For Whom The Bell Tells: Japan 2017
Tokyo – Sunday, April 30
I’m standing in a bar on the 24th floor of a hotel in Tokyo’s trendy Ginza district at an after-show get together, just hours after watching Paul play his final show to round off an incredible week in Japan. The view of the city from up here is stunning. What’s more, I’m in the enviable and slightly surreal position of chewing the fat (vegetarian, naturally) with the man himself as he reviews the latest run of gigs in his ongoing 'One On One' tour, his first live dates of 2017. Paul is happy, relaxed and looking dapper in a navy blue suit and it is sometimes a bit of a pinch-yourself moment to get your head round the idea that this is the same guy who was creating life-long memories for 50,000 people.
Our chat is punctuated pleasantly with crew members, friends and family congratulating Paul on his show tonight and showing him pictures on their mobile phones from the concert – in particular, a surprise which was laid on for him by the audience. Every night is a special night at a McCartney performance, but this was one was exceptional because the fans went the extra mile by coordinating 50,000 blue (there is a 'One On One' shade) glow-sticks between them to surprise their hero at the end of the set, as well as projecting messages on the ceiling of the Tokyo Dome for Paul (and everyone in the auditorium) to read. Surprise him, they did. And Paul was visibly moved by the experience.
“It’s like night and day,” he reflects, considering the differences in audiences he has encountered in Japan since his first visit in 1965. Pausing to take a well-earned sip from a margarita, he continues: "Japanese people are very polite and that’s a great thing, but in a rock and roll audience that was always too polite. We thought we weren’t going down very well. At the end of the song there would be this great reception but it would tend to be this polite applause – there was a lot of it, it was great and they did love us, but it was not what we were used to... It was a little bit strange for us. But over the years they’ve got better and better and better, and really gone to party. So, from then to now, I think it’s just the best ever.”
The audience were on their feet for the entire night, which is a big deal here. Crew members who first came here with Paul in the early noughties notice the remarkable difference. Security chief Mark Hamilton tells me that, back then, he could see the fans wanted to get on their feet but were unsure of the protocol. It wouldn’t be until the end of the set that they would all be standing. Well, in 2017, the audience have it sussed and there is no such reserve!
The massive projections on the Dome’s ceiling during the encore read "Thank you Paul", "Japan loves you", "Arigato Paul" and "Please come back". I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch of the imagination to think he will be mulling over another visit because it’s been a week full of high emotions. From his incredible arrival a week ago, through the constant attentions of fans camped outside the hotel and lining the streets around venues, it’s been an incredible adventure.
“Hasn’t it been fun?” he says with a warm, sincere look in his eyes. Clearly moved by his seven days in Tokyo I start rolling back time to think about the moment Paul arrived a week ago…
Tokyo – Sunday, April 23
“Hi Japan, I'm back," Paul announces as a scene of hysteria unfolds at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport. It’s 7.46pm and this is the pay-off for the thousands of fans who have been waiting all day to celebrate the return of their much loved idol. Standing in the arrivals area in front of the assembled (and, it must be noted, very orderly) scrum of photographers and video cameras, Paul beams. He is clearly as delighted to be here as his fans are to see him. Two years since he touched down in Osaka on the 'Out There' tour, the appetite for McCartney is as strong, if not stronger, than ever. People are screaming and crying, doing all they can in the hope of some direct interaction – and they are not to be let down.
“They Want To Hold Your Hand,” reports the Daily Mail back in the UK, noting that Paul is grabbed by an “overzealous fan … while the star remained perfectly put together, the security unit were quick to jump in to ensure the star remained unharmed”.
Since announcing he would be returning, during the annual New Year’s Eve TV show 'Kohaku Uta Gassen' on broadcaster NHK, four months ago, the fans have been gearing themselves up for this moment.
“Looking cool in a black jacket and sunglasses, waving and blowing kisses to the fans, taking time to high-five some of the incredibly enthusiastic crowd of nearly a thousand ahead of his huge Tokyo shows, McCartney’s arrival is a huge national event” – these aren’t my words but those of Japan’s largest daily newspaper the following morning, and I couldn’t have summed it up any better.
I get the feeling Paul would happily have hung out longer at the airport, but the security team were pretty keen to keep him moving. I’m absolutely buzzing at this experience and I can only imagine what it must feel like for Paul to have such adulation and prompt these scenes. As he is shuffled along into a private corridor leaving the crowds behind Paul, rather overwhelmed by the welcome can only muster: “Oh my goodness, me!”
It only takes a few minutes for video clips of his arrival to be shared on social media, and then the evening news bulletins. Some fans even live-streamed the entire experience. As Paul is travelling to the hotel from the airport he gets to see the huge 'One On One' promo truck, with massive video screens and speakers, that’s been driving round the city in anticipation of his arrival. Huge posters are pasted across tall buildings heralding Paul’s return. A delightful welcome to begin a jaunt that will see him complete his 30th solo show in Japan, as well as breaking a record for the most Tokyo Dome performances of this century by an international artist (and all that just on four visits!).
“Hi Japan, I’m Back,” is the headline on many of the front pages which carry news of his latest visit. And as I channel hop in my hotel room a little later I see Paul’s arrival is a big topic of discussion on the breakfast news shows.
Tokyo – Sunday, April 30
So, back to the present and one of the party asks Paul if he prefers the smaller-scale setting of The Budokan to the enormity of The Dome.
“I loved both,” he answers without even having to think about it. “It’s great to do the big Dome thing because we can fit the full production in, but it’s also great at The Budokan because it’s something different. It feels more intimate, even though actually it is quite a big hall, but, you know, we like to play all different kind of places.”
This variety is certainly how Paul wound up his live work in 2016. Going from the huge 'Desert Trip' in California into a tiny little bar-club called Pappy & Harriet’s in the old western movie-set settlement of Pioneertown, close to the Joshua Tree National Park (the one name-checked by U2). There was also the tipi gig last summer, which formed a huge contrast to his headline-grabbing festival slots across Europe. He always seems equally at home in either setting, and thrives on the mix.
Continuing on his Budokan theme, Paul adds: “It’s a very exciting venue and it has many memories from two years ago – and then the original memories from when The Beatles first played there.” And it was only this week that Paul added another special Budokan memory to his collection.
Although the venue is much more modest than the mega Tokyo Dome, it’s still an impressive size audience. Many acts would see it as a career peak to play just one night at The Budokan, but in comparison with the enormo-Dome, this is (like Paul says) “intimate” and in terms of production, it was a slimmed down McCartney show. No huge screens or impressive video content that usually accompanies the full show. The result is even more of a focus on the music.
A curious member of the team asks what it was like first time round. “When we first came to Japan we didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know anything about the culture of Japan, and so it was very different from what we were expecting,” Paul explains. “It was very beautiful, it was very unusual for us. Where we come from, no woman would have got up to give her seat to a man, and we thought that was crazy. We tried to tell our girlfriends back in England to see if it was a good idea, but they didn’t think it was! But it was great, we had a great time. The whole thing was interesting because, as you know, it [The Budokan] was originally just for sumo and martial arts, and there were one or two people who were a bit annoyed that we were playing Budokan because they thought that you shouldn’t play rock and roll in there. But we did it, we enjoyed it and the audience enjoyed it so the tradition of rock and roll has carried on and I have all of those memories – it’s lovely.”
On that historic first visit The Beatles played five concerts and performed 53 songs to about 43,000 people. Yet in the last week alone, Paul has played four concerts, performing a total of 148 songs to over 170,000 people! For the record, 'I Wanna Be Your Man' and 'Yesterday' were the only two songs that featured on both setlists. In fact Paul’s soundchecks this week were actually longer than those Beatles concerts in 1966. That initial trip inspired a generation of Japanese music fans, sweeping the youth off their feet – and many are still present at the shows in 2017, although this time alongside three or four different generations. It’s been possible this week to see how Paul continues to touch people through song and unite audiences of all different backgrounds. For all of the shows this week Paul, the band and the audiences have been fully immersed in the experience together and it has been magical.
Paul notices that the Japanese promoter and his crew have arrived in the rooms so he heads over to chat and thank them for their help. Clearly a small gesture has a massive reaction. They are quick to tell me a little later that they work with some huge acts but rarely do they have such a warm encounter with the artist. But I have seen enough of these moments over the years to know that meeting Paul is not quite like meeting most musicians. A brief wander into his orbit is enough for most people to dine out on for the rest of their lives.
Asked by a member of the Japanese team about his week, Paul replies:"It’s been fantastic. Really, from the arrival to this last night, I’ve had a great time, we’ve been lucky with the weather, the fans have been just supercharged – they are just better than ever. The concerts have been knockout, starting with The Budokan. I’ve enjoyed learning Japanese phrases – I never knew how to say ‘Beatles’ but now I do, so it’s been a great laugh. It’s great fun and it’s been great playing the music to all these lovely people.”
And it’s fair to say that, in return, the “lovely people” who have flocked to Tokyo have had a brilliant time too. The mania which follows him, the amazing reviews (“Paul sings his socks off" and “an energetic master-class of a performance that underlined his enthusiasm for playing live and showed that his exercise regime and vegetarian diet have stood him in good stead” and “another legendary performance” among them, although my favourite headline has been “Paul is God"!) are all very clear signs of this. Paul has given it his all at the shows and the audience has responded in kind. And the massive appreciation has been displayed for not only the songs, the music and the performance but the effort to which Paul has gone to be able to communicate – taking translation sessions before each concert.
“He’s really got a great ear for languages,” one of the translators tells me coming out of his dressing room ahead of one of the Dome shows. So as I head into the dressing room straight afterwards I expect to see Paul studiously poring away over a text book or studiously practising his pronunciation, but instead I find him chilling out watching ABC’s 'Match Game', hosted by Alec Baldwin! So if you ever wondered how a megastar prepares for an epic performance… now you know.
Paul is now chatting with his band and telling them about the Q&A he did earlier in the week on Japanese social media platform LINE (which is massive in Japan, like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter all rolled into one). Upon Paul’s arrival in the country it was announced he would be taking fans questions and within moments the platform received over 150,000! Understandably he didn’t have the time to answer all of them so he selected a few to answer at random from a golden box, touching on a range of topics – being back in Japan, Sgt Pepper’s 50th anniversary, new album news, recommendations of places to visit in Liverpool and more. You can watch his answers HERE!
And with that, Mike Walley (Paul’s travel director) courteously reminds him that he has to head off to catch his plane back to London. Paul takes time to say his farewells to the band, friends and crew – and then, he’s off...
I head to get a drink and take a seat with some of the team. Although everyone is tired from a long and busy week we are all still buzzing and it’s going to be hard to sleep tonight. So we start sharing our own personal memories and highlights from another week of being present as fresh history is forged. Japan seems (and is) so far from home, and in many ways like an entirely different world. And yet the fact that he means so much to people in this otherworldly place really drives home Paul’s international appeal – it crosses cultural and language differences to mean as much to people all over the globe as he does at home.
To us this trip has felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each adventure with Paul brings something new and although we are sad to be leaving this incredible week behind us, we know there is a plenty of further excitement in store for the rest of 2017.