The Meaning Behind “Helen Wheels” by Paul McCartney and Wings and How It Introduced the Three-Piece Version of the Band to the World

Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles band Wings went from reeling to thriving with the release of their 1973 album Band on the Run. “Helen Wheels” was the energetic single released to introduce this new version of the band to the world, and it still stands as one of the most buoyant performances from Macca and company.

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What was the song about? How did it end up on Band on the Run in the U.S. after getting only a single release elsewhere? And how did it present a new version of Wings as a three-member outfit? We go back to 1973 for all the answers, and it all begins with some last-minute band personnel changes.

Broken Wings

Paul McCartney’s decision to form another band in the wake of The Beatles’ breakup was met with great skepticism in the rock press. Truth be told, Wings’ first two albums (Wild Life in 1971 and Red Rose Speedway in early 1973) didn’t do a ton to assuage those views. While a few sparkling singles emerged (most notably the chart-topper “My Love”), the albums themselves were uneven and unfocused.

Still, Wings went into their next album with some momentum after the massive James Bond movie theme “Live and Let Die” arrived in the summer of ’73, and the decision was made to record the next album in Nigeria to change things up. But all the momentum quickly stalled when two members of the group left. Guitarist Henry McCullough got into an argument with McCartney and Denny Laine during a rehearsal and decided to leave the band. And then drummer Denny Seiwell decided he’d had enough just hours before the plane trip out of England to start recording.

That left McCartney, his wife Linda, and Laine as a three-person band, but there was no thought of abandoning the project. In fact, the trio pressed on through a mugging that cost McCartney demos of the songs he wanted to record, poor conditions in Nigeria due to weather and an unfinished studio, and an incident where McCartney suffered chest pains and had to rest a few days.

“Wheels” Up

Despite all this, Wings was about to deliver their masterpiece. Perhaps having only three people to play removed some of the distractions of being a bandleader from Macca. (And he also proved a more than capable drummer). In any case, the trio emerged with a sparkling set of songs, including “Helen Wheels.” The song is a tribute to a beloved McCartney vehicle, as he explained in the book Paul McCartney in his Own Words:

“Helen Wheels is our Land Rover. It’s a name we gave to our Land Rover, which is a trusty vehicle that gets us around Scotland. It takes us up to the Shetland Islands and down to London. The song starts off in Glasgow, then it goes past Carlisle, goes to Kendal, Liverpool, Birmingham and London. It’s the route coming down from our Scottish farm to London, so it’s really the story of a trip down. Little images along the way.”

“Helen Wheels” was released as a single to preview the Band on the Run album. But in America, it was included on the record as well. McCartney was convinced to do this after the single “Money” had helped the sales of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. These days, it’s hard to imagine Band on the Run without the chugging, charming “Helen Wheels” as part of the lineup.

What is the Meaning of “Helen Wheels”?

As McCartney mentioned, “Helen Wheels” acts as a kind of travelogue. But it also says a lot about the freedom he experienced behind the wheel of this beast. You can tell he’s anxious to get a move on right from the start: Said farewell to my last hotel, it never was much kind of abode.

Each stop along the way fills him with warmth, until the final destination fully invigorates him: Doin’ fine when a London sign greets me like a long lost friend. In the final verse, he gets ready to head back out again at seemingly the moment he arrives: Got no time for a rum and lime, I wanna get my right foot down.

In the final line of the chorus, McCartney expresses his devotion to his motor: And they’re never gonna take her away. And apparently, they didn’t, as he recently revealed he still is in possession of “Helen Wheels.” Long may both owner and vehicle roam.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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