An ABC of Paul McCartney #6: Fiction

A further instalment in my still-incomplete ABC of the most controversial Beatle.

Has Paul McCartney ever watched the many fictional portrayals of himself? It can’t be good for a person to have had so many actors have so many stabs at you, especially when for such a long time the stabs were potentially wounding.

In the Beatles cartoon series, ‘Paul’ was played by Lance Percival, who was probably perfectly able to do a semi-convincing Liverpool accent but who, for whatever reason, didn’t. The show manual described Paul as getting very excited whenever John was talking, thereby setting a certain tone in McCartney iconography.

Geoffrey Hughes did the voice of Paul in Yellow Submarine. He would later achieve a certain level of TV fame as the slobby Onslow in the insufferable BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, the point of which appeared to be that poor people are funny. But here as elsewhere, the Yellow Submarine team achieved an unexpected degree of wit and insight. When the Beatles are first introduced, Ringo is sloping around the streets of Liverpool by himself; John appears as a Frankenstein monster who transforms into himself by drinking a potion–perhaps an allusion to the generally benign effects of Lennon’s legendary LSD intake on his personal relationships; George is first seen on top of a pyramid, meditating; and Paul walks into the film by coming offstage from an unseen concert where the crowd is going wild. He coolly adjusts his tie and asks ‘What’s the matter, fellas?’ to no-one in particular. This is McCartney the Star, affectionately parodied in Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer; later in the film, the Beatles essentially become a hive mind and all trace of individuality is lost.

In Richard Marquand’s silly TV movie Birth of the Beatles, McCartney is played by Rod Culbertson mostly as an eager and mindless stooge of Lennon’s. This is only interrupted when McCartney gets increasingly annoyed by Stu Sutcliffe’s inept bass playing. Birth of the Beatles is essentially King Lennon and his Beatles of the Round Table, with Brian Epstein as a sweaty, nervous, painfully sincere Merlin; at one point, Eppy says to John ‘No single one of you is the Beatles. Each one of you is a part. Paul is the heart of the group. George its soul. You’re the mind.’ ‘And Ringo?’ John replies. ‘He’s the flesh and blood,’ says Gandalf. I mean, Brian Epstein. ‘If any one of you stops doing his part, the rest will die.’ Then he utters the Charm of Making, and the Beatles conquer America.

It would take a whole essay to point up the many dodgy things about Birth of the Beatles. In a scene when a disconsolate Epstein arrives at a a rehearsal room to inform the newly besuited band that they’ve been turned down by yet another record company. Lennon (Stephen McKenna, ladling on the sarcasm throughout, you sense because he doesn’t have a lot of other arrows in his quiver) barks ‘You put this in these bloody monkey suits, messed about with our style, and it hasn’t worked, has it?’ The one thing that Epstein didn’t succeed in doing was tell the Beatles what to play; it was the contrast between the immaculate appearance that he crafted, and the wild abandon of the sound they made, that made them so memorable to their earliest audiences. Later on, when Lennon visits Epstein’s office and discovers that their new manager has been beaten up by some rough trade, Saint John delivers a sincere little homily about how ‘Any loving between two people’s all right’, which was rather more 1979 than 1962. The other noticeable thing is a serious case of Seventies Movie Hair; everyone’s hair is much too long, with the 1962 Beatles having hair that belonged to the 1965 Beatles.

Finally, the movie suffers from being based largely on the memoirs of Pete Best. Ryan Michael, who plays Best, is by a large margin the best-looking actor in the film. When Epstein is made by the rest of the band to tell Pete that he’s been fired, and Pete asks why, Epstein tells him ‘They think Ringo is a better drummer.’ ‘That ain’t true!’ Pete protests, in the most excited he’s got throughout the film. ‘I know it! You know it! Even Ringo knows it! All of Liverpool knows it!’ Alas, the recorded evidence shows that Ringo was a much better drummer than Pete Best. On the evidence of his miming in this film, Ryan Michael was a better drummer than Pete Best. The film fucks up the chronology too, placing Best’s firing before the band’s first Parlophone session instead of afterwards. (As any Beatle nerd knows, it was George Martin’s dislike of Pete Best’s drumming that provoked the band into finally doing what they’d wanted for years, namely fire Pete.)

However — and we’ll get back to the Paul McCartney stuff in a second — Birth of the Beatles film does have one fabulous moment, when Ringo first appears in the Cavern as the band’s new drummer (about 1:24 into the film); the crowd hates him and starts a rhythmic chant and clap of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ Lennon instructs Ringo (Ray Ashcroft) to ‘Take ’em home, Ringo!’ (or ‘Take a roll, Ringo!’ — it’s not clear.) Ringo starts to hit a drum in between each chant of ‘Off!’, so that he and the crowd fall into a call-and-response, and then he begins to speed up, forcing the crowd to speed up their chanting and clapping, and then he speeds up so fast that his strokes turn into a ferocious, prolonged single-stroke roll, at which point the crowd dissolves into ecstatic cheering. It’s great. But it never happened.

I’ve seen John and Yoko: A Love Story several years ago, but can’t remember anything about it apart what I perhaps over-fondly remember as a rather effective performance from Mark McGann as Lennon. Kenneth Price as McCartney completely escapes my memory.

In Iain Softley’s Backbeat, McCartney was played with jittery energy by Gary Bakewell. Bakewell at least looked like McCartney, could act, and could also play bass guitar left-handed, a fact which subsequently attracted the attention of the producers of The Linda McCartney Story, who cast him as the titular character’s spouse, thus making Bakewell one of the very few actors to have played the same real person twice in two entirely different movies. To make matters weirder, the most notable other actor to have done so is Ian Hart, who played Lennon in Backbeat and also in The Hours and Times a few years later, making the Beatles undoubtedly the only band two of whose members have been portrayed by the same actors twice each in three different movies. Bakewell’s McCartney is notably more snarky and independent than previous McCartneys, and he doesn’t hesitate to confront Lennon about Sutcliffe’s inadequacies.

Since Backbeat is a film about the friendship of Lennon and Sutcliffe, this makes McCartney one of the principal antagonists. But it also has one of the best soundtracks of any Beatle movie not made by the Beatles themselves, with rock’n’roll covers performed by a dream team of musicians from the early 90s US alternative scene.

It wasn’t until the 21st century that portrayals of McCartney really began to dig beneath the myth. In Two of Us, a film about the mid-1970s meetings of Lennon and McCartney in New York, McCartney is played with beguiling charm and remarkable sensitivity by Aidan Quinn, who manages to convey a strong sense of McCartney-ness while neither looking nor sounding like him. It helps that he’s up against Jared Harris, who if anything looks even less like John Lennon. But then Harris has the instantly imitable cawing Lennon voice to rely on, whereas Quinn manages to convey Maccahood simply by softening his voice a bit and deferring to Lennon as the senior partner.

In Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s study of the teenage Lennon, McCartney is Thomas Brodie Sangster; a scrawny, quiffed, intimidatingly serious, Teddy-Boy-jacketed music nerd. Nowhere Boy was not very well-received on its release, mainly because the central character didn’t seem much like John Lennon, but the reviewers missed the point; it was a film about how an unfocused and resentful teenager transformed himself into John Lennon. Aaron Johnson’s performance is very interesting. His Lennon is not the cool, dry, deadpan snarker that we’ve seen in nearly every other Beatles film ever. He’s unformed and embryonic; he mostly comes across as an insecure, gauche, tactless, talentless twit, in desperate need of something to pull his life together. He finds it in music, but it’s not until Brodie Sangster walks his cautious way into the movie that Lennon finally comes up against someone who is as serious about music as he is.

Nowhere Boy is the only movie to have dared to portray the primal scene in Beatles mythology, the Meeting of John and Paul. Taylor-Wood plays it very cool indeed. The Quarry Men are doing their shambling thing on the back of a truck when a skinny, round-faced kid in a white jacket is seen in the crowd. He’s with a friend. The friend is smiling, obviously enjoying it. The skinny kid looks at his friend with a certain amount of disbelief. He then looks back at the band, thoughtful, and his brow wrinkles. They’re all right, he seems to be thinking, but they could be a fuck of a lot better.

After the ‘gig’, the Quarry Men are knocking back some ales in the church hall and the friend introduces McCartney: ‘Paul plays too.’ Johnson’s Lennon, playing to his mates, replies, ‘What, with himself?’ and then introduces himself and offers McCartney a beer. McCartney asks for tea, but there isn’t any. He thinks the band is ‘all right’. Lennon decides that if Ivan likes Paul, Paul’s all right. ‘How all right are you on one of those?’ Lennon asks, indicating McCartney’s guitar. ‘I’m all right,’ he says, putting it on. McCartney does a fluent version of ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. Lennon dismisses him as being too young, but in the next scene McCartney has become Musical Adviser, teaching Lennon new chords.

Later, there are two lovely scenes between Johnson and Sangster; one in which Lennon and McCartney, practising in Lennon’s Aunt Mimi’s front porch, because it sounds better there, talk about what they’re into music for. McCartney asks Lennon why he likes ‘smashin’s stuff up and actin’ like a dick’ and admits that he’s in it for the music. Lennon is taken aback to learn that McCartney’s mother is dead. Later still comes a scene after Lennon’s own mother Julia has been killed. McCartney is attending the wake when, being the nerd he is, he picks up Julia’s banjo and starts trying to figure out how it’s played.

John becomes enraged and grabs the banjo off him, and when his friend Pete Shotton tries to intervene, John headbutts him and storms out of the house. Paul runs after him, and dares John to hit him. John punches him in the face. As Paul lies in the street, astonished, John finally realises what a colossal dick he’s been being for most of the film and apologises to Paul, helping him up; the boys embrace and weep, finally finding the common ground they’ve been denying; the loss of their mothers.

It’s this scene that forms the heart of Nowhere Boy, making it the darkest and best Beatles film yet, precisely because nobody in it is attempting to impersonate the Beatles. It’s a film about a bunch of kids, specifically one kid and his relationship with his mum, but also reflecting the way in which even a band as monumental and iconic as the Beatles were once just a bunch of fuckwits knocking around Liverpool.

Whether or not it’s true to what happened is, in a way, neither here nor there. It further reinforces the ways in which the Beatles, like any other music you love, are a way you have of making sense of the world.

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An ABC of Paul McCartney #6: Fiction

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles revolutionised popular music, yadda yadda yadda. People who don’t like them get tired of hearing that over and over again (and if you’re one of them, you really need to read Nitsuh Abebe’s hilarious article on how to write an effective anti-Beatle rant before you post a comment.) This blog assumes that, like me, you find the Beatles interesting. But perhaps, like me, you get a bit impatient with talk of how the Beatles ‘changed the face of’ popular music, or whatever. I was curious about whether or not it could have seemed like that at the time. On thinking about it, I realised that I didn’t know what the face of British popular music in 1962 looked like.

Everything gets revived sooner or later, or at least it seems to. Look at Richard Hawley, who’s got to where he is by conducting his entire career as though there hasn’t been any popular music since around 1963. This is the only explanation for why he would want to collaborate with Hank Marvin (on what’s admittedly a very pretty track.) But Hawley is an unusually intelligent and talented fan of pre-Beatles pop music. For most fans of the era, it’s simply a cue for nostalgia. Nostalgia being a longing for something that seems better in retrospect than it was at the time, Beatles fans who were actually around while the band was making music tend to feel nostalgia with tragic intensity. The most conspicuous example is the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties sought to put the band in its historical and cultural context. It’s a great book but its flaws are great too, and they’re deeply bound up with MacDonald’s overall take on the Beatles, which has to do with his sense that all of cultural history since the Beatles’ breakup was a sad falling-away into empty meaninglessness. MacDonald’s great failing as a critic was one he shared with Sainte-Beuve, an inability to see the good in his contemporaries, especially if they were the coming thing, as opposed to something he’d grown up with. Hence his bizarre contempt for Bill Hicks, who he dismissed as — if memory serves, since I don’t have a copy of the review in question — ‘a speeded-up version of Lenny Bruce’, a wisecrack which registered Hicks’ idealism but missed his comic materialism, his irrepressible Goat-Boy persona.

Gah! I’ve let myself be sidetracked into writing the critique of Ian MacDonald that I wanted to do some other time. What I really want to do is something that the print-bound Ian MacDonald would surely have liked to do: offer a direct sense of the cultural context of the Beatles’ early releases, instead of just write about them. This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll be presenting some Beatles’ recordings in the context of the UK top 20 charts, at the times that their earliest recordings were released, and also when they reached their highest position. The Beatles’ recordings didn’t get issued in the USA until later, and we’ll deal with that a bit further on.

We can do this because of the UK Singles Archive, which gathers together the singles charts as compiled by Record Retailer back in the day, and Spotify, which at this point has gathered together every nanosecond of music ever recorded — with one notable exception. The Beatles’ music isn’t on Spotify, except for Love Me Do, which is the only recording of theirs that’s in the public domain, and it might not be there for long. Still, I’m guessing that most of you will have their music available in some form or another (and even if you don’t, it’s on iTunes) so you can slot it into a playlist where necessary. If you don’t have Spotify, you can get it for free, or else you can look up all these songs on YouTube. They’re all there.

Why did the Beatles’ music take off the way it did? Against what musical backdrop did they appear? Why did people think that they were so cool? Without wanting to alienate fans of the below artists — and I enjoy some of the music in these lists, if not all of it — I think that hearing the music that was in the air when the Beatles came along helps us to understand the nature of the impact they had at the time. If you love this music, please feel free to ignore my more negative commentaries. (I’m not looking for a fight and if you attempt to pick one, I won’t rise to it; comments are moderated.)

The Beatles’ first single, Lennon & McCartney’s Love Me Do, was released in the UK on 5 October 1962. The week beginning 29 September 1962, the UK Top 20 was this:

1. Elvis Presley – She’s Not You

2. Cliff Richard and The Shadows – It’ll Be Me

3. The Tornados – Telstar

4. Frank Ifield – I Remember You

5. Ronnie Carroll – Roses Are Red (My Love)

6. Bobby Darin – Things

7. Brian Hyland – Sealed With A Kiss

8. Adam Faith – Don’t That Beat All

9. Neil Sedaka – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

10. Tommy Roe – Sheila

11. The Shadows – Guitar Tango

12. Ray Charles – You Don’t Know Me

13. Little Eva – The Locomotion

14. Shirley Bassey – What Now My Love?

15. Pat Boone – Speedy Gonzales

16. Jet Harris – Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm

17. Duane Eddy – Ballad of Paladin

18. Lonnie Donegan – Pick A Bale of Cotton

19. Mike Sarne with Billie Davis – Will I What

20. Billy Fury – Once Upon A Dream

spotify:user:1161554209:playlist:2M7LuL4OQYSZme9W9WqpgS

So this is, from the Beatles’ perspective, the competition. Elvis’ She’s Not You is the King in country-by-numbers mode. Cliff Richard was the biggest thing in UK pop music before the Beatles, but his most convincing hit, Move It, was from 1958 and by 1962 he was doing this rather bombastic cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ It’ll Be Me, not helped by the song’s ungainly structure. The way I hear it, each verse has two extra beats at the end of every third line to include the title phrase (‘If you hear somebody knocking / on your door / If you see somebody crawlin’ / cross the floor, baby, it’ll be me / and I’ll be lookin’ for you’), which makes the song seem like it’s taking too long to get to the point — not that this has stopped plenty of other people from recording it.

Frank Ifield crops up a lot in the early 60s charts, and is a good example of the kind of musician whose career was destined to be pounded underfoot by the hordes of post-Beatle guitar bands. His yodelling croon was perfectly suited to this kind of widescreen standard. The harmonica-led country-pop arrangement was obviously designed to capitalise on Ifield’s background as an Australian stockman, as close as UK pop had to an authentic cowboy, but I can’t help thinking for all that he sold a lot of records (this one sold a million copies), the melancholy of his material must have seemed a bit stuffy and grown-up, compared to the Beatles’ lusty immediacy. I Remember You, written by Victor Scherzinger and Johnny Mercer, belonged in the 1960s to the kids’ parents’ generation: Dorothy Lamour originally sang it in 1942’s The Fleet’s In. Amusing irony department: The Beatles themselves used to do this song, and it’s featured on their maddeningly elusive Live at the Star Club album from 1977.

Ronnie Carroll’s Roses Are Red is a slice of stodgy Norn Irish country, and presumably well-loved by people who like that kind of thing. Bobby Darin’s Things is entirely forgettable, falling between his earlier finger-snappin’ swing hits and later earnest protest-folk (I mean, come on, who calls a song ‘Things’? It’s like calling a song ‘Stuff’.)

Brian Hyland’s drenchingly minor-key Sealed With A Kiss came as a surprise to me, who only knew his upbeat yet squicky Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Again, Sealed With A Kiss sounds way too maudlin for teenagers; instead of lamenting separation from the object of desire, the Beatles preferred to celebrate being in the same room as her (I Saw Her Standing There).

Adam Faith’s turgid Don’t That Beat All is pushed towards the bizarre by a weird scrapy violin part, played as if by the arranger’s illiterate hick cousin. Neil Sedaka’s hit starts ‘Doo doo doo dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, breakin’ up is hard too-oo-oo do’, a curiously casual way to talk about the death of love. I’ll admit to a slight grudge against Neil Sedaka, whose 1975 hit Laughter in the Rain will always remind me of being five years old, watching TV, seeing this song on heavy rotation and being both bored and saddened by it — bored because I couldn’t empathise with the emotion, and saddened because it was the first time I realised that music had the power to repel me. (I have to admit that the key-change into the chorus is effective, dammit.) He’s also notable for being someone who had to leave a band before it could become successful, his high school band The Tokens having a hit four years after his departure with The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Tommy Roe’s Sheila is essentially a riff on Buddy Holly‘s Peggy Sue, down to the softly pattering drum part, but it has some interestingly snarly guitar (by either Wayne Moss or the great Jerry Reed.) In March of the following year, Tommy Roe was unlucky enough to find himself headlining a package tour with Chris Montez, and the Beatles further down the bill. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, the Beatles so brutally upstaged everyone else that the organisers were forced to place them in the headliners’ slot after the first night of the tour.

The Shadows’ Guitar Tango is nimble faux-Hispanic nonsense. Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, easily the greatest track here, comes from his classic album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and it may not exactly be country and western, but to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith, Ray Charles touched nothing that he did not adorn. The combination of power and vulnerability in his vocal puts most of the singers in this chart to shame, and the arrangement remains sensibly discreet; even the heavenly choir in the middle eight sounds like it’s taken a step backwards out of respect for Ray Charles’ greatness.

Little Eva does the Locomotion, and there’s just no stopping her; it’s rubbish, it’s silly, it’s naggingly catchy, it’s completely brilliant. Shirley Bassey is equally unstoppable, in her own way, but this too sounds to me like parent music. Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales is probably Pat Boone’s finest hour, which isn’t saying much, since Pat is upstaged by his own backing vocalists: session singer Jackie Ward has great fun with the self-consciously idiotic La-la-la’s and, yes, that’s Mel Blanc himself as Speedy, gleefully heaping ethnic stereotype upon ethnic stereotype.

Former Shadows bassist Jet Harris throws himself at a rather tasty surf-flavoured remake of Elmer Bernstein‘s raucous title music from The Man with the Golden Arm — I miss the blaring horns of the original, but in terms of bringing rock bottom-end to jazz sleaze, this is at least dreaming fitfully of the towering Barry Adamson version from 1988. Duane Eddy’s The Ballad of Paladin, however, is an insane (and not in a good way) mashup of knightly nobility, sax sleaze and guitar twang.

Lonnie Donegan makes picking a bale of cotton sound like something we could do right here in the barn, guys! After a minute and a half I want to say, alright, just pick the f***ing cotton, already. Mike Sarne’s Will I What makes my skin crawl, even though it’s a comedy record (with an amazingly sexist punchline). The weird thing is that although Mike Sarne, like John Lennon, was only 22 when this was recorded, he sounds terrifyingly middle-aged. Finally, Billy Fury’s record shows that the initial energy of British rock & roll was, by late 1962, pretty much spent. This isn’t ‘Billy Fury’. This is Ronald Wycherley wondering what’s happening to his career.

So, that’s how things were when Love Me Do first went on sale. Our next post will be about how things looked when it reached its highest point in the charts, no 17, just after Christmas 1962, when Beatle fandom was beginning to break out of the North. In the longer term we’ll be covering Please Please Me, their first major hit, and From Me To You, their first undisputed number 1 single. I’ll look at later singles and early albums if there’s enough enthusiasm for the project, but right now I think that a project like this is likely to be confined by its nature to the first couple of years of the band’s success; after a certain point the singles charts start to look very familiar. (Although it’s still worth checking out the charts from later in the decade: the UK top 20 from late June 1967 contains, besides Procol Harum, The Kinks, The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also Vince Hill, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New Vaudeville Band and Topol. And yes, Topol is awesome, but If I Were A Rich Man belongs to the ages, not so much to the summer of ’67.

Hope you enjoyed this snapshot of history. The next one will be along soon. Happy listening.

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1