‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons’ is a piece of music recorded by Allen Ginsberg, Paul McCartney, Philip Glass, and Lenny Kaye.
Ginsberg’s poem was first published in The Nation in 1995. It was set to music by the other composers, who were joined on the recording by guitarists Marc Ribot and David Mansfield.
Ginsberg visited McCartney’s East Sussex home in October 1995, and recited the poem while one of McCartney’s daughters filmed it. Ginsberg mentioned that he was due to read it at London’s Royal Albert Hall and needed a guitarist, to which McCartney volunteered to take part.
I think he was the first person I showed my poetry to. He came over to the house in Sussex to ask me if I knew anybody who would accompany him on guitar at a gig he was doing at the Albert Hall. So I suggested Dave Gilmour and Dave Stewart and a few others. Then when he’d gone it dawned on me that he wanted me to do it, so I rang him and said OK. So we met up and I stuck a little Bo Diddley jinkity-jink behind his ‘Ballad Of The Skeletons’, a really cool poem, and he introduced me to the audience as his accompanist.
Daily Telegraph, 10 March 2001
The London performance took place on 16 October. Ginsberg introduced McCartney by saying: “I’ll conclude with a ballad, with an accompanist. Will the accompanist please come on stage?”
He showed up at 5 p.m. for the sound check, and he bought a box for his family. Got all his kids together, four of them, and his wife, and he sat through the whole evening of poetry, and we didn’t say who my accompanist was going to be. We introduced him at the end of the evening, and then the roar went up on the floor of the Albert Hall, and we knocked out the song. He said if I ever got around to recording it, let him know.
The recording was produced by Lenny Kaye, although McCartney recorded his parts alone.
So he volunteered, and we made a basic track, and sent it to him, on 24 tracks, and he added maracas and drums, which it needed. It gave it a skeleton, gave it a shape. And also organ, he was trying to get that effect of Al Kooper on the early Dylan. And guitar, so he put a lot of work in on that. And then we got it back just in time for Philip Glass to fill in his arpeggios on piano.
‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons’ was released as a single in the US in July 1996, and the following January in the UK. A promotional video was directed by Gus Van Sant.
In addition to the full-length 7:46 recording, the CD single also contained an edit lasting 4:07, a version of ‘Amazing Grace’, and a clean version of the 7:46 piece.
Poet extraordinaire Allen Ginsberg is not only one of the most famous, prolific and profound exponents of his art, carving his name into the pantheon of the century’s best, he’s also a friend of Paul McCartney. Readers may recall seeing in a previous Club Sandwich (issue 76) a photograph of Allen and Paul together, on stage at the Royal Albert Hall. Allen read a riveting new piece, The Ballad Of The Skeletons, while Paul – his surprise guest, whose unexpected appearance drew gasps, even from the “cool” crowd – vamped on electric guitar. During that same visit to England, Allen and Paul also worked together in Paul’s studio, cutting the definitive version of the piece that, at its fullest and in all its finery, extends to almost eight minutes. Paul contributed not only guitar but also drums, maracas and a Hammond organ passage. (Later still, other musicians Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye, Marc Ribot and David Mansfield also contributed.) The result is a four-track CD EP, issued shortly before Christmas in USA by Mercury Records, comprising this full piece, an edited version, a “clean” version and, finally, a new rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ that has no McCartney connection.
‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons’ was included in the 2020 reissue of Flaming Pie.