Album Review: “Band On The Run” — Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)

Band On The Run — the album that saved Paul McCartney.

No really, it did! His last two albums tanked (I mean look, they went Gold, but this was Paul friggin’ McCartney! The Beatles corpse was still warm!) and none of them were exactly critical darlings. He did have a string of hit singles to keep him viable in the public eye, but his fans were slowly dwindling away and the critics were chomping at the bit to rip his solo material to shreds. Plus, you know, this was 1973! Zep and Floyd are at the rock forefront, Glam is exploding in the US and UK, newer and more exciting artists are sprouting up all over the musical landscape. Many of them trying valiantly to take up the baton where Lennon & McCartney tossed it aside and run with it, whereas the impression of Paul was that of a floundering artist. Irrelevant. Certainly nowhere near as important as he was as a Beatle.

Plus Wings wasn’t exactly doing so well. Two members up and quit the band, feeling like they were nothing more than McCartney’s backup band. Which they were. Let’s be honest: Wings was a lot of things, but it was no Supergroup. Heck it was barely a “The Firm” or “GTR”. It was Paul + friends with Linda mussing things up. More or less. But Paul, to his credit, was keenly aware of how he needed a GREAT album and hired Beatles engineer and professional McCartney apple-shiner Geoff Emerick to produce and engineer his next album. So in August of 1973, Paul, Linda, Denny Laine, and Emerick hopped a flight to Lagos, Nigeria (!) and began the Band On The Run sessions in earnest.

Having read Emerick’s book Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, I’m amused by his chapter on the Band on the Run affair. Paul got mugged and lost all of their demos, so the arrangements they used on many of the songs had to be done from memory. The equipment wasn’t exactly state of the art — in fact it was barely what they expected. Plus, you got your poisonous insects, malaria, and a near riot by the locals when it was assumed McCartney was performing cultural imperialism and “stealing” African rhythms and songs for his own purposes. And yet, they somehow managed to record six songs. Eventually the foursome got out of Africa safe and sound, and finished the BOTR sessions in London that October, adding overdubs and recording five more songs.

The album had to hit its early December release date; it was being pushed as the big Christmas release of the season. And boy-o-boy, was it BIG! “Gabby Hayes” BIG!! McCartney not only hit paydirt, he beat it like it owed him money. Band On The Run was the blockbuster he was looking for, both commercially and critically. Reviews were ginormously positive, and the album, while not an immediate success, slowly grew and grew on the back of the smash hits “Jet” (#7 in the US) and “Band On The Run” (#1), eventually going Triple Platinum in the US and winning the band a Grammy. Of course, winning a Grammy in the 70s was as difficult as joining the National Geographic Society, but I’m sure they were pleased as punch anyhow.

I love this album. I think it’s McCartney’s best solo work, where he really sounds like he’s coming into his own as a solo artist. Gone is the noodling, the wasted tracks, the stupid filler, the overabundance of self-indulgence. I don’t think the album is an absolute masterpiece, but the good songs are so damn great that it makes Band On The Run a classic album nonetheless.

You probably couldn’t ask for a better 1-2 opener than the title track and “Jet”. As McCartney standards and AOR/classic rock staples for decades now, they still (to me) seem fresh and exciting. “Band On The Run” is certainly an odd song and really shouldn’t work. It’s composed of three different segments, each with a different tone, tempo, and feel, and yet it comes together perfectly. “Jet” is another winner, one of my favorite all-time songs, McCartney or otherwise. The lyrics make little-to-no sense, but this rock classic feels effortless, like it’s taking flight and soaring and bringing you along for the ride.

“Bluebird” takes it down to Earth, a mellow acoustic piece. A good track, beautifully produced, and McCartney’s vocals haven’t sounded this confident in awhile. If it’s a trifle, it’s a good one. Paul’s thumping, melodic bassline drives the folky, uptempo “Mrs. Vanderbilt”, one of the more underrated tracks on this album. I love the sound of the acoustic guitars screaming out in minor-key unison. “Let Me Roll It” is another live staple, and a fantastic song. Paul’s punchy guitar lick punctuates each verse effectively over a slow bluesy foundation. This song was rumored to be McCartney’s response to Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep”, something he denied. Still, it’s hard not to see the connection there. It almost sounds like a Lennon tune. Maybe that’s why it works so well.

Side 2 starts with the cute, pretty, and ultimately slight “Mamunia”. It’s not a bad song, just not quite at the level of the songs that have preceded it. It’s followed by the thickly produced, almost George Harrison-esque “No Words”. In fact, it REALLY feels like a George tune. If it had some thinly-recorded slide guitar, it totally WOULD have been a George tune. Ultimately it is a decent track, but a throwaway, non-essential one. “Helen Wheels” picks up the pace with a fast, enjoyable blues-rocker. It’s got a snap and a verve that reminds us that Paul can really cook when he wants to.

The album plays out with two more songs. The first is “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)”. Legend has it that, during a Jamaican holiday, Dustin Hoffman urged McCartney to write the song based on Picasso’s recent passing, and recorded him doing an early demo of it. Paul decided to turn the song into a Picasso painting of sorts, inserting tempo and key changes, and bits of callbacks to other songs on the album (Jet and Mrs. Vanderbilt, most ostensibly) like a sort of audio surrealism. It really doesn’t work as a song, but it’s an interesting attempt nonetheless. I like the opening two minutes of the song just fine on its own (“Drink to mee-eee… Drink to my health…”) as a dirgey pub singalong song, while the endless slow “Hey ho” callbacks to Mrs. Vanderbilt that end the song get annoying real fast. The orchestrations during the midsection are lush and melodic. It’s the album’s only attempt to get indulgent and experimental, and it’s the only time I really fast forward. At least after the first two minutes.

The final song “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five” caps the album off with a total winner. A swingin’ piano-driven tune, it finishes the LP on a strong note. The cut served as the B-side to the “Band on the Run” single, but it does just fine by itself. The “Hamburger Helper” of the album, as it were. Paul recently revived the song live on his 2010 tour (along with “Mrs. Vanderbilt”) and it makes a strong live track. His piano work has never sounded better, and the song features a sweet guitar solo during the finale, which really builds with strong orchestrations and synthesizer accompaniment. It practically ends a reverse “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, and leaves us with a bit of the title track’s chorus as a reminder of the total journey on which Band On The Run takes you.

There isn’t a weak song on the album. “Picasso’s Last Words” is sorta weird and only skippable for about the last minute, and “Mamunia” and “No Words” are OK/decent tracks that probably would have been standouts on “Red Rose Speedway” or “Wild Life”. The rest of the album really, REALLY cooks. This is a standout 70s album by any reckoning.

As for the bonus track: “Country Dreamer” in October of 1972 as part of the Red Rose Speedway sessions. The acoustic opening is pleasant enough. McCartney’s vocals are strong and reminscent of “Penny Lane” a bit. NOBODY should use the word “trousers” in a song, ever. Overall you’re not missing much by skipping it. It’s nice enough, bouncy enough, and inoffensive in every way possible.

As far as which version of the album to get — go with the 2010 three-CD “McCartney Archive Collection” version. The first disc is the remastered album itself, which sounds pretty damn spiffy. I don’t have the sought-after DCC version that many consider the holy grail of BOTR releases, so I can’t compare it to that album. Truth to be told, I found little wrong with the ’93 release. The remaster certainly sounds good enough. Uncompressed, clear, just a real nice sounding album. If anything really stands out, it’s the vocals. They sound particularly bright with noticeable clarity. I like what I’m hearing.

Still, it’s not exactly night and day here. There’s nothing about the remastering which would make me suggest your drop everything and grab the album this very second. If you’re happy with your existing CD, by all means stick with it. BUT you’d be missing out on some nifty bonus stuff. “Helen Wheels”, which was included on the original US release but NOT the UK, has been relegated to leading off the “bonus tracks”. Great song. Also making its return is “Country Dreamer”, which means that you aren’t missing any songs from previous reissues. Next up are six tracks from the “One Hand Clapping” documentary, which are, in the end, live alternate takes of familiar songs. These tracks are almost worth the price of admission. The alt take on “Bluebird” is a little more uptempo and electric, “Jet” retains its energy even without the bombast of the massive studio overdubs, and Paul’s solo rendition of “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” on the piano is magnificent (it’s still pretty good when the rest of the band joins in halfway through, but I preferred Paul solo here.) Finally included is “Zoo Gang”, a song I particularly don’t care for, and was previously featured on the “Venus and Mars” reissue.

The third disc in the collection is a DVD featuring music videos, promotional videos, a video piece documenting the album cover shoot (which, if a bit overlong, is still pretty damn cool to watch), video featuring the band + engineer Geoff Emerick in Nigeria, and the entire 45 minute “One Hand Clapping” documentary featuring Paul + Wings in Abbey Road studios discussing the album and performing several live-in-studio tracks.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Band On The Run represents Paul McCartney at his solo best. The album is beautifully produced, confident, and melodic. It has a catchiness that eluded much of his first four LPs, and a fullness that he would never again achieve to the same level of successful results.

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