Random Tracks: Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Live and Let Die”

In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.

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Paul McCartney & Wings- “Live and Let Die”

PEAK: #2 on August 11, 1973

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Maureen McGovern’s “The Morning After

From reading about 1973’s Live and Let Die, the eighth James Bond movie and the first to feature Roger Moore as Bond, the film was the franchise’s attempt to capitalize on the early ’70s trend of blaxploitation films utilizing many of the genre’s tropes, featuring more Black characters, and taking place in predominately Black settings like Harlem, New Orleans, and the Caribbean. With this premise, you’d think the people behind the movie would have gotten some of the great blaxploitation soundtrack artists like Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield to bring some of their orchestral flavored soul and funk into the theme. Instead, they got Paul McCartney to perform the theme, a Bond theme that sounds very much like a Paul McCartney song.

“Live and Let Die” came about when the film’s producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli contacted Paul McCartney on writing a theme for the movie. After reading the Ian Fleming novel, McCartney immediately wrote the song along with his wife Linda and recorded the song just as immediately. McCartney was not initially planned to sing the theme with Saltzman thinking of getting Shirley Bassey or Thelma Houston to sing it but McCartney would only allow the song to be used in the film if he and his newly formed band Wings performed it so he got his way. McCartney and Wings recorded “Live and Let Die” during the sessions for their second album Red Rose Speedway with McCartney’s former producing partner in the Beatles George Martin reuniting with him to produce, Martin’s second time producing a Bond theme after “Goldfinger.”

Years later, McCartney talked about the difficulties he had in writing a song around the film title, “It was a job of work for me in a way because writing a song around a title like that’s not the easiest thing going. So I thought, Live And Let Die, OK, really what they mean is live and let live and there’s the switch. So I came at it from the very obvious angle. I just thought, ‘When you were younger you used to say that, but now you say this.” You can tell all this from looking at the song. There’s not much to the lyrics but they basically amount to McCartney singing about I guess becoming more cynical when you grow up. When you were young, your heart used to be more open and freewheeling but now in this ever-changing world in which we live in it makes you want to live your life without any regard for anyone else hence the title.

But you don’t go to a Bond theme to pay attention to the lyrics. It’s all about the sweeping emotion and feel of the music. Musically, “Live and Let Die” feels more like a collection of parts than a song. It starts out as a somber piano ballad where McCartney laments this person’s lost innocence. Then, it gets quiet before the orchestra comes blasting in when the title is sung before going into a full-on cinematic action sequence with its recognizable riff and frantic playing that gets interrupted for a short while by a sort of faux reggae part where McCartney babbles about doing your job well and giving the other fellow hell. But then he hits a high note that leads straight back to the action sequence before going back to the ballad, repeating the intro again before going back into the action sequence that builds to its uncertain-sounding finale.

Of all the Bond themes, “Live and Let Die” is the one I’m familiar with the most mainly because of me growing up listening to the Beatles and in large Paul McCartney. I’ve heard this song play many times without thinking much about the James Bond connection. For what it is, “Live and Let Die” is a well-made Bond theme. Some elements I like include the mocking backing vocals that sing “You know you did” during the ballad portion, when the orchestra comes in hitting you right in the face, and when McCartney lets out a high note at the end of his on “hell” as the orchestra swells throwing himself into the action. But the reggae section feels awkwardly placed for this type of song and a part of me wishes there were more lyrics that could make it feel like a full song. While many do seem to consider “Live and Let Die” as an all-time great Bond theme, I tend to think of it as just good enough.

Live and Let Die, the movie, was another big hit for the Bond franchise but it was the theme that had a bigger impact. Upon its release in the summer of 1973, “Live and Let Die” outperformed all the Bond themes up to that point. By mid-August, the song bested the #8 peak of “Goldfinger” to peak in the runner up spot for three straight weeks behind Maureen McGovern’s “The Morning After,” another soundtrack smash, and two more #1s in each week after: Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning” and Stories’ “Brother Louie.” If you’re Paul McCartney watching this chart action, that has to suck seeing your song get stuck behind three different songs especially as he and Wings scored their first #1 “My Love” just two months prior but sometimes the charts work like that. “Live and Let Die” also became the first Bond theme to get nominated for the Academy Award Best Original Song award at the 1974 ceremony but lost to the Barbra Streisand smash “The Way We Were.” 

Almost a half-century later, “Live and Let Die” remains one of the most popular Bond themes and one of Paul McCartney’s most popular songs outside the Beatles. It continues to be a staple at McCartney’s live shows including when he headlined the Halftime Show at the 2005 Super Bowl with “Live and Let Die” being the only non-Beatles song he played. Every time McCartney plays the song, he always uses pyrotechnics which shows up notably during the orchestra blast. As someone who’s seen McCartney in concert twice, seeing the pyrotechnics during “Live and Let Die” killed every time. 

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the harder rocking version of “Live and Let Die” that Guns N’ Roses released in 1991 which peaked at #33 in the US but in the UK where the Paul McCartney & Wings original peaked at #9, it did better peaking at #5:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the early ‘90s, “Weird Al” Yankovic had planned to record a food-themed parody of “Live and Let Die” called “Chicken Pot Pie.” As per his rules, Yankovic asks for the artist’s permission before recording a parody. When he approached McCartney about “Chicken Pot Pie,” McCartney rejected it due to his vegetarian lifestyle. As a result, Yankovic never recorded “Chicken Pot Pie” but he did perform it during his ‘90s concerts as part of a food-themed medley. Here’s one of those performances which includes singing the main riff in a chicken voice:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Diamond D and Fat Joe rapping over a sample of “Live and Let Die” on Diamond D’s 2005 mixtape track also titled “Live and Let Die:”

(Fat Joe has hit #1 as a member of Terror Squad but on his own peaked at #2 with the 2002 Ashanti collab “What’s Luv?.” It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Live and Let Die” soundtracking the King Harold funeral scene in 2007’s Shrek The Third:

(Eddie Murphy, who plays Donkey, peaked at #2 with 1985’s “Party All The Time.” It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the genuinely fun scene from 2013’s American Hustle where Jennifer Lawrence sings “Live and Let Die” and gets really into it:

(Jennifer Lawrence’s highest-charting single, “The Hanging Tree,” a song she recorded for 2014’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1 with composer James Newton Howard, peaked at #12.)