‘Red Rose Speedway’ is, perhaps, the ultimate Paul McCartney album. There are parts to love, parts to loathe and a whole troupe of passionate McCartney supporters who can’t decide between themselves which is which. As eclectic an album as any in my collection, McCartney’s sheer range from nonsense pop to heartfelt ballads to pioneering mood piece instrumentals to epic protest means ‘Red Rose Speedway’ contains many highlights that deserve better acknowledgement, but also several terrible songs that I’m sure the members of Wings hope have been long dead and buried. To some extent they’ve had their wish: few people today remember this album despite the fact that it sold in vast quantities, perhaps because the phenomenal success of ‘Band On The Run’ is only an album away. And that’s ‘Red Rose Speedway’s biggest problem. The album tries desperately hard to get everything right and for some of the time does, certainly being heralded at the time as evidence that, at last, McCartney had got it together and had released an album that competed with his Beatle-peer’s releases ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ ‘Imagine’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’ following such unloved-at-the-time-but-now-we-know-they-were-ione-offs-we’re-quite-fond-of-them albums as ‘McCartney’ ‘Ram’ and ‘Wildlife’. For a year or so there many Wings and Beatles fans thought ‘Red Rose Speedway’ was of a high standard and something to be treasured. Only then the goalposts moved, ‘Speedway’ was revealed as an album that tried too hard to please against the sheer confidence and consistency of ‘Band On The Run’ and suddenly everyone was saying that they’d never liked this album anyway. The people of 1972 were partly right though: there is much to love about ‘Speedway’, an album that for the most part has McCartney breaking fresh ground with songs like ‘Single Pigeon’ ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’ and even ‘Loup’ that are amongst his best of the decade. But, of course, so were the people of 1974: even without ‘Band On The Run’ to measure it by, this is a horribly uneven album and is clearly the work of an artist still trying to find a place for his work in the post-Beatles world of the 1970s (although al that said there’s nothing on ‘Speedway’ as bone-crunchingly awful as ‘Picasso’s Last Words’).
Like many a Wings album the project started off big, with plans to make it the first Beatles-related double set since ‘The White Album’. Fans have received that news with mixed feelings down the years. To be honest most go ‘oh blimey – if filler of the likes of ‘When The Night’ and the four-part medley were honestly the best things recorded in the sessions then how bad must everything else be?’ But actually I vastly prefer the original double album version of ‘Red Rose Speedway’ because the album makes more sense somehow spread across 87 odd eclectic minutes than condensed to a 40 minute highlights album, with each of these songs another piece of the jigsaw puzzle rather than the pretty picture on the box. There’s a parallel to be made, too, with the original double-album version of ‘McCartney II’ (see News and Views no 106) which should have been the most pioneering, pivotal work of Macca’s career that blew all the ignorant critics away with its sheer daring and risk-taking but ended up as a diluted collection of edited songs that didn’t fit together – a fact that still pains me so much I’ve just had to edit out a whole paragraph on the subject despite having already spent 10,000 odd words doing just that 83 issues ago. After all, it’s the eclecticism and all-encompassing range that makes so many actually pretty sprawling and mixed quality double albums the great works of art they are (not only the White Album but the Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ and what The Who intended for ‘Lifehouse’ to name but two). Sadly, yet again McCartney’s biggest fault of all is that he can’t tell his moments of genius from his throwaways and the frustration with ‘Red Rose Speedway’ is that most of the truly great and pioneering material that would have made the double album so interesting gets relegated to B-sides or outtakes on beloved bootlegs.
No wonder, then, that ‘Speedway’ is an album that has been so misunderstood down the years. On the face of it things looked good: McCartney’s writing was on a roll (as ever, the really bad reviews for the previous record spurred Macca’s muse on rather than bringing it to a halt as it would with so many other artists) and this time he wanted Wings to be a truly unified ‘band’, as far away from his old partner Lennon and his largely solo ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ album as possible (many critics missed the point on ‘Wildlife’ and figured Macca was now a solo artist and like the other three Beatles would never want to be in a band again; actually Paul was the last one to agree that the fab four were over – though the first to announce it, much to John Lennon’s chagrin – and was terrified at the thought of never having a band of ‘comrades’ round him ever again). Initially wife Linda, Denny Laine and new guitarist Henry McCullough were all given ‘slots’ for the album and in addition the whole band went beserk on the first of many (largely unreleased) band jams that Wings would come up during their many incarnations on ‘Jazz Street’ (a pattern that only becomes the norm for Wings on ‘Venus and Mars’ in 1975). If ‘Wildlife’ was a second Paul-and-Linda record in all but name, at least in terms of material, then ‘Speedway’ was intended to be the true debut of Wings, a band who were never going to be truly democratic (not with an ex-Beatle in their midst) but would at least be more than just another ‘Plastic Ono Band’ style backup. Somehow the finished ‘Red Rose Speedway’, shorn of the extras and condensed mainly to McCartney’s lighter, fluffier songs to subvert the mood of heavier material like ‘Henry’s Blues’ and ‘Jazz Street’, sounds lightweight as a single album but probably didn’t at all when Wings thought they were working on a more adventurous, open-ended record.
Sadly before ‘Speedway’ was finished Paul gave into his other big character defect: listening to the advice of people who should have no sway over his music. Apparently it was a businessman at EMI who told Paul that he would better off making a single album; in the light of poor sales for ‘Wildlife’ and the knowledge that there would never be a Beatles album of new material in the foreseeable future he may have had a point but, honestly, why would a man who’d released some of the best-selling and acclaimed records of his or any generation listen to one of his accountants who’d never made a record in his life? Macca’s late decision to cut the record in half effectively killed Wings off from being the band they should have been too: drummer Denny Seiwell and especially guitarist Henry McCullough (who’d only been with the band a few months) were so incensed that they never really forgave their employer and left Wings in a huff the following year when Macca started talking about making the next record in Africa. It was a businessman, too, that persuaded Paul to give up on his ‘dream’ of a second band made up of a true partnership and to put his own name above Wings’ on the record sleeve for the first time, in a reaction to the poor sales of ‘Wildlife’ (another terrible idea that really stunted the band’s growth and belief in McCartney’s vision; the poor sales of ‘Wildlife’ had more to do with sniffy reviews and the fact it was released in the wake of Lennon’s crowd-pleasing ‘Imagine’ set than the fact Paul’s name wasn’t on the cover; ‘Speedway’ barely outperformed ‘Wildlife’ in the charts even with his name loud and proud in the credits). Forget the poor decisions though: if you can put ‘Red Rose Speedway’ back together the way it should be heard – now, doesn’t the amended track selection below look more interesting to you?
(bearing in mind that this running order was never finalised, but seems pretty certain to have been intended this way): Big Barn Bed/My Love/When The Night/Single Pigeon/Tragedy (a nice cover of the Fleetwoods’ 1961 hit that nearly came out on abandoned outtakes set ‘Cold Cuts’ in 1981 but has still yet to be officially released)/Mama’s Little Girl (a lovely acoustic ballad about daughter Mary, finally released as the B-side of ‘Put It There’ in 1990)/Loup (First Indian On The Moon)/I Would Only Smile (a surprisingly tuneless Denny Laine song released officially in 1980 on Denny’s solo album ‘Japanese Tears’)/Country Dreamer (a sweet ballad with a gruff Paul vocal released as the B-side to ‘Helen Wheels’ in 1974)/Night Out (a rather noisy and simplistic but effective ‘party’ song intended for ‘Cold Cuts’ and still not officially released)/One More Kiss/Jazz Street (an eight minute band jam similar to ‘Lunchbox/Odd Sox’ that ebbs and flows but only really takes off near the end)/I Lie Around (a fine Denny-sung, Macca-composed song that sounds like a three-minute version of ‘Ram’ released as the B-side to ‘Live and Let Die’ in 1973)/Little Lamb-Dragonfly/Get On The Right Thing!/Seaside Woman (a fine and funny reggae-tinged Linda McCartney song released under the name ‘Suzy and the Red Stripes in 1977 and now collected on Linda’s ‘Wide Prairie’ CD)/Henry’s Blues (a bluesy guitar jam by Henry McCullough still officially unreleased)/The live segment taped at ‘The Hague’ in 1972: the thrilling and deeply unusual Victorian social protest blues ‘1882’ in which an orphaned Victorian boy is hanged for stealing food from his millionaire master (again intended for ‘Cold Cuts’)/The Mess (a fine double-part rocker released as the B-side to ‘My Love’)/ ‘Best Friend’ (a rather average rock-pop song about a row with Linda again intended for ‘Cold Cuts’)/ and ‘Thankyou, Darling’ (a rather slight call-and-answer duet between Paul and Linda that has a lovely middle eight but not much else; still officially unreleased). That’s a total of 87 minutes, long even for a double album in 1973 and surely a testament to how creative McCartney was in this period, however much scholars of his music dismiss this as a ‘lost’ year for his art and consider the finished ‘Speedway’ album as lightweight and evidence of lack of inspiration.
Had this original version of ‘Speedway’ come out, it would have silenced the critics who had to sniff that Paul’s work ‘always sounded the same’ (just as the release of the original ‘McCartney II’ would have silenced critics who said Paul’s work ‘never did anything out of the ordinary’). Doubtless it would have taken the next leap towards ‘Band On The Run’ for Paul to win back all the fans who’d deserted him for because of the false media trail that he was the one who’d ‘broken up The Beatles’, but this version of ‘Speedway’ would surely have got a handful of grudgingly impressed reviews, given Wings confidence to truly fly next time around, piqued the interest of new fans who were too young to be into the Beatles the first time around anyway and would almost certainly have papered over the cracks that saw this first full line-up of Wings fizzle out. As a double album, released at a time when he was still unpopular, ‘Speedway’ was never going to be McCartney’s best received album whatever he’d released and is still arguably two tracks short of being a truly great double album but still – the B sides alone demonstrate what a cracking band Wings could be. And which idiot chose which tracks to throw out when this became a single record? ‘The Mess’ ‘I Lie Around’ ‘Country Dreamer’ ‘Mama’s Little Girl’ ‘1882’ and even ‘Seaside Woman’ are surely all far more deserving of a place on the record than the repetitive ‘When The Night’, the Ram outtake ‘Get On The Right Thing’ and a medley that’s one of the longest ten minutes in the solo Beatles catalogue?
Ah yes, that medley. The only song recorded after the album was shorn of half of its weight, it’s always been seen as a poor man’s version of the long ‘Abbey Road’ medley and evidence of how far Paul had fallen in just four years. Told that his intended double album sounded ‘lightweight’, Paul must have been reminded of how much the Abbey Road medley had managed to make a string of so-so songs sound great when heard together (in the eyes of most Beatles fans anyway – I can’t say I’ve ever taken to it that much myself). The difference chiefly is that there’s no beginning middle and ‘the end’ to this medley; no mini-statement about the album and how it was made (bandmates who ‘never give me your money’, dream of escape with ‘nowhere to go’, a realisation that ‘you’re gonna carry that weight’ of being a Beatle the rest of your life and a final quiet acceptance in the message the Beatles had been trying to make their whole career through, that ‘in the end the love you make is equal to the love you take’). Instead we get four songs which aren’t good enough to stand as songs in their own right and whose only link is that most of them seem to be love songs for wife Linda (although quite what ‘Lazy Dynamite’ is all about is anyone’s guess). There’s a chance to sum everything up by having a ‘mini-repeat’ of the first three songs during the fourth but its too little too late: none of these fragments are interesting enough to be remembered as soon as the next one comes on anyway. All that said, though, like the rest of the album the medley is an important learning curve, allowing McCartney to learn how to piece together both ‘Band On The Run’ (which ends magnificently when the dying notes of the future and happiness on ‘1985’ turn out to be a dream and the prisoner is still trapped on the title track, even though the two halves don’t appear to fit) and ‘Venus and Mars’ (both sides of which in the good ole’ vinyl days began with subtly different versions of the title song, first innocent and then knowing).
The other songs chosen for the record fall rather neatly into three piles, with an extra ‘joker’ to wake everybody up on side two. Both ‘Big Barn Bed’ and to some extent ‘Powercut’ are both songs about how the balm of the countryside is the perfect tonic for the busy city life that are sadly clumsier and less eloquent than their close cousins on ‘Ram’. The first song, in fact, started out life as the tag of the second version of ‘Ram On’ from that album, heard on a ukulele as a tease at the tag. Interestingly two other songs (‘Get On The Right Thing’ and ‘When The Night’) are bona fide outtakes from that album, slightly reworked and built on by Wings and they do share a similar style and structure, although thematically they don’t share that album’s re-born spirit and home-made beauty. The second theme is that of animal welfare, pioneered by McCartney on ‘Wildlife’ (see News, Views and Music issue 160) back at a time when no one else was writing about this sort of thing. Personally I find ‘Wildlife’ a very under-rated and daring if patchy record and it’s a shame that Paul didn’t wait a couple more months to write both ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’ and ‘Single Pigeon’, which to my ears are the two most beautiful songs on ‘Speedway’. Both are less damning than the title track of ‘Wildlife’ and use the animal as a metaphor for human relationships instead of a plea for nature conservation, but both of them show an empathy and togetherness between the human and animal worlds that was unique to Paul’s writing at the time and brings out the best in the part-time farmer’s writing (it speaks volumes that Wings recorded their version of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ for a single at the same time – and it speaks volumes again that so many people professed to hate that song that Paul won’t tackle the subject again until ‘Looking For Changes’ in 1993).
The third topic is one that’s common to almost all of Paul’s solo work: wife Linda. ‘My Love’ is the one song that everyone knows from this album and while not the most memorable love song McCartney ever wrote it has a certain hypnotic charm and grace that a few of his later love songs lack. At least the first two sections of the medley also seem to be a rather bland nod of the head to the loveliness of being in love. More interesting, though, are the stormier love songs on the album. The overlooked ‘One More Kiss’ is the best of Macca’s handful of country-rock songs and while on paper it looks like another clichéd breakup song the sincerity with which Macca sings it and the care that obviously went into the song suggests that the McCartney marriage wasn’t always perfect (it sticks out like a sore thumb here amongst such ‘happy’ songs – and I reckon Lennon was listening closely given the way ‘I’m Losing You’ fulfils exactly the same function on his own ‘Double Fantasy’). ‘Single Pigeon’, too, is a song about the narrator being kicked out of the house after a huge row – common enough to most writer’s work but not McCartney’s (I can’t think of another example from his whole catalogue that covers this same ground, although ‘We Can Work It Out’ may well be about the aftermath of such a row). ‘Get On The Right Thing’, too, might be nonsense – but it’s angry, determined nonsense that might well be the narrator trying to tell himself to ‘get on the right thing’ and shape up, or the love of his life will walk away. We now know, of course, that meeting Linda was probably the single greatest piece of luck in Paul’s life after or even equal to meeting John Lennon and the only times the pair spent apart were during Paul’s six-day spell in a Tokyo prison – but back in 1973, with a whole host of gossip magazines and curious music media journalists speculating on whether the marriage would last and why on earth Paul would want his untrained wife on stage with him in a band must have caused a few sleepless nights. Back when the pair had met in 1967 Linda was subjected to about as much hatred in the national press as second wife Heather Mills, if only for coming after Paul’s longterm relationship with their darling Jane Asher and although the couple tried their best to act like it was all water off a duck’s back to them some of this worry and doubt must have tugged at them a little. The question, really is why now; notably the next overt love song Paul writes after ‘My Love’ is ‘Love In Song’ on ‘Venus and Mars’ (and then it’s a vaguer, less personal love song) – were all those difficult long nights together on tour with Wings taking their toll perhaps?
Before we end our introduction, a couple of interesting points to add. First up, McCartney did his street cred no harm at all by being charged for marijuana possession almost to the week that ‘Speedway’ came out (however they did harm their street cred a little by claiming ‘a fan’ had given them some seeds and the couple had grown them in their family greenhouse to see what they were; yeah right they probably took each other’s speeding fines as well). While it’s probably fair to say that most Wings/McCartney albums have the effects of soft drugs in them somewhere (Paul nearly gets deported by the coastguard in 1977 while making London Town for smoking on board the floating recording studio ‘Wanderrlust’, is imprisoned for importing drugs into Japan in the darkest Beatles year of 1980 and if Heather Mills’ rants are anything to go by still smokes today) ‘Speedway’ does seem to have a certain hazy, random, not-quite-there quality more akin to Moody Blues or Pink Floyd than Wings records. Things aren’t helped by the album cover, where McCartney leans against a Harley Davidson motorbike sucking a rose (eating flowers is a very drug-laden image, apparently because those on a ‘trip’ like to ‘taste’ the world around them and expand their senses – Lennon was himself responsible for perhaps the most famous example of this in 1966 in a Robert Whittaker portrait of him sucking on a daisy) with a wild staring faraway look in his eyes. The title of the album, too, seems almost hallucinogenic, the colour red linking both beauty (in the rose) and earthliness (the motorbike, although to be fair it’s the steel bit that’s mainly showing on the picture) and sounds more like the title of a Victorian painting than a 1970 rock album (e.g. Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, one of the cleverest works of art ever made).
Briefly, too, fans who think Stevie Wonder was a casual acquaintance too enamoured of meeting a Beatle to refuse the invitation to make the truly awful duet ‘Ebony and Ivory’ should note the back sleeve of the record, where a message reading ‘We love ya, baby!’ was made personally for Stevie using Braille, despite the fact that such difficult printing processes slowed the rate of sleeves which could be printed before release. Paul is thought to have come up with the idea after reading that his old friend struggled to read the titles of his favourite records and wished more could be done to help label albums for blind people (even though Stevie’s own albums never appeared with Braille writing). The fact that, of all the rockstars around in the 1960s and 1970s, McCartney was the only one kind and receptive enough to pick up on this request and add a ‘personal message’ to boot speaks volumes about McCartney’s kind heart, whatever his biggest critics say.
So overall, then, is ‘Red Rose Speedway’ a beautiful work of art like the ‘rose’ or an alluring, dynamic, slightly dangerous album like the bike? Either, neither, perhaps a little of both. There’s no getting away from it. ‘Red Rose Speedway’ is an insubstantial work. We can forgive it now, to some extent, because we know it’s a stepping stone to what comes next and it was certainly greeted as a return to form on release after three poorly received albums that we know now were only really McCartney looking for his own niche to work in. But for better or worse all the McCartney and especially Wings albums to follow continue the sound of this album, not ‘McCartney’ ‘Ram’ or ‘Wildlife’. To some extent that’s a great thing: a song like ‘Little Lamb-Dragonfly’ is McCartney at his moving best, able to mix and match melody, chord play and lyrics in a way that’s genuinely moving and even though few people know it or reckon it I say its a song to rank with his very best work (Beatles included). There’s a couple of very nearlies too: ‘Single Pigeon’ tells more story in 90 seconds than some McCartney albums manage in 90 minutes, ‘One More Kiss’ sounds like a standard that’s been around centuries with a hummable chorus and heartfelt sentiments whilst even ‘Loup’ is a daring and fascinating example of McCartney’s ability to work in fields of the avant garde and still give the finished piece a discernible melody and harmony. It’s in the ‘other’ songs where this album falls down, with the scattershot approach of the double album coming to sound like desperate, awkward filler when reduced to a single and no real sense of the direction and purpose that, though largely fictional and tentative, worked so well on ‘Band On The Run’. That’s a shame because, sonically, this was always one of the better sounding Wings albums, with the first example of the production sheen that’s about to make Wings both revered and reviled in equal measure, adding a kind of ‘false unity’ that this eclectic album doesn’t deserve as a single record. Equal parts fascinating and frustrating, charming and charmless, let’s just call ‘Red Rose Speedway’ a stepping stone towards greater things before Wings, in this album’s own words, ‘Get On The Right Thing!’
‘Big Barn Bed’ is as nonsense an opening song as ‘Mumbo’ was on ‘Wildlife’, but the difference is that this song knows it’s nonsense and had fun with it, instead of trying to pretend it’s ‘heavy’. Wings have fun here with what must surely be one of the daftest choruses ever (‘Weeping on a willow, sleeping on a pillow, leaping armadillo, yeah!’) while the lyrics borrow heavily from ‘Ram’ with their tale of escapism from the pressures of city life in a ‘big barn’ in the country, even going so far as to recycle the tagline from ‘Ram On’ (‘Whose that coming round that corner? Whose that coming round that bend?’) The overall effect, then, is fluffy and daft – but had Macca approached this song in another way then ‘Big Barn Beds’ could have been one of his deeper songs, with a clever harmonic structure that sounds like a pompous strutting peacock and a harmonic tension between the plodding steady bass and the sighing, sudden stings of an electric guitar part that’s highly satisfying. Again the problem with this song, like so many of Paul’s immediate post-Beatles songs, is that he’s afraid to work on his first ideas and replace his first draft ‘block’ lyrics with anything even more substantial, something which suggests he actually paid closer attention to his old partner Lennon and the ‘first thought, best thought’ approach of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’ LP (great advice as that is to many songwriters who go for the lyrics first, it’s an approach that should never have been adopted by someone with McCartney’s melodic gift and occasional struggle with words). The mix used on the album is disappointing too: whilst the crystal clear harmonies are alluring, the song sounds more human and more exciting in an earlier, rougher, bouncier mix doing the rounds on bootleg (it doesn’t have the awful tagline ‘keep on woman!’ at the end either) and is even less pleasing on the ear than the slightly hurried version from the ‘James Paul McCartney’ TV special of 1973 (see our top ten on Youtube clips News Views and Music issue 121). Overall, then, ‘Big Barn Bed’ is too light and silly to be Wings at their best, but there’s much about the song to enjoy and it deserves it place on the finished LP.
‘My Love’ is the ‘Speedway’ song everyone likes and has clearly been treated with a care and glossy production the rest of the album only receives in patches. You can see clearly why it was such a hit single: the song builds in true McCartney style, it’s a classy ballad tame enough for the mums and dads without alienating young rockers with a sensitive streak too much and there’s a simply fabulous guitar solo from Henry McCullough that says more in a few bars than the rest of the song does in three minutes (a famous Wings story this: the orchestra and band were all waiting for the first take when Henry says he’s got a new idea for the solo and the band wait with baited breath to see what he plays – in the end it’s perfect). But there’s something slightly hollow about ‘My Love’ that prevents it from becoming another ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ or even a ‘Long Haired Lady’ (two of the better love songs Paul wrote for Linda), especially when you read rather than hear the lyrics (‘Wo wo wo wooooh, wo wo wo woooah, my love does it good’). Paul sounds uncharacteristically nervous recording his vocal too and goes badly flat in the last chorus, perhaps anxious about recording with a full live orchestra for the first time since ‘A Day In The Life’ on a song that, from the first, seems to have been intended as Wings’ big shot at a single. Whilst not bad by any means and sporting a couple of good ideas (Paul often said jokingly that one of the biggest changes Linda brought to his life was buying a whacking great fridge and keeping it fully stocked like most Americans, after years of living as a musician bachelor and eating out every night, so the lines about the cupboards ‘never being bare’ when his loves around is a sweet nod of the hat that makes this song personal to Paul) for me ‘My Love’ plays it all too safe and actually disturbs the run of a great but pretty misunderstood run of early singles by Wings (including the marvellous protest of ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ , the unusually suggestive sex drugs and rock and roll bootlegs embracing ‘HI Hi Hi’ and the sweet if slight ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ – were there ever three more different singles released by one band in a row?)
‘Get On The Right Thing’ is a much-underrated song that starts promisingly with an unusual tension-building run up and down some minor chord changes, Macca’s piano being chased by Henry’s guitar. The song when it arrives is a bit of a mixed bag, with a pulsating memorable hook and a chorus that simply explodes into life (‘Get On The Right Thing!’) held back by another slightly-too-daft set of lyrics that come close to making sense but never actually do (‘All at once you get sound in your ears and your cloud disappears into yellow!’) More or less the last leftover from Paul’s uncharacteristic post-Beatles period of harsh, angry, ‘moaning’ songs (‘Smile Away’ ‘Dear Boy’ ‘Man We Was Lonely’ ‘Dear Friend’ ‘Mumbo’) ‘Right Thing’ makes more sense when you learn the song is really an outtake from ‘Ram’ with some Wings harmonies added on top. Strangely paranoid for a McCartney lyric (this is the period when he got fined for growing marijuana plants remember), the verses are unusually sombre and uneasy, with the song almost literally musically re-writing itself for the chorus and a sudden slip into a major key as McCartney suddenly goes back to what he’s known for and tells us that finding love will sort our lives out for us. A kind of 1970s update of The Beatles’ ‘The Word’ from 1965 this is an older, bitterer, less innocent take on the idea that ‘the word is love’ but with the same idea at its heart and makes for an interesting comparison. Whilst this song would have been better still with ‘proper’ lyrics throughout (‘Your world is as kind as a penny!’, a line that doesn’t even rhyme with another one), it’s for the most part rescued by a dynamic arrangement that pits an echo-laden and lost sounding McCartney vocal against some superb Wings Harmonies (especially Denny Laine doing the hard-edged ‘Lennon’ voice) and some excellent guitar work (which sounds to me like David Spinozza’s work rather than McCullough’s, especially the feedback induced ‘scream’ that sounds straight out of ‘Too Many People’). In all, perhaps Macca should have left all his songs of the period to germinate for a couple of years before returning to and building on them?
Just as under-rated, though not quite a masterpiece, is ‘One More Kiss’, a song that sounds on first hearing to be a typically bright and breezy McCartney pop song but is actually among the most heart-tugging, emotional songs Macca ever wrote (or sung). With one foot in ‘cliched’ territory and one in ‘honest’ territory, the rest of Wings sound unsure whether they should be playing this song straight or tongue-in-cheek, but there’s nothing hollow about one of McCartney’s best vocals of his career, only one step away from tears throughout. Macca returns to quite a few of his past songs here, mimicking both ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ and ‘I’ll Be On My Way’ (a McCartney song released by Peter and Gordon but done by the Beatles at a BBC session) with its tale of the narrator ‘knowing when to leave’. The verse that compares the lover’s long life to the sturdyness of the house they shared is genuinely affecting and the narrator’s repeated attempts to get ‘one more kiss’ for the road, in the hope that it will remind his lover of all the things they share, somehow overcome the rather clichéd and sing-songy melody. Full marks too to the twin guitars of McCullough and Laine who double for each other well throughout the song and somehow manage to make a regular electric guitar sound a little like a Nashville pedal-steel (Wings do end up recording in Nashville some 18 months after this album was released – which is particularly weird given that the sessions come straight after the prog rock and multi-million selling ‘Band On The Run’ - but good as ‘Sally G’ et al sound, Wings never better this song during their genuine ‘country-rock’ phase). Much under-rated and nicely low key, especially with the missed intro left on the take that causes McCartney to pause while counting the song in.
The highlight of the album, though, is surely ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’, a song that isn’t really about lambs or dragonflies at all but about helpless, abandoned, frightened creatures the world over. Intriguingly the earliest version of the song stems not from this or any other mainstream McCartney album but the first version of the ‘Rupert The Bear’ film (back when it was a film, not just a 15 minute cartoon). A sort of ‘Hey Jude’ re-write for the 70s (the chords are similar, the lyrics just as vague-but-uplifting and the endings similarly prolonged with the ‘na na na’ replaced by ‘la la la’s), speak it quietly but I say this song is more successful. The melody for this song is typically McCartney rosy and warm but far from being just another ‘silly love song’ the lyrics are full of lines about pain and suffering. The opening verse, sung by Denny Laine with Paul’s voice as harmony, is one of the most moving moments in the Wings canon and may well have been inspired by farmer Paul – recently converted to vegetarianism – looking from his central heated living room sadly at his flock of cold sheep on his farm and wondering about their fates; adding sadly ‘I can help you out – but I cannot help you in’. Like the best songs on ‘Ram’ the theme is that the real life of the countryside can ‘earth’ you when your life gets too full of human-made pressures but this isn’t a cosy or Disney-fied view of animal life but one like ‘Wildlife’ where mankind should step in but doesn’t.
The opening verse soon gives way to the second part of the song about ‘Dragonflies’ which is very similar to both theme and structure of ‘Single Pigeon’ (which came first I wonder?) and is more about Paul himself than the animals you see. ‘Dragonfly, don’t know why you hang around my door – I don’t live here anymore’ he sings sadly in another career high vocal, urging the dragonfly to continue his hard and seemingly possible journey. The sudden switch to the old shouty Paul of ‘Ram’ (‘Since you’ve gone I never know, I go on miss you so!’) is a great idea, lifting the mood up several notches and Paul repeats the trick again next time round with a verse that goes on and on, pushing him to the range of his voice (‘Come on home! Make it ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght!’) Interestingly, unlike most similar McCartney songs, there’s no ending – the narrator ends up as lonely as he started and as lost and isolated in a large and scary world without his loved ones as the dragonfly that flutters past him. Wings at their very best, only a slightly stilted air on the harmonies prevents this being the best Wings song of the period – and even so it comes very very close to perfection. Note, too, the similarities to two McCartney songs to come (‘They go on – the lonely nights’ in the last verse is only a few notes away from the chorus of ‘No More Lonely Nights’ from 1983 and the whole end-at-the-beginning structure is an obvious signpost towards ‘Band On The Run’).
‘Single Pigeon’ picks up the theme on side two, this time with a pigeon being Paul’s metaphor for being lost and alone, thrown out of his nest by a spiteful female in the same way that the narrator has been (again, it’s deeply unusual for there to be so many songs about break-ups on a McCartney album – that must have been one hell of a row the McCartneys had around here!) Unlike most fans, I love this song too, even if at 90 seconds its at least another verse and a middle eight away from greatness. It’s unusual to hear Paul at the piano in this period (most of his ‘piano’ songs are on ‘Sgt Peppers’ and ‘Magical Mystery Tour’) and his lick for the song is a good one, the chords rolling around on a tune that’s curiously half-comical and half-sinister. Brief as the words are there’s a certain majesty about them too, the metaphor of a ‘single’ member of a group of birds known for appearing flocks and the poetic alliteration of lines like ‘Single seagull gliding over Regent’s park one night’ showing an attention to detail other parts of this album could have done with more of. The chorus ‘Sunday morning, fight about Saturday night’ is a good one too, making the situation sound like a repeated pattern and something that will never change. If I have a problem with this song, apart from its length, it’s the sheer amount of overdubs added on top of this low-key and sensitive song, which all but groans under the weight of harmonies, pattered drums and oompah-ing brass; I much prefer the subtle, pre-overdubs mix on bootleg with just Paul, his piano and the bass (actually played by drummer Denny Seiwell).
‘When The Night’ is less successful all round, a repetitive song that’s clearly trying to re-create the mood and mystery of early 60s call-and-answer songs (The Beatles’ own ‘Mr Moonlight’ has more than a few similarities to this song), but sounds awfully sluggish and uninvolved. A second ‘Ram’ outtake dressed up a bit with extra harmonies, you wonder why McCartney chose this song to revive instead of, say, ‘A Love For You’ from the same sessions (a cracking, much bootlegged song officially only released last year on the ‘Ram’ deluxe edition). The song only really takes off on the middle eight, when a surprisingly deep-voiced McCartney suddenly takes off into a music-hall type patter full of clichéd lyrics about how much he’s in love. To be fair, though, the way the middle eight ends up hitting the verse melody again at just the right time is classic McCartney and a trick few other writers can pull off. I’m less taken by Paul’s impression of a trumpet over the ‘blank’ instrumental verse near the end though (what was he thinking?) and elsewhere Wings sound less than their usual solid selves, Denny and Linda audibly falling asleep by the end of the song. A song about a romantic evening full of proposals and moonlight, it’s all recounted like the notes from a business meeting and seems decidedly uninvolving. Interestingly the song works much better in concert (where Wings played this song briefly during their 1973 tours), largely because McCartney sings loudly from the first instead of waiting for the last verse to truly let rip!
‘Loup (First Indian On The Moon)’ is a moody instrumental that seemingly makes no sense on a single album intended to be commercial. Accept it as an overhang from the days when ‘Speedway’ was a double album, though, and all becomes clear. This is Wings’ chance to show off how well they can play away from the commercial mainstream and, while most fans are less than keen, as a Pink Floyd fanatic I’m thrilled to hear Wings tackling a slightly bonkers instrumental that’s all about atmosphere rather than histrionics. The title alone is alluring (mixing Westerns and sci-fi all in one go), the words are half-sung, half hummed over a creepy backing track full of scary guitars, brilliant drumming, scary Moody Blues-ish mellotrons that’s quite unlike anything else Wings ever made and this recording also features some of Paul’s best ever bass playing, completely disregarding what the rest of the band are playing. The instrumental goes through many shifts that sound like a horror movie moving from danger to danger between scary shadows and empty passageways and the final, ringing, bass-leaping, guitar-stinging line of madness is a dead ringer for the Floyd circa 1968 (either ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’ or ‘One Of These Days’). There’s an early mix of the song, (without so much production fussyness) that’s better still, limiting the song to what the band played raw and revealing just what a strong band Wings were becoming in this period. Whilst I’m glad every song on ‘Red Rose Speedway’ wasn’t like this, ‘Loup’ is a fascinating signpost to what the band could have gone on to do and it’s sad that there aren’t more McCartney tracks out there as daring and as left-of-field as this one. I’m still amazed ‘Loup’ survived the cull when ‘Speedway’ got pushed down to a single album, though.
Ah yes, time for ‘The Medley’ and surely evidence that lightning doesn’t strike twice after the supposed success of the same idea on ‘Abbey Road’. Of the four succinct pieces only one (‘Lazy Dynamite’) sounds in anyway like a song that deserved to be built up into a proper piece in its own right and the other songs we have here are closer to ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and ‘Her Majesty’ for downright silliness and emptiness rather than ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ sadness or ‘Sun King’s beauty. ‘Hold Me Tight’ is first up and the only interesting thing to tell you about this deeply uninteresting song is that it’s the only time Paul ever wrote two songs with the same title (you can find the first ‘Hold Me Tight’ on ‘With The Beatles’ from ten years earlier and, frankly, they’re both about as inspired as each other). The opening piano lick sounds like ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ but, honestly that’s about as inspired as we get on a song that includes clichéd strummed ukuleles, lazy underwater vocal effects and no less than 23 repeats of the title phrase in just 140 seconds (or one ‘Hold Me Tight’ for approximately every seven seconds of songtime, which must surely be come kind of record!) The highlights aren’t many but do include a fiery and for this album suspiciously clean and lean-sounding guitar solo which sounds to me as if it was done by Paul himself this time and some pretty lovely harmonies, especially Denny Laine’s part that manages to make him sound like a cheeky choir boy.
The most inventive part of the whole medley is the link into ‘Lazy Dynamite’, which doesn’t medley so much as crash headfirst into a completely different key, tempo and feel. A smoky, subdued song that builds to a brilliant shouting part in the middle, ‘Lazy Dynamite’ isn’t about the final bang so much as it’s about the tense build up waiting for the thing to explode. The lyrics – what there are of them – is about a slow-burning romance that suddenly catches fire after the pair have known each other for some time, although one of them is lagging behind the other (‘So why do you fight that feeling in your heart?’ is a pretty good line for a climax too). The ever versatile Denny Seiwell provides the mouthorgan part, ducked surprisingly low in the mix, while Henry McCullough gets such little space for his guitar solo he actually crashes into the next chorus. Compared to the songs either side of it, this makes for exciting stuff/. However even ‘Lazy Dynamite’ isn’t up to most of the songs on the ‘Abbey Road Medley’, lacking any real depth or progression and like the other three songs is woefully repetitive (this time the title is repeated twelve times inside in 160 seconds, or one ‘Lazy Dynamite’ for every 13 seconds of music).
The segue into ‘Hands Of Love’ is appalling, the song simply falling away on a rather rough guitar part that sounds like a mistake to me, Frankly so is this song, which is easily the worst song McCartney had written up to this point (although having heard ‘Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey’ again the other day I’m tempted to add that one too). This is Paul at his most falsely charming, with a twee catchy melody that sounds like a commercial than a song and some truly toe-curling harmonies between Paul and Linda (who don’t get anywhere near the amount of chances to show off their blend on ‘Speedway’ as they did on ‘Ram’ or ‘Wildlife’). As for multi-dubbed Paul’s doing his impressions of trumpets on the ‘instrumental’ well, let’s just say that this makes ‘We All Stand Together’ look like the work of a genius and not a very disappointed King’s Singers trying to sound like a bunch of frogs. Lyrics? Have a go at writing what you’d expect this song to sound like from the title. Chances are not only would yours be highly accurate, it would almost certainly be better too. This time, by the way, the phrase ‘Hands Of Love’ is repeated eight times for 160 seconds of music (so one per 20 seconds, which is the best we get for the whole medley!) Not till ‘Ringo’s Rogatravure’ did a Beatle sink so low... When I think about the classic songs from these sessions left on the cutting room floor or relegated to B-sides (‘The Mess’ ‘Country Dreamer’ ‘I Lie Around’ ‘1882’ ‘Mama’s Little Girl’, heck any of them!) I really could cry.
Last up is ‘Power Cut’, which is an improvement in the same way that The Spice Girls’ ‘Forever’ is an improvement on ‘Wannabe’: at least the song makes sense this time but its all so obvious and pointlessly slow that its only an improvement comparatively speaking. Years later Paul revealed that he wrote the song during a real cut, the one caused by the miner’s strike of 1973 when he couldn’t watch TV, and years later still revealed that he wrote ‘Great Day’ – the opening track from 1997’s ‘Flaming Pie’ – on the same night (reminded of the song by yet another power cut on his Scottish farm during a storm). The title phrase isn’t repeated this time but the chorus is heard no less than 13 times (making it one per 15 seconds of song – and that’s with a minute long instrumental finale!) Frankly, while ‘Great Day’ is no classic either, Macca released the wrong song (again!): slowed to a crawl, with some insensible ‘Baby I love you so me I love you so’ lyrics over the top and an orchestra buried in the mix, this song tries to go for the big power ending, but Paul’s forgotten how to write one. Even the attempts to relate the medley back to the first three songs are embarrassing: the songs are so light and so similar that I still struggle to work out which guitar solos quote from which track now after listening to this album for 30 years; ask an increasingly frustrated fanbase to do the same instantly and you’re asking for trouble. At least when ‘Band On The Run’ did the same it seemed to make some kind of thematic sense, but at the heart of it none of these songs belong together so the ‘magic trick’ of mixing them altogether simply doesn’t work. Listen to this song back to back with ‘Back Seat Of My Car’ from two albums ago (one of the best examples of how to finish an album, with exhilarating false endings and everything) and you have to ask yourself: what on earth went wrong with this medley? Even accepting that it was rushed (and added to the album at the last minute when the rest of Wings were already heading off to their first gig of a new tour), surely it’s obvious to everyone that far from bringing a weight and depth to the album a medley of off-cuts that having been given the proper work they need to be turned into stand-alone songs is just going to make matters worse. In 1973, after a debut album that wasn’t so much disliked as sacrificed on a burning fire of anti-Beatles anger by the critics, Wings needed a second album that would knock everyone’s socks off. Medleys that repeat their titles a total of 56 times per 11 minutes (almost once per five seconds) are no substitute for proper songwriting and quite honestly this medley is a quarter of the album running time wasted needlessly for no good reason at all that I can see.
A sorry ending to an up-and-down album, that’s ‘Red Rose Speedway’. Flashes of genius sit next to moments of tedium and it’s like someone has put Paul McCartney’s brain into a cocktail shaker and pulled bits out at random. All that said, when this album works it really works and I struggle to see why so many critics have been quite as down on what to me are glorious inventive songs like ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’ and ‘Loup’ (even if I have to agree with everything they say about the medley). I have a soft spot in my heart for Wings’ back catalogue that even The Beatles’ collection can’t quite match: while clearly not up to the standards of Macca’s former band, Wings have a lot to offer that critics and fans often miss and their mixture of polished production and human mistakes makes them a band that you’re almost routing for across a whole LP. Had ‘Red Rose Speedway’ been released as a double album as intended - or even had the medley been swapped for one or two of the harder-edges rockers like ‘The Mess’ – then I’d have walked away from this album feeling like ‘my’ band had just won an important match. Instead they lose on penalties, whilst having most of their players sent off and scuppering their own game just on the verge of success. Still, though, that awful medley aside, is this album really that much worse than ‘Band On The Run’? (after all, I can’t say I like ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ anymore than I like ‘Hands Of Love’). Not quite beautiful enough to be a rose and certainly not exhilarating enough to be termed ‘speedy’ ‘Red Rose Spedway’ is a curate’s egg of an album, one whose truly terrible mistakes only makes the flashes of true, workable inspiration worse somehow. Let’s hope that the McCartney Deluxe editions get onto ‘Speedway’ soon and add a CD or three of the songs ‘missing’ from this album and we can promote it to the top half of the McCartney canon.