“It’s like the Bob Dylan thing, isn’t it? The ‘Neverending Tour,'” Paul McCartney says with casual good cheer, chatting over the phone between show dates. This is how he likes the road these days, a few months on, a few months off. Last year was his 27-date Out There Tour, and now he’s traveling the U.S. for One on One, playing marathon sets of solo songs and Beatles classics.
“You’re putting a few new numbers in, changing the presentation a little bit, just so anyone who saw that tour and wants to come to this one isn’t bored,” he says. “We just switch it up and make some changes. Then you’re allowed to call it something else.”
McCartney and his band will be on the road through the summer and early fall, closing with two Saturdays in Indio, California, on October 8th and 15th as part of Desert Trip, the classic-rock cousin to Coachella. His current touring pattern was initially forced on him during a custody battle over his youngest daughter, Beatrice Milly, requiring him to be close to home. He could only schedule brief runs of concerts on the road.
“That actually turned out to be great because it meant that you’d get this time off,” he says, “which would then leave you kind of hungry to get back onstage – instead of never knowing quite where you were, whether you were in Des Moines or Detroit.”
He began the tour April 13th in Fresno, California, on a redesigned stage set with a familiar sound: the opening clang from “A Hard Day’s Night,” a song he hadn’t performed in 50 years. “That chord is pretty iconic,” he says. “I suggested that to the band and we all got sort of goosebump-y.”
The rarities reach back to “In Spite of All the Danger,” an adoring ballad from when the Beatles were still known as the Quarrymen. During sets of nearly three hours, McCartney mingles the Beatles’ generational anthem “Let It Be” with the explosive Wings hits “Live and Let Die” and “Jet,” as well as an emotional reading of “Here Today” – his intimate remembrance of John Lennon – and the early solo hit “Maybe I’m Amazed,” now the opening track of his new four-CD retrospective, Pure McCartney.
There’s also the warm effervescence of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and complex psychedelia of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” (from 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), a song McCartney once vowed was too difficult to attempt live. “I’ll just hear a song, and I’ll go, ‘Oh, that was a great song,'” McCartney says. “It’s really down to what excites us. If it excites us, it will probably excite an audience – fingers crossed.”
The songs are brought to life by McCartney’s band of the past decade: keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, bassist-guitarist Brian Ray, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. “We like playing together. We can talk about stuff. We can throw ideas around. I think we make a pretty good noise,” McCartney says. “That’s what you want in a band. You want to have friendship, people you get on with. You want to respect them and their playing, and you want to be able to say, ‘Hey, look, I think you could do that better,’ and be able to communicate.”
For his One on One dates, McCartney is including an acoustic version of “FourFiveSeconds,” last year’s multi-platinum collaboration with Rihanna and Kanye West. The former Beatle plays it in the original key, which West later adjusted for Rihanna’s voice.
“I like the grooves that I originally did, and that Kanye must have liked. It was good to take it back to where it started,” he says. “The younger people are the ones who really know it. I must admit, I think, ‘Oh, my God, all the older people who are all going to be singing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” are not going to know what this is.’ They know more than you think. In a show that spans many years, it’s nice to have something recent.”
More obscure is “Temporary Secretary,” a funky, bouncy, New Wave electronic track from 1980 rediscovered in recent years by DJs in Brighton, England, and across Europe. Word got to McCartney that the song was being played in clubs. “I started to hear rumors that this guy is going crazy over ‘Temporary Secretary,'” he says. “I’d always enjoyed the record, which I made when I was sort of experimenting with synthesizers and sequencers when they first came out on the record I made, McCartney II. I’d pretty much forgotten it.”
It was Wix who had to figure out how to program the 36-year-old electronic song, originally recorded with an old Arp sequencer. “I like that things I thought were good at the time, that maybe didn’t get that noticed, then come around on their second lap,” McCartney says. “Suddenly it resurfaces. That’s something I love about music. It’s very rewarding for me.”
Responding to the song’s unexpected rebirth, he performed “Temporary Secretary” live for the first time ever a year ago at London’s O2 Arena. “The message is very all-time,” he says. “For me, it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, a little bit saucy: ‘Send me along a girl, just for a little while/When I send her back, make sure she stays on the right track.’ It’s kind of silly, but it has a sort of meaning, and it’s a meaning that people still understand.”
His balance of Beatles and post-Beatles songs has evolved over the years. In the early days of Wings, he refused to perform anything from his former band. After the international success of Band on the Run in 1973, he loosened up the set list to include Beatles tracks, but still makes a point of spotlighting new music.
“Every band you talk to knows, if you play the old hits, people love it, and all the phones light up so it becomes like a stellar galaxy,” he says. “When you play the new stuff, it goes like a black hole. I sometimes bust the audience for that: ‘We know which ones you like. We can tell.’ But we enjoy doing it.
“Even though there’s a lot of Beatles fans and Wings fans in the audience, there’s still a lot of people who want to hear something different or something new or a little bit of a deep cut. I like to keep them happy too.”
He suggested a series of concerts filled with the deepest cuts. “You’d have to call the tour ‘You’re Not Going to Like This One,'” McCartney jokes. “It would be a different vibe altogether.”
The full 67-track version of his new collection, Pure McCartney (also available as a shorter two-disc set), is a balance of post-Beatles hits and rarities, set for a June 10th release. He chose to open with the original studio version of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a love song to his first wife, Linda Eastman, from his 1970 solo debut. In 1977, a live recording of the song was a Top 10 U.S. single.
“I do like the studio version. It embodied that album I made, which was the first thing I did right after the Beatles. It has good associations for me,” says McCartney, noting that he heard the track was even a favorite of Cabaret singer-actress Liza Minnelli. “It kind of surprised me. I would have expected more of a show song, but that’s cool. This one’s for Liza.”
The Pure collection was suggested by a young woman in McCartney’s office who craved something for a long car trip. “I developed this playlist of stuff you would like to hear on a long journey,” he says. “There was not too much deep thinking. It was stuff that we think is good, but there’s not a massive theme to it.”
Even as McCartney has been revisiting his discography for the new compilation, road life still inspires. Late during that first set in Fresno, McCartney began reading aloud from the signs fans brought to the gig. Most were song lyrics and notes of devotion: “I Love Paul,” “Macca-nificent!” and “It’s my 64th concert since ’64. Autograph?”
Little kids bounced with signs the entire night, and even fans well past 60 danced and sang with the energy of early Beatlemania. After performing “Yesterday,” McCartney pulled to the stage a family who carried signs that noted a mom had named her son “Jude,” after the Beatles anthem “Hey Jude.” One of the girls in the family promised to name her firstborn daughter “Penny Lane.” There were hugs and autographs, and genuine affection between the former Beatle and his fans.
“With the Beatles, we thought we’d last 10 years,” McCartney says later. “To realize that there’s still large numbers of people who were into what we did then, and are now into what I do now, it becomes like a family thing. They’re your musical family. It’s like long-lost cousins. I enjoy that.”