Paul McCartney’s 1973 Band On the Run has undergone several remastered reissues during the compact disc era. The most recent allows consumers to choose between several different configurations. The single disc edition simply contains the album, restored to its original UK line-up of nine songs. The Special Edition includes a second disc of music and one DVD. Then there’s the Deluxe Edition, which adds a third audio disc, a 120 page hardbound book, and downloadable hi-res audio versions of all the album and bonus tracks.
Your level of McCartney devotion (not to mention budget) will determine which edition you opt for. Personally I feel the Special Edition, listing at $29.98 but discounted by many retailers, is by far the best value. The original UK version of the album did not include the hit single “Helen Wheels,” meaning that purchasers of the single disc (listing at $14.98) will have to go without. I believe Band On the Run is a far stronger album with that song included.
The Special Edition contains a great deal of extra content, making it well worth the extra money. In addition to “Helen Wheels,” the second audio disc contains a pair of B-sides (“Country Dreamer” and “Zoo Gang”) and five cuts from the sessions for a previously unreleased made-for-television special. The DVD contains this fifty minute special, called One Hand Clapping. The program is basically a live McCartney performance, filmed in the studio without an audience. Unfortunately, though the video quality is watchable, One Hand Clapping looks like it was transferred to DVD from a second-generation VHS copy. About a half hour’s worth of additional short featurettes round out the DVD.
The Deluxe Edition is far more expensive, listing at a whopping $99.98. The third audio disc is simply a reissue of the bonus disc that was included with 1998’s 25th Anniversary Edition. The “audio documentary” is actually quite entertaining, and includes a few exclusive sound-check/rehearsal versions of Band On the Run songs performed during McCartney’s ’89 and ’93 tours. The disc also contains interviews with all the principal participants, including each person seen on the album cover. But of course if you already own the 1998 reissue, none of this will be new to you. I’d like to take a gander at the book and expanded liner notes, but I find that these types of incentives are rarely worth the cost. It’s an expensive package aimed at completists. As much as I consider myself a true blue McCartney fan, I just can’t justify the purchase.
The album itself sounds excellent, though not a dramatic improvement over the 25th Anniversary Edition. That edition sounded drastically better than the original ’80s-era compact disc; the newest version is very similar in fidelity (to my ears, at least). Many consider Band On the Run to be McCartney’s high water mark as a solo artist. I disagree; it’s not even his best album of the ’70s (that distinction belongs to 1971’s Ram). But it remains among his strongest, most consistent albums.
The closest thing to a throwaway is the Denny Laine collaboration, “No Words.” But its brief two and a half minutes glide by unassumingly, giving way to the far more inventive “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me).” The one-two punch of the title track and “Jet” makes for the best opening of any McCartney album. The Lennonish “Let Me Roll It” has become a classic rock radio staple (and by McCartney’s own admission has nothing to do with Lennon, other than a subconscious evocation of his early solo sound).
Note that I haven’t been referring to this as Paul McCartney and Wings. I realize there are many fans intent on separating the albums credited to Wings from the rest of his solo catalog. This has always been utter nonsense. Made with the participation of only one other skilled musician, Band On the Run is categorically not a band effort. Wings was basically McCartney, his wife Linda (singing harmony and playing very simple, pre-determined keyboard parts), and whomever happened to be playing with him during a given session. That’s no slight towards Denny Laine, the guitarist who played on every album credited to Wings. But if Laine has quit at some point, McCartney would’ve likely kept the Wings name alive regardless. Each of Wings’ seven studio albums features a different line-up. They represent McCartney’s own musical vision, even when he foolishly tried assigning lead vocals to other band members.
Band On the Run was most definitely Paul McCartney’s triumph. He plays drums, bass, and many guitar and keyboard parts. Denny Laine made the recording process easier by serving as a solid utility man in the studio. Linda McCartney’s instrumental contributions have always been unclear. As McCartney has explained, he conceived the parts she played, teaching them to her note for note. Linda’s rough, untrained backing vocals combined with Laine’s rather nasally tone for a distinctive harmony sound. But in the end, there’s nothing on Band On the Run that McCartney couldn’t have achieved completely on his own. That is, with the exception of some saxophone solos expertly played by Howie Casey and some orchestration courtesy of Tony Visconti.
By the time Band On the Run was released in late 1973, he had already issued four post-Beatles albums. Two of them, his debut McCartney and 1971’s Wild Life (the first attributed to Wings), were half-finished collections of song sketches and instrumentals. 1971’s Ram was extremely tuneful and eclectic, but many complained it was too whimsical. Red Rose Speedway, preceding Band On the Run by only seven months, was aimless and empty. Band On the Run proved he was capable of turning out a mainstream pop album filled with songs that would have sounded fine on any late-era Beatles album.
The common complaint about McCartney’s laziness as a lyricist holds true for a good portion of the album. When perusing the printed lyrics, “Let Me Roll It” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” in particular look pretty skimpy. And if you’re looking for insights into McCartney as a person, nothing here will be very enlightening. But in a general sense, the words are largely more consistently interesting than what’s found on many of his other albums.
The entire McCartney catalog is being overhauled as The McCartney Archive Collection. According to an advertisement in the digipak, the next batch of reissues will be: McCartney (1970), McCartney II (1980), Venus and Mars (1975), Wings At the Speed of Sound (1976), and Wings Over America (1977). It’s an intriguingly non-chronological approach. While I don’t expect such a variety of multi-disc options for each, I do hope there will be bonus content for each release.
Band On the Run was a good starting point for this ambitious project. Choose wisely when deciding which configuration to spend your hard-earned dollars on. Incidentally, the Best Buy version of the Special Edition adds a free bonus DVD. Housed in a separate sleeve, this twenty-four minute DVD contains a nine minute promotional piece about the album and three live performances previously issued as part of 2009’s Good Evening New York City DVD.