- 15 Aug 19
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival, one of the major cultural events of the last century. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting a classic interview with the only Irishman to play the festival, Henry McCullough, who was a member of Joe Cocker's band. Throughout his career, the Derry-born guitarist also toured with the Jimi Hendrix Experience as a member of the psychedelic rock band Eire Apparent, and joined Paul McCartney in Wings
Life, if we are to believe daytime TV, is all about choices. Swapping a Gibson 355 for a Telecaster – that’s a bad one. Asking Paul McCartney to fire Linda from Wings is another. Giving up the booze after a potentially devastating innings is a good move. Some choices are made for you, though – such as recording a return-to-prominence new album inspired, among other things, by the quality of guitars at hand.
Henry McCullough takes up the story: “I hadn’t decided to make a record at all. The idea was that if anybody had any half-finished material we’d have a cup of tea and toss it around. The lyrics were written by Eamon Carr. Then this man Paddy Goodwin had heard a particular song and he arrived at the house.”
Goodwin, a lawyer and guitar enthusiast, asked if he could bring some instruments in from the car.
“I opened this mandolin case – Gibson mandolin, but no ‘Gibson’ on the headstock. It was beautiful. 1918! The next guitar out was a Gibson archtop acoustic. 1928! You know that photograph of Robert Johnson sat there with his hat on? That’s the guitar. The next one out was a Martin D-18, 1958. It was telling me what to play, what I was getting back was unbelievable.
“He said ‘I’ll leave these guitars with you. They might inspire you to come up with some new material for your new album that I’m going to finance’.”
The result is Poor Man’s Moon, 12 wizened and road-weathered slices of rock which hint at what might be described as a ‘full’ life.
"I haven’t had a drink now for 10 years or more. I used to be a rascal, like many a man. I did go in for the hedonism of the time. But you can’t do it and play music.”
There’s a line on ‘Belfast Train’ that goes “I got a suitcase full of nothing except memories and regrets.” In fact, that’s the opposite of how McCullough feels. “I’ve had a better life than most players because it’s not every day you get to play with Paul McCartney. I saw flower power, ‘69, the summer of this and that and Woodstock. I remember 85% of it. Not many do.”
Despite its mythology, Woodstock with Joe Cocker’s Grease Band was just another festival for Henry. He was helicoptered in, he was helicoptered out, he checked in at the next Holiday Inn on the tour itinerary and it was only later that the legend formed.
“Kids come up and ask what it was like, but I was only there for six hours! We just didn’t realise.”
Moving on from the Grease Band, Paul McCartney came knocking and an 18-month stint with Wings followed. In the early days McCartney was just another band member, though clearly its leader. ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’, Macca’s hamfisted protest song went over Henry’s head.
“The Troubles started in 1969. I was playing Woodstock that year!
“It was a real happy time, apart from the hiccup in the middle of it, when I suggested that maybe we could get in a better piano player than Linda – I had to back off real quick. She learnt how to work with the band. I was sorry that I’d actually brought it up. She was such a beautiful woman, I felt really sorry about it. But I wanted a fuckin’ Jerry Lee Lewis!”
Why leave such exalted company? “I wanted to be the guitar player in the band and I didn’t like to have a comical arrangement like ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. It’s a far cry from fuckin’ John Lee Hooker, you know? The stage clothes were all co-ordinated. I left Ireland to get away from having to wear a tartan jacket. That’s the truth!”
McCullough had learnt his trade as one of what he calls the “skiffle generation”, borrowing a guitar and mucking in wherever the opportunity allowed. At the age of 17 he got a Gibson 355 and would lay it out on his bed and simply stare at it.
“Boy, do I rue the day when I swapped it for a Fender Telecaster – I wasn’t right in the head,” he admits.
He made amends. Talk to him for any length of time and the topic of his lost Gibson 335 comes up: a priceless guitar with a unique artjob by the renowned John Napper, it disappeared off a flight from Poland to Heathrow. Reportedly sold in a London guitar shop, it hasn’t been heard of since.
The replacement was a new 335, gradually coming into its own.
“I still have the Les Paul Goldtop that I used with Wings and at Woodstock. I have it hid. I never take it out. I’m too scared I’d break the neck or something.”
This has happened to his new 335, now thankfully patched up better than new. As for amps, a 40w Marshall does the trick. In earlier days a classic Vox with the Treble Boost was his weapon of choice, which gave way to an Ampeg for work with Joe Cocker and Wings.
One particularly proud Goldtop moment was the solo on Wings’ ‘My Love’, completely improvised after he declined Paul McCartney’s initial suggestions.
“I went into the studio with the old Goldtop slung on. I swear I had no idea what I was going to play. I left it in the hands of the gods. On the song you’ll hear me waiting until the orchestra comes in before I play a note! It went from A to B in the most fluent way and I don’t remember doing it. I went into the control room and George Martin was looking at me and Paul says: ‘Henry, have you not rehearsed that?’ And I said I’d never played any of that stuff before in my fuckin’ life.
“Paul was very proud of me. It made a bond that still lasts to this day. We do write. Maybe twice a year. Keep playin’ those silver strings, Henry! I should be playing gold ones, Paul!”
Earlier this month, Hot Press had an exclusive listen to a new tribute song for Henry McCullough, 'Live Long Rock 'n' Roll', which is out tomorrow. Co-written and produced by Don Mescall, the track was recorded by supergroup McCullough's Fusiliers, made up of Mescall, Paul McCartney, Procul Harum's Gary Brooker, Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, Paul Brady, Chris Stainton, Albert Lee, Paul Carrack and The London Community Gospel Choir.