A bit messy, but archival edition shows it was better than many remembered
by Marshall Bowden
Red Rose Speedway is a watershed album in the Wings catalog, coming as it does between the somewhat remedial Wild Life (which McCartney has also treated to an archival reissue this year) and Band on the Run, which is generally acknowledged to be Paul’s undeniable post-Beatles masterpiece. Neither Red Rose Speedway nor Band on the Run manages to bring Wings out from under Paul’s shadow, but both are worthy albums.
It seems as though McCartney enjoyed having complete control of his music, of arranging it as he wanted and performing most or all of the accompaniment himself via overdubs. This is how he put together his first solo album, McCartney and though the followup, Ram, utilized guitarist Hugh McCraken and drummer Denny Seiwell, both of whom would become members of Wings, it was still a McCartney solo project.
It’s also clear that Paul missed the camaraderie of being in a band and even playing live shows, which the Beatles hadn’t done for years. The breakup of The Beatles was a difficult and emotional time for all the members but it appears as though McCartney may have most missed the spirit of collaboration that the Beatles had found to be almost second nature.
But of course, what musicians could Paul bring into a new band who would be his equals? Who would call him out on his more questionable ideas or challenge his work? Would newly hired musicians have the same esprit de corps as the fab four who’d pretty much grown up together?
At the time they entered the studio to begin recording the album Red Rose Speedway, Paul McCartney & Wings were searching for a balance between Macca’s obvious domination of the group, with his signature songwriting, lead vocals, and arrangements, and the need to develop a unique group sound in order to silence critics who claimed that Wings was not a band, but merely an alter ego for McCartney.
The Road To Red Rose Speedway
Red Rose Speedway has long been completely overshadowed by its more famous followup. That’s a pity, because Red Rose Speedway has a lot to recommend it despite a few obvious flaws.
It has long been known that Red Rose Speedway was meant to be a double LP release, which is one way that bands of the vinyl era would signal their arrival. Having enough good material for a double LP indicates a band that is at the height of their creativity and enthusiasm. There’s no doubt that McCartney intended for Red Rose Speedway to be Wings’ breakthrough album, an album that would define the group as a real band that could demonstrate his ability to move forward from The Beatles.
The group here is comprised of Paul, Linda, Denny Laine, drummer Denny Seiwell, and guitarist Hugh McCullough, who McCartney had added in 1972. With the five piece Wings, McCartney embarked on an impromptu tour of British universities, after which they convened for the first Red Rose Speedway recording sessions.
In July the band went back on the road across Europe, recording many of the shows in order to use tracks for the upcoming Red Rose Speedway album. These performances, while not groundbreaking, were solid performances by a rock and roll band, an aspect of the band that doesn’t come through on either Wild Life or the original, single LP release of Red Rose Speedway.
Unfortunately, Paul, partially due to pressure from EMI Records, decided to cut the album back to a single album that would be less expensive to produce and therefore be more likely to provide the band with album sales that were needed in order for the label to consider the band a high priority.
Red Rose Speedway: The Restored Album
In hindsight it’s clear that a lot of the album’s depth was gutted in favor of perceived commercial potential, but it’s also difficult to say just how much better the album would have done as a twofer. It’s also difficult to judge whether the restored version that McCartney offers on Disc 2 of this archival release is truly the intended original track listing for the double album. There are other versions of the track sequencing around, including those for the original acetates of the album.
Listen to our Spotify playlist Red Rose Speedway Reconstructed 2018
Those track lists don’t show the “Medley (Hold Me Tight/Lazy Dynamite/Hands of Love/Power Cut)” at all, and it’s been suggested that that track, which ended up as the album’s finale, wasn’t put together until after the decision to proceed with a single album rather than a double. That makes sense since the final section of the medley, “Power Cut” was inspired by power cuts that ensued during the UK miners’ strike in February 1972. When the group convened to begin recording in March of that year, it’s doubtful the track had been pulled together yet.
“Medley” is another frequent McCartney thing, seen previously on the second side of Abbey Road and later on “Silly Love Songs.” Each song here is more or less complete, but slight, and is given more weight by the cumulative effect of the medley as a whole. At the end, segments of all the song’s melodies are reprised and interwoven. It’s a nifty little songwriter’s exercise, not quite as grand as it sounds in the end. But it builds its own momentum and like candy, the flavor is not easy to resist.
McCartney does include the “Medley” on his restored version of the full album, and it helps that the track is now the last track on Side 3 rather than the album’s concluding track. On a single album it felt horribly indulgent to include this 11 minute confection but on a two album set, it was a smaller part of the whole.
I also think that it helps a lot that the single album’s one-two punch of “Big Barn Bed” and “My Love” are preceded by the rockers “Night Out,” and “Get on the Right Thing” (a leftover from Ram) and the acoustic “Country Dreamer” which sounds like it could have been on the White Album. These three tracks present a range of styles and also establish a more rock vibe immediately and set up the last two Side One tracks to slay.
“Big Barn Bed” is catchy and manages to sound a lot like a real band, but it points out quickly what has often been noted about McCartney’s post-Beatles work. As a songwriter with the ability to write gorgeous melodies, McCartney has the ability make even the simple and even inane sound like a symphony. But, alas, not every song can bear the weight of such treatment.
There are precious few lyrics to this song, but with its catchiness, the backing vocals, and some deft guitar work, it’s a winner. In fact, the song had been around for awhile, and a fragment is heard on the fadeout of the final version of the song ‘Ram On’ from Paul’s solo album Ram.
“My Love” was the hit single from the album, one of a string of solid singles for McCartney and for Wings as well. The song was clearly, unabashedly about Linda, his wife and now band mate, as he states in this interview from the book Wingspan: Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run:
“My Love was inspired by Linda. We’d been together a while and were having a great time, and as I sat down at a piano to follow the muse I was thinking about Linda and the song came. It was nice to be able to say, ‘Here, I’ve written this one for you’.”
The song is a warm, soulful, sexy track that has as much erotic punch as a Marvin Gaye track, largely due to its Fender Rhodes electric piano, string arrangement, and the lyric “My love does it good.” In fact, Paul noted in an interview that single sold well with black listeners, a fact of which he was proud.
Another track appearing on the newly restored version are the Linda McCartney feature “Sea Side Woman” which manages to charm in part because the band take on reggae is not too heavy handed.
Linda wrote and recorded the song in 1971 as Paul was being sued by his publishing companies for claiming Linda as a collaborator on the single “Another Day.” This had the effect of transferring 50% of the song’s royalties from Northern Songs and MacLen Music to McCartney Music Company which Paul of course, owned. The publishers claimed that Linda was not a songwriter and could not have collaborated on the song, so Paul told her to go out and write a song. The lawsuit was settled a short time later.
There’s the Denny Laine sung “I Lie Around” which was the B-side to “Live and Let Die.” It’s one of those ‘pleasures of country life’ songs that Paul was writing since the White Album and would continue to write.
And there are two high-energy live tracks that should have been part of the album: “The Mess” which was part of the band’s live repertoire from the beginning and “Best Friend.” These were recorded during the Wings over Europe tour in the Hague and Antwerp, respectively.
Both tracks remind listeners that McCartney and The Beatles could rock out as well as the fact that they had completely absorbed the music of the early rockers like Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley into their own sound. Cutting these live rockers took away a lot of the album’s rock material and made Wings sound eviscerated. In the band’s own assessments:
Red Rose Speedway “has its moments, but nothing approaching the impact of the band in person,” according to Paul. Denny Laine lamented that the album had started as “more of a showcase for the band.” And Linda described it as “such a non-confident record.”
Beginning of the End
The album proved to be a testing ground for the band, the very idea of a band, and for McCartney as well. Ever the arranger, Paul had more or less composed the guitar solo that would be played on “My Love”, which was recorded live with the band and a full orchestra. At the last moment, guitarist Hugh McCullough approached McCartney and asked him to be allowed to play a different solo on the spot.
“What are you going to play?” McCartney asked.
McCullough replied “I don’t know.”
Reluctantly McCartney agreed and McCullough improvised the final guitar solo on the spot. And it’s a doozy, the final element needed to really sell what is a beautiful ballad. In an interview McCulluough said:
“This was a turning point for me, because I was able to, in later life, look back on it and say, “That’s what I did for Paul McCartney. I gave him that solo.” But it came from somewhere else and through me to Paul, and this is what flabbergasted him. And not having worked like that before, it was a little new to him. I came out of the studio that day and I was a very happy man, because I had confronted this thing I knew was there, that hadn’t quite shown its head. And that was where I left me mark, you know.”
But the thing that McCullough knew was there was still there, and it always would be. Wings would never be a band the way that The Beatles had been. McCartney would always be in charge.
When the group first began rehearsing for their recording sessions for the Band on the Run album, McCullough decided to leave the band, at least in part because McCartney insisted that the guitarist play the same parts each time, even on solos.
Not wanting to be reduced to basically a sideman role as during the recording of Ram, Seiwell also decided to leave the group. So Paul and Linda McCartney along with Denny Laine departed for Lagos in August of 1973, and Wings would soldier on