I mean, really. What chance did Wings ever have? They were doomed from the word go. Wings – basically a stoner band for people who found the Doobie Brothers too folksy and The Doors too pretentious – never had a chance. Not that it was impossible for Paul McCartney to disappear into another band successfully, but – well, he didn’t. There’s plenty of indicators for that – the constantly-shifting line-up that never managed to stabilise doesn’t imply the easiest of working relationships, and the fact that sometimes the band were Wings, Paul McCartney and Wings, Paul and Linda McCartney and Wings and then, eventually, simply Paul McCartney after the band’s inelegant collapse suggest McCartney couldn’t, it seems, ever quite commit to the band as it was. He couldn’t just become a member.
Which is a shame because, despite the sneering jokes, the dismissive attitudes and the general antipathy towards the band, there’s a sort of ragged glory to Wings. As a band they’re vastly inconsistent but when they get it right they’re genuinely fantastic. Three albums – Band On The Run, Venus And Mars and Wings Across America are straightforwardly great, and there’s gems to be found on every other album they released, even strange misfires like Back To The Egg. And commercially they were terrifically successful – two number one albums in the US, two number one albums in the UK, five (!) number one singles in the US, and – with the eminently defensible “Mull Of Kintyre” – the biggest selling non-charity single in UK chart history. Which isn’t bad for a wee band designed to give a former Beatle something to do with his time.
What Wings were never able to do, though, was capture anything approaching either credibility, critical approval (Band On The Run aside), or the zeitgeist. Wings don’t belong to any genre or style – unless “Paul McCartney Side Project” is at this stage a genre unto itself – and as a result always seem a bit out of kilter in charts awash with glam, disco, punk and new wave. “Let ‘Em In” comes from Wings’ middle period – after their two best albums, and at the start of the creative and commercial slide that characterises the back half of their career. The single got to Number 2 in the UK and in some ways is a perfect exemplar of everything that is right and everything that is wrong with Wings.
And as is so often the case with his post-Beatles career, Paul McCartney’s biggest problem is Paul McCartney – he’s very much his own worst enemy. It is, however, also his greatest strength. Wings were always going to be a lopsided band – with one of the most scrutinised and successful musicians in history, how could they be anything else? No disrespect to Denny Laine, but there were maybe two people alive in the 70’s – John Lennon and George Martin – who might have been able to tell McCartney what to do, or at least bring him to heel, but with the exception of “Live And Let Die” and Martin doing a bit of uncredited production work on Ram neither got the chance during that decade.
Wings At The Speed Of Sound was an album designed to consciously correct this lop-sidedness. In 1976 McCartney was taking pelters in the press about how the band was basically just a vehicle for his ego – a bit odd, since two of Venus and Mars’s best moments are “Spirits Of Ancient Egypt” which is sung by Laine and “Medicine Jar” which was written by Jimmy McCulloch and Colin Allen and sung by McCulloch, but never mind. The results of this experiment in democracy are… uneven, let’s say, but it comes as no surprise to discover that the two big hits from the album are either written by McCartney or – in the case of the well-intentioned but broadly insufferable “Silly Love Songs” – Paul “with” Linda and Denny Laine (and one gets the impression that the “with” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there).
“Let ‘Em In” is, from the moment of its twee little Westminster Chimes intro right down to the final false fade, every inch a McCartney song and it embraces some of his worst instincts as a songwriter. It’s aggressively, almost confrontationally, lightweight. They lyric is a tossed-off, insubstantial piece of nothing it’s hard to imagine took more than five minutes to scribble on the back of an envelope. The list of “characters” means nothing and relates to nothing.* The arrangement is punctiliously fastidious but in service of material that’s lighter than hydrogen. It’s all just so staggeringly inconsequential. In 1976, someone had to earn money (or be given pocket money), go to a record shop, flip through endless singles, locate this one, hand over money, take the 45 rpm 7” single home and listen to it. All that effort. For this song?
And yet… this is McCartney we’re talking about. It seems like a lot of effort for something so slight but it’s chart position shows that a lot of people did, in fact, do just that. There’s something almost inevitably charming about the song – it’s indefensible as strong material but it’s likeable enough and McCartney is a past master at substituting charm for weight. It’s one of his defining skills. There’s a couple of naturalistic moments that make it seem fairly genuine (McCartney comes in late at one point on “someone’s knocking on the door”, dropping the first syllable, but the mistake is left in). Joe English – by far the person making the most effort here – really contributes on drums, underscoring where it’s needed or throwing in the odd flourish to give a sense of progression. He’s terrific! And, you know, if this did only take five minutes to knock out as a quick ditty it says something about McCartney that something which took such apparent little effort still very nearly topped the charts. Very few people could achieve so much with apparently so little. That’s a skill too, and one it’s very easy to overlook.
So yes – “Let ‘Em In” contains the best and worst of McCartney. And of Wings too, who would, following the release of At The Speed Of Sound, promptly shed two of its five members and reduce the band to the core of Paul, Linda and Denny Laine. The last time that happened we got the excellent Band On The Run. “Excellent” is, however, unlikely to be how anyone describes London Town, At The Speed Of Sound’s insubstantial successor. It’s a mediocre effort, principally remembered these days because of the song “Girlfriend”, which Michael Jackson would go on to have far greater success with than Wings ever managed.
London Town also marks the beginning of the end for Wings. There would be just one further album, the largely uninteresting Back To The Egg whose good songs manage to number just two, then the band petered out. Officially it ended after McCartney was busted for marijuana possession in Japan, and Denny Laine is on bits of Tug Of War, but the air had long since gone out of the project. McCartney himself went on to have a bit of a creative renaissance with McCartney II and Tug Of War itself before succumbing to The Curse Of The Eighties, which resulted in huge commercial success at the expense of anything actually worth listening to (a curse that would afflict any number of artists from David Bowie to Stevie Wonder). Wings were left, rather forgotten – a punchline, and little more than a footnote in the long career of one of the world’s most successful musicians ever. I mean, really. What chance did Wings ever have?
* I mean, technically that’s not true. “Sister Suzie” is a reference to Linda, “brother John” is Lennon and “brother Michael” is as in McGear, McCartney’s actual brother and member of The Scaffold. “Martin Luther” is vague (King or the 16th century monk?), “Phil and Don” as in Everly, “Auntie Gin” is McCartney’s actual auntie, and “Uncle Ernie” is a Ringo reference. But what that has to do with the song is nothing – they’re just names or, at best, cutesy in-jokes.
What Else Happened In 1976?
Perennial bargain-bin favourite and music punchline Frampton Comes Alive! is released, but don’t be fooled – this album sold a shedload. On which note, The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits is loosed upon the world and goes on to become the biggest selling record of the 20th Century in America. Seriously, even Thriller couldn’t hold it at bay. The Ramones release the inventively-titled Ramones and Abba give the world “Dancing Queen”, whether we want it or not – it’s the biggest song of the year (“Bohemian Rhapsody” has to make do with the Number 2 slot). Tina decides she’s had enough of Ike and files for divorce, and George Harrison makes legal history by being found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” for “My Sweet Lord”. The Sex Pistols sign to EMI – that can only go well – and towards the end of the year release the era-defining “Anarchy In The UK”, the best punk single in history bar one (sorry, The Clash, but it’s “God Save The Queen”). Stevie Wonder gives us the absolutely essential Songs In The Key Of Life, and the late, great Tom Petty debuts with Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. The glorious B-52’s are founded and The New York Dolls call it quits. A fan of mawkish redemption stories held together by terrible music? Oh look, it’s Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s unstoppable juggernaut A Star Is Born! Still, at least the end of the year gives us Blondie’s first album, so that’s something (a rather excellent something, in fact).
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Nothing. Not, this time, because the covered song is so dominant that its inclusion was inescapable but simply because 1976 was a really crap year for Number 2 singles. Ah well. Can’t win ‘em all.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Kinks – “Lola”
3. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
4. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
5. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
6. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
7. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
8. Queen, “Killer Queen”
9. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
10. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
11. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
12. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
13. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
14. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
15. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
16. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
17. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”