His Musical Notes Have Become TV Landmarks
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 24, 2002; Page Y06
No pop star has better harnessed
the power of television, or been present at more historic television milestones, than Paul McCartney.
The little box played an enormous role in the history
of the Beatles, of course. You can date their conquest of America to their
appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, and you probably shouldn't
imagine MTV without a whole lot of Beatles precedents. Over the course of almost
four decades, McCartney, as both a Beatle and a solo superstar, has looked to
television as the most effective, most concentrated medium to reach a mass
"Growing up in England, we saw the first flickering
television programs in our generation when it came into our homes in the early
Fifties," McCartney recalled. "And we realized the importance of this thing that
was now in our homes because at the bus stop the next day, you would say, 'Did
you see that!' and you could see that everyone was affected by it."
Whether it's bus stops, water coolers or Internet chat
rooms, McCartney is obviously hoping that people will be talking Thursday about
Wednesday night's two-hour ABC special, "Paul McCartney: Back in the U.S.," at 9
p.m. The "rock-and-road" movie follows Tuesday's release of a double CD and DVD
recorded and filmed earlier this year during McCartney's sold-out American tour,
his first in nearly a decade.
According to McCartney, the two-part tour (the first
leg, "Drivin' U.S.A," was named after his then-new album; the recently concluded
second leg gives the ABC show its title) became "very special. We were set to do
a nice tour: I knew I had a good band, and when we did the songs in rehearsal,
they felt good. But once we hit the audiences, things really started to notch up
and each gig just got hotter and hotter."
Sir Paul attributes that to several factors, including
the goodwill created around the Concert for New York, the all-star television
spectacular he put together in October 2001 at Madison Square Garden to honor
the fire fighters, police and emergency workers who died in the attacks on the
World Trade Center on Sept. 11. McCartney and his then-fiancee, now-wife Heather
Mills, watched the tragedy unfold from an airplane window as they sat on the
tarmac at JFK Airport.
"You felt personally identified with all of that,"
McCartney said. "And then I noticed after that people would just stop me on the
street here in America and say, 'Thanks for what you did.' And out of something
that we just decided to do, to stand up and be counted, it became something
significant for a lot of American people."
There would be other high-visibility television
appearances before McCartney began his tour in April, including a Super Bowl
tribute to everyday heroes and the Academy Awards, where McCartney was nominated
for his theme song from "Vanilla Sky."
Also fueling anticipation was the fact that "I hadn't
been out in a long time," said McCartney, who, as a reported billionaire, hardly
needs to work these days.
Nonetheless, he seemed to be having more fun this time
around, with the music front and center, pumped out by a super-tight quintet.
"I think that's true," he acknowledged. "The response
we got was phenomenal and that increased the sense of fun."
ABC's two-hour "Back in the U.S." and Capitol's
three-hour "Back in the U.S.--Live 2002," both directed by Mark Haefeli, share a
fair amount of concert, backstage and touring footage, and McCartney is
particularly happy that devoted fans who purchase the DVD will get access to a
secret Web site offering even more material for free.
"There's a time limit on the telly and DVD, like there
is on anything, and we had to excise a lot of good edited material," McCartney
said. After learning it was possible to put a DVD in a computer and go to a Web
site that only the people with the DVD can access, he decided to put up "a whole
extra parking lot of stuff that we can keep changing. Having once been this
little guy who spent all his hard-earned money on a record and really needed it
to have value for money, this DVD and the [30-track] CD is ridiculous value for
When he found out Mac users--including
musicians-artist pals who favor Apple--wouldn't be able to access the Web site,
McCartney simply called up Apple co-founder Steven P. Jobs and solicited a
"He came around to one of the concerts, and now it's
going to happen, and every computer in the world will be able to access this,"
said a proud McCartney, adding: "I'm not low-tech, I'm no-tech. I can just about
work my computer music program, but I don't send e-mails and stuff. I'm
hopeless, really, in a cool kinda way, and now I feel very much on the cutting
edge of technology!"
If Paul McCartney is good for technology, technology
has been good to McCartney, as well. After all, the Beatles' first major
television appearance in England gave us Beatlemania--literally. "Sunday Night
at the London Palladium" was that country's top-rated variety program when the
Fab Four made their debut Oct. 13, 1963, performing a five-song, 12-minute set
in front of a nationwide audience of 15 million.
"It was the big vaudeville variety show that everyone
tuned in on Sunday night," McCartney recalled. "It had a revolving stage, and at
the end, everyone stood on the stage and waved, and the stage went round. It was
like 'Wow!' "
Which was the public reaction in the Palladium and on
the streets outside, a frenzy that led the tabloid Daily Mirror to its
front-page headline cover the next morning: "Beatlemania!" The term was quickly
and widely appropriated for hysteria surrounding all things Beatle.
It was that hysteria that caught the attention of Ed
Sullivan, who witnessed Beatlemania in action when he found himself at London's
Heathrow Airport at the same time the Beatles were changing flights. Sullivan
asked what the fuss was about and, canny impresario that he was, immediately
booked the group for his show without having heard a single note.
On Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles' live debut on "The Ed
Sullivan Show" became a signal pop culture moment, one of most important events
in the history of rock-and-roll and television. It was watched by 73 million
people--one of the highest-rated single programs of all time, the first of three
straight Sunday night appearances that would launch the stateside version of
Families had dinner parties to watch the show, and it
was reported that on that particular night, America experienced its lowest crime
rate among teenagers in decades. Countless kids decided to become musicians that
"We saw the immediate impact, but the import sort of
came later," said McCartney. "You need a little time for history, for importance
to be attached to events."
McCartney said he's still amazed when people tell him
how they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when that
first Sullivan show aired.
"They all seem to remember their dads saying we were a
bunch of whatever! Their fathers, whose hair was probably dropping out, all
swore we were wearing wigs and didn't like us and often walked out of the room.
But the kids, who are now great big grownup judges and gynecologists and
attorney generals, remember it vividly."
Sullivan's musical director wasn't im-pressed--"I give
them a year," he grumped at the time--but the fact that 50,000 requests came in
for the 703 seats at CBS Studios should have been an indicator that this was
just the start of something.
Even Elvis Presley, whose own appearances on the show
were the stuff of legend, sent a welcoming telegram, a symbolic passing of the
torch, read on the air by Sullivan. Among the other performers on the historic
show: the cast of the Broadway show "Oliver!," including a very young Davy
Jones. Five years later, television made a Monkee out of Jones.
Though they made nine appearances on the Sullivan
show, the Beatles performed at the CBS Studios (now the Ed Sullivan Theater)
only once. In fact, the third show, which aired Feb. 23, was actually their
first, taped on the afternoon of Feb. 9. The seeds of MTV were sown in 1965 when
Sullivan broadcast the Beatles's "promotional films" for "Rain" and "Paperback
Writer," so it's appropriate that McCartney returned to the studio--now home to
the Letterman show --in 1992 to tape his "Up Close" special for MTV.
The Beatles' first exposure on ABC came in July 1964,
when Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" dedicated an entire show to a documentary
about their feature film debut, "A Hard Day's Night," recently reissued as an
expanded double-DVD. Think of it as the prototype of MTV's "Making the Video."
In the fall of 1965, ABC introduced "The Beatles," a
half-hour weekly cartoon series that ran Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. and did
a 50-plus share, unheard-of domination for daytime television. It was the first
weekly animated series featuring animated versions of real people. Each
half-hour episode offered two cartoon adventures built around Beatles songs; in
between were sing-alongs where the lyrics flashed on screen. Clever bridges
between cartoons and commercials presaged MTV's distinctive bumpers.
The Beatles themselves served only as inspiration,
declining to contribute perspiration. "We just didn't want to do the work,"
McCartney admitted. "We had other things to do--at the time, we were Sergeant
Pepper-ing and things like that, and the idea of doing voice [dubbing] was not
our favorite kind of thing."
Neither were the voices that ended up coming out of
cartoon Beatle mouths. British actor Lance Percival voiced Paul and Ringo, while
American Paul Frees (best known for the Jolly Green Giant and Boris Badenuf) did
John and George. All were done in genial English since it was thought authentic
Liverpool accents would prove incomprehensible. " 'Hello, my name's Paul,' "
mimicked McCartney, sounding much more like Goofy.
The cartoon series was "okay," he said. "We were kind
of amused by it. We didn't take it too seriously, but it was put to us that kids
loved it. We thought the graphics were a bit weak, but people said, 'No, no, all
kinds of hearts exploding on the screen saying love-love-love is fine.' We
thought it was a little bit pre-teenage for us and for our tastes at that point.
I suppose it was a bit of business, really. We got used to it."
"The Beatles" cartoon series, which last aired in 1990
on the Disney and Family Channels, ran for several more years, eventually
succumbing to "Spaceghost," forever buried in "Strawberry Field." A proposed
two-hour movie based on the series gradually evolved into "Yellow Submarine," a
much more ambitious work using many of the same graphic artists.
One of the songs included in "Yellow Submarine" was
"All You Need Is Love," itself the result of television history. On June 25,
1965, the BBC engineered the first global television broadcast, "Our World,"
featuring live segments from five continents, and commissioned the Beatles to
create a simple song that viewers across the globe could understand. John Lennon
came up with an anthem appealing for global harmony, a message to the world that
was heard by an estimated 400 million people.
"It was another giant step for television," said
McCartney, citing global events such as the space shots, the Olympics and
1"Live-Aid" in 1985, in which he also participated. "They got to be significant
just because so many people watched. Even when you're bad on [such a program],
they're going to remember."
Which leads directly to "Magical Mystery Tour," the
Beatles's self-produced, self-financed television special. Essentially designed
and directed by McCartney, it became the first major bump in the Beatles'
yellow-brick road, a virtually incomprehensible, plotless and formless road
movie inspired by the psychedelic bus trips of Ken Kesey and the Merry
"Magical Mystery Tour" aired on the BBC as a
prime-time Christmas special in late December 1967, first in black and white, a
month later in color (though there were few color televisions at the time).
Although it featured classic Beatles songs--"Fool on the Hill, "I Am the
Walrus," "Hello Goodbye" and "Penny Lane"--the 67-minute special evoked
universally negative press reaction ("the world's most expensive home video . .
. witless rubbish . . . a colossal conceit").
Such a reaction was unprecedented in the Beatles'
career, marking the first time they had to defend their work, with McCartney
doing so on "The David Frost Show."
"Talking about significant events, one of the big ones
is Christmas day, and somebody always has a special, normally a beloved
comedian, and we all sit around the telly and watch it," he recalled. "And we
sort of broke that tradition by the beloved Beatles' doing something a little
too wacky, just a little too psychedelic for their own good. It was
groundbreaking and it was very crazy. I think, personally, there's some really
good things in there."
While the "Magical Mystery Tour" album was a huge
success, NBC cancelled a million-dollar deal after the show's critical drubbing.
Oddly, several decades of MTV have made everything in the film feel familiar and
Had it remained a television program as intended, "Let
It Be" would have been the prototype for a VH1 staple, "Behind the Music," but
unlike "Tour," the story of the Beatles' breaking up ended up as a feature film.
McCartney is working on a version of the soundtrack album that strips away the
controversial after-the-fact Phil Spector production, as well as a
digitally-restored version of the documentary.
"I remember sitting in a rather bare white room in the
Sixties listening to [the original master] and being almost scared by it because
it was so naked and thinking, this is certainly unadorned and to put this out
would be quite a break," said McCartney.
Listening to recent playbacks at Abbey Road Studios,
McCartney said he was struck by the fact that "whereas Winston Churchill's
papers get older and browner and crinklier, with modern technology the Beatles'
music gets less hissier, gets shinier, gets more audible. And you've got these
four guys--five with Billy Preston, at times--in this room with you, sort of 5.1
[Dolby SurroundSound] and it's quite uncanny, quite the opposite of how history
normally goes. It's . . . getting . . . better . . . all . . . the . . . time,"
said McCartney in the dramatic style of ESPN's Chris Berman.
Twenty-five years later--and 15 years after they broke
up--the Beatles turned to television again to tell their story in their own
words, with a three-night, six-hour mini-series, "The Beatles Anthology," on the
network temporarily renamed A-Beatles-C. It was part of a multi-media juggernaut
that included a coffee table book, recently published in paperback, and three
"Lots of people were putting their spin on the
Beatles' history, not only because it's of interest, but because it's a
lucrative field," said McCartney. "There was a lure for a lot of people, whether
they knew a lot or not. And we thought, with the memory cells--while we still
vaguely remember what went on--we should put it down. We did, and it was very
good to do that because at least it's from our own mouths. There was a kind of
closure on the Beatles thing by putting it down in our own words."
A similar consideration led to last year's special,
"Wingspan: An Intimate Portrait," also shown on ABC. It was, said McCartney,
"the next natural move for us," one that would take on added poignancy with the
1998 death from breast cancer of Linda McCartney, his wife and musical partner
of 30 years.
"The idea came to us
right at the very beginning of Linda's illness," McCartney noted. "Again, it seemed
like we should do this, we should take this opportunity to remember as much as we
can so it's there for the record. Then anyone else can go and put their spin
on it. So there was closure on both of those projects."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company