Sunday, February 1, 2015

Wings - Back To the Egg (1979)

As we all know, the walrus was Paul.  He was not the egg man.
Back To the Egg was Paul McCartney's seventh album with his band Wings, and it was an effort to expand the group's sound by incorporating elements of punk and New Wave into a mix that included pop balladeering and traditional rock.  It was built around the concept of going to see a gig, much like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was, and song fragments and link tracks suggested a nod to Abbey Road.  Unfortunately, the concept was rather thin, and the songs were underdeveloped.     
This is a shame, because there's actually some good music here.  With new lead guitarist Laurence Juber and new drummer Steve Holly on board, Wings came close to sounding like the real band Paul always wanted it to be, and the playing from the new members is sharp and exciting.  "Getting Closer" is a pulsating tune that charges forward with confidence, and Juber nearly upstages his boss with his razor riffs on "Old Siam, Sir."  But Macca still has a problem coming up with words you're not embarrassed to sing along to; in "Getting Closer," he uses "my salamander" as a term of endearment for no apparent reason, and "Old Siam, Sir" (you know it's McCartney because even the title is nonsensical) concerns a woman from Thailand who ends up looking for her man in England. The music may be direct and forceful, but Paul is still indulging in abstruse word games that undercut that freewheeling spirit.  Denny Laine's contribution, "Again And Again And Again," is full of clichés, both lyrical and musical, but at least it's an intelligible song.
Not all of Paul's efforts at a more contemporary sound are unsuccessful, by any means.  "Spin It On," with Juber and Laine volleying guitar riffs in an effort to be heard over Holly's explosive drumming, is fantastic.  Also, the soulful "Arrow Through Me" turns in an effectively sly R&B groove played entirely on synthesizers, and the electronic brass sounds are said to have fooled Paul Simon, who thought he was listening to real brass.  But the rest of Back To the Egg is aimless, maneuvering from direction to another and ultimately going nowhere.  The more conventional numbers show flashes of McCartney's talent, such as the "After The Ball / Million Miles," which links impassioned blues and with introspective gospel, and the haunting "Winter Rose / Love Awake," with some lovely keyboards and bright vocal harmonies (Linda's singing is mixed down to a tolerable level), but you're left frustrated that Paul was still turning song fragments into medleys rather than finishing them. But they're not as frustrating as the obscure literary references that drop in here like uninvited guests - specifically, spoken excerpts from John Galsworthy's The Little Man and Ian Hay's The Sport of Kings. And while the idea of McCartney leading an all-star orchestra of British rockers might sound tempting, the resulting instrumental "Rockestra Theme" (including members of the Who, Led Zeppelin and the Faces) only proves that, in rock, more really is less.
Paul had two objectives in making Back To the Egg; one was to stay musically relevant and the other was to make Wings, now on their third lead guitarist and their fourth drummer, a more permanent group.  He failed at both of them.  He was too encumbered by his penchant for lightweight pop and his slick production values - too much stuck in his old ways, to be honest - and his domineering nature in the studio made the supporting players in Wings a mere backing group more often than not.  (The "Paul McCartney and Wings" billing on Red Rose Speedway and Band On the Run was more honest.)  Back To the Egg turned out to be appropriately titled. It's scrambled.  And it's the work of a man who believes in yesterday.
Paul must have known that his band had become a lost cause, as this was his last Wings album.  Seven months after its release, a drug bust in Tokyo that resulted in a canceled Japanese tour brought Wings to an end, but the finality of the project was best summed up by Back To the Egg's closing cut, the late-night jazz tune "Baby's Request."  After one more song, it was time to go to bed.  

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