'Wings Over America' channels the best of '70s excess and ambition
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It’s easy to forget that by the middle of the 1970s, rock and roll was just entering its quarter-life crisis. It had already gone through its rowdy youth (Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry in 1955), it’s wild teenage years (the Beatles and the British Invasion) and its weird, wayward entry into its twenties — psychedelia, glam and whatever else the ‘70s had to offer.
And with that came a search for a more sophisticated statement. Rock and roll had moved from singles to compilations to albums to double albums, with song cycles and concepts intersecting and intertwining stories and songs. In the meantime, live performance went from something for teenage girls to scream at to an extension of art and musicianship. The live album became as vital an entry to the catalog as any.
The ultimate artistic declaration that a big rock act could make, then, was the lavish double live album: two records housed in a gatefold LP recorded on a sold-out tour, with added benefit if it took place in hockey arenas across North America or one of the Fillmore venues. And album sales backed this mentality up — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 4-Way Street was seen as a fantastic artistic milepost, while Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive had become one of the greatest selling albums ever in 1976.
That year, McCartney would take Wings across the country as part of his “Wings Over the World” tour. At the end of the year, he upped the ante with Wings Over America, a three-record set that aimed to outdo the bootleggers, offer fans the ultimate souvenir of the band’s cross-continent conquest and serve as proof of McCartney’s post-Beatles triumph, with Wings reclaiming the flag that the Beatles had ceded amid their refusal to tour and eventual demise. With John Lennon in semi-retirement as a stay-at-home dad and George Harrison’s own record sales dwindling, the mantle was McCartney’s for the taking.
Wings Over America is back in the spotlight again, the latest in McCartney’s efforts to reissue his back catalog in remastered sound and in deluxe edition packaging. With the benefit of hindsight, the band thrives, and for good or bad, all the heights and trappings of the era are laid bare for the listener.
It gets off to an appropriately epic start, with “Venus and Mars,” “Rock Show” and “Jet” slammed together in a 10-minute opening medley that does its bests to relay the feeling of being in the frantic, oversized crowd, putting the listener in the seats of the Forum or Madison Square Garden rather than isolating the band as some kind of grand recording session for thousands.
Another sign of the times, there really isn’t much effort made to mask the crowd noise — the audience can be heard screaming throughout the album, there’s plenty of echo in Paul’s voice and the guitars, call outs to the crowd, everything off-the-cuff live moment and every bit of hamming for the masses is maintained in order to present the full picture of what the live Wings experience was in 1976.
The “Wings” equation of that is key. Rather than a “Paul McCartney” tour, this record was meant to emphasize Wings as a functioning band rather than a glorified backing unit for McCartney. The setlist leaned heavily on McCartney and Wings’ solo hits and deeper album tracks; his Beatles songs were segregated to sections of sides two and three on the original record, while Denny Laine (“Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” among others) and Jimmy McCulloch (“Medicine Jar”) were given spotlights in the lead singer slot. McCartney had been trying to get Wings accepted as a band, and over the three LPs of the original record, he was going to give that his best shot.
It does offer a side of Wings that seems forgotten: the playful, rocking part of the band is often overlooked in favor of their pop-ready ballads. But hearing McCartney spout off his comic book allegiance on “Magneto and Titanium Man” not long after the sonic bombast of “Live and Let Die” helps to paint a better picture of the band. Even “Picasso’s Last Words” fares better in this live setting than it does on its studio counterpart.
Of course, the public never quite embraced Wings the way McCartney envisioned, and as time has passed, McCartney himself has accepted that, looking on his work in the 1970s more as his period with Wings rather than Wings as a band, and the rest of his post-Beatles career as separate from that. Indeed, this reissue has been released under “Paul McCartney Archive Collection” banner, a clear chapter in McCartney’s catalog rather than looking back at a band of equals. But all that means is that he’s accepted, in retrospect, the reality that everyone else brought to the band.
But as bands go, glorified backing unit or not, Wings was a high-functioning group who could adapt and were sympathetic to McCartney’s grand visions, and all that translated well to a gigantic tour like the “Wings Over the World” jaunt. The results, as presented, are firmly a product of their time, and the record a clear snapshot of the supercharged arena rock scene of the 1970s.
And that’s the key difference between live albums then and now. Where live albums can be essential documents of artists and bands in their element, there is an aspect of them, even the best ones, that lives solely in the ears of the devoted. They serve a definite purpose and offer fans a glimpse of the road and the room that the stage allows, and they become tokens of tours, an aural scrapbook. While live albums of the 1970s eventually became the same sorts of living photo albums, they aspired to more, to be the ultimate, epic word of a band.
Whether or not Wings Over America ever actually achieved its goals, it stands now as a marker in the sand, of Wings’ biggest moment and one of the greater reaches of McCartney’s career. What’s left and what lives on within these discs is a band that sounds great, a band that’s having fun and a band reveling in the throngs of screaming fans. It’s almost as if the Beatles existed again, if only for a moment. It’s huge, it’s a spectacle and it’s completely over the top. So in its own way, it succeeds twice over; it’s a statement of the power of McCartney in the mid-70s and an all-too-appropriate time capsule for the era.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org