Being Paul McCartney’s younger brother can’t be easy. Imagine gathering around that Christmas Day dining table and hearing, “Well, it’s been a good year for Paul, it looks like he has actually really changed the shape of global cultural history this time out, so well done there…” Needless to say, life’s not a competition, but that’s a legacy that proves hard to size up to.
However, Peter McCartney, known professionally as Mike McGear, had one glorious moment in the sun when he joyously usurped his brother’s constant torrent of one-upmanship with, well, with essentially a sort of prog-rock adult nursery rhyme. As a member of the comedy group The Scaffold, McGear inexplicably enjoyed enormous success in 1968 with the track ‘Lilly the Pink’.
The song took the top spot in the UK singles chart for a whopping four weeks over Christmas and celebrated a similar feat in Australia and Ireland, where it was also number one. In the rest of Europe, people took a fondness to it too, ensuring that it even outsold some of The Beatles less commercial singles.
The track is based on the old folk song ‘The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham’, but over the terrace-chanted melody is a whimsical psalm about a miraculous super-drug invented by the esteemed Lilly the Pink, one that cures a weak appetite by inducing morbid obesity and remedies freckles by causing a sex change. It is perhaps too much of a stretch to say that the song pronounces some sort of Big Pharma satire based on the simple joviality of its production.
At the time when The Beatles first made it big, McGear had been working as an apprentice hairdresser. As tales from his big brother reached home, he must have been dazzled by the bright lights and sought to grasp his own slice of the pie. Naturally, he thought the best way to do so was to join a local comedy-poetry-music group, which, as we all know, is the instant fast track vehicle to stardom.
Aside from the smashing Christmas number one of ‘Lilly the Pink’, McGear also scored a number of other hits with The Scaffold, including ‘Thank U Very Much’ and ‘Gin Gan Goolie’. The Scaffold merged into Grimm after they added several other comedic poets to their line-up, but tensions mounted as a few too many cooks began to stir the hilarious broth, and McGear quit the band. Thereafter, he released a few solo singles, collaborated with Wings and eventually embarked on a photography career.
The reason the star opted for a pseudonym was that he didn’t want people to think he was clinging to his brother’s creative coattails, which naturally they would’ve, considering the similar introspective and profoundly poignant style that they were both propagating. Interestingly, the word ‘Gear’ was a Liverpudlian equivalent of Fab at the time; thus, the moniker he chose was in some way a nod to his brother. Only time will tell which of the McCartney family wins the artistic battle in the history books, but my money’s on Mike and his fantastic tale of a man who uses his sticky-out ears to fly. It’s the song McCartney wishes he wrote, and The Scaffold are the band The Beatles could’ve been.