Monday 17 January 2011

Paul McCartney and Wings "Band On The Run" (1973) (News, Views and Music 87)

You can now buy our e-book 'Smile Away - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Paul McCartney' by clicking here!

“The rain exploded with a mighty crash as we fell into the sun” “The night was falling as the desert 

Paul McCartney and Wings “Band On The Run” (1973/2010)

Band On The Run/Jet!/Bluebird/Mrs Vanderbilt/Let Me Roll It//Mamunia/No Words /Helen Wheels/Picasso’s Last Words/1985

‘It may be right, it be fine, it may get love but I’m not sure it gets mine, as ‘Band On The Run’ I just don’t get you…’

In 1973 an ex-Beatle millionaire, his wife and the ex-leader of the Moody Blues were on the run. Not from the law or even the censors (not this year, for once) and not even from the taxman as rivals The Rolling Stones were the year before, but from themselves. Wings were probably the most unstable band on the planet - well, till the Sugababes at least - going through something like nine line-up changes during their seven years together, but 1973 was the first real test for them as a band, with both guitarist Herny McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell leaving the group somewhere between McCartney booking the band on a flight to Africa to record the album and the five of them actually making the plane. Though Macca likes to simplify this as ‘they didn’t fancy roughing it in Africa’ the truth is a bit trickier than this: Wings had long been promised an ‘equal’ share of tour money and recording shares to make up for what they lost in publishing that never quite happened, while Henry in particular was feeling restricted in what he was asked to play. Ironically what Paul saved in airfare probably did him a favour as this album, recorded in difficult circumstances, was the push he needed to finally make the ‘Let It Be/Get Back’ album of as-live recordings he’d been trying to get right since 1969. Although many of these songs were written long before the band ever touched down in Africa, this album’s half themes of escape and triumph over adversity come across loud and clear and what’s more seemed to strike the right chord with the record buying public back home in a way that this album’s timid predecessors never quite achieved. Indeed, ‘Band On the Run’ is still held up by most fans and critics as being Paul’s crowning achievement outside the Beatles, a triumphant eclectic album that is still Macca’s best-selling album outside compilations.

Perhaps one of the reasons this album has always been so successful is because of the back story: the band recording as a trio in a foreign land in a studio that didn’t even have glass in the studios, Paul and Linda getting mugged on the way home one night and having all their demo recordings for the album stolen, Paul collapsing from heat and exhaustion brought on by smoking too many cigarettes and everyone thinking he’d died, a cholera outbreak they only found out about when they’d got home when they were being ordered by everyone to stay at home – you name it, Wings suffered it and its made for revealing reading ever since the album came out. In fact, these are stories that have been repeated so many times I won’t go into detail about them again – you’ll soon find out more from the CD booklets and the various documentaries included with each set if you own any of the quadzillion copies of this album that have come out in the past forty-five-ish years. Suffice to say, though, that reading about McCartney and friends struggling against the odds is a lot more appealing than hearing about a multi-millionaire releasing records because he wants to, rather than because he has to.  Full credit to the Wings trio for sticking with the plan and going through with it despite all the hassles when they could just have gone home and put their feet up. But to some extent it’s a lie: not that much of this album was actually made in Africa but back home in London’s AIR Studios. It’s also an album that could have been made anywhere, with all of the songs written before the trip and no local musicians invited to play (ironically the only ‘outsider’ was Cream’s Ginger Baker, who was out there making his own LP, came in for a chat and found himself playing congas on ‘Mamunia’). At the time the press lapped it up and its probably fair to say that the album’s singles are sharper than anything Wings had made up till now and far more worthy of the layers Paul’s fans anticipated. Without the back story though, treated as just a McCartney and Wings album does ‘Band On The Run’ deserve the huge accolades it’s been awarded? The answer, as ever on this site, is yes and no –it is a great album and if it had been a colossal failure we’d be plugging away why everyone should own it. But this record but not the greatest by any means and is if anything Wings’ most inconsistent record, ranging from inspired to insipid track by track.

Fra from being the obscure album we like to give a heads-up on this website, ‘Band On The Run’ has been released on CD perhaps more than any other AAA album (though Sgt Peppers cuts it close). Every time its been released it comes with new bonus tracks added and can now be bought in a deluxe four-disc set with a hardback book and a DVD of a tie-in documentary. All of the bonus tracks added since the first CD in 1987 – the ‘McCartney Collection’ disc of 1992, the 25th anniversary release of 1999 and 2010’s three separate formats – are an intriguing mix of classic moments that shed even greater insight onto why this album is as popular as it is and curios that really should have remained in the vaults forever. Yet even the four-disc set that came out in November 2010 doesn’t feel complete or rounded somehow, with ‘Band On The Run’, like its big brother ‘Sgt Peppers’, not exactly the most substantial album around when you analyse it closely. It’s not that what is here is awful (though ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ does get on the nerves a lot), just that what people take to be the secret to life, the death and the universe is quite often obvious padding. The title track makes little sense, tying up three sections based around escape with nothing more than an ear-catcing mellotron part and a catchy chorus to paste over the cracks. ‘Jet!’ is a great song but that makes little or no sense either, a lyric about a suffragette and the McCartneys’ family dog stapled together. ‘Bluebird’ is charming, but frothy. ‘Mamunia’, named after the hoterl the band were staying in, is gibberish even if you know that fact. ‘Helen Wheels’, a track only on American copies anyway, is a glossy list of road signs. And goodness knows what’s going on in ‘Picasso’s Last Words’, a track that’s clearly meant to be surrealist but sounds more like the tape engineer has had a nervous breakdown and bunged a whole load of tracks together. ‘Band On the Run’ isn’t the deep and life-changing record so many people claim it to be and in terms of actual basic songwriting is the weakest Wings album so far. So why is it so popular? Surely not just the stories behind the making of it few people knew till later on anyway?

No, it’s the sound. I don’t know why it took moving halfway across the world to create the world’s best sounding prog rock album Pink Floyd didn’t make, but if that’s what it takes more albums should be made in Africa. Geoff Emerick, who struggled to capture the essence of Wings on ‘Red Rose Speedway’ after reacquainting himself with Paul post-Beatles, nails this album’s sound. Everything is crystal clear and sounds brilliant, whether it’s a simple track with nothing going on or a complex suite of lots of things. There isn’t much here, but the most is made out of the ideas everytime and unlike some Wings albums the performances are sharp, note-perfect and full of enthusiasm. The need to record effectively as a duo (with a backup vocalist) means this album is often rough and raw and funky, but the band have learnt from ‘Wildlife’ and made sure that they’re a band who know exactly how to make the most out of the songs before they press record. Though many people dismiss Denny LKaine’s contribution he was never more integral to the band than here and he manages to mould and shape Paul’s basic ideas without getting in the way and adding his own textures – exactly what you want from a loyal yet talented assistant and its interesting that Wings will only ever sound this good again on parts of ‘London Town’ (another album finished by just Paul, Linda and Denny). Above all, though, Wings have their swagger back and sound confident again – they aren’t the awkward band unsure if this will do as heard on ‘Red Rose’ and ‘Wildlife’, yet not are they the smug know-it-alls who try to get away with a bit too much as they are on ‘Venus and Mars’ or ‘Speed Or Sound’. There are a lot of ideas thrown at this record, including a lot of bad ones, but somehow it also comes out sounding as if it all belongs together. There are far better Wings albums than this one, almost all of them are more consistent (except perhaps ‘Red Rose’) and it pains me to see everyone ignore the other albums and assume this is the only Wings record of any worth. But caught on the fine line between ‘can we do it?’ and ‘yes we can!’, with a production somewhere between fizzy and still and with just enough ideas to keep things interesting, I can also see why this album is the first Wings album to be truly loved.

It helps too that enough time had gone by for the fuss over the end of The Beatles to die down and for fans to start concentrating on McCartney’s latest stuff. Which in a way is a shame because it’s the critics who inspired this album more than anyone else. This is a band on the run, wishing they could go their own ways and be allowed to be themselves. In a way it’s a return to the theme of ‘Sgt Peppers’ of having a fictional band, but whereas The Beatles wanted to hide from sight because they were too famous to let loose, so Wings are too infamous to count. ‘Wildlife’ and ‘Red Rose’ had come in for such a kicking that Paul must have dreamed of being able to join another band and be anonymous – kind of what George Harrison was up to when he signed up to Delaney and Bonnie’s band as a backup guitarist, unbilled. But he also knows at the same time that it makes commercial sense to have his name out there. Paul did, at least, get a second great cover out of the concept, only this time instead of famous faces turning out for an Edwardian concert in the park Clive Arrowsmith’s photograph is of a group of villains on the run. Several famous faces take part, all of them instantly recognisable to at least the British public of the time and the fact that they’re living when the Sgt Peppers were all statues from a bygone age gives this record a much more ‘immediate’ feel. Modern day commentators have rather missed the point, now that cover stars like Kenny Lynch, James Coburn and even Michael Parkinson have somewhat faded into the background nowadays, but these were meant to be easily recognisable celebrities when ‘Band On The Run’ came out, very much a part of the here and now in 1973 (whereas the only present day figure on ‘Sgt Peppers’ was Timothy Leary, aside from a Merseybeat-looking fab four). Its amazing, in retrospect, that Paul got so many famous faces to take part during an era when he was deeply out of fashion and makes you wonder if anyone turned him down (of the people here only Kenny Lynch is an old friend and a one-time supporter of The Beatles who became the first person ever to cover a Lennon/McCartney song although in 1973 he’d gone on to co-write with rivals The Hollies; the rest are more obscure: a boxer, a tv presenter, a raconteaur and a horror film actor. There is no reason given for why they’re here, caught in the spotlight, except perhaps the link that they are all famous, with ‘Band on The Run’ on some level an analysis of what it means to be in the public eye, the spotlight catching you unawares before you’re ready. However nothing on this album specifically says that – even the title track ducks out of saying anything specific about who this band of people are or what they’re fleeing. Why would these figures be on the run at all, never mind together? Well, heaven knows, but as Macca points out on the audio documentary, there’s a lot more to run away from than just the law and it remains one of Macca’s brightest and best cover ideas, from the classy black and white and btown pose down to the spotlight that seems to have caught the group unawares.

Macca had a major reason to escape of course. He was still in 1973 seen by the public at large as the man who broke up the Beatles and was deeply out of favour. In a way, though, ‘Band On The Run’ is him out on parole, being readmitted to the community after serving time. Even Lennon had stopped giving him a hard time in public and had public image problems of his own the year before his ‘Lost Weekend’, while Klein fell from favour with both John and George spectacularly (John was furious at how badly ‘Some Time In new York City’ had been marketed; George was angry at the tax that had to be paid on every copy for the ‘Bangladhesh’ benefit album). John even went so far as to admit that maybe, just maybe, Paul had been right all along. This had a double impact on this album for Beatle people, with Paul no longer the guilty party automatically given a critical pasting and on the other hand boosting his confidence that actually he had been right all along. The fact that Wings managed to put together a stronger LP than either ‘Wildlife’ or ‘Red Rose Speedway’ simply helped the album grow into something that bit bigger. It’s like he’s been ‘released’ from prison and can finally show the world what he can do: Macca’s confidence about what he could pull off will never be this big again and aside from the cover and the back story, if there’s any reason for this band’s success, both in the charts and as a record, it’s the sheer confidence and bravado in almost every note of this album.

This also leads to the album’s half-theme. Not every track covers the subject by any means, but ‘Band On The Run’ is all about ‘escape’, in the same way that ‘Wildlife’ is vaguely about ‘preservation’, ‘Venus and Mars’ is about ‘exploration’ and ‘Back To The Egg’ is about ‘regeneration’. Escape isn’t a usual subject for Wings - its more of a Lennon subject than a McCartney one by and large - and is actually far more common with other bands than with Paul. The Rolling Stones didn’t inspire many Beatles or ex-Beatles throughout their career – indeed, many unkind critics claim that the Stones always followed the fab four in one way or another by catching the flu every time the fab four sneezed – and yet one thing that’s never been pointed out is how close ‘Band On the Run’ comes to following the feel and spirit of the Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’, recorded in self-imposed tax exile in France. Both discs were recorded low key, with all the personnel more or less living in the same place as the recording, away from home and the usual comforts that go into making records. There’s the same feel of escape and desperation on both of them too, although McCartney’s is – as you’d expect – far more upbeat and bouncy about the whole thing whereas the Stones sound downright depressed. Still, there’s a similar home-made, overcoming obstacles message about both albums, that if you all pull together you can make even the most miserable times fun.

So what were Wings doing in a half-built studio in Lagos, Nigeria, during the monsoon season and shortly after a cholera outbreak? Well, actually, Macca’s always been quite a brave musician, always trying to put himself in adverse conditions to record from the Beatles days up and, interestingly, it’s the few albums where Macca outwardly tries to repeat a formula that come out the worst. ‘Red Rose Speedway’, for instance, went back to the bosom of Abbey Road to repeat past triumphs and feels a rather cosy, timid album as a result. He wanted to do something new, to break Wings out of a tour-studio-tour cycle that had broken lesser bands than them. After all, Wings hadn’t been formed the way most bands are, out of pressure to prove themselves in a penniless state hungry for fame: it worked for The Beatles, it nearly worked for Wings with their 1972 university tour, but Paul for one never had to risk ghoing hungry to get his message across and could have lived off the money he’d already made quite happily without making another note (which is what Lennon more or less does in a year’s time). People don’t give McCartney enough credit for his courage sometimes and never was Paul more brave than during the making of this album (even if it was of adversity all of his doing) – you can’t imagine John, George or Ringo doing this, but Paul had to do something different, to push himself. By the way Paul can be heard on bootlegs and interviews, as early as 1965, complaining about the Beatles being stuck back in the same old four walls at Abbey Road when they could be ‘anywhere in the world’ and it’s perhaps strange that it took him three years as a solo artist and with Wings to make good on that promise of going somewhere completely new.

Having been through the rooftop concert, plans for an aborted ‘Let It Be’ concert on board the QE2, a risky one-man solo album made up largely of instrumentals and overdubs and most recently Wings tours of universities up and down the country for 50p a gig, what’s odd about this exercise is not that McCartney thought recording halfway across the world would be good for Wings but that that the band never did anything similar again when it seemed to work. Paul Simon, for instance, really got the bug for travelling after ‘Graceland’ and recorded his follow-up album in Brazil – and yet McCartney never recorded outside the mainland of the UK or USA again, barring a brief trip round the Bahamas on a fleet of boats for ‘London Town’. Eager to go somewhere new, Paul asked EMI for a list of every studio they had around the world. Why Africa? It was EMI’s newest studio, only just opened and what with Africa’s reputation for music Paul wanted to see what it was like (it might have helped that James Brown played a famous gig there in 1970 too), with romantic ideas about getting back to where music had come from. Very few other acts ever recorded there though – the equipment struggled to cope with the changing weather, there was noise in the background most of the time, the mixing desk never did work properly and there were muggings and cholera outbreaks all the time. Nigeria, too, was being run by a military government who were deeply suspicious about the whole thing. Even at the time Wings was attacked in the local press by protestor Fela Kuti who thought Wings had arrived to ‘steal’ their local music.Things were so bad that, despite one of the best-selling albums of the 1970s being recorded there (ironic given the poverty that must have been all around the band) I’m not sure any other albums were ever recorded here, with the exception of Ginger Baker’s Airforce taking place at the same time.

With no guitarist and no drummer Paul undoubtedly plays a bigger role on this album than any other Wings record – he gets to show off his drumming skills for only the third album of his career for a start (following on from two tracks on The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ and the whole of ‘McCartney’ LP) and they’re pretty fine throughout, basic but relevant and with a distinctive feel. Who drummer Keith Moon even phoned Paul up to ask if he could speak to Wings’ drummer to tell him how impressed he was with the licks throughout the album as he couldn’t find the name on the back sleeve –Paul must have loved taking that call and telling his old rival that he had played them all himself! The guitar work, shared between Paul and Denny, is also pretty startling: there’s a rawness and electricity about ‘Let Me Roll It’ especially that crackiles with an energy other more Wings albums don’t have (perhaps because of the knowledge the electricity is about to be cut off at any moment). ‘Jet!’ and ‘1985’ sound like the best ensemble playing of Wings’ career – and yet its overdub city, with only the piano/drums and guitar laid down together at the same time. Paul also dominates the writing credits and lead vocal work on this album, as usual for Wings, but it would be a shame to dismiss this album as yet another solo effort like many critics do. The always under-rated Denny Laine plays a major role on this album and the breezy optimism throughout owes at least as much to Denny as it does to Paul. Denny’s guitar solo in the middle of ‘Mrs Vanderbilt’ is superb and his best outside the ‘Wildlife’ album. He also plays a fair percentage of the inventive guitar parts here – most of these recordings were ‘sculpted’ from a backing track of Denny’s guitar and Paul’s drums according to the book that comes with the deluxe set – as well as adding his distinctive harmonies.The harmonies too are gorgeous, with Wings realising from parts of ‘Wildlife’ and ‘Red Rose Speedway’ that these are actually their trump card and they should use them often. If only Denny had contributed more songs to this album – and sadly ‘No Words’ is hardly in the same league as his later tracks for the band – then his contributions would be much better regarded by fans. Linda, too, does far more than just making up the numbers, giving the band’s harmonies their raspy edge and adding distinctive keyboard frills throughout (on a mellotron no less – the same instrument that caused more than one musician to give up in despair in the 1960s due to the difficulty in controlling the instrument). Because the band are back down to being a trio she pulls her weight more than on any other album as nearly all of these tracks feature her harmonies and her keyboard parts.

Perhaps the biggest marks, however, should go to engineer Geoff Emerick – more or less the de facto producer of the record whatever the credits say – who finally comes of age without George Martin to oversee production this time around. It’s a credit to Geoff Emerick, staying in a shack down the road on a tiny EMI salary when he could have got a gig with pretty much any other band at the time, that this album comes out sounding anywhere near as coherent as it does. It’s a shame Geoff didn’t work more with Wings because he captures better than any other engineer/producer that distinctive Wings blend of blissful harmony, back to basics rock and sky-high ambition piled on top. Just listen to how low some of the ‘One Hand Clapping’ performances of these songs fall in comparison to the finished product (even with Geoff engineering there too) – without the elegant overdubbing the band sound heavy and overbearing, whilst the new mixes lack the clarity and breezy confidence of Emerick’s recordings.

Overall, then, ‘Band On The Run’ is like a magic trick. What could have been just another mismatched inconsistent suite of songs like ‘Wildlife’ and ‘Red Rose Speedway’ ends up sounding more, thanks partly to the fact that Wings are now pulling together as a team in adverse conditions, partly Paul’s growth spurt in confidence now that he’s been proved ‘right’ about The Beatles affair and partly the lack of time to tinker around with the songs and make them worse with polish as per so many future Wings album (although many of these songs were in fasct mostly made in London). Far from being a band on the run this is a band who know what they’re doing at last, their lost years and cul-de-scas on their long and winding career path finally over as they realise they can do anything and go anywhere – including Africa. There are lots of things wrong with this album when you analyse it, songs that don’t go anywhere or stick to one idea or make even less sense than McCartney’s supposed horrors (‘Picasso’s Last Words’ is a lot less tuneful than [28] ‘Mumbo’ and a lot more irritating than [29] ‘Bip Bop’!) It’s arguably a song or two short of being an outright classic (even on the American copy where ‘Helen Wheels’ adds another four precious minutes to the album). But what’s the use of worrying? It sounds great and with Mccartney’s reputation on the rise across 1973 and the public were ready to ‘forgive’ him. All it took was a so-so LP for him to go stratospheric; the fact that he delivered one this brave and daring and which sounded so good was all it took to give Paul by far the best-selling and most loved album of his post Beatles career. If anyone is ever left alive in 2085 they will still be playing this album around the world, from Liverpool to darkest Africa, where the locals might even have a plaque up on the wall that one of the best-selling albums of all time was recorded here.

The Songs:

Talking of confidence, few McCartney songs have ever aimed as high as [54] ‘Band On The Run’, which remains one of Paul’s bravest songs if not necessarily his best or most coherent. Had it been recorded for either of the two earlier Wings album it would have been shown up for being under-written and over-produced, full of random mentions of Rupert The Bear’s pal Sailor Sam and allusions to drinking down the pub. In truth parts of this song are more like a football chant than a song. It’s also so vague: nowhere in the song does Macca actually spell out what’s happening – sometimes this character trait can be really annoying, as on ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, but on this track for once the very vagueness of the piece helps it work on many levels.It’s about freedom in all its senses and forms, of being stuck inside ‘four walls’ and feeling trapped there in this sad place before something (what?) comes along and rescues you by giving you freedom and escape, a magic wand to help all your dreams come true. It seems odd that Paul, as a connoisseur of ‘silly love songs didn’t make it romance and the way the song is written it could just as easily be drugs (no wonder this band is on the run!) Somehow though it all fits – just about – thanks to a bravado showing that sticks three completely different pieces in three different keys and tempos together. The highlight for me isn’t the moody ear-catching opening with its ear-catcjing wobbly mellotron or the catchy chorus which is as singalong as Paul rever got. Instead it’s the point where the song stops, the guitar and strings – both the other side of a big wall – start joining together in unity and the song becomes big and bold instead of tiny and insecure. It’s so Macca, offering something technically complex that’s somehow still musical and inherently upbeat, about the power to change the world (or at least yourself). By drawing on the templates Paul’s already used for [65] ‘Live and Let Die’, [49] ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’ and the unconvincing ‘Red Rose Speedway’ medley the year before, McCartney knows just how far to push things here, linking three disparate sections in a way that sounds less like a patchwork quilt and more like an epic. The rest of the song is more puzzling, however.  The opening is a prison song so bad it wouldn’t have given Johnny Cash any sleepless nights and the mellotron riff, while great, never quite fits. The big finale too is just so much crashing about and after giving us the moment of release has nowhere to go. Macca turns round and yells in our ear ‘I hope you’re having fun!’, but the fun feels forced – the song just keeps going round and round in a fizzy sugar-spiked joy rather than working out what to do with all that freedom, like kids let out of school rather than kids realising they can change the world.

The song, famously, was never intended as a single until long after the album came out and, sort of, came out by public demand. Many radio DJs, aware that this LP was getting lots of mileage in the press and booming sales, played the title track and it soon became the most famous track here, even with the high-flying single ‘Jet!’, hitting high in the charts several months after the LP (with the record making #1 for a second time as a result of all the extra airplay). Does this song deserve so much recognition? Well, the plot makes little sense and all we have to cover over the cracks is this album’s unique breezy confidence again and if you play it back to back with, say, ‘Live and Let Die’ released a few months earlier it does sound disappointing. But the hook that ties the song together – the head shrugging guitar part matches against a melancholy fuzz keyboard while the drums sound like the chain gang – is one of McCartney’s best ever. The transformation of the song into something completely different works well too, making each of these parts much more interesting than they would be on their own, although you have to say that the radio edited version of the song does work rather better without the repetition. Macca’s been trying to create a really good epic for a while and ‘Band On The Run’ succeeds where the others fail, not because of any idea or technique but because this time Paul’s confidence is strong enough to pull it off. Play this back to back with the closing parts of previous album ‘Red Rose Speedway’ – [53] Hands of Love, Lazy Dynamite, PowerCut et al – and the difference in terms of knowledge, belief and musicality then and now is breath-taking. It’s just a shame that the song itself has somne good ideas then seems to stop there, not so much running as standing still.

[55] ‘Jet!’ is more of the same, with supporters calling it McCartney magic and detractors calling it McCartney gibberish ever since its release as a ‘trailer’ for the album. I don’t know what on earth this song means either, but it sounds so good I’m under its spell all the same, with a great fierce chunky riff doubled by Denny’s lead guitar and the horns while Macca’s rhythm thrashes away before the song gets overwhelmed by a mellotron squeal and a chain gang chorus. For years we believed that this album was really about Paul and Linda’s jet black Labrador sensibly named Jet (perhaps because that’s what Jon Landau thought in the Rolling Stone review released at the time and added to the back of the deluxe album booklet), although Paul shocked us all last year by revealing it was actually about a horse. Whichever the animal, one thing remains clear: ‘Jet’ was a wild tearaway puppy/horse, quite unlike the other pets the McCartneys owned and was always getting into trouble. It soon became a family favourite, the yelled cry of ‘Jet!’ perhaps inspired by calling them in after running away. That might not make much sense if you just read the lyric book at face value (‘Want Jet to always love me’) but if you take the dog as a symbol for someone else – Linda, perhaps, seeing as Paul is talking about meeting her parents and she really was a wild child of the 1960s and a divorced mother by the time Macca met her – then its actually quite a clever and moving song about trying to live alongside someone without taming their energy or zealous ideals. By the end of the song the narrator has given up trying to bring them to heel – instead they’re enjoying the feeling of the wind in their hair and a ‘ride in the sky’ and aware that they would never have experienced these things without this sometimes difficult person in their life. The occasional references to ‘suffragettes’ also puts this song at one with other McCartney feminist anthems like ‘Lady Madonna’ and [13] ‘Another Day’. ‘Jet!’ is one of McCartney’s strongest rockers, made all the more exciting by the call-and-response tension of the song that keeps dipping down into the minor key only to explode into major key life again every time it seems to have given up the fight, the narrator addicted and unable to walk away no matter how many times he gets hurt. This song has, for a second song in a row, one of Macca’s greatest riffs, marvellously doubled by Paul and Denny throughout, with a fuzzing one-note keyboard distortion from Linda adding much to the song’s production and giving a sense of motion and power. Many critics also rate this as one of Paul’s best vocals too and while I don’t quite concur its certainly full of a fire and a passion usually missing from Paul’s ‘nonsense’ songs suggesting it meant something to him. It’s the chanted cry of ‘Jet!’ and the following ‘wooh’s that catch the ear though, sung by everyone in the room Wings could rope in at short notice. Perhaps most significantly of all, this song doesn’t sound like usual – the backing sounds like Led Zeppelin and the vocals sound like Rolls Royce, turning out a very different mode of transport to Wings at all. This song scales new heights, though, whatever the inspiration and whoever it sounds like.

AS we said Paul tends to go backwards when he tries to recapture magic. [56] ‘Bluebird’ isn’t anywhere near as pioneering as the last two tracks and is just a re-write of ‘Blackbird’ with the emphasis on descruiption rather than metaphor. It does fit the album theme of escape and flight and is apt for a band named Wings, but as beautiful as ‘Bluebird’ may be to follow there’s no extra dimension going on here, just a journey across the sky (itself better done on B-side [224] ‘Flying To My Home’). Hoswever there is a place for prettiness in music and ‘Bluebird’ is one of the prettiest Wings songs of them all, uniting all their great strengths: a reggae-calyspo backing back when this sort of thing was still daring in rock and roll, sumptuous harmonies (with Denny Laine especially strong) and a lovely melody that rises and falls with real grace and panache. What’s new is a beautiful sacophone solo from old Liverpool mate Howie Casey that’s dreamy and gorgeous, nailing the song’s casual fliught through the skies. The beginning of Wings’ horn section, the players will never get as much room to show what they can do as here. Even so, these are the album’s dodgiest set of lyrics (indeed ‘I’ll come flying to your door and you’ll know what love is for’ is one of the weakest McCartney couplets of all time) and it says much that Paul doesn’t seem to know whether to play his vocal straight, for laughs or half asleep, varying his performance with each verse. It’s fun to hear him go broad Liverpudlian in his pronounciation of ‘bluebird’ though!

[57] ‘Mrs Vanderbilt’ might not be known to everybody, but somebody must have liked it as it was voted the track fans would most like to hear on Paul’s last world tour and he duly obliged by adding it to the set list. It’s another of this album’s tracks that would sound insubstantial on either previous Wings album and is another muddle of ideas, metaphors and lines that don’t quite work, rescued by the single best performance on the album and a production to die for. Best of all is McCartney’s bass line, which somehow manages to be menacing and comical all at once, powering the song through to a rather chaotic false ending. Thematically, this is a song about overcoming obstacles and I’m intrigued to know if it was written before or during the Lagos trip as it certainly sounds like the latter – faced with robbery (actually mentioned in the song), illness and loss of band members all Paul can do is tell us there’s no point in worrying and that things will work out by themselves. Thanks to the band’s and Geoff Emerick’s talents, how right he was. Macca even finds time to take revenge on the title character who fans have never been able to pin down. I’ve read that Paul might have based this part of the song on two of his teachers, telling them to back off and let him alone – all the Beatles except maybe Ringo always held the belief that they’d be important one day and never let their schooling interfere with that (Paul, famously, scored all of his high marks at school while paying greater attention to his dad’s TV set and only half concentrating on his homework!) However, ‘Vanderbilt’ and ‘Washington’ seem very odd names for a Liverpudlian school – though I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt had he gone to an American one, so maybe they’re Linda’s. Then again, Paul may have been inspired by the famous American Vanderbilt family (perhaps specifically Gloria Vanderbilt, one-time girlfriend of Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra among other conquests), famous for their many philanthropic projects from the 17th century to the 19th (although quite why Macca's asking them to 'leave him alone' is anyone's guess - perhaps this is his subconscious desire to sleep and rest hitting his perfectionist desire to 'struggle on' head first as per much of the ‘McCartney’ debut? Or maybe it’s just a gibberish song that was fun to sing?) The dwarfish ‘ho, hey ho’ chorus would sound daft on anything other song and yet it fits here – mimicking the seven dwarfs’ work song with this very McCartney-ish tale about how working hard and carrying on regardless of what life throws at you will see you through, eventually. Finally, listen out for the rather unconvincing laughter at the end of the track, which appears to be Paul aping ‘Sgt Peppers’ again and specifically the laughter at the end of ‘Within You, Without You’ (only this time it sounds like a funky party than a nervous social gathering).

For my money the album’s highlight and one of the main reasons for this album’s strong reputation is the song [58] ‘Let Me Roll It’. Yet again on this album the lyrics would be gibberish on any previous LP, but the melody and especially the six-note guitar riff are so strong and the performance of them so strong and committed that somehow it all works. More than anything else it doesn’t sound like Macca: usually his love songs are sweet and tender, where love is a healing positive thing the world needs more of. Here, though, he sounds desperate, addicted to his lover like a drug and it’s a powerful force that if turned on either of them could break them. Many fans have commented on the fact that McCartney sounds more like Lennon on this track and that’s not only true but deliberate, as Macca asked Geoff if he could re-create the ‘echo’ that Lennon always loved adding to his voice to make it sound tougher. It’s more than that though – this is more like a John song for Yoko than a Paul one for Linda, at one with ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. It’s all like ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ done by an amateur dramatic society as, far from chuckling in amazement at the depths of affection the couple have for each other, the narrator is overwhelmed and can’t think of anything else so turns this overwhelming feeling into a big production number. The sudden release of tension during the chord change (during the line ‘my heart is like a wheel...’) is pure genius, as the song literally and physically rolls forward and shifts a gear upward at the same time as the words, lifting the song along on a blissful cloud of love until the stinging guitar part comes in again to steal the song’s thunder and put him back into his place. Amazingly this song, which is delivered with a performance close to perfection here in with all its blistering, tightly controlled angst and passion, sounds even better in concert, the highlight of the setlist in both the 1970s and the 2000s. Arguably ‘Band On the Run’ would have sold a zillion more copies had they made this one of the singles, as ‘Let Me Roll It’ is Wings at their absolute best, all coiled like a spring ready to strike in a glorious burst of precise chaos.

Clever programming means that the first side ends with the bang of the last track and opens again on side two in a more under-stated way – a running order that works far better than the more obvious choice of switching these two songs around although side two is definitely this album’s weaker half. [59] ‘Mamunia’ is another near-nonsense song about overcoming obstacles that, once again, sounds as if it was written on site in Lagos (it was indeed named after the hotel Paul and Linda were staying in on a sign written in Arabic; when Paul asked a local what it meant he was told the closest English phrase was 'safe haven'). While no classic, ‘Mamunia’ has the clearest and cleverest message of any of the tracks from this album, telling us that problems might just be blessings in disguise and echoing John Lennon’s assertion in the Beatles B-side ‘Rain’ that rain fall is a natural part of life without which we wouldn’t be here and it makes the sun shine ever stronger when it comes out. Adversity is really an opportunity, a chance for change and finding out what you’re made of. This time round, it’s the comparatively pedestrian tune that can’t keep up with the words, as it’s rather a lumpy one-note affair that only really gets moving in the poppy chorus. However, the arrangement of it is clever, at least, starting off quietly and worriedly before gradually flowering into an I’ve-seen-the-light gospel type ending (in fact I’d have liked to have heard more of this in the last verse). Of all the tracks on ‘Band On The Run’, ‘Mamunia’ is the only one that sounds like it could have been recorded in Africa rather than London or New York (in fact it was the first of the album songs to be started there) and even then its a kind of generic African-music-seen-through-white-eyes kind of a style. In fact, it uses the only genuine African musician on the whole album alongside Cream’s Ginger Baker, who reportedly spends the song inaudibly shaking a bucket full of gravel! (Sadly his name isn’t printed on the album sleeve and nobody is quite sure who he was – maybe  Fela Kuti had a point after all?) In many ways this track buried away at the ‘heart’ of the LP is the conscience of the record, the little story that makes sense of the other songs here and as a result works rather better when herd as part of the LP than as a song in its own right. Once considered as the third album single (before Macca was persuaded to go with the title track), it would have been a daft choice I think – like ‘Ob-la-Di, Ob-La-Da’ before it this song works best when giving a dash of colour to its near neighbours rather than being considered a track in its own right.

[60] ‘No Words’ is oddly the only Laine/McCartney song on the album, which is significant not because it’s a great song but because it’s the first time a future record breaking partnership wrote together (see [102] ‘Mull Of Kintyre’) but also because it’s the first time Denny got his name on the credits of a Wings album (barring the studio jam [52] ‘Loup’). He’ll go on to write many more with and without McCartney – better ones than this, too, I have to say – and it’s odd that he wasn’t writing sooner, given McCartney’s desperate attempts to convince the music press that Wings were a democracy and Denny’s fine songs for the Moody Blues back in 1965-1966. While much of this album and indeed Wings’ early albums in general reach back to 1950s rock and roll, this song stretches back to 1950s pop and is sung like The Everly Brothers (and sister) with a trio of Wings gathered round the microphone all singing together. Like many a Laine song, the melody is gorgeous and comes with a real understanding of how to add strings to a song without making its chmaltzy or losing the ‘real’ness of the song, while adding lots of room for lovely harmonies and a stinging guitar break. Once again on this album and as will happen on many a Laine song it’s the lyrics that aren’t quite up to the words and read on the lyric sheet they seem very weird to say the least (‘I’m not surprised that your black eyes are gazing’). Macca, never the greatest lyricist either, doesn’t seem to have known what to do with this song and presumably wrote the weakest element, the middle element of a ‘burning love’ which he sings solo and sounds much like his usual style too). There’s a sense that the couple in the song have stopped communicating (something not all that unlikely given Denny and wife Jo Jo’s always fiery relatioinship) but in a move that’s perhaps a bit too clever the idea gets lost in the song because of some mis-communication. Why does the narrator have no words for his love? Has she wounded him that badly? Or is he lost for words in a good way? The verses seem to contradict each other as to whether this relationship is a good thing or not, though both end with the lines that ‘I love you’ trying to put it all right.As ever on this album the recording manages to get round that problem though, suggesting an intimacy and warmth that this album badly needs on the second side whatever the ice between the couple. The guitar lick which underpins the song, swinging round the keys and reaching higher and higher, is another strong one mimicking both the desperation that lies at the heart of this song and the gentlemanly way with which he’s trying to resolve things with reason. Paul famously didn’t get on with JoJo (or so we’re told) which can’t have been easy cooped up in a tour-bus all the time. This song could perhaps even be about the tug-of-war Denny felt between his then-very lucrative musical career and the love of his life who wanted him to quit Wings from pretty much the day he signed up to join. Feelings will get frostier between here and Wings’ final flight in 1979, but this song sounds in retrospect like the start of Denny’s doubts about his life with the band, even with McCartney himself helping out with the music. A word too about the string arrangements – many of the added parts on this record are quite cloying I find, but this one is spot on, doubling the rock and pop without getting in the way. The best sound, though is the magical twin Paul and Denny guitar solo at the end, similar in feel to Paul’s brief solo on the Abbey Road medley and its a shame the song ends on such an early fade just as its gone from ok to really really good.

[61] ‘Helen Wheels’ is present at this point in the running order if you happen to own either the original American version of the album or the 1999 or 2010 CD re-issues and frankly, it’s welcome. I don’t buy Paul’s comments in the booklet that this song never seemed to ‘fit’ the album – its jaunty, rocky, fun with confidence vibe and it’s talk about escape and driving down the motorway is exactly right for ‘Band On the Run’ (although personally I’d have put it at the start of side two and run it out of the end of ‘Mamunia’ to wake the album up a bit). ‘Helen Wheels’ is hardly one of Macca’s deepest songs, but it’s a greatly enjoyable bit of fun that somehow manages to pull off spoofing all the American ‘road’ songs like ‘Route 66’ by substituting place names with rather less exotic British destinations while being played brilliantly straight (all in order too with the major British cities from North to South: Glasgow, Carlisle, Liverpool, Birmingham and London). Wings did indeed play all these places as all are university towns, but sadly chicken out of fitting ‘Loughborough’ and ‘Adhby-De-La-Zouche’ into the lyric! Even the title is a pun on words – McCartney surely means the phrase ‘Hell on Wheels’ but realises that this will get him another radio ban just when he doesn’t need it (on the back of [39] ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ and [42] ‘Hi Hi Hi’) so rechristens it ‘Helen Wheels’, the name the McCartney clan mischievously give to their jeep. Once again what would have fallen a bit flat on albums past really springs to life here thanks to one of Wings’ all time great performances, with new member Jimmy McCullough’s first recording for the band on his amazing guitar solo at the end (overdubbed onto the guitarist’s own counting of 1-2-3-4) one of the best solos on any recording by anybody, the very epitome of escapism. But other parts of this song are great too – Macca’s bass is genuinely inventive, dropping out of the song a fraction earlier each verse, as if nagging the narrator on to his destination, Paul’s lead vocal is nicely raw and anguished and the distorted keyboard effects add a nicely exotic edge to a simple song. There’s even a chorus line that, arguably, is the key phrase of the whole of ‘Band On the Run’ – ‘they’re never going to take us away’, linking back to almost every song on this album, from ‘Band’s escape to the forthcoming 1985’s solid belief in romance. A classic song that could only have been written by McCartney and played by Wings’ greatest line-up on top form – why Paul never agreed to including it on ‘Band On The Run’ proper I’ll never know (perhaps because it was the only album song started from scratch back in London; in that context this song of British place names does feel like a ‘welcome home’ message).  

[62] ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ is the one song on this album that I truly cannot bear. Infamously, Paul wrote it during a night at the actor Dustin Hoffman’s house where Paul was challenged to write a song on the spot based on an article about the painter that was lying on the living room table. Many fans, Dustin included, have claimed to have been amazed at how Paul came up with a song for it straight away – and yet that’s exactly what this badly thought out, pointless song sounds like. McCartney did no research about Picasso and merely recycled the painter’s last words from the article without actually explaining to us what they mean. Is this song meant to be a rumination on the futility of life? The absurdity of death?  The painter’s life? Foreknowledge of how he’s going to die? A coincidence? Is he toasting a life that once was, a death that will be or the whole great mismatch of life that even geniuses can’t escape from the inevitably of death? Chances are its none of these things, with the song reading more like a descriptive newspaper paragraph than an actual bona fide song. It also has nothing to do with the rest of the album (unless death is an ‘escape’ – and that’s not how the song seems here) and the decision to suddenly stick bits of past songs from the record on the end as an ‘overture’ isn’t fooling anybody. On the one hand the bizarre ending to this song is vaguely clever – this is a song about an abstract painter after all and its suitably twisted and surreal, with the chance to add some repeats of past songs from the album (‘Band On The Run’, ‘Jet!’ and ‘Mrs Vanderbilt’) while also adding to this song’s tale of looking back over past achievements (the Beatles did this all the time, including the reprise on ‘Sgt Peppers’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’). On the other hand, what is with all the cod French and accordions? Picasso was Spanish! And what connection do Wings have to him anyway? Picasso was one of the few people on the planet to live through the 1960-s and never be inspired by The Beatles (maybe that’s what the appeal was, to get inside the head of someone else). The ending is also far too long, turning into a hideous lounge cocktail version of the song via a repeat of ‘Jet!’ that sounds laughably awful without the riff to tie the song together. Fair enough, for a song made up on the spot this track has some nice ideas, especially handing the beginning of the song over to Denny where it suits his bleary-eyed folky stare much more than McCartney’s more straight ahead rock and roll self. But why release a song that you’ve made up on the spot to please a millionaire guest at all? Save it for the vaults, or a B-side, or a cassette included in a letter saying thankyou for a nice lunch, that’s all you need to do. Uninspired by Mccartney standards, when heard as a song out of context of the album Wings seem to have lost the plot and in context this piece only fits because enough people have said it does over the years. It really doesn’t. You know I can’t drink anymore…

[63] ‘1985’ is, thank goodness, a good strong end to the album – although it sounds somewhat out of place here too, having all of the dramatics Macca has done well to suppress throughout the record and a return to being a simple love song in the lyrics. When Macca wrote this, of course, it was 1973 and 1985 seemed a million miles in the future, not in the past as it is now and its vision of a happier world for the narrator just one year after the horrors invented by George Orwell for the year before is very Macca – putting an optimistic spin on what everyone else assumes is some dystopian future (as 1985 was the height of the cold war, arguably he was wrong too). Yet even that isn’t as straightforward as it sounds – the narrator isn’t the passionate must-have-you-or-I’ll-die narrator of ‘Let Me Roll It’ but a cool, casual bright eyed boy whose only just beginning to return the affections of a girl whose been eyeing him for some time, imagining a longterm future together and vowing to be there for it (it might not be a coincidence that the big love song Paul does write in 1985 will be [199] ‘Only Love Remains’, another song about how his feelings for Linda will stand the test of time). Curiously, ‘1985’ – along with ‘Mamunia’ – used to be the only song McCartney had never performed live in concert, until a  shock revival on the Jools Holland show promoting the re-issue in October 2010. Let’s hope it stays in the great man’s live catalogue because it’s one of his best live tracks, playing cat and mouse with the audience right up until the blistering final chord. Like [11] ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, this song all but giggles in delight as the narrator comes to realise how lucky he is at having found a love that’s there for the rest of their lives, with their fourth wedding anniversary clearly giving him hope and faith that he’s made the righrt decision, whatever the occasional niggling doubts heard on parts of ‘Red Rose Speedway’. The neat little piano lick is close to a giggle anyway here, as the narrator promises to keep his promises and love his girl forever more. Then though something weird happens – the song drops away, in come a rather mournful sounding Wings choir and the song drifts away on a wordless requiem before starting up again. The song gets even more emotional by the song’s end, as if the stakes are higher, with Wings building up the tension to an unbearable point as the horn part comes in time after time again. This is accompanied by some hoarse McCartney yells that are a million miles away from most of his love songs before he finally breaks loose with a ferocious guitar solo which when taken together is one of the loudest and most chilling sounds of McCartney’s entire catalogue. In short, this ending sounds more like a horror movie than a simple love song and suggests, what with the return to ‘Band On The Run’ at the song’s final close, that the narrator can only escape his problems through love, so rather than casual dating it really matters to him if he’s found the right woman, a literal case of life or death. Somehow, though, despite the scares the album ends on a triumphant note with a big explosion and what would surely be fireworks if this song was ever revived live nowadays, cleverly matching back to the opening chord of the ‘Band On The Run’ chorus. That’s this album in a nutshell: simple song, slightly dodgy lyric, memorable melody and a production that goes that extra mile to make a good song sound fantastic. Overall, one of McCartney’s better ideas on the record.

Let’s get something straight before I end this article. I do genuinely love ‘Band On The Run’ It’s a clever, well produced, brilliantly engineered piece of work that possesses some of Wings’ best performances and it makes you wish Paul and co had recorded all their albums in Africa up against it and battling problems. Together Wings are inspired, drawing on their strengths to make the very most of what they’ve got – but what they had before setting off on the plane arguably wasn’t up to their previous standards, full of some dodgy words and oddball ideas that only work as well as they do because of the confidence with which they’re played. I love the half-theme of escape and overcoming odds which inspires some of McCartney’s greatest guitar riffs and melodies and inspires Wings into some of their best performances and I can see why this strong LP was a strong seller. But then I also love every other McCartney release – up to and including ‘London Town’, anyway, and quite often after that too. This run of Wings albums are also often well produced, well arranged pieces of work with some terrifically clever songs and are far more consistent than record critics would have you believe. Had ‘Band On the Run’ been less than well received, perhaps coming out at a different period and without such a strong back story for the papers to latch on to, then I’d be praising it on these pages for being right up there with Paul’s best work. But that’s the problem – this album is right up there, but it’s not way ahead of the pack as McCartney’s crowning glory and the only one of his post-Beatle albums worth listening to as other fans would have you believe. Undoubtedly, ‘Band On the Run’ a good, solid, dependable record with only one real howler and lots of McCartney’s finest work. But should it really be acclaimed as Wings’ best ever release? Not so – ‘Ram’ is a stronger album all round, ‘London Town’ covers more ground more successfully on many similar themes, ‘Press To Play’ breaks far more boundaries, ‘Venus and Mars’ is an even better mix of inspiration and autobiography and even buying a Wings compilation CD or two will give you more to think about and sing-along to. ‘Band On The Run’ is a great place to start your McCartney journey and I quite understand why it’s the album that’s been released first in the ‘deluxe’ series – but please, if you like McCartney’s music then don’t let it be the last stop on your journey because you’d be missing out on a classic collection of records. This is one of many many strong albums where the biggest difference on what came before and after it is ‘confidence’ – but other Wings albums have much stronger material that’s actually lower on the gibberish quotient and deserve your time every bit as much as this record.

'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' (1976)

'London Town' (1978)

'Back To The Egg' (1979)

'McCartney II' (Original Double Album) (1980)

'Tug Of War' (1982)

'Pipes Of Peace' (1983)

'Press To Play' (1986)

'Flowers In The Dirt' (1989)

'Driving Rain' (2001)
'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard' (2005)

'Memory Almost Full' (2006)

'New' (2013)

The Best Unreleased McCartney/Wings Recordings

Surviving TV and Film Footage

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part One: 1967-1987

Live/Wings/Solo/Compilations/Classical/Unreleased Albums Part Two: 1987-1997

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part Three: 1997-2015

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1970-1984

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1985-2015

Essay: Not So Silly Love Songs

Key Concerts and Cover Versions

No comments:

Post a Comment