This really is like a short story. I’ve done that in the past, not always writing from a personal perspective. It’s good, because you use your imagination more, and that’s something I enjoy. I wrote about Eleanor Rigby, but I don’t know a woman who picks up rice in a church, and nor do I know anyone stranded in the transit lounge of an airport, as in ‘Only Mama Knows’. But I like to get into those imaginary stories, then follow them through and become that character. The lead character in this song is someone who was left by his mother, doesn’t know why she left him and doesn’t know if he’ll ever see his father’s face. It’s interesting because it takes you out of yourself. You can become an alter ego. It doesn’t have to be Paul McCartney singing it – it can be this other guy singing. It’s good to do; it lets you have another vocal approach, another emotional approach.
Mail On Sunday, 12 May 2008
A friend of mine was adopted when he was a baby. He and his brother were left at an orphanage. They were brought up in the orphanage and never knew their mother. He weathered the experience very well, but his brother struggled. I used this ‘true life story’ to create an imaginary situation that anchors the song. It’s a song written from the point of view of someone who’s been left behind. Someone who’s been abandoned.
My friend was with me when I wrote the song, just as he was with me when I recorded it. We talked openly about it. He would always wonder why his mother left him. He sort of knew what the story was, that she’d been knocked up by some guy who was just passing through. In those days there was a lot of shame – a woman wasn’t supposed to have babies if she wasn’t married – and then there was the sheer financial hardship of raising a child.
Here I’m psyching myself, in a way, into the position of the guy who got her pregnant. ‘I’m passing through, I’m on my way/I’m on the road, no ETA’. I like those two lines; they sum up a lot of what the touring life is like. ‘I’m passing through, no fixed abode’. In the song, it’s the kid who’s been left and now he’s passing through, he’s on his way. He’d acquired the same habits as his dad, so life is a constant cycle. Once I start writing about that, I obviously come to it from my own perspective. I’m just acknowledging that the kid whose mother left him has got more probnlems than the average person in life. The more I mature, the more I think we all have to hold on. Nobody knows exactly what we’re in for, but we’re all in it together.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
‘Only Mama Knows’ was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance at the 50th annual awards ceremony in 2008. It lost out to ‘Radio Nowhere’ by Bruce Springsteen.
The word ‘mama’ appears in a number of McCartney’s solo and Wings songs, from ‘That Would Be Something’, ‘Band On The Run’, ‘Mama’s Little Girl’, and ‘Hi, Hi, Hi’ to the 2012 Dave Grohl/Krist Novoselic collaboration ‘Cut Me Some Slack’.
Paul McCartney first performed ‘Only Mama Knows’ live during a show on 7 June 2007 at London’s Electric Ballroom.
It was performed several times again that year, including his show at LA’s Amoeba Music on 27 June. The 2007 EP Amoeba’s Secret and the full-length 2019 album Amoeba Gig contain the performances of ‘Only Mama Knows’.
Also released in 2007, the UK ‘Ever Present Past’ CD contained ‘Only Mama Knows’ and ‘Dance Tonight’ from the Amoeba show. The iTunes single package contained the live recordings of ‘Only Mama Knows’ and ‘That Was Me’.
On 17 January 2010 the UK newspaper The Mail On Sunday gave away a covermount CD in Britain and Ireland. Live In Los Angeles contained 12 tracks from the Amoeba show, including ‘Only Mama Knows’.
In 2008 McCartney performed the song at concerts in Tel Aviv in Israel, Quebec City in Canada, and Kyiv in Ukraine.
2009 saw 20 performances of ‘Only Mama Knows’, during McCartney’s Summer Live ’09 and Good Evening Europe tours. A performance from New York’s Citi Field is available on that year’s live album Good Evening New York City.
‘Only Mama Knows’ then disappeared from McCartney’s live set, although it was performed at a handful of soundchecks from in 2011-12 and 2015-2017.