Band on the Run — how Paul McCartney came back from the wilderness — FT.com

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In the first years of post-Beatles wilderness, Paul McCartney was struggling to get by without a little help from his friends. While John Lennon and George Harrison were cementing their standing as singular artists with their critically lauded debut albums, McCartney was broadly being written off on the basis of two largely underwhelming solo records.

Seeking safety in numbers, he established a new group called Wings — comprising wife Linda (decidedly not a musician), former Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough. A couple more lacklustre albums followed, and in 1973, the latter two quit due to McCartney’s overbearing nature. Perhaps not since Icarus had wings been such a symbol of misguided ambition.

Yet McCartney remained bullishly determined to “get [his] magic back”. Just weeks after losing two members, Wings flew out to Lagos to record their third album, hoping to find inspiration and escape in an exotic land — a seemingly fitting venture given that the title track for the new record, “Band on the Run”, was about a break for freedom. McCartney, however, had failed to account for the fact that Nigeria in 1973 wasn’t exactly an inviting getaway, but a military dictatorship where cholera and violence were endemic.

What followed was a production ordeal to rival the infamously calamitous shoot on Apocalypse Now. In six weeks, the McCartneys were robbed at knifepoint, losing many demo tapes (including of the intricate title track) and lyric sheets; Paul collapsed with breathing problems; and the band drew the public condemnation of the prominent Nigerian musician and activist, Fela Kuti, who accused them of appropriating African sounds.

But the pressure-cooker atmosphere and the strain on McCartney seemed to yield dividends. The resulting album topped the charts and McCartney had finally reasserted his credibility as a masterful songwriter, particularly on the title track.

A musical triptych that segues from a gentle crooning lamentto a funk-rock groove,to a cheery road-trip anthem,“Band on the Run” was a near-miraculous achievement, given that it had to be pieced together from memory after the robbery and that Tony Visconti was called in at the last minute to write and conduct an arrangement for a 60-piece orchestra — not to mention that McCartney (who produced the album) was now the drummer. But the end product was a fluid, strikingly original effort, reminiscent of Beatles three-parters “A Day in the Life” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”.

On the surface, the song centres around a group of criminals fleeing from the authorities — an impish response from McCartney to the marijuana-related charges rock bands were repeatedly subjected to. But the prison-break narrative also serves as a conceit for McCartney’s increasing desire to free himself from the confinements of fame and expectation. The line “All I need is a pint a day”, for instance, stemmed from a nostalgia for the modest ambitions he and The Beatles had started out with, before their careers became overrun with contracts and commercial interests. And in that unstintingly jubilant final section we get that sense that McCartney had finally found the feeling of release that he’d been craving for years.

“Band on the Run” went on to reach number one in the US singles charts and sell more than a million copies — enough, you’d think, to buy several pints a day. Despite its enduring popularity, it hasn’t yielded many notable covers. Both Paul McCartney and Denny Laine would return to it later in their careers — patently struggling with the vocal exigencies of the final section — in renditions that were otherwise more or less carbon copies of the original.

Professional noise-monger Dave Grohl gave a committed performance at the White House in 2010, while his band, Foo Fighters, also recorded a version that succeeded only in turning the song into their own speciality of generic, angsty teen rock. Pedestrian efforts by Heart, and French-Canadian rocker Sylvain Cossette,were little better. Much more compelling was soul artist Richie Havens’exquisitely aching interpretation, which expands and revolves around the original’s desperate middle section. Elsewhere, a couple of charmingly homespun attempts came courtesy of American country-rock group, Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers — who performed it in the back of a moving people-carrier — and a choirof mid-1970s Canadian elementary school children who were part of the lo-fi cult hit, The Langley Schools Music Project.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that few artists have tried to cover “Band on the Run” — a track so idiosyncratic, so reliant on seamless stylistic shifts that it requires some of that McCartney magic to pull off. Even John Lennon deigned to call it “a great song”. Maybe he also recognised what the famed music aficionado Alan Partridge saw in Wings when he observed that “they’re the band the Beatles could’ve been.”

What are your memories of ‘Band on the Run’? Let us know in the comments section below.

The Life of a Song Volume 2: The fascinating stories behind 50 more of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.

Music credits: Paul McCartney Catalog; Unequal Halves; S7 Productions; Stormy Forest Productions, Inc; Basta Audio-Visuals

Picture credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty

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