Mike McCartney

Presented by Professor Frank Sanderson

Liverpool's Mike McCartney, a product of the 1960's generation who changed his name and went his own way, is an artist, song-writer, satirist, author, photographer, cultural ambassador and a man of many Liverpool parts who has remained loyal to the city and region he loves.

Peter Michael McCartney was born in Liverpool in 1944 to Mary and Jim McCartney; Mary was a nurse, and Jim a cotton salesman who also played piano and cornet in his own band, known as Jim Mac's Band.

Mike first went to school in Speke and then to Belle Vale Primary School, before transferring to the Liverpool Institute School,- a school also attended by his elder brother. 

Shortly after his mother died in 1956, his father bought a banjo for Mike and a guitar for Paul, but Mike never really took to the banjo - breaking his arm at scout camp didn't help much. 

His great ambition was to study art and so, when the time came, he went along to Liverpool College of Art with an impressive portfolio and an O Level in Art. Although a few years earlier, John Lennon had been accepted with minimal academic qualifications, Mike applied at a time when the barriers had been raised - despite his portfolio, he was rejected because of insufficient O Levels.

An assortment of jobs followed: catholic bible salesman, a tailor's assistant alongside Derek Hatton, and a hairdresser at Andre Bernard, alongside Jimmy Tarbuck and Lewis Collins. Mike, the would-be artist, drew pictures on the back of the 'shampoo and set' hairdressing slips - and Mrs Graham, the tinting lady, collected all the slips because she reckoned he'd be famous one day.

Fame came in the mid 1960s when he became part of a satirical comedy trio with former GPO Engineer John Gorman and poet Roger McGough, performing at Hope Hall, now the Everyman Theatre. At this time when Beatlemania was in full swing, Mike changed his name to McGear because the world had stolen the McCartney name and in any case, his pride wouldn't let him cash in on the name. The name McGear came from the Liverpool teenage slang where anything of merit was either "fab" or "dead gear". So it could have been Mike McFab, but McGear sounded more Irish.

The trio first performed as The Liverpool, One Fat Lady, All Electric Show with another Liverpool poet, Adrien Henri, but then settled on The Scaffold. Billed as "three lively Wacker wits", The Scaffold performed variety sketches, songs and poems to young audiences, particularly at universities and at the Edinburgh Festival. They appeared regularly on television, including on the TV series, Gazette, on Peter Cook's Establishment Club, and many times on Top of the Pops. Mike reckons they would have been the biggest rock and roll band in the world, but for the fact that they couldn't sing …or play instruments.

They had three major hit records, the first being Thank U Very Much which was high in the Christmas charts in 1967. It was written by Mike after his brother had bought him a new camera and he had begun his thank you phone call with, "Thank you very much, thank you very, very, very much…" Incidentally, Mike has never explained what the Aintree Iron is - if you think you know, answers on a postcard to Mike, please.

The second hit was Lily The Pink, recorded at Abbey Road, and featuring backing from Jack Bruce (Cream), Graham Nash (The Hollies) and the young Elton John (then known as Reg Dwight). It was a number 1 hit in 1968 - just as John Peel had predicted. 

The third hit was Liverpool Lou, with the backing provided by Wings.

In the Seventies, Mike, John, and Roger went their separate ways and Mike tried several careers, including becoming a children's author. After his first marriage, which produced 3 daughters, ended, he married Rowena Horne, a Merseyside girl, and they now have 3 sons, the eldest of whom, Josh, is a drummer in The Famous Last Words rock band, and brother Max is in a group called Fayte. 

Photography has been a big part of Mike's life since he was a teenager. When his brother was practising his guitar at Forthlin Road, Mike was learning about photography. One day, he noticed gulls close up for the first time, swooping over the garden like albatrosses. Desperate to capture this image, he removed the Box Brownie from his father's bedroom and, from the roof of the garden shed, he took three photographs.

They turned out to be a great disappointment, the birds appearing as small dark smudges on a large grey background. At this point, Mike realised that there was literally more to photography than meets the eye.

Knowledge was acquired via trips to Allerton Library, and soon Mike was spending his pocket money on developing and fixer fluid. With no darkroom, he had to wait until late at night to develop his pictures, which were then hung up with ladies' hair grips to dry on a string across his bedroom.

During the 50s and early 60s, a camera was ever-present - causing Brian Epstein to refer to him as "Flash Harry" - and he took countless photographs at Forthlin Road, of his friends and his elder brother, of Liverpool people, of the River Mersey, the Liver Building, and of the stars appearing on Merseyside - including Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Chanel, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and of countless local rock groups. 

Then The Scaffold came along and he stopped taking photographs, and it was not until the 1980s that his interest was rekindled.

Since then:

  • Mike McCartney's Liverpool Life, his exhibition of evocative photographs of Liverpool in the Fifties and Sixties - with not a Beatle in sight - was exhibited at the Museum of Alberta in 2002, at the Museum of Liverpool Life in 2003, and at The Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 2004. The exhibition was complemented by a book of the same name
  • The National Trust have used his photographs to help recreate the décor of 20 Forthlin Road in the 1950s
  • He was appointed last year as Cultural Ambassador for the Wirral by the Bishop of Birkenhead
  • He is an automatic contact for charities 
  • He is heavily involved in Liverpool's role as the European Capital of Culture

Mike McCartney's Secret Wirral, a personal photographic record of an area in which he has lived for many years, is to be published later this year. Having seen a pre-publication copy, David Putnam commented, "Mike has a great eye and offers up images that any number of artists would die for."

Mike McCartney has achieved significant fame in his own right, and has gained great respect in his home town and in the wider region. He has no regrets about not being a rock star and is indeed grateful for having had a relatively normal life. 

And he is proud of his achievements, commenting last year, "Who would have thought that this little working class lad from Liverpool would get his pictures in the Smithsonian".  

We might equally say, "Who would have thought that this working class lad would be appointed a Cultural Ambassador?"  

He prides himself on his ordinary life but his achievements have been extraordinary, and this is why we wish to honour Mike McCartney today.

Thus I have pleasure in presenting Mike McCartney, this most distinguished son of our city, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.