It's hard to imagine, considering the hundreds of books and websites dedicated to examining the lives of John, Paul, George, and Ringo in microscopic detail, that there are things we still don't know about the Beatles. In fact, if the first edition of Mark Lewisohn's three-volume deep dive into the band's world is any indication, there's actually quite a lot to be learned about the most famous men to ever pick up musical instruments.
With John Lennon and George Harrison now both long gone from this world and Ringo Starr happy to tour the world with his All-Starr band and release the occasional album, its Paul McCartney alone who is still wowing audiences regularly with a stadium show to end all stadium shows, and an endless stream of reissues—there's an excellent new compilation called Pure McCartney on the way next month—and new music (including some unlikely collaborations), making him the most prolific Beatles alumnus. Beatles expert Philip Norman, author of Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation and the biography John Lennon: The Life, has turned his attention to the man once known as the "cute" one—and with McCartney's blessing and assistance, no less.
"I'd only ever interviewed him properly once, when I was 22 and he was still in the Beatles," Norman tells Esquire. "I'd written some pretty unflattering things about him—especially in Shout!—but he'd phoned me a few times over the years, remarkably. The first time I wasn't home, and I didn't call him back! The second time, I think he was really doing it out of curiosity, to see what I was like. 'Who is this person who seems to hate me so much?,' as he put it. After that call, just as I put the phone down, I said to my wife, 'You know, he's not really so bad.' But when he agreed to help me with this book I was astonished. I guess he has an eye to the future and wants there to be a solid, knowledgeable, but objective biography of him in existence."
Little, Brown and Company
Paul McCartney: The Life is just that: a thorough, objective telling of McCartney's story—in and out of the most famous band ever. But it's also a breezy read, considering the tremendous ground it covers. "Paul is in his 70s, so I couldn't just plod through the whole Beatles story step-by-step, all over again," Norman says. "I assumed knowledge on the reader's part, which I think is fair to do. And I didn't go into all the psychology of why the Beatles became so big. But what struck me along the way, which I didn't expect, was what an interesting and complex a character Paul McCartney is."
Norman was happy to share ten of those "interesting and complex" things you'll learn in Paul McCartney: The Life with Esquire.
The most influential person in McCartney's life was his father, "Gentleman" Jim McCartney, a Liverpool cotton salesman who brought up McCartney and his brother, Mike, after their mother's tragic early death. From his father, McCartney inherited the love of Broadway show tunes and brass bands that would permeate his music. In fact, the amateur jazz combo Jim led in the 1920s was at the heart of McCartney's most famous brainchild: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
"Like Mick Jagger, underneath all of that posing and posturing, there is a basically decent human being because of his dad," Norman says of the '60s rock icons. "Mick's dad was a gym teacher, so that's why Mick is still doing push-ups backstage and has a private track. His dad told him to keep himself fit, and so he still does. Jim McCartney was an extraordinary man—not only extraordinary in the way he created a happy and stable home for the two sons, who were bereft after their mother's death, but also in the kind of values that he instilled in Paul in particular. Paul found a pound note in the street, and his dad told him to take it to the police station. He told him to raise his school cap to women he'd see at the bus stop, even if he didn't know them, because that's what a gentleman does. He was an old fashioned gent. To this day, despite all of the adulation and all the power and the money, McCartney's still like that because of his dad."
At their home in Forthlin Road, in the suburb of Allerton, McCartney and his brother Mike would often be woken up by the sound of gunfire because their house was adjacent to a police training grounds where trainee dogs would chase "fugitives" firing blanks to accustom them to the sound.
"Paul's brother Mike told me that they heard gunfire on the very first night after they'd moved in," Norman recalls. "They never were without the sound of barking dogs from the police academy, just over the back field, or that gunfire. But it was also where Paul used to see horses—because the only horses you'd see in Liverpool were police horses—and he still adores them. They were great big, stately, gentle, dignified beasts, and he'd see them on open days at the police academy. Strangely enough, John Lennon's childhood best friend Pete Shotton was a cadet at that very same academy."
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McCartney could easily have ended up immeasurably vain and smug, but he's more of an insecure workaholic who still feels the same need to prove himself in his 70s that he did as a teenager.
"Paul had a very uncomplicated, happy childhood, despite the loss of his mother to cancer when he was 14, because his dad made a stable home for Paul and his brother," Norman says. "But he was more similar to John Lennon than most people realize, especially in that both of them had an absolute inability to feel satisfied with anything that they did. John was hideously insecure and, surprisingly, Paul seems to have a lot of that, too. He's virtually on tour every night of his life, and he's nearly 74. I liken his need for adulation to Chinese food: It seems to go straight through him, and he needs to have more in 20 minutes. Like when he was turned away from that club a few weeks ago after the Grammys: Why would he bother? He has a tremendous, unmatched creative impulse, of course, but he also seems to need that adoration. Whatever he gets never seems to be enough."
McCartney was the first of the Fabs to get into avant-garde art, sculpture, and music, and it was thanks him that the Beatles' records included experimental effects such as tape-loops.
"He was always that way, even growing up in Liverpool as well," Norman says. "Even as a small boy he was exploring modern art and things like that in a way that other small boys at that time would not be doing. But the stereotypes still persist, amazingly. I was just interviewed about the Rolling Stones, and it shocked me that people still believe that the Stones were the bad boys and the Beatles were the good boys. The Beatles were sleazy beyond belief in their early careers, and the Stones were nice lads from the suburbs who wanted to play the blues. But the Beatles became the cuddly Moptops and the Stones became the antichrist, which was absolutely absurd and untruthful. So people still think McCartney was the safe, tuneful one and that John was the wild rebel and iconoclast. Of course, as [Beatles aide] Tony Bramwell said, John was a bastard, and happy to stay at home and do fuck all, while Paul was the one who took the trouble to go see Luciano Berio or to get into weird, New York rock, like the Fugs and people like that."
The Beatles' Apple Corps is remembered as a self-indulgent disaster, but its eponymous record label, one of Britain's first indies, was a huge success, thanks to McCartney's tireless multi-tasking as a talent scout, songwriter, producer, and session musician.
"The record company was a huge success right from the beginning, because of Paul," Norman says. "'Hey Jude' was a huge hit, and Paul was very active, scouting and producing talent, with great success. When the others moved in, though, it started to unravel. When John went into the basement studio with Yoko, and George signed up the Krishna Temple Singers, that's where it started to get screwed up."
McCartney has received much of the blame for the Beatles' breakup. In fact, he made heroic efforts to keep the band together until he was brutally sidelined by John, George, Ringo and their new manager, Allen Klein, an experience so traumatic for him that he almost suffered a mental breakdown.
"You wouldn't have thought Paul was the one who was traumatized by the break-up, but he really was," Norman says. "He really was on the edge of a breakdown, and also kind of running away, too, off to his farm in Scotland. He was thought to be someone who was self-seeking; the absolute, independent-minded one. But it hit him really hard. So he disappeared up to Scotland, and was tempted into drugs and drink. Far too much. But, of course, there was that core of steel. So when his father-in-law Lee Eastman said that the only way out of the mess the Beatles were in was to sue the other Beatles, Paul didn't hesitate."
After the Beatles' breakup, McCartney struggled to establish himself as a credible solo artist. From 1970-73, he endured hostile reviews and mockery for including wife Linda in his new band, Wings. By sheer dogged persistence, he made Wings as big a live attraction in the '70s as the Beatles were in the '60s.
"It's something that's sort of hard to imagine," Norman admits. "He decides to start right from even below square one, with Wings. He could have worked with anyone—formed a super group. Instead, he drives around Britain with Wings, turning up at student unions at small universities, asking if they'd like him to play. Partly, I think, it was because he realized that Linda needed to earn her chops. But it was also out of sheer toughness: 'I'm going to do this the way I want to do this and not hire half of Crosby, Stills & Nash to be in Wings.' That's an amazing thing to have done, I think."
Michael PutlandGetty Images
Beatles fans who never forgave Linda for marrying McCartney never realised how utterly she dedicated herself to his welfare and protection. Once, in Nigeria, when Wings were making Band on the Run, McCartney was surrounded by a gang of armed muggers and Linda made herself a human shield, ready to take the knife or bullet for him.
"I made a very conscious effort to paint Linda in the true colors that she deserves," Norman says without hesitation, when asked about McCartney's first wife, Linda, who died in 1997. "She received so much hate. I mean, who got the most horrible, vitriolic abuse, Yoko or Linda? What the Paul fans did to Linda was horrible. Really, really vile. But neither she nor Yoko had much PR skill at the time. Yoko has a lot now. But Linda never really bothered. She was cool in what she was—actually very cool—but nobody recognized it as such at the time."
After a slight to John and Yoko on McCartney's 1971 Ram album, John retaliated with a venomous anti-Paul track, called "How Do You Sleep?", on his Imagine album. But he never knew that McCartney also recorded a song about him entitled "Dear Friend" that stands as the most loving of tributes to their relationship.
"Paul wasn't always likable," Norman says, referring to the period immediately after the Beatles' breakup, and his war of words in the press and in music, with Lennon. "But I came to realize a lot of Paul's work has been underappreciated the same way I came to realize it about John Lennon's solo work. I always thought John's solo albums weren't as good in comparison to the Beatles. But in my research I found some of them were magnificent. It's the same with McCartney. And amongst that huge amount of output for Wings, there's the song 'Dear Friend,' which is just as good as anything he's ever written, even as a Beatle. If only John had noticed, maybe their relationship in later years could have been different. But John's mind was very much made up. There was this funny sort of intimacy between them. They could be very hurt by each other—far more than you would think was possible. And so John just went on being hurt for the rest of his life. I also didn't realize how the shadow of each was cast on the other in the after years. Yoko told me about John sitting up late, worrying over the fact that there were more cover versions of Paul's songs than his. But then Paul was just as jealous of John and was always watching what John was doing. They just never stopped, really."
McCartney and Linda became famous for the simplicity of their country lifestyle in Scotland and Sussex. But it didn't stop McCartney having pizzas flown from New York via the Concorde, installing underground heating in the open-air paddock where Linda kept her horses, or helicopter rides at will.
"Linda was, at heart, a country woman who had always wanted to have horses and wished she would find one on the front lawn on her birthday and on Christmas Day," Norman explains. "Paul also had that yearning, from when he used to see the police horses in the field behind his house as a child. They grew organic food—something else they did very early before other people—and went vegetarian long before it was fashionable. So their country lifestyle was real, and it was the perfect way to get outside of the madness of the music business, and indeed to escape from the horrors of breaking up with the Beatles. I think it was all completely genuine and not at all an image. But he did fly pizzas from New York on the Concorde. And when he wanted to fly to London by helicopter, even though there was no air traffic because there was a terrible fog. But because he was Paul, and he had to have it done, there and then, after thousands of pounds exchanged hands, he got to London via helicopter."
Jeff Slate Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist who has contributed music and culture articles to Esquire since 2013.
People still think McCartney was the safe, tuneful one and that John was the wild rebel and iconoclast.
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