Lagos, Nigeria

Upon their arrival in Lagos in August 1973, Wings found the circumstances far from perfect.

I thought Lagos was going to be gorgeous but I’d overlooked the realities of going to somewhere like that – the studio wasn’t built properly and it was like monsoon season. Again, though, out of adversity came something good.
Paul McCartney

They rented houses near the airport in Ikeja, an hour’s journey from EMI’s studio in Apapa. While Paul McCartney considered using some local musicians during the sessions, the reception from some of the locals increased his resolve to go it alone.

We went there intending to use some of the local musicians. We thought we might have some African brass and drums and things. We started off thinking of doing a track with an African feel, or maybe a few tracks, or maybe even the whole album, using the local conga players and African fellows. But when we got there, and we were looking round and watching the local bands, one of the fellows, Fela Ransome-Kuti, came up to us after a day or two, and said: ‘You’re trying to steal the black musicians’ music.’ We said, ‘No, we’re not! Do us a favour, Fela. We do all right as it is, actually. We sell a record here and there. We just want to use some of your guys.’ But he got heavy about it, until in the end we thought, ‘Blow you then, we’ll do it all ourselves.’ So we did and the only guy from Africa we used, Remi Kebaka, was someone we met in London, then we discovered that he came from Lagos. But that was purely coincidental.
Paul McCartney

Wings met Ransome-Kuti through former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who owned ARC Studios in Ikeja. Baker was keen for Wings to record the whole album at ARC, but only one Band On The Run session took place there, for the song ‘Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)’.

Around two weeks into their Nigerian visit, Paul and Linda McCartney were mugged at knifepoint, and demo tapes of the songs were stolen. Paul had to remember the words and music for the songs.

After we had been in Lagos a couple of weeks, we were held up and robbed at knife point. Linda and I had set off like a couple of tourists, loaded with tapes and cameras, to walk to Denny’s house, which was about twenty minutes down the road. A car pulls up beside us and goes a little bit ahead. Then a guy gets out and I thought that he wanted to give us a lift. So I said, ‘Listen, mate, it’s very nice of you, thanks very much but we are going for a walk.’ I patted him on the back and he got back in the car, which went a little way up the road. It stopped again and Linda was getting a bit worried. Then one of them, there were about five or six black guys, rolled down the window and asked, ‘Are you a traveller?’ I still think that if I had thought really quickly and said, ‘Yes, God’s traveller,’ or something like that to freak them out a bit, maybe they would have left us alone. But I said, ‘No, we are just out for a little walk. It’s a holiday and we are tourists,’ giving the whole game away. So, with that, all the doors of the car flew open and they all came out and one of them had a knife. Their eyes were wild and Linda was screaming, ‘He’s a musician, don’t kill him,’ you know, all the unreasonable stuff you shout in situations like that. So I’m saying, ‘What do you want? Money?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, money,’ and I handed some over. Shaking, we walked on home and we were just sitting down having a cup of coffee to try and recover our nerves and there was a power cut. We thought they had come back and cut the power cables. We had a lot of trouble sleeping that night and got back to the studio the next day to be told, ‘You’re lucky to be alive. If you had been black, they’d have killed you. But, as you’re white, they know you won’t recognise them.’ I wanted to call the police, but everyone said it would do no good there at all. With that we had to carry on and make the record, adding to the pressure, which we had already got.
Paul McCartney

Shortly afterwards, McCartney collapsed outside the studio after complaining of chest pains.

It seemed stuffy in the studio, so I went outside for a breath of fresh air. If anything, the air was more foul outside than in. It was then that I began to feel really terrible and had a pain across the right side of my chest and I collapsed. I could not breathe and so I collapsed and fainted. Linda thought I had died.

The doctor seemed to treat it pretty lightly and said it could be bronchial because I had been smoking too much. But this was me in hell. I stayed in bed for a few days, thinking I was dying. It was one of the most frightening periods in my life. The climate, the tensions of making a record, which had just got to succeed, and being in this totally uncivilised part of the world finally got to me.

Paul McCartney

In the studio

As with The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road, some of Paul McCartney’s best solo and Wings work emerged from the toughest circumstances.

EMI’s studio in Lagos was a far cry from the state-of-the-art conditions at Abbey Road. The studio was situated next onto a noisy pressing plant, and construction was not complete. The mixing desk was faulty, there were no backup facilities, no acoustic baffle screens, and the only microphones were a set found in a cardboard box inside a cupboard.

Furthermore, the tropical storms meant led to frequent power cuts. Geoff Emerick, manning the eight-track Studer recording console, was in charge of making a success of the performances. Eventually they recorded seven of the nine tracks on Band On The Run.

Recording continued in England following Wings’ return on 23 September. Two weeks later they entered George Martin’s AIR Studios in London, where most the tapes were first copied to 16-track to prepare for overdubbing.

In addition to the nine songs on Band On The Run, the sessions also yielded seven other recordings: ‘Helen Wheels’, which was issued as a standalone single; ‘Zoo Gang’, which became the theme to a British television show and the b-side of the UK ‘Band On The Run’ single; ‘B-side To Seaside’, used as a b-side to the Suzy And The Red Stripes single ‘Seaside Woman’, and was later re-recorded; and ‘Oriental Nightfish’, which was later used in a cartoon soundtrack, and again was re-recorded at a later date.

Extra vocals, percussion and orchestration – the latter by Tony Visconti – were added at AIR. Band On The Run was completed in early November 1973 with three days of mixing in Kingsway Studios.

In search of a new direction, and possibly to give an injection of something different, Paul and Linda, along with Denny Laine, had gone to Lagos in Nigeria to make their next album. In late September, shortly after they returned we got a phone call at our home from Macca. After he talked briefly to Mary she handed me the phone.

‘Hi Tony, I love the strings on T.Rex records, did you write them?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Can you really read and write music?’
‘Oh right, in that case will you write strings for the album I’ve just finished?’

The next day, a Sunday afternoon, Mary, our ten-month-old son and I made the short trip over to the McCartneys’ home in St John’s Wood. Mary and Linda sat in the living room with the McCartney children making a fuss over our little Morgan. In the same room Paul sat at the piano with me sitting next to him and played me snippets of songs on a portable cassette player, while on a second one he recorded his comments and his piano doodlings for string ideas. Some ideas he wanted me to strictly adhere to and some were just sketches that I was asked to improve upon. For a song called ‘Drink To Me (The Picasso song)’ [sic] he said, ‘Just do your thing, but in the style of Motown strings.’

I was thrilled to be doing this for one of my idols but not so thrilled when he told me he needed all seven arrangements by Wednesday.

I hardly slept for two days. I also had to book and strategize the session, starting with the sixty musicians needed for the title track, ‘Band on the Run’, down to the string quartet for ‘No Words’. When I arrived at AIR Studios I’m sure I looked bedraggled, I definitely felt it. I was greeted by Paul, Linda and Denny along with their great engineer Geoff Emerick. The sixty musicians are already there and I braced myself to begin the tedious arm waving (my bad style of conducting) and note correcting. The very first thing we did was the interlude between the first and second parts of ‘Band On The Run’; it proved to be very difficult because the first section is in an entirely different tempo from the next. We just kept doing take after take until we got the transition to work smoothly. Only some of the sixty musicians were wearing headphones, so it was a genuine job of conducting to bring them in and to keep them together. The rest of the day went a lot smoother. For the most part Paul acted the jovial perfectionist, which made it all seem like fun.

The afternoon reunited Paul with Howie Casey; they knew each other from Liverpool. He was one of the sax players that we used on ‘Jet’. It all went very smoothly until Paul wanted to add a sax solo at the very last minute. He sang it to Howie, but the melody started higher than the upper limit on the tenor sax, added to which it was in concert B major, a very difficult key for saxes. I solved the problem by writing out the phrase and gave the first half to the alto sax player. The first half was easy on alto sax but ended lower than the alto’s range. Paul would not accept alternative notes once he had this part in his head, but he liked the idea of Howie playing the final handful of notes on the tenor sax. After several tries, the two sax players made the transition perfectly and helped make the song’s end so much better.

About a month later I got another call from Paul, asking if he and Linda could come over and play the mixes to Mary and me. I was excited to hear them.

‘I hope you don’t mind but a band I’m working with called Carmen are at the house this evening…’
‘No problem, Tony, we’ll be right over.’

He arrived and handed me a reel-to-reel stereo 1/4 inch tape I could play on my Revox. ‘Oh goodie, I can’t wait to hear my arrangements.’ I exclaimed.

Paul immediately cut in, ‘I can wait to hear my arrangements.’

This was slightly off-putting and I was slightly embarrassed in front of Carmen. The arrangements were cooperative efforts. Little did I know I wouldn’t even be credited on the sleeve, I was just mentioned in the column of ‘Paul, Linda and Denny would like to thank…’ We listened and I made comments on the mixes and Paul took some of them well and some he defended. I don’t recall if he went back and remixed any of them. Carmen left afterwards and the four of us retired to the dining room where we ate vegetarian lasagne that Mary had adapted from my mother’s recipe. When the 25th anniversary reissue of Band On The Run came out, Paul acknowledged my orchestrations on the new sleeve and sent me a personal handwritten note saying, ‘You got your credit.’

Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy
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