Happy Birthday Paul! Part 4, Wings

The following post has been modified from its original form, having first been posted on April 5, 2012.

This week we’d like to talk to you about…Wings.  Now before you run screaming expecting some of the more mellow fare that, for whatever reason, Wings has come to symbolize, we put it to you that Wings probably put out the hardest rock of any of the solo Beatles.  So you don’t believe us?  Let’s start over.

Wings began in late 1971, early 1972 after Paul completed work on his second solo album, Ram.  Paul was well aware at this point in his career that by name recognition alone he could guarantee a hit single and a Top 5 album.  But after two years away from The Beatles Paul had begun to miss the group dynamic.  He had considered forming a supergroup with established musicians a la Blind Faith but decided against it, electing instead to recruit two musicians that had played on Ram, guitarist Denny Laine (formerly of The Moody Blues) and drummer Denny Seiwell.  And in a move that Paul knew would generate both scorn and ridicule he asked his wife Linda to play keyboards.

A quick word about this.  Linda McCartney was never under the misapprehension that she was a rock star and did not join the band to get a piece of her husband’s fame.  In fact, she was well aware that she could barely play and was not a strong singer.  And despite Paul’s up front warning that if she chose to be in the band she would be opening herself up to massive amounts of ridicule, she said yes.  Why?  Well quite simply Paul did not want to be separated from either her or his children.  She was going to be traveling with him anyway, so why not just make it into a family project?  So with Linda on board the initial Wings lineup was set.  Paul decided that if his band was going to succeed it was going to work its way up from nothing.  And in many ways that’s exactly what it did.

Wings first LP, Wild Life, released in 1972 is very much a chronicle of a band struggling to get to know one another.  Some of the tracks sound like rehearsals, and they never really achieve a cohesive sound.  After the album’s release Paul added Joe Cocker’s Grease Band guitarist Henry McCullough and they embarked on an unannounced tour of UK universities.  Paul would literally show up at a college and ask if they could play in the local auditorium that night.  Incidentally this same touring strategy was one that Paul had suggested to The Beatles for the Get Back project in 1969.

The tour was not a rousing success, Wild Life barely made the Top 10 in America (#11 in the UK) and Wings first two singles, “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” were not chart toppers, to say the least.  The band continued to improve by playing an extended tour through Europe and by the end of 1972 they finally scored a top 5 hit in the UK with catch reggae styled “C Moon” (backed with the equally impressive rocker “Hi Hi Hi.”).

1973’s Red Rose Speedway  showed some improvement over Wild Life.  Although it is an imperfect album it still spawned the #1 hit “My Love.”  After the album’s release Wings (now called Paul McCartney and Wings) scored another #1 hit with “Live and Let Die.”  But the first of many personnel changes occurred soon after as Denny Seiwell and Henry McCullough left the band.  Wings (now called Paul McCartney and Wings) recorded the phenomenal Band on the Run as a three-piece (with Paul playing drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards).  The album was a smash hit and remains one of the better albums of the 1970’s.

In 1975 Paul added drummer Joe English and former Thunderclap Newman guitar prodigy Jimmy McCulloch.  They released Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound in 1975 and 1976 respectively.  But as this new incarnation of the band (Laine-English-McCulloch-McCartney-McCartney) jelled, they started to become a legitimately good live band.  No longer the out-of-tune outfit playing for a couple of hundred college kids, they became stadium fillers and the tour was incredibly profitable.  And in spite of the fact that history would remember them for soft rock hits, like “My Love,” “Silly love Songs,” “Listen to What The Man Said” and “Let ’em In,” their 1976 tour showed that they were a proper stadium rock act.  It was the culmination of four years hard work for Paul’s little band of unknowns and undoubtedly their pinnacle.

After the 1976-1977 world tour drummer Joe English and guitarist Jimmy McCulloch left the group, leaving Wings with just three members once again (Paul Linda and guitarist Denny Laine).  Despite the personnel shortage Wings recorded their biggest hit, “Mull of Kintyre” (one of the biggest hits in UK chart history).  1978’s London Town was recorded shortly thereafter and Wings scored yet another number one (“With a Little Luck”).

In late 1978 Paul decided to fill out the ever-changing Wings lineup once more, adding drummer Steve Holly and guitarist Lawrence Juber to the fold.  The first recording featuring the new lineup was the dance hit “Goodnight Tonight” released in early 1979.  This was followed up later in the year by the disappointing (and synth heavy) Back To The Egg album.

Despite the critical indifference to the new album Wings went on tour in 1979.  At the tour’s conclusion Paul spent time recording McCartney II without the group (playing all instruments himself a la 1970’s McCartney).  Wings scored their last hit that year when Paul released a live version of Wings performing “Coming Up” from their previous tour (he released a studio version of the song recorded without the band on McCartney II).

Plans for a 1980 world tour were cut short when Paul was arrested in Tokyo for marijuana possession in January of 1980.  Paul faced seven years in prison on smuggling charges but was released and deported after nine days in jail.  Wings were recording together in December 1980 when John Lennon’s murder placed the group on hiatus once again.  When longtime member Denny Laine announced he was leaving the group in 1981 Wings was formally dissolved.

Say what you will about Wings, but the fact remains that they produced 23 Top 40 hits, 14 Top 10 hits and 6 Number Ones.  They provided Paul McCartney with an outlet to continue writing hit music and the occasional great album.  And Linda McCartney, for all of her musical shortcomings was extremely brave to absorb more than her fair share of criticism for her decision to keep her family together by joining Paul in the group.  She was not looking to be accepted as a serious musician.  She and Paul just wanted to be together with their kids.  Wings was most certainly not The Beatles.  But for what it was and what it became, especially considering its origins, it was an impressive achievement for any musician.

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