Paul McCartney: The Biography review – the gospel according to Macca
Philip Norman’s doorstopper biography of the ‘cute Beatle’ is thrillingly thorough stuff
World domination: Paul McCartney and the other Beatles in the late 1960s. Photograph: Bips/Getty Images
Paul McCartney: The Biography
Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Paul McCartney gave his “tacit approval” to a man he always hated to write his biography. Philip Norman wrote the essential and brilliant Beatles biography, Shout! (1981), which portrays McCartney – stupidly and unfairly so – as the cute, musically conservative Beatle in opposition to John Lennon’s artistic and revolutionary Beatle. To this day McCartney refers to Shout! as Shite!
Shout! was published just weeks after Lennon was murdered, in New York, so McCartney couldn’t retaliate. Instead he waited until 1997, when he got an old friend from the 1960s countercultural movement, Barry Miles, to write his biography, Man Years from Now.
McCartney ran riot in Miles’s official account, citing chapter and verse to prove that he was the one who was at the centre of the cultural avant-garde while Lennon was confined to suburban Surrey with his wife and child. It was McCartney, we were told, who was hanging out with Bertrand Russell and Harold Pinter, taking mind-expanding drugs and pioneering the use of tape loops and backwards recordings on Beatles songs, while Lennon was changing nappies.
Miles’s book also made the point, a few times over, that the two most popular Beatles songs of all times, based on frequency of radio play, are both McCartney originals: Yesterday and Michelle.
InfuriatedIt had always mattered greatly to McCartney that Shout! was (and still is) viewed as the definitive text on the band. Further pronouncements by Norman that “John Lennon wasn’t a quarter of The Beatles, he was three-quarters of The Beatles” apparently reinfuriated McCartney.
When Norman was beginning work on his substantial 2008 biography of John Lennon he received a phone call out of the blue from McCartney, who said by way of introduction: “I wanted to see what this fellow who seems to hate me so much is like.” McCartney agreed to answer Norman’s email questions about his relationship with Lennon; the resultant book was less hostile to McCartney.
A few years ago Norman sent off a Hail Mary email to McCartney, saying he wanted to write his biography. In the “biggest shock” of his professional life, McCartney gave him “tacit approval”.
What “tacit” apparently means to Paul McCartney is that he instructed everyone from the inner sanctum, including decades-old acquaintances, ex-girlfriends and, crucially, family members, to agree to be interviewed by Norman. We will never know if this tacit approval would have been removed depending on questions asked and answers given by the cast list of contributors, but we do have the text.
“It has always irked Paul that posterity regards him as the tuneful, safe, cosy side of the partnership, with John as the rebel, experimenter and iconoclast,” writes Norman, between telling us that when Yoko Ono first arrived in London it was McCartney she called on first. That was because he, not John, was then the ruling king of the avant-garde.
Also here is Lennon’s confession that the only two Beatles songs that would really stand the test of time were Eleanor Rigby and Hey Jude – both written by McCartney.
All this might suggest that McCartney was eager to neutralise his erstwhile tormentor-in-chief and get him on message by providing him with all the access he needed for a lengthy biography. In fact that’s far from the case; it’s just that the context behind the writing of the life story of such an important artistic figure needs to be explained.
The Lennon-McCartney songwriting relationship – the myths around the two have calcified into truth over the years – are of such importance to the cultural canon that it was incumbent on a biographer of Norman’s stature to write without fear or favour. With a few minor caveats, he admirably succeeds here.
Greatest romance of the 20th centuryTo this reviewer the story of The Beatles – once described as the greatest romance of the 20th century – is a catechism. From the dank cellars in Hamburg where they learned to be fab to the high court in London, where they were dissolved, every episode in popular music’s most remarkable story has become consecrated. Norman is perhaps the only biographer with enough skill and knowledge to provide an exegesis of the one Beatle most everyone gets wrong.
This is thrillingly thorough stuff. Here’s Norman on a key memory from McCartney’s childhood, as his mother, Mary – a midwife whose death from breast cancer when Paul was 14 deeply traumatised him – leaves to go to work: “Paul always retained this vision of her going out to deliver a baby late one snowy winter’s night, pedalling off on her bicycle, with a basket in front of her for birthing requisites and a little lamp glimmering above.”
That’s the sort of richness of detail that leavens Norman’s text, which goes right up to McCartney’s most recent marriage, to Nancy Sevell.
At 20 Forthlin Road we see and hear the teenage John and Paul sitting on two facing armchairs, watching each other’s fretwork and studying each other’s mouths to get the harmonies right as McCartney writes down everything they compose in his school exercise book under the grown-up sounding title “Lennon and McCartney Originals”.
We’re with them on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, sharing a “windowless, airless hovel at the rear of a porno cinema” as they watch George Harrison lose his virginity and as they burst into sustained applause afterwards. And we’re also there when Ono seems to suggest that Paul’s only contribution to The Beatles was making phone calls to book the recording studios. (McCartney’s reply: “F*** you, darling”.)
We’re in the stoned chaos of the Apple building on Savile Row, wondering about “a deranged-looking boy, known only as Stocky, squatted on top of a filing cabinet every day, stoned on acid, drawing endless pictures of genitalia”.
We learn how McCartney, after The Beatles’ break-up, at the ripe old age of 27, retreated to Scotland to have a private breakdown, chain-smoking joints, drinking whiskey for breakfast, and crying over the loss of a great band and three great friends: “I had outlived my usefulness.”
There’s more: how at one time the main income for the McCartney family was generated by sales of Linda McCartney’s frozen foods and not Paul’s music; how once, when Linda was offered a lucrative job, Paul barked at her that “there’s only one f***in’ star in this family”.
In Nigeria, recording Wings’ Band on the Run, the couple were mugged on their way home from the studio. All the complete demos for the album were taken. McCartney just shrugged. Ever since he was a child he had had the ability to memorise chords, arrangements and lyrics. He did Band on the Run again from memory.
Desolate and vulnerable after Linda’s death, in 1998, McCartney was warned off the “celebrity charity campaigner” Heather Mills by everyone in his circle. When Brian Epstein’s ex-boyfriend pressed him on what the attraction was, Paul replied: “I just looked at her leg and went ‘Aah’.”
For or aginMcCartney is a rounded figure here: he solely judges people on whether they are for him or agin him. He was so insensitive and controlling that he made both George Harrison and Ringo Starr temporarily walk out on the group. His views of women were informed by his postwar, working-class background.
But there’s also decency and an appealing sense of self-deprecation. He is extravagantly generous with those to whom he feels close, and he exhibits none of the contrivance of the tortured artist. McCartney is almost an Andy Capp with the mind of a Picasso.
Not everything in the book works, such as when Norman writes that “adulation seems to go through [McCartney] like Chinese food”, which is wretched, and “the sensitivity in his music was less evident in his dealings with people in the real world”, which isn’t much better.
Just plain daft is Norman’s assertion that the 10 days McCartney spent in a Tokyo prison on marijuana charges “came as a relief to him, he relished the simplicity and solitude . . . he was just one of the lads”.
When McCartney jokingly feels hard done by after Lennon’s death, “because John became JFK, but I was left to get old”, you get the sense that, 60 years on, a part of McCartney is forever back in Forthlin Road, sitting across from Lennon in front of the fireplace and trying to equal, if not outdo, him.
They always say you know you’ve made it as a songwriter when you hear the milkman whistling one of your tunes. Paul McCartney once heard a bird chirping From Me to You.
Brian Boyd is a music journalist