There are a few reasons I do this article series. One is to demonstrate how a song can tell a regular narrative. Another is because there’s a particular part of the song that’s fascinating when I go to research it. Sometimes the latter comes out of me hearing a line and wanting to know about it. 1973’s “Band On The Run”, from the Paul McCartney & Wings album of the same name, is one of those songs, because I really want to know who Sailor Sam is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The song has an interesting history, as this may not be the song they originally came up with. According to Wikipedia (question the source), the McCartneys (his then living wife Linda) and the only other member at the time, Denny Lane (how many times did he deal with Penny Lane jokes after joining Wings?) went to Lagos, Nigeria, to record the album. Why all the way down there instead of a studio in London? It doesn’t say. It does say, however, that Paul and Linda were robbed at knife point, probably thinking they had something more than demos to the song. Paul also assumes they probably recorded over them or something, not realizing they had the only demos for a future gold record hit. That means the song was recreated by memory. But what is the song actually about and who is Sailor Sam? I have the answer…to one of those.
There are two things I didn’t glean from my research. One is why there are two parts of the song that contrast with the third part, which I assume is the main part. Maybe if I had heard the album or something. I kind of want a full version of the first part, as our narrator laments not being around decent people, which prisons tend to have in short supply except for visitors and the wrongly accused. Maybe something is lost in the US edit. It’s just odd that the first two parts are so short, like they clipped them from other songs. From Songfacts:
Shortly after the Band On The Run album was released, McCartney told Melody Maker: “The basic idea about the band on the run is a kind of prison escape. At the beginning of the album the guy is stuck inside four walls, and eventually breaks out. There is a thread, but it’s not a concept album.”
Asked if this was a reference to Wings escaping from The Beatles, he replied: “Sort of – yeah. I think most bands on tour are on the run.”
However, that’s not what the song is about. In an interview with Musician magazine, McCartney discussed the true origins of the song. I was asking about the song on social media, and one replyer to Facebook thought the song was about escaping the paparazzi. They were actually escaping the law. From Wikipedia (confirmed by Songfacts)
In a 1988 interview with Musician magazine, McCartney noted the drug busts musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s experienced as an inspiration for the “Band on the Run”, also referencing the “desperado” image he attributed to bands like the Byrds and the Eagles as an influence. McCartney, who had been having legal trouble involving pot possession, said, “We were being outlawed for pot … And our argument on [‘Band on the Run’] was ‘Don’t put us on the wrong side … We’re not criminals, we don’t want to be. So I just made up a story about people breaking out of prison.’ “
So unlike “Pass The Dutchie”, which was only adapted from a druggie song, this…kind of is about drugs. Not the use necessarily, but a stand on the legality of marijuana. Pardon the anti-drug cynic for a moment because this is not the site for that debate, but how my mind reads it is “we’re not criminals even though we broke the law”. It’s not even really about “let’s legalize pot for fun” but more “it’s just pot, why you gotta bring me down, man”. I guess that’s the grudge the county judge held, because he thought the law should be obeyed. Or maybe he was a jerk, that’s not the point of the song.
That’s all well and good, depending on your point of view of course, but what got me into this was “the jailer man and sailor Sam”. Like in previous articles I wanted to know what “sailor Sam” referred to. I didn’t think it was a reference to any one person, but it has to mean something, right? Then again “The Reflex” turned out to be drunken ramblings, so maybe not. On the other hand, “Cracklin’ Rosie” means something (booze), so it could be a derogatory euphemism (look at me with the big words) for someone, like the Fuzz, the Man, the things I don’t say because I have family and friends tied to the police department and would highly respect the police as a whole even if I didn’t. Or perhaps Paul and Linda needed a rhyme and made something up. That could work too. Heck, maybe Sailor Sam’s is a seafood place our narrator and his other escapees trashed during a run for the pot-induced munchies and that’s why they ended up in jail. He’d be hunting for them to pay the damages.
Darned if I know what it is, though. No website I tried to look on, including my usual suspects, even acknowledged the line. I learned the first verse “was inspired by a remark made by George Harrison during one of the Beatles’ many business meetings” with Apple Records but that’s about it. I could not bring up anything. I thought maybe it was a term that I hadn’t heard before so I went to Facebook and Twitter, despite that never working. Well, that streak continued as the only response I got was from the aforementioned poster who just noted she really liked the song. Two Twitters and a Facebook and I still can’t get answers to stuff. How does Linkara do it? Oh right, people actually like him. Actually, my cousin tried to contact a Beatles fan she knows but he didn’t know, either.
And thus does the mystery continue. I guess the county judge isn’t the only one who will be searching forevermore. Still, it’s a good song, but it’s not one of my favorite singles from the group. Then again, that would be “A Wonderful Christmas Time” so judge as you will. (No pun intended.)