In the late 1950s, Liverpool was thick with home-grown poets, writers and artists who revered American beat poets and painters. But because of Liverpool's geographic isolation from the main of England and Liverpudlians' fast, snappy brand of humor, the approach came with a wicked wit. And still does, based on my most recent trip to the city for The Wall Street Journal (go here) and stay at the Hope Street Hotel (more below).
Back in the early '60s, a serious intellect combined with an irreverent sense of humor typically resulted in what we now refer to as Pop, a social-mocking movement that started in England in the mid-1950s. Pop sensibilities ran through much of the arts in Liverpool—from sculpture and poetry to painting and music.
But there was another trait that distinguished Liverpudlians—indefatigable charm. Unlike most other cities' bohemias, where artists and writers tended to be highly educated, brooding, dark folk, Liverpudlians had a less grim view of the world. Their optimism came from an appreciation of life, a bright sense of tomorrow and a dread of not being more special than the next guy or gal in some way. They also had plenty of will and fortitude, since most teens came from lower-income households. [Pictured above: Liverpudlian Cilla Black]
One of the few eyewitnesses and participants in several of Liverpool's arts cliques in the early '60s was Mike McCartney. Not only was his brother Paul a rising talent who played the local clubs, but Mike also was part of the flourishing improv community that intersected with the poets and musicians.
"The humor here is sharp but it isn't meant to be a put-down," Mike said. "You heard it for the first time at Kennedy Airport when the Beatles arrived and held a press conference. To your ear, their flip answers may have seemed rude. But that wasn't their goal at all. That kind of humor is a reflex here. Everyone has it. It's used to test your agility and cleverness."
Liverpudlian humor also is applied fast and without warning. I had several opportunities to experience the humor and to put it to good use. On one of the days, I bought a sandwich at a supermarket. When I asked the checkout girl if she had a napkin, she said, "Sorry, we only have large packages for sale." I said, "That's OK, I'll use the back of my coat, as usual." Without missing a beat, she said, "That's great. Just be sure to turn it inside out first." Think of the brand of humor as a form of Ping-Pong meant to see if one is up-to-snuff. If you visit, be sure to bring your A-game.
On the day Mike and I were scheduled to meet, he drove up in a black VW Touareg. He hopped out and walked toward me. "MM?" he said," to which I replied, "MM, how are you?" We both laughed at sharing the same initials. Then Mike took me on a driving tour of the city.
Our first stop was just up Hope Street—at the "Inny" (Liverpool Institute High School for Boys) where Paul and Mike went to school. Next door was the Liverpool College of Art school that John Lennon had attended. Mike grew quiet.
"When our mother died in October 1956, me, Our Kid and our father were in shock." ("Our Kid" is a Liverpudlian phrase for a sibling). "Even though John [Lennon] went to a different school and was older, Paul and John grew close after his own mother was killed in 1958 by a police car. Paul was enthralled with him and made a big fuss when he brought him over after school for the first time." [Photo above of John Lennon at the McCartney home in 1962 by Mike McCartney]
Though Mike's drumming days were over after his arm was injured at scout camp, he became an avid photographer and music fan, often combining the two. Mike documented the early Merseybeat scene when Paul, John, George, Pete Best and all the rest were just coming up. Mike is planning a definitive Liverpool photography book.
Mike also showed me where he worked as a sales apprentice at Jacksons the Tailors and then as a hairdresser at Andre Bernard's. "From up there," he said, pointing to where the salon had been on Ranelagh Street [pictured], "I could see Our Kid unloading parcels from lorries at Lewis’s Department Store, George Harrison working as an apprentice electrician at Blacklers next door, and Brian Epstein’s brother Clive across the street at a tiny NEMS music store.”
We visited the Museum of Liverpool, where Mike's exhibit of 30 celebrity photos was being held. "Back in December, Queen Elizabeth came to see the museum, and I had the honor of escorting her through my images," Mike said. "Along the way she remarked that she liked one of my portraits. I said to her with a smile, 'I'd be happy to take your portrait—special price.' Well, she gave me this fun look, and I could tell she has a wonderful, playful sense of humor"
We also drove past the site where the Hope Hall Cinema had stood. It's now being rebuilt. But back in 1962, there was a warren of rooms in the basement that served as Liverpool's Greenwich Village. “There were happenings there—poets reading to audiences, and the like," Mike said. "That’s where I began doing comedy improv."
Within months, Mike, Mike McGough (pronounced Mc-GUFF) and John Gorman formed a group that put melodies to their poems and improvised stories around them. They called themselves the Liverpool One Fat Lady, All Electric Show. "One Fat Lady" is a nickname for the 8 in bingo.
Though somewhat whimsical, the Liverpool poetry movement was special. Known as the Merseysound, poets took on everything and anything, flexibly raising topics. Poets included Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, John Gorman, Heather Holden, Spike Hawkins, Pete Brown and others.
When the Beatles arrived in the U.S. in 1964 and quickly became a pop phenomenon, Liverpool's status soared in Britain. Long thought of as England's lower set, teens throughout the country began to affect a Liverpudlian accent. Regional television swept into Liverpool and signed Mike, McGough and Gorman to perform comic improv skits weekly. "It was a risk to quit our jobs and give it a go, but we all did," Mike said.
Clearly, the trio had to change the group's impossible name. "Everyone loved Miles Davis, and we were big fans of Lift to the Scaffold, the 1958 French film soundtrack that you called Elevator to the Gallows," Mike said. "It was all very existential—a scaffold that held a gallows. Wow. So we called ourselves The Scaffold."
Next came what used to be Paradise Street and is now part of the outdoor shopping mall known as Liverpool One. Across the way was a facade adorned by a large spread eagle. "There's the Eagle Pub [pictured], where American soldiers congregated during World War II," Mike said about the now-vacant space. "Me mates and I were in there one day and I decided I needed a pseudonym for a last name. McFab was a bit over the top but McGear was inside enough that it worked."
Mike did not want to appear to be riding his brother's coattails. In 1965, George Martin produced a Scaffold single with 2 Days Monday and 3 Blind Jelly Fish. The trio also toured as comic relief for Manfred Mann and the Yardbirds.
By June 1967, with Sgt. Pepper complete and released, Paul decided to produce an album for Mike and McGough. Called McGough & McGear, the album featured poetry, drinking songs and a range of other English Music Hall fare. The album opens with the sound of surf, making one wonder whether The Who leveraged the idea for Quadrophenia in 1973.
On McGough & McGear, Mike did the singing and McGough did the narrating. "I couldn't play an instrument well enough to record: I played the tape recorder," Mike said. "I'd take what I wanted and then play it for the musicians."
Those musicians happened to be friends of Paul's who were in London at the time. The "studio" musicians included Graham Nash, John Mayall, Spencer Davis, Dave Mason and Jimi Hendrix.
"I asked Our Kid who the guitarist was going to be for a session," Mike said. "He told me Jimi Hendrix. So I went out and bought food and drink—an entire bar. I expected an entourage. But when the bell at the studio rang, it was just Jimi, saying he was there for the session.
“Jimi played his solo on the first take and it was far out. Our Kid and I were in the control booth, and he asked me what I thought. I told him it was a bit too far out. Our Kid told me to go in the studio and tell him and show him what I wanted.
"So I went in and sat with Jimi on the floor during the next take, tapping his knee to tell him when to play. After, when Our Kid played back the track for me and asked which take I liked, I told him the first one. Our Kid told me I had made a good choice. But when I asked for the first take, the engineer had erased it to make room for the next take. I learned a valuable lesson that day.”
In 1967, the Scaffold recorded Thank U Very Much, which was written by Mr. McCartney after he phoned his brother to thank him for the Nikon F 35mm camera he received as a holiday gift. The song reached No. 4. "I heard that it was the Queen Mother's favorite song—the family used to sing it together, stopping to let the Queen Mother sing one specific line: 'Thank you for our gracious Queen." I didn't have the heart to tell them that the line was "Thank you very much for our gracious team"—the Liverpool soccer team.
In 1968, the group recorded Lily the Pink, which whimsied-up a drinking song poking fun at Lydia Pinkham's Medicinal Compound, an American patent medicine. The song hit number 1 twice. "Soon after it was released in December, it went to No. 1," Mike said. "Then it dropped slightly in the charts. But mothers had bought their children NEMS gift certificates, so after Christmas, they all ran out and bought Lily the Pink with their gifts, sending it back to No. 1." [In video below, from left, Mike McCartney, John Gorman and Roger McGough]
Next, Mike recorded two solo albums—Woman in 1972 and McGear in 1974, on which he was backed by Paul McCartney & Wings.
That night, over dinner, we talked about Mike's photography books and how unfortunate it was that they were out-of-print. That's when he told me about the definitive Liverpool photo book he was planning that will tell the story of the arts scene there—and will feature his previously unpublished images of the Beatles before fame swept them away.
Thanks, Mike, for showing a New Yawker a good time.
JazzWax travel tip: If you happen to find yourself drawn to Liverpool, I heartily recommend the Hope Street Hotel. The staff was as cheery as a music box, and the restaurant was positively sublime. That latter was and is chef Paul Askew's doing [pictured above].
JazzWax pages: The day after my adventure with Michael, I searched the city's used book stores for books on Liverpool's poets. I picked up three gems: A Gallery to Play To: The Story of the Mersey Poets by Phil Bowen, The Mersey Sound: Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Edward Lucie-Smith's The Liverpool Scene.
Two of Mike's books well worth grabbing if you can find them are Thank U Very Much: Mike McCartney's Family Album and Remember: The Recollections and Photographs of the Beatles.
JazzWax Note: For more on Mike McCartney, go here. You can follow him on Twitter at Mike McCartney @_MikeMcCartney_. Watch those underscores! His Twitter has this picture.
JazzWax tracks: You will find the newly re-issued McGough & McGear (Real Gone Music) here, Woman here and McGear here. On the cover of Woman, that's an image of Mike and Paul McCartney's mother in her nurse's headgear, not a nun.
JazzWax clips: Here's Mike McCartney talking recently about his exhibit at the Museum of Liverpool...
Here's the Beatles' All You Need Is Love. Mike pop up at 1:06, at the shin of his brother Paul...
And here's Paul McCartney's video for Let 'Em In, from 1976, featuring black-and-white photos by Brother Michael...