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Why Thom Yorke turned down working with Paul McCartney


Paul McCartney has never been an artist that has shied away from collaboration. If there’s somebody brave enough to ask him to work together and, of course, their creative calibre stands up, then there’s a good chance he will oblige. Even McCartney would likely admit that his magic touch sometimes isn’t enough to make every collaboration a success. Despite the occasional misstep, given the former Beatle’s credentials, surely there is nobody who could say no to McCartney? Well, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke did precisely that.

Macca has always been open-minded when it comes to the creative process, a factor which has landed him in the studio with an array of artists from different eras regularly. Many of his past collaborators grew up listening to McCartney’s music and, quite often, couldn’t quite believe their wish to spend time in the studio with the bonafide legend had come true. However, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke somehow said no, the collaboration has got to feel right to get him on board, even if Paul McCartney is the one doing the asking.

In 2012, McCartney recalled to NME: “[My daughter] keeps saying to me, ‘Ring Thom and just go into the studio and just see what you come out with. I’m a bit sort of paranoid to just ring him up. ‘Hey Thom, it’s Paul here. What do you fancy, what are you doing? Do you fancy writing something?’ Just in case he says, ‘Er, actually I’m busy’.”

McCartney was uncharacteristically nervous about contacting Thom Yorke to collaborate in 2012 after being stung by the singer before and couldn’t bring himself to be shot down once more. Several years earlier in 2006, the Beatle had asked the Radiohead frontman to appear on the track ‘Mr Bellamy’, which featured on the album, Memory Almost Full.

Speaking to the Observer shortly after, Yorke provided a somewhat unconvincing response as to why he turned down working with McCartney that flattered to deceive. “Uhh, ’cause I can’t play the piano,” he said defensively. “Not like that. I had to explain to him that, I listened to the tune – ‘Mr Bellamy’ – and I really liked the song, but the piano playing involved two hands doing things separately. I don’t have that skill available. I said to him, ‘I strum piano, that’s it.'”

However, there may have been another reason. It appears Yorke had told Paul McCartney that he didn’t feel comfortable about performing on other people’s material, according to what Macca told T4 in 2007: “My daughter was putting an album together, and she put us in touch. I asked Thom to do a duet, but he said he couldn’t because he only felt happy working on his own and Radiohead’s material.”

There is also the possibility that perhaps Yorke didn’t think much to the track, it’s hardly a McCartney masterclass, and it does sound as if it could do with a helping hand from the Radiohead frontman. He’s an expert in manipulating a sonic landscape while the former Beatle more often than not attempts to swim in on the track, luxuriate in the act. On reflection, it’s a clash of cultures that may have always been destined to fail.

Yorke has most recently worked with Flying Lotus, MF Doom, PJ Harvey and lent his talents to an array of artists over the years, which makes his defence of only being happy working on his own material seem somewhat redundant. However, how do you tell arguably the greatest songwriter of all time that you don’t dig the track that he has graciously asked you to appear on? It’s an impossible task, and one can’t blame Yorke for seemingly choose to let him down gently.