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10 Things We Learned From ‘McCartney 3,2,1’ Docuseries

There are very few facts you can use to stump Beatles diehards, but every once in a while, a new documentary comes along that is both revealing and totally unique in structure.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hulu

There are very few facts you can use to stump Beatles diehards, but every once in a while, a new documentary comes along that is both revealing and totally unique in structure. McCartney 3,2,1, a six-part docuseries that recently premiered on Hulu, is one such piece of filmmaking. The concept is simple: Paul McCartney and legendary producer Rick Rubin sit in a room together, play Beatles and solo McCartney/Wings tunes, and discuss how they got made. Shot in black and white, the style is radically minimal yet always interesting. Throughout the six-part series, McCartney and Rubin isolate tracks and vocal performances, highlighting the intricate details that made The Beatles the best rock band on earth.

Some of the revelations can be found through deep-dive Wikipedia sessions or through a Beatles message board here and there, but to hear McCartney tell the story of the guitar part on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in the context of the solo, isolated from the other instruments, is a one-of-a-kind treat. The documentary is riddled with such moments, which began with Rubin bringing McCartney a bunch of songs he wanted to discuss. From there, they just talked and listened, and the result is both highly enlightening and an absolute blast to watch. Below, find 10 of the most interesting moments we discovered during the docuseries.

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Watch McCartney 3,2,1 on Hulu, streaming now in the US and August 25 in the UK.

1: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ features one of the best basslines ever

One of the most exciting aspects of McCartney 3, 2, 1 for Beatles fans is the way Rick Rubin and McCartney isolate parts of tracks to highlight the inherent brilliance at the core of The Beatles. At the end of the first episode, a number of gems were revealed regarding an all-time Beatles classic, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” First, there’s the fact that Eric Clapton’s performance on the song signified the first time a non-Beatles member was ever on a Beatles record. Second, McCartney reveals a little tidbit about how he never thought of Eric Clapton as the legendary guitarist from Cream, but simply as George’s friend Eric, who happened to be a world-class guitarist.

But at the end of the episode, Rubin decides to isolate the bassline and is blown away. It sounds like a crunchy, fuzzed-out guitar, almost unrecognizable as McCartney’s instrument if you were listening without their commentary. “I’ve never heard a bass sound like that before,” Rubin exclaims, before adding, “It’s almost like two songs are happening simultaneously.” McCartney joins in on the fun, vamping a hard rock vocal line atop his vocal line, revealing the core juxtaposition that animates so many Beatles songs. “I was not conscious of that till I listened to it now,” McCartney says. “I hear that tone on it, and it’s like ‘wow.’” Rubin concurs, before adding, “If you got the best session player in the world to come in and play, he would not do that.” McCartney interrupts with his dry wit, adding, “He would be much more sensible.”

2: These are ‘simple’ songs

McCartney may be simplifying things a bit, but he attributes everything The Beatles wrote as an experimentation with basic rock ‘n’ roll piano chords branching out from “middle C.” McCartney had to learn a few different chords to cover his favorite early rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis, and, as a self-taught player without an ability to read or write music, began building Beatles songs off of the few chords he had to master to play his favorite songs. From there, he began to explore octaves and harmonies, keeping the structure around the basic tenets he learned as a teenager. This theory can be heard in almost every Beatles song, and even in the solo work of John Lennon, who used the same structure for hits like “Imagine.” McCartney even recalls seeing a John Legend concert where he did the same sort of variations on these basic, seemingly rudimentary chords. Even “Let It Be,” which McCartney cheekily performs for Rubin, follows this same guiding principle.

3: The Beatles were classically-inspired

The Beatles tried to achieve their sound by, in McCartney’s words, putting a beat to the music of Bach. Obviously, the Beatles weren’t a classical group, but they strived to imbue the emotional chords and cathartic climaxes of the composer’s legendary compositions. McCartney liked the mathematical aspect of Bach’s work, and he uses “Eleanor Rigby” as an example of how the chords progress throughout the song, adding double-time notes atop the chords.

That song is a particularly strong example considering the string suite the band utilized, which can be traced back to their classical influences. Originally, McCartney had composed the piano line in a rock ‘n’ roll style, but George Martin showed how the strings would be arranged with a cello, a viola, and a violin. The orchestration was done by Martin, and his composition was so strong that McCartney decided to forego any piano on the song. The staccato direction of the strings was McCartney’s doing, trying to imitate his favorite composers.

4: McCartney was thrust into multiple roles on ‘Band on the Run’

McCartney was heavily into tenor guitars while getting ready to record Band on the Run. His label, EMI, had studios across the world, and he decided to check out Lagos because of the exciting music scenes happening there at the time. The day before the band was set to depart for Lagos, a few members of the group called McCartney to let him know that they wouldn’t come to record. McCartney allowed himself to wallow for a few minutes before returning to his optimistic mindset, deciding that he would make the record anyway.

McCartney was inspired by the rock operas of the era and Band on the Run was his interpretation of the style. The unexpected twists and turns, as Rubin says, throughout the title track give the song its operatic style, and the experimentation came from McCartney having to play multiple roles on the project, but also because the songwriter was robbed at knifepoint late one night in Lagos and had his demo tapes stolen. He was left with Linda [McCartney] and Denny Laine to make the album from scratch.

5: McCartney played drums on ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’

The band originally wrote “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as a riff on Chuck Berry’s classic “Back in the U.S.A.,” and McCartney had a very distinct drum pattern in mind for the song. He explained to Ringo how he wanted it done, and Ringo snappily replied back, “Why don’t you do it then.” The band wrote the song and headed to the studio immediately, with only a day’s rehearsal between the band writing the song and recording it. Having grown up playing cover songs, the group was used to learning songs quickly with little time between getting the feel for the song and performing it. The “U.S.S.R.” recording was done quickly, and much to Ringo’s chagrin, done with McCartney playing the drums.

6: The band got to work with their idol Little Richard

McCartney’s biggest achievement in the early days of The Beatles was having “Hold Your Hand” go No.1 stateside. Because he and the rest of the group were so infatuated with American music, it was a huge deal for them to score a song on the top of the charts, like all of their heroes had done before them. During a conversation with Rubin, McCartney discusses how surreal it was to have four kids from Liverpool grow up idolizing artists like Little Richard, then getting to work with him.

“It was so great, it was a whole TV hour on its own,” McCartney jokes. The band got to hang with Richard before a performance in Hamburg and quietly listened as he told them story after story. “It was evangelical or something,” McCartney said. Richard had just arrived from Australia and had thrown all his rings in the water to renounce materialism and the band asked if it was true. The documentary is worth it alone to hear McCartney’s impression of Little Richard. While the band loved that they were massive in the States, they didn’t truly feel like they were famous until artists like Little Richard began paying their respects and admiring their work.

7: The band pioneered non-album singles

Now, every band that puts out a single includes it on a new project. It’s just the way things are done. The group would put an album out a year, in addition to four standalone singles outside of the record. But, as McCartney explains, The Beatles had “the luxury” to release music unattached to any bigger project. “If someone writes a song and it’s the only hit they’ll ever do, it better be on the album,” McCartney explains, before adding, “but we were rather confident.” He even recalls some advice Phil Spector once gave to the band: “You throw away all your songs. On a record, you’re putting two good songs on there. He said, ‘you should put the hit, and on the other side, just take the vocal off and call it a sing-along.” McCartney said the band decided against it because they were recent record buyers, and they would have felt so cheated if they had bought that record.”

8: The band recorded with legendary synth pioneer Robert Moog

While recording “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the band wanted to create a bit of a parody. They did this in a few ways, one of which included McCartney playing extremely staccato bass notes, cutting any ring off entirely. The effect gave the tone something similar to a tuba, making it subversively humorous. The band also included a Moog on the track to give it an otherworldly feel, and McCartney revealed that the company’s creator, Robert Moog, was in the building at Abbey Road.

“Abbey Road was at the forefront of technology. One day we were told there was this guy called Robert Moog in one of the upper rooms and he had a load of equipment in there,” McCartney explains. The band got to play with an entire Moog wall, and Robert showed them a number of effects that Paul was itching to include on a song. The band wanted to juxtapose “Maxwell’s” traditional song structure with modern, innovative instrumentation.

9: The band knew they were originals from the beginning

The Beatles were constantly told during their early days that they’d never make it out of Liverpool. It just didn’t happen. But, as McCartney explains to Rick Rubin, it just strengthened their resolve. “We thought we were different. We knew we were different,” he explains. “That found its way into the music.” They set out to prove it as soon as they got some acclaim. The documentary then segues into “Lovely Rita,” one of those easy-to-digest Beatles songs that’s still endlessly and joyously perplexing. The choices in the song are fascinating as Rubin notes, an extremely straight bassline is juxtaposed against wacky effects, hummed harmonies, and zipper sound effects.

It’s more of that classic juxtaposition McCartney references so much during the documentary, and his approach to bass was formed because he had to quit playing lead guitar in the group due to stage fright. “It came time to play my solo, and I froze. I had sticky fingers, nothing would work. I thought, alright, no more lead.” The band’s first bass player, a friend of John’s from art school, decided to stay in Hamburg, and both John and George refused to play bass. So, Paul picked up the instrument, and his unique approach to the instrument helped dictate the band’s ascent.

10: Paul thought someone had written ‘Yesterday’ before him

One day, Paul awoke in his flat with a tune stuck in his head. He swore it was one of his dad’s favorite songs he grew up listening to, and so he wrote it down on the piano and transposed it onto the guitar, because he couldn’t carry the piano all the way from his flat to the studio. He played it for John, insisting they had heard it somewhere before, but John couldn’t place it. He then took it to George Martin, who, according to McCartney, had a much more vast knowledge of older music, but all Martin could come up with was an older song called “Yesterdays.”

McCartney said, “I don’t care about the title, it’s this melody. I couldn’t have written it. There was no conscious effort at all. I just woke up and it was there.” Now, whenever anyone asks Paul if he believes in magic, he says, “Well, I have to. I mean, how did that happen? I think a lot of people hear beautiful music in their dreams, but I remembered it.”

McCartney III Imagined Limited Edition 2LP can be bought here.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Paul Franklin

    July 21, 2021 at 1:38 am

    I’ll accept that Eric Clapton was “the first non-Beatle to play on a Beatles song” when you tell me which Beatles played the string octet parts on Eleanor Rigby, the horns on Got to Get You into My Life, the orchestral parts on A Day in the Life, and the piccolo trumpet on Penny Lane.

  2. Steve

    July 21, 2021 at 4:24 pm

    “legendary producer Rick Rubin” LOL I’d never heard of him. And when I looked him up in Wikipedia his claim to fame is he worked with hip-hop legends who don’t produce real music. Not surprisingly he did a terrible job as an interviewer. The 6 episodes were a huge disappointment. They look like somebody said “We’ll pay you 10 million dollars for this series and you won’t have to put any effort into it.”

  3. Scott Mullins

    July 21, 2021 at 7:18 pm

    I watched all six episodes in one sitting. McCartney is so incredible. So humble. As he has aged, he looks back on his career with gratitude and recognizes his good luck in teaming up with Lennon, Harrison and Starr. He along with Ringo are the keepers of the Beatles legacy. Although the group has not recorded in a studio together since August of 1969, McCartney keeps the Beatles as relevant today as any other rock band. There is only one legendary McCartney, and with the other band members, the Beatles were greater than the sum of their parts.

  4. Todd Jacobs

    July 21, 2021 at 7:49 pm

    Lighten up Francis. You know what McCartney means…

  5. Claudia Poindexter

    July 22, 2021 at 6:43 pm

    Every minute was great. Laid back,full of info about music,who did what when,analyzing music in English so we common folk got it It was like talking to a person who was part of YOUR history and remembered so many of the same things..I am going to watch it again and again..I am a bigger fan than ever. Oh,I finally got to see McCartney a few years back..2.5 hr show..fantastic. I know I am a sloppy fan..but do not care. Watch it!!

  6. Cheryl Bianchi

    July 23, 2021 at 4:04 am

    @Steve Really? You don’t know him? What about his work w Johnny Cash? Joe Strummer? Chili Peppers? I loved the simplicity of the presentation, the black and white added a timeless quality, and it was a delight to see Paul’s awe as Rick isolated the different tracks that sent him hurtling down memory lane.

  7. Darren J Holmquist

    July 23, 2021 at 7:22 am

    Interesting that Paul doesn’t remember writing Back In The USSR during their time in India. Hence the demo he recorded with all the other songs written in India.

    I know he’s got a lot of stuff to remember. But, a well informed interviewer would know the answers to many of the questions he’s going to ask.

    I was unimpressed with Mr. Rubin’s Beatles knowledge… or even Paul’s solo music. It’s almost like he was a last minute substitute interviewer.

    I enjoyed the series, but it could’ve been so much more. In my insignificant opinion.

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