Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” still represents the creative highpoint of his career away from the Beatles, nearly four decades later. So, to paraphrase a tune here, what’s the use in repackaging the thing again?
Well, a brilliant remaster of the original tapes, which have always been a little muddy, additional never-before-seen home movies from the exotic recording sessions, expanded liner notes, newly released B-sides (including the fun “Country Dreamer”), and a few rare cuts from the old “One Hand Clapping” TV special — all available on Tuesday from MPL/Concord’s Paul McCartney Archive Collection in a stair-stepped variety of packages, from small one-discers to large multi-CD/DVD extravaganzas.
Taken together, they help underscore the difficult freedom quest found on Paul McCartney‘s signature solo work, even while a fine-toothed polishing of the principal album brings out fresh, engaging nuances.
“Band on the Run” is revealed anew as the most personal of McCartney recordings — though, even now, the album’s unifying theme of escape is more subtle (and thus more commercial) than the blunt confessional style of his former partner John Lennon.
McCartney, instead, uses broader storytelling brushstrokes — skillfully weaving his own desire to break free of the Beatles with the age-old myths of ne’er-do-wells, hitchhikers and outsiders.
Much of the backstory, of course, is familiar. “Band on the Run” memorably begins with this crashing jailbreak of a title tune, establishing a rousing narrative; includes a pair of fervent rock songs about travelling fast (the zooming, Beatlesque “Jet”; and “Helen Wheels,” on the new bonus CD); explores rebirth through adversity (“Mrs. Vandebilt,” which perhaps best incorporates their surroundings at EMI’s studio in Lagos, Nigeria; and “Mamunia”); and then moves, inevitably, into the final passage we all take (“Picasso’s Last Words”).
The anthematic “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” seems to be building toward a sweeping finale, and some sense of closure, only to abruptly reprise the title track — closing the circle for a wanderer who may occasionally long for the settled life, but can never quite commit to sticking with one thing.
Deeper inspection finds that even “Bluebird,” a friendly aside in the familiar McCartney ballad style, ends up longing for another place — as McCartney’s character imagines taking wing himself, where “at last we will be free.” There is a restlessness, a sense of destiny unfulfilled.
It pushes McCartney to new places, as he incorporates every part of his pop genius here — handling most of the instrumentation (even the drums, after a sideman bolted), nearly all of the songwriting and singing (the underratedmakes a key contribution on “No Words”) and brilliantly employing his own varied musical idiosyncracies.
No McCartney effort yet has taken so many chances, nor so successfully blended his interests in the melodic, the orchestral, the rocking and the episodic.
In keeping, of the Beatles solo recordings, “Band on the Run” always sounded the most to me like something the old band might have put together.
There’s the Lennon knockoff “Let Me Roll It,” of course, and an introductory guitar signature on “Mamunia” that recalls George Harrison‘s “Give Me Love.” The opening title song would have fit in nicely on side two of In fact, George himself had uttered a key phrase on that mini-rock opera: “If we ever get out of here,” during an interminable business meeting around the same time.
Yet, experiencing “Band on the Run” again today, I noticed deeper, more emotional connections: The album’s famous cover image suggests a dark aftermath for the glittering 1960s of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” something that was so utterly true. The impish complexity of “Picasso’s Last Words” — they form a chorus of “drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink any more” — seems to deftly mourn the thrilling experimentation of that period, as well.
The lyric itself for “Picasso” was suggested as a songwriting dare by the actor Dustin Hoffman, who was filming in Africa, and from there McCartney decided to adopt a format in keeping with the angular style of his painter subject — tossing in found objects like previous songs (both “Jet” and “Mrs. Vandebilt”) and a polyrhythm on shaker courtesy of studio guest Ginger Baker from Cream.
I suddenly discovered, all over again, a sense of creative danger lifting this record. That’s something I hadn’t heard before in solo work by McCartney — a distractable genius who so often, then as now, chose to stay close to home, to play it safe.
He was, and this was so important to the enduring success of “Band on the Run,” unsure of where he was going, but willing to strike out anyway — willing, I realize all at once, to fail.
That led to Paul McCartney’s greatest success of all.