I have a friend who has never heard any of Paul McCartney’s solo and Wings LPs, except for, as he put it, the Frog Chorus, the one about no man’s land at Christmas, and Ebony and Ivory. His view of McCartney is tainted. As he puts it, “my whole opinion on him is based on his public persona from around 1984. To me, he’s like if the Chuckle Brothers were triplets.”
My job over the past few weeks has been to share with him some of McCartney’s best songs, to hear his reaction and to see if I can persuade him away from his heretical views.
Today Steve will be listening to Wings’ third and best-loved LP, “Band on the Run” for the first time. Yes, I know.
But first, let’s remind ourselves how the album got made.
What Was Paul’s State Of Mind?
There’s a powerful moment in Get Back where you see McCartney strumming his guitar and before you know it, what we now know as “Get Back” begins to form before our eyes. Before this footage, outside of The Beatles perhaps only Dustin Hoffman had had the same experience, when he met McCartney in Jamaica in 1973. Hoffman wondered whether McCartney could write a song about anything? For example, he enquired, glancing down at his newspaper, what about the story of Picasso’s last words, “Drink to me. Drink to my health. You know I can’t drink any more”? Could Paul write a song about that?
Paul played a chord and sang a melody to the words and Hoffman was so excited, he called to his wife Anne, “Come here! Look, he’s doing it… he’s doing it!”
There are a few similarly well-known stories about Band on the Run, so let’s remind ourselves:
It is 1973. Wings band members Henry McCullough and Denny Seiwell have both quit – in Seiwell’s case the day before they are due to fly to Lagos, Nigeria, for the classic rock’n’roll reasons of musical differences and money respectively. But possibly also in Seiwell’s case because he was asked to work on a new project of McCartney’s – a film called Bruce McMouse, about a cartoon rodent that lived under Wings’ stage – and would be required to converse on camera with a mouse that would be superimposed later, in the style of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon.
After previous LP Red Rose Speedway failed to impress the critics, the new album is to be recorded in EMI’s state of the art studio in Lagos by the trio of Paul, Linda and Denny Laine.
In Paul’s mind, Lagos looks ideal. “We thought, Great … lie on the beach all day…breeze in the studio and record.”
Spoiler: this didn’t happen.
For a start, it didn’t help it was monsoon season.
Early-seventies Nigeria is run by its military and a civil war has just run its course three years prior. Life seems cheap. As they drive from the airport, one of the first things Laine sees is a man knocked off a moped and apparently killed.
Geoff Emerick has been hired to engineer the record, is somewhat worried about the change of scenery from Abbey Road, and soon moves to a hotel after Laine leaves dead spiders in his bed as a prank.
The studio has decent EMI equipment, but is slightly ramshackle. The band go into DIY SOS mode, McCartney taking the Nick Knowles role, and build isolation screens from sheets of wood and perspex, finding microphones and setting themselves up.
Then the whole band get mugged at knifepoint outside the studio and have to hand over money and all their demo tapes. As they are accosted, Linda cries out “Leave him alone! He’s a musician!” which perhaps puts off their assailants at a time when most thieves in Lagos kill their victims to avoid being identified (theft being a capital offence).
Nevertheless, the whole album has to be remembered without the tapes to help, and re-built from scratch. Perhaps if you search Facebook Marketplace for cassette tapes long enough in Lagos, you will find the priceless, long lost McCartney Band on the Run demo tapes and lyric sheets, containing the original takes and words of those now famous songs.
McCartney collapses unconscious – eventual diagnosis: smoking too much.
They visit the initially hostile Nigerian musician Fela Kuti who is concerned they are stealing his music, a worry that eases when Paul plays him the songs.
They also visit Ginger Baker who is miffed they are using the EMI studio rather than the one he has custom built himself out there. A diplomatic recording session at Baker’s studios is hastily arranged, which given Baker’s fearsome reputation probably wasn’t a bad idea.
Finally, after recording the album and returning home, Paul arrives back in London to find an unopened letter from an EMI director advising him he should, under no accounts, fly to Lagos with his family due to an outbreak of cholera.
What the Critics thought then:
In an unprecedented about turn, the critics loved Band on the Run.
It reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic, sold six million copies and was the best selling album in Britain in 1974. John Lennon described it as a “great album”. In 1981, however, our favourite curmudgeon, Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice, stood fast to his view that McCartney was over-rated and gave it a C+.
What the critics think now:
The Rolling Stone Album Guide describes Band on the Run as “a near-perfect blend of pop smoothness and rock grit”. It was 418 in their “500 Greatest Albums of all Time” list in 2012.
It didn’t make the 2020 list.
What happened next?
McCartney would go on to make further albums with Wings, but this 1973 album was the real springboard for his success, especially in the USA, captured on the triumphant triple live album “Wings Over America” .
Four more Wings studio albums came after “Band on the Run”. Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, London Town and Back to the Egg. One of those records (London Town) was recorded on an actual yacht on the British Virgin Isles, which is what you do when life isn’t already complicated enough.
All have their moments outside of the main hits – look up the late-seventies funky groove of “Arrow Through Me”, built on electric piano, bass and helped out with a horn section and reproachful lyric. Or the swing of “Magneto and Titanium Man” that surely laid a blueprint for Belle and Sebastian’s “Boy With The Arab Strap”. Or New Orleans blues shouter, “Call Me Back Again”, a song in the style of Wilson Pickett meets Oh Darling! Or there’s the gorgeous ballad “Warm and Beautiful” and the even more beautiful and yet-so-simple “I’m Carrying”.
And non-album single “Junior’s Farm” still features in McCartney’s live sets to this day, and can be found on “Wings Greatest Hits” which, alongside Elton John’s two greatest hits collections and ABBA Gold is one of those records that every record collector can still find for pennies even in today’s inflationary and vinyl-revival-fuelled market. Indeed, most Wings LPs can still be found for between £5 and £10 in record fairs and second hand record shops.
Never mind the Critics and all that other stuff, what does your mate Steve think about Band on the Run?
I had high hopes for Band on the Run – after all, it is a decent record. But then Steve isn’t always easy to impress. This is a man who described all-time classic song “Maybe I’m Amazed” as “very busy” and “fleshed out with “Yeahs and ooohhhs”, concluding such things are “a bit lazy”.
We started with the title track, which Steve recognised.
“This to me is a nice suite of music” he confirmed to my relief. It was going to be a hard slog if he didn’t like the title track.
“This bit is lovely.”
I felt pleased.
“When he starts singing it spoils it.”
I held my head in my hands. There’s no pleasing some people. Then came the time change in the song.
“This is when it starts to go a bit wonky” Steve added.
“It’s great though isn’t it ?” I ventured. “Lots of things going on. A suite of music…”
“It’s what he does, and it’s annoying” concluded Steve.
He nodded. “Annoying”. I waited for further explanation, but none was forthcoming.
We moved on to “Jet”. Steve sniggered.
“This reminds me of Alan Partridge. It’s alright. But the thing I don’t get is that he is lauded as changing the direction of music, but this is just average.”
I stifled a scream at the thought that “Jet” is average.
We moved to “1985”
Steve asked “Is this still the same song?”
I nearly threw the record player at him.
“So what is it Steve? Is it his lyrics?” I was trying to understand why Steve wasn’t connecting to the music.
He thought for a moment.
“Well, it is, but not quite. I hear a McCartney song, and then look it up on YouTube and hear a cover version, and quite like the version of most of his songs. Maybe it’s his voice….”
“…but it’s also the songs. My musical hero is Suggs. He went a bit novelty with “Driving In My Car”. And then he realised that wasn’t the way to go. He went back, “Let’s do what the fans want” he thought, “rather than this novelty music”. But McCartney wouldn’t do that. McCartney just thinks he can write a song about anything, and everyone says they love it, and that’s the problem. Oh, and his double thumbs aloft thing.”
While I pondered this rather dubious re-writing of Madness’ history. I posed another question. “So will you never really like him Steve?”
Steve thought again.
“I have softened to him a little bit. I would liken him to Keane. I like them but I struggle to listen to a whole album.”
“And he does wear Converse trainers with a suit, which is terrible.”
I tried a different approach. I asked Steve about all the McCartney songs I had sat him down to listen to.
“So have I cured you perhaps of your total loathing of McCartney?”
“I wouldn’t say I’m cured. But perhaps vaccinated. So that when I do hear a song by McCartney I don’t want to stab myself in the ears with kebab skewers and then rinse them out with bleach.”
So there we have it. Very specific.
Having played Steve a series of McCartney albums, he now *almost* likes some of the songs, and no longer wants to rinse out his ears with cleaning fluid when he hears them.
I’d call that a win.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in these last few articles, or also have extreme views about Paul McCartney, whether positive or negative, or would just like to shout at my friend Steve, let us know in the comments section below…