Friday, February 20, 2015

My Brave Face: Interview with Luca Perasi (Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions, 1969-2013)

At the 2012 Grammy Awards, while young audiences were listening to Paul McCartney sing from his album of standards called Kisses on the Bottom, one person on Twitter later asked: "Who is the real Paul McCartney?" Whether that tweet was designed as a slight or an ironic crack, there's still no simple answer to that question. If you examine McCartney's full body of work, you find that he is more than the sum of his parts. In The Beatles, McCartney felt right at home whether he was doing a chamber work like "Eleanor Rigby," a rave-up like "I'm Down," a touching ballad like "I Will," the music hall vaudeville of "When I'm 64," the nostalgic impressionism of "Penny Lane," the Fifties doo-wop of "Oh Darling!," or a let's-top-The-Who hard rock of "Helter Skelter." His musical range in his years since The Beatles broke up has been no less adventurous. One year he can release an easy listening pop album like Kisses on the Bottom, or he might just unleash a record of pure rock and roll (Run Devil Run). He could put out a ballet score one moment (Ocean's Kingdom), and an oratorio (Liverpool Oratorio) the next, and then deliver another Fireman album like their last one in 2008 called Electric Arguments that combined both ambient music and actual songs.Whatever he does, and whether he signs his name to it (or does so under a pseudonym), Paul McCartney is totally free to do any form of music that moves him.

Luca Perasi, an Italian freelance journalist and writer, has spent ten years charting the path of Paul McCartney's richly eclectic solo years and written an exhaustive study of every recording session since he walked away from the other Fabs. Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013) (L.I.L.Y. Publishing, 2014) isn't just a chronology of facts, however; Perasi has also provided his own insights into the recordings from McCartney in 1969 to New in 2013 with the help of over 70 interviews with McCartney's many collaborators, who include guitarist Carlos Alomar, arranger Richard Hewson and conductor Carl Davis. His book has the alchemical ability to bring you right into the studio and witness how even a seemingly simple pop song like "Let 'Em In" has more going on than might otherwise be assumed. I spoke with Perasi from his home in Milan earlier this week.

kc: When did your interest in Paul McCartney's work begin and how did the book originate?

author Luca Perasi.
lp: We have go to back in time to 1983. At the time, I was a teenager who was discovering music. One of the most successful artists was Michael Jackson and –  like millions of people – I had bought his Thriller album, which contained the duet with Paul, “The Girl Is Mine.” I had only a vague memory of Paul as a solo artist and remembered a couple of hits, like “Coming Up” or “Goodnight Tonight,” and through that I became more familiar with Paul McCartney. The following step was to ask my mum to buy “Say Say Say,” their second duet. She came back home with Pipes of Peace, the album that included the song. My reaction was like, ‘Whaat? This is a Paul McCartney record, not Jackson’s!’ I was not interested initially… But slowly I changed my mind. I started listening to the album and I liked Paul’s melodies. Over the course of one year, I collected all of his records. The following step was trying write something because I felt this urgency. Having a passion for writing, I founded with a couple of other people a little fanzine about Paul’s music in 1994, a little Italian magazine called Paper McCartney, where we shared our thoughts about McCartney’s music and wrote our reviews, things like that. I’m a historian too. So back in 1999, I started thinking about a book on McCartney mainly based on facts, because I learned a lot from Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Complete Recording Sessions which was a fascinating read. The first idea I conceived in 1999 was an encyclopedia of McCartney’s songs, from A to Z. After a while, I changed my mind. I had collected a lot of information and I thought that I could have tried to do a recording sessions book. It took me years and… finally in 2012 I published a first version of this book in Italian. Then I worked on a translation and, in October 2013, Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013) – updated with all the new information I gathered in the meantime – was issued in English. Here we are! 

kc: Well, it's a remarkable piece of investigative work. In Paul McCartney Recording Sessions (1969-2013), you've provided more than just an extensive archive of Paul McCartney's solo work. The book beautifully pieces together a paradoxical portrait of a composer whose style of work is more complex than generally assumed. What started you on the quest to write this book?

lp: I always like to know more about songs and the way they are created. I've always been interested in knowing what was behind the music and when I looked at McCartney’s records I was chasing for details about musicians, for the stories behind the songs, and later also for the recording techniques that were used. All these aspects are the key elements that I wanted in a book about a pop artist like McCartney. The difficult thing about being a pop composer is that your inspiration has to be matched by a fine recording. Pop is essentially about the arrangement. There’s a complexity in this kind of studio work that many people could underestimate or even ignore. So, this book is my attempt to offer some unique insight into Paul’s working methods. That’s why I dedicated two years in conducting exclusive interviews with over 70 of his collaborators: musicians, arrangers, sound engineers, and producers. They witnessed how Paul works in the studio and how he makes his decisions about the shape of his music. This was an essential element if I was to discover more about McCartney’s incredible body of work: how do you reveal what's inside a genius at work? Obviously, I also drew on a lot of available material, and I searched for rare pieces of information, that were lost in the sand of time. Through all these sources, as I say in the introduction, we can discover who (or what) inspired the songs, how they were initially conceived and then developed in the studio, when and where they were recorded, their harmonic structure, what the lyrics tell, when they were issued and when they were performed live. Comparing the song to a child’s growth in the first years of his life, we can say we’re going to witness its conception, its birth, and development, also explaining its character.

Paul McCartney in the studio.

kc: In that sense, how would you characterize the Paul McCartney style of song?

lp: McCartney’s music is the essence of popular music. He has created his own style, a recognizable style. He writes songs taking inspiration from a variety of musical genres, and then he shaped them into his own style. Everything in his hands soon becomes a “McCartney thing.” McCartney’s songs are catchy, that’s their main feature. And it’s very difficult to write catchy songs. There’s a sentence, which I put in the introduction of the book and that sums up Paul’s style. It’s taken from Mozart’s father who said to his famous son to write something “short, easy, and popular” because “what is slight can still be great if it's written in a natural, flowing, and easy style.” This captures the essence of Paul McCartney’s music.

kc: I agree. Despite a short, easy and popular musical language, though, Paul McCartney also does some radical things in the pop music he writes. But the common assumption over the years has been that John Lennon was the most daring and avant-garde of The Beatles and that Paul McCartney was – quite literally – the straight man. Besides the fact that many songs in The Beatles canon will dispute that view, how did your extensive look into McCartney's later solo work further refute that myth?

lp: John was avant-garde exactly like Paul. We all know that The Beatles were so great because they pushed the boundaries of everything. To be daring could mean a lot of things. Adding a string quartet to “Yesterday” is daring. Adding a bass part like the one in “Michelle” or “Something” is daring. Strictly speaking about experimentation, John cleverly conveyed his image of the most avant-garde Beatle through eccentric works like Two Virgins or Life With the Lions, but we all know that Paul too was experimenting a lot with tape loops and other nice things. We can search inside Paul’s production and see that he’s done a lot of experimental works: not only the Fireman albums (especially Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest and Rushes) but also his little songs or sounds scattered all through the records. You can discover that during his recordings he used bow and arrows, he shot with a gun, he sent engineers to record a thunderstorm… He uses the studio as a space somewhat connected to the outside world. The recording studio is not a closed room for McCartney, everything can happen while you’re recording, including the most feared thing of all: mistakes. And Paul also likes to leave these mistakes sometimes in his recordings. OK, minor flubs [laughs], but anyway… Isn’t this kind of avant-garde? I’ll let everyone discover through the book which are the most weird effects he’s included in his songs!

Paul and John in the studio circa 1965.

kc: Why do you think that this myth about Paul McCartney's work being 'bland' persists though?

lp: Partly because myths are hard to dispel. Partly because what Paul likes best is commercial success. So, a little experimentation is okay for him, but he’s mainly a pop artist, and he composes songs for people, for radio airplay, for charts, for sales. It’s art, anyway. Is a fine form of art. The misunderstanding is to consider avant-garde the only form of true art, and pop a less important one. After The Beatles, and after many years with Wings and on his own, he’s allowed himself to do an experimental kind of album, like Rushes, although in this case he choose a pseudonym. I think the best results in McCartney’s music is when he blends his song writing gifts and then adds some experimental flavour.

kc: One of the fascinating aspects of McCartney's solo career that you delve into here is how, despite writing songs that on the surface seem to be in the style of traditional pop music, he isn't playing it safe when you examine the harmonic complexities of the music itself. I'm thinking here of a song like "The Lovers That Never Were," which he wrote with Elvis Costello. I have a bootleg demo of this ballad where Paul sings it as if it's a Little Richard rave up. How do you account for this paradox in McCartney's work?

lp: Playing some instruments myself, I started analyzing McCartney’s compositions, their harmony, their chords and their structure, even though I didn't want this to be a book for experts. Just a little bit of analysis. Paul’s songs sound catchy but being catchy does not mean necessarily that a song has such a simple chord pattern or harmony. McCartney’s language is pop, but pop means a mixture of influences and genres. Pop means flavours and suggestions coming from everywhere. When we look at Paul’s influences and musical skills, we understand why his language has all that richness. He’d grown up to rock’n’roll in the Fifties, but he also knows jazz and vaudeville, songs from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, before he was born. On the other hand, he’s always up to date, and he likes to be in touch with new generations and sounds. For instance, in 1979 with his Back to the Egg album, it was a nod to new-wave. In 1986, Press to Play was heavily influenced by synth-pop. Then, in 1994, the first Fireman album was a foray into trance-dance. In 2005, his Chaos and Creation album had some Brit-pop elements in the arrangements. All these references are part of the complexity and richness of McCartney’s musical vocabulary.

Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello.

kc: When you go through the various sessions recorded in your book, Paul McCartney is clearly open to working with people from a wide lexicon of popular music – whether it's playing with Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Martin Glover, or jazz bassist Stanley Clarke – but he often plays many of the instruments himself. By nature, he's a true collaborator, but given the painful breakup of The Beatles do you think he was also cautious about collaboration? I'm exempting his late wife Linda when I ask this question.

lp: Paul is a musical genius and a complex artist too. After working with John Lennon, I think he really struggled to find someone who was on the same level as John. And we have to be honest, only few people could equal John. I’m not just talking necessarily about musical skills, but also about imagination, creativity and having the strength to tell Paul the truth. During his solo career only one of his collaborator had these qualities: Elvis Costello. Paul has a strong personality and in the studio he can be difficult to deal with. I think Elvis was honest with McCartney and maybe that’s one of the reasons why their partnership came out not as successful as it could have been. I mean, some of their songs were really great like “My Brave Face,” “So Like Candy,” or “That Day Is Done,” but it’s a shame they didn't do a whole album together, √† la Costello-Bacharach. If we look at the other collaborators, it’s clear that he didn't want to establish a close partnership with anyone. Denny Laine was mainly his right-hand man, and he was perfect for this role. Other people were called just for a specific project, like Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. He tried to have some input from Eric Stewart, but… Eric himself admitted he wasn't strong enough to tell Paul the truth. Again, it didn't work. I don’t know if he was being cautious. He tried with many people, but my feeling is that Paul likes to have total control of things when writing songs. This could affect a real songwriting partnership. On the other hand, I think that through the book we can discover which kind of collaboration he had in the studio with his session musicians, sound engineers and producers. These are different relationships… Paul likes to challenge his collaborators in the studio, and there are a lot of interesting examples in the book: confrontations, arguments, issues, but also brilliant solutions and ideas.

Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney.

kc:  When you went through his huge body of solo work, and who he worked with, what did you feel to be his biggest strengths and weaknesses as a composer?

lp: No doubt that melody is McCartney’s real strength. He has the unique ability to create recognizable melodies, or licks or riffs. He’s melodic with his voice, he’s melodic with his guitar lines and even with his bass. He did this “melodic revolution,” taking melody and making it the foundation for everything in his music. Another strength is the variety of styles. No-one else could cross genres like him. On the other hand, I don’t think the majority of his classical work (except for the Liverpool Oratorio, which I consider a great work) is as interesting and successful as his pop output, mainly because this language requires a different approach. Paul as a classical composer is a contradiction in itself. Notwithstanding, I see what was behind his choice to approach this music: his desire to turn classical music – a genre that by many is still considered as “high” or intended for an √©lite group – into something “popular.” It’s popular music that is reinventing itself and moves from pop to symphony. This contribution shouldn't be underestimated. McCartney intended to turn the classical music tradition into a more accessible language that finds its heart in a melody that’s easy, cantabile and popular.

kc: I love the thorough and insightful job you did with his Eighties material, a period I've overlooked in his work, except with maybe Flowers in the Dirt, but was there an album or a period of McCartney's solo career that interested you particularly when you were writing the book?

lp: I consider 1970-73 McCartney’s best solo period. This was his most prolific era: he released five albums and six singles over four years and classic songs like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “My Love,” “Band On the Run” and “Live and Let Die.” They are all from those years and by no coincidence they’re still in the current concert set list. I have a fondness for Ram, which is my favourite album of his. Ram is his most significant work. It was the first album that he recorded after The Beatles had disbanded, and I can feel his sense of anger and joy working together to try and accomplish something outside the group. He was proud to show his renewed strength. The playing and the singing on this album are unique, and the whole record is a showcase of creativity and brilliant ideas. I conducted an extensive two-part interview with drummer Denny Seiwell, which unveiled some nice anecdotes about the recording of Ram. Being that this book mainly focused on historical facts (that’s why the songs are presented in chronological order of recording), it was an amazing discovery to know that a song like “I Lie Around” that was released in 1973 was actually recorded in 1970 during the Ram sessions. And, you’re right, there’s a lot of nice information about sessions for Flowers in the Dirt, which is a fine pop album, that is a great example of how McCartney worked in the Eighties. 

kc: While Paul McCartney continues to tour, record and collaborate, he always has to compete with the legacy of his work with The Beatles. How do you think his solo career stands up overall to his days with The Beatles?

lp: The Beatles’ legacy cannot be equaled by anyone, not even by McCartney himself with his solo career. I mean, Paul’s solo records are magic to me and mean so much to a lot of people. But the impact that The Beatles had on music, entertainment, culture and society is incomparable. As a solo artist, McCartney’s legacy will be more and more appreciated by future generations of musicians, that will discover tons of gold nuggets. Paul’s solo work can be used as a master class for song writing, recording techniques and arranging. If you want to understand how a pop song takes shape, you cannot live without Paul McCartney’s music.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent work. Makes me want to read the book and buy all the recordings.