Everyone eventually winds up writing about themselves — the problem is finding the best way to go about it. To write about oneself literally, in the first person, presumes a more interesting personal life and philosophy than most rock lyricists possess. John Lennon was good for one great album based on musical direct address, Plastic Ono Band. Ten years from now he may have accumulated enough personal data on which to base another as provocative. In the meantime, he has cut himself off from all the other ways in which lyrics can be used — most importantly, to create imaginative worlds in which characters, ideas, fantasies and illusions are invented and appreciated apart from our interest in the artist’s private life, per se.
The best rock lyricists have always used words in just those ways. They have been defining and redefining myths and icons, symbols that can stand for both their private feelings and those that transcend their personal point of view and speak to the audience’s collective consciousness. Among the more obvious recent examples, culled from American artists: Dylan’s interpretations of John Wesley Hardin and Billy the Kid; the Eagles’ underrated parable of a rock band as an aging group of obsolete outlaws, Desperado, and Steve Miller’s attempts to unify new and old myths through the creation of personas like the Gangster of Love and the Space Cowboy.
The Band, the most self-conscious American band, have transformed everything they’ve touched into a permanent image of the past as it was supposed to have been, which is as good a definition of mythologizing as rock requires. On one album they appear as survivors of a forgotten era and culture (The Band) and on another define their and our rock & roll past (Moondog Matinee).
Moondog Matinee freezes in time our image of a scuffling North American bar band in the early Sixties. The Who, England’s most self-conscious band, have released Quadrophenia, which in turn freezes in time our image of the mid-Sixties Mod sensibility. Their album will become a definitive reference point for interpreting the recent rock experience as we necessarily come to rely more on interpretations of the past than on our ever-changing memories of it. Quadrophenia is both autobiography and mythology, the one dimension continually enhancing the impact of the other.
The Beatles assumed a sustained fictitious identity only once, on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By making themselves over as the disciples of Billy Shears, just another vaudeville revue, they could perform material that might have been rejected coming from the Beatles qua Beatles — songs like “When I’m 64,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the title cut.
Of the four former Beatles, John Lennon and George Harrison have gone on to write exclusively in the first person, their lyrics, both good and bad, never more or less than simple statements of their ideas and feelings. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney have moved in the other direction, expressing themselves no less personally but through more inventive means. Starr has released an album whose subject is the myth of his own stardom, an extension of one of Sgt. Pepper‘s themes. (Producer Richard Perry has also been preoccupied with notions of stardom dating back to his Fats Is Back, an album with a theme and album cover that, like Ringo’s, centers around stars.)
Band on the Run finds McCartney walking a middle ground between autobiographical songwriting and subtle attempts to mythologize his own experience through the creation of a fantasy world of adventure — perhaps remotely inspired by his having recently written “Live and Let Die.” He does it by uniting the myth of the rock star and the outlaw, the original legendary figure on the run.
Up until now, the critical assumption has been that McCartney’s lyrics mean little if anything, that he is a mere stylist, playing games with words and sounds. And it is of course possible that the words to Band on the Run don’t mean (or weren’t intended to mean) as much as I think they do. But I’ll take a chance, and say that Band on the Run is an album about the search for freedom and the flight from restrictions on his and Linda’s personal happiness. It is about the pursuit of freedom from his past as a Beatle, freedom from the consequences of the drug busts that have kept him from the United States and forced him into thinking of himself as an outlaw (witness the album cover, as well as the title). It is also about two people becoming what they want to be, trying to decide what they want to do, and asking to be accepted for what they are now rather than what they were then.
If the listener were to ignore the music and the skill with which McCartney has developed his theme, the entire enterprise might seem banal. But he holds the record together through the continual intimation that he enjoys the search for freedom more than he might enjoy freedom itself. In the best tradition of outlaw mythology, he makes being on the run sound so damned exciting.
I’m surprised I like Band on the Run so much more than McCartney’s other solo albums because, superficially, it doesn’t seem so different from them. Its superiority derives from a subtle shifting and rearrangement of elements running through all of his post-Beatles music, a rounding out of ideas that had previously been allowed to stand half-baked, often embarrassingly so. Band on the Run is no collection of song fragments (McCartney, Ram), nor a collection of mediocre and directionless songs (Wings, Red Rose Speedway). Band on the Run is a carefully composed, intricately designed personal statement that will make it impossible for anyone to classify Paul McCartney as a mere stylist again.
A lesser talent would have taken the escape concept and perhaps woven a simple story around it. But, consistent with his own past, the songs overlap both in their content and sentiments (some are even reprised), the album forming a unit without ever becoming too schematic, literal, overbearing or overtly accessible.
On Band on the Run, there are two separate searches going on: McCartney’s for himself and the listener’s for McCartney. The title song begins soberly, its narrator in jail, his music depressed. Both he and the album explode at the moment of his escape, the newfound exhilaration suggesting that there could have been no such pleasure without the preceding pain and that while McCartney prefers the former to the latter, he has learned how to cope with both.
From the moment of escape, everything on the album eventually evokes the notion of flight. “Jet,” a superb piece of music with an obscure lyric about the McCartneys’ dog, suggests an overwhelming desire not only to get away but to get away to someone. It ends up a love song, a tribute to both a person and a state of mind, propelled forward by a grand performance.
“Helen Wheels” (which wasn’t supposed to be on the album) is about the McCartneys’ Land Rover and is another travel song, more upbeat, and feeding the fantasy of a rock band looking for action. Even on a simple love song, “Bluebird,” we find the narrator “. . . flying through your door” to take his lover away, “. . . as we head across the sea/And at last we will be free.”
“Mrs. Vandebilt,” which evidences some of Paul’s healthy propensity for playfulness and nonsense, is vaguely about the outlaw’s need for a haven, in this case the fantasy world of carefree jungle life (presumably inspired by their recording the LP in Lagos, Nigeria). In an album that contains a number of subtle and sometimes (perhaps) unintended comments on the Beatles, his innocent questions, “What’s the use of worrying?/What’s the use of hurrying?/What’s the use of anything?” might be construed as a comment on Harrison and Lennon’s continued high-mindedness and overbearing seriousness.
In point of fact, Band on the Run is closer to the Beatles’ style than Ringo, which, though it utilized all the members of the group, is more Richard Perry than Ringo Starr. McCartney’s emphasis on amplified acoustic guitars, double-tracked vocals, and a generally thin sound in the middle range, places much of the LP in the Hard Days’ Night-Beatles VI mold. Despite the presence of pure McCartney elements (the lovely strings, so well done by Tony Visconti, the elaborate percussion so superior to Rams‘s) references to the Beatles make an important contribution to the album’s mythic undercurrents.
“Mrs. Vanderbilt” fools with McCartney’s own excesses of style from Ram, sounding vaguely like (although far superior to) my least favorite of his recrods, “Hankberry Moon Delight.” “Mamunia,” a lovely song about accepting nature as unalterable, begins with a guitar intro suspiciously like Harrison’s on “Give Me Love,” though all similarity ends when the vocal begins.
But there is no mistaking McCartney’s intention on “Let Me Roll It.” A parody of and tribute to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono style, he re-creates it with such precision, inspiration, enthusiasm and good humor that I am hard pressed to remember whether Lennon has recorded even a handful of songs that better it, McCartney goes all the way: a perfect vocal imitation, duplication of the Lennon-Spector production style, use of Lennon’s lead guitar punctuations and the simple arrangement (complete with tacky Farfisa organ). “Let Me Roll It” is McCartney joyfully asserting that he can play his former partner’s music as well as Lennon can, at the same time that it stands on its own as a perfectly satisfying piece of work.
“Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” is the album’s most personally revealing and one of its most moving songs. Dylan mythologizes cowboys: McCartney idealizes artists. But his celebration of Picasso’s life at the moment of his death quickly turns into a fantasy about his own death. He asks only that his woman sing the same words to him that he sings for Picasso: “Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink any more.” His approach to death is remarkably good humored and a segue into “Jet” now suggests an even more grandiose escape than the one from jail.
Perhaps McCartney can face death with humor because, as the hilarious rock & roll of “1985” suggests, he plans to stick around for some time. It would have been easy to end Band on the Run with the cut’s happy projection of the future, but McCartney doesn’t take the easy way out this time around. At the exciting conclusion of “1985,” he segues into a short reprise of the title cut, a move suggesting once again that he isn’t really sure that he wants to give up the search and the 3/4ight. They have become ends in themselves, part of his life, part of the mythology he has built up around himself, part of the fantasy he helped to create about the life of rock stars.
The album’s abrupt and surprising ending suggests that the McCartneys are afraid they may find what they are looking for only to discover that it, too, fails to satisfy them. Thus they end with only one commitment: to remain a band on the run. That decision has resulted in (with the possible exception of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band) the finest record yet released by any of the four musicians who were once called the Beatles.