(Pictured: Linda, Paul, and Denny Laine at work in the studio, 1973.)
This post has appeared here before, I think, or parts of it. Since it has been 45 years this week since Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run spent its first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1, I’m going to bring it back, or out, or whatever, for another installment in our ongoing series, The Re-Listening Project. This time we’ll start ranking the tracks at the top instead of counting them down.
1. “Band on the Run.” Nobody ever lists the opening of “Band on the Run” among the all-time great guitar riffs, but they should. It sounds great on the radio off a jingle, in a song-to-song transition, or as a segue. When you put in the CD or play the album, there’s that second of two of anticipation before the riff comes knifing out of your speakers, and that’s pretty great, too. (Both Paul and Denny Laine are credited as guitarists on the album, but I don’t know who played it.) The transition to the middle section (“If I ever get out of here”) and “Well the rain exploded with a mighty crash / As we fell into the sun” are further proof that Paul is better at crafting songs than everybody else who crafts songs.
2. “Jet.” Like “Band on the Run,” “Jet” has a radio-ready opening riff that sounded hotter than hell, especially on AM radio. The song itself is surely more about sound than sense, because the lyrics don’t make any. Over the years, Paul has offered several different explanations for what it’s supposed to be about, none of which seem especially convincing.
3. “Bluebird.” One of the loveliest songs Paul ever wrote, no matter which band he was in.
4. “Helen Wheels.” In the UK, this was a non-album single in 1973 and didn’t appear on Band on the Run at all. It was in the middle of Side 2 on the original vinyl release in the States, although on the 1993 and 1999 CD reissues, it was moved to the end to reflect its status as a UK bonus track. On the 2010 Archive Edition, it’s exiled to a second disc of extras. And it makes three of Paul’s greatest riffs on the same album.
5. “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.” This was never released as a single (except as the B-side of “Band on the Run”), but classic-rock stations played it far more often than anything else on the record except for the title song. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Paul never played it in concert until 2011.
6. “Mrs. Vandebilt.” That rolling, thumping bass and “ho . . . hey ho.”
7. “Let Me Roll It.” In his original 1974 review of Band on the Run, Jon Landau calls this “a parody of and tribute to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band style.” I suppose one can hear it that way.
8. “Mamunia.” Imagine being so talented that you can knock off something this good for a middle-of-Side-2 filler spot.
9. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).” This is OK, I guess, although the bits that reprise “Jet” don’t do much for me. On the 1976 Wings Over America tour, the band performed it as a medley with Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” and there’s something about that juxtaposition that makes “Picasso’s Last Words” work better. Maybe it’s that there’s simply less of it.
10. “No Words.” I listen to Band on the Run a couple of times a year, and whenever “No Words” comes on, it’s like I’ve never heard it before. It makes no impression whatsoever.
The reason I chose to list from top to bottom instead of bottom to top, countdown-style, is that my ranking of the album tracks is basically the track listing, except “Helen Wheels” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” get moved up and “Picasso’s Last Words” and “No Words” are flipped.
Band on the Run was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys awarded in 1975, part of a group that also included Elton John’s Caribou, Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, Back Home Again by John Denver, and the eventual winner, Fulfillingness’ First Finale by Stevie Wonder. It was the first of four Album of the Year nominations Paul would receive as a solo artist. Band on the Run remains his best-selling and best-reviewed album, and if any of Paul’s 1970s albums is going to endure for a hundred years, it will probably be the one.