I vividly remember being at Scout camp in the summer of 1974. Amid all the fun and games involved with messing about unsupervised near (and occasionally in) fast flowing, deep water, making things out of wood with sharp knives and – inevitably – setting fire to things in the name of sitting around and singing songs which probably weren’t in Scouting for Boys, there was a copy of Band on the Run floating around.
Not the album, but someone had with them the single, with Zoo Gang on the B side. It was the first time I had seen the famous Apple label in the flesh; I remember being mesmerised by it, especially the flip side with the cut apple and the bright white flesh.
No, I have no idea why anyone had a record with them at camp. We were in a field in the middle of Glen Esk; there was no electricity, and I’m pretty sure if someone had a battery-powered or wind-up record player, I’d remember that. But there it was; I can picture the field, where our tent was, and where my sleeping bag was positioned within the tent. I could take you from there down to the river or over to the campfire, and I can very clearly picture passing this single around and admiring it.
The single had been out for a while, so we knew it, and I know I was particularly taken with it, with its multiple sections and styles, and I must have gone out and bought my own copy shortly after coming back from camp – perhaps on its way out of the charts, it was a little cheaper. Incidentally, I was in doubt about whether I had owned the single until about ten minutes ago, when I played Zoo Gang and was able to hum along, note perfect after more than 40 years – I definitely had my own copy, and must have played it often enough for it to be stuck firmly in my subconscious.
So, I could probably claim that Band on the Run was the first record I bought for myself, and leave it ambiguous enough that it might have been the album. It wasn’t though; I guess that owning the single had made me in some way a Wings fan, so I’d be on the lookout for whatever came next. There was a single, and then, almost immediately, a new album. I’m pretty sure I didn’t rush out and buy it straight away; indeed, I’m almost certain that twelve-year-old me would have planned the whole thing carefully, making sure that I knew which album I wanted before going in to Bruce Miller’s and having my head turned by something I was less sure about.
I wish the memories of this momentous occasion – having saved my money, going in to town on the bus and instead of peering wistfully at the bins, actually making up my mind to go and buy something specific. I wish I could be certain it was Bruce Miller’s (it might just as easily have been Boots, after all); I wish I could remember what else I looked at before plumping for this, but all I know is that for at least part of 1975, my entire album collection was Venus and Mars by Wings.
Did I really understand the connection between this and the Beatles? I like to think so, but I imagine it was all a bit fuzzy – after all, the Beatles had broken up close to half my life before – they were ancient history. This was now; this was the future, for all I knew. I took it home, I opened it up and for the first time discovered that particular ‘new album’ smell (much more evocative to me that the new car smell) and found the extra bits and pieces in the sleeve. I wish I could tell you that I didn’t have to look it up, but I did – I had a vague memory of there being stickers or something, but on investigation, it turns out there was a poster, a round sticker which I think I stuck on the back of my bedroom door, and a long thin sticker which would have worked just as well as a bookmark, and which again triggered a memory of how it smelled as soon as I saw it again. It was a gatefold album (as so many were in those days), it had the lyrics on the back, and a brightly coloured inner sleeve.
To my great disappointment, it didn’t have the Apple label – the fairly dull black Capitol one was only enlivened by the red and yellow dots echoing the billiard balls from the cover. It was a thing of beauty which I remember well, yet – the single aside – I cannot bring to mind even one of the songs. It’s the album I owned the longest, yet I know almost nothing about how it sounds.
My second album was Burn by Deep Purple, and as soon as I heard that, I abandoned Wings. I’ve heard most of what they did over the years (I have a few things to say about the live album in a bit), but I have never felt the urge to revisit this, or to put it back in its place in my collection – I suspect I’d buy a copy of Band on the Run before replacing this, if I’m honest.
So, what follows is a genuine rediscovery for me – I suspect it’s not all that great an album, and having sneaked a look at the lyrics a few minutes ago, I’m certain it doesn’t rank in the top echelon of McCartney wordsmithery, but I’m going to be fair and as unbiased as I can, and I suspect I will remember more of this than I realise.
The first thing I noticed was what wasn’t there – I could have sworn that this album contained both Silly Love Songs and Let ‘em In, but it turns out they’re both on the next album, which I definitely didn’t own. So what do we have here?
It opens with the title track, easing us in with acoustic guitars and a voice which doesn’t really sound like Paul McCartney setting the scene – we’re at a rock concert, waiting for it all to start, which it does without a break; we’re straight into Rock Show, which is straightforward rock and roll complete with all the requisite cliches of the time. McCartney is just enjoying being a rock star at this point in his life; something he was never really able to be while he was a Beatle. It’s not exactly challenging, but it’s a lot of fun – McCartney and Denny Laine slipping in and out of character as they celebrate being able to do this for a living.
There’s no gap; Love in Song follows straight on from the fade of Rock Show, and it’s pleasant but nothing more than that – it’s a love song by the numbers, and while no-one is in any doubt about Paul’s ability to write a tune, this doesn’t really do anything or go anywhere; there aren’t many words and the whole thing amounts to “Paul’s in love; isn’t life wonderful?”
You Gave me the Answer is a Paul McCartney pastiche number – a slight ragtime number with those treated vocals which Freddie Mercury employed around the same time in his own pastiche numbers, but with a little more bite to them. Oddly, having heard it just now for what felt like the first time, I’d be perfectly happy to go back and listen again – it’s fun and frothy where the previous track was plodding. Perhaps it picks up a bit from here.
Well, maybe. I have no idea what to make of Magneto and Titanium Man – I mean, it’s another pastiche in the style of 10cc, but I don’t feel the sense of fun it’s presumably supposed to engender – it’s about some comic book characters, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why, or how the twist in the last line is supposed to work, or whether it even is a twist, since nothing happens. It’s bouncy and not entirely without merit, but the harder I look at it, the less there seems to be there.
Letting Go is much more like it; more what I thought this album was going to be. This sounds like 1975 in a way that none of the others has. Apparently, it was a single in the UK, but I don’t remember it at all – it chugs along at that pace which always threatens to break out into something more interesting, but never quite does. I think it’s meant to sound like classic American rock (which, of course, was modern American rock at the time), and I imagine in the right context it would work, but at the end of side one of an album which has wandered all over the musical landscape, it feels like they’re just trying on another costume, and while this one fits a little better, it’s not going to stick in my mind, I’m afraid.
I conjure up a mental image of me getting up to turn it over, and put the needle down at the start of side two, which reprises the first side – Venus and Mars (Reprise) shifts location from the rock show to the middle of a science fiction novel – instead of waiting for the band to come on, we’re waiting for a spaceship to come and take us on vacation, apparently. This version segues into Spirits of Ancient Egypt with a series of intriguing bleeps and boops which have absolutely nothing to do with the song, which does a little Marc Bolan stuff before becoming another straightforward rock and roll song about – well, who knows, frankly. It’s entertaining enough, but seems to be about trying to reach Cleopatra on the phone, for some reason.
Medicine Jar is genuinely baffling. It’s here because Wings was supposed to be a proper band, with everyone contributing. This is written and sung by Jimmy McCulloch, who was the guitarist in Stone The Crows as well as Wings, and it’s pretty much a Stone The Crows song. Again, as I seem to be saying to everything, it’s perfectly fine, but I really don’t know what it’s doing on here. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure what any of these songs are doing on here. I’m guilty of a little bias here, I know – I think if I had been a little more worldly-wise at the time, I’d have only bought a Wings album to hear one of the Beatles doing his thing, and this ain’t that. Twelve-year-old me probably loved it and cheerfully sang along.
Call Me Back Again is one of the Beatles doing his thing; in this case the same thing he did in Oh Darling! on Abbey Road – it’s more loping blues with that familiar voice pushing itself to the slight raggedness we always preferred John Lennon doing. It’s actually one of the better tracks on here, but I think what’s bothering me is that there’s nothing new here – Paul could have written this in his sleep, and it’s quite possible that he actually did.
At least Listen to What the Man Said is familiar, and features the great Tom Scott (not that one, the one who was working with Joni Mitchell at the time) on saxophone, which lifts it above the mid-range which pretty much everything else on this album has been operating in. It has a spark to it, this – a better-than-average melody and it is paced in such a way as to keep it interesting; there’s a direction to this and a point which has been missing from so much else. Of course, it helps that I remember it as a single, and have heard it more than once since 1975, but it genuinely is more satisfying that everything which went before it.
It slides imperceptibly into Treat Her Gently / Lonely Old People which merges two half-songs into a more than decent album closer. It is (they are?) the only songs I’ve come back to today which will probably stick with me – I’ll likely go back and revisit the ragtime one (I’ve forgotten the name of it already), but this I might actually seek out and listen to again because it’s a proper pair of melodies which work really well together.
I know, it’s not the album closer. I wish it was, because almost the only thing I remembered about the album after all these years on was that it ended with an inexplicable version of the Crossroads theme. I don’t know why it’s there, and I don’t think it brings anything to the table beyond a vague sense that even in 1975, Paul McCartney could record absolutely anything and people would buy it. It’s weird and slightly unsettling – it sounds different enough from the one you heard on TV all the time to throw you off balance, but maybe it sums this album up quite well.
Albums don’t have to have a coherent theme or message; they don’t have to make narrative sense or be of one consistent style all the way through, and many of the ones I love have none of those things. This one doesn’t, either. It’s a patchwork of a thing; well produced and well played, but it almost all feels like filler; there’s nothing here to grab the attention and nothing which screams ‘classic album’ at you. It is – and I don’t mean this in a positive sense – inoffensive.
I was hoping that my relisten would prompt me to go and buy my own copy, but it hasn’t. In the end. Mid-seventies Paul McCartney was comfortable and safe, and lacked a collaborator who would challenge him, particularly in the lyrical department. There are good tunes here, and it’s not dull, but I kind of wish that the first album I bought was a little more daring, rebellious or challenging.
Still, it could have been worse.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
I think the consensus is the if you really need a Wings studio album in your life, it should be Band on the Run. I’ve heard a couple of the others, and they’re much like this one – perfectly fine, but nothing more.
Compilations to consider?
I had to look this up, but when I saw a picture of the cover, I remembered Wings Greatest. It has precisely no songs from this album on it; make of that what you will.
Now, this is worth your time. Wings Over America is a behemoth of a live album, featuring not only the best Wings songs of the time (including a number of these songs given a significant boost of energy and excitement – yes I went and listened to them all specifically to compare), but five McCartney Beatles songs, given a live treatment they never had in their original lives. If you want a Wings album in your life, save up and buy this – it actually sounds like the band is having a lot of fun.
There are a couple of videos of the live shows, and I think I must have sat through Rockshow at some point, because the clips I’ve seen from it look familiar. I don’t believe there’s a Wings biography, which is a shame, because I think the idea of a book written from Denny Laine’s perspective would be something we’ve never really seen elsewhere.
[Note: January 2023. I’ve amended the name of the B side of Band on the Run to Zoo Gang, which has the unintended consequence of making the comment below which pointed out my mistake look a bit foolish. Thank you, anonymous commenter]
The B side of BOTR was actually called Zoo Gang, not Zoo Time. It was the sound track to this show.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Zoo_Gang
You’re right – I’m claiming it as a typo!