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Paul McCartney Talks Early Beatles Photos With Conan O’Brien At Tribeca Fest

Conversation will eventually air on the 'Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend' podcast
Paul McCartney
(Credit: © MPL Communications Ltd/ Photographer: MJ Kim)

Three days shy of his 81st birthday, a spry Paul McCartney rolled back the years last night (June 15) during an entertaining, hour-long conversation with Conan O’Brien about his book of newly unearthed Beatles photos, 1964: Eyes of the Storm. The event was held in conjunction with Tribeca Festival and will air at a later date on O’Brien’s podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.

With the insight of a devoted Beatles fan, the former late-night TV host expertly set up and then prompted McCartney to comment on more than a dozen images from Eyes of the Storm, which is comprised of photographs long thought lost to the ages but recently discovered by archivist Sarah Brown. Utilizing a Pentax camera, McCartney captured the shots around the world in late 1963 and early 1964 at the exact moment the Beatles were exploding at home in the U.K. and in the United States.

After all these years, it remains a thrill to hear McCartney speak of those formative backstage and on-stage moments with Ringo Starr and the late John Lennon and George Harrison. Describing one photo of a pensive Lennon with his chin in his hand and his fingers curled under his lips, he said, “It’s as if I’m not there. He’s unguarded. He’s got this little habit — he’s not biting his nails but he does this all the time. It’s just great to be reminded of it. It was so long ago that I’d forgotten it was a John thing.”

O’Brien pointed out another Lennon photo where he’s in a similar pose and observed that he looked vulnerable, a description McCartney quickly seconded. “I don’t know about the anxiety, but the vulnerability is very true. At this time, I wouldn’t really know that. Later, when I think as an adult about John’s upbringing, he had a really tragic life,” he said, referencing Lennon’s long-absent father Alf and the tragic death of his mother Julia when he was 17. “I always admired the way he dealt with it, because I’m not sure I would deal that well with the stuff he went through.”

Of an artful photo of Starr smoking, he recalled, “what I learned to do was look for the light situations, where there was something interesting. Ringo was suave. He had the best car and he would drink bourbon and 7-UP. When he was going on a date with a girl, he’s put two cigarettes in his mouth and light them.”

Some of the most enjoyable banter concerned a series of color photos shot in Miami in early 1964, following the Beatles’ initial world-altering appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show: Lennon floating in the ocean, a tanned Harrison being handed a scotch-and-Coke by a young lady in a yellow bikini, McCartney on the beach, in jeans, scowling at the small fish he’d caught. In numerous shots, group members are wearing terrycloth jackets swiped from the hotel; they apparently didn’t take them off for days.

“You’ve got to imagine my joy at, first of all, rediscovering these and then seeing this,” McCartney said of another photo of a sunglasses-clad Harrison smiling on a boat. “It’s just so lovely to capture a moment of George like that. You don’t [often] see him like that.”

McCartney did not address the bombshell news he broke earlier this week that he was utilizing AI technology to finish a final Beatles song based on a late 1970s Lennon demo, but there were a host of other tidbits throughout the conversation:

– McCartney jokingly blamed Bruce Springsteen for how long concerts last nowadays, especially compared to the 30-minute sets the Beatles used to perform, even at the height of their fame. “Now, people will do three, four hours,” he said. “I think Bruce Springsteen ruined it. I told him so.”

Eyes of the Storm includes a photo taken in Paris of two unnamed musicians, and McCartney could not remember their identities before publication. After the book was released this week, he got a text from Elvis Costello. “He’d gotten a text from a friend named Ray saying it was Ray’s dad playing guitar,” McCartney revealed.

– Recalling the thousands of screaming fans awaiting the Beatles outside New York’s Plaza Hotel upon their arrival in 1964, McCartney admitted, “Every time I drive down Fifth Avenue, I [still] tell everyone that story.” It was mind-blowing enough earlier that day when the Beatles were informed what awaited them at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport. “We half knew what to expect, but then it was a really big crowd. We were just bowled over,” he said. “It was America, where all the music that we loved came from. Immediately we did a press conference at the airport. We knew that whatever they laid on us, if there was any type of insult, we knew we could come back with, well, we’re number one in your country.”

– Telling a story about a photo shot from his girlfriend Jane Asher’s attic, McCartney said he conspired with an older man in the next building over to help him escape from fans waiting at street level. He would literally climb out of the Asher house and across to the man’s window, walk through his apartment, take an elevator to the bottom, and high-tail it out a back door.

– A photo of the late Ronnie Spector led O’Brien to ask about the Beatles’ love of American girl groups, which extended to Starr’s performance of the Shirelles’ “Boys” without changing the gender. The Beatles worshipped “mostly black American music really, aside from Elvis and Carl Perkins,” McCartney said. “Ringo sang ‘Boys’ [but] we never thought, that’s strange. It just was a great song.”