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Behind the Curtain: A Rookie Journalist Interviewing Paul McCartney Backstage at the Birmingham Odeon in 1973
For his latest Behind the Curtain entry, rock journalist Steve Rosen recalls his terrifying — and life-changing — experience interviewing Paul McCartney in 1973.
So, its July 1973 and Ive been hitchhiking around Europe with my best friend from high school, Chris Kinderman. I had read Jack Kerouacs book, On the Road — who hadnt? — and I
wanted to play the part of the bohemian hipster, tripping around France and Spain and pretending to be somebody. Following our sojourn through Europe, we returned to the United Kingdom
where we began our odyssey.
The only writing I had done to that point was for a cheap little softcore porn newspaper rag called the L.A. Star. You bought it in a vending machine for 25¢ and immediately flipped
through to the back pages where the massage ads were. It was nothing to get excited about but it was a byline and more importantly the editor there — Mark Yandle — knew I was going to Europe
and had armed me with names and phone numbers of managers and publicists in London.
After an interminable flight, we landed at Gatwick Airport and looked for a place where we could hang our hats. We found a comfortable little flat in an outlying town called Wandsworth
and I immediately began making phone calls to the numbers Mark had given to me. I believe the very first person I rang up was Tony Brainsby. I knew that Tony did publicity for Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Curved Air and yes, Paul McCartney. I put the 10 pence piece in the phone — there was no phone at the flat so I was forever scouting out those red phone booths, which dotted London — and attempting to calm the quavering in my voice, I dialed.
A female answered. Hi, Tony Brainsbys office. How can I help you? The accent was so charming I could barely breathe. Hi, my name is Steve Rosen. Im a music journalist over here
from California. I was given Tonys number and I was just calling to say hi.
I mean what the fuck was I supposed to say? My life as a rock journalist had barely begun. I was
nothing. I was vapor. Insubstantial. I had no street cred. But I was 20-years old with a lifetime in front of me and I wanted to be a writer so I made the call.
Oh, how nice, this disembodied voice cooed. Why dont you come in and say hello to Tony? Im sure hed like to meet you. How about tomorrow?
Had I heard her correctly? Had she invited me to come by the office? I was so elated I levitated. That feeling was profound and as I write this today, I am suffused with the memory of it.
Chris and I hop on the tube and take the 15-minute ride to Tonys place. We disembark and find the address and knock on the door and were greeted by the most beautiful girl Ive ever seen. Hi, Im Julie. Are you Steve? I gasp for air and smile or at least I think I was smiling. My face may have been twisted into a leering stare. Hi, yes Im Steve and this is my friend, Chris.
We walk in and there was another girl sitting at a desk typing — and impossibly, she was even more beautiful than Julie. She rises and extends her hand and introduces herself as Sue. Sue and Julie. Julie and Sue. The publicity girls.
A minute later, a tall, lanky fellow enters from another office. Hi, Im Tony. Welcome, Steve.
And that was how it started. Before leaving the States, I had packed some copies of the L.A. Star with live reviews Id written — I had never done a proper interview — and now sheepishly showed them to Tony. I was expecting him to look at them and politely blow me off. Actually I didnt know what to expect. This is fucking great, mate. As it turned out, he wasnt looking at one of
my pieces but rather at a black-and-white photo of a gravity-defying blonde on the front cover tucked in amongst the massage ads. What did I care if he hadnt looked at my review? I was happy he didnt. It sucked.
Listen, I have a new band Im working with called Queen. I will have all four guys in the office in a couple days. Would you like to interview them?
Interview? A band? Holy shit, it was happening. Baby steps. The debut self-titled Queen album was just then coming out and Tony had a white label — promo copy — for me. I was not a fan of glam and the bands name reeked of makeup and spandex. For some unbelievably stupid reason, which haunts me to this day, I declined. I shudder at the memory. This would have been one of the very first interviews Queen ever did, but moron that I was, I passed. He then offered another band he was working with called Curved Air and the singer named Sonja Kristina. I said yes.
I came back to the office the next day and spoke to Sonja in what was one of the very first interviews I ever did.
From that moment on, Tony took me under his wing. Maybe he saw something in me that I couldnt even see. I dont know. All I do know is he opened up his heart and his home. Well, his office. Chris and I were staying at that flat I mentioned but the daily rent was killing us. We had no money. Tony offered the couch in his office and said we could sleep there if we wanted.
Who does that? Not in a million years would that happen today. It was a different world. So Chris and I camped out there for a couple days. There may have even been a shower in the suite or rooms so wed clean up and be up and awake by the time Tony and the girls came into the office.
One morning, Tony walks in and says in a voice as nonchalant as if hes asking me if I want a cup of tea, Paul McCartney is playing in Birmingham tonight. I wanted to know if youd like to go and see the show and interview him afterwards? After Paul McCartney came out of his mouth, I didnt hear much else. I figured he was goofing with me or having some fun because I had turned down the invitation to interview Queen so I waited for the punch line but one never came.
I looked at him and saw he was serious. My heart stopped in my chest. I thought, Paul fucking McCartney? A Beatle? I was a ghost. I hadnt written anything of merit. I didnt deserve to be in the same room as Paul. I mean, what would you have said? It was like somebody asking you, Do you want a million dollars? Do you want to be eternally happy? Do you want world peace? Tonys question was so unreal and fantastical, that there was no sufficiently appropriate response.
Yes, oh fuck yes, Tony. Ill give you all the money I have and be your personal valet for as long as Im over here and oh, yeah, Ill cut off a finger in the bargain.
I dont remember what I said. All I do know was that the next day, which would have been July 6th, 1973, Chris and I boarded a train out of Victoria Station and made the 117.4 mile trip north to Birmingham. Armed with my $4 cassette player — I had brought this with me on the trip in hopes of securing an interview or two while I was overseas — I attempted to write some questions on the train. I could think of nothing. I forgot who the Beatles were. My mind was a blank. I came up with one question: Will the Beatles ever get back together?
What a fool. Dingbat. Halfwit. Lobotomy case.
I tested my cassette player to make sure everything was working. I pressed play nothing. I pressed play/record nothing. I checked the battery compartment and there were no batteries. Oh, please, please, dont let this be happening to me. Im about to interview Paul McCartney, my nascent career finally finding purchase and I dont even have fucking batteries for my piece of shit tape player. I am fracturing into a thousand pieces.
We arrive at the station and head out onto the street. The Birmingham Odeon, a cinema, is there right in front of us and were early. Looking around frantically, I see an electronics store directly across the street. I thought someone was truly looking out for me. I could feel myself metamorphosing. The shop has every kind of battery imaginable. I purchase two D batteries, the fat, flashlight kind, insert them, press play and see the little plastic wheels turning. I breathe out and utter a small prayer of thanks to the battery gods on high.
The show was a wonder. Left-handed Paul performing C Moon, Hi Hi Hi, Big Barn Bed and several other songs from the then just-released Red Rose Speedway album. Linda was up there on keyboards and Henry McCullough strumming away on guitar. I am listening to the music but Im really not listening because all I can think about is, Oh, fucking please, dont let me mess this up.
Set over, Im ushered backstage into a small dressing room. There he is with Linda and the kids by his side while the rest of the band lounge around drinking beer and noshing. Im introduced and I tell him my name is Steve or maybe I said Stanley. Who knows? There were other writers there, heavy cats from Melody Maker and NME. Barbara Charone was there, features editor for Sounds and someone whose path I would cross the next day. I am perched next to Paul McCartney and my arm is extended while holding the $3 microphone I use.
Everyone else in the room seems so poised, as if this isnt Paul McCartney but some normal person. I honestly believe Paul sensed my nerves and trepidation. He perched me right next to where he was sitting. I think he was trying to tell me, Its OK. Youll be alright.
I look down at my one question and am embarrassed a thousand shades of red because I cant even find the chutzpah to open my mouth. At one point, Paul makes an arm gesture and his fingertip touches my microphone. Sorry, mic he says and I think it is the most brilliant thing Ive ever heard. Paul has just knocked my microphone and hes apologized. Pretty freaking cool, no?
All I could really do is bask in his Beatleness, his McCartney magicalness. There is no such word as magicalness but you get it, right?
I tell myself, You have to open your mouth. I find an opening. Uh, Paul, is there any chance of the Beatles getting back together?
He could have shrugged off the question or given me a dismissive answer. How many hundreds of times had that same question been posed to him? As the words escaped my lips, I knew it was an inane query but hell, I was a newbie writer. I didnt know shit and here I was thrust into the realm of royalty in one of the first interviews Id ever done. I was up there in the high country.
I dont know, really. What I say is if we just kinda get friendly and cool and if anyone wants to work with the other I done a little bit on Ringos new album and the other two did too and those kind of little things were all happy to do. But a definite no to the Beatles reforming, because I think its gone too far. I think if the Beatles had broken up for a week and then reformed, there was a possibility, but it cant go two years and reform again.
There it was. I interviewed Paul McCartney, but not really. I asked him one question but that was enough. He was courteous, polite and giving. I loved him for that. He could have made me feel insignificant and truly believe I might have disappeared, split into a million pieces and maybe never been made whole again. He gave himself to me and for two minutes it was just Paul and me. Me and Paul.
Barbara Charone, the girl from Sounds, had approached me when the interview was over and asked if she could come by the next day and make a copy of my cassette. She hadnt recorded the conversation. I said OK.
The next day, there was a knock on the door. I knew it was Barbara but I didnt answer. I didnt want to give her a copy of the interview. It was mine and she couldnt have it. Somehow she knew I was inside — maybe I made a noise or something — and she was persistent. I cant blame her, really, but this was my moment, my memory.
The whole experience was entirely out-of-body. If I hadnt recorded it, I may not have ever believed it really happened. To this day, that moment still remains essentially indefinable. I constantly try to refine the memory, un-blur it and add dimension, but it will always be dream sequence-like.
That was fantasy-given-flesh, my own personal fairy tale in which the common man is plucked from obscurity and vanquishes the dragon. I mean, how would you describe it? Youre a virgin writer gone off to see the world. Someone presents you with the opportunity of talking to a Beatle. Youre scared senseless and every indicator is pointing to the inevitable fact that you are going to screw up — but you dont. You are not calm, under control, engaging, or insightful but you do manage not to have a heart attack or pass out from fear and come up with one question in the bargain.
In fact, when you think back on it, you were just about perfect.
May 16, 2022