On the Vaudeville of Paul McCartney
Originally posted in 2011.
There was a long time there when the name “Paul McCartney” (born today in 1942) was to me like fingernails on a chalkboard. In my youth (and largely now), the Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear influenced John Lennon was the be-all-and-end-all. McCartney, in the words of George Harrison, was the “fruity” Beatle. You can hear it in the “Get Back” bootlegs — he sounds like a patronizing school teacher as he instructs his fellow Beatles in their parts. He’s not very cool. Actually, he’s not cool AT ALL. I mentioned him to Carla Rhodes (who knows from rock and roll) the other day, and a volcano’s worth of vitriol spewed forth. I heard my own voice at the age of 20 coming back at me.
The Beatles at their best, to me, were “an act”. In the sense of a show business, or vaudeville act. When they were under the disciplined management of Brian Epstein (one of the great impresarios, I think), they were to me, magical, perfection. Epstein put them in suits, got them matching haircuts, codified their brand, set up worthy movie vehicles, booked them in old music halls and on tv variety shows. The instant Epstein died, they began to disintegrate as an act, and became (while frequently as creative) progressively more self-indulgent and occasionally quite bad. From that point, McCartney represented the only force for cohesion and a desire to maintain the act qua act. Admittedly, his is a conservative influence, but it is the easiest to reconcile with the larger show biz tradition we write about here. And while Harrison’s music blossomed in the post-Beatle era, I note that Lennon’s music, without McCartney’s countervailing influence, became increasingly soporific as each year went by.
McCartney, whose father had been a piano player in a ragtime band, is a good example of someone who would have been just as happy making music in 1917 as 1967. The fact that he was in a rock and roll group was an accident of timing, not of temperament. Lennon was the rock and roller. When McCartney was still a teenager, he wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four”, which could easily have been written twenty years before he was born. Over the years, he revisited the style many times: “Your Mother Should Know” (1967); “Honey Pie” (1968); “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (1969 — the song that Harrison called “fruity”); and “You Gave Me the Answer” (1974). It was at his instigation that the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band be structured like a vaudeville show, and that, in Magical Mystery Tour , the band, dressed in white tie and tails, comes kick-stepping down a big Ziegfeld-style staircase (see above).
Yes, the latter image is repulsive and wrong — “Clams,” as Lennon once said in another context, “in a movie about frogs”. I’d much rather see them in the Sgt. Pepper get-ups. But the larger idea — that this act has some relationship to that which came before — is important. Even in their rock and roll days, they were doing songs by Fats Waller, and numbers from Broadway shows in their set. It is a good sign to me that children love the Beatles, as they universally seem to. McCartney is the one with the driving ambition (even if his talents are largely superficial). It was he who brought in the great playwright Joe Orton to write their third movie, one of the great unrealized projects of the sixties. It is he who wanted to make “Abbey Road” more than just another collection of songs. I love that in his later years he attempted classical music, and I love that he is now Sir Paul — a pillar of the nation that gave us Shakespeare, Dickens, and Chaplin. By contrast, Lennon’s return of his MBE over “Cold Turkey”s low ranking on the record charts seems puerile and unworthy. And this would seem to be the definitive difference between me and a me who’s half my age. I have an internal generation gap!
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc