How Paul McCartney Began Building His Next Era on ‘Driving Rain’
After the 1998 death of Linda McCartney, Paul McCartney took some time off to grieve for the loss of his wife of nearly 30 years. And when he returned to music, the former Beatles star became immensely productive, culminating in the release of Driving Rain on Nov. 12, 2001.
Between 1999 and 2000, he put out his third classical album (Working Classical), collaborated on an experimental work (Liverpool Sound Collage) and bashed out a record of mostly old rock ’n’ roll tunes (Run Devil Run). The raw approach that McCartney took for that album helped shape his concept for his next release of original material.
When planning his new record in 2001, McCartney told producer David Kahne that he wanted to simplify the recording process. Instead of obsessing over demos, he envisioned a plan that hearkened back to the way he had worked within the Beatles in the mid-’60s.
“John [Lennon] and I came in on Monday morning and we’d show George [Harrison] and Ringo [Starr] what the song was,” McCartney recalled to Reader’s Digest. “I suddenly realized – the guys didn’t know what song we were bringing in – so that’s really ‘fresh.’ George Martin didn’t know, the engineer didn’t know. … There was no time to run it through. But we didn’t need to. … So I said to David Kahne, ‘Let’s do it the same way.’”
The producer hired three American musicians to join Paul for the Los Angeles sessions, each of whom had never met the rock legend before the first day in the studio. But the players (guitarist Rusty Anderson, drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and keyboardist Gabe Dixon) appeared to gel instantly, laying down almost the entire album in two weeks. The nature of the sessions produced some of the rawest McCartney material in decades, from opener “Lonely Road” to the extended jam “Rinse the Raindrops.”
Listen to Paul McCartney Perform 'Magic'
Many of the songs that McCartney brought to the sessions were influenced by his personal life. The year before, Paul met and fell in love with Heather Mills, whom he’d marry in 2002. Mills got a track named after her (“Heather”) and was also the inspiration for some of the album’s love songs, including the earnest piano ballad “Your Loving Flame.” The gritty “About You” also was about McCartney’s new lover, written in thanks for helping him move on after the death of his wife.
But Linda was still on McCartney’s mind, too. He pleaded “let me love again” on “From a Lover to a Friend” and wrote his memories of his late wife on the Beatlesque ballad “Magic.”
“'Magic' was about the first night I met Linda,” McCartney said in a 2001 TV interview. “And I used to say to my kids… ‘If I hadn’t stood up when Linda was leaving … which is something I didn’t normally do. I tried to play it cool, but I liked the look of this girl.’ You know, I said, ‘hey….’ And if I hadn’t have done that, I said to the kids, ‘we wouldn’t have gotten married, you wouldn’t have been here.’ So it’s a very important night, and a very important moment in my life.”
After the recording sessions were complete, Paul was inspired by real-world events yet again. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, McCartney was sitting in a plane on the tarmac at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, watching the terrorist attacks unfold. In support of the first responders, he helped organize the all-star Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden on October 20, at which he performed his new song “Freedom.”
Listen to Paul McCartney Perform 'Spinning on an Axis'
“The thing that occurred to me was that [the media] kept saying it was an attack on our freedom, the way we live. … And Heather suggested to me that it might be a good idea to try and write a song about freedom,” McCartney said. “I thought it’d be nice to write a song from the perspective of someone who wants to say, ‘Don’t mess with my freedom’.”
McCartney held back the pressing of the new album in order to include “Freedom,” appearing as a hidden track (because the artwork had already been produced) that meshed the live version, with a guitar solo by Eric Clapton, with a studio rendition. The song was put out as a charity single, just before the release of Driving Rain.
Although the record received mostly positive write-ups from critics, it wasn’t one of McCartney’s most successful releases. In the U.K., it performed surprisingly poorly, becoming the artist’s lowest-charting (No. 46) LP of original pop music in his career. (Most of McCartney’s albums, before and since, have landed in the Top 10). It did slightly better in the U.S., rising to No. 26 on the Billboard chart and going platinum, which might have been aided by Paul’s decision to promote the CD on tour in 2002.
Given the album’s middling commercial reception, the songs about Mills (whom he divorced in 2008) and how poorly “Freedom” has aged, McCartney stopped playing songs from Driving Rain in concert years ago. However, the album did give him two key members of his touring band. Anderson and Laboriel have been with McCartney ever since.
Rock's 100 Most Underrated Albums
Odd Couples: Paul McCartney and Kanye West