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Music

Revisiting the moment Paul McCartney fronted Nirvana

Although Paul McCartney is a rock singer par excellence, there have been surprisingly few out and out rock numbers in his solo canon. Sure, there’s ‘Live and Let Die‘ and ‘Junior’s Farm’, but those offerings are sandwiched between a series of silly love songs and pastoral tunes written about nights spent by a Scottish fire. When McCartney is no longer creating music, the eulogies will almost certainly focus on the schmaltzy ditties and the thumbs cascading to the sky above him, and not on the heavy metal stompers, or the fiery performances that he has effortlessly laid down on tape.

And then he joined Nirvana…sort of. McCartney certainly sang with the surviving members in 2012, his voice pummelling over Dave Grohl‘s barrelling cymbal work. Nirvana already had a bass player, so McCartney wound up playing rhythm guitar, the role he had always intended for himself in The Beatles.

Considering the extent that McCartney’s first band had influenced Nirvana, given that vocalist Kurt Cobain purportedly asked engineers to make him sound like John Lennon, Grohl was certainly excited by the prospect. “I noticed Paul McCartney out of the corner of my eye, chatting away with friends, and I couldn’t help but stare. There. He. Was,” Grohl admitted.

Adding: “What happened next will forever remain a blur. I don’t recall exactly how Paul and I were introduced, what was said, or how long we talked, but I do remember putting on my best ‘this is not the most incredible thing ever to happen to me’ face while trying to keep from making a fool of myself.”

Extremely rare audio of Nirvana performing in a small Scottish bar, 1991

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Nirvana founder Krist Novoselic was similarly enthusiastic about the collaboration: “Dave Grohl invited me to come to Los Angeles. He calls me on the phone and says, ‘Hey, you want to come play with Paul McCartney?’ I’m in Washington state, and I’m like, ‘I’ll walk to California to do it.’ So we got there, and I was praying that Paul didn’t play the bass, ‘Oh, my gosh, please don’t have him play the bass God. He’s been such a mentor and influence, but I’ve got to play bass.’ He played this cigar box guitar.”

Novoselic’s prayers were answered, and McCartney took this opportunity to focus on his singing. The concert finds him in fine voice, hurdling through the lyrics, racing to capture the essence behind The Beatles harder-edged material. In one fell swoop, he reclaims the voice fans had written off as a relic of a bygone, even Beatlesque, age.

Clearly buoyed by the presence of two younger, hungrier musicians, McCartney lightened up, to deliver a purring vocal performance, high on energy and acidity. “They’re powerful, you know,” exclaimed McCartney. “It’s a great power to have them on stage with you. I mean, my band’s great – but when you augment it with Nirvana, that’s greater.”

The band, with Pat Smear on second guitar, recorded another take of ‘Cut Me Some Slack’, which can be heard on Sound City: Real to Reel. Considering the immediacy of the drums, and the energy of the hooks – not forgetting the animal energy exuded by the singer in question – it was an immediate hit with critics. The song deservedly won the Grammy award for Best Rock Song in 2014, proving McCartney had what it took to belt them out as he always had.

If the trick was to push him back into heavier territories, it certainly did the trick. In 2013, McCartney issued ‘Queenie Eye’, a riff hook piece that seemed to carry the narrative he had started with Grohl to more palatable territories. The album, New, also holds ‘Save Us’, a thunderous gospel rock number that pleasantly recalled the anthems spearheaded by glam outfits Mott The Hoople and Queen.

Every album since has boasted a rocker: Egypt Station had ‘Come On To Me’, soaked in John Lennon’s influence and designed for the live stage, while McCartney III boasted the drum-heavy ‘Slidin’, a propulsive number that placed as much emphasis on the beat as it did the raucous vocal delivery.

McCartney collaborated with Grohl again in 2017, playing the drums on Foo Fighters album Concrete and Gold. “He hadn’t even heard the song,” said Foo Fighters bandmate, Taylor Hawkins. “He comes in and Dave picked up and acoustic [guitar] and showed him real quick. He sat on his special drum set that his tech set up for him. I sat there with a drumstick conducting. He did two takes.”

“Paul McCartney plays drums on one of our songs,” Grohl confirmed. “He’s a pal. We’ve known him for a long time. He’s great. He’s the most wonderful person in the world. He’s a great guy.”

A one-off for Grohl and McCartney? Sounds to me like they’ll be rocking again!