Paul McCartney couldn’t catch a break in the post-Beatles world. Critics lambasted him for putting out saccharine, half-assed records, even when he did work as wonderful as RAM. Things started looking a lot better for him in 1973 when he let loose Band on the Run, a collection of well-crafted, well-produced, well-played songs that most critics agreed was pretty great, and that includes Paul’s harshest critic, John Lennon. Although that record was credited to Paul McCartney and Wings, it was actually his most solitary album since his one-man-band debut. He even played all the drum parts. Credited just to Wings, his follow up album was his most collaborative to date and the first convincing evidence that Wings was more than a reaction against Paul control-freak reputation.
Paul’s relinquishing of some control actually means Venus and Mars isn’t as strong as Band on the Run. The only song the band’s acknowledged leader didn’t write was Jimmy McCulloch’s OK bluesy rocker, “Medicine Jar”. Paul handed his own “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” to Denny Laine to sing. Again, it isn’t bad musically, but the lyric might be Paul’s dumbest. However, much of the rest of the album rates among the best stuff Wings did. The title track is a mysterious and tuneful prelude to the arena-quaking “Rock Show”, which gains extra charm from its goofy “we’re coming to rock your town!” lyric. “Love in Song” is alluringly eerie. “You Gave Me the Answer” is a pleasing revival of Paul’s fascination with quaint pre-Rock & Roll pop, which previously produced “When I’m 64” and “Honey Pie”. The comic booking “Magneto and Titanium Man” is rollickingly silly fun (and I’m pretty sure Belle & Sebastian are fans, because it sounds a hell of lot like their “Boy with the Arab Strap”). “Listen to What the Man Said” is a catchy single with bubbly sax work from legit jazzman Tom Scott, and the soulful “Call Me Back Again” is one of the finest artifacts of the Wings years.
Riding high on the success of Venus and Mars, McCartney gave his band a lot more room on its successor, Wings at the Speed of Sound. This time his magnanimousness backfired artistically, if not commercially (it was his biggest hit album in the U.S.), because the others’ songs just aren’t up to snuff aside from Denny Laine’s two contributions: “Time to Hide”, a close cousin of “Letting Go” from Venus and Mars, and the atmospherically somber “The Note You Never Wrote”, which is really more effective as a recording than a composition. McCulloch’s “Wino Junko” is a tuneful enough piece of light pop, but the finger-wagging lyric stinks. Linda sings the even worse lyrics of her “Cook of the House” amateurishly as the band boogies along awkwardly behind her. There’s one big surprise among these more collaborative tracks though: on “Must Do Something About It”, drummer-turned-singer Joe English sounds exactly like Billy Joel. Whether that’s a good or bad surprise is up to you.
As for the star of our show, Paul McCartney is working below his abilities too. The album’s two huge hits are not among Paul’s best, though they definitely have their winning qualities: “Silly Love Songs”, which hits back at his critics with a Nerf hammer, has a terrific bass-line and a complex vocal arrangement, and “Let ’Em In”—which is so minimalistic it’s practically an anti-composition—has an infectious air of fun. These tracks are also indicative of the main problem with Speed of Sound: there just isn’t enough good, old Rock & Roll. Paul only remembers his screaming Little Richard roots on “Beware My Love”, easily the best thing on the album.
The new reissues of Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound from Hear Music’s “Paul McCartney Archive Collection” each come with spiffed-up sound (compare how much deeper and growlier the bass on “Silly Love Songs” is to the most recent remaster of it on the Wingspan compilation) and a bonus disc. In this department, Venus and Mars continues to be the vastly superior package. It comes with a 50-minute bonus disc that blasts off with the snarling single “Junior’s Farm” and jogs on through a selection of tracks mediocre (the jazz muzak “Walking in the Park with Eloise”/ “Bridge on the River Suite” released as a 1974 single credited to “The Country Hams”), good (the hummably ridiculous ditty “Hey Diddle”; a version of “Baby Face” with tasty Dixieland horn arrangement), and awesome (white hot versions of “Soily” and “Rock Show”, which sounds like Wings paying tribute to Big Star). Lumped on an anemic 21-minute disc, the bonuses on Speed of Sound are interesting but probably won’t inspire multiple listens. The best of the lot is a version of “Must Do Something About It” with Paul on lead vocals that should have been on the album instead of the Joe English version and a raw run through of “Beware My Love” with John Bonham on drums. A piano demo of “Silly Love Songs” is mostly a means to work out the track’s vocal arrangement, while a similar demo of “Let ’Em In” shows just how much of a handle Paul had on its instrumental arrangement before the band took it into the studio.
Get the Paul McCartney Archive Collection editions of Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound on Amazon.com here: