No John, No George, No Ringo, but Still a Lot to Say
The MCCARTNEY LEGACY: Volume 1: 1969-73, by Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair
Are the world’s libraries adequately stuffed yet with literature about the Beatles, still the best-selling band of all time, and their diaspora?
Volume 1 of “The McCartney Legacy,” by Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair, arrives like a well-planned encore a year after the publication of “The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present,” by Paul McCartney, edited by the poet Paul Muldoon. The latter volumes were packaged in Kermit green, presumably a nod to the two Pauls’ Irish heritage. The new book is a saucy red, as if inviting customers to stack it atop “The Lyrics,” stick on a bow and cue up the bouncy seasonal synth of “Wonderful Christmastime.”
Peter Jackson’s documentary, “Get Back,” also released at the end of 2021, changed the way many people thought about McCartney: always popular but wrongly blamed for the Beatles’ breakup, and often critically drubbed as a middle-of-the-roader given to sappiness or, worse, insincerity. There has always been blatant ageism and sexism in the dismissal of certain McCartney tunes as “granny music” — and this is a problem why? — likewise the idea that his ease with children and nursery-rhyme dabblings made him less of a rocker.
Watching McCartney in “Get Back,” his boyish face solemnized by a beard, show up consistently (and at least once tear up), urging “a serious program of work” as his bandmates sulked or even stalked off, rebranded him as a devoted boss who brought his whole self to the office. Seeing him pull the film’s title song out of the air, soaring on bass and guitar before sinking into pillowy ballads at the piano, reminded viewers that, oh yeah, that guy who could be kind of corny and hammy in MTV videos is a musical genius (“about the only one that I am in awe of,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone); while his confidence in a sweater vest made even lesbians of my acquaintance swoon. At 80, McCartney continues to fill stadiums with screaming, lighter-hoisting fans.
Kozinn, a former reporter and critic for The New York Times, and Sinclair, an English documentarian, were influenced by the methods of Mark Lewisohn, the exacting Beatles historian currently at work on the second volume of a trilogy about the group (the first was 900 pages, and that was an abridgment). In a way “The McCartney Legacy” out-Lewisohns Lewisohn, taking almost 700 pages to cover only five years, from the dying embers of “The End” (1969) to the Duracell bolt of “Band on the Run” (1973), by the star’s new group, Wings.
Described in minute detail are McCartney’s legal troubles with the Beatles manager he didn’t want, Allen Klein, and his retreat to rural Scotland with his new wife, Linda. Also the bumpy formation of Wings, which integrated the game but inexperienced Linda on keyboards and backing vocals — and his decision to go high (and get high, high, high) when his longtime writing partner, John Lennon, went low.
But the text, dotted with tour ephemera andrecording session recaps, reads less like a pop-rock “Power Broker” than a set of extended liner notes, a devoted document dump, assembled from diaries, court papers and reporting fresh and reconstituted. Seemingly finished with biographies since he authorized his friend Barry Miles to write “Many Years From Now,” published in 1997, the man himself was not interviewed for this project (though Kozinn has sat with him on other occasions) but gave the thumbs-up to other sources.
The result is aptly patchwork, considering that McCartney — even as he became a billionaire — is constitutionally a saver and joiner of disparate parts, in life and art (listen to “Junk” for a meditation on waste in capitalist society). But it’s deft patchwork, the seams between old and new tucked away in the neat drawer of its index.
Inevitably, too, “The McCartney Legacy” is a graveyard of the once-robust music print press: Melody Maker, Disc, NME — “Enemy!” McCartney once exclaimed. His jousts with journalists give the book some of its best points of tension. Displeased with a negative profile, he and Linda once wrapped up a turd made by their baby daughter Stella (now a major fashion designer), according to Wings’ former drummer Denny Seiwell, and sent it to the reporter responsible. “Hold your hand out you silly girl,” McCartney telegrammed one music critic, Penny Valentine, quoting the Beatles’ “Martha My Dear,” after she called his first solo album “a bitter disappointment.” She was just wrong, he told her. “It is simple it is good and even at this moment it is growing on you.”
And you gotta love the aghast reaction of Clive James to the McCartneys’ somewhat cringey (though intermittently adorable) foray into television variety: a “monstro-horrendo, superschlock-diabolical special,” James wrote, that “burgeoned before the terror-stricken eye like a punctured storage tank of semolina.”
Trivia, the coin of the realm in pop culture writing, is spilled here in abundance. Lots of it feels relevant or at least redolent, like that Seiwell once played at Mount Airy Lodge, the place in the Poconos known for heart-shaped tubs, and also at Judy Garland’s last performance. Other facts, like the exact dimensions and cost of the luxury liner that took the McCartneys from Le Havre to New York, might be superfluous.
Most notably in a book that is all notes — both musical and literary — is how much its subject, in between eponymous albums, is forever trying to escape being Paul McCartney. The “man of a thousand voices,” as Valentine called him, is also a man of a thousand faces: writing songs for others under the fusty nom de plume “Bernard Webb”; checking into hotels under the alias “Billy Martin”; pretending to be a socialite named “Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington”; producing as “Apollo C. Vermouth”; signing his own sleeve copy as “Clint Harrigan”; even titling a song and album — his greatest, in my opinion — after a preferred pseudonymous surname, “Ramon.”
There will be thousands more pages written about Paul McCartney, and yet, he seems to be taunting, we will never catch him.
THE MCCARTNEY LEGACY: Volume 1: 1969-73 | By Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair | 720 pp. | Illustrated | Dey Street Books | $35