Album Review: “London Town” — Paul McCartney & Wings (1978)

blglondontowncoverLondon Town represents the first Wings album to drop after their banner 1976 year. A hugely successful North American tour brought Paul back before American audiences to great acclaim, and the live album that was released at the end of the year also garnered big sales and (begrudgingly) critical praise. OK sure, the previous studio release Wings At The Speed Of Sound was a total dud of an album, but it still went Platinum, and had two big top 10 hits.

Paul was pretty big right around this point.

So 1977 rolled around, and with no time to rest on his laurels, he rushed the band over to the London EMI Studios and began sessions for his followup LP London Town. Five tracks were recorded, until Linda announced she was preggers. Abandoning the idea of another US tour, the McCartneys took it easy (McCartney recorded several demos at home). In May, they conceived a nifty idea to resume London Town recording sessions… on a boat, in the Virgin Islands! Nice gig if you can get it. However, not all was well in Wingsville. Jimmy McCullough and Joe English both left the band before the May sessions. Wings was now a 3-person group again and resumed recording, this time laying down 13 new tracks. They continued recording throughout the summer and returned to EMI and AIR studios in the fall, finishing up overdubs and recording a few more new tracks.

London Town didn’t drop until March of 1978, but in November of 1977 they released the “Mull of Kintyre / Girlschool” single that came out of the album sessions. “Mull of Kintyre” was a massive UK hit, spending nine weeks at the top of the charts. According to Wikipedia, it still remains the 4th largest selling single in UK history and the top selling non-charity single as well. Pretty impressive for a song that is pretty much completely unknown in North America, except by McCartney fans.

So how did the album fare? Well it was another Platinum album for McCartney/Wings, for sure, Top 5 around the world, and got moderately positive reviews. It had a huge#1 hit in the US with “Just A Little Luck”. Future singles, however, didn’t fare as well, scraping the Top 40 with “I’ve Had Enough” and “London Town”. Despite platinum sales and a huge initial single, the album’s momentum had slid precipitously. McCartney felt the album didn’t get enough promotion from Capitol and decided to bolt to Columbia for his future releases.

London Town is a step up from “Wings At The Speed Of Sound”, without question. The songs are generally stronger. However, there’s no question that McCartney was still enamored with the adult contemporary vibe, for the most part. There is some variety here, and a few positive tracks, but there are few standouts and some definite filler. There’s an air of melancholy here that is matched by look of the album cover: the work seems cold and rainy, indoors, drained of color, introverted and guarded instead of open and embracing. That’s not necessarily a criticism, just an observation.

Opening with the title track, a slow paced synth-driven number, is a gamble, but I think the song is one of the album’s best. It’s almost a declaration that the album isn’t going to be a hippy-dippy popfest, but an introspective, more thoughtful work. The lushness of the harmonies are a standout here. The pace picks up with “Cafe On The Left Bank”, a bouncy Europop number, and it’s probably McCartney’s first really danceable song that doesn’t sound horribly dated. “I’m Carrying” mellows things out a bit with acoustic appregios over a synth backdrop, and it’s a pretty little song that really builds into a sweet finale.

So far, 3 good songs, but none of them really standouts. The next track, “Backwards Traveller”, barely runs over a minute, and probably could have been fleshed out a bit more to be a good song instead of merely a throwaway track that leads into the unlistenable “Cuff Link”, a keyboard instrumental that sounds like what Paul might have composed if he started scoring porn flicks.

Denny Laine takes the vocal reins on “Children Children”, a folksy singalong number that works pretty well. Definitely aping a Cat Stevens vibe, but I like it quite a bit for what is, a well written, wonderfully produced kids song. “Girlfriend” is… well, Michael Jackson covered it much better on his “Off The Wall” album. If you love Paul singing easy listening in falsettos, this is your song. For me, I’d rather eat me own face.

“I’ve Had Enough” brings some welcome rock to the album, and it’s another decent-but-not-a-standout track. I like the dual harmonies on the guitar solo, but there’s nothing musically about “I’ve Had Enough” that really shines through. Which leads us to the standout track on the album the #1 single “With A Little Luck”. This is Paul at his Adult Contemporary/Easy Listening best, which is to say, if you miss the raw honesty of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, the uninhibited pulsing rock of “Jet”, or anything therein, you’re kinda screwed. But as a pop song, as a keyboard-driven slow burn, as a piece of songwriting and production, “With A Little Luck” is just a fantastic song. It runs just under six minutes, and had two minutes excised from it for the single edit, but the fullness of the original album track is preferable here.

The atmosphere is shattered by the simply execrable “Famous Groupies”. Wrong for so many reasons, I’m just going to say that it’s just a big stupid piece of shit and leave it at that. Denny takes vocal duties again for “Deliver Your Children”, staying in that acoustic/folksy vibe that worked so well for him in “Children Children”, although this is a more serious number. It’s a good one, too, with a steady uptempo beat, strong lyrics, and fine harmonies. Denny’s 2 for 2 here.

Rockabilly rears its head with “Name And Address”, with Paul doing his best Elvis meets Carl Perkins. Average song and total filler, once it’s over you won’t remember it ever again. Good guitarwork, though. The minor-key, acoustic “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is driven by a strong recorder opening, played by both Denny and Paul, with an underlying electric guitar riff that makes for an appealing mix throughout. This is one of the more impressive songs on the album, actually. Denny (who co-wrote the track) brought his folk/medieval flavor to the table that goes well with Paul’s pop/rock sensibilities. This is a track well worth seeking out.

As far as “Morse Moose And The Grey Goose”… ugh, just don’t bother. At six-and-a-half minutes, the album is going for an epic closer here. Check out that funky disco bassline. Or don’t. Paul’s raspy rock vocalizations are grating, and the song itself is just a big waste of time. It tries to get all pub folksy, then rocking, then discoey, then… ahh forget it.

If London Town has one notable flaw, it’s the lack of a single great song other than “Just A Little Luck”. There are many solid-to-good songs though, including the title track, “Cafe On The Left Bank”, “I’m Carrying”, “Children Children”, “Deliver Your Children”, and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”. On the filler side, you have average/OK/forgettable cuts like “Backwards Traveller”, “I’ve Had Enough”, and “Name And Address”. And in the meh/kinda bad/awful range, we have “Cuff Link”, “Girlfriend”, “Famous Groupies”, and “Morse Moose And the Grey Goose”. The latter two should be banned, like asbestos. Still, the positive tracks from the album make it worthwhile to seek out and give it a listen; just be prepared to skip through about half the album.

The bonus tracks make the CD purchase a bit more inviting. “Girls’ School” sounds like 70s-era Dave Edmunds with better production values. It’s a solid, fun little rocker, not a classic but decent enough. If anything, it reminds me of Abba’s “Does Your Mother Know”. The other track, the aforementioned everywhere-but-America smash “Mull of Kintyre”, is just a simply beautiful song, up there with some of the best material Paul has EVER recorded. I can understand why it wasn’t big in the US; the bagpipes, the Scottish subject matter, the odd sounding title to American ears. Too bad. It’s fantastic.

If London Town had included “Mull of Kintire” and “Girl School” instead of “Morse Moose” and “Famous Groupies”, can you imagine what a better album it would have been?

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