The wisdom of Macca: what Paul McCartney told students at the college he founded

The Beatles icon shared his thoughts on formal music education, new music and how the toilet is a good place to write music...

Paul McCartney took part in a Q&A with Jarvis Cocker today at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), a school he founded in 1996.

Offering a “new approach to performing arts training” LIPA offers arts training that is both different and out of the ordinary – a bit like McCartney’s own music training which had little formality.

In his chat today, McCartney shared his wisdom on why old school recording techniques are still the best, why musicians should return to making “concept albums” and why, crucially, the bathroom is the best place to write your music.

Here is, the wisdom of Macca…

When you record your songs, go old school: “It’s too easy to put ideas down now”

When asked by Jarvis Cocker if new technology had changed his music writing process over the years, it was a resounding ‘yes’ from McCartney, with the Beatle adding that he thinks technology has affected him “adversely.” For the Beatle megastar, the old ways of recording really are the best.

“I think [technology] has [affected] it actually and it’s maybe affected it adversely because you can record anything, anytime – just reach your phone and ‘bang!’ So I find myself with like thousands of sketches…I’ve got thousands of things to finish and I don’t think that’s a great thing. When you didn’t have that, you tended to have to finish it.”

Speaking about the way he and John Lennon recorded, McCartney said older methods of recording forced you to finish a song quickly, whereas newer ones fragment the process.

“The process that John and I used…was just basically to sit down, to come up with a bit of an idea of a song, and finish it and keep doing it and doing it until you got to the end, and then you’d written a [whole] song which I think was good rather than having a little fragment, a little sketch that maybe months later and you’ll be trying to recapture the vibe that you did listening to it. I don’t think it’s a good a system…it’s too easy to put ideas down now.”

When you record an album, record it live: “get it down all in one go”

For McCartney, slick auto-tuned recordings aren’t the best; ones where you record as close to the original recording as possible capture the spirit of the album better. He said he used this on his latest album, ‘Egypt Station’ out on 7 September.

“Quite a few tracks on the album we just did with the band…old school. Then we maybe overdubbed and did this and that but there is something that comes through, the spontaneity. And how I remembered why I must do that was by listening to old Beatles records. If you hear them they are fresh and right in your face…it was just the spirit that got onto the record. We didn’t mess around.”

“We first came down from Liverpool, got our first recording contract with Sir George Martin…and we were told what they wanted us to do because they were the grown ups and we 20-something and we didn’t know.”

“[We] had no idea what you did in a recording studio…between 10 and 10:30 we got ready, tuned up…and then at 10:30, the producer would come in and you’d start the session. And from there, you had one and half hours to finish that song completely. We never thought it was a pressure because we didn’t know anything else…You did it and then you had to do another song.”

Not knowing how to read or write music made Beatles’ songs more memorable: “We ended up saying that if we can’t remember it, how can we expect other people to?”

Describing his education on the site of his former school, McCartney said music classes weren’t the best. His teacher would put on a record, leave the class and the students to it, at which point all would start smoking and partying until said teacher returned.

None of the Beatles had formal music training, nor did many of the British Invasion bands that came out around the same time in the 1960’s. The result, McCartney said, was writing a bunch of songs that had to be memorable.

“[We] learned everything by ear. We hadn’t learned how to write anything down. We didn’t really do much recording but…we had to write songs you could remember…we ended up saying that if we can’t remember it, how can we expect other people to?”

“None of the groups – The British Invasion – didn’t know how to read or write music – we sort of didn’t need to.”

The toilet is a good place to write music – “It’s embarrassing, writing songs…”

Recently, Paul McCartney revisited his childhood home for the first time with James Cordon on Carpool Karaoke. Finding a quiet place to work was tough but for McCartney, the toilet is a good a place as any to pen a masterpiece. He also shared some insights on how he makes songs better.

“I would go somewhere very quiet, like a faraway toilet or cupboard, because it’s embarrassing writing songs. You don’t want to do it in public because you want to make your mistakes in private.”

“Just start noodling around on whatever cords you fancy…and just select a rhythm or tempo that feels okay and then just start singing over it and just see what comes out. I think the main thing is to stick with it because often the second verse or the chorus can get great and you can sort of go back and fix the beginning of it…I just write the words down as I go. Sometimes the second verse is better and I switch that to the first verse and keep going.”

Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Christine and The Queens are acts we should be looking up to

As well as revealing that he listens to most of his music on the car radio, McCartney also gave an insight into who he looks up to in contemporary music. Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Christine and the Queens all came out on top. He also revealed that listening to Kanye’s ‘Dark Twisted Fantasy’ led him to work with the star because he liked it so much.

“There’s one out at the moment that I think is very catchy which is Christine and the Queens record…it is like totally [a] Michael Jackson rip off but we don’t mind because it’s so catchy.”

It’s about time we had a return to concept albums: “I can’t complete with that Taylor Swift thing”

According to Macca, the big stars are making albums of commercial singles. For his latest, Sir Paul has decided to go back to making a “concept album” because listening should be about a “vibe” and an experience and not just a bunch of hit songs. Also, he said it was partly because he couldn’t compete with Taylor Swift.

“These days, you’ve got the big stars like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Kendrick…their songs are in a way [particularly the first two] a collection of singles. They are all great commercial tracks but it doesn’t roll through like a Pink Floyd album used to or a Beatles album.”

“So I thought well, I can’t compete with that Taylor Swift thing. She’s got better legs than me, marginally. So I thought maybe what I can do is just to do what used to called a concept album so it’s an album that if you want to, you can listen all the way and it should roll through and take you somewhere so that’s what I’ve done with this new one.”

The best music education isn’t necessarily in the classroom: “I tried a few times to learn properly but I hated it”

It wasn’t formal training but listening to others that gave McCartney his education – whether it be his dad playing piano at their house in Liverpool or sharing guitar chords with George Harrison on the school bus home, sometimes, it’s getting out of the classroom that matters most.

“My dad was a good amateur pianist…he would play the piano and I think…[I sponged] all of it in. Later, when he couldn’t play the piano, he got arthritis, so I ended up as the guy who played all these old songs…that’s one way I learned music. The other thing was he given me a trumpet for my birthday…he didn’t want to teach me. He thought I should “learn properly” and so I tried a few times to learn properly but I hated it.”

“The guitar craze came along, like skiffle, like a folk thing, and we all were very into it so a lot of people got guitars so I asked my dad if I could trade the trumpet in for a guitar…then I had a guitar and you met a lot of friends that had guitars who would just talk. It’s where I met George, who went to this school…we learned chords off each other and then the same thing happened with John.”

“The great thing was, a few years later, if John and I was showing the guys a song, George automatically knew anything we knew…and he would know the song. I think that’s really where our music took off.”

How reading the NME at school can change your life: “It was like…wow!”

Speaking to the audience who were sat in comfy lecture theatre seats, McCartney pointed out it was where he also used to sit as a schoolboy, not on comfy lecture theatre seats but on hard pews instead. To pass the time, he didn’t read books. No, instead he read his copy of NME where seeing Elvis for the first time in print made him seek out his music.

“I remember sitting back there with a copy of a music newspaper, the NME, and seeing a picture of Elvis Presley and it was like…wow! We were just enthralled with this guy and when we heard his records, that was it.”

This has made our day.

Paul McCartney will perform a secret gig in his Liverpool home town tomorrow (July 26) and will play three London dates in December as part of the ‘Freshen Up’ tour.

Wednesday December 12 – Echo Arena, Liverpool
Friday December 14 – SSE Hydro, Glasgow
Sunday December 16 – The O2, London