Henry McCullough couldn’t have picked a better title for his standout new solo release, Unfinished Business.
A talented musician with a roving muse, over the years he’s taken part – if only briefly – in a number of signature rock ’n’ roll moments. That was him on stage with Joe Cocker at Woodstock, though he left Cocker’s backing group, the Grease Band, not long after. That was him in Spooky Tooth, though it ended up being their last project. That was him in the first touring edition of Wings, though McCullough was gone after just one album. He even appeared on Pink Floyd’s legendary Dark Side of the Moon, but again only for the briefest of moments.
In each case, though, this wandering soul has left an indelible mark. McCullough is as dynamic and as memorable as he is transient and free. That’s the magic, and at times the curse, of his story.
We caught up with the Irish guitarist and singer-songwriter, in the latest SER Sitdown, to talk about the various stops along this interesting journey – and how they all fed into his new album …
Nick DeRiso: You joined Wings at a time when Paul McCartney was issuing a series of memorable stand-alone singles, starting with the banned recording “Hi Hi Hi.” Wings followed that with a reworking of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Did you start to question just what you’d gotten yourself into?
Henry McCullough, (after a good chuckle): I remember performing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (for the ‘James Paul McCartney’ television special) outside, and we were all dressed in white with lambs all around. There I was, leaned up against a tree, singing ‘Mary Had A bloody Little Lamb!’ It was one the many instances where I thought: ‘How long will this last?’ He brought in guitar players after me but it was never going to be ‘Wings,’ as a real band. It was always going to be Paul McCartney. They were a great couple, he and Linda – God bless her soul. But that was the way it went. Saying all of that, I have always had a great respect for Paul. The time we spent together, out bonding on the road, it meant we didn’t have to work at it.
DeRiso: Your new album includes a terrific reworking of “Big Barn Bed,” from your lone full-length with Wings, Red Rose Speedway. What brought you back to that point in your career?
McCullough: I was sitting, as I do most days, frittering about on the guitar. That lick came up and I thought myself: ‘I know that from somewhere!’ It was a in a similar vein, though not exactly the same. I played it again to meself, and I thought: ‘That’s what I’ll do. I’ll pay a little tribute to Paul.’ I made it a little different, because the truth is we do it differently every night. It’s one of several tributes on the album. All of those people that I worked with, Frankie Miller and Ronnie Lane, they are all great artists in their own right. Having had the pleasure of working with them, I thought: ‘Why not?’
DeRiso: By the mid-1970s, you were working with George Harrison’s Dark Horse records, releasing a solo recording called Mind Your Own Business. Did you find the two of you had a lot in common, having worked with – and butted heads artistically with – McCartney?
McCullough: Oh, sure. George and I were kindred spirits. He was fantastic in the studio, Paul. But to do everything that he asked was just too much. Eventually, it got to us. Two of the band members in Wings (in 1972, on the eve of the sessions for Band on the Run ) walked out in the same week for different reasons, and he never asked why. You can take from that what you want. But I had been too long on the road to be told like a child to play this or that – which is why I left, at the end of the day. I felt I had done what I had done to do. I had come from working with Joe Cocker and somehow ended up singing bloody nursery rhymes.
DeRiso: But then a hand injury in the early 1980s nearly derailed everything. Did you think your career was over?
McCullough: I thought I had really blown it. After coming back to live in Ireland in 1984, I was still drinking – although I don’t anymore – and I was messing about with a kitchen knife, and my hand slipped and went right down the blade. It severed tendons in three of the fingers in my right hand. That was pretty traumatic; it took years not only for the proper healing to run its course, but afterward the pain was quite something else. I had to walk around with my hand in the air, with pins in my fingers and rubber bands secured at my elbows. The only thing that was visible was the tips of my fingers; the rest was in a plaster cast. Sleeping was a problem, too. I had to sit upright. That in itself, as well as a couple of other incidents, was a slap in the face. Then, I knew: I was drinking way too much and not doing enough work. I went to my mother’s grave and said, ‘Look, I need help here.’ It was as if I had cut my knee as a five year old; I ran back to my mother. From that moment on, something was lit inside of me. I started to get my strength back, physically and mentally. But it took about 15 years for all of that, the accident and the problems with alcohol, to get on from it.
DeRiso: As a member of the Grease Band, you recorded both with and without Joe Cocker, but none of the band’s efforts was perhaps as surprising – and surprisingly effective – as the original soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. Being selected for that, to me, really illustrates how in demand you were. For a moment in time, it seemed the group was backing everybody. What was it like back then?
McCullough: We did so much, it’s difficult to remember it all. I do remember, when we got finished with that soundtrack, Andrew Lloyd Webber or Tim Rice, one of them, asking if we would take a small percentage – but knowing the Grease Band and the way that we worked, we said: “Forget that. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’? No way. Give us the session money.” (Laughs, uproariously.) We did a lot of stuff as sessions players; there was so much work. Marianne Faithful was one. I remember walking in to record with Donovan and he was on top of a piano with a flower and a guitar, very psychedelic, sitting cross legged. There was never much said about it. You know, ‘If that’s the way you want it, OK then.’ (Laughs again.)
DeRiso: There’s a great musical variety to Unfinished Business, from pub rockers to folk tunes to blues and pop. Throughout, though, there seems to be a theme of survivor’s contentment – surprising, in a way, since you’ve always been the consummate wanderer. Do you find yourself, after all of these years, settling in a little bit?
McCullough, (answering quickly): No. No way. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more I work at it. I have to reintroduce meself to people I may have upset in years gone by. (Chuckles.) I was born and raised without a father, one of seven kids. My mother had been a singer in a gospel quartet – which I didn’t know until about five years ago, when my sister told me. There was no heating, no money, no radio, no TV. What saw me through was the strength of music. I remember singing harmony at an early age. It was an emotional time for me. I used to cry when I heard my mother sing, because it was so overpowering. I would hide under the blankets. And I think it’s bigger now that it’s ever been. I’m stuck on this road. I know that. After the accident, and because of my addiction to alcohol, I ended up having to busk about three miles from where I was born and raised. One minute I was playing the Royal Albert Hall and the next playing on the street for Kentucky Fried Chicken and a bottle of whiskey. I did it to get strength into my hand. I couldn’t hold the plectrum, so it was like starting new. Yet once you come out on the other side, you feel as happy as I do, and the past doesn’t matter anymore. Every part of it has made me the man I am today, every little bit.