Paul McCartney and Wings — “the band the Beatles could’ve been”. Eloquently put by Norfolk’s finest radio DJ, Alan Partridge. Whilst popular opinion is divided on Wings, they remain a cult favourite, and it is not hard to understand why. Paul McCartney and Wings, A.K.A. Wings, were formed in 1971 by McCartney after the release of his second post-Beatles album, Ram.
The band’s first iteration included Paul’s wife Linda on keyboards, former Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine, and session drummer Denny Seiwell who had also played on Ram. The band would go through numerous lineup changes until their eventual breakup in 1981, but the core trio of the McCartneys and Laine would remain for the entirety.
The band’s music is characterised by its expansive use of genre-meshing; including reggae and the burgeoning electronica. Although they are often regarded as being simply rock, soft-rock and pop, they perfectly capture the pre-punk zeitgeist of the 1970s, being ‘out-there’ and ‘totally bonkers’, but also brilliant.
Wings provided us with numerous classics over their ten-year stint. These include an iconic, over-the-top James Bond theme tune and, contrastingly, a single in response to the horrific ‘Bloody Sunday’. Entitled ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’, it was consequently banned by the BBC for its perceived “anti-Unionist” stance. Following the Beatles’ way, the band was clearly not confined to one modus operandi, adding to their cult longevity.
Wing’s first two studio albums, Wild Life (1971) and Red Rose Speedway (1973), with the latter featuring guitarist Henry McCullough, were viewed as disappointing in comparison to Paul’s work with the Beatles. However, things would quickly change. In June 1973, Wings released the title track for the classic James Bond romp Live and Let Die, an iconic yet excessive number that would, in future, be appropriately covered by Guns N’ Roses in 1991. Regardless of its success, McCullough and Seiwell departed from the band not long after release.
1973 then became a highly significant year for the band. Undeterred by the departures of McCullough and Seiwell, The McCartneys and Laine would carry on as Wings and released their opus, Band on the Run, in December 1973. The album was a commercial and critical success. Singles ‘Jet’ and ‘Band on the Run’ were top ten hits and remain bonafide classics. Subsequently, Wings recruited guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Geoff Britton, who would quit not long after to be replaced by jazz drummer Joe English. With the new line-up complete, they released their fourth album, Venus and Mars, in May ’75. Single ‘Listen to What the Man Said’ reached number one in the US and hinted at a bright future. To match the heights of their newfound fame, the band embarked on a mammoth world tour spanning 1975-1976, which was a resounding success.
Reflecting the band’s prolific nature and that this was their most successful period, in March 1976, midway through the tour, the fifth album Wings at the Speed of Sound was released. Marking more of a collective effort for the band, the album contained hit singles ‘Silly Love Songs’ and ‘Let ‘Em In’.
Showing the all-encompassing, fluid nature of the band, Wings then took a left turn. They released the single ‘Seaside Woman’ in 1977 under the pseudonym Suzy and the Red Stripes. The song was the first solely written by Linda and was in response to a lawsuit by ATV, the new owners of the Beatles publishing rights. The suit alleged Paul had violated an exclusive rights agreement when he claimed to have collaborated with Linda on the song ‘Another Day’. It had been written and previewed in the sessions for the final Beatles album, Let It Be in 1969. Ultimately, the suit was centred around the fact that the collaboration diverted 50% of the share of the publishing royalties from ATV, to McCartney’s company, McCartney Music.
In a 1974 interview, Linda said she wrote the song during a family visit to Jamaica in ’71 “when ATV was suing us saying I was incapable of writing, so Paul said, ‘get out and write a song.’” The lawsuit alleged Linda’s co-writing credits were inauthentic and that she was not a real songwriter. However, it was “amicably settled” in 1972.
‘Seaside Woman’ would be the only Wings song released under the Suzy and the Red Stripes moniker. This captures the essence of the band, and that their music found many sources of inspiration. Linda said that the pseudonym had come from Red Stripe being Jamaica’s leading brand of beer, and that she had been nicknamed “Suzi” there because of a reggae version of rockabilly staple ‘Suzie Q’, that was ubiquitous at the time.
Carrying on with their upwards trajectory, in November 1977, Wings scored their only UK number one single with ‘Mull of Kintyre’. It was the then best selling single in UK history. Regardless, Wings would then experience another line-up change, with both McCulloch and English departing before the sixth album, London Town, in 1978. Again the core trio would add new members, this time guitarist Laurence Juber and drummer Steve Holley. This was to be the last iteration of Wings. Their final album, Back to the Egg, was released in June 1979. It was a flop in comparison to the success of what had come before. Regardless of its current cult status, the singles under-performed, and the critical reception was resoundingly negative.
During the album’s supporting tour, Paul was arrested in Japan for cannabis possession, bringing the band to a grinding halt. Typical of the tenacious group they would score a final US number one with the live-recorded version of ‘Coming Up’ later that year. This was the opening track off Paul’s forthcoming solo record, Paul McCartney II (1980).
Upset with McCartney over his arrest, which meant a loss of income for the band and added to his troubled marriage, in April 1981, after a decade of work, Denny Laine announced his departure from Wings. This effectively ended Wings, and the band discontinued.
Like the post-Beatles projects that Lennon and Harrison would embark on, it would be unfair to not count Wings as having a rightful place in the timeline of music. Characterised by McCartney’s unfettered brilliance, and the fantastic support of wife Linda and Denny Laine, Wings’ continued success is remarkable. It is also maintained by author Robert Rosen, who claims that McCartney and co’s triumphs in the ‘70s made John Lennon so envious it fuelled his musical re-emergence in 1980.
So join us then, as we list Wings’ six definitive songs.
Six definitive songs by Wings:
‘Dear Friend’ – Wild Life (1971)
Recorded during the sessions for McCartney’s 1971 album Ram, ‘Dear Friend’ is a raw, emotional track meant to apologise to former Beatles partner John Lennon. The pair had been arguing, both in person and on record since at least 1969. It also provides a perfect sonic bridge between the Beatles and Wings.
Although it is from Wings’ debut album, which is considered a misfire, ‘Dear Friend’ is majestic. It is musically very similar to a Bond theme or latter-stage Beatles tunes. In conjunction with the swooning strings and brass, the thunderous, sparse fills from drummer Denny Seiwell add to the emotional impact of this sorrowful masterpiece.
In 1994 McCartney would say: “‘Dear Friend’ was written about John, yes. I don’t like grief and arguments, they always bug me. Life is too precious, although we often find ourselves guilty of doing it. So after John had slagged me off in public I had to think of a response, and it was either going to be to slag him off in public — and some instinct stopped me, which I’m really glad about — or do something else. So I worked on my attitude and wrote ‘Dear Friend’, saying, in effect, let’s lay the guns down, let’s hang up our boxing gloves.”
Furthermore, some fans have seen ‘Dear Friend’ as the counterpart to Lennon’s ‘How Do You Sleep’, from Imagine.
‘Live and Let Die’ – Live and Let Die (1973)
Classically ‘70s, ‘Live and Let Die’ is as perfectly matched to the decade as was the Roger Moore era of Bond. Overstuffed, over-the-top and brimming with cheese, it is a rock opera of the highest grade. It features a sad requiem for the ‘60s, and presumably the Beatles, a George Martin score, and reggae-esque middle eight.
It perfectly fits the pseudo-blaxploitation theme of the film and Wings’ essence as a band.
The wide range of influences and styles is classic McCartney and presents itself as a precursor to the band’s opus Band on the Run. Understandably, it has remained an eye-catching and ear-piercing mainstay of McCartney shows ever since its release.
‘Jet’ – Band on the Run (1973)
‘Jet’ represents McCartney finding his late ‘60s swagger again. It is fast-paced and ambitious — power-pop in all its glory. It peaked at seven in both the US and UK charts. It features Wings’ trademark mesh of influences, and is a triumphant step forward from ‘Live and Let Die’.
Featuring McCartney’s typically semi-incomprehensible lyricism, the track takes its name from the McCartney’s black labrador at the time, Jet. Musically, it features a reggae-inspired guitar chop, blasting horns and sultry strings. There is not much else to say about this classic, apart from it embodies everything good about Wings. It is such a great song, even pop masters The Carpenters loved it. Furthermore, Australian rockers Jet took their name from the song.
‘Band on the Run’ – Band on the Run (1973)
Without a doubt, Wings’ best song, ‘Band on the Run’, captures the band at their pinnacle. After the group’s lowest moment, their first two albums being critically panned and two members leaving, ‘Band on the Run’ denotes a heroic return to personal form for McCartney and the band finding their true character. It perfectly blends the fundamental elements of Wings’ style.
The song is made up of three distinct passages that range from folk-rock to funk, and is also one of McCartney’s longest running singles at over five minutes. The narrative was inspired by a comment that ‘The Quiet One’, George Harrison, made during an Apple Records meeting — amidst the ongoing problems of the final chapter of the Beatles. Interviewed by Paul Gambaccini in 1973, McCartney claimed the lyric “if we ever get out of here” came directly from Harrison’s mouth. McCartney recalled:
“He was saying that we were all prisoners in some way… I thought it would be a nice way to start an album,” remarked Macca. “It’s a million things … all put together. Band on the run – escaping, freedom, criminals. You name it, it’s there.”
The song’s inception and the theme of freedom and escape coincided with the former Beatles parting with Apple Records manager Allen Klein in March ’73. Subsequently, this led to a period of cooled relations between “The Fab Four”.
Although it is Wings at their pinnacle, putting the bad blood with the Beatles to rest and a perfect show of arms by the band, it was not without its hiccups. When the band arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, to record the album at EMI’s studio, the original demo for ‘Band on the Run’ was stolen shortly after touching down. Furthermore, this was when the band was reduced to its core trio. This only adds to its triumphant stature. Not only does it represent a departure for the band, but it is also their magnificent, winding opus, bouncing back and springing them into global stardom.
‘Junior’s Farm’ – Junior’s Farm (1974)
Following the great success of ‘Band on the Run’, in July 1974, McCartney took the new and improved Wings to Soundshop Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. While recording there, the band stayed at a farm owned by Curly Putman Jr., which partially accounts for the title. Coupled with this, McCartney said he based the lyrics on Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and that “the idea was to just get a fantasy song about this person Junior.” The frontman also added that the lyrical themes were just plain fun, with no real intention, contrasting to that of Dylan’s — “As for reading deep meanings into the words, people shouldn’t bother, there aren’t any.”
Musically ‘Junior’s Farm’ carries on from where ‘Band on the Run’ left, taking us through twists and turns. Furthermore, guitarist Jimmy McCulloch makes his debut on the track, resulting in a lyrical shoutout from McCartney. The Wings newcomer is joined by a host of typically absurd characters such as Oliver Hardy, an Eskimo, a sea lion and an old man at a grocery.
I wonder what green leaved plant this particular farm was cultivating?
‘To You’ – Back to the Egg (1979)
‘To You’ is indicative of the time. No longer embodying the soft-rock, hazy feel of the mid-’70s, it presents a departure of sorts for Wings. Not only is it from the band’s seventh and final album, but it is also a blast of new-wave, featuring an angular, soloing guitar that is reminiscent of Talking Heads’ ‘The Great Curve’ from 1980. Guitarist Laurence Juber runs his guitar through an Eventide Harmoniser on these brilliant solos, hailing the dawn of the ’80s.
‘To You’ also represents Wings flirting with post-punk. It features McCartney’s trademark, almost breathless vocals, similar to that of the Beatles monster ‘Helter Skelter’. However, McCartney’s vocals this time are closer to Ric Ocasek’s than on his former band’s hard-rocking classic, and are almost staccato in rhythm.
It is one of the highlights on Back to the Egg, and it is not hard to comprehend why. Showing the all-encompassing, pioneering nature of McCartney and Wings, this sound would become the mainstream in the years following, as can be heard on Talking Heads’ opus, Remain in Light (1980).