Carry me back: John Lang Brown reflects on piping in 1977 on “Mull of Kintyre”

Published: October 31, 2010
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‘Mull of Kintyre’ is just one of those songs, one of those tunes that everyone knows, and when you hear it you just can’t resist the temptation to sing along. It was the first single to sell more than two-million copies in the United Kingdom and was the UK’s best-selling single of all-time until overtaken by Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ in 1984. It was the number-one song for Christmas in 1977 and spent nine weeks in the top spot in the charts.

Back in 1977, John Lang Brown was just your average 16-year-old living in Campbeltown, Scotland, who spent his time listening to artists such as Paul McCartney and Wings on his record player and played and competed with the Campbeltown Pipe Band, Grade 2 at the time. One night at the end of summer he went along to band practice and didn’t know that his life was about to change dramatically over the coming months. He and his pals were about to be a part of something big as the Campbeltown Pipe Band was invited to record “Mull of Kintyre” with Paul McCartney and Wings.

I caught up with John (now a piper in House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead) recently to get the low-down on what it was like to rub shoulders with one of the most famous musicians in history to help make one of the most well-loved and most popular songs of all time.

pipes|drums: How did the collaboration between Paul McCartney and the Campbeltown Pipe Band come about?

John Lang Brown: Paul McCartney was staying at his farm near Campbeltown and had contacted our Pipe-Major at the time, Tony Wilson, and arranged to meet up with Paul with regards to doing something with the pipes on a song he and Denny Laine had written. Tony went up to Paul’s farm house and had a tune with Paul on guitar where they got a good feel for what the pipes could add to the song.

p|d: After McCartney and Tony Wilson had discussed what the pipers were going to play, when did the band get involved?

JLB: It was about four weeks after the initial meeting that Paul gave Tony a cassette tape recording that he and Linda McCartney had recorded. Paul played the song on guitar and Linda played the piping parts on keyboard. We got our first listen when Tony played the tape to the band at a practice and showed us the music on a blackboard that he had used to jot down the music when he was discussing the song with Paul.

A week later on the Wednesday we went up to High Park Farm on a lovely warm summer’s night where Paul had converted his old barn into a recording studio. Seven pipers and seven drummers played the actual recording, although a lot more appeared in the video for the song.

p|d: What was your reaction when you were told you were going to be recording with Paul McCartney and Wings?

JLB: Myself and another four of the boys were the youngest in the band at the time and a lot of us were Paul McCartney and Wings fans so as you can imagine, we were really excited. In the week leading up to the recording there was a great feeling of excitement in the band and then on the day of the recording I remember a mini bus took us to the studio where we got the pipes out and waited for Paul to arrive. When he came through the door into the studio we couldn’t believe that he was actually standing in front of us. He was great fun and really good craic – always cracking jokes and making us feel totally relaxed. It really was something else!

p|d: Did Paul know everyone’s names in the band?

JLB: He knew Tony’s name because he was Pipe-Major and I guess the rest of us were just the lads to him. About four years ago, though, I bumped into Paul, his then wife Heather Mills and their daughter Beatrice in Campbeltown the week of the World’s as I was heading to Glasgow for a practice. They were walking out of the local library and museum when I spotted them and I looked at Paul, did a double take then noticed that he was looking at me and did the same. We kept staring at each other and I thought I’d better say something to him, so I said, “Hi Paul, I’m John Brown. You probably won’t remember me, but I was one of your pipers on ‘Mull of Kintyre.’ ”

Paul then said, “You know what, John, I knew that,” and was looking at my head and jokingly asked where my hair had gone. I then said to him “Paul, it’s like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ – it’s history!”

 

He started laughing at that and then introduced me to Heather and Beatrice and we had a blether for about 10 minutes. The best part about the whole conversation was that he commended me on the work that myself and Ian McKerral (piping), Campbell Anderson and Tommy Blue (drumming) had been doing with the kids in the Kintyre Schools band, which I thought was really nice.

p|d: When you were making the single, did you feel like it was going to be a big deal or did it feel like just another song that was going to appear on one of Paul McCartney and Wings’ albums?

JLB: To be perfectly honest I came home from the studio and spoke to my Mum and Dad and told them that the recording was good fun. We never heard the whole completed recording when we were in the studio. The pipers did their bit and the drummers did their bit and so we didn’t really think too much of it. A couple of weeks later I got a single sided demo record delivered in the post from Wings which I put on and Mum and Dad said straight away that it was absolutely brilliant. My response was a surprised, “Do you really think so?”

p|d: There are two videos for “Mull of Kintyre.” Did you appear in either of them?

JLB: We appear in both. We recorded the first video in October 1977 on Saddell Beach near Campbeltown, but when the single went to number one Paul invited the full band down to London for a week in November. We were put up in a very nice hotel and we made another video but it was shot inside this time at Elstree Studios. While we were in London to make the video, Paul was asked to appear on Mike Yarwood‘s 1977 Christmas Show and we were invited us to play alongside Paul, which meant we were in another video!

p|d: So, it was quite a surreal couple of months, then?

JLB: It was. It was unbelievable, really. When you’re 16 you never really take it all in when you’re so young and looking back now we really were quite star struck. We did sort of get used to the celebrity buzz of being in London because each day was all planned out for us but it was still completely surreal as we were mixing with guys such as Billy Connolly and Frankie Miller.

p|d: Was the band paid for being part of the recording and videos and did you get any royalties?

JLB: Each piper and drummer who played on the record received two small payments each and it was decided we would not accept any royalties for the record.

p|d: So you got a little bit of pocket money?

JLB: Yeah, I guess that’s what it was. Pocket money.

p|d: Does it annoy you now that you didn’t get any major funding or personal remuneration from being involved in the recording?

JLB: No, not a bit. To be perfectly honest every one of us would have done it for nothing, just for the experience of the whole thing. We knew that we were lucky to have been picked to do the recording and there were a lot of bands and a lot of people who would have loved to have been in our position. We probably would have paid to have been able to do it!

 

p|d: What was the highlight of the whole experience?

JLB: The highlight for me would have been playing with Wings in their last ever British concert at the legendary Glasgow Apollo in November 1979. Nobody knew the band was going to be there as they had done a performance the night before with only a solo piper. The stage was eight-feet high and we were under the stage waiting for the cue to march out into the audience and up onto the stage. I remember being under there and looking up and I could see Paul right above my head on stage through the crack in the stage floor singing “Yesterday.” We marched out straight after he finished “Yesterday” and the atmosphere was absolutely electric; I had never felt or seen anything like that in my life. You could hardly hear the pipes over the noise of the audience and we wanted to make a good job of it but we were struggling to contain our excitement. That was definitely the highlight for me.

p|d: How do you feel when you listen to “Mull of Kintyre” now?

JLB: It brings back great memories every time I hear it and see the video on television. One of the things I often remember while we were in London was when we were watching the charts being announced on Top of the Pops as they always were on a Thursday night. We were all sitting in one of the boy’s hotel rooms as it was announced that we were number-one for another week. It was quite funny to see Paul the next day and shake his hand and say, “Aye Paul, we’re still number-one!”

p|d: Do you find yourself re-telling the story of Paul McCartney and “Mull of Kintyre” regularly?

JLB: It does come up occasionally when you get chatting with someone. The most recent time was at a Paul McCartney gig at Hampden Park in Glasgow in the summer. I always keep a photo taken in London of myself, my close friend, Ian McKerral, Pipe-Major Tony Wilson and Paul McCartney in my wallet. At the concert I was sitting beside a guy who said to me, “I used to do this type of thing, working with guys like Paul McCartney.”

I couldn’t miss the opportunity, so said, “I actually played with him; I did the ‘Mull of Kintyre,’ ” and the guy didn’t believe me. So I reached into my pocket and pulled out the photo and showed him. He thought it was brilliant and couldn’t believe that out of the thousands of people that were at the gig he was sitting next to someone who had actually played with McCartney!

p|d: When Paul McCartney and his family are in Campbeltown and the surrounding areas, do you think that Paul can feel like he can be himself and not Paul McCartney the celebrity?

JLB: Yes, he gets a bit of freedom and no one bothers him and I think that’s why he likes this part of Scotland. Campbeltown has only got a population of around 6,000 people so it’s not too busy and he’s just left to his own. He’ll get people shouting to him, “How’s it going Paul?” but he’s just left to go about his business. The McCartneys are very much a part of the Kintyre community.

p|d: The song is about Paul McCartney’s love for the area. How did he fall in love with the Mull of Kintyre?

JLB: After the Beatles broke up I think Paul needed space to get his head back together and keep out the limelight for awhile. He got word about a farm that was up for sale so came to see it with his girlfriend. As soon as Paul saw the property he loved it and later on after he married Linda she also loved it claiming Kintyre was one of her most favourite places on earth. The laid back Kintyre life style suited them down to the ground where they could go walks along the beach, ride their horses or just chill out up at the farm.

p|d: Do they still own the property?

JLB: Yes, they do. I’m pretty friendly with the guy who looks after the estate for the McCartneys and I’ve dropped off my original single to him. I’m hoping he’s going to give it to Paul to sign for me the next time he’s in town. It’ll look good framed up on the wall in pride of place in my living room!

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