Band On The Run: The Story Behind Paul McCartney and Wings’ 1974 Classic

06/18/2016

Band On The Run: The Story Behind Paul McCartney and Wings’ 1974 Classic

–Joe Lund

With the release of Pure McCartney, the stunning compilation of Sir Paul’s post-Beatles work, it seems an opportune time to take a look back at the making of McCartney’s most beloved LP. Recorded with Wings, 1974’s Band on the Run didn’t just mark a giant step forward—it also helped free McCartney from the long shadow of the Beatles’ legacy. But making this seminal album was anything but easy.

Fact is, the monumental troubles that McCartney and Wings had to surmount while recording Band on the Run could easily have served as fodder for an epic Hollywood film. It all began with McCartney’s desire to work in a locale that was far off the beaten path. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, as it turned out), his record company, EMI, enjoyed an international presence, with recording facilities based in Bombay, Rio de Janeiro, Peking, and … aha! … Lagos. Enchanted by visions of sunning on the beach by day, and recording by night, Macca decided to gather his Wings bandmates and head for the Nigerian city, nestled on the west coast of Africa. As if to foreshadow the troubles to come, inoculations to prevent cholera, typhoid, polio, and a host of other potential diseases were required.

One week prior to making the journey, McCartney corralled his fellow Wings members to rehearse some new songs. Disputes ensued, and guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell left the band. All of a sudden, Wings was down to three members–McCartney, wife Linda and guitarist Denny Laine. Off the three went, upbeat and confident despite the unforeseen defection of their drummer and lead guitarist.

Arriving in Lagos, the trio discovered that the EMI studio was in serious disrepair. Microphones were found tucked away in a cupboard, the control desk was faulty, and acoustic baffles used for sound separation were nowhere to be found. Heroically, however, engineer Geoff Emerick pulled together the equipment necessary to forge onwards.

Soon enough, a regular daily pattern was established. Weekday mornings were spent swimming at a local country club. In mid-afternoon, the band would make the hour-long drive to the recording facility, where the work sometimes went on until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Weekends were reserved for rest and recreation, in keeping with McCartney’s reasons for choosing Lagos in the first place.

As regards the sessions, McCartney, Linda and Laine were galvanized and motivated by the defections of Seiwell and McCullough. As he had often done on his solo albums, Macca himself handled most of the lead guitar and drumming duties. Notwithstanding the technical difficulties, recording was going relatively smoothly, until one evening the McCartneys decided to take a leisurely stroll. Out of nowhere, a car pulled up, five men jumped out, and, at knifepoint, McCartney was forced to relinquish all the valuables in his possession. Among the items taken were cassettes of demos of potential Wings material.

Such was the first of a series of travails that dogged the work, going forward. On one occasion, McCartney collapsed in the studio, unable to catch his breath. A heart attack was the initial fear, but after a period of rest, McCartney gathered himself. The episode was later diagnosed as a bronchial spasm triggered by excessive smoking. On another occasion, a local Afro-beat star and political activist went on radio and accused McCartney of coming to Lagos to “exploit and steal” African music. To placate the accuser, McCartney agreed not to enlist help from local musicians. He also steered clear of giving any songs an “African” sound.

By the end of September of 1973, six weeks into their stay in Lagos, the Wings entourage was relieved to be headed back to London. Overdubs were added at Air Studios, including terrific orchestral arrangements by Tony Visconti, best known for his production work with Marc Bolan and David Bowie. On October 28, the iconic cover photo (which featured actors Christopher Lee and James Coburn, among other celebrities) was shot. Incredibly, despite the harrowing incidents that occurred in Lagos, the album brimmed with a buoyant spirit, and was rife with such classics as “Jet” (which found McCartney paying tribute to the family’s Lab puppy) and “Helen Wheels” (which did the same for McCartney’s Land Rover).

Remarkably, despite all the challenges in Lagos, McCartney continued to choose unusual places to record Wings’ albums, traveling to such far-flung cities as Paris, New Orleans, Nashville and the Virgin Islands. Lagos, however, did not receive a return visit. In 1998, 25 years after making Band on the Run, McCartney offered an assessment of the experience. “When we got back home, people said, ‘Ah, out of adversity has been born a good album.’ But I hate that theory. It may well be true, but that’s why I don’t like it. I hate the idea that you’ve got to sweat and suffer to produce something good. But it turned out successfully anyway.”

Indeed, even John Lennon, who generally only grudgingly complimented McCartney’s post-Beatles work, concurred. “Band on the Run is a great album,” Lennon told Rolling Stone, not long after the album was released. “Wings keep changing all the time. It doesn’t matter who’s playing. You can call them Wings, but it’s Paul McCartney music – and it’s good stuff.”

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