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Books: Gospel according to Paul

PAUL McCARTNEY: Many Years from Now by Barry Miles, Secker pounds 17.99
For several years Paul McCartney has been reclaiming his Beatle past. In concerts he plays a sequence of songs which any Fabologist recognises as a potted history, starting with Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock", the song with which young Paul impressed John Lennon the first time they met; through "Ain't She Sweet", their first recording (John sang it during their sessions backing Tony Sheridan for Bert Kaempfert in Hamburg), and"I Saw Her Standing There", the first track on their first album. It is a quarter of a century since the band broke up and by now McCartney is comfortable with being an ex-Beatle. He would like to set the record straight. The TV Anthology was part of this process. Barry Miles's book is another.

Miles has known Paul since 1965. He was an intimate part of the underground swinging London scene, founding the International Times (Paul drew flyers for it for fun) and co-founding the Indica bookshop and gallery where John met Yoko. He already has huge amounts of material to draw on, having compiled The Beatles in their own Words, Paul McCartney in his own Words, and very probably Auntie Mimi in her own Words. This new book is not, therefore, any kind of an objective overview, but the work of a friend. Miles conducted 35 new interviews with Paul for this present volume and his approach is to let his subject largely speak for himself Forty percent of the text consists of transcriptions directly from these interviews - it is Paul himself speaking, which gives the book a chatty, personal feel. And in fact, that is the point. Miles is essentially an amanuensis. This is Paul's version of the Beatles' story.

It must be a bit daunting to go over such familiar ground. The phrase "the story of so and so is well known ..." recurs a good deal. Many readers will feel like grandmothers on an egg-sucking course. Bearing that in mind, it would have been wise to avoid such howlers as getting George Harrison's birthday wrong (it is 25 February, not 23) and asserting that Revolver begins with "Eleanor Rigby" (it starts with "Taxman").

But the book has other anorak virtues. Paul goes through the songs almost one by one, identifying his and John's contributions, much as John did in the famous Playboy interview.There are fewer contradictions than you would imagine, especially given John's notoriously revisionist memory and the quantity of drugs he had taken; principally, John did not write the middle eight of "And I Love Her" and Paul sent John to make a cup of tea while he knocked off the music for "In My Life". More to the point, Paul wants to correct the impression that after "She Loves You" Lennon and McCartney generally wrote separately. He insists that most of the songs were collaborations to some extent, even when they clearly "belonged" to one or other partner..

John and Paul always will be partners and they will always be compared. Paul has come to terms with this. The problem is that for the rest of the world John's genius is forever mysterious - great stuff seemed to have come from nowhere - while Paul's achievements seem more prosaically explicable in terms of colossal talent and application. This and John's murder have given a legendary sheen to his life and art. George Harrison's autobiography mentioned Lennon just eleven times. Paul's book (all right, Miles's if you absolutely insist) has him on practically every page. It doesn't try to be a full-scale biography. It is about the Beatles' years, and that means it is substantially about the John and Paul relationship.

The disproportionate attention previously given to John has had distorting affects on our perceptions of the time and place. Because John spent the mid-Sixties living in Weybridge with his first wife, Cynthia, and then focused his attention on LSD and Yoko and heroin, Swinging London has tended to recede into a rather fuzzy background. Paul, meanwhile, was living at Jane Asher's parents' house on Wimpole Street and then in St John's Wood, and he was in the thick of Renaissance England. Barry Miles was there too, and he gives a most vivid picture of how it was to be a pop god at the centre of the world. The book is also very good on the five-year relationship with Jane, and her replacement with Linda. Given Paul's fierce privacy and his knack for hiding behind his thumbs-up persona, this alone makes the book very well worth reading. If it fails the Anthony Clare test of delving deep into its subject's psyche, it is nonetheless a terrific social document.

See Michael White's interview with Paul McCartney on page 16