You would think that with all the streaming world has to offer, you would rarely find yourself thinking, “There is literally nothing worthwhile to watch.” While Paul McCartney shares some of the same stories and tidbits he has shared in the two billion other interviews he has done (really, he just can’t resist sharing the creation of “Yesterday” one more time and can you blame him?), the new Hulu series McCartney 3,2,1 does not fall under that category, offering enough meaningful content to keep even the most devout of Beatles fans interested (well, unless you’re one of those whiny types who is just never content with anything, ever, in which case try some therapy or see if buying a villa in Florida makes you happy — spoiler! it probably won’t).
The format of McCartney 3, 2,1 is straightforward: each episode features a dissection of a Beatles song (or two…or three) at a mixing board with producer Rick Rubin. Stories and memories ensue, with a few common threads coming through — here are some of my favorites:
The pure love and joy the music brings to Paul. He’s a fan just like the rest of us.
Listening to a playback of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, he is dancing, smiling, and shouting, “Whoo!” He loves it. During one episode, he discusses the process of becoming a Beatles fan again. After the pain of the breakup (“I thought I would be in this band forever,” he reflects), it took several years for him to be able to listen — and play live — Beatles songs again. Yet, once he did, he remembered and appreciated what a good little band they were, which becomes more and more evident as McCartney and Rubin take apart select Beatles tracks.
One such track is “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which John Lennon bluntly wrote off as “another horror” and “another one of my throwaways.” Yet, at the mixing board, showcasing the different parts that make up the whole, the artistry and musicianship of the band becomes evident and, as Rubin points out, a listener can hear the energy and excitement the band generated playing together in the studio — an energy and excitement that is delightfully infectious, even if you’re Paul McCartney listening to your band some fifty-odd years later.
Creating music was (and still is) a simple, natural process for the band.
During many of these mixing board moments, Rubin will ask Paul if the different components required hours of laborious rehearsals before recording. The answer is simple: no. As the main songwriters, John and Paul would present the basic song to the rest of the group (and George Martin) and together they would develop the finished product, each contributing. Listening to “And I Love Her,” Paul remembers how they felt the beginning of the song just needed something. George played the opening notes, and the song was complete. “I couldn’t imagine this song without that…It was good, you know,” Paul muses. Similarly, Ringo’s militaristic drumming of “Get Back” took the track in a completely different direction.
Paul also explains how he learned to play the piano — a simple process that begins with finding middle C and creating chords. The band lacked formal training, yet it obviously didn’t matter. Their innate ability to create came, in part, from their unique bond with one another.
Paul has great affection for John, Ringo, and George…
While some may consider Paul’s re-telling of his memories rose-colored and self-serving (how’s that down payment for that villa coming?), I find him to be incredibly endearing and generous.
The first tune featured in the series is “All My Loving.” Paul is quick to point out the driving rhythm guitar — something John was equally proud of. (“‘All My Loving’ is Paul, I regret to say…Because it’s a damn good piece of work…But I play a pretty mean guitar in back.”) The discussion then moves to the differences in their personalities: John was more defensive and cynical, while Paul was optimistic and diplomatic. You see it famously in two Beatles tracks: “Getting Better” (Paul: It’s getting better all the time; John: It couldn’t get much worse) and “We Can Work It Out” (Paul: We can work it out; John: Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend). Paul attributes their success as a songwriting partnership, in part, to these differences and reflects on what made them so different, namely their upbringing. Paul came from a close-knit, loving family, while John was essentially abandoned by both of his parents. While he was raised by a loving aunt and uncle in a comfortable suburban setting (certainly the most prosperous of the four Beatles), he also knew his mother lived close by with his two half-sisters and their father, which had to be difficult for a young adolescent to understand and remain indifferent to.
Ringo was, of course, the last Beatle to join the band, yet his effect on the band is indelible. The band felt complete once Ringo joined; Paul remembers how different it felt from the very first time Ringo played with them. He lifted them up. Cut to Ringo banging away to “I Saw Her Standing There” at the Washington Coliseum during the Beatles’ first visit to the United States, and John is rocking, head bopping, completely enthralled by and feeding off of Ringo’s energy. “He just brought the whole band together,” Paul concludes.
George lived closest to Paul, and they met by chance on the bus ride on the way to school. There was an empty bus seat; George sat down, and they discovered their mutual interest in music. Rubin asks Paul how many other kids on that bus cared about music? “I would guess one…if you were lucky,” Paul answers. Chance – magic – divine intervention – whatever you want to call it – it is incredibly rare to sit on a school bus next to someone with whom you form this lasting connection. Not only do you become close friends but also have a shared extraordinary experience that forever molds you together, and at the end of the day, you have the greatest love and respect for each other. “From the little guy I met on the bus — a little guy with a quiff…He turned to be this very wise man,” Paul says.
The juxtaposition of the guitar and bass on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is fascinating to listen to in isolation. Reminiscing about the fact that Eric Clapton — not George — played the distinctive solo on the track, Paul observes: “It was very generous of George to give Eric this moment, when he could have had it for himself. But it’s just like, George was very like that. He was very open.”
…Even if he was the Bossy Beatle.
Some of Paul’s memories are, admittedly, carefully framed to downplay this fact. He recalls the use of the piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane”; the solo includes an impossible high note that the player, David Mason, told Paul was out of the instrument’s range. Paul’s response? Well, you can do it! And he did. What Paul omits from this memory, however, is the fact that he asked Mason to record the solo a second time; George Martin had to convince Paul to be satisfied as the musician had just accomplished an inconceivable feat.
Listening to “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” Rubin seems surprised that Paul played drums on the track. Why? Well, Paul was probably showing Ringo what he wanted him to play on the track, and Ringo just said, “Well, you do it!” He neglects to mention the fact that Ringo actually quit the band at this point, precipitated by Paul’s overbearing direction.
At another point, Rubin plays “Another Girl,” an odd choice, as I always found the most memorable part of this song the sequence in the Bahamas from Help!, which clearly points out who had the best butt in the Beatles (ummmmmm, Paul).
“Who played the guitar on that?” Rubin asks.
“I’m not sure,” is Paul’s unconvincing answer. “I’m wanting to say it’s me ’cause it’s bad enough.”
“It’s a bold choice for you to play that,” Rubin compliments.
“Bold mistakes…That’s me. I specialize in bold mistakes.”
Yes, it is you, Paul. You played the guitar solo because you were unhappy with George’s rendition, and George just said, “Well, you do it!”
Yes, Paul was the bossy Beatle, but we still love you anyway.
Paul values John’s opinion — even now.
In some ways, John Lennon’s murder also made him a martyr, certainly at times to Paul (and perhaps George and Ringo, too). He was increasingly seen as the Beatles, the leader of the band (which, of course, he was, but it was also an equal partnership between the four–“How many Beatles does it take to change a light bulb?” George Harrison once quipped. “Four.”). Consequently, it has seemed, at times, that Paul is still competing with the memory and legacy of his dear friend. Yet, he has great love and regard for John, and you see how much Paul values John’s opinion and relishes his praise and respect even now.
Rubin reads Paul a quote about his bass playing: “Paul is one of the most innovative bass players that ever played bass and half of the stuff going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatle period. He has always been a bit coy about his bass playing, but he’s a great, great musician.”
“Did I write that?” Paul asks, laughing.
“That was John Lennon.”
“He never said that to me,” Paul replies — not begrudgingly, just matter-of-factly. And while I find it hard to believe he has never heard that quote or read it, he is genuinely pleased to hear it.
When asked to choose a favorite song he has written, Paul is tempted to say “Yesterday” because he finds its genesis so magical, yet he wants to say, more than ever, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” the beautiful love song found on Revolver that he wrote one day by John Lennon’s pool, waiting for him to be up and ready for a songwriting session. John himself always liked the song, telling Paul, “I like this one.” And that was enough — great praise indeed coming from John Lennon.
When asked, “Do you believe in magic?”, Paul responds that he has to, considering the way “Yesterday” came to him.
Magic is a word used often in this series, and it is a word that could be used to describe many aspects of the Beatles’ story. And while in some ways a fitting adjective, the word magic seems too easy. This band worked hard. They had great supporters behind the scenes who encouraged and augmented their strengths and creativity. They believed in and supported each other as friends and bandmates. “The Beatles is over, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo…God knows what relationship they’ll have in the future. I don’t know. I still love those guys! Because they’ll always be those people who were that part of my life,” John Lennon once said.
“That didn’t have to happen,” Paul says at one point. “We could have had five years and gone back to the factory.”
The final scene of the series finds McCartney at the piano, holding the final chord of “A Day in the Life.”
“Yeah. You know, there’s the magic again,” he says with a smile.