Paul McCartney: John and I had a premonition of success

As Paul McCartney turns 70, he reflects upon his teenage years, his father, and an amazing dream he shared with John Lennon

At 16 I was trying to scrape through school, learn the guitar and get a date with a girl, which was impossible at that time. It was not good at all. I had a real lack of confidence. It’s the reason a lot of guys get into groups in the first place – girls and money. All the girls seemed out of my league and I couldn’t figure out how to walk up to someone and say, ‘Do you want to go to the pictures?’

It’s extremely terrifying. What do you do? Do you put your arm around her? Do you sit there and wait for her to talk first or are you supposed to talk first? Do you buy Maltesers? It’s a stress and strain. I think I did manage to make it to the pictures with a girl a couple of times, but even then it wasn’t easy to be as suave as James Bond.

I think later I realised the whole way I felt about girls when I was 16 was something I could actually write songs about. So I did write about experiences like that. And in fact, I looked back to those times to write about other things as well, not just romantic things.

I think that led to Eleanor Rigby, which was a song about lonely people

For instance, there were a few old ladies around where I lived in Liverpool and I got friendly with one of them. I used to go and get her shopping for her. And then we’d spend a little bit of time talking about her life. It was fascinating to speak to someone from a completely different generation. Instead of thinking, ‘It’s just an old person’, you realised, hey, they were young once and they had amazing experiences I can relate to. Doing that lady’s shopping became a very pleasant, educational experience for me. I think that led to Eleanor Rigby, which was a song about lonely people.

I met George on the bus…

I’m hopeless with dates – the Beatles experts have got them down much better than I have – but I think I’d met John and George by the time I was 16. George used to get on my bus. I was already writing songs – I wrote my first song when I was 14. So when I met John I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a couple of songs and some little bits and pieces’, and he said, ‘Yeah, so have I’.

It was a good thing for us to bond over; we could both learn from each other. We thought, well, if we’ve written one each, maybe we could write one together. So we did. The first songs were very simple but we gradually developed over the next few years and without realising quite what we were doing we became a song-writing duo. We became very famous as well.

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My dad was a big early influence on my song-writing. He was playing piano at home and I listened to him a lot. He taught me and my brother how to harmonise together and that gave me my love of harmonies. When we got The Beatles together we loved to sing in harmony. It’s a great bonding thing – it’s why people love choirs.

I remember if there was a bit of lively music on the radio my dad would stick his head round the door and – dum, dum, dum, dum – bang along to the beat with his fist. It was just one of his little habits but it’s become a very fond memory for me, just seeing his joy at the rhythm of music. And he’d tell me to listen to the very low noise coming out of the speaker and tell me, ‘That’s called the bass’. How funny that I turned out to be a bass player.

When we got The Beatles together we loved to sing in harmony. It’s a great bonding thing

I hadn’t long lost my mother when I was 16. Like any tragedy, if you’re lucky your mind finds a way to deal with the pain just to allow you to get through it. As a 14-year-old boy in Liverpool, I could either go under or get on with it. Music was very helpful for that. It gave me some good feelings to replace the sad feelings. And of course, John also lost his mother when he was young. That helped us to bond, having that in common.

I think I was a pretty driven kid. I wanted to do well at school and I thought I was applying myself, but not all my teachers agreed and in the end I didn’t do that well. I was definitely a dreamer but I think that’s not a bad thing. I remember my music lessons were non-existent. We had a music teacher but he just used to put on a Beethoven record and walk out of the room.

Nervous times, Euphoric times

We were a bunch of teenage Liverpool lads – we just took the record off and got some playing cards out. And when the teacher was on his way back we put the record back on, wafted the cigarette smoke away and sat up at our desks. That’s not the way to get into music. Luckily for me, I discovered it a different way, and then it became a passion.

I didn’t have a good answer to the question, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’

If I went back to tell the 16-year-old me about how his life would go, he just wouldn’t believe it. I’ve thought about this before. Whenever I play Back in the USSR live, I often say to the audience, ‘If you’d told me as a kid that one day I’d meet the president of Russia and he’d come to one of my concerts…’ – well, it’s impossible, isn’t it? So many things about The Beatles and Wings and my band now are so phenomenal, going back would be like Back to the Future; I’d have to say to my younger self, ‘I’ve come from the future and everything I’m saying is real. Hang in there, you’re not gonna believe what happens next’.

I’d tell my teenage self: don’t be so nervous about everything. The world’s not as bad as you think it is. I had a good family so I can’t speak for everyone, of course. But in the case of my 16-year-old self, I was always thinking, ‘I’ll never get a girl, I’ll never get a job’. I was nervous about all of it, knowing I didn’t have a good answer to the question, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’

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The births of my children were euphoric times. I was very lucky because I was from a big Liverpool family, so I was often asked to look after a younger kid of a cousin or an auntie, often being handed a baby, whereas John was an only child; there weren’t any babies around, so when he had his first kid he really had to figure out what to do – he just didn’t have the background. He was like one of those dads who think babies are made of glass and worry about breaking them.

But fatherhood was quite a natural thing for me, which was a great blessing. I was so lucky to be born into this big, happy Liverpool family. Some of the songs on my new album are inspired by the big sing-songs we had, magical things where music brought all the relatives together. They were very deep.

The teenage Paul McCartney would love the idea of fame. That’s what he was trying to do, that was the dream. But it’s funny – life gives you minor premonitions. You don’t think of them as premonitions until the dream comes true and then you think, ‘Hey, I wonder if that was a sign’. I remember when John and I were first hanging out together, I had a dream about digging in the garden with my hands. I’d dreamt that before but I’d never found anything other than an old tin can. But in this dream I found a gold coin. I kept digging and I found another. And another.

The next day I told John about this amazing dream I’d had and he said, ‘That’s funny, I had the same dream’. So both of us had this dream of finding this treasure. And I suppose you could say it came true. I remember years later talking about it – ‘Remember that dream we had?’; ‘Yeah, that was far out’. So the message of that dream was: keep digging lads.