Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Listening to Macca #4: Wings at the Speed of Sound, London Town, and Back to the Egg

This month was spent wrapping up McCartney's final experience leading a regular, formal band. To be honest, most shed no tears over this. By the time Wings was officially dead--and for simplicity sake, I'm just going to declare that when Macca was busted for marijuana possession and jailed for 10 days the day the band arrived in Japan for their tour there in early 1980, resulting in the tour's cancellation, was the day that everyone in the band just kind of gave up (though McCartney himself had been privately recording a solo album for months prior)--it was broadly accepted, including by Macca himself, that the band had been something of a failure. But I admit that the unimpressive end which Wings came to, having listened to these three albums again and again this month, kind of saddens me. Wings was hampered with bad luck from the beginning, to be sure, but they produced some tremendous pop music on occasion, and it's not impossible to imagine a different, and much more rewarding, future for the band, if you listen close.

After seeming to waste his immediate post-Beatles years just farting around in the studio, the years 1973-1976 were--or least could have been considered, in retrospect, if some things had turned out differently--a time of assembling a genuine musical team and pulling said team together. There could have been a story of Wings which "really" began with the second line-up of the band, with the Paul-Linda-Denny Laine trio having figured out how to work together--and together producing Macca's best album of the 1970s, Band on the Run--and then with the addition of Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English coming together to provide an entirely respectable, and often very good, follow-up with Venus and Mars. In comparison to those two albums, Wings at the Speed of Sound is often considered a little weak--but I think I dissent from that. If history had unfolded differently, it might have been looked back on as a "sophomore slump" for the new line-up, nothing worse that that. I mean, give it a fair shake. There's plenty of Paul's annoyingly half-done ditties included on the album--"Let 'Em In," "She's My Baby," and of course, "Silly Love Songs"--but "Beware My Love" is a legitimate (if not first-class) rock and roll scorcher, "Must Do Something About It" (with Joe English taking lead vocals) is a surprisingly smart little pop number, and "Warm and Beautiful" is a solid ballad. McCulloch's "Wino Junko" is a great, dreamy 70s rocker, and Laine's "Time to Hide" is pretty fabulous as well. Really, the only song that is out-and-out embarrassing is "Cook of the House," and that's forgivable. (Paul has to give Linda something to do, right?) So even if Venus and Mars is the better album overall, I'd give Speed of Sound the same grade nonetheless--a solid B. Seriously, this is good, if not great, 70s-style pop-rock. If Wings had been able to hold things together and continue working like they did on 1976's Wings over America (which is a terrific concert album), no one, I think, would look back and say that Speed of Sound was a band just treading water before sinking. On the contrary, it shows a real band determined to make good music, and that could have been Macca's future.

It wasn't to be, though. Instead, English decided he missed his home in America and left the band, and McCulloch died of a drug overdose (which, apparently, was sad but kind of expected by those who knew him). As of 1977, Wings was down to a trio again--and this time, whatever combination of luck, sweat, inspiration, and talent enabled those three to make Band on the Run completely left them. London Town isn't horrible, but it's definitely a middling-to-poor album, a C- production at best. I truly adore the moody, quietly intense hopefulness that Paul's electric piano puts into "With a Little Luck"; it's one of my favorite songs of all the 1970s. But other than that, little stands out. "Girlfriend" is a somewhat memorable ballad, "I'm Carrying" has a sweet melody, "Backwards Traveler" sounds like a good Badfinger tune, "Cuff Link" has some cool but entirely undeveloped proto-New Wave synth work, and if you want to add "Mull of Kintyre" to this album (it was actually recorded and released separately), that's a charming song that can tip the ledger in a positive direction further. But mostly, London Town is thoroughly unimpressive, I think--three talented people (well, two and a half) waiting for inspiration to strike, and it hardly ever does.

And sadly, Back to the Egg is more of the same. I know the album has its defenders, and it's true that "Rockestra Theme" became a hit, though I have no idea how--it's a perfectly pleasant but entirely unexceptional jam, crowded with unnecessary guest stars. That kind of C- adequacy pretty much defines the album, in my judgment. "Arrow Through Me" is the closest to an exception; it's a nicely creative bit of funk. Maybe if Macca had taken the time to really develop an R&B feel for the band with his new recruits (Laurence Juber on guitar and Steve Holley on drums--both of whose subsequent careers, interestingly enough, involve a lot of freestyle jazz and swing, so it's not like that approach would have been impossible back in the studio), some real inspiration would have hit. But by the same token, maybe McCartney just wasn't willing to work that hard. Even when he really threw himself into a song--like "Old Siam, Sir," "To You," or "So Glad to See You Here"--his band just sounds kind of perfunctory to me, like McCartney kept lazily calling for "energy!" and they just played louder, not really feeling whatever their boss thought they ought to be feeling. Obviously, Sir Paul needed to clear his head and get a reboot--and the perhaps sadly unavoidable demise of Wings provided it.