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Popdose Flashback 1973: Paul McCartney & Wings, “Band On The Run”

wings_band-on-the-runIt isn’t all that strange that in 1973 Paul McCartney and Wings delivered Red Rose Speedway and the single “My Love” in the mid-section of the year and then presented the game-changing Band on the Run by the end. Two year intervals between records now seems like a normal pace for most acts, but in the go-go Seventies, if you weren’t productive, you were gone (and that pace was considered positively lethargic next to the 1960s work ethic). Radio was a competitive market. Singles had to keep a steady pace and there weren’t outlets for promotional films (later read as “music videos”) to reenforce your position. You couldn’t rely on the chatter of the Internet as there was no Internet, and besides, back then records still made money. So the timeline of releasing two albums in a single year, and an armload of 45s between them was commonplace.

What was notable was the drastic change between the two albums McCartney issued. Red Rose Speedway, and the contribution of the theme song to Live and Let Die kept McCartney in the limelight but Wings had yet to release an essential album, the one that stood above all the rest. McCartney was not packing his albums tight with hits. Ram got “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” His first record had “Maybe I’m Amazed” which did not really get to be a hit until the live version appeared on Wings Over America. The first official Wings record Wild Life is readily forgotten by the majority.

In the middle of August 1973 McCartney announced Wings was going to record the next record in Lagos. Denny Seiwell and Henry McCulloch promptly quit the band. Lagos, despite the promises of African rhythms and adventure, was a dangerous place and McCartney, who during the time of The Beatles was known to be the “director and taskmaster” of the group, was not likely to be dissuaded. What remained were Paul, Linda McCartney, and one-time Moody Blues-man Denny Laine. What awaited them in Lagos were: a mugging and theft of the original Band on the Run demos, and a recording studio that was, to be generous, “unformed.” Accounts of this have been far, far more harsh. And after some rough time, it became clear to even McCartney that this was not the most successful of ideas.

And yet from those first shaky steps came the record synonymous with the best of Wings, featuring some of McCartney’s most rock-oriented  work in a long time: the hit title track, the equally successful “Jet,” well-regarded album cuts like “Let Me Roll It” and the UK single “Helen Wheels” helped establish this brand name of Wings as a viable entity rather than “the lark Paul was on while waiting for those Beatles of old to get back in line.”

There had been that feeling for a long time that the breakup was just something the boys were getting out of their systems. Each was experiencing fairly strong and positive response from their solo work, but if there can be anything interpreted with hindsight, it would be that it wasn’t until Band On The Run that many finally saw The Beatles as over. Paul kept things quiet regarding who was doing what on the record (Ginger Baker providing percussion in the form of gravel in a fire bucket, Tony Visconti arranging the saxes on “Jet,” and the details behind how the star-studded cover came about) rather than engaging in a game of one-upsmanship. He didn’t have to show off to his former mates who the new fellows were, and that sense of security is all over the album.

And it is one of McCartney’s best and arguably Wings’ best. It can be sweet without being cloying. It hadn’t forgotten how to rock and employed touches of the glam sound that was coming into vogue. It had a song about Pablo Picasso, for heaven’s sake. For that one, the story that actor Dustin Hoffman related was that he posed a sort of challenge to McCartney to write a song. From an article in a magazine, Hoffman told him about a night toward the end of Picasso’s life where, after a festive dinner with his friends he retired for the evening. They invited him to stay and to crack open another bottle of wine. He replied, no, I can’t drink anymore. Go ahead and drink to my health. Purportedly that was it. McCartney diddled away on the guitar, sang “drink to me, drink to my health; you know I can’t drink anymore,” and the rest tumbled out from there.

Band on the Run is not overtly complex, yet is seen as such when grouped with the often maligned general discography of Wings. John Lennon infamously mocked McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” as a waste of his talent, only to find a worth in these uncomplicated sentiments in latter years. I have often felt there was a jealousy Lennon had of McCartney in that getting to that simplicity didn’t seem like such an effort, while for John it was a hell of an effort. Lennon always had it harder than McCartney, sometime by force of surroundings and circumstances, and sometimes from his own making. We all know somebody who seems to fall into the manure heap and walk away smelling like flowers. Perhaps that was the source of Lennon’s antipathy in those years. It’s all speculative.

Was it a bad idea for Linda McCartney to be in the band? You know, this is an argument that has stumbled and sputtered around since the formation of Wings and gets murmured about even today. The speculation that she added nothing to the band beside a handful of ooh-ahhs on choruses, and her supposed growth on the keyboard was actually phantom tapping as the McCartney backing track played on, is irrelevant. To the first point, I don’t fully believe her input was as limited as her detractors say. Let’s assume fifteen percent versus the less generous 2-to-5 % that gets said all too often. Linda was good for Paul. Even in his soppiest, most lukewarm efforts, she kept him on the straight-and-narrow, despite the weed incident that kept McCartney out of Japan.

At this point, George Harrison had lost his wife to Patti to Eric Clapton, John Lennon was beginning to splinter into his Lost Angeles period with Harry Nilsson and without Yoko Ono, and Ringo Starr was courting the line between breakthrough (with “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Photograph”) and breakdown (the drugs and party life, the mantle of being the “Fourth Beatle” and the disrespect that sometimes engendered). The wrong person by his side would likely have been a disaster for Paul, so the fact that he truly loved Linda kept him going. So even if she had not offered a single note on a single Wings record, but was nonetheless credited, an observer would conclude her influence was just as valid.

And besides, with her photography background and Paul’s fame, the two secured one of the coolest album covers ever for Band On The Run.

What is clear is that even though Band on the Run sounds like a prime collection of singles and would-be singles, it feels a lot more cohesive than that — not like the mad experiments that made McCartney’s first couple of efforts so disjointed. It didn’t have the sweetness-run-amok of latter tracks like “Listen To What The Man Said” and “Let ‘Em In,” or the numb sensation of the holiday track “Wonderful Christmastime.” Band on the Run was connected and engaged, and that is probably why a large number of people consider it Paul’s best solo work.

P.S. Want to know how influential Band on the Run is? Consider this. On the most recent album by Melvins, Freak Puke, the band does as reverential a cover of “Let Me Roll It” as Melvins are capable of. If even King Buzzo and company won’t mess with the Band on the Run, you know you’ve got something.

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  • Bob

    Very informative and insightful. Thank you.

  • jbacardi

    Nicely done, and right on the money regarding Linda.

    Even though a lot of hipper-than-thou types (and some prominent record critics of the day) want(ed) to discount this album, I’ve always thought it was a solid, often exceptional group of tunes, even more impressive because of its troubled genesis. Of course, I was 13 when it came out and already a die hard Beatle fan so of course I loved it…I wasn’t as inclined to compare it to the singles that preceded it or the (to my ears now) slapdash Red Rose Speedway as I am now.

    One track that has really grown in my estimation over the years (and one I didn’t immediately latch on to) is “Picasso’s Last Words”. The more I listen to it, the more I love that reflective, stately middle section that featured strings arranged by Tony Visconti. The humble but lovely “Bluebird” is another, and the intro to “Mamunia” has a little of that Beatle magic, I think.

  • Hutch

    I always thought Paul and John were equally talented – each bringing their own strengths is what made the Beatles such an amazing band. However, Paul was a more versatile as a song writer…from Martha My Dear to Helter Skelter or Why Don’t We Do It In the Road. He could go from depth to light and silly. And his voice just morphed so much – much more versatile than John’s…more range.