Fifty years on, Macca’s miracle continues to define his essence
Context always matters, but in the case of Band On The Run – celebrating its 50th birthday with this expanded half-speed remaster and a stripped-back companion version – it’s the difference between a great album and a mythical one. Context matters because Band On The Run is an album whose essence is inseparable from the superhuman act of determination to which it owes its existence. The origin story has long passed into rock lore: Paul and Linda McCartney’s decision to utilise an EMI-owned studio in Nigeria that turned out to be only half-built when they arrived; an ominous visit from Fela Kuti who was convinced that Paul and Linda were here to “steal” African music; the knifepoint theft of personal belongings, among them demos and lyrics that forced McCartney to re-create them from memory; and a fainting episode (initially thought to be a heart attack). Indeed, it started before they even boarded the plane – the eleventh-hour withdrawal of drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough meant the version of Wings which made it to Lagos was barely a group, with Denny Laine the only remaining member outside of Paul and Linda.
McCartney, of course, responded as only McCartney can, his militant optimism abundant in a title track which exhorts its participants to do little short of shrug off their predicament and revel in the legend being created by their leader in real time: “In the town they’re searching for us everywhere/But we never will be found.” In this moment alone, you can apprehend the measure of McCartney’s determination to show his ex-bandmates just what they were missing, even electing to play the drum parts himself. In a 2009 interview with Dermot O’Leary, McCartney admitted, “I was like, ‘Screw you – I’m gonna make an album you were gonna wish you were on.’”
If this was indeed the mission statement established at the outset of the sessions, no song on Band On The Run authenticates that manifesto quite as exquisitely as “Mamunia”. Ostensibly about the rain in Los Angeles, here’s McCartney leading by example, exhorting us to take succour from the bigger picture: “The rain comes falling from the sky/To fill the stream that fills the sea/And that’s where life began for you and me.”
In 1973, this bloodymindedness was something he could access at will, almost as a party trick. “Picasso’s Last Words” is what happened when a starstruck Dustin Hoffman challenged McCartney to write a song in front of him – and its air of sweet, stoned equanimity extends to two other key songs. The first, “Mrs Vandebilt”, is a zen repudiation of a protagonist who, in his 2021 book The Lyrics, McCartney said personified “the bothersome aspects of being rich”. And while cynics may contend that’s easy for him to say, it’s worth remembering that just three years previously, he’d been a Beatle in exile, assets frozen, living a frugal existence with Linda and their kids in a dilapidated Scottish farmhouse. Every word has been earned.
Then there’s “Bluebird”, on which he exhorts his subject, “Touch your lips with a magic kiss/And you’ll be a bluebird too/And you’ll know what love can do” – and because it’s impossible not to make these comparisons, you can’t help but feel for John Lennon, who not so long ago had been straining every sinew to project the conjugal idyll that Paul achieves here so effortlessly. It’s also Lennon to whom your thoughts turn on “Let Me Roll It”, thanks to that exquisitely crunchy riff and the echo on McCartney’s voice. But here it’s the thermal upswell of Linda’s keyboard that raises the temperature and releases endorphins that make you feel this surely deserved to be more than just a B-side. No disputing the song which was chosen on its A-side, of course: “Jet” is the reason why McCartney is the deity to whom every power pop practitioner in his wake prays. If you’re not already playing American football stadiums when you write a song like that, then it’ll certainly fast-track you to that point.
Which, of course, is exactly the trajectory that opened up for Wings in the years after Band On The Run. It’s a paradoxical record: one where the loss of two members magnifies both their sound and their place in the pop firmament. What this latest iteration of the album drives home is that this was no mere accident. The “underdubbed” versions accompanying this reissue reveal that, before arriving at George Martin’s AIR studios to finish the job, the Lagos sessions weren’t so different to the homespun intimacy of the Wings albums that preceded them. In this sparer setting, the extra space plays to the benefit of McCartney’s loyal co-travellers: “No Words”, which serves reminder just how vital the harmonies of Linda and the song’s co-writer Denny Laine were when it came to defining the Wings sound; Linda’s purring ARP Odyssey and MiniMoog contributions are what suddenly take centrestage on “Jet” and a rollicking vocal-free canter through “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five”.
Yet, none of that detracts from the primary energy source of Band On The Run. To listen to the album in the wake of Peter Jackson’s Get Back is to be reminded that this is the same man who, when faced with a group floundering despondently in an alien environment, strapped on his guitar and throttled “Get Back” out of it before our disbelieving eyes. In the wake of Denny Laine’s recent passing, one can only imagine what a bittersweet sensation it must be for McCartney to look at the album’s multi-celebrity jailbreak cover and ponder that he and (then British light-heavyweight UK boxing champion) John Conteh are now the sole survivors. And over time, these songs – the bullet points of an entire worldview, no less – will outlive us all. In decades to come, when people wonder what Paul McCartney was actually like, all of the answers can be found on this unassumingly miraculous record.