Exclusive Daytrippin’ interview: Guitarist Laurence Juber talks about how he became a member of Paul McCartney’s other band, Wings, and his new instrumental tribute to The Beatles
by Marshall Terrill
[Paul McCartney and Laurence Juber in Scotland in 1978;
photo courtesy Laurence Juber]
Laurence Juber has no need to rely on his past, therefore, he isn’t afraid to revisit it every now and then.
Often considered most famous for playing lead guitar in Wings from 1978 to 1981, he has since had a distinguished career as a solo fingerstyle guitarist.
The two-time Grammy award-winning artist has developed a reputation as a world-class guitar virtuoso solo artist, composer and arranger, and released 15 critically acclaimed solo albums since Wings folded. His latest, LJ Plays The Beatles Vol. 2 (Solid Air, 2010), released on August 10 is a solo acoustic guitar arrangement of 15 songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It is also the long-awaited sequel to LJ Plays the Beatles (Solid Air, 2000), which was voted one of Acoustic Guitar magazine’s top 10 all-time acoustic albums.
In this candid and definitive two-part interview, Juber discusses the influence of the Beatles on his life, his career as a studio musician in London, the making of Back to the Egg and how he earned his musical degree from ‘McCartney University.’
Daytrippin’: I heard a curious story about you that almost seemed too good to be true, and so I have to ask – the first week that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released in Britain, it was also the same week you first picked up a guitar…true or false?
Juber: That’s essentially true. I had been wanting to pick up a guitar for some time, but there was a period in the summer of 1963 where Beatlemania came into full force in the UK. As a result, you really couldn’t get away from the fact that everything was all about pop music, especially at such an impressionable age. I really wanted to play the guitar, not specifically because of the Beatles, but because of The Shadows, who were Cliff Richard’s backing group and they performed all of these instrumental hits – that was just wonderful stuff. Then at the same time it was the start of the James Bond films, which had great twangy guitar sounds, which also influenced me.
In England music lessons started in junior high, so that was right around the start of my musical journey. My dad had wanted me to play the saxophone and at the time, I didn’t want to play the sax, so I compromised and said I’d play the clarinet. It turned out there weren’t enough clarinets to go around, so I got a guitar for my 11th birthday, which was in November of 1963. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” came out about a week later. So it wasn’t specifically the Beatles as much as it was the entire pop scene and all the energy that was going around at the time.
The Beatles were a significant part of the whole thing happening in music. It was like jumping into a river and being carried along by the current because it was all going in that direction. I went into my teen years being swept along in this amazing Renaissance that was happening in pop music in England at the time.
Daytrippin’: And so who are the other musical influences you had as a youth?
Juber: It’s an extremely long list, too long to detail here because I was listening to everything. I was not only into rock ‘n’ roll but jazz and folk too. By the time I had turned 13, people were paying me to play. It was then I realized that this was something that I wanted to do for a living, but I also recognized that I had a certain kind of versatility. I was interested in a lot of different styles of music. I learned to how finger-pick Bob Dylan tunes, learned to play the Bossa Nova, taking jazz records and slowing them down from 33 1/3 to 16 so I could figure out what the guitar was doing. There were also a lot of West Coast jazz and studio players like Barney Kessell and Howard Roberts, as well as the Belgian gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who was very popular in England. There was also the English folk scene with people like Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy, who are still great folk singers, and finger-pickers.
I also had a band with a group of friends, and we’d play every Saturday night. We were always buying the latest Beatles records, the Stones, the Who and we’d learn it, rehearse it, play it and that was our Saturday night thing. Then I got into Clapton, Beck, Page — the English blues-driven players. There was also Radio Luxembourg, which played all the Top 40 tunes before the BBC got hip. I guess they had to because of all the pirate radio stations. They played all the big American hits as well as Motown, which of course, was great. I’d listen at night, focus in on what the bass player was doing, what the drummer was doing, and really deconstruct the music. I also started listening to orchestral music and became very analytical about how I listened to that too. So, a lot of influences, way more than I could repeat.
Daytrippin’: I assume your parents must have been quite encouraging?
Juber: There was some encouragement up to a certain point. Both of my parents grew up in London in World War II during the blitz and the evacuations so they never had much of an education. My dad left school at 14 and my mom at 15. They were encouraging to the point where they thought it was great I kept myself occupied with a hobby but they wanted to make sure that I had something to fall back on. They had visions of me being a doctor or at the very least a pharmacist or accountant or something like that. I told them at a very young age I intended to make my living as a guitar player, so they were supportive to a point. I also didn’t grow up in a very musical household, so that level of nurture really came from inside. I was very self-directed.
[Photo courtesy Laurence Juber]
Daytrippin’: After you graduated from London University with a Bachelor of Music in 1975, how did you start getting booked as a studio musician and where were some sessions/albums you played on pre-Wings?
Juber: My ambition in life was to become a studio musician, so after high school I took a year off, which is what they now call the “gap” year. I was a pioneer of the gap year (laughs). What I did was work professionally for that one year, and I was playing jazz and folk clubs and demo sessions, generally making myself available as a musician and paying dues in London. I also joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, which was something of a training ground for studio musicians. I then attended London University but I was still gigging, playing clubs and being the substitute guitarist for the West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I was supporting myself with music and learning as much as I could, but more importantly, making those connections to be able to transition full-time into a studio musician when I graduated. My reputation got around and I eventually was introduced to various record producers and arrangers.
One of the albums I played on was Alan Parson’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I had no idea at the time what the session was for. I found out from a magazine interview that Alan did 30 years later. I played on the score for The Spy Who Love Me, which was a James Bond film. I played on a cool record that Rosemary Clooney did in London. I also worked with Shirley Bassey, John Williams and Jimmy Rafferty. One of the first album sessions I did was for Cleo Laine, who is a great English jazz singer and the producer was George Martin. Sessions for European artists too: Charles Aznavour from France, Lucio Battiste from Italy. A lot of stuff that didn’t necessarily make an impression on the US market. I played on a lot of records for a French artist named Cerrone, who was the ‘other’ Euro disco king, sort of like Georgio Moroder. Again, I had no idea how successful the releases were until many years later. I was very busy in that period.
Daytrippin’: Tell us how you got the gig for Wings?
Juber: I was working in the house band for “The David Essex Show” and Denny Laine was as guest on the show. Denny played “Go Now” and liked how I played the solo. We bonded musically and that was it. About six months later I got a call from Paul’s office MPL – ironically I was playing a session at Abbey Road Studios 2. They said, “Denny wants to know if you can come jam on Monday, and, oh by the way Paul and Linda will be there…”
In the period between when I first met Denny and the audition, I actually ran into all of them at Air Studios. I was early for a session and they were in there mixing the soundtrack for “Oriental Nightfish,” Linda’s tune for an animated film. They were running late and invited me in to see what was going on, so I got to meet everybody and hang out. Jimmy McCullough was already out of the band at that point, but it really wasn’t on my radar that they were looking for a guitar player. I do remember that around that time I was working on a TV show in Manchester, which was a weekly pop show and it was the first time that I had seen the video for “With a Little Luck.” It was the first thing where Steve Holly was visible and I remember someone saying, “That’s the new Wings drummer and I hear they’re looking for a guitarist.” Then I got this call from out of the blue.
Daytrippin’: From what I understand, the audition process was very informal, jamming and playing a bunch of rock (“Johnny B. Goode”) and reggae songs, and hanging out.
Juber: Very much so. I really didn’t know much of the Wings’ repertoire and I had to borrow a bunch of albums from my brother the previous weekend. I tend to do well at cold auditions and I was lucky. Really, I was quite busy with my session work and I had a big choice to make: do I continue along with my career, that I had been working on since I was a teenager or do I join Wings? I thought about it for a nanosecond. It seemed like one of those gigs that you shouldn’t turn down and I’m glad I didn’t, because I learned so much from that experience.
Daytrippin’: What was your first official gig for Wings?
Juber: The first official gig was when we recorded a song at RAK Studios in London called “Same Time Next Year” and I believe that was in May 1978. (Editor’s note: Curiously, the song was released on the final credits of the 1985 Ann-Margret film, Twice in a Lifetime) I had another gig playing on a variety show, so I couldn’t be at the session for the string overdubs. Then we went up to Scotland (at McCartney’s farm) getting to know each other. During that period is when we filmed the video for “I’ve Had Enough” (the second single from London Town).
Daytrippin’: I always thought it was strange that you had to mimic a guitar part that Jimmy McCullough recorded. Did it seem strange to you?
Juber: It wasn’t strange at all. That’s kind of par for the course as a musician because you often find yourself playing someone else’s part, especially if it’s a famous song. To be honest, I knew I was stepping into Jimmy McCullough’s shoes and it was a perfectly reasonable transition. I really didn’t give it much thought, but what was interesting was the filming of the video. We shot it all night and it was a one-camera shoot with film that was transferred to video. I had never done a video before because I had only done live TV shows up to that point.
Here’s a funny story: years later I played a guitar part for Eric Carmen on a song called “Make Me Lose Control”, which became a hit. As the record was about to come out, I got a call from a company who wanted me to be in the video. Well, they had no idea I had played on the record and thought I would be mimicking someone else’s performance. So I got to mimic my own.
Daytrippin’: Back to the Egg was a big concept, had a big sound and certainly was an ambitious undertaking (i.e. Rockestra, videos, touring, promotion). Do you think that was tied to the fact that McCartney had just signed a new multi-million dollar contract for Columbia or that he had felt it was time to do something bigger with Wings?
Juber: There was no perception in the doing of it that it was ‘bigger’ than normal. I think what happened with that album, and the title was reflective of the fact, was that Paul had been heading in a softer direction and this was a change. After Wings Over America, he recorded “Mull of Kintyre” and “With A Little Luck” and the London Town sessions. There wasn’t really as much of a rock component to those sessions. “I’ve Had Enough” was about as heavy as things got at that point. Steve Holly was a heavier and more rocking drummer than Joe English, which is not a jab at Joe, it was just a matter of styles. Steve had more of a British backbeat.
Producer Chris Thomas (Pink Floyd, Elton John, Roxy Music, INXS) had already been brought on board to co-produce the record. If you look at Chris’ timeline, he did Back to the Egg between the Sex Pistols and The Pretenders. He tends to raise the concept level of his projects and is a Beatle insider going back to the White Album. Phil McDonald engineered, who was one of the Abbey Road-era people too. We knew from the get-go that it was going to be a more basic vibe. There’s certainly a significant rock element to that album especially in the “Rockestra” bits, and there’s also, which was typical in the 1970s English rock scene, a folk element. I mean, you saw that a lot with Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, but of course, Paul articulates it in his own way. So yes, it was going to be a rock-flavored album, but it was still just an eclectic bunch of songs.
There was a richness to the Columbia record deal that had given Paul a substantial publishing catalog and the label certainly had ambitions at the time. It was overseen by Walter Yentikoff, Bruce Lundvall, Don Devito, Paul Atkinson and other people who were quite legendary figures in the record business. Certainly there was an expectation that putting Paul McCartney on your record label would have a certain kind of size to it, but by the time it was released in June 1979 the economy was not doing that great and the record business hit the wall. All of the labels had gotten it into their heads that somehow every album that was released should do better than Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors or Saturday Night Fever. That was a phase and sales went back to normal, relatively speaking. Just the ebb and flow of things. Nevertheless, Back to the Egg did quite well and could have done even better had he put “Goodnight Tonight” on the album.
Daytrippin’: Agreed. I’ve always felt that was a major mistake on his part and the difference between going platinum and triple platinum had he included “Goodnight Tonight” (a Top 5 hit in America) and “Daytime Nightime Suffering” on the album.
Juber: Absolutely, it would have made a significant difference. But that goes back to the Beatles and the mentality about singles and albums. The Beatles deal with EMI was two albums a year and and four singles, A and B sides. So, with very few exceptions, in the UK you didn’t get the singles on the albums. But we had talked about it…he said, “They want to do this but I’d rather give more value for money…” So it didn’t get put on the album.
Daytrippin’: And the same thing happened again with “Coming Up,” which Paul was later forced to put on McCartney II as a 7-inch single.
Juber: That was interesting, too, because what happened with Back to the Egg, and continued through the UK tour was that we kind of forged ourselves as a rock band. You can hear it on the Last Flight CD (a bootleg CD from their last live show) from Glasgow, Scotland, and the released live version of “Coming Up” came from that show. There was a dichotomy going on where we were a tight rock band and Paul had just done the solo album McCartney II, which was kind of quirky and a bit left-field. And quite truthfully, Columbia didn’t know how to market Paul’s music like Capitol did. But they did take notice when US rock radio started playing the live B-side of the single and it went to No. 1 for three weeks in the Summer of 1980. Columbia were obliged to add the 7-inch single to the McCartney II album as people were expecting the single to be on there. Paul’s video was cool though.
We did the UK tour with the Japanese tour lined up right behind it, and the intention to tour the US in the summer of 1980. So when you listen to the live stuff, there’s this rock band, a certain kind of heaviness that evolved out of the Back to the Egg sessions. The problem was that where Paul was going in terms of his writing was a different direction, which ultimately turned out to be Tug of War and Pipes of Peace. It was a body of material that wasn’t as well suited to a rock band, and neither of those are rock albums. Tunes like “Ballroom Dancing” and “Average Person” are coming from a different place. It’s more of a mature sound and it’s an artist who is settling down into a true solo career, who has his kids settled in school and has moved out of London. After John Lennon died, which had to play some role in all of this, Paul didn’t tour again until 1989.
Daytrippin’: So Wings had actually rehearsed the material for the Tug of War sessions?
Juber: Yes, but most of those sessions were unproductive because we were working on songs that were more mature and not reflective of Wings. We had evolved a band identity and this was feeling more like a Macca solo project; I would have been happier developing the tunes in the studio rather than rehearsals. It was a step back in a way for me, because, working within the band context, Paul gave me a great deal of latitude on Back to the Egg. There I’d offer up an idea and he’d either nod or he’d kind of raise an eyebrow and then I’d tweak it. I remember very specifically when we were mixing “After the Ball,” I’d played an acoustic slide part and sat there just thinking, “I’d like to get my hand on that fader.” I’d never been an engineer at that point and Paul noticed my discomfort and said, “Laurence, you run that fader.” Not only did he accept my contribution but encouraged me to put it to the forefront.
Daytrippin’: Your personality certainly shows on Back to the Egg, which is interesting given your versatility and adaptability.
Juber: It’s interesting because at the time I was being my chameleon self as a studio player. In the course of time, and this is something you don’t recognize at the time, I can listen back and say with some objectivity, “Hey, I had a sound and style back then.”
Daytrippin’: And it was a nice fit in that particular incarnation of the band – each of you had roles within the band and you not only played them perfectly, but there was room enough for everyone to shine and let your personality show through.
Juber: I think so, certainly in the musical sense. Obviously there were other dynamics going on within the band in terms of where Paul and Linda were at in their lives, what was going on with Denny in his life, the more personality-driven aspects of the band.
Daytrippin’: You’ve stated before that watching Paul in the studio was an eye-opening experience because you were able to see him as a composer and how he fleshed out songs. So with that said, did he come into the studio with the finished song in his head and you just laid down the tracks, or was it a situation that he fleshed them out with your help?
Juber: A lot of the time it was a finished song, but not always. In the case of “Old Siam, Sir,” we were jamming one day and Steve Holly was playing keyboards and had this chord sequence. I’m not sure if Paul was playing drums or if it was Linda because we’d trade off in a jamming situation, but what ended up happening was that ended up in the instrumental section of the song. I always felt that Steve should have received some sort of nod for that. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the process in that you don’t always get full credit for what you contribute as a musician, especially as the song-writing is traditionally words and melody, not chords, licks and grooves. If you could copyright a rhythm, Bo Diddley would have been very happy.
Daytrippin’: But was there a time when you did see Paul flesh out a song that was half-finished or not a full idea?
Juber: Yes, Denny had written two incomplete songs and Paul suggested he merge the two, and that turned out to be “Again and Again and Again.” That was Paul kind of wearing his producer hat at the time, but to the best of my recollection, most of the songs he brought in for Back to the Egg were complete to the extent where there might be a minor change to a lyric, but the song itself was pretty much there.
“Getting Closer” and the unreleased song “Cage” were off of demos, the latter being one that Paul and Denny did together. There were times when there was a demo aspect to the sessions, and in some cases we created demos to see how the tune was shaping up. We did a version of “Love Awake” that wasn’t a final version, as well as a demo of “Rockestra Theme” with just Wings so that everybody else could hear before the big session. Typically the song was there, but in terms of production, getting the sound and arrangements right, that mostly took place in the studio. I remember “Daytime Nightime Suffering”, which he composed over the weekend and came in with that on a Monday morning and we went right to work on it. Paul was always very concise with his writing and was usually complete by the time we came to record it. So the fleshing out was always on the production end of things, and occasionally we’d hear something that he was working on and then the next time he played it you could hear the progression. “Ebony and Ivory” comes to mind.
Daytrippin’: The group recorded “Back to the Egg” in several different places – McCartney’s farm in Scotland; Lympne Castle in Kent and Replica and EMI Studios in London. In your opinion, did your surroundings have any influence on how you played or recorded a song?
Juber: I certainly think the surroundings impacted the sound of the record. For example, we were recording “We’re Open Tonight” at Lympne Castle and I was sitting in the middle of a spiral staircase in a 13th Century castle with a 12-string acoustic guitar. There’s certainly something to be said for the ambient aspect of your surroundings. Being on the farm in Scotland definitely added to the rawness of “Spin It On” “Old Siam, Sir” and “To You”.
Daytrippin’: Wouldn’t it be fair to say that Back to the Egg is a British-sounding album?
Juber: It is very British. Other than the Fender, Gibson and Martin guitars, there’s nothing American about the sound of it and some of that is purely technical. Amplifiers sound different at 50 cycles than they do at 60 cycles. Just the AC power makes a difference to the sound of the equipment, the way the record was produced, the way the drums were miked, was more English than American; the players were English. Look at Ram…it sounds so much like a New York album. It was recorded in there and the players were all from the area, and there’s kind of a New York energy to it. Denny Seiwell shines on that record.
Conversely, we did a lot of stuff at Abbey Road, which is about as English as it gets. We created Replica Studio in the basement of Paul’s office Soho Square primarily for mixing, but we did some recording there too. The track for “Daytime Nightime Suffering” was all recorded there. The drums were placed in a room where the coffee machine was. That’s where I also did the acoustic solo for “Goodnight Tonight.” It’s a different kind of vibe.
Daytrippin’: Back to the Egg was not only a big and powerful album, but it was eclectic. The range of songs from full on rockers (“Rockestra Theme”; “Spin it On”; “So Glad to See You Here; “Old Siam, Sir”) to mid-tempo (“Arrow Through Me”; “Again and Again and Again”) to ballads (“Winter Rose/Love Awake”) to original standards (“Baby’s Request”) to instrumentals (“Reception” and “Rockestra Theme”). I recall seeing a Brian Wilson interview on television saying how much fun and wild Wings were because he never knew what to expect.
Juber: I had no idea he said that…that’s great because, if anyone is equally eclectic to Paul in terms of the production process, it’s Brian Wilson. And, of course, Brian was revered in England. Pet Sounds was not a huge hit in America but it was the Sergeant Pepper precursor in England. I’d have to say Paul was the most eclectic artist I’ve ever worked with. It’s in his nature. This goes back to the Beatles. They were a very eclectic band. How many bands can you look at and say this was an incredible live rock ‘n’ roll band, before they ever made a record! They were also an incredible R & B band…look at their R & B influences, especially John. “All I’ve Got to Do” is proto-Al Green. Take that song and look at it, it’s in that Smokey Robinson kind of area. In fact, it was one of the songs I did for LJ Plays the Beatles Vol. 2. It was so cool to do because it had such an immediate vibe about it. Their version of the Shirelles “Baby, It’s You” is as good, if not better than the original version. Fantastic R & B group, but you add that to the fact they were the most phenomenal pop group and the greatest bunch of studio musicians. What they did in the studio as musicians was amazing, beyond the obvious progression as recording artists and songwriters.
It really hit home when I listened to Let It Be…Naked a few years back and what was going on in terms of the guitar parts. Quite often John and George would really work out these cool two-guitar parts – “And Your Bird Can Sing” for example – sometimes you don’t even realize that it’s two guitars, but they were very much into that. Paul was always eclectic because he was so versatile. I believe Back to the Egg exemplifies a rock album, a folk album, a pop album, and certainly less geared to an American consciousness by comparison let’s say to Venus and Mars. It was also a blessing and a curse. At the time, that eclecticism wasn’t appreciated. It was a two-star album in 1979 and it’s a four-star album in 2010. As time has gone on, I think people have come to re-evaluate it in terms of Paul’s body of work and what was going on at the time in the music scene.
When you deconstruct the music, for example “Arrow Through Me”, harmonically it is almost like Duke Ellington could have had written it. I think “Again and Again and Again” was one of Denny’s more immediate and interesting contributions…
Daytrippin’: And speaking of Denny, I know it’s a rather obvious thing to say, but in doing my research for this interview, including watching a lot of videos, it really hit home for me that Denny was quite visible and a major presence in this band. I know there are reports from him that he felt like a sideman at times, but his face was out there front and center.
Juber: Absolutely. There is no question that Wings as a core group is the Paul, Linda and Denny ensemble. This is where it carries over into getting Wings into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Wings was not just Paul McCartney post-Beatles. Wings was Paul McCartney’s group post Beatles, if that makes sense. If you go see Paul now and when he does a Wings song in his set, it’s great but there is something missing. You’re not hearing Linda’s voice; you’re not hearing Denny’s voice; you’re not getting the qualities that they brought to Paul’s work. It was a tempering. I think Paul recognized that he needed a foil, without John being around. Obviously, no one could fill in for John Lennon but Denny has his own eclecticism with his gypsy/folk sensibilities with an R & B voice and rock guitar prowess. And Linda was kinda the glue. Things just worked better with Linda there in the room because she was Paul’s soulmate and the female balancing part of his creative energy. There was a dynamic that happened and, as much as Paul will perform a Wings song and you tap your foot and sing along with it and think, “What a great song,” it doesn’t sound like Wings. I do appreciate the fact that he plays some of those tunes though.
Daytrippin’: I’ve always felt that he personally never gave Wings enough credit despite the fact they had 14 Top Ten hits in America (six of those going to No. 1) and eight Top Ten albums (five of those at No. 1). Today they’d be considered a supergroup.
Juber: Well, Wings was a supergroup. I remember listening to Kasey Casem’s American Top 40 on the radio and they had the top groups of all-time. The Beatles were No. 1 and Wings was something like No. 3. I had no idea we were quite that big.
Daytrippin’: I guess my point is that I get the feeling that Paul never viewed them as a supergroup…that they were just his little band and they were forced to live in the shadow of the Beatles. Wings’ music was the soundtrack of many young lives in the 1970s, including mine, and I don’t believe he’s ever reconciled that part of his musical career. Look at Wingspan (the CD) – he padded it out with solo material that simply didn’t belong on there.
Juber: Wings were simply above and beyond Paul’s solo career. But I think Paul, in the nature of writing his own legacy, he’s certainly entitled to write his version of history or how he perceived it, but the fact is there are other factors in the scenario and other people have their opinions, too. I too was a little disappointed with Wingspan (the documentary) that so much time was devoted to the breakup of the Beatles and not enough time was spent on Wings and the progression of the band and what it really represented from a musical point of view. But that’s just water under the bridge. For me, Wings was a great experience and anything that happens in the history books is sort of a bonus thing. I got my Master’s degree from McCartney University and that’s good enough for me.
LJ Plays the Beatles Vol. 2 is available on www.laurencejuber.com and www.amazon.com. Look for Laurence Juber at the Chicago Fest for Beatles Fans August 13-15 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, or visit www.thefest.com
Marshall Terrill is the author of more than a dozen books. His latest, Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool (Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2010) is availble on www.daltonwatson.com and www.amazon.com.
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