- Published by:
- The Guardian
- Interview by:
- Phil Hogan
- Timeline More from year 2010
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Band On The Run - Archive Collection Official album.
More from year 2010
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Officially appears on Let It Be / You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)
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It’s 40 years since Paul McCartney split the Beatles and retreated, wounded and depressed, to his Scottish farm. He grew a beard, he brooded on events and eventually he got back on the horse. By any standards (let alone those expected of the hardest-working Beatle), it was a plodding start: a couple of low-key solo offerings, a couple of underwhelming albums with his new so-so band, Wings; a budget college tour. What excitement there was sprang from their mischief in the singles charts, with “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and “Hi, Hi, Hi” both banned by the BBC and McCartney’s adaptation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” given a roasting by critics who were fast losing their sense of humour. Things hardly looked more hopeful when in the summer of 1973 McCartney announced that the third Wings album would be recorded in Lagos, Nigeria, only to have two members of the band (guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell) promptly quit, Seiwell the night before they were due to fly out.
McCartney still remembers the shock of that call. “I was bloody annoyed,” he says. “I suppose I could have said, ‘Oh all right, we won’t go’, but it was more like, ‘Screw you, I’ll make an album you will want to have been on.’ I still know the guys now – actually I talked to Denny today – and they both regret not going.“
As well they might. The album, Band on the Run – with its epic opening title track and instant classics such as ‘Jet’ and ‘Let Me Roll It’ – became a worldwide No 1 hit, going triple platinum in the US and transforming McCartney’s Wings from a weary, post-Beatles, pick-up band to one of the biggest stadium acts of the 70s.
But why, I wonder, had Seiwell and McCullough walked out? Were they fed up of playing second fiddle to an ex-Fab and going nowhere fast?
“No, it wasn’t that. I think everyone was blissfully happy until they were asked to go to darkest Africa. It was like, you know, we’ll come to rehearsal next Monday – but Africa? Are you kidding? And looking back on it, it’s a valid question. OK, for me the attractions were artistic, instinctive. It was like… the music of Africa will colour our feelings, we’ll be steeped in the ancient African rhythms – that sort of thing. Also, the fact that we’d have a reasonably state-of-the-art studio down there.“
But didn’t I read somewhere that it was two sheds and a microphone?
He laughs. “It turned out to be an unbuilt studio, but it was enough, and we helped to construct vocal booths and things. It became part of the fun. No, I didn’t actually get a hammer out myself, but they got carpenters in and we told them what we needed – a big wooden box with a door in it and Perspex windows. They just didn’t have vocal booths. I suppose they were used to recording live African bands rather than suave westerners.“
McCartney plays down accounts of the terrible heat and bucketing monsoons and the fact that with only his wife, Linda, and Denny Laine left in the group he ended up playing half the instruments himself (“I kept it simple“). He even laughs off the night he got mugged at knifepoint and lost all the demo tapes.
“There were about five guys in a car and I kept thinking they were offering me a lift. I naturally put the most optimistic spin on this. I just kept saying, ‘No thanks, mate’ and bundling the guy back into the car. He must have thought, ‘What kind of nutter is this?’ Anyway, the doors swung open and five of them jumped out – one had a knife and Linda started shouting, ‘Don’t touch him, leave him alone, he’s a musician!’“
Was it a disaster losing the tapes?
“Not really. I had my lyric sheets and we recreated the songs from those. I had Geoff Emerick, the old Beatles engineer – and, oh my God, you don’t want to take Geoff to Lagos. He’s, like, a real British guy. He hates spiders, never mind big African ones. But he managed, as we all did, and made these beautiful recordings. I’d taken a bunch of American soul records that I liked and I’d say I really love the snare on this one or the space on that one. We knew we’d got the essence of the album and could add to it – the orchestration and overdubs and so on – back in London.“
I ask whether it had been important to try to measure up to the Beatles.
“Yes, it was. Otherwise there was kind of no point, though it was virtually impossible to do. Immediately after the Beatles, though, I was just trying to form a group. OK, I thought: I can ring up a lot of famous people and get a supergroup together, or I can go with my instinct – which is that groups don’t happen like that. There has to be a certain amount of building up, shared experience, shared music. That’s how it was when I started out with John – neither of us really knew how to do much. And it’s the kiss of death if someone says they’re the next Beatles. I was in that position with Wings, taking on this impossible task – in which my lovely wife wasn’t even a musician. I had Mick Jagger saying [bad Mick Jagger impersonation], ‘What’s he doing getting his old lady in the band?’ But we kept plugging on. By the time of Band on the Run, it suddenly came together. What we had been trying to do worked. And also, what I’d seen in Linda – what I thought was there – finally came out.“
It wasn’t just Mick Jagger who had wondered what Linda was doing in the band. Music journalists routinely denounced her rudimentary musical skills. But her vocal harmonies did come to be central to the Wings sound. McCartney remembers that Elton John and Michael Jackson praised her harmonies on Band on the Run. “But her first outing as a vocalist – beside her high-school glee club – was the chorus on ‘Let It Be’. There was a very high note in there. She and I were at Abbey Road late one night and I was fussing around putting on a harmony, but I heard one higher and I couldn’t get it. And I said to her, could you get that note? And she did it. So that was a pretty cool start.“
Hang on, isn’t McCartney famously on record (in the wake of the legal row about producer Phil Spector drowning “The Long and Winding Road” with strings and choirs) as saying he’d never have female voices on a Beatles record?
“Oh…” he says. “You’ve got a scoop!“
What it boiled down to, though, he says, was that he simply wanted Linda around for love and companionship – in the studio, on tour. “Everyone had every reason to slag her off. In fact, there was no reason for anyone to support her. But I knew what I was doing – as did John, having Yoko on his records. He didn’t think she was Aretha Franklin. He was in love and he wanted to make something new – something of his own making. It was to do with intensity of feeling. And looking back on it, he was absolutely right. Everything they did, I think, was good. John had proved himself a master in conventional terms and in joining up with Yoko he was about to prove himself in unconventional terms. In a way, that was in both our thinking.“
By the time the Beatles broke up, it had been a long time since he and Lennon had sat knee to knee finishing each other’s songs. I ask whether he still misses that editing process.
“Are you kidding? Of course I bloody miss it. I’m sitting in the room with John, him with me. Believe me, we’re both pretty good editors. We were young turks. We were smartasses. And we did some amazing things. I would love him to be here now, saying, ‘Don’t bloody do that!’ – or, more wonderfully, ‘That’s great!’ So yeah, I really had the greatest writing partner.“
Perhaps he would have said the same thing…
“Well, you know, I went through a revisionist period led by Yoko at one time – you know, ‘All Paul did was book the studio.’ I believe that was a quote from her once. We’re good friends now, but there was a period when I was, like, ‘Jesus, did I ever do anything?’ But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, John wouldn’t have put up with me.’ So, you know, we were pretty cool.“
It rankles not being able to control his own story, not having the last word on what did or didn’t happen. Take Nowhere Boy, he says, Sam Taylor-Wood’s film about Lennon’s early years in Liverpool. “I know Sam, she’s a lovely girl, but I saw some stuff beforehand and I said, ‘This isn’t at all what happened. John punching me to the ground, as he does in the film? He never bloody punched me! And the scene where John and Pete Best are shown riding on the roof of the bus? Nobody ever rode on the top of buses.’ Sam said, ‘No, but it’s great for a film.’ And in the end, we had to agree – it’s not life, it’s a film. It’s like the Magritte picture of the pipe – ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ It’s a complete fiction, though I suspect some of it’s going down as fact.“
He laughs and moves on. He’s doing a lot of promotional stuff for Band on the Run, which is being rereleased in multiple formats. Is he hoping to attract a new generation of fans for Wings?
“I’m not consciously trying to whip up the next generation, but the concerts I’m doing now, there’s a huge influx of younger people, almost embarrassingly so. And we do a lot of Wings songs in the set. A couple of years ago, when we were doing the Live 8 thing, Bono, who I think keeps his finger on the pulse – he said [bad Bono impersonation], ‘Man, you know all the kids are listening to Wings now.’ I’m a family man and there’s a temptation not to talk about it in case it’s not cool – but to see my generation, their kids, and sometimes their kids’ kids at my shows? I love that.“
Last updated on November 22, 2020
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