Album Review: “Wild Life” — Paul McCartney & Wings (1971)

wildlifealbumWell, he did it. Paul McCartney formed a brand new band. Unthinkable, but there it was. Energized after the modest creative and commercial success of Ram, Paul (and Linda) took drummer Denny Seiwell and added Moody Blues’er Denny Laine to the mix, and with that Wings was born. Sequestered in McCartney’s Scotland studios in August of 1971, the Wild Life sessions resulted in the recording of 9 new songs in two weeks — five of them recorded on the first take!

Expectations certainly had to be enormous for Sir Paul. If your last band was The Beatles, and your last two albums were commercial hits but not exactly blockbusters, and didn’t set the critical world on fire either, you’ve got some mighty big shoes to fill. Certainly your next album HAS to be big. It’s got to be swirling full of layered melodies, strong songwriting, impeccable production values… the kind of sweeping numbers that will grab the listener and make them pay attention, enraptured by the sheer melodic power and maturity of your work.

Certainly no one was sort of expecting Wild Life. The album was a critical disaster and “only” went Gold (Paul’s previous two efforts went Double Platinum each). Instead of another quantum step up from the previous album (ala Ram), Wild Life seemed to be a bit of a repeat of 1970’s McCartney. A silly one-off with studio doodlings and nothing of any real substance. People wondered if Paul’s new “band” were little more than his backing musicians (which they were, for now). In any case, the first Wings album did not amount to much in terms of sales, critical analysis, or public acceptance. People wondered if Paul was indeed creatively bankrupt, or in the need of a little help from his “friends”.

In my opinion,Wild Life is nowhere near as bad (or inconsequential) as made out to be. It’s actually, on its own, a decent album. It’s not as good as Ram, and it does get a bit throwaway, trifling, and just plain weird, but taken on its own it has its charms and, while no masterpiece by any means, is an enjoyable one at times. I can imagine, though, that McCartney fans in late 1971 were starting to get a wee bit fed up.

You almost have to respect (on some level) any album that starts out with “Mumbo” and “Bip Bop”. “Mumbo” sounds like an outtake, as its literally Paul screaming nonsensically (and somewhat gratingly) over the verses and “WHOOOOO!!!”‘ing through the chorus before going back into authentic frontier gibberish. I have no idea what to make of this song. But I like it. McCartney’s basically scatting (heh) through the song but he makes it rock. Somehow. “Bip Bop” is another “either you kinda like it or you really hate it tune”. Here a little slide guitar and echoey vocals guide the listener through a nonsensical bluesy folk number, and if your toe isn’t tapping throughout the entirety of it, I’d be highly surprised. Then again after about a minute or so of this repetitive piffle I can see many skipping past it. I’m not gonna say it’s a great song, but I like it as an offbeat, charming sort of tune.

McCartney’s first solo cover tune came next with “Love Is Strange”, a reggae-influenced reworking of the 1950s Mickey & Sylvia song. This is, simply put, a great arrangement and a great cover. My only complaint would be that the drumwork is a bit too busy, but other than that nitpick this is a highlight of the album. That song’s perky, upbeat charms are quickly disippated by the slower, minor-key, 3/4 beat of the title track. “Wild Life” is a dark, critical tune, albeit a surface-level one, decrying the state of humanity or some such nonsense. This is an OK track. It’s somewhere above filler and below really good. Not essential, but memorable. It probably goes on for a minute and a half longer than it needs to.

“Some People Never Know” is an acoustic shuffler, with a gentle rhythm as reflective as its lyrics. A likable tune, it really builds over its running time effectively. I think it’s one of McCartney’s forgotten gems. Unfortunately, the joys of that track are kinda obliterated by “I Am Your Singer”. It’s not the back and forth vocals between Paul and Linda that destroy it — Linda’s mediocre warbling doesn’t help one iota — but the song is incessantly maudlin in lyrics to the point of diabetic shock, and the blatant lack of musicality (even in its simplicity) is brutal.

Hidden track puzzlers emerge with “Bip Bop Link”, which is just under a minute of 12-string guitar wankery. OK, adds a touch of character to the album. Nothing much else to see here. Unfortunately the same applies to “Tomorrow”, which is another mediocre-at-best folky/rocky thing that is pretty much the definition of “forgettable”. Not so much that it’s a bad song, it just feels generic, workmanlike, a pinpoint exercise in blatant ho-hummery.

Not recorded during the Wild Life sessions but during Ram sometime in February/March of 1971, and included on this album, is “Dear Friend”, Paul’s attempt at some kind of reconciliation with John Lennon. It’s a powerful and honest song given the time and context of its creation, and perhaps at no point in his solo career thus far has Paul sounded so much like a genuine artist (with the exception of “Maybe I’m Amazed”). Maybe that’s why it sounds like such an odd fit for this album.

The album finishes with its second of two hidden tracks “Mumbo Link”, which like BBL, is useless hooey.

Wild Life starts out much stronger than it finishes. As mentioned before, you either like the silly charm of the opening numbers or you hate them, but they’re kind of fun in their own right. “Love Is Strange” is a highlight, “Wild Life” does OK, and “Some People Never Know” rounds out the first side very nicely. And then Side 2 has two useless tracks in the awful “I Am Your Singer” and the totally blah “Tomorrow”, the pointless hidden tracks of BBL and ML, and then somewhat redeemed with the powerfully honest (but oddly-fitted) “Dear Friend”. What Wild Life lacks is one singularly defining great or classic song. It is also decidedly VERY non-rocking, which is fine but what is missed is Paul really letting loose and bringing some real energy to the proceedings. A bit more “Mumbo” would have helped a buttload on Side 2.

It’s not a horrible album, certainly not as bad as it’s made out to be, but it’s not a very strong one either. I remember liking Wild Life a lot more when I first heard it years ago. This was an EP’s worth of good material at best. In fact if you took the best of this album and the next, you’d… well, we’ll save that for when we get there.

Now as for the 1991 CD bonus tracks: “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, a 1972 single, is Paul getting down and funky with a political statement. Subtlety isn’t his strong suit here, but as a piece of protest it works in a basic sing-along sorta way. Banned by the BBC (for obvious reasons), it was a modest hit around the rest of the world and probably bought Paul some street cred from those who thought he was too lightweight for this sort of material. It’s a good song, if not a particularly deep one. Speaking of deep: “Mary Had A Little Lamb”? REALLY, Paul? OK it’s actually a cute throwaway kids song and taken for what it is… fine. Legend has it he recorded the tune as a response to the BBC’s banning of “Irish” (‘Let’s see if they’ll ban THIS!’). Whatever. It’s a cute throwaway, at best. It went Top 10 in the UK but didn’t do as well in the US. “Little Woman Love” is a spirited like honky-tonk tune that was “Mary’s” B-side, and it SHOULD have been included on “Wild Life” to pick the pace up a bit. A lost opportunity for such a good song. Another great song is “Mama’s Little Girl”, a spiritual mix of “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”. It’s a beautiful song. Actually recorded during the “Red Rose Speedway” sessions, it was never released officially until 1990 as a B-side to the “Put It There” single. Talk about hidden treasures: this is a HUGE one.

For the bonus tracks alone, Wild Life is elevated substantially as a CD. In the end, it’s worth picking up just for “Love Is Strange”, “Some People Never Know”, “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, “Little Woman Love”, and “Mama’s Little Girl”, the standout tracks. As it stood in its original format… not quite as compelling.

2 thoughts on “Album Review: “Wild Life” — Paul McCartney & Wings (1971)

  1. “Some People Never Know” was the first track on the second side – you know, the good side! The only thing wrong with this side is the ending to “Tomorrow” which, by the way, uses the same opening gambit as “Yesterday”. Side one is embarrassing.

  2. Nice piece. I too agree that Wild Life is a very listenable record. It seems to be an easy target for haters, but I – after having avoided for decades – came to it five or so years ago and really like it. Yes, I understand for the most part that these aren’t his greatest songs, but the performances and overall feel is terrific.

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