In 1986, Paul McCartney realized that his appeal had faded.
The signs of decline were here, there and everywhere.
* His ill-conceived movie “Give My Regards to Broad Street” had been a embarrassing box-office failure.
* His largely uninspired “Press to Play” album was his first studio collection ever to fall short of the Top 20 in the United States.
* Most sobering of all, perhaps, was his realization that a new generation of rock fans was growing up thinking that the Beatles had been John Lennon’s band. It was a belief based partly on the sentimental outpouring following Lennon’s murder, but also on the discouragingly uneven quality of McCartney’s albums in the ‘80s.
It was a moment of truth for the man who had once rivaled Elvis Presley as rock’s biggest star.
Fabulously wealthy from all the Beatles royalties and music-publishing investments, McCartney could have simply retired to a life of luxury rather than risk bruising his ego even more by trying to regain public favor.
But he decided to fight back.
McCartney’s manager, a former British record executive named Richard Ogden, stressed to him at the time that the old Beatles ties no longer assured him of a best-selling album.
The unpleasant truth, others pointed out, was that such lackluster albums as “Back to the Egg” in 1979 and “Pipes of Peace” in 1983 had caused much of the pop world to write him off as a major voice in the world of pop music.
To re-establish himself as a contemporary artist, Ogden and others argued, McCartney needed to first act like a contemporary artist. He had to make a competitive album, go on tour and do the normal promotional interviews.
“It was time to prove something to myself,” McCartney says now, looking back on the months after “Press to Play.” He told himself: “Either, I can’t write anymore or I’d better write something (good).”
The former Beatle rebounded this summer with “Flowers in the Dirt,” easily his most purposeful and intimate work since 1973’s “Band on the Run” and, possibly, his Beatles days. But it still wasn’t enough to restore consumer confidence.
Even rave reviews and an exhausting series of TV, radio and press interviews at the time weren’t enough to return McCartney to the Top 20. The U.S. public’s skepticism apparently ran deeper than he had imagined.
The album stalled at No. 21 on the charts last July and has sold, through last week, only about 550,000 copies, despite numerous early industry predictions that it was a sufficiently strong collection to sell 2 million to 3 million.
That left touring as perhaps McCartney’s final option. But the risk factor was high because if live shows didn’t recapture the public imagination, McCartney--who hadn’t toured in 13 years and was now 47--might not have another chance.
It’s this deeply-rooted human aspiration--to re-establish his credibility as a vital force in today’s music--that gives his new tour an especially dramatic undercurrent. But, perhaps even more significant, McCartney is seeking to reclaim his place in the Beatles’ legacy.
And the gamble is apparently paying off.
Richard Ogden said European sales of “Flowers in the Dirt” have spurted from around 600,000 before the 14-city, sold-out European tour began Sept. 26 in Oslo to more than 1.2 million last week. This Thursday night at the Forum in Inglewood, McCartney begins a brief, five-city U.S.-Canadian tour that will test his ability to rebound in North America.
McCartney’s shows at the 8,000-capacity Ahoy arena here were as sensationally effective as the Rolling Stones’ recent U.S. dates: a remarkable body of material, masterfully performed.
McCartney doesn’t just concentrate on the past--the show includes six songs from the new album--but he also doesn’t waste any time in establishing his Beatles credentials on the tour, which ended its European leg here with four shows at the Ahoy.
Within 10 seconds of the lights’ dimming, the sights and screams of Beatlemania dominated the circular building, thanks to an 11-minute film put together for the tour by Richard Lester, who 25 years ago directed the Beatles’ first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night.”
On a massive screen high above the stage, waves of semi-hysterical teen-age girls screamed as the Beatles took the stage at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1964. Other footage chronicled the band’s early innocence and enthusiasm.
There are also moments in the film that show McCartney’s solo career, which began in 1970, but the Rotterdam audience seemed most caught up in the Beatles footage.
Similarly, the audience cheered when McCartney opened the show with three songs from his solo days. But the real explosion occurred when he went into the tunes he wrote for the Beatles.
“We’re going to do a new song that Hamish (guitarist Hamish Stuart) wrote in the car on the way here tonight,” McCartney said teasingly after the three songs, leaving the audience a bit puzzled as to why someone would introduce a new song when he has so many famous ones that people want to hear.
But there was no confusion when McCartney and his five-piece band snapped into the “Got to Get You Into My Life,” a sprightly Beatles exercise from 1966.
After five more post-Beatles tunes, McCartney and the band slid into 1970’s “The Long And Winding Road,” the sweeping ballad that was the Beatles’ final No. 1 single.
Then he threw his knockout punch--a virtual festival of his songs from the Beatles days, including “The Fool on the Hill,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Back in the U.S.S.R,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be” and “Yesterday.”
Fifteen Beatles songs in all out of a total of 29 songs--an amazing percentage to anyone who remembers how McCartney included just five Beatles songs in his only other world tour (in 1976).
About the show, McCartney said after the final Rotterdam performance, “The funny thing is that all those years I tried to ignore the past. . . . I missed doing the songs as much as anybody. I’ve always been the biggest Beatle fan . . . and I’m talking of all the Beatles . . . John, George, Ringo. I hope people see that in what we’re doing on this tour.”
McCartney and Lennon were equal stars in the Beatles, but time has shifted much of the creative credit to Lennon.
That’s partly because Lennon’s first two solo albums--1970’s “Plastic Ono Band” and 1971’s “Imagine"--were extraordinary works that far outstripped McCartney’s collections in the ‘70s. Lennon also seemed to keep McCartney on the defensive for much of the decade with a series of stinging put-downs of the “softness” of McCartney’s early solo music.
But the wild card in all of this--and here’s where things get touchy--was Lennon’s murder in 1980. There was such an outpouring of emotion after the former Beatle was shot outside his New York City apartment building that a whole generation has grown up thinking Lennon was the only creative force behind the Beatles.
McCartney, understandably, finds it difficult to address this topic, fearing he’ll come across as an insensitive heavy who is picking a fight with a dead man--and former ally.
However, he alludes to it on Page 85 of the concert program that is distributed free at the concerts.
“The thing I find myself doing--which is a pity really, but it’s just because of the unfortunate circumstances--is trying to justify myself against John, and I hate to do that. There are certain people who are starting to think he was the Beatles.
“There was nobody else. George just stood there with a plectrum waiting for a solo. Now that is not true. George did a hell of a lot more than sit waiting for a solo. John would be the first to tell you that. You can’t blame people for feeling that way because it was a hell of a tragedy.”
Asked to expand on the program comments, McCartney hesitated.
“It’s just very awkward talking about this because of what happened to John,” he said finally. “John is our dead mate and it’s unseemly to try to justify what the rest of us did in the band.
“But, of course, there are times when you read about how the Beatles was John and these other three guys just sort of stood around.”
McCartney’s voice trails off. It’s a subject he obviously wants to avoid. He even downplays the drama of the tour.
“I like this band and I still very much like making music,” he said. “Every time I hear a good piece of music, it makes me think there are acres left to plow.”
However, a member of the tour entourage who asked not to be identified speaks of the tour as McCartney’s attempt to “reclaim his own history.”
“It’s not like Paul’s going on stage and taking credit for what John did,” the entourage member said. “He’s just doing his own songs and most people are amazed that he wrote them all. It’s not an attempt to rewrite history, but remind everyone of what actually happened.”
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m 64.
--From “When I’m 64"
McCartney was 25 in 1967 when he wrote “When I’m 64,” never imagining that he would one day be singing the Beatles songs at an age closer to 64 than to 25.
There are lines under his eyes now, gray in his hair and pudginess in his cheeks, but McCartney can still disarm you with the boyish charm and engaging smile that made him the favorite Beatle for millions of teen-agers in the ‘60s.
A father of four (a daughter, 26, from wife Linda’s previous marriage plus three children--age 20 to 12--of their own), McCartney is a much more engaging person during interviews than he was in the early ‘70s, when he was frustratingly guarded. Back then, you could sense him reviewing potential answers in his head before answering questions--as if trying to imagine a reader’s reaction. It was the exact opposite of Lennon, who was refreshingly direct.
He has become far more at ease in recent years, sharing his feelings more freely--able, like Lennon, to acknowledge his own artistic lapses and speak enthusiastically about his achievements in a way that never borders on arrogance.
McCartney appeared thrilled the day after the fourth and final Rotterdam show.
“The big surprise for me is when we decided to close the show with the ‘Abbey Road’ thing (the “Golden Slumbers"/"Carry That Weight” medley). I had been thinking of closing with a more famous number, perhaps ‘Hey Jude.’ But we played (the medley) at the end of rehearsal one day and Eddie Klein, a friend of ours who put my recording studio together for me, had to sort of walk out of the room.
“He was always a big ‘Abbey Road’ fan and the song sort of choked him up a bit. So, that made us think about using it--if it had that kind of feeling, and it has gone over well.”
Considering that it was 13 years between tours, there has been speculation that this may be McCartney’s final series of shows. But he says that’s not his plan.
After five shows in Los Angeles, the tour heads to Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and New York before 19 dates in England in January. But McCartney resumes the world tour in February, continuing through April. He is expected to do some stadium dates, including Los Angeles.
Beyond another album, McCartney is also looking forward to writing an extended musical piece that will be produced by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991. And now that the Beatles’ longstanding, sometimes bitter lawsuit involving Apple, EMI and Capitol Records over royalty payments has been resolved, he is thinking about getting involved with his old mates in various projects.
He’s especially excited about a documentary film, tentatively titled “The Long and Winding Road,” that would offer the Beatles’ own account of the band’s history. “Everyone else has seemed to tell the story, so I’d like to offer our version--and I think we have a bit of an advantage over everyone else because we lived it.”
One of the most surprising pop stats of the 1970s was that McCartney had more Top 40 hits (27) during the decade than Elton John (26), who is widely viewed as the most successful pop artist of the period.
Still, McCartney’s success in the ‘70s tended to be overshadowed, both commercially and artistically, because he was constantly being measured against the social, commercial and artistic impact of the Beatles.
It was the pressure of all those comparisons that made McCartney defensive about his Beatles past during most of the ‘70s. He was not timid about telling interviewers when the topic was raised that he didn’t want to talk about the Beatles.
One of the key steps in his gradual transformation was a 1982 song in which he dealt with all the recurring questions about his often strained relationship with Lennon, who was the Beatles’ other key songwriter.
Titled “Here Today,” the lyrics were in part:
And if I said
I really knew you well
What would your answer be?
If you were here today ...
Well, knowing you.
You’d probably laugh and say
That we were worlds apart ...
But as for me
I still remember how it was before
And I am holding back the tears no more ...
I love you.
Explaining the song shortly after its release, McCartney said, “One of my feelings even when he used to lay into me was that he really didn’t mean it. I could always see why he was doing it. There was this attempt to get rid of the specter of me, which I understand because he had to clear the decks just like I did. . . .”
By the time of “Press to Play” in 1986, McCartney was speaking equally freely about the Beatles.
“I think what happened for a while . . . the reason I didn’t want to talk about the Beatles . . . is that we all felt like we’d just gone through a divorce and it was painful to keep discussing it,” he said at the time.
The irony is that when McCartney was finally ready to talk about the Beatles, a lot of young rock fans didn’t really seem to care.
Unlike the more rock-oriented Stones, who have maintained a link with today’s young record buyers, McCartney seems a distant figure to many of the same fans.
A clerk at the Free Record Store on one of nearby Amsterdam’s busiest “pedestrian” streets said the recent Stones album did “strong” business at the shop, which caters to young buyers, but there was only “modest” interest in McCartney.
There were plenty of moms and dads in the audience at the Ahoy. The crowd was considerably older (mostly over 30) than the crowds (mostly under 25) that the Stones are attracting on the band’s North American tour.
When the Stones and McCartney announced that they’d be touring again, it was easy to think the shows would simply be exercises in nostalgia--where the music simply enables you to remember your feelings when you first heard it years ago.
But the enthusiastic response to both shows seemed to border more on admiration than nostalgia. The new McCartney band plays with fiery discipline. It consists of Hamish Stuart (formerly with the Average White Band) on guitar, bass and vocals; Robbie McIntosh (from the Pretenders) on guitar; Chris Whitten (who has worked with the Waterboys and Julian Cope) on drums; Paul Wickens (an experienced session player in London) on keyboards, and Linda McCartney (the sole holdover from McCartney’s Wings band) on keyboards.
Still, it’s McCartney’s show--and he is an engaging host. He brightens the evening with some lively theatrics (a piano that spins during the appropriate lines on “The Fool on the Hill”) and some good-natured flash (a mock fighter plane, covered with peace and love symbols, “flying” over the audience during “Back in the U.S.S.R.”).
Asked one awed young fan after the second show here, “What was left for John Lennon to write?”
The answer to the young fan’s question, of course, is there were lots of Beatles songs “left” for Lennon to write.
Indeed, William J. Dowlding, in the recently published book “Beatlesongs,” maintains that Lennon was the dominant songwriter in the Beatles--at least in terms of quantity.
Dowlding, drawing information from various interviews and fanzines, assigns songwriting credit for each Beatle song: one full point to Lennon or McCartney if either wrote a song by himself, a half-point if the two wrote a song jointly and so forth.
Under the system, Lennon finished first with 84.55 points, followed by McCartney’s 73.65, George Harrison’s 22.15 and Ringo Starr’s 2.7.
But the statistics, as usual, start more debates than they end.
If you only look at the Beatles’ most popular songs, McCartney emerges as the winner. He wrote 18 of the Beatles’ 35 Top 20 singles, compared to 14 for Lennon and one for Harrison. (Lennon and McCartney share equal credit on the two remaining songs, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.”)
The more you explore the Beatles catalogue, the more overwhelming the scope of the band’s achievements becomes, and the more useless it seems to try to declare Lennon or McCartney the winner.
By spotlighting that catalogue, this tour helps restore McCartney’s place in the Beatles equation.
McCartney said he wrestled for a while with the question of whether he should include some Lennon songs in the show. Would it seem like a fitting tribute or would it look like exploitation?
The issue was resolved when Richard Lester suggested using two Lennon songs--"A Hard Day’s Night” and “All You Need Is Love"--in the film that is run at the start of the show.
“I’m grateful to (Lester) for doing that because I think it enables John to be part of the show in a natural way,” McCartney said.
He paused briefly, as if reflecting on the impossibility of trying to summarize his feelings about the Beatles and their music in just a few words.
“It really has been an amazing journey, hasn’t it?” he said finally. “If you asked us when we started what we wanted, we would have said money and girls, or maybe girls and money. I remember John and I used to sit down and say, ‘OK, now let’s write a swimming pool’ or ‘Let’s write a house today.’
“That’s a fairly hefty incentive when you haven’t got a house, but the main thing was the magic of creation. And I’m proud of what we did. I liken it to Picasso’s works, as modest as I am,” he said, smiling. “I don’t think it is a body of work that will go away, that can’t seriously be disturbed by anything ever. It is there and it feels great to be singing them again.”