Born too late to experience the Beatles’s reign firsthand, I belonged to the “second-generation” fan set, the cohort of 1970s youth dazzled not by “The Ed Sullivan Show” or Sgt. Pepper, but by the latest hit single from Paul McCartney and Wings. How eagerly we anticipated each one! What would Paul sound like — what would he do with his voice and how far into the song would The Scream come? What effects would he mix in — explosions, doorbells, silly accents, fife and drums, clarinets, reggae, synthesizers, bagpipes?
The excitement of these events was only slightly dimmed by the knowledge that Wings was not as heavy, as hard, or as cool as the other sounds wafting out of stereos in that dazed-and-confused era: Floyd, Zeppelin, latter-day Stones, the Who, Black Sabbath, KISS, the Sex Pistols. Not even the presence of Linda McCartney diminished the importance of Wings; for over the entire scene there hovered the prospect of a Fab Four reunion.
This bygone era is neatly captured by Tom Doyle, a veteran writer for MOJO and Q, in “Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s.” Well-researched but still breezy and engaging, the book offers a comprehensive tour of the shaggy, bleary-eyed decade when the hardest-working ex-Beatle reached the zenith of his creative and commercial success.
Doyle charts 10 years of McCartney’s shifting moods, hair styles, public personas, and band lineups. The common thread, besides the reassuring role played by Linda, is Paul’s frequent resort to flight in a ceaseless quest to escape the long shadow of the Beatles. This restlessness took McCartney to increasingly exotic locales for recording, from Lagos, Nigeria (1973’s “Band on the Run’’) to a yacht off the Virgin Islands (1978’s “London Town’’) to a medieval castle in Kent (1979’s “Back to the Egg’’). Along the journey McCartney veered wildly in his choice of material — from protest songs to children’s ditties to rock anthems to ballads.
Because the Beatles’s worldwide fame and acclaim was so staggering, McCartney’s interest in carrying on as a working musician in the 1970s was bound to create tensions with those he tapped to record with him. “Let’s be honest,” said Denny Laine, the longest-serving member of Wings (1972-80). “He wanted to be in a band in a sense . . . But he would still have the final call.”
Drawing on sound journalism and unrivaled access to subject, “Man on the Run” makes an excellent contribution to the burgeoning literature devoted to McCartney’s post-Beatles career. While source notes are unfortunately lacking, the author brings valuable new detail to many oft-overlooked episodes, such as the first Wings tour, a series of rough surprise gigs at English university halls in February 1972, and the desultory studio reunion that saw McCartney paired with founding Beatle John Lennon, in Los Angeles in April 1974, for the last time. What criticism Doyle offers of his subject is generally mild; he judges McCartney “eccentric” and flinty, and given, in musical taste, to “a touch more cheese than was palatable.”
Younger readers raised on images of McCartney as the venerated and largely uncontroversial figure of the last decade, may be jolted by the portrait here of McCartney’s funky period when he did battle with snooty rock critics and BBC censors and was routinely busted for marijuana. “[I]t was a wacky thing,” he tells Doyle of his decision to dragoon Linda into Wings and bring their kids on tour with them. “But come on man, we were hippies.”
What’s lacking in this book is music; the songs get short shrift. The author never pauses to examine the reasons why McCartney’s songwriting worked to such unique effect. Doyle terms “Maybe I’m Amazed” (1970) the “gold-standard” of McCartney’s ballads, then ignores it. Similarly “Goodnight Tonight” (1979), Paul’s top-10 foray into disco, is curtly described as a “Latin-tinged dance-floor groove.” Nowhere are we treated to an extended discussion of how McCartney’s writing and singing, or his actual voice, changed over the 10-year span.
Where Doyle succeeds is in documenting the many ways in which the ex-Beatle tried, and the many ways he cried, in the ’70s. “As much as McCartney wanted to be one of the boys,” the author writes, “the dividing line between him and the others was all too obvious.” Howie Casey, a Liverpool saxophonist who knew the Beatles in Hamburg and played on Wings’s 1976 tour of America, recalls a card game on the tour plane when Paul, uncharacteristically, sat in, only to storm off after losing the pot to Casey. “It’s not the money,” the latter observed. “It’s the winning. He’s used to winning.”James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent of Fox News. He is at work on a book about the Beatles, for which he interviewed Sir Paul McCartney.