In the wake of The Beatles’ split, Paul McCartney, cast as the villain in their acrimonious fall-out, conquered depression, public antagonism and critical derision to produce his own personal masterpiece and emerge a prominent solo force. This is the story of ‘Band On The Run’ and its punishing creation.
By the time the world learned of The Beatles’ demise, Paul McCartney was holed up in his farm on the Scottish island of Kintyre, preparing for the onslaught of legal and personal consequences [see side panel for Paul’s side of the tumultuous story]. His debut solo record was released the week after ‘Let It Be’, the group’s final album – it had been ready for some time, but he was outnumbered and powerless to get it out before The Beatles’ swan song. It was the final straw in a futile conflict and he publicly declared the end of the band to a shocked world. From hereon in, Paul was on his own.
The lead-up to ‘Band On The Run’ was fraught with critical indifference [see Discography for progress]. Between 1970 and 1973, Paul had bolstered his group with wife Linda, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarists Denny Laine and Henry McCullough, and recorded four albums, each with a distinctly different style or recording concept, and each facing varying levels of disparagement. As plans were made to decamp to Lagos, Nigeria, for the recording of his fifth album, Paul McCartney had much to prove, with even more to lose – and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride.
Speaking to Clash during a well-earned holiday following a summer of sold-out arena gigs, Paul revisited the traumatic years that bore a classic.
Was the diversity of your first four solo albums due to you enjoying the freedom of working alone, or was it because you were finding your feet as a solo artist?
I think it’s both. I certainly was enjoying the freedom of just doing something different. I’ve always been like that, and I still am – it’s like me doing The Fireman project: suddenly I can actually try something new. And then, the other element was that I knew I couldn’t just try and make a carbon copy of The Beatles – I knew that was impossible; without John, George and Ringo there was no way I could do that. So I knew I had to try and make something new. So each of the albums was to try and establish an identity for Wings that would then be recognised in time as Wings music – the Wings sound.
After the mixed reactions to those albums, ‘Band On The Run’ felt like you were trying to prove something. Was that the case? Did you feel like you had to come up with something special?
Yeah, in more ways than one too. Because a couple of the guys [McCullough and Seiwell] left the band the night before we went to Lagos to make the record. That was like a bombshell. You can imagine me getting off that phone call: it was like, ‘Ah. Okay. Try and hold your nerve; try and keep it together. What do we do now? Sod it, we’re going’. And at that moment it was one of those, ‘I’ll show you. I will make the best album I’ve ever made now. I will put so much effort into it because I wanna just prove that we didn’t need you guys’.
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Did that make it an angry record?
I don’t think the actual record is that angry. The first week of the record I felt pretty angry. You know what though? The truth is I get over things like that quite quickly. I mean, that night it was like, ‘Shit’. It was bad – two of your band has just left, and the drummer as well; he was fairly central. But Denny can play guitar – that wasn’t too bad – and then I just thought, ‘Well, I’ve done ‘McCartney’; I can drum, I can do this and that, and we’ll just completely rethink the whole thing’. But it was full of difficulties.
Was it a case of having to rethink the songs? Did you go in there with songs planned and have to start from scratch, or did you start writing brand new songs?
We hadn’t actually rehearsed everything up with the band yet – we were gonna arrange them there – but I had it all planned in my head. And yeah, we did just have to think… particularly the recording method: that had to be different. We would just get the three of us – me, Linda and Denny – to do a track and get the basis of the song, and then I would do back in and add the missing parts. You did have to rethink what you were doing. I think the songs themselves were the same – it was the instrumentation and the arrangements that [changed]. But in a way I found that to be quite a good thing, because stripping things back is never the worst idea.
You were mugged when you were in Lagos. They stole tapes. Was there anything on them?
Yeah, it was all of the stuff we did. It was the original demo of ‘Band On The Run’. It was stuff that would be worth a bit on eBay these days, you know? But no, we figured the guys who mugged us wouldn’t even be remotely interested. If they’d have known, they could have just held on to them and made themselves a little fortune. But they didn’t know, and we reckoned they’d probably record over them.
The line in ‘Band On The Run’, “If we ever get out of this place”, apparently dates from something George Harrison said in a Beatles meeting. Does that mean the song originates from that time, or was it just something that was lingering in your mind?
I don’t remember that being a George line. I don’t know about that. But yeah, that certainly was to do with all of that. It was symbolic: “If we ever get out of here… All I need is a pint a day”. It was feeling like that, the whole thing. Because we’d been…if you think about it, we’d started off as just kids really, who loved our music and wanted to earn a bob or two so we could get a guitar and get a nice car. It was very simple ambitions at first. But then, you know, as it went on it became business meetings and all of that, and eventually it was really not fun. You’d have to go into these meetings. So there was a feeling of ‘if we ever get out of here’, yeah. And I did.
How much of the feud between you and The Beatles was actually spiteful? On the album there’s ‘Let Me Roll It’, which was apparently a response to Lennon, but the lyrics sound like a plea to be friends…
Well, no, there was other stuff that was more like that. ‘Let Me Roll It’ wasn’t to John, it was just in the style that we did with The Beatles that John was particularly known for. It was really actually the use of the echo. It was one of those: ‘You’re not going to use echo just cos John used it?’ I don’t think so. To tell you the truth, that was more [about] rolling a joint. That was the double meaning there: “let me roll it to you”. That was more at the back of mind than anything else. ‘Dear Friend’ [from 1971’s ‘Wild Life’], that was very much ‘let’s be friends’ to John.
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The creative progress of your albums which we talked about earlier seemed to find its place with ‘Band On The Run’ – from there onwards it seemed to be albums with straightforward popular appeal. Were you keen to consolidate what you’d done and prove your worth as a solo artist rather than risking more critical taunts?
No, it was just the way it worked out. I think we just became a better band. I’d figured out what I’d been trying to work out, which was ‘what was the Wings sound?’ And once you had it, then you could be with it. The albums that came after that were still different, but now that we were more popular, we discovered what our fans liked. So then that’s your style. I think that’s what happens with bands – it certainly happened with The Beatles and with Wings: you start off imitating people and just goofing around, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t work. And at the time of ‘Band On The Run’, things like ‘Band On The Run’ and ‘Jet’ and ‘Let Me Roll It’, we suddenly found songs that people identified with. I remember Richard and Karen Carpenter ringing me up to tell me about ‘Jet’ – they were like the last people on Earth I thought who’d like ‘Jet’! But they were like, ‘Oh, great record, man!’ So, you know, it was actually resonating with people. They were liking the stuff. For instance, Dave Grohl, it’s one of his favourites. Again, I wouldn’t think it would have been. So yeah, what we’d done was we’d found our style, and so that was like, ‘Okay, now we know what Wings is’. So we kinda stuck with it, and the nice thing about that is they are now big numbers in my show now.
Are there any plans to play an anniversary show of ‘Band On The Run’ and do the whole album in its entirety?
I’ve been asked to do it, so I’ll definitely look into it and consider it, but it’s not an idea I would have ever thought of myself. It might be a cool idea, but I’m thinking about it.
Words by Simon Harper
Read Clash Magazine’s previous interview with Paul McCartney discussing the origins of numerous Beatles’ songs HERE.
Clash Magazine Issue 55
This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the 55th issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from October 12th.