Graham Reid | | 5 min read
If you're going to celebrate the end of
a recording session why not have the party aboard the Queen Mary
which is permanently docked at Long Beach, California?
And why not invite a couple of hundred pals like Bob Dylan, the Jackson Five, various Led Zeppers, a couple of Monkees, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, the Faces, an Everly Brother (Phil), George Harrison, Dean Martin, Cher . . .
They were among the guests at Paul and Linda McCartney's bash – at which the Meters and Professor Longhair played – after they'd finished recording much of their '75 album Venus and Mars in New Orleans at Allen Toussaint's Sea Saint Studios.
That's the kind of company Paul McCartney can command, and at that time he was in a very good place indeed.
His previous album Band on the Run had been a critical and commercial hit, in January the previous year he and Linda had been on the cover of Rolling Stone and his career was soaring while that of his former Beatles Lennon and Harrison had started to seriously slide.
For the competitive McCartney this must have felt very good indeed . . . and Venus and Mars credited to his band Wings, his first non-Apple release, topped the charts across the world on release in May.
Because – like the poor – Paul McCartney has always been with us, we tend to forget how huge Wings were in the middle of the Seventies.
Band on the Run and Venus and Mars were just the start of stadium-domination: the band embarked on a year-long world tour, in '76 McCartney was on the cover of Time, and their triple live album Wings Over America topped the charts. As did the follow-up to Venus and Mars, At The Speed Of Sound which was announced by the single Silly Love Songs.
Like those a Swarovski crystal swans you might see in high-end but kitsch-stocked shops, McCartney's music could sometimes be artless as on Silly Love Songs . . . but you couldn't deny the craftsmanship.
The man could write a hit, and if you think that's easy then just try.
Venus and Mars and At The Speed Of Sound are the latest albums in McCartney's on-going Archive remastered/reissue series and in expanded editions there are always going to be a few obscurities, different versions and so on to seduce collectors.
Venus and Mars attempted to replicate the formula of Band on the Run with a set-up opening song, the quiet title track which morphs into the multi-part Rock Show (which despite some silly lyrics owes more than a nod to Bowie-rock circa-Ziggy) and, as with Sgt Pepper, the title track gets a short reprise dropped in the middle of the 13 songs and which segues into the odd but lyrically lightweight Spirits of Ancient Egypt.
The album sprung radio-friendly hits (Magneto and Titanium Man, the Lennonesque Letting Go (which is not dissimilar to Let Me Roll It on Band on the Run), Listen to What the Man Said) and McCartney embraced the music of his childhood in the jaunty, musical hall You Gave Me The Answer.
Right at the end there is the pastiche Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People which shows his gift for a simple melody . . . and predilection towards sentimentality, which slips into the theme from the British television show Crossroads.
“It's a joke,” he said later. “It's after Lonely Old People you see. They are sitting there in the park saying 'Nobody asked us to play'. It's a poignant moment. Then there's a little break and then Crossroads starts up. It's lonely old people, it's just the kind of thing lonely old people watch. It could just have easily been Coronation Street, but we knew the chords to Crossroads.”
Doubtless composer Tony Hatch was glad to see his royalty cheques that year.
The extra disc with the reissue includes the terrific rock single Junior's Farm and its counterpart Soily, the countryfied Sally G, the enjoyable My Carnival with a New Orleans flavour (it appeared as the b-side to Spies Like Us), the Longhair-inspired Going to New Orleans, the old Baby Face with the Tuxedo Brass band, the delightful and previously unreleased 4th of July and the first version of Rock Show which is more edgy than the released version.
It's a very good bonus disc.
Much of the original album today sounds like archetypal Seventies pop and clearly McCartney was clearly struggling for ideas using “love is fine” as his default setting.
Ironically then, as with Band on the Run – when two band members quit on the eve of the group's departure for recording sessions in Nigeria – the Venus and Mars sessions in New Orleans were fraught. Drummer Geoff Britton spoke of arguments and how he'd been promised big royalties which turned into just session fees and bonuses, and how much he hated the sessions. Then he was fired by the McCartneys.
“It's a funny band, Wings,” he said. “From a musicians point of view it's a privilege to do it. From a career point of view it's madness. No matter how good you are you're always in the shadow of paul”
Joe English was brought in when they relocated to LA who would later talk about how open McCartney was to ideas from others.
In fact Jimmy McCulloch contributed the dark rocker Medicine Jar . . . and the next album would see far greater input from the group.
At the Speed of Sound is an unusual entry in McCartney's lengthy career because it showed a rare, democratic approach: Denny Laine got two songs, McCulloch and English one apiece.
Perhaps if Britton had stuck around he might felt he was stepping out of the shadow of Paul.
The low point is obviously Silly Love Songs but McCartney opens the account with the ridiculously catchy Let 'Em In (namechecking family members, the Everly Brothers and more) which was later covered by Shinehead inna reggae-style and checking JA musical figures.
But immediately after is Laine's on the McCartney-penned, gorgeously melancholy ballad The Note You Never Wrote (which might have slotted in perfectly on Mike McGear's album), later McCulloch fronts for dark pop of Wino Junko, Linda gets all homely on the rockabilly-lite Cook of the House, Laine returns for another blue-mood piece on his own Time to Hide and English gets to sing McCartney's blue-eyed soul of Must Do Something About It.
Peppered between are McCartney with the twee She's My Baby, his excellent Beware My Love where he taps into that edgy passion he can be capable of, and the album ends with two neat slices of pop in San Ferry Anne and the piano ballad Warm And Beautiful.
Aside from Silly Love Songs (see the original clip here) there were fewer attempts at “love is fine” or jauntiness on ATSOS and the songs he gifted to others sound rather brooding and a bit on the downer side.
There's some anticipation of Eighties production and electric keyboards abound, but this was one of McCartney's better albums.
The short (22 minute) bonus disc has demos of Silly Love Songs and She's My Baby (at the piano) and Let 'Em In. There's also an instrumental demo of Warm And Beautiful. There's also his own version of Must Do Something About It and Beware My Love with Led Zeppelin's John Bonham on drums, but restrained.
There's his vocoder phone message to English too.
None of these add much to our knowledge of McCartney or the Speed of Sound album, but confirm that when the man turned his head to songwriting he knew exactly what he was doing.
No matter who would eventually sing it.