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As Wings take to the road on one of the hottest tours of the year, Chris Welch – the journalist among the entourage – reports from behind the scenes of a band on the run
Manchester appeared through the coach window – bits of flyover marching through a jumble of crumbling old buildings, halfcompleted landscaping, a huge abandoned railway terminus, boarded up shops, and rain swept concrete blocks, once a 1950s dream of the future – now an aimless, broken mess. “God, the property developers have been at work,” I observed.
“And what are you going to do about it?” demanded Paul McCartney, squarely. I thought for a second. “I’ll write a few scathing attacks.”
“And I’ll write a protest song,” smiled Paul, as the coach drew up outside an elderly hotel that maintained past splendours in defiance of the surrounding shambles. The band on the run had come to rest in another town, for another concert. And the stars would be right for another night – Venus and Mars – Linda and Paul, working their way around Britain on a tour unique in recent rock history.
“Why are you doing it?” demanded a puzzled press, as Wings dropped in on town after town. The answer was plain to see, in the ecstatic reaction the band received from audiences who cared not one jot that Paul had a previous existence. Only the press seemed to have difficulty in acknowledging the fact that Wings have their fans, just as The Beatles had theirs.
At press conferences and TV recording sessions the same old questions were asked, understandably, as they are geared for mass consumption, but as Linda said after one session: “They’ll be asking if The Beatles will reform when we’re old and grey.”
Of all the aspects to emerge during a three-day stay with Wings on the road, my greatest impression was of McCartney’s sheer musicianship and instinctive professionalism. Despite his repeated protestations that both he and Linda were “very ordinary people”, McCartney’s all-round ability puts him into a special category reserved for very few.
Watching a succession of shows by one group is sometimes a chore, but in this case it’s a privilege. A Wings concert is everything that a true pop concert should be. And yet, when Paul read his daily reviews in the national press, he found himself receiving such glib dismissals as: “McCartney is a throwback” and “Paul should go solo”.
“What do they mean?” he demanded, his face contorted by a mixture of pain, bewilderment and resignation. “Don’t they think I’m the centre of the show already? But I think I can see what this guy means when he says I’m a throwback. I suppose I am from another age…” He tried to look convinced. It is not difficult to understand why, when Paul refers to the press he makes a screwing motion, as if operating some medieval instrument of torture.
By the time I caught up with the tour in Bristol on Wednesday last week, the band had already played its opening date in Southampton the previous night,and had been greatly pleased by the response. Each night saw progressive improvement, while the party surrounding Paul and Linda grew by the hour, as they commuted between hotels and concert halls.
The basic Wings line-up includes Linda on keyboards, Denny Laine on guitars and Joe English on drums. They are augmented by a four-piece brass section: Tony Dorsey on trombone, Thadeus Richard (sax/clarinet), Howie Case (sax), and Steve Howard Jr (trumpet), all from the States, with the exception of Howie, an old Liverpool friend from the Hamburg Star Club days.
Add to this entourage erratic, likeable publicist Tony Brainsby; Wings’ manager Brian Brolly, a sophisticated urbane gentleman of slow and thoughtful speech; an ever changing polyglot of EMI representatives; Rose, the McCartney children’s nanny (honoured on the ‘Red Rose Speedway’ album); the McCartney children, the band’s children, a young tutor to keep up their book learning; a gentle, immensely strong looking West Country bodyguard; chauffeurs in peaked caps charged with care of the two Rolls-Royces that accompanied the coach; representatives of tour promoter Mel Bush and of course the boys from Showco, the American rock tour experts, and you have a modern equivalent of a touring circus.
Quite a team, that spent many minutes of each day phoning each other, waiting to assemble. It was one of those ‘hurry up and wait’ situations, where “five minutes” means an hour. Added to this pool of people waiting to see who would move first and where, were the folk who drifted on and off the tour, TV crews and interviewers, more reporters and photographers, including MM’s own Bob Ellis, who is also official Wings’ photographer, and Kate Simon, a charming American who was crushed, bruised and lost her film to the fans, while attempting to take pictures at Cardiff.
The Post House Hotel, 11 miles from Bristol was made base-camp for two days and was booked to capacity. As a result I had to stay in a nearby hotel which locked me out the first night, as I stayed up to 2am watching Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam at the nightly Wings film show. BRISTOL HIPPODROME, WEDNESDAY, 8PM.
Fans are jammed in the tightly-packed seats of the grand circle and stalls as the show starts promptly. It runs for two hours, without supports or any other deviation from Wings’ appointed course.
Like the feeling generated within the band there is a strong family atmosphere, a sense of reunion, that affects the youngest Wings fans who know best the music of ‘Band On The Run’ and ‘Venus And Mars’ and can sing along softly to the words of every ballad; and the mix of young marrieds and adults come to hear their favourite songwriter of the decade.
The band lined-up with the brass section, somewhat distant at the right of the stage, raisedup but discreetly at the back, with Linda’s array of keyboards parked sideways, at the right. Jimmy and Denny spread out in front of Joe English’s diminutive drum kit, while Paul essays between the grand piano virtually hidden behind Linda, and a place at the microphone in line with the boys. A clever layout – nobody disappears to dominate anyone else.
The measured, plaintive tones of the ‘Venus And Mars’ theme introduce our hosts and then it’s into ‘Rock Show’ and ‘Jet’, stalwart rousing statements, custom-built for a touring band, which seem to epitomise the rock ethos. Like Elton John, Paul has a sense of history.
As the gig picks up momentum it becomes increasingly apparent that all past hints of amateurism and stories of incompetence have ever been expunged. A great amount of rehearsal had gone into ensuring that arrangements are delivered with accuracy, that solos slot into each appropriate moments, and above all to ensure that the confidence of each performer is unimpaired. As a result, Wings frequently sound like an orchestra.
It’s a strange band in many respects. Denny Laine, the Midlander who has experienced success and disappointment in his long career with The Moody Blues, his own String Band and later Ginger Baker’s Airforce, is flanked by the diminutive figure of Jimmy McCulloch, a chirpy, sometimes aggressive Glaswegian, who has been a respected lead player since he was a mere lad, working in such bizarre settings as Thunderclap Newman’s band, or with John Mayall and, most recently, Stone The Crows.
Both are prone to outbursts of wild behaviour offstage and display symptoms of inner frustration that can grip many a professional musician. Joe English however, has the business-like approach of the American engaged in advancing his career, his drumming funky and direct, its roots in the South. Whatever their differences in age, personality and background, somehow the group works, displaying a discipline that would be hard to find in many a band that has grown up together. “See if you remember this one,” says Paul, and ‘Lady Madonna’ has the audience clapping to the barrel-house beat. The band swap around instruments a lot. Denny plays bass, or doubleneck guitar as the occasion demands and Jimmy helps on bass too.
Meanwhile we’re into the measured grandeur of ‘The Long And Winding Road’, with its emotive brass arrangement from Tony Dorsey, emphasised by Joe’s sonorous tom-tom accents. A tremendous outburst of cheering greets his performance, but here is a pause onstage as Wings sort out who is going to announce the next tune, the only hint of disorganisation.
There is barely any stage gimmickry throughout the concert. No dry ice, laser beams or pantomime horses, just an occasional slide projection. And yet it holds the attention and provides more continuous enjoyment than any concert I can recall this year. Barely any of the songs extend beyond four minutes and there is none of the mind-wandering boredom that can be induced by bands who say virtually nothing in 30 whole minutes of blathering.
“All right – a bit of rock’n’roll!” yells Denny as at length the band return and launch into ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and eventually double the tempo to a shattering finale. The group return after more thunder to take a bow, but there are no more encores. Wings have literally exhausted themselves and have no arrangements left to play.
A babble of voices beak out as the crowds struggle to quit the building. You can judge a show’s appeal by the terse comments passed in the gents’ loo. “Didjer enjoy it?” “Yeah – really good.” Oddly enough, no one suggested “the throwback” should “go solo”. THURSDAY: POST HOUSE HOTEL, OUTSIDE BRISTOL.
Despite claims by some of the band to be hardcore ravers, there were no overnight excesses, such as might be endured on a tour with Zeppelin or The Who. Thus, Wings nose relatively early the morning after the Bristol triumph. The film shows seemed to provide a good substitute for aimless boozing and the talk was of treats to come, like Blazing Saddles, and French Connection II. Rumours of Deep Throat proved unfounded.
Even so, Wings were somewhat bleary-eyed when it was time to face the cameras for two lunchtime interviews set up in the hotel for BBC TV and Harlech TV. There was some delay while the band were being aroused and assembled and the crews jested, somewhat nervously, that it was: “Like waiting for an audience with the Pope – or General Amin.”
Eventually PR Tony Brainsby arrived, beaming through his glasses and singing: “We won’t be long!” to an old Beatles tune. “Right – yer on,” he added. “No screaming.” Paul and Linda led the way, Linda muttering an aside to the MM: “Am I ready for this?” The rest of the band followed, including Denny Laine’s baby, known to all as “Lainey”, who seems to have struck up an interesting line in dialogue with Paul, consisting entirely of them blowing raspberries at each other.
“OK, quiet please,” said the master TV technician above a burst of raspberries. The interviewers have assured they will discuss Wings and incorporate all of the Wings personnel. In the event the camera stays mainly on Paul who is asked why, as one of the most famous men in the world, and a rich ex-Beatle he carries on touring. Just what kept him going? “Drugs,” replied Paul earnestly.
“I must have them. No… I just like music.” Had he seen The Beatles lately? “We run into each other and stuff – we’re just good friends.” Was Wings really a logical development from the Beatles? “Well, I’ve always written songs, but with The Beatles we only ever rehearsed for three days – at the most. With this band we rehearse a lot.”
Was he looking forward to playing in Cardiff? “Of course,” begins Paul, but there is a rumble from Denny Laine, who says to nobody in particular: “When are they going to start speaking English there?” End of first interview.
Second interview. Why did Paul decide to go back on the road? “Well, either we sit at home and do it, or we play in front of people. Now it’s a pleasure to do it and we want to keep on working.” Would Wings ever become as big as The Beatles? “I think it could be, funnily enough. The whole thing is bigger now. We’re having a great time – we like to play music and people like to come and hear it.”
How different was Wings from The Beatles? “They scream at our concerts, but they don’t scream as much. People used to come and scream and didn’t hear any of the music. Now they can.” Did Paul want to bring back The Beatles?
“It wasn’t within my power to bring back The Beatles. It was a four-way split and we all wanted to do different things. We’re all very good friends. John is keeping very quiet at the moment while, fortunately, I’m out working… I like it.”
Paul tries to find new words to fit an old theme. What can you achieve now? “I don’t know – that’s a bit heavy that question. What do you want to do? I want to make really great records. Maybe your ambition is to do a really great interview and, when you do, well, you won’t want to give up, will you? You don’t ever give up. Everyone goes on.”
It was time to make a move and as the TV men packed up, Paul and Linda dived into a black Rolls-Royce, heading for Cardiff and the afternoon soundcheck. As we drove along the motorway, the TV crew zoomed alongside, filming through the window.
They weren’t angry, but the McCartneys seemed genuinely perplexed at the interest in things past when they had Wings fresh and new, waiting to be discussed. “I think they’ll go on asking those questions for ever,” sighed Linda. “The guy asked me what was there left to achieve, as if I’d done it all,” said Paul. He kept repeating to himself, “What is there left to achieve?”
It seemed to me that Wings had achieved a lot as a band that made its first tentative appearance on a secret tour of colleges a few years back. They seemed remarkably rehearsed and professional. “That’s the difference,” said Paul. “As I said, in the old days we might rehearse for three days. But we’ve spent months rehearsing with Wings.”
Said Linda: “If you’re going out into the world, it’s got to be good.”
“It’s better than I thought it would be,” said Paul: “We had worried that it’ll be over-rehearsed. We haven’t played to anybody for years and we were a bit nervous. I didn’t mind the silences during the songs at all and nobody seemed to mind the tuning-up when Jimmy broke a string last night. We saw Dave Mason’s concert in London, and he tuned up between every number and I used to think that was death.
“We rehearsed the band down in Rye in Sussex in an old cinema last summer, learning all the numbers. We could have rehearsed the chat between numbers too, but we thought that might make it seem to formal. Originally we weren’t going to allow that – chatting ad-lib. But audiences don’t seem to mind and, in any case, they seem to be Wings fans, calling out requests for old Wings B-sides.
“After The Beatles – well, I didn’t think anyone could be a Wings fan. The TV man kept asking me why I kept going and I wish I’d told him about Wings fans. That’s what’s left for me to do! I can see their point when they say, ‘You’re a family man now,’ but Charlie Chaplin didn’t stop after making one film.
“They say ‘Sgt Pepper’ was the best period for me and it was the best music at the time, but some of the stuff that happens now is better than The Beatles.”
Said Linda: “You could go on talking about The Beatles forever and all of them get so bored with it.”
“Why can’t they let us get on with something new?” demanded Paul.
“They’re still talking about… ‘George is the religious one,’ and ‘John is the nasty one,’ and ‘Ringo is making movies,’” Linda laughed. “They don’t seem interested in the fact that this is a working band. The people are up-to-date. It’s the press who don’t know what’s going on.”
“Do you still see John?” said Paul rhetorically peering out of the window at the TV crew still coasting alongside at 50mph. “I always feel a bit weedy when I answer those kind of questions, as I should have done more. Maybe I should have gone to see John more often. Maybe I should send him a telegram.”
“Maybe, if we do so many interviews, the press will get bored with us,” suggested Linda brightly. “I can’t think of anything that the word ‘press’ means that is nice,” said Paul with unexpected bitterness. But he cheered somewhat as the conversation turned to the choice of music for Wings concerts.
“Well, we wanted to choose stuff from ‘Band On The Run’ and ‘Venus And Mars,’ and we thought people would like to hear ‘The Long And Winding Road.’ The records are the arrangements. We could either play the songs like the records or stretch them out. We thought people would like to hear them just like the records. Tony Dorsey has done the brass arrangements and he used to work with Joe Tex.
“We’ve worked with the brass players individually before and Howie Casey is an old mate from Liverpool. The only problems we have had have been in rehearsals, where they were ironed out. Denny Laine turned up one day with a cut finger and couldn’t play for a couple of weeks. At last night’s show, I thought ‘Junior’s Farm’ was jinxed and Jimmy was breaking strings, so there was lots of bass and drums cover up. Before this tour started, I thought we should learn all the songs, and get them right.
“But we all have different musical tastes, and there is a lot of room for development. For instance, Joe doesn’t do a drum solo and we could bring that in later on.”
Did Paul enjoy the acoustic guitar section?
“I’d never been onstage on my own before and I was a little bit nervous. Then I remembered I’d sung ‘Yesterday’ on The Ed Sullivan Show in front of 40 million people. I love doing it.”
I expressed surprise at Paul’s skill as a pianist and guitarist.
“I started out as a guitarist. My first guitar was a Rosetti Lucky 7 – which was a plank of wood with strings. Then one night in Hamburg at the Star Club, I went on piano while Stu Sutcliffe was on bass. I used to play piano on a lot of Ray Charles numbers like ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’. So really I’ve been playing the piano long enough, so I should be able to play it!”
Paul hinted that he actually played a lot of lead guitar solos on old Beatles records, but said he didn’t like to put about his various skills as an instrumentalist. “I like to surprise people,” he said gently. Did Paul feel the Wings tour was a drain on his and Linda’s energy?
“Thirteen dates is not a heavy tour. And we’ve got two weeks complete holiday before we do a bit of recording. In November we go to Australia and all this is practice for that.” As the Rolls drew up behind the stage door, Paul remarked: “What makes me want to go out on tour again – is a decent audience.”
He disappeared into the thick of a crowd of fans, who magically materialised seeking autographs, while all around the office windows were filled with faces gazing down on the star in their midst.