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Album Review: Wings – At the Speed of Sound

Wings – At the Speed of Sound

May 24, 2020




So I listen to Wings’ At the Speed of Sound and I think to myself, “you know, Paul, you were pretty smart about building Wings from a rinky-dink glorified garage band that showed up unannounced to play at British universities, to a fairly professional band that toured Europe, and then from there to a band of rock superstars conquering America, and then this is the album you’re gonna tour America with for the first time in a decade”? It doesn’t make any sense – McCartney was smart enough to start small with Wings as a touring unit, he worked his way step by step back to the biggest touring market of them all, the arenas of America – and when he finally ascended to that point, he toured with an album as uninspired, slight, unexciting, and tossed-off as At the Speed of Sound? I think it’s telling that only four songs on the album found their way into the setlist for the tour, while he played almost the whole Venus and Mars album every night. Almost like he knew which album was the stronger one to build a setlist around.

Kind of a clever title, though, Wings At the Speed of Sound. And what exactly is it that McCartney is doing at the speed of sound? Resting on his laurels. Coasting along on the fading momentum from Band on the Run and Venus and Mars. Shuffling around in circles trying to figure out which direction he wants to go. I know it’s not a popular opinion among McCartneyphiles, but I don’t find Band on the Run to be the masterpiece it is reputed to be – however, it’s a far stronger album than At the Speed of Sound. With Band on the Run McCartney was clearly working hard to get back to the top, there was a hunger, an ambition to the album that is utterly lacking on the lackadaisical At the Speed of Sound. The former is an album by a musical giant trying to “get back to where he once belonged”, the latter sounds like an album made by a bored rock star, one who got back to the top and couldn’t figure out what to do when he got there.

At the Speed of Sound came along at a critical juncture for McCartney. He’d begun his solo career with the understated and utterly unambitious McCartney, regrouped to create the marvelous Ram, slipped back into understated and utterly unambitious (with an added helping of sloppy on the side) with Wild Life, then showed glimmers of ambition again with Red Rose Speedway, which was the stepping stone to a couple of solid (if critically overrated) albums with Band on the Run and Venus and Mars.

So at this point, he had two options – push forward with the ambition, or slip back into the understated and etc. And true to form, he chose the latter.

McCartney is a conundrum. He’s the hardest working lazy artist in existence. He can pour Sgt. Pepper’s levels of effort into fluff like Red Rose Speedway. Every so often he gets truly lazy and farts out a Wild Life, but more consistently he is gilding lilies because he’s too lazy a songwriter to put much thought or effort into writing his songs, but is also an extremely hard working musician who will devote weeks of studio time on crap like the medley off of Red Rose Speedway because he can’t tell the difference between his good songs and his bad ones, and he can’t be bothered to work on making the bad ones better before he records them. Hell, he’s recorded entire albums that have never seen the light of day because in a rare moment of self-reflection he came to realization in the nick of time how awful they were (if you can find it, check out the deservedly unreleased Return to Pepperland for an example of this, the title alone should let you know what you are in for).

Although, truth be known, At the Speed of Sound is one of his lazier albums. The songs are largely unadorned with much production or instrumentation – or, really, much of anything interesting going on in them. Album opener “Let ‘Em In” is pretty representative – I guess there’s that sound of the door opening, true, but otherwise it’s mostly a bass part plodding along with an occasional fanciful flute pattern while McCartney name checks favorite aunts, uncles, Martin Luther, and Phil and Don Everly. “Open the door and let ‘em in”. Pretty slim concept for a song really, and while it went Top 10 on the basis of the McCartney name alone, it’s a snoozer. It’s almost like the Beatles were so big that after they broke up McCartney could have released “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as a single and it would still hit the charts…oh, wait, that really happened. I don’t know anyone who would argue “Let ‘Em In” is a great song that deserved to be in the Top 10 (but, then, to be fair, how many Top 10 songs are?). And a trombone solo? Who thinks a trombone solo in a pop song is a good idea? Some snazzy horns attempt to inject some energy into “Let ‘Em In” near the end, but this song’s a slow walking elephant that isn’t moving very fast no matter how much you try and kick it.

But the song is full of vim and vigor compared to the one that follows it, “The Note You Never Wrote”, an exercise in aural lethargy. Let’s look past the lyrical ridiculousness of reading a note that was never written that the Mayor of Baltimore will never get a quote from for a moment, and talk about how McCartney for once put exactly the amount of work into a song that it deserved – and that would be almost none. About 75% of the song is just electric piano, bland as bland can be. It sounds like it took about 10 minutes to write, arrange, and record. Jimmy McCullough deserves some credit for trying to spice things up with a really rippin’ guitar solo, he was easily the best guitarist McCartney ever had in his solo career, bar none. It’s an exciting, passionate solo that really deserved a better song, because as soon as it’s over its back to bland electric pianoland. The chord changes in the song had the potential to be bleak and ominous if the instrumentation had been better thought through, but as it stands it’s a wet noodle of a song that does nothing for me.

“She’s My Baby” is about as flaccid. The song has absolutely nothing going for it – the lyrics are trite, we are treated to more b-b-b-boring electric piano, and we don’t even get a cool Jimmy McCullough guitar solo this time around. The song’s a total throw away. It doesn’t even deserve the four sentences I’ve devoted to it.

But hey, don’t get too cozy, McCartney is going to to rock for us on “Beware My Love”, the most overt attempt at a rocker on the album, but a freakin’ lullaby on the Led Zeppelin Rockingest Song Scale. If you’re going to try and rock, Paul, don’t embarrass yourself with pap like this. Oooh, wow, it’s got some wah wah guitar, how very cutting edge. Again, no Jimmy McCullough guitar solo, don’t know why you think you’re gonna have a heavy song without a great guitar solo, and it’s a shame because young Jimmy was clearly capable of playing one, he lets a few rip in the outro to the live version on Wings Over America. Part of the problem is the flow of the song keeps getting interrupted by the section with the mellotron flute, the verses move all right at first, but then everything grinds to a halt for that damn flute section while Paul goes on about “I don’t believe that he’s the one/But if you insist I must be wrong”. But it’s not a great song anyway, and whoever he was bewaring that “he’ll bowl you over…before you’re much older” probably got bored and quit listening before they were adequately warned. The outro gets steadily faster and faster, but nothing interesting is happening faster and faster, some tasty guitar soloing might have helped considerably. You had a great guitarist at your disposal, Paul, why didn’t you utilize him better? A failed attempt at a rocker, no question.

But then when young master Jimmy gets his chance to have a song of his own on the album, it’s not like he lights the vinyl on fire either. “Wino Junko” is yet another electric piano-drenched snoozefest, and a pretty hollow one at that given that McCullough is lecturing us all on the dangers of substance abuse while he himself got booted from Wings for his drunken boorishness and died a couple of years later of morphine and alcohol poisoning. I applaud the message – ever notice that an awful lot of rock songs about the dangers of substance abuse written by people who know what they are talking about? – but the song itself is no great shakes. It’s got a great solo, though, here’s another case where the solo easily outshines the song that houses it.

“Silly Love Songs” is truth in advertising, but you know, of all the songs on the album so far, it has the most going for it. It has a catchy melody, the section where they sing all the vocal parts in a round is kind of cool, and it is universally acknowledged that it has a killer bass part. And I know it sounds dippy, but I even kind of like the message – after all, if some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, what is wrong with that? It’s a helluva lot better than filling the world with mopey depressing songs. “Silly Love Songs” has been widely derided over the years, but I actually kind of like it. It’s fluff, it doesn’t aspire to be any more than fluff, but it’s enjoyable fluff, and there’s something to be said for that. I have to say, though, I have always thought the production was a little rough, even clumsy in places, McCartney probably could have used a good producer for the song. I know this is blasphemous, but I actually prefer the remake on Give My Regards to Broad Street, the bass is a lot smoother, cleaner and has more kick to it, and it’s really the bass that powers the instrumental part of the song. Sure, it’s an 80s-upped version of the song, but it doesn’t sound as rough and clumsy as the original. Not sure what the point of the mechanical sounds in the intro is though…was Paul saying he pumps out silly love songs like he’s on an assembly line or something? ‘Cause it isn’t far from the truth.

A lot of you hate “Silly Love Songs”, and I get it, but as unhip as it sounds, I like it. But I can see why a lot of people wouldn’t. And if you are one of those people, you must really hate the next song on the album, “Cook of the House”. That’s right, in the decade that saw the rise of women’s lib and the ERA and bra burning and all kinds of examples of feminism unchained, McCartney decided to go all L7 on us and write a song touting the wonders of Linda’s skills in the kitchen. And then he made her sing it. Gloria Steinem probably rolls over in her grave every time the song is played, and she isn’t even dead yet. I mean, my hell Paul, everyone knows you’ve always been a little out of step with the times, but at a time when women the world over were rising up against their male oppressors you thought it was a good idea to unleash this little ditty on the world? “No matter where I serve my guests/It seems they like the kitchen best/’Cause I’m the cook of the house”. Having Linda ever sing anything is a sin against good taste all on its own, but when in the service of a song that pushes women back into the June Cleaver 1950s, that’s a transgression this is well nigh unforgivable. It doesn’t work as an old timey song either, in spite of the best efforts of whoever is playing that really rockin’ clarinet. It sounds like a song that is rather incompetently trying to sound like a song from the 1940s, and doesn’t quite know how to get it right. Guess Paul was having a “Bip Bop” moment here, I really don’t know how to explain what this is doing on a best selling rock record from 1976.

So far the album is a lackluster parade of three minute mediocrities, when out of the blue something really brilliant comes along. And it isn’t even a McCartney song. Who would have guessed that he had it in him, but Denny Laine completely blows away everything else on the album with “Time to Hide”. Granted, the live version on Wings Over America has more kick, but this version is pretty good too. Best bass part on the album, too; sometimes it seems like McCartney’s bass parts are best when it’s the only thing he has to focus on in a song, and can leave the singing and everything to someone else (e.g. “Something” off of Abbey Road). Exceptional bass part, even better than “Silly Love Songs”. “If I have to run, I’m not running out on you boompa boompa boompa boom”. This is ten times the rocker “Beware My Love” aspires to be, and this one’s got a cool harmonica solo and an exceptional Jimmy McCullough guitar solo. It pains me to say it, but the Best Song on the Album Award goes to Denny Laine. Sorry Paul, you obviously have more talent than he does, but you should have tried harder this time around.

Some really lame organ noodling serves as a bridge between this and “Must Do Something About It”, which I actually think is the second best song on the album, written by Paul but sung by drummer Joe English. See, for some weird reason Paul chose this album to try and prove that Wings was an actual band and not just a thinly disguised set of backup musicians for Paul – problem was, Wings in actuality was merely a thinly disguised set of backup musicians for Paul, and he wasn’t fooling anybody. I guess he figured The Beatles was a real band and they let Ringo sing a song on every album, so if Wings was going to be a real band he’d better let that drummer sing too. Luckily Joe English didn’t have a bad voice, and it suits the song well. Great melody, nice mellow vibe. “I’ve just seen another sunset on my own…”, yeah, sure, it’s easy 70s FM-radio ready, but a great song nonetheless. So two great songs in a row.

But evidently at this point McCartney was concerned that the mediocrity of the album was being threatened with two great songs in a row, so he slipped in the inexplicable “San Ferry Anne”, a vacuous non-entity of a song that has no compelling reason to exist other than for some somewhat cool jazzy flute riffs that are just entertaining enough that they belong in a better song. On this one McCartney does a cannonball into a swimming pool of schmaltzy nonsense, and in one fell swoop in the nick of time McCartney rescues the album from possibly getting interesting. The jazzy rave up at the end is pretty run of the mill New Orleans music, and does little to rescue the song from the indifferent reaction it gets from all but those McCartneyphiles so blinded by devotion they even like “Biker Like an Icon”, “Freedom” <shudder>, and the other dregs of the McCartney discography.

Which leaves “Warm and Beautiful”, which is kind of warm and a little beautiful, but falls far short of its promise. The piano is lovely enough, and the melody is pretty, but what strikes me about the song is how far below its potential it is, with a little work and thought and sweat and polish McCartney could have made something of the song. It’s not surprising he didn’t put a lot into the lyrics and melody, that’s just McCartney being McCartney, melodies come so easy to him he doesn’t think he should ever have to work on them, and he has no interest whatsoever in lyrics, so there’s an embryo of a good song here that never had a chance to grow. Maybe he was going for an understated arrangement on this one, but it comes across and lazy and tossed off. Which is a shame, there are glimmers of melodic brilliance there, but it’s really more “Warmed Over” than “Warm and Beautiful”.

So after a couple of strong albums in the two previous years somehow McCartney listened to the final playback of this album and went, “yeah, that’ll do”. The drop-off in quality is pretty apparent to me, I really don’t know how he didn’t pick up on it. And this is the album he decided to tour America with. Wings would have one more triumph with the live Wings Over America, but from here on out there was the sharp decline of London Town and Back to the Egg, then a short tour of England that offered his worst setlist ever bar none, and finally a marijuana bust in Japan that gave him a handy excuse to disband Wings and start fresh. After the mediocrity of At the Speed of Sound he wouldn’t make another truly great studio album until Tug of War several years later.

Couple thoughts on the album – this was clearly McCartney’s pathetic attempt to make Wings look like a real honest to goodness band rather than just Paul McCartney and his side musicians. So he made sure everyone had a vocal, gave Jimmy McCullough and Denny Laine a chance to get in a song each in the album, and in general made a show of running a democracy like most dictators of banana republics are wont to do. McCartney only really wanted a band on a superficial level, for show – he’s a control freak by nature, he likes being the one in the spotlight, and he’s well aware of his stature as half of the most brilliant songwriting team in history – he wanted the illusion of a democratic band rather than an actual democratic band. And you can be damn well sure he had the final word on everything. Trying to make it seem like Wings was a band of equals was pretty disingenuous, and while Paul probably thought pretending that was the case was the fair thing to do, it was never and could never be the reality of the situation. One reviewer at the time called the album “democratic but dull” – dull is right, but was the album really all that democratic? I think not. Not that a true “democratic” approach would really have hurt the album much, Paul himself wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders as a songwriter at the time. As Nicholas Schaffner notes about the album in his brilliant The Beatles Forever, “even his numbers sounded like pleasant throwaways”.  That’s as apt a description of the album as I can think of.

The lack of focus on the album is a real problem. The songs are all over the place – while Venus and Mars had a great deal of musical variety, it still somehow felt cohesive. It had a musical direction, and its aim was true, for the most part the band hit what it was aiming for. At the Speed of Sound feels scattershot, it’s an album that can’t decide what it wants to be. An album of rock songs? Silly love songs? Old timey throwbacks? There are shots in these directions, and almost all of them miss their mark.

The album is littered with lame musical snippets that add nothing to the songs they preface or follow, uninspired bits of nothing that serve to pad out the run time. Take the organ intro to “Beware My Love” that precedes what is actually a cool acoustic guitar intro (which, unfortunately, is not heard again for the rest of the song”) – what is the point of that organ passage? It isn’t interesting or engaging, why is it even there? What purpose does it serve? The same is true of the organ passage that links “Time to Hide” and “Must Do Something About it” – I love the way the “I’ve just seen another sunset…” vocal bursts out of nowhere to start the song, but the boring organ that precedes it adds nothing. Nor does the dumb little skipping guitar part that ends the song. Why are all these little snatches of music even on the album?

Finally, the lack of ambition on the album is disappointing.  The contemporary review in Rolling Stone picked up on this immediately, and left us with an ominously prophetic warning that has played out again and again in the subsequent 40 plus years:

Ultimately, this album lacks the melodic sparkle of Venus and Mars, which in its turn lacked the energy, passion and structural breadth and unity of Band on the Run, Wings’ finest album. No one rocker on Speed matches the spirit of “Jet” or “Band on the Run” from Band, while no ballad even begins to approach the majesty of “My Love,” from Red Rose Speedway. As a whole, At the Speed of Sound seems like a mysterious, somewhat defensive oddity by a great pop producer who used to be a great pop writer…McCartney, like almost no one else, seems able to play the studio as an instrument. Though it’s a wonderful gift, I hope it doesn’t distract him from songwriting more than it already has. For the best McCartney songs will most certainly outlast all the studios in which they were recorded.

It is easy to see that McCartney was striving to achieve so much more with his previous two albums – At the Speed of Sound is about as phoned-in as a Paul McCartney album got in the 70s, excepting Wild Life. In the early 70s we could excuse McCartney if he was having trouble finding his footing after the breakup of the Beatles, but in 1976, after a couple of solid albums, it was a let down to see him release something so unspectacular. He didn’t even try to wow us, no effort was made to impress us, he just tossed us a few underdeveloped sketches and figured that was good enough. It is an attitude that has hobbled his creative output for 50 years now – and inability to distinguish his great songs from his bad songs, and a willingness to settle for merely good ones that could have been great with a little re-writing. Since the death of the Beatles he has been an unapologetic under-achiever. In fact, Band on the Run and Venus and Mars are anomalies in the Paul McCartney discography, the rare albums where he really tried to do anything remarkable. In a sense At the Speed of Sound is the archetypical McCartney album – one that has a few gems, but falls far short of McCartney’s potential. The horror of “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose” makes way more sense on the album that followed At the Speed of Sound than it would have on the album after Band in the Run. The drop is far less steep.

And in that sense, At the Speed of Sound may well be the most pivotal album in McCartney’s discography – the album where he discovered he was OK with not trying very hard, with albums consisting of underdeveloped song ideas, with coasting along on past glories. At the Speed of Sound is the album that set the bar low for most of his albums to follow in the next forty plus years.



18 responses to “Album Review: Wings – At the Speed of Sound”

  1. Brutal, indeed, but spot-on. When I was 12 years old, I was in for a dental checkup when I heard “Silly Love Songs” on the radio. This was the first time I remember hearing a solo Beatle track. I knew* that was Paul singing. Shortly after that, I picked up the All The Best compilation and Wings Over America. Unfortunately, this was one of my next McCartney solo purchases after acquiring those. Why? Not sure. I was 13 and just branching out from the Beatles. But Wings At The Speed Of Sound soured me on collecting more of Paul’s output for quite a while. In fact, at least ten years passed before I picked up gems like Ram and Tug of War. For whatever reason (I am a huge Beatles fan), I periodically listen chronologically through all the solo albums (except Ringo’s) and this one is indeed a chore. I do enjoy “Silly Love Songs” and “Time To Hide”, but yes, I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughtful evaluation. (It was always my opinion that “Let ‘Em In” was overrated as well.) So, once again, great job! I always enjoy your reviews, and I especially appreciate how you take the time for these “less-than-stellar” releases. Thank you! Keep it up! 🙂


    • Thanks! I was given this one when I was just starting out listening to solo Beatles albums, and even back when I loved everything McCartney did without question, I still knew this wasn’t a very good album. I always loved the All the Best compilation though, still do.


  2. I’ve always had a soft spot for this album, with tracks like warm and beautiful and silly love songs. I’ve also appreciated the odd note you never wrote and must do something about it. Though I have to say that every critique you’ve given, I absolutely agree with, it’s true that some of these tracks are like embryos that could spout into something better if Paul cared to write better lyrics, but they’re dropped in with other meh tunes.
    Though with all of that, I still don’t see this as one of Paul’s worst, it actually sits within my top three/four Wings albums! I think that’s a testament to Paul’s songwriting, it rarely bores me and always has something cool in it (like silly love song’s bass line!)

    I’ve just started reading some of your reviews and I’m really enjoying them so far!


    • Thanks! I have to admit, I am always harder on Paul McCartney than I should be, but that’s because I know what he’s capable of. And you are right, this certainly isn’t even close to Paul’s worst – it couldn’t be with Wild Life in his discography.


      • Wild Life has some GREAT songs! It’s an uneven album, but at its best it’s brilliant (title track, Some People Never Know, TOMORROW (brilliant), Dear Friend).
        This is a very UNDERRATED album.
        The problem with critics is they are wannabe musicians who never made it.


      • “Some People Never Know” and “Tomorrow” are great, I believe I said as much. But I don’t think even most McCartney fans would agree this album is underrated – I think the general consensus on this one is right, it is lazy, tossed off, uninspired, and lacking in enough great songs to make for a great album. I agree with you that there are a couple of gems on the album, but I don’t think it is near enough to make the album great.


      • Sorry, Wild Life has some brilliant song, eg., Wild Life, Some People Never Know, TOMORROW (superb), Dear Friend (great piano/timing) for example.
        Critics are wannabe musicians who never made it.


      • Critics ought to play an important role in art, and where they offer reasonable, constructive criticisms, they can help an artist improve. If McCartney had ever listened to constructive criticism he might have been inspired to give us a lot more substantial work than he did over the last 50 years. Critics aren’t always right, and sometimes they are outright sellouts, which is why this site exists. But think it’s painting with a bit of a broad brush to suggest all critics are just wannabe musicians that never made it. Some of them are fantastic, insightful writers, especially the classic critics of the 70s, and have contributed much of value to the world of rock music.


  3. This album is the ultimate junk food for the ear as the Amazon reviewer put it. Easy breezy, 70’s California AM radio pop. I find it to be a guilty indulgence and like Beware My Love. Time to Hide is great as well. However it seems to me Paul’s heavy marijuana use might have really started here. The only thing redeemable over the next 10 years was Tug of War, because George Martin produced it. Press to Play is SO bad (pardon the pun) and from biographies they said it took 18 months to record and finish and it’s trash. The laziness and lack of direction is all on display here and going forward. London Town is an abortion. Back to the Egg sucks. Don’t get me started on McCartney II. Pipes of Peace is a slog.


    • Wild Life has some GREAT songs! It’s an uneven album, but at its best it’s brilliant (title track, Some People Never Know, TOMORROW (brilliant), Dear Friend).
      This is a very UNDERRATED album.
      The problem with critics is they are wannabe musicians who never made it.


    • Why blame it on Paul’s “heavy marijuana use”?
      Geez, this is a fine album, albeit not his best, but still a good album.
      By the way, some of us are in the mood for “easy, breezy” once in a while.


  4. Wow, just read this review and wondered if your ears are a different type to mine. This album went platinum, scored two huge No 1 singles in America and eased Wings into an enormously successful tour of the States into the bargain. But the problem with running a site called “Brutally Honest Reviews” is that it means you need to be nasty about things that the great majority of people like. I love this album, it’s full of great songs, wonderfully played and sung. But for some reason, like most would-be critics who think their taste is better than anyone else’s, you see something that most of us don’t. Which is fine, but at least I know not to bother reading any of your other reviews. If we all think something is black, you’re gonna say it’s white.


    • Oh, I don’t just trash stuff everyone else loves all the time. There are tons of negative reviews of At the Speed of Sound out there, I am hardly the first person to note that it is a flawed album. Sometimes I even praise albums everyone else trashes – I’m probably the only person ever who wrote a good review for Give My Regards to Broad Street. If you stick around, you may find it isn’t all negativity and nastiness on this site. But I won’t ignore some of the flaws I see other reviewers ignoring in albums just because the person who made them is a legend – the whole reason this site exists is I haven’t read an honest review of a recently released Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan album in literally decades.


      • But my point is that your opinion means no more than anyone else’s. Your crusade to present an “honest review” or not to “ignore the flaws that other reviewers ignore” is just you expressing YOUR opinion in a largely subjective art form. Just because YOU don’t like something does not mean it is without merit. And I would tell everyone not to pre-judge Speed of Sound based on your review because many, many people actually love this album. Just not you!


      • I usually try and provide a rationale for why I think the way I do. I know I’m not always right, and I know sometimes there are valid opinions that differ from mine. Fair enough. But not everything is subjective or mere opinion. There are strong arguments why, say, Tug of War is better than At the Speed of Sound, or Wild Life, reasons most people would agree with. That said, I know I’m not always objective or right, and there are valid viewpoints that differ from mine, sure. I’m happy to listen to opposing arguments.


    • I like the album, but it’s lazy and uneven. Let “em In catchy, but just flipping off a ditty. Wrote You Never Note is junk, She’s My Baby is hot garbage. I like Beware My Love, Wino Junko is Medicine Jar Part 2, nothing to hear, Time To Hide is a great song, especially live. Silly Love Songs is great, Cook of the House is awful, Must Do Something About it is pleasant, as well as San ferry Anne. Warm and Beautiful sounds like a bad high school revue song. There is nothing artistic about this album.


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