McCartney (Capitol ’70) Rating: B+
First Paul McCartney shocked everybody by announcing that he was leaving the Beatles, and then he emphatically severed the chord to his former band by releasing this self-titled debut solo album (before Let It Be was released) a mere week later. To say that this album's demo-like simplicity was a far cry from the lush sonics of Abbey Road is an understatement, and I guess you can say that Paul was rebelling against such elaborate "artistic statements," but after living with it for awhile I've come to realize that McCartney too has its own rough hewn charms. For one thing, McCartney is a true solo album, as, like other talented artists such as Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, and Prince, Paul played every instrument on the album himself (wife Linda adds some backing vocals), which itself is worthy of respect even if it wasn't all that surprising given that Paul was always the most talented musician in The Beatles. The problem with this album is that there are few fully fleshed out actual songs, as some qualify as mere fragments and there are several instrumentals that are successful as segues but don't really work on their own as stand alone songs. I mean, can't you just hear the collective "what the fuck was that?" upon people first hearing the 43 seconds of "The Lovely Linda" way back in 1970? "That Would Be Something" is notable for its vocal ad-libs and falling rain imagery, and "Valentine" is a bashed out, guitar-based rock instrumental that sets the stage for "Every Night," a melodic, melancholic ballad. The majority of "Hot As Sun/Glasses" serves up another extremely melodic, tropical instrumental, as despite the albums overall air of spontaneity it still manages to be quite melodic and accessible for the most part. Still, there is a dearth of truly memorable content and the album seems a bit rushed and unfinished; really, were two versions of "Junk" (later reprised without vocals as "Sing Along Junk") really necessary, pretty though the song is? (p.s. I'm partial to the instrumental version.) Probably not, and the sloppy edit that brings together the two parts of "Momma Miss America" (a moody piano and percussion piece, then a wailing guitar rocker) should've been tidied up by a professional producer. Still, "Man We Was Lonely," about the traumatic disintegration of the Beatles and his triumphant rise to a domesticated, peaceful calm, is another fine song proper, and "Maybe I'm Amazed" is one of his signature songs and is as good as damn near anything he ever did with The Beatles. Oddly enough, this popular song wasn't released as a single at the time, though a later live version became a hit in 1977. Regardless, the piano-heavy track features crystal clear vocals from the finest pop singer around, and its melancholic lyrics are worthy of its exemplary melody. Throw in a pair of classy guitar solos in between his vocals rising in passionate intensity and what you have is a dramatic ballad/rocker that ranks as an all-time classic. Sure, the rest of the album can't hope to compete at such a high level, but Paul's ambitions here were obviously modest from the start, and McCartney did its part in successfully severing his ties to The Beatles while working as an enjoyable album in its own right.
Ram (Capitol ’71) Rating: A
Paul put together an actual band for this one, which was poorly received way back when, proving that many professional critics overrate lyrics at the expense of melodies. Because Ram has memorable melodies in abundance. Yes, I can see why Ram was ridiculed for being "lightweight" and even for the appearance of his wife Linda's name on the album cover (she received co-billing and many co-writing credits), but time has only been kind to what is arguably his most fun solo album. The album starts strongly with "Too Many People," which reminds me of The Beatles' "Baby You're A Rich Man." I doubt that John Lennon was a fan of this one, as its "piss off" intro and lines like "too many people preaching practices" and "you took your lucky break and you broke it in two" were obviously aimed at him and Yoko. Still, a good song is a good song (it's better than Lennon's vicious retort "How Do You Sleep?"), and "3 Legs" continues with a silly but fun (there's that word again) blues ditty that demonstrates the album's easy-to-embrace, at home ambiance. Better still is the charmingly low-key "Ram On," with a particularly pretty Paul vocal, and "Dear Boy," with more stellar vocals (and guitar), some of which are supplied by Linda (take that, critics!). "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" is an absolute classic; beginning as a pretty ballad, the song really takes off on its awesome flugelhorn riff and ridiculously catchy "haaaannds, across the water!" chorus. Like several songs here, this one is multi-sectioned as Paul piles on the shape-shifting melodies while managing to keep things sounding fresh and interesting. Anyway, the fun continues on "Smile Away," another catchy rocker, this one with a '50s doo-wop influence and throwaway lyrics ("man, I could smell your feet a mile away"), while the lightly melodic, sing songy "Heart Of The Country" is utterly charming, albeit in a very British sort of way. "Monkberry Moon Delight" is another personal favorite, primarily because of Paul's raw, intense vocal (which I like but some might find a bit over-the-top and annoying) and surreal lyrics, while "Eat At Home," another "I'm happily domesticated" song, continues the high quality, led by its wonderfully melodic, chugging bass line. Finishing with a flourish, "Long Haired Lady" and "The Back Seat Of My Car" (briefly interrupted by a short reprise of "Ram On") are arguably the album's most ambitious tracks, and both are spectacularly successful. True, the lyrics on the former are at times lazy, and maybe it doesn't need to be six minutes long, but the music on this multi-sectioned opus is first-rate, and the brilliantly uplifting coda ("I believe that we can't be wrong") to "The Back Seat Of My Car" leaves the album's most lasting impression. Linda really does contribute excellent vocals to both of these songs, so how about a little credit for a much-maligned lady? Anyway, in running through these 12 tracks I've come to realize that this album is much better than I originally thought, and that (for me, anyway) Ram rivals Band On The Run as Paul McCartney's most consistent and enjoyable post-Beatles album.
Wild Life (Capitol ’71, Parlophone '93) Rating: C+
After Ram Paul McCartney put together an actual band, called Wings, which consisted of Linda, drummer Denny Seiwell (who had played on Ram), Denny Laine (formerly of The Moody Blues, he had sang their classic late '60s hit "Go Now"), and of course Paul himself. Their first album together, Wild Life, had the same unfinished feel of McCartney only more so, as, inspired by Bob Dylan’s spontaneous recording methods, the album was obviously recorded and written extremely (i.e. too) quickly. A song like “Mumbo” was quite obviously bashed out on the spot, with its indecipherable lyrics and rough overall sound. And you know what? That’s one of the better tunes here, since at least it's raw and rocking. “Bip Bop” is simply embarrassing, being an annoyingly silly and repetitive trifle that doesn’t really go anywhere. Fortunately, the cover of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” is a winner. The vocals don’t start until the 1:37 mark on this one, and actually the lyrics are the only thing that’s borrowed, as the impressive reggae influenced music is actually their own concoction that they successfully married to the existing lyrics. Anyway, I rather enjoy the song and it probably should’ve been released as a single. It’s certainly worlds better than the title track, an obnoxious animal rights tract that doesn’t go anywhere but takes over 6 minutes to go nowhere, with some obnoxious vocals on Paul’s part to boot. Also over-long but much better is “Some People Never Know,” a pretty, melodic love ballad with Linda on harmonies. This song sees Paul doing what he does best, basically, and “Tomorrow” is another mid-tempo piano pop tune that’s perfectly pleasant. “I am Your Singer,” a duet with too much Linda vocalizing, is merely decent but no more, leaving “Dear Friend” as the remaining substantial song, though there are a couple of pointless “links” along the way as well. “Dear Friend,” a conciliatory attempt to bury the hatchet with Lennon, is pretty good but is overly long and repetitive like too many songs here. Also, the production, or lack of any kind of production, is poor throughout Wild Life, as you could make a case that Paul was doing “lo-fi” well before the likes of Beck, Pavement, or Guided By Voices. Still, I’m not sure how much credit I’m willing to give him on that front, especially since his crude recording methods here don’t exactly enhance his material, most of which was underwritten in the first place; after all, there’s simple and then there’s simplistic, and too often Wild Life settles for the latter. Unsurprisingly, Wild Life was savaged by the critics at the time, and though it’s not quite as bad as that (remember these were the same stooges who also ripped apart the excellent Ram), it was a pretty underwhelming first attempt from his new band, particularly when one considers that Lennon had released the largely stellar Imagine that same year. Note: Get the reissue if you can, as it has four bonus tracks ("Give Ireland Back to the Irish," “Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Little Woman Love," "Mama's Little Girl") that on the whole are better than the actual album itself. In fact, if you get the reissue, feel free to increase the overall rating of Wild Life to a (still mediocre) B-.
Red Rose Speedway (Capitol ’72, Parlophone '93) Rating: B-
Being busted twice in 1972 for marijuana possession might have increased Paul's "street cred" with the hipster set, but as a musician he still had something to prove on Red Rose Speedway. And, with the help of new guitarist Henry McCullough, Paul did produce an improved effort, though it still fell far short of what he was capable of delivering. In short, although it seems like he put more effort into this one (the sound quality is way better than on Wild Life), Paul is still searching for solid footing, as the album is too soft and clean on the whole, with too many insignificant entries. The album was originally slated to be a double album, and indeed chugging rockers such as "Hi Hi Hi" and "The Mess (Live)," the best of the four bonus tracks on the reissue, would've given the album some needed balance. Unfortunately, like other artists such as Bruce Springsteen, perhaps Paul wasn't the best judge of his own work; surely Lennon would've helped him in this regard. Still, what eventually made it onto the album isn't all bad by any means, in fact the first four songs are quite good. "Big Barn Bed" may be a throwaway, in fact it was a Ram outtake that even quotes that albums "Ram On" reprise, but it's still a damn catchy throwaway with excellent three-part harmonies. "Get On The Right Thing" was another Ram outtake that's not great but boy is it all but dripping with melody, and again I like the lively, singable harmonies. "Only One More Kiss," a melodic mid-tempo country tune, is another short but largely enjoyable throwaway, and "My Love" was an elegant, mature ballad that became Paul's second number #1 hit (after "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"). Sure, it's exactly the type of sickly sentimental love ballad that the critics have always killed him for, but there's no denying that it's a well-written and well-performed song, with McCullough's guitar solo adding just the right touch. Alas, the album nosedives in its mid-section. "Little Lamb Dragonfly" isn't bad, in fact it's pleasantly melodic like most of the songs here, but it's too long at over 6-minutes and its melody is so twee and airy that it all but threatens to float away. And I really don't care much at all for "Little Pigeon" (a daft jingle that's lightweight in the extreme), "When The Night" (dumb, drippy piano pop), or "Loop (1st Indian On The Moon)" (amateurish space rock that doesn't work or fit in with the album at all). The 11-minute medley that ends the album is better, but again it's no great shakes as Paul obviously tries to revisit the glories of side two of Abbey Road. I'm not going to call it a miserable failure, because I quite like the more energetic last two parts of the four-song suite, but it's a little too little, too late (the first two songs are very lazy, with Paul basically repeating the titles set to mundane music), and really the songs don't warrant being a medley at all, as the various linkages seem forced and clumsy, quite unlike the Abbey Road medley which at least seemed as natural as could be. Perhaps that's an unfair comparison, but fair or not there's no denying that Paul will always be competing against his previous band's high standards, and that he falls far short of such standards here. Anyway, there's not much more to be said other than to note that I like Paul's singing on the album and that I feel that McCullough was a good (if short-lived) addition. However, the album still suffers from inconsistency, and the wimp factor is too high for me to give it anything other than a lukewarm endorsement. Note: Similar to Wild Life, feel free to increase the rating to a B if you have the reissue.
Band On The Run (Capitol ’74) Rating: A
Wow, I had forgotten how good this album is, especially given the circumstances behind it; McCullough and Seiwell quit right before the band was leaving to record it in Africa, where they had all sorts of problems including poor studio equipment, resentment from local musicians who thought they were there to rip off their sound, and even a mugging. Paul just shrugged this all off, picked up the slack (sorry, but no way Lennon could've done so much with so little help, for whatever that's worth), and produced his most mature and confident post-Beatles album to date, probably ever. Unlike previous albums, this one was not only massively successful (three top 10 hits in the U.S.) but it received rave reviews, even by Lennon who acknowledged that it was "great." The album starts with the famous 1-2 punch of the title track and “Jet,” arguably his best post-Beatles songs along with "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Live and Let Die." The title track was a #1 hit that features several sections: its pretty intro including a wonderfully melodic riff, then moody downcast rock, then one of those spectacular moments a little after the 2-minute mark when horns come in followed by an acoustic guitar and then Paul joins in with the purest set of pipes in rock n’ roll; the rest of the song is merely a catchy pop rocker but a pretty special one at that. If nothing else Paul was one of the greatest pop singers of all-time, and his voice is in exemplary form throughout this album, particularly on the #7 hit "Jet," a fantastic horn-heavy rocker with great riffs, those catchy "ooh ooh" harmonies, a rare synth solo, and a propulsive rhythmic push. I remember hearing this song with some friends and when one said "is there a finer singer in rock n' roll?" (after the "I can almost remember the funny faces" line), we all just nodded our heads "no" in agreement with his assessment. Anyway, as for the other songs here, “Bluebird” is a pretty, lullaby-like pop ballad with a pleasingly light yet melodic touch, “Mrs. Vanderbilt” contains chugging rhythms and memorable “ho-hey-ho” chants (both of these songs also contain cool sax solos), and “Let Me Roll It” was a bare-bones, riff-driven, Lennon-esque rocker that's another very good effort, especially since it's harsher edge gives the album the needed balance that was sorely lacking on Red Rose Speedway. Other highlights include “Mamunia,” a delightfully tuneful and mildly exotic African-flavored ditty, “Helen Wheels,” a rowdy rocker and a great driving song that's only available on the preferable U.S. edition of the album (which is the one I'm reviewing), and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five,” another terrific rocker (rocking out wasn't Lennon's exclusive domain by any means) that's propelled by its great piano groove; plus the "Band On The Run" reprise on its outro satisfactorily brings the album full circle. Not exactly a highlight but also interesting is “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me),” which Paul wrote as a result of a dinner conversation with actor Dustin Hoffman, who mentioned what Picasso's last words supposedly were ("drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can't drink anymore") and challenged Paul to write a song around said lyrics. He did just that, supposedly on the spot, and the quirky, offbeat end result is something akin to a Picasso painting set to music, even if it meanders along the way while reprising previous songs. "No Words" is probably the least distinguished entry here, but at least it's guitar-based and isn't bad by any means, as all three Wings members (Paul, Linda, Denny) join in on vocals and provide some nice harmonies as per usual. Anyway, suffice it to say that Band On The Run was a resounding success on all fronts, and though it still wasn't quite Revolver or Abbey Road, it was a classic album in its own right, and it established Wings as a superstar band who had at last at least somewhat escaped the long shadow of Paul's fabulous former band.
Venus and Mars (Capitol ’75) Rating: A-
With the addition of Jimmy McCulloch (no relation to Henry McCullough) on guitar and Joe English on drums, Wings was back to being a full-fledged working band, which was just how Paul had always wanted it. Although it was a major success in the U.S. and the U.K. (it topped both charts), Venus and Mars was another strong album that was underappreciated by the critics of the day. Its diverse mix of styles received much criticism, but I for one like the throwback nature of the songs, which are more fully-developed than earlier Wings albums like Wild Life or Red Rose Speedway, though the album falls a few notches below Band On The Run. A few rockers were also criticized for being underplayed when compared to their subsequent live versions (for example, "Letting Go"), but in general I like both versions. Besides, if the studio versions of all songs were identical to the live version, then what would be the point of listening to live versions? Anyway, listening to the upbeat songs of Venus and Mars makes me feel good, plain and simple, and I like how Paul spreads the wealth this time, though of course he was criticized for this more democratic approach as well. Laine handles lead vocals on the psychedelic, dreamy "Spirits Of Ancient Egypt," which admittedly is no great shakes, but McCulloch both wrote and sang "Medicine Jar," a funky hard rocker that's actually really good; alas, McCulloch would dip into the medicine jar once too often in 1979, but that's a story for another day. Back to the Paul songs, "Venus and Mars" segueing into "Rock Show" is a great way to open an album, or a concert; the former starts slowly, dreamily, and then the latter bursts forward with a tremendous energy, as once again Paul showed that he could rock out, especially with this strong version of the band behind him. The music hall whimsy of "You Gave Me The Answer" embodies the spirit of New Orleans (where it was recorded) and harkens back to a bygone era (the roaring '20s, maybe?). "Magneto and Titanium Man" is simply a sci-fi pop classic, what with its heavenly harmonies, toe tapping piano groove, and amusing lyrics about a pair of X-Men characters. As previously mentioned, the version of "Letting Go" may be better on Wings Over America, but I quite like this moody, bluesy, brassy mid-tempo rocker as well, and "Call Me Back Again" (an "underrated gem" for sure) features a magnificent McCartney vocal along with some lashing guitar. The album's best-known song, indeed its only really well-known song, is the #1 hit "Listen To What The Man Said," and though of course the critics complained about it being lightweight, its wonderful melody makes such criticisms seem silly to me. The sound is oh so smooth here, with airy vocals, brilliant bass playing as per usual, some choice sax to further accentuate the song's jazzy attributes, and of course a catchy chorus seemingly made for radio airplay. Elsewhere, there are a few songs that don't really do too much for me, but I can't say that there's any obvious filler here, and besides, even the lesser songs generally come and go quickly enough as most of these songs are a concise two or three minutes long. Overall, Venus and Mars falls short of the high standards of Paul's very best work (Ram and Band On The Run), but I consider it among the best of the rest of his catalogue.
Wings At The Speed Of Sound (Capitol '76, '99) Rating: B
This is the "Paul tries to prove that Wings were a real band" album. First, similar to Venus and Mars this album is credited to Wings, whereas the previous two albums prior to that one were billed as Paul McCartney & Wings due to marketing reasons (for the record it worked, as Red Rose Speedway began a string of five straight #1 U.S. albums; people today forget just how big Wings were). Secondly, he made sure to include the word Wings in the album title, and lastly each band member was allowed to sing a song. That last part may not have been such a great idea, as predictably Paul sings the album's best songs, but there's little in the way of actual filler here, merely too many merely decent songs and not enough rocking out on the whole. The album begins with "Let 'Em In," and though this hit gave ammunition to the critics who complained that Paul "had nothing to say," it is quite the catchy ditty and its diverse range of instrumentation is impressive. Other Paul sung songs include "She's My Baby," an atypical bass-heavy dance track that's pretty good but nothing special, "San Ferry Anne," which delivers light yet sophisticated pop that's a bit on the moody side, and "Warm and Beautiful," a sparse, schmaltzy ballad that again had the critics in an uproar. Of course, Paul's answer to said critics came in the form of "Silly Love Songs," which may possess the "mawkish easy listening" attributes that the critics so came to despise, but again the song's magnificent bass-line, sing along melody, and smooth, lush overall sound make it another winner despite its overly long length. Yes, I really like "Silly Love Songs," can I still keep my critic card? Besides, LOTS of people like that song, even if none of them are critics, and any critic worth his salt should be able to appreciate "Beware My Love," the album's most rocking and ambitious song (both of these songs are around 6 minutes long). As for the rest of the songs not sung by Paul, Laine sings "The Note You Never Wrote," a strong track that's moody and mysterious, with a wailing guitar solo, and Laine sang and wrote "Time To Hide," a solidly bluesy effort that's also among the album's more atmospheric tracks. For his part, McCulloch (with former Stone the Crows drummer Colin Allen) contributes another anti-drink/drug track, "Wino Junko," almost as if he was warning himself to cut it out. Alas, he didn't, as alluded to previously (he overdosed in '79), but this is another moody, melodic entry that I quite like, in part due to some cool late-night keyboards and another good guitar solo. Rounding out the track list, Paul gives the perfectly pleasant "Must Do Something About It" to English, who does a solid job on what is simply a light and airy pop tune. Oh, I almost forgot, Linda sings "The Cook Of The House," which is AWFUL and should've been saved for a b-side. Still, that's the only out and out stinker in the bunch, but there are too many repetitive melodies, merely decent songs, and songs not sung by Paul McCartney to make this any more than a pretty good Paul McCartney (or Wings) album. Still, part of me is glad that Paul saw through the folly of trying to please critics (you're damned if you do, damned if you don't anyway), and this is still a very listenable and often-enjoyable album, insubstantial though much of it may be. Wings then went on a massive world tour, on which they proved that they were in fact a real band.
Note: Once again, the three bonus tracks are quite good. "Walking In The Park With Elois" (written by Paul's father!) and "Bridge On The River Suite" provide enjoyably retro mood music. Both of these jazzy instrumentals represent Paul's passion for the sounds of yesteryear, which in this case is the old big band era. And I was humming "Sally G" for hours last night; this catchy tune just might be the most countrified Wings track ever. I can see why these songs weren't included on the album, as they don't really fit in with the rest of its contents, but they're very enjoyable just the same, so feel free to bump up the rating of the reissue to a B+.
Wings Over America (Apple ’76) Rating: A-
Want proof that Wings at their peak were more than merely Paul McCartney's backing band? Check out this barnstorming live album, which in many ways was the quintessential Wings recording. When judging the post-Beatles careers of John vs. Paul, one thing that McCartney had over Lennon for sure was his ability to recreate a vibrant, successful stage show. Lennon never had a spectacular live extravaganza like the Wings Over America tour, from which resulted this extremely entertaining triple-live album (now a double-cd). The enormous tour was one big party, plain and simple, and by most accounts a jolly good time was had by all. Paul proved to be quite the capable frontman, with an easy charisma and of course his voice sounded great, while his bandmates rocked harder than you'd expect based on their unfair reputation as easy listening lightweights. Wings were much heavier live, it's a simple fact, and these energized performances are infectious. Plus, these guys could flat-out play (ok, Linda wasn't a great singer or musician by any means, but those of you who are still critical of her being in the band should remember that there was no place for her to hide once the concert started, and that she still held her own on vocals and keyboards on the biggest stages in the world), and they had an abundance of first-class material to choose from; Wings' albums may not have been the most consistent, but all of them had a least a few strong songs. Granted, the set list is far from perfect, as there's nothing from Ram (then again, that wasn't a Wings album) and there's a little too much from recent albums, including almost all of Venus and Mars. Actually, if anything there's simply too damn much material to sit through, but I suppose that's nitpicking given the album's high overall quality. Some of these versions, particularly harder rocking tracks such as "Medicine Jar," "Time To Hide," "Beware My Love," "Letting Go," and "Hi Hi Hi," are preferable to their studio renditions, and even pristine studio creations such as "My Love," "Listen To What The Man Said," and "Silly Love Songs" come off just fine on stage. The "Venus and Mars/Rock Show/Jet" medley is an inspired album opener, I really like Paul's raw vocals and the overall energy on "Call Me Back Again," and "Live and Let Die" is a percussive powerhouse, the band again proving their mettle on what had been an elaborate studio production. This stellar version of "Maybe I'm Amazed" became a major hit seven years after the studio version should've been, and Paul even throws in five Beatles songs for good measure. They're not the five Beatles songs I would've picked, and it's not like they improve upon the originals or anything, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable, and there are some nice touches, such as the horns on "The Long And Winding Road" and the increased tempo on "I've Seen A Face." Elsewhere, Laine spectacularly revives "Go Now" from his Moody Blues days, and he also sings Simon & Garfunkel's "Richard Cory," which fits just fine on the acoustic third side, while a new song, "Soily," ends the hard rocking sixth side with a fittingly raucous concert closer. All things considered, given that this tour was Paul's first American concert appearance in a decade, you'd have to say that the tour itself, and its attendant souvenirs (also including the Rockshow video, which shows an entire concert filmed in Seattle in '76), was a smashing success on all fronts. Sometimes it may seem like too much of a good thing, but in many ways the Wings Over America tour represented the pinnacle of Paul McCartney's achievements with Wings as an actual band.