomorrow, the McCartney tour heads to that city. Ironically, that day is also the ninth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination.

The mood, to say the least, is a bit eerie.

As show time approaches, Paul, Linda and the band begin what has become the daily ritual of grabbing a vegetarian meal, getting dressed for the show and, finally, walking out in front of thousands for over two hours of musical magic.

"I'm really enjoying this," says McIntosh, about to hit the stage. "I'm playing some of my favorite songs. It's a boyhood dream come true."

Having endured 25 years at the top of the rock 'n' roll heap, McCartney is finally asked what the next decade will be all about. Surprisingly, his response has nothing to do with music, show biz, fame or the like. It is, instead, a hope that the world can finally be a better-and cleaner-place to live.

"The '90s is finally going to be the time when people realize we've got to clean this world up, and we're going to do it in order to have a clean 21st century. Well, that's my wish, anyway."

Bruce Pilato is a contributing editor for Mix who lives with his wife and three children in upstate New York. He is currently writing his first book.