Wings Over America: Like A Relic From A Different Age

Wings Over America

In 1976, Paul McCartney was riding high.

He had every reason to. He’d borne the brunt of the blame for “breaking up The Beatles.”  He’d gone through a rough transition to a solo act. He’d been entrapped in the massive sinkhole of Apple Records. His solo career had been dismal, with his first few albums being received negatively—nay, that’s way too kind. Those records–McCartney, Ram, Wildlife, and Red Rose Speedway–were outright rejected. But he rebounded in 1973 with Band On The Run, which finally kick-started the successful solo career expected of him.

With the overwhelming international success of his most recent albums Band On The Run and Venus and Mars, McCartney was ready to tour the world. Wings Over The World would begin in the fall of 1975 and would carry on through the summer of 1976, the American leg being the main objective for the jaunt. The US tour was timed to coincide with the March release of the band’s fifth album, Wings At The Speed of Sound, with McCartney banking on the assumption that it would be as successful as its two predecessors.  He wasn’t wrong, either; Speed Of Sound would fly to the top of the charts almost instantly, thanks to the success of the lead single “Silly Love Songs.” Furthermore, Wings At The Speed Of Sound was a truly collaborative album; credited to Wings, it featured contributions from each member of the band.  This egalitarian spirit would carry over to the band’s setlist, with guitarists Denny Laine and Jimmy McCulloch allowed to perform their own songs.

McCartney reportedly spent a lot of time coming up with a setlist that was fair to his band, interesting to his audience, and mindful of both his past and his present. He had to consider the enormity of what he was about to undertake. Unlike his previous UK and European tours–which had been spontaneous in nature and focused on small venues—if he was going to tour now, he knew it had to be big.  He couldn’t do low-key; Wings was now too big for that. Unsurprisingly, the band had no problem quickly selling out stadiums and large venues. He also knew that he would need a band that could translate the band’s sound for large spaces. Thus, he hired Howie Casey to put together a red-hot four-piece horn section.

Yet he had another demon to face:

The Beatles.

On previous tours, he intentionally ignored his previous band. It’s understandable, though. Throughout the Get Back era, Paul often talked about just getting into a van and starting over, going to small clubs and asking to play, and playing all-new material and covers. The others balked, but Paul never lost his enthusiasm for the idea. In fact, that’s exactly what Wings’ early tours were—low-key, small gigs at clubs and colleges who really didn’t know who Wings was. That freedom of starting over meant he didn’t have to play the oldies if he didn’t want to—and he didn’t.

But he couldn’t do that now.

He couldn’t do it because he realized if he did, the audience would leave the show unhappy. Being a consummate showman, he had to bite his lip. He must have certainly looked to former bandmate George Harrison’s ill-fated 1974 tour to realize he was right; one of the criticisms levied towards the Quiet Beatle was his seeming indifference to his former band. He would play one of his Beatles songs if he felt like it—which he often didn’t. Audiences left disappointed, and Paul didn’t want that to happen, understanding the consequences of letting down his fans.

Paul also knew he didn’t have to turn his show into a nostalgic one. He didn’t have to; having had four consecutive number one albums and a half-dozen Top Ten singles meant that he had plenty of material to entertain his crowds. Throwing in a handful of his Beatles Greatest Hits meant he could give the audience something special, without having to sacrifice his more contemporary material.

So he gave ‘em five, and those five performances were absolutely beautiful. “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “Yesterday,” and “Blackbird” made for a nice little acoustic mini-set while slipping in “The Long And Winding Road” and “Lady Madonna” throughout the beginning of the show quelled the taste for familiar Fab Four fare. On Wings Over America, they’re presented early on and with no announcement; the audience goes wild. If you watch any of the documentaries of the tour, the audience response translates into a big, grateful smile on Paul’s face afterward.

As for the rest of the setlist, it’s a healthy portion of the band’s three previous albums. Paul has stated that the album opener “Venus & Mars/Rockshow” had been composed with the intention of being the opening song of a live set. It makes sense—the quiet, acoustic “Venus & Mars” giving over to the loud, bustling arena rock of “Rockshow” work the audience up in a frenzy, and listening 45 years later, it’s lost none of its punch.

And that’s exactly why Wings Over America is one of Paul McCartney’s greatest albums. The material here is fresh and new; from the upbeat recent chart-toppers of “Jet,” “Listen To What The Man Said,” and “Live And Let Die” to the mellow soft-rock of “Silly Love Songs”  and “Let ‘Em In,” Paul and the band deliver them with aplomb, an enjoyable set for a nice night out. Album tracks such as “Letting Go,” “Call Me Back Again,” “Bluebird,” and “Let Me Roll It” sound as tight as their hit single kin. Even the moments where others take the lead—McCulloch’s “Medicine Jar” and Laine’s “Time To Hide,” “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” and his sole Moody Blues hit “Go Now”—are enjoyable and take away nothing from the show. (Only Laine’s cover of Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory” feels unnecessary; neither recorded by him or by Wings, it seems an odd choice, and the performance here is merely okay.)

A shrewd businessman, McCartney knew that this tour deserved to be documented. Thus, Wings Over America appeared in December 1976, just in time for the Christmas season. As McCartney had a knack of planning releases in such a way that he could satiate the marketplace, this was a deft move, and as usual with his keen business sense, it proved to be a major seller for 1977. The album would go platinum in the US—an odd occurrence for a triple album, and perhaps the only instance of that happening.  Furthermore, a single release of “Maybe I’m Amazed” would also go to number one—righting one of McCartney’s most puzzling wrongs;  McCartney refused to release it as a single in 1970, and it remains one of his greatest compositions.

The Wings Over The World tour would be the band’s only grand live statement. With Linda pregnant with her son James, the band would cancel their 1977 touring and would go on hiatus, during which the band was reduced to a trio during sessions for 1978’s London Town. Paul would put together a new band for 1979’s Back To The Egg, a better-than-you-realize New Wave-inspired album. The band would go on a one-month UK tour—to be followed by a world tour–where they would once again team up with Howie Casey. They would perform four Beatles songs, wisely choosing four different tunes for the set, beginning each show with a spirited take on “Got To Get You Into My Life,” before diving into a more esoteric setlist, minus some of the bigger hits in favor of deeper cuts and more recent album tracks.  Unfortunately, it would be the band’s last tour; a drug bust at the onset of the Japanese leg of their tour brought the band to an end.  (Even more unfortunate is that aside from recordings made at the Concert for Kampuchea benefit show and a handful of bonus tracks here and there, no 1979 live performance has ever seen an official release. A shame, as bootlegs show the band as being even tighter and hotter than any of their previous tours.)

Wings Over America stands as the only widespread document of Wings’ awesome live power. It set the standard for live albums and is simply one of McCartney’s finest moments.

Purchse Wings Over AmericaAmazon

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