There’s a tremendous story behind Band on the Run, one I might try to tackle some other time, but it is one of the few classic albums where most only remember the obvious songs. "Jet", “Let Me Roll It”, and the title track are bonafide rock and roll staples, and from a historical stance, Band on the Run marks the time where Paul McCartney became post-Beatle. This isn’t to say that the rest of the songs are maligned by bad quality (“Bluebird” notwithstanding) but rather they fit a templete of McCartney singularity rather than only the best whittled down byproducts of being in a group of four.
While Band on the Run would cement McCartney’s chops as a rocker, revisiting this album shows a surprising depth, there’s the jaunty tongue in cheek “Mrs. Vanderbilt”, a missive fired at both messieurs Lennon and Harrison, the vastly underrated and forgotten “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five”, African-lite pop ode to nature “Mamunia”, and then there’s “Piccaso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)”.
McCartney chalked up the inspiration from a good natured challenge by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman had been fascinated by McCartney’s innate ability, begging for insight or explanation as to how McCartney wrote a song. McCartney was at a loss for words to describe it other than jumping from a simple idea or phrase. Hoffman then asked McCartney if he could write a song based on Pablo Picasso’s last words, “Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore”, a fact he had picked out of a recent article. In Hoffman’s recollection, McCartney wrote the song’s entirety that very night.
Yet it’s not only the lyrics that make this song so unique and powerful in McCartney’s catalogue. In an era that was a deluge of “pop symphonies”, “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” might well truly earn the title. Starting out as a bare acoustic bar room elegy, the music elides through key changes, sound collages, and song callbacks; “Jet” and “Mrs. Vanderbilt”, in a mode very similar to where the Bee Gees would mine success a few years later.
It’s one of those few songs where the changes are so exotic and without warning that it remains a constant pleasure to listen to. It’s not so much a medley as it is symphonic movements channeled through McCartney’s pop vernacular. It would be a disservice to say it’s one of McCartney’s finest, as he’s written too many to narrow it down to a few, but it has all the touchstones of a McCartney masterpiece; a melody so catchy that you begin to hum along before the phrase is complete, the music ornately arranged yet deceivingly simple driven by McCartney’s inimitable lead vocal.
So next time you come across Band on the Run, make sure you don’t miss the deeper cuts for the singles, especially “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)”.