Wings At The Speed Of Sound
What he means is:"...as opposed to a Paul McCartney album." He's nailing down a point covered in the band's latest press release: "The distribution of talent within the Wings band (on the new LP) further emphasizes the original concept for the group as an exciting musical ensemble first envisioned by Paul McCartney when he formed the band in 1971.
....in the middle of it all sit Joe English, drummer and Jimmy McCulloch, guitarist. Joe joined the band halfway through the recording of Venus and Mars, so Wings at the Speed of Sound is the first Wings album he's been involved with all the way through. "I enjoyed it, I enjoyed recording it. I think 'Silly Love Songs' and 'Wino Junko' and the song I sing and Paul's last ballad at the end are real classics," is how he responds to criticism that this may not be a great album. "We were enjoying ourselves," says Joe.
"We weren't in an aggressive mood when we made the record. I mean, aggressive to the point when you say, 'Well, we gotta knock 'em dead, show 'em how heavy we are.' There's a little subtlety."
Speed of Sound was recorded very quickly, in about six weeks. They started around October of last year and finished in February. In between, there were the tours of Britain and Australia and a small break for Christmas. Unlike previous sessions, there were no exotic studios in faraway lands involved. The whole thing, produced by McCartney and mixed by him with the rest of the band helping out, was done at EMI's Abbey Road studios, the Beatles' old hideaway. "I like the open sound," says Joe, "and you get that by not using 48 tracks, you get that by using as few as possible. We'd go into the studio, hear a number, play it through and when we were hot we'd cut it. We all made suggestions in the mixing, but Paul made the final decisions and it was all done very simply."
The first titles to be recorded were "The Note You Never Wrote" and "Beware My Love." "Note" is a slightly surreal McCartney composition, paced slow, featuring strings and an echoey vocal by Wings' second guitarist, Denny Laine; "Beware" is a hoarse-voiced McCartney rocker in the "She's A Woman" mould.
"'The Note You Never Wrote' was recorded after I'd just flown in from the States," Joe English recalls. "I just came in and we did the tune....I like it, it's one of my favorites. To me that's a spacey tune, as spacey as anything that's goin' on" The story he tells is much the same with all the numbers on the album. Joe can't be accused of having an overly critical attitude about the finished product. Everything was done simply and with as little fuss as possible and nobody had to think twice about it. The results are natural and, to Joe at least, naturally impeccable. "We aimed to record a good record that you can sit down and listen to and hear a good stereo mix. Also we had it in our heads that we were going out on tour and, you know, it'd make life easy." Speed of Sound, for Joe English, is that good record full of good tunes that his band can play on stage. No problem!
...Jimmy wanders over to agree---"'The Note You Never Wrote' is a bitch," he says-- and then they agree on a round of nice hot Bloody Marys as well. "I've got to get my mouth in shape," Jimmy explains. Then the guitarist warms to the taste of being interviewed. He snuggles down in his enormous cardigan, puts on his dark glasses, lights a cigarette, and begins to talk. "With Speed of Sound we're definitely gathering our thoughts. Since Venus and Mars was done in New Orleans at the time of Mardi Gras, we had people dropping in all the time. This album was recorded in London and we didn't have nobody about--just the band. It was a question of total concentration on this one, whereas the last was a bit more of a loon."
Not that Speed of Sound was recorded in solitary confinement. "Note," for example, was laid down in its final form before the highly successful tour of Australia, while most of the other titles were recorded after the band returned. But, for all its uncluttered approach, the album's arrangements are not as simple as they might seem at first listen. They give evidence of great care, in fact, with strings and quite a bit of brass. Paul plays piano throughout, but not all the bass. Denny Laine plays bass on "She's My Baby," Jimmy on "Let 'Em In," Paul on "Silly Love Songs," and so on. There's a lot of thought involved in the timing, placing and sound quality of Jimmy's lead guitar breaks and acoustic work. The vocals, too, have received a lot of attention.
The most extreme example of the attention to detail employed in recording Speed of Sound is the work on "Cook of the House." This is a McCartney song in the style of a Fifties rock & roller, almost a version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Linda sings it to the accompaniment of kitchen noises and a remarkably authentic sounding Bill Haley-type arrangement. There's a booting sax, of course, and a barrelhouse piano, but what's even more remarkable is that Paul plays Bill Black's original bass--the one that you can hear on real Fifties rock & roll records--and the song was actually recorded in the kitchen of McCartney's home, with bacon frying, kettles boiling, and dishes being washed. It would be hard to be more carefully authentic than that; it certainly doesn't suggest slapdash work.
If that kind of thoughtful planning was involved, though, what of the claims of brisk spontaneity in the recording of Speed of Sound and the affirmations that this is a truly democratic group album? Actually, neither seems to be a particularly fruitful way of looking at the project. There is little doubt that McCartney maintains the whip-hand in Wings and that he makes the decisions on style and content. After all, he seems to pay the pipers (although McCulloch won't talk about that) and therefore he is entitled to call their tunes.
Wings at the Speed of Sound does more obviously involved other members of Wings than previous albums. There's a Denny Laine song on it (Time To Hide) and an old song Jimmy McCulloch wrote with ex-Stone the Crows drummer Colin Allen (Wino Junko). Linda, Denny, and Joe also sing lead vocals on songs written by McCartney.
Still, this hardly contradicts the popular notion that Speed of Sound is essentially another McCartney album. How did Joe's vocal on "Must Do Something About It" come about?" "Paul wrote it, you know," says Joe, "and I can sing, so he told me to sing it. I like to do tunes like that. We were playing it back and I kept singing it, so Paul said 'Go ahead and do it.'"
Jimmy explains: "Most of the songs we do, we only hear them in the studio. Paul will come in and say 'I've got this tune that I want to do,' and that's it. So you sort of fall in and you listen to it and say 'Well I can hear something that I'd like to put on it'...We didn't do any extra numbers, we just did the album."
"Warm and Beautiful," for example, was brought to the studio by Paul early one morning. There were only two other Wings there and after they'd heard the song Paul recorded it. That took about half an hour. When the whole band was present they put on the string and slide-guitar overdubs, and that was another track in the can.
Paul seems to have decided the track order and which songs were actually recorded, as well as being the man with the final say on matters of production, arrangement, and mixing. If, as Jimmy says, "this was the quickest album I've done since my early days with Pete Townshend and Thunderclap Newman," that suggests a high degree of control in McCartney's hands more than it indicates eager spontaneity on the band's part.