‘Don’t get into anyone’s car. Don’t talk to strangers.’ This song was written when, as parents, Linda and I seemed to spend a lot of time doling out the kind of advice that parents are always giving children.
The protagonist of the song sounds very much like me talking to my kids, advising them to stay safe and not to get into any scrapes. You want them to grow up healthy and have their adventures, but you don’t want them doing dangerous stuff, because you don’t want to lose them. Heather would have been about seventeen when this was written, and that’s always an interesting time to be a parent. Mary would have been about ten, so not quite a teenager, but on the cusp and wanting more independence. Stella and James would still have been pretty young, about eight and two, so mostly doing as they were told. But then, like many of my songs, it just wanders where it fancies, and it becomes a bit more of a love song.
While most of McCartney II was improvised in the studio, for ‘Waterfalls’ he resurrected an old song in an attempt to revitalise the recording sessions.
‘Waterfalls’ could have been called ‘I Need Love’ but that would have been too ordinary. I just had this waterfalls and lakes idea, from the notices you see in American tourist resorts, and it stuck.
Halfway through the album, making it all up as I went along, I got a bit bored. I had finished about eight tracks by then and I thought I would do something different. So I decided to do a song that was already written, a track left over from the last Wings album, and that was my favourite at the time. That’s why it’s included.
McCartney ended up retaining the working lyrics for the song, despite having initial misgivings over their quality.
The original lyrics were just working lyrics, gut lyrics, just spewed out. I thought I’d have to get serious and sensible and change them. Lyrics like that I don’t trust. But in time, I got to like them and I thought I should add electric piano and a distant string synthesiser like a mad Swiss orchestra on a mountaintop. And it worked! A lot of people have rung up about that one and said that it’s their favourite. So when you get such a good feeling, you think that perhaps it should be a single.
‘Waterfalls’ was recorded initially with vocals and electric piano, and a synthesiser string part was subsequently overdubbed. The simple arrangement reflected the contemplative nature of the song’s lyrics, although McCartney later revealed that he felt it underproduced. He cited ‘Waterfalls’, along with ‘Every Night’ from the McCartney album, as one of the songs he would remake were he to revisit any from his past.
I think the waterfall idea came to me when I was on holiday in the US with my family. It was a song that I had started working on when I was still in Wings, but then it ended up on my solo record, McCartney II. In fact, it was the only song on that record that wasn’t made up during the recording sessions. I think I left it off the Wings album because I wasn’t happy with the lyrics; they had just spewed out and I thought I would probably change them. But then, in time, I got to like them as they were. So I stripped it right down, kept it simple, and it became one of my favourite songs at the time.
As a side note, Waterfalls was the name of a two-bedroom cottage the McCartneys had purchased in June 1974 for £40,000. The property, near Rye in Sussex, included 160 acres of farmland and a variety of animals and pets: 11 horses and ponies, 10 sheep, 18 pheasants, ducks and hens, three dogs and an aviary of budgerigars.
The downside of doing that record so spontaneously was that a song like ‘Waterfalls’ didn’t get the arrangement that perhaps it deserved. In the early days of synthesizers, you got fooled into thinking the synth strings always sounded good, which they didn’t.
The single was issued in the UK on Friday 14 June 1980, as Parlophone R6037. It reached number seven in the charts. In the US it was released on 22 July as Columbia 1-11335, and it peaked at number 106. The b-side was ‘Check My Machine’.
Both versions of the single featured a painting of a waterfall by Christian Broutin; the rear cover had a photograph of McCartney taken by his wife Linda.
Two alternative versions of ‘Waterfalls’ were made for its release. A single edit was sent to radio stations, and the soundtrack to the video featured a longer electric piano introduction, but omitted an instrumental break and two choruses.
The promotional video was filmed in June 1980 and featured Olaf, a polar bear from Chipperfields Circus. Filming took place inside an aircraft hanger and involved more than a ton of polystyrene to give the appearance of snow.