Paul McCartney Delivers A Master Class In Creativity
Writing about the creative process can sometimes be elusive. We can itemize intentions and actions, but somehow we miss that spark (serendipity perhaps) that makes creativity and its application to innovation so tangible.
It is not impossible, however. The new six-part 3,2,1 McCartney documentary series explores the creativity and experimentation of Paul McCartney. Now 79, Paul—whom the world has known since his early 20s—seems as youthful at least in spirit as ever. Rick Rubin, a legendary rock record producer and record executive, serves as McCartney’s interlocutor. The two of them dissect—at times, track by track—many of the songs the Beatles gave us. In addition, John Lennon, Paul’s writing partner, looms in the metaphorical shadows as a creative presence.
The result is a celebration of the human spirit—its potential for creativity, individually and collaboratively. This documentary succeeds on multiple levels; not the least is its exploration of music theory and its celebration of music in general. What emerges is an inside look at the creative process. Here are some takeaways for me.
Innocence. The Beatles did not burst on the scene upon their arrival in New York in the winter of 1964. They had played together for years, notably honing their craft in Liverpool and then in Hamburg, where they would play in clubs for six to seven hours a day, seven days a week. They were young, full of zest and brimming with that famous Scouse (Liverpool) wit. Yet, even as they matured as musicians, they never failed to keep themselves open to new ideas, new sounds and new ways of playing.
Collaboration. Lennon and McCartney wrote together initially, then separately. All the tunes they composed for the Beatles tunes are jointly attributed, many were solo compositions. George Harrison, a gifted guitarist, also wrote his own music. All of them collaborated, however, in playing together live or in the studio. Paul said that in the early days, the three guitarists hoped to keep up with Ringo. He was so professional, yet so darn good, one of the very best rock drummers of his era, maybe ever.
And there is one who never performed with them on stage, but without whom the Beatles never would have been as exciting and innovative—George Martin, their producer. Classically trained, Martin was an accomplished music producer who also had worked with comedic talents like Spike Jones and Peter Sellers. Martin’s multi-disciplinary sensibilities enabled him to understand what the boys were up to and help them do it better—electronically, musically, and at times, whimsically. Martin was also a pianist and played on some Beatles tracks.
There is one bit where McCartney talks of speaking to members of the London Symphony Orchestra, who provided many tracks in various Beatles tunes. In “Day in the Life,” McCartney asks them to let it go and unwind. He asked the musicians to through the range of their instruments from the lowest to highest tones. The horns took to it naturally, going about this task individually. By contrast, the strings, as McCartney notes, kept in perfect unison. Collaboration knows its boundaries.
Humor. Given Beatles’ youth, the boys did not take themselves too seriously. Music, yes, but not themselves. Scouse wit, again. And you can hear that whimsy, culled from the tradition of the British musical halls, echoes strongly in albums like Sergeant Pepper and the White Album.
Acknowledgment. The Beatles never left Liverpool, in a way. They maintained an outsider’s perspective on the world even as they were shaping its pop music scene. They knew their influences came from Americans like Little Richard, Elvis and Eddie Cochran, and famous bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. McCartney noted they appreciated Bach and sought, upon occasion, to emulate his compositional structures.
Rick Rubin, though twenty years younger than McCartney, is the perfect interviewer. Too young to have experienced the Beatles firsthand, his appreciation is not based on memory. Instead, it is rooted in his respect for what the Beatles achieved as musicians. Moreover, they did it in an era when society was in the process of throwing off what came before yet uncertain of what would come next. In other words, the perfect time to create.
There is a very touching moment near the end of episode six, when Rick Rubin reads a compliment John Lennon made about Paul’s bass playing, acknowledging how good Paul was. Something, Paul says, he never heard directly from John. Anecdotally, Paul, though a proficient guitarist, volunteered to play bass after Lennon and Harrison refused. It did not make sense musically to have three guitars in a four-piece band. Creativity requires discipline, after all.
A biopic, 3,2,1 McCartney is not. Instead, it is a celebration of human creativity and a sheer joy to watch.