In 1971, Paul McCartney decided he needed to rejoin a band. It had only been roughly a year since the comments he made during the promotion of his first solo album McCartney were interpreted as causing the break of The Beatles. McCartney’s public reputation took a massive hit, and the critical reaction to both McCartney and Ram ranged from indifference to downright disdain. It was clear that McCartney was at a low point.
Meanwhile, his former bandmates were thriving. Ringo Starr had established himself as a film actor, while George Harrison had made a huge splash with his solo debut All Things Must Past. John Lennon’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was a major critical success, while Imagine was both a commercial and critical achievement. Lennon moved to New York that year and became one of the most visible leaders of political causes in the music business.
All McCartney needed was a backing band, but he had a grander ambition in mind. McCartney wanted to be in a band again, and he assembled a group of talented musicians to back himself and Linda. There was Denny Laine, the former Moody Blues singer who would act as a sort of second frontman for the group. And to close out the initial incarnation of the group, American drummer Denny Seiwell was brought in. McCartney decided to record (or occasionally improvise) material over the course of a week, largely inspired by Bob Dylan, and the results were released as Wild Life.
“Dylan inspired Wild Life, because we heard he had been in the studio and done an album in just a week,” McCartney explained. “So we thought of doing it like that, putting down the spontaneous stuff and not being too careful. So it came out a bit like that. We wrote the tracks in the summer, Linda and I, we wrote them in Scotland in the summer while the lambs we gambolling. We spent two weeks on the Wild Life album all together. At that time, it was just when I had rung Denny Laine up a few days before and he came up to where we were to rehearse for one or two days.”
That’s how loosely structured songs like the uptempo nonsensical rocker ‘Mumbo’ and the bluesy inane romp ‘Bip Bop’ came to be. McCartney only had a few “real” songs ready to go when the new group entered the studio, including most of the ballads on the second side of the record. From there, the band indulged in a slow three-chord jam that eventually became the album’s title track and covered the classic R&B tune ‘Love is Strange’.
What Wings eventually came out with retained the lightning in a bottle quality that McCartney originally envisioned, but it also contains a fair amount of listless meandering and directionless fat. The lengths of ‘Wild Life’ and ‘Some People Never Know’ are bizarrely long, while few of the song’s beyond ‘Dear Friend’ and ‘I Am Your Singer’ have any real lyrical direction or meaning.
But the album does connect at times. Perhaps you have to be in the right mood to be won over by the goofy charms of ‘Bip Bop’ or the jaunty drive of ‘Tomorrow’, but they become fun listens when any weighty pretensions are dropped. Wild Life probably would have a been a solid and promising debut from any other band, and if he had given the songs a proper amount of attention and woodshedding, it likely could have been McCartney’s first real solo success.
By his own admission, the quick recording progressive probably hurt the overall impact of the album. “We recorded that album very quickly, it was almost like a bootleg, which may be a shame and perhaps some of the songs aren’t as good as they might be,” McCartney once commented. “I wanted the whole album to be loose and free, so that everyone could get into it. Things like ‘Mumbo’, which scream a bit and have only ‘mumbo’ as lyrics may offend a few old ladies, but generally it’s got something for everyone.”
Although McCartney himself was eager to let the band’s raw naivety show, critics responded with harsh condemnation. Rolling Stone writer John Mendelsohn called the album “high on sentiment but rather flaccid musically and impotent lyrically, trivial and unaffecting”. Robert Christgau defended Linda’s presence on the album, but hypothesised that “maybe the thrill of leading his very own band has [McCartney] distracted”.
Years later, McCartney defended the album’s place in his discography, stating: “Critics didn’t like Wild Life when it came out so I started thinking like them, that it was rubbish. Then, when I heard it a couple of years later, I really liked it and found it interesting. OK, it didn’t make me the biggest blockbuster around but I don’t think you need them all the time. I like to have a couple of albums like that because it adds to the whole thing, really.”
He added: “I used to think that all my Wings stuff was second-rate, but I began to meet younger kids, not kids from my Beatle generation, who would say, ‘We really love this song’.”
In the immediate wake of The Beatles, no new group was ever going to be given the same amount of respect and adulation. When McCartney consciously avoided anything that even remotely sounded like The Beatles, it only further confounded people.
But now Wild Life plays like a breath of fresh air from an artist who doesn’t have to take himself as seriously as he once did. Just like all of McCartney’s pre-Band on the Run material, Wild Life feels spontaneous, off the cuff, and half-formed. But that’s no longer a deterrent. In fact, it’s a major part of the charm. There’s little on Wild Life that could compete with ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ or ‘The Long and Winding Road’, but McCartney’s ability to completely disappear into a new band is reason enough to put Wild Life on every now and again. It’s an acquired taste, and one that some hardcore Beatles fans will still turn their nose up at, but nowhere near as bad as its reputation might make it out to be.