Gimme Five: Laurence Juber on Paul McCartney and Wings, and Al Stewart

On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to fingerstyle guitar virtuoso Laurence Juber, who first came to fame alongside Paul McCartney in Wings.

You’ll go inside some of the key moments from Juber’s 1978-81 tenure with McCartney, including three cuts from 1979’s Back to the Egg and the 1980 charttopping single “Coming Up.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Former Wings lead guitarist Laurence Juber talks about graduating from “McCartney University” – and then transitioning into his ongoing role as a solo guitar virtuoso.]

We also find out more about Juber’s initial foray into fingerstyle composing, and his career intersection in the 1990s with British folk revival star Al Stewart, who had seen both Year of the Cat and Time Passages and their title tracks go Top 10 between 1976-78.

There are insights galore into the creative process of McCartney and Stewart, the special contributions of talented collaborators like Steve Holly, and how this tough final edition of Wings just might have influenced the 1980s-era sound of Yes …

“SPIN IT ON,” with WINGS (BACK TO THE EGG, 1979): The polar opposite in every way of the initial single to feature Juber in the Wings lineup, the Top 5 non-album dance hit “Goodnight Tonight.” “Spin It On” is a galloping, grinding rock track, in many ways unlike anything Paul McCartney and Wings had ever done – if only for its nervy guitar gumption. “Goodnight Tonight,” underneath its disco sheen, also included a stirring flamenco segment that pointed straight to Juber’s later career turn toward solo performances, while “Spin It On” contains some of the most dramatic and interesting sounds ever issued from his instrument.

LAURENCE JUBER: With “Spin It On,” when I recorded the solo, it was just me sitting in the control room with Paul and basically just playing guitar licks for Paul McCartney. That was kind of a challenge, but it was inspiring. I think the thing that I enjoyed most about that whole process as a lead guitarist is that stuff was drawn out of me that I wasn’t in my comfort zone. I was being pushed, and I liked being pushed like that. And so you got this creative spark that comes out. There’s stuff in “Spin It On” that I would have necessarily thought: ‘Oh, that’s my style.’ But I can look back now and say, actually that’s where I go with things.

“MAISE,” solo (NAKED GUITAR, 1993): Juber’s first major recording experiment in fingerstyle guitar playing, this song – then called “Maisie” – was considered for inclusion in Wings’ 1979 album Back to the Egg. A few years later, it finally showed up on Juber’s 1982 solo debut Standard Time — with McCartney, Steve Holly and Denny Laine of Wings serving as sidemen. A decade later, Juber again returned to the tune, now called “Maise,” and imbued it with amazing new complexities.

LAURENCE JUBER: There was a really cool version that we had done up in Scotland as part of the Back to the Egg sessions. At that point it wasn’t in the running for the album. It could have been but it just didn’t fit where Paul was going conceptually. Then it sat on the shelf until I included it on a collection of material which I put out under the name of Standard Time. It comes up on the bootlegs of outtakes from Back to the Egg. That was really my first fingerstyle piece. I had added a little bit to it by the time I rerecorded it. It’s interesting to go back and revisit that stuff. I’m probably going to put that back into my performances soon — because it’s a fun one. That was the beginning of my composition process.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: S. Victor Aaron, Nick DeRiso and Beverly Paterson reconsider 'Back to the Egg,' with a track-by-track review of this overlooked gem from Paul McCartney and Wings.]

“ARROW THROUGH ME,” with WINGS (BACK TO THE EGG, 1979): Maybe the most unjustly forgotten McCartney single, this R&B-infused soft-rock pastry – featuring a Fender Rhodes-y bassline straight out of the Stevie Wonder playbook, and an endlessly inventive undulating polyrhythm from drummer Steve Holly – somehow only peaked at No. 29 as a U.S.-only single. Couple that with a bright blast of horns (played by fonky group fronted by Thaddeus Richard, but mimicked on the keyboard by Juber in the accompanying video) and the result is a long, long (maybe too long?) awaited update of what had become Wings’ tried-and-true silly-love-song template.

LAURENCE JUBER: That’s a killer song and, I think, one of Paul’s most underrated compositions. It’s been forgotten because rock radio has only embraced the stuff that got the heavy airplay. I think it was Steve’s idea to do the double-speed drums. There are two drum parts – the regular drum part and the double-speed part. Of the Wings drummers, Steve Holly was the most classic English rocker of all. Denny Seiwell was a great drummer, but he was basically an American jazz drummer. Joe English was a American style drummer, too, whereas Steve, of all the drummers that Paul has worked with, was probably the one that played the least like Paul – and the least like Ringo. Paul has the tendency to choose drummers that play more like him, or more like Ringo. But Steve Holly stands out, because he comes from a different space.

“COMING UP,” with WINGS (SINGLE, 1980): Originally issued as the opening track on Paul McCartney’s 1980 solo synthesizer experiment McCartney II, “Coming Up” became a No. 1 U.S. smash when a live version performed by Wings – recorded in December 1979 at Glasgow, Scotland – was later released. It remains the final, lasting argument for the collaborative atmosphere of Wings, and what it could still do to advance the ex-Beatle’s initial musical ideas. McCartney, however, still holds an affection for the original stripped-down version, having included it on the UK editions of the 2001 career-spanning double-album Wingspan – despite the fact that the in-concert single reached No. 2 there.

LAURENCE JUBER: People wanted to hear that. You take Paul singing a rock song, and people really went for that in the commercial sphere. But even to this day, he still favors his version. He needed to be persuaded to put the live version on the American edition of Wingspan. In a sense, a lot of the McCartney II stuff sounds like demos, but that album has gained traction in a whole different area. It’s the more techno, a real precursor to the electronica, more DJ-driven stuff. It was Paul taking advantage of drum machines and dealing with basic sequencers. That was kind of a nice project for Paul, and it has had some resonance over the years.

“NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH,” with AL STEWART (BETWEEN THE WARS, 1995): The opening track for an interesting examination of the period between 1918-39 by Al Stewart, of “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” fame. Playing fast and loose, Juber tangles imaginatively with Stewart here, kicking off a song cycle with period references to Charles Lindbergh, Woodrow Wilson, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Stalin. Juber would eventually serve as producer and musical collaborator on a string of Stewart solo outings, and played a number of concerts with the popular historical folk performer, as well.

LAURENCE JUBER: That kind of kicked off a series of records with him. We did Between the Wars, then we toured, and did the wine album (2000’s Down in the Cellar). There were four albums all together. I was very deeply involved in getting songs finished, even though I’m not credited with writing. It was a fun period when I was working with him, though. I was a fan of Al’s from way back. I opened for him when I was, I think, 14 in north London. I had a little duo going with a friend of mine where we were doing instrumental guitar things. I was always somewhat impressed with Al as a songwriter and performer. He was part of that English folk scene along with Ralph McTell and just the next season on from Roy Harper. A couple of years later, you have Nick Drake – the whole acoustic school in England. I was introduced to Al again in ’94 and it was right around the time that Peter White was really starting to pursue his solo career. They were looking for someone to replace Peter, mostly just to do some live duo shows. I went out and did a few gigs with Al, not really knowing his repertoire that well. But I can fake it pretty good! (Laughs.) Then he came over to my studio and he had a song that he wanted to demo, which was “Night Train to Munich.” The two guitar parts – my lead guitar and Al’s rhythm guitar from the demo – are on the final album. And that’s true of everything I did with him. Whenever I would demo a song, I would keep that initial inspiration – so the guitar solo is what I played when I was just laying it down.

“TO YOU,” with WINGS (BACK TO THE EGG, 1979) A deeply underrated cut, likely because it sits amongst a disappointing second-half retreat away from this album’s earlier rock ambitions – notably with an old-saw ballad medley but also the Mills Brothers-inspired “Baby’s Request,” a song so pre-war retro that it’s found a home all over again on the expanded version of McCartney’s new standards project, Kisses on the Bottom. It’s a shame, though, since “To You” represents one last blast of new-wave inventiveness. McCartney’s vocal is all hiccups and howls, like he’s channeling the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, while Juber brilliantly saws away over a fidgety beat. Nowhere else on Back to the Egg is there a greater sense of the fizzy future that never was for this final lineup of Wings. In a few years, of course, this sound would be airing wall-to-wall on MTV.

LAURENCE JUBER: That was the first song we recorded, and when we did my guitar solo on that, Paul was manually operating an Eventide harmonizer (which offered such new-fangled options as pitch shifting, delay and feedback regeneration). So, I was hearing everything in the headphones, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the note I actually played. I would hear what had been manipulated. We were doing it in real time. It created this really cool dissonant thing. It was actually a bit of a precursor to what Trevor Rabin did on (the 1983 Yes charttopper) “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” with the harmonized guitar solo. Whether there is any direct connection, I couldn’t speculate. But the fact is, in terms of the art of it, it was very cool. One of the things I was very self-consciously trying to do was to make the guitar not just another generic rock guitar sound but in general, not just on that tune. What I was trying to do was to not be generic, but to absorb what else was going on at that time – and what else I had absorbed in my own experience, and to bring all of that to the forefront.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.