‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ was a single released by Paul McCartney in November 1987.
I’ve done some recording with Phil Ramone recently and this was something that came out of those sessions that we liked. The sentiment is ‘times remembered’: once upon a long ago… things were so much simpler then… It’s got some nice bits in it, I think it’s quite a haunting thing. I feel quite good about it.
Club Sandwich #47/48, Spring 1988
The single was issued two weeks ahead of the compilation All The Best!, on which it appeared. It was the only new song to appear on the album.
‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ was reportedly written for the 1987 film The Princess Bride. McCartney submitted the song and ‘Beautiful Night’, but both were rejected by director Rob Reiner.
In the context of this song, the idea of its not having to mean something was particularly liberating for me. I can make up a story. It takes next to nothing to get me off and running. So, ‘Picking up scales and broken chords’ refers again to why I never wanted to learn much, because it was ‘da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da’ – one five-finger exercise after another. I couldn’t stand that. Bored the hell out of me. It put me off learning notation. And with the ‘Puppy dog tails in the House of Lords’, the idea of there being a bunch of little boys in the House of Lords is what I’m getting at, since, if you recall, little boys are made of puppy dog tails. It’s a bit scathing, I know, but I think anything to do with the House of Lords can be a bit stupid.
A lot of the other images in the song are drawn from my childhood, back in the fields near our housing estate. That would be true of ‘Blowing balloons on a windy day’, whilst the image of ‘Desolate dunes with a lot to say’ is based on childhood memories of going to the seaside.
As for ‘Playing guitars on an empty stage’, I don’t have performance anxiety per se, but in dreams I do. They say all performers do. Actors arrive on a stage and are about to say their first line and they’ve no idea which play they’re in. They wake up in a cold sweat. I have dreams like that where I’m trying to stop the audience from leaving in droves.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
McCartney had wanted to record ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ as a duet with Freddie Mercury, but the Queen singer was unable to attend the recording sessions.
In the studio
‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ was recorded on 11 and 12 March 1987 at Hog Hill Mill studio, with McCartney performing most of the instruments. It was produced by Phil Ramone and mixed by George Martin.
The song was completed on 1 July at Abbey Road Studios, with the addition of orchestral instruments. The players included violinist Nigel Kennedy, saxophononist Stan Sulzmann, and flautist Adrian Brett.
Paul had heard me on a record I made playing Duke Ellington and Bartok. Apparently he asked George Martin if I was available… It was great fun to do. Paul’s contribution to music has been phenomenal, but he’s still got the appetite… It’s just art for art’s sake.
Club Sandwich #46, Winter 1987
Four different versions of ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ were released. One 12″ vinyl single contained ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ (Long Version), mixed by George George Martin, with the additional tracks ‘Back On My Feet’, ‘Midnight Special’, and ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’. The Long Version lasted 4:34.
The 7″ contained an edit of ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ (Long Version) lasting 4:12, plus ‘Back On My Feet’. The latter was the first released song from McCartney’s collaboration with Elvis Costello. A CD single contained both songs plus ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ and ‘Kansas City’.
The 7″ and CD singles were issued on 16 November 1987, with the 12″s following on 23 November. The song went top 10 in Belgium and the Netherlands, and became McCartney’s final UK top 10 until ‘FourFiveSeconds’ in 2015.
All The Best! was released on 2 November 1987. The UK and Canadian versions contained ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’, but the song was absent from the US version. This version contained a fade-out ending exclusive to the album.
‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ was included in 2002’s The 7″ Singles Box, the first time it had appeared on a compilation outside of the 1987 collection.
An 18-minute VHS tape was also released in 1987, and contained four music videos: ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’, ‘Stranglehold’, ‘Pretty Little Head’, and ‘We All Stand Together’.
Filming for ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ had begun on 16 October 1987, the day after a storm had hit the UK. It was shot in the Valley of Rocks, near Lynton in north Devon. The shoot continued for two days.
Appearing in the promo were Paul and Linda McCartney, saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, violinist Nigel Kennedy, and drummer Chris Whitten, plus actor Fred Evans as Man with Broom.
Strong winds had prevented outdoor scenes being filmed on 16 October, so the location was switched to Lynmouth town hall, although the footage was not used in the final cut. By the end of the morning the weather improved sufficiently to allow the shoot to be moved to the Valley of Rocks.
A ladder was rigged to enable McCartney to access the top of Castle Rock for a guitar solo scene. McCartney chose not to use a safety rope for the scene, but did ask the helicopter capturing overhead footage not to fly too close.
The band scenes were shot on day two, due to Nigel Kennedy being unavailable on the first day.