All these years later, we will never have enough of Macca’s silly love songs
In the spring of 1976, Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career had finally hit its stride.
After mixed success with his first two solo albums, and the first Wings releases, the band had now taken flight. Chart topping singles and albums came as easily as they had during the years of Beatlemania. McCartney was even confident enough to poke fun at his own reputation as a softy, as the lyrics (and title) of “Silly Love Songs” made clear:
The result? Another number one single.
Wings at the Speed of Sound, released in advance of the triumphant “Wings Over America” tour that kicked off on May 3, 1976, is McCartney in his commercial prime. Admit it; even if you hated “Silly Love Songs,” the tune ran through your head when you read the above lyric, didn’t it? It’s a perfect pop song: a bright, upbeat melody; a lyric so rudimentary it could even be called simpleminded; a breezy, almost throwaway lead vocal. A seemingly disposable confection, yet it’s got a monster hook that lassoes your brain and won’t let go.
The same can be said of the album’s other notable song (and second hit single), “Let ’Em In.” It’s a variation on the old adage of someone being a talented enough performer they could read/sing the phone book and make it interesting, though McCartney doesn’t work with numbers, but names, referencing his brother, his auntie, and Phil and Don Everly, among others. Plus one verse, repeated four times. Another disposable confection, another monster hook.
VIDEO: Wings performs “Silly Love Songs” in Rockshow
Those two tracks provide a sturdy anchor for the album, the home runs that secure the winning game. But there’s nonetheless a sense that McCartney is coasting; that after putting in the effort to storm his way back to the top, he doesn’t have to try so hard. This is most obviously seen in the decision to give everybody in the band a lead vocal, with mixed results. Linda McCartney’s “Cook of the House” is meant to be a bit of fun, but it’s a belabored idea — essentially another “list” song, naming cooking ingredients —further brought down by Linda’s monotonous vocal. Though in fairness, you can’t do much when you’re lashed to what’s primarily a one-note melody. Drummer Joe English is a stronger singer, but “Must Do Something About It,” though pleasant, leaves no lasting impression.
The guitarists fare better. Jimmy McColloch, who previously warned of the dangers of substance abuse in “Medicine Jar” on Wings’ previous album Venus and Mars, revisits the topic in “Wino Junko” (alas, McColloch failed to take his own advice, dying of drug-related causes in 1979). Denny Laine, the closest thing McCartney had to a songwriting collaborator in Wings, gets two outings, “The Note You Never Wrote” and “Time to Hide.” They’re both enigmatic, cryptic numbers, about lonely souls dabbling in espionage (the former) or on the run for some unnamed offence (the latter), his mournful voice adding a plangent quality to the performance.
McCartney rounds out the set by mixing it up stylistically. The closing track, “Warm and Beautiful,” is the weakest; it’s a pretty ballad, but somewhat dragged down by its overly-earnest delivery. “She’s My Baby” is the most playful, light pop spiced with innuendo. “Beware My Love” is the album’s aggressive rocker, with McCartney in “Maybe I’m Amazed”/“Let Me Roll It” rock screamer mode. And then there’s the enigmatic “San Ferry Anne.” Ostensibly another piece of bright pop, the sudden shift into a minor key gives the song an unsettling undercurrent, coupled with a somewhat pointed lyric, despite the devil-may-care title (it’s a play on the French expression “Ça ne fait rien” — it doesn’t matter). It’s one of those underrated, overlooked songs in McCartney’s catalogue, a deep cut on an album, never released as a single or played in live performance, and so forgotten, until its rediscovery.
More often than not, though, the album’s lyrics are fairly insubstantial; Speed of Sound’s greatest strength lies in its exceptionally well-crafted music. A brace of horns add dazzling flourishes to “Let ’Em In” and “Silly Love Songs.” A flute, and a trumpet line straight out of the Herb Alpert songbook, sail through “San Ferry Anne,” with more horns joining them in the giddy fade out. “Beware My Love” is a rich many-layered song, a mini symphony in a sense; the harmonium intro, followed by an acoustic guitar passage, leading into those trademark, multi-tracked Wings vocal harmonies, before McCartney finally takes centerstage, while the piano and guitar battle it out for dominance (the piano, getting the final dramatic run down the keyboard, emerges victorious). There’s a crisp, clean sound throughout the record that snaps the listener to attention.
Wings at the Speed of Sound proved to be the band’s commercial peak. Both Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English would leave Wings at the end of 1977, and the band itself came to a crashing halt in 1980, following McCartney’s bust for marijuana possession in Japan, where the group was scheduled to tour. But before being grounded, Speed of Sound helped make Wings the biggest act in the US in 1976.
But make no mistake; despite the nods to it being a group effect, this is still a McCartney album. And it’s McCartney at his most sunnily optimistic, catching a tailwind and sailing into the sun.