The White Album might not be The Beatles’ best work, but it’s certainly their most diverse, culminating in a rich collection of sound, ranging across the realms of the genre. Due to the ambition and the expressive nature of the album, it allowed Paul McCartney – the most chameleonic and avant-garde member of The Beatles – to explore the genre of country and western. ‘Rocky Raccoon’ is his most carefree and wittiest number on the track, as it showcases the exploratory nature of his sardonic metier.
McCartney plays acoustic guitar, leaving George Harrison on bass duties, while John Lennon flits from harmonium and harmonica on a recording that influenced covers by Andrew Gold, James Blunt and Phish. Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks copped that ‘That’s All’ was inspired by ‘Rocky Raccoon’, proving that the song had a long shelf life. As it happens, the song was unusually docile for a song that has created a tidal wave in the realm of popular culture, but for the bassist, it was an autobiographical gesture.
“‘Rocky Raccoon’ is quirky, very me,” he opined. “I like talking blues so I started off like that, then I did my tongue-in-cheek parody of a western and threw in some amusing lines. I just tried to keep it amusing, really; it’s me writing a play, a little one-act play giving them most of the dialogue.”
The bassist and keyboardist claim that the central themes and characters stemmed from his head, onto the page in question. In many ways, it stands as a chamber piece, which was ostensibly a continuation of the elegies ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’. The songs in question differed from the spiritual pieces Harrison used as a means of letting his beliefs out to the public.
“Rocky Raccoon is the main character, then there’s the girl whose real name was Magill, who called herself Lil, but she was known as Nancy,” he said. “There are some names I use to amuse, Vera, Chuck and Dave or Nancy and Lil, and there are some I mean to be serious, like Eleanor Rigby, which are a little harder because they have to not be joke names. In this case Rocky Raccoon is some bloke in a raccoon hat, like Davy Crockett.”
In many ways, ‘Rocky Raccoon’ points to his solo career, including a raft of cartoon characters that seeped into his work, whether it was the jaunty horses that cemented ‘Jet’, or the painter that made his way in ‘Picasso’s Last Words’. Caught in the world-building, McCartney made sure that the characters came across as believably and as completely to bring his characters to life.
No matter that the world might be comical, McCartney never took the assignment anything less than seriously, as the melodies ripped and roared through the proceedings, creating a burning sense of persuasion and passion. His work with Mike McCartney delved further into the world of literature, as it stemmed from a narrative that spun a piece about abandoning the trappings of materialism for a more plaintive life on a desert.
Then there was Thrillington, which was McCartney’s way of transposing Ram – considered by many to be his finest work – into something more orchestral and lush in its design. And when he braved himself to write ‘We All Stand Together’, an orchestral piece written around the personal turmoil of a collection of frogs, it was done against the backdrop of Rupert and The Frog Song, written more completely than many of the tunes heard on McCartney’s Pipes of Peace.
It was easier for him to sing through the characters of his imagination, rather than sing about the problems of his childhood. What it brought up was a sense of clarity, and a sense of cohesion, which likely explains why he’s been so reluctant to sing from a personal point.
To my mind, he’s only opened himself up on three occasions: There was the bellowing ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, a soaring mini-opera that bestowed his admiration for the woman who bore him a family; there was the jaunty ‘Young Boy’, which recalled the conversations he enjoyed with his adult son; and then there was ‘Here Today’, as McCartney realised he could no longer enjoy a world with John Lennon.