HarperCollins, £20, 563pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

FAB: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes

Reading this book, listening to his post-Beatles music, it's hard to disagree with David Puttnam – that Paul McCartney is a man of "immense, immense, immense talent" unable to make the crucial extra effort that would transform the merely good into the exceptional. "Was it that it was too hard, was it that it was too challenging? Or was it that he was a reasonably contented guy and he didn't think it was worth putting himself through that amount of pain? But the difference between good and great is that last 15 per cent." Puttnam believes he has not "absolutely delivered what was in [him]".

A natural musician with an astonishing gift for melody (think of "Yesterday", "Honey Pie", "Blackbird", "The Long and Winding Road"), McCartney has indeed got by on talent rather than effort. Moreover, he has (like many celebrities) surrounded himself with yes-men whose place at "court" depends on their paying suitable obeisance.

In Beatle days, competition with the outspoken John Lennon was a healthy game-raiser, and the schoolmasterly George Martin was always in the control room. After the Beatles, McCartney appears rarely to have felt the need for advice: members of Wings were hired hands, paid (mostly poorly) to obey His Master's Voice, while wife Linda, scarcely a musical bone in her body, acted as cheerleader-in-chief. The vast quantities of dope they consumed surely blunted their critical faculties. Linda arrived at the hearing for one of their many drug busts "stoned out of her mind", according to their lawyer, Len Murray.

Puttnam and Murray are among some 220 people with whom Howard Sounes talked or corresponded for what he believes is "a better-balanced, more detailed and more comprehensive life" than any so far. These include many from the heyday of Merseybeat, as well as friends, neighbours and fellow-musicians. Some provide further fragments for the jigsaw (Ravi Shankar, John Tavener, Carla Lane) but others (Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth, Jeffrey Archer) have nothing illuminating to offer.

The likes of Astrid Kirchherr and Jûrgen Vollmer are long talked-out, though we haven't previously heard from Imelda Marcos, whose treatment of the Beatles in the Philippines led to their decision to quit touring. Those most likely to add to the story – Ringo Starr, the McCartney children, Jane Asher – remain silent. It's a credit to Asher that she has said nothing since 21 July 1968 when, questioned about her engagement by chat-show host Simon Dee, she replied: "I haven't broken it off, but it's finished."

Source notes rather than numbered footnotes help disguise the fact that Fab is little more than an exceedingly thorough scissors-and-paste study which draws heavily on Barry Miles's authorised biography. Still, it's a good read for those seeking a Pauline perspective on the Beatles plus a look at his solo career. Yet it's marred by a tendency to retail tittle-tattle while acknowledging that it's only rumour.

In the end, Fab tells us little we don't know. McCartney was, from the get-go, the most ambitious Beatle, convinced from an early age that he would be famous. He was arrogant, turning up late for the meeting with Brian Epstein that would seal their future, and soon considered himself a cut above the others.

The Asher family gave him both a Wimpole Street roof over his head and an entrée into London society. He wanted Jane to give up her acting career and was suspicious when she was on tour, regarding their relationship as "open" from his side only. He treated her as shabbily as Lennon did Cynthia. An endless supply of girls was his for the taking, and take he did. He found happiness with Linda Eastman, a groupie who determined she would marry him, and his grief at her death propelled him into the chilly embrace of Heather Mills. Their brief entanglement occupies fully 10 per cent of Fab.

Despite so many desultory solo albums, McCartney is arguably the most successful Beatle, musically and financially. While still close to his Liverpool roots, the cultivated image of blokeish normality fails to disguise a man who has lost touch with everyday reality, buying land, houses, cars and horses as we shop for groceries. As a music-business manager once told me, rock stars are never like the rest of us - they only pretend to be.

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