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40 Years Ago: Paul McCartney Relies Too Much on Wings for ‘At the Speed of Sound’

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At the Speed of Sound, released on March 25, 1976, is the lesser sibling in a suddenly stable two-album run for Wings that began with the previous year’s Venus and Mars.

To this point, the only constants in Paul McCartney‘s post-Beatles amalgam were wife Linda McCartney and Denny Laine, formerly of the Moody Blues. The addition, however, of guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English set Wings on a much smoother course through the decade’s midpoint. That comfy domesticity didn’t lead to music that challenged Band on the Run as Wings’ best album, but it emboldened McCartney professionally – and, to a degree, doomed this project.

McCartney scheduled his first U.S. tour since the Beatles’ final bow in 1966 – but only after rushing out the doggedly democratic At the Speed of Sound. He played Britain in September of 1975, held initial album sessions in September, toured Australia in November, put this project to bed in February of ’76, then released it in March even as he took Wings into Europe. McCartney was on American stages by May.

The results on At the Speed of Sound were predictably spotty, with too many guest vocals and not enough heft – particularly, critics said, when it came to the project’s biggest hits, “Silly Love Songs” and “Let ‘Em In.” McCartney didn’t necessarily disagree with the latter criticism. “We (tried) to make it as hard as possible,” he said in Band on the Run: A History of Paul McCartney and Wings, “but sometimes you just don’t bring off in a studio what you can bring off in a live thing.”

Yet, At the Speed of Sound – which shot to the top of the charts over seven non-consecutive weeks as Wings’ blockbuster tour continued in the summer of ’76 – still displays its share of small-scale charms.

Listen to Paul McCartney and Wings Perform ‘Beware My Love’

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McCartney pushes himself into new places on “Beware My Love,” which unfolds with this remarkably layered complexity. The jauntily old-fashioned “San Ferry Anne” again showcased his skills as a pop-music curator. Elsewhere, the sentimental “Warm and Beautiful” simply cried out for a string-laden re-arrangement that it eventually received on McCartney’s 1999 album Working Classical. Even “Silly Love Songs” is driven along by an endlessly entertaining bass line that bears a passing resemblance to “Sha La La” by Al Green; a punchy horn section similarly powers “Let ‘Em In.”

McCartney would come to credit his desire to make Wings an honest-to-goodness band for those successes. “What I hoped would happen did, that we would get to know each other, the feel of each other – not just me getting lumped in with five other famous people,” he said in 2013. “So, we learned this is a special thing being in a band, which is about understanding each other. So, the memory of the ’70s is that yes, it was difficult but the fact it worked was rewarding.”

Even so, there’s no getting around the folly of Wings’ most familial album, as every member takes a turn at the mic – even drummer Joe English. (The scope of that misstep was writ large by a subsequent reissue that included a version of “Must Do Something About It” with Paul McCartney’s far-better guide vocal.) “The Note You Never Wrote” gives Denny Laine perhaps the best Wings vehicle he ever had, but Laine’s contributions – which also include the darkly sensuous “Time to Hide” – are the exceptions here that prove the rule. “Cook of the House,” a profoundly silly tune written for Linda, and McCulloch’s “Wino Junko” are nothing more than throwaways.

The tossed-together At the Speed of Sound simply had too much Wings, and not enough Paul McCartney.

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