ALAN’S ALB'Why hello my dear Catlunia the Third, your clone-day seems to come round with alarming regularity these days!'
My yes Habridan The Seventh - I think it must be something to do with that black hole just outside our galaxy speeding up our timezones. I don't know how those Earthlings in the Milky Way can stand being so close to it and yet they don't even seem to be aware it exists from what I can tell! What a short life they lead - time must seem to run so quickly to them!'
'Ah yes Earth your favourite planet - it won't surprise you at all to learn what I've got you for your clone-day this year Catalunia!'
'Is it another of those darling Earth albums dear Habridan? You know I do love the music from my favourite planet - so primitive and yet so galaxy-wise if you know what I mean!'
'Yes my dear Catalunnia. Let's see, I've already bought you The Moody Blues album 'The Prersent' and Crosby Stills and Nash's 'Live It Up' for you'
'Oh yes, even Uncle Vevushuela liked that one!'
'Well this one is a real treat - it's an album from 1975 that seems to be about the Earthling's own galaxy!'
'But I thought they didn't start visiting the other planets in their galaxy until the Alan's Album Archives sponsored interplanetary travel holidays in the 22nd century?'
'Me too Catalunia, I guess our history hologroms got it all wrong - I always said they're civilisation couldn't possibly be as stupid as it seemed from the outside: all those wars and prejudices and inequality'
'Yes Habridan, I've always said the humans are more civlised than we ever gave them credit for - why just look at all that humanity and wisdom discussed in their music on that Earthly website Alan's Album Archives I enjoy so much. For all we know their love will grow!'
'Well, Catalunia, Wings must have experienced the solar system somehow given what happens on this album (with a name like that perhaps they flew?!) After all, every part of existence for all life-forms are here somewhere: love, death, religion, drugs, even comic strips just like our own adored adventures of Belobratman!'
Why Habridan darling that's exactly the sort of Earth album I love! Do tell me - have you set up your zigabox camera to take our picture for the front cover this time?!'
'Ah, yes, umm, about that Catalunia - I did want to take our holograph again like the last couple of times, but I'm afraid I accidentally pressed the wrong button when I was testing it and I'm afraid a different picture has been sent back across time ands space to be used instead'
'Why whatever do you mean Habridan, dear?'
'Well, umm, I was umm playing snooker at the time - you know the Earth game you showed me that Walahazoo copied for us? I still can't find that missing ball by the way - I think it may have accidentally gone down a time tunnel and started the big bang. Oops! Oh and goodness knows how those humansd cope with two arms, I struggle with my six...'
'And the shutter on the Zigabox camera went off without my noticing'
'Don't you think the Earthlings will find it weird that the cover has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the record?'
'No actually - oddly no one seems to have commented on that yet, they just see it as another quirky 1970s rock album cover!'
'Gracious how strange!'
'Anyway what I have arranged for you, Catalunia dearest, is to have your own space-ship referenced in song!'
'What, you mean my home 21ZNA9? How simply marvellous darling! But won't the humans find that rather a strange phrase to find in a song lyric'
'Well this is by Paul McCartney and Wings after all - you'd be surprised at what they seemed to get away with, especially on this record!...'
The band is from Mars - the music comes from Venus; that difficult fourth album for Wings proves to be just as hard work as 'Band On The Run' but has a similarly strong selection of songs and no real sense from the album itself of just what a difficult record it was to make. The all-singing and tap-dancing follow-up to the biggest record the band will ever have (and moreover the only McCartney album ever to get positive reviews across the board on first release) 'Venus and Mars' has had an interesting interstellar lifespan down the decades. Greeted with similar regard and record sales initially, the record went on to be blasted as the pinnacle of McCartney excess and pointlessness as the band slowly fell out of favour. Ask a McCartney fan about this record and you're as likely to get the response ' as the phrase 'out of this world'. In many ways though this album is the most Wingsiest of Wings records, the one that has everything associated with the group in abundance, from dazzling displays of vocal areobatics, polished production so glossy you could eat your dinner off it, quirky ideas no one else would think of doing surrounded bypower-pop so pefect it sounds made by a machine and a few of those special 'what the hell is going on?' moments all McCartney fans have learnt to endure/celebrate. 'Venus and Mars' has it all, good and bad and everything in between and even by Wings standards it's eclectic bordering on madness, running tha gamut from heavy period rock to gossamer light ballads to comfusing prog rockers to twinkle-toes Fred Astaire spoofs to perfect pop to the flipping theme from the 70s TV soap 'Crossroads'. In many ways 'Venus and Mars' - the middle of the band's seven albums - is the litmus paper test; if you can get through the dodgy moments intact and still yearn to hear more of the truly sublime stuff like 'Love In Song' even if it means sitting through another godawful mess like 'Treat Her Gently' then this is the band for you, even if fans have never quite agreed which half of this album 'works' and which doesn't. There's something here for everyone and the good news is that the universe is the limit in terms of subject matter, with no two songs going to the same place (well except for the reprise of the title track, but that won't matter because there could be ten reprises and we still wouldn't know what the heck was going on!) The bad news is that this album is a bit like playing Russian Roulette with a drunken record player.
Over in the 'Mars' corner is the fact that this album didn't turn out the way anybody first intended. After a year of playing little unnanoucned gigs at student unions up and down the country Wings were finally about to fly in 1974 - but the loss of Denny Seiwell and Henry McCullough put paid to a tour that year. With a big record to promote Macca was keen to seize the initiative more than ever and rushed through a series of auditions, ending up with a new line-up where the teenage prodigy guitarist addict Jimmy McCulloch and the sober hardened session veteran drummer Geoff Briton hated each other. This line-up lasted a grand total of one aborted documentary ('One Hand Clapping' in which tensions can already be seen, between Geoff and Linda especially), one single ('Junior's Farm' backed by 'Sally G') and a curio (an inter-war jazz band single credited to The Country Hams and featuring two songs 'made up' by Paul's dad Jim McCartney) before tensions reached a breaking point and the band had to choose; oddly perhaps they went with the unknown guitarist despite the fact that a) McCulloch's drinking and drug habits were already out of control and b) Britton had been a former karate champion everyone was ever so slightly scared of. Deciding that a change of pace was needed, the McCartneys left for a holiday in Jamaica while the band twiddled their thumbs for a months pondering what might happen next.
The answer was largely written on that holiday ('Came away on a strange vacation...') Goodness knows when Paul ever gets the time to actually do anything on holiday because every holiday he's ever taken over the years seems to have inspired a sudden creative spurt (to think - we could have slotted in another five or so Beatles albums had Brian Epstein been more willing to give them all breaks!) Feeling more at home amongst the locals than Paul ever had with his band (Linda had been one of the earliest white devotees of reggae and ska music and her husband got the bug too) the songs came pouring out: a curiously worldly and yet inward mix of tracks that seemed to pull from everything the ever-eclectic Paul was into at the time: his reading material (a mixture of 'ancient astronaut' theories that inspired the first draft of 'Spirits Of Ancient Egypt' - from a book borrowed from Nashville legend Chet Atkins of all people! - and bright colourful Marvel comics), his desire to go out on tour ('Rock Show' is one of the most postmodern rock songs ever, deliberately written to mention all the venues the band might play on their next tour, though with more 'life' and passion than might be inferred from this calculating idea), his worry about his aging dad from a recent rare visit back home for his 72nd birthday (where Paul gave him his 'birthday' gift recorded in Nashville - Macca senior was chgarcteristicaly non-plussed about the Nashville legends who played on two songs e'd written!) and his memories of the songs his dad used to play, the usual collection of love songs for Linda - and something else nobody has ever quite been able to explain since. 'Venus and Mars' is one of those albums that sounds like it ought to be about something, that there is a thread running through it - perhaps inspired by the idea of reprising 'Band On The Run' during the last two tracks on that album, Paul weaves into the start of both sides of the record a tale about a friend 'watching the stars'. He revealed in later interviews that the lyric was deliberately written in two ways - to be 'something slightly Asimovy' set in a futuristic Earth that's overcome the obstacles of life in the 1970s and an un-named astrological friend who was into star signs. The result is a theme tune that seems to be setting the album up for something that never quite arrives and which has been getting the album stick ever since (even though the linking thread in 'Sgt Peppers' and 'Abbey Road' are similarly vague yet rarely questioned).
Fans have of course wondered what them might be - especially given Macca's reports at the time that the album was very carefully sequenced, Paul spending much of his Jamaican holiday scribbling out lyrics and then getting down on his hands and knees in the McCartney rented cabin to spread his ideas out all over the floor to see how they best fit (a reproduction of Macca's cellotaped lyrics can be found in the 'deluxe' version of the 'Venus and Mars' set: as with the other McCartney lyrics that have survived the test of time has has amazingly neat hadnwriting, particularly compared to his Beatle colleagues!) In one sense that works nicely - 'Venus and Mars' is a record that sounds as if it should fit together this way, with one song flowing into the next nicely and the sequence of tracks tends to be contrasting rather than made up of polar opposites (the 'trap' of album sequencing that many people fall into). Paul even made a rough note of what he could remember from a song he'd liked that Jimmy had played him in Nashville and - still keen for Wings to grow from a puppet into a real-life band - added it into his notes where it works rather werll as the gritty counterpoint to Paul and Denny's stargazing. However there's no mention of 'Venus' or 'Mars' outside that clever cover (which is perfect for this album: from afar it looks like an other-wordly photo but close-up turns out to be two oh so wordly snooker balls) and the theme tune. Chances are there was never meant to be a link and this is just a series of songs stuck together - but that hasn't stopped fans guessing because it really does feel like there ought to be 'something' connecting these dots together, that there really is an 'outline' to all these songs if viewed from the right angle. Is the narrator waiting to be taken away from the 'great Cathedral' trying to make sense of the world and waiting for an answer of some kind from some mystical being? ('Listen To What The Man Said' being the 'hope' that there really is someone out there who knows the answers - and the paranoia of death that is 'Lonely Old People' the fear that there are't any answers to be had. 'Spirits Of Ancient Egyot' meanwhile has fun with both views: someone had to build the pyramids, it argues, but trying to interpret an 'echo' is of no use to anybody without an instruction booklet. At least, I think that's what it means in between its messages about selling elevators to Geronimo and cooking up love in a stew...) Is the person 'following the stars' and 'waiting for the show to begin' a groupie, treating the rock performers as alien Gods here to pass on worldly messages ('Listen To What The Man Said' playfully dodges the question by never defining who the 'man' might be). Is this record a time capusle to be sent out to the heavens containing every possible angle on what it was like to be alive in 1974, full of lingering memories of the past and hopes for the future? (the space craft Voyager with its 'golden record' attachment containing sounds of Earth - though not curiously anything Beatle-related - may have been an inspiration; though not sent on it's lonely voyage through the heavens until 1977 the idea was in discussion in this period. There's a great joke that was doing the rounds on twitter on its anniversary that an alien message had been intercepted and read 'don't like the others much but send us some more Chuck Berry!') Are the alien beings the ones watching in the first verse, 'waiting for the show to begin?' (if so then I wonder what they make of finsihing with the theme from 'Crossroads'!) Or is this Paul's memories being collected together before he forgets them (a natural jump to make when facing the mortality of his father, who died of bronbchial penumonia four months after the album's release).
There's certainly an awful lot of Paul's past packed into this little album and every nook and cranny seems filled up with some memory or reminsicence: the comics ('Magneto and Titanium Man') and sci-fi novels of his youth, the music his dad played ('You Gave Me The Answer'), 'Love In Song' sounds like a memory of meeting Linda and seeing 'all the places where we used to go now' (even the 'go now' phrase returns to the Denny Laine-sung Moody Blues record 'Go Now' the pair bonded over early on), the star-studded 'Letting Go' (which could decsribe getting deeper into someone's personallity or splitting u with them) sounds more like Paul's actress girlfriend of the 1960s Jane Asher, even 'Rock Show' could be interepreted as his memories of The Beatles - the rush, the chaos and the adrenalin (even if, technically, very few of the venues mentioned in song were in existence when the fab four were touring). Note how that song starts with the line about a guy 'who looks a lot like a person I knew way back when (the American trip in 1974 also marked the first meeting between Lennon and McCartney in four years, with Paul calling on John during his 'lost weekend' phase and staying in touch during the 'house-husband' era which coincided with the recording of this album). In addition to the two examples above, two other songs hark back to the past for their starting points: 'Answer' contains the phrase 'Heading back to old familiar places', 'Call Me Back Again' starts with the line 'When I was just a little baby boy'.
Before this gets too deep, though, the other inspiration for this album appears to have been the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans, with the sessions for this album deliberately planned so that the band would be in town to see it (in person at first till the attention got ridiclous - thereafter in a series of 'clown masks', though Paul and Linda are still very recognisable in period pictures of them dressed this way). While the only overtly carnival-style song made for the sessions will be - mercifully - kept in the vaults ('My Carnival', revived as the B-side to the 'Spies Like Us' single in 1985) there is a definite sense of party in the air. From the start coming off the airplane Wings were treated like a 'local band' - added to the colourful parades that went up and down the neighbourhood and invited to mingle with all the street musicians. In comparison to the situation Wings went through to record 'Band On The Run' in Laos (a barely built studio, oppresive heat, gangsters running amok outside) this state-of-the-art 1973 studio the band chose (owned by Allen Touissant who was a regular guest) was paradise and arguably the most up-to-date Paul had ever used (certainly it was light years away from the cosiness of Abbey Road). Britton though hated the idea and lasted all of two songs (nobody ios quite sure which ones although 'Call Me Back Again' sounds closest to the 'feel' of his playing on 'Junior's Farm') before quitting for good. His replacement was Joe English - a lucky find, nominated by Paul's new brass band leader on his world tour and on the record Tony Dorsey who'd work had done so much to enchance the overdubs on 'Band On The Run'. Dorsey had never met English - the drummer was actually his third choice after his first two failed to pick up the phone all week - but he'd seen him play in his friend earl Ford's band The Tall Dogs and liked his style. Wings did too, which was softer-edged and more melodic than Geoff's harder-edged rock playing and nicely elastic: Wings are a tricky band to accomodate given the sheer range of styles they play but Joe seemed to have a sound for all of them. Most of all, though, the quiet easy-to-please Joe was arguably the first addition to Wings without an axe to grind or a mouth to shoot off (even Denny had his moments...), willing to go with the flow whatever happened and simply pleased to be there. After the run-ins with Henry, Jimmy and Geoff, Joe seemed exactly what the band were looking for and quickly became a fan favourite, merrily singing along at gigs whether a mircrophone was near him or not, a grin plastered all over his face. The fact that the under-used English also had a lovely voice (sadly only ever heard in full on Wings At The Speed of Sound's 'Must Do Something About It') was a welcome extra. Wings suddenly sounded like a band again - and though this line-up would only last one more album and lasted not quite two years in total most fans agree it was the best.
Wings are a funny mixture, a surely unique band given that nobody as famous as McCartney has ever tried to create a second band after experiencing such an over-whelming success with their first, but those who dismiss the band as McCartney’s session musicians are only partly right. Goodness knows its hard to say ‘no’ to a Beatle, especially a musician like McCartney who has so many ideas running through his head left, right and centre all the time, but Wings do a good job in the circumstances, curbing many of the McCartney excesses that litter his true solo albums but are comparatively few in the Wings’ days and adding their own strong cameos and ideas to a vision that is predominantly Maccas. Denny Laine especially is the star of many a Wings record, slotting his own ideas around McCartney’s both musically and vocally without getting in the way and his quiet support of Paul’s work in the 70s gives McCartney exactly the platform he needs to fly off into the sunset. This second line-up of Wings also features the heavily under-rated Joe English, possibly the best and certainly the most inventive of the four drummers who passed through Wings’ ranks in a little under eight years, and his virtuoso but decidedly un-flamboyant drumming locks well with Macca’s inventive bass lines. Jimmy McCulloch too is an extraordinary guitar player for a musician only just out of his teens when he joined the group and might have turned into a world-class guitarist had he not died of a drugs overdose just months after leaving Wings following a drunken night out with Steve Marriott who persuaded him to leave. As for Linda, she has little to do musically on this album, unlike parts of Ram, but vocally she is spot on, soaring in formation with her husband’s harmonies or offering a strong counterpoint to them – indeed her harmony work here is among the best of her career, mixed loud and proud against her better known harmony partners and Wings sound all the better for it.
Like 'Band On The Run', though, what shines out from this album most is the new-found confidence - something that the Wings of 'Wildelife' and 'Red Rose Speedway' were badly missing despite several highlights where tbey deserved to feel confident. Actually that's less strange here than it was for the previous album simply because Wings had finally lived up to the talent within the band and stopped the awful slide downwards. The most hated ex-Beatle in 1971, Macca was everyone’s favourite by 1975 thanks to his high profile touring at a time when the other ex-Beatles were off licking their various wounds and was by now a much bigger hit with critics than any of his Beatle colleagues who had all fallen from grace by now for one reason or another (politics, religion and partying mostly). Wings' heady mix of music (too raw for prog rock, too slick for 'straight' rock) was a pretty good reflection of the times in 1975 (this is arguably the last time McCartney is helping to create a fashion rather than following one!) and for once even the glossy production values (which so stick in the throat for the modern listener) are par for the course. So what happened? Why did this album fall from grace so quickly? (Received at the time by a growing army of McCartney lovers as an LP more or less equal to its famous predecessor, its now got to the point where second-hand shops seem to be more or less giving this album away, with even Beatles collectors with fairly hefty collections giving it the cold shoulder because of what they’ve read about this spacey record). On the one hand its easy to see why – a very promising prog-like concept about looking into space is dangled before us like a carrot at the beginning of each side but annoyingly never returned to, the album has even more polish than the other Wings efforts, sounding more like treacle and honey than Venus and Mars (like many a Wings set, the rougher out-takes sound better in most places than the finished album - its a great shame there weren't any of the rough takes included on the deluxe set; there are some truly groovy versions of 'Rock Show' that outfunk the awful timid rehearsal take included and a glorious 'Spirits' that's a far better combination of alien worlds and the blues than the finished song) and the tracks skip through so many genres its enough to give Macca’s younger fans a headache.
However, I've always had a soft spot for this record which manages to cover more ground inside forty minutes than most bands cover in a career. 'Venus and Mars' might not be my favourite Wings album and indeed contains some of the worst work McCartney will ever do ('Treat Her Gently' is his single worst song of the 1970s, misguided in every way) but it contains so much casual excellence across it's grooves that the mistakes somehow don't matter as much. There are all sorts of career highlights liberally strewn across this record that only the major McCartney fans know but which deserve to be instant classics: 'Love In Song' is one of the all-time greatest McCartney ballads, 'Rock Show' one of his fiestiest rockers, 'Letting Go' a surprise flop as a single despite being one of McCartney's toughest, classiest 45s, 'Listen To What The Man Said' one of his better crafted catchy-but-deep pop tunes and Jimmy and Dennyu's cameos on 'Medicine Jar' and 'Spirits Of Ancient Egypt' are amongst their best work too. In fact - whisper it quietly - but song for song I'd actually take this collection of songs over 'Band On The Run' (so popular because its Wings' most consistent record by far, but for me doesn't quite have as many highlights as this record - though admittedly less all-round disasters). It isn't perfect, it's not quite as 'out of this world' as erveryone hoped it would be after 'Band' and it's a couple of songs short of matching 'Ram' and 'London Town' in my estimation, but 'Venus and Mars' is still a very good record, vague enough to keep you guessing with just enough depth and worth here to keep you listening.Do yourself a favour, if you love this man’s music (and if you have a pair of ears and a soupcon of taste then surely you’ll love at least part of it), save yourself a fortune forking out for some ridiculously overpriced McCartney DVD featuring the 15th live appearance of a famous Beatles song you don’t really need and rescue this album from the 50p bargain bin sale. Wings are a band that were something special, they’re just sadly a band out of time for this noughties decade, where back-to-basics rock sits uncomfortably against shrieky MOR. Long overshadowed by other louder albums in the Wings back catalogue, Venus and Mars is another example of just how creative and downright musical Macca can be and what a great a little band Wings were in their heyday.
The album opens with one of the greatest one-two-three punches of Macca’s discography, each piece effortlessly showing off three very different sides of Macca’s creative brain. The title track [73a] Venus and Mars is symphonic prog rock at its best, all ear-catching scene-setting ideas competing for our attention amongst a mournful moog phrase and a bank of burbling synthesisers. The theme of the song is an interesting one: comparing music with astronomy, Macca’s narrator waits in the darkness, eagerly anticipating the show ‘about to begin’ while his friend ‘follows the stars’, a line that could fit either definition. Alas this very Peppers-like introduction, which is just as atmospheric and a good deal less fussy than its better known cousin, is even less developed through the course of the album than the Peppers band-on-stage concept and apart from a brief reprise at the start of side two all but disappears after this opening song. The idea of Venus (the goddess of love) and Mars (the god of war) being in line and ‘alright tonight’ is crying out to be developed, but try as you might none of the other songs on this album quite fit the ideas of war and peace this opening suggests (Macca obviously had something in mind however; hence the close cousins Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace in the early 1980s which have more than their fair share of songs about both subjects). Undeveloped as it is, however, Wings already sound at home in their new polished setting (compare this track to the raw Wildlife, the raw but bouncy Band On The Run and the absolutely every style at once Red Rose Speedway LPs to see what I mean) and the gradual shift from acoustic strumming to a production epic that (literally) reaches for the stars is impressive even without the lyrics.
Ignoring outer space for the moment, however, Macca takes us back down to earth with  Rock Show, one of the loudest, most raucous rockers in his back catalogue. In fact non-fans would be tempted to say ‘pointless’ – there’s very little to this song other than list of concerts the narrator has played and a nonsense tag about dressing up for the show – but the riff is strong enough to make the song work as simple rock and roll and – most important of all – Wings never sound as if they are having this much fun ever again. The song is obviously written by Macca as a soul-stirring show opener in preparation of Wings’ 1976 world tour and it cannily lowers things to the lowest common denominator level. Witness the mentions of various stadiums played by Wings on that tour (‘long hair’ at the Madison Square (Gardens), The Concert Gebaur, The Hollywood Bowl), mentions of fellow stadium musicians Wings are trying to ape with this song (Wings surely are ‘the ones who are like Jimmy Page’ on this song, whoever McCartney was trying to remember really) and the singalong nonsense words that only make vague sense but are great for a crowd to sing along to (‘In my green metal suit I’m preparing to shoot up the city…’); heck there’s an even a couple of bars where Wings sing the word ‘oi’ over and over, in true early punk style. Rock Show should be awful, a string of clichés strung together for no other reason than to get the crowd on Wings’ side, and yet so intent is Macca on doing things properly on his first worldwide tour in 10 years in 1976 shortly after this album’s release (the first time any of the Beatles had ever properly toured since the group’s demise) and giving fans a good time that the results are admirable. Macca has also learnt a great deal since his early days in showbiz and offers just enough variety (the stabbing staccato riffs of the middle eight, the peculiar tag, the space for keyboard and guitar solos) and gives just enough room to his fellow musicians to make the whole convoluted thing work. The fade-out of the song is particularly classy, Macca seemingly ending the song only to find the band building up steam and kicking off again into a musically completely un-related tag which finds two members of the concert audience rushing to get ready for their big night out. The piano riff is cute (it recalls the Stones’ Hide Your Love from their similar-sounding Goats Head Soup incidentally), the jamming exemplary and in different circumstances this minute-long tag could have been a fine song in its own right. Sounding like a jam session, this part of the song was actually there from the very first takes of Rock Show, acting as Macca’s promise to concert-goers that Wings will put on a huge show that will live up to expectations and the days of eagerness of people looking forward to it. Macca is still living up to that promise even now, but Rock Show was put into a moth-balls a long time ago, its job for Macca’s first real test as a live performer now over and done with. High adrenalin rock and roll at its best.
A flurry of drums blends seamlessly into the remarkably different but equally impressive track  Love In Song. One of Macca’s loveliest, most under-rated and delicate of ballads, in truth when you analyse it this track doesn’t make a lot of sense either but its fragmented, rather poetic lyrics are impressive and its bittersweet musings on a current relationship are the perfect accompaniment to Macca’s most wistful of tunes, which sounds like it is on the verge of tears throughout. So fragile is this tune and its largely acoustic accompaniment that it sounds on the verge of falling part and features one of those classic I-can’t-believe-it-hasn’t-existed-for-centuries Macca melodies. McCartney has written hundreds of classy ballads in his time, but this lovely lilting slightly-oriental piece is one of his best, mimicking the fragile-ness of the narrator’s current relationship on the verses and his strident happy memories of how the couple met on the chorus (this song sounds even more poignant now in these post-Heather Mills days). Macca is on good vocal form here too, fully involving himself with his character’s situation even though his life with Linda couldn’t have been further from the difficulties of this song at the time, with Paul’s vocal literally tugging the song through the chord changes to the end as the narrator tries to navigate his way through his problems. The production shine on the opening acoustic riff is also positively transcendental, sounding so clear on good speakers it’s as if Wings have flown down the chimney and got into your living room. All in all these three tracks represent a fine and varied beginning, possibly the best start to any McCartney-involved record, Revolver aside.
Thereafter the album never quite reaches the same levels again, strong as Wings’ performances are. Having said that, the bright and breezy  You Gave Me The Answer is by far the best of Macca’s small handful of 1930’s gentle jazz-pastiche tracks, seemingly based on the music Paul’s dad used to play during his days as a professional musician. The song isn’t just a lazy pastiche a la Honey Pie, as sadly we’ve come to expect from McCartney these days (his most recent variation on this theme, English Tea stands as one of the indescribably poor recordings ever made by any artist on this list – and that includes some godawful modern Beach Boys and Rolling Stones LPs and some decidedly tepid Grateful Dead live albums), but a genuine sounding period song that just happened to be written in the 1970s. There is a great deal of attention to detail in this track, so much so that if you played it to most pre-war veterans without mentioning the author they would probably think it was a genuine period song. It’s a lot of fun too, with Macca ad libbing in true Fred Astaire fashion and there’s more than a germ of truth in its lyrics which are surely about Linda (like the girl in the lyrics, her rich background could easily have turned her into a class snob but Linda was too down-to-Earth for that). However, the song is ultimately peripheral rather than revealing and what Wings’ growing regions of rock and pop fans thought of this oddball track I dread to think!
The slow burning, musically classy and mature-sounding rocker Magneto and Titanium Man comes next, with Macca strangely choosing to add some of his most juvenile lyrics to the mix. Yes,  Magneto and Titanium Man is a Marvel comic come to life and is a sweet if strange tip of the hat to Macca’s teenage days dreaming of supermen who ruled the world before coming close to gaining that position himself with the Beatles. The song’s subject matter – the narrator almost betraying his girlfriend to the law because of something he was told by two superheroes called Magneto and Titanium Man – is so strange that Macca is the only person who could possibly try to get away with this song (and arguably Macca’s about the person who would ever try!) All three charatcers were invented by Marvel regular Stan Lee, who a Beatle fan himself declared the song 'terrific!' on release (it's a shame actually someone from Wings management didn't approach hin for the album cover, which was instead shot by our old friends Hipgnosis). However, get away with it he just about does, because there are just so many classic bits and pieces thrown into the mix, especially the three-part Wings harmonies sailing over the top of the song. Wings could be singing their weekly shopping list and it would still sound sublime dressed up like this. Even so, casual Macca fans might like to giver this song a wide berth.
Wings then close out the side with one of their classiest songs, another slow burning epic called  Letting Go. Again the lyrics aren’t up to much, being merely a list of metaphors of how wonderful the narrator’s love interest is, but the tune of this song is one of Macca’s greatest, with a tightly-wrought chorus and a nagging hook perfectly setting up the song’s tale of wanting to get away from somebody – and finding that they’re too obsessed to let go. Macca’s first real flop single (it made number forty-something and doesn’t appear on any ‘greatest hit’ compilations to date) and a song that’s come in for a fair bit of stick over the years, it’s hard for me to understand why this fairly inoffensive track has caused such a fuss over the years. The subject matter is almost certainly Linda (again), with causal references to McCartney’s efforts to make her a musical star (‘Oh she sings it so, I want to put her on the radio’), although really these lyrics are just there to reflect the burning passion behind the claustrophobic possessive tune. By anyone’s standards this is a classy effort (excepting some of the lyrics, anyway), with Wing’s harmonies and McCulloch’s guitar at their very best here. The horn section, who were always badly under-used on Macca’s 70s tours, get one of their better chances to shine here too, their brassy glare suiting the song’s mood well and adding yet another genre feather into Macca’s massively big cap.
In true Sgt Pepper’s fashion side two begins with a reprise of the title track [73b] 'Venus and Mars (Reprise)' , which seems this time around to have more to do with space than it does music. Featuring McCartney waiting in a Cathedral for a space-ship to take him away, this is a rare chance to hear what Denny Laine would have sounded like on the Moody Blues records made after he left: trippy and off the wall, this is the sort of song once common to albums in the 1970s but very rarely heard nowadays.
Talking of Denny Laine, surprisingly his only vocal for the album crops up next on  Spirits of Ancient Egypt, a typically off-the-wall retro rocker common to McCartney-Laine collaborations (but, interestingly, rare in either man’s solo catalogue). Inspired, loosely, by the two men’s travels with and without Wings in tow, this song mixes the personal and modern sounding (‘you’re my baby, you love me’) with the mystical ands the historical (‘shadows of ancient Rome’), sometimes at the same time (‘sprits of ancient Egypt hung on the phone again’). I don’t know for certain how this song was written, but to these ears the former sounds very Macca-ish and the latter more like Denny Laine’s work. The tune is what makes this piece work so well: it charges ahead in classic rock fashion before pausing for the singalong chorus, taking in blues and pop along the way, the clever balanced arrangement somehow making a musical meal out of these bite-size pieces. Laines pieces are very under-rated in the Wings camp and despite the decidedly odd storyline Egypt is one of his better tracks from his many years with the band; an oblique brooding rocker with the band having fun in the sound effects box (the track ends with what sounds like the noise made by lorries reversing or bollards rising) and Macca shines on both his smooth harmony work and his edgy bass playing.
Jimmy McCulloch’s  Medicine Jar is a bit more straightforward as rock songs go, with one of the guitarist’s better solos the highpoint of a paranoid rocker which features a chugging riff and a singalong chorus. Like Jimmy’s only other song released by Wings (Wino Junko from the follow-up album Speed Of Sound) it’s chock-full of drugs references which – given the guitarists death in 1978 at the age of 27 – seems like some sort of coded warning. For such a seemingly cocksure and confident musician, McCulloch’s small collection of original songs offers up a surprisingly oblique and self-hating streams of lyrics. Talking about himself, or at least someone so close to McCulloch’s partying spirit as to mirror the writer, McCulloch moans about his weakness in comparison to the strong hold that drugs have on him, trying to shock himself out of his dependency on his wild lifestyle by eerily reminding himself of all of his friends who have died along the way. Old and wise before his time (Jimmy was about 24 when he wrote this song), McCulloch was nevertheless a hardened veteran after 10 full years playing professionally (you can see him as part of the Thunderclap Newman band in 1968, aged 16 in any of the numerous clips of Something In The Air that seem to be in the TOTP2 archives and repeated on the show every third week) and had access to more ‘hard’ drugs than any impressionable youngster should ever have had. Jimmy’s inspiration (best summed up his wonderfully fluid guitar solo) is at war with his dependency throughout this song – the highpoints of which make you wonder what on earth the young guitarist might have achieved if he’d listened to his own warnings in this song.
After these two cameos we finally end up with the most McCartney-esque song on the album.  Call Me Back Again is one of those Macca tracks where nothing much happens – and yet the results sound huge. Basically all that happens in the song is that the narrator receives a phone-call from a loved one and waits impatiently for another – however Paul makes his audience care by putting the event in perspective: the narrator has been chasing his childhood sweetheart for years and only now, decades on, might he finally be receiving the answer he has waited for for years. As if to emphasise the time-lapse taking place in this song, Macca draws his vocals out for an age at the beginning of every verse (‘Well when I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I, when I was just a little baby boy…’), making every slight overtone from the narrator’s girl-friend sound like full romantic passion. A very McCartney trick, but Paul gets his results in an unusual way, using just three long verses without any variation except a slight brass solo in the middle, as if to acknowledge the narrator’s one track mind after so many years spent searching after the same girl. Interestingly, the lyrics can be seen as a re-write of two Lennon Beatle songs, I Call Your Name (the choruses of the two songs are very similar and even use this same phrase at key moments in the songs) and No Reply (the narrator waiting by the phone for a response he knows will never come rather similar to Lennon waiting outside his lover’s house knowing she is inside but won’t see him). Is McCartney, having finally made his peace with Lennon over the course of 1974, reflecting wistfully on the childhood friend he looked up to and wondering why it always seems to be him calling on Lennon to make up rather than the other way around?
 Listen To What The Man Said is back on solid ground, but even this song – a fairly successful single and by far the best known track here – features a tricky fast tempo and lots of bits coming and going. At last Macca gives us a decent lyric to go with his funky riff and catchy melody too – in fact this track is almost summer of love in its philosophical argument for peace and love – and more than any other Wings single it would have made a great Beatles track, being a stylistic hybrid of Hello Goodbye’s pop innocence and Lady Madonna’s funky knowingness. The unknown ‘man’ mentioned in this song is unclear, but makes a reappearance on Macca’s Pipes Of Peace album where lots of veiled hints are dropped that the ‘man’ might be God. If so, this would be a curiously one-off lyrical theme from McCartney (even his ‘other’ supposed religious song, Let It Be, name-checks his mother Mary rather than the Virgin Mary that most people assume he’s referring to) and puts the track in quite a different perspective (especially the line ‘the wonder of it all, baby’). Intriguing, jolly and marvellously McCartney, this track is one his more under-rated singles and one of his more deserving hits – although here on the album, segued between two rather OTT dramas, it doesn’t sparkle quite as well as it does on its other ‘homes’: Wings Greatest, Wingspan and All The Best.
Another classy segue leads into an orchestral section that plays a slower arrangement of the last song (sounding like a psychedelic Mantovani) and then heads straight into a third orchestral piece. Unfortunately, however,  Treat Her Gently does not live up to its great beginning and (barring a strange instrumental of the Crossroads theme) is a poor choice to close with, undoing all the good work of the rest of the album. Considering Macca wrote the basis of When I’m 64 when he was 15, he showed himself to be an amazingly mature young lad, touching on fears of loneliness and growing dependence on others in a lively but sympathetic fashion. By this album, McCartney is 34 and his empathy has gone out the window, with his idea of old people (‘here we sit, out of breath, and nobody asked us to play’) downright rude. The curious thing is that McCartney has mined the pathos of this song so successfully so many times down the years – whether its the lonely widow Eleanor Rigby dreaming of the wedding she once had, the cosy nostalgia and been-there-made-that-mistake wisdom of Your Mother Should Know, the heartbroken old man of Footprints (see review no 88), or the inner thoughts of Macca’s own elder self on his last album Memory Almost Full, the subject matter of old age always seemed to bring out the best in McCartney’s writing. On this song, however, somebody should really have told him to stop, as this re-write of a Simon and Garfunkel classic (Old Friends) is one of the most painful pieces in his entire back catalogue, despite a fine tune and some more nice Wings harmonies. Bet McCartney doesn’t agree with this song’s sentiments now he really is 64 (or 65 as he’s turned since writing this originally!)
The album then gets even worse courtesy of a jokey instrumental version of the  Crossroads theme, included because a lot of lonely old people were thought to like watching Crossroads back in the 1970s. Ha ha ha, ho ho ho, oh how we laughed (the 3 or 4 of us who actually got the joke). A poor lapse of taste, these closing two tracks are all the more irritating because of the effortless talent displayed on the rest of the album.
So, Venus and Mars tries its hardest to reach for the stars but even if it falls flat on its face at times, the journey is still one of McCartney’s prettiest and loveliest trips. With lots of lovely touches, Venus and Mars is a ‘grower’, revealing more ideas and sounds with every listen. Its also aged pretty well compared to a lot of Wings albums which are often too mired to whatever genre happens to be back in fashion at the time of recording (think of the ’new wave’ elements in Back To The Egg—and shudder); this album truly is timeless, with a bit of everything on offer. Go and bring this album out of your loft and put it back on your turntable or alternatively head on down to your nearest record bargain shop. If you share even a small amount of admiration for McCartney’s talents (or Denny Laine’s for that matter!) you will thank me for it.
'Well thankyou, Habridan, I've had a lovely clone-day floating around in Paul McCartney's sub-conscious on holiday in 1974! I wonder what he'll make of all those dreams selling escalators to Geronimo and sitting in cathedrals waiting for our space-ship to take off?! Oh and the look omn Wimgs' face when we whisked them away to Zigorous Three and took that picture with our ziganox camera they used on the poster!'
'Why yes Catalunia - we even got in the beeping noise of your ship taking off added onto to the end of the track! Oh and I've also added a bit of Belobratese to the cover to the inside cover - those poor earthlings will be trying to decipher those dots and dashes for years to come!'
'Hee hee we are naughty Habridan! We got into terrible trouble for planting cocktail sticks on thast nice picture of the moon CSN used - and for appearing personally on the Moody Blues cover for 'The Present'!'
'I wonder what they made of it on Earth at the time?'
'Hmm I'm not sure I followed the review on Alan's Album Archives. Something about a holiday and a carnival and snooker balls or something'
'Well that's inferior life forms for you, thinking they know all the answers - why don't they just learn to listen to what the clandusprod said?'
'All you really need to know is that this is a very pretty album - say what you will about earthlings but they do have a way with melodies. I'm rather glad this album went back in fashion to become a classic again sometime around the 24th century!'
'All because of our wonderful additions to the album of course Catalunia dearest. Har-de-har!'
Friday, 4 July 2008
Paul McCartney and Wings "Venus and Mars" (1974) (Revised Review 'Core' Album #64)
On which the second line up of McCartney’s classic band spread their wings and set off into outer space…
Track Listing: Venus And Mars> Rock Show> Love In Song/ You Gave Me The Answer/ Magneto And Titanium Man/ Letting Go// Venus And Mars (Reprise)/ Spirits Of Ancient Egypt/ Medicine Jar/ Call Me Back Again/ Listen To What The Man Said/ Treat Her Gently-Lonely Old People/ Crossroads (UK and US tracklisting)