“There’s two [hillside photos] of ‘em,” Mike McCartney says. “One with our dad, and one with mum. It was in Wales, and I think a relative had something to do with it, and they had a farm there, and we ended up staying there. We were only young [children], and I remember going out with the farmer. He had a shotgun, and when we would go out, he would shoot rabbits. Then, he’d bring them back for his rabbit stew and things like that.”
It’s these tiny details that make McCartney a worthy photographer, but there’s more to the man than candour and casual wit. He comes from a musical family (no doubt you’ve heard of his brother) and even embarked on a musical career for a time. Growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s, McCartney witnessed the rise of rock counterculture, and in his new book, McCartney exhibits some of the pictures he captured from that exciting time. “What could go wrong?” he asks. “Have you ever heard of something called a pandemic?! For a year, I’ve been non stop working from my room on that book. Every day.” The book benefitted from the delay, but there were crashes and catastrophes along the way. “How do you produce a coffee table book from your bedroom?” he cackles. Well, McCartney managed it.
McCartney confirms that his mother grew up in Monaghan, Ireland, although he grows more wistful when he recalls losing her at twelve. “That Danny Baker fellow was doing a radio show in London. He was interviewing me, and he was there to publicise the McGear album. And he did the whole interview, and just before he finished, he said, ‘Tell you the truth, Mike, this is my favourite album’. It was the Woman album with me Mum on it!”
Indeed, the Woman album holds a photograph of Mary McCartney, but to her son’s embarrassment, the radio host mistook her for a nun. “The nun’s me mum,” McCartney says. “Cause everyone looks at it and says it looks like a nun in the habit. It’s actually me mum dressed as a nurse, but everyone thinks is a nun. He says, ’Is that your mother? I never knew that’!”
McCartney is an impressive mimic and naturally flits between London and Liverpudlian. Fitting for a man who’s half Irish, he can carry off a strong impersonation of a man just departed from the Emerald Isle. Ireland boasts a great lineage of comic writers, from Laurence Sterne’s sharply written accounts of a toff in despair to Dave Allen’s scathing depictions of a Church driven by drink and desolation. McCartney, a born performer, similarly sharpened his comic tools by working with other members from the Irish diaspora. “I first met Roger McGough and John ‘Scaffold Tiswas’ Gorman in Hope Hall. I was a ladies barber in André Bernards, city centre, and the guy I was passing pins to said, ‘You’d like the Hope Hall, because they have these events and happenings, etc.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s a theatre.’”
Beneath the cinema that catered for the more mainstream contingent stood a theatre of absurdity. The idea probably stemmed from French spectacle, but the humour, passionate, piercing and irreverent-could only have stemmed from Northern England. “I saw these blokes: One was called John Gorman, who was a post office engineer; one was Roger McGough, a teacher; one was called Adrian Henry, a painter, and poet, mainly a painter, who became the Liverpool scene… They would all do these improvised things: written sketches on pieces of paper. [They would] do poetry, etc. There were two girls there called Celia Mortimer and Jenny Beatty. That’s where I met McGough and Gorman in the Hope Hall. I used to go every week, and one week, they said, ‘You come every week, would you like to do a sketch?’ I said, ‘My brother’s in a group-he does show business! I’m just an apprentice ladies hairdresser.’ They went, ‘Oh, I’m a post office engineer… All we do is read these pieces of paper.’
Tasked with a sketch called Old Folks Home, McCartney (soon to rename himself Mike McGear for a period) was tasked with playing an old man. “I made him Landan,” McCartney chuckles. Keenly aware how much time has passed, the man in front relishes the time that he (“a young lad of eighteen”) had to transform himself into an elderly pensioner. He performs his “old voice”, a spirited routine of dentures and dementia (“A bit like Clive Thingy from Dad’s Army.”). Luckily, his persona was a hit, and McCartney continued to work as part of The Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show (later changed to The Scaffold, the title inspired by a Miles Davis album, much to the relief of radio presenters) for the next few years. “Now, there were two sshow-offsin the family!”
Like the “other showoff”, McCartney was eager to entertain as many people as he could. The Scaffold worked out what gags worked with which audiences, what settings to set their sketches to, and what songs to bring into their show. Elton John (then Reginald Dwight) worked as a backing vocalist on their recordings, and The Scaffold enjoyed a monster UK hit with ‘Lily The Pink’.
“Even better to knock the bloody Beatles off the thingy – the best band in the world! Whatever it was, the joy of that was absolute magic. It was great, and I think it got in the Guinness Book of Records. Once you got to number one, that’s it! You get to Top of the Pops: Very popular, where you have been for two or three weeks, and that’s it! Just after Christmas, it slipped down from the top spot, and that’s it – you’re dead! But this year, for the first time, they had this thing called gift vouchers, and families all over Britain were giving each other gift vouchers. So they did, after Christmas, they all went into the record stores and asked for ‘Lily The Pink’. They brought it back to number one, and that was the first time it happened.”
Who wrote the songs in the band? “‘Lily The Pink’ was a filthy, old rugby song. Absolutely disgusting. You could never sing that on anything – you’d get locked up! And the other two members – Gorman and McGough – used to sing it in rugby clubs and things. They sang the rugby version. After I wrote a song called ‘Thank U Very Much For The Aintree Iron’, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Queen’s mum’s favourite record. I wrote a song with McGough’s words that went, Do do do you remember, do do do you recall?’”.
To my ears, The Scaffold’s jaunty rendition of pub favourite ‘Liverpool Lou’ remains their finest hour. Given his musical disposition, McCartney sang the number, and his brother (now fronting Wings) acted as producer. By that time, he had recorded two solo albums, the second, McGear, featured Wings as his in house studio band. On one occasion, when McCartney happened to be in Dublin, he appeared on The Late Late Show, where he was asked to sing ‘Liverpool Lou’. Stunned by the request, McCartney pointed out that his backing band were overseas in England before Gay Byrne pointed him to Paddy Moloney, the uilleann player who would accompany him. “Paddy says, ‘Don’t worry, I’m your band for today.’ He takes out from his front pocket a penny whistle… I thought, ‘You cheeky buggers: Paddy, you’re on!’ So, I sang ‘Liverpool Lou’.” McCartney says the performance was enjoyable and asks if anyone has a recording of the show to contact him. Joining McCartney was April Ashley, a Liverpudlian transgender starlet who joined The Scaffold frontman in his posh hotel. “April comes in: ‘Champagne, champagne all round.’ That was it; non-stop flowing. And so that was over. But whatever tour I was doing, suddenly a couple of weeks later, I got a call from the publisher. ‘What the hell were you doing in Dublin? Your bill for the hotel is five hundred thousand pounds!’ Something ridiculous like that. What April had been doing was putting it all on my room!”
We could go down this avenue of memories, but time is short, so we return to what McCartney labels “a magical book.” He captures The Beatles at their wackiest and most downright weird. It only takes a mention of one Beatle pic for the irascible smile to return.
“Our kid has his top off,” McCartney says. “I always said ‘That’s Marcel Marceau John and ‘That’s Rambo Paul’ because he looks a bit like Sylvester Stallone with his shirt off – with a daft face on. ‘Nipple Shooting George’ because he’s pointing a finger at our kid’s nipple. And what did I call Pete Best…” After a moment of pause, he doesn’t remember the nickname, but agrees that it’s a strong photo. Pete Best, McCartney feels, was a “good looking lad”, and some of the photos demonstrate the moody, melancholic posturings the drummer was renowned for. In his book, McCartney has a photo of Best seated at the front of the stage, with the three guitarists stood behind him. With those sullen eyes and anguished smile, he fits the front well, not one eye peeking behind him. Say what you want about his drumming, but there was a touch of the James Dean about Best!
“There are certain photographs when you capture them, like you said of me dad, it tells the story of the people. There’s a new one that no one’s ever seen, and it is in The Cavern dressing room. Our kid’s on the left, and he has a tambourine if you look closely [at the book], trying to distract Bob Wooler, The Cavern DJ, who is talking to Gene Vincent, one of our big heroes. John is on the right, and he says, ‘Mike, have you got your camera?’”
But before he can hit the punchline, he reminds me that, “This was one of our heroes.” And in an ever-changing England, rock was becoming the new royalty. “In those days, to actually go from a record, we didn’t know that they were black: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Didley. All our big heroes – we didn’t know what colour they were!”
All they had at hand was their records, recordings that conjured whole pictures of a landscape far adrift from Liverpool. “John said, ‘No flash!’ Our kid’s got his tambourine trying to distract Bob Wooler and Gene Vincent, and Josh..”
He’s joshing: “Oh, Josh! John is at the back of Gene Vincent, by his bum, and you know the way you goose someone?”
He clarifies that “goosing” is grabbing “someone’s bum.” It’s not a practice we encourage these days, but McCartney still chortles at John Lennon’s attempts to pinch his hero’s bottom. “He couldn’t resist having a joke; Scousers!”
“There’s another one,” McCartney continues. “I said to our kid, ‘I’ve taken one of you with Gene Vincent, with all the leathers.’ Looking magnificent.”
The leather jackets, he confirms, stemmed from Marlon Brando’s brooding performance in The Wild Ones. It started a trend both Vincent and The Beatles were eager to continue. “Can you imagine in The Cavern…It was very hot, you can see it in some of my pictures, you can see the ceiling and it’s dripping…The paint is dripping off.”
He straightens his glasses: “It was like our house in Forthlin Road, when our mum died, we were there seven or eight years without any ladies, and so it just got dilapidated. So, when you had a bath, all the [ceiling] paint strip fell into the bath. Same thing in The Cavern- dripped off the ceiling. I’d taken all the pictures with our heroes.”
Dutifully, he turned to his brother and asked him to take a photo of him with Gene Vincent. Paul obliged. “I was a lady’s hairdresser then, a ladies barber. So, I have me hairdressing comb in me pocket. And I comb me hair over – I had black hair then – and got me to comb, and stuck under me thingy [nose]. I pretended to be Adolf Hitler: didn’t go down too well!”
During the course of his tales, the doorbell rings. His books, he tells me, have arrived. “I’m signing two thousand books. Freya, my wife’s sister’s daughter, is here. I’ve signed eight hundred books with the help of Freya, and now they’ve brought up another one thousand two hundred from Genesis down in Guilford. I have to sign them – it’s quite a big job.”
But like everything in his life, McCartney wants to do it right: “Freya was just saying, ‘Why do you sign them all differently?’ That’s a lot of, lot of signatures. ‘Why do you sign them all differently?’ Because each customer that buys this book is different: even if they are twins, they are going to be different! So, I can’t sign the same every time. Peter Blake does his exactly the same each time, so you know you’re getting the Peter, but mine are different. As well as getting bored signing the same thing the same, I have to make it different for you, if you buy the book.”
Even when he’s writing autographs, he’s still thinking about how best to entertain an audience.
Mike McCartney’s Early Liverpool is published by Genesis Publications, you can find more info on his website, here.