#418: Paul McCartney and Wings, "Band on the Run" (1973)

The first musical argument I can remember having must have taken place in 1971. I was in first grade, and I was disputing with my best friend the relative merits of the Beatles and the Banana Splits. Not the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or the Monkees, or even the Archies: the Banana Splits, a bubblegum band without a top-forty hit from an animated TV show I had never even seen. I was indignant, even then, that anyone would question the Beatles’ supremacy, and that the rivals would be a band so synthetic and ephemeral. I understood that the seventies were a fallen decade, and I mourned my belated condition. I had missed the Beatle moment.

Missed it just barely. We lived in London in 1968-69, where my brothers acquired 45s of “Get Back” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” I was less than three miles away when the Beatles gave their final performance on the rooftop of the Apple building on January 29, 1969. Back home in Massachusetts, my dad owned all the Beatles’ albums, and I remember being allowed to use his stereo to play (carefully) side two of Rubber Soul or side one of Abbey Road, my early favorites. But I knew the Beatles had broken up, and I understood that I was enjoying something that was over. Or was it just a temporary split? I remember reading hopeful reports in music magazines about prospects for a Beatle reunion. As a child whose parents never divorced, I focused my yearning on getting John and Paul back together.

That’s why I cherished Ringo, the 1973 album that seemed the prelude to a  reconciliation. Ringo’s song “Early 1970” had professed his desire to remain on good terms with “all three,” and Ringo, with John and George playing on one song and Paul and Linda on another, showed him doing just that. He even invoked Billy Shears in one song! It was hardly a Beatles album, but it seemed about as close as we could get.

Until one month later, when Band on the Run came out. Band on the Run had only one Beatle playing on it, but it was hailed by many as a work that could stand alongside the Beatles’ best, and in certain ways it courted that comparison. The title track’s celebration of a mythical band, for instance, brings to mind Sgt. Pepper and his crew. The way in which musical and lyrical snippets of “Band on the Run,” “Jet,” and “Mrs. Vandebilt” [sic] are reprised on side two is also reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, suggesting that this, too, was a coherent “concept” album of some sort. “Let Me Roll It” had a snarling guitar and a reverberant vocal that imitated or parodied John Lennon, perhaps answering his scathing 1971 attack on McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?” (The lyrics were mostly just another love song to Linda, however.) In any case, Paul seemed to have the Beatles on his mind, and rather than shirking his legacy, as he had in four underwhelming post-Beatles LPs, he seemed with Band on the Run finally to live up to his Beatleness.

At moments, however, the album feels less like a return to form and more like self-imitation. When “the undertaker [draws] a heavy sigh / Seeing no one else had come,” we are a bit too close to Father McKenzie. The third song on side one, “Bluebird,” is a lush and pleasant song, but it pales (or azures?) in comparison to the graceful ache of “Blackbird.” Like Robert Frost’s oven bird, “Bluebird” and Band on the Run and McCartney’s entire solo career ask us “what to make of a diminished thing.” How do we properly value McCartney’s lesser seventies work in relation to his sixties masterpieces? Robert Christgau, for one, viewed Band on the Run quite sternly. Denying that it was “McCartney’s definitive post-Beatles statement,” he gave it a C+. More conventionally, the Rolling Stone 500 calls it “McCartney’s finest post-Beatles hour.”

Perhaps the best thing would be to forget the Beatles altogether, thereby eliminating any sense of diminishment. What if this were not the album of an ex-Beatle? What if it came from the Raspberries or America or Klaatu or some other Beatlesque combo? How does it sound compared to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, or Countdown to Ecstasy (all 1973 also)? In writing this essay, I’ve become aware of how my reverence for the Beatles has caused me to overlook solo Paul. Over the years I have indiscriminately collected albums by ’70s pop artists. I have the entire ’70s works of Elton John and Rod Stewart and E.L.O., but I’ve never ownednever even listened tomuch of Paul’s music from that decade. I know only the hits and Band on the Run, and even that LP, which I have owned for decades, includes a couple of deep cuts that I swear I never heard before last weekend. If some non-Beatle had produced these hits and these albums, we would esteem them a good deal more than we generally do.

The fantasy of a Paul who was never a Beatle was made use of in one of my favorite jokes from The Simpsons. Homer and Marge are trying to rescue Bart from the clutches of Mr. Burns, so they hire a professional deprogrammer:

Deprogrammer: Mr. and Mrs. Simpson, your son has clearly been brainwashed by the evil and charismatic Mr. Burns.

Marge: Are you sure you can get him back for us?

Deprogrammer: Absolutely. I’m the one who successfully deprogrammed Jane Fonda, you know.

Marge: What about Peter Fonda?

Deprogrammer: Oh, that was a heartbreaker. But I did get Paul McCartney out of Wings.

Homer: You idiot! He was the most talented one!

If (as Homer sees it) Paul was first and foremost the lead singer of Wings, if there’d never been a Beatles, or had Paul not been one of them, then Wings might be a group we now treasure as much as we do Big Star or Steely Dan, and Paul’s disbanding them in 1981 might be lamented as much as Robbie Robertson’s breaking up the Band or Rod Stewart’s leaving Faces. Instead, Wings (or Paul McCartney and Wings, as they are called on the label of Band on the Run) is band we must place well below the Beatles, but well above the Banana Splits.

—Will Pritchard