Standing Stone Interview, 1997
Question: All right, what is "Standing Stone"? Paul McCartney: "Standing Stone" is the title of an orchestral piece that I've written to celebrate EMI record company's 100th anniversary. They asked me to do this about four years ago to help them celebrate their centenary and so I used the idea of a standing stone as kind of being symbolic of long-lastingness and standing and weathering the storms of time, because, after all, it is just the title of a new orchestral piece. Question: And where will it be performed and when? Paul McCartney: It's gonna be performed first of all at the Royal Albert Hall on October 14th and that will be with the London Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Foster conducting. That'll be its first performance. And when we're going over in November to Carnegie Hall with a different orchestra, same conductor. We're going to do it then for the New Yorkers. Question: Now, why did you write it? Paul McCartney: I wrote it because I was asked to write a piece to celebrate EMI Records' 100th anniversary and I was kind of looking around for a commission to do something orchestral. Because after the "Liverpool Oratorio," which was a piece I'd written for the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra's 150th anniversary, I was kind of looking to do something similar...um...and so when I got the offer, I jumped at it. And I just thought four years would never come, so I must say it's only the last couple of years I really got down to it. But, um, I wanted to do it anyway because I love the stretch of writing pieces like this. It doesn't necessarily have to be a big orchestra but it's interesting to work in the field that you're not used to. So I'm...in the kind of rock 'n' roll world which is my normal world. I love it and I haven't forsaken it at all, but it is sometimes interesting to do something different. So when this opportunity came along, as I say, I grabbed it. Question: Is it a symphony? Paul McCartney: No, it's not really a symphony. Symphonies apparently don't really have stories. The music kind of tells the story and I think when you get a story in it, like my piece has got, then they either become called something like a tone poem. Or, in this case, we thought that probably the easiest thing to call it was like a symphonic poem. But that doesn't actually feature in any of the...on the record, it never says that, but if people want to know what it is, I think the nearest thing is a symphonic poem. Question: Are you playing at either Albert Hall or Carnegie Hall? Paul McCartney: No, I won't be playing. No, when the piece is performed at Albert Hall, one of the great things is, after I've spent four years writing a piece like this, I don't. I'm not one of the performers, so I actually just get to sit in the audience and it is one of the rewards of ... er..because I'm used to whenever the first night of the thing is, I'm used to being up there on stage. In this case, it's the conductor, it's the orchestra, it's the soloists who've got to do the business. And it's quite relaxing for me, a little nail-biting, you know, and hope they get it right, but at least it's them that have to get it right, not me. Question: You're quoted as saying, "I don't know how we're going to get 'round this, but it's a point I want to make. 'Win or lose, I'm to blame.' " Paul McCartney: Yeah. The thing about doing big pieces like this, big orchestral pieces, is that I can't notate music. In other words, I can't write it down and I can't read it if you give me a bit of sheet music. I can just about pick my way through something very, very simple, but it's not something I've ever been interested in learning how to do, actually. I got into music in much more of a kind of "hands-on" way through the rock 'n' roll world where we just talked to each other in a band and there's no need to produce written music unless you're gonna work with an orchestra. And in our case, with the Beatles, it would always be handed over to George Martin. So this kind of a piece a lot of people, I think, naturally can think that whoever actually wrote the music down, even though I may have composed it, they often will say to me, "Well, he really wrote it, didn't he?", you know, just 'cos of the physical act of writing it down. So, when you do something like this, you either, or if it goes well, people can either think, "Well, he didn't really write it, anyway. It's all this team who's helped him write it." Or, if it really badly, they can sort of say, "Well, he can't write music anyway." In actual fact, I don't think the writing down of the music is the difficult bit. It's the thinking it up. It's the making the tunes, the making of the harmonies, the making of the rhythms and the structure, that's actually hard. It's like being able to write, in your mind, a great novel, but you can only put it down on a bit of tape. It doesn't matter. They could still make a novel out of that. You don't actually have to be able to physically write the words down, particularly these days with all the recording devices. So sort of, that's why I say, 'Win or lose'...um...I have written this. If people think it's not good enough, well then that would be 'lose.' But in my case, I'm not really too worried, I think, because I enjoy it myself and I like the piece myself. And in the end, that's who I'm trying to please. Question: How did you use a computer for "Standing Stone"? Paul McCartney: About...a year or so into the project, a couple of my friends were starting to mention music programs on computers. And I would say, "Well, I'm not really into computers. I'm not very up with it...um...because I don't use them normally." And they'd say, "Yeah, but you could be really interested in this music program. It'll allow you to orchestrate and actually print out parts, you know. So I thought, "Well, maybe it is something I should look at." So I did. I looked at the idea, had a couple of demonstrations off computer salesmen and stuff, and finally bought some double-glazing. Ha ha, no I didn't. So, in the end, I got hold of one and without knowing anything about it...um...me and one of the technicians from the studio, a guy called Keith Smith, sat down and got hold of the manual and tried to figure out how to work this thing. It was quite good fun, actually, because neither of us knew much about it, even though he's more technical than I am, which is quite easy to be...um...because I'm hopeless. But, we worked it out anyway. We found our way through this and gradually, became quite competent at it. And so, I was able to play a keyboard, play the melody I wanted and then have the computer play it back to me either on strings, or if I wanted to hear it on, like, an oboe, it could try...it could play that, or if I wanted to hear trumpet playing that line, it could do that. So I could orchestrate as I went along. And it became fascinating for me, too, 'cos it was a new thing for me. Actually, it was like multi-track recording, but actually fiddling with all the members of the orchestra and trying to get the colours right and the, ah, dynamics. So I ended up enjoying those computer sessions although, you know, you had to pull me off it because I'd have to sort of ask, "What time is it?" You know, before I knew it, four hours would have gone by. Boy, you know, it's fascinating, so I lost all sense of time. And so I had to say to myself, "OK, I'm only going to do like four hours at a go," or I think I would have stayed up all night. But I enjoyed the process and started to enjoy the music that was coming out of it, and so I had to check it out with various other people to see whether it was correct, musically, or not. And so I got a team together to help me with that. But in the end, I managed to do it, put the whole thing down on to the computer. And that was what became a new ball game for me and has now allwed me to actually orchestrate myself instead of always having to get someone else to do it. Question: Does "Standing Stone"...writing "Standing Stone"...give you a different kick or a different satisfaction from rock 'n' roll? Paul McCartney: To me, writing any kind of music is the same kind of kick, even though the colour of it, in other words, the feel of it, will be different. In other words, if you come up with a great rock 'n' roll song, it's obviously a very energetic thrill and it's a kind of upbeat thing 'cause of the nature of what you're doing. Now, I wouldn't differentiate between doing that and then doing a slower song, more of a ballad, 'cause if you get that right, it's as exciting, but it's a different colour of excitement, if you see what I mean. It's like...it's a sweeter pleasure. It's a more melodic pleasure. Maybe it's not quite as rhythmic, but it's still as exciting. So I don't really have these barriers. So when I come to write orchestral music, it still is the same kind of deal for me. But again, it's not a thrilling, upbeat rock 'n' roll kind of thing. Nor is it necessarily like a very melodic...loving, ballad thing. It may be something else completely. It may be trying to portray a ship lost at sea or it may be trying to show an army having a victory or something. So, it's a different ball game. But because I don't really see the musical barriers, it's actually still as pleasurable to pull it off. It's just different. But it's equally as thrilling to pull it off if you can. Question: You may have already answered this, but why did you call it "Standing Stone," and how is it linked to your Celtic roots? Paul McCartney: I was looking for a title, because it's always good when you're writing something, to have some idea of a title....um...I've always done that. If I've been lucky, come up with a good little title. "Eight Days a Week." OK, then you've got...you're pretty much there on the idea of the song. On this one, I knew I wanted to work in a kind of Celtic, ancient thing because I wanted to go through history and come more up to modern day. So, playing around with that idea, I realised that I love these big, ah, stones that you will see in Scotland or in Wales or in France...a lot of places in Europe that were put up by Celtic people. And...um...nobody knows what they really are, so I knew there was a nice mysterious, intriguing little thing in that for me. And so I wondered whether the title, "Standing Stone," would be good. I like the sound of the words. And I mentioned it to Allan Ginsberg, who I was hanging around with about the time, and he said, "Great title." So, his word was good enough for me. So I had the title and then it meant that I could play with all the intriguing aspects of these ...er...very ancient, mysterious stones. (pause) The other aspect of that was, in looking back at Celtic stories, I realized that I was kind of researching my own roots becaue my family had been Liverpool-Irish. My Mum had come over from Ireland when she was 11, and ah, our family traced back our roots to that area. So it meant that in..ah..so it meant that in some ancient time, I suppose, our family had Celtic roots. So that was a good aspect of it for me. And it also gave me a great excuse during the middle of this writing. I suddenly thought, "Well, that's maybe...that's why I don't write things down because the Celts never did." They didn't even...let alone their music...they didn't even write their history down, but it fitted in so well that it was...ah...it was an interesting idea that maybe that's why I've never been bother to learn something deep and Celtic within me. Question: You wrote an epic poem along with this. Was that an aid or was that something that happened along with it? Paul McCartney: Yeah, when I was trying to think of a story, because I realized I wouldn't just be able to do what the old classical composers would do, which would just be develop a theme musically and not use a story, I felt like I had to have some kind of framework for what I was doing 'cause..number one, I had no idea what it was I was going to do, or even how I would go about it. So it seemed to me it would be a good idea to get an idea for a story I could hang it on if necessary. And and least I would know where I was up to in the story at any given time. So I started thinking of it as a poem and each day I would just get a couple of lines and scribble them all down until I had about 20 pages, which turned into sort of a long epic poem. But at least I had the story and I had the images in a kind of tight, economical form because of the fact that you were trying to write poetry, which the discipline is quite economic. So that was what I did and I ended up with this long poem. And then I spoke to a friend of mine who's a poet called Tom Pickard. And he's a Newcastle guy and, over the fax and over the phone and over some various chats, he helped me edit the poem down, get it even tighter and get it so that it could stand alone as a poem. So, in the end, I've published it in the CD booklet so if you want something to hold onto as you're listening to the music, you can refer to the story. But, to my mind, it's not actually necessary 'cause I've been listening to the music sometimes myself and completely forgotten where I'm up to in the story. And I think it's only right that the music should really drive itself. But the story, the poem, was as an aid. It was a framework in case I sort of lost track of where I was. It was something to help me...ah...find my direction. So it ended up as that, but it never actually got used in the piece, so it comes along with the piece, in case you're wondering. It'll be in the programme notes. In case you're wondering where we're up to in the story, you can refer to the poem. Question: In the song, you've got this blackbird that's supposed to be you gliding through space. All he does is search for love. Love is the oldest secret of the universe. Interesting use of the secret, by the way. You still saying, "All you need is love" in a different form? Paul McCartney: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I realized that. At the end of the poem, I had this little bit where the celebration's happened. There's the happy ending which is what I wanted because I was being asked to write...I was being asked to write something to celebrate 100 years, so I thought. Well, it can't have a downbeat ending. So, in my mind, when I was looking at the picture and writing the end to the story, I imagined a camera pulling back, pulling back into the summer sky. And so it was something like I had an image of blackbird which you'll see in the summer way, way up in the sky. There'll be just one little bird hovering. And I just wondered what he was looking at, you know what he was thinking about. And, at the end of the poem, he just sort of...he's wondering why so many bite-sized people spend their lives, times, running on the spot. But in actual fact...so I had him as a kind of character in the poem. But then I came to write a love song for the end of the piece which was the same point and I used the same blackbird to open the love song, which is kind of like the wedding song for the hero and heroine. And at that point, you seem him gliding overhead. And then in that song, it says that all he does is search for love. And yeah, I suppose I am going over old themes that we used in The Beatles. Certainly a blackbird was one of my themes. And all you need is love...you know, one of the things that the Beates' songs were often about was love. And some people would say it's a bit soppy, you know, talking about love and stuff. But I think, the more I go on, the more important I realize it is, you know. If you've got a family, you've got some kids, it's really important that there be love or else you've got a dysfunctional family. If you're married, it really helps if you love who you're married to, you know. So, when something like the Diana tragedy happens, it's love you're seeing pouring out. It's not hatred. It's not disregard. It's that old thing...it's that old thing called love, you know. And so I think so many know about it deep within themselves, if they're lucky, that I do think it is really an important thing, and in some ways, I think it is...the great thing that we as humans have. I'm sure animals can feel it, but we can actually talk about it and sing about it. And I think it is really an important thing in our world, so even though it may be harking back to themes that I've written about before, I still think it's as imporant as ever, perhaps even more important than ever. Question: Again, referring to the quote you've used there, you're sort of talking about bite-sized creatures running. They spend all their lifetime, not "life," but "life time," running on the spot. Are you saying in the poem, "There, don't be normal. Break the rules," and is that part of your musical attitude and that's why you've been able to write "Standing Stone"? Paul McCartney: Yeah, you know, I suppose a lot of people would look at my work and say, "Well, you know, it doesn't break a lot of rules," but there's another group of people that would say it does and has always been doing that. I think in some small way, I do enjoy doing that because we were never musically trained. When anyone would say, like George Martin might say, "Well, you're not supposed to do that officially," we'd go, "Ooh, ooh, ooh, let's do it." You know, it would excite us actually that we weren't allowed to do it, because obviously in the Beatles, we allowed ourselves to do anything. So we suddenly get this idea that there were rules. First thing we wanted to do was break 'em, you know. And often it was the exciting thing to do. Instead of just sort of saying, "Hello, I love you," you might just say, "P.S., I love you," or "All you need is love" or "She loves you." You'd find a slightly different way of doing it and that became fascinating. And so for me, I don't really break rules for the sake of it as much as the fun of it. Obviously, if you break the rule, there's more chance of your stuff being original. Because if you abide by the rule, then obviously someone has done it before you 'cause it's a rule. So there are some rules I like to stick to. But mainly, I do enjoy when I get a chance to break 'em, but not just for the sake of it. It's mainly because it often throws up something a little more interesting. Question: Is this classical orchestral your future now or are you going to continue doing rock 'n' roll as well? Paul McCartney: Well, one of the things that has worried me a little bit in getting into orchestral music is that there might be some people who think, "Ah, he's gone over to the classical world and it's because he's not interested in rock 'n' roll. That was one of the reasons I wanted to put out a new rock 'n' roll album, "Flaming Pie," in the same year as I did "Standing Stone," because I wanted to show people quite clearly that no way was I going to give up one branch of music in order to get in another. It's just that I like 'em both and I've always been a bit that way. Before rock 'n' roll started, I liked the music my dad liked and I liked some classical stuff, you know. And even with the Beatles, we would play things like Bach and stuff, you know, and it always seemed fascinating. And it wasn't a question of you just have to be one way or you just have to be the other way. I like the mixture. I like balance, you know, so to me, it's just interesting to do something different, but in no way does it mean that I'm going to throw out the old in order to get on with the new. It means that I'd like to be able to do both of them and other things besides, too, you know. I'd like to paint, for instance. I wouldn like anyone to think, "Oh, he just wants to paint. He doesn't want to do music." The truth is I love all these things and I think I love them equally. So it just means that at one time in a year, I really want to write some rock 'n' roll stuff and at another point in the year, or another day, I must just want to paint. And I thnk, you know, heck, it's a free world. I don't see why I shouldn't. So, I really like to mix all these things and hope that no one really thinks I'm going into one of them at the exclusion of others. I like 'em all. Question: At the end of "Standing Stone," there's been what has been called by you a lullaby or a love song. Can you tell us? You said something about that this song was kicking around the kitchen or the kids grew up listening to it. Paul McCartney: There are some songs that you play just for your own pleasure and some of them that I have like that take years and years and years for me to even think of recording them, because they're just songs I sing when I'm around the kitchen. Or certain little tunes are just things I noodle about with when I'm playing the piano. When I'm at somebody's house and they've got a good piano and there's nothing much happening, I'll noodle around on it. And the tune that appears in the fourth movement of this "Standing Stone" was one that I had from quite a long time. And I remember things like I'd be at Linda's Dad's house and I'd be playing this tune and he'd turn around and say, "That's a nice tune. What is it?" And I'd say, "Oh, just something I'm knocking around." So I knew I liked it. It was a candidate for various other little things that I was going to do, but never got 'round to using it. So when I was looking for a tune that I thought would be a memorable tune that had some strength in it, that could be used to close the piece and to finish "Standing Stone," this one came to mind. And I played it to one of the people working on the piece, who was Richard Rodney Bennett who was helping with the orchestrations. I played it to him and I said, "I'd like this to be in the fourth movement as a tune." He said, "Well, that's a song." I said, "Well, I haven't got any words." He said, "Well, it sounds like one of your songs." So that gave me the clue and I went away. And I went away and wrote words to it. And I thought...seeing as it is just a very, very simple straightforward love song, I don't want to get any complex words. I want to just go straight from the shoulder. And so I wrote a very simple set of words. I checked them out with a couple of people, and I thought, "Should I complicate these?" And I thought in my own mind, "Should I look for more complicated images?" But these were the ones...these were the words that just fitted. And they seemed to work, so I kept them in and eventually went to one of the rehearsals with the choir. And I heard them sing it acappella and I just thought, "It works," you know. It's very, very simple, but the rest of the piece isn't necessarily simple. Some of it's quirky, some of it's a little bit difficult to understand, so we thought it'll come out of left field. Right at the end of this piece when you've been listening to 72 minutes of instrumental music and there's hardly any words at all, suddenly the orchestra stops and you get...a straight love song. And I thought, well in that context, it's almost radical, you know. In another context, in an album of love songs, it would be straightforward, but used in this way, it's a little bit of a shock. So I thought that was quite funny that a straightforward love song could have that kind of effect. So that's the one we used. And it was one that I'd been playing for millions of years. So my kids and close family all have known it for a long time, but it finally found its place. Question: Finally, what sort of an evening do you hope people will have at "Standing Stone"? Paul McCartney: When I was asked to write "Standing Stone by the man from EMI, I thought, "Well, what kind of an evening do we want?" And one of my tricks is sort of to visualize the evening and think, "OK, here's everyone sitting around in their Sunday best." We've all got a programme, probably. They'd mentioned that they'd wanted an orchestra, so I thought, "OK, we've got the orchestra up on stage. I like choirs, so I threw in a chorus." I thought, "Right, there'd be an orchestra, a chorus," and then I started to kind of work backwards from that moment and sort of imagine, "OK, now what are they playing then? What tunes are they doing? Is it all orchestral or whatever?" So I really just thought...the main thing I thought was that I'd like it to be a very enjoyable evening. EMI, after all, has waited a long time for this celebration. So I should imagine that I'd like people to go out having enjoyed it, also having some food for thought, possibly for them to think, "Ooh, I didn't know he could do that." It's always nice if you do something new for people to think that. But most of all, really for people to have enjoyed the evening, so that I'd like them to go out thinking, "Alright, I didn't waste the money for this ticket. This was worth coming to. This was a worthwhile evening," and for EMI themselves to think, "Yeah, OK, this fulfilled the brief. This was a celebration and I'm glad we asked him to do it."