Paul McCartney: The 800 Pages

By the author of the 1981 biography “Shout!” and the 2008 companion, “John Lennon: The Life.”
Philip Norman Nina Burke

“Paul McCartney: The Life”
Philip Norman
Little, Brown, $32

Fifty-two years after they conquered America and 46 after they played their last song together, the Beatles remain a booming industry, not to mention a cultural force that forever changed popular music, fashion, and attitudes. With innumerable biographies, documentary and dramatic films, a Broadway musical, and Cirque du Soleil’s “Love,” a multimedia show that has run for a decade and counting in Las Vegas, the Liverpool quartet remains the pinnacle pop collective and one unlikely to be matched. 

When the faithful gather in Chicago next month for the Fest for Beatles Fans, an annual confab that also meets in the tristate area and has lived almost as long as the Beatles legend itself, they will have many new books to choose from, among them one documenting a single day in 1968; a “photographic journey” through the group’s 1967 performance of “All You Need Is Love” on the “Our World” satellite broadcast, and one on the Nixon administration’s effort to deport John Lennon in the early 1970s. Clearly, many of us still can’t get enough. 

Alongside these titles will be “Paul McCartney: The Life” by Philip Norman, author of the 1981 biography “Shout!” and the 2008 companion, “John Lennon: The Life.” Mr. Norman, a longtime author and journalist — he enjoyed, before an unceremonious ejection, a backstage encounter with the Beatles as a young reporter in 1965 — has also written biographies of Mick Jagger, Buddy Holly, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones. 

His biography of Mr. McCartney, who has a house in Amagansett, may not have happened at all. Delivered to its publisher two weeks before Lennon was murdered in Manhattan, “Shout!” was thought to glorify Lennon at the expense of Mr. McCartney, his note-perfect complementary collaborator. “Paul himself hated the book,” Mr. Norman admits, referring to it as “shite.” 

Nonetheless, Mr. Norman received tacit approval from his subject, allowing him interviews with people close to him throughout his life, including his stepmother and stepsister, former bandmates in his post-Beatles groups including Wings, and many others who were on the scene at epochal moments. 

Mr. Norman has done his research, and despite the billions of words and endless dissection of the Beatles, he presents new information and delves deeply into most of his subject’s 74 years. Mr. McCartney has certainly obliged biographers: Nearly 60 years after a fateful meeting that led to his joining Lennon’s skiffle group, the Quarrymen, he continues a seemingly perpetual world tour, and has recorded and released dozens of albums since the Beatles’ breakup in 1970. There is plenty to explore. 

It is all here: the modest upbringing in postwar Liverpool, in a tight, affectionate, and fun-loving family for which music was integral to gatherings. The death of his mother, at 47, from mastitis and the devastated 14-year-old’s resolve to carry on. The unimaginable heights to which the Beatles soared, and Mr. McCartney’s determination to be at the center of it all, remaining in Swinging London when the other Beatles had taken to the suburbs and keeping an antenna tuned to the era’s wildly experimental turns in music, film, and art. 

Mr. McCartney’s business acumen, aided enormously by his in-laws Lee and John Eastman, longtime East Hampton residents, is also covered in depth, as his post-Beatles publishing company amassed a profitable collection of songs. Meanwhile, with his wife, the former Linda Eastman, he started anew and, armed with a superhuman ability to create pop melodies, eventually built Wings into a phenomenon that almost rivaled his former act. 

Mr. Norman paints a portrait of a man who, despite ascending to the very top at 22, retained an obsessive drive for more applause, more hits, more adulation. “The very fecundity of his talent brought nagging insecurity,” he writes. “What if he should wake up one morning and find his extraordinary facility with music and words had flown away in the night? As insurance against that awful day, he constantly worked the incomprehensible mechanism in his head, never passing a piano without sitting down and trying out yet another idea.” 

For an equally obsessive biographer, it is Mr. Norman’s ability, however, that is occasionally missing. Hard-core fans will note errors large and small. Some are minor inaccuracies in the lyrics he quotes: It’s “Your day breaks / Your mind aches,” not “The day breaks,” in the opening line of the magnificent “For No One,” from 1966. It is “stepping into shoes,” not “slipping into shoes” in 1971’s “Another Day.” Among the copyrights Mr. McCartney obtained for his own publishing company are the songs from a musical called “Damned Yankees,” the author writes. 

And during the troubled “White Album” sessions, when the Beatles’ heretofore loving relationship began to fray, Mr. Norman writes that “the bad atmosphere finally even got to studio engineer Geoff Emerick, who’d been on every session since ‘Love Me Do’ ” in 1962. Yet in Mr. Emerick’s autobiography, “Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles,” he recalls of his tenure at EMI Studios, “Probably the worst thing about being promoted to mastering was that I missed out on the making of the Beatles’ ‘Help!’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ albums.” 

But one can forgive Mr. Norman for a few inaccuracies among the more than 800 pages of “Paul McCartney: The Life.” Perhaps a larger question is, do we really need to drill so deeply into the professional and personal lives of someone who has already given so much of himself? Would that time be better spent slipping on a pair of headphones and diving into the sonic bliss of “Revolver” or “Abbey Road” or “Band on the Run” or “Tug of War”? 

If not, readers can glean almost moment-by-moment accounts of Mr. McCartney’s 1980 marijuana bust in Japan, for which he was jailed for several days and deported, scotching a tour and effectively dissolving Wings. Ditto for the tragedy of Ms. McCartney’s death from cancer in 1998, and Mr. McCartney’s disastrous subsequent marriage to Heather Mills, particularly the tabloid-worthy divorce proceedings that followed. 

Give Mr. Norman credit for his efforts. Following a library’s worth of books devoted to his subject, he has uncovered yet more material, and tells his story with flair. This obsessive fan, however, was left with a nagging ambivalence. While the world would have loved for the Beatles to continue beyond the 1960s, they left a collection of recordings that sound as fresh and brilliant as the era in which they were made. It is possible, though, that the myriad efforts to chronicle their lives and work has reached, finally, the point of saturation.

Above, as teenagers, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney were already driven to succeed, honing their act in performances wherever anyone would have them. Below, as they grew apart, the Beatles returned to their roots with a project that became the "Let It Be" album and film, both documenting their final public performance, on the roof of their London headquarters, in January 1969. AKG Images