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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Paul McCartney: Venus And Mars


1) Venus And Mars; 2) Rock Show; 3) Love In Song; 4) You Gave Me The Answer; 5) Magneto And Titanium Man; 6) Letting Go; 7) Venus And Mars (reprise); 8) Spirits Of Anicent Egypt; 9) Medicine Jar; 10) Call Me Back Again; 11) Listen To What The Man Said; 12) Treat Her Gently / Lonely Old People; 13) Crossroads.

General verdict: Paulʼs slightly overdue answer to the glam-rock era — professional, perfectionist, and ultimately quite confusing, though there is no denying the high entertainment value.

Rock critics have rarely, if ever, shown any serious love for the post-Band On The Run career of Wings — and even if they are wrong in general, it is hard not to acknowledge a certain barely tangible, but persistent line that separates the (perhaps involuntarily) visionary soundscapes of Band from the somewhat shallower and trendier sound of Venus And Mars. By early 1975, it was clear that Paul had his mind set on becoming a rock star once again; and to do that, he needed a record with a big, crunchy sound, adapted for the era of glam-rock and arena-rock. Inspiration for such an album would now be coming not from the seedy depths of Africa, but from the much more safe and familiar American territory — New Orleans and Los Angeles, where most of Venus And Mars would be recorded. The band, too, would be much bigger: in addition to the core trio (Paul / Linda / Denny), there would be young guitar wizard / drug addict Jimmy McCulloch, a separate drummer (Geoff Britton, later replaced by Joe English), and plenty of guests, as could be expected for anybody recording in New Orleans.

The results were satisfactory: Venus And Mars provides a ton of fun, including some seriously underrated compositional gems, great arrangements, and solid feels. But it takes one more step in the direction of turning Wings into an actual band, and one that is more likely to obey current trends than set them. The first goal is achieved by having Wings members that are not Paul either write some of the songs or sing them, as well as make even more use of group harmonies on the heavier numbers, taking attention away from Paul. The second implies an abundance of heavy guitar riffage, cosmic synthesizers, and overblown production — the only things missing are long flowing hair, glitzy costumes, and chest hair a-plenty (and you would get all of that on the ensuing tour... well, maybe without the chest hair; apparently, Paul is shy about that).

Granted, some of this is very tongue-in-cheek. ʽRock Showʼ, the first big number on the record, is clearly more of a parody on arena-rock than the real thing — with its BIG sound, proto-Spinal Tappish lyrics ("in my green metal suit I'm preparing to shoot up the city!"), sarcastic references to Jimmy Page and stretched out hell-raising coda, it was never meant to be taken seriously. It is hilarious, and musically interesting — two different bridges, an uplifting pop riff carrying the main melody, complex overdubs, party atmosphere — but it occupies the same spot as ʽJetʼ (with which it would later be joined in a single medley in concert), and it ainʼt no ʽJetʼ. ʽJetʼ was more than just fun — it was an inspiring flight of fantasy, hard-rocking, funny, and romantic at the same time. ʽRock Showʼ, in comparison, is just a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the mid-1970s rock scene — which is why, unlike ʽJetʼ, it quickly became musically and lyrically dated, and would only be briefly resuscitated by Paul in concert in the 21st century when he became looking for old forgotten goodies in order to add diversity to the setlist.

More show tunes that cannot be taken seriously follow one after another. ʽYou Gave Me The Answerʼ is an old style music hall number, a bit of a Fred Astaire tribute, that follows in the footsteps of ʽHoney Pieʼ but has none of that songʼs sly humor — just the melodicity, catchiness, and a bit of that irresistible (or annoying, depending on your constitution) sugary falsetto from Paul. ʽMagneto And Titanium Manʼ is a bouncy, super-energized pop tribute to Marvel Comics that is... good enough for fans of Marvel Comics, I guess. ʽSpirits Of Ancient Egyptʼ is a deeply strange number whose grim, claustrophobic production style and hyperbolic lyrics make it sound like a psycho killerʼs love declaration — could be disturbing, if not for Denny Laineʼs lack of sufficient coolness to pull it off and for unfortunate stringing of lyrics into sequences such as "you're my baby and I love you... I'm your baby, do you love me?". And ʽCall Me Back Againʼ, a slow New Orleanian soul number, is ruined by Paul locking himself in shouting mode for the entire duration of the song — I suppose he wanted to have another ʽOh Darlingʼ here, but ended up overcooking the brew to the point where it lost all taste.

This is not to say that all of these are bad songs: I enjoy most of them, have most of the hooks entrenched in my head from childhood, and even have fun singing along to "hung on the telly, hung on the telly, hung on the telephone" and "the Crimson Dynamo just couldnʼt cut it no more". It just seems that this time around, Paul was not able to infuse them with enough personality — that bit of human empathy in ʽPicassoʼs Last Wordsʼ, the weary strand of misanthropy of ʽMrs. Vanderbiltʼ, let alone the homebrewn, intimate atmosphere of all the silly excourses in Ram, all of this replaced with an atmosphere that is more carnival, or even burlesque, in essence. Not that Paul was not entitled to a bit of carnivalesque atmosphere — but in the end, it allows one to make the point that «Venus And Mars is sillier than Band On The Run», and then you have the uneasy task to prove that in true art, «silly» is never inherently inferior to «intelligent», and all that accompanying jazz. You know how it is.

The real bad news is that behind all the silliness, one tends to lose track of the several moments of pure greatness. In particular, two of the ballads on the album may be easily planted in the already rich gallery of McCartneyʼs sad-and-lonesome masterpieces. There is ʽLove In Songʼ, another case of nominally cheery lyrics backed by an incredibly melancholic melody, rising to a painful breakdown in the "I can see the places..." bridge section — wedged in between the inebriated glam theater of ʽRock Showʼ and the manneristic tap dancing of ʽYou Gave Me The Answerʼ, it is easily missable, and even Paul himself never cared to perform it live, but it deserves all the acclaim it can ever get. And at the end of the record comes a mish-mashed performance of ʽTreat Her Gentlyʼ and ʽLonely Old Peopleʼ that has Paul at his most humanistic. Melody-wise, this ainʼt no ʽFor No Oneʼ and ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ mashed in one, of course: these are fairly simple, one-trick pop ballads with plenty of repetition and not a lot of invention in the arrangements, but Paul can be utterly convincing in minimalist mode as well.

Another absolute highlight in another style is ʽLetting Goʼ, a song that establishes and develops a mighty groove that actually kicks more ass than ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ — the first thirty seconds before the vocals come in are my single favourite musical moment on the record: the dirty blues inter­play between Dennyʼs and Jimmyʼs guitars, the deep rumble of Paulʼs bass, the way Jimmy deviates from the set course into a few bars of aggressive soloing before he is cut off by the vocals... if somebody ever needed proof that Wings could be a real tougher-than-nails rockʼnʼroll band when they really wanted to, no need to go further. Cherry on the tart: the pompous brass interlude in the middle, followed by a short and utterly brilliant in its rise-and-fall guitar solo from McCulloch.

And speaking of McCulloch, his own contribution to the album, the hard-rocking anti-drug prayer / anthem ʽMedicine Jarʼ, is one of the finest overproduced rock songs of the mid-1970s. Again, the song went out of circulation after the Wingsʼ world tour of 1975–76, and there is nothing particularly «Paulish» about it other than the smooth bass part, but with its sonic thunderstorm, another brilliant guitar solo, seriously touching vocals from Jimmy, and strong lyrical message (particularly strong, of course, in light of McCullochʼs subsequent demise from overdosing), it manages to give Venus And Mars a strong push in the right direction rather than drag it down with a perfunctory «non-Paul» performance. That moment when Jimmy breaks into the solo and launches it all the way into the stratosphere is the most acutely felt «help-me-now-Iʼm-falling» moment on the entire record (though the bridge on ʽLove In Songʼ comes close).

Unfortunately, all these great tunes are usually downplayed by the success of ʽListen To What The Man Saidʼ, another #1 single for Paul in the States — an immaculately crafted, instantly memorable fast pop song with great sax work from Tom Scott, but a bit too «clubby» for my tastes: I can easily see it sharing the bill with something like ABBAʼs ʽDancing Queenʼ, and while I am a big fan of both artists, I would prefer them doing their own schticks rather than encroaching on each otherʼs territory. This one definitely goes with chest hair — and this time, you donʼt even get a sense of irony or anything.

As you can tell by now, the album is one hell of a mixed bag. Greatness mixed with silliness, heart-wrenching moments alternating with pure schlock, and not a whiff of conceptuality in sight, despite the softly epic title track trying to tie together both sides of the record. "Venus and Mars are all right tonight" — a message that could mean just about anything; on the Wings tour, it was taken to mean «here, if the times demand it, I will be your own personal Ziggy Stardust for this one particular evening». At the time, Venus And Mars dutifully fulfilled its task — provided the band with enough original material to play on tour. Once the tour ended, the album was more or less retired, and, unlike Ram, its reputation never truly recovered, for reasons that are easy to understand. Still — it is consistently melodic, it is fun, it gives you Paulʼs own take on the big crunchy rockʼnʼroll sound of the mid-1970s (you may take it or leave it), it has a few really great songs, and it has special added charm for fans of Marvel Comics and Fred Astaire. Are we really going to hold its relative lack of depth against it?.. Well, even if we do, I will still take a shallow Paul McCartney circa 1975 over a deep [insert your favorite 21st century artist here] circa [insert any year from 2000 to 2018 hereexcept maybe 2004, because, you know, Funeral came out in 2004] any time of day. 


  1. Great review, George, though it seems you've soured on this one a bit? I still love it and even if it's not top-3 McCartney, it's pretty definitely top-7 with precisely the mixed-bagness of it being a big part of its charm: you really never know just where the hell the album is going to go next and that's not something you can say about a lot of artists. Venus and Mars has, incidentally, been displaced from its spot as Wings' second best album for me by the "new" reconstructed double-LP version of Red Rose Speedway, which is even more of a mad, melodic ride than Venus and Mars is. You don't even have to buy the actual LPs, which are pretty expensive, as you can find it as a playlist, drawn from the new reissue of the album, on streaming services. It's well worth a listen.

  2. Nice review, I recently picked this one up and play it often. Great companion to Band on the Run. A few Beatles fans I know are always so dismissive of Paul's work after 1970, but I think it's aged well. Do you listen to the Sirius Station on the Beatles? They do a good job of looking at the solo work of all the Beatles in a fresh perspective.

  3. Looks like V&M has deteriorated in your estimation. As always, you provide unique insight into the album, in this case that it's more "surface" than what came before. Still, I disagree regarding much of it.

    If Rock Show is sillier than Jet, it's still fantastically fun and musically substantive, and Paul throws in everything he's got. In this case, I certainly would argue silliness over intelligence.

    If Listen To What The Man Said is a bit slicker than what's come before, it's full of the empathy and humanism that you usually appreciate in McCartney, and it's just as much a pop masterpiece as anything he's done. And while nobody except for Steve Knowlton seems to stand up for Magneto, I find it rhythmically innovative and deliriously fun.

    Meanwhile, if You Gave Me The Answer is any less deep than Honey Pie, I can't hear it. I didn't know there was any less deep an artist could go.

    If anything, I'd say that the rockers in the middle, for as propulsive and fun as they are, are under-written. You rightly describe them as tour filler.

    So, we might end up in a similar place with Venus; but I'd say that the sincere feeling and musical substance are intact, while some of the songwriting is lacking (and on enough songs in a row so as to be noticeable).

  4. Actually, the one place that I do strongly agree with you on this album, George, is Call Me Back Again - a potentially great song that is ruined by starting off with his screechy vocals turned up to 11, leaving nowhere to go for a fairly tiring 5 minutes. Absolutely love just about everything else here but I'm surprised that Call Me Back is considered by so many to be one of the album's greatest highlights.

    Interesting comparison about ABBA and Listen to What the Man Said. I never thought of that before but, you're right, there is something definitely ABBA about it. Only difference is that makes me like it even more (it's pretty much perfect pop as you might expect from Paul doing ABBA). And I liked it a lot in the first place.

    And, yup, I freakin' love You Gave Me the Answer but I've always loved Paul's "granny music" and I'm with Ben, this is no shallower or less well written and performed than Honey Pie.

    1. The difference between "Honey Pie" and "You Gave Me The Answer" is that the former is an ironic send-up (hilarious), while the latter is a straightforward tribute (corny). This is quite evident from the lyrics and the vocal delivery.

    2. I'll complicate Honey Pie even more by calling it Paul sincerely indulging his love of granny music, music hall, tie 'n tails, lite lite lite lite, while hiding it all behind a veneer of irony. I can't prove it, of course.

    3. I don't know, while I totally see where you're coming from, I don't really see Honey Pie as all that ironic. It might be a bit of a send up or at least a goof off, sure, but Paul has always been too unabashed a fan of this sort of music for him to be ironic about it. You Gave Me the Answer is played slightly more straight than Honey Pie but not enough to make the experience of listening to them all that different. They're both, ultimately, not much more than goofy fun that contrast well with the other music on their respective albums (which are both very diverse but also both feature some of his most hard-rocking stuff too) but it's a style of music that really allows Paul to let loose with his melodic and vocal gifts. The one major exception, I find, is When I'm 64, which is the best of these songs because some of that goofiness is undercut by a real melancholy that pops up in some of the verses - in particular there is something haunting about the way he sings "you'll be older too" that really gets me. There's a reason why I unironically consider it to be one of the best tracks on Sgt Pepper.

    4. I like your take on this - why Paul came back several times to that style of music, and what makes When I'm 64 different from the rest. It's solid, deep analysis that fits the setting.

  5. A massive disappointment in the wake of BOTR. And let’s not forget the excellent single Junior’s Farm, which was actually the first outing of the expanded Wings. I didn’t like it at age 17 when it came out; I like it even less now. Love In Song and Medicine Jar have been the enduring highlights; the fact that the latter isn’t even by McCartney says a lot.

    I’ve always found Letting Go incredibly dull, and completely fail to recognise anything resembling a mighty groove.

    For all its patchiness, the following album has a warmth that’s all but totally absent on this one.