Best Of The Recoup: Life Is Far Too Fast: A Conversation With Mike McCartney

mike mccartney

When the mysterious McGough & McGear album appeared in 1968, it was a bit of a mystery. Sure,it was known that the two fellas who made it, Roger McGough and Mike McGear, were members of the comedy troupe The Scaffold, a trio that also included John Gorman. The troupe would record its debut record shortly after this little record came out, which all but guaranteed it would slip into obscurity-which it did-and would obtain a cult-like status of its own after The Scaffold began in earnest. But little did most listeners know of the identity of one-third of the group. Mike McGear? Sounds like a made up name. Turns out it was—the surname was one that could have been the sole selling point of the group. Mike McGear was and is better known as Michael McCartney, brother of Beatle Paul. Understandably, Michael McCartney took the moniker on as a way to make his work stand on its own merit, and not to go the easy way out and “cash in” on his family name. McGough & McGear, reissued in March via Esoteric, is a fabulous record, an obscure jewel that blends poetry and music and weirdness into one amusing listening experience.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity—nay, great honor—to sit down with Mr. McCartney, to talk about his record, the era in which it was made, and about his background. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we enjoyed having the conversation; McCartney is a delightful conversationalist, and if the reissues that are hinted at in this conversation come to pass, you can be most assured that you will read more delightful conversations with the man here on The Recoup.

It’s an honor to speak to you today. I’ve always enjoyed McGough & McGear.

Thank you! What’s your favorite?

I’m quite partial to “Mr. Tickle.”

Oh yeah? Where are you from? (Texas.) Texas? That’s absolutely incredible to hear.  (Beams) Thats a little northern man, Mr. Tickle, and that a fellow from Texas is getting some enjoyment out of him, and all these years later, it’s really fascinating to hear. When I wrote it—I just thought it was a daft little thing, a silly children’s type story that I’d written a few years earlier, and I wasn’t really sure that it would actually be anything. We were in the studio—I believe it was Dick James’—and Roger and our kid thought it would be interesting to just try it out. So I went into the recording booth and just read it out. I could hear this piano going in me cans and I thought, ‘well, obviously the engineer can hear that,”—turns out it was me brother working on something nearby, completely independent of what we were doing—and so I went about reading my little story about a little man who was wondering why his house wasn’t very happy. So now, all these years later, my daft little story about the little man who brought bricks into his house because his house was hungry, that a fellow from Texas is telling me he loves it, I’m absolutely fascinated by that.

I’m reminded of all those gurus who were around during that time, sitting in these little cloisters with their followers, telling them there’s no such thing as coincidence, because as it happens when we played it back, we heard the piano that our kid was playing in the next room. He had no idea it was being recorded, and the engineer didn’t, either. So he’s in there, working on this music, and it’s building up as the story builds up, abating at the moment the house was satisfied—that was a million-to-one chance that no one could have imagined. The two worked perfectly together, and this little piece I really hadn’t planned on using, it worked out great, and I’m happy to hear you enjoy that song. I enjoy that bit as well, because it was all so happenstance.

Do you happen to recall what particular song Paul was working on that day?

I have no idea what he was working on—could have been one of his biggest hits. But, really, Paul would just sit down at the piano for hours, playing around with these different riffs, different ideas of his, not really having anything prepared beforehand about what he was working on, and that’s more than likely what he was doing that day. He always enjoys “tickling’ the ivories,” as our father would say.

One of the things that I like about the album—and it’s true with “Mr. Tickle” as well-is that there are lots of references to home life and the domestic setting of suburbia.

We were very much making a commentary about the middle class and working class life. Both Roger and I, we came from the working class of Liverpool, that’s the world we knew. During the era, you saw a lot of people escaping from their roots, but for us, it’s who we were, and to deny that, it would be denying the essence of who we were, and we had no interest in doing that. To us, it was always more interesting to us to get the ordinary, boring, mundane, every-day things of life in our work. It’s an honesty that’s pure, and it elevates the work to a higher level, a greater purpose. People, they tend to ignore that, because frankly, it’s too boring for them. For us, there was no question about it, it’s where we came from, and we were proud of that.

British psychedelia, it’s different from American, When I think of the British psych of the era, I think of people like Donovan, Syd Barrett—and even to a lesser extent Monty Python, which was always surreal. It seemed rooted in an older British tradition, one that relies more on the past than a spiritual quest that requires the use of drugs to enhance the experience.

I agree, and I think a better example of that is The Kinks. It’s all tied into our culture. “Waterloo Sunset,” songs of that sort, they were all about Englishness. We were highlighting ordinary life and elevating it into something special. It was a gentle satire Reality was, Scaffold we were very committed surrealists and satirists, commenting on what was going on around us, because we wanted to show the absurdity of day to day living. Take our song, “Thank You Very Much,” which I wrote, it’s a gentle thing, a love song, if you will. It’s saying things like, “Thank you very much for the family circle” and  (sings) “thank you very much for the Sunday joint, the Sunday Times, the nursery rhymes, the napalm bomb, everyone!” We knew what we were doing.  We were bringing in those terrifying things that were in the news, we were bringing them in very gently, slipping them in, and we bloody well meant it. We meant it because that’s how it was—life is fine and dandy for the most part, but there’s this ugly, harsh, disgusting reality, too. We wanted to remind the listener of that. What’s amazing is that song, it was the favorite of the British Prime Minister at the time!

That’s interesting to me, because when you compare that to what American counterculture was doing—openly mocking middle class values and the dominant culture of the era—what you’re doing is almost emphasizing a sort of British pride, which, interestingly enough, seems to be what would happen in the 1990s, with American music challenging the culture, whilst Britpop embraced that same sort of pride via bands like Blur and Oasis.

Yeah, very much so, and extolling the virtues of coming up from one’s humble working class roots, while using that to knock down the class system that was creating a divide amongst our people. It was a horrible class system that existed at that time, one that’s always sort of been there, it’s bloody well still there now, and it was there a hundred years ago.Look at the Titanic, you hear of the “women and children first” declaration, it seems noble on the surface, but then you realize that they were only talking about the women and children of the first class. Almost all of them survived, got on the lifeboats, and a good portion of their men did, too. But then you look at the steerage, the poor immigrants, most of their women and children went down with it! Disgusting. So that class distinction, it’s as much a part of our history.

It was always them vs. us. They had the money, they had the power. With our society, you work outward. You’ve got kings and queens. Then you have the nobles. Then you have the serfs. In those days, it was great because now the little people, the serfs, they were able to have their say, join in the fun, and get heard and be accepted. It was a fun time, getting to knock that wall down, even if it was for a bit. That system, it’s bloody disgusting. To not be looked down upon, you had to act posh, and have the proper accent, (reverts to highbrow accent), “You have to speak proper like this.”

To show you how bad it was, I was introduced to this fellow, his name was Norman Rossington, he was in one of our kid’s films, A Hard Day’s Night. So we were on the set, and Norman comes up, and my brother says, “Norm, this is Mike,” and Norm said, (imitating upper class accent), “Err, yes, well, how do you do Mike.” Paul stopped and said, “hang on, you’re from Liverpool, now how do you have that posh accent,” and Norman said, without a beat, “Oh, Paul, you do realize, when I came down to London, I spoke exactly like you did, I spoke Liverpool like you, and I didn’t get any work, so what you hear now, which is me now, it came out of necessity. I had to deny myself because everybody looked down on Liverpool, but now, thanks to you and the lads, you’ve done miracles, you’ve opened up doors that have given us Northerners a wonderful acceptance we never had before. The Mersey beat, the Liverpool sound, has made it where a working class Northern lad can be seen as respectable.”  I was flabbergasted. That’s just how criminally corrupt things were in British society those days. Being part of that ordinary working class was wonderful, and not only that, being rewarded for that by success, and the respect that brings with it. For our generation, we suddenly began to like our accents, and not being ashamed of who we were and where we came from. It was empowering—we were equal, and for the right reasons. Knowing that this wall came down because of our kid, me brother, it made that even more sweet.

At the time, we had to work very much in the system, and it was difficult. There was this fellow, Lord Chamberlain, he was the Royal censor. He would get your material, and he’d put lines through it, and would inform you that you weren’t allowed to say this or that. You couldn’t talk about government or the church or religion—he would put lines through it, and that was that, you simply weren’t allowed to do it. So here we are, this new generation, this new wave of artist and musician, we challenged that. We said, ‘hold on, who do you think you are, telling us what to do?” The Sixties, it was an era of great change and new freedom, and we were a part of that.

When we made McGough & McGear, we wanted to make a record that reflected that movement. And so we set about, and we brought in other young people from that circle but not necessarily from our same music scene. We had Jimi Hendrix, who came into the studio looking like a wild man, but who was a very dear, very intelligent man. We had John Mayall and Spencer Davis and Graham Nash, all of these beautiful people, they wanted to help, because we wanted to challenge the status quo. Lord Chamberlain, he saw that, and he’d say, ‘Oh, well, I can’t get involved in that, I have to leave it alone,” because we had clout. We could get away with it, because the leaders of that movement, our kid, the lads, and other bands and artists, they had the financial clout to back them up. The Beatles, they were our country’s top export, so the upper classes, they sort of realized that their power was slipping. It’s easy to dismiss the angry young artist when they’re coming from poverty, but now, all of a sudden, not only did these young people have that power, they also stood, financially, in the same place as the old guard, if not higher.So these people we had helping us, they were close to our kid, were very fond, and felt comfortable coming in on this system-challenging record, because it was safe, because the old guard didn’t want to mess about with the powerful new movement. Had we not had that connection, I don’t think those people would have come in and worked with us. They’d have thought, “Too dangerous, too risky, we might make powerful enemies.”  So we realized we were in an untouchable position, and used it to our advantage.

With the nature of McGough & McGear being more surrealistic and absurdist in nature, was John Lennon a fan? What did he think of you, because your work seems very similar to the sorts of books he published.

John, he was always supportive. He used to come round to our flat and hang out, and would love to listen to our comedy records, things like Peter SellersSongs For Swinging Sellers. He loved that record, he loved the Goon Squad. And it’s so interesting to me, now that I’ve been talking to you, about how things just seem to influence each other, simply by being there and around each other—not intentionally doing something, like, say, teaching a chord or working on something actively—but just by sitting in a cramped little bedroom listening to music that you liked. And that record—I’ve still got that record, it’s upstairs in my record shelf—it’s funny. It’s so dark. Like, you’ve got a tree, and you have a record player, and you see a pair of feet hanging down from the tree, and a rope hanging down beside the legs. John used to cackle at that, he thought it was one of the best album covers ever.  (Laughs) I was a little kid, and I just thought John was great, he was always a laugh when he came round, a big influence, even though I might not have realized it at the time.

Your work, it’s much more jazz oriented. Were you ever the rocker, like your brother?

Funny you should say jazzy, on McGough & McGear, it is very jazz oriented. There’s a lot of music in it, and that’s from my side. The Scaffold, which really came out of that album, was me, John the comedian and post office engineer, and McGough was the teacher and poet, and i was the ex-hairdresser and straight man and musician. The other two fellows, they were older than me, and they were very much fans of modern jazz, and the jazzy elements of the album and of The Scaffold, was from their influence, which I appreciated and shared. In fact our name was taken from a Miles Davis record, Lift To The Scaffold. I didn’t quite appreciate the modern stuff at first, but I slowly came round. I really liked traditional American jazz, the music from New Orleans, stuff that was older and rooted in a more classic sense, Fats Waller and the like, tied in with the blues, I loved that. The jazz in our country, it was these white men, and they were trying to imitate it, and it was a bit uncomfortable (laughs). From there, that music, I sort of went into Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Roland Kirk, that wonderful sax player. He used to stick trumpets up his nose and play them and saxophone. He was fun! He came down to Ronnie Scott’s and play, and we loved to go and see him. He used to hand flutes out to the audience. At the time, we were famous for the “Llly and the Pink” song, we were on telly. Ronnie saw us and loved us, and called us and asked us to open for him. I told him, “Hold on, do you know who we are and what we do?” And he said, “Yeah, man, I love it, I saw you at the Albert Hall during the “Evening of Depravity And Corruption.” It was funny because that night, we didn’t really do any of our songs, we were more of a comedy revue, really, doing sketches and satire and poetry, stuff that was really challenging to the system. I was asked if we wanted to open for Roland Kirk, and I quickly said yes, and I didn’t even ask the others. We all loved his music, we loved his performances and personality, so we were all excited about it. At the last minute, his work visa fell through, and there we were, stuck opening for Stan Getz, who was not quite as fun as Roland! (laughs) We knew what Kirk was about, we’d seen him before, and when he did get to play Ronnie Scott’s, it was fantastic. He gets on stage, and the next thing you know, he gets all these penny whistles out, comes off the stage and starts to hand them out to the audience, getting audience participation alongside this really edgy jazz. Stan Getz, sorry, but there’s no way he could compete with that.

Well, he has his own style which is enjoyable for what he is. 

Oh yes, but we were young and adventurous and liked the challenges of modern jazz. We were hoping to have this great evening of comedy and fun, topped off with the mind-blowing nose-blown music of Roland Kirk, but the night was awkward. Don’t get me wrong, Getz played there quite a lot, and there were some nights, he was absolutely genius.

What were some of the things you enjoyed?

We had a great music collection that I could draw from, such as Peter Sellers’ Songs For Swingin’ Sellers, and this fantastic blues compilation, from which I discovered a handful of artists, like the amazing Otis Spann. I loved his voice, it was just so deep and amazing, (imitating)  “I’d walk through a ring of fire, just to be with you” (laughs). Dad liked him too, because he was a pianist.  Another I loved was the wonderful, happy, Fats Waller. He was such a big influence. I love happy music—there’s too much bloody misery in the world as it is, I don’t want my work to contribute—and his music, it’s impossible to not smile while listening to him. Big influence on all us McCartney men. We just adored his playing, and then when he’d sing, “What do you want me to, rob a bank for you? Well, I won’t do it!” Absolutely fantastic, that!

You mentioned earlier about Modern Jazz Quartet. What else were you listening to? A lot of modern jazz?

We definitely adored Modern Jazz Quartet. I’d like to think I had a part in it, if only in an indirect way. I had bought their album Third Stream Music—absolutely amazing record, that- There was this other album that I had that I played quite a bit round the house. My girlfriend at the time, I’d go round to her flat on weekends, and sit around, listening to this American record, this guy singing in a really funny voice (sings grunted words). It was a bit polarizing, that—a lot of people didn’t like him. Times it felt like I was alone in the consensus at the time, but I loved him. He did some great stuff, things like “The House Of The Rising Sun” and (singing in perfect Dylan style) “Baby let me follow you down, I’d do anything in this god almighty world if you just let me follow you down.” (Laughs) Great stuff!

So there were all these records I’d listen to around the house, Dylan, Third Stream Music, things of that sort, and one night when our kid is in town, he comes in and I’m listening to records. And I’m listening to Dylan, and our kid pokes his head in the door with this look on his face, and he asks me who I’m listening to. “Oh, it’s this American folk singer, he’s someone everyone at the art college is going mad about, his name’s Bob Dylan.” I see him making a mental note of the name, and he declares, “Folk music crap! Bloody awful,” he grunts, and then he goes and gets in bed. (Laughs)

So jump ahead some time later, me dad and I, we’ve gone to Paris to see our kid and the lads play, and we’re going to meet up with them at this posh hotel they were staying at. We knock on the door, our kid opens it up, says, ‘we’re almost ready” and goes back in, and in the background, faintly, I can hear this music playing, and it’s a new Bob Dylan record. And i said, “Hang on, you told me you thought he was crap! What’s this you now listening to him and liking it?”  And Paul, he was like, “Er, umm…that’s John’s!” (Laughs)  But that’s how we were, we would listen to everything, even stuff we might not quite like, to develop a sense of style and an understanding of music and art and things of that sort.

Third Stream Music, that too was an album I spent quite a bit of time with, I simply loved it. They came to Liverpool, and they played the Philharmonic, and they had this fantastic little guy who was just fantastic, Errol Garner. And he was a really little guy, too. Before he came on, I was wondering why there were all these American telephone directory books, and in he comes, and plops down on those phone books, because he was so tiny and that’s the only way he could reach the keys! (Laughs) What a scrapper. But then the band started playing, and it was absolutely amazing, it sounded so out of this world, and still does, actually. There’s nothing like Modern Jazz Quartet. Milt Jackson, Percy Heath—those fellows could make anything sound positively heavenly. They were the way I got into modern jazz—and then fellows like Roland Kirk came around, and it was fantastic, too. We spent a lot of time at Ronnie Scott’s, not just because it was the hippest place in the city, but because there was always something interesting going on there. Like the night I saw Batman fly. (Laughs)

What? (Laughs)

We had just been playing, and Stan Getz was getting ready to come on. He had a great band with him; Jack DeJohnette was his drummer, Miroslav Vituous was his bass player. Stan, he was a great musician, but he had issues, and sometimes, when he’d play, he would be just completely gone, in another world, there in body only. Well, this night, he’d been imbibing whatever it was he liked, and he was out of it, and they had to help him get onstage, but once he got up there, he’d totally get into the spirit of his music.

We’re between sets, and there’s this guy sitting down at the end of the bar, and he’s completely drunk, completely amusing. So he asks me if I want a drink, and I take him up, Scotch and coke please, Mr. Barkeep, thank you, sir. So he turns to me and says, (drunk) “Do you know who I am?” I had no idea—thought he might just be a wealthy tourist in—so I said to him, “I certainly do know who you are, sir, you’re a very lovely American fellow who just bought me a Scotch & Coke, and so you’re me best friend tonight!” (Laughs) And he’s like, no, no, and comes up to me, and whispers, “Do you know who I am, I’m Adam West. I’m Adam West! Don’t tell anyone, but I’m secretly Batman, don’t let anyone know, I’m really Batman!” And I hadn’t seen his show, so I had no clue, but yes, indeed it was Adam West! (Laughs) So he’s there, and he’s completely pissed, and turns to me and asks me where the bathrooms were. In Ronnie Scott’s they were downstairs, and he asks me if I could go with him. Sure, no problem, he just bought me a drink, least that I could do. So we’re going, and he trips, and I have this amazing image —that I can still envision—he trips, but he doesn’t fall, he flies! He just goes down chest first, and as he’s bloody well pissed, he’s fine, doesn’t hurt him at all…but I got to see Batman actually fly!

It’s interesting that we’re talking about jazz, because the other day I was listening to The Country Hams. That was a great little record, even if it was a bit obscure.

Very much so, and it’s funny, all these years later, I still think about that song, and I think I might like to give it a go, even though that recording was really fantastic. You had our kid, who’s in Nashville, and he’s got all these genius musicians around him—and it’s not just that they’re some great musicians, we’re talking the best of the best. So he brings up this song of our dad’s, “Walking In The Park With Eloise,” and they decide to record it—Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, and our kid, and it’s just such a nice gesture. I loved the arrangement, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like I’d love to hear our kid do it, just him on piano, because that’s how dad used to play it. In fact, the other day, I found the words to it. Our Uncle Joe, who used to play with dad a bit, he wrote some lyrics, and I found his lyric sheet the other day. So maybe after our chat, I’ll give our kid a call, because I’d love to get together with him and record this number, just the two of us. And The Country Hams, Dad loved it, because the arrangement that they did, it was just spot on, and I think they got the vibe that dad had for the song were he to have recorded and arranged it. But to me, that song is special, and it is special to me in large part because of the memories of Dad and then our kid playing it on solo piano.  And let’s not forget that dad lead his own jazz group, the Jim Mac Jazz Band, when he was a young man.  That’s how he met our mum, too. So jazz has been good for the family. (Laughs)

Were there ever any recordings made?

Oh my, I wish, but no. There was no money for that sort of thing, being largely a working class band and all. In their heyday, there really wasn’t a call for bands to make records—you played live, people came to see you, and that’s the extent of how those things worked. If someone happened to give you a record deal, that’s another story—but making your own music? Simply wasn’t done back then. You just performed.

Do you still do live appearances?

Very rarely, but I do have the occasional gig here and there. I’ll do charity benefits, and sometimes Liverpool has different events related to its history, and I’ll go and perform, represent the era and the family, you know? It’s something I’m happy to do.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’d like to get some of my older music out. It’s been a pleasure revisiting McGough & McGear, it was a fun record to make, and was an exciting time of my life. I’m hoping to continue a reissue campaign; my first solo album, Woman, I’m hoping to have an expanded reissue of that out after this one. It was a great record, it came out in 1972, and it was a departure for me; it was a “straight” record in that it was traditional song-based, even though there was a definitely a sardonic, comedic tone to them. I was proud of them, and would love for people to get a second chance to hear them.

I think I said it earlier, but I remember the gurus of the Sixties, and one of the things they all said was, “There’s no such thing as coincidence,” and that things that happen will happen as they are meant to happen. So at the time I might have been disappointed about how my recording career turned out, but now thanks to the internet, those records are being reheard and reevaluated on their own merits, and I think that’s a great thing to happen, to see these creations of mine take on a new life again.

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