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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Paul McCartney: Band On The Run

PAUL McCARTNEY: BAND ON THE RUN (1973)


1) Band On The Run; 2) Jet; 3) Bluebird; 4) Mrs. Vanderbilt; 5) Let Me Roll It; 6) Mamu­nia; 7) No Words; 8) Picasso's Last Words; 9) Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five.

General verdict: Nigerian-inspired stadium pop about jailbreaks, labradors, Picasso, time travel and the meaning of life — we love him when he's crazy like that, don't we?


One of the most unusual aspects of Band On The Run is that, while the bulk of it was created by an even more broken set of «Wings» than Wild Life, in the end it is the first McCartney album that sounds like it was recorded by a real band — on the run, on the fly, on the weed, on the crack, does not really matter. It was the first of a series of records that firmly re-established Paul as a rock artist — we will get around in a minute to discussing what sort of rock it was — and, what might have been even more important for him, it put him at peace with the Seventies, adapting his sound to the trendy vibes of the time and proving that he could at least restore and consolidate his credentials, even if there was no longer any hope of earning the same levels of artistic respect as Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin.

In a way, Band On The Run was a very conscious rebounce from the stylistics of Paul's previous albums, and it is highly likely that he was getting tired of the incessant critical bashing — yes, in retrospect many of us and them have come to getting and enjoying the homely-comfy cuteness and the subtle psychological depths of his early solo efforts, but at the time it was all essentially treated as muzak for housewives, and one can hardly blame the man for not giving us another Ram; besides, the very perspective of going back and forth between Ram and Band On The Run, arguably the only couple of absolutely flawless records in Paul's catalog, is emotionally and intellectually thrilling. Here we are on the porch — next thing you know, here we are in the arena. How many people feel equally comfy in both environments?..

Of course, one important condition of artistic success in such a crossover is that you retain a certain degree of whackiness. For Paul, it all began with the decision to record in the EMI studio in Lagos — where else do you get back in touch with your creative muse, if not in an unfortunate African country torn apart by civil war, dictatorship, poverty, and epidemics? However, it was not so much African music itself that served as Paul's main inspiration (there is an interesting story about an angry Fela Kuti allegedly bursting into the studio to castigate the white man for stealing his continent's cultural heritage, only to discover that nothing of the sort was going on) as the very fact of doing something unpredictable, risky, adventurous, liberating: motives of freedom and escape crop up fairly frequently on the album, except that now they are extra- rather than introvert. The idea of Ram was to get away from too many people into the heart of the country; the idea of Band On The Run is... well, just listen to the title track.

Clearly, this is an album that needed to be loud and brash, and so it is — featuring plenty of deep bass, distorted guitar riffs, vocal overdubs and echoes, intimidating Moogs, and, in some of the most climactic moments, mammoth-level Tony Visconti orchestrations. However, while some­times bordering on heavy rock (and this would become even more pronounced on the next album), Band On The Run never ever threatens to put Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple out of business, not because Paul or Denny Laine lack the necessary instrumental virtuosity, but simply because neither of them is an angry young man at heart. This sometimes leads people to feeling uncom­fortable around tunes such as ʽJetʼ or ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ, which seem to propagate a «let's ROCK!» vibe around them, yet in reality have about as much rocking energy as ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ or ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ. Perhaps it is for these numbers, really, that the term «power pop» should be reserved — rather than somebody like Cheap Trick, whose pop hooks would be dressed up in a really dirty, sloppy, turbulent rock sound. Personally, I do not see any problem in coming to terms with this type of sound.

Could Band On The Run be regarded as a conceptual album? It does seem to run a full circle, fading out on a reprise of the refrain from the opening title track — and it has quite a few leit­motifs that crop up all over the place, most openly so on ʽPicasso's Last Wordsʼ, whose free-flowing second half reprises the hooks from both ʽJetʼ and ʽMrs. Vanderbiltʼ. Yet this is no more of a concept than was Sgt. Pepper: just a simple editing device, you could say, to artificially increase the cohesiveness of the LP. And yet again, it has always seemed to me that there are two main themes on the record — freedom and loss — pulling it in opposing directions of joy and sorrow and somehow merging into one towards the end, making the album as a whole a far more emotionally rewarding experience than anything Paul would record after that.

For one thing, there is no other album in his catalog that kicks things off with not one, but two inspiring sing-along anthems to freedom in a row. With its three-part structure, ʽBand On The Runʼ might be said to take a cue from the prog-rock movement, but I actually find a much more startling structural similarity to ʽHappiness Is A Warm Gunʼ (no wonder that even John found some kind words to say about the album) — this is simply the good old Beatles tradition of keeping things ever-changing and unpredictable, and the build-up, from the slow "stuck inside these four walls" miserable section to the grim "if we ever get out of here" brooding section and to the climactic «escape» part is a splash of calculated brilliance. Of course, it is all a game: see something like Thin Lizzy's ʽJailbreakʼ for a more titillating and less comfortable use of the escape-from-prison metaphor. Paul never forgets to explicitly hint to us that he is viewing it all from a kid's perspective ("I hope you're having fun" is, after all, hardly the first thing that a break­out convict would say to his mate). But then, we do not necessarily want to associate ourselves with real convicts, do we? All we want to do is to sing that "band on the run!" bit and hear the teasingly infectious, arrogantly gamy, deliciously curvy little guitar riff that echoes the vocal bit. Is there a better song, overall, in the pop catalog that conveys the feel of freedom and happiness after a long period of isolation and boredom than this one, within just five minutes' time?..

With ʽJetʼ, the situation gets more complex. It introduces the all-too-familiar element of Paul's lyrical nonsense ("I thought the major was a little lady suffragette"), and both its arena-rock sound and its relationship-oriented lyrics (yes, it is about another one of Paul's dogs, or horses, or buffaloes, but who knows? who cares?) seem to carry us away in different directions, but ultima­tely, it, too, is about freedom and escape ("climb on my back and we'll go for a ride in the sky"), with psychedelic overtones as well, skilfully conveyed by the synthesizer parts. Just like ʽBand On The Runʼ, actually, the song's main hook and power vibe «emerge» out of its blocky, hin­dered, stuttering intro, which almost seems to be mocking a reggae rhythm — before launching into a wild one-chord riff which only needs to be sped up and «crunched up» a bit to form the basis for a bona fide Ramones tune. Most of the song is spent in that wild-ride mode, and it seems only too appropriate for somebody who has just made a dashing prison break, even if it's only make-believe and all that.

But while ʽBand On The Runʼ and ʽJetʼ wnet on to become deservedly acclaimed and popular stadium-rock anthems, never to be missed at any of Paul's live shows, their presence alone does not turn Band On The Run into a great album, worthy of a real master. A new level of magic begins to operate with ʽMrs. Vanderbiltʼ, and culminates with the album's last three songs — a level of magic that, I am afraid to suggest, perhaps even Paul himself had not been planning upon, and I may be reading some of my own thoughts and interpretations into these songs, but isn't the fact that this is possible, in itself, an indication of greatness?

After the first two songs and the pleasant you-and-me-and-nobody-else-and-it's-happy-sad ballad­ry of ʽBluebirdʼ, ʽMrs. Vanderbiltʼ comes along and completely derails the record. It returns us to one of Paul's favorite subjects — boredom and depression — but this time, spices things up with an unusually fast tempo and elements of a «work song» (ho, hey-ho!) that is almost like the complete antithesis to the message of ʽBand On The Runʼ. Nobody is having fun here: "what's the use of worrying, what's the use of everything?" — and the steady, unnerving, unchanging, emo­tionless chugging rhythm just drives that point home, over and over and over, only occasionally giving way to desperate weeping chorus outbursts, only to be immediately choked up by another series of pseudo-uplifting ho, hey-hos. Who is Mrs. Vanderbilt? Who is Mrs. Washington? Are they symbolic representations of the oppressive elite? Are they socialites who happened to get on Paul's nerves at one time or another? Again, who really cares? All that matters is the Sisyphian vibe that the song conveys so well.

After ʽMrs. Vanderbiltʼ, things are never quite the same again. There is a dark and sinister strain to the lyrically straightforward ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ, for instance — most of the song is spent in a call-and-response session between Paul's minimalistic bassline and Laine's hard rock riff, a repe­titive and strange dialog that they must have found so intriguing themselves, they did not even bother to overdub a proper solo on top of it. ʽMamuniaʼ is one of the few songs here with some obvious African influences (a «nativist» ode to rain), and it tries to lighten things up with an acoustic vibe that is slightly reminiscent of ʽMother Nature's Sonʼ; but after that, the album rolls into even deeper depressed territory — ʽNo Wordsʼ, marking Laine's first serious credit as a song­writer within the band, is a short and powerful song about the impossibility of communica­tion between two loving hearts that manages, in its measly two minutes, to feature both the album's most heartbroken symphonic passage and its most hysterical guitar solo.

Many people justifiedly dismiss ʽPicasso's Last Wordsʼ as filler — after all, its main theme was quickly thrown together on a dare with Dustin Hoffman — but I find its structure delightfully Abbey Road-ish, and it seems as if Paul was actually thinking along the lines of «what would it take to make a proper musical equivalent of Picasso's art?» Perhaps «throwing together a couple of orchestrated reprises of songs already recorded for the album» was not quite the right answer, but at least it was a fun one. Essentially, it is just Paul taking on the mission to drink to Picasso's health, because the latter can't drink any more. It is weird, sad, and touching.

But the album's greatest musical triumph, one of the most underrated and most cathartic moments in Paul's entire catalog, is ʽ1985ʼ. Again, I do not know the «real» meaning of the song, but every time I listen to it, the gut feeling is the same. Normally, in fast tempo songs like these you get the feeling of moving — zipping through space, riding on a speed train, rolling down Hell's highway, whatever. ʽ1985ʼ, particularly when it gets to the final section, is a song that makes you feel like you are standing (at best, running on the spot), and it is the universe, in a grand irony of relativity, that is hurling everything at its disposal at you. Like a time machine to 1985, where "no one is left alive", which operates in such a way that spacetime is sucked into you at a terrifying speed, rather than vice versa. People sometimes technically describe the song's main piano theme as "(proto-)disco piano pop", but slow that piano riff down and you will get a somber funeral march — which is why the sudden transitions between the fast «dance» part and the slow choral requiem part are less ad hoc than they might seem, and why Paul's frantic and terrified screams, howls, and moans in the final section also sound so natural: if you were forced to stand your ground and be battered and bruised by flying saucers, gamma rays, and all the crystal balls from 1973 to 1985, you'd probably want to howl and moan, too.

So why, exactly, do we have to do this full circle, and emerge from this headspinning vortex with a reprise of ʽBand On The Runʼ? Was it all a bad dream? Did Paul think that the coda might sound too terrifying, and decide, at the last moment, to counterbalance it with a bit more of that uplifting mood from the start? Or was it just a random «conceptualizing» mood (the more reprises, the merrier)? Perhaps we should not even ask these questions with McCartney records, where the proverbial gut-feel is always more important than whatever symbolism or conceptualism one might discover, or claim to discover. But it is nice to know that at least such questions can be asked — there is so much that is strange, barely comprehensible about Band On The Run; an ability to mystify and befuddle that Paul would be gradually losing over the next decade before completely parting ways with it sometime around the mid-Eighties.

Above all, it is a dense, «jungly» album, one where, for the first time, Paul's own personality seems to matter less than the big joys, sorrows, and surprises that the amazing, terrifying, and perplexing universe throws at you. Perhaps this, actually, is the record's biggest difference from Ram: it is de-personalized, with Paul's voice very rarely being at the center of things (often, it is either very distant, as in ʽJetʼ, or muffled, as on ʽMamuniaʼ), and occasionally swamped and subdued by things, as on ʽ1985ʼ. However, with this level of inspired songwriting, such de-personali­zation is not only not a problem, but a virtue — it makes the whole thing feel as if it is about man's being caught up in the thick of it, enjoying the benefits of freedom but still helpless against trouble, toil, death, and the march of time.

Now, before I start overthinking it all to a crisp, let me just conclude that if you have a copy of the album that includes ʽHelen Wheelsʼ on it, please relegate it to its rightful position of a bonus track. It is a fun little rocker, but it has no depth to it, its travelog lyrics are largely incompatible with the rest of the album, and its references to "never will be found" make it seem like a poor cousin of ʽBand On The Runʼ. If you really want to bring the album to a glorious completion, replace it with ʽJunior's Farmʼ — one of Paul's greatest singles whose musical and lyrical content is completely in line with Band On The Run. But since it postdates the album rather than predates it, perhaps we should save a more detailed discussion for the next review.

7 comments:

  1. "adapting his sound to the trendy vibes of the time"
    The time being 1973 means that hardrock/heavy metal (that distinction did not exist yet) influenced all kinds of artists. Arena rock and power pop were not recognized as subgenres yet (even bands like Boston and Kiss were considered hardrock), so it's hardly surprising McCartney doing an ass kicking riff fest like Let me roll it. Live and let Die is another example, especially when done on stage.
    The lines may be sharp and impenetrable today, they weren't yet back then.

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  2. "Band on the Run" made no sense to me until I substituted the title lyrics with "Marijuana." Now it makes perfect sense, man...

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  3. Geoffrey Emerick was on board, just like the old days. Maybe he was responsible for part of the improvement. Anyway, after all these years, I still prefer Imagine and All things must pass. BOTR is fun, well done and "crazy" if you want. Not exactly full of meaning, not exactly emotional.

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  4. Another brilliant review, George. Again, I'm incredibly impressed at how you try and find an emotional narrative in a McCartney album that doesn't seem to have one at first glance. Again, though, one of the things I love about Paul's more "emotionally abstract" approach to music is that the emotion is in the music itself but can be interpreted in any number of ways by the listener.

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  5. Random thought: solo McCartney is more poppy than solo Lennon, and is often described as "more accessible" - when compared to *Plastic Ono Band* at least (George described *Imagine* as "perfectly accessible").

    But, from a post-90's, post-indie-rock perspective, it's almost the opposite! The average indie kid can easily see the appeal of a stripped-down, raw, brutally honest album such as *Plastic Ono Band*; but has a harder time seeing what's so great about a slick pop album such as *Ram*. For my generation, McCartney is definitely less accessible than Lennon.

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    1. This is a good point. But I've always found it odd how everyone writes off Paul as "just" making poppy music for the masses when so much of his '70s output is both diverse and pretty damn weird. Lennon's stuff is much more straightforward - and in that period between Imagine and Double Fantasy that was a real problem.

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  6. Band on the Run is indeed an enjoyable slice of slick arena-pop, but I have a slight preference for Venus and Mars as the best Wings album; a little more consistent and with a bit of a dark (for Macca) edge to it.

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