While Paul McCartney was still reeling from the Beatles’ breakup, he faced a much deeper scare. In September 1971, his wife, Linda, had gone into labor, only to suffer complications requiring an emergency C-section.
By McCartney’s telling, he “prayed like mad,” seeing a vision of his late mother surrounded by golden wings. Their daughter Stella was born perfectly healthy; in relief and celebration, McCartney and his wife named their first post-Fabs project Wings.
On Friday (Dec. 7), McCartney will unveil remastered editions of Wings’ first two albums, 1971’s Wild Life and 1973’s Red Rose Speedway. The albums will be available separately and together on the box set Wings 1971-1973.
Back then, the public was dazed by the Beatles’ breakup; they gave Wings a bad rap for lacking Fabs-level experimentation. But with these fresh reissues headed for our ears, listeners in 2018 can knock down that tired, rockist lore for themselves.
Although their new band began on a prayer, the public didn’t see Wings as exactly heaven-sent. One month after Stella’s birth, McCartney and Linda would record Wild Life, a jaunty, carefree album recorded in just over a week. Instead of continuing the buzz of prime Beatles, it was deliberately low-key and low stakes. For those reasons, critics hated it.
“Vacuous, flaccid, impotent, trivial and unaffecting,” scathed Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn. “Rushed, defensive, badly timed, and over-publicized,” declared Roy Carr and Tony Tyler in The Beatles: An Illustrated Record.
Perhaps taking the criticism to heart, Wings backpedaled on Wild Life’s raw approach for a more polished sound on Red Rose Speedway. It’s more fully formed and palatable on nearly every song; its lead single, the romantic ballad “My Love,” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But they still couldn’t catch a break from the critics. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau called Speedway “quite possibly the worst album ever made by a rock and roller of the first rank.” The Rolling Stone Record Guide’s Dave Marsh deemed it “rife with weak and sentimental drivel.”
Even McCartney and his wife started to believe all the venom. “After Wild Life, I thought, ‘Hell, we have really blown it here,’” McCartney later said. Linda McCartney would chalk up Red Rose Speedway to “a terribly unsure period,” concluding “We needed a heavier sound.”
They needn’t have sipped the Kool-Aid. Back then, the Beatles stirred up so many heightened emotions; once they were gone, critical objectivity was fogged up. Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway weren’t treated as relative letdowns, but personal betrayals.
Listeners in 2018 can throw out all this cultural baggage and just enjoy the tunes. Take Wild Life’s “Bip Bop,” a faux-blues throwaway that McCartney himself decried: “It just goes nowhere … I still cringe when I hear it.” Today, it sounds less like a fey trifle than a hypnotic earworm.
Red Rose Speedway doesn’t deserve its rep, either; it’s warm and inviting as an easy chair. Check out “Single Pigeon,” a touching piano jig that strongly evokes his complicated relationship with John Lennon. “Do you need a pal for a minute or two?” he asks. “Me too / I’m a lot like you.” It recalls their famous 1957 meeting at a church fete in Liverpool.
If both albums seemed dressed in casual rather than formal wear, this is a feature, not a bug. On paper, Wild Life’s title track should come across as embarrassing; it’s a dramatic piano ballad about “taking a walk through an African park” and observing the beasts and the birds.
Instead, it comes off as outsider art; dig McCartney’s bizarro screams about the animal kingdom. “A lot of political nonsense going on,” he repeatedly adds, as if he’s digging at John and Yoko’s self-seriousness and ideological hectoring in the early ‘70s.
Likewise, check out the giddily weird “Loup (1st Indian on the Moon)” from Red Rose Speedway. If McCartney was really trying to make an album full of simpering, saccharine hits, would he have included this arcane track of oddball sound effects and funereal moans?
The McCartneys would make a full reversal from Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway. Their third album, 1973’s Band on the Run, would dominate rock radio with classics like “Jet,” “Let Me Roll It” and its barreling title track — and instantly overshadow both albums.
If you’re a Beatles fan who’d rather stick with Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road for your bread and butter, fair enough. Nothing on these Wings albums approaches that art-rock ambition. But by not reaching for any obvious Beatles tropes, Wings achieved something fresh and inviting with their first two albums.