Bored with recording in England in 1973, McCartney checked out a list of EMI’s international recording studios and discovered one in Lagos, Nigeria. Dreaming of new African rhythms to be discovered, he made plans for his band to travel there with former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.
Tension had been growing between McCartney and Wings guitarist Henry McCullough. In performances, McCullough prided himself on always improvising something new. McCartney believed the crowd wanted to hear it how they expected it. As Harrison had learned long ago, there wasn’t a lot for McCullough to add to McCartney’s tunes since Macca wanted them recorded exactly as he envisioned them. The low pay rankled, and Linda got on McCullough’s nerves. Finally, he turned in his notice a few weeks before the trip to Lagos. McCartney was surprised but figured they could make do without him.
The night before they were set to fly, drummer Denny Seiwell also quit, having lost faith that McCartney would ever give him a raise from $175 a week. McCartney decided, screw ’em both, Wings would record the album as just a trio. He had already played drums on THE WHITE ALBUM when Starr briefly walked out, and then on McCARTNEY. He figured it’d be easier taking over the drums himself than trying to explain what he wanted to a Nigerian. Seiwell noted later with irritation that McCartney mainly re-created all the drum parts Seiwell had worked out in advance.
It’s interesting that McCartney made perhaps his greatest album immediately after two-fifths of his band split—in particular, an album built around a song celebrating the camaraderie of bands. Perhaps having lost his second band in three years, McCartney had a vendetta to make an album so good they’d regret leaving.
McCartney’s previous hit “Live and Let Die” had introduced a more cinematic, action-oriented mind-set, and now the adrenalin of a very unique set of circumstances poured into “Band on the Run.” There was the life-threatening chaos of Lagos, where the McCartneys were mugged and Macca also suffered an attack of bronchial spasms. Also, McCartney’s persistent busts for marijuana had made him feel that the authorities were turning musicians into outlaws because they wanted to substitute herb for booze. The strands combined to make “Band on the Run” the greatest of his rock operas.
The song begins with the group stuck in jail for life, harmonizing like inmates in old prison movies. McCartney ruminates about what he’d do “if I ever get out of here,” a line Harrison uttered during one of the interminable Apple board meetings.
Suddenly, guitars and orchestra rev and roar like dynamite blasting a hole through the wall. The gang runs for the fences as the debris falls like the sound of the acoustic guitars strumming, embodying light and freedom as McCartney’s vocals echo. As the band runs toward the sun, one of them turns to the others and wryly cracks that he hopes they’re having fun. No other line captures the exhilaration and terror the Beatles must’ve felt being chased by the fans who nearly tore them limb from limb. Beatlemaniacs would drop down onto the tops of the limos and nearly crush the group inside so frequently that it became necessary to transport them in armored vehicles.
The song crystallizes McCartney’s nostalgia for old friends sharing the eye of a hurricane together, a time never to return, and simultaneously reflects his steely determination to capture the excitement again anyway. Even if McCullough and Seiwell had bailed out, he’d do it with his wife/best friend Linda and Denny.
McCartney’s vision of escape became the best-selling album of 1974, and the seventh best-selling album of the 1970s. Soon he would conquer America and the rest of the globe again in his 1976 Wings Over the World tour.
It would have been nice to be a fly on the wall the first time Lennon, Harrison, and Starr heard the song. Perhaps they smiled a little, remembering the blood stone days. Hard nut Lennon sang the album’s praises. A month after the single “Band on the Run” hit the US number one spot, Lennon went into the studios to record WALLS AND BRIDGES and finally came up with his own number one, “Whatever Gets You thru the Night.” Soon, he’d be talking with McCartney about meeting in New Orleans to record together.
The Beatles’ break up feud and its aftermath were over. McCartney was now healed and complete on his own, even as he nostalgically looked back at his old mates and celebrated them, echoing that moment from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT when the four banged open the theater door and ran down the fire escape with Ringo’s cry, “We’re out!”