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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Paul McCartney: Wings Over America

PAUL McCARTNEY: WINGS OVER AMERICA (1976)

1) Venus And Mars / Rock Show / Jet; 2) Let Me Roll It; 3) Spirits Of Ancient Egypt; 4) Medicine Jar; 5) Maybe Iʼm Amazed; 6) Call Me Back Again; 7) Lady Madonna; 8) The Long And Winding Road; 9) Live And Let Die; 10) Picassoʼs Last Words (Drink To Me); 11) Richard Cory; 12) Bluebird; 13) Iʼve Just Seen A Face; 14) Blackbird; 15) Yesterday; 16) You Gave Me The Answer; 17) Magneto And Titanium Man; 18) Go Now; 19) My Love; 20) Listen To What The Man Said; 21) Let ʼEm In; 22) Time To Hide; 23) Silly Love Songs; 24) Beware My Love; 25) Letting Go; 26) Band On The Run; 27) Hi, Hi, Hi; 28) Soily.


General verdict: Paulʼs triple-live contribution to The Age Of Excess — loud, chaotic, clumsy, and technically expendable, but alive and fun rather than mechanically nostalgic.

The Wings Over The World tour of 1975–76 was not merely the public zenith of Wings as a band: somewhat arguably, it marked the very last moment in history when any one of the Beatles was still capable of «moving mountains», figuratively speaking. McCartney was making headlines, selling like hotcakes, attracting gigantic masses of live audiences, and basking in the warmth of rockstar extravagance. Sure enough, for the upcoming generation, soon to be feasting on the fresh flesh of punk and New Wave, Paul was approaching the status of living fossil — but not any more than, say, Led Zeppelin, who were still very much at the peak of their game.

The thing is, Paul was really digging the Seventies. He would never succeed in properly catching up, Bowie-style, with the new musical trends of the Eighties, and starting with Flowers In The Dirt, he would completely jump out of the time window. But the hard-rock, the glam-rock, the prog-rock period of 1970–75 — this, instinctively, was still his time, and Wings Over America is the perfect historical document to prove that. The band that was assembled for that tour may not have exactly been the tightest, most disciplined, or even most professional team to back him up on stage; but each and every member of Wings in 1976 — even Linda! — was a personality, rather than a willing and obeying servant of the one and only Sir Paul, and all these personalities were enjoying the dope-thick air of the mid-Seventies in a freedom-loving, reckless way that, some might say, could only have existed around 1976. (Cue Weenʼs ʽFreedom Of ʼ76ʼ here).

That was a hyperbole, but so is this entire album: a triple LP set — if ELP and Yes can do this, then why not an ex-Beatle? — focused on ensuring Wingsʼ dominance over the contemporary world of rock (or, at least, pop-rock) music, and ensure it did: to the best of my knowledge, this is the only triple live album to have ever topped the US charts. Once again, one last time, Paul McCartney was on top of the world, showing himself to the world exactly the way the world wanted to see him — rocking out, glitzy, long-haired, and playing tons of catchy anthems. And most importantly, while he did make a few nods to his past with the Beatles, for about 80% of the time he was busy presenting his new stuff, and the fans did not seem to mind. Never again would a McCartney live set feature less than at least 50% Beatle classics — and never again would the man ever agree to share the spotlight with any of his supporting band members.

This is not to say that Wings Over America is a great live album. For all his lively nature, Paul McCartney lives and breathes studio polish, and everything that he takes with him on stage inevitably suffers from the lack of that polish. The lack of atmospheric overdubs, the difficulties of singing and playing at the same time, the inability or unwillingness to reinterpret or expand the studio material — all of these problems, so typical of pop artists in general, are especially biting in the case of Paul McCartney, where you instinctively want everything to be perfect, get sorely disappointed when not everything is, then understand that there would be no need for a live album if everything were perfect, then try to find a way to embrace the imperfections... then you find out you cannot really do it, and never return to the album again.

Granted, as long as Paul has those Wings around him, the situation is not that dire. The biggest hero in this mess is Jimmy McCulloch, who has enough raw talent to make almost each single song on which he is active slightly different from the original, with subtly improvised moments that make the songs come alive. Listen to his solo on ʽMy Loveʼ, for instance, which he has faithfully learned from Henry McCullough, his predecessor, but subtly converted from a soft-rock to a hard-rock paradigm; or to his screechy flourishes on ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ, which make the song a little less repetitive and monotonous than it was on Band On The Run. His instrumental and vocal performance on ʽMedicine Jarʼ turn it into a serious highlight of the show, with Paul willingly reduced to the role of his trusty bass henchman for a bit.

Next to the young passion of Jimmy, Denny Laineʼs more mature professionalism is not as easily noticeable, but he, too, gets a couple interesting spotlights, including a heart-on-sleeve acoustic rendition of Paul Simonʼs ʽRichard Coryʼ ("oh I wish that I could be... JOHN DENVER!") — I am only sad that he had not yet written his own masterpiece in this fast acoustic folk subgenre, ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ, which would have been an even more appropriate inclusion. And, some­what predictably, he gets to pour the contents of his broken heart out on ʽGo Nowʼ, probably the only song associated with his person in the pre-Wings days that anybody in the audience had a chance to remember — with Jimmy lending a helping hand, as the old torch waltz is transformed into a strong arena-rock anthem.

Speaking of the setlist in general, the album has an interesting structure and features some unique performances that favorably set it apart from the string of sonically superior, but interchangeable live records from McCartneyʼs later years. The first side of the first LP is fully contemporary: nothing but songs from Band On The Run and Venus And Mars, with Wings in full-scale rock mode — Paul pulls no punches when he blasts off with ʽRock Showʼ and then directly segues it into ʽJetʼ. After the first adrenaline-raising segment is over, he switches to piano and tests out a couple of Beatles classics (ʽLady Madonnaʼ, ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ). After this, the band gathers round a friendly campfire to have some acoustic fun, and eventually Beatle stuff resurfaces once again — but this is just Paul solo (with a little help from the horns), playing solitary renditions of ʽBlackbirdʼ and ʽYesterdayʼ to a thrilled audience that would probably be offended if it had to leave without hearing a single Beatles song.

Once ʽYesterdayʼ is over and the people have been placated, it is back to contemporary business: as we get to the third LP, the band begins to play selections from its most recent album, Wings At The Speed Of Sound, and you get unique takes on ʽSilly Love Songsʼ and ʽBeware My Loveʼ, songs that, to the best of my knowledge, McCartney has never played live since then — my guess being that the former taxes his bass playing skills to the max, and the latter does the same to his vocals. That live version of ʽSilly Love Songsʼ is well worth your money, though, because the bass might be even louder and tighter than in the studio — and, for that matter, Paul himself plays a lot of bass on this tour, unlike the later years when he would frequently switch over to rhythm guitar and generally present himself as The Great Ex-Beatle rather than a fabulous musician. Here, he hugs that Rickenbacker like there was no tomorrow (you can actually see all the hugging on the Rockshow video from the tour), and it becomes particularly evident that on all these Wings albums he was still treating the bass as a highly important melodic instrument rather than a support strut, which would be more typical of later albums.

It is also telling how the show ends — not with a predictable good-vibe audience hug with ʽLet It Beʼ and ʽHey Judeʼ, but with two heavy and slightly provocative power-pop-rockers: ʽHi Hi Hiʼ and ʽSoilyʼ, the latter surprisingly funky for Wings (a bit reminiscent of the Stonesʼ ʽHeart­breakerʼ from Goats Head Soup) and never issued in a studio version, perhaps for the better, since the song (similarly to the earlier ʽMessʼ) is essentially an excuse for some dark and sweaty band jamming. It might not be a great composition, but once again, it shows just how much effort Paul was putting in at the time to avoid his shows being perceived as nostalgic events.

Personally, I find myself watching the accompanying video (Rockshow, recently remastered and officially re-released by Eagle Rock) more often than I listen to the album — the glammy vibe of the mid-Seventies, with all the glitter flying around, is ridiculously fun, and even if Paul now admits himself that Wings were a "terrible band" when it came to hanging out on stage, the important thing is that they had some great stuff to play, and they had a lot of fun playing it. It is hardly surprising that the pop rocker Paul McCartney, the folk / art-rocker Denny Laine, the hard-rocker Jimmy McCulloch, and the photographer-cum-keyboardist Linda McCartney could never gel together on the level of The Who or Led Zeppelin — but the very weirdness of this combina­tion of a bunch of talented people brought together by fate adds a special flavor to this historical document, one that you will never taste again. 

22 comments:

  1. The sgt Peppers tenagers were around 27 years old in 1976. Still young, but nostalgic and with money in their pockets to follow and acquire every new record from the legend. No matter Paul, temporary, call himself Wings. Even the Beach Boys with all their problems were selling quite well at the mid 70s driving the same nostalgia machine.

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  2. "Led Zeppelin, who were still very much at the peak of their game."
    Highly debatable. Commercially yes, but 1976 was also the year of Presence. It were Rainbow and Rory Gallagher (in Europe) who were hot, while Boston was seen as a sensation. Judas Priest and Rush were on their way.
    The big four (LZ, BS, DP and UH) already belonged to the past. That doesn't mean they were rejected, but nobody expected something new from them. In fact Wings were still considered a respectable outfit; rather poppy, a bit cheesy - somewhat like The Stones in that same time. Johnny Rotten may have hated Pink Floyd and ELP, but I can't remember any punk saying anything bad about Sir Paul, Sir Mick and Sir Keith.

    "the case of Paul McCartney, where you instinctively want everything to be perfect."
    Perhaps this is it. The Beatles were perfect, but Wings were seen as a lesser outfit. Plenty of unjustified rumours of a Beatles reunion.
    Of course this is a Dutch perspective. I just checked: no Wings album charted in The Netherlands. In my native country Wings were a singles band. Apparently in the USA things were different.

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    1. ummm by UH you aren't referring to Uriah Heep are you? its making a bold statement to include the heepsters in with those others.
      the reason punk hated ELP and PF for example was because those bands wouldn't talk to the music press anymore over their stupid questions and so young bands looking to make a splash would rip established bands and the press encouraged that.

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    2. "a bold statement"
      Allow me to quote GS himself on his old site: "with the release of this record Uriah Heep can safely proclaim themselves to be pioneers of the metal movement."
      Apparently we have a typical case of personal preferences interfering with sober evaluation of hard facts.

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    3. Did you just call an old Starostin review "hard facts"?

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  3. 1974 to 1976 was a bit of a weird time musically; I think it’s an era that can truly be called “transitional”. Prog was well on the slide, the hard rock bands that had been critically acclaimed a year or two back (Zep, Purple, Sabbath) were clearly past their best and their successors (Rainbow, Judas Priest etc.) were regarded as pretty naff, other than by their own hardcore fans. Punk was still pub rock. Clever pop was where it was at, at least in the UK (10cc, Sparks, Bowie to an extent), and Wings were lucky to have peaked at just the right time; they were made for that era.

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    1. "were regarded as pretty naff"
      By the critics, yes, who were all too happy to declare hardrock/heavy metal dead. Many of those critics never liked the genre in the first place.

      "Clever pop was where it was at, at least in the UK."
      There was yet another outfit, disliked by the critics even more - the commercially most successfull act of the 1970's just after ABBA in Europe and the UK. Status Quo wasn't exactly clever pop.
      This only confirms your conclusion that the pre-punk years were transitional and weird.

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  4. 1976 and ABBA had Arrival and it WAS HUGE in america... all you heard about this year was Fleetwood Mac who were on tour and they were getting ready to pump out Rumors. So I'm with Enrique that this album and it's tour were flat out nostalgia laden exercises for the older crowds looking for a little echo of better days and the hard nasty dirty dirty truth was John and George would ALWAYS HAVE MORE clout and draw and at best most folks had the first two, McCartney and maaaaybe Ram and then this triple album right here representing all the Wings albums anyone would ever want or need to own. The truth is depressing to folks who keep trying mis-remember the failings of Paul but he did sell himself short and even George kept it together music wise and found success far more often than Paul ever would.

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  5. Once again, I have to stress that people who wave away this part of Paul's career as "nostalgia" are simply making themselves believe what they want to believe while ignoring the obvious facts. "Nostalgia" cannot explain (a) the HUGE amount of fairly young people who went to the shows - this is pretty obvious just by watching the audiences in the Rockshow movie and (b) the fact that only a very small part of the material played onstage was from the Beatle years. If you want "nostalgia", fast forward to 1989. Wings in 1976 were every bit as "hot" as ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, or Led Zeppelin, and it is a well-documented fact rather than a personal opinion.

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    1. Absolutely! I would add both ABBA and Fleetwood Mac to my list of members of the clever pop scene of the time, of which Wings was very much part. Showaddywaddy and the Rubettes were nostalgia; not Wings.

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    2. George I lived during this era and was an avid KOME "San Jose" listener. I don't have to interpret anything. Wings had no where near the street cred or radio play of Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles at this point in fact. Most of the respected press were being nice to Paul and what he represented at best. Wings were laughed at for Linda and her flat singing which was highly noticeable in a live show and was as much a huge detriment as Yoko was for her impromptu wailing. You can ignore all those warts all you want but the rock press and radio djs never did and they were vicious and I know with very little digging you can read those same things it's not some huge secret.

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    3. I believe we are still in the clutches of a misunderstanding. I am not talking about whether Wings were better than any of those other bands or not (well, they were certainly better than The Eagles, but that's absolutely not the point), or whether they had more airplay (possibly not, but then 'Silly Love Songs' was the number one song on Billboard's Year-End Hot 100 chart), or whether they were critically loved (most likely not, but neither were most of the prog or heavy metal acts). The only thing I am saying is that Wings were working in the overall paradigm of the time, and that many people went to their shows not driven by a "okay, let's go catch this ex-Beatle's show before he kicks the bucket" impulse, but rather out of the same impulses with which they went to ABBA or Eagles shows. Was McCartney booed at concerts for playing so little of the Beatles stuff and so much of that Wings crap? Certainly doesn't seem that way from reading contemporary reviews of his shows or watching the old footage.

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    4. George of course no one "booed" McCartney just as no one would dare "boo" Lennon. EVen in 1976 these two were respected... period end of sentence. BUT you need to understand the context was for what they had already done and not for what they were doing so much. Yoko, much like Linda, much like George getting sued, much like Ringo's drug habit was politely ignored... like most of the Wings albums. I don't mind your re-examining and exploring these things I just get distracted by the fact you sometimes don't have the context BUT you have love for Sparks, like I have love for Sparks, even if they were repeatedly ripped off and never got the popular acclaim they so rightly deserved and the music world just sucks like that.

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  6. Dear George, again, thank you so much for your incredible job. That is why we are all followers since many years ago. This is your site and you are a great writer and reviewer. It is difficult to discuss with you. And even I am not a native English speaker. Just a Spanish native speaker from the River Plate. Anyway, I will try an answer. During the 60s and 70s the music scenario was permanently changing at light speed. What Paul was doing with Wings was more or less the same he did before. But without John and The Beatles. In those days 7 years after was like 20 years now. The 25 to 30 years old community was buying records like hell. They have the money, they were filling stadiums and they were moved by nostalgia. It is not a bad word. In my view Paul was a machine of delivering good records plus a million seller plus... Nostalgia. The teenagers were following other trends like glam, prog, hard tock, euro pop. At least in your continent Europe. Maybe in America the story was a bit different. For sure it was different in South America. Selling millions doesn't mean you are still relevant.

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    1. Dear Enrique,

      I respect your opinion, but it is still clearly colored by your personal dislike of Paul's solo career (to which you are perfectly entitled). I categorically disagree that Paul was doing "more or less the same he did before", because the sound of Wings in the mid-1970s is perfectly aligned with contemporary trends and is in no way a nostalgic repetition of whatever Paul was doing in the 1960s (which would be fairly difficult in the first place, seeing as how he did so many different things). There are elements of glam, prog, and hard rock on all these albums that could not have been there in 1968 or 1969. I am not making the point that he was a trend setter - more like a trend follower - but he did evolve the music along the same general lines as it was evolving in mainstream rock in the pre-punk era. Calling the Wings' Rockshow a "nostalgic" spectacle makes no more sense than calling a Lou Reed show from the same time a spectacle of "Velvet Underground nostalgia". The exact same people went to Paul McCartney concerts as were going to ABBA and Fleetwood Mac concerts. Some were baby boomers and many were much younger than that.

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  7. Well, I can only speak fron my german small town background as a 15 year old in 1976. I remember Deep Purple being still huge then, along with lots of other bands from Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd. My brother owned Wings over America, that was because he loved the Beatles so much. But I do not remember anybody, not even my brother, who seriously liked the Wings. They were always this Beatle's new band. That may have changed later with Mull of Kintyre, but in 1976, from my point of view, the Wings were pure nostalgia, in a sense that no one would have bought their records if it weren't for Paul. That being said, Letting Go is a great song...

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  8. I think that Wings were quite popular indeed in the 1970s and as a kid, I remember seeing people buying it at record shops. OK, the Beatles Nostalgia played a very important role indeed, but it was a combination.

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  9. I suppose I can't convince you to forego all the music I haven't heard of in favor of speeding through the solo Beatles canon, all the way to Egypt Station and Ringo 2019 or whatever. Oh well. Review what you like. I will breathlessly await Bad Boy.

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    1. But I AM speeding through the solo Beatles canon! I've even dumped the solo Pink Floyd canon in its favor!

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    2. Just dump all these second-rate solo projects and review The Fall already.

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  10. I can't help but think that all these debates about how Wings was viewed in the 70s are obscured by the fact that the tastes of music critics and hardcore music fans don't represent the mainstream. For critics and adventurous listeners punk and glam were cutting edge, but for the masses in America only Bowie and the Ramones had real cultural penetration. Far more "ordinary listeners" would identify Wings, Abba, and Fleetwood Mac as representing the "sound of the 70s" rather than prog or punk.

    To turn to a modern example, Arcade Fire and Animal Collective were arguably the most "important" bands of the 2000-09 period in terms of critical adoration and bloggers. Yet, as someone in college in the US during the later part of that period, the average 20-something student probably couldn't name a single song by either, largely because the average person doesn't spend time checking out music blogs, going to festivals, or reading music critics.

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  11. One of my favourite live albums ever. Not the tightest or most radical (Live at Leeds is pretty much both) but Macca is my favourite musical artist ever and Wings Over America is, if nothing else, one of his most purely enjoyable albums ever. It's true that Paul is made for the studio but it's still a real treat to hear these songs in this form; rawer and rockier than most of their studio counterparts. There are almost no songs here that are better than the studio versions but Silly Love Songs becomes a killer funk track in this form, as opposed to the pure pop of the original, and the version of Maybe I'm Amazed on WOA is the definitive one, surely? Also, if you find My Love too polished in its original form, this rawer and looser version may well change your mind about the song.

    As for Wings' relevance at this time, this was a while before I was born so I can hardly say for sure but I'm confused how anyone could deny the sheer popularity of the "band" in the mid-seventies. And, honetsly, it makes sense. Punk hadn't quite arrived, most of the classic rockers were in a relative lull and immaculately produced pop/ rock was all the rage at the time. It's true, Paul wasn't an innovator anymore but he was fully in-step with the times in a way that he really wouldn't be again, no matter how much he sometimes tried/ tries.

    Even without the Beatles, it's not a stretch to say that this period alone would be enough to make Paul a very significant figure in the history of post-War popular music. And this album is the quintessential document in support of that.

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