With Wings' live album, 'Wings Over America', getting the 'deluxe' re-release treatment soon, and BBC 4 screening the accompanying 'Wings Over The World' film recently, I thought it was only right that I stick my oar in and write about drummers with beards and the difference between pre- and post-Beatles breakup McCartney...
BBC 4 was made for people like me. It’s the only channel I can turn to whenever I desperately need to see a medallion-sporting man from the 1970s – complete with a well-thought out, flowing 1970s beard – bash the living daylights out of a drum kit, while another equally hairy dude coaxes excellent noises from a twin-neck guitar.
You get a lot of that sort of thing – plus Linda – in Wings over the World, a film which BBC 4 aired recently (and which, if you happen to live in the UK or have a dodgy IP proxy thingy, you can watch on iPlayer for a few more days). It’s basically a film of Wings doing their live thing in America, Australia and Europe in 1975/76, featuring between-song clips of the band horsing around backstage, the McCartneys displaying what a happy farmyard-animal-loving family they were and so on.
Now, Wings were an odd sort of a band (and so deeply uncool that I risk exile from whatever’s left of the music industry by even mentioning them in a blog post). But even the most cynical of rock journalists would find it hard to argue with the quality of songwriting that is evident on tracks such as Band on The Run, Live and Let Die, Jet and Let Me Roll It. None of these would have been that out of place on a Beatles album (granted, Lennon might have helped give them a bit more more balls and heart, but even so, they are fine examples of songwriting). On the other hand, there is something more than a little off-putting about the relentless, homespun cheerfulness displayed by Paul and Linda in the mid-seventies (and tracks like Single Pigeon didn’t really do McCartney’s reputation as a songwriting genius many favours). As much as I don't remotely buy 'cool' as being a pre-requisite to rock greatness, there was just something too happy about Wings sometimes.
However, if you can put all thoughts of McCartney’s cheerfulness, thumbs, vegetarian sausages and Single Pigeon lyrics aside, there is much to enjoy in Wings over America. For a start, the performances – particularly those of guitarist Jimmy McCulloch – are outstanding. The tour was a big one, involving 66 gigs – this effectively meant 66 nights of band practice and a lot of takes for the film editors to choose from; all meaning that the performances shown in the film are generally ones where the group is on fire. The band for this tour was a nine-piece (nearly twice the size of McCartney’s current touring band) and the splendidly-sideburned horn players involved make everything sound huge. (Watching the film I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a shame McCartney doesn’t bring a brass section on tour with him these days.) Nobody who has ever played in a band could, in their heart of hearts, fail to be impressed by some of the musicianship on display throughout this film – yes, Linda’s too.
Music aside, what also makes this film enjoyable – as with many of the 1970s music films that BBC 4 spoil us with – is the ‘time capsule’ nature of it. I was born in the late 70s (admitting I am this old also means immediate exile from the music industry, incidentally) and I am always fascinated by the glimpses that films like this show of the world I arrived into – a planet where telephones were static objects; dodgy wallpaper wasn’t employed for strictly ironic purposes; people drank coffee, not flat whites; and nobody tweeted pictures of their food. The cars, sounds, flares, microphones, haircuts and TV sets are wondrous to behold; all part of a vintage, disappearing world that is at once foreign and familiar (quite possibly because it is now endlessly recycled by 20 year old hipsters).
So, other than getting even more nostaglic for a decade that I didn't see much of, did I come away from watching Wings Over America a die-hard Wings fan? No. I find that what’s generally missing from a lot of Wings tracks is emotion: the hooks are often there, as they were in McCartney’s Beatles songs; but there is no hint of pain. For example, Hey Jude or Blackbird have some killer hooks, and they are deeply moving songs; Live and Let Die or Band on the Run are laden with equally hummable melodies – but they (and countless other catchy Wings tracks) just don’t seem to speak to the heart. The musicianship and production values are actually technically better on most Wings records than on Beatles ones; but again, there’s something missing from everything that you can’t quite put your finger on. In some of McCartney’s early solo albums, there is admittedly more ‘heart’ to be detected – there is clearly unchecked emotion, for example, to be heard in songs like Maybe I’m Amazed and Too Many People from McCartney and Ram respectively. But for me so much of McCartney’s output with Wings – as well-written and as well-produced as a lot of it is – just lacks depth. The soul, if you’ll pardon the terrible Beatles pun, is often of the rubber variety.
But all that said, sometimes you just have to take your hat off to a supremely well-oiled, pop/rock machine that belts out hooky song after hooky song. And by the end of their 75/76 tour, that’s what Wings had become, and that’s what this film captures. Watch it on a decent telly hooked up to some big speakers, put your inner cynic away, and enjoy a moment of pleasurable guilt.