❉ The renowned producer and arranger tells We Are Cult about working with Percy Thrillington, aka Paul McCartney.
“I got a call from Paul asking if I’d do an orchestral version of his album Ram, which is a very good album. I did it just before Ram was released, but of course they didn’t release it for five or six more years after that… I knew they’re reissuing it on vinyl from reading about it on Facebook!”
“I did Long and Winding Road and I Me Mine for Let It Be” Richard Hewson explains. “Phil Spector was a bit of a weirdo, as you probably know, hanging around with gangsters and people like that. It wasn’t Paul McCartney’s idea, it was John Lennon’s, he got Allen Klein to get Phil Spector to clean up the album, shall we say. So, I was asked to do an arrangement, I started small, didn’t have a lot of time, and Spector rings saying “I want harps, I want more strings”. I had to write that middle bit, because originally it was just piano, he didn’t sing it, he sang it the first time round, but the second time Spector asked me to write something in there. So I did, and then there were more orchestras, Ringo was there on drums. And I thought it didn’t sound like a Beatles record, but of course it was a massive hit, Long and Winding Road, in America. Paul hated it and wouldn’t speak to me for ages. He eventually forgave me as we did more work together!”
McCartney’s resentment of Let It Be is infamous and well-documented, as he watched a bare bones rock record become overlaid with other effects he didn’t approve of. It was paramount in the power struggle within The Beatles and another reason why McCartney turned his back on the band he helped steer for a decade. McCartney’s dislike of the smothering symphonic arrangements would be rectified with the release of the Anthology and Let It Be … Naked albums of later years (which showed a rawer version of the song, as he originally envisioned), while his eponymous debut pertained to that rough and ready qualities he had perceived for The Beatles, complete with the much worthier Junk and Maybe I’m Amazed, than anything heard on The Beatles’ last release. And when he turned back to Hewson to work on another album, it was a mea culpa of the finest order.
“I got a call from Paul asking if I’d do an orchestral version of his album Ram, which is a very good album” Hewson says. “I did it just before Ram was released, but of course they didn’t release it for five or six more years after that. I got a letter, I don’t remember much about, but said something like Paul really wants to release the album and he likes it, or something like that. In fairness to Paul, I had a free hand and have always had a free hand when I work with him”.
Hewson’s work with McCartney goes back to 1968, when the fresh-faced bachelor Beatle had come across an extraordinary Welsh singer, whom he knew he had to produce. Paul McCartney, impressed and enchanted with the ethereal Celtic qualities of one Mary Hopkin, felt she needed something orchestral. Exploring something and someone new, he turned to the advice of his would be brother in law.
“When I went to Guildhall of Music, I knew Peter Asher. He and I were in a jazz trio, I was a total jazz head, knew nothing of pop music, I always thought Dusty Springfield was a cowboy- shows how much I knew! Anyway, Paul was going out with Jane Asher, Peter’s sister. While rehearsing at Peter’s house, I met Paul for the first time. So, Peter, who was working for Apple at the time, knew he was looking for someone and suggested me from college. I heard Mary Hopkin, must have been her and an acoustic guitar, and Paul gave me a free hand. And that was Those Were The Days”.
McCartney and Hewson worked well together on their various projects. The list of musicians who have grumbled about working with McCartney and the lack of free reign includes Henry McCullough (who likened playing in Wings to playing in a showband), Press To Play’s Carlos Alomar and Eric Stewart (the latter called Press To Play a low point) and, most famously, the other three members of The Beatles at various times. Hewson has had a different experience:
“I don’t know what it is, but Paul always trusted me, maybe he liked my stuff, but he always said, do your own thing. He asked me to do My Love with Wings, and again, didn’t make any comments. If you listen to My Love, I brought some jazz, there’s that saxophone bit at the beginning, a very long note, the “doo”, which the engineer nearly lost, playing Paul’s piano part at the beginning and we had to frantically get more tape. I was recently sent a photo from MPL of the session, with me looking at the ground, because I didn’t have a stand, they must have had hundreds, but I’m looking at the ground at the sheet of music, I must have had very good eyesight then. Denny Laine’s in the foreground, Paul’s not in it, Linda took the photo”.
Their best work was on Thrillington, a loose, elastic and fun orchestral remake of Ram. Highlights of the album include a seismic and stirring stringed rendition of Monkberry Moon Delight, a piccolo patterned Uncle Albert, a ramshackle and brassy Eat At Home and a cheerfully choral-led blossomed cover of Heart of The Country, all lovingly played with swing and rhythmic playing.
“As I said, I’m a jazz head” Hewson laughs. “I always get jazz people in. If it’s jazzy, that’s why. I haven’t heard the album in a long time, but I do remember the “doo be doo bees” on Heart Of The Country. The liner notes mixed those up. It said it was the Swingle Singers, it was some of the Swingle Singers with Mike Sammes, who was one of the busiest London choral guys of the time. So, it’s some of the Swingle Singers with some of the Mike Sammes singers performing. And Herbie Flowers is a jazz player, he lives outside Brighton, I see him playing with his band. He famously did the Walk On The Wild Side bass stuff”.
Released in 1977, McCartney concocted a persona to release the album under, the socialite Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington. He took out various ads in music papers to announce the album under this name and even hired a model in Ireland to pose as the ebullient Thrillington (this was scrapped). Hewson wasn’t so sold on the idea. “It’s a mystery that I’ve never quite figured out why he did it. I wasn’t totally for it. Maybe he felt it was a better way to show his crazy ideas, but if he’d released it as Paul McCartney Orchestral or something, it might have sold much better, because it didn’t sell very well, a lot of people didn’t know about it that I’ve spoken to. Some people knew, some people didn’t. They never tell me anything anyway, I knew they’re reissuing it on vinyl from reading about it on Facebook!”
McCartney would not admit to the album publicly until 1989, therefore the worthy orchestral companion to his excellent Ram was largely ignored.
Nevertheless, Hewson still speaks praises of his workmanship with McCartney, especially on this record which has gathered a small but dedicated following over the years. “I didn’t know it was so popular to be honest. I know Matt Hurwitz wrote a brilliant piece about it for GoodDay Sunshine, I don’t know if that’s still around. But besides that, I don’t think it was a very popular album, even though I agree with you that Ram is one of Paul’s best. But maybe now if they publicise it as Paul IS Thrillington, it might be more popular and it might sell better”.
❉ Recorded in 1972, ‘Thrillington’ was released on EMI’s Regal Zonophone label in 1973, and later issued on CD in 1995 and 2004. In 2012, ‘Thrillington’ was re-issued as part of the deluxe edition of ‘Ram’.
❉ ‘Thrillington’ was recently re-issued on CD, vinyl, and limited edition coloured vinyl (Universal Music, 6737226). Click here to buy from Banquet Records.