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New book "Paul McCartney & Wings: Band on the Run. The Story of a Classic Album"

Here's the full introduction to the new volume. Enjoy! To grab your copy please go here.

Band on the Run is undoubtedly the most popular and commercially successful of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles albums. The evidence of this is,

among other things, the several re-issues of the record, including CD

re-issues, box sets and Deluxe editions that followed one another over the decades. Hailed since its release in December 1973 as an exceptional accomplishment (and one that allows the critics – who up to that moment, whether rightly or wrongly, had been disappointed by McCartney’s offerings, judging them bizarre, disjointed or only sporadically good – to breathe a sigh of relief ), Band on the Run soon gains a place of honour as a quintessential example of its creator’s pop art. Furthermore, it has often been set as a touchstone for his subsequent productions, thus creating, to some extent, a degree of embarrassment. For decades, any critic who wanted to positively assess a new record by Paul McCartney would simply label it as “his best work since Band on the Run”.

Thus, from that moment to this, the album has enjoyed eternal youth. It’s outlived all the fashions of the decades, even “surviving” McCartney’s worst moments among critics and audience, as was the case for quite some time in the Eighties. And so, for its influence on popular culture, Band on the Run still remains the only McCartney solo production that stands comparison – albeit relatively distantly – with the output of The Beatles.

The reason is easily explained: the path that leads to its release follows the path of those adventures in which the hero (McCartney, in our case) overcomes a series of obstacles: thus, he improvises, he adapts himself and resolves the situation. The hero has also been the narrator over the decades, and this has added further charm to a story that is already incredible.

The facts are widely known in general terms: from the desertion of two Wings members prior to their departure for the album recordings, to the tribulations for Paul, Linda, Denny Laine and engineer Geoff Emerick during their stay in Lagos, Nigeria. Here, McCartney records in extremely difficult conditions, with the EMI studio lacking sound booths and having a recording console where only four tracks can be listened to simultaneously; he faces a major misunderstanding with activist Fela Ransome-Kuti and the local musical/media environment, who accuse him of artistic “colonialism”; he has to use all of his diplomatic skills with ex-Cream drummer Cream Ginger Baker for not using his recording studios, this having been vetoed by EMI; he’s robbed of his tapes (the actual content of which is still debated) at knifepoint; he collapses in the studio from a bronchial spasm which prompts fears for his life. Not even the trips between Great Britain and Nigeria go smoothly: on the way there, the pilots struggle to find the landing strip, covered in the mists of the African jungle, while the flight back arrives in Gatwick with a good ten-hour delay.

Even in London, a certain dose of misfortune seems to plague the record. At some point during the sessions, they notice oxide on the tapes, and they need to quickly make a transfer copy of them to avoid losing the recordings. The mixing has to be done in a hurry, before Emerick is dragged away by the producers of another project he was in charge of and that was looming inexorably.

So, is it true, as Mark Lewisohn’s sleeve notes say in the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album (1999), that “Band on the Run is the proof that art can triumph over adversity”? It’s a fascinating view, certainly true, although one that McCartney has fully never endorsed.

Nevertheless, even without wanting to see the hand of fate in the success of this record, it’s undeniable that the adventures that have been necessary for its completion speak of something extraordinary, even ignoring the myths that need to be debunked, at least in part. In these terms, it’s perhaps the one and only McCartney “rock” record; an album that encompasses the deeds of a hero who rides the stormy seas of events and who manages to save himself, and finally triumphing, notwithstanding all the predictions. A record that brings with it the signs of an incredible story, one that is almost fictional.

Band on the Run arguably represents a watershed within McCartney’s post-Beatles career. The exuberance of the songs, the crafting of the arrangements, a certain common thread within the lyrics, which explore the subject of freedom almost creating a concept album, make it a milestone of Seventies rock.

And to think that, when the album appears at the end of 1973, the year has produced some of the best records in musical history, marked by unforgettable classics: from David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust goes to America” follow-up Aladdin Sane, to the luxurious Medieval-like fairy tales and rock crossover of Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound; from Elton John’s epic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to Mike Oldfield’s symphonic Tubular Bells; from the tragic struggles of Lou Reed’s Berlin to Stevie Wonder’s container of sex, drugs, religion, political corruption, Innervisions, to name but a few.

This volume offers the chance to retrace a gallery of circumstances, locations, pieces of art and characters somewhat linked to Band on the Run and to its creation, that make the album an anthology of cross-pollination between music and other arts, with a special consideration for its visual and filmic aspects.

There’s Dustin Hoffman who challenges Paul to write a song about the last words said by Picasso before dying; McCartney would make it a sort of cubist portrayal more than a real song, “Picasso’s Last Words”, with Dylan in a corner of his mind. There’s a puppy, whose name inspires “Jet”, the single that will change the commercial fate of the album and where we can glimpse an affectionate nod towards David Bowie. There’s the renowned heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, whose name Paul metamorphoses into “Mrs. Vandebilt”, making her symbolic of a jetset from which is better to keep away. In the same song, there are also echoes of the comedy of both Charlie Chester and Laurel and Hardy, of whom Paul has been an admirer since way back.

There’s the tribute – deliberate or not, it seems that we’ll never know – to the “short echo” used by Lennon in many of his songs of the early Seventies in “Let Me Roll It”. There’s the famous Marrakesh resort, La Mamounia, which somehow gives its name to “Mamunia”, and there are Orwellian echoes, at least in the

title, of “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five”. There are the anonymous fugitives of the title track “Band on the Run”, who try to escape from a prison, symbolic of a certain state of being “persecuted by the law”, something that several rock personalities suffer due to their habit of soft drug consumption; Paul himself pays the price for it when he’s arrested in August 1972.

Moreover, the subject of the prisoners on the run, so well depicted in the iconic cover photo – which gathers a handful of celebrities, including actors, politicians and various showbusiness personalities – finds a resounding equivalent in the movie Papillon (in which one of the two main characters is, irony of fate, Dustin Hoffman), first shown in theatres on the same month as the release of Band on the Run and which, to some extent, helps to reinforce its impact on the audience.

This book includes in-depth analyses of various aspects of the record. There are lists, albeit some partial, of the equipment used during the sessions, from the recording console in Lagos to the models of the instruments played by Paul, Linda and Denny: a little illustrated gallery that will please the palate of vintage instrument lovers.

In addition, it’s been considered useful to delve into some aspects related to the structure of the songs and their instrumental parts, with a focus on one of the cornerstones around which McCartney has built his narrative of the exceptional nature of Band on the Run: his drum parts.

This is a very interesting example not only for McCartney’s fans but also for anyone with a passion for recorded music in general: Paul conceives his contribution on the instrument in very simple manner, knowing full well that he can’t compete with rock’s bona fide drummers, and puts in place a series of ideas and “tricks” that again confirm his creativity and skill in finding handcrafted solutions capable of serving him in a suitable manner, leading him to a successful result.

Paul takes as a model Stevie Wonder – who would often play drums on his records, and whose skills on the instrument McCartney himself would see with his own eyes eight years later, when Wonder guests on the album Tug of War – but when he finds himself behind the drum kit, he wisely decides not to overdo it, conscious of his technical limitations. Rather than worrying about it, he makes the most out of what he can do, not being afraid to ask for help when needed. There are few examples in pop-rock music as illuminating as this which confirm without doubt the dominance of inventiveness over technical skills.

The book then focuses on one of the key episodes that conspired to create the myth of Band on the Run – the famous (or infamous) robbery of the tapes, the cornerstone of the whole affair. Shaped by McCartney over the course of the decades through a narration that became progressively more detailed, this episode is reconstructed through the statements made by Paul in various interviews, highlighting its contradictions, incongruencies and lapses. All these statements prove the power of storytelling for the benefit of the media, constructing fascinating anecdotes: McCartney is aware that rock nourishes these kinds of tales, filled with mystery, and took advantage of his skill as a narrator and entertainer to fine-tune one of the most surprising re-enactments that surround rock music masterpieces, on the border between true and plausible, between real and fantastic.

I thought it was worth delving into this story, whose partial inconsistencies I had first highlighted in 2016 in my Italian book I Beatles dopo i Beatles (The Beatles after The Beatles) and also included in the subsequent Paul McCartney: Music Is Ideas. The Stories Behind the Songs (Vol. 1) 1970–1989 in 2023. Recent research included in the book The McCartney Legacy. Volume 1: 1969–73 by Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair has proved that this was the right path to take to better understand the events. I have relied on the same book not only for the flow of events but also for recording dates and the instruments attributed to the musicians on a track-by-track basis, something that was known only partially or not so precisely before.

Last but not least, the book contains an exclusive interview – which I conducted back in 2014 and which has remained on the shelf – with engineer Pete Swettenham, who assisted Geoff Emerick during the sessions for the album held at AIR Studios in London. It’s an important account, not only because Swettenham is one of the few people who witnessed the recordings who is still alive, but also because his recollections contribute to better clarification of what really happened in the studio when the tapes were oxidising and about the possible related responsibilities. In his autobiography, Emerick ascribes a certain amount of negligence to his assistant, but Swettenham very clearly sheds light once for all on that event and, it has to be said, in a very chivalrous manner.

Band on the Run is also case history in marketing, not only related to the music business. The story of its commercial success is proof that the quality of a product can be given more value by means of promotional strategy planned with care and in detail. Art, if it’s of value, has to sell, and not be ashamed of its success. This is the cornerstone of the unparalleled popularity of McCartney (and of The Beatles), that allowed them over the decades to reach sales without comparison in the music business.

It’s worth noting in this case that the sequence of events related to the commercial success of Band on the Run – concerning both McCartney and the other

characters involved – relies on an almost “natural” juxtaposition between the artist, who defends the integrity of his own product, and the marketing machinery of the record company, embodied by promoters hungry for sales and returns, and

who grab every opportunity that allows them to “work” the LP.

It’s Al Coury, a promoter at Capitol, who pressures McCartney into including the single “Helen Wheels”, released on about one month before the album, on the US edition of Band on the Run, managing to get Paul’s approval, albeit through gritted teeth. And it’s Coury again who convinces Paul of the need to extract singles from the album, to increase its popularity and exposure. McCartney, by his own admission, didn’t think about this.

It could be just role play, although if so, it is effectively performed; what counts is that the plan set up to push sales of Band on the Run by the marketing professionals (among which we can also arguably include McCartney himself ) is one of the cleverest ever devised.

Capitol builds its marketing plan on choices that respond to the market itself (Coury chooses “Jet” as a single when he starts receiving increasingly insistent requests from radio stations), on Coury’s simple flair or based on the quality of the material, but always modelled with an eye to being as commercial as possible: “Band on the Run”, a three-part song that could disorientate listeners and so find difficulty in being aired, is adapted to the 7” single format through an edit that McCartney himself openly praises.

In its simplicity, made by almost casual juxtapositions and by references to the subject of freedom, Band on the Run is intelligently constructed. The album has a certain cinematographic quality, something that is dear to McCartney: a narrative thread, the use of contrasts – both within the same song, as for “Band on the Run” and in the case of the track sequence, organised by playing on the variety of tones and atmospheres – a recurring character (Sailor Sam, who is mentioned both in the title track and in “Helen Wheels”, although this internal hint can be caught only on the US edition of the record), an opening and an ending that captures the attention, as in every spectacular movie worthy of its

name. Because Band on the Run is, in its own way, an epic achievement.

At the time of its release, critics agreed about the qualities of Band on the Run, maybe even to a somewhat greater extent than it merited. The record’s main quality is cohesion: excellent pop songs and musical ideas combined with inspired lyrics – both simple and poetic. Powerful and filled with fictional characters and themes, still to this day Band on the Run remains key when telling the story of pop music in the Seventies. And the same goes for its creator.

Luca Perasi

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