Wings at the Speed of Sound (EMI Paul McCartney Collection 89140)
The critical scorn for this album is so strong that even I started buying into it after awhile. I go in and out of my Paul McCartney phases, but last year when I started amassing all the UK Paul McCartney Collection reissues, I held off on getting Wings at the Speed of Sound. The hesitation was mainly stemming from reading so many reviews of how bad this album is, mixed with vague memories of listening to it as a child and really liking "Cook of the House," a famously "bad" Wings song with Linda on vocals. But you know what, listening to it now, I still like "Cook of the House," and beyond that, how can an album with "Let 'Em In" and "Silly Love Songs" be bad? Even if Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 sang the rest of the songs it would still be a fair album.
But really, it's mostly a primo Wings album, full of that weirdo AOR powerpop that only McCartney & Co. ever did. This is a band that always behaved as though they were the biggest and best band in the world. Sure, that's how everyone acted in the 70s (see also Queen, Led Zeppelin, the Raspberries, etc), but the great thing about Wings is watching the fascinating experimentation of an increasingly pot-saturated Paul McCartney (composer of "Martha My Dear" and "Paperback Writer") as he follows his very unique muse through weird excursion after weird excursion. It's always interesting to see what Paul is up to, and in 1976 the songwriting prowess was still there, effortless and satisfying, though as always pretty much totally empty.
Which is not a bad thing, really. "Silly Love Songs" is often regarded as one of the most offensively pappy songs ever written, but the way I see it, it's the most honest song Paul ever wrote. He could never help writing songs like that, and here's his ultimate defense. And you know what? It's better than anything Lennon wrote past 1972, that's for sure. "Let 'Em In," too that song is from another planet. Doorbell, military snare, fake kazoo sound, fake black vocal and a tune that doesn't quit. What a way to open an album. Lots of very underrated moments here, too "Beware My Love," a neglected Paul rock thing in the vein of "1985" starts like a moody Belly song, ends like something off Band on the Run. This is Wings in its element, when it actually was a band.
Denny Laine contributes "The Note You Never Wrote," a cool, dark number that somehow got put at Track 2; good song, although it does sound like it was written with a rhyming dictionary. Denny's back on "Time to Hide," a blues-type thing that wouldn't sound too out of place on an Ozzy Osbourne record, if you added a piercing twin-lead-guitar solo. It's pretty cool, actually, to hear the other members of Wings contributing to the proceedings, because by now, it's obvious that Paul's talent is rubbing off. "Wino Junko," sung by Jimmy McCullough, could easily be a very good McCartney throwaway the sort of thing Paul would write and immediately forget, but even if it's McCullough's all-time best song, it must have been exciting to come up with something good enough to rank alongside even a middling Paul moment. Joe English gives us "Must Do Something About It," a very lonely song that is truly memorable, though here, too, some dopey lyrics intrude. Note to aspring songwriters: stop rhyming "self" with "shelf."
Regarding "Cook of the House" it's damn charming, actually. Linda puts it across somehow, and the subtle horns are pretty great. Sonically though, it sounds like an outtake, so it's not surprising people single it out it does stand out like a sore ass. But quit hating Linda already, you got what you want, she's dead! Oh, and back to Sir Paul: he gives us "She's My Baby," which is a blatant attempt to sound like Songs in the Key of Life, featuring some of his worst lyrics ever (he rhymes "baby" with "gravy" and then keeps using that as a metaphor) but a great tune. Another pair of forgotten gems close the album proper, the "Mrs. Vanderbilt"-esque "San Ferry Anne," which is one of Paul's great minor-key acoustic songs, this one featuring some great horns as well, and then the token piano ballad, "Warm and Beautiful." Even Paul must have known that this faux English anthem was not "Let it Be," but even fourth-rate Paul tends to inspire amazement. Too bad these days he's operating more in the area of eighth- and ninth-rate.
The reissue adds three nice b-sides: "Walking in the Park With Eloise" (originally credited to "The Country Hams" and released as a single it's a charming instrumental dixieland exercise written by Paul's father), "Bridge on the River Suite," (a strange instrumental stab at New Orleans jazz by way of CTI Records), and the awesome "Sally G" (a b-side from the Venus And Mars era Paul doing straight country, very, very well). These make the CD a great package so let me throw down the flag and tell it like it is: whether this is a shit album, I have no idea but I do listen to it a hundred times more than Sgt. Pepper.
Review by Ivan Loverling