Paul McCartney was holding a jar of jam. It didn’t seem significant at the time. But the more I think about it now, the more I wish I’d asked where it had come from.
I didn’t think to ask because I was more concerned with the fact that I was about to meet Paul McCartney. Which is a bit like meeting Julius Caesar or Marie Curie or Mahatma Gandhi or Joan of Arc, in the sense that the person you’re about to shake hands with will be remembered for many hundreds of years after we’re all gone.
Not that those around him speak in such reverential terms. In every piece of correspondence leading up to our meeting, in an exhibition wing of London’s National Portrait Gallery earlier this month, he’s referred to, familiarly, as either “Paul” or “Macca”, that great scouse colloquialism bestowed upon him while still a school boy at the city’s Inny (or Liverpool Institute High School for Boys).
The latter is what most people call him now, such have 60 years in the public eye honed a reputation as an approachable and avuncular presence. I don’t think I can bring myself to write either. Only the full nomenclature will do.
“Paul [McCartney]?” asks the PR. “This is Matthew, for the interview.”
What he said next, I couldn’t tell you. I can’t, I’m sorry to say, even tell you what happened to the jam jar I could have sworn he was holding seconds before. You see, for me, meeting Paul McCartney isn’t like meeting Julius Caesar or Marie Curie or Mahatma Gandhi or Joan of Arc. It’s better.
For a start, I didn’t ask my mum to blow-dry my hair like any of the others when I was 10 years old (although I did have a teenage flirtation with Milla Jovovich’s Joan of Arc ’do in The Messenger). I didn’t make a school-age pilgrimage to any of their hometowns with my best mate, just so we could walk on the same streets that they might once have walked on. I didn’t turn to any of them at points in my life when I’ve felt in need: of comfort or catharsis or just the familiar voice of what felt like an old friend. I’ve turned to him, though.
Now, Paul McCartney’s turning to me, literally, in a room full of pictures he took between December 1963 and February 1964, when his band, The Beatles, were at the start of the ground-breaking, earth-quaking, hit-making, hair-shaking period the Daily Mirror would dub “BEATLEMANIA!” Oh, boy.
Do you ever find it weird looking at all the pictures of yourself or are you used to it by now?
“I’m very used to it, yeah,” says Paul McCartney, that familiar accent still flecked with scouseness, many decades after he left home on one of the greatest adventures in human history. “These pictures, though, it’s nice because they’re memories of a very specific period.”
We’re walking through the first room of his exhibition Paul McCartney, Photographs 1963 – 64: Eyes of the Storm, and final preparations are still underway. Photographs of his bandmates, John, George and Ringo, are temporarily taped to the walls around us. The show starts in England ’63, where the group’s fame had already breached Liverpool’s borders, flooding into radios, television sets and concert halls across the country. “It’s happening everywhere… even in sedate Cheltenham,” wrote an incredulous Mirror in November that year.
We stop in front of a large, black-and-white picture of the band on stage, clearly not taken by Paul McCartney, but by a member of the road crew who must have picked up his Pentax 35mm camera.
Does it feel like the same Paul McCartney when you look at these pictures? Or does it feel like a different person to you now?
“To me, it’s the same. Because this body,” he gestures at himself now, a still-energetic 81-year-old, wearing a navy blue blazer, buttoned-up white shirt and black trousers, “was that.“
He points at the photograph of himself in full early Beatles attire, his mouth wide in harmony as he leans into a microphone. To his left is his songwriting partner John Lennon; their guitars pointing in opposite directions like arms that long to hold you.
“Do you ever get that feeling, seeing an old picture of yourself?” Paul McCartney asks. “It’s just grown into this. I love looking back at these because there are so many memories, and so many memories of my mates.”
They were, in fact, memories he didn’t know he had. He only discovered the pictures in 2020, when preparing for an exhibition of his late wife Linda’s photographs at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery.
“Well, it literally was something I thought that I’d lost,” he says. “I hadn’t seen them for, I dunno, 60 years. I was just talking to a girl in our office who is a photo archivist. I said: ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve got a feeling I took a lot of pictures in the ’60’s, do you have any idea where they might be?’ And she said: ‘Yeah, we’ve got them. They’re in the archive.’
“There’s stuff [in the archive] that I literally thought I’d never see again and then suddenly, all of that’s there,” he continues. “It’s like magic. It’s like some old scrapbook that you discover of your family or something: ‘Wow, I never knew that…’ ‘Oh yeah, Auntie Mary took this.’ So, it’s like a gift seeing all this stuff come back. And then, the thing is that it’s not like a family snapshot album, because they’re kind of nice pictures.”
Actually, they’re very good pictures. Take an early two-shot of John Lennon and George Harrison, the former out of focus, the latter in, drawing on a cigarette. Or his documenting of the early-1960s Liverpool music scene: Billy J. Kramer, Jean Owen of The Vernons Girls, Cilla Black, the former Cavern Club cloakroom attendant turned singer turned TV presenter. Not to mention photos of The Beatles’ inner circle: manager Brian Epstein, roadie Mal Evans and publicist Tony Barrow, who coined the term “Fab Four”.
He lived in Morecambe, where I’m from, I hear myself tell Paul McCartney.
Tony Barrow – he lived in Morecambe towards the end of his life.
“Did he? Tony?”
We both stare at the photo of him in silence for a moment.
“You didn’t know him, did you?”
There’s an innocence to the earliest pictures on display, mostly shot in dressing rooms and empty theatre halls as the band soundchecks or kills time between performances. Did it feel innocent at the time or is that only something that gets added when looking back?
No, [it’s only] looking back you see that there was an innocence. At the time, we didn’t feel innocent at all. We thought we were big men. You know, we’d got our ciggies, got the suits, got the cool shirts. We knew we were becoming very successful. We were starting to earn money. We felt like kings of the universe.
Did you never miss home?
I think I did a little bit. You’d miss your girlfriend and your parents. But by the time we were going on tour I’d lost my mum, so it was my dad and my brother. And, you know, I’d see them quite often. But it was exciting because you were like sailors of the open sea. You’re going out and making your fortune! And that was exciting. So, you would look back but you’d phone and you’d write postcards and things. It was so exciting that it took care of everything. You didn’t really miss people too much.
Was there a moment when you felt the tip into Beatlemania or was it more incremental than that?
It was kind of incremental, yeah, but the American thing was the big tipping point. I always think it’s a nice thing that we started off very little, in little clubs, the Aintree Institute, in all these little places. Then we went to Hamburg, and that was a little bit bigger. It was like a staircase. So, you know, it wasn’t ever too overwhelming and we had a little bit of history. But there was an upward trajectory. By the time we went to America it was like: “Woah, this is it. You know, we’ve really made it now.”
What can you remember about the flight over?
We were just excited to be on that plane to New York. The most exciting bit about it was that word came through from the captain that he’d radioed ahead, like captains do, to say the weather and landing conditions and then he said: “Oh, there’s millions of people here!” So that came back to us like: “Wow!”.
What were you most excited about seeing over there?
New York. Tall buildings. You’re looking around for the pavements paved with gold. The music – that we were being played on the radio and stuff, that was very exciting. Then the fan thing ramped up because of the big show we did. We did TV shows back in England which had been very successful. But when we did the first Ed Sullivan Show 73 million people watched it. So, you knew now that you were really getting somewhere big.
The fascination, it appears, was mutual. Paul McCartney’s photography shifted from portraits of his fellow band members to great expansive shots of the New York streets, often lined by armed police officers and members of the press, who shadowed the group at Epstein’s invitation.
Was it ever scary being surrounded by so many people?
“No, we didn’t get scared, I must say. Because when I look at this,” Paul McCartney points towards a photo in which his camera is trained upon two photographers, their cameras, in turn, trained on him, “we used to know them all. These guys knew what they were doing, it was their job to take pictures. So we just went along with it. We’d take pictures back.”
Have you ever found anyone that you’ve been able to talk to about your experience of the height of Beatlemania? Is there anyone you’ve found that could relate to it?
It’s not really something that you talk about much… You’re right, I don’t think I’ve really talked about it with anyone, not even The Beatles. It was just like a fact of life for us.
As the photos move from New York to Washington D.C., where The Beatles performed their first US concert at the Coliseum, you begin to see Paul McCartney’s affection for working-class characters – later demonstrated in songs such as Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane and Lady Madonna – seep into them. A man shovels snow by a railroad track. A group of waitresses peer through a diner window. A young girl attempts to break the police line, her arms out and eyebrows raised in stretching, clawing adoration.
When the band arrives in Miami for a few days off, the photos suddenly switch from black and white to technicolour. As they relax by the sea in towelling jackets and shades, the effect is like someone switching on a light.
It must really bring it back to you when you look at them. It must be very evocative.
“Yeah it is,” says Paul McCartney. “It’s great, I mean it’s sad because you know, John and George aren’t here. But it’s exciting for me to go back in time and just… because I took the pictures it’s like I’m there. I know it’s a slightly obvious thing to say but it just reminds me of John with his shades and his guitar.”
He looks cool there, I offer.
“He was,” Paul McCartney replies, voice trailing off, already back in time. “He was a very cool boy.”
Paul McCartney Photographs: 1963 – 64: Eyes of the Storm at the National Portrait Gallery, London, will run from 28 June until 1 October 2023. An accompanying book titled ‘1964: Eyes of the Storm, Photographs and Reflections by Paul McCartney’ is out now on Penguin Press.