Album Spotlight: Mike McGear—*McGear

If you’re related to a famous performer and have aspirations of your own, it must be extremely difficult. If you’re related to one of the most famous performers in the world–if you’re Paul McCartney’s younger brother, for instance–it must be nearly impossible. Still, Peter Michael McCartney, aka Mike McCartney, who changed his name to Mike McGear to try to dodge the familial connection,1 did his best, with a little help from his family.

Mike actually started out in 1962 with a performing group entitled The Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show, eight Liverpudlians who dabbled in comedy, satire, skits, and poetry as well as music. Three of them became The Scaffold in 1963: Mike, John Gorman and Roger McGough. They didn’t begin recording until 1966, and their first two singles were flops. In November 1967, they released Mike’s song Thank U Very Much, written after thanking his brother on the phone for the gift of a Nikon camera. It became a Top Ten hit in Britain, establishing The Scaffold’s career. They continued for several years in the same comedic/poetical/musical vein, recording three albums and several singles, including the hit Lily The Pink.

By the end of 1973, however, The Scaffold was on hiatus, and Mike was at loose ends. He’d recorded one solo album, Woman, which had gone nowhere, but he wanted to try again. At some point, while chatting with his brother, who had also lost half of his musical group, the two decided to collaborate on a new musical project. The initial results were the reformation of The Scaffold and the release of their new single, produced and backed by Paul: Liverpool Lou. It was another hit for the group.

Mike and Paul, meanwhile, had been recording an entire new solo album, which was released September 27th, 1974 (October 14th in the U.S.). *McGear contains ten songs, nine of which were written or co-written by Paul. McCartney also produced the album and played on it, along with his band Wings, which at the time was himself, Linda, Denny Laine and new guitarist Jimmy McCulloch. Gerry Conway provided drums, except on the initial single Leave It, which featured former Wing member Denny Seiwell.

As one might expect, *McGear sounds a lot like a Wings album. Even better, it sounds like an excellent Wings album rather than one of Paul’s lesser efforts. Almost all of the songs are strong, and with Paul and Linda providing backing vocals and Mike’s voice sounding similar to his brother’s, it’s a marvelous record indeed. Despite all of the help, however, Mike does make the record his own, with his very British sensibilities and sense of humor. His input is shown on the very first track, a cover of Roxy Music’s Sea Breezes, and a fantastic cover it is. Much more straightforward and compact than the original, the arrangement suits Mike’s voice well. It’s my favorite song on the album and a perfect opener.

What Do We Really Know? follows up with a rocking number penned solely by Paul. It’s got a catchy riff and marvelous musicianship, particularly from Conway and McCulloch. Unfortunately, things almost come to a screeching halt with Norton, the first McCartney-McGear composition. Musically, it’s a chant, not a song, set to an insistent drum beat and another catchy guitar riff between verses. Lyrically, it’s a disaster. Whoever Norton is, Mike doesn’t like him very much, and uses homophobic language

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such as “sissy”, “mummy’s boy” and “pansy boy”

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to taunt him. I didn’t care for this even back in the Eighties, when I first heard it, and it’s much worse now. The ending is bizarre, and makes me scratch my head even more at Paul and Mike’s intent. Derek Taylor does a guest vocal in the middle with a military voice. (I think Paul also has a spoken bit there.)

Leave It, the single, follows, and is the second and last number written entirely by McCartney. It’s one of the best songs, with strummed guitars, saxophone riffs and a solo by Tony Coe, and lots of backing vocals from Wings. Catchy and gorgeous. Have You Got Problems? is particularly apt for today’s times, a piano-based number about fake news. “Don’t believe all you’re told, all you read, all you’re taught, all you see,” Mike sings, backed by a pounding piano and bass courtesy of his brother.

The Casket, which opens Side Two of the vinyl, was co-written by Paul and Roger McGough. I didn’t care much for it at the time, thinking it was rather weird. (The “casket” is actually more of a keepsake box, washed up on shore.) Now that I’ve learned a lot more about McGough and his status as one of Britain’s finest living poets, I’m inclined to be much more receptive to the imagery, which includes “entrails/Of necklaces and brooches” and hermit crabs scuttling for safety. Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains contributes Aeolian pipes, aka bagpipes.

Rainbow Lady and Simply Love You are two very fine ballads, the former more pop and faster than the latter. Wings’ sound, with backing vocals, early synthesizer noodling and rocking guitar licks, can be found all over both. Paul and Mike duet on both songs, and it’s a joy to hear. Giving Grease A Ride is a car song in the style of current rock sensation T. Rex, complete with sound effects of car crashes, vocals which pan from side to side and droning synthesizers. I love it.

The Man Who Found God On The Moon, the closer, is a peculiar ditty combining a Krishna follower named Annette and a religious astronaut. Somehow the wit in Mike’s vocal, combined with the clever production and the vocal duetting on the chorus between brothers, makes it all work. A recording of Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut in question, features prominently, as well as Mike’s daughters on backing vocals with Wings. Quite an epic work to finish off what’s overall a splendid album.

Warner Brothers, who had just signed Mike, pushed his album in both the U.S. and U.K. However, for whatever weird reasons, neither the Leave It single nor the album caught on. Mike and Paul tried one last time with a novelty dance single, helped out by friend and Bonzo Dog Doo Dah member Vivian Stanshall on vocals. Dance The Do, however, also dropped into oblivion. Mike did some more recording with The Scaffold and did a couple of singles on his own, and then quietly retired from the music industry.

Meanwhile, *McGear, now cut-out, was finding new life underground as McCartney fans spread the word about The Great Lost Wings Album. It was reissued on CD by Rykodisc in 1991, along with a bonus unreleased mix of Dance The Do. See For Miles in Britain released their CD in 1992 with the single version of Dance The Do and the B-side of Leave It, Sweet Baby, one of my favorite songs from the sessions (also cowritten by McCartney and McGear). The album has just been rereleased again by Cherry Red Records and is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other digital platforms, as well as on CD with a bonus DVD. Rounding out the release are several outtakes, including the songs mentioned above with yet another unreleased rough mix of Dance The Do.2 A monitor mix of What Do We Really Know? and an extended version of Leave It are entertaining, but dispensable. The real treasure is the rerelease of the single All The Whales In The Ocean, an environmental track from 1980 with whale sounds and Mike’s children (again) on the chorus. A bit hokey, but a lovely, catchy tune, produced with absolutely no assistance from Paul (who loved it. He was humming it in his cell in Japan.). Also included is a single from 1976, Do Nothing All Day, which is a Harry Nilsson-sounding tuneful song about the joys of being lazy, a la the Beach Boys’ Busy Doing Nothing. Its B-side, A to Z, is an alphabet song, cute but insubstantial. Girls On The Avenue, previously unreleased, sounds a lot like a Jackson Browne tune such as Boulevard. Perhaps this is why Mike never hit it big; he never really found his musical voice. I Juz Want What You Got–Money! was the B-side of Whales, another fun dispensable tune. Most of the rest is promo spots and the like (although for some reason, Paddy Pipes 1 has been replaced by the monitor mix of What Do We Really Know? I assume this will be fixed at some point.) The entire digital package is only $9.99 US, and for that money, it’s well worth picking up.

Mike may have been unhappy that his career didn’t take off with *McGear, but he’s proud of the album, currently promoting it on his Twitter account. It’s definitely a record that Beatles and Wings fans should hear.