A little over a year after The Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney and his wife Linda formed Wings, a group created very much to be a touring as well as recording unit. Paul had missed the touring element most when The Beatles locked themselves in a studio.
The formation of Wings came as no real surprise, as Paul had always enjoyed being part of a group. What was a shock, though, was their debut album, Wildlife.
The LP was patently substandard and the rock papers savaged it. “This is not even acceptable pop music,” wrote one reviewer. Paul was undaunted. Wings were going on the road.
Britain was hit by a power crisis in February 1972. Affecting heating, lighting and amplification, it caused numerous gigs to be cancelled and there were fears for musician’s livelihoods if the situation worsened. In this context, Wings debuted on 9 February.
They had a new member, Henry McCullough, on lead guitar, but no manager or booking agent. They travelled in two vans – musicians, wives, children, dogs, roadies. On the M1, seeing signs for Nottingham, McCullough suggested they try Nottingham University.
And so, throughout their tour, the scenario went like this: Wings pull into a University campus. Their roadies find the student union and ask if they’d like a band to play.
“No thanks.” “It’s Paul McCartney.” “Whaaaaat?” Student comes out to the van, sees McCartney, grins in disbelief. It is agreed Wings will play for 50p on the door, tonight or tomorrow, whichever is convenient, mate. Wings look for somewhere to spend the night. Only a man like McCartney could have done it.
Wings released their first single, Give Ireland Back To The Irish, that month. A horrified McCartney’s response to the events of ‘Bloody Sunday‘ (30 January) when 13 civil rights protesters in Derry were shot dead by British soldiers, the song proved bitterly controversial.
EMI reluctantly sanctioned its release, but as Northern Ireland teetered on the brink, the single was given no exposure whatsoever. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (unsurprisingly) announced an airplay ban on the single and Radio 1‘s chart show wouldn’t even mention its title.
The song still reached #16 in the UK singles charts, where it remained for eight weeks.
Wings lay low. The University Tour had created an ‘issue’ in the band that successive line-ups of the band would all have to face. Linda McCartney was a novice-standard prodder of a keyboard and tended to sing a little waywardly on stage.
As everyone from band members to the road crew gritted their teeth, the stoical Linda became the butt of countless jokes during the bands’ lifetime. Henry McCullough lost his temper and told McCartney to hire a proper piano player. He was told to sit down and shut up.
Red Rose Speedway appeared, led by the massive hit, My Love, and that summer – with child-friendly single Mary Had A Little Lamb gambolling around the Top 30 – Wings upgraded from a van to an open-topped London double-decker bus and toured Europe.
Incredibly, their third single, Hi Hi Hi, received another airplay ban from the BBC and IBA – this time for sexual innuendo. Radio DJ’s simply played the B-Side (C Moon) which for all intents and purposes then became the A-Side.
But an incident on the European tour would have far more serious repercussions than any BBC embargo.
In Gothenburg, Sweden, the McCartneys and Seiwell were arrested and fined for possessing marijuana. Media reports of the bust triggered a second bust at the McCartney family farm by Scottish police. The Maccas seemed so careless about concealing their herb that many people wondered if they were trying to make some sort of oblique socio-political statement . . .
Paul now found he was denied a US visa, and the drug convictions also kept him out of Japan, one of rock’s most lucrative markets.
1973 found the McCartneys in Lagos, Nigeria, recording their next album. Henry McCullough and Denny Seiwell had both quit the band (Seiwell by telephone only hours before the Lagos flight) reducing Wings to an overstretched trio.
During the course of the recording at Ginger Baker’s ARC studios, local musicians came to the studio to intimidate them, Paul and Linda were mugged at knife-point and Paul suffered a bronchial condition that made him fear he was having a heart attack.
The resulting album, Band On The Run, followed its patchy predecessor to number one in America and became Britain’s best-selling album of 1974.
Critically acclaimed, and all set to spend two years on both the UK and US charts selling over six million copies worldwide, it was a post-Beatles highpoint which McCartney never surpassed. He’d made a classic. Even John Lennon said so.
As McCartney now overtook Lennon to be the most successful and critically-acclaimed ex-Beatle the image of Wings changed totally. They joined the jet-set.
By 1976 – once Paul had finally been granted a US visa – there would be $80,000 end-of-tour parties in Hollywood mansions attended by A-listers Warren Beatty and Tony Curtis. Wings – the band that had played Little Richard covers for 50p on the door at Nottingham University – were now grossing $5 million for seven weeks’ work.
The mid to late 70s were Wings’ commercial heyday. The albums Venus and Mars (1975) and Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976) dovetailed perfectly with the baby boomers’ insatiable appetite for easy-going-arena-rock (Peter Frampton, The Eagles, Steve Miller etc.) both at home and abroad.
Back to full strength after the addition of Jimmy McCulloch (guitar) and Joe English (drums), Wings racked up a fifth consecutive American number one album in 1977 with the triple-live Wings Over America, having obliterated the world indoor audience attendance record (67,100) in Seattle on the tour in question.
McCulloch caused the postponement of a US tour after breaking his finger in a fight with David Cassidy.
1977 closed with Mull of Kintyre at the top of the UK and Australian charts for nine weeks, selling over 2.5 million in Britain to become the biggest selling UK single of all time until Band Aid‘s Do They Know It’s Christmas.
While The Sex Pistols sneered at stupid old EMI on their debut album, Paul and his record company savoured their colossal international success of a misty-eyed waltz composed in tribute to the area of Scotland where McCartney lived.
1978’s London Town was partly recorded on a yacht moored in the Virgin Islands where Wings relaxed with cordon bleu dinners and water skiing sessions. So it was a surprise when McCartney unveiled a new line-up that year, featuring two newcomers who looked like members of Blondie.
Producer Chris Thomas – fresh from Never Mind The Bollocks – was brought in, and Paul promised a “raw” sound.
Things looked promising, but Back To The Egg (1979) saw McCartney’s innate conservatism scupper the experiment. He just couldn’t help inviting some decidedly pre-punk acquaintances – David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane – to participate in an Abbey Road supergroup (the Rockestra) on a couple of gratuitous blowouts.
Stung by the album’s rejection (it yielded no UK hits) Paul focused his mind on the upcoming world tour. After the UK, the next stop was Japan.
On 16 January 1980, while touring Japan for the first time since The Beatles played there in 1966, McCartney was arrested when he landed at Narita Airport with nearly half a pound of marijuana in his suitcase.
Prisoner number 22 – as he was suddenly known – faced up to seven years behind bars.
He spent 10 days in a cell at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Office, but when his father-in-law and lawyer Lee Eastman flew to Tokyo, the Japanese authorities elected to send Macca away rather than send him down. McCartney was deported and the tour was cancelled.
On 27 April 1981, it was announced that Wings had disbanded. McCartney claimed that the band “parted in a friendly way”. By then Paul had released the solo LP McCartney II (including the hit single Coming Up) and embarking on another new career.
Jimmy McCulloch was found dead in his Maida Vale (London) apartment on 27 September 1979. He hadn’t been seen for two days when his new band, The Dukes, began looking for him. They were due to make their debut the following night at a London club.
Alarmed by Jimmy’s absence, his brother Jack broke down his front door and found the body lying in a bedroom. He was only 26.
Bass, vocals, guitars, keyboards