“Does the world really need another book on Paul McCartney?” An interview with author Tony Conley

He’s usually on the other side of this equation, but for today the tables are turned and it’s Good Mojo Press’s turn to interview Tony Conley, author of Paul McCartney In The Beatles, out in the fall of 2017.

Well, does it? Does the world need another book on Paul McCartney?

Tony Conley: “That’s a question I’ve heard a few times, and I believe the answer is a very resounding yes!

“As I’ve said, it’s the book I waited so long to read that I finally wrote it myself. I always wanted to read a book on McCartney and his time in the Beatles without the encumbrances of all the biographical details, I really wanted to read a book about the music and the musicianship without the tabloid details that we’ve all read before. So, I finally decided to write it myself. Ten years later, we have the book!”

Where did the idea to write this book come from?

Tony Conley: “The genesis came about thirty years ago. I was living and working in Los Angeles for Guitar Center, and I had met and gotten to know Denny Seiwell, who, of course, was the first drummer in Wings, the first band Paul put together after the Beatles.

“Denny is a great storyteller, and he told some great stories of his time with McCartney and Wings. He often spoke very warmly about Paul and Linda, he obviously had a great time making music with Paul, but the funny thing was that his stories, his remembrances, and his overall demeanor concerning the experience seemed very different than what I had read in most of the McCartney material I had read previously. He always came back to the music and the musicianship. That always stayed with me.”

Why Paul?

Tony Conley: “In the story of the Beatles, for me, Paul’s story provides the best story arc when you are talking about the music and the musicianship. To be quite blunt about it, Paul applied himself more to the music and the musicianship than anyone in the band throughout their meteoric history. Look at it like shooting stars. John Lennon, I feel, is as a much genius as Paul, but first off, it’s a very different type of genius, much more feral compared to Paul’s. John was clearly a creative visionary, and a remarkably talented artist, but he had little time for studying things musical or the patience to see things through. He wanted the results, but had little interest as to how they were achieved. His interest in the Beatles waned tremendously towards the end of the band, and his participation decreased as he moved into the next chapter of his life with Yoko Ono.

“On the other hand, McCartney’s interests and enthusiasm never waned and he strove to not only make every song all it could be, but he also fought to keep the band together until it simply became unfeasible. He never stopped trying to learn more, do more, and achieve more in the framework of the Beatles, and his growth as a musician during this time is just remarkable. He goes from being a powerful copyist as he reinvigorated many of the styles he emulated over time to become a startlingly original composer, instrumentalist, and musical conceptualist. He came in early and he stayed late. Not only did he bring a tremendous skill set to the band, he also brought a remarkable work ethic. It’s mind boggling to think that the Beatles, and McCartney did so much in so little time.”

Is this the first of a series?

Tony Conley: “No, I don’t believe so.

“The truth is that it would be difficult to come up with a compelling book on any of the other Beatles in the same vein.

“That’s not to say that I think McCartney is better or more important than the others – the Beatles are four parts of a whole, and without any single Beatle, you have no Beatles. However, this being said, the story of Paul fits this narrative given his more complete skill set as a musician, and the dint of the effort he put into his personal growth and that of the band. John’s interest in the process was never as intense as Paul’s and as the Beatles progressed through their career as a recording band his interest in the band lessened significantly. George never got a fair shake, based on his being the junior member of the firm, and honestly, to the fact that his progress as a writer was not equal to John and Paul’s until the band’s final album, Abbey Road. Ringo Starr is as great a team player as any band ever had, but he too was a victim of the sheer workload and the brutal physicality of hour after hour of rehearsal and recording takes, and while he is a magnificent drummer, he would be the first to say that he was not a creator on par with John, Paul, and George. Paul’s amazing skills and the energy with which he exercised his creative muscles makes his story unique in the Beatles for this book.”

Has your approach for the subject, or your opinion for McCartney changed over the course of writing the book?

Tony Conley: “Well, it has and it hasn’t.

“It has in the sense that over the years and the exhaustive studying and listening to Paul McCartney within the framework of the Beatles, I’ve become ever more impressed with both his innate talents, and his sheer determination and hard work. The more time you spend, the more likely you are to be amazed at the accomplishments and the efforts.

“It hasn’t because even though my appreciation and awe have grown, I am as close to my original motivation and premise as the day I began. Studying the way Paul works has made me strive to be better myself. I think that writing should lead one to learning, as well as teaching and doing.”

What surprised you during this process?

Tony Conley: “I think the internal dynamics within the band, and how the band evolved so much in such a short period of time will never cease to amaze me. I was also very surprised, as I had been by the commentaries of Denny Seiwell, at just how much the real story of the Beatles varies from what has been written in many ways. It’s vital to understand that in this story, we are looking at a band who was forbidden to admit their marriages because it may hurt sales, and by the time they were through they had not just changed music, they had changed the world. The evolution of the band and McCartney, when looked at on a timeline is dizzying.

“Then there is the musical relationship between Paul and George Harrison. Even though we are regaled by the tales of disharmony between the two towards the band’s demise, if you really look at what happened on a track by track, year by year basis, you will see an amazingly warm and fruitful musical relationship between the two. Even in the later years, when you look at the brilliance of McCartney’s playing and singing on George’s compositions (I would offer “Something”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as examples), it’s plain to see that no one invested more into George’s tunes than did McCartney. Their musical relationship is so much more than has been previously written about, and I’ve tried to do what I can to reframe this story.”

Who knew McCartney was such a great guitarist?

Tony Conley: “I think that if he had only strapped on a guitar in the Beatles to record the guitar solo on George Harrison’s “Taxman”, McCartney would be a guitarist of note.
“He stepped in after Harrison became frustrated with his own efforts, and he proceeded to play a solo that was on the same playing field as Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and other electrifying guitarists of the era. He even managed to throw in some Eastern-tinged lines to give his sullen guitarist a nod. George wasn’t pleased with the fact that he wasn’t getting it together on that day, and he probably wasn’t happy that it came to this, but he always loved and was grateful for what Paul laid down.

“There are a lot of great Beatles rockers on which Paul played exemplary electric guitar, and then there is an abundance of acoustic guitar work that shows Paul to be a very tasty and inventive player.”

What are your thoughts on John Lennon as a musician in relation to Paul McCartney?

Tony Conley: “First off? No John, no Beatles. No Paul, no Beatles.

“As I said earlier, I consider both John and Paul to be musical geniuses, but of a very different nature.

“Lennon’s story arc is very different than Paul’s due to a great number of circumstances, most which have been covered exhaustively in many other books. They were two great friends who were also very different individuals. Their collaboration was perhaps as great as any the musical world has ever seen, but it is also quite natural that their trajectories in the Beatles would be divergent. It’s incredibly difficult as an artist to reach a point of maturity without becoming the king of their own hill. Artists often keep progressing and desiring to hear more of their personal progression in their own music, and collaboration often requires more artistic compromise than is eventually desired. John’s genius lent itself to getting in and getting out. He moved fast, and had little time for reflection, nostalgia, or maintaining the status quo, whereby McCartney was the sort who was invested in all of those precepts. Paul didn’t want the Beatles to end, when John had already emotionally checked out and left the building. This is not, good, bad, or otherwise, it’s just the way it is.

“John really didn’t care how it got done, or in working on his skills as a musician, he was more comfortable with creating then moving on.”

Tell us about the book’s cover art.

Tony Conley: “That is a painting entitled “Old McCartney” by my dear friend Thomas Fluharty (The Flu to me).

“I’ve known Tom since he was seven years old and I was ten. Somewhere there is a cassette tape of the two of us, and my older brother Chris singing along with “Back In The USSR”! I hadn’t seen Tom in a great many years when we reconnected early in this century. In the time since we’d last met, he had become one of the best illustrators in the world, working for everyone from the New York Times, MAD Magazine, The Weekly Standard, Der Spiegel, and his own path as a painter of pop culture.

“Tom has been a great friend, a tremendous inspiration, a great motivator, and over the last few years we started talking about my book. He then made the more than generous offer for me to use his McCartney images for this project.

“I’ve been posting around “Old McCartney” for the last few years on social media in association with my book, and it has become the face of the project. It resonates so deeply with people that when I mention considering anything else for a front cover, well, let’s just say that I’m sharply rebuked, and if nothing else, over the years I have learned to listen.

“I would more simply say, “I am very fortunate.”

What is it about Paul McCartney as an individual, as a person, that made you want to write this book?

Tony Conley: “I think at the end of the day, it’s that he seems to be someone who does what he does creatively for all the right reasons, and in all the right ways.

“In short, maybe some kid could read this book, and be inspired to work as hard and as fearlessly for their own art. For that matter, it needn’t be a child, it could be anyone. My point is that this man is an inspiration to the arts, and we’ve never needed it more. Plus, I think it’s a great story.”

Talk about how you’d like to see this book read.

Tony Conley: “Well, first of all, by everyone! This is something I feel pretty strongly about.

“So strongly that I’m creating playlists for all the major streaming sites that will serve as a musical guided tour through the book. It is my hope that people will read the book, and that they will also listen along – this came to me via several people that I had given advance chapters – who not only hadn’t spoken with one another, they were actually unknown to one another, but they told similar tales of starting to read and feeling compelled to start listening to the many musical examples I write about throughout the book. Then they progressed to listening along as they read, and they found it to be a whole new experience in reading.

“I was not displeased to hear this, hahaha! I think it’s fantastic, and I hope it becomes “a thing”.”

Is this a good time to be a Beatles fan?

Tony Conley: “This is the most exciting time for fans of the Beatles in many years.

“There is the 50th Anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that has given listeners more, and new options that have never been available (as well as many new groovy outtakes), there is the fairly recent appearance of the Beatles on the streaming services, and there is even a dedicated Beatles channel on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio, so yeah, it’s a fantastic time to be a Beatles fan, new or old. There is literally an embarrassment of riches for friends and fans of the Fab Four.”

Are there any surprises?

Tony Conley: “You know, there just may be.

“As we’re wrapping up principle production and getting the last chapters down on the page, there is the possibility that I may have some help, and even some degree of collaboration with a couple of fellows who were actually in the studio as this history was being made. It’s too early for me to speak to the degree of cooperation or collaboration, but I have been the recipient of some truly amazing information that one can only get from someone who was actually on the scene, making a big impact on these records that have assumed such a vaunted place in our cultural history.

“Hopefully, I’ll have more to say about this in the very near future. Things are happening in very real time, and they are very exciting!

“We may also have some additional art for the project that will be simply mindblowing.”

What’s your favorite Beatles album?

Tony Conley: “That really depends on the day that you ask me that question.

“Today, it’s Abbey Road. Tomorrow? it may be the youthful exuberance of Please Please Me. If I’m really honest I have to say that I’ve never been able to claim one as the champion. It just doesn’t appeal to me to rank them like swimmers in the Olympics, it’s just not how I see things. I see things as an interconnected whole, and while it’s easy to identify and examine discreet sections, I simply can’t rank them.”

2 replies
  1. Andy
    Andy says:

    I’d like to hear Paul talking about how his Mother’s death affected him, how it’s affected his music etc. He talks about his childhood as being so happy, as opposed to John’s. But losing your Mum at 14 must have been huge, but he always seems to gloss over it or minimise it. That’s about all I haven’t heard him talk about. I don’t know. Maybe it’s too personal.

    Reply
    • Tony Conley
      Tony Conley says:

      Hey Andy,

      That’s a very personal issue that remains completely in Sir Paul’s court. I don’t really expect to be reading anything about that anytime soon.

      Cheers,
      Tony C

      Reply

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