Where do you go when you’ve always been at the top? That question confronted Paul McCartney in the years after the break-up of the Beatles. The split liberated half the band to a degree. Actually, during the first couple of years after the formal end in April 1970, George Harrison and Ringo Starr looked like the big winners. Never regarded as much of a singer, Ringo scored some good hits and made much more of a name for himself than anyone anticipated, while George unloaded his enormous back-catalog of songs that never had room on the Beatles’ albums; 1970’s All Things Must Pass appeared to be a major statement.
In retrospect, McCartney and John Lennon did pretty well for themselves also, but they encountered much higher expectations and had less room for error. Lennon’s 1970 release Plastic Ono Band and 1971’s Imagine now are seen as certified classics, and McCartney’s 1970 album McCartney and 1971’s Ram have held up nicely as well, and both sold healthily. However, vicious public fighting between the pair marred the era, and McCartney also suffered from a general perception of himself as being bourgeois in the politically radical period. 30 years later, Ram looks like a daring and creative effort that I think is McCartney’s best album, but back then, it was met with considerable derision.
After the two solo albums, McCartney decided to take a drastic step: to form a new band. This seemed almost suicidal in retrospect; how do you start a new group after you’ve been in the biggest band of all-time? Whether he did this as a safety net to give himself additional creative support or as a genuine attempt to eradicate the ghost of the Beatles, I don’t know, but you have to give the guy credit for taking such a gutsy step.
Considering the continued reverence accorded the Beatles, it seems unimaginable that someone would even vaguely think he could get people to forget the Beatles, but the mindset was different 30 years ago. As tough as it is to believe, McCartney almost did it, at least for a little while. In late 1971, he formed Wings and put out Wild Life, the band’s entry into the world. This was a terrible first step. During this period, McCartney responded too strongly to criticism. McCartney was recorded by Paul himself and was a truly homemade effort. Some regarded it as excessively basic and simple, so McCartney decided to give the critics what they wanted with the more elaborate Ram.
The cards were stacked against Paul at the time, and chances are good he couldn’t do right against his enemies no matter what. As such, reviewers saw Ram as being too polished and over-produced. At this point, I don’t know how this could occur; to my ears at least, Ram is a rough-hewn and daring gem. Nonetheless, the “slick Paul” perception attached itself to Ram, and McCartney again attempted to answer his critics with his follow-up album.
Also influenced by Paul’s discovery that Bob Dylan had recently recorded an album in a very short period, McCartney took Wings into the studio and whipped out Wild Life in short order. Quick recording might work for Dylan, but Paul needs some polish time, at least as demonstrated by Wild Life. Though not as bad as critics then felt it was, Wild Life musters a few good moments but generally sounds like a sloppy mess.
Despite this poor announcement of his new band, Wings would go on to become a very popular force during the rest of the Seventies. Wild Life made the top 10, which seems pretty good but was viewed as a major disappointment for a McCartney release in the era, record company geniuses deemed the less-than-stellar chart performance as a result of name confusion. As such, the band became renamed “Paul McCartney and Wings” for public consumption, a title that would remain through three albums: 1973’s Red Rose Speedway - which also featured a big photo of Paul on the cover with no other band members in sight - as well as 1974’s Band on the Run and 1975’s Venus and Mars. 1976’s At the Speed of Sound reinstated the group as solely “Wings”, and that name remained through their final two releases, 1978’s London Town and 1979’s Back to the Egg.
Apparently, McCartney never liked the inclusion of his name in the album titles, as he really wanted Wings to be a true band. I have no idea how true this was, as Wings albums remained heavily McCartney-dominated affairs. However, I must acknowledge that the records became increasingly democratic pieces. Guitarist Denny Laine - the only band member other than Paul and wife Linda to survive the group’s entire nine-year career - had a song or two on almost all of their albums, while Mars and Sound tossed in tracks from then-lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch. Sound even contributed tunes from keyboardist Linda McCartney and drummer Joe English.
London Town killed that progressive move. Though they appeared in most of the recording sessions, McCulloch and English quit Wings before the record’s 1978 release; they might have featured in their own tunes had they stayed, but obviously any McCulloch or English tracks got the boot by the time it arrived. Replacements Laurence Juber and Steve Holly seemed like stopgap members, and their presence on Egg was almost nil.
The issue of Wings band members, evolution and politics is an interesting one, but don’t expect to hear much about it during Wingspan, a documentary that purports to cover the history of the group. Instead, the 88-minute program mainly focuses on the relationship between Paul and Linda; information about Wings seems somewhat sparse though the show is generally interesting.
The format of Wingspan uses new conversations with Paul as interviewed by his daughter Mary. These clips intercut with lots of archival footage from the appropriate eras. Wingspan starts in the late Sixties and initially covers the early relationship between Paul and Linda. From there we go through the break-up of the Beatles and Paul’s work immediately after that time. This leads up to the formation of Wings, but the show takes a while to get there; Wild Life and the band don’t emerge until about 30 minutes into this 88-minute program.
That’s a long way to go to get to the titular act; we wait more than a third of the show until we meet the band. Still, the first half-hour offers some nice coverage of McCartney’s post-Beatles career and the reasons why he decided to start up a new group. In addition to the new interviews with Paul, some auditory snippets from Linda appear, though we don’t see hear speak them.
Once Wings finally form, the emphasis still remains on Paul and Linda’s relationship, though we do learn a little more about the band. Unfortunately, a lot of this information remains pretty rudimentary. We hear about the comings and goings of performers, but the details about their departures remain vague. For instance, we never get any discussion of Jimmy McCulloch’s drug habit, a weakness that would cost him his life not long after he left the band.
Possibly the most bothersome omission stems from the absence of Denny Laine. Denny was Paul’s primary creative foil throughout this period, and he was the only other member of Wings who had any talent beyond pure instrumental capabilities; Laine scored a hit with the Moody Blues in the Sixties via the excellent “Go Now”, and he provided some good tunes on the Wings albums as well.
Unfortunately, we learn virtually nothing about him during Wingspan. I’d surmise that this occurs because Laine and McCartney had a rift in the Eighties and their relationship apparently remains strained. Nonetheless, it’s ridiculous that a program that attempts to cover the history of Wings mentions so little about Laine.
On the positive side, we do find a mix of good archival materials throughout Wingspan. Highlights include performance footage. We see very early rehearsal shots of “The Mess” from an initial Wings tour, and the show also provides clips of “Big Barn Bed” and “Long Tall Sally” from a 1973 European trek. Promo videos for “Hi Hi Hi”, “My Love” and “Live and Let Die” also appear in snippets; I believe the latter comes from the 1973 James Paul McCartney TV special.
Further promos show video clips for “Junior’s Farm” and “My Carnival”, while we get rehearsal footage for “1985” and “Jet”. Live footage from the 1975 European tour shows bits of “Venus and Mars” and “Soily”; the latter sounds very different from the 1976 version to which I’d become accustomed. Speaking of that, we find a mix of bits from Rock Show, the feature film document of the 1976 American trek; we see parts of “Band On the Run”, “Call Me Back Again”, “Medicine Jar”, “Beware My Love” and “Magneto and Titanium Man”. In a special video clip, McCartney and band send a message to the Japanese in regard to an aborted trek, and they also play acoustic bits of “Bluebird”.
Toward the end of Wingspan, we encounter the video for “Mull of Kintyre” as well as rehearsal footage for Egg’s “Love Awake”. Live clips of “I’ve Had Enough”, “Arrow Through Me” and “Old Siam Sir” from the 1979 dates pop up, and we also watch some excellent footage of McCartney’s infamous early 1980 pot bust in Japan. Lastly, Wingspan finishes with an acoustic duet between Paul and Linda of Wild Life’s “I Am Your Singer”.
A lot of this footage was terrific, but unfortunately, it all passes by too quickly. None of the tunes appear in their entirety, and many pop up for just a few seconds. This made them tantalizing and frustrating, especially in some of the live bits. Many were rough, but the shots from the 1973 European tour looked surprisingly good. The Rock Show snippets were also clearer than ever, and the 1979 live parts came across as quite vivid as well. I doubt we’ll ever get a full release of any 1973 or 1979 shows, but I’d dearly love to see a DVD of Rock Show. That excellent film has been out of print in all formats for many years, and the old representations were bland at best. C’mon people - Rock Show on DVD, right now!!! (And add the tunes cut from the movie as well, please!)
I liked the fact that Wingspan did concentrate mainly on that era of McCartney’s career. I thought the Wingspan two-CD release seemed odd because it spanned so many non-Wings songs; it really was just another McCartney compilation with no particular concentration on the band. Despite the fact it takes us a half an hour to get to Wings, the show at least works toward that goal; the information provided seems necessary to lead us to the group’s creation.
As an interview subject, McCartney has long seemed to be a fairly glib person who rarely offers much depth or insight into his comments. He adopted a certain public personality years ago, and this attitude dominates his interviews. Even with the presence of his daughter, this tone continues to predominate, though I must acknowledge that he seems to loosen up on a few occasions. He appears surprisingly open as he goes over the depression he suffered after the end of the Beatles, and he also delves into his stupidity during the Japanese pot bust with nice detail and openness. McCartney’s statements won’t be revelatory, but they add some good information.
Still, Wingspan offered a moderately frustrating experience. I enjoyed it, and it gave us a decent primer about this period of Paul McCartney’s career. However, it remained far too superficial, and a lot of semi-controversial issues got swept under the rug. The brevity of the show meant that we never got to see much more than a few seconds of the excellent musical material. Wingspan deserves a look for those interested in McCartney, but it seems like a piece that lacked the appropriate depth.
Wingspan appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Due to the wide variety of source materials, Wingspan suffered from a mix of concerns, but overall it seemed like an acceptably decent representation of the footage.
In regard to the new interview material, it looked quite good. These shots seemed crisp and detailed, and they displayed no problems like moiré effects, jagged edges or source flaws. Colors were subdued but they seemed warm and rich, and blacks appeared deep and accurate. Overall, these segments presented the footage quite well.
Due to the variety of sources, the rest of the package was much less consistent. All elements varied wildly. Some snippets looked quite good. For example, the live performance shots from the 1976 and 1979 tours seemed pretty clear and detailed. The Rock Show clips showed colors that were a little muddy, but the impression remained strong, as these segments generally were clean and distinct.
Otherwise, much of the archival material seemed fairly weak. Focus appeared unstable, and many shots were soft and blurry. A mix of print flaws marred many of them, as I saw lots of speckles, grit, scratches, blotches, and other source problems. Colors tended to be pale and faded, and blacks were shallow and somewhat pale. Of course, some shots looked better than others, but a lot of the program came across as problematic and included some or all of these concerns.
However, I regarded these concerns as virtually unavoidable. Wingspan mixed so many different sources, and all of them were decades old. As such, these issues were inevitable. I’m much happier to get the variety of interesting footage - flaws though it may be - than I would be to see fewer kinds of materials, even if they were consistently cleaner. Wingspan could be an ugly presentation, but I found it to be satisfactory given the project’s origins.
Audio quality seemed more consistent. Most of the program consisted of dialogue during the interview bits and music for the rest of the show. Though the speech always remained clear, I found the new interviews to sound somewhat reedy and restricted; they came across as a bit rougher than I expected. Still, they were intelligible, so I had few strong complaints.
Music varied dependent on the sources. Some of the tunes stemmed from footage as rough as the filmed material, and they sounded correspondingly lo-fi. However, album tracks were nicely clear and rich. They showed reasonably good stereo imaging, and they boasted good depth and dynamics for the most part. I’m well acquainted with these tunes, and they came across as distinct and representative of the original material.
Effects appeared solely via some ambience at times. These occasionally spread mildly to the side speakers, but overall, the imaging remained strong anchored in the center other than for the stereo music. As a whole, Wingspan provided a decent but unexceptional auditory experience.
Wingspan packs a few decent extras. First up are some Exclusive Interviews. Taken from the sessions between Paul and daughter Mary, we find 22 minutes and 10 seconds worth of material. These intercut actual historical content with outtakes from the “bumpers” used to segue to and from commercials; the latter show some of the loosest and most fun aspects of the piece.
As for the interviews, they add some nice information to the session. Paul covers some additional non-Wings details and provides a little good details about the band, especially in regard to Band on the Run. In addition to some notes about the numbers, Paul sings and plays snippets of “Mrs. Vanderbilt”, “Let Me Roll It” and “Picasso’s Last Words”.
Next we find some Performance Footage. One of the tunes - Back to the Egg’s “Rockestra Theme” - actually shows the recording and rehearsal material, while the other two come from the 1976 tour. Clipped from Rock Show, we get “Jet” and “Let ‘Em In”. Interestingly, these are presented fullframe, although the Rock Show snippets in Wingspan proper are letterboxed. I’ve never been sure if the movie was a true pan and scan affair or if the fullscreen version showed the entire frame and lost no information, but based on what I saw here, I think it’s the former. The letterboxed shots shown in Wingspan look very well framed, whereas the fullscreen ones seem cramped; for example, during one wide shot, Jimmy gets cropped off much of the side. All I do know if that I want Rock Show on DVD, and a widescreen version, too!
While I appreciated these extra snippets, I found it disappointing that we didn’t get more obscure material. Clearly the show’s producers had access to some tremendous stuff, but we saw none of it here. Again, I’d love to check out more material from the 1973 and 1979 tours, but they didn’t make the cut for this DVD.
We get a nice Photo Gallery with 100 stills. Presented in a thumbnail format, we see 10 shots per screen, and you can enlarge them easily. The shots cover the entire decade of the Seventies and essentially appear in chronological order; a few discrepancies occur, but they generally crop up in the correct manner. The 1976 tour dominates the proceedings, including some shots of Paul’s fall moustache, but the program provides a decent spread of shots. These include no text other than some dates; those are occasionally incorrect - like a snap from the Wild Life cover shoot that states it occurred in 1972 - but they’re usually right.
Lastly, we discover a Discography for all of McCartney’s albums between and including 1970’s McCartney and 1980’s McCartney II. For each record, we find song listings and release dates. Unfortunately, errors abound. For one, the release dates are listed as recording dates, and the track listings show many mistakes. The first half of Ram actually is the first half of Wild Life, while all of Wings Over America just duplicates the tunes of Speed of Sound!
In addition, each album mentions songs from the era that didn’t actually appear on the records. Some of these made reissues as bonus tracks; numbers like “My Carnival”, “Check My Machine” and “The Mess” fit this category. However, others never showed up any releases of the records in question; songs like “Another Day” and “Goodnight Tonight” were not part of the albums mentioned. The discography seems like a sloppy piece of work that has too many errors to be worthwhile.
Nice touch: not only does Wingspan include English subtitles - a rarity for this sort of program - the supplements provide this text as well. Even the song performances offer subtitles, which is a very nice touch.
“History” provides an alternate version of the scene search. We can examine year-specific chapters and also check out the appropriate album listings for those terms. It’s a nice little way to expand on this normal DVD function.
Wingspan provides a decent but superficial look at the history of Paul McCartney’s second most successful band. We learn some basics about the progression of Wings and its famous founder, and it includes some nice archival material. However, it runs through the footage too quickly and skirts some controversial issues. The DVD provides generally acceptable video quality that varies based on the sources as well as reasonably good sound. In addition, it provides a smattering of fairly nice extras. As a longtime McCartney fan, I enjoyed Wingspan, but it falls far short of offering a definitive and inclusive history of Wings.
Footnote: on the day I finished this review, George Harrison died. This has nothing to do with the article, I suppose, but I felt I needed to mention it. George hadn’t released a full album of new material in 1987’s Cloud Nine, and he really hadn’t done much in the public eye since his brief Japanese tour in the early Nineties. However, it was always nice to know that he was out there, and I hoped he’d end his hiatus with some renewed activity; Cloud Nine showed that he could still provoke some chart reaction. Obviously, the event wasn’t as shocking as John Lennon’s murder, but it’s equally sad, and the news hit me hard despite the knowledge of George’s ill health in recent years. God bless, George - you’ll be greatly missed.