Monday, 19 May 2014
"Wings at the Speed Of Sound" (1976)
Let 'Em In/The Note You Never Wrote/She's My Baby/Beware My Love/Wino Junko//Silly Love Songs/Cook Of The House/Time To Hide/Must Do Something About It/San Ferry Anne/Warm And Beautiful
Someone's knocking at the door, somebody's ringing the bell, do me a favour, open the door - and tell them you're busy reading about 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' and you don't wish to be disturbed for the next hour or three! We've got a lot to get through, reader, you and I because 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' is one of the most misunderstood albums of the lot, one of those records that's loved and loathed in equal measure by fans and critics alike. (Talking of misunderstandings, my spellchecker hilariously re-named this album 'Wigs At The Speed Of Sound', inspiring the whole of this week's pun-based top thirty, see below). Wings album number five, 'Sound' should have been the moment where the band make their breakthrough to the big-time, released on the back of their all-conquering 'Wings Over The World' tour and - shockingly - for the only time in Wings' history there is stability too, with no line-up changes since last LP 'Venus and Mars'. If you were planning Wings' career on paper then this is the moment when you reckon they should have hit the big-time, following two colossally big albums and featuring no less than two top five singles (one more than any other McCartney album in his history, with the one exception of 'Band On The Run' which contained three). Even the album title 'At The Speed Of Sound' - and the fact that for the first time since 'Wildlife' there's no mention of McCartney on the album sleeve, very suitably as it turns out on the most democratic of Wings LPs - oozes confidence, a band now confident of their past and going places in the present. So why, then, is 'Speed Of Sound' the Wings album that always tends to get forgotten?
Well, for good or bad (and as ever on this site's it's a little bit of both) this is the Wings album that's most democratic. Critics had been saying since 'Wildlife' that Wings wasn't a 'proper' band because Paul did most of the writing and singing, forgetting the fact that until now Wings had never been a band stable enough to pull in so many different directions (the closest came on 'Red Rose Speedway' - originally planned as a double LP - when only Henry McCullough was new to the band before Macca got cold feet; as we said in our review for that album it's a shame because it would have been so much better) -with so many unknown quantities Paul would have been foolish to become anything else except the front-man. With the comments from critics that Wings are just a bunch of session men ringing in his ears, though, and having been throiugh thick and thin with them out on the road McCartney seems determined to show off Wings as a democratic band on this record, fixing a template that had obviously been working even when it wasn't broken. Naturally the critics and a lot of fans didn't like this development either and on paper this idea looks stupid too - like getting Ringo in to write and front a whole album when you have the likes of Lennon and McCartney in the band. What's surprising about 'Speed of Sound' though - and was probably even more so to McCartney - is how good suddenly the rest of the band suddenly are. Denny Laine is of course an Alan's Album Archive favourite whatever of the many AAA bands he's in and is on career top form here, with his greatest 'Wings' song and greatest 'Wings' vocal (though actually on one of Paul's) of his career. Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch follows up his well-regarded song from 'Venus and Mars' with as near-as-possible sequel that's another album highlight. Linda McCartney naturally gets a song too, although sadly it's not up to the gems she was writing before and after ('Oriental Nightfish' or 'Seaside Woman' would have beaten everything here hands-down). Most impressively of all drummer Joe English gets his one and only chance to sing lead on a Wings album and shows off a pretty, radio-friendly voice that deserved to have been heard a lot more. With the pressure taken off him, Macca is also frequently at his best too, adding some of his finest touches of the Wings era, from a particularly inventive bass riff here to a triumphant backing vocal there. The greatest thing about this whole record is that suddenly Wings do sound like a 'real' band - and a cracking one at that.
However, a less kind way of looking at Wings' new democracy is that Paul simply isn't up to the job anymore, suffering an awful run of songwriting block that goes back to the later Venus and Mars sessions and won't lift until Wings are out on their boats making 'London Town' (he's always struggled with writing on tours -it's not until the Beatles abandon touring in 1966 that he truly comes into his own as a writer). Clearly proud of 'Venus and Mars' and still singing from it's cool reception from the critics (even if it was a huge seller) Paul sounds more unsure of himself here than at any time until 'Press To Play'. While every McCartney album features some mistake somewhere (some more than one) never has Paul delivered such a complete lot of duff, generic, un-ambitious songs. 'Let 'Em In' was originally written for Ringo to sing and should have been a B-side at best (in fact it's nowhere close to the impressive run of B-sides Wings had been recording up till now). Rocker 'Beware My Love' succeeds to some extent thanks to a performance crackling with tension and a deranged vocal, but is lyrically uninspired. 'San Ferry Anne' and 'Warm and Beautiful' are the work of a clever writer whose learnt enough craft to get him by on autopilot. Even 'Silly Love Songs' - the one song from this album with McCartney vocals everyone mutual assumes to be a 'classic' and one of the album highlights - is a glossy self-parody, a less than confident gesture defending Paul's reputation for writing 'love songs' to an audience who largely loved him for it anyway (it would be unthinkable for, say, Lennon to write a similar apology when faced with charges of writing so many songs of political unrest). The two other genuinely inventive additions to the McCartney canon are squandered by giving them over to other people to sing: yes Denny and Joe more than do justice to 'The Note You Never Wrote' and 'I Must Do Something About It', but why is one of rock and roll's top five greatest singers of all time handing his best material over to them and instead keeping his worst songs to himself? (There is a take of 'Something About It' with Macca's lead vocal doing the rounds on Youtube and it's fabulous - let's hope both that any guide vocal takes of 'Note' with Paul on lead end up on the 'deluxe' edition of this album sometime in the future).
Another thing that looks great on paper is the thought of getting Hipgnosis to do the cover. The hippest album sleeve merchants on the planet, they were fresh from doing the sleeves for all the post-1967 Pink Floyd albums and most of the 10cc ones. With an album title better suited to Hipgnosis' whimsy than most and a growing reputation for eye-catching yet oddball album covers (what is the one for 'Red Rose Speedway' all about?!) this should have been a match made in heaven. Instead the cover is easily Hipgnosis' dullest for anybody, simply a lot of red lettering over what looks like graph paper. The back cover finally gets round to acknowledging the album title, but even then is clunky and distinctly off-putting, with blurred shots of the band members moving 'at speed' overlaid on top of each other (poor Linda gets a particularly rough deal from the photographer). Perhaps Storm Thorgerson and his buddies simply didn't 'get' Wings - their follow-up cover for the live album 'Wings Over America' is similarly unimaginative and weak.
Still, no McCartney album is without merit - well not until as late as 2003's 'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard' anyway - and in a way it's a relief to hear Wings not trying so hard: both 'Red Rose Speedway' and 'Venus and Mars' have a real look-at-me production that gets in the way of actually pretty strong material by and large. Interestingly 'Speed of Sound' is one of only two McCartney LPs from the 1970s to be cut in England (the other being 'Red Rose Speedway') and yet it has the sort of flaired, polished sound you'd usually expect from an American studio ('Venus and Mars' for instance, is the epitome of an 'American' sounding LP, despite the outer space setting). 'Speed of Sound' has the opposite problem: it's such a cleverly produced album, treading just the right thin line between laidback groove and glossy hi-jinks that compared to its fellow 1976 AAA brethren (the Stones' 'Black and Blue', 10cc's 'How Dare You!', The Beach Boys' '15 Big Ones' and the Stills/Young Band's 'Long May You Run') it sounds both remarkable clear and remarkably busy (the sign of a good production). The grit of Joe English's drums and the bite and steel in McCulloch's guitar are among the best landscapes Paul's expressive voice has ever had and a full year and a world tour after 'Venus and Mars' this is a band who knows it too. Yes the material might be the weakest of all of Wings' albums (give or take 'Back To The Egg') but the performances are tighter and the production sympathetic - not something you can say about many Wings records (by contrast next album 'London Town' may well be Wings' strongest in terms of songs but the slick production sadly takes the grit out of much of the music -let's hope a good remix and a disc of demos and early takes will restore that album's reputation by the time Macca gets round to it in his 'deluxe' series). Equally, 'Speed of Sound' never pretends to be something it isn't, in comparison to 'Venus and Mars', 'London Town', even the second side of 'Band On The Run'. Punk came along in 1977 to wipe out exactly those sorts of prog rock-style albums that pretended to be bigger than they were - by contrast 'Speed of Sound' is a 'mere' pop album, shallower than usual but depending on your taste not necessarily the worse for that.
That said, fans then and now have insisted on making 'Speed Of Sound' a 'concept' album, a sort of 'day in the life of the McCartneys' that starts with a load of neighbours, friends and family banging on the door for a party and ending with Paul and Linda tucked up in bed gazing into each other's eyes. Throughout the party each member of Wings gets to do his 'party piece' which effectively acts like the listener is hearing them in 'conversation' - that makes sense when Linda is in the kitchen a-cooking up a treat but the fact that elsewhere Denny is moping about a lost girlfriend and 'hiding' in the cellar, Joe is singing about being all alone and Jimmy is in the toilet shooting up (according to the lyrics of 'Wino Junko' anyway) suggests that this party isn't necessarily a place you want to hang out. To be honest, there's even less of a story here than there was on 'Venus and Mars' with its tale of space visitors witnessing life on earth starting with a rock concert (which gives up in-between the first two tracks and the reprise, just as 'Sgt Peppers' once did) but that hasn't stopped a lot of fans of thinking of 'Speed of Sound' this way. Until the time when I get invited to one of McCartney's parties (with all the surviving members of Wings on tow) I'll decline to comment.
What I will say is that there's a noticeable absence at this party who was usually the life and soul of a McCartney get together (just have a look at the 'James Paul McCartney' TV special of 1973) and surprisingly isn't mentioned in the lyrics to 'Let 'Em In': Paul's dad Jim. After all it makes sense he should be present: his other son Michael and even his sister-in-law Auntie Gin are there. Sadly McCartney senior was very poorly from bronchitis during the making of this record and in fact passed away exactly a week after this album was released. Paul didn't even get to attend the funeral as Wings had only just started up the colossal second half of their world tour. All the Beatle clan had interesting relationships with their families (Aunt Mimi's outward dismissal but inward pride and awe at John's achievements, the indifference of George's dad and adoration of his mum, who was famous for inviting fans in for cups of tea and Ringo's mum's sheer bewilderment at her son's sudden fame) but Paul and Jim probably stayed the closest after the Beatles moved to London. A musician himself long before his two sons were born, Jim veered from being the most anti-Beatles to the most pro somewhere about the time Brian Epstein got involved. Officially Paul has never written a song for his dad (despite writing several for his mum) although fans have often declared both 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' from next album 'London Town' and 'Motor Of Love' from 'Flowers In The Dirt' ('Heavenly father look down from above') as being about Jim. While there' nothing specific on 'Speed of Sound' there does feel a certain absence here somehow, as if the party is trying to carry on as before despite the fact that a giant presence is missing. 'Warm and Beautiful' - now associated with Linda since an orchestral arrangement of it was played at her funeral in 1998 - works just as well as a eulogy for McCartney senior and is actually closer in style to the jazz-tinged brass pieces his dad used to play than 'You Never Gave Me The Answer' 'Honey-Pie' and 'When I'm Sixty-Four', the three McCartney songs written as warm pastiches of music he used to play in his own 'Jim Mac's Band' (Ditto 'San Ferry Anne' although that lyric has nothing obvious to do with Paul's dad). 'The Note You Never Wrote' - a song given to Denny to sing, remember, as if it's too personal to sing - is about never getting closure on a relationship and 'Beware My Love' is a warning about the dangers of life lurking to get us with every step, although it never actually gets round to telling us what those dangers are (my guess is it's a warning to Jimmy McCulloch's about his increasing drug habit as much as anything). Anyway, much as 'Speed of Sound' tries hard to sound like a simple pop album -and succeeds for the most part - I don't seem to be the only fan who hears something darker and nastier lurking just out of earshot across this record. This might all be nonsense of course - Jim didn't die till after the album's release after all - but he had been poorly for much of the past year and must have been on his son's subconscious mind a lot during the making of this record, if not his conscious one.
Sadly 'Speed Of Sound' is the last full flight for Wings Mark II. They'll start 'London Town' a quintet and end it as a trio, which is particularly sad given the promise shown on this album and that the 'McCulloch'-half of that album is easily the best material the middle line-up of the band had to work with. McCartney will never again give over quite so much album time to other people (even future co-writers Eric Stewart, Elvis Costello and Hamish Stuart will get backing vocals at best) and to Paul at least this album seems to have been a bit of a 'failed experiment'. However, while generally less loved in McCartney's canon than, say, 'Band On The Run' or 'Ram' 'Speed of Sound' was a big seller, actually improving on sales for 'Venus and Mars' in the Unites States and would in fact have eclipsed 'Band On The Run' had the title track not been released late on as a single, bumping the album up to the top of the charts for a second run. The wonderfully clear production and the real togetherness of the band mean that 'Speed Of Sound' was tailor-made for rock-friendly radio and the harder edge heard on both 'Beware My Love' and 'Wino Junko' got a lot of notice too. By McCartney's high standards, however, too much of 'Speed of Sound' feels like filler, there are no instant classics beloved by everyone (one of the closest candidates isn't even sung by its composer) and there's a general air of 'this will do', which makes for a refreshing change from the 'look at me' aura of 'Venus and Mars' admittedly but sells even the little this album has going for it short. If this is what being at the speed of sound is like (and amazingly the speed of sound still seems to be paced at 33 and a third revolutions per minute by the way), then I'm taking the bus.
All that said, take McCartney out of the equation and this might well be the best Wings album: Denny Laine is on superb form, the others have splendid cameos give or take a detour into the kitchen and throughout the record the band are tighter and clearly have more say than at any time before or since. Frankly, it's a shock that their contributions are so good and hearing so many pros on top form makes you understand a bit more just how grating the rest of the band must have felt when McCartney got given all the credit for the band's success and then told them what to do note for note in the studio. The sheer bravery in giving the album over to so many different voices should be applauded and should in theory have been exactly what Wings needed in the long-term, even if the band imploded anyway around a year later and this album turned into a bit of a cul-de-sac rather than a re-arranging of history as planned. In short, with so much space to fill on a guaranteed heavy seller and with a critical eye they'd never have had put on them in any other band, Wings outdo themselves and 'Speed Of Sound' is a key album,. if only for proving that McCartney was surrounding himself with as much talent as he could instead of taking the 'easy' route and hiring a bunch of adoring fans to play on his records. But we have the same problem here that we have with the post-1998 Oasis albums when Noel Gallagher only wrote half the album or the Rolling Stones in the late 1970s when Mick Jagger's coping with Keith Richard's drug-induced writer's block: However brilliant the deception, however interesting the filler used to replace the cracks and however great the chance to really hear a writer who doesn't usually get so much space to show off their skills, there's no substitute for genius. Both sets of examples generally get short shrift from critics and I seem to be alone in liking them sometimes - to be honest the way I see it is that I'd rather have a slightly lesser wattage on the lightbulb and have a room filled with music last longer than have that light turned off for good (I'm a sucker for a good reunion album me - even if there's only one good song on it that's one more that would have existed had a band never got back together again). But there's no substitute for true inspiration: Denny and Jimmy are both as inspired as ever of course and Joe's singing and drumming might well be the surprise revelation of the whole album, but Paul's light is flickering and there's a great big empty hole at the heart of this record that even two cleverly constructed hit singles can't fill. Given that 'Back To The Egg' shows promise in places on Paul's songs - however badly fudged the results most of the time - that leaves 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' as their worst record, with McCartney at his lowest point artistically until 'Flaming Pie' in 1997, however enjoyable the two singles and however fine the band's contributions.
Ding Dong! Has there ever been a more Paul McCartney-esque song than the chirpy 'Let 'Em In'? Not withstanding the fact that this song started life as a song for Ringo (before being replaced with the less interesting and even more McCartney-esque ballad 'Pure Gold' for his 1976 LP 'Ringo's Rotogravure'), this song is the epitome of Macca's good-time charm. While John spent most Beatle parties snarling at guests, Ringo was on the dancefloor and George tried to go home at the first opportunity, Paul's always loved mingling with people. The stories of McCartney family get-togethers are legendary and Paul attended most of them, long after he was famous. It's a surprise, then, that it was as late as 1976 that Paul wrote a song like this, extending a musical handshake to friends and family (the guests in order: 'Sister Suzie' is imaginary, 'Brother John' just has to be Lennon, 'Martin Luther' was one of Lennon's favourite names, 'borrowed' from both the Catholic Priest and Civil Rights leader born 500-odd years apart and who frequently had 'requests' for songs during 'Let It Be' jamming sessions, 'Phil and Don' are the Everly Brothers (two more natural party goers, at least in the 1970s), 'Brother Michael' is Paul's real brother Mike McCartney, 'Scaffold' member and photographer and finally 'Auntie Gin' is Paul's real Auntie (on his mum's side), an early supporter of Paul's musical talent (Beatles song 'I've Just Seen Her Face' had the working title 'Auntie Gin's theme for weeks because Paul played to his aunty and 'she really liked it'!) - whose name is also a neat rhyme for the phrase 'Let' Em In'). That's one hell of a line-up for a party, a kind of 'desert island discs' of some of Paul's favourite people.
Sharing many similarities with the equally gormless charm of Wings B-side 'C Moon' (a 'fan favourite' Macca might have been trying to replicate), 'Let 'Em In' is a fun song full of the simple yet magical arrangement touches Paul made his name with (the opening doorbell - genuinely taken from Paul's Cavendish house, the military drummers who march through the door for no reason than to shake the song up a bit, Denny Laine's impressive backing vocals as if 'heard from the next room', the apparent fadeout before the song crashes in for one final blaring note like a hangover the next morning). Many an AAA band has had a go at recreating a 'party' atmosphere in the studio and they usually get it badly wrong (see Godley and Creme's worst track 'The Party' from 'Ismism' in 1986 and the whole of 'The Beach Boys Party' album) - but 'Let 'Em In' does a great job of re-creating the atmosphere of a party, moving from slightly awkward opening silences to the fun revelry of the middle and the half-collapse from exhaustion near the end. Had this song become a B-side like 'C Moon' or even an album track it would have been one of those minor gems in the McCartney canon fans come to know and love. The problem comes with releasing this song as a single, at just the time when Wings needed a strong gutsy rocker to get the critics back onside: lyrically and musically this is McCartney's simplest release since 'Get Back' in 1970 and there isn't even a strong hook or a no-frills performance to see us through as per that record. The opening verse ('Someone's knocking at the door...') is repeated four times and in total the song has only two verses anyway: hardly enough back in the days of the old two minute single but here the whole song is pointlessly padded out to the 5:10 mark. Musically, too, there isn't enough variety here, Paul sticking rigidly to his 'hello Goodbye' style piano riff and the only really interesting musical touch is the horn parts from Wings' touring section (apparently they came up with it themselves, Paul rather patronisingly telling the press that 'this way they can really get behind it because it's their bit'). Fittingly perhaps, this is a party buffet when most fans were anticipating a hearty meal and whole far from Paul's worst song (or even his worst song on this album) 'Let 'Em In' may well be the biggest disappointment because so much effort seems to have been spent sprucing up a song that by his high standards is merely average. Easily the weakest of Wings' impressive run of singles barring 'Mary Had A Little Lamb', 'Let 'Em In' is one of those parties that starts off with a bang but rather fizzles out. A bit of an inauspicious start to the album. AAA fans might be interested to learn that Macca re-recorded the song as 'Inside Thing' for Lulu's album of duets 'Together' and with a tighter rhythmic groove it actually improves on the original, for all of 30 seconds before the awful rapping section starts ('With Paul Mac and Lulu, shouting out the new school, for things that are still cool...')
'The Note You Never Wrote' is one of the hidden gems of the album, however, a McCartney song so unlike any in his canon that he gave it to Denny to sing (again patronisingly telling the music press that Denny's earlier songs for Wings had been 'a bit too lightweight' - this coming from someone whose just spent five whole minutes listing his guests and telling us to open the door over and over). A real prog rock song that you just don't hear anymore, 'Note' would have been perfect for Pink Floyd or the Moody Blues, high on atmosphere and making full use of the studio's electronic trickery buttons. Like many a song on the album, 'Note' is about loss, the narrator hearing only long after the event that a girl he fancied really loved him before seemingly turning into a smuggler in the last even more opaque verse. There's even a reference to the 'Mayor Of Baltimore' in the second verse for no apparent reason (it would have been William Donald Schaefer in 1976, incidentally, but Baltimore is one of the few cities Wings never played in during their 'Wings Over America' tour and McCartney never actually played there till the 1990s): in context the surly line 'as I'm sure you'll know' seems like a joke about the line's obscurity. Like many a confusing McCartney song, however, it doesn't matter: you 'feel' the song's isolation and frustration in the cavernous empty spaces, wailing banshees (Wings' harmonies were rarely better or more other-worldly) and howling electronic effects more than you understand it from the lyrics. One of Wings' best band performances, the shimmering, eerie feel is complemented well by Denny Laine's classy little-boy-lost vocal (McCartney perhaps correctly guessing that his partner had more of a knack for this style than his own, more usually more confident vocals) and one of Jimmy McCulloch's best guitar solos, sizzling with heartbreak (again very Pink Floyd-esque - Wings must have really been paying attention back in the 'Red Rose Speedway' days when the pair were sharing Abbey Road for a month). Moody and magnificent, 'The Note You Never Wrote' is the sound of Wings really stretching what their sound - had the album featured more recordings like this one it could potentially have really accelerated them to one of the decade's top regarded bands in the wake of their all-conquering world tour.
'She's My Baby' is pure McCartney again, however. One of the silliest of his many silly love songs, it marvels at the way his 'baby' can turn from a lion into a kitten at a moment's notice and how much he loves her company. Most fans and critics naturally assign the character to Linda ('She's a woman!' Paul chuckles with glee at one stage, neatly mirroring his old Beatles B-side), but I'd hazard a guess that Paul is talking about one or all of his daughters here (when this album came out Heather was 13, Mary 7 and Stella 5). Certainly to me the references to late nights and early mornings suggests a baby (or that the party from 'Let 'Em In' went on a bit) and the sudden switches of mood do too. You also wonder why if this is a straight-forward love song Paul's narrator would be 'mopping up' after a girlfriend, but perhaps we'd best not go there. If my guess is right then 'She's My Baby' is the last in a long run of songs written for Paul's children, with the same talk-patter and cutesy melody of many a kid's LP and features some typically 'proud dad' lyrics from family-driven dad (Paul's marvel that already his baby daughter has a 'rhythm' and is already half a musician, even in her sleep - although as it happens it's son James, born in 1977, who'll be the 'musician' of the McCartney clan). Paul's vocal is also similar to the 'daft dad' ones he puts on for 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' and 'The Frog Chorus' - actually it gets really irritating if you listen to this song too many times in a row as I'm doing now. Wings just about get by, though, thanks to another fine band performance: Joe English's drums are all over this silly, simple little song, Denny's backing vocals are a superb match for Paul's as ever and most surprisingly of all Jimmy revels in this nonsense song so far removed from his own taste, providing some tasteful guitar fills. You have to say, though, that 'She's My Baby' is ultimately too frothy to be one of the real highlights of the McCartney catalogue and even at a comparatively short 3:07 has outstayed it's welcome long before the end.
'Beware My Love' is the best McCartney song-and-vocal on the album but again gets by more through the sheer charisma of the performance than the material itself. The 'epic' of the 'Speed of Sound' album, it's a cross between the two previous versions: the funky but multi-part 'Rock Show' from 'Venus and Mars' and the 'abstract' 'Picasso's Last Words'. The song starts promisingly with strummed acoustic guitars and more fine Wings harmonies before turning into what sounds more like The Who than Wings. Nicely raw, only the keyboards, backing vocals and Paul's nicely demented lead part were overdubbed - everything else is as you hear it, which is deeply unusual for Wings (they hadn't done this since 'Wildlife' and the effect works rather better here, with a band who know each other that much better). Lyrically, the song is a warning that's clearly heartfelt given Macca's deranged vocal but to who and why is seemingly deliberately made unclear ('Don't know - who does?') Usually when McCartney is covering something 'up' in his songs he's really talking about drugs, but this song sounds more like acting, the narrator getting into a twist over an affair that never happened ('I don't believe that he's the one, but if you insist I must be wrong!') that he forsees ending up in murder ('He'll sweep you up, under his carpet'). An interesting twist on B-side 'Oh Woman Oh Why' where she murders him in similar circumstances! Whatever the meaning on the verses, however, it's the threatening 'beware my love' chorus that sticks in the memory, Wings sounding even more eerie than they did on 'Note' and their three-part angelic choir sounding more than just an overdub apart from the mayhem going on underneath them. While slightly more heavy-footed and unsure than the similar seemingly effortless rocking out on 'Rock Show' an album before, it's great to hear Wings at their earthy, powerful best without all the usual surface gloss and the song builds up to a great rock and roll climax with thudding drums, Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano attacks and lots and lots of feedback. Another album highlight - the second half of Wings' career might have been better had they contained more songs like these.
'Wino Junko' ends the first side with Jimmy McCulloch's second and last song for Wings and like the first ('Medicine Jar') it's clearly a 'drugs' song with only a few disguises to keep innocent fans out of the loop. Again the words are actually by Colin Allen, Jimmy's bandmate in 'Stone The Crows', the ill-fated and under-rated early 1970s band who all seemed to die young but they fit Jimmy's lifestyle equally well (Jimmy will die from a drugs overdose just three years after the release of this album). 'Medicine Jar' was written as a warning to a second person, as if to distance Jimmy from the stark facts of his life, but 'Wino Junko' goes even further by being a third person about a 'fictional' character 'eyes aglow' who can't say no to any stimulant even while he knows it brings him pain. Interestingly the fault for it lies with the surrounding characters as much as the main narrator: 'Dr Tom' is such a doddery old fool that he forgets what drugs he's signed off for - and even though the narrator is taking advantage of the fact he can't resist a dig at how casually his life is in the balance for other people. Allen comes up with some wonderful short staccato verses that both conjure up the reality of life lived this way and yet also sound poetical and Haiku-like, as if they're all part of rock's mythical legends and are an inevitable part of life ('Play with fire, getting higher, higher than a nine-foot flame'). Note, though, that the song doesn't try to cover up the downside of life - it's terribly eerie to hear Jimmy, with three years left on his life, sing lines like 'ain't scared to die, it's such a high' with such weary resignation in his voice that you know he's though the matter through often and still can't find a way out, too hooked is he on the 'brighter' side of the drug addiction flame (an electronically treated voice starts intoning what sounds like 'fuck you fuck you' at the 4 minute mark, giving the effect of Jimmy laughing at himself). Musically McCulloch replicates both the schizophrenia and detachment of the lyrics, with a sing-songy melody McCartney would have been proud of and a melody that tries hard to be breezy but keeps tripping over its feet, onomatopoeically 'falling down' at the end of every verse when the drugs wear off, sung at a slightly slower than expected tempo that makes the whole song blurred and hazy. In fact rumour has it that the reason this album is called 'At The Speed Of Sound' was because the whole band were high as kites, not just Jimmy! Listening to this song, 'Medicine Jar' and Jimmy's own single 'Too Many Miles' (released under the telling Cocaine-tinged name 'White Line') though you have to wonder why no one stepped in to help - apparently many people did offer help, including McCartney, but Jimmy had been a rock star since he was in Thunderclap Newman at the age of 15 and had simply spent too long living the rock star to go any other way. Sadly, despite leaving Wings to work with Steve Marriott and then become a part of the Small Faces reunion, 'Wino Junko' is the last meaningful music Jimmy recorded before succumbing to his drug habit. Possibly deliberately sequenced on the album after Paul's own 'warning' song 'Beware My Love', 'Wino Junko' is a clever but uncomfortable sounding song that makes for a fine sequel to the still slightly superior 'Medicine Jar' and adds a needed touch of darkness to this album's first side.
Start side two, though, and it's as if the dark side never happened. 'Silly Love Songs' is another majestically crafted McCartney song that strikes all the right hit single notes (a great bass riff - one of Paul's best since 'Sgt Peppers', a singalong simple chorus, more stunning Wings harmonies and a theme that's easy to understand).One of Wings' higher charting singles, 'Silly Love Songs' has 'hit single' written all over it and is easily the best known track on the album. By McCartney's standards, though, this song too sounds rushed, with only the marvellous 'round' featuring Paul, Linda and Denny singing different lines on top of each other going anywhere other than the place you'd expect from hearing the first note. For such a romantic song, however, 'Silly Love Songs' has quite a defensive tone quite un-keeping with the atmosphere of the track at times ('Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs - and what's wrong with that?') and makes more sense if you treat it as a last-gasp 'bite' in the ongoing Lennon-McCartney feud (John telling the music press that he'd given up listening to his partner's work because it was 'all just silly love songs' - Lennon clearly hadn't bought 'Give Ireland Back To The Irish' or 'Live and Let Die' then). Spurred on by his partner for perhaps the last time, Macca seems to have been determined to make this record show off everything Paul could do well that John couldn't: a great melody that sounds like it's been around for centuries, a brass and string arrangement to die for and a neatly cosy set of lyrics that Lennon only got near when he was acting 'humble' on songs like 'Jealous Guy' or 'Bless You'. McCartney's ability to casually create hit songs was rarely stronger than it is here and 'Silly Love Songs' is hard to dislike, a catchy collection of riffs and hooks that lesser gifted composers would give their first pianos to replicate. However, McCartney is at his best when he's singing from his heart as well as his very clever head and more than usual in his solo career 'Silly Love Songs' badly needs the input of Lennon to make itself meaningful as well as beautiful. Effectively a cross one-liner about 'silly love songs' being the backbone of song-writing down the centuries, this single is ultimately more a chance to show off than anything. Lacking the wit of 'Listen To What The Man Said', the emotional warmth of 'With A Little Luck' or the arranging exhilaration of 'Band On The Run' to name just three of the Wings singles either side of it, 'Silly Love Songs' is exactly the sort of song that was always going to sell millions of copies - and yet exactly the sort of song that was going to make the likes of Lennon turn round and go 'so?!' Personally I prefer the re-recording made in 1984 for 'Give My Regards For Broad Street' that features a slightly more 'normal' mix (the bass and drums were pushed loud in 1976 in the hope that 'Silly Love Songs' would be popular with the 'dancing' crowd) although there isn't really much difference (apparently McCartney tried a reggae version of the song for the film, but decided not finish it - perhaps mercifully it's one of his few solo recordings not to have been leaked by bootleggers).
'Cook Of The House' is, sadly, the only song of Linda's to make it onto a Wings album, despite the treasure trove of largely ignored and unreleased songs from the 1970s that came out posthumously on her one rather good solo album 'Wide Prairie'. A good half of the songs from that set show that Linda could have been the dark horse of Wings, capable of offering sweet silly songs that were actually funnier than her husband's ('Seaside Woman'), darker and a lot more adventurous than her husband's ('Oriental Nightfish') or that matched her husband's for sheer pop-related joy ('Appoloosa'). Sadly 'Cook Of The House' is the slightest of all Linda's compositions on that album and is unlikely to have given her husband any sleepless nights. A daft and deft song made up from lists of cooking ingredients and a hook 'stolen' from a fridge magnet the McCartneys saw one day ('No matter where I serve my guests they seem to like the kitchen best' - the song's one memorable line), it was apparently written in a hurry one note in a house the McCartney clan were renting during the Australian leg of their tour and all the spices listed in the song were there for real. Wings are clearly having fun during the recording, adding some trad jazz type vibes (that's the first appearance on a McCartney record of Bill Black's bass used on the session for Elvis' Heartbreak Hotel' and bought for Paul by Linda for his birthday), and some genuine cooking sound effects (again compare to Pink Floyd who used this trick for 'Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast' back in 1970). Linda' vocal is easily the worst of her 14 known recordings too - sharp and tinny, while the decision to mix this song into just mono in order to keep with the '1950s vibe' does her voice no favours (Paul and Denny sound great on backing vocals, however - and Paul's silly opening which apparently is 'Are you rocking a cat?' is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek). To put it bluntly, 'Cook Of The House' is major error by a band looking to further their rock credentials and needlessly hurt Linda's reputation as Wings' spare part whereas, as we know post 'Wide Prairie', an alternative universe could have conceivably featured her as Wings' lead singer and writer had Paul McCartney had less success in his first career. Easily the album's worst moment.
'Time To Hide' might well be the highlight, however, a classy Denny Laine song that suggests he took McCartney's dig about writing too many 'lightweight' songs to heart ('Hide was recorded near the end of the sessions and 'Note' at the beginning, so the timeline fits this theory). The highlight of the last quarter of Wings' live appearances on tour across 1977, it's a shame that Wings hadn't had more time to learn it here as they provide what's arguably the worst band performance of arguably the record's most Wings-y track (the 'Wings Over America' version of this song is terrific!) Only a slightly uncommitted air stops the recording from matching the brilliance of the song, although the fault doesn't seem to lien with Denny or Paul, who provides some of his best vocals and bass work of the whole album. Many of Denny's post-Wings song deal with the theme of solitude and peace and quiet (the excellent 'Reborn' is entirely based around this concept) and so it is with 'Time To Hide', a surprisingly paranoid-sounding song that picks up on the 'renegade' theme of both 'Band On The Run' and 'Beware My Love'. The narrator has to leave in a hurry, hiding from the law, but all he wants is to stay at home (could this song be about always being away on tour? The McCartneys had never taken to Denny's wife JoJo, who toured with the band in Wings' early days but was basically told to stay at home for the 1976 one). A song offering devotion despite difficult circumstances, this could easily have been a slow ballad of romantic devotion but instead is driven relentlessly forward, thanks to a superior McCartney bass line and a curious angular guitar riff that won't let Denny stop and get his breath back. Thankfully Denny tops a great song and a so-so recording with some impressive harmonica playing, his first on record since his work with the early Moody Blues eleven years before - far too long a gap for such a gutsy, erudite player of the instrument. All in all a welcome return for a writer and singer who'd gone unloved and overshadowed for far too long (this is, in fact, the first of only two Wings songs Denny was to fully write, without a co-credit to McCartney - the other being his final song for the group 'Again and Again and Again').
'Must Do Something About It' is the album's biggest surprise. The jaunty, breezy slightly country composition is the only McCartney song to go down this route apart from 'Sally G' and it's remarkably free from that song's self-conscious parodying air: in terms of pure unbridled empty-headed pop its one of the best things he ever wrote, certainly for Wings. The even bigger surprise is that the quiet under-rated drummer Joe English sings lead vocal on it - and he's remarkably good, possessing just the right goofy cheeky grin the song needs (Macca may have written it with Joe in mind, although that said he seems to have been the song's designated singer during the early sessions for the album judging by bootlegs). Joe had never sung lead on anything before and his harmony vocals were always placed miserably low in the mix on most Wings recordings (possibly so as not to get in the way of the blend Paul, Linda and Denny already had before he joined the group) - sadly he never got to be lead singer again, despite a post-Wings career back in the states as singer and drummer with the Joe English Band who sadly never made any records. Like 'Let 'Em In' the song sounds like a rattling good party, full of good time vibes and Mardi Gras style percussion, but the lyrics tell a different story despite English's audible grin, hiding a slab of woe-is-me melancholy behind a happy-go-lucky front. Tired of viewing sunsets alone, playing solitaire and dialling another friend who never answers the phone, the narrator is actually in quite a sorry state, vowing 'I must do something about it' despite the fact that he's clearly been in this way for some time and has never found a clear idea about what to do to put things right. Legend has it that English left the band (after McCulloch and following sessions for 'Mull Of Kintyre') because he was 'homesick', having left wife and kids in America. Had Paul written this song as a show of solidarity with the drummer? Or to try and stop him moaning? (or both?!) Either way 'About It' is a fine under-rated song from a fine under-rated singer and in a more stable band might well have been the start of a whole new avenue for Wings. Alas it wasn't to be, but it's great for us that English at least got one great cameo on a Wings record before leaving the band.
By comparison McCartney's vocal on his own 'San Ferry Anne' sounds professional but bored. So does the song - a perfectly crafted but terribly empty song about a spoilt brat of a kid that is at one with other 'inter-war' McCartney songs like 'Honey Pie' and 'You Never Gave Me The Answer'. This one, however, is even more irritating, possessing just three short verses and no real locks to unlock the title character, who is clearly unhappy in her privileged life but does nothing to gain our sympathy or understanding. A more developed version of the second verse (that has San Ferry Anne 'hiding behind a shell, dear' and desperate to break through it) might well have made for a better song and McCartney's trite resolution ('Let your feelings leap away into laughter') is hardly on the league of other 'lost soul' McCartney characters from 'Eleanor Rigby' down. At least McCartney's impression of the era is the best yet, with a joyous orchestral arrangement that's his best yet at picking up on the 'flappers' era so beloved of his dad and shows again that, had he born a generation earlier, McCartney would have been just as happy and just as successful, although it's a bit of a pain for his rock and roll fan-base to have to swallow. Wings' pastiche arrangement is accurate but clinical, with the only love and joy coming from the horn section who again excel themselves here (and may well have written their own parts once again - there's no credit on the album sleeve). All in all 'San Ferry Anne' is a clever pastiche of style that would have slotted well on a sprawling epic like 'The White Album' but seems rather out of place - and more than a little out of touch - here.
'Warm and Beautiful' ends the album on at least one typically McCartney-esque ballad and is generally recognised by most fans as the album's biggest hidden gem. Certainly Paul himself seems proud of the song, re-recording it in instrumental form for his 'Working Classical' album and arranging for the song to be played at Linda's funeral in 1998. However, to my ears it rings rather hollow: the kind of hymn-like ballad heavy rockers stick on their albums for a bit of variation rather than the instant classics the composer of 'yesterday' ought to be coming up with. Like a lot of the album, there's no variety here, simply a 16-note phrase repeated over and over with only a slight faltering middle eight to chew on. Lyrically, too, this sounds like it's written from Paul's head rather than his heart again, full of such poetic but un-sing-able lines as 'stands when time itself is calling' and 'moonlight on the water brings me inspiration ever after'. The one part that does ring true is the second verse about 'when your world is touched with sadness' - although whether this is acting again or Paul preparing for the death of his very poorly dad is left unsaid. A bleak guitar solo from a clearly rushed McCulloch suggests the latter and is the only real addition to McCartney's simple piano and vocal part, although in truth is a typically melodic McCartney song on autopilot, neither terribly warm nor all that beautiful compared to previous triumphs. Things are getting serious when Paul has lost is way even with the ballads!
That was 'Wings at the Speed of Sound', then. Far from the worst LP of 1976 (hardly a vintage year for any of the AAA brethren) it's simply tired and uninspired and a long way from Wings at full flight, whatever the title suggests. If you're patient, however, treat the two hit singles as likeable minor gems rather than two monstrously famous classics and you think like me that Denny Laine, Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English were all underused during their time in the band then there's still much to admire. Caught between two of the most overlooked albums in the McCartney canon, 'Speed of Sound' has less to offer the passionate collector than either record but I can see why some fans love it so - it is the closest McCartney came to writing a purely 'pop' album until the 1980s and doesn't have the same artifice of trying too hard like 'Venus and Mars' and 'London Town' do, even to a fan like me. It would have been nice to have had a couple of classic McCartney songs in addition to the handful he gave away on this record though. The first McCartney album released after Lennon's 'retirement', 'Speed Of Sound' suggests it wasn't giving John too many sleepless nights and sadly this missed opportunity is never really compensated for in the Wings canon, rifts between band members meaning that after flying at such high altitude Wings are back to a trio and then testing out another bunch of unknown musicians. What a shame that Wings Mark II only got two albums to really show what they could do (or one and a half in Joe English's case): on the evidence of this album alone 'Wings were a hip and happening band even without McCartney's contributions; imagine though how great this album could have been with the band leader pushed just as hard on his songs, though. A bit of a disappointment.