Henry was a top session man in the '70s, playing on tracks by Donovan, Marianne Faithfull, Ronnie Lane, Eric Burdon and many others. He also did the guitar arrangements and played on the original Jesus Christ Superstar, and made a famous cameo in Pink Floyd's "Money," where he says, prophetically, "I don't know, I was really drunk at the time."
Henry tells us that he's lucky to be alive after years of alcohol abuse nearly killed him. Redemption came not from the church, but from his own faith - a story he tells in his song "Failed Christian," which is part of his 2011 album Unfinished Business.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Henry, I thought of you when I was watching that "Let It Be" clip where George Harrison was being driven crazy by Paul McCartney. I was wondering if you had seen that before you took the job working for Paul.
Henry McCullough: No, I hadn't seen it. But I saw it after I left. It was the same scenario from the way I grasped it, it was like, Okay, I have this song and I have a bit that goes la la la, and a bit that goes here, and then you play do-do-do-do-do-do-do. But I had done all that when I was 16 and 17, when I worked in Irish show bands. You copied everything that was on there; you even had to learn stuff like The Shadows and The Ventures - you know, "Apache" or stuff like that. And that was okay then. It was a big learning period for me. It was a dance band with four horns and a piano, no bass and no guitar. Show.
But when it came down to the "My Love" thing, I just felt meself that it was time. I didn't want to play with somebody else if I didn't think it was good enough. And I can't remember what it was I was asked to play, but whatever it was I refused and said that I was going to change the solo. So Paul says, "Well, what are you going to play?" I said, "I don't know." Well, that put the fear of God in him, I think. Because there I am, just me and a 50-piece orchestra in the studio and there's George Martin in the control room and Paul. I knew it was going to be a turning point in some shape or form regardless of what I came up with. I don't use pedals or anything, so I just plugged into the amp and that was it - it was all over and done with very quickly. I went in and they ran the track and I did it once and went back into the control room and there was silence. And I thought I was going to have to do it again or something. But it was not the case.
This was a turning point for me, because I was able to, in later life, look back on it and say, "That's what I did for Paul McCartney. I gave him that solo." But it came from somewhere else and through me to Paul, and this is what flabbergasted him. And not having worked like that before, it was a little new to him. I came out of the studio that day and I was a very happy man, because I had confronted this thing I knew was there, that hadn't quite shown its head. And that was where I left me mark, you know.
Paul said to me last Christmastime in Dublin, the first time we met for 35 years or something, he says, "Henry, I've got to tell you, I cannot go anywhere, or regardless of where I go or what company I'm in, I cannot help but bring up your attitude to 'My Love.'" Which was really nice of him to say.
In the summer of 1973, Wings toured small halls in Europe as McCartney continued to refine his live act. Shortly before the group was scheduled to fly to Nigeria and record the Band On The Run album, Henry quit, followed by drummer Denny Seiwell. Wings was reduced to a trio: Paul, his wife Linda, and Denny Laine.
Songfacts: When did you first meet Paul McCartney?
Henry: I met Paul in Dublin at one of the gigs he was doing, and he was fantastic. He's been ever so generous over the years with his talk about how this Irish guy was in the studio telling him the solo he wrote wasn't good enough.
I walked away at a very wrong time, which was just like a week before going off to Vegas. We had all been up and rehearsed in Scotland at his place, the Mull of Kintyre, when meself and Paul had a few words to say to each other on a particular day and that was it. The minute he left I knew that was it. I just packed my guitar, I didn't say anything to Paul. I just left. And it was probably the most unprofessional thing I've ever done in me life.
Less than a week later, Denny Seiwell left. It wasn't for the same reason as me, but we were friends in the band and he didn't want to be there if I wasn't going to be there. You know, there was a huge bond within the band before we went out to play one note of music. It was Paul's first time out with Wings, and we were all very protective of him and wanted to do our very best with him. But he very quickly became Paul McCartney again. After Denny and I left, I saw a little bit of Paul on TV, where he says, "Well, the guys just didn't want to go to Africa." That sort of says it all. We had never brought up that subject at all. But it was easier for him. "You guys didn't want to go to Africa." And that was it. They had no more story. But he's a great musician and a great man. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. What happened between us was too many years ago to bother about.
Songfacts: I read something where Linda was saying that it was tough for Paul to keep you busy in the studio because he felt like he would have to write parts for you.
Henry: I never heard that, but there would have been time spent while Paul was up at the desk. I mean, that comes with the territory. Sometimes you'd have to step back, go and make a cup of tea and hang around for an hour, possibly more.
Songfacts: How did you get your start in music?
Henry: I had an apprenticeship in Irish show bands and I went on the road when I was 17. I got offered this gig with a dance band that sat down with little music stools and stuff. They didn't know anything about rock and roll or Chuck Berry or Elvis or Hank or Jerry Lee - it was all old-fashioned dance band stuff. But it made me want to learn more, and I learned chords so that I could keep up with this horn section. The dances would start at 9 and finish at 1. So for me as a young fella, it was truly exciting to see what was going on over the top of the horizon.
With the dance band I was able to play all top pops and dance tunes and what have you. So anything that I did after that, like working with Joe (Cocker) and then doing Jesus Christ Superstar, I was able to figure out quickly because of the apprenticeship in show bands. And with the Grease Band, that's what we did. We were very experienced players in all figures of music and we were able to take care of everything from whatever Joe was looking for at a particular time or sessions with Donovan, Marianne Faithfull, Eric Gordon and everything else.
Songfacts: Were there any moments in the studio or on the stage that really stand out to you as being special?
Henry: There's probably about 2,000 of them.
Songfacts: Well, pick one.
Henry: Probably when I first got involved and listening for a start to traditional Irish music. In the north of Ireland where I live, traditional music was more rebellious. I came back to America in 1968 with a band called Eire Apparent. When I got the sack from the band in America, I was given a one-way ticket back to Dublin, and when I landed in Dublin there was a lot of traditional stuff I hadn't heard. And so that gave me an opportunity to work with a couple of great players: Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods, who went on to do stuff with Shane MacGowan and the Pogues.
But the first outing was strictly acoustic, apart from the electric guitar that I was using. And there was never, ever before that an electric guitar involved with any Irish music at all. And I think the most exciting time would have been the Cambridge Folk Festival that I did with these friends of mine. The band was called Sweeney's Men, and a very well-respected couple of men they were and all. Johnny played everything from fiddle to kazoo, Terry played acoustic guitar and the old fashioned country stuff. I had a bit of Chuck Berry in me. So the gig at the Cambridge Folk Festival with Sweeney's Men stands out for me.
Songfacts: When you're looking back and you're picking out your best work in the studio, what songs and with what artists are those pieces?
Henry: There's tracks from the first Grease Band album where we didn't have a set song rhythm or lyrics. And when something comes together like that in the studio, which is a different atmosphere, then it's all worth keeping, because it shows in true light how things work. It sounded great, but you could forget how you played it. There's been so many things that I've done I could count them out like tenfold, but I never dwell on them at all. It's only when I hear from good people like yourself that want to know those sort of things. They go back such a long way and so much happens at different times during your career that it's very difficult to pick out a particular one.
Songfacts: Let's talk about your songwriting, because you made the transition of being a guy playing other people's songs to creating your own. Can you tell me about how you became a songwriter and your take on that?
Henry: Well, first of all, I don't really class meself as a songwriter. I've written a few songs, but I'm a bit of everything. Songwriting was something that came accidentally to me, as did singing. A real songwriter does it day in, day out. I do it whenever the notion's there, and if it doesn't happen, I'm lazy and I won't go back to it. But I know there's a huge bubble of stuff there that if somebody said, Look, Henry, write some songs for this album, I can do that sort of thing. I can wait around and not push meself to pretend that I am a songwriter. But I like what I came up with, like "Failed Christian," "Belfast to Boston," some good stuff in there. But it's not a huge catalog or anything. I come up with bits and pieces and that's what they are. I don't have the discipline unless there's something attractive enough at the end of it to get involved in it.
Songfacts: How do these songs come to you when you do get a concept?
Henry: Well, for instance, "Belfast to Boston," that's just like a modern day ballad, if that's the way to put it. And it's about the leaving of Ireland to go off to America. Years ago when people said they were going to get married and go off to America, they were going to immigrate. When they did, it was mostly on the day of the wedding, after the celebrations, they'd have gone to the boat or the plane and immigrated to foreign fields, America, Canada and all the rest of it. And the song I have is a much more updated version of that lament, like a little ballad. It's about the leaving of Ireland, working and washing dishes and all the rest of it. I just had to make up some of those experiences to make the song stronger. And the rest of it came to me the same way as "My Love" came to me.
Songfacts: As you said, some of this just comes to you. But were there any inspirational moments where you did something and you don't even know where it came from, either in your own work or working with somebody else?
Henry: Oh, I've done that, and listening to different playbacks at the time you think, Oh, that sounds all right, doesn't it? But no, I'm a pretty ordinary guy, Carl, and I don't dwell on anything like that. Anything that I do, I do it and that's what you get paid for. You go in and you do your best - although I must say I haven't done a session now in many, many years. It becomes too boring, I don't have the patience.
Songfacts: That's an interesting point, because a lot of people think that it's so glamorous to be working on these songs, but you're making it sound like a lot of it is quite mundane.
Henry: No, no, no. Not mundane at all. Because if you come up with a line that will enhance the line before, and that's all you get on one day, that's good enough to go to bed with a happy head. It gives you something to work toward the next day, until such times you're left with the last verse to come by, and because you've started it you know you'll get it finished. I think it's nice to get up in the morning, lift a guitar and start playing something. I find it quite a magical time.
Songfacts: What do you do to stay inspired in these sessions?
Henry: Probably what I would do first is pick up a guitar and just play without having to think about anything and see what's there. Not stay too long on it. The sound of the instrument and what you can do with it would be more attractive than coming up with a particular lyric. But when I play, sometimes the lyric or the melody would go hand in hand with the freshness of a new thing that inspires you to actually get up the next morning and go straight to it again. I sing songs and make songs up from melodies that I might have heard, change it a little bit. Mundane it is not. It's probably one of the most exciting things in me life, is music.
And those littler happier occasions when you sit with an acoustic guitar, those are all special. Those help to give you the strength to go on to the next bit, or the next bit after that.
Songfacts: Does performing ever become a drag?
Henry: I guess it's called reassuring yourself that you're still strong enough to go out and do as I've just done, which is a trip to America for 8 days. Then I was down in the west of Ireland for 3 days and came back last night. And tomorrow I go to Norway. That, to me, that's hard work because you're on stage for a couple of hours at most, but it's 9 hours getting back. We went to the Ireland Islands off the coast in the west of Ireland, and it wasn't a very big boat, but we got there, came back, and it was maybe about an hour and a half out into the Atlantic, and 9 hours it took from the minute we got on the ferry at 8 a.m. until we arrived last night. Maybe 4 or 5 in the afternoon it was when we arrived. That's hard work. The two hours that you do sometimes aren't worth it, either, financially or physically. But you do it because there's a connection from one gig to the other. And so if something happens in the second gig, well then you just don't have enough time the following day to worry about it too much, and just take the day as it comes.
Songfacts: Your song "Failed Christian" is really interesting to me, because I read about how you had the whole drug abuse thing and a bunch of years went by when you were, as you said, lost.
Henry: Mostly alcohol.
Songfacts: Usually how that story ends is the person finds some kind of religion, but in "Failed Christian," it's very different. Could you explain that?
Henry: Well, it started when I was very young. My mother was going to church at that time, which would have been the Church of Ireland, the Protestant church as opposed to a Catholic chapel. She said to me, "Henry, I'm going to take you out to an evening service." And I was delighted, because it meant I got to stay up late. I was young, 6, 7, or something. And during the time in church, I heard the songs, the prayers, the people, the drones of different voices, and the choir. And when the choir started up, that's what scared the life out of me, and I had to be taken out. And from that day to now I cannot open my mouth to sing in a church, whether it's a wedding, funeral, or anything else that I might be a guest of. If I try to sing, the emotion is too big for me.
But I remember being taught about this man who you couldn't see, but if you told a lie he was going to whup your ass. And the fact that you couldn't see him - religious instruction to me is a bit of - well, we've had it here in Ireland, it's now all around the world, the Catholic church in Ireland, it's a bloody disgrace. And these are guys, they pass an examination and that gives them the right to go out to preach the gospel, as they call it. The spirituality involved in taking on that role, it has to be very special. There were too many people in the queue waiting to pass that exam. They shamed a lot of people and they shamed themselves.
I was listening to the radio one day, and I heard ZZ Top playing. What I thought they were singing about was Failed Christian, but actually they were singing one of their songs about a pin cushion ("Pincushion," from their 1994 album Antenna). You can work that one out, but that's the way it sounded to me. So I thought, What a great title, "Failed Christian." So I had the title and it was very easy to put together after that.
I believe in meself. I don't go to church and I'm not a religious person, but I'm quite spiritual. I do believe in a greater or higher power, but me own religion I keep to myself. And I believe that the music and all that went with it, that was my gift from God. And by going out to play gigs where people enjoyed themselves, it kept me in good stead right through that little church.
It wasn't till I came 50 or plus, but I realized what some of these guys who were administrating the gospel, they didn't deserve to be in that position. The last verse in "Failed Christian" is "I'm going to meet me maker, a firm believer of spirit and music, there's a prayer and a song. I'm a failed Christian, but if I'm going to hell, well you're going with me. That much I can tell. I'm a failed Christian." I believe what I do with music is probably more Christian-like than what the people that would call themselves Christian, but on a Monday they become something else. But they're Christian for a day. That's okay. I think the role I play in this world is for people to enjoy what I do, this gift that was given to me.
I reckon, Hell, this is better than some of them people would call me a Christian. I'm doing better things in the name of God than what they would be doing. I've seen them years on and they're still the same. I've come to the point where I have my own church and my own code and I live by that. It's not part of any church, chapel or organization. I find it all very, very personal. In Ireland, anyway, the Catholic church had so much power over the people. There's still people today would say, "Well, Father McShaughnessy, I know he wouldn't get up to that," and two days later you might see McShaughnessy in the front page of English papers and Irish papers about damaging the youth of today and all the rest of it. You know, church, organized religion to me is a load of rubbish. But yet I will still get down on me hands and knees and pray. But I would only pray for friends of mine, ones that have passed on that I still miss. They leave a little bit of their spirit behind. But you just have to get on with what you do. Use all inspirations from the past to try and make yourself a better person.
Songfacts: That's very interesting. So you have a very, very strong faith that just didn't fit with the framework of the religion that you were brought up in.
Henry: Yeah. But I was probably 50 years of age before I sat down and realized, Okay. And I've seen people that I've known most of me life, and after having come back to Ireland, they don't change. I do think that travel and music are very, very educational. About the early '80s I had a serious accident with me hand and I severed tendons on three of me fingers of the right hand and I was unable to play for about three years. And even then I wasn't playing up to standard and the pick wouldn't always stay in me hand and stuff. But what it was to me, all the years that I'd spent thinking about meself, this was like a slap across the face. I had to rethink me whole way of working, but I did it over time.
So I give what I can of meself to whatever it is that's out there. I don't claim anything to be mine. I gave Paul McCartney that solo in "My Love." I didn't do it for me, I did it for him. (laughs) I just happened to be in the middle, that's all.
So there's a lot that's gone on in me life and it's been down to the power of music. And I don't ever forget that, that's for sure. And like I say, I'm a little bit older now, I've been on the road for a long, long time, and hope to be on the road as long as I can, or playing music as long as I can.
Songfacts: How were you able to overcome the alcohol addiction?
Henry: I got lucky. The drugs and alcohol sort of comes with the territory as a musician, and you have to deal with it your own way. After a while, it's very difficult to wake up with a hangover that you're going to carry with you for three days and you've got to be in the studio in one. It was just starting to wear me out and was starting to kill me slowly.
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Hank Williams - all these people left their mark, of course, but was it worth it for a bottle of whiskey? I don't think so. But I escaped that. I could have been dead a couple of times if it had not been for me partner Joseph. I ended up in the hospital, I didn't know why I was there, what I was doing there. I went down to me mother's grave and I said a prayer, I said, "Listen, Mummy, I'm in shit here. I need some spiritual help." And I hadn't done that since I got on my hands and knees at 4 beside the bed.
I love to get up and go off to play, but I hadn't done it for such a long time because I was just too strung out on alcohol. But after losing that, after the little prayer to me mother, I stopped drinking. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to go down to the pub on a Saturday to play pool. Then the next day you think what a joke. And it doesn't bother me one bit to sit in a pub all night with people drinking, because I get as much fun out of watching them and having conversations as what I would do if I was drinking. And I remember a lot more.
Songfacts: It's got to be tough being an Irishman who doesn't drink.
Henry: (laughs) Well, it is a bit. But that goes back to the older Ireland of guys and the pubs. It's all sort of social. But it does have a hold on a hell of a lot of people in Ireland, and they do have that reputation and I think the kids nowadays would probably drink more than what their grandfathers or fathers would have drank. And they have a lot more to deal with in this modern day and age. The pleasure of having a pint of Guinness in the country in an Irish pub is unbeatable. But if somebody says something, you get pretty upset about it and before you know it, you're in the middle of a brawl. If you go to Scotland, if you go to France, they're going to give you a Pinot - in Scotland they give you a glass, it's all part of the culture. People are realizing, the same as they are about smoking, that this is not too good for you. This will kill you by the time you're 45.
We spoke with Henry on August 23, 2011. Get more at henrymccullough.com.