By the late-1980s, Paul McCartney may have been the only artist on the planet uninterested in sounding like the Beatles. But then his new collaborator, fellow British superstar Elvis Costello, reunited him with an old friend: his iconic violin-shaped Hofner bass. The instrument had last seen action during the band’s final live performance on the roof of their London offices almost two decades before, and a faded setlist from their last tour remained affixed to the side with yellowed scotch tape. “He was a big Beatles fan and said, ‘Hey, do you still use your Hofner?’” McCartney tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I had semi-retired it. But he said I should get it out, and I rediscovered it.”
In doing so, he rediscovered his voice. After several years of exploring the latest synth-pop trends with mixed commercial success, McCartney got back to where he once belonged on his 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt. The four tracks co-written with Costello at McCartney’s Hog Hill Mill studios in rural Sussex, England, formed the foundation of his most vibrant and daring work in years. In preparation of an extensive reissue featuring unheard demos and rare session outtakes due out March 24, McCartney spoke to PEOPLE about the album’s creation.
Sitting nose to nose with Costello—a guitar-wielding, bespectacled, sharp-tongued Liverpudlian—surely brought McCartney a twinge of déjà vu. Though he had briefly collaborated with a handful of writers, this was arguably the most substantial working relationship since his partnership with John Lennon. It’s a comparison that McCartney found understandably unnerving in the wake of his former bandmate’s death in 1980. Costello, a card-carrying member of the Fab Four fan club in his youth, couldn’t resist nudging McCartney towards the sound he had helped engineer: intricate sky-high harmonies, splashes of shimmering guitars, melodically adventurous bass lines — and that tune.
It’s the last one that will continue to baffle fans and music makers alike. In conversation, McCartney, 74, has a charming way of demystifying their creative process. “We’d go upstairs with a couple acoustic guitars, sit down, get a cup of tea, grab a pad and say, ‘Well, what’s an idea, boy?’ ‘I don’t know, what about this?’ ‘That’s good.’ It just flowed, the whole thing.” Sound simple? It is if you’re Paul McCartney.
Read on as the icon goes track by track through the album’s highlights, sharing memories of writing with Costello, growing up with his father in Liverpool, making music with the Beatles, and happy times with his late wife, Linda.
“My Brave Face”
“I remember meeting up with Elvis and thinking, ‘Can we hit it off writing together?’ But we did, we enjoyed our time together. ‘My Brave Face’ was one of the early things we did, and it became a single. I felt that Elvis was pulling it in a little bit of a Beatle-y way—a Beatle-ist direction—but it was fine by me. And then I remember the video was quite crazy: some guy trying to steal my Hofner bass.”
McCartney’s 1963 Hofner 500/1 ‘violin’ bass, with scotch tape attaching the 1966 tour setlist visible (it’s since been removed).
“I had wanted to work with [’80s super-producers] Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson, and this was the first occasion. They came down to my studio [Hog Hill Mill] and we just cooked this little song up. I liked the feel of it. I thought it had a contemporary feel at the time, and a little bit of urban slick that I liked.
It was a great experience working with them—they’re very thorough. I was showing Trevor the view of the English Channel and the coast outside the window of my studio and saying, ‘Wow, look at that!’ He said, ‘No, there’s the view!’ and he points to the speaker. [laughs] I saw his point. We ended up closing the windows and getting into the music. Steve was great to work with, too. He’s a great engineer and musician. So the two of them together, it was a pleasure.”
The song also features multi-instrumentalist McCartney taking a turn on the drums, which he mastered during the early days of the Beatles.
“I have a kit, which is based on Ringo’s. I figure I can’t go far wrong with a kit like his! It’s lovely, I always like a chance to get on the kit.”
Costello, McCartney, and the Hofner, performing at the Concert for Linda in 1999.
“You Want Her Too”
“That was from the Elvis batch. He’s a great guy to work with, very focused. When you’re working with someone—instead of just sitting around and thinking, ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’—it’s nice when someone comes up with something and you get a kickstart. Elvis was good at that. He would come up and we’d talk stories about his Auntie Irene and various relatives of his and mine growing up in Liverpool. This song came out of that. It’s got sort of a sea-shanty feel. We didn’t take long to write them, they just kind of fell out.”
The only duet on the album, Costello echoes McCartney’s lyrics with acidic barbs.
“That’s a good old trick. We both love the art of songwriting, we’re still intrigued by it. Little things like having a cynical answer to a line—that’s the kind of thing I did a long time ago, like in [the 1967 Beatles song] ‘Getting Better’ where I sing, ‘It’s getting better all the time,’ and John sings, ‘It couldn’t get much worse.’ Otherwise you’re just writing a song straightforward. That’s good too, but it’s kind of nice to have little things that bounce off each other, that yin-yang thing.”
“That’s one of my favorites. I got in touch with this guy called Clare Fischer, who I thought was a woman with the name Clare. I just knew of the person’s work off of a Prince album [1986’s Parade], where I heard a really nice arrangement. When I’d written this song I thought, ‘It would be really nice to have a really good arrangement, slightly jazz tinged but not too much.’ So I got in touch with Clare, and I was quite surprised to find out that he was a middle-aged man. [laughs] But he was great—a bit of a genius. He and I talked about it a lot and he got the idea. I really liked that arrangement.
Sometimes you hit a lyric that means something to you. For me, if you love someone, you really want to just hang out with them all the time and then just have the best time and the best life. But then you’ve got to go to work, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. So I just call all of those things distractions.”
The McCartneys on their wedding day, March 12, 1969, outside London’s Marylebone Registry Office.
“We Got Married”
“It’s a pretty little song, heartfelt. It’s not totally autobiographical but it captures being first married, first in love like Linda and I were. We didn’t get a flat together, little details like that are me as a songwriter just throwing in stuff that feels good. But basically it’s our life story, me and Linda. I have great memories of it, because it reminds me of her. It’s a song about getting married and the thrill of it—the first bloom of that for me is encapsulated in the song. The great thing was Dave Gilmour [of Pink Floyd] agreed to play guitar on it. That was really nice, I thought he did a great job on guitar. Very soulful.”
“Put It There”
“That’s an expression my dad used to say. He was an old-fashioned Liverpool guy with a very good sense of humor, and he was always coming out with weird phrases. It was as if he thought it was a bit boring to talk in normal phrases, so he’d always say, ‘Put it there if it weighs a ton!’ And you’d go, ‘Oh … he means shake hands.’ I grew up with that, and all sorts of other expressions—some that don’t lend themselves to songs. But I thought that one would be nice about a father and his young boy, because it reminded me of my dad.
Some of his expressions you really wouldn’t want to use! Sometimes me and my brother would ask questions: ‘Why? Why is that? What’s the reason for that?’ And he’d go, ‘Because there’s no hairs on a seagull’s chest.’ Which is true, but not a satisfactory answer!”
McCartney once again laid down the rhythm on the track, but with an unusual twist.
“There’s a little hand-slappy thing. That’s something we first heard on Buddy Holly’s record, a great old favorite of ours when we were growing up. He does a record called ‘Everyday.’ It’s a cute little song, a great little song, and there’s this tapping on it [demonstrates]. The story was that it was him tapping on his jeans. And if you ever do that and want to get that effect, don’t wear sweatpants or regular trousers. Jeans are what you need, they’ve got the right tone. That’s just a hint for you and your readers, should you ever be called on to a thigh-slapping session.”
“Figure of Eight”
“I liked the philosophy behind the lyrics of this song. I like the idea of not being caught in a figure of eight. ‘Better to love than give in to hate,’ which now sounds to me like the U.S. elections.”
“That’s completely silly wordplay. My dad was very into words and crosswords and things, and so was I at school. And then becoming a songwriter I was interested in wordplay. So when I heard someone say, ‘This one,’ I thought it could also be ‘this swan.’ I liked this image of a swan, like in Hindu art—Krishna and the swan gliding over water lilies. I was attracted to that image, so that’s what it became, using the two meanings of the word. And then the video by Tim Pope turned out that way, too.”
“That Day Is Done”
“Elvis was talking about a relative one day. We’d have some great conversations: ‘My god, this crazy old uncle of mine…’ ‘Well, there’s this crazy old uncle I’ve got who did this…’ I think this song originally came from Elvis telling the story of the funeral of his aunt [Costello writes in his 2015 memoir that it was his grandmother] and the effect it had on him. He had the idea on that one—so it was my pleasure to just go along and help write the song with him.”
For more on Paul McCartney’s fascinating memories of recording 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.