MCGEAR ON MACCA
By MARC MYERS
The black SUV pulled up at 11 a.m. and a man with a shock of white hair hopped out from the driver's side. Sporting a trendy herringbone coat, a long gray scarf, tight black jeans and sharp black-leather slip-ons, Mike McCartney looked remarkably like his brother, Paul—but with more angular features.
For years Mike, 68, has avoided any appearance of capitalizing on the fame of "Our Kid" (as he refers to his older sibling). When Paul left Liverpool in the mid-1960s, Mike remained—taking on a pseudonym and performing as a pop-poet and singer. He appeared in the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" video, and he's Brother Michael in Paul's "Let 'Em In." Now Mr. McCartney is enjoying a fresh round of fame.
Last December, he escorted Queen Elizabeth through his exhibit of celebrity photographs at the Museum of Liverpool. This February, Real Gone Music reissued his "McGough & McGear" on CD in the U.S.—a concept album Paul produced in 1967. And in July, Mike's 2009 photographs of Scotland's North Highlands will be at Youngstown, Ohio's Butler Institute of American Art.
Several weeks ago, Mr. McCartney gave this writer a casual history tour of Merseyside—reflecting on his brother, the city's arts community 50 years ago, and his own recording and photography careers.
"You can't fully appreciate the essence of the Beatles or any of the bands without considering the entire Liverpool arts scene in the early '60s," said Mr. McCartney, who is married to his second wife and has six grown children. "There were exciting young painters, improv comedians and poets here. Everyone influenced each other. We're a city of artistic hams, you see."
Between 1957 and 1961, Liverpool was crowded with lower-income families and teens with outsize dreams. Many were in awe of American rockers and of beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. "Liverpool was the Brooklyn of Britain," Mr. McCartney said. "The rest of the country looked down on us, and your only shot was through the arts. Because humor was so important to us, serious art often became mixed with whimsy—pop, if you will."
The first stop on our driving tour was the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys and adjacent Liverpool College of Art on Hope Street. The brothers McCartney attended the "Inny," as the former was called in the late '50s, while John Lennon went to the art school next door. "Life changed when our mother died in October 1956," Mr. McCartney said, his voice choking slightly. "After she passed, Our Kid spent much of his time with the guitar my dad bought him, and I disappeared into the banjo, drums and the family's box camera."
The following summer, the brothers were at scouting camp. "Our Kid was lowering me down a ledge on a rope pulley when he noticed I was dropping too fast. When he slowed the rope abruptly, I slammed into an oak tree and broke the high part of my left arm." Mr. McCartney spent the next month confined to a hospital bed. When the cast came off, doctors discovered that the nerves in his left arm had been severely damaged. The feeling didn't return until years later. "My drumming days were over, so Ringo eventually got the job," he said, laughing.
Lacking sufficient credits to attend art school after graduation in 1961, Mr. McCartney took apprentice jobs—first as a men's clothing salesman and then as a hairdresser. As the Merseybeat heated up, he accompanied his brother to local clubs like The Cavern, taking photos with a camera Paul had bought him in Hamburg, Germany. Mr. McCartney also began studying drawing after work, eventually falling in with an improv group in 1962 at the Hope Hall Cinema (razed, but being rebuilt). "There were happenings in rooms beneath the building—poets reading to audiences, and the like. That's where I began doing comedy improv."
By late 1962, Mr. McCartney and two poet-performers—Roger McGough and John Gorman—formed the Liverpool One Fat Lady, All Electric Show. "In 1963, the Beatles and other Merseybeat groups blew the top off, and it was absolute anarchy here," he said. "Overnight, Liverpool was the center of the world." Swept up in Britain's love affair with Liverpudlians, Mr. McCartney's group was hired to perform weekly skits on a satirical live-television show called "Gazette." The trio renamed themselves the Scaffold, after Miles Davis's 1958 U.K. soundtrack album "Lift to the Scaffold."
But Mr. McCartney dreaded what viewers would think if he appeared to be cashing in on his brother's fame. "Me mates and I came up with my stage name in there," he said, pointing at the facade of the former Eagle Pub on Paradise Street (now vacant). "In Liverpool, when something was fab, we used to say it was 'the gear.' So McGear was it."
In 1965 George Martin produced two surrealist pop songs by the group—"2 Days Monday" and "3 Blind Jelly Fish"—and the trio toured Britain as comic relief for Manfred Mann and the Yardbirds. Soon Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, offered his services. "I declined, telling Eppy that one rock idol in the family was sufficient."
In June 1967, Mr. McCartney and Mr. McGough (pronounced Mc-GUFF) recorded "McGough & McGear," an album that combined poetry, puns, ditties and pop-rock. "Neither of us played instruments—we just wrote songs, and I sang," Mr. McCartney said. Most of the musicians on the album were Paul's pals who happened to be in London at the time—including Graham Nash, John Mayall, Spencer Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Two U.K.-chart hits by the Scaffold followed: "Thank U Very Much" reached No. 4 in 1967. Then, in 1968, came "Lily the Pink," a drinking song refitted with lyrics about an American patent medicine. The jaunty tune hit No. 1 twice, selling more than a million copies.
By the early '70s, the Scaffold had run its course, and Mr. McCartney recorded two solo studio albums—"Woman" (1972), which he wrote and produced, and "McGear" (1974), backed by Paul McCartney & Wings. "People thought I put a nun on the cover of 'Woman,' but it's our mother wearing her nurse's headgear."
Mr. McCartney took hundreds of candid images of Liverpool's leading artists—documenting the city's and the Beatles' improbable rise. "When the lads finished a gig, they'd always have trouble finding me in crowds. Then me flash would go off, and they'd know where to grab me." Unfortunately, his 10 photo books are out of print. "I'm planning a definitive book, and it will include new negatives I recently found," said Mr. McCartney, growing quiet. "So much is disappearing here. People need to know the full story of what happened."
Mr. Myers writes about jazz, rock and R&B at JazzWax.com.