I sat down to write the review for Band on the Run in the early afternoon. I had a good chunk of time lined up, I sat down on the balcony where I’m staying in Edmonton, the record was all cued up for another listen…
And I couldn’t listen. It had to wait until sunset. It was just too early in the day. This is a sunset record. The hero returning home from the day’s heroic efforts. The hero then slips into recline mode in the car on the way home. At least, this self-described hero did for about a week now. Those opening chords and nifty little harmonies on the title track told me that it was OK to let down the guard a little bit. (Not too much – I was still on the road, after all). The hero walks in the door to the apartment during the transition riff section (“If I ever get here/gonna give it all away”), and then enters the real stage (the balcony) to the screams of passers-by below on the iconic, epic string section that singles one of Paul’s most well-loved songs. This was a fun charade to partake in.
As I write this, I’m struck by how I’m turning into my dad. I have memories of driving on some deserted American highway (on multiple occasions), and having this come on the radio. Dad would crank the volume way up with a delighted laugh that could also be described as a cackle, almost as though he was delighted that he was corrupting the music tastes of my brother and I. Thank goodness he did.
Aside from the album’s second track, “Jet” and the iconic “Let Me Roll It”, I’m not sure that I would be able to name a single song by Wings. The other thing about Wings that I know is the combo of Paul and Linda, which I really only came into consciousness of a few years ago when news of Paul’s divorce was impossible to ignore (and it wasn’t even Linda who he was divorcing!). Add this to the pile of things that need to be explored further once we get through the rest of these records.
I’m really gonna only have time to deep dive on so many of these artists in like 2023. One day, I vow to be well-read on all of these people.
I love “Jet” just as much as “Band on the Run” in a lot of ways. Both have really catchy, singable hooks that make you look like fools as you try and replicate what Paul’s doing with his vocals, and they’re both good at pushing the boundaries of pop music, with interesting song construction and unique elements. Other songs on this record of those unique elements, too, but the singability falls off a lot, and it becomes more a thinkpiece album than a jam record. “Bluebird”, for instance, could have just as easily been an early Radiohead record, and no one would have even batted an eye. “Mamunia” is enough to entrance you with the melody line of the chorus and its more minimalist structure. On the whole, lots of these songs were given a more exotic kind of a feel. “Mamunia” has the vibe of being in a hammock in some trendy destination over reading week, and “No Words” also has the feel of being gathered around a beach campfire. This was influenced by the fact that much of the conception and recording of this record took place in Nigeria, which had a great influence on the songs here. Those kinds of songs, while neat, is not what makes this a memorable record. A small number of songs take this up from being a neat record to “BAAAAAAAND ON THE RUNN!”
Arguably my favorite track on here was “Let Me Roll It”. This is just as much a feel good jam as “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and “Don’t Stop Believin'”. The difference – and the most attractive quality of this – is the 70’s rock bite that the song has underneath the ultra-singable chorus. The deep, percussive presence of Paul’s signature bass is brought out of the texture in a big way, and the dry snare and kick further underline that punch. An all-too-present electric guitar is right there to highlight the song’s groovability, and also to give you that place to unabashed place to bust out a poorly timed air guitar solo.
So go ahead. Throw this one down on the old turntable. You’ve earned it, you daily hero, you. Belt it out and tell the world about the jailer man and Sailor Sam. They deserve to know!
SS: It was a surprise to me, researching Paul McCartney this week, to find out how prolific he has been in the many years since The Beatles broke up in 1970. I was certainly aware of this album, a hit in 1973 and the biggest album Wings ever had, and to a lesser extent aware of the other albums that Wings recorded throughout the 1970’s. But McCartney has also been involved in more than 20 other post-Beatles albums. As the years have progressed, fewer and fewer of the albums have made a major impact, especially outside the U.K. That’s fascinating, considering the importance of the Lennon-McCartney songbook in the history of pop music.
The assets and liabilities of Band on the Run provide an overview of the reasons for McCartney’s uneven musical legacy. The first two cuts on the album, the cleverly shape-shifting “Band on the Run” and the unusually vigorous rocker “Jet,” are ingenious and memorable. Although I never owned this album, these two songs are somehow burned into my brain. I suspect they were in constant rotation on mainstream radio when I was a kid; through much of the seventies I was trapped on a school bus for two hours a day and forced to listen to whatever the school bus driver tuned into. As a result there is a lot of sonic junk imbedded in my psyche and I’m somewhat bitter about it. But I’m fond of “Band on the Run,” a fast-moving, quixotic suite stitched together from several different songs; it’s a less exotic relative of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or McCartney’s own “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” a longish song which, like “Band on the Run,” features three distinct melodies in a medley that shouldn’t work but nevertheless does.
“Jet” is energetic and spontaneous McCartney, the song of a man delighted to be freed from Beatlemania (and various constricting Beatles contracts). The stanzas are the nicely melodic stuff we would expect from the guy who wrote “Yesterday” but the refrain is a surprise: the mere joyous shout of “Jet!” The lyrics are mostly nonsense (“I thought the major was a lady suffragette”), something that holds true for the rest of the album, but the lighthearted, fresh-out-of-jail high spirits here make for a great song.
Band on the Run is a loosely conceived concept album about captivity and freedom but not nearly as complicated as other high concept projects of the era (The Who’s Tommy, Queen’s A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, and of course Pink Floyd’s The Wall). The listener could be forgiven for not even noticing the theme, which is held lightly. In the album’s last song, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” (which must have seemed a long way off at the time), bits of the first song recur and are playfully transformed – but such high concept games are subtle and in the background.
So those are the assets. As for the aforementioned “liabilities,” the rest of the songs on the album, especially the repetitive, eventually irritating “Let Me Roll It,” “Mamunia,” and “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” are not much more than ditties you might try out around the campfire. I do like the liveliness of “Mrs. Vandebilt” and yes, that’s the way it’s spelled. The love song “Bluebird” has been praised, but compared to McCartney’s other songs for his wife Linda, especially “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “My Love,” it’s thin although undeniably sweet. It’s clear throughout the album that McCartney just wants to write impulsive, happy songs without worrying too much about being one-quarter of the most important band in the world.
Wings was always Paul McCartney’s band and no one ever believed otherwise. Indeed, just as Band on the Run was about to be recorded most of the members argued with McCartney and took off, leaving only Linda McCartney and the loyal Denny Laine. Various others helped out later, but it wouldn’t be wrong to remember Wings as a trio. It’s hard to know what to do with the joint music credits for Paul and Linda on most of the Wings material; I want to believe in their partnership, and certainly they always seemed very close. (In some photographs they look eerily like siblings; there was something about the hooded and innocent quality of their eyes.) Her backing vocals and keyboard playing were, however, modest accomplishments. Still: her presence encouraged him to write some charming and graceful love songs like “Listen to What the Man Said” and especially the beautiful “Maybe I’m Amazed.” (If, however, she was the impetus behind the egregious “Silly Love Songs,” I am less impressed.)
What I’m working around to saying is that McCartney needed a stronger collaborator post-1970. There are a few good songs in the Wings catalogue but fewer still in the post-Wings songbook. McCartney is a natural songwriter of outstanding instinctive gifts, but without a strong (and provocative) partner like John Lennon, McCartney has produced (dare I say it?) quite a lot of material that is pretty thin when you hold it up to the light.
But it’s well worth spending some time with the enjoyable first two songs on this album – and pondering the astonishing fact that Paul McCartney to this day apparently cannot read a note of music.
You know what? We try so hard to make interesting picks with the songs we put at the bottom of these posts, but there really are no other two songs we’d want at the bottom here.