Is there a reason we need another long, exhaustive — and exhausting — biography of any of the Beatles? Don’t we likely know most of what we’re going to know about the four lads from Liverpool? These days, is their story compelling enough to drive us to read through over 600 pages of stories that have mostly been told elsewhere?
Philip Norman, who’s already written what’s considered the definitive biography of The Beatles — Shout! — and who has also devoted almost as many pages to John in John Lennon: The Life, certainly thinks so. In Paul McCartney: The Life (Little, Brown), he’s now provided us with what will clearly be considered the definitive biography of the musician whose post-Beatles career is full of as much creative output as was his time with the Fab Four.
McCartney not only gave his approval to this project, but he also provided Norman with unfettered access to everyone in his circle of associates. Drawing on hundreds of interview with McCartney’s family and friends, Norman weaves their recollections into a rambling chronicle that takes us year-by-year through McCartney’s life, from childhood and youth right up to his recent marriage to Nancy Shevell. Almost all of the stories are familiar to die-hard fans — the death of his mother, for example, and the young Paul’s stoic resolve not to cry or to show emotion. We all know he composed “Let It Be” as a memorial to his mother Mary, too. On top of these heard-them-before stories, Norman’s plodding prose bogs down and grows tiresome by the middle of the book.
Even so, we learn a few new details about McCartney’s life and his life with the Beatles, and his life post-Beatles. Norman brings to life the early days of the group in Hamburg and the atrocious living conditions they endured for their art. While the band struggled to come together, at least one observer, British actor Tony Sheridan, observed both the Beatles’ originality and Paul’s singular contribution to the group: “What Hamburg taught the Beatles was that they didn’t have to copy anyone else any more; they could be themselves. … Watching them, I used to think that Paul could probably make it without John, but John was never going to make it without Paul.”
Norman re-creates their disastrous Decca audition in 1961, where the group played mostly covers but also a few songs Paul had penned — “Like Dreamers Do” and “Love of the Loved” — and where the label informed them that “guitar groups are on the way out.”
Not long after, they met up with George Martin at Parlaphone. According to Norman, Martin saw something in the group that others did not. He decided that they must record the Lennon-McCartney material and not Chuck Berry or Ray Charles songs. “I thought of making Paul the leader,” Martin said, “just because he was the prettiest,” but then he decided to leave the patterns of voices as they were.
As with any rock and roll biography, Norman chronicles McCartney’s and the others’ drug use as well as McCartney’s womanizing, and his marriages to Jane Asher, Linda Eastman, Heather Mills, and Nancy Shevell. He tells the already familiar stories of Paul’s devotion to Linda, and she to him, and their move to the remote Scottish Highlands. Norman also narrates the stories of the band’s acrimony and their eventual split, McCartney’s years with Wings, and his solo career.
In the UK edition of his first solo album, McCartney, the musician included a sheet of dialogue in which he concluded that his “only plan is to grow up” — a jab at his former bandmates and their in-fighting, as well as a declaration of his intention to follow his own musical path.
By revealing every detail of McCartney’s life, Norman presents a portrait of a man with shortcomings: he can be very demanding and impatient, especially in the studio. He also shows McCartney’s admirable qualities: he continues to support young musicians in the their quest for recognition. Above all, though, McCartney emerges as a songwriter who’s still deeply passionate about his craft, even though he often doubts his abilities: “Songwriting is still something I deeply love to do, but at the beginning there’s always that moment of ‘Can I do it?'” There’s nothing like the feeling of starting with nothing and then realizing you’ve written a song, McCartney says.
Since it treads over already well-covered ground, Norman’s rambling biography will appeal mostly to McCartney’s fans. Those with only a passing interest in McCartney will find the book much less tuneful than McCartney’s songs.