August 2008 Issue
Eye on the '60s
Mike McCartney creates a legacy all his own.
While his older brother Paul was co-writing the music that would help put the Beatles at the forefront of rock ’n’ roll, Mike McCartney was making a lasting impression of his own. His compositions, however, were photographic ones, giving glimpses of life in his native Liverpool, England, during the 1960s.
Through September 21, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is presenting “Mike McCartney’s Liverpool Life,” an exhibition comprising 65 black-and-white images he shot that chronicle the onset of the British Invasion.
“It was an extraordinary time,” the nimble 64-year-old recalls, as he sits cross-legged on the floor of the intimate Rock Hall gallery where his works are showcased. “These photos complement what was going on.”
As he speaks, likenesses of the Searchers, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, the Hollies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard look down from above, amid images of such pivotal places as the Cavern Club (which hosted the Beatles during their early days) and the River Mersey (which Gerry & the Pacemakers ferried across in one of their most popular ballads).
“A good print,” McCartney says, “gets you into that era. I’d like to think these do that.”
He smiles when asked about the Beatles representation in the exhibit. “A whole show about them would be too obvious now, wouldn’t it? Let’s just say there’s a surprise or two.”
McCartney’s passion for photography began at age 13, when he noticed a flock of gulls flying over the family’s garden.
“They were so enormous,” he says, “that I sneaked into my dad’s bedroom to get his Kodak Brownie box camera to take pictures. When I got the photos back from the chemist who developed them, I noticed this tiny smudge on the prints, which made me think, ‘There’s more to photography than meets the eye.’ ”
Thus began routine pilgrimages by bus to the public library, where McCartney checked out book after book to hone his craft. The exhibit includes a series of what he calls “early experimentation”: shots made with mirrors in his boyhood bedroom. A few were taken with the Nikon camera Paul gave him as a Christmas gift in 1966.
“Nowadays, the camera does everything for you, which is great,” he says. “But in those days, you had to work out the aperture and wait until it was dark to develop a print.”
Not wanting to capitalize on his brother’s fame, McCartney became a noteworthy entertainer in his own right. He used the pseudonym Mike McGear (“gear” being lingo for “great”) while performing with two chums as a member of Scaffold, a comedy troupe he describes as The Second City of its day. The trio went on to record several hits, including “Lily the Pink,” which reached No. 1 on the British charts in 1968, and “Thank U Very Much.”
“Yes, it would have been much easier to have used the name McCartney ––but that’s not the point,” he explains. “I believe you’ve got to stand on your own two feet.
“Paul and I are proud of each other as brothers and as human beings.”
Next up for McCartney is a European tour of his photos. He’s also collaborating with playwright Willy Russell (“Educating Rita,” “Blood Brothers”) on a book about Liverpool.
“There’s great joy about doing photography and music because they bring joy to others,” McCartney says. “What wonderful occupations to have: being known for making people happy.”