Retrofit Guide: Paul McCartney's "Band on the Run"

I’ve been listening to this album consistently for the last week, 10 days, and there’s no getting around it: “Band on the Run” is simply a great rock ‘n’ roll record, a serious contender for anyone’s Greatest Ex-Beatles albums, and nothing short of a joy to listen to, repeatedly, on even the most grim and lifeless days. Because it’s bursting with life, and inventiveness. To say nothing of sex, restlessness, seething ambition, and more. Let’s take it song-by-song:

Band on the Run: LIsten and think hard about how inventive this 5 minute-plus rock suite really is. The modular structure; the abrupt shifts in tempo and sound; the way it’s all constructed to fit a kind of impressionistic narrative about the joys, complications and endless opportunities for transcendence that go along with music and — more than anything — being in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Section by section, now: Stuck inside these four walls….lord, it’s every dead-end room you’ve ever inhabited, at home, in school, at some crappy job you thought you’d never escape, and just when you least expect it, even at the height of fame. If I ever get out of here…. the guitars turn crunchy, the percussion cracks like a pistol shot as the dead-end becomes fame itself; e.g., straight-up memories of the Beatlemania days, the endless hours of being cooped up in dressing rooms while the world surged madly at their door. Then….that breathttaking symphonic leap up to the central verse and chorus of the song and the point where…The rain exploded with a mighty crash/as we fell into the sun…. and the band is back on the run, soaring above the clouds and far from the grasp of any number of antagonists: the sherrif, the county judge (who held a grudge), even the undertaker. The music soars. The voices call out ecstatically (Yeeeeah!) Four minutes in, and the album is way above the clouds.

Jet: Someone is clearly pissed off at an ex-girlfriend, and though he keeps the lyrical details pretty abstract (I thought the Major was a lady sufragette!) the wicked horns-and-guitar riff that kicks it off, the growling bari sax throughout and the hard edge to his voice makes it all extraordinarily clear. When I hear this song I always imagine he’s having another go at Jane Asher (see also: “I”m Looking Through You”), recalling the middle-class gentility of the Asher family (Dr. Asher = the Major; Mrs. Asher = Mater, and so on) and cursing his own enchantment/intimidation in their presence. After all, it turned out he was the one who really had it going on, didn’t it? Climb on my back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky…. “Jet” rocks mercilessly.

Follow the jump to see who dies, what comes back and who is going to shake it, and yet not break it…

Bluebird: One of the better love ballads in the ouevre, and another PM vision of life in the land of the winged ones. (see also: “Blackbird,” “Single Pigeon,” “Two Magpies,” and more) Ignore the lyrics and focus on the tropical feel of the track – the ratling percussion; the lovely harmonies he shares with Linda on the single-word chorus. Then comes Howie Casey’s langorous sax solo, and romantic ballads don’t come any more painless.

Mrs. Vanderbilt: It’s all about the bass: an energetic ping-pong pattern that underscores the restless shuffle in the rhythm and the fussiness the singer is so intent on escaping, as seen in the person of the titular Mrs. V, who grumbles bitterly about money, the mass transit system, and being so very late as she charges from one pointless task to the next. What’s the use of worrying? What’s the use of hurrying? No use! The tune speeds up as it goes, dashing off into a jungle full of shrieking animals, pounding drums and wild tribal dances. Did I mention tha they recorded the album in Africa? True story. A difficult few weeks, as it turned out. But difficulty suits Paul’s muse, as we learn again on….

Let Me Roll It: I can’t tell you how I feel/My heart is like a wheel/Let me roll it… ya. This is the shit, right here: The most simple bass line; stripped-down drums; a seething two-part guitar riff; and a guy so desperately in love/lust that he’s gone totally primal. In its moment the song seemed like a blistering answer to John Lennon’s great primal scream tunes and indeed, Paul has borrowed the sound and feel of “Plastic Ono Band” – right down to the funereal thump of the drums. He’s got the Arthur Janov blues, you can hear it in the primal wail that brings the thing to its thumping, tooth-gnashing, seething fade. A rip at John? Not even – call it a tribute. And you know who dug the tune, and the album, more than anyone? That would be J. Lennon. He knew brilliance when he heard it, you know.

Mamunia: Did he write it in Africa? No telling, but it sure has that sweet tropical feel, both in the bongo/conga rhythm and the ecstatic message in the lyric, which transplants the Beatles’ lysergic musings on “Rain” into a low-key jungle-funk tune about the beauty of rain and the magic of nature. The music tumbles just like a jungle stream, the chords descending cheerfully over rocks and around corners, modulating from key to key, and yet always finding its way back to the source. Toward the end, when the synthesizer leaps to the fore, there’s a lovely moment where we can hear Paul talking in the background: “Everywhere I go is a single sound!” he cries. “I like it!” Is he talking about the electronic howl of the synth or the similarities among world cultures, music, and voices? The obvious answer: Yes.

No Words: A tiny masterpiece of colliding voices, musical ideas and (as it turned out) song fragments that just happened to work well together. Denny Laine had a fragment, see, and so Paul snapped one or two of his own on, and suddenly they had another abstract plaint addressed to a love gone wrong. The lyrics suggest more than they tell, but the full-band harmonies, plus the ascending guitar riffs and abrupt shifts in musical ideas make it magical.

Helen Wheels: Another road ode, this one a road-level celebration of the touring life, and the joys of going wherever your heart, and/or tour schedule, takes you. More blistering guitar leads, although they’re mixed lower than on the other tunes, more clever use of electronic sounds, and lyrics that catapult grade school rhymes into a kind of ecstatic verse: Spend the day on the motorway where the carbuerators blast/slow down driver, wanna stay alive, wanna make this journey last….Amazingly, this tune was an after-thought, patched onto the U.S. version of the album by a Capitol exec who knew a #1 smash when he heard it. (Al Coury?) He was righter than he thought, because while the tune did eventually top the charts, it also adds to the narrative of the entire album. See, record execs aren’t all bad.

Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me): Another masterpiece, on a wild array of levels. For what starts as a simple ballad to a recently-deceased artist (composed at the behest of Dustin Hoffman, who just wanted to see how easy it was for Paul to write a song) creates a realm of its own as a pile up of sounds (including the sound of PIcasso’s own voice), instruments and then reprisals of nearly all the defining songs of the abum come together to form a kind of musical cubism: everything you’ve seen/heard before now comes back from a dozen different angles, sung in different ways, set to different instruments, the melodies coming together, clashing, disappearing, only to come back again. For me the breathtaking moment comes when
the thing veers back to the “Picasso” bridge, an irresistible descent into the relative minors of the verse chords, only this time the melody comes straight from Paul’s bass, which he plays with a softness and fluidity emphasized by a counter-melody (played by strings) and his own Fender Rhodes, its lower-end jacked up to give the keys a throaty, late-era Billie Holiday sound. Three o’clock in the morning, we’re getting ready for bed/it came without a warning, but I’ll be waiting for you baby, I’ll be waiting for you there… That’s what the bass is saying. Extremely clearly.

1985: I’d nearly say this built-in encore doesn’t work. The tune feels unfinished, the lyrics veer toward the non-grammatical, none of the verses parse. But then there’s that killer piano riff, the swells of churchly organ, the part where Paul urges his lover to shake it, but not break it. Then a brief lull, then back to the unadorned piano riff, and finally a symphonic climax and… more time… on the run, band on the run….And did you know he dusted this one off, nearly 40 years later, to play on his live show this spring? Interesting choice.