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Paul McCartney: The Beatles' Other Drummer

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney used to play bass with a band called The Beatles. In fact, he played so much bass with them that he had to weather years of fame and glamour, followed by the group’s crash-and-burn breakup, before he could get around to playing drums on his own solo albums, beginning with McCartney in 1970 and leading to this year’s Chaos And Creation In The Back Yard. In fact, though, Sir Paul’s stick-swinging adventures began long ago, in the sleazy German clubs where the pre-Fab 4 got their act together.

DRUM!: When did you first play drums?
McCartney: My first recollection is in Hamburg. You’d get behind the kit to try and show the drummer what you wanted. That gradually grew to messing around on other people’s kits, which were lying around because there were a lot of groups playing in the places we played. You picked up the simplest beats very naturally. I remember one evening when Tony Sheridan’s drummer didn’t show up, so Tony said, “Come on, man, sit in!” I said, “No way! I can’t do this.” And he said, “Yeah, you can.” So I did it and then I was thinking, “Well! I’ve actually done a professional drumming gig!” Later, with The Beatles, there was a period where John, George, and I operated as a trio and picked up little bits of work. I remember playing in an illegal club in somebody’s basement on Upper Parliament Street in Liverpool’s Caribbean Quarter. One day this guy called Lord Woodbine, who ran the club, asked if we’d come in and accompany this stripper called Janine. We said, “Wow! Yeah, man! There’s a job.” He even paid us money.

DRUM!: It sounds like you would have paid him for that gig.
McCartney: Exactly [laughs]. So she came in and said, “Okay, I need you to play Ravel’s Bolero.” We said, “Oh, gee. Sorry, luv. We don’t read music. But we’ve got ’Raunchy.’ That might do.” I had somebody’s old drum kit, and I sat there with a broomstick between my legs, with a microphone tied to it so I could do a bit of vocals and drum at the same time. It was hilarious.

DRUM!: When Ringo joined the band, that must have interrupted your emerging career on drums.
McCartney: Yeah, I was completely redundant. We loved Ringo so much. He was our favorite drummer in Liverpool, and when he joined the band, it was an explosion: Every song sounded new and fresh. He could pass what we felt was the true test for drummers, which was to be able to play “What’d I Say” — the cymbal work and the toms.

DRUM!: Ringo adjusted from one section of the song to the next, rather than just lay down a beat. That influence is evident in your drumming on the new album.
McCartney: That’s one thing about great drummers: They actually listen to the song, so they can allow the vocalist space. Then when you get to the end of a phrase, they make a comment: [sings], “Eight days a week … ba-dap-a-doo bop.” But on Chaos that also has to do with Nigel Godrich, who is a thinking producer. Your natural inclination is to go “one, two, three, four, bang,” and you’re in with the drums. But Nigel would say, “You know, this song has a nice acoustic opening. Let’s let it ride.” We did that on “Friends To Go,” and then on the second verse I came in with just the bass drum. It didn’t need anything more than that.

Paul McCartney

DRUM!: You also pare your drum part down on a number of songs, such as “Too Much Rain” and “This Never Happened Before,” or take them out entirely as part of a diminuendo.
McCartney: I was always trying to do that in the ’70s, but my producers would say, “Just play the tambourine through the whole track and we’ll work it out later.” I’d go [dubiously], “Uh, okay …” And inevitably it would stay through the whole track. You’d have this record full of everything from A to Z; none of the instruments ever stopped. And that was boring. I reminded Nigel — and myself — that on Beatles records you’d have a tambourine for a verse, then it would stop and a snare or something would take over. I was thinking of that as we were working on “Too Much Rain.” I said, “You know, when I was writing this on solo acoustic, where the lyrics are like, ’It’s not right in one life, too much rain,’ that meant something. And now we’ve got boom, bing, bang going over it. It doesn’t mean as much, so can we knock that out and build back up again?” That was the way to go.

DRUM!: As strong as you are on bass, keyboards, guitar, and as a singer and writer, is it frustrating to play your drum parts at a more limited level?
McCartney: That never intimidates me, though it probably should. I just have so much enthusiasm when I do things that I don’t even consider it. I’m lucky, because some people would wrack themselves with doubt, but when I came to this project I was like, “Man, let’s just have a bit of fun!” It didn’t occur to me that I was some idiot jumping on the kit. I know that a lot of drummers can play rings around me, but as long as I keep it simple and don’t get too flash, I can play with a steady, swampy feel, and that’ll do the job.

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