The release of the Beatles-Fela Kuti mashup by DJ Rich Medina and producer Mark Hines worked both lyrically and musically, as Hines told us on The World today. For me, an avowed Beatles and Fela fan, this is like a musical Reese’s peanut butter cup: two great tastes that taste great together. Perhaps not as much as the originals listened to separately. But still great.
The pairing also works from a historical perspective. Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run,” which some critics argue is one of the best post-Beatles solo albums to come from any of the Fab Four, was recorded in Lagos, Nigeria. I’ve even heard that the title came from the sense of constant motion while Wings was in Lagos. And if you’re looking for anecdotes that serve as a metaphor for the colonial power meeting the colonized (Macca the British proxy, Fela the Nigerian), this is it. Wikipedia’s entry on “Band on the Run” tells the story quite well.
After the success of Red Rose Speedway and “Live and Let Die” – the featured song for the James Bond movie of the same name – Wings began contemplating its next album. Paul and Linda McCartney began writing new songs at their Scottish retreat soon after concluding their 1973 tour.
Bored with recording in the United Kingdom, they wanted to go to an exotic locale. After asking EMI to send him a listing of all their international recording studios, Paul happened upon Lagos in Nigeria and was instantly taken with the idea of recording in Africa.
Alongside the McCartneys, guitarist and pianist Denny Laine, lead guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell also were set to go. However, a few weeks before departing in August, McCullough quit Wings in Scotland; Seiwell followed suit the night before the 8 August 1973 departure for Nigeria. This left just the core of the band – Paul, Linda and Denny Laine – to venture to Lagos, along with former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.
Upon arriving in Lagos, the band discovered a country in stark contrast from their visions of paradise. The country was run by a military government, with corruption and disease running rampant. The studio, located on Wharf Road in the suburb of Apapa, was ramshackle and underequipped. The control desk was faulty and there was only one tape machine, a Studer 8-track. The band rented houses near the airport in Ikeja, an hour away from the studio. Paul, Linda and their three children stayed in one while Denny Laine, Geoff Emerick and Wings’ two roadies stayed in another.
The band established a routine of recording during the week and playing tourist on the weekends. Paul temporarily joined a country club where he would spend most mornings. The band would be driven to the studio in the early afternoon where recording would last into the late evening and sometimes early morning. To make up for the departed band members, Paul would play drums and lead guitar parts with Denny playing rhythm guitar and Linda adding keyboards.
More incidents would plague Wings’ Lagos stay. While out walking one night against advice, Paul and Linda were robbed at knifepoint. The assailants made away with all of their valuables and even stole a bag containing a notebook full of handwritten lyrics and songs, and cassettes containing demos for songs to be recorded. On another occasion, Paul was laying down a vocal track when he began gasping for air. According to Geoff Emerick, Sound Engineer for the album: “Within seconds, [Paul] turned as white as a sheet, explaining to us in a croaking voice that he couldn’t catch his breath. We decided to take him outside for some fresh air…[but] once he was exposed to the blazing heat he felt even worse and began keeling over, finally fainting dead away at our feet. Linda began screaming hysterically; she was convinced that he was having a heart attack…The official diagnosis was that he had suffered a bronchial spasm brought on by too much smoking. ” Another incident was the confrontation with local Afrobeat star and political activist Fela Kuti who publicly accused the band of being in Africa to exploit and steal African music after their visit to his club. Kuti even went to the studio to confront McCartney who played their songs for him proving that they contained no local influence whatsoever. Later on drummer and former Cream member Ginger Baker invited the band to record their entire album at his place, ARC Studio in Ikeja. Though not wanting the invitation, Paul agreed to go there for one day. The song “Picasso’s Last Words” was recorded at ARC with Baker contributing a percussive tin of gravel.
Recording of the album was completed by the third week of September and the McCartneys hosted a beach barbecue to celebrate the end of recording. They flew back to England on 23 September 1973 where they were met by fans and journalists. In October, two weeks after the band’s return to London, final overdubs and orchestral tracks were added and the album was finished at George Martin’s AIR Studios (George Martin was not present).
“Helen Wheels” was released as a non-album single at the end of the month, becoming a worldwide Top 10 by the end of the year. As Band On The Run was being prepared for release, Capitol Records, US distributor for Apple Records, slotted “Helen Wheels” into the album although it was never McCartney’s intention to do so. While “Helen Wheels” is not included on UK versions of the Band on the Run CD (except as a bonus cut on the 1993 “The Paul McCartney Collection” edition of the CD) it has always been included on US editions of the CD starting with the initial Columbia Records release in 1984. Early versions of the Capitol release fail to mention “Helen Wheels” on the label or the CD insert, making the song a “hidden track”.
If you want to read more, this article in the Guardian fills in some of the background to Fela’s distaste for foreigners coming to Nigeria.