An interview with Mike McCartney

Wirral’s Mike McCartney known professionally as Mike McGear is a performing artist, writer and photographer who was a member of the satirical humour trio Scaffold and is the younger brother of Paul McCartney. Here he talks to Wirral Life in an exclusive and revealing interview.

Born on 7th January 1944 at the end of World War 2 and brought up in Liverpool, Mike McCartney was educated at the Liverpool Institute High School for boys. He tried to get into next doors art college but lack of GCE’s meant that he ended up a lady’s hairdresser. From here he entered ‘show biz’ in the Liverpool One Fat Lady None Electric Show, which eventually became Scaffold.

Because of the sheer enormity of Beatlemania, Mike, not wanting to appear to be cashing in, changed his name to McGear. He was an integral part of the 60’s Merseybeat era but Scaffold were mainly a theatre, university, satirical comedy act. In 1967, Mike got them into the pop world by writing their first top five single ‘Thank U Very Much’ incidentally it became the Queen Mother’s and Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s favourite record. In 1968, their huge hit Lily the Pink reached the top of the charts (here and abroad) and stayed number one for four weeks.

You are a notable Musician, Photographer and Author. But what did you want to be as a kid?
A big kid.

Is it quite surreal that your original 2 up – 2 down family home has been bought by the National Trust?
It is surreal. We had lived in the property from when I was 11 years old and I have some great memories from there. The new owner Mrs Jones had shown the National Trust around the property but they weren’t remotely interested because it was now a modern two up two down. It was only when they looked at my photographs they said if we can have the photographs we’ll buy it… and they did.

Did you really whistle the theme tune to the Liver Birds TV Show?
(Mike answers by whistling the theme tune) Yes I did for 20 years. It brightened up the life of the wonderful actor Alan Cumming no end, in fact he had to shake my hand. We were at Panoramic, Liverpool doing an interview for Sky TV’s Urban Secrets. I whistled for him and he shook my hand and said “I can now tell my Mum in Scotland that I’ve shaken the hand of the man who whistled the Liver Bird theme tune.” So yes, that was me.

Didn’t the legendary Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Graeme Nash and Sir Tim Rice play as session musicians for your first album?
Unbelievably, yes. Jimi was a charming gentleman. He came to the studio and played guitar on my McGough McGear album, I was expecting an enormous entourage with all his press people, photographer, groupies, drug administrators etc., but when he arrived at De Lane Lea Studios London he was just on his tod with a guitar. I said that we were actually working on a track with our kid (Paul) who was the producer of the album. Paul was working on another track in the studio so I offered Jimi a drink. He said “No that’s cool, I’ll just go into the studio and rehearse stuff”. Paul and I came to the track called ‘So Much In Love’ so we sent it to him in the studio where he sat on the floor and started playing. Paul and I were listening and there was a bit in it were Jimi was to come in for the solo. And so it goes ‘So Much In Love… do be do be’ etc… then suddenly Jimi rips into a totally mind blowing solo which was amazing! Our kid who had just finished Pepper, turned to me smiling and said “So what do you think?” When I looked concerned Paul said “that was extraordinary… what’s wrong?” I said “well he didn’t come in at the right place!” Paul said “So do you want to tell him?” I didn’t mind so went into the studio and said “Jimi, that was brilliant but the thing is you didn’t know when to come in did you?” He said “No sorry, I just went for it, can you tell me when to come in?” So Jimi and I sat on the floor waiting with me till I tapped his knee… “NOW Jimi!” We did a couple of takes till it was ‘perfect’. I then played the tape back with Paul and he said “Now do you understand what you’ve done? Do you remember the first one when it was wild and electric, well this one is now modified, cooled down, perfect but no balls in it.” I agreed that he was absolutely right. So Paul said to the tape operator “sorry can we have the first take?” The tape operator said “what do you mean the first take, there’s no room left on the tape. We’ve been wiping everything as we go”!! So that’s lesson number one in recording.

Elton John was our backing singer for Scaffold. I was at the in the bathroom at the Wings launch in London and this young lad came in. He said “They were great days weren’t they Mike”, I said “Hello Reg (that was his name at the time). He said “Oh no I’m not Reg anymore, I changed my name to Elton… Elton John”. I said “That’s nice but what do you mean, they were great days?” He explained “We used to come to Abbey Road to do backing vocals for your Scaffold, they were the best gigs we ever did, laughed all day and still got paid”. Scaffold couldn’t sing so were needed someone to do harmonies. In fact, if you listen to the old Scaffold songs, you can clearly hear Elton’s voice on them.

Graham Nash was in the Hollies, whenever you hear Lily the Pink, our number one record listen to the Jennifer Eccles verse. The Hollies had a big hit called Jennifer Eccles, so I rang Graham and said “Look, we’re doing this daft song called Lily the Pink and there’s a verse in there about Jennifer Eccles do you want to come to Abbey Road and sing it?”
and he did, so if you ever hear the song on the radio it is not Roger McGough singing that verse… it is so obviously Graham Nash. By the way Tim Rice was our coffee boy on Lily the Pink and I’ll be working with him next year on something special.

Did you sign with David Frost?
We were with Brian Epstein and his big rock and roll Merseyside stable but we didn’t fit in. We were a comedy, satirical poetry type act… we weren’t singers at all. So we left Brian to join David Frosts agency, Noel Gay because we were big fans of ‘That Was The Week That Was… TW3’

You were originally called The Liverpool One Fat Lady Non Electric Show before The Scaffold, what happened there?
We were called the Liverpool One Fat Lady None Electric Show, but nobody could pronounce it! So we changed it to Scaffold.

How quickly did London accept Scousers after the Merseybeat invasion?
The Merseybeat invasion was a very important part of social history in the old North and South divide days. Immediately after Merseybeat there was a sudden change in attitude and perceptions. For such a long time Liverpool people and northerners were ignored by London as we didn’t speak the same language and were no use to them. It was also very much a class thing but the working class now had a voice – it changed history for ever.

Who were your heroes growing up?
The traditional ones… Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Everly Brothers and particularly Fats Waller, I love him to this day, I guess that’s where my love of comedy and satire came from, he was a big hero. Other hero’s were Marlon Brando and JFK. I wasn’t into Bridget Bardot, every other child in the world, particularly in Liverpool, were into her. I was an awkward bugger so I decided on Jeanne Moreau of Jules et Jim etc.

Your solo project ‘McGear’ is an excellent album, there is a distinct family vocal similarity and arrangement, do you have any future plans?
Thank you. I’m actually in discussions with labels in LA and the UK about releasing a new luxury version of the album next year. That will include special additions, out-takes and lots of other things that I’ve collated, it will be wonderful.

Was your choice to take the satirical route early on a chance to side-step Beatlemania?
Yes I suppose it was. Brian Epstein asked me if I’d like to be a pop singer and offered to manage me. I politely declined. In reality, to try and compete with the best band in the world would be insane, you don’t go there. That had been well done in the family, well encapsulated. I wanted to pursue comedy/satire. I even changed my name so not to look like I was cashing in on my proud McCartney name. Which at that time was like Sinatra or Presley etc. and to protect the innocent I became Mike McGear. However, I was nearly Mike Dangerfield from J.P. Donleavy’s ‘Ginger Man’ but it was a little too pretentious. The two ‘in words’ in Liverpool at that time were Fab and Gear, so I was nearly Mike McFab! But McGear sounded Irish so I went with that.

Was the reason for you and Paul to drop your actual first names – you being Peter and Paul being James an early attempt at an alter ego?
Our parents actually dropped our first names, still don’t know why.

The Scaffold’s Lily The Pink hit single, released in November 1968, became No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart for the four weeks encompassing the Christmas holidays that year, it became a huge playground classic comedy singalong The lyrics celebrate the “medicinal compound” invented by Lily the Pink, and chronicle the “efficacious” cures it has brought about, such as inducing morbid obesity to cure a weak appetite, and our favourite – a sex change as a remedy for freckles. Who brought this wacky idea to the table, that must have been a laugh?
Lily the Pink was originally a bawdy rugby song that everyone joined in with, they used to sing it in pubs etc. but it was so risqué we would have never got away with it and it would have never been played. So we changed all the words to get it into the charts. We only realised we had a chance of success when Norris Paramor (he produced Ruby Murray, Cliff Richard and the Shadows… and Lily) suggested we run the first pressing of Lily over to John Peels house, he played all the new records on his radio one programme. John passed the demo disk to a curly haired boy, played it, listened to the intro and said “That is number one” I made him listen to the whole thing and at the end he said “Yes, I still think its going to be number one.” The curly haired boy agreed. The curly haired boy was Marc Bolan (T-Rex).

Everyone of a certain age will remember the Cadbury’s Roses TV Ad (which is still considered the most famous Cadbury’s ad of all time) featured one of your singles ‘Thank You Very Much’ (Which was a huge favourite of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson who was famously a former pupil at Wirral Grammar), and also THE favourite of the Queen Mother. That must have been quite an honour?
Yes I’ve been told that. It was Thank You Very Much for Cadbury Roses… It was Thank You Very Much for a new kitchen and Thank You Very Much for a new car… so yes, thank you very very very much to Cadbury Roses, I wish they’d run it again! Somebody had told me in the sixties that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a fan of the song, so I told people this for years and got away with it. Then Radio 4 called me one day as they were doing a programme asking all about ‘Thank You Very Much’ and I told them the same… It was Harold Wilson’s favourite record. They said they knew, I asked “How?” and they replied “He told us”! Years later in 2009, I was in Scotland at the Castle of May doing a book called ‘Mike McCartney’s North Highlands’. According to the Majors who control the castle, Thank U was a particular favourite of the Queen Mother. At Christmas time, after dinner the Royals would play and sing along to the song with their children. The Queen Mum would insist on taking one particular line – Thank U Very Much, Thank U Very Much and sing.. ‘For our gracious Queen’. I didn’t have the heart to tell the Majors that the actual words were Thank U for our ‘gracious Team’ i.e. for Liverpool FC!

You’re a distinguished photographer, but do you miss performing on stage?
No I don’t really miss performing on stage, unless you’d like a song now?

You’re well known for your enormous amount of charity work, what have you been up to recently?
I’m currently working on a comedy record to befit a Wirral and Liverpool cancer charity next year and helping the Sally Army with something.

What is your favourite photographic subject?
Everything. My camera tells me when to click the shutter. To me photography is when a photograph has to be taken then its taken.

What’s the best image you’ve ever shot?
I’ve yet to shoot it.

Your twitter account indicates that you have a love of puddings – what is your favourite dessert?
My favourite dessert at home is Mike’s Malteser Magic… mmm! For all readers here’s how to make it. Get a glass, put vanilla ice cream at the bottom, place maltesers on top of that, then add more ice cream and put more maltesers on top and build it up to the top and then pour Baileys all over, delicious. At restaurants I always ask for Crepe Suzettes, you’ll never get them, but ask for them. My youngest son, Sonny, who is a photographer in London was in Paris recently and sent me a photo with the caption ‘I’ve found the Crepe Suzettes Dad!’ I love Crepe Suzettes but try and get one anywhere!

Guilty pleasure?
My guilty pleasure is reading Wirral Life whilst eating Crepe Suzettes.

Do you prefer to eat in or out and what’s your favourite type of food and your favourite restaurant?
I prefer to eat in as my wife does fab food, but when we eat out (out) one of my favourite restraints is Nisha Katona’s Mowgli. Whilst I’m eating her delicious Indian Street Food, I like to listen to her husband in the Katona Twins, their guitar music is unbelievable, just like the food. Gusto and Burnt Truffle in Heswall and The Opera Bar and Grill in Chester and The Pen Factory are also amongst my favourites.

What do you love about the Wirral?
Its lovely and laid back, with a non-city feeling – you can relax. It has great walks, bike rides and now great restaurants! To tell you the truth, we used to have to drive to Liverpool to get good restaurants, but now thank god, Wirral has some amazing places.

What’s your favourite place on the Wirral?
My home. Overlooking the horses in the fields, the lovely River Dee and the most beautiful sunsets in the world. In the 60’s our kid once offered to get me and Dad a house preferably in London, where he now lived, but Dad said he wanted to live in Heswall. Paul went on “but Dad, you can live anywhere”. “No, Heswall”, so Heswall it was .

You’re famously monochromatic with your wardrobe, but apart from black, what’s your favourite colour?
My favourite colour apart from black is black. But I have secret colour on my socks, hidden in my shoes. (Wirral Life were allowed a sneaky look).

Do you collect anything and if so what?
Don’t ask my wife that question. She intimates that I’m a notorious hoarder. I don’t collect anything, I collect everything! No wonder I’m always watching Bargain Hunt – one of my favourite programmes, that and the news.

What do you like to do with your down time?
I get down.

What was the last book that you read?
George Orwell 1984 – would you like to know the end?

What are you most proud of (professionally and personally)?
I’m proud of my 1 GCE …in Art! Plus a first prize in Art at the Liverpool Institute. I got a number one with Lily the Pink. I’m proud of writing Thank U Very Much for Scaffold. I was honoured by JMU as an Honorary Fellow and proud to be patron of DADA Fest. But mostly I’m proud of my wife and children, I love them.

What’s your most embarrassing moment?
I’m getting more embarrassing every day.

If you could pass a new law, what would it be?
I would make it compulsory to read Wirral Life… Wirral’s FREE posh magazine.

What plans do you have for 2018?
Hopefully to stay alive, that would be nice! I’m getting together the definitive re-release of my 1974 McGear album its going to be a double gate, vinyl and on CD luxury album. Also, I’m collecting images for a photographic book ‘Mike McCartney’s People’ and working on a cartoon book called ‘The Wierdo’s’. I’m also helping with a new Salvation Army project and working on an old Scaffold hit to raise lots of money for a Wirral and Liverpool Breast Cancer Charity.