We really were a band on the run
DURING the recording of Band On The Run by Wings, an incident happened in Lagos, Nigeria, that summed up Paul McCartney's contradictory post-Beatles return to normality. It was a hot night in September 1973. Paul and Linda wandered back from the guitarist Denny Laine's rented house to their villa on the outskirts of the city.
"People kept telling us it was too dangerous to walk around," McCartney says. "But we'd been to Jamaica, we'd been to the Caribbean and these people were squares.
"Suddenly, a car comes along this dark road and slows down in front of us. A guy winds down the window and starts shouting. I go into friendly Liverpudlian mode. You know, 'Hey mate, we don't need a lift, ta very much.'"
Since coming out of a decade with the biggest band in the world, McCartney had been working hard at connecting with everyday life. But he wasn't quite there yet. The mix of good cheer and stubbornness that had allowed him to navigate insane levels of fame with the Beatles had no effect on a gang of thugs who neither knew nor cared who he was.
"This big guy got out of the car and started shouting at me. I actually bundled him back into the car, saying, 'Yeah, yeah, I love you, man. Now come on, we're going home'. He looked bewildered for a moment before five guys piled out and held us up at knifepoint."
It was then that Linda came out with a line that McCartney claims saved his life. "They're taking our money, our tape recorders, everything. Suddenly, Linda says, 'Don't kill him, he's a musician!'
"Well, maybe it did help, because apparently muggers in Nigeria often kill their victims to make sure they don't go to the police. The big problem for me is that they went off with the demo tapes to the songs we had been recording."
Band On The Run, which is re-released next month, marked McCartney's departure from the wreckage of his old band and the point at which his new band, Wings, became a successful entity in its own right.
Four years earlier, the Beatles had split up acrimoniously. What came next was a period of adjustment that, by his own admission, McCartney didn't handle particularly well.
Morning drinking sessions and heavy dope smoking got him through the day until Linda Eastman, New York-born daughter to the heiress of the Lindner department store fortune, helped him navigate his way out of the darkness.
The pair met at a Georgie Fame concert in London in 1967, marrying in 1969 when she was four months pregnant with their first child, Mary.
"The Beatles had broken up amidst a lot of bad feeling and I was thinking: what do I do now?" McCartney says.
"Linda came into my life, and she was so grounded. She pushed me out of what could have been a very bad situation. She wanted to get away from her posh upbringing, so we were both searching for something new."
A year later, the legal wrangles after the Beatles' split were still dragging on.
"We were having all these awful meetings," McCartney says, sounding drained at the memory. "Then one day Linda said, 'Let's go to Scotland.' We drove up and down Britain in a Land Rover. It was a new period of freedom that I hadn't had in a long time."
In a run-down farmhouse near the Mull of Kintyre in southwest Scotland, McCartney started writing songs again at Linda's encouragement. He set up the tiny Rude Studios in an iron-roofed barn next to the house and wrote his second solo album, Ram. By turns sentimental and angry, Ram is patchy but singular.
The first Wings album, Wild Life, was recorded at Rude over a week -- McCartney was building up a band, with the former Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine and Denny Seiwell on drums. It was rough and unpolished.
John Mendelsohn, of Rolling Stone magazine, wondered whether the album was "deliberately second-rate".
"There was a process of reinvention that, post-Beatles, I had to go through," McCartney says of the early days of Wings. "Suddenly, I didn't have to make a record if I didn't want to.
"And if you start a new group, what do you do? You play small gigs around the country. This time, it was a bit more difficult because people knew who I was, but something told us we had to do it that way. We were paying our dues."
Paul and Linda's adventure was brave. When Wings first toured in 1972," says Barbara Charone, a former NME journalist turned PR powerhouse, "it was the most exciting thing in music at the time. It was the first opportunity most people got to see McCartney live -- and here he was, playing in small venues. You could hardly believe it was happening."
The first Wings tour consisted of turning up at universities and asking if they could play unannounced.
"It wasn't exactly hippy, but that time was all about the two of us going off on this adventure," McCartney says. "It was about wanting to be free after being told what to do for so long."
What Paul and Linda wanted to do most was pretty much what every other band in the country was trying to avoid doing: travelling up and down Britain in a tour bus, playing gigs in student unions, before collecting 50p coins in a plastic bag and searching for the nearest hotel some time after midnight -- not the easiest thing to do in early-Seventies Britain.
"To give you a taste of what it was like, we would look at a map and say, 'Ashby-de-la-Zouch . . . we like the sound of that,'" McCartney says.
"So we drove there and, no offence to the people of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but it didn't seem like much more than a signpost. Then we discovered that Nottingham University was near by, so we showed up there.
"Our roadie went up to the bar and said, 'I've got Paul McCartney in the car park, wondering if he can do a gig.' The guy said, 'Pull the other one,' before being convinced to come out to the car park. I'd be there, waving out of an old van."
The McCartneys were dealing with the pressures that every young family faces -- no more so than when Stella and Linda almost died in childbirth -- but with the eyes of the world on them.
"Loads of people criticised us," says McCartney, who called his new band Wings after praying for Stella to be "born on the wings of an angel. The big one was: how can you drag your children around the world with you?"
Stella, born in 1971, was their second child. The couple had also adopted Linda's child, Heather, from her first marriage. By then, she was eight.
"Well, what do you want us to do, leave them at home while we go off for months on end? Looking back, that's what I love about that period. It was very rough. It wasn't like we didn't have all kinds of problems. I mean it was young kids, a new life, wondering what the hell I was going to do . . . the whole thing."
It took a while for McCartney to get into his stride. Early Wings records sounded like a band groping around in the darkness. That all changed with Band On The Run. It cemented the Wings sound: good-natured and rooted in rock'n'roll. McCartney considered Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro as possible recording locations, before deciding on Lagos.
"I wanted to find something that turned me on, rather than just getting that 'Here we go again' feeling," McCartney says. "I was imagining sunny skies, uplifting African visions, and encasing my songs in that atmosphere. It wasn't quite like that."
The Lagos studio was booked for September 1973. The Irish guitarist Henry McCullough left the band two weeks before, after an argument with McCartney about improvisation, while Denny Seiwell left the night before they were due to fly out, frustrated at being on a weekly retainer of £70. McCartney's funds were still tied up in legal wrangles with Apple, so the meagre amount was out of necessity, rather than meanness.
"So Denny (Laine), Linda and I head out to Lagos in the middle of monsoon season," McCartney says, "and I pick up the Nigerian Gazette or the Lagos Star or whatever it was and the headline reads, 'Fela accuses Beatle of stealing the black man's music'. Fela Kuti was the biggest star in African music at the time. The suggestion was that I was coming over to steal the songs before going home to get rich on them."
McCartney responded by inviting Fela Kuti to the studio.
"I played him Mamunia and he listened and said, 'Nah, of course you're not stealing from us'."
As well as the mugging, the McCartneys, Laine and the engineer Geoff Emerick had to deal with a makeshift studio, half a band and a monsoon. Out of this chaos emerged Band On The Run, Wings's loose-limbed masterpiece. It went on to become Britain's bestselling album of 1974.
"I see a lot of young people relating to that period now because they sense that we were trying to do something in quite a naive way," McCartney says. Recently, artists as diverse as Vampire Weekend and Dave Grohl have cited Wings as influential.
Although McCartney is talkative and cheerful when recalling the Wings days, you can't help but sense sadness in his reminiscing.
Linda was the great love of his life who saved him from alcoholic bitterness after the collapse of the Beatles. After 29 years of marriage to McCartney, she died of breast cancer in 1998, aged 56.
Some Beatles fans have belittled Linda as an inferior foil to McCartney's talents, but the late-period Wings guitarist Laurence Juber tells me that he credits her for "steering Paul towards rock'n'roll, which is what Wings became and what went down so well in America".
And the man himself speaks with unguarded praise for his late wife.
"Linda was a huge inspiration and influence on me and the kids. She still is. Stella really related to her and she still asks herself what her mother would have done when faced with a dilemma. She was a funny ex-college girl with wit and a sense of fun.
"Those early days with Wings weren't free from troubles, but they melt away with the passing of the years, don't they? You just remember the good times."
Then, after a pause, and before he puts the phone down, McCartney concludes: "She was a wonderful lass."
Band On The Run is re-released by MPL and the Concord Music Group