Released on March 31st, 1978, Wings’ London Town album wasn’t well received by the rock press at the time. Rolling Stone’s Janet Maslin described it as “so lighthearted that the album’s feeling of familial strength and affection is virtually the only thing that binds it to earth” in her review, for example, and – if my memory’s correct – Dave Marsh slammed it in the (blue) Rolling Stone Record Guide a few years later.
Don’t believe the disses.
While not a five-star album from Paul McCartney and pals, the 14-song set features an enjoyable mix of soft rock, pop and light psychedelia. The keyboard-driven title track, which opens the album, is a good example, with its whimsical lyrics painting a colorful scene: “Walking down the sidewalk on a purple afternoon/I was accosted by a barker playing a simple tune upon his flute/Toot, toot, toot, toot/Silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London town…”
Musically, it eschews the new strains of rock bubbling up from the streets (aka punk and new wave), with the brief guitar break at 3:25 instead conjuring the old-school vibe of Abbey Road instead of, say, “Anarchy in the U.K.” It’s an airy delight. The second track, “Cafe on the Left Bank,” continues the timeless sound; in some respects, it echoes Paul’s work on Rubber Soul and Revolver.
Just as McCartney sidesteps punk and new wave, the disco beats then heating up the pop charts are nowhere to be heard on the album. Instead, we’re treated to “I’m Carrying,” one of McCartney’s most unheralded love songs:
I should back up for a second here to explain the album’s background: It began life in early 1977 when Wings regrouped in the studio after their mega-successful 1975-76 world tour. Reportedly, the plan was to record a new album and return to the road – but Linda’s unexpected pregnancy (with son James) caused the McCartneys to change their mind about touring again anytime soon. Instead, in the spring, they headed to the Virgin Islands, where they rented a few yachts, one of which they turned into a recording studio, and enjoyed a working holiday. (In a sense, you could say it’s actual “yacht rock.”) As Paul explained to Melody Maker that same year, “There was a nice free feeling. We’d swim in the day and record at night.”
It’s understandable, then, that the laidback recording sessions led to a laidback sound; and, as if he needed it, the notion of being a dad again likely buoyed Paul’s natural optimism, which is on full display in the album’s lead single, “With a Little Luck.”
The single fades out a minute-and-a-half earlier than the album version, however, and the coda on the album version is quite cool. (As I wrote long ago, this song is what led 12-year-old me to become a McCartney fan. First I bought the single, then the album. And when I heard the longer version, it blew my little mind.) How anyone can hear it and not be swept away by its unbridled hope is beyond me.
“I’ve Had Enough,” which closes Side 1, is an old-school rocker that could well have been written at any point in the preceding 15 years. Written and recorded during the yacht sessions, it protests everything from backseat drivers to the taxman: “I earn the money and you take it away/When I don’t know where you’re from/I should be worried but they say/It’ll pay for a bomb…”
Another of my favorites is “Deliver Your Children,” a driving folk-flavored number and one of five tracks written by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine. In this instance, it was a song that Denny had been working on since the Venus & Mars sessions; Paul helped finish it.
“Girlfriend,” which McCartney wrote for Michael Jackson to record, is another highlight. (McCartney recorded it first, obviously, with MJ getting to it in 1979 on his Off the Wall album.)
Another track I enjoy, though some might not, is the closing “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose,” a sprawling, eccentric rocker in the mode of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”; it’s also a broad hint of what’s to come on McCartney II.
The bulk of the songs feature the classic Wings Mach II lineup: Paul, Linda, Denny, Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English, although guitarist McCulloch and drummer English flew the coop midway through the sessions – McCulloch to the reformed Small Faces and the American-born English back to the States, as he’d grown homesick.
On the charts, the album didn’t do as well as expected (No. 2 in the U.S., though it did go platinum, and No. 4 in the U.K.), which set the stage for the following year’s Back to the Egg. But make no mistake: Despite a few stumbles (“Children Children” and “Famous Groupies”), it’s a solid set that’s sure to please all but the most hard-hearted.