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40 Years Ago: Paul McCartney Marks a Career Milestone With ‘Wings Over America’

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Recorded in the summer of 1976, Wings Over America arrived on Dec. 10 of that year feeling like a triumphant musical summation for Paul McCartney and Wings.

In stark contrast to his modern-day globe-trotting ways, McCartney hadn’t at this point toured the U.S. in 10 years — and those concerts dated to his time in the Beatles. Only one of his former bandmates had even attempted such a thing in the interim, and George Harrison’s 1974 stateside jaunt (staggered as it was by his throat problems) had been sadly underwhelming.

Highlights of this tour included not just the American concert debuts of a number of ’70s hits with Wings but also – and this was of particular interest at the time – Beatles favorites like “Blackbird,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Lady Madonna” — all of which were recorded after Paul’s former band had stopped touring. McCartney finally seemed ready to put both parts of his musical life in context.

“I’m a Beatles fan,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976. “When John [Lennon] was saying a couple of years ago that it was all crap, it was all a dream, I know what he was talking about – but at the same time I was sitting there thinking, ‘No it wasn’t.’ It was as much a dream as anything else is; as much crap as anything else is. In fact, it was less crap than a lot of other stuff.”

Of course, after so many successive McCartney tours (and so many concurrent live albums) in the years since he retook the road in 1989, much of what made Wings Over America so exciting then seems like quaint nostalgia today. It’s much easier, decades later, to separate the music from the moment. This multi-disc set can come off like the sum of its weakest parts.

That’s a big mistake. Sure, the second half of Wings Over America was far weaker than the first — as McCartney and company delve into some of the most lightweight (but biggest selling, mind you) songs from their polyester-era oeuvre, including the smash “My Love” from 1973’s Red Rose Speedway, the 1975 Venus and Mars hit “Listen to What the Man Said,” and “Silly Love Songs” from their then just-released Wings at the Speed of Sound.

Too often, it seems, Wings Over America threatens to run out of gas as it couples throwaways like “You Gave Me the Answer” and “Magneto and Titanium Man” or “Hi Hi Hi” and “Soily” with stronger material.

Listen to Wings Perform ‘Venus And Mars / Rock Show / Jet’

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Later, the project’s reputation took a hit when it was revealed that no small amount of post-production fixes had been employed before release.

“While everybody’s parts were spot-on musically – maybe not the harmonies, maybe not every note was exactly right – but the general feel was pretty good,” Wings stalwart Denny Laine said in Luca Perasi’s Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013). “But I had the feeling it could have been a better feeling, a fuller sound, so I double-tracked the guitars, just to fill it out [and] added little bits when you get an obvious mistake. We kept most of the solos, and most of the bass parts as it was.” Drummer Joe English put a finer point on which elements most needed to be retouched, telling Beatlefan magazine in 1979 that overdubs were necessary because of “people singing out of tune – and I don’t mean Paul.”

So, maybe Wings Over America wasn’t the career exclamation point that it once seemed. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to recommend here.

This fizzy rush of anticipation still surrounds the album’s initial trio of songs — “Venus and Mars/Rock Show” combined with incandescent take on “Jet,” even now the best opening Paul McCartney’s ever constructed. Then there’s this set’s definitive version of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” And a remarkable take on “Call Me Back Again,” from Venus and Mars — with Jimmy McCulloch’s blistering guitar matched stride for stride by a tough trio of horn players led by saxophonist Thaddeus Richard.

Along the way, McCartney came to feel the Wings had finally come into their own, that fans were ready to accept them on their own terms. “I don’t know for sure, but I’ve got a feeling that they go away thinking, ‘Oh, well, it’s a band,'” he told Rolling Stone. “It lets them catch up. I think the press, the media is a bit behind the times, thinking about the Beatles a lot. And I think the kids go away from the show a lot hipper than even the review they’re going to read the next day.”

Wings Over America also stands as the pinnacle of Denny Laine’s often-overlooked career with Wings, from his featured vocals on “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” and “Picasso’s Last Words,” to a vital take of his Moody Blues-era hit “Go Now” and an admittedly less interesting cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory.” But check out “Time to Hide,” a deep cut from Speed of Sound, where we find Laine brilliantly recapturing the raw emotion of his early R&B-sides with the Moodies.

Then, just as the mawkish distractions of “Let ‘Em In” threaten to sink the whole thing, Wings unleashes the feverish “Beware My Love” — another Speed of Sound track which, though tissue thin lyrically, begins a run of three muscular tracks that secure this album’s enduring legacy: The Venus and Mars cut “Letting Go,” which is shot through with this jagged sexuality, and then the ageless “Band on the Run.”

Paul McCartney Albums, Ranked Worst to Best

Next: Top 10 Paul McCartney and Wings Songs

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