Paul McCartney found himself in somewhat of a rut in the early 2000s. His solo career was in a low place following the commercial flop of Driving Rain in 2001, an album which remarkably peaked at number 46 in the UK charts. The former Beatle needed to produce a record that would remind people of the talent which penned some of the most delectable moments in music history.
In a bid to get things back on track, McCartney recruited Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to steer the ship and help his solo career return to shore on George Martin’s recommendation. Godrich was initially hesitant to take on the project, stating: “My initial reaction was one of terror, not only because it’s a significant person, but I really wasn’t sure how willing he would be to get his hands dirty.” Godrich’s initial worries about working with the former Beatle were correct, and it took McCartney a while to adjust to his rigorous methods. However, the result was worth the pain when Chaos And Creation In The Backyard arrived in 2005.
McCartney divulged in an interview on the bonus edition of the eventual album: “I brought in some songs, and Nigel would just sort of say, ‘Well, I don’t really like that.’ And, you know, it was like, I thought, ‘Well, you know, had it been in another situation I might have got away with that, thought, well, I’m going to do it, simple as that,’ but with him, it was like, ‘Why don’t you like it?’ He said, ‘Well, look, that seems a bit corny, you’ve done better than that.’ And it was really quite cool, you know, and there was none of the sort of yes-man bit which is very easy in my position.”
It did take McCartney by surprise to be greeted by somebody like Godrich, who wasn’t going to bend down and worship him and his Beatles stardom. The producer treated him like he would do with any other band, which was a strange feeling for Macca, who has understandably gotten used to producers treating him like a pop God — after all, he is Paul McCartney. One of the first things that Godrich did to upset Macca was taking his tight-knit band out of the equation, a factor which stopped McCartney from having back-up and levelling out the power dynamics.
Speaking to NME, Macca admitted that he almost fired the producer after the constant criticism towards the songs he’d brought in. “I’ve produced a lot of records, been on a lot of Beatles records, records, on my own, I’ve had a lot of hits. He said, ‘I just want to make a great album, and for the album to be you’, Once we got in the studio, and we’re playing head to head on a couple of songs that I thought as good, and he didn’t, I thought of immediately firing him. I just thought, ‘I don’t have to take this’. But the point is, ‘This is why you’re working with him.’
“He’d be like ‘Look, I’ve got to tell you that I don’t like this’, and I said ‘What don’t you like about it?’. He’d say, ‘You’ve done better than that’. In the end, I started to value that more, it’s what I need. We kept the standard up that way, but we had our moments,” McCartney added.
Godrich later reflected on the progress they made as the sessions went on: “The third session, he came back and played me a song, and I was like, ‘Fucking hell, that’s so much better.’ That was At The Mercy. He said, ‘I think I’m remembering how to do this!’ Maybe he was expressing the concept of having to better what he’s doing because someone was going to look at him and say, ‘Not sure,’ rather than just blindly taking everything that he proffers.”
The album gained positive reviews almost across the board. More importantly, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard charted in the top 10 both in the US and the UK, which was a mighty success compared to Driving Rain. McCartney’s slot at Glastonbury in 2004 had also gone some way in reminding the public about his greatness.
The former Beatle didn’t need the stress that comes with working with a perfectionist like Godrich, and most people in his position would have fired him when he considered doing so. However, rather than taking the easy route, he rose to the challenge and proved that there was still plentiful life in him yet. In truth, Macca’s back catalogue means that he could put out the most unlistenable record of all time and could still sell-out any stadium in the world, but that’s not Macca. He remains a true artist, and his greatest source of personal pride still derives from creating records that he desperately wants to share with the world.