If the name Abbey Road holds magic for Beatles fans, imagine its meaning to Paul McCartney.
The veteran singer-songwriter returns to the British studio where Sir Paul, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr made music history -- even naming one of their classic albums after the place -- in "Paul McCartney: Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road," a new PBS "Great Performances" offering Monday, Feb. 27 (check local listings).
In the intimate setting of Studio 2, McCartney plays the majority of the instruments himself as friends and fans sample acoustic versions of tunes from his latest release, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," recently nominated for multiple Grammy Awards. The hour includes the Beatles classics "Lady Madonna" and "Blackbird" and nods to early musical inspirations Eddie Cochran ("Twenty Flight Rock") and Elvis Presley ("Heartbreak Hotel").
In a phone call from London, McCartney discussed the show.
Zap2it: How did this special come to be?
Paul McCartney: I'd been asked by the BBC to do a television commercial for one of its radio stations that was becoming cool at the time. They wanted certain people like me and Michael Stipe to be filmed very simply, doing a performance of one of our favorite songs in a way the audience had never heard it before. I said, "How about if I do 'Band on the Run' acoustically?" They said, "Great." Someone reminded me I'd already done an acoustic version, so it became kind of a challenge to me, using things like wineglasses and a harmonium.
The commercial played on British television, and a couple of people saw it while we were talking about what to do to promote the newest album. This idea came up again, and I was asked to extend the same approach to a couple of other numbers. I said, "Yeah, wow, I'd love to do that. Let's get into Abbey Road, let me get a whole bunch of equipment, and let me just make it up right there."
Zap2it: Was everyone willing to play along with your idea?
McCartney: Well, of course, it freaked out the film director. I said, "Don't worry about it. I have to feel my way around the studio. Just have a camera rolling; I'll give you some anecdotes, then in the middle I'll say, 'Let's try the piano here, or let's put an amp there.' " By the end of the first day, they had an idea of what I was going to do, but nobody ever got a script.
Zap2it: Did the format make it fairly easy to select the song lineup?
McCartney: Yeah, and there were also some anecdotes that just led right into certain songs. For instance, I talk about being left-handed, and that if I ever wanted to use anyone else's guitar -- like John's -- I had to learn to play a right-handed guitar upside down. I demonstrate how I did that, which led to my being invited to be in the band (the Quarry Men, the Beatles' forerunners), which led to my being in the Beatles.
Zap2it: Was the return to the Abbey Road studio very emotional for you?
McCartney: Yes, exactly. It's a space that holds many millions of memories. I've been back there occasionally to do a recording, so I keep an association with the place ... but to actually go back in there and do this program focused all the memories.
Zap2it: Does the studio have the same sort of magic for you?
McCartney: It always has. One reason is that they haven't really changed it. It's still the old studio the Beatles recorded in, so the history is still there. Seeing as we made a few decent records there, people want the sound of the studio to remain the same, so they haven't ever done a major remodeling of it. To walk in there now is very similar to when I first walked in.
Zap2it: Exactly what do you think about when you're there?
McCartney: The first time, then the year after that, and so on throughout the whole Beatles career. Every little inch of the studio has some memory for me. The trouble is that I can never stop telling anecdotes when I'm in there. I'm like, "Here's where I first saw John do the solo to so-and-so" or, "This is where we sat when I brought in 'Hey Jude.'" That's the only thing likely to get in my way when I'm in there, spending all that time chatting.
Zap2it: If you feel people expect a sound similar to the Beatles, do you worry that they have other expectations for your new material?
McCartney: Not really, no. If I was going to worry about that, that would have happened a long time ago. People often think that since I wrote "Eleanor Rigby," I wonder how I'm going to top that. That's not how it happens, because I'm so enthused about anything I do, that overrides any other considerations.
Zap2it: Do you enjoy reflecting on your Beatles years just as much today?
McCartney: Oh, it's great. People ask me, "Don't you get fed up with talking about the Beatles?" The truth is, I don't, really ... and if I do, I'll shut up. Most of the time, I love it. It's my history, too. It's a matter of talking about my formative, special moments with my friends.