April 25, 2013

Philip Norman to write Paul McCartney biography


Forget what you’ve heard—Wings rules.

Last week, it was announced that prolific rock biographer Philip Norman‘s next project will be an account of Paul McCartney‘s life. What’s perhaps most intriguing about the announcement is that McCartney has given the project his “tacit approval” even though he famously objected to the way Norman portrayed him (and the Beatles in general) in his biography of the band, Shout! Allan Kozinn has a nice summary of those gripes on the New York Times‘ ArtsBeat blog:

When Shout! was published Mr. McCartney disdained it, partly because it advanced some unusual theories, including one in which the death of the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, which was ruled as accidental, was actually the result of a murder plot. Mr. Norman toned down that discussion in subsequent editions of the book.

Mr. McCartney also believed that Mr. Norman treated him as a subsidiary to Lennon, and came to believe that his book set a pattern in which Lennon was portrayed as the superior songwriter and the Beatles’ idea man, rather than an equal collaborator.

The relationship between McCartney and Norman seems to have thawed in recent years—McCartney was interviewed for Norman’s most recent biography, John Lennon: The Life, which, though flawed, is currently the definitive (or at least best available) take on the enigmatic and acerbic former Beatle’s life. More importantly for his upcoming McCartney biography, in John Lennon, Norman’s portrayal of the Beatles’ central relationship is somewhat more nuanced and evolved than it was in Shout!, which was published in 1981.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for public figures to take issue with accounts of their life, especially unauthorized ones. And the perception of John Lennon as the Beatles’ tortured genius, the creator of their masterpieces who brought depth to their pop and McCartney as the “cute one” who preferred the lightweight to the monumental, has existed since the two men became world famous and was cemented by Lennon’s tragic early death. But it is worth noting that McCartney’s objections to Shout! are well-founded—the book didn’t necessarily set the pattern of Lennon “as the superior songwriter and the Beatles’ idea man” but it did little to challenge it.

Aside from writing masterpieces like “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Let It Be,” McCartney cowrote a number of songs typically associated with Lennon alone, including “In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Ticket to Ride.” And, while Lennon and George Harrison (with Yoko Ono) produced the only truly avant-garde song the band released, “Revolution No. 9,” McCartney was, for most of the band’s existence, the only Beatle who had any interest in the avant garde—he introduced Lennon to the music of Stockhausen and supplied the arresting tape loops that turned Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” into a timeless song. Moreover, while he’s yet to release an album as transcendent as either Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (though Ram comes damn close), McCartney has had the most consistent solo career of any of the Beatles and released more good-to-very-good albums in the 70s than all three combined.

It’s due time for a proper reconsideration of McCartney’s work, both as a Beatle and a solo artist, especially now that many of McCartney’s finest post-Beatles albums, including Ram, McCartney II, and Wings Over America have recently been reissued. There have been two recent McCartney biographies—Paul McCartney: A Life and Fab—but neither treats McCartney’s solo career with the respect it deserves. And, despite all the Wings jokes, McCartney’s solo career was exceptional. Below you’ll find a few of my favorite McCartney tracks from his first decade as a solo artist.

McCartney: “That Would Be Something”

Ram: “Back Seat Of My Car”

Wild Life:“Love Is Strange”

Red Rose Speedway: “Only One More Kiss”

Band On The Run: “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five”

Venus & Mars: “Listen To What The Man Said”

London Town: “Famous Groupies”

Back To The Egg: “Getting Closer”

McCartney II: “Front Parlour”

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.