As he neared the end of 1972, Paul McCartney’s fledgling solo career must’ve seemed in a pretty precarious state. A year earlier, he had launched his new band Wings and their debut album Wild Life, amid no little fanfare. The record took a hammering from the critics, which was already par for the course for McCartney LPs, but it also sold in markedly fewer quantities than its predecessors McCartney and Ram, just scraping into the US top ten and stalling at #11 in the UK. A couple of months later the band’s first single, ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’, was predictably banned by the BBC, meaning a lot of people never even heard it, while many of those who did may have been put off by its stark, confrontational message about a very sensitive, nuanced subject. And whatever street cred he might have gained from such a bold political statement (not to mention a couple of drug busts during the year) would surely have evaporated in the summer when he followed it up with his version of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. It was a UK top ten hit, but it must have invited the same sort of derision from many quarters that the Frog Chorus would trigger just over a decade later.
Neither single even made the US top 20, a market where Paul had previously carried all before him. And while Wings were cutting their teeth as a live band with a series of low-key gigs, many people were already ridiculing Linda’s inclusion in the band and her limitations as both a keyboard player and vocalist. And all this played out while George and John were still basking in the chart-topping glow of their All Things Must Pass and Imagine albums, respectively (though John would make his own major misstep in 1972 with the ill-judged Some Time in New York City LP). Even Ringo had crushed Macca on the singles chart with his smash hit ‘Back Off Boogaloo’. As strange as it seems now, many people back then would’ve been wondering if the man who had produced ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ had lost his Midas touch, or even the plot. To put it simply, Paul needed a hit. Badly.
What he came up with as his year-end single was, has often been the case in his career, not what people would necessarily have expected. Especially as he already had ‘My Love’, a surefire winner in the classic Macca ballad tradition, in his back pocket. ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was essentially a bar room rocker, a rough and ready romp. He’d road-tested the number during Wings’ European tour that summer, albeit in slightly different, more ragged form (Henry McCullough’s scratchy, out-of-tune guitar solo on this performance is really something to behold). While it seemed to go down well with audiences, Paul wisely tightened it up when they took it into the studio, giving it more shape and focus. McCullough’s solo was removed altogether, though – to be fair – he contributes some nice slide guitar lines to the finished version. Nonetheless, it remained a pretty simple song, a chugging, stop-start slice of rock ‘n’ roll which made few concessions to the prevailing glam rock zeitgeist of the day. I imagine Paul thought it’s meaty, sing-a-long chorus would guarantee plenty of radio airplay. But then there are the lyrics….
Considering he’d already been arrested twice that year on drug-related offences, he was probably pushing his luck by raucously singing about getting high (high high). Early 1970s Britain was still struggling to come to terms with rising levels of violence, bad language and sexual explicitness across all forms of entertainment and pop culture, and the increasing prevalence of drug use must’ve been another horror to content with. Certainly, the Establishment was quick to blame most of society’s ills on such licentiousness, so when the BBC learned that ‘Hi Hi Hi’ also made references to lying on the bed and getting ready for a “body gun”, and doing it “like a rabbit” until the night is done, a further ban was inevitable. Paul protested that his music publishers had mis-heard part of the lyric, claiming that he hadn’t sung “body gun” but rather the more abstract “polygon” (while slyly conceding the former were “better words, almost”). You can’t really tell either way on the record, and I think he should’ve kept his mouth shut – “body gun” is a better line and, as it was getting banned anyway, he might as well have been hung for a sheep as for a lamb. Younger Beatles fans, raised on a 21st century pop music diet of blatant sex references, misogyny, open celebration of narcotics and the like, must be wondering what all the fuss was about. Even Paul himself releases records today brazenly singing a line which sounds very much like “I just wanna F— you”, and no one bats an eyelid. But, hey, it was a more innocent time.
Unaware (perhaps naively) that his raunch-fest was about to encounter such difficulties, in late November 1972 Paul took Wings into a TV studio to record a promotional film for the song. This was still a novel move in his solo career, as he had not promoted any of his singles in this way until ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, just a few months earlier. But while he had made a couple of colourful clips for that, dressing up and bringing in farmyard animals, the film for ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was as basic and uninspired as pop promos get. The band simply perform the song on a stage, in very static fashion, tracked by a handful of very static camera angles. It’s also pretty poorly lit (you can’t actually see Paul until he starts singing), like someone forgot to put a few coins in the electric meter – though as Britain was plagued by power cuts in the early ‘70s due to striking coal miners, this may have been something beyond the director’s control. At the end of the clip, the lights go out entirely, though you can just make out some feet. Very odd. Even when you can see the band, there’s not a great deal to comment on. Paul’s mullet is coming into its own by this point, though he’s wearing a natty (for the time) long coat which looks good. Well, it may look horrific, but the studio is so dark it’s hard to tell.
Alas, the resulting ban meant the film was never broadcast on BBC-TV channels and shows like Top of the Pops. Luckily, the band had recorded an uber-catchy B-side – the playful, reggae-tinged ‘C Moon’ – which was strong enough to warrant airplay of its own (it also had its own promo film, which I’ll look at another time). Whether ‘C Moon’ did the heavy lifting, or whether the decent reviews and word of mouth about ‘Hi Hi Hi’ piqued pop pickers’ curiosity, it’s hard to say; what mattered was that the single gave Paul the success he needed, hitting #5 in the UK. In the States, where DJs presumably had no problem with the A-side’s smutty innuendo, it gave Wings their first top ten hit to date, peaking at #10. It also charted well in other countries, notably Spain, where it hit the #1 spot in April 1973. Clearly the Spanish don’t mind a little sauce with their pop. Unsurprisingly, ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was a constant in Wings’ live sets for the next few years, culminating in scorching encore performances of the tune during their 1975-76 world tour ( thankfully preserved for all time on Wings Over America and the Rockshow concert film).
It was also included on the Wings’ Greatest compilation at the end of 1978, which is how I first came to hear it eight years later. As with some of Paul’s other 1970s output, once you get past the quirkiness of it, you realise there’s a lot going on. Along with the aforementioned lead guitar parts, I love the pumping rhythm of it (and the drums sound great) and the Paul/Linda/Denny Laine harmonies that would become a Wings trademark are really starting to come together here. Then there’s the fabulous fast-paced finale, propelled by a Little Richard-style whoop from Paul and the, er, swelling organ which brings the track to a shuddering climax (wow, now I’m doing it….this song is contagiously filthy). But, by the mid-1980s, Paul – perhaps conscious of his role as a respectable middle-aged parent – had started to distance himself from the song. In 1987, he told the NME: “I hear it now and cringe and think, ‘Did I really do that?’” In keeping with that line of thought, it was left off the same year’s All The Best! compilation, with ‘C Moon’ included instead.
By the 2000s, however, his attitude seemed to have softened. His next solo hits collection, 2001’s Wingspan, restored it to its rightful place, and the promo film also featured in a Top of the Pops 2 McCartney special in the UK to promote the album – by my reckoning, the first time it was ever broadcast by the BBC, almost 30 years after the fact. It was nice to finally see it in good quality, as opposed to grainy bootleg versions, and the clip subsequently made it onto the McCartney Years DVD video collection in 2007. And by 2014, the song’s rehabilitation was complete, as Paul included it in his concert setlists for the first time in almost four decades – interestingly, in the encore section alongside Beatles evergreens. I finally got to see him sing it at London’s 02 Arena the following year, and it was a huge thrill. When Macca rocks out, there is just no one to touch him, and he really cut loose on this.
I wouldn’t say ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was among his very best rockers, but it’s still a good one, and a lot of fun. Back in 1972, it restored some much-needed swagger to the McCartney brand and proved he could still make hit records on his own terms. It planted Wings’ flag firmly in the sand, and laid the groundwork for the chart-topping glories of 1973 and beyond. The video was fairly forgettable, but it too helped Paul to get back in the saddle and much better promo films were to follow. ‘Hi Hi Hi’ showed Wings were on the rise and would have plenty of staying power. And I’m going to stop now before I’m utterly consumed by double entendres.