RAM, Wings, and Beyond: An Interview with Denny Seiwell

The former Wings drummer discusses his illustrious career, past and present.

By , Contributor

Wings in 1971 (left to right: Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, Denny Seiwell, Denny Laine)

To truly appreciate the significance of Denny Seiwell, consider this fact: he was the first drummer chosen by Paul McCartney following the breakup of the Beatles. After auditioning in New York City in 1971, Seiwell was offered the job of drumming on the classic album RAM.

While that alone would be enough to guarantee him a spot in rock music history, Seiwell was asked to join McCartney’s new band, Wings. As an essential component of Wings’ original lineup, Seiwell played dozens of live shows during tours of the U.K. and Europe in the early ‘70s. He played on the albums Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway as well as numerous hit singles, including “Hi, Hi, Hi” and “Live and Let Die.”

Denny Seiwell now resides in California, where he teaches private drum lessons. In 2011, the drummer returned to his jazz roots for the album Reckless Abandon, recorded with Joe Bagg (organ) and John Chiodini (guitar). Among standards and original material, the Denny Seiwell Trio tackled a number of McCartney songs on the album, reinventing them as jazz tunes.

shabbyroad_final_cover (200x195).jpgHis latest project is a CD of Beatles covers called Shabby Road, recorded with his former Wings band mate, guitarist Henry McCullough.

With RAM receiving the deluxe reissue treatment as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, the timing was perfect to check in with Mr. Seiwell.

Did you know RAM was going to be a great album while you were recording it?

The RAM album probably—not probably, it IS the best record that I’ve made. Every song that Paul brought in, I thought, “My God, this is timeless music. This will be around 50 years from now.” And I’ve been right so far, now we have the remastered RAM reissue.

The album got slammed by a lot of critics at the time, but it has undergone quite a reevaluation over the years.

The way I look at it with reviewers, if they give good reviews, they’re out of a job. They have to be controversial sometimes to keep their standing in the community. We knew that with Paul just leaving the Beatles, getting charged with breaking up the Beatles, we knew there would be some reviews slagging us off even though it was a great record.

What were the RAM sessions like?

It was bare bones. Paul played guitar or piano and sang a pilot vocal. It was Paul with one of the two guitar players—either Dave Spinozza or Hugh McCracken—and me playing drums. That was it. That was for the basic tracks. Paul dubbed his bass lines later.

Dave Spinozza started off as the guitarist, but was replaced by Hugh McCracken; what happened?

Paul held some clandestine auditions. He and Linda found out who the happening guys in town were. They just called them in to meet them and to see what they were like as people. And he selected Spinozza and me.

Paul asked us to not book any dates. This is really what happened. He said, “I want your time for three weeks. Just don’t book any sessions, I’d like to hire you from nine to six daily.” We were all real busy, but Spinozza saw that we’d be sometimes finished by two or three in the afternoon. So he took a date, like a four o’clock session or something. And one day he said to Paul, “You mind if I take off? I have to do something.” And Paul thought, “Oh, that’s not what we agreed on here.”

How was Hugh McCracken selected as a replacement?

Paul asked me if there was another guitar player I really liked working with. I said that I did a lot of sessions with Hugh. I thought he’d be great for the album, and Paul called him up. That was that.

Was he invited, along with you, to join Wings later on?

We went out there [to the U.K.], Hugh and his wife Holly and my wife and I. Paul said he wanted to put a band together. That’s when Hugh and Holly decided they didn’t want to. They had kids. Hugh had kids from another marriage, he couldn’t miss them growing up, touring with a band and living in England. So he opted out.

There’s an explosive bonus track on the RAM reissue, “Rode All Night,” that’s just you on drums and McCartney on guitar and vocals.

He’d just come back from lunch that day and had this tune he wanted to jam. The engineers had started tearing down the mics for another session or something. So we started jamming, and it was outrageous. I considered those lyrics, “I rode all night till I finally hit the daybreak.” For me, that represented that he’d found people he really felt comfortable playing with, other than the Beatles. And this was like a major breakthrough. We just about had tears in our eyes, we had so much fun doing this thing. I really felt like something miraculous was going on.

Anyway, we got done after like seven or eight minutes of this thing, Paul looks into the booth and goes, “You got that, right?” And the engineer goes, “I’m ready now. You want to do it again?” We both looked at each other, like, “What the..?” So we did it again. The second take was good, but it didn’t have the magical spark in that first one.

We’ll come back to RAM and Wings, but I want to switch gears. For your recent jazz album Reckless Abandon, at what point did you decide to record jazz interpretations of McCartney songs?

Well, I’m really known for that period of my musical body of recordings, so I thought we’d include some of that stuff. And it became more and more fun with each tune we broke into.

Reckless Abandon cover (379x380).jpg

How did you select the musicians that play on Reckless Abandon?

John Chiodini is a guy that I met many years ago. Do you remember Schoolhouse Rocks?

Sure, the educational cartoon series from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Everybody that‘s under 40, maybe under 50 now, knows the music from that series really well. I recorded those original tracks with John in New York, a bunch of them anyway. So he came out here years ago and we did some live dates with some of the guys who played on some of that original stuff, like Jack Sheldon who sang “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction.” So we played around and John Chiodini was in that band, that’s how I met John.

How did Joe Bagg, the organ player, get involved?

I had an opportunity to help a friend open up a restaurant here in Woodland Hills [California] and bring some jazz in there. I brought John one night and another night I was asking around town about a good organist. And this guy’s name kept popping up, Joe Bagg. So one night I put the two of them together and it was magic.

And that lead to the recording of the album?

I was actually just going to record these two guys playing over at my house. We were going to make a couple tracks I could use when I go out to do my clinics. I wasn’t going to record drums, so I could play live drums to the tunes they played.

We got recording and it was so good, I said, “Let’s put the drum mics up and see about making a record.” Within four little get-togethers over a period of a couple months, we had a whole album.

“Dear Friend,” the Wild Life track which you played on in ‘71, works well as a jazz ballad.

“Dear Friend” was awesome. We said we better have a ballad [for Reckless Abandon]. I let them hear the original “Dear Friend” one time, then they wrote down the chords and we recorded it. And we all just looked at each other and said, “What the heck was that?” It was just one of those amazing, magical, spiritual things that happens sometimes.

Maybe the most interesting and obscure choice was “Loup (1st Indian on the Moon).”

When Paul wrote it for Red Rose Speedway, he said he crafted that song thinking that, to him, it’s what jazz was. [laughs] And so I wanted to kind of turn his “jazz” tune into a real jazz tune.

Of course, not all the songs on Reckless Abandon are McCartney’s. Were some of them new compositions?

Joe Bagg wrote “Opting for the Yorn.” I don’t know where he got that title from. There are a couple old jazz standbys. We tried to pick material that wasn’t too overplayed. I made a bunch of records over the years, and going back to my jazz roots is something I always wanted to do. I’m so pleased that the album turned out as good as it did. It’s one of those records that the more you hear it, the better it gets.

Speaking of records you played on over the years, tell me about the session work you did for the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

That was the Get on the Good Foot album [1972]. I was called in to do a session. A lot of times we just get called in to do these sessions and we don’t know who the hell it is. But it was actually for an artist named Hank Ballard. James Brown was producing the record.

So we’re playing one of the tunes we were recording for Hank Ballard. We get this pretty serious groove going, and James comes flying out of the control room. He runs into the studio, pulls Hank out of the vocal booth and goes, “Hank, this is too good for your record! This is going on MY record!” And he got into the booth and started singing.

Do you remember what song that was?

“Funky Side of Town.” We did a couple tracks that day. A lot of times James Brown didn’t put credits on his records. I’m not sure if it was on the sleeve, but I found some credits anyway and for the drums it said, “Probably Jimmy Madison.” [laughs] But I have the check from the musician’s union for those dates, I saved that for posterity. I’m not making anything up there. That was just a fun day.

Was James Brown familiar with your work at all?

I’ll never forget, he came in and said, “I know you played with Paul McCartney, and that’s pretty good. But if you play with James Brown, I got to hear ‘ONE, chicka-chicka-chicka! ONE, chicka-chicka-chicka!” [laughs] And when he did that, the whole band kind of changed their viewpoint of how we were playing that song. All of a sudden we sounded like James Brown’s band.

How long have you been working as a private drum teacher?

I started about ten years ago, and I’m enjoying it more and more. I’ve got some great young students and some pros that I work with to round off the rough edges and learn to read music a little bit more. It’s really rewarding. Most of my lessons are right at my house, one-on-one. I show them what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve.

Jumping back to Wings, you accepted the offer to join. How did Denny Laine get involved?

Paul called me up a few weeks later and said, “I’ve got an old friend of mine. He’s a guitar player, singer-songwriter, and I think we’re going to try to use him.” So I flew back to Scotland and he arranged for Denny Laine to come up.

The first Wings album, Wild Life (1971), was recorded very quickly, right?

Five of the eight songs were first takes, I think. So it was like, a weekend for the tracking dates. Before you knew it, after some overdubs and mixing, the music was done. “Dear Friend” was a RAM holdover. “Wild Life,” I liked the song in the live set-it was a great mood setter. We had this film screen behind us with wild horses and all this great footage. It was nice for the live show.

Henry McCullough was added to the lineup as lead guitarist. You and he recently recorded together again?

Yes! Henry and I did a tribute to the Beatles for Beatlefest in New Jersey this year. We call it Shabby Road, and it’s quite good with different versions of Beatles songs. It can be bought on my website.

When did Henry McCullough first come on board as part of Wings?

He came on board because we were going to do that first British university tour [1972]. Henry had exactly what we needed. He played great solos. That university tour was pretty amazing. Take the best-known musician on the planet and go out without any gigs booked, without hotels reserved-without anything!

Paul drove the van. There were kids, wives, and dogs in the van. And we had this little truck with two roadies and our gear. They’d go out and find a university we could play in. They’d set up the gear, we’d go find a hotel and then come back and play that night. It was incredible. And we’d divvy up the money. It was great fun, so organic.

By the time Red Rose Speedway (1973) was recorded, Wings was really functioning as a real band it seems.

Absolutely, we’d become a band. One of my favorites from that period is “When the Night” — such a good track. We did a version of “Tragedy,” the old ‘50s rock and roll song, that didn’t make the final album.

We were used to playing with each other. That was one of the reasons I ended up leaving the band. It had nothing to do with not wanting to go Africa [in 1973 to record Band on the Run]. There were some real problems in the band. We didn’t have a contract. We didn’t have a formal agreement. I was making a lot of money in New York doing session work, not that it’s all about money. But I felt compensated for my status and my work. I was in one of the top bands in the world and I had nothing to show for it. After a couple years of that stuff, it really wears down on the creative effort that’s being put in by everybody.

I’m sorry that I didn’t really sit Paul down and say, “Hey man, I’m leaving unless we address this.” I don’t know what would have happened had I done that, I really don’t. One of the few regrets that I have in my life is that I didn’t actually say, “Something’s going on, this isn’t right.”

What is right is the appreciation that is increasingly being shown for the work recorded during the period you were working with McCartney, especially RAM.

I think it was one of the most crucial times in his songwriting, because he had all that angst from the Beatles breaking up. He was just going to sit up in Scotland, have a glass of scotch, enjoy being with his wife and kids, and look at the sheep and stuff. And Linda said, “Paul, you’re a writer, get your ass in gear.” And you know, she’s the one that prodded him into making RAM, so God bless Linda for that. Linda was just awesome. And she was a big part of the band. When she passed away, everybody really felt it.

For more information about Denny Seiwell, or to purchase Shabby Road or Reckless Abandon, please visit his official website.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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