"Screw you. I'll make an album you'll wish you'd been on."
It was 1973 and Paul McCartney had by now been a solo artist (ex-Beatle) for four full years. He had released four albums since the Fab Four's split, two solo and two with his band Wings. His four albums McCartney, Ram, Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway had each sold well, even reaching high spots on the Billboard charts, but had mainly been considered disappointing, from a critical viewpoint, at least.
In a fairly general consensus, since leaving the Beatles, Paul had "lost it;" he didn't have that sharp edge he had when he was writing songs with John Lennon. Not to mention in the eyes of the three people whose opinions Paul considered most important.
About Paul's first solo album McCartney, George Harrison opined: Paul has "isolated" himself, so that "The only person he's got to tell him if a song is good or bad is (his wife) Linda." John called Ram, Paul's follow-up album, "Paul's granny music," and describing it as "awful." Even the mild-mannered Ringo chimed in on Ram: "I don't think there's a tune on it."
But the worst of all was John's vicious 1971 song "How Do You Sleep?" a merciless attack on his ex-writing partner, motivated by a few subtle jibes Paul had put in on a few of his songs. Describing Paul's post-Beatles output as "Muzak in my ears" and saying "Those freaks was right when they said you was dead," "A pretty face may last a year or two," and "The only thing you done was 'Yesterday,'" John proceeded to tear Paul apart, in a song.
In 1973, Paul McCartney's resounding answer to his former bandmates and all his other dogpiling-on rock critics was about to be heard. Paul wanted to record his new album in an exotic location and he asked EMI for a list of their recording studios around the world. Paul chose Lagos, Nigeria, from the list, imagining that it would be a tranquil spot and he and Linda could sunbathe on the beach in the day's sunshine before "breezing in" and recording at the studio.
Two weeks before the band's departure to Nigeria, wings guitarist Denny Seiwell left the band, he and Paul not seeing eye-to-eye on issues. As if this wasn't bad enough, on the eve of their departure to Lagos, drummer Henry McCullough quit too, calling Paul on the phone and informing him that he wouldn't be going either.
A witness recalls Paul slamming down the phone after McCullough's surprise announcement. Furious but undaunted, Paul thought to himself, "Screw you. I'll make an album you'll wish you'd been on." And he did. According to Linda: "Paul thought, 'I've got to do it. Either I give up and cut my throat or (I) get me magic back.'"
Upon arriving in Lagos, the now three members of Wings saw that their cheaply built studio had only the most basic taping and mixing equipment and no soundproof recording booths. An adjacent lean-to served as a record-pressing plant, whose operatives currently worked ankle-deep in rainwater. Paul hired carpenters to build soundproof cubicles, and when they seemed to lagging in their work, Paul picked up a hammer and joined in himself.
Because of the departures of McCullough and Seiwell, Paul was forced into extra duty, playing not only his usual bass, but drums, percussion and most of the lead guitar work as well,
The recording was fraught with other obstacles as well. One evening after finishing a recording session, Paul and Linda decided to walk back to their quarters. A vehicle pulled up alongside them and asked if they were travelers. Paul assumed they were offering he and Linda a ride and politely demurred, but to his shock, five men got out of the car, including a "little squat one" holding a knife.
Linda, putting her own life at risk to protect Paul, started screaming at the assailants, "Leave him alone, he's a musician. He's Beatle Paul." Paul handed over the bag he was carrying, which contained money, tapes of recorded songs and lyric sheets of songs he'd planned on recording in Lagos. The loss was delaying but not disastrous.
On another day, Paul was singing and mid-vocal, he suddenly turned pale and began to choke for breath. Stumbling outside to grab some air, he collapsed to the ground, the midday African heat too stifling for him to handle. Paul fainted in Linda's arms as she laid him on the ground. Linda; "I thought he was dead." After being rushed to a local hospital in the studio manager's car, Paul was declared to have suffered a "bronchial spasm, caused by excessive smoking."
Finally, the recording necessary in Lagos was completed and the Wings threesome returned home to England (final overdubs and recording was done at Air Studios in London).
The songs on the album were a joyous and eclectic mix. The finished album was titled Band on the Run, the title crystallizing the idea of Paul and Linda as refugees or escapees. (One could actually make the logical argument that two-thirds of the band had actually gone "on the run" from them.)
The album's title cut, "Band on the Run," featured a line Paul had remembered from his fellow Beatle, George. During one of those eternally long meeting with the suits at Apple in 1969, George had wearily said the words "If I ever get out of here."
"Jet," which besides the title track was to be the other single released from the album, was the name of Paul's Labrador dog.
"Helen Wheels" was the nickname of the Land Rover Paul drove on his property on Kintyre.
"Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me)" had actually been written in the presence of actor Dustin Hoffman (who was filming Papillion nearby) and was based on the final words uttered by famed artist Pablo Picasso. The actor had challenged Paul to write the song, then and there, based on a Time magazine obituary about Picasso, and sure enough, Paul obliged- much to Hoffman's amazement and delight.
"Bluebird," the album's most gentle song, was probably written by Paul two years earlier, on a vacation in Jamaica in 1971.
Denny Laine contributed one song to the album, a song called "No Words," which Paul helped him to finish.
The cover of Band on the Run featured Paul, Linda and Denny in convict's garb, being flanked by actors James Coburn and Christoper Lee, as well as talk show host Michael Parkinson, singer Kenny Lynch, Liverpool boxer John Coneh and liberal MP Clement Freud. The group of nine (convicts) stand against a brick wall background, all sharing a surprised look on their faces as a police spotlight shines down upon them.
Band on the Run was released in December of 1973. The reviews were all pretty much raves, as ecstatic as Paul's previous reviews had been dismissive. All the major rock critics who had previously considered Paul a spent force now competed to praise him to the skies.
Rolling Stone's Jon Landau described the album as "A carefully composed, intricately designed statement that will make it impossible to classify McCartney as a mere stylist again." Charles Shaar of the New Musical Express opined: "The ex-Beatle least likely to establish his credibility and lead the field has pulled it off with a positive masterpiece of a album called Band on the Run." Loraine Alterman of the New York Times described the album as "bursting with a great deal of compelling music."
Although the album initially sold rather slowly, it was soon buoyed by the success of its two single releases, "Band on the Run" and "Jet." Band on the Run took seven months to reach number one in the UK- but then it stayed on the charts for 124 weeks.
It reached the #1 spot on three separate occasions in 1974 and eventually went triple platinum. It was to be the top selling album of 1974 in the UK, Australia and Canada.
Band on the Run was to sell six million copies worldwide. It was nominated for a Grammy Award as Album of the Year but was beaten by Stevie Wonder's Fullfillingness' First Finale. But Band on the Run had another lasting legacy too.
It was the first project to establish Paul McCartney as "the" most successful of the four Beatles after the split, a legacy which has seldom been disputed since, in terms of popularity or commercial or financial success. Even John Lennon, although he probably admitted such begrudgingly, offered up his opinion that "Band on the Run was a good album".
At last, Paul McCartney had had the last laugh. And although Band on the Run was released almost four and half decades ago, Paul hasn't stopped laughing since.