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Album Review: Band On The Run - Paul McCartney and Wings
McCartney and Beatles fans had to wait over three years for Paul McCartney to reach the quality heights of songwriting from his days in the Beatles. Up until this album, McCartney seemed to be only keeping up with the other three Beatles in terms of his solo output.
George Harrison shined to the forefront with his 1971 LP All Things Must Pass . Also in 1971, John Lennon released Imagine which was widely praised by critics and a worldwide best seller. Even Ringo had released Ringo in 1973 which peaked at number 2 on the Billboard album charts. McCartney surely must have felt a nipping at his heels to compete with his ex-band-mates.
Preparing to fly off to Nigeria for the upcoming album, McCartney was notified by both Henry McCullough and Denny Seiwell would be quitting the band. They had recorded tracks from Band On The Run which Paul took with him down to Lagos. Flying off to Nigeria, with his wife and Denny Laine, McCartney ran into all sorts of trouble ranging from an incomplete constructed studio, a mugging at knife point, stolen master tapes, and a medical emergency (McCartney experienced severe breathing problems). McCartney also went to great lengths to assure local musicians that he was not there to steal their music.
The trio managed to overcome all of these problems and the resulting product would be a highlight for Wings to the extent that it would be a driving momentum for the rest of the band's existence into the remainder of the decade.
Band On The Run
The title track is divided into three sections - a slightly sad, mellow intro featuring guitar, synth, bass, and a reflective McCartney vocal - a heavier rock feel with a yearning to get out and break free and the final segment of actually breaking free with runaway acoustic guitars, excitable drumming and first rate vocals (lead and background).
"Band On The Run" is all about escape. It became synonymous with the summer of 1974 in that its sunny disposition allowed the listener to escape into the summer "forever more". The spirit and excitement that this track generated was largely responsible for the album breaking records sales that even the Beatles were unable to attain.
Another follow up smash single to "Band On The Run", "Jet" was another triumphant track that exuded a sunny exuberance even though the subject of its lyrics were open to wide interpretation. It hardly mattered since its large musical opening phrase plus the chugging guitars in the chorus, the shouting vocal, all combined to make "Jet" a worthy follow up. "Jet" would go on for many years as a crowd-pleasing song in many of McCartney's live concerts.
McCartney had actually written this number a few years earlier and decided that its almost easy tropical feel would fit perfectly as a slower movement for the album. The song also fits into the album quite nicely as it continues with the themes of "freedom" and "flying away". One minor criticism could be that the background harmonies (mostly by Linda McCartney could have been glossed a little bit more as they threaten to go off key. Denny Laine does save this track with his own backing vocals which are a tad more prominent, confident and most importantly in tune. An improved version of this song can be found on the triple live album Wings Over America . The vocals and music feel a lot less restrictive than the original track here on this album.
McCartney gets back to the business of rock and roll with this next track. His thundering bass to the forefront directing the song's narrative, McCartney excels here as a vocalist, bassist, drummer and guitarist. The song simply rolls along downhill and picks up momentum as it goes. The song ties in several ideas in its last stanza showing that its writer was very serious and eager to producing a lasting work. It is quite clear also that "fun" was inserted in the song and it makes it all that much more endearing and charming to sing along.
Let Me Roll It
This track is seen by many as another McCartney reply to Lennon with their ongoing public feud. However, lyrically there is nothing here to suggest any type of message. The track is Lennonesque in the chorus as well as the McCartney ad lib vocal at the end. Another solid track with a heavy guitar hook throughout, "Let Me Roll It" is further proof that McCartney was back at the top of his form. If there is a minor criticism, the track can be seen in areas as being too repetitive with its main riff and some of the transformation between that riff and the bridge seems a little roughly pasted.
While the first side is filled with many "sunny" themes, the second side opens up with a contrasting theme of "rain" and its importance to mother earth. "Mamunia" is an infectious piece of acoustic pop which gives off a "dancing in the rain" vibe. Oddly enough it has a slight African feel in its chorus, proving that something did rub off of McCartney during his stay in Africa.
Regarded as one of the weaker tracks on the album, "No Words" still has a lot to offer with its sliding lazy guitars and sympathetic string overtures. Mostly a Denny Laine composition (his first here for a Wings' project), McCartney pitched in with the middle eight with a rising vocal line of his own. The track closes with a wild guitar solo reminiscent of McCartney's effort on "Taxman".
Another spirited rocker with a confused lyric, the group managed to keep within the themes of the album while maintaining the quality and consistency for its inclusion. Released as a single in the UK and America, "Helen Wheels" added to the triumphant return of McCartney to the top. Strangely enough though, it was not featured on their live Wings Over America album.
Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)
This track is well known for the story of how McCartney obliged Dustin Hoffman in writing a song that Hoffman presented about the dying words of Pablo Picasso. The track starts off with a brief vocal by Denny Laine before decidedly going back to McCartney. Though Picasso was Spanish, McCartney decides to give it a French De Gaulle flavor instead with some French ad libs that he picked up. The track then slips into a medley of Jet/Drink to Me/Ho Hey Ho variations before the eventual fade out. An insertion of a pastiche track was the final confirmation that things were indeed going as planned in the McCartney camp.
Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five
McCartney rounds out the album with the wonderful piano filled "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five". More great guitar solos with the piano plus some great McCartney singing are featured here. Another surprise is that it took him another thirty plus years to play this live in concert. McCartney builds up a swirling momentum to giant proportion towards the end of this track with lots of symphony arrangements. Upon reaching the climatic end notes, he then inserts the title track to fade out the album and complete the cycle back to the beginning.
Band On The Run clearly went a long way in re-establishing McCartney as a first rate songwriter. The engineering was done by Geoff Emerick who previously worked on many Beatle albums and partly accounts for the improved quality sound compared to the previous solo outings. The album is still regarded as one of McCartney's finest and two years later in 1976, it was still present in the Billboard album charts. McCartney would take the new found optimism and spill it over into to his next Wings project - Venus and Mars .