Wings Man: A Conversation with Denny Laine

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Photo by Angela R. Newman

Denny Laine spent a decade as Paul McCartney’s right-hand man in Wings and his presence was an integral ingredient of the project’s multi-platinum selling success. As both a player and collaborator, he carried himself as a consummate professional whose commitment to the craft made it easier for Macca to transition out of what was likely the toughest act to follow in the history of popular music.

Though he’s been out of the spotlight in recent years, Laine has been touring relentlessly as a solo artist and was even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 as a member of The Moody Blues. His legacy as one of rock’s greatest sidemen is well-known, but seeing him front a solo band out on the road into his 70s should deepen everyone’s appreciation of what he brings to the table as a musician.

He was kind enough to take a moment to speak with me recently in anticipation of his upcoming date at Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern on Jan. 16, so, if you weren’t lucky enough to experience the original Wings live, consider this an opportunity to hear the songs you love in one of the city’s most intimate venues.

MNOD: How did it feel being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Moody Blues?

Laine: It was unexpected, but I was certainly happy to be a part of it. Mike (Pinder) and Graeme (Edge) have been my friends for a long time and I knew Justin (Hayward) from before he even joined the band.

MNOD: How do you look back on your time with the band?

Laine: We were just kids from Birmingham who got discovered in a blues club and then went to London. There wasn’t much of a music scene in Birmingham in those days, because everyone was committed to working in the factories. It was basically The Moody Blues and the Spencer Davis Group that first came down to London, which, at that time, was the only way to get a record deal. We were a blues band and it wasn’t until after we started catching on that more bands emerged from the Birmingham scene with the help of Brum Beat, which was a magazine that started to bring music to the forefront. I remember being on tour with Chuck Berry and it was then that I initially became friendly with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. I only made one album with The Moodies before leaving, but I’m very proud of what we accomplished.

MNOD: Do you think it was harder back then to get discovered than it is now?

Laine: I don’t really know, because I’m not out there trying to make it anymore. I think it’s definitely easier in the sense that there’s more exposure now with the Internet, because, in the old days, it was much harder to be famous. There were a lot of bands back then, so you really had to put the work in to promote yourself and stand out from the rest. We were a blues-based band that did what we wanted to do. I will say that the labels were much more committed to working with bands back then to get them promoted to the public.

MNOD: You joined Wings in 1971, which was five years after your departure from The Moody Blues. How did that opportunity come about?

Laine: I knew Paul from the early days and we became good friends. I was also friends with The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, so we usually ended up at the same parties and clubs. I was sharing a bill with Jimi Hendrix as part of the Electric String Band one night when Paul and Peter Asher were in the audience, so I think it was easier for Paul to start a new project with someone he already knew. He was keeping it very much in-house.

MNOD: What was Paul McCartney like to work with?

Laine: He was pretty easy. We never really had any problems. We both knew how to be in a band and what it took to have a creative partnership with other people. I’ve always considered being professional and knowing your part to be critical for success, which is exactly what made Wings work. Paul wrote a lot and it wasn’t until I started working with him that I began writing more of my own material. I had written earlier on, but I wasn’t nearly as prolific as he was. I also learned a lot about working in a studio from Paul, because he was actively involved in every aspect of the production. I enjoyed singing and writing lyrics, but I was also comfortable in my role as a side man. The more experience I gained, the better I became.

MNOD: 2018 marked the 45th anniversary of “Band on the Run.” What do you remember most about making that album?

Laine: I remember a lot. We went to Lagos to work on that album, which was important in terms of getting away from the pressures of the press. It felt like a vacation. Our work was influenced by a lot of the African music around us at the time and the studio we worked in was very archaic with hand-me-down equipment. It was me, Paul, Linda, and Geoff Emerick in the studio. I’m actually playing that album on tour alongside the first Moody album, so it’s obviously close to my heart. I’m excited to bring them both to Buffalo.

MNOD: “No Words” has always been my favorite track of yours. Was Paul open to hearing your ideas when it came to songwriting?

Laine: He was always very encouraging. “No Words” started out as two separate songs, but it was Paul who told me to combine them into one. He was always winding me up to write more and helping me arrange my own songs. I appreciate you saying that about the song, because it’s really encouraging whenever someone says they like something that I wrote. Getting feedback from Paul was always great, because I was able to push myself in ways that I hadn’t before. “Say You Don’t Mind” was a song that I released in 1967, and, while it didn’t chart at the time, it became a hit in 1972 when Colin Blunstone of The Zombies covered it. A lot of people liked it, so I was happy with that. Before joining Wings, I was used to playing all instruments myself and making high-end demos, but working with Paul had much less pressure.

MNOD: At 74, do you still find yourself practicing the guitar?

Laine: That’s a good question. The old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is true, but you really have to be by yourself to get the most out of practicing. I don’t think it’s something that can be done effectively when you’re continuously gigging like I am.

MNOD: Have you considered making another solo album in the future?

Laine: I’ve had a solo album in the can for years, but I’ve fallen out with the label and haven’t released it. I want to do some recording at the upcoming live dates, because putting out a live album is something I’m planning to do in the future. I like the up-close-and-personal nature of playing live and I want to capture that on a record.

MNOD: How did you assemble the band that you’re playing with on this tour?

Laine: They’re all really good at what they do. I’ve been playing with them a while now and they’re in tune with what I want to do. They all have a professional attitude. I think the key to a band’s longevity is being respectful of each other and approaching everything with a standard of professionalism.

MNOD: Do you still enjoy being out on the road at this point in your career?

Laine: One of the reasons I left Wings was that we didn’t tour enough. I love playing live and being able to share stories with the audience. It was hard to start again after being with Paul for so long, but I’m enjoying it as much now as I ever have. The mix of hard work and experience is what it’s all about and having a great band with me makes it that much better.

Denny Laine and The Moody Wing Band play Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern on Jan. 16.

See http://www.sportsmensbuffalo.com for details.

Visit Denny Laine’s Official Facebook Page to follow everything else that is going on with him and the band.

 

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