36 Years Ago: Paul McCartney Releases the Last, and Most Frustrating, Wings Album
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Released on June 8, 1979, Back to the Egg showcased a rebuilt Wings that hinted at interesting new things to come from Paul McCartney in the future. Instead, he seemed to lose his nerve, even before the project was over. By the time McCartney reemerged with a follow up album, Wings — a band he’d led for a decade — was no more.
The reasons, it seems now, are many. Back to the Egg, which suffered from a half-measure approach to trying new things, wasn’t the hit that McCartney’s new label bosses at Columbia had hoped, going “only” platinum in the U.S.. A 1980 drug bust in Japan seemed to sour McCartney on touring. Certainly, the shocking murder of his former Beatles bandmate John Lennon played a role in McCartney’s reevaluation of things, too. Even so, fast forward a few decades and a retro-passion surrounds McCartney projects from the same era, powered in no small way by his own lavish reissues of Band on the Run and McCartney II. Yet, the swan song Back to the Egg remains comparably — and, at times, unjustifiably — obscure, despite completing a run in which every single Wings album reached the U.S. Top 10.
You certainly couldn’t blame just-arrived lead guitarist Laurence Juber, who’d work in endlessly energetic counterpoint to stalwart Denny Laine. Same with co-producer Chris Thomas, a former assistant to George Martin for the Beatles’ White Album who brought an edgier style to much of the project — in keeping with his concurrent work with the Sex Pistols and the Pretenders. The youthful Juber had come on board, it turned out, with little more than gumption. “The reality was I didn’t know any Wings tunes,” Juber once confessed. “I borrowed some albums from my brother.”
In a way, that was perfect. After all, McCartney’s initially stated goal was to make a raw-boned record that was free of earlier expectations. There was, as he said in a 1979 interview for Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show, some trepidation in starting over again. “You don’t know, you know?” McCartney admitted. “You just trust your judgment. You just hope you’re lucky. And you just work hard.” But McCartney seemed determined to put a ozone-scented charge into his sound after the soft-rock fluff of 1978’s London Town.
All the pieces were in place, but Back to the Egg didn’t go far enough. Today, the album feels simultaneously like a bold move into the then-current sounds of punk and new wave but also, in particular on its second side, a retreat into some of McCartney’s more recognizable indulgences — including song medleys, silly love songs, even mid-century parlor pop. (The concluding “Baby’s Request” would eventually find its way, far more appropriately, onto McCartney’s 2012 standards album Kisses on the Bottom.) Back to the Egg simply starts a lot better than it finishes.
But what a start: “Reception” is a verite, Pink Floyd-esque intro, perhaps appropriate with the addition of David Gilmour on a couple of the album’s subsequent tracks. Next arrives one of the great throwaway non sequiturs from McCartney, as part of the No. 20 hit “Getting Closer”: “Say you don’t love him, my salamander.” Salamander? A slimy, amphibian wall crawler? On what planet is this a term of endearment? (Later, McCartney, in a moment of sweeping pop-song myopia, pleas for the DJ to “play a song with a point.”) Yet, “Getting Closer” remains one of the most enjoyable tunes on Back to the Egg — thanks, in no small way, to Juber’s monstrous riff.
“It was really quite exciting because (the harder rock) aspect of things gelled very quickly,” Juber added. “There was a certain rawness that was going on. Punk was in the air. Paul’s kids had been listening to a lot of that kind of stuff, so it was kind of in his ears.”
Don’t believe it? Look no further than the crunchy “Spin It On,” which finds McCartney completely plugging into the turn-of-the-’80s zeitgeist. For all of his notable successes as a schlock and roller, Paul is always — going all the way back to the mop top days — good for a throat-shredding, couldn’t-care-less moment or two. Here’s one, updated for a new age. Meanwhile, “Arrow Through Me,” a No. 29 U.S. hit, brilliantly melds McCartney’s old and new personas. Just what’s happened to the protagonist is largely indecipherable, but superfluous anyway. Not when this track, after the addition of an itchy late-song synth signature, bursts out with that girder-shaking groove.
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The all-star “Rockestra Theme,” featuring a cast that included Gilmour, John Bonham and Pete Townshend, earned the first-ever Grammy for rock instrumental. Then there’s “To You,” a song for those who wondered what Paul would sound like if he were broadsided by the Cars. First off, McCartney hiccups, no kidding, like Ric Ocasek. But it’s not just the vocal. Check out the careening keyboards, drummer Steve Holley’s clipped rhythm, Juber’s sawing guitar. It doesn’t sound much like Wings. But it sounds a whole lot like what would one day dominate the playlists of some as-yet-unknown network called MTV.
McCartney, recording in a series of early ad-hoc, tightly knit sessions on his Scottish farm, had been reinvigorated. “It was just sort of a back-to-the-beginning kind of feeling for us, while we were making it,” he said in a 1979 interview. “We were sort of trying different things, while we were making it, and that seemed to sum it up — Back to the Egg. A back-to-square-one kind of thing, you know?”
Unfortunately, Back to the Egg proceeds into a retrenchment that nearly obscures those early successes — a move underscored by Wings’ shift to the friendly confines of Abbey Road studios. There, McCartney rediscovered old friends (thus the “Rockestra” lineup) but also his old ways. Moments after embracing something so brilliantly modern as “To You,” the album swerves into “After the Ball,” a melancholy power ballad, which then somehow morphs into an accordion-driven lament called “Million Miles.” The similarly combined “Winter Rose / Love Awake” is as overwrought as anything McCartney’s ever done. It had been easy, to this point, to see an updated Wings continuing forward in a new decade. Instead, McCartney simply lost his nerve.
The overstuffed “So Glad To See You Here” finds the multi-guest Rockestra lineup returning for an utterly safe rave-up in the vacuum-packed style of his earlier Wings at the Speed of Sound. It has all of the visceral danger of, well, a salamander. As Back to the Egg continues to sag, Laine sounds like he’s already one foot out the door. Elsewhere, the project includes “Again and Again and Again” as a last showcase for the guitarist, but he remained until the very end a criminally underutilized figure. Laine might not have been John Lennon, but he certainly could have contributed more than the off-handed backup vocal, given the opportunity. Instead, there are only these drive-by glimpses into what a true partnership in the band could have been.
Back to the Egg, and Wings themselves, crash lands with the prosaic swing-band pastiche “Baby’s Request.” Songs like “Honey Pie” from the Beatles’ 1968 self-titled opus, or even “You Gave Me the Answer” from 1975’s Venus and Mars, might have once felt charmingly retro. Not anymore. By 1979, this sound was hopelessly, devastatingly old-timey — and, of course, the opposite of what this album at one point seemed to be trying to do.
Wings would manage one more huge hit, scoring their sixth U.S. No. 1 with a live version of the McCartney II track “Coming Up,” before splitting up for good in 1981. That closed the book on a multi-lineup brand that had strung together an amazing 14 American Top 10 singles. Every song they released in the ’70s reached the Billboard Top 40, including two from Back to the Egg.
Yet, into the ’80s, even McCartney was judging it as a “kind of a minor record.” Eventually, he says he came to terms with the period. It seems McCartney and his late wife Linda, the only member besides Paul and Laine to appear in every version of Wings, found themselves flipping through a rock book with David Bowie, years later. “We looked up Wings and Back to the Egg, which I guess was considered the absolute low point — and it got to No. 8 in the American charts,” McCartney remembered, before adding: “We did amazingly well. Anyone else would have given their right arm for a career like that.”
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