by Mark Lewisohn
written with warm congratulations for Maccazine’s 50th birthday
Before we all streamed, it was hard to access an artist’s entire catalogue – and if you did splash the cash, music was seldom acquired in release-date order. I had the McCartney album pretty much on time in 1970 because my brother bought it (and I played it way often than him), and I also bought some singles, more easily affordable for my pocket money. I had Mary Had A Little Lamb, My Love and the double-A-sided Hi Hi Hi / C Moon, but I didn't yet have the other albums. I bought Ram in 1975 on my first visit to the States, and picked up secondhand copies of Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway a few months later.
Band On The Run I bought pretty much on time, early 1974, and loved it. I always did and always will. That album and Venus And Mars (a release-day purchase) made me a real McCartney-Wings guy, and when I went to see them in London in 1975 it wasn't just the first time I'd seen any ex-Beatle in front of me (and I was on third row), it was simply a great show, easily the best of the few gigs I'd attended and one that holds eternally high in my mind. Paul was 33 and absolutely brilliant.
As a teenager I listened to music sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor, the lid of my Bush mono record-player open in front of me (I didn't get a stereo until 1976) and singing along at full volume. To begin with, my favourite song on Band On The Run was the barnstorming Jet, even if today I question why I so liked its throwaway lyric. I was very tuned into Bluebird and winked at its parallel existence with Blackbird. I dug Mamunia, Mrs Vandebilt and No Words. Though I’d not yet imbibed alcohol I sang drunkenly with Picasso’s Last Words, and my knees were drummed hard to Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five, still then a distant year. I also grooved to Let Me Roll It, not considering it a nod to John Lennon until I read Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s speculated opinion in their important 1975 book The Beatles: An Illustrated Record. Was it really for John? I never reckoned so, and when I heard Chicken Shack’s I'd Rather Go Blind I think I found a closer inspiration.
As for the breakout title song, the epic opener, it was a while before I noticed that the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile On Main St included a track called Turd On The Run. Was this Paul’s inspiration? Probably not, but I enjoyed reading in Kozinn-Sinclair’s The McCartney Legacy that Exile was playing over the PA at the Scandinavium Halle in Gothenburg in August 1972 when Paul and Linda walked off stage straight into the arresting arms of Swedish rozzers, busted for possessing dope. This is either a delightful coincidence or some kind of intriguing sub-story.
From a distance, I’m struck by how Paul reheated some old soufflés. On Red Rose Speedway he made another medley, three years after Abbey Road; on Band On The Run he replicated Sgt Pepper’s starry-faced cover and reused the idea of reprising the title and opening track at (or close to) the album’s end. For sure Paul was aware of these parallels and didn't mind that they could be drawn by the likes of us – although surprisingly few did.
I also see that Paul put his name in front of the band again. Album 1, Wild Life, had been plain Wings. Album 2, Red Rose Speedway, and now album 3, Band On The Run, were Paul McCartney and Wings. Venus And Mars, the next to come, was back to Wings, just one word. Such moves allow insight into the way Paul’s mind was working. I know very well that EMI and Capitol were much happier when his name was up front, of course they were, but sometimes he gave them what they wanted and sometimes he didn't; sometimes he wanted to be reckoned just one of the band, other times he wanted to say ‘Hey, this band is me.’ I see this clearly now, and it’s fascinating.
Because I lived through those years, I can never detach my perception of Band On The Run from the time of its creation and release, a first-gen mindset inescapably different to all subsequent thinking. The fact is that this album arrived after a long stretch in which Paul’s music had been judged poorly by the majority. Those first four albums and singles like Another Day, Mary Had A Little Lamb, Give Ireland Back To The Irish, Hi Hi Hi etc, were not widely appreciated in their moment. Far from it. This was entirely because of the phenomenally high level of artistry and creativity Paul had achieved in the Beatles, then still in very recent memory, against which his 1970–73 releases were considered inferior. It wasn't so much that his new work was disliked – some charted highly – it was more a collective disappointment. Listeners wanted that same brilliant Beatles quality and didn't feel Paul was giving it to them.
Passing time has allowed a new appreciation of Paul’s initial post-Beatles work that simply wasn't felt back in the day. The music is now greatly loved … but what’s been lost along the journey is an appreciation for Paul’s achievement of overcoming adversity with Band On The Run. It was in the teeth of multiple previous disappointments that the album was so well received. “At last, a great new record by Paul McCartney!” said many, before breathing out happily again. It was veritably clutched at, welcomed as pain relief. Paul was demonstrably great once more and everything would be fine.
Until this album, Paul McCartney was losing his market, but Band On The Run was one of those discs that non-diehards bought, often the only one of his they had. For years after, if you rifled through a friend’s record collection you’d see Bridge Over Troubled Water, Dark Side Of The Moon, Rumours, Band On The Run, the Eagles’ Greatest Hits and ABBA’s Greatest Hits. It was played at parties and dinner-parties and good evenings at home in ways that other McCartney albums weren’t and aren't.
Which is why, for years after, it was the yardstick against which people judged its successors. “________ is his best since Band On The Run,” was said of pretty much every McCartney album for the next thirty years or more. Everyone would say it, both with heartfelt pride-relief and a smidge of disappointment that sometimes the successors had lacked its sparkle.
I suppose my top five Macca albums, in really no order at all, are Flaming Pie, Flowers In The Dirt, Tug Of War, McCartney and Ram. But you should know it was a thrill when Paul asked me to write the booklet for Band On The Run’s 25th anniversary edition in 1998. I could write it from my heart because that’s where the album lives, alongside very much else. The fact that it’s now fifty years old dates me, rather than it, in ways I'd love to restrain.
Mark Lewisohn is a Beatles historian, presently writing the second volume in his trilogy The Beatles: All These Years; the first volume is Tune In. He had the pleasure of working closely with Paul McCartney on a number of projects over fifteen years.