There are so many artists that influence anything I do. ‘Three Legs’ would have been influenced by blues artists, and ‘Smile Away’ would have been influenced by people like Jerry Lee Lewis. The vocals are always influenced by someone, that’s just the way it is.
While John Lennon and, to a lesser extent, George Harrison, were happy to write openly about The Beatles, Apple and their associated troubles, Paul McCartney preferred to couch his objections in metaphors and ambiguities. So, while it is tempting to see ‘3 Legs’ simply as an allegory for his transition from Beatle to solo artist and family man, it is far from certain.
Studio engineer Eirik Wangberg said the song was inspired by a picture drawn by the young Heather McCartney. Paul originally titled the song ‘A Dog Is Here’, according to his handwritten lyric sheet.
Because of the lifestyle we were living, it was very free. The Beatles had been great, and I’d loved it, but I couldn’t say it was free, personally. I couldn’t exactly go to Scotland for a few months. If you were in The Beatles, you had to make records and work. But when we went to Scotland, we had a very free, sort of hippie lifestyle. It meant I could sit around in the kitchen in the little farmhouse we lived in, with the kids running around and me just with my guitar, making up anything I fancied. ‘Three Legs’ for instance was me jamming around with a blues idea, and then with no particular relevance I sang ‘my dog, he got three legs, but he can run’, meaning that everything doesn’t have to be perfect, it can still work. And then I added the lyric ‘a fly flies in’, and I’m sure that happened, with the window open in Scotland! I’m sure a fly actually flew in and I went ‘okay – you’re in the song! Fly flies in, fly flies out’. So yeah, it was a very free period and I think that found its way into the record.
I always think that the way we were living then was the way a lot of young people would like to live. We were escaping the constrictions of society. It’s why people move out to the country, or do a lot of gardening, all of those sort of things. It’s a great opportunity in your life to do something different.
Regardless of his intentions, McCartney would have known that lines such as “When I thought you was my friend/But you let me down/Put my heart around the bend” and “My dog he got three legs/But he can’t run” would be analysed by legions of Beatles-watchers the world over. And he cannot have failed to recognise that the lines would be interpreted as a commentary on his former band.
Interestingly, Lennon professed a liking for the song, listing it as one of the better recordings on Ram.
I thought it [Ram] was awful! McCartney was better because at least there were some tunes on it, like ‘Junk’. I liked the beginning of ‘Ram On’, the beginning of ‘Uncle Albert’ and I liked some of ‘My Dog’s Got Three Legs’. I liked the little bit about ‘Hands across the water’, but it just tripped off all the time. I didn’t like that a bit!
Two promotional films for Ram songs – ‘3 Legs’ and ‘Heart Of The Country’ – were made in support of the album. They were produced by McCartney and edited by Ray Benson, who had previously worked on the Magical Mystery Tour film.
The film for ‘3 Legs’ consisted of the McCartneys riding horses on their land in the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland. Both clips were screened on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops on 24 June 1971.
In the studio
The song was begun on 16 October 1970 at Columbia Studios in New York City, following work on ‘Eat At Home’. McCartney sang to backing by guitarist David Spinozza and drummer Denny Seiwell.
‘3 Legs’ was one of the last songs in the Ram sessions on which Spinozza played. Soon after he was replaced with Hugh McCracken.
There’s one track, which a cute thing, a blues tune, which I had fun doing. ‘3 Legs’, it’s called. We both played acoustic and sometimes Paul played piano but never played bass while we were there. He overdubbed the bass later. It was a bit weird, because bass, drums, and guitar would have been more comfortable.
The song was then left until 18 January 1971, when McCartney picked it up again at A&R Recording in New York. He and Linda McCartney added call-and-response backing vocals, and Paul overdubbed an electric guitar part.
On 2 March a tambourine part and more backing vocals were added at Sound Recorders Studio in Hollywood. ‘3 Legs’ was completed there on 15 and 30 March, during which time McCartney re-recorded his lead vocals.