Released as a bootleg-beater at the time, and not even the most popular live album of 1976 (that would be Frampton Comes Alive), why does Wings Over America feel so monumental, if not musically essential, now?
You could make the argument that no less than Paul McCartney's entire post-Beatles career hinges on Wings Over America. After a pair of low-key, do-it-yourself solo albums, McCartney decided he missed being in a band, and formed Wings, along with his wife Linda and former Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine. McCartney tried to belie Wings' superstar pedigree with a ramshackle UK university tour and debut album, Wild Life (1971), that many fans and critics thought was almost self-sabotaging in its quirky, tossed-off nature.
But McCartney couldn't help it that he was McCartney, and by the time of follow-up album Red Rose Speedway (1973), his name had been pushed out in front. The cozily sappy "My Love" became Paul McCartney & Wings' first Number One single. Red Rose Speedway kicked off an incredible run of five consecutive US Number One albums. If Band on the Run (also 1973) was the crowning achievement in terms of critical acclaim and sales, Wings Over America, released in late 1976, was more than simply the proof McCartney was once again a leader of an international juggernaut. In hindsight, it marks the tangible point at which Paul McCartney came to terms with the fact he would always be Paul McCartney, and what that meant for his future as a musician.
For the first time since the Beatles' dissolution, McCartney felt confident and comfortable enough to add a handful of his former band's songs to his live set. And, despite the title, Wings Over America is without question a McCartney album, just as Wings, with its lineup constantly fluctuating around the core trio, had always in essence been McCartney. How could it not be?
And this is the true importance of Wings Over America. It establishes the identity McCartney has inhabited, or maybe been forced into, ever since. After its release, Wings carried on for a few more years, charting a couple more albums, hits, and lineup changes, until McCartney dropped the pretense and made McCartney II in 1980. Over the next 30 years, he would have only one more Number One album in America, and his biggest hits were treacly collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. He did not mount another major tour for a decade, but when he reemerged in 1989, he was the Paul McCartney we still know today, releasing a steady series of albums that met with mixed critical reaction and modest sales, then embarking on monster tours for which the primary draw was the old Beatles and Wings hits.
The man who had always struggled for recognition as a serious artist found himself navigating the odd dual existence of creating some of his most wide-ranging music, then trying to sneak it into a live show that was essentially, by necessity, an oldies act. Was this a conscious choice? Was there a realistic scenario in which McCartney appeased his legions of fans while refusing to pay lip service, if not homage, to his former bands? Wings Over America, in any case, goes about its business without having to grapple with these questions. Simultaneously, it can now be appreciated as the last time McCartney performed as an artist who was "in the now" at least as much as in the past.
McCartney's gracious, or foolhardy, allowance on Wings Over America for Laine's "Time to Hide" and guitarist Jimmy McCulloch's "Medicine Jar" are reminders of the relative looseness and freedom McCartney and Wings had at the time. They are passable if generic pieces of blues rock that only serve to shine an even brighter spotlight on the McCartney-penned hits in comparison. There is no way there would or could be room for them in a McCartney set ever again.
Tracks like these also spoil the argument that Wings Over America functions as a de facto Wings greatest hits package. Yes, most of the hits are here, performed in versions that are loyal to the recorded versions. But so is nearly all of the 1975 Wings album Venus and Mars, and a good chunk of its more middling successor Wings at the Speed of Sound. All of this is to underscore that Wings Over America as a set of music does little in the way of providing fresh or even different perspective on the material. The playing is professional, some of the hits feel rushed through, and the backing vocals, overdubbed in the studio, sound beamed in from another album altogether, spoiling any "warts'n'all" live vibe. The opening salvo of "Venus and Mars" / "Rock Show" / "Jet" teases with the proposition Wings will be presented as a band that really can rock, but that idea fades with the first notes of "Spirits of Ancient Egypt", the first of many tracks that only the most die-hard of fans will remember, much less have a reason to.
At one point, toward the end of the first disc of this two-disc, 115-minute trek, the band settle into a folky, acoustic mini-set which takes in "Picasso's Last Words" and "Bluebird" from Band on the Run as well as Simon & Garfunkel's "Richard Cory" before concluding with a trio of mellow Beatles numbers. Here, McCartney sounds more natural and in his element than most anywhere else on Wings Over America, not least because the material itself has some coherence. You can almost hear the future Sir Paul, Super Bowl halftime performer to be, savoring those final moments when, at least to him, he was just the lead singer in Wings.