With his new McCartney biography, can famous Lennon man Philip Norman cross the floor to join Team Macca? PAUL DU NOYER explores Norman’s long and winding road from Lenninist to Macolyte.
A small annoyance of being in The Beatles, alongside all the good stuff like money and the adulation of millions, was the typecasting. Each Fab was given an official personality and nothing they did could ever shift it. We all know Paul McCartney’s: he was the cute one, the crafter of winsome ballads and (a double-edged attribute, this one) the diplomatic fixer. The PR man.
It was all a bit reductive, as stereotypes will tend to be. But it persisted, because there was just enough of the truth in there to make the image stick. And now, with the publication of a mammoth new book about him, it could be that McCartney has scored his greatest PR coup so far.
Philip Norman, author of the latest biography, was for years our bassman’s journalistic nemesis. Even before the publication of Shout!, his 1981 biography of the Beatles that casts Macca as a scheming lightweight, forever in John Lennon’s artistic shadow, Norman was no friend to the Paul faction. He had penned, most notoriously, a brutally dismissive poem in the Sunday Times that all but called for his assassination.
When Shout! appeared (with John only recently murdered and widely revered as a martyr) it set in stone a certain view of McCartney that looked like becoming the consensus of posterity. In effect, John Lennon was The Beatles. The other three were sidemen of a certain talent but no great distinction. No wonder Paul referred to Shout! by another and slightly similar one-syllable word.
About 10 years ago, Philip Norman set about a follow-up book, John Lennon: The Life. Cautiously, without much hope of success, he asked McCartney for a little co-operation. To the author’s happy astonishment, Paul picked up the phone, answered a few questions and looked of a mind to let bygones be bygones.
Thus encouraged, Norman next planned a full-on McCartney book. Its subject did not participate, but let it be known to friends and associates that they were free to speak. The resulting blockbuster, Paul McCartney: The Biography, is short on revelations considering its size. But you have to marvel at Philip Norman’s absolute conversion to the Macca cause. Can this be the same guy who wrote Shout!? It would seem that our wily, PR-savvy Paulie has played his old foe beautifully.
Paul has, in short, adopted the dictum of master strategists from Sun Tzu to Michael Corleone: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
• TOP OF THE WORLD: The Beatles’ rooftop farewell show, 30 Jan 1969.
I’ve followed this unfolding saga with interest. I’m neither a John-person nor a Paul-person. I always felt it was the exact equality of their contrasting but complementary talents that made The Beatles so special. After their artistic divorce, each man seemed to me a little diminished by his sparring partner’s absence. Both went on to produce some great work, but their catalogues are certainly riven by the occasional lapse of quality.
I wrote a book about Lennon’s songs outside The Beatles, called We All Shine On. Just before and during the group’s acrimonious split in 1970, John deployed his Plastic Ono Band to score a series of classic anthems like ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Give Peace A Chance’. He then struck out with career highlights including ‘Instant Karma’ and ‘Imagine’. But there were also misfires, like the hectoring agit-prop of his ‘Some Time In New York City’ album and its confused follow-up ‘Mind Games’.
Given his abrupt departure at the hands of a lone gunman in 1980, I never got to interview John Lennon. But I did meet Paul McCartney in 1979, and since then I’ve spent between 20 and 30 hours in his company, to write a string of magazine articles, sleevenotes and promo material. Last year I compiled them into a book called Conversations With McCartney, published with his co-operation.
I’ve also met Philip Norman and swopped Beatle yarns. He’s a writer I’ve admired ever since I was a schoolboy devouring his shrewd reportage of the last days at Apple, written for the Sunday Times magazine in 1970. His other assignments ranged from Liz Taylor and PG Wodehouse to Colonel Gaddafi. He consolidated his reputation with solid biographies of Elton John, Buddy Holly and The Rolling Stones.
But a Philip Norman book about Paul McCartney? That was a worry.
Somewhere in my Beatle-geek scrapbook was the Sunday Times poem he wrote in 1977. Under unflattering artwork that depicts Paul waving from a limo window, looking both regal and ingratiating, Norman ends his four-verse outpouring of unmixed contempt with the lines,
O deified Scouse, with unmusical spouse,
For the clichés and cloy you unload,
To an anodyne tune may they bury you soon
In the middlemost midst of the road.
Note the passing swipe at Linda McCartney, which must have done nothing to soothe Paul’s mood.
• TOMORROW’S WORLD, YESTERDAY: Macca explains ‘Coming Up’… in 3D!
Four years later, in Shout!, Norman again presented the bass-player as a timid tunesmith and sly careerist. John was a fearless seeker after truth, a daredevil artistic risk taker. Paul was a soppy opportunist whose music peddled conventional sentiments. The book had all of Norman’s verve for tautly-written narrative, but where McCartney was concerned it was not a pretty picture.
Hence the widespread surprise at Paul’s rather gracious consent to help with Norman’s next Beatle enterprise, 2008’s monumental John Lennon: The Life.
Against the odds, it was Yoko Ono who disliked the finished book. She had been well-disposed to the Lennon-favouring author of Shout! She especially liked his claim on American TV that John had been “three-quarters of The Beatles.” She invited him round to her home at the Dakota Building for the first of many exclusive interviews and promised her co-operation with the Lennon book. To his surprise she now complained that he had been “mean to John” and withdrew her support.
Philip Norman had walked a careful tight-rope between the great warring factions of Beatle history: when he fell off, it was on the unexpected side.
• MONOCHROME SET: Lennon cheekily puts Macca “off his stroke” in this TV promo.
So now we have Paul McCartney: The Biography. In its Prologue, Norman confesses like a prisoner at a show-trial. He is a born-again Macolyte, denouncing the Lennonist running dogs (chiefly himself) who have traduced our Paul so grievously. He gamely reprints the poem quoted above, and asks: “Has anyone ever more thoroughly burned his bridges?” He believes his anti-Paulism stemmed from having adored him in The Beatles: “All those years I’d spent wishing to be him had left me feeling in some obscure way that I had to get my own back.”
After this nourishing snack of humble pie, Norman spends the next 864 pages re-telling the McCartney story from a distinctly sympathetic standpoint. The man he had formerly represented as “the most tyrannically particular and perfectionist Beatle” is now acknowledged as a writer of astounding breadth and a performer of boundless energy. If you read a lot of Beatle books there is very little here that you won’t already know: indeed, Norman recycles whole chunks of his own research, from Shout! and the Lennon biog.
The real fun is in spotting the small changes of allegiance. These are admittedly of minor interest to a non-obsessive, but they will matter to McCartney. He’s always been annoyed by the Shout! story that he wanted Stuart Sutcliffe’s place as bass-player in the early Beatles Hamburg line-up. The new book now accepts that Paul’s version is true: the bass guitar in those days was a non-glamour gig that nobody fancied.
Norman performs a smart about-turn in his estimation of the famous medley on Abbey Road’s second side. In 1981 the McCartney parts were “always starting to say something but never quite reaching the point.” By 2016, these same songs “formed a complex mosaic revealing more of his private feelings and emotions than his music ever had before.”
Gone, too, are the snippy asides. We’re no longer told that Paul would abandon his girlfriend Jane if somebody more famous came into the room. Nor that his much–admired ballad, ‘Michelle’, was “a bland love song with words that lapsed into French as a plain act of social climbing.” Whereas John’s music, just two paragraphs earlier, was “honest and powerful in a way that Paul’s never dared to be.”
• ’CHELLE SHOCK: Norman’s former criticisms of ‘Michelle’ have disappeared.
Best of all is Norman’s reappraisal of Lennon’s acid apocalypse, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Finally buying Paul’s assertion that he, not John, was first to embrace the avant-garde (a staple trope of McCartney interviews in latter years), he sneers at the very detractors he once epitomised: “How typical of iconoclast John, they all said, and what a world away from Paul’s homeliness and tunefulness. No one guessed who’d first turned him on to tape loops and kept on at him to read [Timothy Leary’s] The Psychedelic Experience”.
Well, better late than never, McCartney might be thinking right now. There is more joy in heaven, so they say, over the one lost sinner who repents.
• “IT TOOK ME YEARS TO WRITE…” Philip Norman introduces his McCartney biography.
The biography of any living person is like a funeral with an empty coffin. It’s all about the one person who isn’t there. McCartney puts no personal imprint on these pages and his voice is virtually absent.
But Philip Norman is an old Fleet Street hand who knows how to tell a story. Most of McCartney’s inner circle have not taken part, but there is fresh material here from John Eastman, which is important. Eastman was Linda’s brother; with his father Lee Eastman he took charge of Paul’s legal and business affairs at the end of The Beatles, and John remains in post to this day.
And Norman is of an age to understand Britain in the 1950s, when most of Paul’s ideas were formed. He’ll point out, for instance, that the McCartney family didn’t see “a council house” as some social stigma: to them it was a civilised, hygienic promotion from the terraced slums of post-War Liverpool.
More importantly for his book sales, though, Norman knows what will push those old Fleet Street buttons. He devotes acres of space to Paul’s scampish capers with groupies, pre-Linda, and re-hashes every tabloid tale and court report of the brief marriage to Heather Mills. None of this is new, but it’s enough to secure what a book like mine could never do, namely a lucrative serialisation in the Daily Mail.
It sounds pious to say “it’s all about the music” but I wrote Conversations With McCartney as a document of the most successful songwriter of all time. We covered all sorts of ground in our talks together, from teenage hitch-hiking to transcendental meditation, but the focus was always on McCartney as musician. A hundred years from now, perhaps that approach will seem blindingly obvious. But it doesn’t really excite the media. Advantage Philip Norman.
My book is mostly in McCartney’s own voice, because I had the privilege of 30 years’ worth of personal contact and in-depth discussion. Maybe some 22nd century historian will consider that a valuable resource. A hundred years from now, Paul’s relationship with Heather Mills won’t matter a jot, but people will still be poring over the songs he wrote, from ‘PS I Love You’ to ‘No More Lonely Nights’. So I wrote down what Paul McCartney had to say about his songs.
Whatever you think of him or his music, the scale of Paul McCartney’s fame is almost unimaginable. I’ve stopped feeling star-struck in his presence, but I still believe I’m transcribing someone whose name will survive like Julius Caesar’s. My connections to Paul are slender, yet I always receive emails asking me to pass along some request: Will he, perhaps, come and open their garden party? On a certain level, the British at least cannot distinguish his level of celebrity from that of Alan Titchmarsh.
Perhaps that is part of McCartney’s achievement, and his downfall. He writes the songs that make the whole world sing, but he never grasped that the tortured artist act would give him more mystique. He is by-and-large the contented optimist he tries to appear. He’s so old he belongs to the days before rock and roll, when the first obligation of show business was to cheer people up. It took John Lennon to spot the market in charismatic angst.
• THE ENTERTAINER: McCartney could never do charismatic angst.
It’s striking to see how Lennon and McCartney’s respective stock has fared in the markets of fashionable opinion. Thirty-six years ago, when Philip Norman published Shout!, Lennon had the macabre advantage of an untimely death. He’d always been the hipper Beatle, anyway. But to Paul McCartney falls the advantage of longevity. He tours the world constantly. He represents the Beatle legacy on stage and through interviews. He gets to tell the story his own way. A potential trouble-maker like Philip Norman is eventually charmed, and the threat is neutralised.
There is a growing sense that George Harrison was under-rated in The Beatles. But George, of course, is no longer with us. And Ringo Starr, as ever, wields no clout in Fab Four power plays. In 2016, Paul McCartney owns The Beatles.
• A ONE-MAN BAND: In 2016, Paul McCartney effectively is The Beatles.
They used to wisecrack that dying young was a great career move. But John and George were not Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain. They stuck around too long for that. Just before he died, in fact, Lennon released ‘Double Fantasy’, which might be the most middle-aged album in rock history. Meanwhile Paul’s keeps adding to his catalogue with everything from classical oratorios to the occasional jamboree with Kanye West. He’s just put out a double CD of post-Beatle songs, ‘Pure McCartney’, which has 46 years to choose from. Lennon had only 10, and never shared the Macca-esque work-ethic.
At 74, McCartney’s command of his public personality is more acute than ever. But his memory is more like a big antique suitcase, full of unsorted Polaroids. It was a joy for me to look inside. I’ve never taken the line that he is safe and bland. More often, his work is questing and strange. He dominates the mainstream yet is authentically avant-garde. We take him for granted now, but one day that will stop. History will have him.
And the best account will probably be written by Mark Lewisohn, whose colossal three-part Beatle history is still in preparation. A few years ago I had Christmas lunch with Mark and McCartney. We writers agreed we were acting as a sort of external hard-drive for him, while he got on with his life. The man himself wore an orange paper party hat. A pretty ordinary guy… with a really extraordinary talent.
And now even Philip Norman seems to agree.