While wandering through the Gates of Edam we’ve heard some pretty strange stuff here and there and today will be no different. Yes, today’s bit of auditory apocalypse has the unique distinction of being the first and undoubtedly only song to have come from the Dark Continent. Yep, this song was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Not that it sounds even remotely Nigerian or African for that matter. More about that later.
So without further adieu we travel back to 1973 and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.”
At the end of summer 1973, Paul McCartney and his band Wings were bored with things in England just having finished a long tour supporting the Red Rose Speedway album as well as the smash hit, James Bond theme, “Live and Let Die” and were looking for an exciting spot to start working on the inevitable follow-up album. Things as they say, didn’t go as planned and two members of Wings quit just prior to departure to Lagos, Nigeria. That left Paul McCartney, his wife Linda and guitarist Denny Lane as the remaining members. McCartney also decided to bring along his old friend from The Beatles days, engineer Geoff Emerick, and the four of them headed of to an old EMI studio in Lagos to start the new project.
Once in Lagos it became obvious that Nigeria wasn’t quite what they thought it was going to be but they did start to write and record what would become McCartney and Wings biggest and best album, Band on the Run.
“Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” is based on McCartney’s piano progression, and a creepy one it is indeed. There’s a wonderful thing that happens quite often when a piano is involved. “1985″ is in the delightfully inconvenient key of C minor. There just is not a lot of rock music in C minor and for good reason. By being in C minor that also means that the most complementary chords you will find yourself heading for will be the equally awkward F minor, E flat and A flat. Any good musician can play these chords of course but that’s not the problem. A guitar in standard tuning has an E as the bass note. That’s one note higher than an E flat. So you either play chords which are nearly an octave about your open E bass which means you loose the bottom end or, you de-tune your guitar a half step and transpose everything.
The half step de-tune is actually quite common in blues and other forms of music but in rock – with the exception of U2′s guitarist The Edge – it doesn’t come up a lot.
When you hear McCartney’s piano, a dark mood is definitely set.
After the long intro McCartney starts us down the path to destruction.
“Oh, no one ever left alive
In 1985 will ever do
She may be right, she may be fine
She may get love but she won’t get mine cos I got you.”
Opening with “no one ever left alive,” it seems like we’re in the right place. With all the foreboding piano and McCartney’s equally odd bass your hopes are high for some really destructive hi-jinks and yet, they never arrive.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing after all. “1985″ is a remarkable song but it is also about as opaque as a song can be. The lyrics never really get to the point. Is this death and destruction or is this just a love song with a creepy opening line?
“Well I just can’t enough of that sweet stuff
My little lady gets behind.”
Back in 1973 when “1985″ was a new song, it turned up on a jukebox in of all places, the local Woolworths store. Things have certainly changed as a jukebox in a regular retail store would certainly be out of place these days but then I didn’t think it odd at all and I put my 25 cents in and played Paul McCartney and Wings’ B-side to the “Band on the Run” single and heard “1985″ for the first time. Since that time it’s been one of my favorite McCartney songs though just short of forty years later I still haven’t any idea what it’s really about.
It seems that I’m not alone in my confusion. I’ve tried to find out anything I can on what exactly McCartney was trying to say and have been completely unsuccessful in my search and if McCartney has said anything, nobody seems to have noted it.
For me, that adds at least a bit more enjoyment to “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” as it’s always fun to have a bit of mystery out there. What’s not a mystery is how powerful and edgy “1985″ is. It’s one of those songs that all but reaches out of the speakers and turns your head towards it and forces you to listen.
Emerick was as always, a brilliant engineer for McCartney, winning a Grammy for his work on the Band on the Run album. He also deserved something like combat pay for his part of their Nigerian experiences.
Recording in Lagos, Nigeria in the early 1970′s was an experience for the truly brave. At one point McCartney and his wife Linda were robbed at knife-point losing some lyric sheets and cassette demos of songs the band was working on at the time. They were told after the incident that they were quite lucky to not have been killed. At one point McCartney started to have seizures and nearly suffocated in the studio before being dragged outside by Emerick for some fresh air, which at 100 degrees only made McCartney worse.
The final insult that nearly added injury was when a local Afrobeat artist started to claim that McCartney and his band came into Nigeria to steal some of the local musical culture. Only after a very nervous Emerick and McCartney coaxed the man into the studio to listen to the tracks himself was the situation defused.
Perhaps all these unforeseen and truly dangerous situations may have been the inspiration for “Nineteen Hundred and Eight-Five?”