‘You Keep Discovering Another Little Thing’: Paul McCartney and Rick Rubin on Finding New Joy in Old Songs

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The world knows so many different Paul McCartneys: the charming young moptop, the Sixties avant-garde innovator, the bearded family man, the rock & roll legend. But the stunning new Hulu docuseries McCartney 3, 2, 1 presents Paul like we’ve never seen him before: the proud music geek. It’s just Macca in deep conversation with fellow legend Rick Rubin, as they listen close to the Beatles’ music, sharing memories and focusing on the sonic details. 3, 2, 1 has struck a nerve with fans, because there’s never been a music doc quite like it. “Each song’s got a story of how you wrote it,” McCartney tells Rolling Stone. “And luckily, I can remember a lot of the circumstances.”

It comes at a time when Beatles fans are feverishly awaiting Peter Jackson’s new Get Back doc, which finally drops this fall. Get Back premieres on Disney Plus in November, across three nights, digging into a wealth of unseen footage from the 1969 sessions for the album that became their bittersweet farewell, Let It Be. There’s also the new 50th anniversary edition of George Harrison’s 1971 epic solo statement, All Things Must Pass, which is sprawling with previously unheard treasures. Fifty years after they said goodbye, the Beatles are bigger than ever — the toppermost of the poppermost, guaranteed to raise a smile.

McCartney and Rubin are both artists who constantly push forward, instead of just looking back. As Rubin says, it’s part of the “spiritual path” of music. McCartney is on one of his all-time creative hot streaks — he’s just made two of his best solo albums, Egypt Station in 2018 and McCartney III in 2020, both Number One hits. He also happens to have one of the biggest albums in the country right now with McCartney III Imagined, featuring tracks remixed by younger artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Beck, Anderson .Paak, St. Vincent, and Blood Orange. Who else could do a documentary looking back on 60 years, while topping the charts with something new? 

McCartney and Rubin spoke to Rolling Stone about making the documentary together, in a one-of-a-kind three-way interview, via Zoom. Paul checked in from a cozy sofa, snacking and drinking coffee. (“I hope you don’t mind I’m eating a little bit, but I can talk and eat — unlike Gerald Ford.”) Rick checked in from the beach. But even thousands of miles apart, their warm, friendly chemistry comes through loud and clear. So does their laughter. Like the doc, the conversation is a mystery tour spanning their entire music lives, as they reflect on people and things that went before.

RS: Congratulations on 3, 2, 1. It’s really blowing people’s minds.

McCartney: Yeah, I’m getting a lot of feedback from it. A lot of people I meet just say, “Oh yeah, I checked out that 3, 2, 1 the other night.” Rick and I talked about it the other night, and he felt it’s because it doesn’t come across as product. People feel like they’re watching us talk, which is exactly what’s happening.

How did you decide to use such a minimal approach? No scenery — just the two of you talking.

Rubin: It just kind of happened naturally that way. We filmed the interview, not knowing what it was going to be, what to make out of it. The interview took on a life of its own and just wanted to be what it was. We had very little choice in the matter.

McCartney: We didn’t know actually what we were going to do, other than talk music. Rick had intrigued me when I first spoke to him on the phone and he’d said, “I’d like to focus on your bass playing.” I said, “OK, well, that’s interesting.” Then he started to enlarge upon that thought. So we met up, really with only that in mind — we would talk about the influence of the bass. But it grew.

It seems really spontaneous.

Rubin: It was. It happened just like you see it. That’s what happened.

McCartney: Yeah, talking to anyone about music is normally pleasurable. For me, it’s talking to someone like Rick, who’s got more knowledge than the average bear. He knows what he’s talking about. So I think we just ended up just intriguing each other, because it’s a subject we both love.

You really go off the beaten track in terms of the songs. It blew my mind when Rick asked about “Baby’s in Black,” which is one of my favorites. I was not expecting that.

McCartney: [Laughs.] No, I wasn’t either!

Rubin: Yeah, I love that song. And it seemed like a good example of a song where there was John and Paul singing through the whole song together in harmony. The whole song is harmony, instead of just part of the song. I didn’t realize that it was a waltz until you said it was a waltz. And that’s another interesting thing—the Beatles’ music is so ubiquitous in our lives, it’s what we compare everything else to. To me I just hear it as a finished thing. So I know what a waltz sounds like, but it never occurred to me that it could be a waltz, because I’ve been hearing it my whole life as “Baby’s in Black.” The idea that it fit into some format was lost on me until Paul mentioned it.  

McCartney: We loved that sort of waltzy feeling, a very funky feeling. And then you’ve got Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” So “Baby’s in Black” has a cold, dark 3/4 feel. And as Rick pointed out, the Everly Brothers were an influence. Whenever we were writing something I would naturally just go to the high harmony. It just made things swing along a little easier. 

Rubin: As long as we listen to the songs, we hear new things. They’re miraculous creations. I’m just happy they exist in the world.

There are so many of these songs that weren’t hits at the time, but people discover them over the years, like “Here, There and Everywhere.”

McCartney: The thing is, I’m quite a romantic. And I don’t just mean a boy/girl romance. The songs I fall in love with, they’re songs which ooze loving feelings, and there’s something very quieting, very calming about that. So I often find that’s a route I’m attracted to — just finding the love and putting it in a song. 

Rubin: Do you remember coming up with the phrase “Here, there and everywhere”? It’s a really beautiful poetic phrase. 

McCartney: Not really. I think once I had the idea, then it’s always the thing of, where do we go for the second verse? You can often go wrong — if you’re doing a song, thinking “everything’s great now,” your second verse might not always be as good, let me tell you.

You’re very generous in the documentary about the other Beatles, like when you’re talking about Ringo and you say, “He just lifted us.”

McCartney: Well, it’s true. He did. I don’t want to flip out the previous drummer — he was good and he was efficient and he did the job. But Ringo was magic. So it’s lovely to remember that first moment when he sat in. We’re not quite sure what’s going to come from this guy behind us. But he kicked in and it was just goosebumps, tingles. It was like, “OK, this is it. This is the group.” And so it was.

McCartney 3,2,1 -- Paul McCartney sits down for a rare, in-depth, one on one with legendary producer Rick Rubin to discuss his groundbreaking work with The Beatles, the emblematic 70s arena rock of Wings and his 50 years and counting as a solo artist. In this six-episode series that explores music and creativity in a unique and revelatory manner, join Paul and Rick for an intimate conversation about the songwriting, influences, and personal relationships that informed the iconic songs that have served as the soundtracks of our lives. Paul McCartney, Rick Rubin, shown. (Photo Courtesy of Hulu)

HULU

You’re both musicians who’ve done so much collaboration. You both have a way of bringing out the best in others.

McCartney: I suppose we’ve been very lucky. Rick and I have a similar story in a way, completely different worlds and continents, but he grew up with this music that’s going round, and then you have to find someone who agrees with you. In Rick’s case, it was Def Jam and doing all of that. How did that happen?

Rubin: Just an amazing moment in time. Everyone involved really loved music, because there was no upside to doing it. Nobody thought they were going to do this to be successful in the early days of hip-hop. Actually, I never told you this, Paul, but one of the first things that was a vindication of what we were doing was I read an interview with you at the time, saying, “We’re listening to the Def Jam stuff.” It blew my mind, because I was a kid in college in New York, grew up on the Beatles, making this other kind of weird music that most people didn’t like. The idea that you’d even heard it, much less liked it? I couldn’t imagine it.

McCartney: We were lucky, but I think the luck just came from the passion. Just growing up, I loved my dad’s era of music. The chords were fascinating. I loved listening to my dad play. So that passion just grew and grew, and then you’d meet … in my case I’d meet someone like John or George. You’d find that they had the same passion. You’re just drawn to each other. Rick and I are lucky to just bump into passionate people.

Rubin: With collaboration, it’s the combination that makes it exciting. When you’re in a room with a band that plays well together, it’s a miraculous thing. It’s the best thing in the world.

McCartney: I think it is because of the passion. You sit down with someone who’s got that passion and you try to make something. In my case, early collaboration with John. It’s just a natural conversation that takes place. If there’s a line in the song that I’m not too sure of, or that I don’t like, he’ll see the look on my face, and he’ll look back and go, “I’m not too keen on that. We should work on that.” So then you fix it. But that is a beautiful process of both knowing, number one, what you’re trying to achieve. It’s something you both love. And then finding a way to do it. 

So if I come up with a line … I’m thinking of early days. “I Saw Her Standing There,” my line was, “She was just 17 and she’d never been a beauty queen.” And I gave that look to John, like, “Beauty queen?” And he sort of gave me a “Beauty queen?” look back. So we just said, “Let’s do something different.” Then “You know what I mean” came up, which is much more satisfying. 

I was telling Neil Young this story once. We were doing something — the Hollywood Pavement of Fame, or whatever you call it. I said to him, “It was ‘beauty queen’ originally.” He said, “Oh, great,” then I thought he’d just forgotten it. But that evening we were playing, I think it was MusiCares, and he did “I Saw Her Standing There” with the original lyrics. “Just 17 and she’d never been a beauty queen.” That’s Neil. He had to do that. Sounded good, I must say. But I like the revised lyric better.

But there’s the famous story where you were playing “Hey Jude” and John told you not to revise.

McCartney: I know exactly where I was. I was in London, my music room at the top of the house, playing my little painted magic piano. John and Yoko were standing right behind me, on my shoulder, in fact. They’re standing right behind me as I’m playing, “Hey Jude, da-da-da-da, da-da-da,” and I get to, “The movement you need is on your shoulder,” and I just looked by and I said, “I’ll fix that one.” Then it was just great — you know, this was what was great about me and John. He said, “You won’t, you know.” Like that was a command. “You won’t, you know. That’s the best line in the song.” And then for me, instead of going, “Oh, no. No, no, no. I hate it and I want to change it,” the minute he said, “You won’t, you know,” I knew he was right and I knew it stays. That’s a great thing when you’ve got that much confidence in each other.

Absolutely. Like you said, you’re a romantic in many ways, and that spirit is in the music, like in “Two of Us.” Nobody else could have written that song.

McCartney: Again, I’ve got a very vivid memory of driving out of London in my Aston Martin with Linda, just the two of us. She was always keen on getting lost. Whereas most of us guys driving, particularly driving a loved one, a new girlfriend in my case, you’re nervous about getting lost. Oh God, in London you can really get lost. It’s not like New York where there’s a grid. This is London. You can be in Streatham or it might be Haringey, there’s no telling. But she would always just say, “Yeah, so let’s get lost,” and we went out just like, “Right.”

We just headed out of London and we came to a place where there was a little parking spot in a field and then there was woods. So we just went into the woods. I had my guitar, because I pretty much took it everywhere with me, and just started writing that song. It came very easily, because it was commenting on what we were doing, but going a bit more lyrical with it, more poetic. But basically that day spawned that little sucker. 

Another favorite is “Another Day” — you’re noticing a woman nobody else notices, and you write a song about her. You just observe her and tell her story. It’s a very unusual kind of songwriting.

McCartney: Well, I suppose, basically it’s because I’m a voyeur. I’d get arrested for it these days. No, I just like that. I like noticing stuff. I’ve done a little series of photographs which are called “Indentations.” That all sparked from watching a woman when she undressed — the bra strap would leave an indentation on her skin. I think it’s the same thing, observing a woman rather than just being with her, thinking, “Oh, I love that.” Drinking a cup of coffee, going to the office with her papers, all that — following her through her day.  

Rubin: Also the idea of paying attention to what’s going on around you is really a spiritual concept. That’s what mindfulness is.  

McCartney: That’s true.

Rubin: That’s the spiritual path, is to engage with what’s going on around you and truly pay attention through the processes where we learn everything. We get all the information we need just from paying attention.  

McCartney: Well, I definitely am an observer. I sometimes embarrass people because they say, “Oh my God, I didn’t think you noticed that.” “Yeah, I did.” Funnily enough, just slightly tangential, George Martin was in the Fleet Air Arm, and he was on a plane, but he didn’t fly the plane — he was called the observer. He just watched what everyone did and helped everyone to bring all the parts together. I remember saying to him, “That’s a producer. You’re looking at all these various skills, conducting them, producing them.”

You do that all over your songwriting, observing these little tiny moments like “Penny Lane.” People around the world feel like we know that street.

McCartney: John and I knew intimately Penny Lane. As you know, it’s a real place and it’s a bus terminus. So if I was going to his house, I’d have to go to Penny Lane and then change and get the bus up to his house. And he’d do the same thing. So we knew what Penny Lane was. Once you’re a songwriter, things like that come out of your history and you think, “Well, that was a really nice name for a place, Penny Lane. It wasn’t just Wilmslow Road.” There’s something, again, romantic in it that we observed.

All the stuff in Penny Lane, they were all things both John and I knew about. We knew about the barber — it was a little Italian barber called Bioletti’s. So it was easy for both of us to connect with some of these names, which were great starting points. Strawberry Fields was another beautiful name. It was a Salvation Army orphanage, but it sounded like Elysium Fields, it sounded like paradise, you know? And then when John comes up with that staccato lyric, crazy lyrics, that “I think, I know, ah yes, I know.” Jesus, where’s he going with this? It’s just so, so cool and so John. You can imagine if you had the privilege to work with a guy like that, you’d be constantly enthralled with this stuff coming out of him. “I think, I know, I mean, maybe up in my tree.” [Laughs and claps hands.] It’s like, “Yes! I know exactly what you mean!” But he could put it together.

Rubin: Do you remember how the melody for “Penny Lane” came? Because it’s an ornate melody.

McCartney: No, I think chords — for me, it’s all about chords. I made a point of meeting Stephen Sondheim, because I think I might’ve heard “Send in the Clowns” on the radio. We talked about working practices and he said, “How do you write?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I just look for great chords.” And “Penny Lane” was that — it was in the C minor 7th thing, I think. Again, I’m on the same piano [in his music room], without John and Yoko this time, but I’m plonking away in the corner. It just suggested itself, out of the chords. 

In the early days of the Beatles we nearly always had two acoustic guitars, John and George, and me on bass and Ringo on drums. And if you just heard the acoustic guitars on their own, you can hear little harmonics. So you just quietly pull that out and lay it on the top. In the guitar, there’s just melodies, waiting to escape. Waiting for me to set them free.

Rubin: It’s another example of you really paying attention. Most people just hear the chord on the surface, but you’re listening deeply enough to hear the implied melodies that are hidden in the harmonics. 

McCartney: I hadn’t thought of it like that, but that’s true, yeah. That to me was one of the secrets of the Beatles. If something happened, we would stop and notice it and say, “Wait a minute, let’s just look. What is this?” You know, when the guy put the tape on backwards. I saw a million sessions that’s happened and the producer’s gone, “Eh, here, Charlie, put it on the right way.” “Oh, sorry Guv,” and puts it on the right way and you get on with it.

Well, with us it was like, “No, no, no. Wait, what’s going on?” Because you’ve got to remember we’d never heard backwards. Now it’s kind of ubiquitous. Everyone knows what stuff sounds like backwards. But there was no way of knowing what life sounded like backwards back then. We just knew “Oh, this is the sound we like.” Whereas some other people would say, “Well, we can’t use that.” 

Rubin: Yeah, exactly. That also speaks to the very first question you asked, about how our project got made like it is. That’s how it got made. We didn’t go into it thinking it was going to be anything like how it was. The conversation was the conversation. But then when we watched back, all of the plans of making a real documentary seemed not as interesting as what was there. It showed us what it wanted to be. It’s the same story. If you’re really paying attention, you find out what it wants to be. But if you think you know what it’s supposed to be, that limits what it can be.

McCartney: Crazy. So true. Yeah.

I always think you were way ahead of your time, culturally, in how you sang about women. Because the women in your songs, they have interior lives, they have their memories, ideas, thoughts. There weren’t many other male songwriters writing about women that way at that time.

McCartney: I’ve had women say that to me over the years. “Hey, do you realize you’ve got a lot of songs about women?” Or girls, whatever. Birds as well. But no, it’s true. I always think women are cooler than men anyway. I just think they’re very special beings. And of course, they are. They made us, they gave birth to us — that right there, that’s something I couldn’t do. I’ve always had a big respect for that aspect of the female being.

You’ve both managed to stay focused on the future. In the past few years you’ve made Egypt Station and McCartney III, both masterpieces. How do you keep the inspiration flowing instead of getting trapped in the past?

McCartney: I had a line once on a song that I was proud of: “I go back so far, I’m in front of me.” I think that’s got to be the same for Rick. It’s just something you love. And you never knew how it happened. You never knew where it came from. But it’s the same thing: love of music, love of chords.

This Sondheim thing, when I said, “Well, I love the chords,” he seemed surprised. I thought that’s how everyone did it. You plunk a chord and that’s how you write a song. So ever since, I keep thinking, “Well, how else could you do it? Maybe he thinks it?” You can kill your brain a bit with overthinking it. The minute you stop thinking, and do, seems to work better.

That goes back to your theme about mindfulness. For a lot of us, your music taught us how to live in the moment and observe what’s around us.

McCartney: Yeah. My dad always said, “Do it now.” And then he said, “Do it now, D-I-N.” And I always thought that’s a good name for a record label, DIN, D-I-N. Rick, let’s do it!

Rubin: Do it now.

McCartney 3,2,1 -- Paul McCartney sits down for a rare, in-depth, one on one with legendary producer Rick Rubin to discuss his groundbreaking work with The Beatles, the emblematic 70s arena rock of Wings and his 50 years and counting as a solo artist. In this six-episode series that explores music and creativity in a unique and revelatory manner, join Paul and Rick for an intimate conversation about the songwriting, influences, and personal relationships that informed the iconic songs that have served as the soundtracks of our lives. Paul McCartney, Rick Rubin, shown. (Photo Courtesy of Hulu)

HULU

Everybody’s excited for the new Get Back film. There’s all these beautiful things that were just supposed to be fleeting moments at the time — is it surprising people love to hear them now?

McCartney: Yeah. Even the little peripheral things become interesting. And I love hearing that, because it’s my story. All these little things, like you say, things that you thought had gone away.  

There’s one thing, I don’t know whether they used it somewhere, but I was on a very early Beatles session when we were downstairs and the producer was upstairs. I’d forgotten to bring my pick to the session. We used to call it a “plec,” like a plectrum — just a little thing between me and John. And I said, “Oh God, I forgot my plec.” He said,” Where’d you leave it?” I said, “Back in the hotel. It’s in my suitcase or something.” And he’d go, “Oh, soft head.” 

I mean, it’s great to hear who we were. They’re just little things, but in the big picture of what we’ve done, these little incidental things become very interesting.

Rubin: As fans, we want to know as much as possible. That’s the reality. If you love something, you want to know as much as you can. Especially for something where it’s a limited supply. There are these 13 albums and that’s what it is. Anything you can get more than that is just a gift from God. I always collected every Beatles bootleg and outtake my whole life, every scrap, because it’s like the Apocrypha.

McCartney: That’s what’s nice about this upcoming Get Back film by Peter Jackson. He’s very carefully left in a lot of that. And so you see the thing in its entirety. You see the little quiet moments. It did mean that he ended up with an 80-hour edit, because he’s just very respectfully kept all these little moments. But I’m sure there’ll be some fans who will want the 80-hour.

[Rick and the interviewer both raise their hands]

Rubin: Two of them right here.  

McCartney: But as you say, Rick, it’s a body of work, a limited supply. I always liken it to Picasso’s work. He started then, he finished then. So you can look at it all and you may prefer the blue period to the Cubist period. Well, me, I like it all because it’s Picasso. Even a little Picasso scribble. And I think it’s that way with the Beatles.  

Rubin: All those little clues shed more light. Sometimes the little fragment, the little Picasso doodle, explains something that you didn’t understand from the paintings.

McCartney: Yeah. I mean, in Get Back on the roof concert, there’s this moment where John doesn’t know the words to the song. So you see him just fumbling around and someone sitting at his feet, holding a lyric sheet for him. That’s really nice — it just shows his vulnerability. It shows his willingness to admit his vulnerability even though he’s being filmed. These moments all contribute to your understanding of John. Similarly, with all the things that we go through as a band, it’s lovely to get those little details. 

That’s something I’m often saying to [his wife] Nancy. When we first met 10 years ago — actually just coming up to 10 years, can you believe it? But when we first met, she would say, “I just went over to see my sister. It was great.” I said, “Well, details. Give me details. You went over to see your sister. What happened? You went in. Did you eat anything? Did you say anything? I want detail!” So I suppose that’s what happens — you just want every little detail of the story. And Lord knows there’s a lot of them. There’s a lot of detail, man. And luckily, I can remember a lot of it.

Rubin: It’s so amazing how much footage there is. When I first saw [the Beatles] Anthology, it’s just mind-blowing there’s so much footage, at that point in time when everybody didn’t have a camera in their pocket. How can it be? How can that exist? It’s unbelievable.  

McCartney: There’s so much stuff out there. But I think that’s one of the reasons the Beatles keep going — because you keep discovering another little thing. I always think everyone’s heard all the stories. As you get older, you think, “Am I just repeating all my stories?” But I rationalize, well, there’s only one answer to the question, “How did you meet John?” I can’t make another meeting up. I can maybe try and explain how we met in a slightly different way. But I’ll still talk to someone and they say, ‘What? You dreamed ‘Yesterday’?” And so I’ll tell the story again, but it’s like, “You sure you haven’t heard this?”  

But not everyone has. As we go on and the young people come onboard, there’s a lot of stuff they haven’t heard. And I think that’s one of the things about 3, 2, 1. I was with Richard Prince yesterday, the artist, and he’s a music guy. He said, “Wow, man. ‘Come Together.’ I can’t believe how you slowed it down!”

But it’s a very fascinating affair, the whole thing. It was a real big pleasure chatting with Rick. We could go on for hours. I never even got around to asking, “Rick, tell me about Def Jam. Tell me about the first record you produced. Take me to that session.” Maybe that’s for another time.