“Can you see it?”
Those were probably the last words Paul McCartney expected to hear after stepping into the cockpit of a plane carrying him and Wings bandmates Linda McCartney and Denny Laine to Lagos, Nigeria, in August 1973. Hoping to watch the landing from the front of the aircraft, McCartney – one of the most famous and successful musicians in the world — instead found himself helplessly standing by as the pilots went back and forth trying to locate the landing strip under the mist-covered jungle canopy. “Oh my God, are we even going to land?” McCartney later recalled of the panicky incident that marked the start of the sessions for Band on the Run, his 1973 post-Beatles masterpiece that turns 50 this December.
To record his fifth post-Beatles album and third LP with new band Wings, McCartney decided to relocate to Lagos for a change of scenery and musical inspiration. It was exactly the sort of bold gambit that his three former Beatle bandmates, just before the split, probably would have shot down without blinking. So, goodbye London, Beatles litigation and paparazzi; hello Africa, the warm sun, open air and Lagos’ music culture.
In hindsight, perhaps what McCartney really needed was chaos and disorder, ingredients which often inspired his best work. Ready or not, that’s what Lagos and the Band on the Run sessions were about to give him, his wife and Laine — one dramatic complication after another, threatening to undermine an endeavor that was more shambolic and seat-of-the-pants than the average McCartney fan realized back in the ‘70s.
“In order to move forward, you have to try new things,” Laine tells Billboard in a phone interview from his home in Florida while describing how he thinks about the landmark album now. “It’s like being a gambler. You gamble with things because it’s more exciting. It’s more appealing. It’s not the normal, everyday 9-to-5 job, it’s more of a — let’s try something new.”
Even if Band on the Run was more of a gamble than McCartney anticipated – the plane landed safely, but it was far from his last brush with danger on the trip – he certainly needed a chance of pace. At that point, McCartney himself was very much a man on the run — from the shadow of The Beatles, and from the critics who’d knocked (if not savaged) his previous four efforts: McCartney, Ram, Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway (many critics now celebrate Ram as a masterpiece, with Rolling Stone naming it one of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2020). Sure, he could move plenty of units in stores, but reviewers circa 1973 had grown accustomed to panning the writer of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Hey Jude” as lightweight and inconsequential.
The new lyrical ideas he’d started sketching spoke of imprisonment and the allure of freedom. “Stuck inside these four walls”; “If I ever get out of here”; “climb on the back, and we’ll go for a ride in the sky”; and “I’ll come flying to your door.”
While he rhapsodized about freedom, though, life had other ideas. Following two defections from Wings just before they were all due to fly out to Nigeria, shrinking McCartney’s existing quintet down to a trio, Laine was now the only remaining member of the group with a surname other than McCartney. The English rocker remembers the finished album that emerged from the Lagos sessions as largely a grand adventure.
“I know why it was appreciated so much,” Laine says. “Because it had a certain feel. It was basically just me and Paul doing the backing tracks. And it was more of a relaxed approach to doing an album than if you’re going in with a band and there are all these parts. We were thrown into that as a last resort, because two of the guys didn’t come to Lagos.”
When asked how he responded to the idea of a remote getaway for the project back in the day, Laine adds: “When (McCartney) said, ‘Let’s do it in Africa,’ I understood completely. We wanted to go somewhere where it was different. We’d be influenced by the music and the atmosphere, and it was far away from anything else we’d ever done. Because it was an EMI studio, I think they just put a pin in the map and said, ‘How about Africa?’ I just went: ‘Great, let’s do it.’”
Laine already knew McCartney prior to getting the call to join his post-Beatles band. “Because of his fame, of course, I was in the shadows more, but I wasn’t bothered by that at the time. I was traveling the world and learning a lot and having a good time in many ways. So from that point of view, it was easy for me. I’m very adaptable. When I’m around people who are not adaptable, I get a little bit nervous.”
He and the rest of the entourage couldn’t have foreseen it at the time, but adaptability was the personality trait above all others that would be required of Band on the Run players — who, in spite of everything, ended up producing an album that topped the Billboard 200, produced three Billboard Hot 100 top 10s (including the chart-topping title track) and attained triple platinum certification.
McCartney would, in interviews over the years, laugh off the adversity that accompanied these sessions. But Band on the Run might represent the most danger he’s ever put himself in for the sake of his career. During his time in Lagos, for example, he and Linda were mugged at knifepoint while walking the streets, oblivious to the warnings they’d been given about wandering at night. Robbed of their belongings — including studio demo tapes – Wings would have to start all over again, redoing from memory what had already been recorded.
As McCartney engineer Geoff Emerick recounts in his memoir, meanwhile, a visa was required for entry into Nigeria — and a resulting visit to the authorities to obtain one revealed the prerequisite of getting yellow fever, typhoid and cholera shots (and that malaria tablets would need to be taken throughout the stay). The McCartneys and Laine were venturing into an area where maladies like typhoid and cholera were an endemic risk. Furthermore, Nigeria was under the control of a military general at the time, and public executions were not an uncommon occurrence in Lagos.
The EMI studio where McCartney and Laine worked overlooked a lagoon at 7 Wharf Road in the city — and it was here that one of the most frightening episodes of all unfolded. At one point, McCartney began struggling to catch his breath, stepped outside, and then upon coming back in from the stifling heat, fainted and collapsed. A stunned and shouting Linda McCartney feared he was having a heart attack (it was, rather, a smoking-related bronchial spasm).
Once he’d returned home, McCartney deadpanned about it all at London’s Gatwick airport: “It was a great experience, and we had no problems whatsoever.”
From the listener’s point of view, none of that adversity is apparent – the record is peak McCartney songcraft. The Abbey Road-like medley of the title track gives way to the full-throated escapism of the rollicking “Jet,” which in turn prefaces the gently melodic “Bluebird,” with its chorus of tight, soaring harmonies. No fewer than three of the record’s tracks — “Band on the Run,” “Jet” and “Let Me Roll It” — would go on to become decades-long staples of McCartney’s setlists.
“Me and Paul, we had the same influences musically and had known each other since the ’60s,” Laine says. “It was just easy. It was easy to get a good groove on each other’s songs, and I think that’s what made the album popular.
“We did it almost as though it was a home recording. A lot of the equipment that was out there really wasn’t workable. It was all hand-me-downs from EMI, and they really didn’t know what they were doing.” Fortunately, McCartney had brought along his own engineer, “And we kept it basic. No frills.”
“Normally,” Laine continues, “me and him would get together somewhere and write together — before we go in the studio. He’d come up with an idea, or I would, and then it would be a co-written thing. Or he would have written the songs and I would have known them before we go into the studio, because we’d rehearsed them together. That’s what I really enjoyed about (Band on the Run). The fact we were thrown in the deep end, and we had to swim, and we came up with that feel that we always had anyway.”
The critical and commercial acclaim that followed Band on the Run (it was nominated for the prestigious album of the year Grammy) prefaced the success of Venus and Mars two years later, which was the Wings album McCartney used to reestablish himself as a major touring artist. And there were still other benefits of his African sojourn, including a bit of unstinting praise from the most improbable voice of all: John Lennon. In 1975, Lennon told Rolling Stone that Band on the Run was “a great album,” adding, “It’s good Paul music.”