Silly loved songs

Published March 31, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The effect of marijuana on the life and work of Paul McCartney has perhaps not been commented upon enough. With the possible exception of Jerry Garcia, McCartney has certainly been the rock star most enamored of dope. He's defended grass throughout his career, and his songs are dotted with references to it. There's also a subtext, explicit to varying degrees, of drug-bust paranoia (see, for example, "Wanderlust," from "Tug of War"). His associates have often testified he's an inveterate stoner, and he's been arrested for possession more than any other major rock star -- the last being the infamous 1980 bust in the Tokyo airport, when inspectors found a half-pound of marijuana atop a pile of clothes in his suitcase. McCartney sat in jail for 10 days before being thrown out of the country.

Nothing wrong with smoking a little dope, of course, but you can see the effect it had on his work. Bands like Pink Floyd worked with paradoxical focus to re-create the effects of drugs on the mind; McCartney, by contrast, merely proffered the work of a pothead, a much different thing.

Perhaps as a consequence, the 25th anniversary reissue of McCartney's best and most successful solo work, "Band on the Run," is less interesting than it otherwise might have been. Of the various touchstone pop-rock album events of the 1970s, "Band on the Run" has aged the worst. "Rumours" burns on in a pale romantic glow; "Dark Side of the Moon" still surprises sonically; the fourth Led Zeppelin album's hard-rock production is still punishing. "Band on the Run" is certainly no "Frampton Comes Alive!" but it does seem to have been forgotten.

The new edition is a typically classy package from McCartney, who, for all his faults, has always given fans value for their money. The album comes in a hefty little box, with a text-heavy booklet, a weird little poster of Linda McCartney snapshots and an extra disc of interviews, outtakes and this or that live track. And it all comes at a normal, single-disc list price! (Consumers beware: I've already seen it for sale at $20 plus; shop around and you should be able to get it for $11 or $12. )

In 1974 it seemed as if Paul McCartney had been frittering away a rare stardom. "McCartney," "Ram," "Wild Life" -- these are the album equivalents of home movies, and despite substantive sales, the work seemed frivolous. Did McCartney care? There's no evidence of it. In a marijuana-inspired epiphany, he told Wings that for the follow-up to "Red Rose Speedway," they'd be recording in Nigeria. Two members quit. In Lagos, the band discovered that EMI's studio was years out of date. It was monsoon season. The group was robbed at knifepoint one night, and McCartney lost his demos for the album.

But the result -- which, in the end, McCartney wrote, produced and performed almost entirely by himself -- was a sensation. Hit singles ("Helen Wheels," "Band on the Run," "Jet") kept the record on the charts for nearly a year; it was one of the bestselling albums of the era. "Band on the Run" stabilized McCartney's output for virtually the rest of the decade, culminating with "Wings Over America," the most remunerative rock tour ever at the time, and "Mull of Kintyre," which, while unheard in the United States, became the bestselling single in British history. After having been a member of the biggest act of the 1960s, McCartney was, in the end, probably the world's most successful artist in the 1970s as well.

Much of "Band on the Run" is still whimsy. "Bluebird" is a pallid "Blackbird" rerun. Various other tracks have novelty-esque hooks, but little else ("Mrs. Vanderbilt," "Mamunia"). There's a throwaway ("Picasso's Last Words") famously written after Dustin Hoffman challenged McCartney to write a song about anything the actor asked.

And yet "Band on the Run" still teems with creativity. It's a true pop album in the very worst sense of the word; the songs mean nothing, but melody to melody, riff to riff, it dazzles. The arrangements and production, while not groundbreaking, are sumptuous. Cranked up loud, the roaring break in "Band on the Run" thrills. "Helen Wheels" spins on its heels. "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Four" rollicks itself out of the speakers with a crescendoed envoi for the album, and "Jet" -- probably McCartney's most unrelenting solo track -- wraps the listener up in a meaningless and insular but undeniable whirl. (The album also includes "Let Me Roll It," probably the most beautiful and most clever of the musical spitwads John Lennon and McCartney sent each other in their work during the 1970s. Here, as McCartney acknowledges on the interview disc, his vocals and the song's snapped-out guitar line are reminiscent of Lennon's "Cold Turkey.")

But the record is somehow off-putting, and in retrospect, it's easy to see why. The pothead's idea of cleverness is only part of it. McCartney was in a position that, while not unique, could be truly appreciated only by a handful of people alive at the time -- Lennon, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley among them. While Lennon and Dylan raged against their lives, McCartney had a different approach: He just wanted to downsize himself. Sure, he had a star's ego, but to his credit, he was uncomfortable with his position as cultural avatar.

In other words, more than anything else, McCartney wanted not to signify anything. Meaning was for the Lennons and Dylans; what he wanted was for his songs to sing. (Hence his almost perverse approach to lyric writing: "The jailer man/And sailor Sam ..." "I thought the major/Was a lady suffragette.") In his previous incarnation as a Beatle, precisely the opposite was true. But it was Paul McCartney's rather monstrous fate to spend his later life trying to explain that his earlier one wasn't what it seemed. The result, revived here, is a famous yet somehow sad work of unequaled pop prestidigitation, where the sound rings out so alluringly that you don't quite notice that none of it really matters.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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