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Rock and Roll Feature: Paul McCartney's Band on the Run Takes Wings to a Whole New Level
This is the thirty-fifth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Well if you've been following these Rock and Roll Features for a while now, or maybe have just glanced through the previous features, you may notice that things definitely go in patterns... usually based on my listening patterns, which in turn are usually based on some sort of interconnections between artists. This one's pretty obvious.
Last month, and the previous one, we featured John Lennon... Beatle, solo artist etc. to try an coincide with some important Lennon related anniversaries. This month we'll feature another Beatle and solo artist extraordinaire. The album is another classic as well, one with a bit of an interesting history and of course great music throughout: Band on the Run.
Released in late 1973, this album is the fifth of the official post Beatles McCartney albums. Although his earlier solo works certainly have their charms... especially McCartney and Ram... compared to his compatriots, at the time Paul's solo career was kinda lukewarm at best. This was the early 70s and John had released two stunning albums in John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and last month's feature: Imagine... George of course had the fantastic All Things Must Pass. Any of the early McCartney works, although great just don't seem to compare to those, until of course you come to Band on the Run.
Another one of those classic albums that seems to have arrived fully formed in my life where I can't even recall the first time I heard the songs, Band on the Run is perhaps the quintessential McCartney/Wings album. It has become a major part of pop culture and the rock and roll lexicon and essential listening for many beyond myself I'm sure. It's a loose concept album really, much like the Beatles own Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in that although there is a concept defined, the songs themselves don't necessary adhere to said concept religiously, but all tend to work just the same.
And like Sgt Pepper, it even features an iconic cover complete with celebrity guests.
The album does have a bit of a troubled history though, and in some ways it's amazing it was made at all. The original recording actually took place in Lagos Nigeria. Paul simply looked up a list of where EMI had studios and picked on that sounded like it'd have a good vibe. Interesting really as I don't think there's too much about the album that really speaks of a more African influence... certainly lots of soul though. The sessions in Lagos were plagued from the start really. Two of the other members of Wings quit and refusing to go then the studios were not exactly be up to par and finally Paul and Linda were at one point mugged on the streets of Lagos having, along with money etc, the demo tapes stolen!
The results of course of these adventures and hardships are nothing short of stellar and we are left with one of the classic rock albums of all time. Sometimes art works like that... strange situations produce the most spectacular results.
Starting everything off is the title track, a small mini rock opera of sorts in itself with multiple sections that shift back and forth throughout. It starts off kinda dreamy with a great little guitar lead and keyboard pieces, but shortly after shifts to something a little more rough with a rock vibe. Linda McCartney's keyboard parts keep the dreamy almost psychedelic feel though. Especially interesting to me during this middle section is the backing vocals as on first listen you'd swear it's John Lennon singing... no joke it sounds just like him, but it isn't. For that reason though, for years when I was younger I didn't realize that this song wasn't actually a Beatles song. A small building orchestration later and another faster section closes out the song complete with more great, but subtle, guitar work and a total sing-along chorus. Just like the album of the same name “Band on the Run” is without question a rock and roll classic.
Of course McCartney can't leave it there and before we know what's happening we're hit with another classic. The rocker “Jet” with it's building melodies and driving riff pretty much grabs you from the start and gets the blood flowing. Although I believe at one point described, much like “Martha” from the “White Album”, as a tribute to one of McCartney's dogs, it's still a great song... a rocker through and through... and as I said, another true classic. These two opening songs back to back could probably make even the worst album a success, but for this one, this is only the beginning. There's plenty more good stuff to come.
“Bluebird” is a sleepy, maybe even slightly Latin flavored ballad, with just a little swagger to add to it's dreamy layered choruses. It's a sweet song with a great sax solo to boot, giving the song a touch of a jazzy feel too. It's a bit of a contrast to the rollicking “Mrs. Vanderbilt” to follow, with it's bouncy upbeat feel and catchy chorus. That one's just a fun song throughout... fun lighthearted rock and roll with yet another great melodic chorus and another great sax solo and guitar work as well.
“Let Me Roll it” is in some ways a jab at Lennon, perhaps a bit of a rebuttal to Lennon's dig at McCartney with “How Do You Sleep” on Imagine, emphasized even more so by the fact that the style of the song is very reminiscent of Lennon's own John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It's also just another classic rocker though with a killer guitar riff that lights up the sound stage with plenty of grit and fire to this day. This one's been a personal favorite McCartney song of mine for years and years now... great stuff, even greater live if you've happened to see Paul and the boys in concert in recent years.
“Mamunia” is perhaps the only song on the album that really speaks of the Lagos recording location at all. Although it's a folksy song it does seem to have just a touch of African flavor in the rhythmic style and feel. It's not something overt though, just a subtle kind of background color. “No Words” is another favorite of mine. A slower burning ballad of sorts, complete with sweet lyrics and a massive sounding chorus complete with big sounding guitars, strings and keys. It has a great guitar riff mid way through and suddenly as the band fades out it kicks in to a full fledged rocker... makes me kinda wish Paul left this one a little more extended to see where that rocker feel could really go.
“Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me)” is a song with an interesting history. Based on the actual last moments of Picasso's life, it came out of a discussion Paul had with Dustin Hoffman oddly enough. The two met at some point (in Jamaica I believe) and Hoffman was telling Paul about how much he admires Picasso, about how the great artist eventually died and how some of his last words to his friends were simply “Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can't drink anymore”. Apparently Paul liked it so much he sat down and wrote the basis for the song right then and there. It's a great song too, sweet and sort of floating yet grandiose and a few shifts in feel throughout. It's built around a rhythmic beat, giving it a slightly mechanical feel at times as well. Kinda fun though, complete with the echoes of a great party and bouncy (or plumby as I believe Paul described them at one point) bassoon parts. This song also features echos of “Jet” and “Mrs Vanderbilt” throughout sort of tying things together for this whole concept album idea.
The album closes with “Nineteen Hundred Eighty Five”, another great song. With it's driving piano and beat, this one turns things up a notch to close out the album on a rocker... and rock it does. I really like this song both as a stand alone and as a closer for this work. As a standalone it's catchy and gets you moving with it's rhythm both in terms of the instrumentation and it's rhythmic vocal style, not to mention the building melodic layers. As an album closer it kinda emphasizes the whole feeling of “being on the run” where the middle songs seem more laid back for the most part, this one has energy and strong movement throughout. It also has more stellar guitar work and builds to a massive climax with huge orchestral horns, synths and vocal exclamations by the end, serving as a great coda for the complete work before the final echo of “Band on the Run”. Rock and roll doesn't get a whole lot better than this.
So, does it really work as a concept album? Well that's tough to say. It's certainly not an explicit concept throughout, and each song really is quite unique for the most part. The songs that echo previous ones do help stitch things together more explicitly, but as a whole it's more so one of those quasi-concept albums that just seem to work as a whole, as opposed to being strict to their concept. Some albums with a unified theme need to stick to that theme really to be effective, but in this case it's more about feel than anything else. These songs feel like part of the same whole, and so they work equally as part of that whole and on their own.
When discussing Band on the Run we also have to mention the song “Hellen Wheels”... a track some of you might have through I forgot about or ignored for some reason... not true! This song was actually not part of the original album, but was released as a single prior to the album's release. In the U.K., this song did not appear as part of the album, but seeing as how it was already a bit of a hit in the U.S. McCartney was convinced to include it on the second half for the release in that country. As a song it's a good rocker that feels very much like a road song as you might expect from it's title, complete with great guitars and a catchy sound. There's a reason it was a hit in America, but truth be told it doesn't entirely fit with the feel of the album (although you can argue that it does fit the thematic idea). Overall I prefer the track listing of the U.K. album, as it's really what McCartney intended. “Hellen Wheels” is a great song, I just prefer it outside of this album.
Let's not forget the iconic cover as part of this discussion either. Certainly slightly reminiscent of a certain Beatles work that's already been mentioned once in comparison, there's a few interesting people caught in the spotlight with Paul and Linda on this one. Actor Christopher Lee is in there, as is then member of parliament Clemont Freud, movie star James Coburn and boxer and fellow Liverpool-ite John Conteh. Not quite the same cast of stars used on Sgt Pepper, but still some major people of the times, albeit a bit of a random bunch. Overall I think it's just the image itself, the color and style used that have made it so iconic though. It's dynamic and warm and fits the theme, I mean for an album called Band on the Run could you really have picked a better cover?
And so there we go... the classic Paul McCartney and Wings album: Band on the Run.
It's an album with great music and a really interesting history behind it. What more can really be said, it's great, a classic, you should own it if you like great classic rock and roll... end of story.
This album has been released in recent years in a number of versions. The regular re-release can be found from Amazon here: Band on the Run
Or if you're like me, I highly recommend going for the 3CD+DVD edition here: Band On The Run [Deluxe Edition - 3CD+1DVD Combo]