With a burst of boogie woogie, Paul McCartney finally acknowledged the elephant in the room. And then he made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t going to be standing in any shadow, even his own. That moment came seven songs into the first disc of Wings Over America when Paul suddenly became Beatle Paul once again, tearing into “Lady Madonna” with Fats-inspired glee. The Wings Over the World tour – taking in three continents, 66 concerts and roughly one million fans – was the most dramatic realization yet of McCartney’s reinvention. It was also the first time he performed his Beatles back catalogue as the leader of Wings. “You could seriously go down in history as a guy who tried to get as good as The Beatles and failed miserably,” he’s recently said. “I felt, in the end, like the guy who tried to get as good as The Beatles – and didn’t. But did awfully well.” And he arguably never did better than the Wings Over America leg of the tour.
From May 3, 1976 in Fort Worth, Texas, through June 23 in Inglewood, California, Wings played 31 dates for 600,000 fans. The massive arena rockshow party thrown by McCartney, wife Linda, Denny Laine, Jimmy McCulloch, Joe English and a four-person brass section (Tony Dorsey, Steve Howard, Thaddeus Richard and Howie Casey, a fellow Liverpool native and longtime hero of McCartney’s who played the same venues as the young Beatles) translated to disc as one of the most electrifying live albums ever. And now the chart-topping Wings Over America has been released as the fifth entry in The Paul McCartney Archive Collection – and the most dizzyingly lavish yet.
The remastered 2013 Wings Over America has flown into shops in multiple editions. The original album is available as a standard 2-CD edition and a 3-LP set. Retail giant Best Buy is offering a 3-CD version. But the centerpiece is the individually numbered, slipcased set of 3 CDs, 1 DVD and 4 books. This massive, heavy box dwarfs even last year’s Ram, which itself was significantly bigger than the book-style format of Band on the Run, McCartney and McCartney II. Despite its larger size, though, its similar spine design and identical height still makes it possible to display on your shelf next to those volumes. With this set, it’s likely that you’ll lose yourself in the not just the music, but in the overwhelming array of printed material relating to McCartney’s American jaunt.
After the jump: we dive into the various versions of Wings Over America!
Sitting in the Stand of the Sports Arena, Waiting for the Show to Begin…
The first two CDs (available as one 2-CD or 3-LP set as well as in the box) contain the entire original triple-LP sequence of Wings Over America, culled from New York, Seattle and Los Angeles performances recorded by McCartney’s team. The concert album has been remastered at Abbey Road by Guy Massey, Steve Rooke and Simon Gibson with the same hallmark of quality as previous Archive releases. Short of a surround-sound edition, it would be difficult to make Wings any more present than on this lively remaster. Jimmy McCulloch’s scorching guitar, Linda’s recognizable high harmonies, English’s crisp and funky drumming, Laine’s fluid guitars and McCartney’s limber bass all are clear and well-delineated.
McCartney turned 34 during the Wings Over America tour, but was already an old hand at touring. The concerts were extravaganzas, with projections, explosions and lasers. Obviously none of those survived to the album, but McCartney’s choice to enlist a horn section did add muscularity and a unique sound to Wings Over America. The American dates heralded McCartney’s first U.S. appearances since the days of Beatlemania, and the setlists had been well-honed following the earlier international dates. The album wisely reflected the actual setlists of the concerts, which were roughly divided into three segments. The first high-energy mini-set found Macca going from bass to piano (from opening medley “Venus and Mars/Rockshow/Jet” to “Live and Let Die”). It’s on the latter instrument that he provided the concert’s emotional high point with “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The second part saw McCartney join Laine and McCulloch on acoustic guitar for six songs culminating in “Yesterday,” on which a solo Paul was joined only by the horn section. “Blackbird,” in this acoustic set, featured just Paul’s voice and guitar. The third section (the entirety of CD 2) returned to the rock ‘n’ roll of the early portion of the evening. By the time of the final encores of “Hi Hi Hi” and “Soily,” Wings had more than delivered the goods.
Throughout, McCartney is on fire, a man with something – and nothing – to prove. His Beatles work made him a superstar long before 1976, but he was determined to prove that Wings was a legitimate continuation of an already-storied career. And so the sprawling and varied setlist showed off each facet of his talent, from yelping rocker to sensitive balladeer, from sweetness to the blues. The five Beatles songs – all early in the show and heard on the first disc – were just part of the show, with strongest emphasis placed on tunes from recent Wings chart-toppers Band on the Run (5 songs), Venus and Mars (8 songs) and Wings at the Speed of Sound (4 songs). (Wings Over America would become the band’s fifth consecutive U.S. No. 1.) Not all of these became stone-cold classics, but they accurately represented the sound and style of a vibrant if never-too-smooth-around-the-edges band at its pinnacle. In keeping with Wings’ democratic spirit at the time, McCartney even successfully ceded the lead a few times, to Jimmy McCulloch on “Medicine Jar” and Denny Laine on “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” “Time to Hide,” Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory” and the R&B oldie “Go Now” from his Moody Blues days.
Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night
Though Wings could be a lean rock band as proven by the fiery “Rockshow” and “Jet,” the acoustic set is the most stunning as well as the most adventurous part of this otherwise big arena rock concert. Wings deftly melded the few, well-chosen Beatles songs with originals in this portion; the gentle, cascading love song “Bluebird” works beautifully as prelude to the tender “Blackbird” (with a rousing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” separating them). Baroque brass adds majesty to the understated “Long and Winding Road,” placing it somewhere between the Phil Spector production and the sparse original track. The horns bring a new dimension, too, to a brief and subtly lovely reading of “Yesterday” as they fill in for George Martin’s string arrangement. Denny Laine’s turn on Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory” is the oddest moment here (he even rewrites one Simon line as “I wish I could be John Denver!”) but it doesn’t detract from the ruminative nature of this portion of the concert. The gambit of addressing McCartney’s Beatles past in such a matter-of-fact way, as just one element of a much larger presentation, clearly worked.
Wings really gets airborne with the second disc. It’s packed with anthems of every stripe, from the romantic “My Love” to the epic “Band on the Run” and goofily defiant “Silly Love Songs.” But there’s still room for Paul’s best Rudy Vallee on “You Gave Me the Answer” with plenty of voh-de-oh-doh, and the jaunty pop art homage of “Magneto and the Titanium Man” (accompanied onstage by appropriate Marvel Comics visuals). The band succeeds in walking the fine line between forging a fresh sound onstage and capturing the studio essence of hits like “Listen to What the Man Said,” “Let ‘Em In,” and “Silly Love Songs,” with the latter getting a boisterous workout that still hews close to the original. McCartney and McCartney, Laine, McCulloch and English are confident and swaggering on the thunderous warning to “Beware, My Love” and the darkly alluring “Letting Go.” But “Band on the Run,” the pre-encore finale, showed off Wings at its most furious and tight. The rendition is heavier and more intense than the album original, and the arena-rock explosion built to a crescendo on the frenetic encores “Hi Hi Hi” and “Soily.”
Maybe I’m Amazed
The deluxe edition puts the music in context with four accompanying books, each with an expectedly classy design. The 112-page Wings Over America, a coffee-table collection in every respect other than its paperback cover, offers a full narrative of the album and tour’s history courtesy of David Fricke along with numerous photographs. (Among the most glamorous pics are those of Elton John, Cher, Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr all in attendance. Ringo made an onstage appearance in L.A. but didn’t sit in with the band.) Fricke contributes his own personal memories of the tour alongside those of the surviving principals, supporting players and backstage personnel to create a compelling read.
Fricke’s book accurately describes WOA as “the most thoroughly documented rock tour of the era.” There were three official tour photographers – Linda, Aubrey Powell of Hipgnosis and Robert Ellis – and an official tour artist, Humphrey Ocean. Footage from the tour made its way into two films, Rockshow (not part of the deluxe box set but soon to receive a standalone BD and DVD release) and Wings Over the World. Linda’s casual photographs of life on the road in America get their own book in the box, designed after her original Look! photo album. Laine is seen perusing Look! in a snapshot featured in the Fricke book. The third book, The Ocean View, is an 80-page hardcover collection of Humphrey Ocean’s drawings. His diary-style entries and notes on the sketches are also enclosed.
The fourth book is indispensable, not only because it houses the CDs and DVD in individual jackets. The leatherette-bound Tour Itinerary is designed after what would have been actually presented to the band members. You’ll find a Concert Tour Directory, with info circa 1976 as to the location and managers of each venue played on the tour. There are foldout photos of a number of the arenas, a travel calendar and a schedule of the day’s events at each arena. Set designs, newspaper clippings, and press releases all make for fascinating and unusual reading. This book also contains memorabilia facsimiles: concert tickets, 8 x 10 glossy band photographs, an invitation to the end-of-tour party, promotional posters, images of the album master tapes, and so on. There’s even a tentative song list and running order with some surprises that didn’t end up in the set: “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “C Moon,” “Mrs. Vandebilt,” “Uncle Albert” and “Junior’s Farm” among them. The MPL archives have truly yielded a treasure trove here. This book is also where you’ll find the full credits and complete lyrics for the album plus a download card to obtain all of the music in high resolution stereo. A replica of the tour program has even been tucked into this book.
Listen to the Music Playing in Your Head
McCartney recorded every show on the American tour, for nearly 70 hours of music. (He tells Fricke: “It wasn’t like we worried about expense in those days. The rock and roll world was a bit like that. You get used to extravagance.”) If only Macca was as generous with bonus audio content as with printed materials. There is only one additional CD in the box set, 28 minutes and 8 songs from the gig at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. These highlights – including “Let Me Roll It,” “Bluebird,” “Blackbird,” and “Live and Let Die” – are all treats for fans who know the original album performances well. Unlike the original album, with dialogue to a minimum, there are plentiful (and interesting) spoken introductions on this disc. One entire performance, however, would have been a truly enticing extra for a complete alternate look at Wings Over America. As it is now, the Cow Palace disc is just an appetizer. Live at the Cow Palace is also available in the 3-CD Best Buy exclusive edition.
The DVD Wings Over the World is available only as part of the box set. The 75-minute documentary was first broadcast on television in 1979. It tracks the tour through England, Australia and America via backstage footage and 15 songs. The enormous scale of the tour is evident in the film, as it chronicles the organized chaos of a production that involved over 100 people on the road. Among the film’s editors was Thelma Schoonmaker, a three-time Academy Award winner who has edited every one of Martin Scorsese’s films since Raging Bull. Wings Over the World is joined on the DVD by one 8-minute bonus feature, Photographer’s Pass, set to “Band on the Run” and “Soily.”
Yet Wings Over the World is just one-half of the tour’s video history. The long-in-demand Rockshow concert film would have been a no-brainer for inclusion in a box set as all-inclusive as this one, but instead, it will be released separately in June. One can’t argue with the high quality of each element of the deluxe box set, but the omission of Rockshow and additional previously-unreleased music keeps it a hair shy of achieving definitive status.
But Still They Lead Me Back
There’s no sense on Wings Over America of an artist content to rest on his laurels or offer a greatest-hits retrospective; it’s all very much in the moment. 35 years later, McCartney’s tours are more frequent, and there’s far less reliance on current material, of course. But the mature showman, now in his seventh decade, still gives his all. He’s never stopped building on the template of WOA, bouncing from instrument to instrument, and blending both spectacle and intimacy even in stadium-sized shows. In all its iterations, the remastered Wings Over America – touchingly dedicated to the memory of Linda McCartney and Jimmy McCulloch – presents an iconic entertainer’s second best-known band at the height of their live powers. According to an insert in Wings Over America, the increasingly bountiful (and grandly exhaustive) Paul McCartney Archive Collection will continue with Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound. The wonder of it all, baby: the rockshow plays on.
You can purchase Wings Over America by clicking on any of the images above!