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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Paul McCartney: Wings At The Speed Of Sound

PAUL McCARTNEY: WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND (1976)

1) Let ʼEm In; 2) The Note You Never Wrote; 3) Sheʼs My Baby; 4) Beware My Love; 5) Wino Junko; 6) Silly Love Songs; 7) Cook Of The House; 8) Time To Hide; 9) Must Do Something About It; 10) San Ferry Anne; 11) Warm And Beautiful.

General verdict: A safe, sound, and smooth pop album with plenty of hidden depth to it once you let go of the "THIS was released in the year of punk rock?" attitude.

In retrospect, the most irresponsible thing about this album seems to have been its title. There is little doubt that it was reasonably inspired by having been recorded in the middle of Wingsʼ biggest international tour ever, with all the glitzy hustle-bustle and all the glamorous jet flights befitting a rock star in the age of Led Zeppelin. But 1976 was also the year of The Ramones — the real band playing «at the speed of sound» — and whatever Paul was doing back then, he should have refrained from provoking critical ire by inadvertently giving people one more pretext to compare his tired, old, conventional brand of safe pop with the exciting new sounds coming from a new generation of fresh young punks, all set and ready to kill their idols.

The strangest thing about this album, then, is that, despite coming right off the heels of Wingsʼ single most rock-oriented record and Wingsʼ single most arena-oriented rock tour, Wings At The Speed Of Sound has a very quiet, almost homely vibe to it — as if they were intentionally (or subconsciously) offering us a musical antidote to the brash loudness of its predecessor. With the exception of ʽBeware My Loveʼ, there is not a single song here that would rock as hard as ʽRock Showʼ, ʽMedicine Jarʼ, or ʽLetting Goʼ. Youʼd think that for a record that is known for being the most democratically structured Wings record ever, with all members of the band contributing to songwriting and lead singing, it could have been just a wee bit raunchier than this, but no way: even Jimmy McCulloch with his obligatory anti-drug statement is content to provide a quiet pop song rather than a loud rock anthem.

All of these circumstances have tarnished McCartneyʼs reputation circa 1976 to such an extent that even today, unlike Ram and Venus And Mars, this particular record has not properly recovered its status in the public eye. But in reality, it is not that difficult to get partial to its subtle charms. Words of the day are «simplicity» and «minimalism»: almost every song here that is credited to Paul tends to be based on something very plain and skeletal, either musically or lyrically or both, and so runs the risk of being either hailed for laconic genius or ridiculed for being so unworthy of a former Beatle. There is even an element of defiance here, best expressed in the lyrics of ʽSilly Love Songsʼ ("whatʼs wrong with that?"), but actually manifesting itself all over the place, from the barebones chromatic progression of the opening ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ to the elementary level music exercise of the closing ʽWarm And Beautifulʼ. Despise it, or embrace it? Both strategies are understandable; I will go ahead with the latter, though — even if I do have some reservations about some of the tracks.

For starters, I have never had any problems about embracing the two big hit pop openers on both sides of the album. ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ is a little kitschy, with Paul having all the guys pretty much impersonate a Sesame Street marching band; but it has been a pretty long time since he last wrote an «all-inclusive» pop anthem that could make his fans feel like part of his big family, and there is no need to resist the party spirit in this particular instance, especially when it is crafted with such reserve and humility — the song invites everybody to join in the fun, but from a very personal, almost reclusive standpoint. Besides, it is not that simple: its cumulative effect comes from the juxtaposition of the piano, woodwind, and brass melodies, each of which is simple on its own, but together they weave and twist into a series of interconnected lifelines, one of which might belong to sister Suzie and the next one to brother John, for all we know.

Likewise, ʽSilly Love Songsʼ also has a fairly complex layering of vocal harmonies — at its peak, the song reaches a level of vocal polyphony that is almost reminiscent of Talking Headsʼ later work (albeit in a completely different style) on Remain In Light, and that is not even mentioning Paulʼs stupendous bass line, arguably his most memorable and melodic bass part in the entire history of Wings. The cutely cheery disposition of the song, its title and its lyrical message are too much for a lot of people to bear, but it is beyond me to understand how one could reject the tightness of the bandʼs groove here — the perfect integration of the brass section, the almost mathematically precise handling of the overlapping harmonies, the way that bassline always keeps drawing attention to itself, no matter how much other stuff gets piled on top of it. For some reason, ʽSilly Love Songsʼ has never appeared on any of Paulʼs touring setlists after the 1976 tour, and I have never managed to understand if this was because of the critical backlash against the lyrics, or (more probably) because it required a high level of precise live bass playing that Paul was no longer able to maintain after returning to live performing in 1989 — but, in any case, you have not truly lived until you have seen the man rocking that bass in the videos from 1976.

For that matter, the third biggest song on the album (only briefly released as an A-side, before it got swapped with ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ), ʽBeware My Loveʼ, also had the misfortune of forever disap­pearing from Paulʼs setlist after 1976 — this time, doubtlessly because of the insane level of vocal pressure that it would require. This one has always been a personal favorite of mine, even if for the wrong reason: with the conspicuous lack of a comma after ʽBewareʼ and without having direct access to the lyrics, I always took it to be a threatening song — Paul impersonating some kind of dangerous romantic madman, acknowledging his passion as a destructive force that can bring his loved one happiness or ruin at any given moment. The truth is much more boring — in reality, it is ʽbeware, my loveʼ, just a farewell admonishment for the girl who is in the process of dumping the protagonist — but I still refuse to acknowledge the comma. Try it this way, and what you get is the finest «mad scene» in Paulʼs entire repertoire: psychologically disturbing, downright scary in places, totally thunderstormy when the screaming vocals, the ghost-like woo-woo vocal harmonies, and the aggressive wah-wah lead guitar all fall into place. Melodically, this is still «pop» rather than proper «hard rock», but nevertheless, this song rocks harder than anything else in Wings history, with the possible exception of ʽ1985ʼ — it is the «out-of-control madness» element that brings them close to each other and separates them from the rest.

(Side­note: an early demo version of the song with John Bonham himself on drums, now available on the expanded reissue of the album, is often claimed to be a superior take, but do not believe the hype: Bonhamʼs drumming style is not particularly fit for this pop song, and the lack of fire-breathing wah-wah guitar is extremely detrimental to the overall effect as well. I mean, heck, not everything is necessarily better with some Led Zeppelin in it).

With the big three out of the way, we are left on shakier ground: nobody really truly remembers much of anything about the other songs — because they are either not Paulʼs (five in total), or because the other songs by Paul are way too short or too flimsy (three in total). This is not really very just: simply because something was written by Denny Laine on a Wings album does not automatically make it inferior to everything else because, you know, even living gods have to use the bathroom from time to time, and even mediocre songwriters can occasionally become inspired in the presence of living gods. High prize, however, goes not to Denny, but once again to Jimmy McCulloch, whose other anti-drug song, ʽWino Junkoʼ, rocks nowhere near as hard as ʽMedicine Jarʼ, but might even be more sympathetic — this time, largely because of Jimmyʼs gorgeously melancholic vocal part, so classy in its humble, but determined, weariness. The effect of «going down» is perfectly conveyed by the contrast between the lively and bouncy verse / chorus sequences and the slowed-down, psychedelic bridges — head under water in the bridge, head out of water as you go back to the verse; it is very easy to miss all this evocativeness on the first few listens, but stay with the song a little longer and it will probably click.

Dennyʼs contributions, in comparison, are more lightweight, but still faithfully convey the manʼs generally grim and pessimistic approach to life which would arguably peak with ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ on the next record; here, ʽThe Note You Never Wroteʼ is good at cooking up a stranded, lonesome, Robinson Crusoesque atmosphere, and ʽTime To Hideʼ should probably have been used for the opening (or closing) credits on any documentary on the life of Denny Laine — "I've been on the run / Since the Good Lord knows when / And the day I die / Iʼll still be running then" is a pretty good description for the man whom fortune has condemned to the role of a permanent second fiddle / sidekick for all his life. Pretty catchy, too. Which leaves us with drummer Joe English (ʽMust Do Something About Itʼ — nice, relaxed, and also about loneliness; yes, kids, rockʼnʼroll lifestyle and private jets tend to do this to you) and... oh yes, Linda.

Now I must admit here that while, «objectively», I could agree that ʽCook Of The Houseʼ may be the worst thing Wings ever did, it is also «objectively» and transparently just a short musical joke, unfortunately, one that is too often taken symbolically to illustrate the assumed hideousness of this record in general. A bit of old timey vaudeville, perhaps not unintentionally made to sound similar to The Bonzo Dog Bandʼs ʽDeath Cab For Cutieʼ from Magical Mystery Tour, with Lindaʼs lead vocals heavily disguised by reverb and echo, it parodies the «kitchen woman» stereotype and even somehow contributes to the overall homeliness of the record. Clumsy and awkward as it is, it was never intended not to be clumsy and awkward, and somehow it even gets across a tiny fleck of Lindaʼs personal charisma — she never really wanted to be a musician, but she was happy enough to work as Paulʼs personal muse, and her presence on the album, as horrendous as it might seem from a purely musicological standpoint, does not feel alien.

That said, this time around her presence did not particularly inspire Paulʼs genius: his two songs that could be construed as addressed directly to Linda are quite questionable. ʽSheʼs My Babyʼ is bouncy and catchy, but features a very strange distorting effect on his voice (not sure if he just adopted a special tone or tinkered with the tapes, but it all sounds very unnatural) — and the line "like gravy, down to the last drop, I keep mopping her up" might be the cringiest case of double entendre in the entire history of Paul / Linda relations (is he talking about oral sex? is he taking lessons from Bessie Smith? whatever...). As for the already mentioned ʽWarm And Beautifulʼ that concludes the album, its clichéd lyrics and «trivial» piano chord sequence can easily split listeners — Elvis Costello really liked the song, for instance — but I am not sure that Paul is really at his best when he is writing material that seems oriented at almost kindergarten level music training. At the very least, ʽLong Haired Ladyʼ it is not. Though, I do agree, it forms a pretty symmetrical conclusion to ʽLet ʼEm Inʼ, fully agreeing with the overall quiet and homely tone of the album.

As you can see, whether or not At The Speed Of Sound is truly such a letdown as was originally proclaimed by critics and is still maintained by a lot of listeners, one can still write quite a lot about it. One thing is for sure: no matter how smooth and safe Wings were becoming, at this point they still had a spirit of adventurousness to their music — adventurousness that did not come from observing fashions and catching up with the times (it is clear from the music that Paul was no frequent guest at CBGB), but from mining the backs of their own brains and following their own muses. In 1976, this was considered a tad criminal; today, it really does not matter, so we might as well appreciate Wings At The Speed Of Sound for exactly what it is, rather than not appreciate it for something that it was never intended to be.

7 comments:

  1. "..... tarnished McCartneyʼs reputation circa 1976 ....."
    That's not how I remember it (and I'm from 1963). McCartney (and hence his band) were seen by us teens as a respectable, albeit somewhat Middle of the Road artist. Not even Mull of Kintyre (5 weeks nr. 1 on the Dutch lists) shattered this. There was the silly discussion of who was the most important Beatle (not Starr or Harrison), but that was more something of the older generation.
    Of course in The Netherlands the only hit The Ramones scored was Rock'n'roll High School. By then punk was already past its peak.

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    1. MNb: I'm a few years younger, but I'm old enough to understand your point. However, here in the States, I remember my early & pre-teens peers were more or less annoyed by McCartney's two big hits. My friends and I -- 2nd generation Beatles fans -- would fall over each other to change the station when the ASS hits came on. This certainly wasn't because of punk's arrival, at least not directly. We were young slaves to radio and TV broadcasts; we had no significant exposure to punk music whatsoever -- that was all subterranean stuff we'd have to discover later.

      In hindsight, McCartney's slide in our esteem had more to do with the fact that Bowie and Alice Cooper were getting wider (belated) airplay at the time and were infecting our tastes with what seemed like a newer, freakier type of audio-visual artistry. When you've spent serious time with Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits and Welcome to My Nightmare, it's hard to suddenly appreciate the bland craftsmanship of Silly Love Songs. As for Let 'Em In, I still think that song is total shit. The hits from ASS actually kept us away from it.

      I've since dutifully given the album a few listens but still can't deal. Reverse nostalgia, I guess.

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    2. I'll agree this is far from McCartney's best album but I'll still proudly say I think Silly Love Songs is better than anything Bowie or Alice Cooper ever made (now if you had said Eno that would be a different story). no one would argue that Silly Love songs was anything close to hip or cool then or now, but that makes it seem all the more sincere and endearing to me and from a purely melodic perspective it's wonderful

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    3. I was born in 63 also so for the actual take from an actual young Californian teen of the time. We had harder California pop acts... Eagles had put out Hotel California and Fleetwood Mac had just shoved everyone but the Eagles out of the way with Rumors. The rockers were AC/DC Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and the "stoner kids" were listening to The Tubes singing White Punks On Dope and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers singing Breakdown or American Girl. BUT The real reason no one (the older more adult fans that is) liked this album because anyone who wanted the superior Wings experience from this year bought Wings Over America and had the best live album they would ever put out. It was just a bad idea to put out a better live album with more hits the same year is all.

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  2. Well, after being a wee bit tougher on Venus and Mars, you've clearly softened on this one quite a bit - but then, so have I. Very few of the songs are genuinely great (only Let Em In and Silly Love Songs, in particular, but I do consider Silly Love Songs one of the best things he's ever done), there's a lot here from the other members of the band to varying degrees of success (though mostly good, actually) and She's My Baby and Warm and Beautiful do suffer greatly from absurdly inane lyrics even by Paul's standards, in the case of the former, and a surprisingly clumsy melody and vocal performance, in the case of the latter. And yet, as you say, the whole thing is so homely and inviting that it's hard not to be won over by the album, once your expectations are realigned.

    As for the bonus tracks on the Archive Collection, this is a gigantic step down from Venus and Mars, which had the best selection of odds and ends outside of Red Rose Speedway - including the songs that were bonus tracks on the McCartney Collection version of the album. The new remaster does sound incredible, though.

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  3. After all John and Paul were not so different. I mean, we could not expect something like "Sometime in New York City" from Paul, obviously. But, by doing this kind of Record, in some way, Paul was saying: "I am Paul and I do what I want". "Yes, Silly Love Songs, and what!?". That attitude, in both geniouses, was not a good one in order to get their best musical legacy. Fortunately, they have given us so much more!.

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  4. George,one correction, the note you never wrote and must do something about it were written by Paul. He didn't sing them, but he wrote them.

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