Album Review: “Wings Over America” — Wings (1976)

blgwoaTo look at Wings Over America objectively requires one to place themselves in the post-Beatles/contemporary-Wings mindset of Paul McCartney in the mid 1970s.

To wit: the 1970s breakup of The Beatles was ostensibly the result of Paul announcing he was leaving the band in April of 1970 — despite the fact that, by most reports, the band was already done for, but was keeping everything mum to help support the upcoming Let It Be film and album project. Paul’s public split from The Beatles in April, and imminent first solo album scheduled for release the following month, was not viewed in the, shall we say, most revered of circumstances. His first four solo albums saw diminishing sales and even more diminishing critical respect. Even “worse”, he had the gall to start a new band in Wings that pretty much sounded almost exactly like his “solo” material, and was sellingeven less. He still had some hit singles, but so did many in the early 70s. He was no longer anywhere near the top of the food chain, as far as the music world was concerned.

Meanwhile John, George, even Ringo’s solo works were attracting critical respect (to varying degrees) and accumulating street cred from the rock intelligentsia and mainstream press. George’s charitable/spiritual endeavors, John’s agitpop proclivities, and Ringo’s easygoing earnestness were held in much higher esteem than Paul’s workhorse pop determination. Then of course, late 1973’s Band On The Run changed everything for Paul. A critical and commercial smash, it reignited his solo career to the point where he (and Wings) were a legitimate commercial success (and a begrudgingly-accepted critical hit). The aforementioned Band On The Run and follow-ups Venus and Mars and Wings At The Speed Of Sound were multi-platinum sellers, although the critical love diminished with each proceeding album. But no matter with that; Paul McCartney was back on top of his game.

Wings Over America chronicles the band’s hugely successful 1976 North American tour of the same name. It was Paul’s first American tour since the Beatles final go-around ten years earlier, so expectations and excitement were running very high. Wings ended up playing 31 shows in the US and Canada to over 600,000 people. The resulting live album, recorded from performances in June 1976 at the Forum in Inglewood, CA, and sweetened up with the requisite studio overdubs common to almost all live albums, was another big hit for Paul and Wings. It hit #1 (and went Platinum) in the US and Canada, Top 10 in most major markets, and was a Gold seller in the UK. Many of the shows were shot on film and assembled into the celebrated 1980 concert film Rockshow (one which was out-of-print for many years but recently remastered and re-released for DVD and Blu-Ray).

Your enjoyment of the live, 3-LP Wings Over America will largely rest upon your affinity for the mid-1970s Wings era. Make no mistake, this is a Wings album first and foremost, with a healthy dose of some of Paul’s “solo” offerings, a Simon & Garfunkel cover, one of Denny Laine’s Moody Blues numbers, and, at long last, a small but vibrant selection of Beatles tunes to go along with it. Still, the material is dominated by Wings material from the Band On The Run, Venus and Mars, and Wings at the Speed of Sound albums (which is 18 of the album’s 28 tracks). If you’re not a fan of that era of Paul’s music, this may necessarily not be your cuppa chowder.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all deep cuts and obscure tracks and what-not… The band rips through spirited performances of their biggest Wings hits like “Venus and Mars/Rock Show”, “Jet”, “Live and Let Die”, “Let Me Roll It”, “My Love”, “Letting Go”, “Listen to What the Man Said”, “Let ‘Em In”, “Silly Love Songs”, and “Band on the Run”. Paul delivers a career-highlight live performance with arguably his greatest solo single ever, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, which went Top 10 in the US in early 1977. Beatles fans were not left entirely in the dark, as Wings covered “Lady Madonna”, “The Long and Winding Road”, “I’ve Just Seen A Face”, “Blackbird”, and “Yesterday”, the latter three tracks performed during an acoustic set.

Meanwhile, Denny Laine takes over lead vocals during “Spirits of Ancient Egypt”, “Richard Cory”, “Go Now”, and “Time To Hide” (which is a middling studio track, but sounds absolutely KILLER live), while lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch takes the mic over for his “Medicine Jar” track from Venus and Mars. Rounding out the set-list we have non-album tracks “Hi, Hi, Hi” and “Soily”, deeper album tracks “Beware My Love”, “Magneto and Titanium Man”, “You Gave Me The Answer”, “Bluebird”, “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me)”, and “Call Me Back Again”.

And what a band effort this is! Live and unrestrained by studio constraints, the various members really get to shine, especially McCullough on guitar and drummer Joe English. McCartney’s bass work is spirited and melodic (he also plays piano, keyboards, and acoustic guitar), Linda acquits herself well on piano and keyboards, and Denny Laine is all over the place with six- and twelve-string electrics, bass, piano, and harmonica. They are also backed-up by a four-piece horn section comprised of Tony Dorsey on trombone, Thaddeus Richard on sax, clarinet, and flute, Howie Casey on sax, and Steve Howard on the trumpet and flugelhorn. Say whatever you want about Wings’s songs and material, but there was no mistaking that — at the very least, during the summer of 1976 — they were truly one tight band.

Now that’s not to say the album is absolutely flawless. Many have complained about the heavy reliance on Wings material, which is kind of silly. It’s a Wings album, first and foremost. And I love that fact that it features plenty of album tracks rather than just “Greatest Hits Live”. But I would have substituted out “Letting Go”, “Beware My Love”, “Call Me Back Again” for tracks like “1985”, “Mrs. Vanderbilt”, “Little Lamb Dragonfly”, or “Big Barn Bed”. There’s nothing from Paul’s celebrated 1971 Ram solo album; how great would it have been to have heard live cuts of “Ram On”, “Too Many People”, “Eat At Home”, “The Back Seat Of My Car”, even “Monkberry Moon Delight”.

Still, when it comes to someone with a catalog of work as broad as Paul McCartney’s, it’s just as easy to bemoan the left-off as it is to celebrate the what’s-included. Wings Over America, as a live album, as a snapshot of time where Paul McCartney and Wings were at their commercial zenith, ranks as one of the most enjoyable live albums of its era. Your mileage may vary based on your level of appreciation of mid-70s Wings material, but if that era is up your alley I would say this album is pretty much essential.

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