ENGLAND. THE DEPTHS OF WINTER 1966. A member of the Beatles, the most
popular band on earth, repairs to the Royal College of Art to witness a
free-form performance by avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew and AMM,
about whom he has read. The Beatle sits amongst a merry band who improvise a
whirling dervish of sound on instruments - piano, violin, xylophone,
accordion and celli, and otherwise - whistles, transistor radios, electric
drills, and wind-up toys. And it is Paul McCartney who adds a simple
ingredient to the discordant melange by running a penny up and down the
coils of a steam radiator at his side.
With hindsight one would have expected it to have been John Lennon dipping
his toe into such arcane waters. But this was before Yoko and psychedelia
and some thirty months before Lennon constructed the most contentious track
in the band's catalogue, the avant-garde 'Revolution 9'.
Brian Epstein had seen fit to accord the Beatles a sabbatical after three
solid years' work during which the band had been thrust to the centre of the
world's stage. The first months of 1966 was a time for holidays and parties.
George married. Ringo played pool by day and hung out at the discotheques at
night. John told a journalist his group was bigger than Christ.
For 23-year-old McCartney here was an opportunity to broaden his artistic
horizons to as far afield as electronic music, the very antithesis of
screaming girls and guitar-and-drum combos which until then was generally
the only type of music heard coming from a Beatle's hi-fi.
For some time now Paul had been discovering unchartered, alien musical
landscapes. With the same anticipation as when a schoolboy placing the
latest Elvis 45 onto his turntable, McCartney listened to composer Karlheinz
Stockhausen, a messiah in the world of electronic music but to the mid-60s
pop star an unknown commodity. It was the German's 1956 'plick-plop' piece -
as McCartney cursorily described it - Gesang der Junglinge, a boy's voice
construed and converted with a panoply of electronic sounds, that inspired
Paul to utilise his Brennell tape recorders for less conventional purposes,
as Stockhausen himself had done the previous decade. Paul, an advocate of
all things melodious, had undergone a reformation of thought, no longer
subscribing to the ingrained belief that rhythm, time signatures and even
melody were essential to his art.
By trial and error at girlfriend Jane Asher's Wimpole Street home, McCartney
produced "Little Symphonies" after discovering that by removing the
superimpose head on a tape machine the previous recording could not be wiped
over. With this knowledge, Paul saturated layers of guitar, bongos, and
ethereal voices before cutting up the tape and then, with a watchmaker's
eye, indiscriminately gluing back the pieces, reversing some for backward
sounds. A bohemian, Paul dallied with the idea of making a composite disc of
Beatles' overlapped by Beethoven music: it would be the listener's onerous
task of teaching his brain to separate the jumble of sounds until a pure,
untrammelled piece entered the consciousness.
"Wait a minute, you've just been writing 'Here, There And Everywhere', now
you've come up with Whooo-weee, plonk . . . !" (1)
Impassioned, on 14 February McCartney summoned the group's chauffeur to take
him on a spree in which he snapped up gadgets and electronic instruments to
add flavour to his home recordings. Days later he attended a Luciano Berio
lecture at the Italian Institute. It was the composer's 1958 work Thema
(Omaggio a Joyce) - a spoken piece so electronically bastardised it sounded
to its incredulous listener like a chorus of demented birds at dawn - that
had especially grabbed Paul. (As was the case with many of the works he
heard, he could not say he found the experience enjoyable; the turn on for
him was the composers' sheer inventiveness.) Afterwards, McCartney and Berio
exchanged a few words in which the Italian exhibited an interest in the
Beatles. Indeed, his wife Cathy Berberian would go on to release the Beatles
Arias album, affording operatic treatments to songs like 'Here, There And
It was this latter composition and others such as 'Eleanor Rigby' on which
Paul was then working for the Beatles' upcoming sessions. A true eclectic,
shortly after his returning home from a Klosters holiday in March (where he
had penned the enchanting 'For No One') McCartney moved into his new St
John's Wood abode. The witching hours were spent sequestered in his
third-floor music room. The days were filled flitting around town in his
Aston Martin and immersing himself in the left-field: afternoons examining
avant-garde jazz with his friend Barry Miles, Paul most struck by
controversial American tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler; evenings at the
Knightsbridge pad of gallery owner John Dunbar and wife Marianne Faithfull
where, with a congregation of artist friends, Paul would make impromptu
music and rhapsodise about John Cage and the temerity of works like
Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and 4' 33", three movements of silence tempered
only by audience coughs and distant traffic.
As Paul told the NME, "All those silly bands - never again! . . . I was
known as the cute Beatle, the ballad Beatle . . . John was the cynical one,
the wise Beatle, the intellectual. In fact at that time it was wildly in
After months of attending art exhibitions and hooking up with Antonioni,
Bertrand Russell, and acting as noviciate to William Burroughs
(manufacturing tapes of radio noise, animal grunts and backward sounds),
Paul's vacation concluded when the Beatles convened at the studios on 6
April, their first session in five months.
A cultural busy bee, McCartney had been in the heart of a London that was
starting to swing whilst Lennon had been hibernating at his Weybridge pile
in a cloud of marijuana smoke. "John came in from the country and said,
'Wow!'" Paul recalled once he had summarily initiated his partner with
Stockhausen, Cage and Morton Subotnick.
Lennon had penned a song inspired by Leary's The Psychedelic Experience.
During the recording of track one for what became Revolver, he opined that a
guitar solo overdub would fail to do Mark I, as it was known, justice. By
now McCartney had coached all three, including Lennon, a dunce when it came
to gadgets, how to adapt their Brennells and make experimental demos. Why
not, he suggested, insert a compilatory mix of homemade loops into the song?
That night at their respective homes all four recorded handfuls of spools.
The following day, armed with a plastic bag of his recent spoils, Paul
walked the several hundred yards to Abbey Road. A logistical nightmare for
their producer, requiring the assistance of a gang of studio employees,
George Martin directed the feeding of tape spools into a controlled, live
mix using five machines. The results were astonishing: a tornado of sound,
squalling horns evoking the Middle East, a universe of noise crammed into a
tiny space. It was hitherto one of the most breathtaking songs in pop's
Coming just three years after 'From Me To You', the work on 'Tomorrow Never
Knows', as it became known - avant-garde episodes against a 4/4 rock beat -
diverted the Beatles down paths they would tread for the next two years.
McCartney had picked up the baton but it was Lennon who ran with it. Thanks
to Paul, though LSD would also be influential, John had rejuvenated his
passion for all things offbeat.
With a flourish the Beatles applied surreal brushstrokes to their songs:
Lennon oversaw pop's first known backward vocals on 'Rain' and dictated the
cacophonous coda on the momentous 'Strawberry Fields Forever'. There was a
side of Lennon who would have produced nothing but wonderfully preposterous
pop, ostracizing the group in the process, but it was Paul who insisted they
use such seasoning sparingly.
Soon the reviewers credited Lennon as the originator of such intoxicating,
outré sounds. 'Carnival Of Light', recorded in January 1967, was a chance
for McCartney to redress the balance. Organizers of the eponymous Roundhouse
rave commissioned Paul to produce something freaky. With Martin usurped,
McCartney governed the making of the Beatles' first entirely avant-garde
recording: fourteen minutes of highly distorted instruments drenched in echo
effect, alongside water-gargling and spinetingling ululations. To his later
regret, the track was never released, too uncomfortable on the ear even to
arise on the recent Anthology CDs.
Exoticism was rife in the group's 1967 work, replicating the effects Paul
had begun manufacturing two years earlier. Their magnum opus Sgt Pepper
(complete with Stockhausen's likeness on its revered cover, as selected by
Paul) featured John's 'A Day In The Life', but it was his partner's idea for
a forty-piece orchestra to improvise the apocalyptic, crescendic middle and
finale. Animal sounds owed a debt to Burroughs. Fairground swirlaramas
echoed Paul's erstwhile methods of reconstructing magnetic tape. There was
the ad infinitum loop of garbled voices on the LP's run-out groove, another
McCartney invention. Later that year a live BBC radio broadcast was fed into
John's 'I Am The Walrus' (a la Cage), and by now his own eccentric home
works, like 'Jessie's Dream', were being published.
"I remember once saying to John that I was going to do an album called 'Paul
McCartney Goes Too Far'. He was really tickled with that idea. 'That's
great, man! You should do it!' But I would calculate and think no, I'd
better do 'Hey Jude'. (3)
As the Summer of Love became but a drug-hazed memory it was John who became,
in the public's mind, the creative daredevil, thereby reinforcing the
polarization of Messrs Lennon and McCartney. In June 1968, during early
sessions for the so-called White Album, McCartney returned from America to
find that John, with George Martin's resistance, George Harrison's help and
Yoko Ono's influence, had compiled the audio-verite 'Revolution 9', a
lengthy, dazzling collage of choirs, backwards orchestra, cooing babies,
spoken gibberish et al, lavished with every effect known to science. Not
only that, he intended to release it. Just days earlier John and Yoko had
slept together for the first time, but not before recording the musique
concrète Two Virgins, released in November within days of the Beatles'
offering. Paul had not realized the wheels he had oiled by showing John how
to manipulate a Brennell. By this time Lennon had probably forgotten having
once said, "avant-garde is French for 'bullshit'."
Voracious, McCartney had been in those halcyon days a cultural sponge, his
new obsessions adopted by his allies with alacrity. And yet all four were
consistently astute in predicting, if not always inaugurating, elements of
the Zeitgeist. As soon as the world caught up they would make conscious
efforts to move on. Each Beatle had equal influence but while this diversity
begat such a rich catalogue it also led to egotistic in-house fighting which
was partly to blame for their 1970 split, made public by Paul in a press
release supplementing his first solo album.
McCartney, the produce of a one-man band working very occasionally with wife
Linda, contained the truncated cut 'Glasses', a sad, unworldly four-track
recording based on earlier trials when Paul and the London set would create
sound by circling wineglass rims with wet fingertips. Closing track
'Kreen-Akrore' was a drumming number overdubbed with heavy breathing,
stamping hooves, and Paul's Onoesque bird-screeches.
The coming years saw a sporadic yield of soft avant-garde ventures, with
nothing to equal the experimentation of Paul's private efforts. The chilling
'Loup (1st Indian On The Moon)' on Wings' Red Rose Speedway (1973) was a
plodding, Moog-led curio with Stockhausenian whistles and 'plick-plops'.
Wings' final offering, Back To The Egg (1979), contained the inexplicable
'The Broadcast' featuring poems (Hay's The Sport Of Kings and Galsworthy's
The Little Man) read in the plummy tones of Harold Margory, owner of Lympne
Castle where the band was recording, set off with a piano-led orchestral
piece. And there was the Berioesque 'Reception', a collage including the
voice of Mrs Margory, flourishes of operatic singing, an interview with a
Deputy Sheriff, unintelligible remarks from a Negro, and backward swirls
wedded to the persistent squeal of ill-tuned radios and a funky beat.
"I've got my own studio. I'll take a day every so often and I'll do stuff
just for my own fun . . . It's liberating for me cause it says to me you
don't have to be that Paul McCartney fellow that we expect all the time."
The commercial 80s kicked off with the promising, eccentric McCartney II (a
queer fish abundant with idiosyncratic vocals) and produced lots more hits.
Late in 1989 Paul repaired to his studio with the intention, for his own
pleasure, of laying down some minimalist music. What transpired was
full-blown experimentation, uncontaminated by melody or vocals, fifteen
minutes of which was later soundtracked to the animated featurette Daumier's
Law, produced by Paul's company in a bid to recreate the drawings of French
artist Honore Daumier. With its six atypical McCartney pieces the film
premiered at Cannes in 1992.
Nobody had heard of the Fireman when they released their limited run album
strawberries oceans ships forest in 1993. Sans sleeve credits, all the
listener had was a 77-minute concoction of hypnotic ambient, dance, grunge,
whale noises, whispering and sitar on recondite offerings like
'Transcrystaline' and 'Trans Lunar Rising'. Rumours circulated that it was
the work of Apollo C. Vermouth (producer of 'I'm The Urban Spaceman'), the
Frog Chorus, and Percy Thrillington (the ram-masked orchestra leader who'd
made an MOR replica of Paul's Ram album). It was then confirmed that the CD
was indeed the produce of a McCartney collaboration with remixer Youth,
having metamorphosed album tracks on which Paul was working before
concocting some original pieces.
More genuinely avant-garde, the Fireman released a second unpublicised CD in
1998. Rushes (a nod to Penny Lane lyric ". . . and the fireman rushes in . .
.") contained eight sensual, trance-inducing soundscapes which were
reminiscent of traditional New Age rather than techno. Paul's late wife can
be heard talking overtop of UFO witnesses, trotting horses, squelching mud,
plus the sex moans of a woman masturbating across the wires of a 1-2-1 line
('Fluid'). 'Bison' is avant-garde punk. 'Auraveda' is a deep, Indian themed
piece and, unlike some other tracks, without a trace of the melodic phrase.
Whilst '7am' is a heavily treated whirlpool of sound and 'Palo Verde' an
aural, concrète wash evoking the great outdoors, Paul remains unable to
resist adding the odd melody and watery beat along with tsunamis of reversed
flute and tooting Mellotrons, an aural epitaph to that long gone,
"Without wanting to put John down, or look as if I was justifying myself . .
. don't just put me down as an idiot . . . I wasn't just twiddling my thumbs
while John was informing me of all this stuff." (5)
Despite scattershot experiments, the average person associates McCartney
with wholesome balladeering, orchestral music, the hits that helped earn him
a knighthood. This perception would be hard to alter. Avoiding being tagged
pretentious, Paul releases his nonconformist suites without fanfare. As
recently as August 2000 there emerged the barely promoted Liverpool Sound
Collage, a Peter Blake exhibition soundtrack loaded with avant-garde
trappings, electronic pulses and random, transmogrifying, spiralling
At his worst Paul is twee, yet how many are aware that for every 'Ode To A
Koala Bear' there is a 'Peter Blake 2000' (a 17-minute tour de force of
looped and distorted dialogue, some taken from Beatles' studio chat) and for
every 'We All Stand Together' an 'Oobu Joobu'? And then there's the wealth
of material, catchy and unorthodox alike, on reels of tape at his East
When at his best Paul's genius emerges like the brightest star in the sky.
He and his mate Lennon changed popular music and in so doing changed the
The off-beat would have found its way into the Beatles' music. These were
revolutionary times with psychedelia crossing the Atlantic, but with great
prescience Paul McCartney unearthed priceless threads the Beatles wove into
their musical tapestries.
(1) 'McCartney On McCartney', BBC Radio One, 1989
(2) Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, Secker & Warburg 1997,
(3) 'In My Life: Lennon Remembered', BBC Radio One, 1990
(4) 'McCartney On McCartney', BBC Radio One, 1989
(5) Steve Richards, 'Paul McCartney: Meet The Beatle', New Statesman, 26
Text copyright © Chris Fox, 2000
First published by Rubberneck, November 2000
"Because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside"
- Paul McCartney, 1982