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Music

The Story Behind The Song: Paul McCartney's giddily inventive tune 'Heather'

Genius is an over-used adjective in the realm of pop, but Paul McCartney is more than deserving of this praise. Even when he doesn’t mean to write songs, he ends up doing so. In one revelatory moment during the Get Back series, McCartney is found writing the chords to a rocker that will serve as the band’s next single. At the same time, Ringo Starr is caught yawning, but this is par for the course for him. 

Dustin Hoffman has a similar anecdote. Intrigued by the composer’s boast that he could write about anything, Hoffman took him as his words and urged the bassist to write about the death of Pablo Picasso. McCartney accepted the challenge, and came up with the hook that would become Band on the Run standout, ‘Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)’. 

We could go on and on, but we’ll leave it with just one more, this time from 10cc keyboardist, Eric Stewart. Tasked by Linda McCartney to work with her husband on 1986 record, Press to Play, the 10cc frontman was stunned to see that McCartney could write a tune about the weather surrounding them. “You’ve probably heard this story,” Stewart revealed to Culture Sonar. “I went to his place telling him how beautiful it was walking through three feet of snow with the sun shining. He started singing ‘it’s beautiful outside’ which became ‘Footprints.’ An amazing experience for me”.

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McCartney is innately gifted, and yet it never ceases to amaze people that he is so talented. Added to those bewitched by his talents was Heather Mills, McCartney’s second wife, who found her partner stretched out over a piano. Like Hoffman and Stewart, Mills was stunned by this ability to write without setting out to do so. 

Gallantly, the bassist decided to name the tune after his wife. In an interview in 2001, he explained the impetus for the piece: “‘Heather’ – there’s a funny story about this track. It actually came about early one morning. I’d got up and was just jamming on the piano and Heather, who doesn’t know all of The Beatles songs because she’s young, said ‘That’s great – which Beatles song is that?’ I said ‘It’s not, I’m just making it up. And she’s like ‘What? Now? Making it up now?’ Yeah. Suddenly she’s saying ‘Get it down! You’ve got to get that down, get it on a tape, now!’ I’m saying ‘No, it’s OK, I’m just noodling’, but she’s insisting ‘get it down!’, so we found a little dictaphone and played it into that. And then she said ‘By the way, what’s it called?’ ‘Oh’, I said, ‘It’s called ‘Heather.’”

‘Heather’ is a bouncy piano piece, high on energy and confection. Bolstered by an infectious hook, the song wears its commercial sensibilities with great pride, and the bassist scats over the cascading piano line, searching for the words that can do her justice. That it takes him more than two minutes to come up with the words shows how serious he was, and by the time he happens upon them, he decides that she is “the queen of my heart”. 

Heather Mills stands aloft between two more significant women, the first the mother of Paul’s three children, the third (Nancy Shevell) is said to be the woman who will live with him until the end of his days. Posterity has offered Mills the role of the harlot, the woman who lunged herself on a wealthy widower, before walking away with a hefty £24.3millon payout for her troubles. 

Six years of love should never be tossed away, no matter the price-figurative or literal, it held on the couple. Together, McCartney and Mills bore a child, Beatrice, a point both parents were happy to highlight after their divorce. One only needs to listen to the Driving Rain album to see the effect Mills had on McCartney. Soaked in laughter, it’s a much easier record to sit through, compared to the melancholy of Flaming Pie, recorded concurrently with Linda’s cancer. 

If there is a sadness to be heard on Driving Rain, it was buried underneath the cascading guitar hooks, indelible piano riffs, and general bonhomie. McCartney waved off dissenters with the telling ‘Gratitude’, a heartfelt number cut in 2007, as he came to terms with his status as a soon-to-be-divorced man. 

For all the sadness she might have endured since leaving McCartney, Mills can be proud of the role she played from 2000 to 2006. She re-captured his creative muse and offered him the chance to write freely again. If nothing else, she helped him understand how important his gift was, at a time when he desperately needed someone to. More happily, ‘Heather’ offers a snapshot of an ageing man, falling giddily in love, both with the woman who bore his child, and the compositional gift that enriched his life, as well as the world around him.

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