Wings: Reissues

The post-fab five soar to even greater heights.

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You know people are taking a reissue programme seriously when it not only has an ongoing name of its own but wins two Grammys and one further nomination. After gongs for the Band On The Run and Wings Over America repackages, the next two items from the McCartney Archive Collection take us to Wings’ mid-70s period and the height of their arena status, still at the top of their game.

Never one to be manacled to his past or afraid of a challenge, McCartney created a follow-up to 1973’s globe-straddling Band On The Run in his usual matter-of-fact manner. 1974 proved a transitional period in the sense that Wings grew from the spare three-piece Paul/Linda/Denny Laine line-up into a five-piece, albeit one which soon developed issues.

The new lead guitarist was Jimmy McCulloch, several years down the line from his extraordinary emergence in Thunderclap Newman when still only 15. Geoff Britton was the new drummer but not for long, clashes with McCulloch ending his tenure after six months and resulting in only a cameo on the record. New Yorker Joe English had a right-place-right-time moment and became a Wing.

The roots of _Venus And Mars _(8) were in Abbey Road sessions late in 1974, before the band decamped to New Orleans in the new year. A spirit of extreme musicality still shines through what they created, just as it did nearly 40 years ago. The sunny-side-up lead single was Listen To What The Man Said, with lush harmonies and a brilliant soprano sax solo by jazzer Tom Scott, resulting in a US chart-topper and global hit. One later review called it ‘high pop’, of which McCartney has surely always been its priest.

Not that Venus And Mars was all thumbs aloft. There were moments of reflection, like Love In Song and later single Letting Go, the gorgeous ballad Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People, a hint of mysticism on Spirits Of Ancient Egypt and the whimsical nostalgia of You Gave Me The Answer; Wings even managed to (Tony) hatch a new version of the Crossroads theme.

The electric quotient was provided by the ebullient Rock Show, Medicine Jar, the bluesy Call Me Back Again and the comic book-inspired Magneto And Titanium Man. Each of these deluxe editions boasts a second disc of outtakes, forensically researched via McCartney’s own involvement. On Venus and Mars, these include the 1974 single Junior’s Farm and Louisiana-flavoured My Carnival and Going To New Orleans. Perhaps best of all, there’s a discarded first version of Rock Show and the unreleased 4th Of July, the sort of song most writers would exchange eye teeth for but which Macca could, and often still can, conjure at will and leave on the shelf.

Wings At The Speed Of Sound (7) is taken for granted in the band’s catalogue, but at this remove stands tall as another brave change of pace. Remarkably released just 10 months after its predecessor, if Venus And Mars is the work of a cohesive five-piece, Speed Of Sound is the group given its head. After the pure McCartney of opening single Let ’Em In, he immediately defers to Laine who takes lead vocal on the appealing The Note You Never Wrote. By the end, every member of the group has gone front- of-mic. McCulloch sings his co-written Wino Junko, English does Must Do Something About It, both full of easy charm; Denny is back for his own Time To Hide, and even Linda previews her later pre-eminence in the veggie aisle with Cook Of The House.

But with Paul and his wife as chief writers, his imprimatur is always present. There’s an exhilarating air of foreboding about Beware My Love; at the other end of his scale, the record ends on a truly charming, lesser-known love song, Warm And Beautiful. The Speed Of Sound bonus disc is, at 21 minutes, half the length of its V&M counterpart, but still affords some fascinating insights. The demo of Silly Love Songs is all harmonising around a clanky piano, and there’s an amusing 20-second vocoder message from Paul to Joe. Most notable in the rocking department is a recording of Beware My Love featuring none other than John Bonham, more basic than the finished take but retaining its momentum.

V & M went on to sell four million copies worldwide and Speed Of Sound three and a half. These two exemplary remountings will contribute to the deserved reappraisal of Wings in McCartney’s canon.

Paul Sexton

Prog Magazine contributor Paul Sexton is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and author who started writing for the national UK music press while still at school in 1977. He has written for all of the British quality press, most regularly for The Times and Sunday Times, as well as for Radio Times, Billboard, Music Week and many others. Sexton has made countless documentaries and shows for BBC Radio 2 and inflight programming for such airlines as Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific. He contributes to Universal's uDiscoverMusic site and has compiled numerous sleeve notes for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other major artists. He is the author of Prince: A Portrait of the Artist in Memories & Memorabilia and, in rare moments away from music, supports his local Sutton United FC and, inexplicably, Crewe Alexandra FC.