Remembering the moment Paul McCartney joined Allen Ginsberg to perform ‘Ballad of the Skeletons’
Two performers so synonymous with the word ‘Beat’ that we promise it is the last time we will make the reference, joined forces on the 16th October in 1995 when Paul McCartney joined forces with iconic poet Allen Ginsberg to give a rousing performance at the Royal Albert Hall.
The Beat poet was joined by The Beatles man to perform a musical adaptation of Ginsberg’s poem ‘Ballad Of The Skeletons’. The clip below shows the pair enjoy their driving performance and send the audience home with a piece of cultural history.
As a member of the Beat poetry movement that raged through America during the ’40s and ’50s, Allen Ginsberg was a huge influence on the rock and roll acts that followed. His creative fury and passion was a notion that may have influenced a young Paul McCartney. With Ginsberg and compatriots, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, et al, filling the roles of rock stars for the age, their influence on the swinging sixties was hard to ignore.
By 1995 the two icons of their field had achieved pretty much all there was to achieve in music and poetry. Paul McCartney was one largely known as one of the greatest songwriters to have ever lived while Ginsberg remains to this day as one of the most influential men in literature. Yet, neither artist seemed willing to slow down. So perhaps it’s natural that the two combine for a wonderful performance of ‘Ballad of the Skeletons’.
Ginsberg had written the poem amid the murky social climate of mid-nineties America, publishing it in 1995. A year later he told Harvey Kubernik of the LA Times, “I started it because [of] all that inflated bull about the family values, the ‘contract with America,’ Newt Gingrich and all the loudmouth stuff on talk radio, and Rush Limbaugh and all those other guys. It seemed obnoxious and stupid and kind of sub-contradictory, so I figured I’d write a poem to knock it out of the ring.”
Despite nearing the end of his life, Ginsberg’s determination for truth and love above all else clearly prevailed, leading to the poet’s pursuit of performance wherever he could find it. One place he did find a spot was at the home of one paul McCartney who had invited the poet to his home in England. During the evening, Ginsberg began performing some of his poetry and recited ‘Ballad of the Skeletons’ for McCartney and his family.
The singer’s family were all besotted by Ginsberg’s warm, off-beat personality and were thrilled to see that Ginsberg would also be reciting some poems for an audience at the Royal Albert Hall. The poet also mentioning with a perhaps not so subtle hint that he needed a guitarist for the final number.
In a 1996 interview with Steve Silberman for HotWired, Ginsberg picked up the rest of the story, “He showed up at 5 p.m. for the soundcheck, and he bought a box for his family. Got all his kids together, four of them, and his wife, and he sat through the whole evening of poetry, and we didn’t say who my accompanist was going to be. We introduced him at the end of the evening, and then the roar went up on the floor of the Albert Hall, and we knocked out the song.”
The performance, a powerful and meaningful flurry of creativity, also led way for another collaboration between the two artists, this time with a not-too-shabby third man. As he tells Silberman, “He [McCartney] said if I ever got around to recording it, let him know. So he volunteered, and we made a basic track, and sent it to him, on 24 tracks, and he added maracas and drums, which it needed. It gave it a skeleton, gave it a shape. And also organ, he was trying to get that effect of Al Kooper on the early Dylan. And guitar, so he put a lot of work in on that. And then we got it back just in time for Philip Glass to fill in his arpeggios on piano.” Not a bad pianist to call on in a time of need.
The final recording is marvellous piece of work. Ginsberg delivers his laser-targeted lines with the same vigour and veracity he had at his inflammatory beginnings. All the while McCartney and Glass sonically coax the imagery out of Ginsberg’s words, which, when all put together, makes for a truly otherworldly track.
You can listen to the full song from 1996 below. But first, take in the 1995 performance when Paul McCartney joined Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall for a special performance of ‘Ballad of the Skeletons’.