Fact: There is no other 80-year-old person in the world today who can fill a series of sports areas around news of his performance.
We’re incredibly lucky to have a living Beethoven among us. It is easy to accept the prediction that 100 years from now, students of music will be examining the works of Sir James Paul McCartney as our musical era’s Mozart, Stravinsky, Schubert, Copeland, Gershwin, and Cole Porter, all rolled into one. His career’s history needs no repeating in this piece, as his worldwide popularity, creative breakthroughs, record sales, musical influence, and immense cultural impact are well documented.
As for Paul’s personal history, he demonstrated to the world he was a dedicated family man with his first wife Linda, who passed in 1998. This manifested into his unrelenting support for his children, some of whom have achieved their own iconic success, all the while maintaining a thoughtful voice for societal peace….and don’t forget his being a booster for vegetarianism and kind animal treatment.
There have not been a lot of Paul scandals, nevertheless, he’s not perfect. His memorable late age (38) bust for cannabis possession in Japan seemed out of step when it happened in 1980 (and is almost laughable by today’s standards). But other than that, Paul McCartney has successfully climbed the iconic pedestal of public life since his birth on June 18, 1942.
But all this almost did not happen for Paul…..but for a simple decision to hop a fence.
We go back to Christmas time of 1960, as Paul and his fellow Beatles (at that point, John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, and recently departed Stuart Sutcliffe) had just returned from their first rambunctious tour of the seedy clubs of Hamburg Germany for six months. It would take a few weeks for the band members to reach out to each other and eventually reconvene. It was a dead time for the Beatles, one in which they almost broke up, with everyone taking stock in their personal desire to carry on.
Paul also returned home to his widowed father, Jim, and younger brother Michael in a state of exhaustion. Six months of marathon 7-day-a-week gigs in the haze of booze, uppers, prostitutes, and gangsters (and a short run-in with the law) would take its toll on the 19-year-old, Paul. While his father let the newly returned Paul enjoy his Christmas week, the new year brought fresh marching orders from Jim- Time to buckle down, go out, don’t come home without a job!
No matter how much Paul argued that the band was his job, Jim was not going to take his son’s continued laying around the house for the few weekly gigs the Beatles would have in town. “You’ll never make a living in music- you’ve got to have something to fall back on.” His dad would stress, “This music thing is all right on the side Paul, but it will never last.” Jim spoke from experience. He enjoyed leading his jazz band (Jim Mac’s Band) for several years around Liverpool, but he and his fellow musicians were unable to make a living from it. Soon Paul was seeking work at the city’s local Labour Exchange applying for jobs like so many common young men of the post-war industrial era.
“I went down to Renshaw Hall in me donkey jacket and jeans.” Paul would later reflect in 1964, “The fellow sent me to an electrical engineers firm called Massey & Coggins. I said I’d sweep the yard if he wanted.” This was the exact opposite of what kind of job father Jim was hoping for. In her final days on earth, Paul’s mother Mary had shared with Jim that she would have loved to see Paul become “Dr. McCartney.” Now Paul was reaching for the lowest level position in industrial England.
But Paul was lucky enough to have interviewed with the Managing Director, Jim Gilvey, who took enough interest in him to ask where he was educated. When Paul confessed to having gone to the Liverpool Institute, a prestigious high school that only held onto the best and brightest, Gilvey was intrigued and said, “We’ll give you an opportunity, lad, and with your outlook on life you’ll go a long way.” The managing director placed Paul as an apprentice in the transformer department. This would teach him to wind electric motors with the coils they manufactured. He could become a full-blown electrician in 5 years (that would have been in 1966, around the time when he would write and record “Eleanor Rigby”).
Now Paul’s ambitious juices began to motivate him to the possibility of another life. He could start at the bottom, wearing not leather rock & roll outfits, but a blue boilersuit, and a flat cap while eating at the company canteen with his fellow scruffs. But what about those Beatles? “The group had got going again, but I didn’t know if I wanted to go back full time.” Paul later shared, “I imagined myself working my way up, being an executive if I tried hard.” Now in January 1961, Paul had a real job with a clear path to a career. If this had played out, it would have been likely that the world would have missed out on his body of musical work.
Lucky for him (and us), the Beatles slowly returned to gigs that month. So, he accommodated the band by night, and Massey & Coggins by day. But neither camp let him off easy. He often got razzed for his swoopy Rock & Roll hair by his fellow blue-collar workers, soon to be teased as “Mantovani” once those working with him learned of his evening musical ambitions. On the Beatle side, Paul had to deal with one John Lennon, who was “shocked” that he was considering becoming a working stiff. “Paul would always give in to his dad.” John would reminisce in 1971, “His dad told him to get a job and he f-ing dropped the group saying, “I need a steady career.” We couldn’t believe it!”
As this eventually became a period of great popularity for the Beatles in Liverpool, their bookings grew to near seven evenings a week, making Paul’s two-career life hectic. (Note: This was no doubt the beginning of Paul’s legendary work ethic. In the following years, the other Beatles would warmly deem him the band’s workaholic, and later in his solo career, there would be very few periods of inactivity).
Soon the big news in town was that the Cavern Club had a new owner and was switching from Jazz to Rock & Roll. Eventually, the band was approached to play lunchtime gigs, as the Cavern was located adjacent to the downtown business section of Liverpool and could tap into the vast audience of young office workers just a few thousand feet away. It paid well, (a British pound to each band member) and John and George were excited to accept an early morning call to play at 12 pm that very day. They immediately went to Paul’s workplace at Massey & Coggins to tell him the news. “I remember the guys coming down to this coil-winding factory where I worked and saying, ‘We’ve got an offer to play the Cavern,’ Paul recounted years later, “and I said, ‘I’m not sure, I’ve got this real good job here, coil winding, could be a good future in it.’ And they said, “No, come with us!’ So, I bunked over the wall.”
The wall that he jumped was a 14-foot solid fence that surrounded the yard of the coil manufacturing facility, thus abandoning his employer without a word. The gig was played, and the Beatles did so well that they were offered a series of standing afternoon gigs as the Cavern’s house band beginning in two weeks (February 21).
With this in the back of his mind, Paul returned to work the next day and begged for forgiveness. Although Jim Gilvey remembers giving the young McCartney a hard word or two about loyal professionalism, he was allowed to return to his job as a coil winder. But that February 21 series of afternoon gigs was looming soon, and Paul was setting himself up for another hard decision. What would he do? Stiff the Beatles, pleasing his father? Or, as he figured, hop the wall fence again, or maybe, just call in sick for the day. He had a lot of thinking to do over those two weeks.
John Lennon was not taking any chances, nor was he going to let Paul’s other career get in the way of his ambitious plans. With the date upon them, John made his position truly clear, telling Paul, “Either f-ing turn up today or you’re not in the band anymore!” As history would show, the Cavern audience was treated with a smiling Paul McCartney at the lunchtime show that day, standing on stage while belting out his usual great sound.
John saw this as an even bigger victory. “So Paul made a decision between me and his dad then,” John would observe years later, “and in the end he chose me.” Since John’s childhood was in constant turmoil, (living with his aunt while being abandoned by his mother and never knowing his father), Lennon later admitted to manufacturing many strategies to take direct aim at challenging the family status quo of those around him. “I did my best to disrupt every friend’s home that was there.” John would tell Playboy in one of his final interviews in 1980. “The gift I got of not having parents was that I was free from the parent stranglehold. I’ve cried a lot about not having them, and the torture it was, but also the gift of awareness is given.”
Not surprisingly, Paul was let go as a coil winder for Massey & Coggins on February 28, 1961. Jim McCartney was beside himself with disappointment that his eldest son walked away from a golden opportunity to achieve a sturdy career. Although Paul loved his father and respected his views, he has been honest in his reflections on his industrial days, “I was hopeless, everybody else used to wind fourteen (coils) a day, I’d get through one-and-a-half and mine were the ones that never worked.”
On his 80th birthday, the world can be grateful that when Paul McCartney “got myself a steady job,” he was not as successful at being a coil winder as he was jumping over wall fences….and eventually, becoming one of the single most successful musicians in history.
Happy Birthday, Macca- many more… for the world, please.
Photo: Paul McCartney (Getty Images)