For a long time now, there’s been no reason to expect anything of interest from new Paul McCartney music. But he’s seldom stayed out of the news. His new albums tend to elicit the most embarrassing kind of journalistic puffery (few can resist being on the receiving end of a Beatle’s charms), and he’s enthusiastically embraced The Beatles’ past with the Anthology projects, among others. There’s also the little matter of his quick marriage and ugly divorce from model Heather Mills—not to mention his nine-day stay in a Japanese jail for attempting to smuggle marijuana into the country in early 1980, or the breakup of The Beatles, a go-round sadder and more protracted than even his breakup with Mills.
London journalist Howard Sounes doesn’t make his book Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney into the mask-raising tell-all it aims to be. McCartney certainly has a temper—the recording of 1986’s Press To Play, one of his least distinguished solo albums, took a full 18 months; early on, he snapped at producer Hugh Padgham, “When did you write your last No. 1?” Decades later, Padgham offers this summation: “If you think that McCartney probably hasn’t been able to walk down a street without somebody wanting to kiss his arse from the age of 17, I imagine it would affect you, possibly in an insidious way as well as where you don’t realize. But if he doesn’t get his own way, then he throws his toys out of the pram.”
Yet while there is plenty of backstage brooding on McCartney’s part—drinking his days away in the wake of The Beatles’ breakup, seething over the way John Lennon’s death made him into a saint in the public’s mind, and McCartney into the band’s villain—Sounes portrays him as a genuinely normal person. His ultra-chipper public persona is rooted strongly in his real character; while jailed in Japan, he gets his fellow inmates on his side by leading a sing-along version of “Yellow Submarine.” His one major weakness is for weed: Sounes convincingly, if a little pedantically, portrays McCartney and his wife Linda as nonchalant toward their many pot busts before the Japan incident. In one instance, Linda went to trial high.
After being burned on money with The Beatles, McCartney took aggressive control of his finances, with the help of Linda’s lawyer father, Lee, and brother, John. He owns his own recordings and invested smartly in Broadway musicals (A Chorus Line) and song-publishing catalogs, such as Buddy Holly’s. He took care of many extended family members, retiring his father (though Sounes reports that McCartney often fought with his stepmother following his dad’s death), and his marriage to Linda—a photographer and groupie who’d had her eyes on him long before they met—was so devout, he insisted she be in his bands, to many people’s embarrassment. They took all four of their kids with them whenever their ’70s group, Wings, went on tour. The family all became vegetarians, and Linda became a more-or-less full-time animal-rights and environmental activist; the family lived mostly in simple residences in rustic places like the Scottish highlands. The McCartneys, one neighbor after another testifies, are like anyone else—just with a ton of money.
Sounes spoke with more than 200 people for Fab, and he sometimes seems to think every unturned stone contains a revelation, even when he recommends taking it with a grain of salt, as when the father of Linda’s first daughter expresses a belief that McCartney directed the lyrics of “Get Back” at him, or when dubious paternity claims come to light, only to be squashed in court. Sounes clearly isn’t a music writer—he fluffs small but telling historical details (The Rolling Stones replaced Brian Jones before he died, not as a result of his death; the BBC presenter baited the Sex Pistols, not the other way around) and has only the most perfunctory things to say about the music. He also thinks spelling Imelda Marcos’ pronunciation of McCartney’s first band “The Beadles” is cute.
Nevertheless, Sounes does interview Marcos, a minor coup, and Fab does a credible job of outlining McCartney’s life and habits. So much has been written about The Beatles—and by contrast, so little about McCartney’s far longer (and during the ’70s, nearly as popular) solo career—that Sounes’ equal treatment of the eras is welcome. Sounes often discusses McCartney’s business dealings with more gusto than he does the music, and unfortunately, it’s often for good reason.