Paul McCartney really wanted Wings to be a proper rock ‘n’ roll band. For their first tour, they drove around the UK in a van, showing up unannounced to play shows at universities, keeping it about as “real” as a former Beatle could. But Wings’ first album, Wild Life (1971), was a commercial disappointment. For the follow-up, the name was changed to Paul McCartney and Wings. Voilà! Number One album. Number One single. McCartney and Wings it was. Not even McCartney could get out of the way of his legacy.
Then there was the matter of personnel. Wings just couldn’t keep a consistent lineup together. Their most successful album, Band on the Run (1973), was recorded as a trio. There was McCartney, his wife Linda, and loyal guitarist Denny Laine. The run of chart smashes and sold-out tours allowed Paul McCartney and Wings to become simply Wings again, but with the band playing Beatles tunes at its shows and an ever-fluid lineup, no one was really fooled. Wings was widely seen as little more than McCartney’s excuse to “be in a band” with his wife.
Issued in 1976, Wings at the Speed of Sound was meant to change that perception. As John Fogerty had done several years before with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Mardi Gras, McCartney made Wings at the Speed of Sound a true band affair. All five band members contributed songs and/or lead vocals. But, while by most accounts Fogerty’s democratic methods had been a belligerent (and ultimately successful) attempt to sabotage CCR from within, McCartney was sincere. He wanted Wings at the Speed of Sound to be a “real” band album because he wanted Wings to be a “real” band.
In the end, though, the “spread the wealth” approach did not have much effect on Wings’ career trajectory or critics’ and fans’ perceptions of them. Quite simply, Wings at the Speed of Sound is too mediocre an album to warrant parsing of who-wrote-what by anyone save Wings’ most ardent fans. That it sold well or is even worth talking about today comes down to two smash singles, and you get one guess as to who wrote those.
McCartney was still getting accused of writing too much mindless, disposable tripe that did small justice to his considerable talents. As anyone who has ever heard “My Love” can attest, that criticism was not completely unfounded. “Silly Love Songs” was McCartney’s response. The quasi-industrial, assembly-line sound effects which introduce the track are perhaps a snide reference to the idea of churning out mindless, commercial-minded product. But with a bassline so buoyant, blasts of celebratory horns, and actual sincerity, the track is an exemplary piece of mid-’70s pop production and a pure pleasure. McCartney’s decision to counter the criticism not with a stab at punky grit but with an unabashedly silly love song was defiant in its own way.
“Let ‘Em In” is strangely martial but goes down easy no less, a good example of how McCartney could still at times imbue whimsical material with artistic substance. But, hits aside, the rest of Wings at the Speed of Sound goes by painfully slowly. When McCartney lets his bandmates sing, you get the interminable Laine-fronted waltz of “The Note You Never Wrote” or the dreadful Linda-led “Cook of the House”, which might just be the nadir of McCartney’s homey, “domestic bliss” songwriting. At least “Must Do Something About It”, sung by drummer Joe English, is a decent soft-rock tune. When McCartney lets his bandmates write, you get the Fleetwood Mac-on-downers trot of Jimmy McCulloch’s “Wino Junko”, which throws in a vocoder for no good reason, and Laine’s “Time to Hide”, a bluesy rocker with the slightest hint at an edge.
You know that assembly line on “Silly Love Songs”? This is what it is busy grinding out.
McCartney himself sings the embarrassing cod-soul of “She’s My Baby” (“… like gravy”, goes the lyric), which makes the later “Ebony and Ivory” sound like hardcore funk by comparison, and the schmaltzy “Warm and Beautiful”, which finds McCartney peering into his cupboard of showtune sentimentality and finding nothing but a few moldy crackers.
To this reissue, which does feature nice sound quality, a handful of inessential outtakes have been added. Next to the two singles, the vocodered bit of studio chatter “Message to Joe” is probably the most entertaining thing here. There is also a multi-disc “Deluxe Box” for masochists and completists.
If Wings were a proper band at all, they were most definitely a singles band, a point an album like Wings at the Speed of Sound illustrates perfectly.