On Discovering Wings Before The Beatles...And Loving Them
In 1976, America’s bicentennial year of existence and my ninth, my view of the world was, admittedly, limited. It was mostly confined to the walls of North Side Elementary School and the houses that lined Union Street in Smalltown, Nebraska. This was a town with no bookstore but a decent library, which helped fuel my book addiction. It did (and still does) have its own radio station and my parents kept our radios tuned to it often. So did the local pharmacies, convenience stores, gas stations, ice cream trucks, and public swimming pools. Pop music hummed in the background of my life with the consistency of the ocean tides.
I carry no shame for discovering Paul McCartney and Wings before caring much at all for Sir Paul’s other band. Make no mistake. My love for Wings is fifty percent nostalgia. The same nostalgia that drew Jim Burden’s mind back to the windswept Nebraska plains time and again in My Antonia is the same force that overtakes me whenever I hear the opening “ping ping PING ping ping” of “Let ’Em In” (not to be confused with the John Travolta classic,“Let Her In”). I can feel the heat of the deep summer humidity at the miniature golf course on the edge of Smalltown with every reference to Sister Suzie, brother John, Martin Luther, Phil and Don. I know you know that mini golf course. It’s the one with the tinny speaker mounted above the concession stand that smells like buttered popcorn.
I only need to hear the opening notes of “Band on the Run” and I can see myself breaking the surface of the very blue, very over-chlorinated water of Ronin Park’s public swimming pool. The adult me can see the 10 year-old me hanging on the edge of the concrete pool with folded brown arms, legs kicking up waves behind me, and water dripping from my hair as I waited for the lifeguard to shoo us out of the pool for a “10-minute rest break.”
I know I am not alone. I see you, fellow Gen Xers, mouthing the words and bobbing your head in time to the beat of “Silly Love Songs” as you stand along side me in the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s. I am not the only one who is transported from the sea of colored cartons of Peanut Butter Pretzel Surprise, Cookie Dough Cavalcade, and Salted Caramel Dream Deluxe back to the 1970s. We are all transported to our own private destinations. Mine is to the ice cream man’s van idling in front of my house on Union Street, where I exchange sticky coins with the ice cream man for a red, white, and blue bomb pop as 70s pop streams from the scratchy radio in the van.
When did I meet The Beatles? When we lost one. Yes, I was aware of the band by 1980 and no doubt had registered that Paul McCartney had a life before “My Love” in that vague way that you realize that your boyfriend or girlfriend actually called someone else “Honey” or “Babe” before they knew you existed. You know this but you are not so inclined to find out more until either outright curiosity or something compels you to do so. Often, something important happens that moves you to learn more about your object of affection’s past. When Howard Cosell, who was providing commentary on ABC’s Monday Night Football broadcast on December 8, 1980, announced that Mark David Chapman had shot and killed John Lennon at The Dakota in New York City, that something important happened. Up to that moment, I thought of Lennon as the guy who sang on Double Fantasy, which was released just days before his death, more than I thought of him as a Beatle.
So it was for a child of the 70s. I would come around, for sure. The curiosity of a historian and a lifelong love for music led me into an immersion in rock history and all things Beatles. Still, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized that I was born the day that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. Even this fact, which I now consider to be a sign that the Universe had plotted my connection to music from the (my) very beginning, was only discovered because I saw the release date for the album on a replica of a St. Pepper poster. Now it is my personal tradition to play the album every year on my birthday. Still, it remains that by the time I knew of this band called The Beatles, they had been largely pushed off of Top 40 radio except in their new incarnation as solo artists. Did I care that “It Don’t Come Easy” was sung by a former Beatle? No, I did not.
These confessions serve to explain why I can get defensive when Paul McCartney and Wings is cast aside as bubble gummy pop and merely a feeble attempt by McCartney at reincarnating the glory days of the 60s. True, Wings was McCartney’s path out of his depression following the breakup of The Beatles. When the literal high from the drugs and alcohol wore off, and with pushing from his wife, Linda, he was ready to do something new. It was a conscious choice to start from the beginning with Wings, as he did with the Beatles. He did not want to go solo because he wanted the experience of being in a band again. He didn’t call up the likes of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page and have an epic all-star jamboree because he wanted to start over.
The comparisons between The Beatles and and Wings were inevitable, as was the assessment that Wings was just a newer, blander version of The Beatles, tailored for 70s radio. Of course, this criticism is what led to McCartney writing “Silly Love Songs” in the first place. Rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres wrote in a 1976 Rolling Stone article that one of the barriers to McCartney’s acceptance as a rock artist was that he was cute. His boyish round face somehow made it harder to see him as a rocker. I considered this when I read the article many years after 1976. What if, for example, The Who recorded “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey?” Would it be a rock song? Probably.
Sir Paul himself says now that Wings was not a good band when they began. In fact, he said they were “terrible.” It did not help that Linda could not actually play the keyboard that was in front of her but Paul reminds us that Lennon couldn’t play the guitar when the Beatles first started out, either. However, McCartney was determined that Band on the Run would be a good album, if for no other reason than to prove something to the members of the band who backed out of going to Lagos to make the record.
Tom Von Malder’s review of “Wings at the Speed of Sound” in Chicago’s Daily Herald on April 30, 1976 said of the album,“it grows on you.” If it is a compliment, it is a faint one. It is also par for the course for the reviews of Wings albums, which often said directly or indirectly, “It isn’t The Beatles.” As an adult, when it was expected that I should have outgrown Wings, the direct and indirect messages to me were that I could not be taken seriously as a music fan if I liked Wings. If I was going to love 70s music, couldn’t I at least love The Stooges?
I am old enough now to be able to experience the rebirth of vinyl and to live in a world where a device that sits on a table to my left will produce any Wings song— or any 70s song — that I want to hear with a simple voice command. That is a fair distance from waiting by my radio all night with a tape recorder cued up so I could hit “record” when my favorite song came on, thereby producing a crucial piece of what would come to known as the mix tape. In this world, where I have access to more music than I could possibly consume, I am out of the closet. I wrote that 50 percent of my love for Wings is nostalgia. The other 50 percent? They were a good band.
When you reach a stage of life where you can recognize nostalgia for what it is, it is easier to admit what was simply a childhood crush. Air Supply? I am all out of love for you and not so lost without you. Styx? Paradise Theatre has closed. Shaun Cassidy? Well, we’ll always have those old “Hardy Boys” reruns but I am going to have to hit skip if “Hey Deanie” slips into my playlist. But Wings? Debates about the quality of music created by Wings exist because of its creator. Paul McCartney has had to compete with Paul McCartney. While admitting that his second band was not as a good as his first, he has also acknowledged that he was glad he started the band. McCartney has no regrets about forming Wings and I have no regrets about loving them. I freely admit it, with no shame.
What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know, ‘cause here I go, again…
(Also published on Medium.)