In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Paul McCartney & Wings’ Band On The Run, which went to No. 1 on April 13, 1974, where it stayed for one week; June 8, 1974, where it stayed for two weeks; and July 6, 1974, where it stayed for one week.
When Paul McCartney sang “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight,” at the end of Abbey Road, he showed remarkable prescience for such a young man. Everything he wrote would forever be compared to work he did before he turned 30. If McCartney’s subsequent career had been mediocre, relying only on nostalgia to promote ticket and album sales (essentially the fate suffered by his bandmate Ringo Starr), those words would have seemed tragic as well as prophetic. Instead, they point to the direction McCartney’s career would take: expanding the work he’d begun in The Beatles to new frontiers. The medley at the end of Abbey Road was just the beginning of McCartney’s symphonic ambitions. Band On The Run took those musings and cranked them up.
The fifth album McCartney released after the breakup of The Beatles, and the third with his band Wings, Band On The Run is his best-known solo work, and is one of the great pop albums of all time. But it came at an odd moment in his career. Although McCartney’s previous albums had been relatively successful, they were critically lambasted—usually with comments about how John Lennon and George Harrison’s solo works were far superior. His early albums have been reconsidered recently (especially Ram), but in 1973 it was an accepted consensus that his music was at an all-time low. With Band On The Run, Paul wasn’t just seeking a commercial hit, but for evidence that would disprove the claims his success in The Beatles came from Lennon reining him in, that he couldn’t write good songs on his own.
Under that creative pressure, McCartney needed to shake things up, and his decision to record at EMI’s studio in Lagos, Nigeria, helped to do that. Yet shortly before Wings was set to depart for Africa to begin recording, two members (guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell) quit the band, which only added to the turmoil. Undaunted, McCartney took his wife and backup keyboard player, Linda, and the remaining Wing, Denny Laine, to Nigeria for some guerilla studio work. “I’ve always liked African music,” Paul said in a 25th-anniversary retrospective, “but actually when we got there, [Band On The Run] just took on its own kind of life.”
The recording didn’t start auspiciously: One evening in the early going, Paul and Linda were mugged, and a notebook of lyrics along with the demo tapes for the album were stolen. Two bandmates down, this meant that Paul had to recreate all of the songs from memory, playing most of the instruments himself. This led to him building each of the songs “up like a sculpture” during the recording process, allowing him leeway to experiment. There’s an apocryphal story from The Beatles era where someone asked John if Ringo was the best drummer in the world, to which he replied: “Ringo isn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles.” Despite the questionable veracity of this tale, Paul is good behind the kit. (He’s the drummer on “Back In The USSR.”) And he ended up playing drums for the entire album, which gave him even more freedom to craft the songs as he saw fit.
But there were several other impediments to recording. Denny Laine described the EMI recording space in Lagos as being “like a home studio.” The equipment was barely functional and crudely put together, and the building itself also served as EMI’s local LP pressing plant. Nonetheless, the trio cut all the basic tracks in their four weeks in Nigeria and returned to England to add backing instruments and vocals.
While most of Band On The Run’s songs sound great stripped down to acoustic versions (the 25th-anniversary deluxe re-issue of the album bears this out), McCartney’s holistic vision turned a bunch of great tracks into something more. His previous four records, while quirky in places, were much more sonically straightforward affairs. Prior to recording, McCartney had already decided “Band On The Run” would be the title track and album-opener, and its three-part structure and tempo changes provided a style for the other songs to follow. Beginning with a bright, clear guitar lick, the track builds and builds (with the help of some orchestration by Tony Visconti) before crashing into its catchy third section.
The song also serves as an artist’s statement for the album to follow: The tracks will shift and bend, the tempos will change, and the orchestration will incorporate everything. Paul had dabbled in longer-form pieces before, most notably the closing medley on Red Rose Speedway, but nothing in his solo days was as sonically varied as “Band On The Run.” Accused of creating Muzak by critics and his fellow Beatles, Paul reacted by throwing curveball after curveball throughout Band On The Run, while still telegraphing his plans in the album’s first five minutes. More than anything, this playfulness resembles the final medley from Abbey Road. Paul didn’t flee from the grandiose aspects of his Beatles heyday—aspects critics suggested John had rightfully kept in check). Instead, with Band On The Run, he doubled down.
McCartney didn’t need to take as many risks as he did for Band On The Run. Though critics lashed out at him, his previous album, Red Rose Speedway, still hit the top of the charts. He could very well have made similar albums to Red Rose and Wings’ debut, Wild Life, for the rest of the ’70s, selling enough records to maintain his lifestyle and resting on his fame as a Beatle. The fact that he didn’t reveals the depth of his ambition. McCartney wasn’t content to just make albums; he wanted to make big ones, in every possible sense. That ambition becomes even more obvious in the ever-changing “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me),” and the kitchen-sink finale of “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five,” which amps up the intensity and sonics before falling back into the chorus of “Band On The Run” to provide the fitting bookend.
“Big” was a good bet, though that wasn’t immediately clear. Leading off with a non-album single, “Helen Wheels,” Band On The Run debuted in December 1973 to critical acclaim, but relatively weak sales. Red Rose Speedway had jumped immediately to No. 1 on the Billboard charts when it was released in April of ’73, but it took Band On The Run until April of 1974 to hit the top spot. Chastised by the salesmen at Capitol Records, Paul was told he had led off with the wrong single. Throughout the United States, DJs were editing down “Jet” and playing it to excited audiences. That was the real hit, Capitol argued. Realizing this tactical error, Wings released the song in February of 1974, which pushed Band On The Run to the top of the charts that spring. The album went on to hit No. 1 two more times, was the biggest-selling album of the year in the U.K., and eventually earned triple-platinum status.
The album also relaunched Paul’s solo career. He finally won over the critics. (Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau called it “a carefully composed, intricately designed personal statement that will make it impossible for anyone to classify Paul McCartney as a mere stylist again.”) It even received a Grammy for “Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus” in 1975. Finally with proof to the world that he could hack it on his own, Paul led Wings through a series of successful world tours and hit records. The boy had managed to shrug off “that weight.”
It’s telling that “Band On The Run” is McCartney’s third most-played song on tour. Although most people under a certain age aren’t particularly familiar with McCartney’s solo career, more likely than not (if they’re McCartney fans, at least), they own and love Band On The Run. McCartney was gunning for a hit that would silence the critics. What he got was a career-defining album, a second chance to present himself after breakup of one pop music’s most defining acts. That his seminal work would be his most Beatles-sounding album is all the more fitting. John did hold Paul back. But, contrary to what most critics argued, that was a bad thing. Lennon hindered McCartney’s formal experimentation, and the two-part structure of Abbey Road is the best proof of that: Lennon refused to let McCartney and George Martin turn the entire album into a suite of thematically related songs. Now solo, McCartney could turn his songs into journeys, and follow themes throughout an entire album. In terms of sales, Band On The Run destroyed Mind Games, Lennon’s 1973 release. Who, then, was more in need of the other?