The meaning of this song is more straightforward than some of my others. I like this idea that in life, generally, we’re always distracted from what we mean to do. This song is saying that life is what happens on your way to doing other things; it’s always in transit. I couched it, as I often do, in romantic terms: ‘What is this thing in life/That persuades me to spend/Time away from you?’ But I think it’s very true, not just romantically but with millions of things. Even when you meditate, as I do, other things are pushing their way into your head. You’re lucky if you ever get round to your mantra. Your head is just swirling with butterflies and, ‘Oh, what a good idea; I’ll do that,’ and it’s very hard to just be still and let a mantra simply roll around in your head. I think that’s the value of meditation. My mind is so active that it’s good to attempt to shut out all those little things that get in your way, trying to trip you up. Otherwise, as TS Eliot wrote, you end up being ‘distracted from distraction by distraction.’
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
McCartney first recorded a demo of ‘Distractions’ in August 1987, singing and playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano over a drum machine.
The final version was laid down on 6 May 1988 at McCartney’s East Sussex home studio, Hog Hill Mill.
The strings and clarinet were scored by Clare Fischer, a jazz musician and bandleader who had been a sought-after arranger since the 1970s. He had worked with Prince since 1985, despite the two men never meeting in person.
Fischer’s parts were overdubbed by unknown session players on 1 November 1988. The session took place at Los Angeles’ Mad Hatter Studios.
Sometimes I’ll realise that, having written a song, it lacks a certain pizzazz. I’d written ‘Distractions’ on guitar and could see it needed an arrangement to make it really take off. I’d heard one of Prince’s arrangements on Sign O’ The Times, his album of 1987, and saw that the arranger was someone called Clare Fischer; that was the only name. I assumed it was a very talented woman who had worked such magic for Prince…
So, with the help of my wife Linda – who was great at tracking people down – I arranged to meet Clare Fischer in LA, imagining that she’d be some up-and-coming young lady, to talk about the possibility of working together. But the person I’d taken to be a woman turned out to be a man, and a very ordinary-looking, middle-aged gentleman. I guess one should take nothing at face value! I talked to him about maybe having a wind quartet or something. I told him that my dad had attempted to play clarinet when we were kids, and he was always in the upstairs room squeaking away, because if you can’t play a clarinet they make an awful bloody noise. Partly because my dad played it – and was persuaded to drop it – I always had an affection for the rich and woody tone of the clarinet. So, we added it to the arrangement, going for more of a Benny Goodman feel than, say, Sidney Bechet.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
‘Distractions’ was a contender to be the third single from Flowers In The Dirt. A video contained a different mix from the album.
The single, however, was cancelled at a late date, and McCartney instead opted to release ‘Figure Of Eight’.