9 February 2018

Does 1973 McCartney song date back to Beatle days?

Paul McCartney fans may be interested to learn that one of the songs from the Red Rose Speedway album may actually date from Beatle days. McCartney has yet to confirm the story, disclosed to a British newspaper this week by an anonymous source "formerly involved with the Beatles",  but it seems that a photostat of a sheet from one of the exercise books in which Paul used to jot down song ideas has recently come to light - though the precise circumstances of the discovery have not been revealed - and the page contains what is clearly an embryonic version of the song Single Pigeon.

It's not known whether this represents all that McCartney committed to paper on that occasion, believed to be early 1969, as the bottom half of the page has been torn off, but the tone of what has survived is at a considerable remove from the ballad he eventually committed to tape for the 1973 Wings album.

The newly discovered lines (the censoring appears to be in the original photostat) run:
Kill the pigeon
Flying over
Regent's Park Canal
Cause it s**t on my pal
He got covered in p**

Me too, me too, me too,
I got p**ey too - oo - oo - oo
That said, the germ of the final song is already there. In the recording it's a "single seagull" who flies over the canal - a more likely sight, perhaps - while at the start of the song a "single pigeon" is viewed sympathetically, rather than with murderous intent, by the narrator, imagining the creature to be as lovelorn as he:
Single pigeon
Through the railings
Did she lock you out?
Sunday morning fight
About Saturday night
There is no doubt that, given McCartney's well-documented fondness for animals, the vehemence of that barely legible first draft, all in uncharacteristic block capitals, takes one aback. I was inclined, initially, to dismiss it as a dummy lyric, a jokey makeweight until he had the leisure or inclination to develop the idea properly - Yesterday, after all, was originally graced with the title of Scrambled Eggs.

Yet some other McCartney compositions, such as Waterfalls, have likewise been accused of being dummy lyrics, so it's possible that, for all its scatological nature, the early version of the song may have been serious in intent. And the context in which this fragment was written is, I believe, of particular importance in coming to a true understanding of McCartney's intentions.

First of all, there is a strong likelihood, according to the newspaper article, that it was jotted down at the time of the Let It Be sessions, a period of disillusion and discord within the Beatles. Unlike his erstwhile partner, McCartney may not have made a habit of being directly autobiographical in his songwriting but it would be surprising if a time of such sourness did not somehow manifest itself in his work.

Secondly, it's instructive to bear in mind McCartney's Irish heritage. As with other cultures, the Irish believe that thus to be the target of a bird heralds good luck as well as a laundry bill. Could that thought have been at the back of his mind as he wrote the song? The first volume of Mark Lewisohn's scrupulously researched biography of the Beatles has made clearer than ever before that a happy concatenation of circumstances - a great deal of luck as well as talent - made a significant contribution to the group's stellar ascent.

If the pigeon in McCartney's original pass was indeed intended to symbolise Fortune then it's hardly fanciful to imagine that as every moment of the group's disintegration was being captured by unforgiving film cameras McCartney might have been inclined to curse the fate which had descended on him and his "pal" - in this case undoubtedly Lennon rather than the arguably interchangeable Lennon/Linda in the song Two of Us. (Interesting to note that he puts Lennon's suffering first, adding himself - "Me too" - almost as an afterthought.)

For those whose hackles are already rising please note that I regard myself as a Beatles enthusiast, not an expert. As more people weigh in when this discovery becomes more widely known this fragmentary piece will doubtless be subject to any number of contradictory interpretations - though unless McCartney himself chooses to speak we may emerge none the wiser. At the time of writing no one from the McCartney camp has, as yet, even confirmed the item's authenticity, though I don't know what activity may be taking place behind the scenes.

But to those readers who may question whether such a scrap, later revised to produce a pretty ballad, is capable of withstanding the above analysis I will only say this. If my interpretation is even roughly on the right lines then Kill the Pigeon must be accounted of considerable importance to the McCartney canon. He seems to be questioning whether all he and John went through was worth it, the Fortune which spattered them both, anticipating his "pal's" later comment:
You have to completely humiliate yourself to be what The Beatles were. We gave our youth being The Beatles, while the rest of you were living your lives.
The song, slight though it may be, is also worth noting because it looks back upon his long association with Lennon not in the wake of John's death but while both were still trapped within the Beatles' success, and the understanding shown towards his longtime friend and musical partner is deeply moving. In time, I suspect, Kill the Pigeon will come to be seen as a darkly comic counterpart to Two of Us: whatever bitterness may have been on show on occasion during the Let It Be sessions and afterwards it is heartening to have further evidence that an understanding, forged from their shared experience, nonetheless persisted.

Why, then, when the song was taken up again at the time of the Red Rose Speedway sessions did McCartney choose not to develop it along the lines of that initial idea? He produced a perfectly serviceable ditty but it's hardly one widely hailed as being among his best.

The simplest and most likely explanation is that he was no longer that person. Taking a fresh look at what he had written during that dreary time, McCartney chose to pull back; the sleekly professional, "thumbs aloft" persona took over, refashioning that complex outburst of anger and comradeship into an inoffensive, craftsmanlike composition - a new piece, effectively, despite phrases in common. Neither scatological joke nor implied indictment of the loyal fans who had elevated the Beatles, given them their power as well as their pain, were good PR moves and so the songsmith took over, papered the cracks.

I don't mean to imply by the above that I find Single Pigeon, the finished song which appeared on Red Rose Speedway, to be anything other than attractive and charming. But I must also beg leave to mourn a lost possibility: The Long and Winding Road Not Taken, as it were.

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