Paul McCartney & Wings
Band on the Run
Even before the demise of the Beatles, Paul McCartney faced an image problem. He was the cute one, of course, but he was also the pop one and the foil to John Lennon, who cultivated more of a bohemian, artistic image. Looking at their respective solo work, it’s clear that they both needed each other, but Lennon is usually seen as the slain genius, who crusaded for peace, went on lost weekends and plumbed the depths of his own psyche, while McCartney was happy be vegetarian and write silly little love songs. It’s not entirely fair, but it’s not wholly inaccurate. There’s always been something a little complacent and sticky about his solo work, even as he’s periodically tried to revive himself–writing songs with Elvis Costello, working with Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich and, um, writing an oratorio. While he’s had had a number of fine post-Beatles songs, there’s really one album that endures, Band on the Run (1973).
It’s still his most successful album (triple-platinum in the U.S.) and most acclaimed, ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It’s even kinda cool – something notoriously elusive for McCartney – as the Foo Fighters and Brendan Benson have covered some of its songs. Hey, even cool actors Christopher Lee and James Coburn are on the cover. McCartney seems to think fondly of it too. It’s been re-released before, but now it’s available in multiple editions as part of the “Paul McCartney Archive Collection.” The basic version I’m reviewing has no bonus tracks or notes, simply a lot of photos, including one of the band members standing with African children because, you know, they’re good liberals. In these days of proliferating editions, there’s a special, a deluxe and a vinyl one. Since this is the U.K. nine-track version, it is curiously and unfortunately missing the silly, but energetic “Helen Wheels” (get it?).
Mostly recorded in Lagos with the core of McCartney, wife Linda and Wings mainstay Denny Laine, Band kicks off with the title track, which is justly one of his most famous songs. McCartney liked the multi-part, suite-like song, as he’d experimented with it on the second side of Abbey Road and later with the goofy “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” “Band on the Run” starts slowly and wistfully and then gains momentum, eventually bursting into widescreen life with big, bright acoustic guitars and a wide open road feeling. One of his most outright rock songs, the rushing, mildly funky “Jet” follows and it shows off what he does well: instantly familiar melodies and buoyant pop energy. The strong one-two punch of these songs is sadly diminished by the next song, “Bluebird.” The problems with the album begin here; namely, it’s uneven and McCartney builds momentum only to lose it. “Bluebird” will no doubt make Beatles fans think of the much better “Blackbird” and while it too is pretty and delicate, it crosses the line into sappy and a little wussy, nearly killed by a soft jazz sax part. The cheesy “No Words” and the acoustic “Mamunia” suffer form the same weakness. “No Words” is at least short, but “Mamunia” has the corniest lyrics (something about rain and streams and L.A.).
At its best, it reveals a more experimental, playful streak than much of his work. “Mrs Vandebilt” is brisk and a little dorky, with a chanting “ho-hey-ho” refrain and more saxophone. Closer “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” is the album’s weirdest track–proggy keys, McCartney singing in a funny voice and a snippet from “Band on the Run” at the end. McCartney may be thought of as a more literal, conventional songwriter than Lennon, but I have no idea what he’s talking about on this or, for that matter, the title track. Why is the band on the run? Why won’t Mrs. Vandebilt leave him alone? And what the hell’s “mamunia’ anyway? Thankfully, there’s the more straightforward and slow-burning groove of “Let Me Roll It,” which sounds like a relaxed update of “Oh! Darling” and, along with “Jet” and the title track, forms the backbone on the album.
The song with the best back story is “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).” It was supposedly inspired by a bet from Dustin Hoffman that McCartney couldn’t make a song out of Picasso’s last words. He did and good for him, but it’s more a gimmick than a good song. It has maybe too much going on, starting out as a bleary, late night drinking song and then switching gears several times, throwing in a bit of “Jet,” weaving in snippets of what sounds like French dialogue and employing some of the music hall sound of “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Band on the Run is not a masterpiece and it hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s an album that shows off both McCartney’s strengths (melodies, pop smarts) and weaknesses (sappiness, silliness). He and the band are clearly having fun, which can be infectious and it does boast three of his best post-Beatles songs, which are enough to make Band on the Run among the most memorable of his erratic solo career.
by Lukas Sherman