LONDON — Thirty years after he composed "Yesterday," Paul McCartney finished recording a new track with the reunited Beatles and rehearsed for a royal charity performance that would mark his first ever concert with a string quartet, his first public performance with his sometime songwriting partner Elvis Costello, and his smallest show since the Beatles graduated from Liverpool's Cavern Club.
The venue for the charity performance was St. James Palace in London, where McCartney and an eclectic group of his musical friends were to perform March 23 for Prince Charles and 300 invited guests, each of whom ponied up a minimum of 250 pounds ($400) for the privilege. The ticket sales raised 70,000 pounds ($112,000) for London's Royal College of Music, of which the prince is titular president.
The costs of the concert were absorbed by Classic FM, Britain's independent classical radio station, which will broadcast a recording of the event in the U.K. on April 17. After that, the recording will be made available to radio stations in the U.S. and around the world.
Running through the program in a small recital hall at the RCM on the afternoon before the Palace performance, McCartney came across like an especially enthusiastic, sharp-eared music teacher with a class full of prodigies.
McCartney suggested tempo changes in his new piano composition, "A Leaf," to Anya Alexeyev, a recent RCM graduate chosen to introduce it to the world. He sang along quietly as classical stars Sally Burgess and Willard White played selections from "Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio" and several American popular songs, and he led the Brodsky Quartet through four Beatles standards. When violist Paul Cassidy hit a bum note during the middle section of "Yesterday," McCartney came back singing, "Yesterday, viola was an easy instrument to play... "The room exploded in laughter.
"It's wild," McCartney said during a break. "I must admit, I hadn't thought of doing 'Lady Madonna' with a string quartet. Anything with a string quartet is completely turned on its head."
"Lady Madonna," with McCartney banging on the piano and the Brodskys ripping out the main riff on their fiddles, was a highlight. At McCartney's request, the Brodskys and Costello performed two pieces from their collaborative song cycle, The Juliet Letters, as well as an arrangement of Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows." Costello and McCartney played duets of the Beatles' "One After 909" and their own collaboration "Mistress And Maid," which appeared on McCartney's Off The Ground album.
"It's the first time Elvis and I have played live," McCartney said. "We've written together, we made demos together, we've done a bit of recording together and always enjoyed it — but we've not actually played live together."
McCartney has become something of a one-man national endowment for the arts in Britain, where public funding for arts education is on the wane. John Burrows of the RCM's development council said that as recently as 10 years ago, 90% of the conservatory's operating costs were paid by the government. It is now down to 65%. The rest must come from charitable contributions and fundraisers. McCartney also has spearheaded the drive to turn his old high school, the Liverpool Institute, into an academy for the performing arts.
Costello pointed out the irony in playing for Prince Charles at the Palace to raise funds to compensate for government cutbacks, but said it's beside the point. "To be honest, when I was asked last year to play the Prince's Trust Concert I said, 'Maybe when it's a republic here I will.' But I don't mind. It's more important that the college keeps going, and if this helps, great. It's sort of ironic that untrained or half-trained musicians end up coming to help, but that's what we've got to in this country. If it takes picking the pockets of a few court people, so be it. If the Prince turns up and brings his pals along and they dig into their deep pockets, then they all go up in my estimation."
Prince Charles issued a statement that said, in part, "My great-great grandfather, King Edward WI, when Prince of Wales, had the vision to establish the Royal College of Music to promote the training of our young musicians. Without his ambition British music in this century would be much the poorer.
"Tonight we are taking his aim forward. The concert this evening is an intriguing mixture of musical styles and experience and one which I hope can demonstrate to all musicians that a career in music can have many facets."
The rehearsals were being recorded as backup in case something went wrong with the Palace performance, as well as for possible release as an album on EMI Classics. McCartney was noncommittal about releasing the program on CD. "We are recording it for radio," he said. "And it depends how it turns out. If everyone is so pleased with the performance that people are clamoring for it, then we'll think about releasing it."
There is more clamor for two new Beatles tracks, both recorded at McCartney's home studio from demos by the late John Lennon, with McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr augmenting their slain bandmate. The recordings are scheduled to be released in late 1995 by EMI in the U.K. and Capitol in the U.S. as part of the extensive Beatles Anthology — a video and audio set that will cover the history of the band. The first of the new songs, "Free As A Bird," was finished a year ago, the second — still untitled — last month.
McCartney said that he, Harrison, and Starr were reluctant to record as a trio without Lennon being represented.
"At the moment we haven't tried that," he said of recording with only the surviving Beatles. "It just seems more natural if John's there. It seems like a better idea. Even though we talked about it, when we actually got hold of the two John songs, then it was the Beatles. Then people can't say, 'Well, there's only three of you.' And they can't say, 'You should get Julian in,' or 'You should get Sean in.'
"This way we can say, 'Look, it is the Beatles. Whether you like it or not, even if it's done technically, it actually is the Beatles on record. There are four guys on that record — through the wonders of technology.
"We haven't actually taken it beyond that yet. We did the first track last February, we did the second track this February. As we were saying goodbye my engineer said, 'If we keep going for 12 years we'll have an album.'"
Bill Flanagan is editor of Musician.