Playing on the title of the 1973 Wings album “Band on the Run,” the title of Tom Doyle’s biography implies that this portrait of Paul McCartney in the 1970s is of a man fleeing his fame.
But the author soon pulls his punches. “If any word sums up Paul McCartney in the 1970s it is struggle,” he writes in the introduction, before immediately equivocating: “Another is escape.”
Others might be “insecurity,” “hubris” or possibly “marijuana.”
Far from being easily summed up, this was a decade of contradictions and sudden reversals for the ex-Beatle.
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The book opens in Scotland at High Park, the remote, rundown farm to which McCartney intermittently returned throughout the 1970s — notably in 1977, to record his syrupy, bagpipe-powered hit “Mull of Kintyre.”
Newly married to a bewildered Linda, the star had collapsed into an angry, drink- and drug-addled funk after the breakup of the Beatles.
Doyle blames the schism on their manager Allen Klein, whom McCartney mistrusted enough to dissolve the band’s partnership, attracting a furious backlash from the press and his ex-bandmates. John Lennon lashed out especially cruelly on “Imagine” (1971) with “How Do You Sleep,” a song mocking Paul’s country life, his dependence on Linda and — with some prescience — his tendency to surround himself with yes-men.
When Doyle asks McCartney about the incident now, the singer, as he often does in the book, falls back on a weak joke, claiming to regret only having missed the chance to call John and retort that he was in fact sleeping “very well, ’cause I was in the countryside. Fresh air.”
It’s not surprising that anyone as familiar with press intrusions and distortions as McCartney would develop a habit of deflecting questions about such painful moments. But his inability to analyze the deeper meanings of his actions — and Doyle’s reluctance to push him — is both poignant and increasingly frustrating.
McCartney remained extraordinarily productive through this decade of turmoil, averaging at least a record or tour per year. As Lennon, across the Atlantic, floundered, “McCartney, as ever, plowed on.”
This image of workmanlike resilience is the one that Doyle and presumably McCartney himself prefer, but there’s plenty of more quixotic, reckless behavior and a sense of invincibility.
When he and Wings and their entourage, including the McCartneys’ young children, traveled to civil-war-ravaged Lagos, Nigeria, to record “Band on the Run” in 1973, the local Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti threateningly warned him against “plunder(ing) African sounds.” It is a rare moment of anyone standing up to the star.
The musicians Paul gathered around him as part of the two incarnations of Wings tried to assert themselves against his creative control, as well as his tight-fisted wages. But they were hired guns rather than partners, and they knew it.
Linda, who struggled to learn keyboards and to sing, was no musician and no creative match in the mold of Lennon. His former drummer, Geoff Britton, expressed McCartney’s isolation in blunt terms: “Paul didn’t have anybody around who could tell him when he was out of order or to (expletive) off. You need that.”
McCartney’s arrogance showed most clearly in his above-the-law attitude toward marijuana, fostered in his Beatles days of quasi-“diplomatic immunity” when traveling. Post-Beatles, he repeatedly tested that immunity until his bust and imprisonment in Tokyo in January 1980 for trying to smuggle “half a pound of dope” into the country.
He can’t, even now, offer much more interpretation than “I was an idiot,” but the incident — coming after a long struggle to secure Japanese visas — demonstrates an almost pathological impulse to push the limits of his power.
It didn’t help that despite the huge commercial success of Wings, journalists never stopped asking about a Beatles reunion. As usual, McCartney seems to have coped with this pressure by making light of it, although the constant reminders of his former glory must have been crushing at times.
Even more so because, as Doyle points out, McCartney and Wings were largely out of step with their musical times, whether it was “the glitter-and-glue stomp of glam rock” or the onrush of punk.
As part of the band that defined the sound and the look of the ’60s, Paul had never been out of step before — and although Wings sold out more stadiums than the Beatles ever did, the band did it by following the mid-’70s mood of rock extravagance, not by leading it.
Lennon’s murder in 1980 put a violent end to the possibility of reunion. In utter shock at the news, but apparently making light of it, McCartney told a reporter that John’s death was “a drag” — a flippant phrase that would “haunt for years.”
This inability to articulate his grief is a moving coda to a story in which McCartney is rarely a particularly sympathetic character. However, he does now seem more comfortable admitting the singularity of his partnership with Lennon: “He and I were just so sort of natural and read each other and did such good work … he said modestly.”
Doyle’s narrative voice is similarly chatty and unpolished, and he rarely challenges his main subject — the price, most likely, of access to the star. He also tends to overlook the distortions of time and memory. A quote from Linda, from an older, unidentified source, will be matched with a recent quote from Paul: she said, he says.
Their voices are not necessarily in conflict — Doyle’s version of the McCartney marriage is mostly one of stoned harmony — but there’s nevertheless an important difference in the level of authority between the two. For better or worse, it’s Paul’s story now.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, by Tom Doyle (257 pages; Ballantine; $27).