Author’s Note: Fall is here as are a slew of remastered and reissued CDs, some in expanded editions. On September 23, “The Apple Years” by George Harrison, a box set containing 6 CDs and 1 DVD hit the stores. Harrison’s old buddy, Bob Dylan, will have Volume 11 of his “Bootleg Series,” “The Basement Tapes Complete,” released on November 4, the same day remastered and expanded editions of Paul McCartney’s “Venus and Mars” and “Wings at the Speed of Sound” are made available. We expect great revelations on the Dylan package, but from McCartney, probably not. Still, reassessing even the least works of a great artist can be intriguing. We’ll know more in November.
Spring 1976. At Peaches Records and Tapes in Atlanta, there were three camps of employees possessing strong and separate opinions on Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles work. One camp believed McCartney could do no wrong. All judgment was suspended even when listening to his first Wings album, Wild Life. That’s devotion for you. Opposite that camp was another, deeming McCartney a longtime wimp, always playing it safe, opting for the conventional. Apparently this camp never heard McCartney’s second album, Ram, released in ’71. Then there was the rational middle. We thought McCartney’s solo career had produced an array of stellar material, though he could lapse into laziness or sentimentality, resulting in love songs that were silly and worse.
“Silly Love Songs” wasn’t the silliest song on the ’76 album, Wings at the Speed of Sound. McCartney and the other Wings set new standards for frivolity on the album, which was at best a rush job, and at worst, proof McCartney had lost his edge. This wasn’t even three years after Band on the Run, still regarded by many as the best McCartney album, one with plenty of songs that would’ve been good fits on a Beatles LP. If the three other Beatles abided “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” then any Band on the Run track got a pass on the “what-if” compilations imagined by fans in the early to mid ’70s.
Surely the nadir of Speed of Sound is “Cook of the House,” when Linda McCartney sings, “Wherever I serve my guests, they seem to like my kitchen best.” Now it’s true many feminists love to cook, and usually one associated Linda with the Our Bodies, Ourselves crowd, but “Cook of the House” seemed to echo the blather of anti-feminist decrees found at book stores in those days. Upon the album’s release, “Cook of the House” was a track best not mentioned, except for one question: What were they thinking?
Oh, that’s right — rush job.
At the time, McCartney and his band mates were on a 14-month concert tour spanning three continents. Less than a year before, Wings had released Venus and Mars, hardly a classic McCartney album, but solid enough. In those days, an album released a year before was considered old product, rarely granted prominent display in the stores. So, before hitting an American stage, a brand new album was called for, ergo Wings at the Speed of Sound.
The McCartney-Is-A-Wimp crowd had a field day with Speed of Sound. The album opened with “Let ’em In,” a dipsy confection that sounded playful and sprightly to the McCartney-Can-Do-No-Wrong crowd. Those holding the middle ground shook their heads and declared the song embarrassing. Was this McCartney or the Bay City Rollers?
And so it went. McCartney’s defenders waxed incoherent when discussing the album. They looked — hard — for positives. Yes, some of the songs showed potential but were upended by McCartney’s alleged laziness or impatience to wrap things up. One track, “Beware My Love,” had all the makings of a tough rocker like “Rock Show” or “Jet,” but no drive. The recording dawdled. As opposed to applying intensity to the track, dramatic flair pervaded, causing “Beware My Love” to sound like a bad impression of a rock song. In all fairness, “Beware My Love” demonstrates the peril of rush jobs. When performed on tour, the song rocked with abandon. No plodding. And yes, when giving a listen to “Beware My Love” on the live album released later that year, there was no doubt: that’s the same Paul McCartney who sang “I’m Down” and “Helter Skelter.”
Another disappointing Speed of Sound track is “Must Do Something About It.” It possesses a charming and nimble melody; an example of the work people thought McCartney could write in his sleep. Maybe so, but it’s in the midst of this engaging song McCartney and the band, including drummer Joe English, who did the lead vocal, performed as if they had lost interest in it.
Nearly all the selections from Speed of Sound remained in my head for years as the album was played on a daily basis at Peaches. After all, it was Paul McCartney. As a solo artist, he was on a roll. He was on tour. He and his band were coming to Atlanta. We were excited. But the excitement and the repeated listening in hopes of mining hidden strengths on Speed of Sound made no difference. It was not only a disappointment, but an embarrassment. All the while, the chattering classes at Peaches were also conducting loud debates over the newly released Led Zeppelin album, Presence, just as they had The Who By Numbers several months earlier and would do so with Black and Blue by the Rolling Stones a few weeks after the Speed of Sound release. Big name artists attracted big time scrutiny. Darts were hurled, outnumbering the laurels, especially with Speed of Sound.
McCartney allowed his band mates to sing lead on several tracks as well as contribute their own material. Wings guitarist Denny Laine sounded beleaguered and ponderous on “The Note You Never Wrote” and his own “Time to Hide.” The band’s talented but mercurial lead guitarist, Jimmy McCulloch, contributed “Wino Junko,” a pleasant little song about alcoholism and drug abuse, that basically served, like the Laine cuts, as filler. Closing out the album were two promising McCartney selections, “San Ferry Anne” and “Warm and Beautiful.” These two tracks also suffered from the hasty proceedings.
“Warm and Beautiful” is a simple yet splendidly written piece. At first note, one thought it could join “And I Love Her,” “Yesterday,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” and a few others as a classic McCartney love song. However, McCartney’s vocals are no match for the range his composition requires. At one point he sounds like Alfalfa crooning to Darla. In Tell Me Why, A Beatles Commentary, Tim Riley suggested the recording “could still be revised and saved from its unfinished limbo.” Otherwise it remained a displaced song by a great artist until more than two decades later, when at a Linda McCartney tribute, Elvis Costello gave “Warm and Beautiful” its due, working his voice in a lower register, conveying the song’s elegance with thoughtful reserve. “Warm and Beautiful” was also presented with subtle grace by the Loma Mar Quartet on a 1999 McCartney project, the Working Classical album.
The McCartney-Is-A-Wimp crowd had a great laugh over “Silly Love Songs.” That didn’t bother the McCartney-Can-Do-No-Wrong group and certainly not McCartney himself; the song topped the Billboard charts for five weeks. And besides, it was a way of poking fun at himself and the critics who poked at him. Those in the rational middle determined the song was hardly the worst on Speed of Sound; in fact it was the most thoroughly delivered of the album’s 11 tracks. It wasn’t cloying and juvenile like “Let ’em In” nor a faux rocker like “Beware My Love.” McCartney’s bass playing drove the song and its arrangement, no doubt inspired by Al Green’s “Sha La La,” was sprightly. That said, whenever the song is played over the grocery store speakers, I may hum along but I could also live to 140 and be fine if I never hear it again.
Given the assured and lively rocking on the Wings Across America tour and its subsequent 3-record set, there was optimism about future McCartney efforts. Speed of Sound was a rush job, after all; remember? The silliness would be left behind. McCartney would dig deeper for the good songs and then commit them to vinyl with the zeal he exuded on some two-three dozen of his earlier solo recordings. Yet Speed of Sound proved a harbinger for McCartney’s next ten-twelve years, despite a few flashes of glory. His ’80 single, “Coming Up,” had an infectious James Brown groove, and his performance of “Lucille” at the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea astounded. Even Little Richard was impressed. There were several good songs on his last Wings album, Back to the Egg, and roughly half of the George Martin-produced Tug of War album exposed a thoughtful and creative spark, compelling some to declare McCartney “is back.”
But on Tug of War there are obvious weak moments, especially when McCartney teamed with Stevie Wonder on the new brotherhood anthem, “Ebony and Ivory.” Until then, George Martin’s career had only been marred by the lame recordings he produced for America (especially “Tin Man”). But “Ebony and Ivory,” along with “Say, Say, Say,” McCartney’s duet with Michael Jackson released the next year, were surely the cheesiest tracks Martin ever produced. What was driving McCartney? Certainly he didn’t need another hit that badly. But predictably, “Say, Say, Say,” fluffy bits and all, climbed the charts, as did the even worse “The Girl is Mine,” their duet on Jackson’s album, Thriller.
The Jackson duets represented an all-time low for Paul McCartney. Michael Jackson had talent but his slick ’80s and ’90s recordings were hardly soulful. The multi-platinum records by Jackson reflected the vapidity of the Reagan years, and it can be said America’s culture is still cursed with such shallow entertainment by repulsive figures. We’ve been Jacksonized, Madonnatated, BritSpeared and Biebered. McCartney should have kept his distance from even the most mainstream of such rabble.
Avoid Slipping Back. . . . By the late ’80s McCartney was keeping better company. He wrote eleven songs with Elvis Costello, with six spread across two McCartney albums and the other five appearing on two of Costello’s. For the most part, the McCartney and Costello collaborations were very good, particularly “My Brave Face,” which appeared on McCartney’s ’89 album Flowers in the Dirt and “Veronica,” a Beatlesque stand-out on Costello’s Spike, released the same year.
Working with Costello made great sense. After all, he had written the most inventive and melodic songs in rock music since McCartney worked with John Lennon. The songs McCartney wrote and recorded with Costello, along with his return to the concert stage, signaled far more fruitful years — and decades — ahead. In the spirit of Lennon’s great song, Paul McCartney was “starting over.”