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At the Speed of Sound

Capitol SW-11525
Released: March 1976
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 51
Certified Platinum: 5/3/76

Paul McCartneyIn his post-Beatles albums, Paul McCartney has proven himself a clever miniaturist whose records resemble collages built around simple musical fragments, each of which is painstakingly produced. While some have dismissed McCartney's music as insufferably cute, uninspired trivia, all of his albums contain at least some worthwhile music.

The solo John Lennon explored (often brilliantly) the sociopolitical potential of late Sixties rock mythology, cultivating a cult of personality to become the most critically popular Beatle. Paul McCartney became the most commercially successful of the four lads by developing into a bravura producer/arranger (especially of singles) as well as a genteel pop archivist devoted to fusing his contribution to the Beatles legacy with mainstream pop. For latter-day McCartney, the megaphone, the brass band and the seedy English music hall tradition are parts of the same musical equation as rock & roll: pop and pop only.

Wings - At the Speed of Sound
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Venus and Mars, the last Wings album, was a collection of miniature pop love songs, deliberately tricked out with kiddie sci-fi and comic love lyrics. It was whimsical romantic entertainment concocted on the premise that a lot of good pop music carries no literary or mythical portent whatever. But within its frivolous schema, McCartney systematically explored the textural dimensions of conventional pop music sounds.

At the Speed of Sound doggedly continues in the same vein, but with much less effervescence. Where Venus and Mars was framed by the astrological motif, At the Speed of Sound ostensibly invites the listener to spend a day with McCartney and Wings -- a day in which the listener is gently harangued as well as entertained.

"Let 'Em In" begins with door-knocking sound effects, out of which steps a marching band. Like most of the rest, "Let 'Em In" puts a simple musical theme through carefully arranged changes. The melodic idea is small, but quintessentially McCartneyesque in its provincial jollity.

With the electronic soup-slurping sounds that open side two, one notes that it is almost time for lunch on this imaginary visiting day. But first the McCartneys answer those critics who lashed out at Venus and Mars's lovebird verses with a tract in defense of moon, June and spoon, "Silly Love Songs." It's a clever retort whose point is well taken; the center of the song focuses on the syllables "I love you," which Paul and Linda reiterate with the insistence of phonetics instructors, weaving the phrase through a disarmingly lovely three-part chorus. Homeyness then climaxes with Linda singing "Cook of the House," complete with sizzling pan and running water. A surrealist concept like side one's first-rate "The Note You Never Wrote," "Cook" is a rockabilly nursery rhyme. Though the instrumentation is excellent, the song fails because of Linda's colorless, amateurish singing. (Those with feminist sympathies will also detest this celebration of scatterbrained wife-in-kitchen coziness.)

If "Silly Love Songs" is acceptably didactic, the album's closing number, "Warm and Beautiful," pushes the point too far. The opening chords suggest a parody of Lennon's infinitely superior "Imagine" and the ultrasimple melody and lyrics suggest a parody of Lennon's "Love," serving up, with apparent sincerity, the stalest pop ballad clichés ever to emerge from an English music hall. Perhaps McCartney is trying to remind us that these tiresome clichés might well outlast the pop music many critics call art. Or perhaps it is an attempt to transcend cliché by being the biggest cliché. Or perhaps "Warm and Beautiful" is simply on of the worst songs Paul McCartney has ever written.

While there is much to admire on At the Speed of Sound, it is contained in the production more than the material. Ultimately, this album lacks the melodic sparkle of Venus and Mars, which in its turn lacked the energy, passion and structural breadth and unity of Band on the Run, Wings' finest album. No one rocker on Speed matches the spirit of "Jet" or "Band on the Run" from Band, while no ballad even begins to approach the majesty of "My Love," from Red Rose Speedway. As a whole, At the Speed of Sound seems like a mysterious, somewhat defensive oddity by a great pop producer who used to be a great pop writer. Like all McCartney and Wings records, At the Speed of Sound is spectacularly well arranged and recorded, with McCartney continuing to demonstrate his special affinity for using brass in surprising and witty ways. The playing is laboratory perfect. McCartney, like almost no one else, seems able to play the studio as an instrument. Though it's a wonderful gift, I hope it doesn't distract him from songwriting more than it already has. For the best McCartney songs will most certainly outlast all the studios in which they were recorded.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 5/20/76.

Bonus Reviews!

Here is an album of occasionally brilliant nonsense presided over by a master of dazzle. With one exception, the material is weak and Paul McCartney's vocals are lazy or self-indulgent. Yet, somehow, the thing is almost marvelous. The opening cut, "Let 'Em In," is a pointless tune with lyrics that must have taken Paul about two minutes to write (they include a reference to Phil and Don Everly, from whom Lennon and McCartney got many of their ideas about vocal harmony) and an arrangement featuring a razz-ma-tazz horn section. The presentation is designed to be charmingly amateurish, with just enough mystery about it to tantalize you. "Beware My Love" is an excuse for some high-toned blues hollering, as was "Oh! Darling" on the Beatles' Abbey Road album. "The Note You Never Wrote," the only standout tune on the album, could have been sensational if Paul had sung it, but he inexplicably assigns to vocal to group member Denny Laine.

Why, then -- since Paul is merely rewriting his inferior later-period Beatles material and singing songs not suited to his voice -- why is the album almost marvelous? Because, Beatle mystique aside, McCartney is a jim-dandy arranger and orchestrator. He is the only one of the ex-Beatles to possess such skills, and he can rely upon them when his songwriting lags. You may have heard all this before, and it was 'way better the first time around, but the McCartney magic still works.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 7/76.

The only substantial talent in this group is bassist-producer Paul McCartney, and he's at full strength only on the impassioned "Beware My Love," although "Let 'Em In" and "Silly Love Songs" are charming if lightweight singles, and "She's My Baby" sounds like an outtake from the "white" double-LP by McCartney's former group, the Beatles. In any case, the supporting cast is disgracefully third-rate. The vocals of guitarist Denny Laine are even lamer than those of McCartney's wife and keyboard player, Linda. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Released the same month as the start of Paul McCartney's first post-Beatles tour of the U.S., this album stayed at number one seven weeks and featured the number one single "Silly Love Songs" and the Top Ten "Let 'Em In." Without the hoopla, it's actually a mediocre effort not helped by having other members of Wings contribute songs, although it contains one of those lost McCartney gems, the rocker "Beware My Love." (The CD contains three bonus tracks culled from non-LP singles: "Walking in the Park with Eloise," "Bridge on the River Suite," and "Sally G.") * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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