There was valuable chemistry between Paul Muldoon and Paul McCartney when collaborating on their two-volume book, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. Over several years, the duo had various conversations about the creative process and McCartney’s output through the decades. The book contains some of the content of these chats, along with the lyrics of 154 of the Liverpudlian’s songs.
Muldoon suggests the pair’s Irish Catholic heritage was a notable aspect of their shared history. “We were raised in similar ways,” he says. “I don’t think there was that much religion in his house but there was some Christian and more specifically Catholic iconography in some of the songs.”
Perhaps the most obvious example remains Let It Be. Muldoon suggests the song is about resignation, a concept that is part of a very Catholic world view.
“Here we all are in this veil of tears, get used to it,” says the Armagh-born poet who has been largely resident in New York in recent years. “Of course Mother Mary has a Catholic feel, she is honoured in the Catholic tradition in a way she is not in the Protestant faith. Let It Be is also a translation of the word Amen which is used among Christian sects.”
Muldoon, the son of a farmer and schoolmistress, points out he both he and the former Beatle are called Paul for the same reason – the feast of St Peter and St Paul on June 29. “Quite frankly he is very conscious of his Irish roots,” says the Irishman of his collaborator. “His family setting seems to be one that would be recognisable to many Irish people, it sounds like it was a party house or a cèilidh house with someone often playing the piano, having a drink or telling a story.”
The Princeton professor looks younger than his 70 years, with only nine between him and McCartney, both were shaped by popular culture, he says. “The shared UK culture of radio, television, film and music is what made us somewhat compatible, like many of a certain age we would remember all the popular songs of the late 1950s. We were on the same wavelength, in some way that made it easier but there’s one complicating factor in that he’s a Beatle… that gives it a whole other flavour.”
The reports of the various three-hour conversations between the pair are as close to an autobiography as we ever may come, says Muldoon. Through the book, he offers a refreshing swerve away from the usual rock biography fare, instead delivering considered insights into the creative process, while respecting the fact that much of what happens will always be a mystery.
“That’s one of the great lessons we all may learn from Paul McCartney, it’s not a particularly fashionable idea right now, but if you scratch any interesting artist you’ll hear that one of the key components to how they do it is that they don’t really know what they’re doing.
“It’s not fashionable because people believe they know what they’re doing and are in command. That’s generally not that interesting, things get interesting when you open yourself to something you don’t really understand. If you don’t know what to expect, there’s a chance the listener and reader will find themselves in a place they wouldn’t expect to end up, that’s where interesting art resides.”
The influence of radio on The Beatles can’t be overstated, suggests McCartney when discussing A Day In The Life. “One of the things that always intrigued me as a kid was how a presenter could be introduced on the radio. Let’s say it was Ken Dodd, the great Liverpudlian comedian. My mind would be on fire. What did he do? Did he drop his trousers? Did he make a funny face? Did he produce his trademark tickling stick…I really liked the mystery.”
Muldoon was also immersed in radio, having worked as a BBC arts producer in Belfast for 13 years. “What we used to say in the radio business was ‘the pictures are better’. If I was to suggest 10,000 Canaanites coming over the hill and added a sound effect or two, you can see them. On Sgt. Pepper, in particular, they had access in the studio to a library of effects, whatever they wanted could be acquired.”
McCartney reveals that experimental composers such as Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and John Cage were all significant influences on the album and particularly its closing track. “It’s well worth reminding ourselves that there was an avant-garde aspect to The Beatles and their thinking,” suggests Muldoon. “It’s true of any interesting artist that they redefine the territory and push the envelope, but having said that, Paul McCartney has a genuine interest in the subject, and whatever one might say about Yoko Ono, she was an avant-garde artist, and that’s part of what influenced and interested them.”
McCartney doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects. He was advised not to release his 1972 Irish No.1 single with Wings, Give Ireland Back to the Irish, written in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday.
“I think it was a perfectly legitimate position,” says Muldoon, “the basic idea is not an unreasonable one.” McCartney indicates that Portstewart-born Wings guitarist Henry McCullough got into some trouble because of his Protestant background, and admits the song was perceived by some as “a rallying cry for the IRA”. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be.
When discussing the song, Dear Friend, McCartney also clears up the long-held myth that he split the Beatles in April 1970. He admits to Muldoon that Lennon “quite gleefully” told the band it was over in September 1969.
“The portrait of John Lennon is a beautifully complex one,” says Muldoon. “It’s one of love that comes through in the book. Towards the end of John Lennon’s life th