Friday, October 24, 2008

Paul McCartney 5: Band On The Run

By now fans weren’t expecting much from Paul. Moreover, two Wings flew the coop, having had enough of the democracy that never was. With his back against the wall, he took the challenge and, as John would say, was scared into doing something good for a change. Band On The Run comes off like a concept album, in a time when that sort of thing was expected, but luckily transcends that straightjacket.

The title track was the most Beatlesque track he’d done in years, with a ton of hooks and all those different parts coming together. The movement from the “if we ever get out of here” into “the rain exploded” is almost cinematic. When he can fit the jigsaw puzzle together like this, no one else comes close to McCartney. (However, this is the first tune of many to come that reference silly names like Sailor Sam.) “Jet” regurgitates the “Satisfaction” riff, made even snottier by the horns, and is a worthy rocker. And those drums again—Paulie was getting pretty good at them! “Bluebird” is a close cousin to “Blackbird”, with more references to flying and being free. This fit nicely on the radio with soft rock from the Eagles, America and so on. The midsections with the interlocking guitars and layered harmonies are exquisite. “Mrs. Vandebilt” makes no sense, but what’s the use of worrying? Others have pointed to John’s “Let Me Roll It” as his response to “How Do You Sleep?”, the connection being the bathroom vocal style and plodding bass line. This is one of those recordings in his catalog where one wouldn’t be surprised if he played all the instruments. It sounds very much like the experiments on McCartney (and has a close cousin on McCartney II, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

“Mamunia” would be pleasant if it wasn’t so long. This is the only track that seems to have an African influence (the album having been recorded in Nigeria) and not much of one. “No Words” is an updated Everly Brothers song co-written with Denny Laine; great guitars at the end. “Helen Wheels” was on the American LP, and occasional CDs from time to time. It’s a good “on-the-road” stomper, even if it should be faded earlier so we don’t have to hear Linda counting to four again and again. “Picasso’s Last Words” was written on a dare from Dustin Hoffman (really, Paul, you shouldn’t have) that only serves to have earlier album melodies woven in and out. “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” was odd to have on the radio right around the same time as Bowie’s “1984”; the sinister melody belied the rather simple subject, but in the wake of his James Bond work it’s still pretty cool. It comes crashing to the climax, and then the title track fades in for a few moments for a nice finale right out of the movies.

Paul had an inkling he needed to prove himself too, and he rose to the occasion. And his drumming was better as well—there’s not a moment on Band On The Run that makes you cringe like his previous visits behind the kit. While it was definitely a step up, history has dimmed its luster. But he got his confidence back (and John and George’s fading reputations didn’t hurt) so now he could go back to being Mr. Showbiz, with varying results. Besides, there were only three of them, plus the sax player, and he could indulge us with a poster of Polaroids from the studio depicting cases of Guinness and even a toilet.

Decades on, it was still considered one of his best works. 1999 brought an “anniversary” edition in a handsome cardboard box, complete with an expanded booklet and a documentary-style bonus disc that told the story of the album, from recording to artwork and marketing. The few rare tracks were predominantly live rehearsals from the late ‘80s and more recent buskings. (Still, it was more interesting than the 1993 UK remaster, which added only “Helen Wheels” and the B-side “Country Dreamer” as bonuses. By that time collectors also got to shell out for a gold disc licensed to the DCC label, and likely still held onto their original Columbia CD because why not.)

It was also the debut release in the projected Paul McCartney Archive Collection, re-released in several permutations. The standard CD did not include “Helen Wheels”; that was part of the bonus disc on the so-called Special Edition, alongside the B-sides “Country Dreamer” and “Zoo Gang” and several performances from the unreleased One Hand Clapping film, which was included on a DVD. (The Deluxe Edition came with a thick book, and contained all of the above plus the bonus disc from the 25th Anniversary CD.)

It was a bold but expected start to this particular reissue program, which over the next ten years saw a dozen more albums expanded and enhanced in various teeth-gnashing ways, seemingly at random, before going frustratingly quiet. By that time the industry—as well as his fellow former Beatles’ catalogs—had gotten caught up in so-called “50th Anniversary” marketing, and Band On The Run was tapped yet again for its seventh CD incarnation to celebrate it. This time the album (with “Helen Wheels”) was paired with a disc of “underdubbed mixes”—basically rough mixes without orchestra or other touches—in a different sequence (and not including “Helen Wheels”). It’s an interesting listen in places, if you like that sort of thing, highlighting different sonics. “Picasso’s Last Words” is even stranger in its earlier form, and “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” has no vocals. One wonders how they’ll celebrate the 55th anniversary.

Paul McCartney & Wings Band On The Run (1973)—
1999 25th Anniversary CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 21 extra tracks
2010 Archive Collection Special Edition: same as 1973, plus 8 extra tracks and 1 DVD (Deluxe Edition adds 21 extra tracks from 1999)
2024 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1973, plus 9 extra tracks

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