What must it be like to be Paul McCartney? Deluged by gargantuan levels of fame since the age of 21, he has remained squarely in the spotlight ever since. Other pretenders to his pop crown, not to mention Popes and Presidents, come and go but Paul, like the Queen, remains in place, the best known, most loved and most successful rock star on the planet, still at it at 73, his violin bass and cheery smile entertaining the multitudes with yet another chorus of ‘Hey Jude’. Meanwhile, having amassed a fortune as great as the Count of Monte Cristo, he somehow keeps his feet on the ground, always and forever Mr Normal.
It is a life that has been under the microscope many times before and Philip Norman is better placed than most to tell it again. The author of Shout!, the first Beatles biography to look seriously behind the deference that until its publication in 1981 had shielded the world’s greatest and best known pop group from detractors, Norman went on to write a thumping great biography of John Lennon, the Beatle he once suggested was three-quarters of the group. Now he turns his attention to the other senior Beatle who, it must be said, has good reason to detest him. Shout!, highly enjoyable and successful as it was, was so firmly on the side of John that Paul referred to it as ‘Shite’.
Adding to the debate that surrounds the publication of his bulky 850 page McCartney book is Norman’s position in the hierarchy of Beatle biographers, once unassailable but of late challenged by Mark Lewisohn, now widely recognised as the group’s foremost archivist. There is a well-defined difference between these two rivals, however. Lewisohn is a virtuoso historian, concerned with details, painstakingly unearthing previously unknown facts and anecdotes and, with scrupulous attention to accuracy, recording them at great length for posterity as demonstrated in the extraordinary Tune In, the first in what will surely become a remarkable and definitive trilogy of books that tell the Beatles’ story from birth to their formal dissolution in 1974. Norman, on the other hand, is a first-rate literary stylist, a craftsman whose elegant and evocative prose entertains, illuminates and gives pause for thought as he tells the story – the same story, of course, that he’s told twice before, at least up to 1970.
Norman begins his tale by laying his cards on the table, explaining in his introduction his difficult relationship with McCartney which seems to have finally reached a relatively amicable plateau. In what seems like a quid pro quo trade-off, McCartney has evidently given his thumbs-up to this book while Norman has revised his opinions on his subject’s contribution to the group’s music. Hatchets buried, at least for now, we’re off and Norman’s opening chapter, a heart-warming description of the National Trust ride to 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool, the house where McCartney spent his formative years, is as eloquent as it is charming, bringing back memories of my own experience of this same National Trust tour in 2010.
Thereafter we get chapters on the McCartney line – in which we are informed that Jim, Paul’s dad, was one of seven siblings who owned two pairs of shoes between then, one for the boys, the other for the girls, and that since the school they attended required all pupils to be properly shod they would take turns to attend, and those that did would repeat the lessons to the others on their return – and Paul’s childhood, followed by the best part of 300 pages on The Beatles. This takes us to about halfway through the book, so the years from 1970 to 2015 occupy the second half, an imbalance that suggests Norman’s interest still rests with the sixties.
It’s an all too familiar story now; how Paul met John at the village fete, joined the Quarrymen who morphed into The Beatles, who learned their trade in Hamburg and at the Cavern, became managed by Brian Epstein who smartened them up for George Martin to light the fuse beneath the firework called Beatlemania. Nevertheless, it is to Norman’s credit that in this, his third time of telling the same story, he still manages to inject it with the magic it deserves, even though this is a more streamlined version. This telling, however, not only shifts the focus towards McCartney but also presents him in a more favourable light than in either Shout! or his Lennon book. Tony Sheridan, for example, states: “Watching them, I used to think that Paul could probably make it without John, but John was never going to make it without Paul”, a particularly strong quote that I couldn’t find in either of his previous books. This surely implies that for this book Norman has adopted a selective policy that favours McCartney.
If it’s well told – and it is – I can enjoy the Beatles’ story again, even if there’s nothing much new of note here. That’s Lewisohn’s job, though even he would be impressed by details such as how Jane Asher’s father taught himself to write his signature upside down so as not to waste time turning around letters handed to him by his secretary. There is, however, new – or at least expanded – material about McCartney himself, and Norman is particularly strong on his close relationship with his father Jim and warm attitude towards his second wife that in time would cool; also his relationship with Jane Asher who, as ever, remains decorously mute, and Paul’s voracious appetite for other girls; his fondness for soft drugs and immersion in London’s alternative culture, led by my friend Barry Miles, which finally puts to the sword any ideas that John was the Beatles’ avant-garde envelope pusher; and family life at Peasmarsh and elsewhere in which Paul and Linda excel as parents. Throughout all this the group’s music seems to take a secondary role, perhaps because Norman realises it’s all been covered so well before, though he delights in hinting how real experiences find their way into Paul’s songs.
Linda’s arrival in Paul’s life is covered in great detail – as it should be – and she, along with Yoko, are held responsible for the break up of the group. As it fragments after Epstein’s death, Norman puts forward a convincing case against the wisdom of hiring Allen Klein to oversee their affairs, the implication being that if the other three had adopted McCartney’s suggestion that Lee Eastman, his father-in-law, be given the job they would all have benefitted to a far greater degree – and John and Paul might even have hung on to Northern Songs. In the event it was not to be, the malice clouding John’s judgement and upsetting the applecart to everyone’s detriment. Paul can be forgiven for being smug when it turns out he was right all along.
And so on to the solo years during which Paul, who always enjoyed performing, becomes the only Beatle to do so regularly (at least until Ringo formed his All Starr Band). Band On The Run (and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’) aside, Paul’s music thereafter rarely reached the heights it did when John was egging him on, and though Norman feels duty bound to cover it in detail there a sense of dutiful ennui to his coverage thereof. Of more interest is the coverage of the Japanese jaunt that saw Paul briefly jailed for importing marijuana, which Norman relates in fine detail, as he does with Linda’s decline and McCartney’s disastrous marriage to the dislikeable Heather Mills.[1]
Linda’s death clearly robbed McCartney of the rock on which he’d built his life, so in her absence seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon. Never one to defer to others, apart from her, we are presented with a man who is known to everyone but surprisingly isolated. Not even his children can prevent this ill-advised union, the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome having proved his undoing. Fortunately, in the closing chapters of Norman’s book the darkness is exchanged for light with the arrival of the far more suitable Nancy Shevell.
With regard to flaws, I feel duty bound to reiterate comments from other reviewers in that Wings was never a ‘glam rock’ band and that ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols was not a punk-style pastiche of the National Anthem, even if they do share the same title. More importantly, for a book that purports to be a definitive biography of McCartney I could find no discussion of his remarkable skills as a bass player, one of the best in the business. Having myself written a 2,000+ word introduction to a Beatles songbook aimed specifically at bass players (http://justbackdated.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/paul-his-basses.html), I find this unforgiveable, a very serious deficiency.[2]
As Norman brings the story up to date we learn how McCartney finally become reconciled to his past, realising in the end that this was where the love was made, and performing hugely enjoyable, ultra-professional concerts that continue to be celebrations of The Beatles. He is also resigned to forever being second, the second Beatle, after John but before George and Ringo. Indeed, Philip Norman perhaps recognises this as well, choosing to write first about Lennon and then McCartney, albeit with greater insight and depth with this book.

[1] I became convinced that this lady has a very distant relationship with the truth when she let it be known that when Paul smoked marijuana he became violent towards her; anyone with the slightest experience of cannabis use knows perfectly well it has the exact opposite effect. I wholeheartedly concur with the judge who firmly rejected her evidence during the divorce proceedings, reproduced here in all its fantasy detail.

[2] Other errors: a suggestion that The Who would have been managed by Nems had Robert Stigwod taken over is well wide of the mark. Joni Mitchell did not perform at Woodstock. Denny Laine was not a member of the Incredible String Band (it was the Electric String Band) and he is incorrectly identified as Jimmy McCulloch (and vice versa) in a photo in the third plate section. The Troubador in LA is certainly not ‘super-chic’. McCartney did not buy his MPL offices in Soho Square in 1977 but acquired the floors of the building one by one as they became empty from 1972 onwards, completing the ‘set’ in 1977 when he brought about a full scale refurbishment. Finally, I don’t believe Paul ever played a Fender bass on stage, as implied on page 627.


John Halsall said...

2/3 of the way through it and not 'spoiled' never having read any prior tomes.......good book - enjoying it (especially the references to those people I knew well) and, yes, I spotted some of the same errors as you

Ian Gordon Craig said...

Certainly can't be any worse than Paul Du Noyer's recent "Conversations with McCartney".

I really enjoyed "Shout" (all those years ago), even tho I'm a bigger fan of McCartney than Lennon (who I admire almost equally but who left his muse behind when he left British soil).

It can be good to have a critical biographer. Looking forward to reading it. On my kindle as I type.

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