Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review - Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s

What was it like to wake up one morning in 1970 and realize one is no longer a Beatle?

For Paul McCartney, the experience was both depressing and daunting, one that made him want to keep his face down in his pillow, perhaps never to wake up again.

This is the scene that opens Tom Doyle's "Man on the Run," a quick but insightful look at McCartney's post-Beatles wilderness years.

It's a fascinating slice of history, and one that features a McCartney much different from the one we think of today: The beloved, smiley walking-talking historical figure who always turns up to play "Hey Jude" at awards shows and royal celebrations.

McCartney in his 30s was unpredictable: sometimes aggravating, sometimes astounding, sometimes bright and confident, other times surly and at loose ends.

In the early 1970s, McCartney was a man in the midst of an identity crisis who was also suffering a crisis of confidence. He'd been a Beatle since he was 15. How would he function, how would he create, what would he do outside of that familiar unit, no matter how inhospitable it had become?

Doyle doesn't get bogged down in the bewildering details of the money, management and personal issues that broke up the Beatles, and he doesn't point blaming fingers. His focus is on how McCartney got through it all.

The answer is "without a plan." He seemed to be making it all up as he was going along, which is what people tend to do when they've had the rug pulled out from under them.  You get on with things the best you can.

McCartney plunged immediately into his work - recording his first two solo albums in quick succession. He recruited his wife, Linda, to sing harmonies for McCartney and brought in session musicians to help out on Ram. Which got him thinking about starting a band.

Surrounding himself in a band unit -- in his mind at least -- took some of the pressure off. It also would allow him to perform live. Getting out on the road, playing small venues and getting back to his roots was something he'd been pushing for in Beatles, but the rest of the group wanted no part of it. Now he could make it happen.

Wings hit the road showing up unannounced at various British colleges, playing shows in student theaters and eventually recording LPs under their own banner. But by assembling a new band in the wake of the Beatles, and by daring to include his wife as a member, McCartney drew more fire than he avoided.

Everything he did now invited criticism and comparison - with the Beatles and, particularly, with John Lennon, who, still angry about what he saw as McCartney's betrayals in the last days of the Beatles, had taken to openly slagging Paul in the press and in song.

Doyle is extremely objective in writing about these issues - showing both where McCartney's actions invited fair criticism and instances where he was treated unfairly by the media.

The pretense of operating a "band" when Wings was really nothing more than McCartney and sidemen,  along with the tossed-off nature of much of the music he was producing, made Paul look lightweight and shallow in an era when rock critics favored music full of raw personal expression and political significance.

McCartney created much good music during the 70s. But he was also missing the other Beatles to provide contrast and push him when a song's lyrics or structure fell short. And his optimism, pop craft and silly love songs were out of step with what was seen as rock's vanguard of the time.

Yet, by the middle of the decade, McCartney was, surprisingly, unthinkably, on top again. The hit Band on the Run album, followed quickly by the triumphant "Wings Over America" tour, earned him millions and re-established him as a top star - the most successful ex-Beatle. Even though he didn't sustain that peak, he continued having the occasional hit song and remains a top draw when on tour.

It all now seems like a sure thing: Of course McCartney would become a huge solo star after the Beatles. But, as Doyle's book makes clear, it wasn't a certainty in those bleak post-Beatles days.

Bolstered by recent interviews with McCartney himself, along with Denny Laine and assorted others, the book is evenhanded and often tough on a subject who is skilled at sidestepping scrutiny. McCartney's hippie-ish parenting, pot busts, "proto-mullet," and legendary stinginess are all addressed.

It's not a full biography of the man. We don't get much about Paul's Liverpool upbringing or the Beatles, and the story ends shortly after Lennon's murder, but the period it covers is one of the most interesting of McCartney's remarkable career.




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