As the thumping bass drum and crackling guitar riff of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” blasts from the speakers, Paul McCartney launches from his seat, as enthused as the rest of us to revel in its power, even if he’s heard it more often than any human on the planet.
That’s the beauty of “McCartney 3, 2, 1,” the six-episode Hulu documentary (now streaming). With super-producer Rick Rubin sharing the room, the series delves deeply into the immense catalog of The Beatles, Wings and McCartney’s solo work as the pair discuss and dissect numerous songs.
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The joy that McCartney feels through music is as palpable and infectious as it was when he was a mop-topped, wide-eyed lad in Liverpool, United Kingdom. And even now, at 79, the musical icon is eternally youthful as he bops around in dark jeans and a long-sleeved work shirt over a white T-shirt, his lightened hair retaining its puppy-eared floppiness.
The documentary – in 30-minute black-and-white installments – was filmed in two sessions in a former Methodist sanctuary on Long Island, New York. To immerse McCartney in his natural habitat, the studio was constructed with a vintage analog mixing console and period-specific equipment, including a trademark left-handed Höfner bass and a Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Watching McCartney conduct an imaginary band to the music playing and point out chords, harmony overdubs or a guitar technique employed by John Lennon or George Harrison provides a rare intimacy missing from other attempts to quantify his vast music history.
“It’s like we were professors in a laboratory, just discovering all these little things,” McCartney tells Rubin of The Beatles’ most experimental work.
Rubin, playing the role of all of us, sits at McCartney’s feet or next to him at the console, listening to stories from the master of the game. Rubin speaks his language, but is also wise enough – and enamored by the opportunity – to mostly listen, smile and exclaim.
Although it’s a series designed for the devout and those who revel in the most microscopic of details – that was a piccolo trombone on “Penny Lane”? – there are still plenty of intriguing stories to retain the interest of casual fans.
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A few highlights:
Demos on the run: Wings’ Nigerian robbery
During the making of Wings’ “Band on the Run” in Nigeria, McCartney and wife Linda hopped into a car they thought had been sent to pick them up. Instead, they were robbed at knifepoint and the cassette demos for the album were pilfered. “So now we had to make the album without the demo recordings,” McCartney said. “And so, again, we just thought, right, let’s do this. We became determined to make it a good record.”
Unconventional inspiration from Roy Orbison, Little Richard
While in Nigeria, McCartney went to see Fela Kuti at the African Shrine, his club outside of Lagos. “The music was so incredible that I wept. Hearing that was one of the greatest music moments of my life,” he recalled. McCartney also reminded viewers of the influence of Little Richard (“These are the people we loved and they were loving us”) and Roy Orbison, whom The Beatles supported on tour in their early years.
The joy of Ringo Starr’s ‘Ringo-ism’
Drummer Ringo Starr’s habit of twisting phrases and words not only gave The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night,” but the title for “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “He had an aptitude for saying something a little bit wrong, but it sounded right,” McCartney recalled with a chuckle. McCartney also gives credit to Starr’s often-underappreciated drumming, sharing how impressed the rest of the band was to hear a young Starr play the tricky cymbals and meters in Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say.” “He just lifted us … he just brought the whole band together,” McCartney said. Starr’s militaristic snare work on “Get Back” is also credited for elevating the song.
The evolution of classic Beatles tune ‘Michelle’
A combination of Lennon’s art-school parties, a friend’s wife and Edith Piaf’s “Milord” shaped the acoustic toe-tapper. “I’d wear a black turtleneck sweater and sit in the corner (at the parties) and play guitar, thinking (girls) might be attracted to me,” McCartney said, demonstrating how he’d mumble some suave-sounding French words over chords. Years later, Lennon reminded McCartney about the ditty. McCartney appealed to a friend’s wife, a French teacher, to help him come up with something to rhyme with “Michelle.” “She said, ‘ma belle,’ and I said, ‘what’s that mean?’ and she said, ‘my beautiful.’ … Between her and John reminding me to do the song, I had ‘Michelle.’ ”