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Posts Tagged ‘The Beatles’

Paul McCartney: The Biography, Philip Norman (W&N 2016)

If you look in the dictionary under “rock’n’roll”, you’ll find a picture of Paul McCartney. Yup. With a big black line through it. Macca is possibly the least rock’n’roll person on the Planet, man. Rock’n’roll should be down’n’dirty. Macca deals in light-and-frothy. Rock’n’rollers should be mean and menacing. Macca is music-hall. His ideal instrument would be the banjo, not the bass.

But he remains fascinating for in terms of issues around certain core components of his life-journey. For the size and longevity of his fame. That’s one component. For the rumours of his several illegitimate offspring. That’s another. Philip Norman engages issues around this toxically tantalizing topic in terms of chapter five:

“Boys will be boys!” Brian [Epstein] would say with a camp, self-satirizing sigh when news came to him that another girl was claiming that one of the Beatles was the father of her infant child. Sometimes Brian could quickly prove that the girl was mistaken or lying, but sometimes he would have to write a cheque or find some other way of keeping the girl’s family quiet and his beloved boys out of the headlines. […] Most of the claims were directed at Paul, who cut a swathe through the young female fans of the Beatles with his good looks and easy charm. “Paul would have the fun, then Brian would have to clean up the mess,” as an anonymous member of Beatles’ circle would later put it. Perhaps the worst mess of all was that of the Bootle girl, said to be of gipsy heritage, who turned up at Brian’s office with her young son and claimed that Paul was his father.

As the same anonymous informant told me: “Brian took one look at the child and realized that she must be telling the truth, because he was an angelic-looking kid who must have been the dead spit of Paul at the same age.” But the girl wasn’t after money or marriage, like so many of those who had preceded her and would follow: as a fanatical Beatles fan, what she wanted more than anything else in the world was for Paul to write a song just for her. Not only that: she wanted to be the only one to ever hear it. As the price of her silence, she demanded that a song be written and recorded by Paul entirely in secret, then passed to her as a unique single — the only one of its kind in existence anywhere. Brian was forced to agree and persuaded a reluctant Paul that he had to comply with the girl’s wishes.

Or so the story goes. If it is true, then a lost McCartney classic may still be out there, unheard by all the world except for a single gypsy girl and perhaps her family. What would that rumoured single be worth if it were put up for auction today? Even a song of average quality might fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds; if it matched the quality of “Yesterday” or “Michelle”, the sky would be the limit. But of course there would be a legal minefield to tread, because Paul himself would certainly lay claim to the song and any profits to be made from it. For all we can say at the moment, however, the rumours of the Lost Single are either untrue or the gipsy girl prefers to keep the song just for herself.

Is the song out there? Does the Gipsy girl still listen to it? Has she ever let her son in on the secret? Does he know that he has a Moppa-Toppa Poppa? Esoteric questions for feral folk.

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Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, Alwyn W. Turner (V&A Publishing, 2008)

This is a big book about big names. But not always respected names: Cliff Richard is a by-word for “bland” and Tommy Steele was much more music-hall than mean, moody and magnificent. And some of the names were big back then, half-forgotten now, like the charismatic but unlucky Billy Fury from Liverpool. He was born Ronnie Wycherley, which explains his change of name. Vince Eager, Georgie Fame, Johnny Gentle, Dickie Pride and Marty Wilde weren’t born under those names either. Re-invention is an important part of rock: musos are made to sound and look meaner. Or milder. The Beatles, who appear in the final chapter, were taken out of their black leather. Which is ironic, because it was inspired by Gene Vincent, who was put into his:

Vincent had been brought over to Britain by Jack Good, primarily to appear as the star of the television show Boy Meets Girls. Anticipating danger, Good had been horrified to meet off the plane a polite Southern gentleman. “I thought he was going to be a dagger boy, the rock and roll screaming end,” he remembered, before adding with some relish, “I had to fix him.” He readjusted Vincent’s look so that, by the time the star reached the television screen, he was dressed in black leather and ostentatiously dragged his damaged leg behind him. When asked later about this new image, Good cited Shakespeare’s Richard III as a model, with the moodiness of Hamlet thrown in, and admitted that the set was constructed to make it more difficult for his star: “I arranged for some steps so that he could hobble nicely on TV, but he negotiated them very well and hardly looked as if he was hobbling at all. I had to yell out, ‘Limp, you bugger, limp!’ He didn’t mind. He limped.” (ch. 3, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, pg. 94)

Vincent was an idol of the Shadows, Cliff Richard’s backing group, and the bassist Jet Harris is quoted as saying: “That’s what we called real rock and roll.” But the Shadows appeared in suits, not black leather, and so did all the other British acts discussed and pictured here. They might have admired Gene Vincent, but they dressed like Buddy Holly. And played like him too: British rockers didn’t have the primal power, the jungle rumble, of Americans like Gene Vincent, Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran. Unlike Elvis, that trio all performed in Britain, but doing so killed Eddie Cochran: he died in a car-crash near Bristol in 1960 at only the age of 21. He was the greatest of the early rockers, I think, or at least the greatest might-have-been. If you’ve never heard “Somethin’ Else”, “C’mon Everybody” or “Summertime Blues”, you haven’t heard the roots of rock. If Cochran did all that having barely left his teens, what might he have done later?

He reminds me of Évariste Galois, the French mathematician who died at twenty but whose work is still honoured in his field. I don’t think Cochran was a genius like Galois, but he had great talent and he stands out in his photos, on-stage in 1960, like a peacock among crows. His backing players, presumably British, wear suits and ties. Cochran wears black-leather trousers and a metallic waistcoast over a plaid shirt. He dominates the stage as he might have dominated the ’60s, but he never reached 1961. His posthumous single, “Three Steps to Heaven”, topped the charts in Britain but “didn’t even make the top 100 in the United States”. It wasn’t a very good single, after all, but Britain was grateful for his tour and he has always remained popular here. It would be some time before Brits were brewing rock’n’roll as potent as that of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent at their best. Vincent was hampered by a bad leg. Perhaps Brits were hampered by good taste.

You can see them beginning to shake it off here, but the most memorable photo remains that of Eddie Cochran in 1960, king of the stage and ready to reign in the decade ahead. He’d never get a chance to and the book says he foresaw this. After Buddy Holly died in a plane-crash, Cochran had premonitions of his own death in an accident. He wanted to stop touring and concentrate on studio work. But the need for money brought him across the Atlantic and sent him back dead. It’s a memorable story, which is why I mistrust it. The re-inventions of rock don’t stop after death and Cochran pioneered more than music for Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. They too would die young and attract memorable stories, but there’s little hint of their drugs and decadence here. Cochran was about songs, not sybaritism, and didn’t celebrate self-indulgence.

He’d be in his seventies now, like the Rolling Stones, who don’t quite make this book. That’s appropriate, because I think he’d have given more to music if he’d survived.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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