‘If you’ve been an astronaut and travelled to the moon, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?’
In 2013, Tom Doyle authored the fantastic Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s. It traces the very interesting period of 1969-1981 – typically known for drugs busts, Wings, and financial problems – and sheds a new light on the man who’s one quarter of the Beatles, and the most famous living musician in the world. Pondering whether such a man can ever truly outrun his past, Doyle fills the pages with interviews, insights and unbiased analysis.
He kindly agreed to speak to Brandish about his book, and why this part of McCartney’s life is so alluring. While many will disagree with Alan Partridge’s assessment that Wings were ‘the band the Beatles could have been’, there’s no doubt that McCartney produced some astonishingly good material throughout his time with the Wings (roughly 1971-1981), and has subsequently maintained his status as a gifted songwriter. Man on the Run captures over a decade of complete musical and personal freedom for McCartney, coming to a sombre and sobering end with the death of John Lennon in 1980.
Read the interview below.
Firstly, why write about Paul in the ’70s? Do you think it has because he has been a little misrepresented or underestimated? Or was it just a great story that hadn’t really been told?
It was a bit of both really. I’d interviewed Paul on numerous occasions since 2006 and a lot of the time – basically because of his ongoing reissue programme of his albums from that decade – we were talking about the ’70s. During these chats I realised that a very different McCartney was emerging in my eyes, due to his musical struggles and rebellious stoner lifestyle and itinerant ways. This tended to be rushed through in other Paul biogs, so I wanted to go more in-depth and totally zone in on that decade. Also, yeah, I felt it was a great story with a proper narrative arc, and that’s always exciting to get your teeth into as a writer.
Given the fact that there are so many Beatles books, it seems odd that there are so few that cover Macca in the 70s – why do you think this is?
I think it’s a time that’s seen as being far less sexy than The Beatles era, for obvious reasons. I interviewed Ringo once and asked him why he hadn’t ever written his autobiography and he said, ‘Cause no one is interested in anything after 1970’. I think that’s generally the case with Paul too, but then I really felt that it was a fascinating tale. As he said, if you’ve been an astronaut and travelled to the moon, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?
Do you think that Paul would have achieved more in the ’70s had he worked with another strong character rather than musicians who didn’t really seem to challenge him?
I think that’s an interesting point. He seems to do his best work when writing in ‘competition’ with someone. For instance, a few of the songs he wrote with Elvis Costello in the ’80s are the some of the best either have written. He told me that finding a co-writer to follow Lennon was always going to be impossible, though, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Paul seems to have made a series of strange, some might argue bad decisions – recording Band on the Run in Lagos, the shambolic University tour etc. – why do you think this is?
I think because he just follows his creative whims, for better or for worse. And that’s what makes his story in the ’70s so riveting. Here’s this guy who seemed to have the Midas touch in the ’60s and, come the next decade, he’s creatively unsure and coming up with some pretty mad stuff. He tells me in the book though – and I do believe this – that if one of his creative exercises succeeds or fails, it doesn’t have a great bearing on his next effort.
Do you think that the split with Lennon and the subsequent How Do You Sleep episode really worried Paul?
Yeah he said it was ‘a very strange turnaround’. Lennon was a tough and difficult dude and I think Paul was wary of baiting him in the press because, as he said, ‘he’d do me in’ with his sharp tongue.
It has been suggested that Ram is perhaps the first indie album in that it explores so many sub genres – twee pop (Uncle Albert), folky acoustic strumming (Ram On), re-inventing the Beach Boys (Dear Boy), power pop (Too Many People). Do you agree?
In some ways, yeah. But I think the McCartney album is probably the first real indie album – recorded alone, at home, sounding really handmade and lo-fi. Bits of it sound like The Beta Band to me.
What would you rather listen to? Paul’s ’70s albums or John’s?
Ooh bit of both. Writing this book has kind of painted me as a Paul fan over a John fan. But I’m a massive Lennon head too.
There seems to be a real revisionist view of Ram now – do you think it is his best solo album? Or even the best post Beatles solo album?
Yeah Ram took a really kicking, particularly in the States, when it was released and, in retrospect, it seems really unfair. It’s a great record… though I have to admit I still can’t get my head around Smile Away. Still, it’s my favourite post-Beatles Macca record, definitely. But yeah I think it’s a three-way tie between Ram, All Things Must Pass and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band for best post-Beatles album.
Did you listen to all of his albums while writing the book? If so how many times did you sit through Wild Life?
Haha probably a dozen or so. I think it starts off a bit ropey but particularly the second half is great! Some People Never Know is a classic, and if it had been on Abbey Road, it would rightly be regarded as one.
Why do you think Paul went through so many musicians with Wings?
He said to me, a touch dismissively, ‘musical differences’. But there’s obviously a lot more to it than that. He clearly likes to be in control and tried to relinquish that at certain points, which was never really going to work. I think the main reason he went through so many musicians is that he picked them for their talents over their personalities, and then when he realised who he was suddenly in a band with – particularly with the often-wasted guitarists Henry McCullough and Jimmy McCulloch – the sparks flew. And not in a good way.
Do you get the impression from your research that The Beatles would have reformed in some way had John lived?
Absolutely. They were all itching for it at certain points, so I think Live Aid would have brought them together. For better or for worse. Whether or not they’d have made another album is doubtful. They were all aware of the great legacy they’d managed to create and were super wary of tarnishing it.
You portray Macca as a troubled man both at at the start of the decade with Beatles split and the end as he comes to terms with the demise of Wings, the drugs bust and Lennon’s death. Do you think that the public had any inkling of the troubled times he was going through?
Not during the Beatles split and court case, no, because he was portrayed in the press as nothing other than the villain of the piece who had split “the Fabs”. The public certainly got an inkling that all was not well when he was imprisoned in Japan, but then he presented it all with such a sunny, smiley, hey-whatever facade that his inner troubles were masked. That was my job really as an interviewer was to talk back through these experiences and try to unearth where he was at emotionally.
I think London Town and Back To The Egg are seriously under rated albums, largely because they came out in an era where punk, new wave and disco were so dominant they were always going to be ignored. Is it time for a critical reappraisal?
Well I think to be fair, they’re both pretty patchy, but they both have their moments. With A Little Luck is pretty ace, and Arrow Through Me is a Philly soul cracker.
Having met Paul was he how you imagined he’d be?
Yes and no. He’s as laid-back and breezy as his public image. But he’s also funnier and courser. I’m Scottish and he also does a great Scottish accent when he’s taking the mick out of you. My Scouse accent isn’t so great sadly, la’.
Has he mentioned the book at all – to you, in interviews etc.?
Not a peep actually. But I’m still getting the records/gig tickets, so I haven’t been excommunicated. Let’s be honest, Man On The Run reminds everyone that he was a cooler figure in the ’70s than he’s ever given credit for. And he gave us the Linda shot of him with the rose in his mouth for the cover, so I took that as some kind of gentle endorsement of me or the book or whatever. I think it’s one of those things: if you’ve had hundreds of books written about you, would you read any of them? Probably one or two, then you’d give up. Unlike me and you, Paul McCartney doesn’t want to spend much time thinking about his past.
Is Alan Partridge right about Wings?
That they were the band The Beatles could have been? Nah. I think 10cc or ELO or Klaatu were the bands that The Beatles could have been in the ’70s.
Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s is available now on Amazon.