Paul McCartney. For many, a hero. For others, a has-been. For some, Stella’s faither. Few living legends divide opinion as McCartney does, and nearly all of this is down to his life after Beatles. It just so happens I’m writing on the day of the release of his latest album, NEW, and the reviews I have read so far seem to agree that while there are tunes to admire, and some interesting experimentation, it is decidedly hit and miss. This is McCartney’s post-Beatles career in a nutshell; diverse and of varying quality, sometimes touched with genius, too often including music which should have stayed as outtakes or kept for disc 8 of a career retrospective box set.
Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, Tom Doyle’s excellent and insightful biography, takes us back to the beginning, or at least the second coming, and it doesn’t avoid the difficult questions which accompany the career of McCartney. For many music aficionado’s McCartney can be summed up by what, or who, he is not, namely John Winston Lennon. This is not going to be a review which pitches McCartney against Lennon, although, like Banquo’s ghost, his presence is always there. It’s always struck me as nonsense that McCartney is seen as a lesser figure, somehow in the shadow of Lennon. As with most easy narratives the truth is much more complex than that.
Doyle’s biography is the story of what happens when you have been in the biggest band of the 1960’s, and, as it turns out, the 20thcentury, and then have to start again, and he manages to get to the heart of McCartney’s dilemma; namely that he wants to be loved and seen as a nice guy (surely the source of all those lofty thumbs in many press pictures) but he also wants to be in charge. No, he demands to be in charge, and woe betide those who cross him. Man on the Run is littered with the careers of musicians hired by Macca who had the temerity to stand up to him, (often concerning Linda’s contribution to musical matters). What Doyle confirms, and in case you were in any doubt, whether solo or in Wings McCartney was in charge, and that, in my humble opinion, is where the problems lay, and lie today.
I should say at this juncture I am a bit of a Beatles nut, and I could fill the following paragraphs with my own theories as to what made them so special, and why, but this is not the place. However, if you’ll indulge me a couple of relevant, if simplistic, observations, McCartney and Lennon were equals, and recognised this. They listened to the criticism and advice of the other, and this kept the quality extraordinarily high. They were also very different writers. Macca chronicled the everyday, the kitchen sink dramas that made up ‘ordinary’ life, and his childhood in particular. This nostalgia is key.
Lennon’s writing was always more ‘cosmic’, dealing with the universal and spiritual. Perhaps the best example of this split can be seen with their different parts of A Day In The Life, where Lennon took current world events and linked them in his surreal poetry, where as McCartney’s section has the narrator getting up, performing his ablutions, before heading out to work. This stylistic division became even more clear as the Beatles came to their acrimonious end, and in the subsequent solo careers, but the long-winded point I’m trying to make is that once they no longer had each other, they had no-one that they respected enough, at least musically, that they would listen to their opinion. This is something which Doyle’s book makes abundantly clear. At one point McCartney admits, “As far as composing was concerned, probably I was spoilt with John as a collaborator”. Worded in typical McCartney understatement, this sentiment is at the heart of Macca’s career, and life to date.
But let’s go back to the very beginning of the book and the 1970s, and the public image of McCartney as the hippie farmer who retired from music (or died, according to which rumour you were prepared to believe). He may have lost Lennon, but he found Linda and this is her story as much as it is his, and it is not always one which makes sense. Their life together was defined by contradictions as they tried to embrace the fact that they were one of the two most famous couples in music (I don’t need to tell you who the other were), yet they desired to be left alone. Their retreat to Argyll, and attempt to fit in with the locals, is one of the most fascinating sections in the book, with tales of sightings in Campbeltown High St, and groupies travelling the world just to stand in a field in the hope of a glimpse. To prevent such things they bought most of the surrounding land and properties. Just normal, everyday folk. Nothing to see here.
Again and again Doyle’s book deals with the juxtaposition of desires; on the one hand to be the McCartneys, on the other to be Paul and Linda, and it seems they genuinely believed, at least for a while, that they could be both. Such apparent contradictions are common in people who become famous, but rarely have they been shown to be so apparently guileless. Much of the book is concerned with Wings, and the rehabilitation of a musician and a man who wants to be adored. But again this ‘humble, simple, lad from the ‘Pool’ felt the need to pull back at times, wanting to tour the smaller venues in the UK and Europe, while simultaneously planning a sell-out tour of the US, and you just know that he took great pleasure that it was his band who broke many of the records that The Beatles had set there. It’s almost schizophrenic, which considering the intake of illegal highs throughout the book is hardly surprising.
Even if you have no interest in the life of Paul McCartney, Man on the Run is still a fascinating read as it gives insight to the nature of fame, real fame, where no-one is there to tell you something is maybe not the best idea, (such as dying your hair. Surely his daughters must have said something!). After the Beatles he was one of those people who had become so famous that they lost all sense of perspective, something which he spends the ’70s failing to do. His relationship, or lack of it, with Lennon does seem to define this time and it is truly tragic that it takes Lennon’s death in December 1980 to do that for him. Doyle puts it into perspective for us, and you would have to have a heart of stone not to have some sympathy for McCartney, particularly those times when he seems determined to ruin his life for himself, apparently getting his damnation in first.
I’ll admit that the last McCartney related music I bought was the 25th Anniversary edition of Wings’ Band On The Run in 1999, but I have continued to be fascinated by his life, and what drove him, something Man on the Run explores in detail. At the end you conclude that this complex man is really quite simple; his love of music, and the love of simply being Paul McCartney, shines through, even when he needs other people to remind him who that is. This is a man who needs to make music, not only because he doesn’t know anything else (let’s face it, he could have retired back to Kintyre years ago if he desired) but because it is the most important thing in his life after his family, and, although he wouldn’t admit it, perhaps even before.
But what makes Man on the Run more than a simple biography is the time as much as the person. It is a must for any historian of popular culture because McCartney’s story reflects the decade which, after the promise and dreams of the 1960s, was a crashing comedown and reality check. No band reflected the ‘60s as The Beatles did, and McCartney seemed to exist for much of the ‘70s as David Bowie’s alien ‘Newton’ does in The Man Who Fell To Earth, not quite understanding what’s going on around him, but somehow becoming a star (again) despite of it, even though it doesn’t make him feel at all well.
A self confessed hippie, the ‘70s were the decade which saw that dream die, and by the time John Lydon proclaimed, “Never trust a hippie”, supposedly about Richard Branson, it could easily have been McCartney he was talking about. He was a Man on the Run, from his past and towards an unknown future, but he didn’t know which direction to turn. In picking this period of his life to examine, Doyle has chosen the most interesting and instructive of times, as when things are going well the story is usually dull. Man on the Run is about a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and while that sometimes makes it a difficult read, it is one of the most fascinating insights into late 20th century Western culture that you will read for some time.
You may have written McCartney off as someone only indulged today because of this illustrious past, and you may well have a point, but, every now and again we are reminded that this is one of the greatest songwriters of the last 100 years. Sticking to the ’70s, the following tracks prove it. Yes, yes, there was Give Ireland Back to The Irish, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reggae(!), but he could also do this, and there are not many who can: