Band on the Run: The Harrowing Story Behind Wings’ Classic Album
Making an album – even a classic album – sometimes can be an exercise in overcoming adversity. Still, the monumental troubles that Paul McCartney and Wings had to surmount to record Band on the Run, easily McCartney’s best post-Beatles album, easily could have served as fodder for an epic Hollywood film.
It all began with McCartney’s desire to work in a locale that was off the beaten path. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, as it turned out), his record company, EMI, had 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, McCartney decided to gather his Wings bandmates and head for the Nigerian city, nestled on the west coast of Africa. Nevermind the fact that pre-trip inoculations to prevent cholera, typhoid, polio and a host of other potential diseases were required.
One week prior to heading for Africa, 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 a trio consisting of McCartney, wife Linda and guitarist Denny Laine. Off the three went, upbeat and confident despite the unforeseen defection of their drummer and lead guitarist.
The studio in Lagos was decidedly ramshackle. Microphones were discovered 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.
A regular daily pattern ensued. Weekday mornings were spent swimming at a local country club. In mid-afternoon, the band would make the hour-long drive to the studio, where the work sometimes went on until 4 or 5 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 sessions. On one occasion, McCartney collapsed in the studio, unable to catch his breath. A heart attack was initially suspected, 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 on albums by 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).
Even more remarkable, 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.”