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Creative Sensemaker

Listen: do you want to know a secret?

Thursday 26 August 2021

How do you turn a Beatle into a Beatles fan, who loves the Fab Four’s music as much as the rest of us do? By getting record industry legend Rick Rubin to interview Sir Paul McCartney – in an extraordinary encounter which can now be seen in the unmissable new Disney+ series, McCartney 3,2,1


Twenty years ago, Sir Paul McCartney remarked in an interview that “sometimes I think we were the only guys that never saw the Beatles”. And what a strange phenomenon that is: to be one of only four people (two of them now dead) who truly experienced the innermost story of the greatest band ever to have played; and yet – at the same time – to be one of only four people who never got to enjoy the magic of the Fab Four from the outside.

Which, at heart, is what makes McCartney 3,2,1 (Disney+) so remarkable. Filmed in black and white over two days last August, at a soundstage in the Hamptons, the six-part miniseries is a radically pared down, no-frills production: three hours of free-flowing discussion between McCartney and Rick Rubin about three dozen or so songs, the memories they evoke and how they came to be composed and recorded.

McCartney is obviously the star, but it is Rubin who turns the key that unlocks the gate. As the founder of Def Jam records, the producer of the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, and Lady Gaga, and a music industry legend in his own right, he has the presence and authority to chat with Macca as a peer if not an equal. 

This, in turn, enables McCartney to relax and simply to get into the music. He declares himself “a Beatles fan now”, and you can see in his features and demeanour that finally, more than half a century on, he can actually enjoy the music with the same pleasure and awe as the rest of us.  

As he and Rubin listen to ‘Penny Lane’ (recorded December 1966-January 1967), McCartney explains the origin of David Mason’s unforgettable piccolo trumpet solo – namely, that he had been listening to the Brandenburg Concertos the night before, liked the vibe and communicated his enthusiasm to George Martin, the Beatles’ producer and creative collaborator, when he got into the studio. “Wow!” he says now, as he listens to Mason’s performance, his features full of the relish and astonishment that any Beatles fan – which is to say, just about everybody – will instantly recognise. 

The Beatles at a recording session with their producer George Martin, circa 1963

How do you deconstruct genius? You can’t. But with Rubin discreetly dismantling tracks at the studio desk and asking precisely the right questions about their constituent parts, all manner of recollections tumble out of McCartney.

The first is that the sheer distinctiveness of the songs was, initially at least, the product of necessity rather than creative ambition. The Beatles could not read or write music, so their melodies and arrangements had to be good enough to lodge in their heads after the initial process of composition.

“We were writing songs that were memorable,” says McCartney, “not because we wanted them to be memorable but because we had to remember them. It was a very practical reason, really.”

Second, they had the fearlessness of youth. McCartney was only 20 and John Lennon not yet 23 when the Beatles’ first album Please Please Me was released in March 1963. They had, as he puts it, “the freedom to goof around”, “the excitement of youth, the speed of youth”, and the innocence to forage for new ideas without preconception or inhibition.

The chord at the heart of ‘Michelle’ – described by McCartney as “F Demented” – was picked up from a jazz musician who worked in a shop. McCartney used it at parties, wearing a black polo neck, strumming away in a hilarious attempt to sound French and cool, and to impress girls. Years later, Lennon encouraged him to build up “that crazy little French song you used to do” – and thus was born the classic track at the heart of Rubber Soul (1965).

As always in the story of creativity, accident converged with talent. The name “Sergeant Pepper”, for instance, had its origins in McCartney misunderstanding a roadie asking him to pass the “salt and pepper”. But there was nothing accidental about the album itself – Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – which was an act of carefully choreographed cultural intervention, a mischievously provocative attempt to reinvent the Beatles as a group of alter egos, and (as McCartney recalls) a direct response to the magnificent challenge of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966).

Paul McCartney conducts a 41 piece orchestra during recording sessions for the Beatles’ album, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, 15th February 1967

The greatest mystery of all, of course – the sanctum sanctorum of the Beatles’ brilliance – was the songwriting partnership between Lennon and McCartney. And, when it comes to this, even McCartney himself can only speculate: he brought, he supposes, the optimism born of a happy family background, whereas Lennon imported precisely the opposite. “It’s getting better all the time,” wrote Paul. “It can’t get no worse,” replied John. 

Again, however, what McCartney (now 79) truly loves is the perspective that the years have given him, and the ability to reconcile at last the personal with the mythical. “I look back – at the time, I was just working with this bloke called John,” he tells Rubin. “Now I look back, and I was working with John Lennon.”

Beatles obsessives may object that some of the stories have been told before. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? The machine of legend has been churning for more than half a century: notably, in recent years, in Craig Brown’s fantastic book One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (2020); Ron Howard’s 2016 documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week; and Yesterday (2019), Richard Curtis’s collaboration with Danny Boyle.  

Later this year, Peter Jackson will unveil his own documentary series – The Beatles: Get Back – drawing on footage filmed by the greatest documentarian of Sixties pop, Michael Lindsay-Hogg. In November, McCartney himself adds to the (already-huge) Beatles bibliography with the publication of The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, telling the story of his life through the prism of 154 songs. 

What makes McCartney 3,2,1 so special is that – however briefly – it presses the pause button on the engine of myth, and presents two musical legends discussing records like a pair of regular fans. It has an intimacy and authenticity that is vanishingly rare in the world of pop music appreciation; and is, as a result, unmissable.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Candyman (general release, 27 August)

With Jordan Peele on board as one of its producers and co-author of the screenplay, Nia DaCosta’s direct sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 horror classic (itself based on a Clive Barker short story) was always going to be worth watching – and it does not disappoint. The original film’s exploration of slavery and Jim Crow is now deftly updated to match the social conscience of the Black Lives Matter era and the contemporary issue of white gentrification, with terrific performances from (amongst others) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris. Peele’s influence is evident in the movie’s successful combination of popcorn entertainment and sharp commentary on structural racial injustice. 

Surviving 9/11 (BBC Two, 30 August)

As the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks draws closer, Arthur Cary’s excellent feature-length documentary is structured around interviews with a series of survivors and the bereaved relatives of those who died. One of the least attractive features of modernity is the speed with which we forget – even horrors of this scale. But that option is not open to Cary’s interviewees: the firefighter haunted by the fact that he was the only one of the morning crew to make it out alive; the son of the woman who suffered 82.5 per cent body burns and still longs to inflict physical pain on Osama bin Laden (killed more than ten years ago); the father who isolates himself in a tent on the anniversary of his son’s death and the grief-stricken brother who has looked for some sort of explanatory order in conspiracy theories. The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan has forced the world to go back, figuratively at least, to Ground Zero and ask what, if anything, we have achieved in the intervening two decades. This film is a powerful and humbling reminder that some people never left.

Kevin Can F**k Himself (Prime Video, 27 August)

This genre-busting comedy series could easily have been a disaster but, in the hands of showrunner Valerie Armstrong, and with a strong cast led by Annie Murphy (Alexis Rose in Schitt’s Creek), is a beguiling adventure in the possibilities of intelligent television. On the one hand, Annie is the stereotypical “sitcom wife”, married to Kevin (Eric Petersen), a boorish, overgrown toddler, whose chauvinism is rewarded by a laughter track. On the other, she is a much more complex figure, in a parallel narrative that more closely resembles the nuances of the modern prestige streaming serial. Before long, a murder plot is hatched. The two strands are interspliced in a way that is both entertaining and troubling. 


Read

The Women of Troy – Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton)

From the world of Homer to that of Virgil, Barker continues the re-telling of the Trojan myth that she began in The Silence of the Girls (2018). Again, the principal character is Briseis – a war prize given to Achilles, who was then traded to Agamemnon – and her narration transforms the way in which the female characters in the myth are seen. Some have recoiled from Barker’s occasionally demotic language, but I interpret this as a signal to the reader that we are being told the often shabby and inglorious truth beneath the grandiloquent mythology spun by men. This is the second episode in what seems likely to become an important literary series, compelling us to look with fresh eyes at one of the founding stories of our civilisation. 

English Magic – Uschi Gatward (Gallery Beggar Press, 1 September)

Gatward has referred to her work as “protest fiction” but this debut collection of short stories is far from didactic in tone. Rather, her themes – pollution, extradition, whistleblowing – are the backdrop to subtle interactions and character portrayals that, combined with her beautiful prose, render a world of rich imagination and subtlety. Also: hats off to Gallery Beggar Press, a small independent publishing house that hit the headlines in 2019 when one of its titles, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Its commissioning is consistently imaginative and audacious and deserves to be rewarded by commercial and critical success.

Barça: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Football Club – Simon Kuper (Octopus Books)

Those familiar with Simon Kuper’s superb writings for the FT will be familiar with his talent as a stylist and range as a polymath – specifically, his capacity to make his specialist passions (not least sport) accessible to the laity. In another author’s hands, the history of a Spanish football team might be of little interest to those who do not follow the beautiful game – but in Kuper’s hands it is a gripping exercise in cultural analysis, biography and anthropology, draped over the stories of its three principal protagonists (Lionel Messi, Johann Cruyff, and Pep Guardiola). A book that should be read by anyone interested in modern forms of belonging, brand commerce, leadership and the nature of soft power. 


Listen

Solar Power – Lorde

No longer the angst-ridden adolescent, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter from New Zealand is back, four years after Melodrama, with her third and most interesting album to date. “Born in the year of OxyContin/ Raised in the tall grass/ Teen millionaire having nightmares camera flash” she sings in the opening track, ‘The Path’. There is plenty of Californian, sun-drenched spirit here – one feels the influence of the Mamas and the Papas at work from time to time – but there is also wry mockery of those who buy too credulously into the wellness industry. Blissed out? Maybe, but still with an eye-roll that maintains the listener’s faith in Lorde as a sharp observer, rather than just another pop drop-out, lost on the beach.

Tracing Bach – Yaara Tal

The Israeli-born pianist is best known as half of the acclaimed duo Tal & Groethuysen, but here strikes out on her own with an ingenious concept: pairing a Bach prelude with a fugue by another composer, including Chopin, Schumann, Anton Arensky, Charles-Valentin Alkan, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. The album concludes with a new work by the German composer, Reinhard Febel, “Tempus Fugit”, rounding off a collection of performances that, for all their eclecticism, have a compelling coherence – rooted in Tal’s exquisite interpretations and performing rigour.

City of God – Blanco

Seven years after the hip hop collective Harlem Spartans began making music in Kennington, south London, one of its most talented members delivers a mixtape that shifts between old school drill and a growing fascination with Brazilian Baile Funk music (a form of funk born in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro). There are sharp collaborations with Central Cee, Ama Lou and NSG, and a lyrical range and wit that suggest the 22-year-old Blanco will go from strength to strength (the track ‘Dennis Rodman’ is especially funny). 

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona