Paul McCartney And Wings “At The Speed Of Sound” Reviewed
We think of Wings At The Speed Of Sound , as an album and not a cultural artifice, to be a reaction against UK punk, but that’s inaccurate, The Sex Pistols began their ascent in the winter of 1975 but remained a local phenomena at least till the middle of the year, “Anarchy In The UK”, the first single, wasn’t released till November 1976, and the entire punk movement didn’t explode into the popular mindset till December 1976, nine months after At The Speed On Sound was released, eight months after “Silly Love Songs” dropped and six months after “Let ‘Em In”. The album (his seventh post-Beatles release, pop pickers) sure sounds like retaliation but it was retaliation against the rock critics of their time, not against punk rock. Which makes McCartney’s defensiveness even stranger, what, precisely, was he so upset about? In 1976, as he made short order of the entire world on a stupendously successful tour, McCartney took a break January and February to record in Abbey Road studio most of At The Speed Of Sound, but he couldn’t get over (and never has), that he was considered a lightweight: With the world at his feet, with the rest of the Beatles beaten on the charts and how, McCartney was playing Jay Leno to Lennon’s David Letterman-winning the ratings war but not taken nearly as seriously. The harder McCartney denied it, the clearer it became, and when, a year later, Lennon deep in retirement and punk wiping the slate clean, it seemed as though he was a self-fulfilling prophecy: all he could was write silly love songs.
In retrospect, there was a lot to be said for England in 1976, the welfare state under Prime Minister Jimmy Callaghan was moving along, and while the blue collar underclass lived under the seran wrap horror of potentially never holding down a paying job in their lives, cradle to grave welfare made life livable. And anyway, they were seen and not heard, until punk put a brutal S&M face to organized hopelessness. The McCartney of 1962 would have recognized the despair and hope in rock and roll but the McCartney of 1976 was completely clueless of the lives his fellow citizens lived under. Beyond words like wealthy, esteemed, or a one percenter, Paul was entirely oblivious as to what was going on around him: cocooned in wealth and fame for fifteen years, he just wasn’t there. When UK punk happened it was a reaction precisely against a Paul McCartney and though the timing is a little off, exhibit A is At The Speed Of Sound, an album not so much lightweight as elegantly insulated: it was heavy in ways music wasn’t meant to be heavy in 76-77. In the 70s, by the midway point, love had mutated to hedonism, and rock stars had left a part of their humanity at the door. McCartney had left something behind as well, something real, something important, his skills had become coarsened through insensitivity, from “I Saw her Standing There” to “Eleanor Rigby” to “Blackbird”, McCartney was a social being and he had stopped interlocking with society: he was on the outside looking in, his songs became objective romantic exercises because his insertion into society was so removed from the way the majority of people lived. That’s why At The Speed Of Sound is a bad album, because his sublime talents (on the deluxe version of ATSOS there are demos of both “Silly Love Songs” and “Let Them In”) that unadorned by disco or special effects, speak entirely to McCartney’s immense skills as an arranger of both voices and string instrument, but not as a thinker or a participant. That hits I abhor to this day sound much better when they are cleared up and you can hear what he was attempting musically, make the charted (“Silly Love Songs” was at # 1 for six weeks and “Let “Em In”) songs epic exercises in anemic pop flourish. It finds the fault in the songs, and the insult to a riotous pop youth in not merely “God Save The Queen” being better than “Let Em In”, but that it was better as song AND better as social, it made McCartney redundant.
The problem with both songs, the problem with the album, and the problem with McCartney at that moment in his career, was his skills as a tunesmith were in a hibernation. Both those songs would have been good enough to pull the, frankly, ridiculous idea of having every band member sing a song, through, if only they were half as sweet and catchy, ear caressingingly genius as “Junior’s Farm” or “Listen To What The Man Said”, tracks where the joy of creation and the joy of melody collide with a jump. “Let Em In” is one annoying hook, repeated, a litany of names insulted with that “do me a favor” which sounds presumptuous in the extreme. The arrangement is enormous, there is no doubting why it hits big, the piano motif, when heard alone, makes your eyes pop out. But it is smarmy and irritating. And “Silly Love Songs” is bullshit. Yes, the vocal arrangements is a triumph but it is a pyrrhic victory, it made Paul the opposition and it would take him a long time to recover his standing in the public eye. It was a bad idea, a crouched passive aggressive insult, and it was silly in the extreme. It was, much like the album, an exercise in pop music dynamics and that’s it, there is no “you” in his “I love you”.
There is another song on the album, even more loathed, though listening to it today, I must admit to admiring it a great deal. “Warm And Beautiful” is simple in deceptive ways, it sounds like a hymn, and while the lyric may well be too obvious, the melody captures old school Pata-Anglo dreams of England’s pastures greens.But it doesn’t save At The Speed Of Sound, an album you can consider not the killer of his career (after all, “Mull Of Kintyre” was round the corner), but of his arbitrator of coolness. Compounded by Lennon’s murder and Sainthood four years later, McCartney found himself in the undignified position of apologizing and defending himself against the encroachment of irrelevance. At The Speed Of Sound -and McCartney and his clan, were social pariahs, completely out of touch with the UKs youth, as they ponced about in lousy haircuts and private jets and limos, getting carted round the world to perform note perfect knockoffs of the Paul catalog. It took McCartney years, maybe forever, to get his footing, two of his closest friends and his wife all died and it still didn’t shake McCartney of the lightweight tag. Three years after ATSOS, McCartney HIRED THE SEX PISTOLS PRODUCER CHRIS THOMAS for Back To The Egg, and it didn’t help. When you see McCartney writing “FourFiveSeconds”, the seeds for the need to cutting edge still, to be the cultural lodestone who brought in the mainstreaming of drugs with his “I tried LSD’ comment in the 60s, is thin skinned enough to insist upon being revelant at all times. And ATSOS was a complete blowback where Venus And Mars might have survived, because, well, because it’s a good album and despite its hits, there is zero excuse for ATSOS, no excuse for “Cook Of The House” and “Time To Hide” and “Must Do Something About It” and “San Ferry Anne” -these are bad songs not even sung by Paul. They sink the album like a stone.
The success of the album might have saved Paul under different circumstances but circumstances weren’t different, as London began to burn in the rubble of rock history, McCartney fiddled about with sound modulations and pop variations and arrangements and forgot to write the same songs. Punk was a battle between the haves and the have nots the young and the middle aged, and not only was McCartney on the wrong side of all that, he was on the wrong side of the folks who were on the wrong side of all of those. He was the super-conservative practitioner at war with the snarly curs of punk, while the Pistols were singing about anarchy, the Clash about white riots, and the Buzzcocks about orgasms, McCartney was getting the case for a closeted romantic worldview and one that lacked specific love because the specific love would have been worse than the generalized love he charts. The UK was going up in flames and Paul was irrelevant even on the wrong side. Insulated and silly, out of time, and arrogant, At The Speed Of Sound is the wrong album at the wrong time and will never be any good.