Album Review: “Wings at the Speed of Sound” — Wings (1976)

WATSOSCoverAh… Wings At The Speed Of Sound.

Or, as I like to call it, When Things Go Horribly, Horribly Wrong.

WatSoS is probably the first (and last) album where Wings was truly a full band. Of the eleven album tracks, five of them were sung by someone other than Paul, and Denny Laine and Jimmy McCulloch also got songwriting credits on their songs. Even Linda got a number (more on THAT in a bit). After the big-time successes of Band on the Run and Venus and Mars, Wings was on a commercial and creative roll. So… what happened?

1976 started out pleasant enough. After a December ’75 vacation in Hawaii where Paul wrote a bunch of songs (including “Silly Love Songs”), Wings hit the studio in January for the WatSoS sessions (during which the entire album was recorded in one shot, along with a studio version of “Soily” that has yet to surface.) Two months later the album dropped to… to, well, some pretty poor reviews. Paul seemed to be creatively bereft this time around. The album seemed to lack the hooks, catchy melodies, spontaneity, pretty much all of the energy of the previous albums.

That didn’t stop Wings at the Speed of Sound from being a commercial success. It went Platinum and hit #1 in the US, #2 in numerous countries, and generally Top 10 across the world. Paul achieved yet another #1 hit with “Silly Love Songs”, which spent five weeks topping the charts. The album’s other big single, “Let ‘Em In”, also hit big, going as high as #3 and a #1 Easy Listening hit to boot.

And that’s the issue with this album: it’s a total foray into Adult Contemporary/Easy Listening territory. This was Paul in his mellow, sedate, smooth moves zone. The audio equivalent to a gentle laxative. The stylistic variety of Venus and Mars is gone, the epic songwriting of Band on the Run is nowhere to be found. This album has one vibe and one vibe only, and that’s pure unadulterated Yacht Rock.

The hits are pretty much the only memorable songs on the album. I will flat out say that I have always loved and continue to love “Silly Love Songs”. It sticks out on this album like a turd in a punch-bowl precisely because it is the only track that seems to have any real fire to it. Aping some of the disco conventions of the era, it remains a great piece of pop workmanship. The “I love you / I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, now can’t you see? / How can I tell you about my loved one?” vocal threeway between Paul, Linda, and Denny is so disarming, it’s practically irresistible  And that happy horn section? Sappy, saccharine, maudlin? Maybe. But umm… what’s wrong with that? Especially when it’s done this musically pleasing. “Let ‘Em In”, on the other hand, is a lesser entry. In fact it’s pretty dopey and plodding throughout, but again there’s something memorable to it that sets it apart from the sea of mediocrity in which it is surrounded.

Denny Laine takes his first lead vocals on the album with “The Note You Never Wrote”, a slow, sour synth-driven ballad that is as memorable as it is consequential, which is to say, not at all. This is one of the album’s weaker tracks. “She’s My Baby” is an OK tune; it has a late-era Steely Dan feel, only sung by Billy Joel and lyrics by Kenny Loggins. Something that you might hear waiting in line at the bank. In 1977. Pleasant enough, but nothing more. “Beware My Love” reminds me of something the Little River Band might have done as an outtake. Take that as you will. (“Cool Change” was a good song though, wasn’t it?) It’s repetitive and droning until you hit the tempo change roughly 1:40 into it, and it segues into kind of Abba-like territory. It never really gets any better than mediocre.

Jimmy McCullough takes over lead vocals on a song he co-wrote with Colin Allen, “Wino Junko”. Another OK but nothing special song, it has the distinct honor of being the best song on the album NOT sung by Paul. It’s a mellow, minor-key number, driven by electric keyboards and heavily-reverbed vocals. Sort of reminds me of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”, except nowhere near as memorable. Another song about drug abuse — this time booze — from someone who died of an overdose. Overall so far there’s been a really morose vibe to this album, which is alleviated by “Silly Love Songs”, thank heavens, because as great as that song is, it is killed… KILLED… by leading directly into “Cook Of The House”.

That’s right… “Cook Of The House”. Linda McCartney’s lead vocal debut. It’s just about as singularly awful as singularly awful can get. Linda’s voice has no character, no inflection, no vibrato, no range, nothing. It’s like getting your Aunt Lydia to sing a song. She won’t embarrass herself necessarily, but she has no business being on record. The song’s subject matter is just goofy too; an insipid rockabilly number about what a mighty thunderbitch she is in the kitchen. This could be McCartney’s low point as a solo artist, and we still have “Temporary Secretary” to get to three albums from now.

So after that, we get Paul back, right? Nope. Denny takes the mic again for “Time To Hide”. He’s got good range as a vocalist but his tone is strained. The track is actually pretty OK for the most part, and I’ll admit the chorus is kinda catchy. But for all the guitar riffing and the harmonica solo, we’re still in that ’70s adult contemporary vibe. I mean look, “Cook Of The House” might be the worst song on the album (and the worst solo track McCartney has recorded so far), but at LEAST it’s trying to be something different. Unfortunately, we take a turn into Gordon Lightfoot-meets-Samantha Strong territory with the pretty terrible “Must Do Something About It”. We don’t even get our Paul back; Joe English takes lead vocals on this track. Surprisingly, he has a stronger voice than both Laine or McCullough, and he’s left with lesser material. Alas. The song is terrible. Not “Cook of the House” terrible, but pretty bad.

Paul returns (at LONG last) with the folksy “San Ferry Anne”, which is probably one of the better tracks on the album, which makes it only OK, maybe pleasant at best. The underlying sax on the second half of the track is pretty distracting, but then again the song doesn’t do much to reel you in the first place. FINALLY, after seemingly hours of anguish, the album concludes with “Warm And Beautiful”, a piano-driven ballad by Paul, the type of which he’s done too many times before and BETTER. The lyrics are insipid, the music trite and lazy, and ends the album on a frustratingly bad note.

Wings At The Speed Of Sound is, quite simply, a bad album from Paul. Of the seven post-Beatles albums he’s released up to this point, it is the weakest by far. If it weren’t for “Silly Love Songs” and to a lesser extent “Let ‘Em In”, the album would be a complete flop. In fact it pretty much is, as both songs are readily available on any “Greatest Hits” collection. There are simply no album cuts here worth a damn. Of the nine remaining tracks, three of them are TERRIBLE and the remaining six are FILLER.

In fact it’s safe to say that those who decry Paul’s solo career as lightweight, unmemorable tripe probably envision his entire career as the Wings at the Speed of Sound album.

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4 thoughts on “Album Review: “Wings at the Speed of Sound” — Wings (1976)

  1. Just one position of defense of some of the songs on this album. To really appreciate some of the filler tracks just go to Wings over America (live album). Time to Hide, Medicine Jar and Wino Junko actually stand out as good rock tunes when done live. I still occasionally find myself with Time to Hide playing in my head some 40 years later.

  2. The live versions of Time To Hide and Medicine Jar have some grit and oomph. I like them quite a bit. But Wino Junko is un-salvageable.

  3. The note you never wrote is one of the best songs of the seventies!
    The guitar solo is outstanding.

  4. I agree that “The Note You Never Wrote,” a McCartney composition, is a great song both melodically and lyrically. Its recurring three-chord pattern resolves itself with a pleasing effect that brings the feel from one of a minor to that of a major key, whether or not that is a technical truth. Its meaning is elusive yet somehow deep and I love how Paul gave Denny the vocal work for the group feel and because Laine handles it so well. The keyboards are great. I don’t see this album as filler. Wings released fewer albums than the Beatles but Wings’ albums sold more copies than those of the Fab Four. I understand; everyone has their favorites and many points here are well-taken. “Cook of the House” is fun because Paul loved Linda so much that he (and she) didn’t mind risk her sounding like a stereotype of her own persona. This was the first album I ever bought and I still love it. Thanks for the great review.

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