Paul McCartney was born sixty-eight years ago today. His mother Mary (as in "mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom") was a nurse. His father, James, was an amateur musician. He had his own "Jim Mac's Jazz Band" back in the hot jazz days, and he brought Paul and younger brother Mike up with an appreciation for all kinds of music. The family listened closely to old 78 records and the radio, and McCartney developed a keen ear and passion to make music of his own. After a brief interlude with a trumpet that his dad gave him, he was inspired by the skiffle craze to pick up the guitar. He swapped his horn for a Framus Zenith acoustic model. It wasn't until he saw an image of Slim Whitman that he realized he could restring the instrument backwards for easier playing as a lefty. As Lonnie Donegan belted out Rock Island Line and other skiffle hits, McCartney wrote his first tunes, including When I'm Sixty-Four. In 1956, Paul found his "messiah" Elvis Presley. With Elvis, the floodgates of Rock came rushing in with the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers.
McCartney's childhood friend, Ivan Vaughan (also born on June 18th), brought him to the Woolton County Fete on July 6, 1957, where he formally met John Lennon for the first time. The two of them shared a love for Rock n Roll, especially two rockabilly cats that would tour England quite a bit in those early years, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent (Vincent seen below with Paul and John in matching leather gear). As the story goes of that first meeting, McCartney impressed Lennon with Cochran's Twenty-Flight Rock and Lennon played Vincent's Be-Bop-A-Lula for the first time on stage. McCartney joined Lennon's band, and history followed with Hamburg, Liverpool's Cavern, world tours, Sergeant Pepper, and beyond.
Although the movie A Hard Days Night created an on-screen persona of McCartney as the cute, crooning Beatle, history shows that McCartney and Lennon belted out rockers and ballads equally. McCartney's musical background did broaden his pallet to include jazz and show tune-influenced songs, which Lennon called "granny music" in his vitriolic years. And although Lennon embraced avant-garde projects in the later 1960s, it is not as well-known that McCartney was a cultural trailblazer for the group in the mid-1960s. While his band mates moved out to the suburbs, McCartney stayed in Swinging London to feed his appetite for new avenues of creativity. McCartney's lead Epiphone riff is featured in his song Paperback Writer, mimed by the band for this promotional video.
McCartney helped Barry Miles start the underground London paper, International Times and they attended happenings at the Roundhouse with performances by Beat Poets and The Pink Floyd. McCartney began to attend film screenings and to make experimental films. He also became fascinated with John Cage and the creation of tape loop, sound collages, which he called "electronic symphonies." He facilitated Lennon's contribution of his hand-written lyrics to The Word to Yoko Ono's score book for John Cage. McCartney helped to renovate and set up the Indica Gallery (Miles and McCartney shown below at Indica- where Lennon later met Yoko Ono). A true renascence man, McCartney's experiments fed many Beatles projects, including the seagull-sounding tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows, Sergeant Pepper as a concept album, a subsidiary record label devoted to poetry (including William S Burroughs) and experimental music, and the Magical Mystery Tour film.
Paul McCartney has continued to explore mainstream and experimental projects each year since his first, famous group disbanded in 1970. In the last twenty years, he has released many classical music compositions, new electronic experiments, an anthology of poetry (including a memorial to childhood pal, Ivan), and he exhibited a large body of work as a painter. How does he manage it? If lifestyle is any clue to his output, jogging, family, laughter, music, and being meat-free seem to be the top of the list. Spy Vibers will, of course, celebrate McCartney's addition to the world of James Bond with his theme to Live and Let Die. Others may also applaud him for his Swinging London style. It all comes back, however, to his deepest roots- music. He's a charismatic powerhouse on stage, which Spy Vibers can see for themselves during his current tour. I look forward to seeing him again next month in San Francisco!
Check out 68 years of McCartney on Pop Matters. Sir Paul was recently awarded the George Gershwin Award by President Obama. Photos from Getty Images, Richard Avedon, Mike McCartney, and press archives. If you are interested in seeing more of Paul McCartney's experimental work or historical projects, here are the essentials.
Working Classical (1999)
Run Devil Run (1999)
Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest (1993)
Liverpool Sound Collage (2000)
Electronic Arguments (2008)
Ballad of the Skeletons (Allen Ginsberg/1996)
Hiroshima Sky is Always Blue (unreleased/Yoko Ono/1995)
Good Evening New York City (2009)
Live At the Cavern Club (2001)
The Real Buddy Holly Story (2004)
My Old Friend (1998)
Paul McCartney Live in Red Square (2005)
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Music & Animation Collection (2004)
The Unknown Paul McCartney (2002)
Many Years From Now (1998)
The Complete Beatles Chronicle (2010)
Paul McCartney Paintings (2000)
The British Invasion (2009)