An alphabet for Paul McCartney Pt. 35

For some time now I’ve been writing a series of mini-essays on Paul McCartney, who I reckon is the most interesting Beatle – maybe not the coolest, or the greatest, or the most lovable, but easily the most interesting, and I’m not ruling out, either, that Macca may be cool, great and lovable. They are intended to be read in alphabetical order. Here’s one.


McCartney is said to have introduced this word to common use in Britain, after he heard a New York policeman use it during the Beatles’ first trip to the U.S. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest British print citation for `zap’, in the sense of imitating the sound of a gun, is from Len Deighton in 1967, but McCartney got there in 1964, in a semi-improvised scene from A Hard Day’s Night. Alun Owen’s screenplay for the movie sometimes bears very little relationship to what actually happens on the screen. Richard Lester liked on-set improvisation and the Beatles, impatient with the whole process of learning lines, were happy to indulge him.

Notable moments of improvisation in the movie include:

The press junket in the bar of the theatre, in which the Beatles’ dialogue in the finished film is largely lifted from things they’d actually said at press conferences. Owen’s attempt to imitate the tone of Beatle humour falls notably flat, here:

Reporter: What’s your outlook on life?
Lennon: I’m torn between Zen and I’m All Right Jack.

For whatever reason (Lennonian incredulity possibly playing a part), these lines were thrown out. In the finished scene, an earnest girl reporter asks Lennon `Do you have any hobbies?’ Instead of answering, he takes her pad, writes something on it and hands it back. She reads what he’s written and her eyes widen in appalled horror, but before we can find out why, Lester cuts away. (The rumour was that he wrote ‘Tits’; thanks to DVD technology, I was able to pause the movie at this point and zoom in on the notepad, and I can confirm that the rumour is correct.)

Reporter: What do you call that haircut?
Harrison: Arthur.

Elsewhere, Lennon piles self-reference upon self-reference. A journalist asks him `How did you find America?’ and Lennon gives the same reply that he gave at a real press conference, `Turn left at Greenland,’ but then does an exaggerated silent laugh as if to signal his awareness that he’s quoting himself.

McCartney’s tactic in the press junket scene is to give the same deadpan answer to every question: `No, actually, we’re just good friends.’ This was a mild joke about his own well-earned reputation as the group’s heartthrob, although ‘groupie magnet’ might be a more accurate reflection of his behaviour; his own comment on the matter was `It should have been “Can Buy Me Love”, actually’. However, McCartney pushes the remark into the realms of the surreal when he gives it as the reply to the question `Do you often see your father?’

An entire scene written for the movie, in which McCartney chats up a girl, was later dropped. Perhaps it was too boring, or exposed his limitations as an actor too much, although one possibility is that it resembled too much the brief but wonderfully strange scene where Lennon, passing along a crowded backstage corridor, is accosted by a young woman (Anna Quayle) who thinks that she recognises him. What’s never spelled out in the scene is who, exactly, the young woman (called ‘Millie’ in the script) recognises Lennon as being; does she think he’s John Lennon? Or someone more famous? In spite of the fact that there really wasn’t anyone more famous than Lennon at that point?

The scene was intended to end with Lennon blowing the girl a kiss, but this was cut, probably to reinforce the central theme of A Hard Day’s Night, which is that the Beatles are continually being chased, shunted around, insulted, mistaken for other people, forced to move on when they want to stay put and to stay put when they want to move on, and generally not given any time, privacy or freedom. Has any band ever been hated as much?

In any case, the ‘Zap’ moment comes in a scene that rather bears out Richard Lester’s impression that, of all the Beatles, McCartney was the one most interested in acting. McCartney, rather than Lennon, was always the artiest Beatle; Lennon was merely the most rebellious, but McCartney’s interest in the arts can be traced back to his story about his legendary English teacher Alan Durband teaching the kids Chaucer’s spectacularly bawdy The Miller’s Tale, complete with arse-kissing scene. In A Hard Day’s Night, Paul picks up a hairdryer and says to it in a fluty, cod-Shakespearean voice ‘Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…’ Then he points the hairdryer directly at the camera, like a gun, and spits ‘ZAP!’ It’s the only moment in the first Beatle film when the fourth wall is definitively broken, and it sticks out. 

An alphabet for Paul McCartney Pt. 35


This blog will be about various things because I’m interested in various things, possibly too many things, but I’ll try to avoid subjects about which I don’t have (or at any rate don’t believe I have) anything worth saying. So, although I’m interested in science and technology, I have no scientific training to speak of and know very little about science beyond what I’ve picked up as a layman, and so won’t be talking too much about it, although science informs a good bit of the way I think about art and culture. I worked in professional theatre for 15 years, initially as a technician, then as a musician, and eventually as a writer/performer/dramaturg/literary manager, so I know a fair bit about live performance and dramatic structure and theatre and film; they will figure in this, as will literature and comics. The thing I love most, and probably know the most about, is music, and music will figure heavily.

The title comes from the music industry. Factory Sunburst is a colour scheme that was originally applied to the Fender Stratocaster (the back cover of Derek and the Dominos’ album ‘Layla’ features a Factory Sunburst Strat, which was Eric Clapton’s main guitar at the time). I like the combination of human industry and natural phenomenon, so Factory Sunburst it is. It has no connection with Factory Records, whose output has consistently failed to entertain me over the years.

These are interesting times. They were interesting before most of us were born and they’ve gone on being interesting even when it looked like they weren’t, e.g. the 1980s. I am old enough to remember when vinyl was the main format for recorded music, and young enough not to be scared or saddened by the death of vinyl. Like many others, I went through a phase where the cassette tape ruled, and then I grudgingly agreed to shell out for the compact disc. The CD has turned out to be, not a bold new world in sound reproduction, but a desperate attempt by the music industry to hold onto as much profit as possible. The power of music distribution is being inexorably returned to the hands of the people from whom it shouldn’t have been taken in the first place, and that, in my view, given the history of the recording industry, is a good thing.

I aim to talk a bit about individual pieces of music, bodies of work, and habits of listening.