Saturday 21 April 2018

Life of a Beatle - the biography of Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney: The Biography, Philip Norman, Orion, pbk, 864 pages, €19.99

In the driving seat: McCartney, pictured astride his motorbike in 1965, tried to lead the band in the wake of Brian Epstein's death.
In the driving seat: McCartney, pictured astride his motorbike in 1965, tried to lead the band in the wake of Brian Epstein's death.
Paul McCartney: The Biography Philip Norman

Damian Corless

Paul McCartney's choice for biographer surprised everyone, even the writer himself, says our reviewer.

Upon the release of Wings' 1977 bagpipe dirge 'Mull of Kintyre', the Sunday Times let fly a volley of verse against the ex-Beatle. It ended: "Oh, deified scouse with unmusical spouse/For the cliches and cloy you unload/To an anodyne tune may they bury you soon/In the middlemost midst of the road."

The poet was Philip Norman, a music writer of some standing who had earlier turned down an interview with his former hero, fuming that recording fluff like 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' debased the man and his legacy.

And while 1973's Band on the Run was the equal of many Beatles' albums, Norman had a point. As one half of the greatest song-writing team ever, and the finest bass player, McCartney had penned the soundtrack to the sixties as the Fab Four evolved pop music from yeah, yeah, yeahs to the stunning sophistication of 'A Day in the Life' and beyond. All that was a distant memory.

So Norman got "the greatest surprise of my life" three years back when McCartney approved him to write his life story. Simply titled Paul McCartney: The Biography, the upshot is an 800-page doorstep. While it's surprising to learn that you can see Donegal from Kintyre, the book would have benefited from some judicious pruning - perhaps 200 pages of it.

But that's a quibble that won't sit with Beatles nuts. In a book of two halves, the first is easily the best. Norman is very good on McCartney's upbringing in an Irish Catholic/Scots Protestant household. The author is best of all on his lifelong pet subject, The Beatles. The 1967 death of manager Brian Epstein was the beginning of the end for Lennon/McCartney.

Lennon said: "After Brian died, we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what leading us, when we went around in circles?"

McCartney attempted to step into Epstein's shoes, and into the creative vacuum left by Lennon's withdrawal into hard drugs and Yoko's tight embrace. Apple Records was McCartney's brainchild, as was the misbegotten movie Magical Mystery Tour. Such had been the intensity of their friendship that McCartney felt deeply hurt at being usurped by Yoko. When hard-boiled Allen Klein pitched to manage The Beatles, McCartney objected. The others outvoted him, breaking the practice that each had power of veto.

Things deteriorated rapidly. McCartney felt Lennon was putting no effort into anyone else's songs. Lennon believed McCartney was carrying out "unconscious sabotage" on his songs. Filming the studio documentary Let It Be, Lennon grumbled that the project was contrived to show McCartney in charge. Lennon's insistence that Yoko be in studio dismayed the others. When McCartney sang "get back to where you once belonged", he'd glare pointedly at Yoko. Lennon taunted McCartney that his marriage to Linda was doomed, writing: "God help you out, Paul. See you in two years. I reckon you'll be out then."

In 1969, McCartney urged the others to return to live gigging. Lennon fired back: "I'm leaving. I want a divorce." A yelling match erupted, with Lennon telling McCartney how much he despised his "granny" music.

In 1968, Paul penned the blood-curdling 'Helter Skelter' to serve notice that he was not the 'nice' Beatle. His bandmates, his Apple Records employees, and legions of ex-girlfriends didn't need telling. McCartney's treatment of women was well-known. After his Co Monaghan marriage to Heather Mills crashed and burned, Germaine Greer argued that the feisty Mills never had a chance of enduring a suffocating marriage where "a husband who has bought you never doubts that he owns you".

"The job is 24/7, no meal breaks, no time off for good behaviour. There's no job description. You do what is required, as and when, but you're not allowed to wait until you're asked. You have to anticipate the wishes of your spouse and fulfil them as if they were identical with your own. When your husband is 25 years older than you, this is a truly tall order," Greer wrote.

Setting tall orders went back to his pre-fame teens. His first steady girlfriend, Dorothy Rhone, revealed: "He was so possessive that he needed to control everything about me - my appearance, the way I dressed, even the way I thought. He gave me a set of rules. He told me I couldn't see my girlfriends. There was no going out, except with him, and I lost touch with my friends. When we did go out, I wasn't allowed to smoke, even though he smoked."

He pressed her into becoming a Bardot clone, insisting she dye her hair blonde.

"It looked terrible, all teased. I hated it but Paul said it was my fault. He said 'give me a call when your hair grows' and walked off," she recalled.

Jane Asher was not so pliant. She was an actress with royal connections and he was smitten as much by her good breeding as her good looks. When McCartney demanded she give up her career to fit in with his, she refused. While he expected her to be faithful to him, he rationalised away his own womanising with the fact they weren't married. When she caught him in their bed with another woman, their engagement was off.

McCartney's legion of female fans admired Jane. Linda Eastman, on the other hand, was not worthy, and got the hate mail to prove it. If McCartney's public image was that of Mr Nice, Linda became Mrs Nasty. She was his enforcer, with one journalist recalling how she grabbed his list of questions and crossed off all those relating to Lennon.

Unlike Asher before her and Mills after her, Linda was prepared to live that 24/7 life of subservience.

Giving her a glowing report in 1984, he said: "She's at her best when she's doing you a meal at home. She cooks, she looks after the kids and she's there.

''We've got one cleaning lady. That's all we've got. If the kids are sick, there won't be a nurse looking after them. It will be Linda who is there." It is worth noting, reader, that 'Eight Days A Week' was a McCartney composition...

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment