“You had a reputation as a McCartney basher.” Robert Rodriguez
“I did. And I was wrong. I was in the wrong. As I say in this book, I was not fair to him in Shout! … They (John and Paul) are inseparable in their importance to the Beatles.” Philip Norman, interview with Robert Rodriguez, Something About the Beatles, 2016
In the wake of John Lennon’s murder, an English journalist published a book which widened Beatles historiography’s Lennon/McCartney schism by providing an unfailingly complimentary view of John Lennon and Yoko Ono while criticizing Lennon’s songwriting and musical partner, Paul McCartney, as a superficial lightweight whose manipulative and conservative personality, obsession with sentiment and commerciality, and refusal to accede to Lennon and Ono’s experimental genius led to the Beatles breakup. Responsibility for the band’s split was placed solely on McCartney’s shoulders, and his inferiority to Lennon in virtually every way was implicitly or explicitly proclaimed by the author.
Portrayals of the other Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, in the book were poor to non-existent: Contradictory accounts and opposing primary evidence were dismissed or ignored. While it attracted some criticism for its hagiographic interpretation of Lennon and Ono, its reputation granted it considerable influence on fans and other Beatles authorities of the time period, many of whom cited the work in their own books.
Over a decade later the work’s author, Ray Coleman, decided to write a biography of McCartney, the figure he had unremittingly maligned in his aforementioned Lennon: The Definitive Life. In the introduction to his 1995 work McCartney: Yesterday and Today, Coleman explicitly denounced those critics who questioned McCartney’s musical genius, regarded the musician as superficial, or failed to acknowledge his basic decency, generosity, and good sense. The astonishment surrounding the totality of Coleman’s about-face (and his audacity in calling out other authors for committing errors he himself had made) is only surpassed by the equal astonishment that no one highlighted Coleman’s hypocrisy, or the seismic changes in his view of Beatles history. Coleman’s death a few years later ensured that the reason behind his self-revisionism was never addressed; the author was never forced to explain the motivation behind his profound reversal on McCartney or apologize for his earlier, errant interpretation.
Philip Norman, author of numerous Beatles books, including Shout!, John Lennon: The Life, and the new Paul McCartney: The Life, may very well be envying Coleman’s method of posthumous escape right now.
When regarded purely as a biography, Paul McCartney: The Life proves the best of the small but sub-par selection of biographies available on the still-living McCartney. The work offers the most comprehensive look at McCartney’s post-Beatles life – if not his music – and notes the man’s determined post-Beatles efforts to retain his family, sanity and normality while living a life of incomprehensible fame. The work’s greater significance, however, lies in its demonstration of the extent to which its author, Philip Norman, and Beatles historiography as a whole has shifted on the pivotal subject of McCartney over the past forty years.
One of the most important questions involving his 2016 biography of the Beatle (not named George) whose talents and character he unfailingly derided, criticized, mocked, judged and condemned for over forty years involves not the book’s subject, but its author. How much of Norman’s professed conversion on McCartney was prompted by a genuine reassessment? And how much was inspired by his own realization, in the mid-2000’s, that his decades-long advocacy of the Shout! narrative – integral aspects of which includes diminishing the Lennon/McCartney friendship, McCartney’s musical contributions to the Beatles, and portraying McCartney as Lennon’s inferior in almost every conceivable way — had left Norman stranded on the wrong shore of Beatles history?
“No two temperaments could have been more unalike.” Shout!, 1981
“Paul wanted Stu’s job as bass guitarist.” Shout!, 1981, 2002, 2005
“’Macca’ suggested something altogether tougher and more synthetic; perhaps a not too distant cousin of Formica.” Shout!, 2005
In the introduction to Paul McCartney: The Life, Norman issues a mea culpa, acknowledging his bias and explaining its origins in his own feelings of envy, projection and betrayal. “If I’m honest, all those years I’d spent wanting to be him had left me feeling in some obscure way that I needed to get my own back.” However, it is worth noting that this reasoning differs, dramatically, from Norman’s previous explanations: in the 2005 edition of Shout!, the author acknowledged but excused it by declaring that he was a “John-person” rather than a “Paul-person”; in the afterword of his 2008 biography of Lennon, he denied being “anti-Paul.” In previous interviews with The Guardian’s John Harris, Norman had explained that his personal dislike of McCartney’s late 1970’s music and personae inspired his disdain and, consequently, his contemptuous portrayal, but argued he attempted to make amends for Shout by providing a more generous portrait of McCartney in his 2008 biography of Lennon.
Beatles historiography in the 1970s was an uneven playing field which favored John, who, for a number of reasons, dominated and won the breakup-era narrative. As Beatles author Robert Rodriguez admitted: “I was a teenager when I read Lennon Remembers, and I bought every word of it. Uncritically.” Following John’s 1980 murder and subsequent mythologization, this favoritism became even more pronounced, and Beatles authors demonstrated unapologetic partisanship which, in turn, trickled down to fans and other Beatles authorities. If Norman’s earlier justification for his pro-Lennon, anti-McCartney slant – “I cannot claim to be anything other than a John-person” – is, in fact, the primary reason for his bias, he wasn’t alone; he was riding the wave of and contributing to the popular perception of Beatles history that authors such as Coleman and journalists such as Jann Wenner also pushed.
What has not been addressed is the simple but powerful issue that, whether the bias was inspired by Norman’s personal feelings of jealousy and betrayal over Paul or his avid pro-Lennon partisanship, neither should have been allowed to direct and influence Shout! to the extent that it was more a book about Norman’s authorial self-insertion into the band’s history than a biography of the band itself. As John Lewis Gaddis notes in The Landscape of History, “Personal preferences need not represent gross bigotry.” And, while Norman’s Paul McCartney: The Life reasoning explains his virulently anti-Paul tilt, it does not cover his similarly destructive and misleading, if less acknowledged, anti-George portrayal.
George, on Abbey Road, “had found an identity by forgetting to be himself.” Shout! 1981
“George was not great; just an average guitarist who got incredibly lucky.” Shout! 2005
In The Beatles and the Historians, I identified three fundamental weaknesses with Shout! First was its lack of historical distance. Second was the absence of documentation, and third was the book’s pervasive and corrosive pro-Lennon and anti-Harrison/anti-McCartney bias.
Historical distance is not as glaring an issue for Paul McCartney: The Life, although the old rule of thumb – waiting approximately fifty years after the historical subject has been deceased to attempt a biography – obviously does not apply to the still living and performing McCartney. Likewise, Norman’s virulent anti-McCartney bias has seemingly wholly vanished, as Norman attempts, for the first time, to view Beatles history, the Lennon/McCartney partnership, and McCartney’s life and music with any semblance of sympathy, objectivity, or balance.
An outspoken critic of Beatles authors who laden their paragraphs with “show-offy facts,” rather than concentrating on character, description or compelling narrative, Norman rejects the current trend of many current Beatles authors regarding documentation. Paul McCartney: The Life contains neither citations nor a bibliography. This decision perpetuates one of the greatest weaknesses involving the entirety of Norman’s Beatles work; failure to distinguish between evidence and authorial interpretation. Sweeping generalizations are made and readers are informed multiple times what specific historic figures were thinking/feeling at any given moment, but whether these accounts are supported by evidence or wholly the result of personal, authorial speculation is not clear.
In Paul McCartney: The Life, these interpretations reverse Norman’s previous versions on any number of subjects – from the impact of Mary McCartney’s death on her oldest son, to the recording of “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” to McCartney’s role in the breakup. This new analysis demonstrates a seismic shift, although not in Beatles historiography – aspects of this new narrative first began to emerge in force over twenty years ago, in 1995, with Mark Hertsgaard’s A Day in the Life and Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head – but in authorial conclusions. McCartney’s version of many events, (many of which were first recounted in his 1997 semi-autobiography Many Years From Now) is now widely accepted by Norman – who, in virtually all his previous work, failed to even acknowledge McCartney’s perspective existed. Source analysis, however, is sparse. As in his previous biography of Lennon, Norman is too willing to take the testimony of numerous sources at face-value and/or fails to equally weigh evidence by acknowledging contradictory accounts. Both books favor the version of events provided by their primary subject and omit the contradictory version: Ultimately, because of this, John Lennon: The Life and Paul McCartney: The Life provide each other with the balance that each biography, in itself, lacks.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in the portrayal of an individual (excepting Norman’s complete reversal on McCartney as a whole) is the author’s newfound appreciation for the great love of the man’s life, Linda Eastman. In Shout!, the author’s disdain for Eastman was barely veiled; he regarded her as a deeply inferior choice to McCartney’s previous romantic partner, Jane Asher, and accused her of worshipping McCartney’s ego while negatively affecting his music, appearance and relations with the other Beatles. His portrayal of Eastman was as negative as his one of Ono was uncritical. (As noted in The Beatles and the Historians, Norman was among numerous Beatles authors who sought to elevate Eastman or Ono at the expense of the other). In 2005, he argued that the public mourning for Eastman following her 1998 death from breast cancer was merely an echo of the grief which had followed the death of Princess Diana a short time earlier and had nothing to do with appreciation for Linda herself. In Paul McCartney: The Life, Norman again admits his own interpretive failure, acknowledging that, by any standards, the McCartney marriage “became by far the happiest and most durable in pop.” Far from the fame-seeking, smug groupie she has been depicted as, Linda was a liberated, warm, casual and usually friendly woman who endured an outsize amount of press and public abuse.
“Examples of total collaboration (in the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership) were rare.” 1981
“Paul developed musically by following rules; a notion altogether repugnant to John Lennon … John’s music was … as honest and powerful and Paul’s ever dared to be.” 1981
“The Ballad of John and Yoko” was “recorded by John, virtually singlehandedly.” Shout!, 1981
“’Can’t Buy Me Love’” was “perhaps the least memorable of all Lennon/McCartney songs.” Shout!, 1981
“On “Revolver,” there was Paul’s pretty, self-pitying, ‘For No One.’” Shout!, 1981
Lack of informed musical analysis has always been acknowledged as one of Shout!’s, and Norman’s, greatest weaknesses. Authorial disinterest in Beatles music as a whole was so striking that The Beatles Bibliography complained that Shout! could equally have been a biography about four plumbers who happened to become famous.
In the great debate regarding Lennon and McCartney’s respective musical contributions to the Beatles, the author’s bias again fed his judgment, advocating a view of the music in which Lennon was “three-quarters of the Beatles.” The major elements of the Lennon Remembers narrative, including the depiction of Lennon as “authentic” and McCartney as “commercial,” Lennon as “experimental” and McCartney as “conventional,” and the widespread dismissal of the existence of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, were all reiterated, unquestioningly, in Norman’s work. Contradictory testimony from credible primary sources, such as George Martin, was ignored.
With Paul McCartney: The Life, Norman again explicitly denounces his previous interpretations, praising McCartney’s musical genius while championing the equal components each man brought to the essential Lennon/McCartney partnership and the Beatles as a whole. Songs which the author had previously criticized or found wanting, such as “Lady Madonna” and “For No One,” now receive his praise, while McCartney’s radical, avant-garde experimentation – which, as McCartney has repeatedly argued for almost thirty years now, pre-dated Lennon’s – is acknowledged and explored.
In combination with Norman’s revised view on the causes of the band’s breakup, this reinterpretation signifies a complete reversal, by the author, on the two most contentious debates in Beatles historiography. In acknowledging McCartney’s genius but championing the whole, rather than part, of the Lennon/McCartney partnership, Norman’s work is now better aligned with other major authors under the Lewisohn narrative, such as Hertsgaard, MacDonald, Jonathan Gould, or Lewisohn himself. By redistributing the weight of the breakup’s blame on many shoulders, and primarily on Allen Klein’s, rather than McCartney’s, Norman’s new version heavily resembles the current breakup-account Orthodoxy, as detailed in Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money. The significance of these revisions are notable: One of Beatles historiography’s most influential and enduring voices, who, for forty years, used these debates to promote and widen the corrosive Lennon vs. McCartney schism, no longer advocates any of the major aspects of either the “Lennon Remembers” or “Shout!” narratives.
What does the significance of this shift mean to the future of Beatles historiography – how their story has been and continues to be told? Undoubtedly, it demonstrates the crushing weight of Lewisohn’s research, which began the erosion of more biased versions. Now that the Shout! narrative’s founder has unequivocally rejected it, which major voices, among Beatles authorities, will insist on picking sides in the Lennon vs. McCartney schism? Will authors such as Larry Kane and Mikal Gilmore, who still advocate certain elements of the Shout! narrative, continue to argue its primary components? Or will they follow Coleman and Norman’s example by implicitly or explicitly distancing themselves from their previous interpretations in an attempt to place themselves on the right side of history?