(HEAR MUSIC/CONCORD MUSIC GROUP; 2014)
The PAUL MCCARTNEY ARCHIVE COLLECTION continues with the release of two mid-’70s offerings from Wings, which by this time had gelled into more than a group of sidemen for Paul and Linda: VENUS AND MARS, a record that I dismissed out of hand upon its release for whatever sophomoric reason that was rattling around in my then 16 year old cranial cavity, and WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND, which is probably my favorite post-Beatles album from the McCartney camp. The WINGS OVER THE WORLD tour and the WINGS OVER AMERICA record were in support of the VENUS AND MARS release and, upon further examination of that spectacular live set, I’ve been forced to reevaluate VENUS AND MARS. Luckily, the Hear Music label (by way of the Concord Music Group) has given me that opportunity. As with every release in the series, these albums are released in a few different configurations (CD, vinyl, two CD/DVD and a special CD/DVD version housed in a book with a ton of extras). Everything being equal, we’ll examine the double CD and DVD versions of both albums here.
I listen to a lot of music. A lot of music. That includes quite a few digital CD remasters of analog vinyl originals. For the most part, I can’t really tell the difference or, if I do notice a difference, I find that I prefer the original, warmer analog sound. However, the two latest additions to the PAUL MCCARTNEY ARCHIVE COLLECTION are nothing less than an aural revelation. I understand that speaking in terms of dimensions, it’s a spatial thing but, the only thing that came to mind as I listened was, “Great googley-moogley! Sir Paul has somehow discovered a process to make his music three-dimensional!” No kidding… the vocals, the instruments, everything is so vibrant and crisp and nuanced. The horns and guitars literally jump out at you, as do the backing vocals… you can practically count the layers and name each voice in the mix. This is the sound that all other remasters should aspire to (uh… you know what I mean). Individually, this is what you can expect:
WINGS: VENUS AND MARS
(original release: CAPITOL RECORDS; 1975)
On VENUS AMD MARS, Paul McCartney was determined to show that Wings really was a band: Multi-instrumentalist Jimmy McCulloch was added to front-line performers McCartney and long-time collaborator, Denny Laine; drummer Joe English was brought in to give the rhythm section – Paul and Linda – a more cohesive sound. This is still very much Paul McCartney’s show, but the contributions from the others add dimensions to the sound that had been missing. The record kicks off with the title track, which works as a nice acoustic intro to “Rock Show,” one of McCartney’s rockingest tracks ever. The slide work of Jimmy McCulloch and piano of special guest Allen Toussaint add just the right touch. “Love In Song” has a kinda spooky vibe and some great orchestration; it’s one of three tracks with Geoff Britton on drums (nasty drunk McCulloch basically said, “It’s me or him,” and the die was cast). With Paul doing a pretty good Rudy Vallee imitation, “You Gave Me the Answer” is a fun approximation of 1920s speak-easy music. “Magneto and Titanium Man” has the band showing their geek side with a couple of lesser known Marvel Comics villains (in the form of Titanium Man and the Crimson Dynamo); the tune is a lilting kind of pop thing with a very nice guitar part from Denny Laine. “Letting Go” is an atmospheric, horn-driven rocker with a funky groove. The track features Britton on drums and a killer guitar solo through to the fade. “Venus and Mars” is back in a fuller version that has added some cool sound effects (either keyboards or guitar – or both). “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” is a pumping rocker with a great bass line (go figure, huh?), some creepy backing vocals and a sweet backward guitar. Maintaining the same groove and feel of the previous track, McCulloch’s “Medicine Jar” has Jimmy rocking out on a tune that was probably Geoff Britton’s last gasp as a member of Wings. Denny Laine’s sweet, bluesy guitar informs “Call Me Back Again,” which has a slow, funky Stax thing happening. “Listen To What the Man Said” was the big hit single from VENUS AND MARS, with guest spots from guitarist Dave Mason and Tom Scott on sax. It’s one of McCartney’s sappiest tunes, but exceptional playing all the way around (including the woefully underrated Linda McCartney) saves it from the dregs. The couplet of “Treat Her Gently” and “Lonely Old People” is a one-two punch of sap but, again, there’s just something about the playing that saves it (Paul’s piano, in particular). It’s kind of a “When I’m Sixty-Four” song about the McCartneys’ everlasting love. Even today, though Linda’s been gone for more than 16 years, it’s obvious that Paul’s love for her was – and is – everlasting. A short instrumental track, a cover of the CROSSROADS soap opera theme by Tony Hatch, fills out the groove of side two.
The second disc is where things get really fun and interesting. With everything working to perfection, “Junior’s Farm” is one of McCartney’s best non-album singles. The track has great pumping bass, a cool fuzzed-out rhythm guitar and a spectacular McCulloch solo. “Sally G,” the B-side of the single, is a nifty, lilting tune with pedal steel guitar and a fiddle… kinda like a barn dance hoedown. Sounding like the instrumental sister of “Sally G,” “Walking In the Park With Eloise” adds horns, banjo and washboard to the mix (and… is that an old soft shoe in there, as well?); the tune was another non-album single. Its B-side, “Bridge On the River Suite” is another grooving instrumental that coulda been the theme song from one of those rock and roll exploitation films of the early-to-mid-sixties. The B-side to 1985’s “Spies Like Us” single, “My Carnival” is an old time rock ‘n’ roll stroll (think Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”) with a buoyant acoustic bass (played by Denny Laine, at least if the accompanying video isn’t lying), some purposely sloppy backing vocals and a lot of hand claps, whoops, hollers and whistles throughout. The previously unreleased “Going To New Orleans (My Carnival)” is a continuation (or a re-imagining) of the last tune with the added highlight of a “walking piano,” heightening the similarities to Fats Domino and other New Orleans music greats. “Hey Diddle” is a fun, pumping, previously unreleased reel, complete with penny whistles, saws and fiddles. “Let’s Love” is a minor key piano piece. I totally understand why it has remained unreleased up to this point. The next two tracks come from the 1974 documentary, ONE HAND CLAPPING, which didn’t see an official release until 2010. There’s a harder edged version of “Soily,” an unreleased track that the band used as an encore during the WINGS OVER THE WORLD tour; the other tune is the old chestnut “Baby Face,” which retains the playfulness of the 1926 intent. “Lunch Box/Odd Sox” was the B-side to 1980’s “Coming Up” single. It’s an instrumental with a very urgent sound that takes on a weird vibe with the eventual domination of the synthesizer. As the name implies, “Fourth of July” evokes a warm summer night, watching fireworks on a blanket with your baby. Yeah, the previously unreleased song is sappy and a little goofy and probably goes on a bit too long but, it’s still a nice acoustic departure. Parenthetically noted as an “old version,” a different (demo?) take of “Rock Show” has a ballsier sound with the bass standing out more than the final album cut. McCartney’s solo vocal actually works better than the album version, too. The single edit of “Letting Go” closes out the bonus audio. It’s about a minute shorter than the album take and features a different mix.
There’s some fun video stuff on the bonus DVD. First, there’s a behind the scenes look at the recording of the gang vocals for “My Carnival.” The piece shows Denny Laine slapping away at an acoustic bass. “Bon Voyageur” shows the band dancing and mugging in New Orleans, being interviewed on a riverboat, partaking in the fun and games at Mardi Gras and on the riverboat, where they perform with the “house band,” the Meters. A black and white documentary of the rehearsals for the WINGS OVER THE WORLD tour, “Wings At Elstree” features rather spotty sound but, the thing is nearly 40 years old. Also on display are the improbably large bell-bottomed pants sported by Denny Laine. The final, loopy kinda nostalgia is a TV commercial for the VENUS AND MARS album, which shows the band goofing around in a backroom of a bar somewhere… at least that’s what it looks like to me. None of this stuff is really necessary; however, it is fairly entertaining as little windows of the 1975 version of Wings.
WINGS: WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND
(original release: CAPITOL RECORDS; 1976)
On WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND, the McCartneys, Laine, McCulloch and English were more determined than ever to recast Wings as a democratic group, not just Paul McCartney’s backing band. Each non-Beatle member had one lead vocal (Denny had two), with McCulloch and Laine both contributing one song. It may not seem like all that big of a deal, but even that slight bit of variety managed to move the record to the top of my post-Beatles Paul McCartney list (it has since been supplanted, but that’s a story for another review). Oddly enough, regardless of the lyrics and vocal delivery (both kinda syrupy sweet), “Let ’em In” probably has more in common with something from THE BEATLES (the record with the white cover) than any other tune from McCartney’s solo career to that point. The arrangement is exceptionally tight, right down to the ramshackle sound of the drum fills. “The Note You Never Wrote,” which features a Laine vocal, has a very progressive, post-Denny Laine Moody Blues sound that turns into a slow, languid bluesy kind of a torch song; the tune definitely suffers from an identity crisis… it just doesn’t know what sort of a number it wants to be. “She’s My Baby” sounds like Paul’s homage to the Bee Gees; an instance where everything just comes together, producing the perfect pop tune. A lot of people thought that the passion and urgency of McCartney’s vocals left at around the same time he left his old band but, with “Beware My Love,” it appears that he has found that old fire once again. The guitars are great and Linda’s backing vocals add just the right touch. This is one of Paul’s best solo tracks. Jimmy McCulloch was always seen as the hot-shot young rocker but, guitar solo aside, “Wino Junko” is a fairly ponderous, gauzy thing that belies the song title. “Silly Love Songs” is one of McCartney’s most derided tunes, with its sappy sentimentality and disco production qualities ans prchestration; honestly, though, it’s not a horrible track. It’s one of those songs that gets stuck in your brain-pan and won’t go away for days. Simply stated, “Silly Love Songs” is a declaration of devotion to Linda, as well as a snide aside to John Lennon and the press. “Cook of the House” is a chugging boogie tune with Linda on lead vocals. Too many people spent too much time on Linda’s supposed lack of talent; this song shoulda shut ’em all up. It’s a fun little number and she sounds great on it; it’s actually one of my favorite numbers on the record. Denny is back on lead vocals with “Time To Hide,” which he also wrote. The song is more of a throbbing rocker than “The Note You Never Wrote” and Laine sounds far more comfortable with this type of tune. The number features a nice, somewhat adventurous horn chart and McCartney’s bass work shows why he is one of the top four or five players ever. “Must Do Something About It” is a gently rocking track featuring Joe English’s vocals. Joe displays that smooth delivery that served him so well when he left Wings for a solo career in Christian Rock. Paul returns with “San Ferry Anne,” which is permeated with a weird, rather hypnotic vibe. The song also features a jazzy horn section that seems almost counter-intuitive to the overall feel of the track, which makes it all the more appealing. “Warm and Beautiful” closes out the original record, a piano ballad that eventually adds some very nice accompaniment in the forms of a string quartet and McCulloch’s Hawaiian-influenced slide.
The bonus audio tracks aren’t as numerous or essential as those offered on VENUS AND MARS. They’re mostly throw away demos with a couple of really awesome jewels tossed in. The first demo is Paul sitting at a piano, working on the lyrics to “Silly Love Songs.” It also features Linda on backing vocals. The demo of “She’s My Baby” is very much more of the same, with very tentative (almost mumbled) scratch vocals. “Message To Joe” is a 20 second memo to Joe English, run through a vocoder and is totally useless. “Beware My Love” is another demo, this time a little more fleshed out. The former drummer for Band of Joy stops by to rev up an already great number. By the way, in case you were wondering, Band of Joy’s drum stool was filled by a guy named John Bonham, who went on to have some success with the New Yardbirds… oh, what could have been! “Must Do Something About It” is Paul’s demo version of the song. This take features a nicer groove and a better mix than the album version. Had they used the backing tracks from this version with Joe’s vocals, the result would have been impressive. A piano demo of “Let ’em In” features Paul’s kinda scatting sratch vocals… very much a work in progress. The final demo is a short, instrumental snippet of “Warm and Beautiful.”
The video material is a little weak, as well. Actually, it isn’t much different than the stuff from the VENUS AND MARS bonus DVD, there’s just… less. First up is the official promotional video for “Silly Love Songs.” It’s your standard issue video from those early days of the medium: The band doing goofy stuff and mugging for the camera, the band backstage and, of course, the obligatory performance shots. “Wings Over Wimbley” is raw footage, shot documentary style of the band’s final WINGS OVER THE WORLD shows, a three-night run at Wembley in London. There’s a lot of backstage stuff, parts of a press conference and a meet and greet (and, is that John Peel in line there?) interspersed with bits of film and music from the band’s soundchecks. For what amounts to a music video for “Warm and Beautiful,” “Wings In Venice” features the band, the crew and the city preparing for a huge outdoor show. One thing that I noticed in watching all of these little vignettes of Wings from both DVDs is that Linda McCartney was always shaking a mock fist at the camera and getting all motherly with stuff like, “I have a bone to pick with you, mister” or “This is the second time I’ve had to warn you, little mister.” I mention this only because from everything I’ve ever read or heard about Linda is that she was the most loving, forgiving person you’d ever want to meet; just look at the footage… she can’t keep a stern look on her face to save her life. I think I understand how Paul could have loved her so completely.