These two albums allowed McCartney to be loose and relaxed.
The idea might not be accurate, but it certainly feels like Paul McCartney didn’t know what to do with himself by the second half of 1971. After the Beatles split, his solo albums McCartney and Ram (with wife Linda) received commercial success but critical ambivalence at best. The two albums, in different ways allowed McCartney to be loose and relaxed after the high-art work of the second half of the Beatles’ run. In retrospect, the albums succeed, particularly the former, but largely on the charm of that casual nature. After the release of Ram, though, McCartney pushed this attitude even further, resulting in a strange moment, further amplified by new bonus material on a deluxe reissue, but began to turn things around shortly afterward.
Wild Life, the first album with Wings (at this point just the two McCartneys plus a couple Dennys, drummer Seiwell and multi-instrumentalist Laine) came out near the end of 1971, just seven months after Ram, and it traded casual for slapdash. The goofy “Bip Bop” defines the album’s attitude. McCartney wrote and recorded these songs quickly. Where the preceding albums let a songwriter at the top of his field dig into melody in a relaxed way, Wild Life just shows him tossing something off. Some of the album still works (McCartneyness can do some heavy lifting), if the endgame is simply some decent background tunes.
The new disc of bonus material doesn’t change the narrative. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” shows McCartney content to dig into some early rock ‘n’ roll and just have a good time. That sort of mood continues throughout these bonus tracks. Exceptions include the two versions of the controversial “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” which are still low-key and odd (“Great Britain, you are tremendous” remains an almost comical line). “Dear Friend,” in any version, holds more emotional weight than the rest of these recordings, but feels out of place in the album.
By 1973, Wings had added another full-time member (guitarist Henry McCullough) and McCartney had returned to thinking a little bigger. Red Rose Speedway began as a potential double album before being cut down to one. While it lacks McCartney’s finest songwriting – mileage on “My Love” may vary – it shows the group cohering as a professional endeavor, tightening up and putting in more or less the necessary work to turn sketches into songs. At this point, we’re able to hear the Wings sound solidifying, and odd notion given that Seiwell and McCullough would leave the group before the better Band on the Run came out at the end of that year. The album has some clunkers, like “Loup (1st Indian on the Moon),” but it moves from start to finish on an increased energy from McCartney.
The bonus disc contains material nearly as strong as the original album. The silliness of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Little Woman Love” remains, though the latter would have improved Wild Life. “Hi, Hi, Hi,” while not breaking ground, marks the return of steady rock along with b-side “The Mess.” A couple versions of single “Live and Let Die” mark the obvious highlights of the bonus material here, even if they reveal little new. In contrast to the material of Wild Life, these cuts and much of the Red Rose Speedway fill out the story of McCartney and Wings turning from a flip sort of project into an actual band with a sense of direction.
Neither album makes for truly essential listening, although Red Rose Speedway warrants better consideration than it has sometimes received; time has been favorable to it. Taking the two albums together, along with other representative material, fills in some of the McCartney’s musical story from the era, part of a strange and windy, but still coherent, path from the Beatles to Band on the Run.