Seeing McCartney Up Close at the Garden Remains a Thrilling Memory

Beatlefan Publisher Bill King looks back at Paul’s 1989 return to touring. …

Robbie McIntosh was lead guitarist in Paul McCartney’s 1989-90 tour band. (MPL)

As I write this, I’ve spent the evening trading memories with my brother Tim and my buddy Al Sussman about where we were 30 years ago Wednesday night.

Unlike most dates three decades in the past, Dec. 11, 1989, is easy to recall, because we were attending the first New York City show of Paul McCartney’s first world tour in 13 years.

Paul had opened his first post-Wings tour in late September in Norway, and a mini-leg in North America, stretching from Nov. 23 to Dec. 15, saw him doing 14 shows in Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and NYC.

Macca opened a four-show stand at the Garden on Dec. 11, 1989.

Macca, who was 47 at the time, was backed by a band that included lead guitarist Robbie McIntosh (formerly of The Pretenders), guitarist-bassist Hamish Stuart (of Average White Band), drummer Chris Whitten (who later toured with Dire Straits), keyboard wiz Paul “Wix” Wickens (still a mainstay of Paul’s shows 30 years later) and wife Linda, also on keyboards (usually introduced by her husband as “Gertrude Higgins!”).

Ostensibly, the tour was to promote McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt” album, though it didn’t get underway until several months after the LP had been issued. And, most of the buzz about the tour concerned him leaving behind his Wings era reluctance to do Beatles songs. Eighteen of the 32 songs Paul did at the Garden were from his Fab Four days.

After a relatively quiet 1980s, the Paul McCartney World Tour was quite the “comeback” for Macca. It also set a new standard for major-act tours. As Beatlefan Senior Editor Brad Hundt, who saw Paul in Chicago in early December, recalled, “He sure pulled out all the stops with that tour — the free programs, the opening film, the press conferences in almost every market. And, while we take it for granted now that he plays lots of Beatles songs, it’s easy to forget what a thrill it was that half the show consisted of Beatles songs. Plus, he brought back the Hofner bass!”

In fact, the Hofner, which Paul had not played in concert since The Beatles, took on positively iconic status in the 1989-90 show.

Concertgoers were given a free tour program on the Paul McCartney World Tour.

Looking back from today, when touring acts seem determined to pry every last dime from concertgoers’ pockets, those attending the 1989-90 McCartney tour were greeted by a lavish, free 100-page program waiting in their seats. And Paul used the tour as a way to spread a pro-ecology message, as the group Friends of the Earth was on hand at all the stops.

Oh, and tickets to the New York shows were just $28.50, no matter where you sat. The Garden’s 18,000 seats per concert (with no seats sold behind the stage) were all snapped up in hours. We managed to get upper level seats (what Al called “blue heaven”) for the Dec. 14 show through the public sale, but those also were the days when McCartney took special care of his fans, and so it was through the Fun Club that we obtained seats on the floor for the Dec. 11 concert.

I recall there was some problem (with the show setup) that prevented us from sitting in our original Fun Club seats that first night, so they moved us forward to even better seats! We ended up on about the fifth or sixth row, center.

Considering that, up to that time, I’d only seen Paul in concert twice (with Wings) in Atlanta, and we’d had seats so far from the stage that we had to use binoculars, the up-close Fun Club seats made that first 1989 show I saw something special.

While I think the show and the band improved markedly over the ensuing eight months of the world tour, the thrill of that first night would still rank it among my top two or three shows.

I knew Macca had a winner midway through the first show when I glanced to my left and saw my brother up on his feet, waving his fists above his head and shouting himself hoarse. He’d come with me really just for a holiday in New York, with the McCartney concerts a nice bonus for him. (We’d come up from Atlanta a couple of days earlier and soaked in Christmas season in the Big Apple.)

After the concert, though, Tim, who was just a casual Beatles-McCartney fan, offered this unsolicited opinion: “That was a terrific show!”

The preshow film put together by Dick Lester of “A Hard Day’s Night” fame wasn’t all that great — it was mainly a quick retrospective of Paul’s Beatles and solo years,  winding up with 1989 with footage of the spring rebellion in China (footage of a lone student facing off with a tank drew cheers) and the aftermath of the Valdez oil spill. Then, as a synthesizer started droning, the word “NOW” appeared, and the screens filled with footage of the band wearing their dark military-style tour jackets (embroidered with the tour’s end-of-the-Cold-War flower-and-sickle emblem) as the actual band members appeared from stage right.

The set list for the 1989 Garden shows went like this: “Figure of Eight,” “Jet,” “Rough Ride,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Band on the Run,” “Ebony and Ivory” (with Stuart doing the Stevie Wonder parts), “We Got Married,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “The Fool on the Hill,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (with Reprise),” “Good Day Sunshine,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Put It There,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “Things We Said Today,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “This One,” “My Brave Face,” “Back in the USSR,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Coming Up,” “Let It Be,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Live and Let Die,” “Hey Jude,” and, for the encore: “Yesterday,” “Get Back” and the “Abbey Road” medley of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End” (possibly the most perfect concert-ending song ever).

Although critics were puzzled by McCartney’s decision to open the show with a song from the “Flowers” album that most of those in attendance didn’t know, instead of opting for one of his classics, I thought it was an incredibly ballsy move. Hardcore fans could appreciate what a fine number “Figure of Eight” was, and even my brother, who’d never heard it before seeing it in concert, commented on how much he liked the song.

Of the “Flowers” numbers performed on the tour, the one most improved from the album version was “We Got Married.” The playing and staging were first-rate, and the song benefitted from the harder edge it got in concert. McIntosh did a superb job on the lead guitar solos, as he did throughout every show I saw. It’s noteworthy that, while Stuart and McIntosh both wore the now-standard wireless guitar hookups, then coming into vogue, Macca was still plugged into his amp with an old-fashioned cord!

The 1989 band: Paul “Wix” Wickens, Chris Whitten, Linda and Paul McCartney, Robbie McIntosh and Hamish Stuart.

A humorous new wrinkle added the first night at the Garden (and repeated the next night) had Macca and Hamish huddling at one end of the stage while Robbie was playing his guitar solo in “We Got Married” at the other end. Suddenly, they ran together across the stage, sliding to a halt on their knees at McIntosh’s feet, and McCartney gingerly reached up in mock awe and touched the guitarist on the sleeve.

In general, the 1989-90 band could run rings around any of the Wings lineups, and the addition of keyboard wizard Wix made the group much more versatile.

I think the fact that McCartney obviously enjoyed playing with this band enhanced the audience’s enjoyment. The horseplay of the guitarists and the silly grins and jokes exchanged by Macca and Stuart as they shared a mic contributed a feeling of unity, and an intimacy, to the presentation.

Despite McCartney’s often corny introductions, it was a well-staged show. Some might have thought the rising piano in “Fool on the Hill” to be a bit of cheap stagecraft, but, truth be told, it’s the same as a line of dancers kicking in unison, or an ice-skater doing a spin  — an unnecessary frill that nevertheless is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.

I was amused that one of the NYC critics reviewing that first Garden show complained about the bringing up of the house lights during “Can’t Buy Me Love.” He obviously didn’t understand what was going on between McCartney and his audience — the singalong of that tune provided an unabashedly joyous moment of nostalgia. And, if much of the evening was about sharing warm memories, that moment when we could all see each other dancing and singing along had to be the pinnacle.

At the show’s end, someone up front gave McCartney a dozen roses, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a guitar pick, which he gave to them in return. Whitten came out and threw four drumsticks to the crowd. McCartney headed offstage, then stopped, and, as an afterthought, looked around for something else to give away, grabbed one of his towels, and threw it into the audience.

We later learned that Dick Lester was backstage before the Dec. 11 show, which was preceded by a charity dinner. The charity crowd also attended the show, and those folks were obvious on the floor, resplendent in their furs and suits. Among the big names said to be in attendance: Robin Williams, Patty Hearst, Ralph Lauren, Glen Close, Jane Pauley, James Taylor and Paul Stanley. Also, Paul and Linda’s kids Mary, Stella and James were there.

The next day, I attended Macca’s New York press conference, where he said that, because of the charity crowd, he felt he had to work harder that first night.

Paul McCartney did four shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December, 1989.

We were back at the Garden three nights after the first performance, and it was still a good show, though the severe angle of our view of the stage, and the fact that we were sitting in the rafters, did diminish the thrill just a bit.

I think it was after that second show that Tim and I decided to walk back from the Garden to our hotel (at 50th and Lexington). At first, there were lots of people walking with us, but gradually the crowd grew thinner and thinner, until we were about the only ones on the street. It was after midnight, starting to snow, and we were regretting our decision to walk. Luckily, a taxi came down a side street just then, and we hailed it and took it back!

The Paul McCartney World Tour would continue until mid-1990, encompassing 104 concerts in 13 countries. I saw 11 shows on that tour, starting with the two at Madison Square Garden and winding up at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh in July. In between, I also saw Paul perform in London, Atlanta, Miami and Philly.

I think one of the most impressive things about the 1989-90 tour was that Macca and his band put on a show that you could see time after time and not get tired of, despite a song list that changed little, and McCartney’s rather canned stage patter, which varied hardly a word from one night to another.

Of course, hardcore fans can be expected to see show after show without losing their enthusiasm, but even Tim seemed to enjoy his fourth concert on that tour as much as he did his first.

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1 Response to Seeing McCartney Up Close at the Garden Remains a Thrilling Memory

  1. Garry Wilbur says:

    I recall seeing Paul at MSG on the evening of Dec 14th. It was only the third time up to that point I’d seen him live, (the first being the Wings Over America tour, also at MSG, in May 1976) . In December of ‘89, my wife was 4 months pregnant with our first child and we both joked about the baby listening to the music and becoming a Macca fan already. Loved the show! It was great hearing the songs from ‘Flowers..’. Since I enjoyed that album, it didn’t bother me one bit that he opened with ‘Figure of 8’. I too was a member of the Fun Club and was invited to the previous summer’s rehearsal show at the Lyceum theater . Can’t believe it’s been 30 years.

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