Denny Laine has to be the most valuable wingman in rock. Make that the most valuable Wings man, as well.
That’s because he spent ten years working side-by-side with Paul McCartney in McCartney's seminal, post-Beatles band, Wings. And aside from Macca’s late wife, Linda, Laine served as McCartney’s sole collaborator for a good part of the band’s first decade of existence, taking up guitar, bass, and vocal duties when the band recorded its signature early albums Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, and London Town. He also backed McCartney on his landmark return to the United States during the group’s first tour of the States in 1976. And it was Laine who stuck by the former Beatle during any number of personnel changes, practically up until the time the group finally called it quits.
Before that, Laine’s most distinguished work was part of the original Moody Blues, into the era that prefigured “Days in White Satin” and Days of Future Past, before the group defined the essence of prog rock and psychedelia. In fact, it was Laine who sang the group’s first hit in 1965, a cover of an obscure American R&B ballad by Larry Banks called “Go Now.” It’s still the song for which he’s best remembered and that still figures as a significant part of his live repertoire even today.
“I actually met Bessie Banks recently, and she thanked me for doing the song,” Laine notes of that hit. “Her husband wrote it. It was quite a nice occasion, actually. That was the first real big hit we had in England. We were touring with Chuck Berry, and it gave us a lot of television exposure and helped that song go to number one.”
If the public tends to overlook and underestimate Laine’s many accomplishments, well, suffice to say Laine himself doesn’t always tout his own accomplishments. “I like to do different things. I’ve always been that way,” he insists when asked why he opted to leave both the Moodies and McCartney after they had tallied up their hits. “I don’t want to be stuck in just one bag just to make money. I like to experiment with different kind of fusion-type sounds. With the Moodies, we owed our record company money, and so we had to keep touring. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to write new material. I go back into the studio and record. When they were eventually able to do that, they wrote 'Nights in White Satin,' and they got lucky as a result. It gave them their big hit. Which I felt good about. If I had gone off and joined Wings and they didn’t have another hit, I’d feel guilty about it.”
Interestingly, Laine’s musical associations don’t begin and end with those that garnered him the most recognition. He’s helmed a variety of bands over the past 50 years, some with names that bore his signature (Denny and the Diplomats), others that tended to sound a bit tongue-in-cheek (his first post-Moodies outfit was called Balls), some that offer little clue of their intentions (the Electric String Band, a precursor to the symphonic sound later crafted by ELO), and at least one that was a sprawling supergroup of sorts (Air Force, whose other members included Steve Winwood and ex Cream/Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker).
A conversation with this journeyman musician inevitably finds him name-dropping dozens of acts associated with the so-called British Invasion — members of such revered Brit rock combos as the Stones, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, the Animals, the Move, and, not so coincidentally, the Beatles themselves. It was the aforementioned Electric String Band that opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience when the guitarist made his legendary appearance at London’s Speakeasy Club, but it was his pal Paul McCartney who went with Laine to watch Hendrix make his English debut, at the club that served as the gathering spot of Britain’s music elite, the Bag o’ Nails. It was little surprise then that McCartney called him again in 1971, this time to recruit him for the first edition of Wings.
“Later, after Paul saw me open for Hendrix with my band, that’s what prompted him to ask me to join him,” Laine says. “He knew me, after all. The Moodies had done the second British Beatles tour. He wanted someone who could do something progressively. He knew had to do something different. He knew he couldn’t rely on doing Beatles songs on his own — it was all about being able to write and work with someone he knew to make it easier for him. It wouldn’t have been easy for him to work with someone he didn’t know. I was sitting around basically doing nothing when Paul called me.”
And, one imagines, that must have been a nice call to receive.
“It was interesting,” Laine recalls. “I asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he and Linda wanted to do some original stuff and then hit the road. And I said, ‘Absolutely!’ I’ll be on the next plane’... and I was!”
At that time, the group was still unheralded and untested, so they rented a motor coach and hit the English countryside, turning up unannounced at various universities along the way, begging to be booked for a surprise concert at the various student unions. “We basically wanted to rehearse live,” says Laine, “and we didn’t want the press to know anything about it. So we got the band together, rehearsed a few songs, and went on the road, and they put us on that night so there wouldn’t be any big press interference... We wanted to get back to our roots.”
By 1973, Wings reigned among the biggest bands in rock, and their celebrated first tour of the United States became the most-talked-about musical event of the year. The group’s roster would change and transition over the years, and at various intervals, it was only Denny and the two McCartneys who kept Wings aloft. "It was never meant to be like that, but that’s the way it was,” he explains. “We were in-between bands. We all stuck together. I'd go wherever they were, and we’d write songs together. Then eventually we’d find new people and put a new band together.”
Triumphs and near tragedy would follow, the former represented by the McCartney/Laine co-composition “Mull of Kintyre,” one of McCartney’s biggest hits of all time in the United Kingdom, the latter by Paul’s infamous drug bust just prior to the group’s ill-fated tour of Japan in 1980. “It was horrible,” Laine says of that incident. “It was horrible for him, and it was also horrible for us. It was like, 'What are we going to do now?'"
Eventually, Laine decided it was time to leave Wings and venture out on his own. “I was with them for ten years,” he explains. "There was a point where we couldn’t tour anymore due to [Paul's] Japan escapade. I had an album in the can that I wanted to go out and promote, so I decided to go out and do my own thing... I said to Paul, ‘Maybe it’s time you go out and do your own thing and play the Beatles material. I’m going to go out and do my thing.’ I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his band doing Beatles songs."
Despite Laine’s insistence that he’s turned his back on the past, he still plays concerts honoring his Wings material, and he’s currently in discussion about revisiting that initial Moody Blues album he was on. He still tours consistently, generally for a week or two at a time, and mentions an upcoming album, Valley of Dreams, that he began recording several years ago. Laine also mentions wanting to resurrect an original stage musical he wrote with a friend about the environment, a subject he says he’s always had an interest in. He spends his off time in New York, Las Vegas, and California, where he raises horses on a piece of property just north of San Diego, and also tends to some "business interests" in Key West.
Given Laine’s rich reservoir of rock history, it'd seem a biography might be in order.
"I wrote about the first 20 years and then ran out of steam when it came to writing the second 20,” he allows. "I thought about writing the next 20, and I just couldn’t do it. What do you leave out? What do you put in? It was too much work for me. But I’ve just been offered a deal recently to do a book on the ‘60s and not my own biography. That suits me much better. I’m not comfortable with my life being out there... It’s kind of boring to me.”
Denny Laine and the Cryers
8 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Special guest Jim Camacho opens and will premier his new single and video, “Make It to the Morning Light.” Tickets cost $20 plus fees. Call 954-564-1074.
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