For the best part of the past fifty years Paul McCartney has been one of the world’s best known musicians. From the chart friendly pop of early Beatles music, to the more experimental nature of their later work, he has led and informed many musical trends. The music that he wrote with John Lennon is timeless, and continues to work its magic on successive generations, and a lot is already known about his life.
The musical successes and other artistic endeavours are well known, as is the deep well of tragedy that has run through his life, starting with the early death of his mother when Paul was just 15, to the tragic early deaths of his Beatles colleagues, Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, and George Harrison, and of his beloved wife Linda, who was so important as McCartney’s muse, and as a member of Wings. So, what does Howard Sounes’s biography offer that similar works do not?
The book is the most up-to-date of McCartney’s other biographies and is the first one to include details of McCartney’s ill fated marriage to Heather Mills. The book, though also takes apart the Beatles myth, and includes details of the deep resentments that led to the end of the Beatles, and looks at Lennon and McCartney’s relationship, and how it was broken at the end of the Beatles, but was beginning to heal before Mark Chapman’s actions on December 8th 1980.
The books takes on McCartney’s life from the beginning and over its more than 600 page span covers McCartney’s early life, his promising talent in art and other intellectual pursuits before music became his overriding passion, the first fateful meeting with John Lennon, and auditioning for the Quarrymen.
There are the hot and sweaty nights in Hamburg nightclubs, honing their act with Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, before the band found their missing ingredient in Drummer Ringo Starr, taking over the world with the help of manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin. How their sound and songwriting changed the three minute pop song format, until their acrimonious split in 1970, after leaving a lasting legacy of timeless creativity.
The book also looks at McCartney’s second great band Wings – never given the credit they deserved, because of their leader’s previous band – to McCartney’s successful solo career, and his collaborations with such heavy weight figures as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
Sounes is celebrated for his definitive work on Bob Dylan: Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan and Fab shows a similar attention to detail. The tome took more than two years of investigate work, and Sounes spoke to more than 200 people who had access to McCartney throughout his life, from family members who speak fondly of what Paul has done and still does for them, to studio engineers and producers who worked on his albums. What is revealed is not always the thumbs aloft smiley Beatle that McCartney was in the 1960s. He is shown to be deeply caring about people, but ruthless when it comes to money, or how his legacy is seen. Many of his falling outs with people are about money, or what other people think he can do for them.
The family life that McCartney developed with Linda, adopted daughter Heather, and children Mary, Stella, James, and Beatrice is well shown, with his desire to raise his children to respect the natural world, to know the importance of money, and their contributions to make to the world, in spite of a family name that is world famous.
Ultimately, though, it is about the music, and McCartney has produced a lot of it, from Hey Jude, A Day in the Life, Eleanor Rigby, I Saw her Standing there, The Long and Winding Road, Yesterday, and a catalogue of other songs that still stand up, all written with the Beatles, to hits with Wings, such as Jet, Band on the Run, and Silly Love Songs, which is worth the price of admission for McCartney’s bass playing alone, through to solo songs such as ‘Pipes of Peace’ ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ and ‘We all Stand together’ and the three albums that he recorded under the name of the Fireman, and show McCartney’s interest in Ambient and Techno music styles.
History may remember McCartney as being the more sentimental of the three writers in The Beatles, but he was also the one who brought in the most expansive sound palette, with an interest in classical music, and the avant garde with Stockhausen. And as well as a prodigious talent as a pianist, guitarist, bassist and drummer, he has one of the most distinctive voices in pop.
As well as looking at McCartney’s life, it also helps to put his work in context with other events happening in the world, as well as in the recording studios that the Beatles used, with many moments of both creativity and tension. McCartney’s attitude to money is also examined, from his contributions to the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) to his purchasing the rights to Buddy Holly’s songs. As well as this, though it also looks at McCartney’s attitude to the fact that one time collaborator Michael Jackson owned, and then sold out on the rights to the Lennon/McCartney songs just as his career and lifestyle were spiralling out of control, shortly before the King of Pop’s untimely death.
Famed for his devoted marriage to Linda, the book also looks at McCartney’s love life, from early dalliances in his youth, through to his engagement to Jane Asher, as well as his present relationship with Nancy Shevall.
The book ends with McCartney performing in front of a sold out audience in Germany, in front of some of the people who had supported his early career in Hamburg, and it shows a certain circular arc to the McCartney tale. The only surviving Beatle still playing the songs of his youth, that had an impact on all of our youths, whether first, second, or third and fourth generations, carrying the load lightly, and seeming to enjoy it.
So, we learn that Paul McCartney is not as the myth would have us believe, he is no saint, but he has left the world a legacy of fine music, and shown how to mature in the public eye without losing too much of himself along the way.
FAB – An Intimate life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes
9780007293193|Harper Collins pbk 2011
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