Wings’ biggest-selling single, ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ was written in tribute to the Kintyre peninsula in western Scotland, the location of Paul McCartney’s High Peak Farm.
It’s just this place in Scotland. It’s about seventy miles of land, a big peninsula called the Mull of Kintyre. It’s just one of those bits of Scotland, and this bit sticks out into the sea a bit. Our place is on the Mull of Kintyre, but there’s about a hundred miles of the Mull of Kintyre. I was never sure, I just heard about it, and so I had to ask somebody, ‘Where exactly is the Mull of Kintyre?’ So I was sitting at my piano, up in Scotland, and I thought I would like to write a song with a Scottish flavour.
‘Mull Of Kintyre’ was written by McCartney and Denny Laine, his long-term collaborator in Wings.
Paul and I sat with a bottle of whisky one afternoon outside a cottage in the hills of Kintyre and wrote the song Mull Of Kintyre. Paul had written the chorus and we wrote the rest of it together.
The recording featured the drums and bagpipes of the Campbeltown Pipers, under the direction of pipe master Tony Wilson.
At first I got the melody and you can’t help seeing the mist rolling in from the sea because it does it quite often. I got the melody together, had a verse and then I got together with Denny on guitar. The pipes on the track are the local pipes band, the actual Kintyre pipers. They all live there now. They are all farmers, farmers’ sons and an ex-copper from Glasgow. They are a nice bunch. We had done the song so I gave them a tape and a fellow came up to my house with his bagpipes. He was going to play them but he decided it would be a bit too loud indoors so we went out into the garden and he starts tuning up. I took my guitar out and found out what key he was in, ’cause I don’t know anything about bagpipes. I still don’t, actually. So we worked it out, I gave him a tape, he went back, rehearsed it with his lads and then came up a couple of weeks later. I said, ‘Are you having any problems with it?’ They said, ‘No, no problems.’
‘Mull Of Kintyre’ was recorded at the McCartneys’ farm in their Spirit Of Ranachan Studios, a converted barn with 24-track facilities. The backing track was recorded in an evening in August 1977, and was later remixed in London.
It’s Scottish. It sounds so different from the songs we did on the boat, we thought it should be a single and it sounds very Christmassy and New Yeary. It’s kind of ‘glass of ale in your hand, leaning up against the bar’ tune. We had the local pipe band join in and we took a mobile studio up to Scotland and put the equipment in an old barn. We had the Campbeltown Band and they were great – just pipes and drums. It was interesting writing for them. You can’t just write any old tune, because they can’t play every note in a normal scale.
The pipers were responsible for persuading McCartney that ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ could be a successful single.
When we finished it, all the pipers said, ‘Aye, it’s got to be a single, that.’ It was up to them, really, to do it. I thought it was a little too specialised to bring out as a single, you would have to bring out something that has something with more mass appeal. But they kept saying, ‘Oh, the exiled Scots all over the world. It’ll be a big single for them.’ Yet I still thought, ‘Yeah, well, but there’s maybe not enough exiled Scots,’ but they kept telling me, after a few drinks.
Kintyre also received an unexpected tourism boost after the song’s release.
Normally we get about 500,000 to a million visits a year in Kintyre. But from the letters we have had already, that total will be up by about 20%, and the letters are still flooding in. It’s even sold the pipes to the Arabs, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. They are offering the Scots £30,000 a year to go out and teach their military bands the bagpipes.
Mid-Argyll Kintyre and Islay Tourist Organisation
McCartney subsequently received criticism after it emerged that, despite enormous royalties from global sales, the 21 pipers had been paid just a standard union rate. He later sent a cheque for £200 to each performer. Furthermore, the song’s success allowed the Campbeltown Pipe Band to record and release their own music.
All the boys are proud to have played on the record. McCartney’s a genius. The pipes are part of Scotland and there is nothing new in that. But now the Arabs are making this offer to teach them how to play, it’s tremendous! I won’t be going because we’re recording soon. Aye, ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ will be on it and it would be disloyal for me to leave the boys now. They’re grand boys.
Paul’s song has done wonders for Kintyre but we won’t be earning royalties from the song. We were paid as session musicians for the job. We did the job and got paid for it and that’s that.
Pipe master, Campbeltown Pipe Band
‘Mull Of Kintyre’ was released in the UK on 11 November 1977, a double a-side with ‘Girls School’. It became Wings’ most successful single, selling more than 2.5 million copies. It hit number one on 3 December, and remained there for nine weeks.
Three different promotional films were made, each featuring the McCartneys, Laine and the Campbeltown Pipe Band miming to the song, either in the studio or on the Mull.
The UK release was marked with a presentation at Abbey Road Studios, where the McCartneys and Laine were presented with gold and silver discs for Wings At The Speed Of Sound. Guests also watched a promotional film for ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, filmed at High Park Farm on 13 October.
‘Mull Of Kintyre’ became the UK’s biggest-selling single of 1977, a somewhat improbable achievement at the height of the punk movement. It smashed the sales record previously held by The Beatles’ 1963 hit ‘She Loves You’. It also won an Ivor Novello award and was 1977’s Christmas number one single.
The single’s popularity was such a cause for celebration with EMI that the label awarded the purchaser of the millionth copy, David Ackroyd, a gold record. It was presented to Ackroyd by Denny Laine at MPL’s Soho office.
The big thought from me, and from everyone, was that it was 1977; we couldn’t release the song in those days of punk. I mean, it was madness, but I just thought, ‘Well, sod it.’ But even though I was a Sassenach, it became a big Scottish song. It ended up spending nine weeks at number one, and I think it’s still something like the fourth best-selling singing in the UK ever.
And the strange thing was, even punks liked it. One day, Linda and I were in traffic in London in the West End somewhere, and there was a big gang of punks who looked very aggressive, and we were kind of crouching a little bit, trying not to get noticed, and thinking, ‘Jesus, what are they gonna do?’ And then they noticed us, and one of them comes to the car, so I wound down the window a little bit, and he goes, ‘Oh, Paul, that ‘Mull Of Kintyre; is fucking great!’
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‘Mull Of Kintyre’ also topped the charts in Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland. It remained the biggest selling UK single until 1984, when Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was released.
In the US, ‘Girls School’ was given greater prominence than ‘Mull Of Kintyre’. However, the single fared far less well, peaking at number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100. Whereas in the UK it was McCartney’s biggest hit, in the US it was his greatest flop.
It’s a double a-side. The other one, ‘Girls School’, I wrote after reading the back pages of X films, y’know the page? It’s all titles like School Mistress and The Woman Trainer. I just put them all together in the lyrics and called it ‘Girls School’. It’s about a pornographic St Trinians. We made it a double a-side because the b-sides always get swallowed. You never hear them. At least ‘Girls School’ will get played a bit.
The Scottish theme of ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ connected less well across the Atlantic, and McCartney became concerned that Capitol were not willing or able to adequately promote his work with Wings. The single also went no further than number 34 in Canada.