When Paul McCartney launched his Flowers in the Dirt tour in 1989, it was not only his first tour of America since 1976 but it was when he fully embodied his past as a Beatle. On his tours since then, specifically since 2002, he has embraced his legacy as "The Beatle". Before 1989, he largely kept his past at bay. When he toured with Wings throughout the 1970s, he rarely performed any Beatles songs and possibly did so out of reluctance. While fans have adored the heavy Beatles sets, the Wings era sadly has been overlooked on almost all tours since then, which is why the 2013 remaster of his triple 1976 live album Wings over America is such a delight to listen to.
It is possibly hard to remember now, but Wings was one of the biggest bands in the world throughout the 1970s. Fans did not want to let go of the Beatles and as a result, they bought each of the member's respective solos albums up in huge quantities. While the other three Beatles received vast acclaim for the first few solo releases, Paul McCartney and Wings were selling more records even if the reviews were less than ecstatic. Their musical and commercial peak is represented on Wings over America. The album went to number-one, went platinum a few times and many have forgotten about it. During the CD revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s, catalog albums rushed into stores to help the music industry reap rewards from the more expensive CD format without having to invest anything. Over time, many albums lost something in their transition to CD often leading to muddy and less than stellar sound. Further, with an extended price point for multi-disc sets, many live albums were not always at the top of everyone's wish list to repurchase. Wings over America is the fifth reissue from Paul McCartney since 2010. Despite the fact that McCartney and Wings had five consecutive number-one records (with Wings over America being the fifth and final), they were largely maligned in the press. Band on the Run was widely celebrated and received an ecstatic reaction and the best reviews of his post-Beatles career, but follow ups Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound were ripped as were his first few solo releases McCartney and Ram. It was not until McCartney started touring in 1989/90 that the critical lashings appeared to ease up. With each reissue, we are able to fully appreciate the treasures held within without wishing Lennon were singing with him and George and Ringo backing him up. Of course, we want them there, but time and distance has allowed us to appreciate what Wings truly was, which is a damn fine rock band who attained more success than they probably ever could have imagined.
Reevaluation is the key to fully relishing these reissues. Wings over America, like the other albums over the last few years, has been cleaned up spectacularly. The original recording I heard was on a poorly mastered CD and it left me so unimpressed, I never returned to it until now. The 2013 remaster captures the band at their most collaborative. This touring version of Wings included Jimmy McCulloch, former Moody Blues singer Denny Laine, drummer Joe English, the lovely Linda McCartney, and a four-piece horn/percussion section that included Tony Dorsey, Howie Casey, Steve Howard, and Thaddeus Richard. This is hard to believe for those too young to remember Wings but this truly was a band. Of the twenty-eight songs on the live album, six are not sung by McCartney. McCulloch takes the lead vocals on "Medicine Jar" while Denny Laine takes the lead on "Spirits of Ancient Egypt", "Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me)," "Richard Cory," "Time to Hide", and "Go Now". The downside to this camaraderie is these six songs are arguably the weakest points of the set however; it is a testament to McCartney. He was driven to make this new band succeed on their own even if it meant ignoring the greatest popular song catalog in all of rock music. Only five Beatles songs make appearances here with three of them doing an acoustic set. At this time, this left many fans disappointed, as they had hoped McCartney would have embraced his past a bit more. However, hiss determination is what makes the reissue a revelation of sorts. Since waving the Beatle flag as a live performer since 1989, this era from McCartney's past has been pushed to the side. I must confess to forgetting about many of these songs until I listened to the reissue.
The fourteen-minute opening of "Venus and Mars/Rock Show/Jet" into "Let Me Roll It" is exhilarating and even makes me appreciate a few songs I grew tired of hearing in concert a decade back. The daydream wah-wah of guitars make "Beware My Love" is prominent as more than filler, "Hi Hi Hi" sounds festive in its encore position and reminds us that Wings was capable to making bracing pop rock even after the Beatles. Its beauty lies in its ease of a saccharine slide guitar and a chorus that is catchy as hell. "Listen To What The Man Said" and "Silly Love Songs" are easy to dismiss, but are performed without a wry smile. Dismissed by many, but McCartney is so engaging in his vocal delivery. Credit must be given to Wings as they help elevate the songs to another level in concert often replacing the eye-rolling sweetness of the songs with underling musical grit. Then there's "Soily", the evening's final song and one that had not been released before this live album. The finale jam finds Wings firing on all cylinders giving their all wanting desperately to be a band and more than just backing musicians for Paul McCartney. I did not think Wings over America would engross me the way it did. When Paul McCartney toured in 1976, his heart and mind was with Wings and not the Beatles. This reissue takes us back to the time where Wings were more than a footnote in the history of Paul McCartney but a vital, relevant and wildly popular band who despite having to linger in the shadow of the Beatles, were quite miraculous as a musical unit and Wings over America is their defining document.
Like other entries in the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, Wings over America comes in a variety of formats. The standard CD reissue is the one most can afford, but for those who are fervent followers of McCartney should have no issue forking over the $100-plus for the deluxe box set. Besides the live album being remastered at Abbey Road, a bonus audio disc recorded live at San Francisco's Cow Palace is another treat with eight bonus performances. There is also a bonus DVD containing the rarely seen 75-minute television special Wings over the World and the photo gallery montage entitled Photographer's Pass'. Despite being more than thirty years old, the documentary is a product of its time but still holds great value as it documents this era of McCartney's career and displays the other members of Wings on and off the stage. The box set may be worth purchasing for this additional feature along. The Deluxe Edition Box Set also contains four exquisitely rendered art books packaged with an incredible array of exclusive memorabilia, souvenirs, mementos, keepsakes and never-before-seen photos and artwork from this historic tour. The spectacular 110-page commemorative tour book beautifully recounts the behind-the-scenes drama through dozens of live performances and backstage photos along with new interviews and liner notes from eminent music journalist David Fricke. I was able to get my hands on the deluxe Ram set last year and I was impressed with it. It was not merely a money grab but a carefully crafted work of art. The box becomes something more than a package to hold the media but an integral piece of the package as well.
Wings over America may not be the most sought after of live albums from Paul McCartney because of it's lack of Beatles songs, but it's the defining document of the band who kept him alive, jubilant and in the game throughout the 1970s. The new remaster is more than a piece of history but a reviving document of a band who will not be forgotten, but who is being reevaluated and reborn.
You can preview and purchase the CD reissue here or purchase the deluxe box set here or the vinyl edition here.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMusic DOT com and can be followed on Twitter