Paul McCartney solo albums ranked: The 70s

1. Wings at the Speed of Sound by Wings (1976)

Wings at the Speed of Sound

In The Lyrics, McCartney claims that “There were accusations in the mid-1970s – including one from John – that I was writing ‘silly love songs'”. Paul’s response? To double down and write more of them. ‘Silly Love Songs’ spent five weeks at number 1 in the Billboard Hot One Hundred in America and reached number 2 in the British pop charts. Who’s laughing now? With a bubbling, popping bassline that wanders delightfully all over the fretboard above a lilting string arrangement and punctuated by catchy-as-hell brass and wind section riffs, it’s an irresistibly infectious piece of 70s pop and one of the jewels in the crown of McCartney’s back catalogue.     

But Speed of Sound isn’t just silly love songs. ‘Beware My Love’, with its echoes of ‘Reach Out’ by The Four Tops is Motown seen through the prism of 70s hard rock (the alternative version with John Bonham of Led Zeppelin on drums that appears on the Archive Collection edition is worth tracking down). The pedaling bass and militaristic drum and wind arrangement on ‘Let ‘Em In’ sounds like little else in pop. The song’s message of inclusivity is more relevant now than ever.

McCartney’s attempt to accentuate Wings as a real group affair rather than just an ex-Beatle and his hired backing band works to great and diverse effect. Guitarist Denny Laine contributes two highlights – an affecting lead vocal on McCartney’s ethereal ‘The Note You Never Wrote’ and a soulful performance on his own top drawer composition ‘Time To Hide’ (that hints at ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ in the verse), while Jimmy McCulloch’s Steely Dan-esque ‘Wino Junko’ features some excellent soloing. 

However, while I’m extremely reticent to indulge in anything that might appear to be Linda-bashing, the weakest track on the album by far is the under-baked, lightweight rock’n’roll of ‘Cook of the House’ which Linda sings and co-wrote with McCartney.  But it’s a minor irritation and doesn’t prevent this from being McCartney’s best record of the 70s. A joy from start to finish.  

Beatles Handbook rating: 5 Stars

Essential tracks
Silly Love Songs
Beware My Love 
Time To Hide
Let ‘Em In
San Ferry Anne 

Buy this album: Wings at the Speed of Sound by Wings

2. Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)

Band on the Run

One of McCartney’s best known records, Band on the Run is half a masterpiece. Side one (as it would have been on the original vinyl release) is solid gold, but the album seriously runs out of steam on side two. 

The title track, with it’s various musical sections threaded around a very loose lyrical narrative, has it’s antecedents in ‘A Day In The Life’, the suite of songs that closes Abbey Road and, as Paul Du Noyer points out in Conversations with McCartney, ‘Live and Let Die’ which McCartney wrote almost immediately before recording Band On The Run. The song had more than its fair share of  imitators, at least structurally, in tracks such as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ by 10cc, but none quite pull off the trick as well as ‘Band On The Run’.

From the meditative, melancholic opening with its lazily sliding guitar chords, wistful synth noodling and sweet vocal harmonies that’s ‘stuck inside these four walls’, to the broodingly angry distorted riffing of ‘if we ever get out of here’ that bursts into the euphoric acoustic strum that hopes ‘you’re having fun’, words and music are in perfect unison. In The Lyrics, McCartney explains that the theme of the song is freedom and that, “A lot of us at that time felt free from the strictures of civilisation. That’s one of the great things about rock and roll: it does allow you to break the rules.” McCartney evokes that renegade spirit perfectly in the line ‘we never will be found’, lending the band on the run a mythical other-worldly quality.  As an opener, it’s hard to beat. 

As for the following tracks, the words to ‘Jet’ remain delightfully opaque, even after reading McCartney’s ‘explanation’ in The Lyrics; the song is best enjoyed for what it is, a shouty old pop-rocker of the highest order. ‘Bluebird’ might be a slightly poor relation to ‘Blackbird’ but it still boasts a sublime melody that glides effortlessly over a blissful, relaxed bossa nova-like acoustic backing track. Although ‘Mrs. Vandebilt’ is a relatively minor McCartney work, it’s still packed with hooks and is a fine pop tune, and the repetitive, gritty Lennon-esque guitar figure on ‘Let Me Roll It’ slamming up against the bass and drum breakdown is a thrilling rock moment.  

Which brings us to side two. ‘Mamunia’ is a wafer thin slice of disposal pop with an irritatingly repetitive chorus; the word ‘ditty’ comes to mind, ‘No Words’ is like a pastiche of late period Beatles that could have been written by ELO or 10cc (i.e. beneath McCartney) and ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ is simply a dirge. Only the rousingly riff-tastic, piano-driven ‘Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five’ saves the day and brings things to a satisfying conclusion. 

As with Let It Be, the circumstances surrounding the recording of Band On The Run go a long way to explaining why it’s such an uneven listen. Two band members abandoned ship on the eve of recording. The regrettable decision to record in Lagos was made where the studio turned out to be half built, there was a cholera outbreak and McCartney was mugged. That anything was recorded is something of a miracle, let alone an album that contains several classics. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars

Essential tracks
Band on the Run 
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five  
Let Me Roll It

Buy this album: Band on the Run by Paul McCartney and Wings 

3. Red Rose Speedway by Paul McCartney and Wings (1973)
Red Rose Speedway

Red Rose Speedway is one of the most enjoyable albums in McCartney’s entire back catalogue, an opinion not many other people seem to share. Most damningly, producer Glynn Johns walked out on the recording sessions after four weeks, calling the music ‘shite’ and unimpressed by the band’s ‘lackadaisical’ approach, according to Man On The Run, Tom Doyle’s wonderful book on McCartney in the 70s.

Doyle also quotes Linda as describing it as ‘such a non-confident record’ and McCartney himself admitting ‘I don’t remember a lot about it actually. I think the fact that I don’t remember it too well bears that out’. Even Brian O’Conner of the Sodajerker song writing podcast, who chose the album for an episode of I am The Eggpod was equivocal about Speedway, calling it  ‘an overlooked entry in the Paul cannon…it’s by no means Paul’s finest work, far from it, but there’s just something about it that keeps bringing me back to it’.   

Du Noyer is more positive about the album in Conversations with McCartney, saying that the record marked ‘Paul’s commercial re-emergence’ following the ‘ramshackle’ Ram LP and ‘recovered some of the poise and consistency that was expected of Paul’. 

But I don’t care what anybody else says, Red Rose is a consistently great listen with no bad tracks. ‘My Love’ (I’m not sure anything more needs to be said about that guitar solo other than you ought to listen to it again right now) and the exquisite ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’ aside, it may not reach the heights of the best tracks on Band on The Run, but from the insanely catchy rocker ‘Big Barn Bed’ to the closing medley of ‘Hold Me Tight/Lazy Dynamite/Hands of Love/Power Cut’ McCartney proves that he’s at his best when he stops messing about (see most of McCartney) and embraces his melodic gift. 

Given his unrivalled reputation and achievements, it’s tempting to judge all of McCartney’s output against the standard of ‘towering masterpiece of popular music’ and anything that falls below that as somehow being unworthy of anyone’s attention.  Red Rose is not a towering masterpiece, but it is bloody great way to spend 42 minutes of your life. Give it a go, you will not be disappointed. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars

Essential tracks
My Love 
Big Barn Bed 
Little Lamb Dragonfly 
Single Pigeon
When The Night 

Buy this album: Red Rose Speedway by Paul McCartney and Wings 

Red Rose Speedway is one of the most enjoyable albums in McCartney’s entire back catalogue, an opinion not many other people seem to share.

4. Ram by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney (1971)
Ram by Paul McCartney

McCartney’s second post-Beatles albums suffers from both too many ideas and a paucity of them at the same time.  Overtly Beach Boys-influenced tracks such as ‘Dear Boy’ and ‘The Back Seat of My Car’ are packed with ‘baroque detail’ (Tom Doyle, Man on the Run) while tedious, chugging blues riffing sucks any interest from filler tracks like ‘3 Legs’, ‘Smile Away’ and ‘Eat At Home’. In between these two extremes, we find the six minute long, unnecessarily complex yet lumpen Hey Jude-alike ‘Long Haired Lady’ staggering on vainly in search of a melody that remains stubbornly furtive.  The John and Yoko diss track ‘Too Many People’ features some nice melodies and twangy guitar work, but a weak chorus and the endlessly noodling outro ultimately proves that negativity doesn’t best serve McCartney’s muse.  

But there are high points. ‘Ram On’ has a beguiling other-worldly feel, with a Beach Boy-ish melody soaring over a few simple strummed ukulele chords. In ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’, McCartney delivers surreal lyrics in an effectively scratchy, croaking growl over a mid-tempo stomping backing track with a great arrangement (including some nice BVs from Linda) that sustains interest over the five and half minute duration. ‘Heart of the Country”s laid back, bluesy feel, intimate relaxed vocal from Paul and memorable, hooky chorus make for an enjoyable listen. A minor transitional work; there was so much better to come. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars

Essential tracks
Ram On
Monkberry Moon Delight
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
Back Seat Of My Car 
Dear Boy
Heart of the Country 

Buy this album: Ram by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney 

5. London Town by Wings (1978)

London Town by Wings

A disparate collection of tunes that pinballs from catchy pop (‘With a Little Luck’, ‘Cafe On The Left Bank’) to funk and soul (the instrumental ‘Cuff Link’ and album standout ‘Girlfriend’) to touching ballad (‘I’m Carrying’) to folky strum (the Steeleye Span-ish ‘Children Children’, the forgettable ‘Famous Groupies’ and the memorable ‘Deliver Your Children’) to Beatle-like bluesy trudge (‘I’ve Had Enough’).

If that wasn’t enough, McCartney throws in an Elvis impersonation on the hard rocking ‘Name and Address’ and a helping of faux fiddle-di-de on ‘Morse Moose And The Grey Goose’. As the follow up to Speed of Sound, it’s a let down for sure but there are some exquisite songs including the beguiling title track and slow burning ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ (I do love a McCartney/Laine co-write) that make it worth persevering with.  Few would want to listen to the entire overlong, meandering mélange too many times, but there’s plenty to enjoy and admire here once you’ve picked your way through the clutter.   

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars 

Essential tracks
With a Little Luck
Don’t Let It Bring You Down
London Town 
Cafe on the Left Bank 
Deliver Your Children
I’m Carrying 
Backwards Traveller 

Buy this album: London Town by Wings 

6. Wild Life by Wings (1971)

Wild Life by Wings

The fact that there are two people named Denny playing on Wild Life (guitarist Laine and drummer Seiwell) might be the most interesting thing about this album. As Paul, Linda and their then new found mates bugger around for a good half of the 38 minute running time, I find my mind wandering. “Surely one was called Danny? I mean, it’s like Madonna making a record with someone else called Madonna. Or there being two Derrens, or Davinas. Did McCartney originally hire Denny Laine because his name sounds a bit like Penny Lane? Were the Dennys  referred to only by their surnames to avoid confusion in the studio, or did they have numbers, like Thing One and Thing Two? Two Dennys, what are the odds…”. 

When I can focus on the music as it drifts by, other questions occur to me such as ‘The title track, ‘Some People Never Know’ and ‘Dear Friend’ are all wonderful. Why didn’t McCartney just try harder?” and, “Hadn’t McCartney ever heard of EPs”.  That is perhaps a little unfair, as the four songs on what would have been side two of the original release hang together well and display many of McCartney’s best attributes as a songwriter. But it’s an uneven listen overall with McCartney still finding his feet in a post-Beatles world. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars 

Essential tracks
Wild Life 
Some People Never Know
Dear Friend 

Buy this album: Wild Life by Wings 

7. Venus and Mars by Wings (1975)
Venus and Mars by Wings

And it all starts so well. ‘Venus and Mars’ is one of those snaking ear-worm melodies that McCartney seems to be able to pull out of thin air. The chiming guitar chords and harmonising bass notes seem to be taking the music to somewhere unexpected. But suddenly we’re into ‘Rock Show’ and everything turns bog standard vanilla with McCartney wailing about ‘rock’n’roll at the Hollywood Bowl’ like he’s completely run out of ideas for lyrics. It’s just horrible. 

Although there’s far too much turgid 70s rock on the record, it’s far from all bad. There’s the haunting ‘Love in Song’, beautiful ‘Treat Her Gently’ and of course ‘Listen To What The Man Said’, a highlight of McCartney’s work in the 70s and one that foreshadows the treasures in store on Speed Of Sound.    

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars

Essential tracks
Treat Her Gently – Lonely Old People
Listen To What The Man Said 
Love In Song 

Buy this album:  Venus And Mars by Wings 

8. McCartney by Paul McCartney (1970)
McCartney by Paul McCartney

It’s worth noting the historical context in which this album was made before you read the damning verdict that follows.  McCartney’s first solo album was recorded while he was still officially a Beatle and during the band’s messy break up. It says something profound about McCartney’s unrelenting drive as a creative force (and his ambition) that he would seek to begin to establish his musical identity as a solo artist even as his role as band member/leader was being painfully taken from him.

McCartney unquestionably documents an important moment in popular musical history. But it also documents Paul dicking about by himself for the majority of the running time, making it an extremely unrewarding listen. But among all the under-developed, under-produced inconsequential whimsy, McCartney manages to pull out three stunners just to remind the world of his genius.

Although ‘Every Night’ would have benefitted from a more detailed arrangement, it is a beautifully constructed, hook laden ballad where a pensive melancholic verse  resolves effortlessly into a joyful, celebratory chorus. It wouldn’t be out of place on a late period Beatles album. It’s not surprising that it’s been covered many times, including a striking version by Richie Havens.  ‘Junk’ is a gorgeously simple acoustic ballad with a floating wistful melody and a lyric about consumerism that feels very contemporary.  But the true stand out is ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – the instantly recognisable piano riff, bluesy impassioned vocal, carefully constructed guitar solos and the remarkable lyric, a love song about ‘fear and loneliness’ as McCartney explains in The Lyrics

Despite the presence of these three classics, McCartney remains an album for completists only. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 2 Stars

Essential tracks
Maybe I’m Amazed
Every Night

Buy this album: McCartney by Paul McCartney

9. Back to the Egg by Wings (1979)

Back to the Egg by Wings

An album not worthy of your time.  The sophisticated blue-eyed soul of the Michael McDonald influenced ‘Arrow Through Me’ is a great track and ‘So Glad To See You Here’ provides Eagles of Death Metal with a template for an entire career  (the similarity to that band’s particular brand of perky, bouncing 12 bar riffing is really quite spooky) but there really is not much else to appeal in another motley selection of uninspired second and third rate compositions.

McCartney sounds uncomfortable in his own skin, trying on a variety of musical disguises, from the Bowie-ish ‘To You’ to the punky ‘Spin On It’, none of which really suit him.  Yes, he can pull off a jazzy 20s style ballad with ‘Baby’s Request’, complete with some lovely vocal harmonies, but the question is why bother? It’s a b-side at best and adds one more unnecessary ingredient to an already muddy musical stew. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 2 Stars 

Essential tracks
Arrow Through Me 
So Glad To See You Here 
Getting Closer

Buy this album: Back To The Eggs by Wings