Paul McCartney & Wings - Biography
The Beatles weren’t just the biggest band in the world, they are now and will always be the biggest band in the world. No other rock ‘n’ roll act will accompany that sort of profound, tectonic societal upheaval, ever. As far as rock ‘n’ roll goes: Been there; done that. If there ever was a tough act to follow, it was the larger than life entity that was the Beatles, and as individuals, John, Paul, George and Ringo had no precedents from which to draw or seek a roadmap. They were cultural deities cut adrift, and expectations for them as solo artists were impossibly high. Each former member achieved initial, post-Fab Four success (the Beatles remained so popular after their dissolution that it’s a minor surprise Pete Best didn’t have a multi-platinum hit) but each soon stumbled commercially — all except for Paul McCartney. Throughout the 1970s, Paul McCartney ruled the sales charts, radio waves and concert stages, and he did it within the context of a band. Sure, Wings weren’t some awesome, megalithic monument to social change and human enlightenment, but that was the entire point. After laboring beneath the idealistic burdens of an entire generation, Paul McCartney simply wanted to demonstrate that he could write, perform and sell supremely catchy rock ‘n’ roll numbers and well-crafted pop ballads — without John Lennon. He succeeded.
McCartney recorded his self-titled debut, McCartney (Apple, 1970) while the Beatles were still extant; both it and the follow-up, Ram (Apple, 1971), were credited as solo releases. That certainly suited the former LP, as McCartney played all of the instruments, but on Ram he brought in musicians. By the third album, McCartney looked to nurture a certain esprit de corps, and Wild Life (Apple, 1971) was billed to Wings. In part, this allowed Linda McCartney to tag along for the ride on keyboards and backing vocals, but it also gave some extra heft to the contributions of ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine. For the duration of the group, the cast of participants would ceaselessly revolve, with Linda McCartney and Laine being the only constant members. Wild Life was an impromptu, one-take effort. It generated decent sales and charted high, but not high enough to be considered an unqualified success.
McCartney spent 1972 developing Wings as a viable live act, while releasing a string of hit singles, including a version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the buoyant “Hi Hi Hi,” which was banned by the marijuana-obsessive suits at the BBC. Those same suits really didn’t care for the controversial “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”; its censorship ensured that the next full-length LP would debut at #1. New Rose Speedway (Apple/EMI, 1973) garnered considerable enthusiasm, as did the subsequent tour and the smash-hit single of the theme song for the James Bond film, “Live and Let Die.” McCartney then released his magnum opus, the critically acclaimed Band on the Run (Apple/EMI, 1973). It remains the consensus favorite of the McCartney/Wings oeuvre, and topped charts around the world. The singles “Band on the Run,” “Jet” and “Helen Wheels” were radio favorites, and Grammy awards followed.
Wings had one of its best lineups at this point, with the core three joined by Joe English (an American) on drums and teen phenom Jimmy McCullough on lead guitar. The expertly produced and lavishly packaged Venus and Mars (Capitol/EMI, 1975) also went to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. The album played to all of McCartney’s strengths as a composer, arranger and lyricist, while sounding like a collaborative effort from a well-oiled and intuitively taut ensemble. Wings at the Speed of Sound (Capitol/EMI, 1976) was Wings’ greatest commercial triumph, spending the entire summer at #1 on the US charts, and spawning hits with “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs.” However, McCartney encouraged the various members of Wings to write and contribute their own material to Speed of Sound, an egalitarian fit of noblesse oblige that fell flat with the critics.
The same version of Wings toured extensively throughout 1975 and 1976, including McCartney’s first US gigs since the final Beatles appearances in 1966. Pandemonium ensued. The live recordings were assembled as the mammoth triple-LP set, Wings over America (Capitol/EMI, 1976), and the inclusion of a smattering of Beatles songs sent the fans into joyous conniptions. This was followed by the 1977 single “Mull of Kintyre.” Its bagpipe skirl barely registered in the States, but in the UK it was a monstrous hit, the biggest selling single in UK history. London Town (Capitol/EMI) was a more subdued affair, in which the band reverted to a trio with the departure of English and the defection of McCullogh to the Small Faces (McCullogh would die two years later of an overdose at the age of 26). The Wings era reached its natural zenith with McCartney’s first post-Beatles compilation, Wings Greatest (EMI, 1978), which was an essential treasure-trove of songs that had previously been singles-only releases. Additional collects followed: All the Best (Capitol/EMI, 1987) and Wingspan (EMI, 2001).
There was a final, mostly unnecessary flutter from Wings, the strangely lackluster Back to the Egg (Columbia, 1979). It was a relative flop, despite all-star appearances including David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, Pete Townsend from the Who, and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and John Paul Jones. It was a Wings album in name only, which McCartney would rectify by returning to solo billing for the remainder of his career. Still, for a decade, Paul McCartney and Wings were one of the biggest acts on the planet. Granted, “Silly Love Songs” didn’t exactly shake up the world, but that was sort of the point. It was as catchy as could be, and it went straight to #1. John Lennon disparaged it, but that, too, was sort of the point.