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How 'Steptoe & Son' inspired an iconic Paul McCartney song


The vast scope of The Beatles work is susceptible to a few degrees of separation here and there. For every direct interaction with Bob Dylan or the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that influenced a song, there was a newspaper article about a runaway teenager or an epidemic of potholes in Lancashire that provided the necessary inspiration. A number of characters floated through the band’s orbit, and more than once, the germ of an idea started on one of their film sets.

Take, for instance, Paul McCartney swiping the first name of his Help! co-star Eleanor Bron in order to flesh out his new composition, ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Had George Harrison not been fascinated with the Indian musicians on the same set, we likely wouldn’t have ‘Norwegian Wood’ or ‘Within You Without You’. But it was another co-star that gave McCartney an idea for a song that never actually made it onto a Beatles record.

While filming A Hard Day’s Night, McCartney frequently shared the screen with Wilfrid Brambell, a British character actor who played McCartney’s not-so squeaky clean grandfather. The running gag of characters frequently commenting on John McCartney’s cleanliness was in reference to what most British audiences would have recognised Brambell for: his role as a dirty old rag and bone man in the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son. Brambell’s character of Albert Steptoe owned a junkyard, and it was this connection that got McCartney rolling on an idea for a new song, ‘Junk’.

“If I may use of a fancy word, the milieu of ‘Junk’ was influenced by the rag and bone shop, or junkyard, that was main setting of Steptoe and Son,” McCartney explains as part of the BBC podcast series Paul McCartney: Inside the Songs. “That junkyard was as familiar to British audiences in the 1960s and ’70s as the ranch in Bonanza or the mansion in The Beverly Hillbillies,” he added.

“The song started, as so many do, with a chord sequence I liked, and then the melody,” McCartney continues. “I know it may sound strange, but the chord at the start of the song actually put me in mind of the scrapyard or the back of a shop, the kind of atmospheric place which, if I were writing a novel, I’d like to set a scene. Dickens often does that.”

‘Junk’ does have a sort of loose and raggedy music hall type of sound to it, but it also has a palpable melancholy that doesn’t seem to quite fit with the light and goofy atmosphere of Steptoe and Son. Then again, I’m a 23-year-old American who never got to watch the show on TV every day, so maybe there was more melancholy there than what I can gather from YouTube clips.

In any case, McCartney liked ‘Junk’ so much that he included it twice on his debut solo album McCartney: once as the normal song, and once as an instrumental version titled ‘Singalong Junk’.

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