Wild Life: One McCartney Album’s 40-Year Journey From Appalling to Amazing
This article is from our friends at Trunkworthy
The Advanced Genius Theory author Jason Hartley explains why the first Wings album makes glorious sense now that indie rock’s lo-fi, psych-folk leanings have caught up to where McCartney was in 1971.
Imagine, for a moment, that as a teenager you and your best friend started what would become the most famous band ever a few years later. You graduate from playing for gangsters in chaotic German clubs to entertaining the Queen at the Prince of Wales Theatre in less time than it takes most people to graduate from college. You tour without stop, your fame making it impossible to interact with anyone but your band. Then you stop touring and become a cultural touchstone for the first generation that would ever need such a thing. Every word you say is scrutinized, often misconstrued. Somewhere along the way you become an adult, your friend finds a new wife, and making music with him seems less fun, no matter how much you try to make it so. You leave the band acrimoniously. You have no idea what to do next. You can barely get out of the bed, and when you do get motivated, it is mostly to drink or make music by yourself. There are two things that save your life: a woman who loves you and an idea for a new band called Wings.
Though only Paul McCartney can truly know what that felt like, we can at least get a sense of it through Wild Life, a record that is playful and harrowing, sloppy and virtuosic, loving and bitter. For decades, critics have abused it, using words like “flaccid” (Rolling Stone, 1971) and “appalling” (also Rolling Stone, 1992) to dismiss the album as an unfocused collection of throwaway tunes McCartney should have spent more time perfecting. But the rushed nature of the recording ensured a level of emotional honesty that tends to disappear through multiple takes and rearrangements. Still, our brains are wired to accept easy ideas as truthful more quickly than challenging ideas, so a polished recording is usually more immediately accessible and pleasurable. Wild Life was not polished, and was therefore dismissed by many who never gave it a real chance. But you don’t have to make the same mistake.
I’ve asked you to imagine what it must have been like to be McCartney around the time he conceived Wild Life, but if the record is good, maybe you shouldn’t need any context to enjoy it. Likewise, perhaps it shouldn’t be necessary to know that the record sounds at times like it could be the latest from, say, Dr. Dog or an early effort from My Morning Jacket (though it does). And while I would love to say I have the power to ignore all context and give a straight review, I can’t. Still, it’s not a cop-out to say that Wild Life is audacious, prescient, and ultimately satisfying precisely because it is by Paul McCartney and it was recorded more than 40 years ago.
The satisfaction comes eventually, but the audacity arrives in the opening moment, when we hear Paul telling someone named Tony to “take it.” This is followed by a jam that most bands fall into when they are warming up or are sick of playing structured music. The vocals are more for sound than meaning and take a backseat to what for most people was an anonymous group of musicians with a suspiciously good bassist. There are more accessible songs on the record—“Tomorrow” is a nice pop number that would have been an obvious point of entry for the average Beatles fan—but McCartney wasn’t interested in anything obvious. If he had been, he certainly wouldn’t have followed a rock jam with another catchy little nonsense thing called “Bip Bop” and then a reggae cover of “Love Is Strange.” Of course, McCartney’s gift for melody is such that we think of “Bip Bop” as merely catchy, as if creating a song that will stay with you (tenaciously) is a matter of deciding to do so. And while I admit the world might be a better place with fewer non-reggae musicians doing reggae versions of non-reggae songs, we might give Paul a bit of credit for cutting this well before rock audiences were hip to Bob Marley and before Eric Clapton covered “I Shot the Sheriff.”
By the time the last song of side one is set to begin (ah, vinyl), the listener has yet to hear a proper original song. If you thought following up OK Computer with Kid A was gutsy, think about giving your fans exactly nothing they have expected from you for nearly an entire side of your new band’s first record. And your old band was The Beatles. Not only was an average listener not prepared for something like this, critics weren’t either. Unpolished albums from huge rock acts just didn’t exist in those days, with a very few notable exceptions (Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait comes to mind, and critics were down on it too). So rather than hearing the raw aimlessness as a Statement, they thought McCartney simply couldn’t be bothered to put together a “real” record.
Arguably, the real record starts with “Wild Life,” the side-A closer. The lyrics ask, rather straightforwardly, what has happened to wild life. In all honesty, I don’t know if there are multiple levels to this song (certainly the line about “political nonsense in the air” makes me think there are), but given that McCartney typically likes to give “arty” twists to his lyrics when not talking about love, I would guess there is something deeper on his mind than the fate of animals (and sometimes “aminals”) in the zoo. It doesn’t matter. McCartney delivers a vocal-cord-shredding performance that recalls the Little Richard imitations (“wooo!”) from his early Beatles days, but rather than being an expression of exuberance, this sounds like profound agony. The tension between the (seemingly) bland lyrics and the emotion with which he sings them is one of the moments where the rawness of the album pays off. It’s certainly possible that the song might have become more nuanced lyrically, but that would have been at the expense of capturing an emotion that was clearly fresh. It appears to me a clear expression of the turmoil he had experienced after losing his band and his friend, but it is also the sound of letting go of that turmoil.
If side one is about a band’s coming to understand what it will be, side two is about misunderstanding. First, with “Some People Never Know,” McCartney sings of the primacy of love among the emotions and the foolishness of not recognizing it. The principle fool in the song appears to be Paul himself, who says, “I know I was wrong, make me right.”
McCartney’s primary dissatisfaction of the time was the state of his relationship with Lennon. In the immediate aftermath of The Beatles’ breakup, the two exchanged insults in the press and in their songs. After growing up together in public, it probably made sense to them to grow apart that way as well, but allowing the media to arbitrate a disagreement left both of them miserable. McCartney seems to have understood the cycle needed to be broken, and since their war had been over the airwaves, he made his attempt in the album’s closing song, “Dear Friend.”
The subject of “Dear Friend” is the shared pain resulting from the dissolution of no less than the most important friendship in the history of popular culture, and it feels exactly like that in every aching note. The song is not purely conciliatory, but it is a turning point in the former partners’ dialog. He’s not ready to forgive, but he is ready to admit that he is acting out of hurt, not maliciousness, to show some vulnerability along with anger. The song is more complete, more arranged than most of the album, but it fits perfectly as the closer.
Intentionally or not, the sequencing of the album progresses through a tangle of styles and emotions, coming to rest on something recognizable as a completed composition by Paul McCartney, formerly of The Beatles. He has found himself through the process, but he doesn’t want to move on without a step toward reconciliation with Lennon.
In starting Wings, the band that would eventually prove his worth outside of The Beatles, McCartney allowed us to see that he is human, not a haircut, not a melody machine, and barely even a celebrity. In 1971, the year of Led Zeppelin IV, Aqualung, Who’s Next and Sticky Fingers, Wings’ Wild Life wasn’t what rock fans wanted, it wasn’t what Beatles fans expected, and it wasn’t what McCartney fans were hoping for. In hindsight, this was almost a heretical act of artistic bravery. But it hardly sounds that way in 2014. Not just because McCartney has continually challenged and surprised us ever since, but also because Wild Life sounds like so much of where indie rock landed 40 years later.
Jason Hartley is the author of The Advanced Genius Theory. The Advanced Genius Theory began as a means to explain why icons such as Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Sting seem to go from artistic brilliance in their early careers to “losing it” as they grow older. The Theory proposes that they don’t actually lose it, but rather, their work simply advances beyond our comprehension. The ramifications and departures of this argument are limitless, and so are the examples worth considering, such as George Lucas’s Jar Jar Binks, Stanley Kubrick’s fascination with coffee commercials, and, of course, Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career.