Undercover McCartney: Thrillington

It’s remarkable, that for a band as well written about as The Beatles, that there’s any surprises left. Yet, seeing as they were a band that always left the tapes running, and budgets weren’t really an issue, there’s so much to be found if you’re digging deep into their careers both as a band, and solo.

There’s countless non-Anthology out-takes from dodgy bootlegs and the like, over on YouTube, and people have got their hands on the tapes and released the multitracks of some of the most famous songs ever recorded, so if you want to just listen to the violas and drums from ‘Hello Goodbye’, you can.

Paul McCartney, the most creative and restless (and sometimes gloriously odd) of the Fabs, is a particular goldmine.

By accident, I stumbled across a pseudonym he’d worked under called Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington — a name that, for the Macca-hater, will rankle almost immediately. To me, it was catnip, and the story surrounding it didn’t disappoint.

Macca fans will know all about his (and Linda’s) ‘Ram’ album, which was recorded in ’71 in the middle of The Beatles acrimonious legal wrangles, and saw John Lennon hearing what he thought were coded digs at him, which saw him retaliate on the ‘Imagine’ album. Lennon was right, with McCartney confessing that the line “too many people preaching practices” was aimed at Lennon and his wife Yoko, as well as “you took your lucky break and broke it in two”. The ‘Ram’ artwork also showed two beetles having it off with each other, which has been seen as Macca’s dig at how he felt like he was being shafted by his former bandmates.

Lennon, in the middle of being closely watched by Richard Nixon while living in the States, came back at Paul with the vinegary and incredibly blunt ‘How Do You Sleep?’, and the ‘Imagine’ album originally included artwork which aped Macca’s ‘Ram’ cover, by showing Lennon pulling the ears of a pig.

It was ugly and pithy, but what fan of pop-culture doesn’t enjoy an ill-advised feud between two former best friends, now and then?

Lennon eventually went on the piss with Harry Nilsson for a couple of years, while Paul would retreat to rural Scotland to smoke all the weed in the world, and one of the greatest partnerships in pop would never be fully repaired (although, they did hang out again, during Paul’s wonderful mullet-and-moustache years).

Coverage of this period in the history of The Beatles is pretty comprehensive, but oddly for such a scrutinised time, there’s something that got buried — and that’s ‘Thrillington’.

During 1971, Paul McCartney recorded an album which was made-up entirely of cover versions from his own ‘Ram’ album, but it was shelved thanks to the formation of Wings (“the band The Beatles could have been”).

A lost album isn’t really news, but ‘Thrillington’ wasn’t exactly thrown together — it’s a ‘light orchestra’ version, which had a great promotional campaign for the eagle-eyed. McCartney went about inventing the Percy Thrillington character who was a socialite, and he took out advertisements in the UK press talking about Percy’s various appearances, in a bid to create some curiosity.

Macca was only mentioned as a pal of Percy’s, and when it finally got released in 1977 (completely at odds with the punk and disco that was doing the rounds at the time), it only got the briefest of mentions, notably in the ‘Random Notes’ section of Rolling Stone magazine.

The artwork was by rock-art legends Hipgnosis, who did notable work for Pink Floyd, T-Rex, Led Zep, ELO, 10cc, and others. It also featured the Mike Sammes Singers, who you might know as the voices for TV themes like ‘Stingray’ and a Tuc biscuits advert, who McCartney will have known from providing the backing vocals for ‘I Am The Walrus’ (they’re responsible for the ‘ho ho ho hee hee hee ha ha ha’ bit, as well as the ‘oompah oompah stick it up yer jumper’ sections).

An orchestra made up of some of the most respected session musicians in music, and avant-garde visual-artists, all involved on a secret project of cover versions for an album that was recorded before the album was even out, released years later, and conceived during one of the most famous squabbles in pop.

Some people took a punt and bought the thing, while the rumours swirled about McCartney’s involvement on this album, and getting ‘Thrillington’, which would surely become an valuable collector’s item if Paul came clean? Or was it just some chintzy Beatles-related knock-off, of which there are plenty?

It wasn’t until 1989 that McCartney confessed all.

Journalist Peter Palmiere, speaking to Macca at a Los Angeles press conference asked about the album, which saw McCartney — promoting a world tour — saying: “What a great question to end the conference. The world needs to know! But seriously it was me and Linda — and we kept it a secret for a long time but now the world knows! — you blew it!”

And now, vinyl copies of ‘Thrillington’ are being sold for £100, where once, they were probably worth peanuts.

Richard Hewson — the man who helped to bring ‘Thrillington’ to life (he’d previously done some arrangements for The Beatles) was sent an advance copy of ‘Ram’, to create a new version of it before the proper release had been heard by anyone else.

Among the tubas, banjos, and upright basses, some singers from France called The Swingle Singers — who were known, according to Hewson for “doing sort of jazzy, scat renditions of Bach” — where hired to provide the voices for the album.

By the close of the recording sessions, Paul McCartney hadn’t played a single note or sang at all on the project, instead, overseeing it and acting as executive producer.

The ‘Thrillington’ album would eventually get a re-release on one of the discs of a deluxe reissue of ‘Ram’. It is great to see it getting the light of day, yet even with that in mind, it is still tucked away enough that it is still easily missed while ploughing through Paul McCartney’s expansive back catalogue.

You have to assume that, amidst all the nonsense that was going on in Paul McCartney’s life at the time, this was something of a holiday for him — hiring some friends and musicians, and recording something that was fun and easy on the ear, not worrying about writing huge hits, or breaking new ground that everyone would analyse to death — an idea that McCartney would revisit with a variety of other pseudonyms and collabs, like The Fireman, Liverpool Sound Collage, Twin Freaks, and whatever other releases he’s put out under everyone’s noses without everyone but total die-hards noticing.

Often, McCartney is at his best when he sounds like he’s kicked his shoes off and just goofing around. Even when Macca is at play, he’s still able to create rich, wonderful projects that make everyone else look a bit slovenly.

And that’s the thing with Paul McCartney — he can’t sit still and likes pissing around and playing with music you might not readily associate with a rock legend— ‘Thrillington’ is borderline quaint, but that’s not to say it’s bad — echoes of ragtime, Temperance Seven records and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, ‘lite jazz’ orchestras, and charity shop gems that got thrown out when nana died — McCartney sees as much value in these things, as say, writing rock bangers and ballads to make you sob forever.

Through pop, rock, disco, love-songs and much much more, Macca has thrown out the wonk-synth of ‘Temporary Secretary’, a cute Rupert The Bear song, and a lunch-time jazz album by a fictional character. If you can’t sign up for that, then we’re not going to agree on much.

Here’s to ‘Thrillington’, which in its own way, is the most Paul McCartney thing he’s ever done.

Hi. I'm Mof. I really like Steely Dan.