(The genesis of this piece bears explaining, first off, the whole notion that the concept of the album is one of motion came from a comment a friend of mine made, which, unbeknownst to me when I started writing this, was something he had read in a review. I have not read the review, and opted instead to take that idea and run with it in my own way.)
Tune into http://www.growradio.org for Barefoot Justine’s show “Get On The Right Thing – McCartney Reconsidered with Barefoot Justine.”
“Band On the Run is one of those rare albums that spans a magically self-contained world. From the unfolding promise of its title track – itself a pocket symphony of dawning optimism and thrilling new horizons – this is music that takes us places.” In his intro to the deluxe edition of Band On the Run Paul Du Noyer goes on to say, “Is it a ‘concept album’? Not exactly.” Ah, look closer Mr. Du Noyer.
Band on the Run is a concept album. This, of course, flies in the face of Paul McCartney’s phony assertion otherwise. The jig is up, Paul, at last we are on to you. And bandmate Denny Laine states as much himself when he says, “It’s not the tracks, it’s a concept album.” So who are we going to believe? NOT McCartney. He has an annoying way of self-mythologizing into a self-defeating malaise of ordinariness and fluffiness that betrays the depth and significance of his post-Beatle work, his fans, and ultimately undermines his credibility. When it comes to his being respected as an artist, Paul McCartney is his own worst enemy and has contributed more to the lack of respect he receives from the public than any critic. The undoing of his reputation as an artist is, at this point, solely of his own doing, but all of this is not the fault of the spectacular music he has always made… it is the fault of his often flippant and coy persona.
Let’s quickly set the stage, the Beatles had been over for about 3 or 4 years (Band On the Run was released in late ’73). This was to be his fifth solo album, two of those had been Wings albums, a 5 piece line-up. McCartney had become discouraged and at one point had allegedly told Linda, that if he didn’t get the magic back he was going to cut his throat. Unbeknownst to Paul, the magic had been there through all four of the albums that predated Band On the Run, but Paul McCartney, his fans, and the public had bought the assertion of the critics that his new music was no good. Critics are fools. It really is that simple. Anxious to “get the magic back,” he took off for Lagos. McCartney does not like to sit still as an artist, his first album was recorded by himself at home (quite a daring, dare I say “ballsy,” departure from the glorious Beatle approach heard on their swansong, Abbey Road), the second album (Ram) he recorded in New York, the first Wings album in 2 weeks, and the second Wings album was recorded under far more conventional circumstances. Over the years since McCartney has recorded albums on boats, in castles, improvisationally, and in New Orleans. It seems his creative juices are fueled by adventure. Well, not so for his bandmates. The evening before (an hour before according to some accounts) Wings were to fly to Lagos, two of the members quit. Unphased, a determined McCartney simply said, “I can play the lot myself.” Farewell to them all the same, Henry McCullough’s rotten attitude and sloppy uninspired playing were hardly an asset anyhow. McCullough, it seemed, believed, erroneously, that he was too hot a guitarist to play McCartney’s crafted melodic solos.
A three man band, Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, and the ever loyal Denny Laine took off, determined to create an album the other 2 members of the band would forever regret walking out on. Quite quickly the whole experience became far more trying than he could have expected. While in Lagos the monsoons had hit, McCartney was taken aback at seeing corpses in the street, the studio was not yet built (in fact, contrary to the idea that Paul’s a bit of a dandy, he is not only a take charge kind of guy, but quite handy at real work, so he took hold of a saw and helped with the labor of getting the studio into a functional state), the McCartney’s were mugged at knife-point… their demo tapes lost to the muggers, he fell under suspicion by the local African musicians and had to allay their defensive and hostile reaction to his recording there, and finally McCartney himself collapsed and feared he was dying as he was being rushed to a hospital. Picture McCartney in an unfamiliar studio in Africa frightened to death, with half a band, and NO record of the songs he was about to record, the demo in the hands of muggers. This is the world in which Band On the Run was created.
Under the shadow of not knowing if he remembered the songs, McCartney stepped up to the drum kit and got to work.
For years, people studied the album to work out what the concept was. Eventually, everyone seemingly accepted defeat and regarded the album as a near-miss conceptually, though a tremendous achievement creatively. But here’s the rub, McCartney is a sly guy, a clever guy, a complicated man, a conflicted artist, and—as I said earlier, a piss-poor self-mythologizer—elusive to say the least. Even his anti-intellectual phoney-baloney claims to be “ordinary” are denied when you get to know him better as an artist. Take these quotes, which give his smoke screen of shallowness away: “What I have to say is all in the music. If I want to say anything, I write a song.” Indeed, and this: “I can’t deal with the press; I hate all those Beatles questions.” His messages are in his work, and he dislikes the press, so he takes the easy way out, turns off, phones in, and gives them nothing more than what they want–the umpteenth telling of how he met John. If we are going to get to the core of his work and unveil the meanings, we have to do it ourselves. So, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain (that man being the public persona of Paul McCartney), and let’s go…
“’Band On the Run’ itself sets the tone. It moves in and out of beats and genres, and just seems to work. That struck me about it. In fact it made me think, ‘We just didn’t give a damn back then!’” says Paul looking back on the album’s title track. The key word in there is “moves.”
John Conteh, who appeared on the cover, had this to say: “The best one I like about that was ‘Band On the Run.’ I think it’s uhm… the slowness of it at the beginning, and it seems to reach like a climax, an escape, and explosion… BAM! ‘BAND ON THE RUN! We head into the sun, and the first one said to the second one there, I hope you’re having fun,’ so there seems to be some kind of messages then, you know. Ones passing the message, they’ve got an experience, and they pass the message on to someone else, like, you know. So they’ve got all these people on the run, you know. And the run maybe being… of eh, you know, life itself, locked into this prison of self or whatever it is, or a problem whatever your problem, or an actual prison as well.”
And there’s the key, not to take it literally, to see the song and the album as metaphor or allegory. There is no central plot that drives the album as a coherent story, but there is a purpose, a meaning and a concept that everything intentionally revolves around. The meaning is, in a sense not only in McCartney’s life, but in all our lives. Paul McCartney has always been one to take his own experiences, tragedies, and such, and make them universal by in large part relying on fantasy and archetypes. Witness “Let It Be” which while on the surface seems to be about THE Mother Mary, it is actually quite cleverly about HIS mother Mary. There is a similar story about Hey Jude having originally been about Julian Lennon, but cleverly turned into something far more universal. The problem with this is that people like their messages preached rather than prosed. Lately he has been more autobiographical in a way most people would recognize, but if you follow McCartney you realize that one of his techniques is universalizing personal experiences so that anyone can relate to his work in some way or the other. Of course “Band On the Run” works nicely as an enigmatic little story, a fable of sorts, but it also applies to an adult need for rebirth, reinvention, release, and ultimately… freedom. As a song, it is for anyone who feels imprisoned by anything.
Thanks to my friend Ed McLaughlin’s summary of a review he recalled reading, I got started down the path of understanding what this album is all about. It’s about rebirth, release, re-invention, movement and freedom! The title track is in a very real sense McCartney releasing himself from the myth of the Beatles, having become tired of carrying that weight, he insisted that Wings be its own band, that they not rely on Beatles songs in concert, that they not play the same kind of music. It was a start from scratch… an escape from the prison of the megalithic success he had with the Beatles, a mythology that was seemingly impossible to live up to. Few would dare try.
The song opens with: “Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever.” The four walls are prison walls, but more specifically the four walls are the four Beatles, and of course McCartney’s pain and depression at losing them as well as his worries about how to follow them. McCartney had this to say about the origin of the verse: “It started off with ‘If I ever get out of here.’ That came from a remark George made at one point at one of the Apple meetings. He was saying that we are all prisoners in some way, some kind of remark like that.” He later adds, “… all put together ‘Band On the Run’–escaping, freedom, criminals. You name it, it’s there.”
“If I ever get out of here,
Thought of giving it all away
To a registered charity.
All I need is a pint a day
If I ever get out of here.”
The autobiographical elements are coded, universalized, fictionalized, and turned into allegory so that we can each get out of it what we need, which, as I have said, is consistent with McCartney’s approach. Moreso, knowing that the above verse was taken from Harrison certainly suggests that we are not over-thinking this song, there are real clues to its meaning. It is, of course, simpler to dismiss the fanciful nature of the song and take the easy way out, falling back on a cynicism that has no patience with fantasy or romance. From the longing of the song’s intro, it launches into thunder, sun and NEW adventures. They have escaped from the past and into brave new worlds of sound and thought, a new decade, and new successes. But of course, they are being doggedly pursued, not merely by the “Jailor Man” and “Sailor Sam,” but by the legend of the Beatles and the expectations of the fans–not to mention McCartney’s expectation for himself.
Paul had this to say as well: “… the spirit was like ‘We’re all in this together.’ So anything about desperados or ‘on the run’ kind of united people against all authority. And, you know, we happened to be part of all that.” Keep in mind that this song was actually banned in Russia, it was found too subversive, they saw serious subtext in the songs disregard for authority. Subtext which was, as it turns out, truly there according to Paul. But before we go, let’s take note that the song’s theme is one of movement and release in pursuit of freedom, and there is a lot to talk about here as we notice that most of the songs are about the same thing.
This journey of finally understanding this album did not begin with Ed, no, it started with Tom Hart (founder of SAW, where I teach). This is something I have not often discussed on my blog, as it is part of Tom and Leela’s journey, but I think a little perspective may help, and their situation too, has gone from one of imprisonment to escape. See, Tom and Leela lost their child about 2 years ago, and they just had another. They had been living in a sort of prison, up until this new birth. Tom sent me this after the birth of their new baby girl: “@BarefootJustine should be interested to know the first song I heard after the birth was a McCartney song.” The song was… “Band On the Run.” Of course, of course. Tom also noted that the slow bits made him tear up. To this my friend Ed got the ball rolling by summarizing a review he had read: “The whole album was of hope and looking forward not back. The ‘running’, the rolling, ‘Let Me Roll It’, The flying, ‘Jet’, the future ’1985′ written in 1973, Bluebird, Helen Wheels etc. ‘If I ever get out of here.’” to which Ed added that even “Picasso’s Last Words” is the final movement, death. But McCartney doesn’t stop there thematically, no, he starts out the album very much in the past with a title track that opens full of regrets and pain with one imprisoned by his past, then the title track rushes into the present thematic core of the album with motion, with escape, rebirth, with reinvention, then on to death, and lastly even to the future with the closing song “Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Five.” It’s heady stuff, and I think as you can see, this is too well planned and too conscious and consistent to be coincidence or wishful thinking. Ah, but wait, there’s more!
The thematic motion doesn’t stop here with the end of the title track, not with human legs running from the law. The motion, in fact, becomes jet propelled, literally with “Jet,” a roiling rollicking pop-rock song that has legs of its own as it rushes from the speakers, a song I used to hear as I kid. I knew nothing of McCartney, but this song painted pictures in my head, filled me with questions and flooded my head with possible stories, and the song had the same effect on me physically as caffeine. It made me want to move! So with “Band On the Run” and “Jet” we went from on the run to actual flight. Poetry: “Jet with the wind in your hair of a thousand laces, climb on the back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky.” “Wind of a thousand laces” was always a line that stirred me, still is. Look closer, there is poetry buried in Macca’s power-pop! Additionally, “Jet” is also, much like “Band On the Run” a song about escape from authority, in this case into the skies and love, well away from the regimented discipline of the “Sergent Major.” It is interesting to note that “Jet” was the name of one of Paul and Linda’s puppies… yet more motion and birth, even in its origin.
Even at that, McCartney is not finished with the theme of flight. No, next up, organic flight with “Bluebird.” An old friend of mine, Ed Fitch (who wrote Pagan literature in California) pointed out to me that this song was Shamanic. Indeed it is, full of magic and transformation from human to animal. “Touch your lips with a magic kiss, and you’ll be a bluebird too.” This is not simplistic nursery rhyme stuff, no, this is archetypal shamanic vision.
This concept is confirmed by a book I have been reading on the women Saints of India (“Daughters Of the Goddess” by Linda Johnsen). At one point she is talking to Anandi Ma who is trying to explain the incomprehensible experience of awakening ones kundalini. In the process of her attempt at explaining kundalini Anandi Ma speaks of the very strongest feeling she has had since childhood, that of becoming a bird and flying away, not attached to anything. And this, of course is what “Bluebird” is about, keeping in mind McCartney’s time in India and continued interest in a “mystical” spirituality, this is scarcely far-fetched. Indeed, the vision of becoming a bird and losing attachments to fly away into freedom is at the very core of “Bluebird.” It is not surprising in some ways that McCartney does not expound upon these things as they are better left known and experienced than explained–as with all spiritual matters. Recall earlier his quote, “What I have to say is all in the music. If I want to say anything, I write a song.” He will not say this openly, it is in the song, very much deep in this song. Freedom, release, magic, the release of attachments, and of course, more movement and reinvention in that they were once human but are now bluebirds. In a sense, McCartney was once a Beatle, but he is now a bluebird… in Wings. He is at last free and unattached. “If I ever get out of here,” was his cry, and with “Bluebird,” he has… gotten out of there.
Up next, “Mrs. Vandebilt,” a big song in Russia, and a big song to me. The lyrics are in a very real sense about letting go, but this time, of stress:
“When your light is on the blink
You never think of worrying
What’s the use of worrying?
When your bus has left the stop
You’d better drop your hurrying
What’s the use of hurrying?
Leave me alone Mrs. Vandebilt
I’ve got plenty of time of my own
What’s the use of worrying?
What’s the use of hurrying?
What’s the use of anything?
Yes, with Band On the Run, even the mundane can be let go of.
Of course, an album highlight comes up next, “Let Me Roll It,” which has often been mistaken for a song about, and in fact imitating, John Lennon. No. Heavy guitar riff-driven songs have always been part of McCartney’s makeup (still are), and the assertion that the so-called primal scream at the end is McCartney mimicking Lennon is utter rubbish… folks, that’s Denny Laine screaming, not McCartney. That alone puts a close to that theory, even though McCartney himself tried to wishy washy his way into playing into the Lennon imitation myth. But simply put, the song is also about motion, movement, keep things going, “Let me roll it to you,” keep this album on the run.
Next up, a major favorite of mine, a song that is about life, the movement of life, and just as water (rain water in particular) was used as a metaphor or at least a poetic device in “Band On the Run” so it is in “Mamunia.” Water is a symbol often returned to by McCartney, a symbol he uses well in lyrical moments of darkness as well as of lightness. And in keeping with the international flavor of Band On the Run (having been recorded on Lagos) “Mamunia” is an Arabic word meaning “safe haven.” Even the title of this song is far far from Britain.
“The rain comes falling from the sky
To fill the stream that fills the sea
And that’s where life began for you and me
So the next time you see rain it ain’t bad
Don’t complain it rains for you
The next time you see L.A. rainclouds
Don’t complain it rains for you and me”
“It might have been a bright blue day
But rainclouds had to come this way
They’re watering everything that they can see
A seed is waiting in the earth
For rain to come and give him birth
It’s all he really needs to set him free.
So the next time you see L.A. rainclouds
Don’t complain it rains for you
So lay down your umbrellas
Strip off your plastic macs
You’ve never felt the rain my friend
Till you’ve felt it running down your back
So the next time you see rain, it ain’t bad
Don’t complain it rains for you
The next time you see L.A. rainclouds
Don’t complain it rains for you and me”
Besides this being a classic acoustic McCartney song, it’s also pure Paul optimism. He’s never been one to let rain spoil his day, after all, rain is life. If it rains, strip off your rain gear and get wet! As a side note, that’s Ginger Baker of Cream fame playing shakers (gravel from outside the studio in a can).
Ah, but there is a song about Lennon, the very next one, “No Words,” and as is always the case, no amount of rebirth and movement comes without some amount of looking back, pain, or regret:
“You say that love is everything
And what we need the most of
I wish you knew, that’s just how true
My love was.
No words for my love”
“You want to turn your head away
And someone’s thinking of you
I wish you’d see, it’s only me,
I love you.”
“No Words” is not a vague half-baked love song, it is instead a rather elegant, poignant and highly personal love song of an unconventional nature.
And now we are coming near the end, and by that I mean the very end, the final movement, the final release, death. In fact, the death of Picasso, a song inspired by Dustin Hoffman. He was initially impressed that McCartney was in Jamaica (where they met) for a very admirable reason, to research Reggae, says Hoffman, “I thought, Gee, he’s doing research like anybody does. He said he did that often. He would hear about a new music and no matter where it was in the world and he would go towards it.” Contrary to popular critical opinion, McCartney takes his work and art very seriously. Though the story from Hoffman is better told by him, the basic point was that he challenged Paul to write a song on the spot while they were having dinner. Hoffman, a Picasso fan, was just reading about his death, and told Paul about it in the hopes that he might write a song. When Hoffman finished, McCartney strummed his guitar and instantly had this song, an event that Hoffman, to this day, finds profound… a moment of “birth” as he puts it. So even Hoffman uses the word “birth,” and above talks of motion with, “he would go towards it.” The song itself, “Picasso’s Last Words,” production-wise was never a favorite. I never cared for the jarring jumpiness of it, the weird way things cut in and out in a seemingly clumsy way–very unlike Paul, and I realized years later that what I didn’t care for about the song is in a sense the same thing I dislike about Picasso’s work. McCartney intentionally set out to make the song “Cubist.” That explains the off-putting nature of the piece. But I do have to admire McCartney’s high-minded (and successful) effort to create a Cubist piece of music. Oddly, one of the things I love about McCartney is his experimental way of writing, often disregarding verse chorus verse chorus formula, but in this case, the flow seemed, as it turns out, appropriately disjointed.
And lastly, we come to “Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Five,” which takes us beyond death and propels us (moves us) into the future. The lyrics do not tell a narrative of any kind. They are rather stream of consciousness, but that to me does not make the lyrics dismissable. They fit, flow, and sound exactly right in the context of the rhythm. I never considered McCartney’s lyrics weak, not at all, nor even stream of consciousness, no with McCartney the lyrics are too perfectly fit by far, and too evocative. His lyrics instead being more like “stream of collective unconscious,” as I like to say. More trippy and archetypal than nonsensical. And as another friend of mine says with snorting dismissal at the charges that McCartney’s lyrics aren’t any good: “Those are the lyrics to the song.” Yes, and McCartney knew that well enough to not fight the flow of words that came with the song. Beyond the words… the song propels the listener faster and deeper into an explosive big bang ending through McCartney’s brilliant piano work and the powerful orchestration. Dare I say… it’s rather apocalyptic. The final movement of the album, with Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Five is significant.
That would round out the album, except for one other song, that originally was sandwiched somewhere into the middle on the American version of the album (it never appeared on the British version), “Helen Wheels” a roadtrip song, and what says more about motion, movement, fast motion and freedom than a road song? Perhaps the only British road song. Additionally, this song was quite literally born of motion as “Helen Wheels” was the name of their land rover.
So that, in a nutshell, is Band On the Run, the concept finally explained, movement and reinvention, freedom and release, rebirth and an allegorical journey from the past right past death and straight through to the future; every single one of the songs perfectly lined up to propel this enigmatic if not complicated concept to fruition. As for me, albums don’t come much more conceptual than that. Take that, Major Tom!
(Note: If you see any factual inaccuracies or notice anything I have missed, I welcome contributions, comments and suggestions that are passed along in a friendly manner. I am better by far with concepts and ideas than with specifics of date, etc.)