Here we have a look at Paul McCartney’s seventies decade, painted as a time of tumult for one of the world’s biggest pop stars. It’s interesting to study McCartney in the isolation of one decade. The 1970s was the decade that saw Paul wrestling with what it was to be a Beatle, trying to shake it off. And with Wings it saw him setting up how he’d be seen ever since the dissolution of one of pop music’s greatest group – aloof, often stoned, shrugging off the malaise with cheery pop songs, writing to order, chuckling off any snark and chugging along, touring the world with crowd-pleasing sets.
You can also look at it as a wildly experimental time for the Beatle too often written off as simply the polite and cheery one. Averaging an album and/or tour a year at a time when the other Beatles were floundering, taking major time off, struggling for inspiration – either way the image is of Paul as the guy who (always) turns up for work.
Tom Doyle puts the story together well, starting with the break-up of The Beatles and the blame is put squarely on Allen Klein. He nicely debunks those lazy stories of Paul and John never getting on but it’s worth mentioning that this is an authorised book, made to seem ever-so-slightly-unauthorised – at the end of the day he’s there to serve McCartney in putting across his version of events. But if you read this the right way, armed with enough knowledge of how it all went down too, and with more than a cursory glimpse at the music McCartney was making and the way he made it, you’ll know what to look for – you can tell when Paul is quoted that he’s still playing largely on that ability to shrug things off, to make a joke, to admit to a faux-pas here and there (and usually using that sort of word: faux-pas – the linguistic equivalent of one of his so-pretty melodies when met with naïve or just downright annoying lyrics). You get some (further) understanding of McCartney’s coping mechanisms – managing the huge threat of such enormous fame by always referring to either of his bands as “them” and “they” never “we” or “us” – The Beatles (and Wings) were in the end just something he was part of, apparently. Along for the ride…
But trying to understand Wings – the various power-plays – and McCartney’s odd, pot-fuelled motivations (or lack of) is constantly fascinating if you’re a fan. Why was the band billed as Paul McCartney & Wings after failing? That might seem obvious – but apparently Paul didn’t care and was just in it for a lark. Then when Band On The Run finally saw the group break through it was back to just Wings.
Late in the piece – as Back To The Egg is painstakingly being put together Macca is busy saving the very best material for his second solo album. At other times he’s trying his best to let Wings – in its two main versions/line-ups – be something of a democracy. Just as long as he gets final say, obviously. A frustrated Denny Laine seemingly deserved both Fairplay and Long Service awards for just a handful of co-writes and the deep resentment of Linda and Paul towards his ex-groupie wife, introduced to them first as someone borderline-stalking Macca.
In Lagos – as many fans will know – Paul is held at knifepoint, mugged. He loses the tapes of his Band on the Run songs then goes in lays the songs down in the studio, remembering them as best he can, creating parts off the top of his head. Later on that same trip Afrobeat’s king, Fela Kuti tells the McCartneys, to their faces, not to steal from Africa. It’s just another version of being held at knifepoint. This time, as was the way with Fela, the words are the most powerful weapon.
To drug-busts and smoking several ounces a week as the family backpacked the kids around Europe on tour, scrimped on wages for the staff and band members and eventually drew in huge stadiums, Paul dipping back into his old Beatle catalogue to deliver the good show.
It was a long, weird decade for McCartney. He’s been resented ever since – seemingly for rewiring Mary Had A Little Lamb – for apparently no reason whatsoever, flogging out Mull of Kintyre and self-satirising with Silly Love Songs. He also thrilled the world, made memorable ballads and blockbuster James Bond theme bombast. He struggled with understanding his place in the world as a former Beatle, worked hard – occasionally – at not just patching things up with Lennon, but trying, again, to be a friend. Hoping for some version of the old days. You’ll still hear that in some of his music.
Man On The Run is wonderful. And annoying at times. A bit like the man he serves. And yeah, it’s his story – his version of events, with some thin, but purposeful scrutiny from Doyle. He probably had to pull a few punches to enable continued access to the man. But Wings certainly deserves more than just scorn and Macca’s seventies decade was fascinating – filled with highs (in all senses) and some rotten down-low downs.
A great book.