Enjoy another excerpt on Paul McCartney, this one from Fab Four FAQ 2.0 by Robert Rodriguez. He is also the author of Fab Four FAQ (w/ Stuart Shea) and Revolver. The Wings Over America album was recently reissued in remastered form on May 28th.
Wings Over America – Released December 10, 1976
The Wings extravaganza that hit the States in the summer of 1976 was well documented on both film and tape. A TV special and possibly a feature film were always part of the plan, as was a double live album of the show’s highlights. But enterprising bootleggers forced Macca’s hand, resulting in the triple record set that eventually saw issue by year’s end. (Wings from the Wings was an underground issue of the entire June 23, 1976 set at the L.A. Forum, recorded the last day of the U.S. tour. It being the bicentennial year, the three discs were issued on red, white, and blue vinyl.) That the album made it to the shops in time for Christmas only months after the tour ended was a bit of a minor miracle in that Paul had to listen to nine hundred hours of tape to choose the best takes – this after spending much of September and October on the road in Europe and Britain.
Given Paul’s perfectionist tendencies, a certain amount of “sweetening” in the studio was deemed necessary before the results could be made public, but it would be nitpicking to suggest that the album in any way misrepresented the stage act. Given how de rigueur live albums were for big-name acts by mid-decade, it was critical for Paul to make sure that his would be exceptional and not simply a bloated, self-indulgent mess. But given the sheer professionalism that typified his stage presentation, it was a safe bet that the music itself would be the last thing to suffer.
Actually, presentation is one of the factors that made Wings Over America such an appealing listening experience. Reflecting the tour’s set list, the six album sides broke down nicely into thematically arranged mini-sets. Side one was an arresting succession of songs, none more dramatic than the segue from “Venus and Mars / Rock Show” straight into “Jet.” Few live albums captured the energy from the venue where they were recorded and projected it through the speakers the way this one did. Even minus the visual, the mental image of Wings at the height of their powers was vivid. Following that powerful opening, Paul shrewdly brought the tempo down somewhat with Band on the Run’s Plastic Ono Band pastiche, “Let Me Roll It.” (Jimmy McCulloch was unable to restrain himself from embellishing the son’s simple, repetitious riffing on the instrumental break.)
The side concluded with the one-two punch of Denny’s vocal on the moody “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” followed with little pause by Jimmy’s “Medicine Jar” – just as they’d been sequenced on Venus and Mars, giving audiences exactly what they were already hearing in their heads anyway. The latter track featured a blistering solo that marked – alongside “Junior’s Farm” – the young guitarist’s finest moment in Wings. (Though performed on the November 1975 swing through Australia, “Junior’s Farm” never quite seemed to jell onstage and was dropped for the 1976 shows.)
Side two kicked off the “piano set,” which began with “Maybe I’m Amazed,” a crowd-pleaser if there ever was one. On this take, slowed in tempo compared to the one-man-band version cut for his debut, Paul’s vocals were as strong as ever and shown to great effect in the added coda. This side also featured the first two of five Beatles classics: “Lady Madonna” and “The Long and Winding Road.” (It was here that Macca first reversed the Lennon-McCartney” credits – an action that conspicuously drew no criticism at the time, as compared to much later.) Though not yet ready to pull “Hey Jude” out of his trick bag – that might have been too strongly identified with his last band – he did select songs that were calculated to put audiences on their feet. “Live and Let Die” ended the side with its usual explosive drama.
An acoustic set came next, beginning with an abbreviated version of “Picasso’s Last Words” segueing into the rather unexpected selection of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory,” sung by Denny. (The song was an adaptation of an 1897 poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, concerning a much-admired rich man who nonetheless ends his own life.) The earnest tone of the tune was belied by Laine’s ad-lib substitution of “John Denver” – a high-riding star of the day – for the title character. Two of Paul’s avian-themed songs followed: “Bluebird” and “Blackbird,” sandwiching the unexpected Beatles selection “I’ve Just Seen a Face” – first heard in America as the leadoff track to Rubber Soul eleven years earlier. But it was the side-ending performance of “Yesterday” that had audiences swooning as it closed the Fab portion of the set. With Paul alone in the spotlight with his acoustic guitar, it would have been difficult for even the most jaded of fans not to be moved by the evocation of a more innocent time from their collective youth.
The “piano set” resumed with a batch of newer Wings tunes, encompassing material from Red Rose Speedway (thankfully limited to “My Love”) through Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound, including the hits “Listen to What the Man Said” and their newest single, “Let ‘Em In.” (Though the tour ended before July 4, listeners can hear Denny acknowledge the bicentennial year on that side by calling out “Happy birthday, America!”) Also performed – during the Los Angeles shows only – was Laine’s “Yesterday”: “Go Now,” the Moody Blues’ first hit, on which he sang with another cut from the same release, “Beware My Love.” In the studio, both songs suffered from indifferent production and/or the seeming haste with which they’d been laid down. Onstage, however, the hidden potential in both tracks was unleashed, resulting in sharper and more focused performances that fully demonstrated the band’s ensemble capabilities.
Predictably, the set ended with the much-anticipated performance of “Band on the Run,” the group’s megahit of two years before. In concert, a film of the album cover photo shoot played on a screen above the stage. Macca and crew then left the stage, leaving his audience holding their lighters aloft as they clamored for an encore. Wings did not disappoint: within minutes, the musicians assembled onstage as their leader sidled over to the microphone and asked, “Fancy a bit of rock and roll?” The band then launched into a rollicking performance of “Hi Hi Hi” that (again) bested the studio recording, before ending the set – and the album – with the unreleased “Soily.” Despite their rather lengthy show, the band (including the horn section) delivered the goods, pulling out all the stops and coming off as fresh as if they’d only just arrived. It made for a stunning, powerful finish to an album that must have instilled much regret among those who’d passed on a chance to catch the tour when it came to town. Wings Over America went to #1, making Paul the second ex-Beatle to top the charts with a three-record set. (Like George’s, it too came packaged with a power, but no lyrics.) Though he’s gone on to release several live sets since, this one is required listening for both Macca and Beatles fans, capturing the glory that was the ’70’s concertgoing experience.
In the years following the 1960s, Beatle fans around the world were twice-stunned: in 1970, when their beloved group disbanded, and ten years later when the murder of John Lennon ended a decade of hope that somehow the Fab Four would reunite. Fab Four FAQ 2.0 picks up the story where the acclaimed Fab Four FAQ left off. Loaded with images of rare period ephemera, including periodicals, single sleeves, and movie stills, this is the first comprehensive biography of all four ex-Beatles. This book covers everything from their recording careers in the decade after the band’s dissolution to the musicians they played with, the bands they influenced, the manifestations of latter-day Beatlemania, and the constant clamor for reunion expressed by fans and – sometimes – by the four themselves.
Robert Rodriguez is the author of Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock’n’Roll. He is also the series editor of the FAQ series, as well as the author of the two Fab Four FAQ books. The following is an excerpt of an interview with Music Tomes. Please visit their website for the full interview.
You’ve written extensively on the Beatles. What about the group first captivated you?
I had older brothers who were record buyers back when the Beatles were still recording; I was a little young for all of that. But I remember vividly the Capitol swirl and Apple labels – they stood out among the 45s, in my mind at least.
What grabbed me about the Beatles was their sound, and that didn’t click with me until I first heard the Red and the Blue albums – the 1962-1966and 1967-1970 compilations. That was mind blowing – having the scope of their career laid out on four discs; everything from “She Loves You” to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and beyond. To me, it was like every sound imaginable had been done – and by the same four guys! So those packages were the real gateway for me. Thereafter, catching A Hard Day’s Night and Help! on TV sealed the deal – these guys weren’t just great musicians, but compelling, funny personalities, too.
You’ve also written two books in the FAQ series on the Beatles. With so much written about the band, what is the ultimate goal of these books?
I imagined that, like myself, there were a lot of fans that were hungry for a single volume work that was neither a deeply scholarly analysis, nor an colorful series of superficial anecdotes. Or worse yet, trivia. Something that, furthermore, contextualized the Beatles’ achievements by placing them into the times in which they created.
At the same time, I thought it be great if somebody could deconstruct their story, so that you could zero in on exactly what aspect or another that you wanted to learn about. So the first FAQ was created as a way to present a ton of information broken down by facet, that invited readers to pick up the book at any point and begin reading where there interests lie, and let the history take them where they wanted to go.
No one else did it, so I stepped up!
The Beatles are a well-covered subject, but creating a narrative that got to the good stuff with immediacy was the goal. It didn’t feel like anyone had really covered their solo years as an integrated entity, hence 2.0. In a way, covering such a massive amount of ground with the two FAQs was easier to accomplish, with all the quantifiable milestones along the way, than Revolver, which was a narrowly focused topic.
But I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and researcher, and hopefully, bring something new to the table. So while the FAQs were straightforward reporting with some opinion thrown in, Revolverwas intended as a conversation starter, something to get people to re-examine their long-held opinions and see the Beatles’ work with fresh eyes.
Can you give us a sneak peek at some of the upcoming titles in the series?
We have a pretty well-developed “wish list” of titles that we are tracking down just the right writers for. But ones that are signed and sealed include The Twilight Zone, Star Wars, Film Noir and Doctor Who, on the TV/film side of things. With music, we have upcoming titles on The Who, Miles Davis, Jimmy Buffett and Hendrix.
Keep reading this interview on Music Tomes.
The making of Revolver – hunkered down in Abbey Road with George Martin – is in itself a great Beatles story, but would be nothing if the results weren’t so impactful. More than evenSgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, Revolver fed directly into the rock ‘n’ roll zeitgeist, and its influence could be heard everywhere: from the psychedelic San Francisco sound (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead); to the first wave of post-blues hard rock (Sabbath, Zeppelin); through movie soundtracks and pretty much everything that followed it – including every generation of guitar-based pop music and even heavy metal. More than any record before or after, Revolverwas the game-changer, and this is, finally, the detailed telling of its storied recording and enormous impact.