In the 1970s, a depressed, heavy-drinking Paul McCartney walked away from The Beatles and reinvented himself as the leader of another hitmaking rock’n’roll band. A new book by longtime Q magazine contributing editor Tom Doyle about that turbulent period in the legendary rock star’s life, “Man on the Run,” catches him in mid-flight.
|From “Man on the Run” by Tom Doyle, copyright 2014 by Tom Doyle. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.|
Paul McCartney knew he was in trouble the morning he couldn’t lift his head off the pillow. He awoke facedown, his skull feeling like a useless dead weight. Day by day, his condition had been worsening. His sleepless nights were spent shaking with anxiety; his days were characterized by heavy drinking and self-sedation with marijuana.
For the first time in his life, he felt utterly worthless. Everything he had been since the age of 15 had been wrapped up in the band. Now, he was 27, and even though he couldn’t tell the world, that period of his life was almost certainly over. This was an identity crisis in extremis: Who exactly was he if he wasn’t Beatle Paul McCartney?
If any word sums up McCartney in the 1970s, it is struggle. Another is escape. He spent the decade struggling to escape the shadow of The Beatles, effectively becoming an outlaw hippie millionaire. It was a time of brilliant, banned and sometimes baffling records. For McCartney, it was an edgy, liberating, sometimes frightening period of his life that has largely been forgotten by those who were not along for the ride.
In the autumn of 1969, the McCartney family was in Argyll, Scotland, “hiding away in the mists,” as Paul puts it. McCartney, his wife Linda, the newborn Mary and Linda’s child from her first marriage, shy Heather, only 6, had escaped to High Park Farm, far from London and the heavy weather of intra-Beatle feuding. But High Park was no rock-star country pile.
McCartney had bought the run-down farmhouse, set amid 183 acres of rough, windswept Scottish landscape, in June 1966, the year he became a millionaire.
Revving up a generator, he put together an ad hoc four-track recording facility in High Park’s rickety lean-to, which he named Rude Studio. It was there, gently encouraged by Linda, that his songwriting slowly began to return to him, as he effectively used music as therapy to alleviate his depression. “She eased me out of it,” he remembers, “and just said, ‘Hey, you know, you don’t want to get too crazy.’ “
Still, despite increasingly frequent spells of happiness, McCartney was still plagued with unease, knowing that a storm was brewing back in London.
In private, The Beatles had fallen out and apart, prompting McCartney’s state of panic and depression. The critical episode had come at a meeting at the label they had founded, Apple Records, on Sept. 20, 1969. Three of the band members (George Harrison was away, his mother having just been diagnosed with cancer) had convened at the office to ink their names on a new distribution deal with Capitol Records, their label in the United States. On that day, McCartney had attempted to rah-rah-rah his downbeat colleagues into recapturing their fire. He suggested they tour small clubs, where the band — which had last performed for a paying audience more than three years before — could turn up unannounced or billed under a pseudonym.
He argued that this might help them get back in touch with who they were.
“I think you’re daft,” a scowling John Lennon responded, before announcing, “I’m leaving the group. I want a divorce.”
Following this jaw-dropping declaration, the three signed the contract “in a bit of a daze,” according to McCartney. All involved would look back on this as the moment when the illness affecting The Beatles finally became terminal.
McCartney greeted the dawning of the 1970s in his townhouse at 7 Cavendish Ave. in London, within walking distance of Abbey Road studios. Secluded in his music room, he began recording his first solo album, without the knowledge of the other Beatles. He wheeled a stove-sized four-track machine from Abbey Road into his home and began to play, in the childlike sense of the word. “It was very liberating,” he says. He was able to record entirely alone thanks to a device built by an Abbey Road technician that allowed him to plug directly into the back of the tape machine.
Homemade and handmade, the resulting album, “McCartney,” was less the grand launch of his solo career and more an insight into McCartney’s creative practices. But before the listening public had the opportunity to make up their minds about the record, it was to provoke an almighty ruckus.
Weeks before the album’s April 17 release, Ringo Starr showed up at McCartney’s London address with a letter handwritten by Lennon and co-signed by Harrison. The Beatles’ “Let It Be” was to be released April 24, and the letter notified McCartney that because of concern over the proximity of these dates, Lennon and Harrison had told EMI to hold the release of “McCartney” until June 4. After reading the letter, a furious McCartney threw Starr out of his house. “Everyone, to my mind, was completely treating me like dirt,” says McCartney. “And I said, ‘No way, man. Get out.’ “
That was the moment when McCartney finally gave up on The Beatles. He wouldn’t budge on the street date and, ultimately, “Let It Be” was pushed to a May 8 release. When it came time to promote his solo album, McCartney sidestepped face-to-face encounters by inserting a sulky press release-cum-self interview with review copies of the album. Was he planning any new records with The Beatles? No. Did he see himself writing songs with Lennon in the future? No. What were his plans now? “My only plan is to grow up,” he wrote.
The news exploded across the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The Daily Mirror in Britain, on the morning of April 10, 1970, was the first to break the story of the band’s split, with the unfussy words “Paul Quits the Beatles.” Lost in the roar was the fact that at no point in the “interview” had McCartney actually stated that he was walking out on the band.
In the fallout, the McCartneys once again ran away to Scotland, and, on a bright, cold December day, McCartney stood high on a hill overlooking Skeroblin Loch at the end of a long walk and a deep conversation with his attorney father-in-law, Lee Eastman. “We’d been searching our souls,” says McCartney. He had decided that it was time to legally kill The Beatles.
A week into January, drummer Denny Seiwell turned up for a nameless demo session at a seedy address at 43rd Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues in Manhattan. The building looked burned out and appeared to have no electricity. Directed to the damp, dilapidated basement by the doorman, he found Paul and Linda McCartney, sitting beside a battered old hired drum kit.
“They said, ‘Do you mind playing for us?’ ” says Seiwell. “And I just went into Ringo on the tom-toms.”
Seiwell got the gig, and with the addition of sought-after session guitarist David Spinozza, the loose, three-handed recording sessions for what would become McCartney’s second solo album, “Ram,” began in New York.
Across the Atlantic there was the tangled mess of The Beatles’ legal affairs. On the final day of 1970, McCartney had filed to dissolve the Beatles & Company, and he returned to London in February to take part in the 12-day court hearing. He was back in New York on March 12, 1971 when a London High Court judge granted McCartney’s request for a receiver to oversee the band’s interests “pending a permanent fix.” McCartney had unequivocally won the first crucial round in the battle, even if he now found himself hated by the press, the fans and the other band members. The day the verdict was announced, according to the eyewitness accounts, Lennon, Starr and Harrison turned up at McCartney’s Cavendish Avenue home in Lennon’s white Rolls Royce. Lennon emerged from the car with two bricks, scaled the wall and smashed McCartney’s windows.
McCartney was back in the United States at that point and three days after the end of the court case, flew to Los Angeles to oversee the mixing of “Ram.” Whereas the New York leg of the album had been cleanly marshaled, the L.A. sessions were fueled by dope. McCartney would usually arrive in midafternoon, spark up a joint and then tinker endlessly.
The result was something of a marvel. The true successor to The Beatles’ Abbey Road in its baroque detail and flights of imagination, “Ram” was variously funny, daft, touching and knowing. The unlikely U.S. No. 1 hit “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” spotlighted the new McCartney method: trippy sentimentality gives way to rain and vocally impersonated ringing telephone effects before restlessly tempo-shifting upward through its lengthy coda.“Ram” also seemed to be carefully mined with lyrical digs at Lennon and the other Beatles. “Too Many People” was directed squarely at the “preaching practices” of Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. “I felt that was true of what was going on,” says McCartney. ” ‘Do this, do that; do this, do that.’ “The album made it only to No. 2 in the United States, where McCartney had reached No. 1. And critics on both sides of the Atlantic were unkind, verging on brutal. Rolling Stone loftily claimed, “‘Ram’ represents the nadir in the decomposition of 1960s rock thus far.”
For its creator, “Ram” was an entirely successful endeavor. By driving on his post-Beatles career, it served its purpose as its title suggested: “‘Ram’ forward, press on, be positive,” said McCartney.
In April 1971 came word that the other Beatles had decided to grant McCartney his freedom from the partnership. Ironically, the New York sessions for “Ram” had made McCartney hanker for the musical closeness of The Beatles. To this end, in August 1971, Seiwell and another musician who shared his first name, Denny Laine, ventured to High Park. Laine knew McCartney from the days when his former band, The Moody Blues, and The Beatles were managed by the late Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises and rode tour buses together. McCartney was looking for a vocal foil to replace Lennon, if not exactly a songwriting partner, and had approached Laine with the idea of starting a band.
Seiwell and Laine were both put on a £70 weekly retainer — a decent working wage for the early 1970s — with the casual understanding that there would be more to come in the future. Inside Rude Studio, and outside when the weather permitted, the band, including a pregnant Linda on keyboards, quickly moved from jamming rock’n’roll standards to picking their way through McCartney’s latest, half-finished songs. Laine was impressed that Paul was “just a farmer who plays guitar” and “not a Beatle anymore.”
Enthralled by his new group, McCartney blocked out a week in August at Abbey Road and the band nailed eight songs, five of them on the first take. He also toyed with band names ranging from the half-decent (Turpentine) to the dreadful (The Dazzlers). In the end, the name of the new group was to come to him in a moment of acute panic.
In mid-September, Linda went into labor and required an emergency cesarean section. Hurried into a waiting room, McCartney, in a green surgical gown, found himself alone, “praying like mad” for his wife and unborn child. Into his racing thoughts came an image of an angel’s wings, striking him with its simple, calming beauty. The drama over, he found himself with a second biological daughter, the future fashion designer Stella Nina, and a name for his new band: Wings.
After disappearing in Scotland, the newly extended McCartney family resurfaced in London in early November for a party to unveil the band and its new album, “Wild Life,” for a handpicked group of guests that included Elton John and members of Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Faces.
Five days later, the first shot of the quartet appeared on the cover of Melody Maker, along with the headline “Wings Fly!,” but the album crashed and burned. “Wild Life” was met with a colossal wave of disappointment. For those weaned on the mini-symphonies of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road,” “Wild Life” sounded like half-finished scraps, and by Beatles standards, the album bombed, prompting EMI to cancel the release of the proposed double A-side single “Love Is Strange” and “I Am Your Singer.”
Still, the photograph that appeared on the front of “Wild Life” seemed to say it all: McCartney was now just a member of a band. In the pastoral scene, the barefoot members of Wings balance on a horizontal branch a few feet above a stream. McCartney stands knee-deep in the river, strumming an acoustic guitar, too distant from the camera for anyone other than the sharp-eyed to recognize him as Beatle Paul.
As Wings splashed around in the country, the glitter-and-glue stomp of glam rock was fast becoming the soundtrack of the times, making The Beatles, and their solo efforts, seem hopelessly passe. In an effort to toughen up his new band’s sound, McCartney decided to expand Wings to a five-piece by drafting a lead guitarist, Irish road-worn rocker Henry McCullough.
Three years earlier, during Joe Cocker’s star-making set at Woodstock, McCullough had been part of the backing Grease Band that had performed a gritty version of Lennon & McCartney’s “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
The five members of Wings quickly bonded in rehearsals, although there were already murmurs of dissent within the ranks over Linda’s role in the band. McCullough even brazenly suggested to McCartney that the band get a “proper” piano player. McCartney instantly rebuffed the guitarist, but it seemed sometimes he wasn’t entirely convinced that having his wife in the band had been such a great idea. Once, in a moment of irritation, he threatened to replace her with Billy Preston, the American keyboard player who had done such a fine job augmenting The Beatles during “Let It Be.”
Later, a little uncharitably, he would admit that Linda had been “absolute rubbish” when she’d started playing. Linda herself was ambivalent about the prospect of being a touring musician, but McCartney wanted her there, and so there she was.
They gathered on the pavement for one last photograph before leaving. Out in the road at the front of the Cavendish Avenue house they stood, a scruffy assemblage of longhairs. At its center were the McCartneys and their daughters, along with the Seiwells — Denny’s wife, Monique, holding baby Stella. To their right were brother-in-law roadies Ian Horne and Trevor Jones. To their left, McCullough and Laine, the latter pulling a comically vacant Stan Laurel face. Behind them stood a green Transit van and an Avis rental three-ton lorry stuffed with their equipment.
McCartney was at last getting his wish — as expressed to the uninterested Beatles during their dying days — of embarking on a low-key tour of small venues or civic halls. The plan for this upcoming jaunt was a similar one, if far looser. Everyone was to pile into the vehicles and take off up the motorway, heading for university towns in search of somewhere to play. By not announcing shows beforehand, he could keep one step ahead of the press.
In effect, he thought, he could outrun his critics.
And so, on the morning of Feb. 8, 1972, this strange coterie set off, destination unknown. “We were,” says McCartney, with barely disguised pride, “a bunch of nutters on the road.”
Arriving at the university campus in Nottingham around five o’clock, the Wings touring party sent Jones ahead into the building to scout the location. Finding the school’s social secretary, Elaine Woodhams, at the bar, he told her that he was with Paul McCartney’s new band and they were looking for somewhere to play a spontaneous gig.
Suspecting a practical joke, Woodhams was led out to the van. The door slid open to reveal McCartney, turning the social secretary’s expression into a goldfish gape. A gig was duly arranged for the following afternoon and announced in a scrawl on the blackboard in the bar: “Entrance — 50p.” (approximately 20 U.S. cents in 1972). The word that the ex-Beatle was to break his concert silence quickly filtered through the campus. “It was a big deal for them,” says McCullough. “But it was a bigger deal for us.”
The following lunchtime, in the dining hall-cum-ballroom, Wings publicly took to the stage for the first time before a crowd of 800, their number constrained by the fire-safety limit. The band sounded lively, if a touch scrappy. Proudly displaying his rock’n’roll roots, McCartney — wearing a red-and-white-striped shirt with a pair of dungarees — launched into Little Richard’s “Lucille” as an opener, then led into the first airing of “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” a song (subsequently banned by the BBC) that he’d written to protest the events of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972. The rest of the set was largely composed of songs from Wild Life, one from Ram (“Smile Away”) and a filler blues jam fronted by McCullough (“Henry’s Blues”). Running out of material, since McCartney had a self-imposed rule not to perform Beatles songs, Wings played “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and “Lucille” again. In a moment of dopey dizziness, they also slipped into the English nursery rhyme “The Grand Old Duke of York.” McCartney admits that not allowing himself to play any of his most famous tunes was “a killer … We had to do an hour of other material, and we didn’t have it.”
One of the most satisfying elements for McCartney in all of this was being handed the band’s agreed half-share of the door profits at the end of the gig, a bag of 50-pence coins, which he then evenly distributed among the musicians. It was the first time in 10 years that McCartney had seen any cash after a show, and he enjoyed the working musician’s dignity-of-labor aspect of it, feeling like “Duke Ellington divvying out the money” to his band.
For the most part, though, McCartney successfully managed to give both the media and his detractors the slip. Back in London, his assistant Shelley Turner playfully fielded calls from journalists fishing for the next destination. “They have taken a lot of sandwiches with them,” she offered coyly. “They could turn up anywhere.”
A week into the excursion, Linda talked to Melody Maker about how the tour was going and, specifically, how her eldest daughter was coping with the rock’n’roll road life. The McCartneys, she said, had given Heather “the choice of school or coming with us, and she chose the latter.” Linda added, “I mean, this is an education in itself, isn’t it?”
From “Man on the Run” by Tom Doyle, copyright 2014 by Tom Doyle. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.