MIKE MCCARTNEY ON MCGEAR
By Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair
With Michael (McGear) McCartney's classic 1974 McGear album about to be reissued in an expanded edition by Cherry Red Records (out July 19), we tracked down the younger of the McCartney brothers for an illuminating chat about the album.
If you missed McGear when it was new, or in its previous reissued versions, it's time to give it your attention, because, in addition to being probably the best of Mike McGear's albums, it holds a significant place in Paul McCartney's creative evolution, not to mention the history of Wings.
It all began, actually, with a single. Paul wrote and produced 'Leave It' at Abbey Road, as the A-side of a single for Mike on his own – that is, outside the Scaffold, the comedy-poetry-music ensemble with which Mike had several hits through the 1960s. The B-side was 'Sweet Baby,' written by Mike, Paul and Linda McCartney.
"'Sweet Baby' was done here in my house, in my back room," Mike explains. "All we did was, the three of us sat down, around our kid on his guitar, Linda was on percussion, and I was just singing. And that all was done in my house - on my Revox. You can probably hear the birds on it. Then we just overdubbed and overdubbed. Lovely, lovely feel to it, that one."
For 'Leave It,' Paul used his own band, Wings, as Mike's backing group, and the presence of Denny Seiwell on drums dates the session to shortly before Wings left for Lagos, Nigeria (April 26, 1973, to be precise) – without Denny, who, like Henry McCullough, left the band on the eve of that trip – to record Band on the Run.
When 'Leave It' proved promising, Paul and Mike decided to undertake a full LP. For the sake of independence – that is, so that Mike and Paul could make the album they wanted to make, without record company interference, and then shop it to different labels – the production was underwritten by Paul's company, MPL.
Paul would produce, and would co-write most of the songs with Mike; the exceptions, besides 'Leave It,' are 'What Do We Really Know?,' by Paul alone, 'The Casket,' by Paul and the poet (and Scaffold member) Roger McGough, and 'Sea Breezes,' a Roxy Music cover, composed by Bryan Ferry.
For the most part, the album was recorded at Strawberry Studios, in Stockport, between January 3 and March 10, 1974, when Paul and Linda departed for America. (Note: Dates were taken from an external source, no recording dates were provided with the preview copy.) The core of Wings – Paul, Linda and Denny Laine – was on hand, as were future Wings guitarist Jimmy McCullough, as well as drummer Gerry Conway, and other guests that included Brian Jones on saxophone, the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney on Aeolian pipes, and the Halle Orchestra, playing Gerry Allison's string arrangements. Members of 10cc, which was at Strawberry working on their Sheet Music album, also popped in now and again, and let Mike and company use the Gysmorchestra, an instrument that Lol Crème and Kevin Godley invented.
As it turned out, the reissue ran into a major, unanticipated obstacle nearly as soon as Mike and Cherry Red began discussing the project. Cherry Red asked, logically enough, whether Mike had access to the master tapes. Not a problem, Mike thought.
"Originally, I did this album with my brother, with his company called MPL," Mike explains, speaking from his home overlooking the River Dee, on the border between England and Wales. "And so [in 2018], I said to MPL, 'Can I have me master tapes back, please? It's reverted back to me.' And they said, 'Oh. We don't have them. They'll be with Warner Brothers in America.'"
MPL's office in London offered to help Mike track down the masters, calling Warner Records directly, only to learn that the whereabouts of the tapes was a mystery to Warner as well. "MPL said, 'Warner have lost them. They've lost the master tapes.'"
When Mike conveyed the news to Cherry Red the company was unfazed: they would just move to Plan B, something any artist would regard as less than ideal: they would dub a mint vinyl copy of the album and fixing it up digitally.
But Mike's subconscious lead him back home. "I said, well, I'll have a look in my attic. I haven't been up there for a million years. But I know there are tapes there. So, I went up there and found these two 15 ips tape boxes. One said, McGear One. And the other said McGear Two."
And the tapes boxes just kept coming.
"I saw this tape box, and it said, 'Do Nothing All Day.' Now, I remember doing that, I remember singing it. That was around the same time that I did the McGear album. I worked with our kid, and then I worked with these other people, doing demos, looking for a single, et cetera, and I found an old Jamaican record, with Do Nothing All Day. It's a beautiful single. So, I knew I'd done that. And then on the tape box, it also said, ABC. And so that was the Alphabet Song, which I wrote for Sesame Street. My children are on that one. And then there was 'Girls in the Avenue,' and I thought, 'I wonder what the hell is that doing on there?' That's a Richard Clapton song, that's not my song. I didn't write that, he wrote it. And, you know, I don't remember singing it. So, I wonder, why do we have him singing his song, on my tapes? But when I played them, it was me singing. And I thought, oh bloody hell. I'd even forgotten that I'd recorded it. That's what I loved about these tapes. Listening to 'Girls of the Avenue' again. And then things like another favourite of mine, 'Let's Turn the Radio On.' It's like it's done in your front parlour."
Mike had unearthed not only the master tape of the original album but also a treasure trove of unreleased tracks. But there was another problem. "They had been up in the roof for so long, there was a bit of mould on them," Mike confesses. "And so Cherry Red said, 'Don't play them! Don't play them! If you play them, it'll just wipe off on the tape heads. Bring them down to London, and we'll bake them.'"
Now Cherry Red was looking at a fundamentally different project. Instead of simply restoring McGear to the active catalogue in time for its 45th anniversary, it had the means to make a deluxe expanded reissue. The released version of 'Dance the Do,' and 'Sweet Baby' were tacked on to the end of the album, on Disc 1, and Disc 2 was devoted to some of the discoveries Mike made during his attic prospecting.
Among the treasures discovered on McGear Two reel were alternate mixes and unedited versions of several tracks. There was, for example, an unedited version of 'Dance the Do,' a track Mike had released as a single, but which in this version ran nearly a minute longer than the released version. (A copy of that version was apparently kept outside the McGear Two master: it was included as a bonus track on the 1991 Rykodisc release of McGear). Fascinating, as well, is an unedited mix of 'Leave It,' the Paul McCartney composition that was the precursor for these sessions. That version clocks in at 6'42" – about three minutes longer than the released version. There is also an alternate mix (listed as a monitor mix) of 'What Do We Really know?' and most interesting of all, an early mix of 'Sea Breezes' to which the orchestra had not yet been added; instead of the strings-and-oboe orchestration, the track features a lovely organ part that was subsequently mixed down to accommodate the strings.
Besides those alternates, the second disc offers some fascinating glimpses of the sessions, including three short tracks in which Paddy Maloney is heard warming up on traditional Irish tunes, using different kinds of pipes and a wooden flute, and the Bonzo Dog Band's Viv Stanshall entertaining the musicians with an a cappella performance.
Of course, the real draws are the songs no-one knew about, and which Mike McCartney had forgotten. 'Do Nothing All Day' is, as you might expect, a delightfully laid-back cover of a Jamaican hit – something that would not have been out of place on a Ringo Starr album. 'Blowin' in the Bay' is cut from similar cloth. And 'Girls on the Avenue' with its lively sax solo is very much in the spirit of the album proper, as is 'Let's Turn the Radio On,' which Mike described as having a kind of New Orleans feel.
Clearly, Paul and Mike wanted as many options as possible for the final track list, but we're left to guess why they left off 'All the Whales in the Ocean,' a tuneful ecological track with a children's chorus toward the end – or, for that matter, the whimsically funky 'I Just Want What You Got – Money!' And there is also a work in progress, called 'Keep Cool,' heard in two versions, each lasting less than a minute, but packed with promise.
For Mike, the new reissue, which also comes with a DVD that includes interviews and the promo for 'Leave It,' is the perfect end to a music journey that he and Paul set out on together as children at 20 Forthlin Road.
"As kids, we used to love the Everly Brothers, we used to sing Everly Brothers harmonies. And so, when it came to working together again, I was fascinated to find, in the singing, we went back to being the Everly Brothers. There's our kid and I, in Stockport, in Strawberry Studios, going back to being young lads, after mum died, singing harmonies. So that's the great thing about this album. You will hear it on 'Simply Love You,' and things like that, where it's just the two brothers singing like they used to sing. In the McCartney family, doing harmonies, it's a big part of our history. That's our lineage, at family parties; everyone has a sing-song."
McGear is reissued on Cherry Red Records on July 19, 2019.
2CD & DVD clamshell box set and 180G Gatefold Vinyl are available through their online store.
© Content copyright McCartney Legacy, 2019