beguiling mixture of pop-rock, poetry, comedy, and a touch of
psychedelia, McGough & McGear
was nonetheless almost totally overlooked upon its release in the
spring of 1968. The presence of some of the biggest rock stars of the
era didn't help that much, as contractual complications prevented their
contributions from being credited at the time. More than forty years
later, this CD gives the album its first US release, and properly
acknowledges the presence of Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix, among
several other luminaries.
The heart of the album, however, was very much the duo of Roger McGough and Mike McGear, who with John Gorman had formed the comedy act Scaffold in Liverpool. After gaining wider recognition as regulars on the television show Gazette, they moved into whimsical comedy-pop as a recording act for Parlophone Records in 1966, with George Martin serving as producer. After a couple hitless singles, poet McGough and McGear (aka Mike McCartney, younger brother of Paul) began work on a pop-and-poetry-oriented album of their own.
Scaffold became known in the UK, explains Roger, because of their "success as essentially a wacky comedy band, whereas prior to that we played mainly in theaters as a poetry/satire spoken word trio. This LP was a return to our poetic roots in a sense, with John, who was very much a comic actor, not involved." Adds Mike, "John was a comedian; you just looked at him, and you laughed. We thought, should we try and do something different?"
When the sessions began on June 18, 1967, notes Mike, "it was just a selection of song ideas that had been done with me collaborating with Roger McGough. I don't think we had a name for it then." Accompanying them to the studio of Beatles publisher Dick James was Mike's older brother Paul, who that very day was celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday in the most hectic of circumstances. "That day our kid [the Liverpudlian term for one's brother or sister] had the word gone out that he had slipped some LSD into a drink and imbibed it," remembers Mike. "So the world's media was waiting for us as we left his house in London. Because our kid was being exposed as taking LSD, there is all the media watching this vicious drug-taker and his younger brother – 'ha, we gotcha!' And they're rolling their cameras.
"Both of us shut our windows down. Suddenly the fans pushed the media out of the way to get to their idol, and his good-looking brother obviously, and these presents of flowers showered into the car. Then the media are thinking, 'oh my god, we can't use any of this footage,' because of the adulation, all these children loving this man who is a drug-taking bastard. What they wanted was this LSD- mindblown druggy scowling. And there is this lovely thing where life took over, 'cause it was his birthday."
As sessions progressed at Dick James's facilities and De Lane Lea studios elsewhere in London (Mike thinks some might have been done at Abbey Road as well), a host of illustrious rock stars dropped in to lend a hand. Although not credited on the initial release, contributors included Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Graham Nash, Dave Mason of Traffic, Gary Leeds of the Walker Brothers, ex-Pretty Thing Viv Prince, and ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith. Paul McCartney's girlfriend, Jane Asher, sang some background vocals, even bringing along her mother.
"It was just a case of who was in town," says Mike. "We'd all signed contracts [with different labels], and it was like in perpetuity, which really is for life and beyond. We were saying to the record companies and the lawyers, 'Sod off. We're friends. There'll be trouble if we put our names to it, but we're doing it, whether you like or not.'
"That's why all of these beautiful people came along, and that's why it was such a free, no barriers [project], particularly with us. Because Scaffold don't play musical instruments, so we rely totally on brothers and friends who can play the musical aspect of what we were trying to do. They could help us, they could do what we couldn't do." Roger took primary responsibility for the words and Mike for the music, with some overlap.
Though production was credited to "All of Us," those duties were in fact shared by several fellows. If his brother Paul was there, Mike recalls, "he would be the producer, 'cause I'd be out on the floor. If our kid didn't do it, it would be me doing it. I, having been brought up with a musical brother, and having seen so much of what he did, learned a lot myself of what I wanted. If I was in the studio and our kid wasn't there, Paul Samwell-Smith [later to produce Cat Stevens and Carly Simon] would have helped. He was a great listener, very good producer."
Even by the standards of such an adventurous era in pop, McGough & McGear was an unusually diverse outing, especially in its combination of pop music with pieces emphasizing spoken word and poetry. "It's good to do something that is unique," feels Mike. "You're not selling anything, you're not sticking to a format. You're free. [Sgt.] Pepper is a good example; it has real light, and real shade. I've always liked that in life. If I do an exhibition [of his photography], I like black and white and color, and big pictures and little pictures. I just like contrasts. You'd have 'Mr. Tickle,' just a stupid little story I had, and then 'Yellow Book,' and then the poetry, which was equally valid, we felt. Very different, and very uncommercial. But it was sort of revolutionary."
The faint piano on "Mr. Tickle," incidentally, spilled over from the next room where Paul McCartney was ad-libbing on the instrument. Reveals Mike, "The engineer said, 'Oh, sorry, the other microphone was open, so it's on the track you've just done.'" As it happened the way the piano built up suited the pace of the narrative, "so I said, 'bloody hell, let's keep that.'"
There was also hit-ready upbeat pop in "So Much," which benefited from both Paul McCartney's harmonies and Jimi Hendrix's guitar. After Hendrix put a far-out psychedelic solo on his first pass at an overdub, Mike had to inform his brother in the control room that "he didn't actually come in at the right place. Jimi did the stuff sitting down on the floor in the end, and me on the carpet, tapping Jimi Hendrix's knee telling him when to come in for the solo." After comparing the first take and a more polite if appropriately timed one, Mike agreed that the first should be used, only to be told by the tape operator, "There's no tracks left on this. I've been wiping every one. So the only one you've got is the last one." Asked by Paul if he wanted to go in and ask Jimi to do another solo like the first take, Mike replied, "No no. That's fine. We'll have that one."
Hendrix got his chance to fly his freak flag high by cranking his wah-wah on the psychedelic homage "Ex Art Student." "I think it was Dave Mason on sitar, Jimi on wah-wah guitar, and Wib Bennett on the flute, floating over everything," according to Mike. "It was free-form, sort of jazzy, rock-jazz at certain bits. Because there were no barriers. People could experiment. In their own musical box, they had to be the Beatles, they had to be Traffic, they had to be Jimi Hendrix, as a known sound. Whereas in ours, anything went."
For McGough, "Having Macca produce 'Summer with Monika'" – which would also make it into printed form in a 1968 book of poems of the same name – "was the highlight of the exercise." Though Scaffold would record another track from the LP, "Do You Remember," for a small 1968 hit single, both McGough and McGear prefer the version on their album. "If they'd have released that, it would have been a hit in my opinion," feels Mike. "Because our kid's piano was very strong. In fact, he did the harmonies on that. If you listen to the harmonies, that's the two brothers at it." But it couldn't be issued as a single because of "contracts or whatever, so Scaffold had to redo it in the studios in Abbey Road."
Despite a sleeve note by Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, and getting picked as pop album by the month in Melody Maker, the album received little attention. By the time it came out, Scaffold's star had risen with the UK Top Five hit "Thank U Very Much," and McGough and McGear would concentrate their recording activities with that group for the next few years. The McGough & McGear LP, however, remains a highlight of their recording career, with a freewheeling genesis that, in Mike's words, "was very synonymous with the '60s." – Richie Unterberger
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