As 1977 dawned, Wings were – if you can forgive the timeworn pun – flying high. Soaring, in fact. On the back of three consecutive chart-topping albums and a seemingly endless barrage of hit singles, they had undertaken a triumphant year-long world tour, playing to around a million people. The resulting live album, Wings Over America, hit #1 in the US charts (one of only three triple-LP sets ever to do so) and made the top ten in most other countries. Paul had achieved what many thought would be impossible after The Beatles, and conquered the music world a second time. This period was probably the commercial peak of his solo career, with Wings established as one of the biggest bands on the planet (and their most popular global single, ‘Mull of Kintyre’, was still to come). And this elite status was reflected in the fact that, even though the rock biography market was still in its infancy in the mid-70s, his group was the subject of not one, but two books that year. Both large format, hardback productions, both telling the story of the band’s inception and rise to the top, and both – rather confusingly – entitled Paul McCartney & Wings.
The one I picked up first, at some point in the mid-80s, was the one written by Jeremy Pascall. By the time I got it, Wings had long since disbanded as Paul decided to focus on solo ventures, and the band – like much of the ‘70s in general – had become something of a symbol of naffness. Swaddled in flared trousers, feather-cut hairstyles and double-necked guitars, and now best remembered for the aforementioned love-it-or-hate-it ‘Mull of Kintyre’, they were unhip as could be and well on the way to becoming Alan Partridge’s favourite group. In the shiny, sleek 1980s, even Paul seemed vaguely embarrassed by his former act, telling Q Magazine in 1986: “I met a nurse recently who was a Wings fan!….an actual die-hard Wings fan. I didn’t think they existed.” But I didn’t care. For my teenage self, eager for information on the Fabs’ solo careers, this book was a bit of a goldmine. And, revisiting it recently, it still stands up fairly well today.
Sure, it’s not an in-depth biography that more discerning readers would expect today, with lots of fresh interviews and insights. It’s more like a quickie, commissioned by a publisher to cash in on someone’s sudden or large-scale success, the kind of volumes which became common in the 1980s and which you’ll still find in bargain bookshops today. A sort of basic introduction to an artist, if you like. It’s a cut-and-paste job, with the author scouring the mainstream press and music papers to assemble his narrative and cherry-pick his quotes. But, for all that, it’s very diligently done. The story is cohesive, engagingly written and comprehensive, in terms of the key facts. The quotes are well chosen and informative, and offer perspectives from all members of the band (though it’s telling Macca is the only one to feature on the cover). It’s a long way from the official Paul-and-Linda-centric Wingspan documentary/book project from the early 2000s.
Inevitably, though, the focus is on Paul, and the first two chapters deal solely with the protracted break-up of The Beatles. Pascall does a terrific job of pulling together the main strands of that murky, uber-complex story and presenting them in simple yet thoughtful manner. He approaches it from the McCartney perspective, true, but it’s quite balanced and doesn’t whitewash any aspect of it. He weaves in lots of salient quotes from interviews the Fabs gave in the years that followed and, interestingly, refers to the September 1969 boardroom summit between John, Paul and George – the tape recording of which heralded as recently as 2019 as a momentous discovery in Fabs history, even though its content has clearly been hiding in plain sight since the mid-1970s. The 1971 High Court case to dissolve The Beatles’ business partnership is also summarised extremely well, and Pascall throws up some points that many subsequent authors either missed or ignored, such as the fact that Macca’s famous ‘self-interview’ which resulted in “Paul is Quitting The Beatles!” headlines around the world in April 1970 never actually said any such thing. The story was even refuted by the Apple press office the very next day.
From there on, we get a recap of Paul and Linda’s romance (with some interesting tidbits about Linda’s early life) and how their marriage weathered the twin storms of The Beatles’ split and the hostile critical reaction to Paul’s early solo forays (which these days, of course, are lauded to the skies). Then it’s a straight romp through the Wings story – the patchy first couple of albums; the rough-and-ready, low-key early tours; the regular drug busts; the abrupt departure of drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough; the enormous breakthrough of Band On The Run and subsequent global domination, culminating in that record-busting world tour. It’s an fascinating tale, well told, showcasing Paul’s determination to reinvent himself from scratch and not rely on former glories. But, as I mentioned earlier, it gives weight to the other members too, filling in their back stories and so giving you more context about the make-up of the group. For instance, many books will simply tell you that Henry was “formerly of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band” and leave it at that, whereas this gives you more detail and helps to explain why the Irishman’s freewheeling style was probably doomed never to fit in with the well-drilled, ultra-professional unit Paul wanted Wings to become.
Another part of the book’s value is that it’s a contemporary reading of the group. It came out at the height of Wings’ popularity, and so gives you a feeling of how big they were at that point. The facts and figures for the 1975-76 tour really are staggering, from the world record attendance they scored for an indoor gig at Seattle’s Kingdome (67,000) to them becoming the first Western rock band to play behind the Iron Curtain (Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia). To say nothing of a tune they knocked off during quick sessions between legs of the tour, ‘Silly Love Songs’, going on to become the USA’s biggest selling single of 1976. Towards the end, Pascall also digs into the McCartneys’ family life, an oft-overlooked component of the band’s appeal. Inviting your wife to join your band wasn’t really the done thing in an era of macho, promiscuous rock stars, with Mick Jagger among those questioning the wisdom of “taking your old lady” on stage. The book does reflect some of the antipathy towards Linda, particularly in the early days of the band when her singing wasn’t always great. But Paul laudably stuck to his guns, giving his critics the middle finger and achieving success on his own terms.
The downside of the book coming out when it did, though, is that the story is incomplete; there’s nothing about ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or 1978’s London Town album and the further personnel reshuffles which accompanied it, nor the last hurrah of Back To The Egg and the UK tour of 1979, never mind Macca’s infamous 1980 Japan drug arrest which ultimately signalled the band’s death knell. Each chapter of Wings’ history has a different flavour and trajectory, and it’s a pity the last one is missing – a bit like a novel that finishes before you get to the end.
The real problem, though, is that the book doesn’t really diverge from the facts and give you any opinions or analysis. There is only the most cursory appraisal of the group’s musical output or live performances – you do get a good sample of the reviews at the time (often quite damning), which is enlightening, but it would have been quite nice for Pascall to offer his own thoughts from time to time, and make some effort to plot the band’s creative evolution. Macca’s forging of a very different style and sound after The Beatles was no mean feat, and still doesn’t really get the credit it deserves. But I suspect that wasn’t really part of the author’s brief.
Where it does shine, however, is in the wealth of great photographs throughout. My view is that the 1970s were actually anti-fashion, the style was that there was no style (which makes it so hard for TV and film drama producers to accurately reproduce it), but at the same time that makes for some utterly beguiling, colourful and unique visuals. Wings were no exception to that, and the images here are a feast for the eyes. The proliferation of unfeasibly wide lapels, tartan, unkempt hair, garish colours, platform heels, braces, sequins, check trousers and the like will leave you scratching your head at the mismatched anarchy of it all. Paul’s stage suit for the 1976 US shows still looks pretty cool, though, flares notwithstanding. Certainly better than the odd kimono-style outfit he wore on some earlier legs of the tour.
The photos are the perfect accompaniment to the text which, for just 96 pages, crams in a surprising amount of detail. A lot of Macca bios tend to skim over his solo career, so if you’re looking for an illustrated primer on the Wings era – albeit an truncated one – you could do a lot worse than this. We all know how big The Beatles were; Wings, like pretty much every other band since, didn’t approach that level of impact and influence, but they were still improbably successful in their own right and among the biggest acts of their day. Paul McCartney & Wings is like a printed time capsule of those heady times, and still warrants a 7.