BAND ON THE RUN
Best Beatles Solo Album?
Norman Warwick thinks it probably is
50 years after its initial release, Paul McCartney & Wings’ 1973 masterpiece has aged gracefully, according to Matt Mitchell at Paste magazine, and remains a timeless document of our greatest pop songwriter’s prime.
Much as I loved The Beatles´ music when I as a teenager growing up in North Manchester in the sixties, I was really a far bigger fan of The Byrds, and actually only returned to my Beatles collection when Paul McCartney brought out Band On The Run.
When the big bang of their break up became the starting pistol for their various solo careers, none of the foursome really leapt out of the blocks running.
As Matt Mitchell wrote in his article, it’s really quite fascinating, really, how Band on the Run became such a smash hit. Yes, of course, Sir Paul McCartney—a quarter of the greatest band in music history—is at the helm, but, before December 1973, that type of leadership on a solo quest didn’t always equate to a stroke of brilliance for the Fab Four. Just look at John Lennon’s Two Virgins or Mind Games, or George Harrison’s Electronic Sound, Ringo Starr’s Beaucoups of Blues or, even, McCartney’s first Wings album, Wild Life. In fact, that first handful of years after their breakup in the spring of 1970, the Beatles each took a bit to get their footing—well, except for Harrison, whose All Things Must Pass was an aces source of mastery composed largely of tracks he was never given the green light to put on a Beatles record when they were still together.
Band on the Run, though—not Ringo or All Things Must Pass or John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band—is the greatest Beatles solo album ever put together and, just perhaps, the greatest Beatles album ever. I say this knowing full well that virtually no one will agree with me. This is a cross I’ve made peace with bearing. If you are familiar with my writing, you are likely aware that I am a staunch McCartney stumper (I do have a tattoo of the “cute one” on my leg, after all). Even when he released the career-low Egypt Station just a few years ago, I was one of the few listeners who came out of the woodwork to say that “Fuh You” is actually good. It’s a disease to awe over the work of one man so much, and the original title of this essay was going to be something along the lines of “Band on the Run is the Best Beatles Album of All Time.” I actually don’t think it’s a tight race, either. All Things Must Pass makes it interesting but, ultimately, falls short on account of it being a double-album when it could’ve (and should’ve) been a single LP.
When I was in high school, my pal Steven and I would argue over who the best Beatle was. He’d go to bat for George, and I’d preach the gospel of Paul. We’d fight over whether or not Rubber Soul was better than Revolver, but, usually, wind up agreeing on The White Album. I haven’t seen him in four years, but I know I could call him up right now and heat up the same arguments we used to have a decade ago. Back then, all of the Beatles fans in my orbit were like that: We fought tooth and nail for our favorites, cut up the rug over what record stands above the rest. Nowadays, the discourse around the Beatles is much different; folks in my generation either love them or can’t understand why the hell they’re so important in the first place. At this point, it’s basically a trend to tweet about how much you don’t care about the Beatles. I think that’s okay, such conversations don’t move me into negativity. Before Elvis and Priscilla, millennials gave up on the King. It was only a matter of time before zoomers did the same with the Beatles.
But, if you ask me, the Beatles still have an unshakable chokehold on music history. I mean, just look at the reception to their recent “final” song, “Now and Then”—it felt like the entire internet came together to, collectively, talk about a dinky little track that, if we’re being completely honest, is no better than the lesser songs on lesser Beatles albums. Say what you want about the horrible CGI in the music video or the ethics of using AI to enliven Lennon’s demo vocals, it was pretty beautiful to watch one final moment of joyous curiosity around the Beatles unfurl across social media.
I wouldn’t have expected the greatest band ever releasing their triumphant coda to go any differently, but it is weird that, upon the 50th anniversary of Band on the Run this winter, virtually no one is talking about it—aside from here-and-there rumblings about the recent anniversary edition release that is rid of orchestral overdubs. Loving the Beatles is nothing new or interesting, but loving the solo discography of a Beatle is much rarer—or, at the very least, less interesting in the larger sense of music criticism. Everyone has already poured their hearts out over the Beatles; what else is left to say about what the members got up to on their own time? Surely, there’s something to say about the multi-platinum album that solidified Paul McCartney as the greatest Beatle.
McCartney’s ability to assimilate into any instrument is not undocumented territory. He famously played drums and bass guitar on “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” one of the Beatles 20+ #1 hits, and he’s recorded multiple solo albums alone over the last 53 years. His work on Band on the Run arrives like a magical take on his entire personal canon up until that point. He uses the experimentalism he first dabbled in on Ram, makes big noise with the spine-splitting rock theatrics of Abbey Road and distills the kind of beautiful balladry he’s made into an art form. Listening to all 40 minutes of Band on the Run is like watching a genius remember that he doesn’t have to drum up new material to shine brightest, that his bag of tricks is under-explored and in dire need of a revisit. Thus, the third Wings album is a revitalization of McCartney’s heroism and an activated, mesmerizing opus.
By the time Wings set out to record Band On The Run, they had already made Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway—two records that, despite producing songs like “Tomorrow” and “My Love,” were pretty lackluster and uninspired. Where Ram and McCartney were excellent, surreal and, sometimes, abstract collections of fragmented and experimental and lovesick music, McCartney’s work with Wings hadn’t quite hit the mark like the world wanted it to. To boot, after Red Rose Speedway came out in April 1973 and the band completed a successful UK tour that July, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough left the band during rehearsals for Band on the Run. Paul had made McCartney by himself (with added harmonies from his wife Linda) in a two-month frenzy after Lennon privately departed the Beatles in 1969, but it wasn’t the make-or-break album that Band on the Run would wind up becoming. The stakes this time around were immeasurable, and McCartney had no time to find replacement players for Seiwell and McCullough before August 1973.
So, Paul and, Linda (right) and multi-instrumentalist and ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine took to EMI’s studio in Lagos, Nigeria by themselves to make Band on the Run together—because Paul considered Lagos to be a fascinating place to record their next LP, hoping they could spend their mornings at the beach and then hole up in the studio at night. But the recording space was shit; the McCartneys were robbed at knifepoint and lost lyric sheets and demo tapes; a civil war in Nigeria had only ended in 1970, and the country was embroiled in military government corruption and rampant illnesses. EMI only had one tape machine—a Studer 8-track—and Wings had to stay in a house near the Ikeja airport, an hour away from the studio. Paul would also suffer a massive bronchial spasm from excess smoking in the Lagos heat and pass out while recording a vocal track.
Cream drummer Ginger Baker invited Wings to make Band on the Run at his studio, ARC, in Ikeja, and they took him up on his offer, but only for one day. The band recorded “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” while there, and Baker shakes a tin can full of gravel on the song (he’s credited as contributing “percussion”). Wings took six weeks to record the album in Nigeria and, upon their return to England, found a letter from EMI encouraging the band not to go to Lagos due to a devastating outbreak of cholera. Eventually, the trio would have to overdub most of the record in London at George Martin’s AIR Studios and, while there, would invite conductor Tony Visconti to provide orchestral arrangements from a 60-piece ensemble, ask saxophonist Howie Casey to add horn instrumentation on three songs (“Bluebird,” “Mrs. Vanderbilt” and “Jet”) and the band would record all of “Jet.”
Red Rose Speedway was a critical failure, and the whole world was watching what McCartney would drum up next—and patience for him to make a masterpiece was wearing thin. In turn, Band on the Run didn’t sell well upon its initial release. By the end of December 1973, the album would hit #9 on the UK Albums Chart and then, in February 1974, hit #7 on the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart. Singles “Jet” and “Band on the Run” would help propel the album into commercial and critical good graces, with the former peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 and the latter hitting #1 (his third #1 hit since the Beatles’ disbandment). Band on the Run is the kind of record that no one else in the world could have ever made. At only nine songs, it’s perfect from start to finish, and it features some of the very greatest entries in the popular music canon. Especially so, side one is an unbeatable five-song run—from the title track to “Let Me Roll It.”
Of course, I must back up my proclamation that Band on the Run is the greatest Beatles album of all time. I think my immediate mark of support is that, truly, it is the most dynamic record any Beatle ever made after the dissolution of the band. The sights and sounds of Wings’ breakthrough are orchestral, poppy and soaring. All at once, McCartney plugs in choral fragments, catchy verses, earworm melodies and a bevy of different genres. The greatness is practically embroidered onto every inch of the LP. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Paul McCartney is the best pop songwriter of all time, and that truth is evident to the fullest extent on Band on the Run. It’s the kind of project that reminds me of the Abbey Road medley, for how it so deftly weaves in and out of multi-tracked brilliance and romantic and sonic fascinations. Can you imagine if “Helen Wheels” had actually made the final UK tracklist (it was featured on the US release and wound up a Top 10 hit)?
Arguments have been made that, while Band on the Run is sonically fabulous, the record lacks the emotional density of Lennon and Harrison’s solo work. It’s the same kind of conversation that’s been had around McCartney’s work for decades, that he’s the “love song guy” and not an existential thinker like his former band-mates. I’ve never bought much into that argument, maybe because I find Harrison’s psychedelic, peace-seeking musings to be especially grating (Lennon’s pretentious, post-bed protest music was pretty corny until Double Fantasy, and “Imagine” is the worst “best” song of all time). When it comes to McCartney, the profundity is not in the stories his songs have chosen to tell.
Nobody, not even me, is trying to argue that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or “Rocky Raccoon” are dashing marks of mind-altering, deep-thinking phenomena. The resonance is in the music, in the instrumentation that sends people to their knees. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is sublimely existential, and its charming trio of clarinets provide unequivocal whimsy. There’s a reason why “Hey Jude” is, quintessentially, the greatest pop-rock song ever constructed; McCartney’s ability to sell magic through simplicity (which is, actually, quite complex) has never been matched in the 50+ years since. He’s forged his own pantheon of language before (just listen to “I’ve Just Seen a Face” or “I’m Looking Through You”), and his most textbook phrasings are complementary to the human condition of latching onto universality. We love these songs because they evoke the same glow of love and nuance of heartache that we’ve all experienced over and over.
Band on the Run is, however, McCartney’s maturist collective statement. He’d already achieved that sense of grown-up pop performance on “Maybe I’m Amazed” three years prior but, altogether, songs like “Mamunia” and “No Words” and “Bluebird” toed the line between stoic, serious and playful. There’s a give and go on this record, punctuated by the over-the-top funk of closing track “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five,” which boasts gibberish lyrics and cinematic enunciation atop an undercurrent of mellotron, organ and horns. The groove is undeniable, as McCartney assumes a bluesy, near-comical vocal affectation. And yet, there are slight harmonic breakdowns pieced together by piano chunks and escapist revelations masked by finite romance (and a perfectly placed “Band on the Run” outro).
A track I’ve learned to hold dearly in adulthood is “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” the album’s penultimate entry. It very well might just be McCartney’s most underrated song. Actually, I’ll dare to say that it might just be McCartney’s best post-Beatles song. The story goes that Paul “snuck” onto the set of Papillon in Montego Bay, Jamaica and, upon having dinner with the film’s star Dustin Hoffman, was challenged by the actor to “write a song about anything.” When Hoffman showed McCartney a magazine article about the death of Pablo Picasso—pointing out his last words, “Drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can’t drink anymore,” especially—he composed a demo of the song on the spot. What stands out to me about “Picasso’s Last Words” is the interpolations of “Jet” and “Mrs. Vandebilt,” and how Wings pairs it with the kind of orchestral arrangements and background sampling he and the Beatles did on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—except, this time, the work is serene and matches the energy of that of a film score more so than some type of mystical concerto. It matches the shape-shifting oeuvre of “Band on the Run,” but in such a way that prioritizes the act of making a song’s sonic DNA into a tapestry, not a mark of pure performative showmanship.
Band on the Run is a multi-faceted LP, too. For all of the record’s daintiness (“Bluebird”) and kooky, hyper-fixated inventiveness (“Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” the album is downright sexy and maddening. Take lead single “Jet” for instance: It’s pure glam rock named after McCartney’s dog Jet (or a pony he once owned, but who knows), and it flaunts a face-melting guitar riff paired with anthemic, coliseum-sized harmonics. Linda used a Moog for the bass line, and the song’s six-string energy (paired with a horn section from Casey) unfurls into a section of “ooo’s” that are dripping in sensuality.
Likewise, “Let Me Roll It” is the single hottest rock song ever laid to tape—and it’s McCartney doing John Lennon better than Lennon himself. On top of that, it proves one thing we’ve always known: Paul McCartney can run a masterclass on guitar. And when he sings “I can’t tell you how I feel, my heart is like a wheel” in the final verse, and his octave trembles ever so slightly, there aren’t many other moments in contemporary music that make my soul ache like that one. If Band on the Run is anything, it’s an often-muscular, high-geared simulation of roaring, electric, deliriously feral rock ‘n’ roll.
But let’s talk about the title track. Much of the song was inspired by a quote Harrison made during a Beatles business meeting, especially the line “If we ever get out of here,” and period-specific drug busts, Eagles-influenced “desperado” imagery and McCartney’s own legal complications with pot possession charges helped inspire him to make a track that is, at its core, about a group of people busting out of prison. (This image is even more deliberate considering the album’s cover, which depicts the McCartneys, Laine, Michael Parkinson, Kenny Lynch, James Coburn, Clement Freud, Christopher Lee and John Conteh as escaped convicts pinned down by a prison searchlight.) Village Voice critic Robert Christgau even went as far as labeling the song as being about “the oppression of rock musicians by cannabis-crazed bureaucrats,” and the “stuck inside these four walls” line was likely reconfigured—after the demos were stolen—to better portray the hell of the Lagos sessions. “Band on the Run” employs a three-part melody through an effortless pastiche of remarkable acoustics, slide fills and multi-layered choruses. It’s a menagerie of colorful, operatic movements and finesse. Laine’s lead guitar is especially notable and emphasized, as are Linda’s synthesizers. Couple both of those elements with Visconti’s orchestrations, and you’ve got pop brilliance bursting at the seams. No other rock song sounds like “Band on the Run,” and no other rock song ever will. It’s a treasure trove.
In 2016, for my 18th birthday, my mom got me tickets to my first Paul McCartney concert. They were nosebleed seats in a basketball arena, so high up I could almost touch the ceiling above me. But I was so happy, so beyond moved to just be in the same room as the man whose music defined such a significant portion of my life. Going into the show, I was fully expecting “Hey Jude” to be the song that broke me—especially when the entire crowd would sing the “na na na na” chorus together. But, much to my own chagrin, I started weeping much earlier in the set, when—already 27 songs in—McCartney and his band started playing “Band on the Run.”
I’d never cried at a concert before, and I haven’t since, but something about that melody change—when the orchestra fades into acoustic chords trading back and forth—turned me inside out. Seven years later, and I still can’t quite put my finger on why “Band on the Run” got me the way it did. Perhaps I’ll never reach a conclusion. But, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s the spirit of pop essentialism—the way a perfect song can enter your body and rearrange the DNA within you. We’ve all felt it before, and we’ll all likely feel it again before we kick the bucket. In an essay he wrote about “Two of Us” for his The Lyrics book, Paul once admitted that he doesn’t “necessarily want meaning.” “I don’t root for meaning all the time,” he said. “Sometimes it just feels right.” When I listen to Band on the Run, that’s all that matters. It just feels right.
editors note My son Andrew would have been around ten or eleven when he decided he had had enough of being teased by British songwriter Gary Hall, a friend of ours for his admiration of The Beatles. Gary, whilst not as musically sound as McCartney was nevertheless a great songwriter, and a great, great voice. I always felt his demeaning of The Beatles was a little bit tongue of cheek, and he had even written a book more or less denouncing the Beatles and their legacy. Several months after the evening of the Warwick Hall debate, that was mediated by me playing the David Frost role in the talks with Nixon and was actually a good deal of knock about fun, though the argument rumbled on for a further couple of years, Andrew and I ended up at Albert Dock in Liverpool for the first concert at which McCartney sang some songs from The Beatles´ output. It was a massive gig, my son´s first stadium-style gig really and neither of us will ever forgot that night we caught the Band On The Run.