The Cute One Redux

Paul McCartney: The Life
By Philip Norman
Little, Brown 2016

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Sooner or later, everyone has to choose one. For anglophone children of a certain age, picking a favorite Beatle is a rite of passage akin to choosing a political party or deciding between the Yankees and the Mets. The Beatle you choose is more than just a statement of musical preference; it’s a totemic spirit, a symbolic encapsulation of a whole set of philosophical values and priorities that will follow you through your life. There’s a lot riding on that little moptop.

For the cool kids, of course, there’s John. Even going back to the band’s heyday in the 1960’s, John Lennon has ever been the Beatle with the greatest cultural cache. Edgy, political, possessed of a cutting and insouciant wit, John is the choice of football jocks and vinyl-spinning hipsters alike. George Harrison appeals to the bookish, quiet types; the boys and girls in the back of the classroom who spend most of their time writing thoughtful poetry in their private notebooks. About Ringo fans, the less said the better.

And then, for some of us, there’s Paul. Of all the Fab Four, Paul McCartney is at once the most accessible and the most puzzling. His musical genius is indisputable: here is the primary force behind some of the greatest pop masterpieces of the 20th century, from “Yesterday,” to “Hey, Jude,” to “Band on the Run.” His stylistic range arguably exceeds that of any of his bandmates, encompassing straightforward rock and roll jams (“I’m Down,” “Oh! Darling”); delicate, tuneful melodies (“She’s Leaving Home,” which Leonard Bernstein once compared favorably to the lieder of Franz Schubert); and sprawling, baroque, prog-rock epics (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” or the magnificent second half of Abbey Road).

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After a half-century of such musical virtuosity, Paul McCartney’s cultural credentials ought to be unimpeachable. And yet, there has always been something slightly cheap and disreputable about being a Paul person. For all his vast talent, McCartney’s can’t help but seem just a bit too commercial, a bit too populist, a bit too eager to please, for his own good. Next to Lennon’s confessional lyrics and sometimes alienating experimentalism, Paul is merely the proverbial writer of silly love songs. He is the Cute One, for better or worse. Serious fans need not apply.

Veteran rock writer Philip Norman is more aware of this reputation than most. In 1981, Norman wrote Shout!, one of the first soup-to-nuts biographies of the Beatles, and one of the formative texts in establishing Paul’s reputation as a heavyweight entertainer but a featherweight intellect and artist. Perhaps even more damning, Norman’s portrait of McCartney was as a fragile and defensive ego, bullying and browbeating his bandmates into following his lead even against their better judgments. Norman’s argument, on which he doubled down with the publication of John Lennon: The Life in 2008, provoked predictable flurries of outrage from McCartney admirers, not to mention from McCartney himself, who protested his depiction as the “great manipulator” of his erstwhile band. It’s safe to say, in other words, that when it comes to totem spirits, Philip Norman is definitely not a Paul.

The arrival of Norman’s new book Paul McCartney: The Life therefore comes as something of a shock. At 853 pages, and supplemented by a generous helping of glossy photographs from all eras of its subject’s life, Norman’s book is by far the most hefty and comprehensive McCartney biography to date (more than twice the length of Peter Ames Carlin’s Paul McCartney: A Life from just over half a decade ago). In his introduction, Norman acknowledges the unlikelihood of his new role as definitive McCartney biographer, and charmingly admits that his former hostility might have had something a bit more personal at its core:

Like almost every young male in the Western Hemisphere, my daily fantasy was to swap lives with a Beatle. And there was no question as to which one. Paul, a year my senior, was the most obviously good looki. . .If the adolescent female frenzies that engulfed them had any rational focus, it was the left-handed bass guitarist whose delicate face and doe-like eyes were saved from girliness by the five o’clock shadow dusting his jawline.

Paul McCartney: The Life is thus intended as both an apology and an apologia: a sincere attempt to find virtue in a subject that the author has long dismissed as an adjunct artist.

Norman takes us chronologically through the many beats of his subject’s life, beginning with McCartney’s childhood in a council flat in a working class neighborhood of postwar Liverpool. After an adolescence spent imbibing the sounds of American rock and roll broadcast over crackly radios, the great turning point came in 1957, when McCartney first met a slick-haired, scowling young guitarist named John Lennon at the St. Peter’s Church fete. The moment provides a choice set-piece for any Beatles writer, and Norman’s account, while offering little to surprise his readers, has a certain rough-hewn charm:

Now at last Paul could inspect the tough guy of the 86 bus [Lennon] at leisure without fear of reprisals. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans, and played an undersized, steel-strung Spanish guitar, nowhere near as impressive as Paul’s own cello-style Zenith. Under the toppling Elvis quiff, his wide-set eyes stared challengingly at this juvenile audience, as if he’d gladly have picked a fight with any one of them. Unlike most skiffle vocalists, he didn’t try to sound American, but sang in a Liverpool accent whose thin yet resonant tone burned like acid through the ambient sounds of children’s voices, clinking teacups and birdsong.

The two boys met backstage, and a night of illicit drinking and musical one-upmanship ensued. In short order, Paul was inducted into John’s rock group (then called the Quarrymen), and the defining pop songwriting partnership of the late 20th century was born. Roughly half of Paul McCartney: The Life is devoted to the Beatle years, and some of the book’s most interesting passages attempt to penetrate into the interpersonal dynamics of the band (and especially the Lennon/McCartney relationship at its heart), beginning in the very earliest years:

In many ways, Paul and John were not the total opposites they appeared. Both had the same passion for rock ‘n’ roll and ambition to play it to the same standard as their American heroes. Both were artistic, bookish, fond of language and addicted to cartooning; both had the same sense of humour, nourished by the aural anarchy of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers on BBC radio’s Goon Show, although John’s was ruthlessly cruel while Paul’s was subtler and kinder.

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From the St. Peter’s fete onward, the band’s ascent was steady and unrelenting. The major facts are so well known as to defy the need for summary, but a short overview is perhaps in order: after rounding out their membership with guitarist George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (who later departed the group, to be replaced on his instrument by McCartney), and drummer Pete Best, the newly-christened Beatles embarked on a five-year flurry of musical activity, playing rowdy and raucous shows (sometimes three a night) in seedy dive bars of Liverpool and Hamburg. By 1961, they had attracted the attention of two key players in the band’s future: former record store operator Brian Epstein, who signed on as their manager and soon insisted on a matching look of band-uniform suits and haircuts; and record producer George Martin, who, alone among the London industry elite, decided to take a chance on signing the rocky but promising lads from the north.

Martin would later admit that his choice had more to do with marketing than musical judgement: at the time, the Lennon-McCartney partnership had produced little more than cut-rate attempts at mimicking the sound of Buddy Holly or Goffin-King records from America. His initial hope, rather, was that the group’s beaming charisma and knack for humorous quips would provide a selling point with or without songwriting chops. But as the band prepared for their first studio sessions (and as Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best as the group’s permanent and canonical drummer), something miraculous occurred. The rains fell, the floodgates burst, and Lennon and McCartney proceeded to pour out wave after wave of catchy, innovative, and wildly successful hits. “Please Please Me,” “From Me To You,” “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love”:one chart-topping single followed another, and by 1964 the Beatles had become nothing short of a planetary phenomenon. Beatlemania had arrived.

These were heady days for a wide-eyed boy from Liverpool, and Norman paints an engaging portrait of the young McCartney as he attempts to navigate the bewildering new world of musical stardom. The swinging parties, endless press junkets, and gradual introductions to pills and herbs are dutifully related, but Norman’s most intriguing observation is just how shockingly professional the Beatles were. McCartney coped with his surreal new reality by largely treating it like just another nine-to-five job, albeit one that included a larger than average share of shrieking teenage girls. Of the band’s marijuana-drenched mid-Sixties years, Norman writes:

The one area that pot didn’t invade — yet — was Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting. Agreeing that it clouded their minds, they continued in the old way, giving themselves a maximum of three hours per song, then each writing out a fair copy of the finished lyric. Only if the song turned out well did they reward themselves by sharing a joint.

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The unstated implication — that other rock groups might have approached the Beatles’ level of prolific output if they’d just have set their alarm clocks once or twice on a weekday — is decidedly humbling.

If Norman’s accounting of McCartney’s quotidian, workaday reality is insightful, his attempt to grapple with McCartney’s music is less so. Given the subject at hand, this is, to put it lightly, a problem. Between 1963 and 1969, the Beatles were the fastest-changing group in the fastest-changing era of rock music. We live in an era now when artists are not only allowed but expected to overhaul their musical identities from album to album, but the mutation of the Fab Four from cute, mop-topped teen idols (circa A Hard Day’s Night) to serious, sophisticated, rock and roll auteurs (circa The White Album and Abbey Road) was as unprecedented as it was hugely impressive. Paul McCartney played a leading role in that transformation, and as his close collaboration with John Lennon gradually began to fray, McCartney’s own music branched out into ever more adventurous places: complex, Brian Wilson-esque vocal harmonies; elaborately orchestrated mini-symphonies; and the first pop concept album to attract major attention, the period-defining Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Any attempt to understand Paul McCartney must make a serious effort to understand the potent, mysterious creative alchemy behind this output.

Norman, alas, barely makes the effort. Turn to the book’s passage on “Yesterday” — McCartney’s watershed moment as a solo songwriter, and soon to be a perennial pop standard — and you’ll find a wealth of details about the song’s composition and recording, some of them colorfully amusing (McCartney briefly considered adding sound effects from the studio that worked on Doctor Who). What you won’t find is any substantive engagement with the song itself, about which the reader gets only the most perfunctory description.

Likewise, Norman comes to the astonishing suite that closes out the Beatles’ penultimate album Abbey Road — arguably the apotheosis of McCartney’s Beatles songwriting and production — he fits all of his musical analysis into just under two pages (significantly more space is devoted to the business negotiations leading up to the album). And what we do get too often descends into inane attempts at lyrical exegesis, as in this summary of one of Paul’s contributions:

“You Never Give Me Your Money” was an unmistakable reference to [Beatles manager] Allen Klein’s promises of fabulous wealth, which so far had produced only ‘funny paper’ like the management contract Paul alone had held out against signing. Outvoted and marginalised, his ‘one sweet dream’ was for himself and Linda to be ‘out of here…step on the gas and wipe that tear away.’

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If Norman isn’t quite successful at shedding light on McCartney the musical composer, he is much more illuminating when it comes to McCartney the cultural provocateur. Norman makes the revisionist case that it was Paul, not John, who took the vanguard in leading the Beatles into the wild side of the Sixties. In this, he vastly outpaced Lennon, who had evolved into something of a quiet homebody. “By the mid-Sixties,” Norman writes, “the elastic-sided boot was firmly on the other foot. As Swinging London approached its zenith, McCartney was at the epicentre of its cultural avant-garde while Lennon rarely emerged from suburban Surrey.” Thus, Norman gives us a Paul who bought up records by Ornette Coleman and John Cage; became a regular fixture at art galleries and theaters; and pushed experimental literature and poetry (not to mention less licit substances) on his fellow band members. His newfound influences weren’t always well-taken, especially when it came to the Beatles’ long-suffering producer:

After [Paul’s] forays into avant-garde music, he now tended to regard the classically-trained George Martin as somewhat old-fashioned in refusing to rank the likes of John Cage and Luciano Berio alongside Mozart or Brahms. One evening when Martin and his wife, Judy, were having dinner at Cavendish, Paul insisted on playing him a whole album by the experimental saxophonist Albert Ayler and — when that failed to convert him — started an argument about what did and did not constitute ‘real music’, citing numerous other names of whom Martin had never heard, and did not want to. The slightly embarrassing situation was lightened by Jane’s deft switching of the subject to Gilbert and Sullivan.

What seems to baffle and frustrate Norman throughout his book is McCartney’s seeming unwillingness to let these envelope-pushing influences reveal themselves in his actual music. Time and again, Norman (like decades of writers before him) contrasts McCartney’s “clean,” “hit-making” sound with Lennon’s edgy, sometimes alienating experiments. In a sense, Norman is arguing for McCartney’s career as a low-key tragedy: who knows what Paul could have achieved if only he had been a little more brave about rattling the fences; if only he’d been less needy about pleasing the crowds. If only, in other words, he could have been a little more like his old pal John Lennon.

Indeed, despite the book’s title and ostensible focus, Lennon hovers as prominently over Paul McCartney: The Life as Paul himself. Even in the book’s second half, as Norman covers the long post-Beatles denouement of McCartney’s career, John is ever present as a foil and counterexample; the angsty, creatively vigorous Punch to Paul’s simple, smiling Judy. In Norman’s telling, while Lennon grappled head-on with matters of serious import like psychological trauma and revolutionary politics, McCartney was content to craft tuneful but increasingly empty ditties. Lennon’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, was a “final repudiation of the middle-class world into which he’d been born.” Paul’s post-Beatles debut, McCartney, by contrast, was “something of an anticlimax,” full of songs in “Paul’s softest, blandest manner.” John’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was a “somber, admonitory” plea for world peace; Paul’s “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” was “as insubstantial as tinsel.”

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Valid as these rough assessments might be, it’s hard not to feel that the deck might be a bit stacked here. If the aesthetic standard by which Norman is judging rock and roll has more to do with political conviction than musical innovation (if, in other words, it matches precisely the standard employed by John Lennon circa 1971), then Lennon must perforce come out the winner. McCartney, by contrast, has always held to a very different standard: one in which populist showmanship and melodic craftsmanship count for at least as much as edgy authenticity. By holding these virtues anathema to real rock and roll, Norman can’t help but sell McCartney short.

Nevertheless, the book makes a powerful case that the continuing Lennon-McCartney rivalry, waxing hot and cold throughout the seventies, provided a continuing source of competitive motivation for both parties. Even as occasional enemies, the once and future duo continued to be defined by one another. Paul’s seventies masterpiece Band on the Run was, at least in part, at attempt to get the better of Lennon’s Mind Games, while John’s 1980 comeback Double Fantasy was spurred on by a chart-topping McCartney single earlier that year. Lennon’s murder in 1980, apart from being a tragedy and trauma in its own right marked the end of two musical epochs: it stripped McCartney of an ever-present creative daemon, and fossilized forever the martyred Lennon’s place in music history. It was a fact, Norman tells us, of which McCartney himself was well aware:

From here on, Paul would have to live with a perception of his and John’s character that seemed unalterable — Lennon the avant-garde, the experimenter and risk-taker, McCartney the tuneful, the sentimental, the safe…

In time, to friends like the designer David Litchfield — usually when he was drunk — he could even joke that in the contest they’d always waged, John’s death had been a final act of oneupmanship. ‘He died a legend and I’m going to die an old man. Typical John!’

That the perception in question is, in large part, being kept alive by biographies just like this one is an irony that goes unremarked upon. Thus, as Norman takes us into the 1980’s and beyond, Paul the artist recedes ever farther into the distance to be replaced by Paul the entertainer, Paul the consummate showman, and Paul the smiling elder statesman of a fading generation. Norman is a fine storyteller, to be sure: his account of McCartney’s infamous 1980 jail stint in Japan for marijuana possession reads like a surreal combination of madcap comedy and dark night of the soul:

The inmates socialized only for a short period each morning when they smoked their daily two-cigarette ration sitting around a tin can, into which they tapped their ash. Here Paul learned to put faces and names to his fellow inmates’ numbers, for instance his next-door neighbour, a Marxist student, also on a drugs charge, who spoke some English.

Four cells away dwelt a huge man doing time for murder whose tattooed back identified him as a yakuza or Japanese mafioso. Through an interpreter, this terrifying individual asked Paul what he was in for, then held up seven fingers to indicate his likely sentence. ‘No, ten,” Paul replied, making the yakuza roar with laughter. Later, he heard a shout from the yakuza’s cell of ‘Yesterday, please’, a request with which it was clearly wise to comply. Their guard shouted for silence but didn’t enforce it as he was listening, too, and instinctively responding even to this small audience, Paul acappella-ed three more songs.

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But after the Olympian heights of the Beatles days, these long chapters of antics, arrests, and tabloid gossip begin to feel a bit like slumming; like following Mozart into the bordellos of Vienna. More paragraphs are spent on McCartney’s messy divorce from Heather Mills in 2008 than on his last two albums combined.

That tabloid business brings up another point, and not an insignificant one: in all the 800-plus pages of Paul McCartney: The Life, there is neither a footnote nor an endnote to be found. Norman is a reporter by trade, and it’s clear that at least some of his stories come from his own interviews (including, he tells us, an email correspondence with McCartney via his publicist). But the lines between reportage and speculation in this book can be blurry indeed, and it’s hard to know what to make of paragraphs like this one, on the inner life of the Beatles’ (gay) manager Brian Epstein:

[Epstein’s] epiphany at the Cavern therefore had little to do with the Beatles’ music. In their all-over black leather, they were four delectable bits of juvenile ‘rough trade’; a quadruple fantasy he could enjoy without his usual shame or fear of grievous bodily harm. He was to love them in a platonic, almost paternal way, calling them ‘the Boys’ until well after they became men, and dedicating himself to their welfare and protection.

But he was in love with just one. Not with Paul, the most obviously attractive, but with John, whose tough-guy exterior hid a middle-class upbringing not unlike Brian’s own, and who’d needed an all-protecting father figure since the age of six. So, yet again, a back seat for Paul — one which this time he took with some relief.

One assumes that Epstein (dead since 1967) did not speak to Norman on the record about his appreciation of the Beatles’ “delectable” leather outfits, nor did Lennon (dead since 1980) elaborate on his appreciation of Epstein’s paternal presence. If McCartney spoke openly about his relief to be free of Epstein’s advances, it would surely be noteworthy to say so. But in the absence of these or other sources, the passage (and others like it) can only be considered a flight of rather lurid fancy, and one which a reporter of Norman’s experience ought to be above.

Even setting these doubts aside, though, it would be difficult to call Paul McCartney: The Life a success. Philip Norman set out with a mission: to redeem Paul McCartney from a reputation as the safe and timid Beatle. He has found himself, instead, thwarted by the very assumptions he came to eradicate: that accessibility and authenticity are like oil and water; that a musician who pleases the crowd can never challenge it; and that one can be a great entertainer or a great artist, but never both. Whatever his noble intentions, Philip Norman has come not to praise Paul McCartney but to bury him. But the music, after all, might still have the last word. Whatever the rumors may have said, Paul isn’t dead yet.

Zach Rabiroff was an editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and consumes books relentlessly.