In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It was supposed to be a vacation. Paul McCartney wanted to take his band someplace sunny and exotic to record a new album. That way, they could work and be tourists at the same time — the same reason every movie filmed in Hawaii has a better cast than it probably should. EMI, McCartney’s label, had a studio in the Nigerian city of Lagos, and that seemed nice enough to McCartney. He figured it would be a breezy, pleasant experience. It was not.
There were complicating factors. During a rehearsal on McCartney’s Scottish farm a week before recording started, McCartney got into an argument with guitarist Henry McCullough, and McCullough quit on the spot. And the night before the band left for Nigeria, drummer Danny Seiwell left the band, as well. At the time, Wings weren’t a hugely successful enterprise. They’d made hits, but critics had generally come to regard McCartney as a lightweight hack, at least compared to his ex-bandmates John Lennon and George Harrison. Now, suddenly, he was a lightweight hack whose band had three members instead of five, and he still had to make this damn album.
Nigeria was not the tropical paradise that McCartney had envisioned. Instead, it was a country recovering from a civil war and controlled by a military junta. Infrastructure had crumbled. Disease was rampant. And rather than relaxing in finery, McCartney had to make do with a studio that only had one eight-track recorder.
Wings had a few misadventures in Lagos. One night, Paul and Linda McCartney ignored locals’ advice and went out walking by themselves. They were robbed at knifepoint, relieved of a bag that included a notebook full of song ideas and a few demo tapes, including the original “Band On The Run” demo. And then there was the run-in with Afrobeat god Fela Kuti, who assumed that the band was in Nigeria to steal his ideas. (This would’ve been a good idea! An album full of Paul McCartney biting Fela Kuti could’ve been awesome.) Kuti confronted McCartney at the studio, and McCartney had to play him the new Wings songs just to reassure him that they didn’t sound even remotely Afrobeat-esque. (McCartney and Kuti ended up becoming friends, which is fun to think about.)
Anyway: not the ideal conditions for a pampered rock star to make something great. And yet McCartney and Wings used that pressure. They did something with it. Band On The Run, the resulting album, is easily the best non-Beatles thing McCartney has ever done, and its title track might be a best-case scenario for what can happen when you push big stars out of their comfort zones. After Band On The Run, nobody could accuse McCartney of being a lightweight.
“Band On The Run” should be a mess. It’s certainly indulgent: a three-part suite of unfinished ideas, only vaguely connected by McCartney’s own sense that he was being persecuted. “Band On The Run” doesn’t have a clear plotline, but it’s a story about a musical group escaping from jail. One inspiration had been the Beatles’ various entanglements with their own Apple label and with ex-manager Allen Klein, whom McCartney had always hated. One bit of “Band On The Run” — the line “if we get out of here” — had come from George Harrison, who’d uttered it during one of those endless Apple-related legal meetings. And McCartney had also gotten in trouble for weed. He saw that local authorities had been using marijuana arrests to persecute famous musicians, which was true enough. (They were using those arrests more to persecute non-famous people, but those arrests were bullshit across the board.)
McCartney had come up with multiple-part songs before, of course. He and Linda had even hit #1 with one of them, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” a few years earlier. This was an easy trick for McCartney, and a good use of half-finished songs. It’s the Mr. Show approach: When you can’t think of an ending for your comedy sketch, you just find some absurd way to slide it into a completely different comedy sketch.
There are three different parts to “Band On The Run,” and Wings didn’t record them all at the same time. McCartney laid down the final section with a 60-piece orchestra in London. Tony Visconti, who’d already begun his decades-long working relationship with David Bowie, did the orchestration; McCartney brought Visconti in after enjoying his work on T. Rex records. By necessity, then, “Band On The Run” is a bit disjointed, but not to a catastrophic level. All three parts have serious hooks, and even if they have nothing to do with each other melodically, McCartney knits them together with complete confidence. The narrative itself might be a bit halfassed, but the structure serves it well; when the tension of the second bit gives way to the orchestra crashing in, it really does sound like a moment of liberation.
Because half of his band had quit on him, McCartney played many of the instruments on “Band On The Run” himself. On the song, McCartney plays guitar (both electric and acoustic), bass, drums, and synth, and he sings the lead and backing vocals. He serves as producer, too. So the whole thing really is his vision, through and through, which might be why it holds together as well as it does. Thanks to that final part, with its grand orchestral flourishes, “Band On The Run” doesn’t sound like it was mostly recorded in a bare-bones Nigerian studio. But maybe the shitty circumstances have something to do with the song’s level of focus and urgency. The McCartney of “Band On The Run” doesn’t sound like a rich rock star dicking around in the studio, which is absolutely how the McCartney of “My Love” had sounded. It has more purpose.
There are plenty of people who hear “Band On The Run” as a masterpiece. I don’t. It’s too imprecise, too sloppily written, and too much of a jumble. I hear the song, instead, as a flex: McCartney, out on his own, coming up with a compellingly batshit troika of tunes and using it to open his album. (This was an insane thing to do.) And it’s a successful flex. “Band On The Run” is full of great little moments. We can argue over whether those moments add up to anything, but the moments themselves are lovely.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Roland Joffé’s 1985 movie The Killing Fields that uses “Band On The Run” for maximum grim-irony value:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tone Loc rapping over a “Band On The Run” sample — and samples of Steely Dan, Gary Wright, Barry White, ESG, and others — on the Dust Brothers-produced 1989 track “Cutting Rhythms”:
(Tone Loc’s highest-charting single is 1988’s “Wild Thing,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)