Life Of A Wings Man: Denny Laine

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From the Moody Blues to McCartney to sundry solo endeavors, the hard-working multi-instrumentalist and songwriter has led—and continues to lead—a busy life.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Denny Laine has to be the most unappreciated wing man in Rock. Better yet, the most unappreciated Wings man in rock. That’s because he spent ten years working side by side with Paul McCartney in his seminal post-Beatles band Wings and, aside from Macca’s late wife Linda, he served as McCartney’s sole collaborator for a good part of the band’s first decade of existence. It was Laine who served in the role of guitarist, bassist and vocalist when the band recorded its early landmark albums Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound and London Town, and backed McCartney on his return to the U.S. during the group’s first landmark 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 as 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. Nevertheless, 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 which still figures as a significant part of his live repertoire even today.

Interestingly, Laine’s musical associations don’t begin and end with those with whom he attained his higher profile. 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 one called Balls), some that offered little clue to their intents (The Electric String Band, a precursor to the symphonic sound later crafted by ELO), and at least one that was a sprawling super group of sorts (Air Force, whose other members included Steve Winwood and ex-Cream/Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker).

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Indeed, a conversation with this journeyman musician inevitably finds him name dropping dozens of names 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. Likewise, despite Laine’s insistence that he’s turned his back on the past, he still does concerts that focus on his Wings material, and he’s currently in discussion about revisiting that initial Moody Blues album that he was on. He still tours consistently, generally for a week or two at a time, and mentions an upcoming album called Valley of Dreams that he began recording several years ago. He also mentions that he wants 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.

It was with some anticipation then that we recently caught up with Laine from one of his homes north of San Diego, on a large plot of land where he raises horses, and began by asking him about that first signature song.

BLURT: It might surprise some people to learn that “Go Now” was not an original song, and that it was actually written by an American.

DENNY LAINE: Yes, it was written by an American named Banks. I actually met his wife Bessie Banks recently and she thanked me for doing the song. It was quite a nice occasion actually. That was the first real big hit we had in England. We performed it when we were touring with Chuck Berry in England and that tour gave us a lot of television exposure and helped that song go to number one.

You’ve had quite a fabled career, but it’s always seemed like just when you had your greatest success with one band, be it with the Moodies or with Wings, you were ready to venture out on your own.

I like to do different things. I’ve always been that way. 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, to 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.

You knew Paul early on, did you not?  The two of you were there together when Jimi Hendrix make his English debut at London’s Bag o’ Nails club. And he was there when your Electric String Band opened for Hendrix at the Speakeasy.

After Paul saw me open for Hendrix with my band, it prompted him to ask me to join him Wings. He knew me, after all. The Moodies had done the second British Beatles tour. He wanted someone who could do something progressively. He knew he had to do something different. He knew he couldn’t rely on doing Beatles songs on his own. It was all about being about 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.

One imagines, that must have been a nice call to receive.

It was interesting. 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!

That first Wings tour was legendary. You 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. Why did the band choose to make their introduction in such an inauspicious way?

We basically wanted to rehearse live, 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. They put us on that night so there wouldn’t be any big press interference. We didn’t want to be criticized so early in the day. We wanted to get back to our roots.

Wings’ roster changed and transitioned over the years, and at various intervals, it was down to only you and the two McCartneys that kept Wings aloft. Did you ever feel like you were the odd man out?

It was never meant to be like that, but that’s the way it was. 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.

One of the most infamous incidents in Wings’ career was Paul’s 1980 pot bust in Japan. What was it like for the rest of the band?

It was horrible. It was horrible for him and it was also horrible for us. It was like, what are we going to do now?

You left Wings shortly after that. What prompted your departure?

I was with them for ten years. I had a good time. But there was a point where we couldn’t tour anymore due to his 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 just didn’t go back really. 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. That’s the way it was.

With your rich history, it would seem like a biography might be in order. Have you ever given that some thought?

I started one, but kind of ran out of steam. I wrote about the first 20 years and then ran out of steam when it came to writing the second 20, and then 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 just like, “Why?” It’s kind of boring to me.

Below: Laine on tour in late 2015, with drummer Steve Holley

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