Wingman for a Wingsman
Wingman for a Wingsman
A Q&A with Yuri Pool
Of The McCartney Years
By Geoff Gehman
Yuri Pool once stopped traffic on a roof. This remarkable act took place on Jan. 30, 2009 above the streets of London, Ontario, when his band performed a 40th-anniversary facsimile of the Beatles’ fabled final public concert above the streets of London, England. Fighting off frozen fingers while playing “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Dig a Pony,” the musicians created such a commotion that buses had to be rerouted. They also generated prime-time publicity for their full-time job: recreating Paul McCartney’s ultra-octane ’70s shows as the wingman for Wings.
Five years later, The McCartney Years still gigs in rarefied air. Pool and his mates mix Beatles A-sides (“Let It Be”) with B-sides (“Oh! Darling”), Wings standards (“Live and Let Die”) with rarities (“Dear Friend”). They blend period instruments, meticulous arrangements and authentic grooves, led by Pool’s impressive impression of McCartney’s dexterous musicianship and consummate showmanship. Their explosive energy and fearless faithfulness have been praised by the late promoter Sid Bernstein, who helped infect America with Beatlemania, and Wings guitarist Denny Laine, who has promised to perform the tunes he minted with McCartney with the McCartneyites.
On Jan. 3 the McCartneyites will rock and rollick up the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a conversation from his Canadian home, the Holland-raised Pool discusses the joys of growing into his McCartney skin and watching his five-year-old son grow into a mini-McCartney.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: I was five when the music of the Beatles hit me. We used to drive to visit my grandmother every week or every other week and the radio was always on in the car. During one trip two songs came on–“A Hard Day’s Night” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”—that really captivated me. I remember leaning forward and putting my head between the front seats to listen closer. I asked my dad: “Who are these guys?” “They[re the Beatles.” “Do you have their records?” “Yeah, I have all of them.” I didn’t know until many, many years later that he was a big Beatles fan who had all their original UK pressings. I had to hear that from my grandmother when I was a teenager.
Nobody pushed me into liking the Beatles; it came to me naturally. It affected me in the ’80s the way it affected people in the ’60s. I’m living proof how music transcends generations and brings generations closer together.
Q: What was the first McCartney performance that convinced you he was the man?
A: I was born in 1976, far after the Beatles broke up. The great thing about the Beatles is that they were such a well-documented band long before the Internet age. In the ’80s there was literature about them everywhere. I loved going into libraries in my early teens and paging through the books. So I was taught by McCartney long before I saw him play for the first time in 2003 in the Netherlands, just before he played Red Square. Seeing him live, sensing how he made a concert flow, gave me a good idea of how the job of playing him had to be done. The next year I became Paul in an international Beatles touring band based in the UK. I was one of the few musicians in the UK who could play all of his instruments: the bass, the guitar, the piano, the drums.
In 2007 I stopped playing in the Beatles touring band and started The McCartney Years. I remember a lot of my friends asking: What are you doing? Why would you want to stop this and jump into something unknowing? I just felt I needed to expand more on the Beatles, to explore more of McCartney’s post-Beatles career. I think Wings is one of the most under-rated bands, that it’s been overshadowed by the Beatles.
Q: What was your biggest learning curve to get under McCartney’s skin?
A: McCartney is an incredibly versatile performer. It has taken me many, many years to master all of his instruments and vocal stunts. I spent many nights going through his work meticulously, to make sure that it sounds exactly what McCartney put on. Like McCartney, I’m a tenor, so my vocal range matches his. To get the color and taste of his vocals spot on, though, is a whole different story. My voice has really grown into the music, just as McCartney’s voice grew during the late years of the Beatles when he sang songs like “Oh! Darling” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which he wrote for “Abbey Road.” He explored his voice even further in Wings; he didn’t seem to be holding back.
I’ve had sort of the same progression. It’s interesting that everybody in The McCartney Years is of the age that Wings members were when they were touring in the ’70s. That allows us to grow with the music and experience it for ourselves as well. I suppose that’s the biggest learning curve of them all.
Q: As a McCartney musicologist, you’re well aware of his fairly unusual chord changes and harmonic shifts. Can you point to a recent surprising discovery about his creativity as a performing composer?
A: We were surprised by “Michelle,” which has complex chords, fantastic harmonies and beautiful layers. It was released in 1965, much later than when it was written. The story is that there was a spot open on “Rubber Soul” and John [Lennon] asked Paul: “Do you remember that little French song you wrote?” It’s incredible to think that Paul wrote that little French song at an age [his early 20s] when most people are still learning their instrument, and that essentially a fill-in number became a standard.
Q: How faithful is too faithful when it comes to playing McCartney? Do you feel the need to duplicate his mooning eyes and O-shaped mouth, his rather melodramatic resemblance to a Christmas choir boy?
A: Many fans love Paul’s choir-boy persona in the Beatles. They believe that he was at the top of his game, vocally and energetically, that he was playing with a great band, that he was writing great music–“Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back.” He had left the choir-boy era behind by the time he started Wings; by then he was a musician hardened by the rock-and-roll industry. But the Beatles are the glue that holds everything together. McCartney knew it in the ’70s and we know it today. It’s a formula that works.
Q: One of the more curious songs in your repertoire is “Dear Friend,” the last track on Wings’ first album and McCartney’s response to John Lennon’s poison-pen letter “How Do You Sleep?” What’s the attraction?
A: Well, McCartney never performed it live in Wings, so it’s a sort of gift for our audiences. We play the hits but we also play a few obscure songs.to send our listeners home with the thought that they learned something. Someone who might not know McCartney’s music well might say, wow, I didn’t know he wrote “Magneto and Titanium Man”; a big fan might say, wow, I didn’t expect that song. It’s what keeps the show fresh and exciting; it’s a win-win situation.
I remember when I was writing our first set list and I told myself I’m only going to stick to the hits; otherwise, the concert would be too long. And I still ended up with a show that ran six hours. I thought: Oh my god, what I’m going to do? I’m going to have to cut songs. Today, we rotate songs from show to show, day to day, month to month. The pillar songs are still there. “Live and Let Die” is too great to leave out. It’s a great example of his writing: the explosive nature; all the changes in rhythms, in chords, in flavor; the little reggae bit in the middle. It really reflects how he could patch things together, just as he and John [Lennon] patched together “A Day in the Life.”
Q: What was the fallout, the windfall, from your 40th-anniversary recreation of the Beatles 1969 rooftop gig? How did it stir your sails?
A: We did that strictly out of passion, out of fun, without any commercial purpose in mind. We would be playing in Canada in the middle of winter so we knew it would probably be cold and snowing. We played the same exact set the Beatles did in ’69 and we ended up clogging the streets with so many people that buses had to be rerouted. We got a tremendous amount of press coverage, partly because musicians tried to do the same thing in England but they were shut down. We ended up being featured on CNN and Fox and BBC Yahoo; all of a sudden we were in the spotlight. Not only did we get good press, we got some good work in Ontario and Quebec and the northeastern U.S.
Honestly, I don’t have a good memory of events five years ago, let alone five days ago. Yet I still get recognized on the street as: “Oh, you’re the guy from the rooftop show. When are you going to do it again?”
Q: What questions are you burning to ask McCartney? What knots would you like him to unravel?
A: I would have a flood of questions. But if we’re really going to paint that picture, I would be less interested in flooding him with questions than just hanging out with him. I’d like to have a couple of snacks and a couple of beers in a little café and just talk about whatever comes up. I wouldn’t even think about asking him a single question because singling out one question would be really tough. I think that talking to him about whatever—the weather, his dog–would satisfy me more than trying to get the history right.
You know, a number of years ago I performed in New York City and I met Sid Bernstein, the promoter who brought the Beatles to America, which led to Beatlemania. After the show, when everybody was cleaning up and I had put my stuff aside, he approached me and we sat down at a table and we just talked. He gave me the most amazing information about the Beatles. It was great to hear firsthand how John was goofy and Paul was the statesman. That experience taught me to really sit down and experience a person rather than limit myself to asking questions about the experience.
Q: Your son Julian is five years old, the same age you were when you had that Beatles breakthrough while driving to visit your grandmother. Is he a mini-McCartneyite?
A: Well, he was three months old when he attended his first concert. For the longest time, whenever “Live and Let Die” came on the radio, he would say: “Oh Dad, that’s you.” Now I can explain to him that’s not the case–Dad just plays the music.
Julian was exposed to the music earlier than me with all my instruments around the house: basses, guitars, pianos, drum kits. Now he’s at the age that he gets to handle one of my instruments: an original 1960s Hofner 501 bass. My band members don’t have his freedom; they have to go through all sorts of explanations of why they need to play it.
Last weekend we ended a show with the “Rockestra Theme.” Julian came onstage and played this little ukulele guitar that he always carries around with him when we go to concerts. And the audience just melted; I had never seen anything like it. There were eight guitarists that night and we all agree that this kid who’s barely three feet tall was the best one. He had more charisma than all of us. I don’t think anybody saw anybody else.
Yuri Pool: The Scoop
He was a year old when “Mull of Kintyre,” co-written by Paul McCartney, topped a 1977 pop-music chart in his native Holland.
He digs the raw, roomy vibes of McCartney’s early 1970s records, including “Ram.”
He doesn’t think McCartney’s film “Give My Regards to Broad Street” is a total bomb. “No More Lonely Nights,” after all, is quite catchy.
He animated “Magneto and Titanium Man” with a projection of a cartoon given to McCartney by the artist backstage at a Wings concert.
He and his McCartneyites are booked to play a Las Vegas casino this winter.Send Email
His Bucket List includes performing with former Wings members Lawrence Juber (guitar) and Joe English (drums). It does not include performing the Wings song “Venus and Mars” on Mars, even if the Canadian government financed the inter-galactic gig.
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Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Yuri Pool’s passion for Paul McCartney’s volcanic vocal on “Oh! Darling!” He can be reached at email@example.com.