Given his penchant for sugary pop songs and twee novelty numbers, it’s hard to imagine Paul McCartney as the leading figure in the UK counter-culture movement of the late 1960s, regardless of how much the Beatles pushed the psychedelic music scene into the mainstream with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. But in truth, there’s a compelling case for him being at the heart of both musical experimentation and alternative culture long before any of his band mates or other leading lights of the scene.
The British underground movement more or less began in 1965 with CND and the Albert Hall beat poet performances helping launch a new counter-culture – the first time an actual youth movement emerged in the UK to frighten the establishment. With figureheads like John Dunbar, Barry Miles and John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, the collision of youth culture, LSD, the musical experimentation of jazz in the early Sixties, the Beat movement in New York, pop music and the emerging rock scene, and a new sense of personal and sexual freedom helped spawn a London scene that included underground newspaper The International Times, psychedelic club UFO and bands like Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine, all of which were at the hub of a new musical and cultural revolution.
At a time when the Beatles had withdrawn from live performance and his band mates had all moved out to the suburbs, McCartney was the only Beatle who remained in London – a single man with a seemingly insatiable desire to soak up the new and the experimental. He threw himself into the developing underground with great enthusiasm, absorbing the developing new ideas like a sponge. His exposure to the works of avant-garde artists like John Cage would led to him experimenting with tape loops, and would eventually influence tracks like Tomorrow Never Knows on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver – arguably the opening salvo in the British (possibly global) psychedelic movement. But McCartney didn’t simply take – he also supported the movement financially and, just as important, culturally. He was, for example, a backer of radical bookstore / gallery Indica – pretty astonishing given that the Beatles were at the time the biggest band in the world and a very mainstream, establishment pop act. Could you imagine a member of One Direction or Coldplay suddenly financing a radical bookshop and helping put shelves up in the place? In fact, McCartney was involved with the shop early on – he was dating Indica founder Peter Asher’s sister Jane, and became their first customer, checking out books kept in storage at Asher’s home before the shop had even opened.
The pop culture scene of the time was not so tribal or so cynical that the involvement of the biggest band in the world in the new underground scene would be seen as opportunistic or curious. In truth, the band grew organically within the scene, which never quite seemed to know exactly what it was. The Beatles would take in influences from the long form experimentation of the Floyd and experimental electronic music by the likes of Delia Derbyshire to rewire pop music for a generation and the powers that be did everything they could to shut down the youth movement – the Rolling Stones drug bust and the police raid in the IT offices being two prominent moments in the war on the counter-culture. In the midst of this, it was McCartney, of all the Beatles, who was publicly at the centre of the storm, with his press and TV interview admissions of LSD use.
It didn’t, however, last. Although it was McCartney who was at the forefront of this early Beatles association with the underground while John Lennon was living an uncreative suburban family life, the roles would eventually be reversed – with the death of Brian Epstein, McCartney stepped away from his association with the counter-culture while Lennon was creatively revitalised when he met Yoko Ono and soon became a leading figure of the underground and responsible for the most widely heard piece of experimental music ever recorded – Revolution 9 from the band’s self-titled 1968 album (a track that McCartney didn’t want to appear on the album). There’s an argument that while McCartney was willing to play with avant-garde musical ideas, he never took it too seriously – most of the recordings he made of this nature remain unreleased. Lennon, on the other hand, became a major enthusiast for experimentation, and this schism ultimately split the band. Ono is still demonised by sections of the simple-minded (and racist) media as the woman who destroyed the Beatles, but she helped inspire Lennon’s creative resurrection (no matter how short-lived that ultimately was) and deserves praise, not criticism, for that.
McCartney would seem to have abandoned all interest in the experimental and the challenging with the demise of the Beatles – his work would become increasingly bland and embarrassing over the years. But he has quietly continued to experiment with non-commercial sounds through the years as side projects to his more immediate pop stuff, The Fireman project with Killing Joke‘s Youth being a prime example. Although easily dismissed as millionaire rock star self-indulgence, the simple fact that he would want to indulge in such art-rock and electronica at this stage of his career says something.
In any case, McCartney’s hands-on involvement in the most creative era of British pop culture, and his putting money where his mouth was – be it in Indica, the Apple boutique and record label or simply helping publicise new and potentially difficult musical acts, suggests that when his life is finally assessed, he should be seen as more than just the wholesome one of the Beatles.