Review Many fans and critics alike will tell you that Paul McCartney’s 1973 Band on the Run and 1975 Venus & Mars are his best albums and near-equals. While I like Venus & Mars fine, I think this faulty comparison is due to one of two things: A) overestimation of V&M or B) underestimation of BotR. And strange as it may seem, the latter is much closer to reality. Band on the Run is terribly underrated the same way Abbey Road is underrated – respected, but not held in the awe reserved for “better” records like Sgt. Pepper’s or Plastic Ono Band. Yeah. Right. Ranking at a paltry #418 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums” list, it’s about time Band on the Run stands up and is accorded its rightful place as one of pop’s greatest achievements.
The album opens with a one-two punch of the title track, a grandiose mini-suite chronicling a bereaved prisoner and his jubilant escape (construe that how you choose), and the thrilling Jet, flying as high as its namesake. Amazingly, Paul manages to keep a comparable level of excellence up throughout the album. If you’ve heard these two tracks you’ll know how unlikely that seems, but it’s true: this is the most consistently awesome album the man has produced since the Beatles’ breakup. What made the Fabs’ best so great – the intricate-yet-accessible melodies, the imagistic poetry, the superb musicianship, the soaring harmonies, the thumping bass, the multi-tracked vocals and guitars, the glorious strings and brass – is all here.
Stylistically Paul creates an effervescent fusion of melodic pop, exhilarating rock & roll, and elaborate symphonic elements with touches of blues, jazz, music-hall, and folk expertly mixed in for colour. For instance, Bluebird is laid-back and jazzy; Let Me Roll both send-up and tribute to John Lennon’s distinctive post-Beatles style. As for subject material, freedom is the word. Right from the get-go Band on the Run is rife with the themes of liberation and release – the opening one-two punch sets it up and from there it’s all-out. This idea, this concept ties the album together, transforming it from merely a collection of brilliant songs into a monumental whole. Each and every song carries the thread, whether it be a literal prison break, the liberty of the open road, or even Death, the ultimate escape. Reprisals of themes, lyrics, and passages all act to unite Band on the Run until, at the very last, the roaring climax of the finale, we come full circle: “Band on the Run! Band on the Run…”
Review Two audio discs 41,34 minutes each approximately, and a DVD (1hr. 24 min. approximately) disc. The remastered sound, done at Abbey Road Studios, is clean and crisp without being harsh. The DVD contains videos, promotional clips, scenes from the album cover shoot, the TV special, and the McCartney’s in Nigeria. The discs are slipped into attached paper sleeves in a tri-fold holder. The attached booklet contains a number of photos, in colour and B&W, of the band and others during the recording in Nigeria. Of interest is a couple of photos of drummer Ginger Baker, who at the time lived and recorded in Africa. Also included are the lyrics, individual track times and disc totals. There’s a four page essay/interview by Paul Gambaccini, on the album and McCartney. Paul McCartney supervised the reissue, including the remastering, which was done using the same people who recently remastered The Beatles back catalogue.
This album, a Grammy winner, if not McCartney’s best post-BEATLES work, is certainly one of his best. Thankfully it has now joined the ranks of other great remastered albums. Plus the fact that there’s a second disc of music ( with several tracks from the TV special “One Hand Clapping”) makes this edition the one to own. You can also purchase another version with a hardcover book, another disc (an audio documentary from the 25th Anniversary Edition), downloads of the album, a new Paul McCartney interview etc., but it’s substantially more money aimed at fans/collectors who want everything. There’s a vinyl edition for record fans, and finally the original, stand alone album is also available. But whichever version you purchase, this is some of McCartney’s finest post-BEATLES work ever.
“Band on the Run” spawned several songs (“Jet”, “Helen Wheels”, “Let Me Roll It”, and the title track), that are still favourites of fans today. At this point most everyone is familiar with at least a couple (if not more) of the fine songs found on this album, so a track-by-track critique isn’t needed. On this album McCartney’s penchant for song craft is very evident. The melodies, the arrangements, the production work-all come together to produce some very fine, pleasing, and at times, rocking pop music. Too, this album was McCartney alerting the critics that he still possessed his musical talents, after the drubbing he received for some of his previous solo/WINGS work.
The album, recorded in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1973, was McCartney’s idea (someplace different), but before the group departed, both guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell were out of the band. So when it came time to record, McCartney played drums, and both he and Denny Lane played the guitar parts, along with Linda McCartney on keyboards. Working through adversity-the “studio” was an ill equipped shed, and the WINGS demo tapes were stolen in a mugging, the band managed to record the basic album in a couple of months. Back in England McCartney added strings and horns to fill out the songs, and the album was finished. When it was released it shot to the top of the charts.
The tracks on the second disc are mostly from a TV special, “One Hand Clapping”, which showed the group performing and backstage. The songs from the special were recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 1974, and include a number of fan favourites from the album. The sound and performance of the studio and “live” tracks aren’t that different, but it’s nice to have more from this era of the band nonetheless. “Bluebird” is a slower tempo pop song which shows McCartney’s voice very well, along with his arranging skills. “Jet” has a bit more energy and an edge about it than the studio version simply because it’s a live version, but that’s enough to raise the excitement level appreciatively. This song alone proves that McCartney could still rock within the constraints of pop music. “Let Me Roll It” (which has some fine guitar throughout), taken at the same tempo as the studio version, nonetheless has it’s own feel brought on by the live recordings for the special. “Band On The Run” is again very close to the original, but the vocal inflections by McCartney make this something special. You can hear the exuberance in his voice, and the excitement of the band as they energize the arrangement beyond the studio version. Even the synthesizer that weaves in and out of the song has a certain feel not found on the original. “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five”, with it’s piano intro, has a fine rough edged vocal from McCartney. “Country Dreamer” sounds as if it could have come from the “White Album”, with it’s use of acoustic guitar as sole backing for a winsome sounding McCartney vocal. It’s shortness, with no extraneous instruments to clutter up the beautiful vocal stands out from the other songs. “Zoo Gang” is a short (2 minutes) instrumental that sounds like it could have been a backing track without the vocal. Nonetheless it’s a fine way to end this collection of bonus tracks.
Apparently this is the first reissue of McCartney’s post-Beatles work, with more in the pipeline. By starting with “Band On The Run”, the bar has been set very high. Hopefully other reissues will meet the high standards found in this edition. If you’re a Paul McCartney fan-pick this reissue up and hear this good sounding edition for yourself. If you’re not-pick this album up and hear what you’ve been missing.
On Band on the Run not only are you able to experience the song writing genius of Paul McCartney at its finest, but you get an album that is more than an album. From the very first note it sucks you in and doesn’t let you out again until the last ringing chords of the reprised title track have evaporated completely, forty-five minutes later. And what a glorious forty-five minutes they are! They will take you on a wondrous journey, yet by the end you will feel the journey is only just beginning…
NOTES FOR THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
If you can, get this, the 25th Anniversary edition; it is far superior for the same price as the original pressing. The bonus disc here is not, as on many albums, a parade of rarities or a series of alternate takes on the songs proper. Live and alternate versions of certain tracks are included here, but they take backseat to what this disc is all about: the interviews. It is, for all intents and purposes, a radio show: a radio show about the making of Band on the Run. We get to hear Paul, Linda, Denny, and just about everybody involved with the making of this record (or, in many cases, its gorgeous cover) explain their part and the record’s enchanting story, giving sense of just how big a deal this album really was. The included booklet is equally superb. Replete with lyrics, photographs, chart placements, and Mark Lewisohn’s fabulous liner notes (quite possibly the best liner notes I’ve ever seen) it is the perfect companion to the record.
Paul McCartney finally hitting on all cylinders in his post-Beatles career with Band on the Run. It was his fifth such album since the 1970 breakup of the Fab Four and the third with his new group, Wings. He had made a respectable solo debut and a another good album, Ram, with his wife Linda McCartney. But then came the first two Wings album – the utterly forgettable Wild Life in late 1971, and the somewhat better but vastly uneven Red Rose Speedway in early 1973. During 1972 and 1973, McCartney was putting out much better material as non-album singles than the material on his albums. But that all changed with Band on the Run, an album which would be widely considered his finest.
The songs were all written by Paul and Linda McCartney at their Scottish retreat in the Summer of 1973. Red Rose Speedway was a commercial success and that was followed up by the Top Ten charting song “Live and Let Die” from the James Bond film of the same name. The couple also wanted to find an exotic locale to record this album and discovered that EMI had an international affiliate in Lagos, Nigeria. Coming into the project, Wings were a five person group. However, lead guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell dropped out of the band on the eve of their departure for Africa. This left Wings as a trio with guitarist and pianist Denny Laine along with the McCartneys. Paul McCartney took on the roles of the departed musicians as well as produced the album. Engineer Geoff Emerick was the fourth and final person to make the trip to Lagos.
Upon arriving however, the four discovered a militant nation with corruption and disease and a ramshackle studio which was under equipped with only one 8-track tape machine. Several incidents also plagued Wings during their time in Lagos stay. Paul and Linda were robbed at knife point while out walking one night and the thieves got away with a notebook full of handwritten lyrics and song notes, and cassettes containing demos for songs to be recorded. On another occasion a local political activist accused the group of being in Africa to exploit and steal African music and threatened to riot at the studio until McCartney who played the songs for him proving that they contained no local influence whatsoever. Paul McCartney also suffered a sudden bronchial spasm during one session which left him unconscious. Despite all of these distractions, the album did manage to get recorded on time and with limited post-production done back in London.
The album’s cover photo was shot by Clive Arrowsmith and features an expanded “band”. Along with Paul, Linda and Denny the photo includes journalist Michael Parkinson, comedian Kenny Lynch, actor James Coburn, columnist Clement Freud, actor Christopher Lee, and boxer John Conteh. While not quite as iconic as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the cover of Band on the Run has become one of the most famous in rock history.
Although Paul McCartney had previous and future albums where he played virtually every instrument, this album is probably his most important accomplishment. Beyond stepping in at the last moment to provide the bulk of guitars and drums, McCartney also forged fine vocal melodies and chameleon–like changes in tone and inflection to fit the mood of each track. His arrangements are spectacular, especially on the mini-suites, and the productions are rich. This was also the album where McCartney first really started to develop his own style on bass and brought it up to the forefront of the mix.
The opening title song “Band On the Run” is one of the absolute classics of McCartney’s solo career. This three-part medley follows sequentially (at least among album tracks) the 4-part medley which ended Red Rose Speedway. After a complex two-minute intro, the third, acoustic-driven title part is the melodic payoff. The song strikes the balance between being experimental with unique structure yet accessible enough to make it impossible to be ignored by the pop world. McCartney credits George Harrison for coining the term “Band on the Run” during an acrimonious Apple board meeting in the Beatles’ final days.
“Jet” is a great follow-up to the fantastic opener with layers of sound, and an exploding chorus (like a jet). This rocker has great harmonies and background vocals in general and the title may have been influenced by the McCartney’s Labrador Retriever. Unlike most of the rest of the album, recorded in Nigeria, “Jet” was recorded back at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London.
The first side concludes with a couple of unique rockers. “Mrs Vanderbilt” is a driving acoustic tune with chanting vocal inflections during the verses and a great bass line throughout, which really stands out. The opening lines borrow from a catchphrase from music hall performer Charlie Chester. While recording in Lagos, the studio suffered a power outage so overdubs were later added in London. “Let Me Roll It” contains a bluesy rolling guitar riff during the verses and use of tape echo on the vocals, following a Fafsa organ and bass intro. the tune has long been considered to be an answer to John lennon’s “How Do you Sleep?” from
Side two begins with the very bright and acoustic “Mamunia” with more melodic and bouncy bass throughout. The lyrics are a bit nonsensical, more wordplay than meaning, but a cool synth lead near the end adds some variety and a new level to the sound. “No Words” is an electric song with judicious use of orchestra and sounds a lot like Harrison, vocal-wise. It jumps through several sections rapidly with differing instrumental arrangements, sounding somewhat under-developed and confused. It was the only song on the album partially credited to Denny Laine. “Helen Wheels” takes a simpler rock/pop approach with some whining vocal effect above a hook good enough to make it a hit song, peaking at #10 in the U.S. and #12 on the U.K.
“Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” is another attempt at a multi-part suite, starting as an acoustic, almost Scottish folk tune and evolving through sections with clarinets, heavy strings, and even some odd percussion added by Ginger Baker, who was also recording in Nigeria at the time. The repetitive nature tilts a bit towards the infamous “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” with its repetitiveness and contains slight reprises of “Jet” and “Mrs Vanderbilt” in the mix. The album concludes with “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five”, a great closer which really gets into the beat and rhythm with a vaudeville flavor. It takes some judicious breaks for vocal chorus with sustained organ before coming back to great effect and builds towards a climatic ending with heavy brass brought in to add to the tension before it finally breaks and abruptly reprises in the chorus of “Band on the Run” which fades the album out.
Band on the Run was the top-selling album of 1974 in both England and Australia and it won the Grammy for “Best Pop Vocal Performance By a Duo, Group or Chorus” in early 1975. The album was also the last time the group would be called “Paul McCartney & Wings” as they would simply be “Wings” for the duration of their existence and it was also McCartney’s final album on the Apple Records label which he started with his fellow Beatles five years earlier.