The Ears They Fall Into: McCartney & Me— My Life As Failed International Rock Star (In The Best Band You’ve Never Heard)
The Ears They Fall Into: McCartney & Me
Moderate success was full of surprises, one of which was opportunity. Some opportunities were unfair and, in my case, almost always undeserved. An opportunity that frequently arose as you orbited a certain world was the chance to mingle with the stars, those previously unattainable mythical entities that existed solely on record sleeves or CD:UK. And you could do so on the level of being a peer, or a colleague, rather than a fan. You’d be around them as people, rather than celebrities.
During my brief stint with fame, I was able to get close to an indisputable musical icon: Paul McCartney.
An actual Beatle.
Growing up Catholic, the priest would be ashamed to know that, in our house, The Beatles were god. For a long time I never really understood the concept of The Beatles having been an actual, real life band, they pre-dated my idea of knowing music was created by people rather than it being some omnipresent force that surrounded me. I was born into a Beatles house, and the Beatles were there every step of my childhood, on the stereo, on the TV. The Beatles were some sort of legend that existed in the meat of my upbringing; a constant. When I started getting into music, there were books about The Beatles in my house to read, and videos about The Beatles to watch. To imagine them as humans, real people who lived, some of whom were still alive, was less about being a fan and more like discovering Dracula wasn’t just a story.
“Nobody will ever be as big as The Beatles,” my da would say whenever I’d mention a new band I’d heard, “It can’t be done, because it’s been done.”
And in a sense, he was correct. The Beatles wrote, or borrowed, most of the rule book when it came to popular music since the 60s onwards. They were a barometer of success, a milestone when it came to what British working class bands could do if they just put their minds to it and fired their drummer. Even recently, The Beatles remain the benchmark for record sales, or number ones — “The first band to sell this many records since The Beatles”.
But using The Beatles Barometer always bothered me, because it was reductive, as if there are only two modes in art — success and failure. To succeed is to surpass or equal The Beatles.
This kind of comparative competition didn’t seem to exist in other industries to the same degree. Most of us who’ve succumbed to the urge to get into music didn’t do so as a career choice, it’s very rarely even a choice at all. There was a primal, inexplicable pull by music, because it could be a way of expressing something that couldn’t be articulated by us satisfactorily in any other way.
Having been in a ‘failed’ rock band for some time during the 00s, I would get office jobs to pay the rent, and fund the passion I had for screaming at people in dark rooms. My colleagues would never miss the opportunity, and not always in a malicious way, to ask how my life in music was going. Or not going, as was always the implication.
“You still trying, eh?” they’d say, as if there was a definitive end point to music, “You not playing Wembley yet?”
I would spit back, with every fibre of my being, “No, I’m not, Darren. I’m not fucking playing Wembley yet. I’m working here, with you. Stuck here, working with your fucking face every day. And what about you? How are your spreadsheets going? Are you not the CEO of admin yet?”
Except I wouldn’t, I’d just do a wee chuckle and shake my head, as if ‘what am I like, eh? Ha ha ha, wasting my life!’
Not everyone who works in an office is going to be the emperor of spreadsheets, and not everyone in music is going to be The Beatles, and even fewer want to be The Beatles. This line of thought erases the many thousands of hard working bands and artists who continue to make music not to adhere to some sort of agreed indicator of success, but because they absolutely have to play music, because their very mental constitution relies on music as a form of expression.
It’s easy to dismiss songs as just songs, but music can be the fabric of your being — as much your DNA as your molecules. While I don’t want to be wanky about it, what a song can mean to somebody, to collective somebodies, is more than just the mathematics of its composition, and more how it joins the dots in the unknown density of their lives. Songs can punctuate our misery, our happiness, our terror, our joy — they remind us of people, of times, of things, of feelings long since discarded without the clumsiness of detail, without the vulgarity of fact. They represent moments that can’t be articulated with the eloquence of a sentence, because they transcend that kind of communication. Songs are more than just the hands that wrote them, and the notes that construct them, they’re the ears they fall into. One song can change someone’s life entirely, and casually float past another.
The older I get, the more I hear songs that I’ve heard all my life. They’ve always been there, soundtracking me, and I’ve paid them little attention until I finally hear them. Suddenly or slowly, no matter how familiar I might be with them, they unlock a little puzzle I feel that has drifted around me like particles, but it’s not until the exact conditions are right they conjure life — and it’s science, but it’s also a peculiar unknown. It’s why I’m still in love with music, it’s a language I can’t speak but can completely understand.
Anyway, I’ve never written a song that does that for anyone, not even me. But, someone who has, whether you like it or not, is Paul McCartney.
As a result of my moderate success in the indie rock band We Are The Physics, an opportunity arose.
I was sitting in a Travelodge room in Liverpool early one morning before we checked out, engaging in my usual ritual. Some bands indulge in copious drug taking, some bands fall victim to their sexual urges, some bands are never conscious until stage time, but my particular brand of addiction was leaving a sinister note for the next guest somewhere in the room.
A note slid under a pillow, a note perched behind the TV, a note balanced carefully behind a painting; wherever. My personal favourite, however, was on the mirrors. I’d turn the kettle on, and let the steam rise to the walled mirrors of the Travelodge room, or let the shower steam up the bathroom glass, and then, with an oily finger, pen a sinister note.
‘I will kill again’, ‘I’m under the bed’, ‘I’m watching you’, all manner of vague posits would be written by my hand. As the steam would disperse, the message would disappear, remaining just an invisible oily scrawl on the reflective surfaces. The hope was that when the next guest came into the room and switched on the kettle, or squeezed themselves into the tiny shower, the message would slowly appear in front of them.
All the power in that joke relied on never knowing if the punchline landed. I would never know if anyone ever saw the messages, but the idea that they might filled me with such immature glee that I kept doing it. Once I returned to the same hotel, and ended up in the same room, maybe 2 or 3 months later, and on turning the kettle on, the message appeared in front of me. They never clean the fucking mirrors!
As I committed some generic threatening message to the mirror, I got a text from our tour manager, Gary.
“Got free time, Paul McCartney’s house?”
And that was it, I suddenly found myself in Paul McCartney’s home, in absolute awe.
Actually, let’s be clear, it was his childhood home. And it was a tourist trip around his childhood home in Liverpool that anyone can pay £30 to attend. But, the point is, if I hadn’t been in We Are The Physics, I wouldn’t have been in Liverpool at that exact moment.
If you’ve never been to Paul McCartney’s childhood home, I would recommend it. The terrace house in Liverpool on Forthlin Road has been preserved like a time capsule, and the decor is an honest, if reconstructed, leap into an era that nurtured the embryo of the biggest band in history. Faithful wallpapering, furniture, kitchen units, and they’ve somehow managed to capture the smell of an old person’s loft. It truly is something to behold. But its crowning glory, other than the fantastic photographs of the era taken by Paul’s brother that line the walls, was the family piano.
This old rickety row of ebonies and ivories sat proudly against the wall of the living room in the way your TV did growing up. The nucleus all the chairs in the room orbited around.
It had been raining, so everyone had a damp steam emerging from their bodies, causing condensation on Paul’s windows. As the tour progressed fluidly through the house, I held back and stared at the piano. The rest of the group filtered out through the thin door, heading upstairs to check out the rooms a young Paul McCartney possibly once farted in, but not me. I was enamoured by this wooden, shiny beast. I wiped some Liverpool rain off the lenses of my glasses.
The tour guide popped her head round the glossy door-frame and caught me staring.
“Are you a musician?” she asked, loaded.
Now, I always had trouble with that question because even when I was making money as a musician, I never identified as one. Anyone who ever claimed to be a musician usually came accompanied by a tattoo of a musical note, which I’ve always felt was an indicator that they’ve never done anything musically worthwhile.
My da spoke in my head, “Nobody will ever be as big as The Beatles.” By that measure, I was a failure, I couldn’t call myself a musician. But I paused, frozen by the question. I mean, I guess, maybe I was a musician? I was there in Liverpool because of music. I was on tour because of music, and music paid my rent. Did I think of myself as a musician? Absolutely not, I was stealing a living by shrieking at people every night. But I nodded.
“Try it!” she said, pointing at the piano.
My gaze followed from her finger to the keys gathered in front of me. Paul’s piano. The very piano Paul probably once never touched since it was likely a replica, and yet I viewed it like the ark of the covenant. I swear to you, it began to emit a holy glow, although it may have just been more condensation.
I didn’t have to be told twice. I crept forward lightly, as if not to disturb such a deity, before genuflecting and lowering myself down on the old stool in front of it with a squelch from my damp trousers. I hovered my hands above the keys and threw a look over my shoulder at the tour guide, who then smiled and bobbed her head, encouraging me to continue.
It was at that point I really should’ve remembered I couldn’t actually play the piano.
But, listen, I was there. I was in the moment. What else could I do? I’d confessed to being a musician in Paul McCartney’s house and there I was, alone in his front room, about to play his piano. What was the worst that could happen?
I’ve purposely left some space there to give you time to imagine what the worst that could happen could be, because I’m not sure whatever you conjure in your head could be quite as awkward as what actually happened.
There was only one song I knew on the piano. The theme tune from the 90s TV show ‘Men Behaving Badly’.
So I flung my hands down with the sprightly grace of an indie Liberace and pounded away, the notes filling Paul McCartney’s childhood home. The jaunty theme tune from a TV show starring fucking Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey.
As I played, I realised I really only knew the first couple of bars, so when it came to near the end I figured, well, I could either stop there and cease playing Paul McCartney’s piano, or I could keep playing Paul McCartney’s piano. So I just started the song again, with a tiny breath of a pause between.
Behind me, I could feel people begin to fill the room. You know that way where you can sense a gathering? There was a part of me filled with dread thinking I was about to be crucified for disrespecting this piece of musical history. In my mind I was hammering away like Elton John, but in retrospect, I must’ve been one-fingering the whole thing like a boomer writing an angry comment on the Daily Mail website.
In the shine of the piano’s well-dusted lid, I could see the reflection of multiple bodies assembling behind me. The rest of the tour group had emerged, having wandered down from upstairs, in the hope that maybe Paul McCartney himself had turned up at his childhood home for a private, intimate performance on the old Joanna. But what they were disappointedly looking at was the back of my head, plonking the theme tune of ‘Men Behaving Badly’.
The air became oppressively hefty with the amount of people crammed in the room behind me, and the window to my left began to thicken with condensation. I knew it was time to stop. So I played it just a couple more times all the way through, then let my finger slam down on the last note to really underline the finality of it all. I had the audacity to then crack my knuckles and spin round in the stool to find the entire tour group applauding.
I say applauding, they were politely clapping. But, I was in We Are The Physics, so any kind of collision of hands after a song was an applause as far as I was concerned.
“That was great,” said the tour guide, not wanting to forfeit a tip, “Did you write it?”
I glanced at the crowd of wet tourists staring at me.
“Yep,” I said.
To this day, I’ve never met Paul McCartney. But one thing I did notice as I slowly made an embarrassed exit from his front room, was that someone had written ‘Paul Was Here’ with an oily finger in the condensation of his old window, now evident from the heat emerging from our damp tour group. I like to think that maybe it was him, all those years ago. A little Easter Egg from history hidden away. While I’ve never written a song like ‘Hey Jude’ that causes hundreds of thousands of people to chant in unison, a combined outpouring of some international language and historic emotion, maybe the one thing we had in common was that we would both leave threatening messages in condensation.