The longest song on Wings’ 1973 album Band On The Run, ‘Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)’ was written during a dinner party Paul and Linda McCartney had in Montego Bay, Jamaica with the actor Dustin Hoffman.
On one of our Jamaican holidays we had heard that Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen were around, shooting the film Papillon. We were invited to visit the set and Dustin asked us back to his house for dinner. He was asking me how I write songs; I explained that I just make them up. He said, Can you make up a song about anything?’ I wasn’t sure, but he pulled out a copy of Time, pointed to an article and said, ‘Could you write a song about this? It was a quote from Picasso, from the last night of his life. Apparently, he had said to his friends, ‘Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore,’ and then gone to bed and died in his sleep. So I picked up a guitar, started to strum and sing ‘Drink to me, drink to my health…’, and Dustin was shouting to his wife, ‘He’s doing it! He’s doing it! Come and listen!’ It’s something that comes naturally to me but he was blown away by it. And that song became ‘Picasso’s Last Words’.
The issue of Time magazine was dated 23 April 1973, and the article in question was titled ‘Pablo Picasso’s Last Days and Final Journey’. Hoffman later described watching McCartney compose the song as “right under childbirth in terms of great events of my life”.
The song was the only one to be recorded at Ginger Baker’s studio in the Ikeja region of Lagos, Nigeria. Baker had hoped to entice Wings to record more songs at his ARC Studios, but only one session took place.
Then we went to Nigeria and we were working in Ginger’s studio, Ginger Baker/ARC Studio in Lagos, nice studio down there. We thought we’d do this ‘Picasso’ number, and we started off doing it straight. Then we thought, Picasso was kind of far out in his pictures, he’d done all these different kinds of things, fragmented, cubism, and the whole bit. I thought it would be nice to get a track a bit like that, put it through different moods, cut it up, edit it, mess around with it – like he used to do with his pictures. You see the old films of him painting, he paints it once and if he doesn’t like it he paints it again, right on top of it, and by about twenty-five times he’s got this picture. So we tried to use this kind of idea, I don’t know much about it, to tell you the truth, but what we did know we tried to get in the song, sort of a Cubist thing.
So Ginger, he helped on a few little things of it. At the end, where we go ‘Ho, hey ho.’ We did the cutting up there. Then we got Ginger and a couple of people from around the studio and we got little tin cans and filled them with gravel from outside the studio, and used them as shakers, so at the end you hear this [makes shaking gravel noise], and that’s Ginger and a big mob of us going [gravel noise again]. So we just made it all up and then edited the tape. There were about four or five big edits in it, really.
Paul McCartney In His Own Words, Paul Gambaccini
Just the idea of his different periods, this comes back in, it’s all a big muddle. We were just making it up as we went along. We didn’t have any big concept of it in mind at all. I just thought, we’ll mess it up, keep messing it up until it sounds good, like Picasso did, with the instinctive knowledge you’ve got. So that’s how that one came about.
Paul McCartney In His Own Words, Paul Gambaccini
The brief orchestral arrangement was by Tony Visconti, and was recorded at George Martin’s AIR Studios in London.
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.’
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy
The recording also contained French-language speech by BBC broadcaster Pierre Le Sève, which roughly translates as:
I hope that, thanks to this campaign, many French people will rediscover the charms. So, let me remind you that our tourist help service is there for you. As you know, we send free of charge a variety of guides, lists of addresses… London and its suburbs, in French of course. Recommended guides on Great Britain. Guides of farms offering a room for the night. Guides of the inns. Lists of organisations specialised in séjours au pair… as a paying host. Guides for motorised tourists, featuring a translation of the English driving book, in French.