While the other Beatles had been racking up hits and critical acclaim, Paul seemed to be spinning his wheels. He had released three solo albums—McCartney, Ram and Wild Life—and they had all sold respectably, with one or two hit singles from each one. But they were all slagged in the press, and not without reason, Paul knew. Each of the albums contained some terrific pop melodies—better than anything on the last two Beatles albums—but those melodies didn’t seem attached to anything substantial. It burned Paul to see his former songwriting partner and his former bandmates making important albums and not be able to match them.
“I know I can make an album as good as Framed or Imagine,” Paul lamented to his wife, “but I don’t know how to go about it.”
“You’re not being challenged,” Linda told him. “You’re hiring musicians that you can boss around instead of musicians who will talk back to you. I love you with all my heart, but doing things like this isn’t making you happy. Let me be honest with you: that album you’re working on now? The songs aren’t that great. ‘Big Barn Red’? ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’? C’mon, Paul, you can do better than that. You need to get your fighting spirit back; you need to get back to basics. What’s the music that first made you want to be a musician?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey and those New Orleans cats. There was something so happy but mysterious about that music.”
“Look, here’s what you should do,” Linda told him. “Fire the Wings. I’ll book us a flight to New Orleans and we’ll rent a house there. We’ll find some musicians that can help you make a great record.”
Linda and Paul arrived in New Orleans on February 1, 1972, two weeks before Mardi Gras. The city was already caught up in a whirl of nightly parades and balls, and Paul, sporting a bushy dark beard and a puffy cap with the visor pulled over his eyes, was able to slip into the local nightclubs with his wife without attracting attention. When they heard the Meters at the Ivanhoe in the French Quarter, the couple knew this instrumental funk quartet could give Paul everything he could handle. On their second night at the Ivanhoe, the McCartneys talked their way backstage and introduced themselves to keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and percussionist Cyril Neville. During the next set, McCartney borrowed an extra guitar and took the stage, draped in the plastic beads he had caught on Canal Street earlier in the evening, to sing old New Orleans hits such as “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” with the band. People were standing on chairs and tables to get a better view of an actual Beatle in a French Quarter dive.
The next day, Paul and Linda had lunch at Uglesich’s with Art Neville and Allen Toussaint, the city’s premier songwriter and producer. That night Allen and Aaron Neville (Art and Cyril’s brother) came by the Ivanhoe to join Paul and the Meters on songs such as “Hey Pocky Way,” “Tell It Like It Is,” “Raining in My Heart,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Hey Jude.” The next day the eight musicians went into Allen’s Sea Saint Studio to see if any of the nightclub magic would transfer to tape. It would.
The presence of Allen and Aaron was essential, for their smooth romanticism helped Paul balance out the stretch-and-snap syncopation of the Meters. Paul had the money to pay for hours of studio time and union rates for all the musicians and engineers. For a while, the septet recorded old New Orleans standards—many of them written by Allen—but with one exception those songs wouldn’t be released till 1994 as Down in New Orleans. Allen and Aaron recorded some of their own songs that eventually showed up on future albums, but soon the focus shifted to Paul’s new batch of songs.
He salvaged one song from his album-in-progress, the romantic ballad “My Love,” but he began writing a new cache of stronger songs such as “Band on the Run,” “Jet,” “Bluebird” and “1985.” When he played the songs for the New Orleans band, they still sounded like Wings songs, but the Louisianans soon added an R&B feel that reminded Paul of The Beatles early records, only with more precision. “Jet,” for example, began as a kind of Chuck Berry rocker, but the Meters reworked the 4/4 stomp to a push-and-pull funk feel, and Allen sketched out some soaring high-harmony “oohs” for Paul and Aaron to sing. Linda was a silent but watchful presence in the studio, whispering encouragement in her husband’s ear whenever he got annoyed that his song was being changed so radically. She calmed him down and told to embrace the give-and-take.
At night in their rented antebellum mansion on St. Charles Avenue, she pushed him to rewrite the lyrics to “Jet” so it reflected the tension developing between the high vocals and the low rhythms. So he rewrote the nonsense lyrics about a “sergeant major” and a “lady suffragette” with lines that followed through on the opening stanza about an old lover getting married. “Jet, I always thought I was the one you would marry,” he wrote. “I never thought, I never knew that I had to hurry. And now that you’ve flown, I’m left all alone with regret, Jet. I always thought that you would love me; now you’re flying high above me.” Linda didn’t even mind the lyrics’ clear reference to Paul’s former fiancée Jane Asher; she was just glad that he was writing about real emotions again.
Band on the Run, credited to Paul McCartney & the Meters, produced by Allen Toussaint, was released on December 6, 1972. Side one was “Band on the Run,” “Jet,” “Bluebird,” “Mrs. Vanderbilt,” “Let Me Roll It” and “1985.” Side two was “My Love,” “Mamunia,” “Helen Wheels,” “Rain and Snow,” “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” and “Ain’t That a Shame.” “I feel like I would have written these songs eventually in England,” Paul told the New York Times, “but they came more quickly and in stronger shape because I moved to New Orleans.” The critical reception was rapturous. “Paul Isn’t Dead After All,” crowed Melody Maker in England; “Paul Finally Answers The Beatles,” added Rolling Stone. The commercial reception was just as warm: the album sat at number-one for three weeks, and “Helen Wheels,” “Jet” and the title track were all top-10 singles.
The response convinced Paul to organize his first world tour since The Beatles’ trip in 1966. The kick-off date was at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Sunday, April 29, 1973. At 2 p.m. on a warm, sunny afternoon, the Meters took the stage and played an hour of their instrumental hits, including “Cissy Strut,” “Look-Ka Py Py” and “Chicken Strut.” The five musicians all wore the colored leather, platform boots and bright scarves of the hippie-soul movement their large, black nimbuses of hair grew lopsided in the wind off Lake Pontchartrain. Then Aaron, his muscle-bound, tattooed biceps exposed by his sleeveless denim jacket, joined the Meters at 3 p.m. for an hour of his songs, including “Tell It Like It Is,” “Mona Lisa” and “My Reward,” a new song co-written by Paul and Allen. At 4 p.m., Allen, dressed in a dapper purple suit with a white handkerchief sticking out of the pocket, came out for an hour of his own compositions with the Meters, including “Mother-in-Law,” “Holy Cow,” “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” and “Working in a Coal Mine.”
Finally, at 5 p.m., Paul and Linda took the stage, backed by the Meters, Aaron, Allen and a New Orleans horn section. Paul was wearing a white-striped gray suit with bell-bottom cuffs, and Linda was wearing a loose, white-cotton dress with blue embroidery; he played acoustic guitar and she played synthesizer. The band created a rumbling roar of keyboards, horns and percussion that rose in pitch until Paul, Aaron and Linda shouted out, “Jet!” The horns echoed back the melody, but the rhythm section kept up the gruff rumble till the air was crackling with tension. Half-naked kids were dancing on the enormous grass meadow before the stage, and Paul seemed to gain confidence with each song. He borrowed George Porter’s bass for a Beatles mini-set of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Good Day Sunshine” and “Get Back.” He sang the entire Band on the Run album plus some New Orleans-related numbers: “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Tutti Frutti” and “Lady Madonna.” The band returned to the stage at 6:45 for an encore of “Band on the Run” and “Hey Jude.” For the world tour this five-hour extravaganza was condensed into a three-hour show (half-hour sets by the Meters, Aaron and Allen and a 90-minute set by Paul).