How Paul McCartney excised the ghost of The Beatles and took flight with Wings

Wings atop a double decker bus in 1972
(Image credit: Reg Lancaster/Getty Images)

Dateline: Thursday June 24, 1976, Benedict Canyon, California. Paul McCartney is holding a lavish party in a mansion owned by Hollywood silent movie star Harold Lloyd to celebrate the American conclusion of the Wings world tour. It’s been a wild success: the biggest grossing tour of the year by any rock group to date. The night before, Wings have been rapturously received at the Los Angeles Forum. Recordings from that concert will form the bulk of the triple album Wings Over America.

This party is costing someone $75,000. The guest list includes Paul’s new mate Rod Stewart, David Cassidy, actors Jack Nicholson and Tony Curtis, and all of the Beach Boys apart from McCartney’s hero Brian Wilson – he’s going quietly nuts in Bel Air.

The guests’ invitation reads ‘Wear all-white’, and they’ll soon find out why when a troupe of Hawaiian street artists with aerosol guns decorate the party-goers with red and blue paint. Just before the end, McCartney prays silence. He delivers a speech. 

“After The Beatles [cheers], you’d have thought it would have been pretty much impossible for me to follow that and to get anything else going [greater cheers]. At least, I thought that… [murmurs of “no, no”]. This tour has convinced me, I mean us, that we are a group, and I think it’s convinced audiences [louder cheering]. This isn’t just a one-time trip [shrieks and whooping]… this is going to be a working band!” While the snuffed-up celebrities surge forward to shake his hand Macca raises thumbs aloft, then shouts out: “We’ll be back!”


Speaking today to Classic Rock, McCartney hasn’t changed his tune. His memories linger on. “It was a very exciting time and the Wings Over America tour was the culmination of a lot of hard work. When I think back to that era it was very happy. We’d come up the hard way. Now, finally we were in the US in 1976 and it was all coming round. We needed to see if we could make it at a bigger level – and America was that bigger level. It was the place to crack.”

McCartney’s sense of vindication that hot summer night is justified when you consider the charge sheet against him. He was widely considered to be the villain of the piece in The Beatles’ dissolution, since he took the group to the London High Court to end their partnership, and won. He was married to the lovely Linda who, like Yoko Ono, was cast as a malevolent force by those who refused to accept the 60s were over. Plus he refused to contemplate a reunion: “I’m not going to be blackmailed into going back,” he said.

Then there were his records: Paul’s two solo albums, McCartney and Ram (the latter disc jointly credited to Linda) and Wings’ first flights, Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway. Big sellers, of course, but they were ridiculed by the press and dismissed by former bandmates, notably John Lennon, who sneered, ‘The sound you make is Muzak to my ears’, in Imagine’s venomous How Do You Sleep? This was the moment when the feud between the two songwriters reached car-crash proportions. Beatles fans were in bits. How could you do this to us, you bastards?

And the story of McCartney’s Wings isn’t always the happy-go-lucky tale you’d expect from such an apparently mild-mannered chap. After McCartney had been crucified in the music papers, Paul and Linda went to New York City in January 1971 to audition a new band. The trials took place in a squalid loft on 45th Street. First recruit was the 21-year-old session guitarist David Spinoza, recommended by Linda. Two days after Spinoza got the gig, Paul hired a sleazy Bronx basement where drummer Denny Seiwell was hired.

Seiwell recalls the morning. “The cream of New York drummers was all sitting around looking nervous. I wasn’t. To me it was just a possible gig and I wasn’t fazed that I was playing for an ex-Beatle. I did my thing. I gave Paul my best Ringo impression,” he laughs. “Hard snare, some funky rim work, and lots of tom-toms: plenty of tom-toms. Paul smiled, tells me ‘You got the job’. 

"He didn’t join in; didn’t even have a guitar with him. He liked my attitude. The other guys were really put out at being asked to audition. Not me. I just sat and played like I’d done at a thousand jazz jobs. I always say, ‘If you can’t get it on for yourself, you can’t get it on for anybody’. Paul had a certain look in his eye. I knew he was looking for more than a drummer. He wanted a character, someone he could get on with and we hit it off immediately.”

McCartney’s recollection was more flippant. “We found Denny lying on a mattress like the ones in Midnight Cowboy where the people just pass them by. We thought we’d better not do that, so we picked him up and put him in front of a drum kit, and he was alright.”

On January 10, the Ram sessions began with Seiwell, Spinoza, six-string honcho Hugh McCracken and the McCartneys working 16-hour days and churning out dozens of songs. Lennon later construed two of the tunes, Too Many People and Dear Boy, as personal sleights. George Harrison and Ringo Starr also took umbrage at the song 3 Legs, which alluded that without McCartney, his other mates couldn’t get their acts together. It was pretty mild stuff, unless you were the wounded party.

On March 12, the High Court judgement for the dissolution of The Beatles was given the green light. John, George and Ringo leave the court – Paul isn’t there, he’s on his farm in Campbeltown, Argyllshire – and demand Lennon’s chauffeur Les Anthony drive them in John’s white Mercedes Pullman to Macca’s house at 7 Cavendish Avenue, St John’s Wood.

On arrival in leafy NW8, Lennon climbs over the wall, opens the gate from the inside, grabs two bricks from the Merc’s boot and chucks them through the downstairs windows, while George and Ringo cheer him on. Paul’s housekeeper called the police but no charges were brought. John, George and Ringo returned to Apple HQ, where waiting journalists didn’t expect to find them in such hysterically high spirits.

When Ram is released it gets a lukewarm reception in Britain and is ridiculed by most American critics. Seiwell, who by this time is staying in a house on Paul’s High Park farm estate with wife Monique, still can’t see why. “Those critics were so wrong. Ram wasn’t just a good album, it was a great record. I don’t mean a great record to make, though it was, but to listen to it’s terrific, probably the thing I’m most proud of in my entire career.”

John Lennon’s antipathy was driven by the photo of two beetles copulating on the rear sleeve – Macca’s ‘Fucking Beatles’ gag. During his Imagine sessions, Lennon got that chip off his shoulder, as he let rip on the admittedly excellent How Do You Sleep? – another dagger through the heart for whimpering Fabs fans.

Good job they don’t clock the original, which contains the lines: ‘The only thing you done was Yesterday/You probably pinched that bitch anyway’. Another lyric Lennon has to ditch screams: ‘Tell me, how do you sleep, you cunt?’ It’s on a par with Lennon’s unreleased Little Queenie spoof, an anti-Semitic dig at Brian Epstein and his mother.

Manager Allen Klein insists the defamatory remarks are excised, suggesting the line, ‘And since you’ve gone you’re just “another day”,’ in reference to Paul and Linda’s single, Another Day. That song, which Seiwell describes as “Eleanor Rigby, set in Noo Yawk” was jettisoned during The Beatles’ Let It Be sessions. So was another Ram track, Back Seat Of My Car.

The next stage for the as-yet unnamed Wings comes when McCartney calls up old acquaintance Denny Laine, the former Moody Blues frontman, who is working on a solo album after his group Balls fails to set the world outside Birmingham alight. “I just phoned him and said, ‘What are you doing?’,” McCartney remembers. “Denny said, ‘Nothing’, so I said, ‘Right, come on then!’.”

In July 1971, with Ram No.1 in the UK, the fledgling Wings begin working together in London and Scotland and Paul announces his new band: “It’s a four-piece, but we haven’t got a name yet.” A few weeks later, complications during childbirth mean that the couple’s second child Stella is delivered by Caesarean section. 

Pacing the corridors of the King’s College Hospital, Paul has one of his ‘Mother Mary comes to me’ moments. “I was in my green apron, praying like mad,” he recalls, “and the name Wings just came into my head.” Just as well, since the day before he’d been telling people: “The new band’s gonna be called Turpentine.”

The first Wings album, the much maligned but decent Wild Life, is released in December 1971 but sells quite poorly. Those in the know are intrigued by the song Dear Friend in which Macca attempts to pour oil on troubled waters. He even flew to New York before Christmas, where the Lennons now resided, and the two men agreed to stop washing their dirty laundry in public. 

The meeting was more frosty than amicable but the olive branch was extended and accepted. As Paul now says, “I wrote Dear Friend because it was all to do with John. It’s a bit of longing about John. Y’know, let’s just have a glass of wine and forget about it. It was definitely a making-up song.”

By New Year 1972, the 29-year-old McCartney was itching to play again. Ironically, he was the only Beatle who hadn’t been on stage since 1966. Wings were subjected to rigorous rehearsals at the Scotch of St James club. With the two Denny’s now incumbent, Paul wasn’t sure the group could work because if he was playing piano and Laine was on bass, they’d overlooked the minor matter of a lead guitar player. Irish musician Henry McCullough was one of several names considered and since Linda was a big fan of his work with the Grease Band, the affable, hard-drinking guitarist was next man up.

“I had a call asking me to come down for a blow with the band and Paul invited me to join after the first rehearsal,” Henry said. “All we’ve played so far is rock’n’roll and I’m a good rock’n’roll guitarist.” He had high hopes. “I’ll be doing some vocals and hope to do some song-writing.” Dream on, pal.

Later, McCullough reviewed his thoughts. “Denny Laine was hanging around with the Grease Band and he told me, ‘McCartney’s looking for a guitar player. He wants to know if you’ll come for a bit of a play.’ Well, Jaysus, no bother. We played Long Tall Sally and Lucille. It wasn’t an audition. They wanted to know I wasn’t into hard drugs.

“A few days later we were on stage at the ICA and he asked me to join. Well who the fook wouldn’t! He wanted to go back to his roots, with the dogs and the kids and that, travellin’ in an auld transit van.”

Before Wings embarked on their infamous anonymous college tour, McCartney confounded sceptics by rushing out the single Give Ireland Back To The Irish: an immediate reaction to the January 30 shootings in Ireland, known later as Bloody Sunday. Interviewed by NYC’s KHJ, Macca’s reaction was so heartfelt and so littered with expletives that the station had to edit his rant before it was deemed usable.

“My family comes from Ireland,” recalls McCartney. “My parents were Irish. Half of Liverpool comes from Ireland. That was the shocking thing. It felt like we were fighting us, and that we’d killed them, and it was all very visibly on the news.”

McCullough, from Portstewart, was nervous about the single – and with good reason, as his brother would be attacked in Londonderry a few months later as a result of the song’s sentiment. For McCartney, usually so apolitical, the record was a statement of belief. “You can’t stay out of it [politics]. I don’t plan to do everything as a political thing, but I think the British government overstepped their mark and showed themselves to be more of a repressive regime than I ever believed them to be.”

EMI bosses went ballistic. Head of the company Sir Joseph Lockwood initially refused to release the track. The BBC, the ITA and Radio Luxembourg all banned it. DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman had to refer to it on his Pick Of The Pops chart show, as “a record by the group Wings”.

On February 8, the five-piece embarked on their tour, accompanied by wives, girlfriends, kids and dogs, all slumming it in either a van or a caravan. The smell of weed emanating from the windows and the musicians’ ramshackle appearance made them look like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

“That university tour was pretty amazing,” Seiwell says. “Paul drove the van. We had two roadies following with all the equipment in a little truck. The road manager Trevor Jones would go ahead and find a university we could play in. They’d set up the gear, we’d find a hotel or some little bed and breakfast, join them, come back in the evening and play the show. 

"I had an incredible time. It was very funny for one thing, seeing the kids’ reactions when McCartney stuck his head out the window. At the end of the night we’d divvy up the money and that was great fun. It was so organic. Everyone got on fine. Paul was like one of the gang. We called him Jimmy Mac, I was Big Denny, Laine was Little Denny and Linda was known as Mrs Mac. Henry was just Henry and his arrival was exactly what we needed because he played truly great solos. Oh, and we ate a lot of fish and chips.”

McCartney now looks back on that time with great affection. “It was our version of the Magical Mystery Tour. The entire thing was down to the fact that we decided to start from the ground up and try and build a band like everyone else did. It starts with everyone getting to know each other – do small gigs and start from square one. But of course, being us, we just did it the craziest way. 

"Anyone else would have booked hotels and booked gigs but oh no! We didn’t bother with that. We just took the van. It was a kind of romantic notion. We got on the motorway and when we saw a place we liked, we stopped. We saw a sign saying Ashby-de-la-Zouch and, OK we thought, that sounds exotic and romantic and that’s how we ended up opening the tour at Nottingham University. So it was all very liberating. That was the start of the whole Wings evolution.”

The first night of the 11-date jaunt was typical. Tickets cost 50 pence, proceeds split between the Students’ Union and the group. “That flummoxed me,” Macca recalled. “I hadn’t seen money for at least 10 years. The Beatles never handled money. After the show we walked around Nottingham with £30 in coppers in our pockets.”

The little tour wasn’t without mishap as Linda began to suffer from chronic stage fright. Given her complete lack of live experience, that was no surprise. “Paul persuaded me,” she said. “And he made it sound so glamorous that I thought I’ll give it a try. People muttered that I wasn’t a proper musician but then I’d be told I wasn’t a proper photographer either.”

Often paralysed by nerves, Linda would never convince some that she was worthy of standing alongside these great men, her own husband least of all. “She couldn’t even put her hands on the keyboards some nights,” Paul admitted.

“I felt really sorry for the kid,” Seiwell says. “There was more than one occasion when she broke down in tears and said, ‘Denny, I don’t think I can do this. Everyone hates me.’ But she had balls, let me tell you that, because she did do it. And OK, she wasn’t the world’s greatest keyboard player but I had a lot more respect for her than plenty other players I’ve worked with. She was an awesome woman.”

Denny also points out: “Linda was the one who told Paul, when he was at his lowest ebb after The Beatles split: ‘You are a great songwriter, get your ass into gear.’ Paul might easily have retired to his sheep farm and sat round all day drinking Scotch.”

Wings began recording second album Red Rose Speedway in LA in March of 1972, while that summer the band undertook the Wings Over Europe tour in an open-topped Routemaster bus. In Sweden, McCartney was busted by the drug squad but escaped prison when he told the Gothenburg cops that he and Linda were virtually addicted to weed and anyway, a fan sent him the gear, and it was Denny Seiwell’s etc. Incredibly, the Swedish police bought his story.

In November, Wings release another single in the shape of Hi, Hi, Hi and once again, Macca’s work fell foul of the BBC. “Nothing to do with drugs,” said some Corporation prig. “It’s the line that goes, ‘I want you to lie on the bed and get you ready for my body gun and do it, do it, do it to you/Like a rabbit I’m going to grab it and do it till the night is done.’”

Macca explained that his attempt at glam rock was “a rock’n’roll thing with three chords we wrote in Spain to give us something different to play. I suppose it is a bit of a dirty song if sex is dirty and naughty. I was in a sensuous mood in Spain when I wrote it.”

The year ended on a sour note when Paul faced charges of growing cannabis next to the tomatoes on his High Park and Low Ranachan farmsteads. He’d cough up £100 for this and eventually had the distinction of being busted in five different countries. By way of exoneration, Macca tells reporters after the trial in March 1973, “I’m dead against hard drugs. But I don’t think cannabis is as dangerous as drink. It should be like homosexuality, legal amongst consenting adults.”

Lucky for Paul, the sheriff is “an old sweetie” and is amused by various wee Roses and Valeries screaming, “Macca must go free!” from the gallery.

Denny Laine’s chipper Christmas message to the fans promised, “The next year is really going to be exciting for Wings! A lot of amazing stuff is bound to happen!” He wasn’t wrong, and 1973 is eventful.

Having been asked to write the opening title song for the new James Bond movie, Live And Let Die, Paul found himself working again with producer George Martin at AIR Studios, where the two men dismantled Wings’ demo version – much to the others’ annoyance – and orchestrated it into the Bond-tastic artefact of legend. John Lennon was so enraged by the ubiquitous brilliance of the song, he vowed never to listen to a Paul album again. The two men would jam during Lennon and Harry Nilsson’s ‘lost weekend’ in 1974, when Nilsson offered McCartney some angel dust and Lennon shouted “McCartney’s here everyone! Give the man some space. Let’s hear some fucking harmony, for once!”

Within Wings HQ, cracks were starting to develop. During the recording of My Love, which contained McCullough’s signature solo, the guitarist grew tired of being told what to do by his boss (sound familiar?).

McCartney admitted he was wrong. Eventually. “I’d sort of written the solo, as I often did write our solos. And Henry walked up to me right before the take and said, ‘Hey, would it be alright if I try something else?’ And I said, ‘Er… yeah.’ It was like, ‘Do I believe in this guy?’ And he played the solo on My Love, which came right out of the blue. And I just thought, ‘Fucking great.’ And so there were plenty of moments like that where somebody’s skill or feeling would overtake my wishes.”

Not that many, in fact.

Money, or the lack of, also became an issue. Wings were reputedly on £30 a week, which was fine when they were pretending to be a bunch of happy buskers shacking up in Mrs McGonagle’s B&B; less appealing back in the real world.

Taking stock of the first two jaunts McCartney now says: “It was funny because when we started out playing the Unis, the media never knew till the day after and then it was just a small story. In a way it was OK because it allowed us some space to learn. Although for the audience it was still someone that had been famous just learning his trade, so mistakes were always amplified. The fact we had that break and almost the anonymity as we were going round Europe – where there weren’t many fans turning up, just a small crowd of really loyal ones – and there wasn’t much press coming to our shows either, all helped.”

McCullough’s take was different. “It was unusual alright, but it was very exciting at the same time, ’cos it was my first trip out with him – and splitting the money up evenly after the gigs meant I made more on that than when I became a fully fledged member!”

Having enjoyed Wings’ first UK tour in summer ’73, Seiwell and McCullough started sessions for the Band On The Run album in Scotland but decided to quit when told the band were booked into studios in EMI Lagos. “Neither of us wanted to go to Africa,” Seiwell says. “And to be honest, I’d had enough. I’d done my time and I wanted to go back to New York and play some jazz.” Macca’s reaction to Denny’s departure was typically rose-tinted: “Great. That means I can play the drums myself.”

McCullough was more forthright. “We were still on this feckin’ retainer and we’d been told that as things progressed we could contribute material, become part of a ‘band’ as such, but it never came to that. I can remember it well – we had a row one afternoon. I wanted to contribute, you know, ‘Give me a chance – if it doesn’t work out we’ll do it your way.’ I felt it was time he allowed the musicians to have some of their own ideas used as part of this ‘group’ vibe. But all that was slowly being lost – the idea from the university tour, the van, the craic and all that started to go out the window.”

Henry also made a valid point. “I was trying desperately to hold onto it because I wanted it not just for the band but for him as well – for him to show people that he wasn’t namby-pamby all the time, that he really had balls. And he does have an awful lot of balls – he just doesn’t seem to get it down on record.”

In trio form, Band On The Run became Wings’ biggest album. It’s also Paul’s favourite, though he dismisses the idea that being mugged at knifepoint on a dusty street at midnight inspired him. “When we got back from Lagos after a few dramas, people said, ‘Ah, out of adversity has been born a fine album.’ I don’t like that theory. I hate the idea that you have to sweat and suffer to produce something good.

“They told us not to go walking late at night and we just went, ‘Yeah sure,’ being hippies! We felt immortal. It took a while for the penny to drop during the incident. Looking back it’s almost funny. I must admit I see an element of stupidity but it was a sort of enthusiastic innocence!”

The pattern was set. The more successful Wings became, the more often they shed members, apart from the ever-loyal Laine. Seiwell was replaced by Geoff Britton, another unknown, while a whizzkid guitarist, confusingly called Jimmy McCulloch, arrived via Stone The Crows. Jimmy had previously been in Thunderclap Newman. When he was around, there was always something in the air. 

The keep-fit fanatic Britton couldn’t stand him, or rather his hard drug use. Cocaine and heroin were rife in the music business and Jimmy was definitely in the music business. Paul knew the kid was good. “Jimmy was a cool guitar player. Henry [McCullough] had been too, but Jimmy seemed a bit special.”

Britton quit the band in New Orleans during the recording of the missed-opportunity Venus And Mars record. Working at Allen Toussaint’s Sea Saint studios but neglecting to use his talents properly, or those of house band The Meters, indicated the ball had been dropped. When he got home Britton said his piece. “Wings is a funny band. From a musician’s point of view, it’s a privilege to do it. From a career point of view, it’s madness. No mater how good you are, you’re always in the shadow of Paul.”

Britton’s replacement Joe English had a better rapport with McCulloch and the two men became drug buddies. English later said, “I had me two Porsches and 400 acres of farmland in Georgia and I also had me a drug habit.”

English is now a member of the Word Of Faith Fellowship religious community in North Carolina. Denny Laine recalls, “Speed Of Sound [1976] was my favourite album.” This disc contained Jimmy McCulloch’s prophetic track Wino Junko – Jimmy died in 1979 from a heroin OD. 

“Members came and went,” Laine stated. “They didn’t go back as far as Paul and me. We didn’t have stability. But Paul was always a band member, despite being such a superstar. He didn’t tell us what to do, not all the time. I didn’t feel valued automatically. It wasn’t always productive. But Paul and me had a similar sense of humour in TV and books. We’d been to see Jimi Hendrix and David Essex together. We both liked Egyptology. We were looking for a spiritual answer to our relationship.”

And so to America and the end of this chapter in Wings’ history. The transition from travelling gypsies to all-out rock gods was complete. In America in the summer of 1976, Wings became the biggest stadium act in the world. Before the tour started in Fort Worth, Texas, Macca and Linda visited Lennon at the Dakota building and spent a pleasant evening. The next night, April 25, they returned. Lennon answered the building’s intercom and basically told them to fuck off. “It’s not 1956 any more, and turning up at the door isn’t the same any more. I was taking care of a baby, and some guy turns up at the door with a guitar.”

Macca, devastated as he was that night, couldn’t have been happier a few days later. Wings were over America and America was all over Wings. He was now bigger than The Beatles. “We had been struggling for years with Wings, getting slagged off by the reviewers because we decided to try and do it from the ground up instead of coming in at some high level with superstars, so we had to try and learn our craft all over again. We had a break from it so that when it came back and we got better and got to America and bigger places, it was nice to have it back – it was like you were hungry because you hadn’t eaten for a while.”

Today Paul says, “You’d have to say it [Wings] was difficult but rewarding – I sometimes wonder if it was crazy after The Beatles to do the entire thing again; y’know, having to cook another three-course meal starting from scratch. And at times it looked like a crazy decision but you really are playing little gigs attracting small audiences – not feeling famous any more. Some of that was great because it was a break from the craziness – some of it was difficult and made you think, ‘Is this the right decision? Is this the right way to go with the band?’ But as we got better, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is really good.’

“What I hoped would happen did – that we’d get to know each other, we’d get to know the feel of each other – not just me getting lumped in with five other famous people. So we learned it is a special thing being in a band, which is really about understanding each other. You have to understand what you are all playing and be able to ebb and flow with the music. All good bands have that. So the memory over all of the 70s was that, yes, it was difficult, but the fact it worked was really rewarding.”

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 186, in June 2013.

Max Bell

Max Bell worked for the NME during the golden 70s era before running up and down London’s Fleet Street for The Times and all the other hot-metal dailies. A long stint at the Standard and mags like The Face and GQ kept him honest. Later, Record Collector and Classic Rock called.