Taking wing – Paul’s ‘Wild Life’ album

It’s strange how music can be completely re-evaluated with the passage of time, with Paul McCartney’s earliest solo works being a case in point. While watching an ad the other day for the new Apple documentary series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything I was amused to see Ram flash up as one of the many great albums released that year, confirming its ascension to ‘classic’ status in the minds of fans and critics alike. This despite the fact it was heavily denigrated by many reviewers at the time (especially compared to John’s Imagine and George’s All Things Must Pass, both of which were universally lauded), and that by the 1980s its stock seemed to have fallen even further, with most Beatles books I read dismissing it as a whimsical waste of time. The last 20-30 years, however, have seen a complete about-turn in the way it is regarded, with critics generally now rating it as a must-have and fans falling over themselves to describe it as Macca’s solo masterpiece, surpassing the previous undisputed holder of the title, Band On The Run. Likewise its predecessor, 1970’s McCartney, has gone from being seen as a half-baked, unfinished collection of flimsy musical sketches and doodles to a landmark lo-fi celebration of autonomy and independence; its rough-hewn, home-made quality, the thing so many despised on its release, is now seen as trail-blazing brilliance.

Wild Life, Paul’s third solo album, from 1971

The reputational rehabilitation of Paul’s third album, Wild Life, does not appear to be on the horizon, however. Even its lavish re-release as part of the McCartney Archive Collection in 2018, with all the attendant hype, did not prompt a critical re-appraisal of a record which came out just a few short months after Ram. I suspect there are a few reasons for this. First, it didn’t sell anywhere near as well as the two Macca albums which came before it; it only just made the US top ten and stalled at #11 in the UK, and was Paul’s only real commercial flop of the 1970s. Some people still equate sales with quality, though you’d think the likes of Milli Vanilli would’ve put that argument to bed a long time ago. It has just eight tracks (one of them a cover), and no hits – or even singles – to latch onto. Then there is the running order, which front-loads the weakest tracks (certainly the least accessible) on the first half of the LP, meaning some people will have lost patience before getting to the gold on what was the old side two. It also has the Wings prefix, which is still a handicap in some people’s eyes. Despite Paul’s rising status among critics over the past decade or so, Wings – Band On The Run excepted (those pesky sales again, perhaps?) – is still a slightly toxic brand, in the UK at least. A sign of naffness, something to be mildly sniggered at, an attitude summed up by comedy character Alan Partridge’s line: “Wings? Only the band The Beatles could’ve been!” Wild Life has its coterie of vocal supporters in the hardcore fanbase, of course, like all of his albums do, but it rarely features highly in polls to find his most popular efforts.

Is this fair? Well, yes and no. I think part of its problem is that Paul was still getting used to the idea of putting a whole album together, as opposed to submitting five or six of his best numbers for a Beatles record. While even the solo records which came before it were painstakingly put together over several months (in truth, the homespun McCartney was deceptively well crafted, in terms of recording if not always songwriting), Wild Life was laid down in a couple of weeks or so, with a brand new band, and with many of the numbers taped in one take. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s no-frills recording process of the time, Paul was no doubt keen to capture some rawness and spontaneity, to get back to basics and pull off a musical reset in the way he had tried (and ultimately failed) to do with The Beatles during their last year together. While achieving that to a large degree, the album also sounds rushed and a little slap-dash in places. With John’s and George’s latest efforts continuing The Beatles’ tradition of rich, fully-realised and lavishly produced songs, you can kind of understand why some people thought Paul – the driving force behind Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road, the perfectionist, the Beatle most obsessed with attention to detail – was no longer taking things seriously.

It’s also interesting to consider Paul didn’t really have to make this album at all. Ram had been released in May 1971, and he was back in the studios in July, with the record in the shops by early December. Even by his workaholic 1970s standards, this was a rapid turnaround (tellingly, its follow-up Red Rose Speedway didn’t appear for another 18 months). Paul had determined to form a band during the Ram sessions, roping in drummer Denny Seiwell (though failing to convince guitarist Hugh McCracken), and was presumably keen to strike while the iron was hot. Whether he was influenced by the reaction to Ram is hard to say – while it took a pasting from many (though not all) critics, it topped the charts in the US (and hit #2 in the UK) and yielded his first American #1 single in ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, so it’s difficult to surmise his train of thought. The critical backlash over something he had laboured over and poured all his creative energies into may have pushed him in a different, looser direction, or it may not. What is inarguable, though, is that – having decided not to use leftovers written or recorded for Ram (with one exception) and start from largely scratch, as it were – he was short of quality material for a full album. The urgency to get into the studio also meant that the band wasn’t even fully formed. While former Moody Blues lead singer Denny Laine had joined him, Linda and Seiwell by this point, Wings made its first album without a lead guitarist (Henry McCullough wouldn’t sign on until early 1972). Paul was more than capable of handling the lead parts, of course, but it’s another indicator that he charged headlong into his new adventure without all the pieces of the jigsaw being in place. Was he defiantly sticking two fingers up to his critics by dashing off another record which gleefully confounded expectations, or was it more a case of him simply following his instincts and deliberately building up his new combo from ground zero? Perhaps a bit of both.

The fledgling Wings rehearsing at Paul’s home studio in Scotland

What is also indisputable (in my book, at least) is that, despite its shortcomings, there is a huge amount to enjoy on Wild Life. The rootsy, organic sound it has works incredibly well, for the most part. There is an unadorned, unpretentious feel about the whole enterprise, and yet every now and then McCartney will throw in a dash of invention and imagination which will floor you with its audacity and remind you who you are dealing with. The musicianship is solid, but it’s Paul’s singing – absolutely at the top of its game here – which drags occasionally so-so songs onto a higher level. And while there is a bit of sub-par stuff, including one utter clunker, most of the album rewards repeated listens, not least a couple of sparkling gems which deserve to sit among the best tunes he’s ever written. Yes, Beatles included.

The album bolts out the door with ‘Mumbo’, which sounds exactly like what it is – a studio jam lassoed and steered into the confines of a song. It’s still a pretty wild beast (excuse the pun) though, rampaging through a series of jagged guitar riffs while Paul screams nonsense noise over the top. The lack of a coherent lyric means it lacks direction, but it rocks hard and Macca’s lead guitar/vocal combination is electrifying. Not a great tune, per se, but good fun. It sounds like something US alternative rock band The Pixies might have recorded 20 years later and been heralded as geniuses for. It’s harder to champion the next track, ‘Bip Bop’, which has become something of a byword for slack, silly McCartney writing. There’s footage of him performing it on his acoustic guitar at his Scottish farm earlier in 1971, seemingly to entertain his kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s basically just a throwaway ditty he never took any further, and while he gives it a full band arrangement for the album, it can’t breathe any life into it. It’s catchy, yes, and there’s a nice shuffling groove to it, but it spends an awful lot of time going nowhere. Paul and Linda even giggle at its repetitive inanity towards the end, which is amusing and irritating in equal measure. In the late 1980s, Paul admitted his embarrassment over this tune, though someone or something must’ve convinced him otherwise in the years that followed as it was included on the 2016 career-spanning compilation Pure McCartney. Don’t believe the hype – it’s no better now than it was in 1971.

The third track is another which emerged from a studio jam, with Macca deciding it reminded him of ‘ Love is Strange’, a 1957 hit by US duo Mickey and Sylvia (later covered by both the Everly Brothers and Everything But The Girl), and layering that song over the top. I used to think it took a long time to get going, but now I appreciate the lilting reggae rhythm and slow burn before Paul and Linda’s vocals kick in. Macca’s bass also shines on this one, but it is the singing which makes it – particular on the last minute-and-a-half or so, when Paul really cuts loose, ably supported by Linda and Denny Laine. His voice nimbly switches from husky vulnerability to surging confidence to unbridled joy, skipping through playful improvisations on each line.  It’s a thing of wonder, as is the descending, ringing guitar part which brings the number to a satisfying close. That bit always takes me right back to my childhood, though I can’t think why – we certainly didn’t have the album in our house, and plans to release this track as a single were abandoned, so I can’t imagine I would ever have heard it on the radio as a toddler.

The deliciously funky cover of ‘Love is Strange’

The title number which follows is almost the polar opposite – a strong song held back by a rather plodding arrangement and production. While the lyrics neatly capture our headlong rush towards eco destruction (way ahead of their time), the music lumbers like a slow-moving beast trying evade extinction. It’s saved by another impassioned, searing McCartney vocal and some deliciously grungy guitar playing, some of which I could swear U2 ‘appropriated’ for their hit ‘One’ 20 years later. There’s an affecting, doom-laden melancholy to the song, but I think it came off a bit better when Wings performed it live on their European tour the following year.

Things move up several gears on the second half of the album, beginning with the gentle acoustic guitar riff which opens the wonderful ‘Some People Never Know’. This is more traditional McCartney territory, and a classic of its kind. While echoing the ‘us against the world’ theme of several songs during this period (‘No one else will ever see/Just what faith you have in me’), the words actually go much deeper than that, exploring how love can help salve psychological tears and insecurities, and reflecting on how many of us fail to see that. The title refrain is sung out of sadness, not smugness. The music supports the lyric, creating an air of fragile beauty punctuated with bursts of resilience and redemption. Paul and Linda duet very effectively once again, and there are some lovely wordless harmonies towards the end (which cleverly covers up the fact that we’re going through the song’s middle section for a third time). Yes, it could maybe have done with a little editing, but the melody is so strong it doesn’t matter and I love the extended, percussion-heavy fade-out. And am I the only one who thinks it’s spooky how Paul was writing the line ‘Some people can’t sleep at night time/Believing that love is a lie’ at about the same time John Lennon was recording the anti-McCartney diatribe ‘How Do You Sleep?’

‘I Am Your Singer’ is a sweet, airy love song, something that sounds so effortless and yet is full of melody and charm. Macca enjoys likening his life to a song from time to time (think ‘Here Today’, for example, or ‘Heaven on a Sunday’), but really runs with the metaphor here, to beguiling effect. Linda gets a rare lead vocal line in this – not technically great, but heartfelt and intimate – and there’s a little recorder solo which is just right. The whole thing isn’t quite at the level of the two tracks either side of it, but is still stronger and more cohesive than anything on the first half of the album. It’s another number you can watch them crafting on their Scottish farm earlier that year.

During the photoshoot for the album cover

After a brief acoustic reprise of ‘Bip Bop’, we arrive at the tentative, yearning piano notes which begin ‘Tomorrow’, the album’s finest moment. A gorgeous depiction of a pastoral romance, the tune captures the nervous uncertainty of the early days in a relationship before the chorus soars as the lovers hold hands and “both abandon sorrow”. It’s broken up by a couple of stunningly beautiful, idyllic middle sections, and then a false ending leads us into a heart-wrenching finale, Paul’s pleading vocal and thundering guitar ramping everything up a notch. The backing singing also deserves special praise, showing how the Paul/Linda/Denny blend which would come to define Wings’ sound was in place from the get-go. Linda’s father Lee Eastman often told Paul he should re-record the song, feeling (understandably) that it was a piece of magic buried on a forgotten album, but I think it’s perfect as it is. Macca at his peerless best. I remember a friend gave me a funny look when I said it was in the same league as ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, but I urged her to listen to it again. It really is that good. The fact that ‘Bip Bop’ was chosen to represent this album on the Pure McCartney collection rather than ‘Tomorrow’ shows how Paul seems intent on sabotaging his own legacy at times.

He returns to the piano again for the album’s big finale, ‘Dear Friend’. Though written before the aforementioned ‘How Do You Sleep?’ was released, it deals with his fractured friendship with John and is perhaps the perfect response to the bruising personal attack included on the Imagine album. The song has a wounded, weary feel to it, as McCartney tries to dial things down and bring them back from the brink, cutting through Lennon’s snarling defence mechanisms and appealing to this best mate underneath. Or as Paul himself said when Wild Life was reissued in 2018: “I’m trying to say to John, ‘Look, you know, it’s all cool. Have a glass of wine. Let’s be cool.’”

I don’t think John ever commented on the song, publicly, but certainly relations did begin to improve from 1972 onwards. So who knows, maybe it touched a nerve. My issue with the song is that it sounds unfinished. Listening to the home demos of the tune included on the 2018 Archive Collection release, Paul evidently had the two verses which make up the song from the start, but never expanded on them. Which is a pity, as I think he could’ve turned it in a major work with a bit more effort. But what we got was still pretty impressive – it’s the only track on the album which gets big production touches, and the orchestral overdubs really give it some dramatic heft, helping to compensate for the limited lyrics (needless to say, there’s another fine McCartney vocal, too). And the whole thing ends on a disquieting, unresolved note, poignantly symbolising the broken state of affairs.

Paul’s conciliatory message to John, ‘Dear Friend’

And, apart from a spiky, rapid re-run of the ‘Mumbo’ riff, that’s it. Hardly the kind of grand flourish which had brought the curtain down on Sgt Pepper or Abbey Road  (or even Ram, for that matter), and I can kind of see why people were a little underwhelmed by the record as a whole at the time it came out. When I first bought it, while at college in the autumn of 1988, I enjoyed side two straightaway but did think the first half was a bit of a write-off. Inevitably, considering how quickly the album was written and recorded, the 2018 Archive Collection re-release didn’t through up any especially thrilling outtakes among the bonus material, which mainly composed of a few home demos and acoustic guitar noodlings, plus some tracks recorded at different sessions altogether.

It doesn’t matter, though. Wild Life holds up really well, probably much better than it did 50 years ago when many people were still carrying lots of Beatles baggage in their heads. Yes, he could have waited until he had more material, cherry-picked the best numbers and put out something better in 1972, but I’m glad he didn’t. Even the weaker tracks are a lot of fun and, overall, I slightly prefer it to its more polished successor, 1973’s Red Rose Speedway. While he would go on to make stronger, more consistent albums with Wings, Wild Life retains a unique, unfussy charm, a freshness and vitality all its own. It’s lower-tier McCartney, true, but his lesser works are more worthwhile than most people’s best in my book, and that’s certainly true here. Just stick it on, “catch a breath of country air” and go with the flow. To borrow a phrase: when day is done, harmonies will linger on.

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