The late summer might seem like a strange time to write and record a Christmas number one but that is exactly what happened on a Kintyre farm 40 years ago this month.
The song in question was Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre”, co-written with Denny Laine and featuring the local Campbeltown Pipe Band.
For a number of years it was the biggest-selling single of all time, and was the first UK single to sell more than two million copies.
Co-writer Laine had joined McCartney’s group Wings in 1971, having previously enjoyed chart success with The Moody Blues, and over the next decade they wrote a number of songs together.
One morning at breakfast while staying at the former Beatle’s High Park Farm on the Kintyre peninsula, McCartney played Laine the chorus of a new song.
Mull of Kintyre chorus
Mull of Kintyre
Oh mist rolling in from the sea,
My desire is always to be here
Oh mull of Kintyre
He said: “Paul said he was having a go at writing a Scottish song but wasn’t sure how people would feel about it, an Englishman singing a Scottish song.”
The next day armed with a bottle of whisky the pair sat on the steps of a cottage in the afternoon sun and wrote the verses.
“We just looked around at all the hillsides and the glens and everything and just wrote the words and the rest of the song that afternoon,” Laine said.
But it became more than just another song when McCartney roped in the local pipe band.
In a video on his website McCartney explained how he got the late Tony Wilson, the leader of Campbeltown Pipe Band, on board.
McCartney said: “I said: ‘Hey, I’ve written a song and I’d like you to help me record it with the pipe band’. He said: ‘Aye, very good, very good’.”
But for the world’s most famous Liverpudlian and an ex-Moody Blue from Birmingham it was soon apparent that there was a rather steep learning curve to work out how to incorporate a Scottish pipe band into a rock band.
The song had been written and recorded in the key of A, but pipes can only play in B flat or E flat.
“I don’t remember how we did it, whether we slowed it down or sped it up,” says Laine.
“But we got the key the same as the pipers’ B flat.
“Then we had to transpose one section to E flat when they came in for the second part of the song which was great because it made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
“It gave it that boost, a change of key when they came in, and I think that was the selling point really.”
The pipes were recorded outside in the open air and Laine thinks that gave it a special sound that couldn’t have been found in a studio.
Meanwhile, McCartney had promised the thirsty pipers a drink or two but was wary about unleashing the booze before they had the definitive take.
McCartney said: “I said we won’t drink before the session because it could go horribly wrong. We’ll break out the drinks when we’ve got the take.”
But once the recording was in the can the party could begin.
“We were all having a celebratory drink and they were all standing round and beaming,” said McCartney.
“They’d never been in a recording studio before so they’re all loving hearing the whole track coming out of the speakers.”
Pipe Band leader Tony Wilson died in 1994 but among the pipers listening back in the control room that night was a young Ian McKerral, now the main piping instructor for schools across Kintyre.
In his home overlooking Campbeltown bay a picture of the pipe band with the McCartney, his late wife Linda and Denny Laine has pride of place.
“We did a ten to fifteen minute tune up and then just went for it,” he said.
“McCartney came out and said that’s it boys. We just couldn’t believe it. Everybody was just buzzing, it was just a great atmosphere.”
And outside his house overlooking Campbeltown bay Ian was more than happy to relive the moment as a duo with John Long Brown, another piper who played on that session as a star struck 16-year-old.
He remembers listening back that night 40 years ago.
“To be honest I thought that’s not us. It sounded so good with everything, the guitars, the bass, the drums. The whole lot put together was an amazing sound. I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t believe it!”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Mull of Kintyre spent nine weeks at number one over Christmas 1977 and for years it remained the biggest selling single of all time.
Not bad for a song written and recorded on a Kintyre farm by a Brummie and a Scouser and featuring the local pipe band.