June 18, 2023


It's June 18th and time for my annual celebration of my favorite creative person, Paul McCartney! McCartney's friend and collaborator, Barry Miles, summed up their early years by saying, "I think of the 60s as a supermarket of ideas. We were looking for new ways to live." If Swinging London in the 1960s represented a hurricane of cultural revolution, McCartney was in the eye of the storm and constantly exploring. Indeed, Paul has just released a new book of his photography called 1964: Eyes of the Storm. On his 81st birthday, Spy Vibe looks back at the art of Paul McCartney.

Paul McCartney was born eighty-one 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 with a local jazz band, and he brought Paul and younger brother Mike up with an appreciation for all kinds of music. Young Paul developed a keen ear for the classics and a passion to make music of his own. After a brief interlude with a trumpet, Paul went to see Lonnie Donegan perform at Liverpool's Empire Theatre on November 11, 1956 and was swept up in the new Skiffle craze. He swapped his horn for a Framus Zenith acoustic model and began strumming away. 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 during the era, McCartney wrote his first tunes- including "When I'm Sixty-Four." In 1956, he found his "messiah," Elvis Presley. Elvis opened the floodgates of Rock and McCartney became a devotee of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. Photo below by brother Mike McCartney (of The Scaffold): playing guitar in his back yard at 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool. Although Paul has said in interviews that he has sad memories of the house -because of his mother's early death- the home is quite cheerful these days. I visited inside a few years back and found the rooms filled with light, family photos, and a vibe that said "the more the merrier!" Since I first wrote this tribute, Paul has also returned to visit inside the house and seemed moved and happy to remember the good times spent there writing his early songs with John Lennon, as well as family life with dad and brother. 

McCartney's childhood friend, Ivan Vaughan (also born on June 18th), brought him to the Woolton County Fete at St. Peter's Church on July 6, 1957, where he formally met John Lennon for the first time. The two boys shared a love for Rock n Roll, especially two rockabilly cats who toured England in those early years: Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Vincent is seen seen in the photo below with Paul and John at the Cavern dressed in matching leather gear. As the story goes of that first meeting at the Woolton Fete, 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 soon joined Lennon's band and history followed, from The Quarrymen to The Beatles, to Hamburg, The Cavern, Beatlemania, movies, world tours, Sgt. Pepper'sAbbey Road, and beyond! Below: John and the Quarrymen photographed at the 1957 Fete, along with one of the original floor panels from St. Peter's Church hall where they met (from my own collection); Paul and John with Gene Vincent.

While juggling the busy Beatles schedule, McCartney was a man about town in the mid-60s, soaking up inspiration from all corners of the arts. While his bandmates moved out to the suburbs, Paul helped Barry Miles start the underground paper, International Times, and they attended happenings at the Roundhouse with performances by Beat Poets and The Pink Floyd. McCartney got interested in arty film screenings and began to make his own experimental movies (his footage was later stolen). He also became fascinated with John Cage, Stockhausen, and the creation of tape loops and sound collages, which he called "electronic symphonies." McCartney's passion for experimentation fed back into a number of Beatles projects. In 1966 he met up with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop at Peter Zinovieff's garden studio space in Putney, with the idea of having them do an electronic version of Yesterday. Spy Vibers might know Derbyshire as the innovative sound pioneer who had created the experimental Doctor Who theme based on a score by Ron Grainer. Sadly no direct collaboration with Derbyshire followed, but Paul was surveying the possibilities. Most notably during that same year, Paul and the other Beatles created tape loops for "Tomorrow Never Knows." In 1967 he premiered a 14-minute experimental piece called "Carnival of Light" at the Roundhouse (the piece has never been released), in a program that included Delia Derbyshire's project, Unit Delta Plus, and a soundtrack to a Yoko Ono film on the same bill. Many more projects followed, including the Sgt. Pepper's album, the formation of Apple subsidiary Zapple Records with Barry Miles, devoted to poetry and experimental music (including work by William S. Burroughs), and the Magical Mystery Tour film. Years later, McCartney teamed with Sgt. Pepper's cover artist Peter Blake and other artists on an interesting experimental album called Liverpool Sound Collage (2000).

When John Cage was creating Notations, a book of graphic scores with help from Yoko Ono, McCartney facilitated the inclusion of Lennon's hand-written lyrics to "The Word" (Rubber Soul). And he helped to renovate and set up the Indica Gallery with Barry MilesPeter Asher and John Dunbar in Mason's Yard, where Lennon would later meet Ono in person. Moving with the London in-crowd, it would prove to be one of the most creatively fertile periods for both McCartney and The Beatles. As someone who has been curious and collaborative, McCartney has also intersected with many notable visual artists over the years, from Allen Jones, Richard Hamilton, Ed Ruscha and design firm Hipgnosis to Clive Barker, Brian Clarke, Humphrey Ocean, and Eduardo Paolozzi (Stuart Sutcliffe's one-time art teacher). Photo below: Barry Miles and McCartney at Indica.

In addition to his playful and prolific approach to recording and touring, McCartney has also been involved as an activist for a number of important issues. He has spoken out for animal rights for decades and has been a spokesman for PETA. He organized the Concert for New York after the attacks in 2001. And recently in March 2018, he participated in the March For Our Lives against gun violence. Photos below: PETA campaign poster and talking to the press in NYC about how one of his best friends (John Lennon) was killed by gun violence.

As my 2016 post The Curious Camera covered, Paul and the other Beatles were also constantly taking photographs while juggling the writing, performing, appearances, etc. 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. And he's continued to explore mainstream and experimental projects each year ever since. In the last twenty-five years, he's composed many classical music pieces, electronic experiments, an anthology of poetry (including a memorial to childhood pal, Ivan), and he exhibited a large body of work as a painter. He even wrote a fun kid's book called Gandude's Green Submarine! How does he manage it? If lifestyle is any clue to his creative output: jogging, family, laughter, music, and being meat-free seem to be the top of the list. It all comes back, however, to his deepest roots: music. That kid playing guitar in the backyard (photo above) is still driven to write and sing. News this week revealed that new technology has enabled engineers to get a cleaner vocal element from a Lennon demo -given to The Beatles by Yoko during the Anthology project in the 90s- and Paul and Ringo will finally be able to complete it as a final Beatles song. Look for "Now and Then" later this year! Also check out Paul's recent 3-record set collecting McCartney I, II, and III (McCartney III was recorded during the pandemic "rock down") and the new photography book, 1964: Eyes of the Storm. The photographs also go on exhibit this month at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Readers might also be interested in this recent in-depth book covering Paul's projects, creative process, and family life during the late 60s/early 70s, called The McCartney Legacy: Volume 1: 1969-1973

Happy Birthday, Paul! Many Happy Returns from Jason at Spy Vibe.

If you are traveling to Liverpool, book a private tour with Jackie Spencer (and make sure to visit the Casbah Coffee Club and the Liverpool Beatles Museum, both managed by Pete Best's family). You can also visit Paul's childhood home.

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