The Beatles

[The Beatles][twocolumns]





Paul’s Granny Music

Songs such as When I'm 64, Honey Pie and You Gave Me the Answer, constitute a remarkable part in McCartney's repertoire. "Paul's granny Songs", John Lennon used to call them sarcastically. And that is an apt description. Because that’s what it is: music from the old days, corny, but also very cheerful and humorous.
It's the kind of music McCartney grew up with as a child. Father Jim has his own band in his youth which he performs with at parties. That band is already history when Paul is born, but with Christmas Eve and at family gatherings Jim invariably takes his place behind the piano; English Music Hall classics from the twenties and thirties are a standard part of his repertoire, and if the mood is properly inserted, the whole family sings along. For the adult Paul, these songs are a symbol of youth sentiment, nostalgia; they mostly evoke warm feelings.

McCartney didn’t write lots of English music hall songs, or vaudeville in the US, just a big handful, most of whom are from the late sixties. The most famous is undoubtedly When I'm 64, from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Video: When I’m 64

It’s one of McCartney's oldest songs of which he writes the music when he is about fifteen years old. And in their early years The Beatles are playing it regularly: When during a performance the equipment is getting overheated or there is a power cut, the band gathers around the piano for an acoustic performance.

Important for McCartney is the humor that is in the songs. Similarly, When I'm 64 meant to be funny, where the joke lies in the words "will you still feed me?". As if it’s an old senile man who is unable to eat by himself. The image of a sluggish old couple gets a whole new dimension at once. It is a very subtle joke, which has eluded me initially as a non-English.
Your Mother Should Know is the closing of the film Magical Mystery Tour, with John, Paul, George and Ringo dancing in tuxedos, descending a big showbiz stage. Everything in the style of old-fashioned British dance halls. In 2003, at the Out There Tour, the song was added to McCartney's setlist.

Video: Your Mother Should Know

The White Album is richly endowed. Honey Pie is a tribute to the music style and to give it an extra thirties mood you hear in the beginning the sound of a 78-rpm record. Also completely thirties-style is Martha My Dear, about his sheepdog Martha. Questionable is Ob-la-di ob-la-da which has undeniably English Music Hall influences, but also a strong ska component. According to tradition, Lennon had a profound dislike to this track; In this case, he talked about "Paul's granny shit".

On Abbey Road you’ll find Maxwell's Silver Hammer, a comic song in which one Maxwell with his silver hammer commits one after another murder; even the judge got knocked down. A bigger contrast between the lurid lyrics and the extremely happy tune is hardly conceivable. It's a kind of Python-sketch in music. To McCartney having fun seems the most important reason for making granny music. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t takes the songs seriously. He puts a lot of time in it, which really annoys the other band members during the recording of Maxwell's Silver Hammer:

Ringo: “The worst session ever was Maxwell's Silver Hammer. It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for fucking weeks. I thought it was mad.” John: “I hate it. 'Because all I remember is the track - he made us do it a hundred million times.” George: “After a while we did a good job on it, but when Paul got an idea or an arrangement in his head...” Paul: “I remember George saying, 'You've taken three days, it's only a song.' - 'Yeah, but I want to get it right. I've got some thoughts on this one.' It was early-days Moog work and it did take a bit of time.”
Video: The Beatles rehearsing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer

After the Beatles’ breakup, in 1971, McCartney even records a whole album in granny-style. Thrillington is an instrumental remake of Paul's second solo album Ram, that hasn’t even been released at the time of recording Thrillington.
The album is entirely in big band swing style and definitely worth listening to. But not too many people did because Thrillington has never received much attention. First, the album has been on the shelves for six years before being released in 1977. And second, Thrillington isn’t issued under McCartney's own name but under the name of the fictional character Percy Thrillington. From the start there are suspicions about the real identity of this person, but it takes until 1989 before McCartney finally admits that he himself is Thrillington.
In 1974 Wings records You gave me the Answer, a tribute to Fred Astaire; the track appears on the album Venus and Mars. In the same period he also releases an old song of his father Jim, Walking in the Park with Eloise, under the pseudonym The Country Hams. After that it’s done with the 'fruity old songs’, as McCartney uses to call them by himself. 
Video: You Gave Me The Answer

On the album Tug of War appears Ballroom Dancing still, a tribute to the British dance halls and the accompanying music. But the song itself is above an up-tempo rock song. The only other solo work that could possibly be considered part of the genre is English Tea, from the 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. The track paints a picture of an England which is slowly disappearing; with old, rich, eccentric ladies who enjoy having tea on a sunny afternoon, in a carefully landscaped garden. The lyrics and the corny music are in perfect balance.

Video: English Tea

Just because of the old fashioned character of the songs, they often are treated with a bit of condescension. When after the release of Sgt. Pepper friends, colleagues or the media ask for their opinion on When I'm 64, Lennon and George Harrison feel somewhat embarrassed. It's not so cool for a rock 'n' roll band, as Lennon pointed out in 1979: "I would never even dream of writing a song like that."
Lennon may have been negative about Paul's granny music time to time, but according to McCartney the music was a shared love. So it is Lennon who plays wonderful, and entirely in thirties style, lead guitar on Honey Pie. And when it comes to When I'm 64, he wasn’t negative all the time: “Paul wrote it in the Cavern days. We just stuck a few more words on it like 'grandchildren on your knee' and 'Vera, Chuck and Dave' ... this was just one that was quite a hit with us.”
Lennon may have liked it, he just had no ambition at all to write such songs. McCartney has clearly a different approach: Why would you leave it, if you like it? Or as Wings guitarist Denny Laine answers the why question: “Because you can! Why not? It’s Paul being Paul. (…) Why would you be negative about it? To me that’s stupid too. You develop things, you do all sorts of things, and at the end of the day you got a body of work. You got this or that, of which you can choose from.”

It’s typical McCartney that this genre is also part of his repertoire. It’s part of a continuous process of adopting and experimenting with other music, old and new, to push the boundaries each time again. Denny Laine: “You have to have the guts to do that.”
Related Posts:
Not Much Blues For McCartney
Drummer Boy McCartney
The Voice

André Homan

André Homan is a Dutch writer and journalist.

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