It’s an album that flummoxed critics and fans alike at the time of its April 30, 1973, release, though it topped the charts in the U.S. and peaked at No. 5 in the U.K., and still flummoxes many now.
L.A. Times music critic Robert Hilburn, for instance, called it “another mediocre album from McCartney” in a May 13, 1973, review, while the cranky Robert Christgau damned it and Paul the same day in Ray Barone’s paper, Newsday: “I think he’s finished. The evidence is his fourth album since the split, Red Rose Speedway. Until now, I have been inclined to reserve judgment on Paul, who always had more natural fluency than his mates. McCartney was deliberately amateurish, Ram overproduced, Wild Life tame, but there was always the next one. Unfortunately, the next one is just plan ghastly.”
In a similar vein, Mike Kalina of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opined: “The lyrics are shallow and the melodies (weak also) have to struggle to carry them. Even Paul’s vocals are below par. Is the former Beatle’s talent evaporating? He certainly seems caught up in the energy crisis.” David Bond of the Salem (Ore.) Capital Journal, meanwhile, channeled his inner Rex Reed: “After carefully playing both sides of Red Rose Speedway, set it aside and whip side one from the Beatles’ white album on your ears. There will be no doubt in your mind that 1) Paul McCartney is really ‘dead,’ or, 2) all he contributed to the Beatles was a pretty face.”
Not everyone who heard the album despised it, however. Lenny Kaye, who’s now best known for playing guitar in the Patti Smith Group, found things to like about it in Rolling Stone’s July 15th review, calling it “the most overall heartening McCartney product given us since the demise of the Beatles.” Nicolette Handros of the Miami News, for her part, one-upped Kaye, saying that Red Rose Speedway was a “winner” and that “[i]t seems Paul McCartney and Wings are at last flying. Let’s hope they soar.” Her only complaints were inspired by the “au natural pictures of ‘Seaside Women’ and pictures of the group too small to appreciate” in the gatefold artwork and booklet.
Part of what inspired the vitriol can be attributed to the fallout from his split from the Beatles. Too, John Lennon’s caustic critiques of his erstwhile partner’s work didn’t help. But there was also this: distance. Rock writers in the U.S. didn’t have the chance to see him in performance. As Tony Palmer of London’s Observer newspaper noted in a review of a 1973 Wings concert in Bristol, “Certainly, Wings on stage is an altogether different sound from Wings on record. The latter is tame, even lame, whereas the former is undeniably vigorous and invigorating.” Another factor, which Palmer points out, are the records themselves.
Paul’s first DIY McCartney album, released in 1970, was heard as pleasant if half-baked. The contemporaneous reviews of Ram, which is now deemed an eccentric pop masterpiece, made Bond’s above critique of Red Rose Speedway seem like a rave. Wild Life, released in 1972, didn’t fare much better.
In truth, the album we’ve known and had mixed emotions about for all these years is a solid outing—not great, but not bad. When I first heard it, at age 13 in 1978, my favorite track was the 11-minute medley that closes the second side. In the years since, however, its high, high, highs for me include the rocking “Big Barn Bed,” harmony-heavy charmer “Single Pigeon” and two Ram leftovers, “Get on the Right Thing” and “Little Lamb Dragonfly.”
If Red Rose Speedway had been released as a two-LP set, which was the original plan, it may not have fared any better in the press, but it would have been a stronger overall set. As presented in the deluxe 2018 release, it’s home to a bounty of top-notch songs. Some say the decision to trim it to one LP came from EMI, while McCartney himself says in the deluxe edition’s photo-heavy tome, “Book editors always talk about how you can cut a thing in half, and it’s probably not going to hurt it if you keep the right one. I thought it’d be good to pull it down to the tracks that I really think are the strongest, and make a single album instead of a double album.”
To an extent, he kept the wrong half. The rollicking “Night Out,” “The Mess” and “Best Friend” would have upped the rock quotient, while the plaintive “I Lie Around” and “Country Dreamer”—both of which, like “The Mess,” found homes on b-sides—are far stronger than the 11-minute medley that closed the one-LP version. The same’s true for the Denny Laine-penned “I Would Only Smile.” That the gentle “Mama’s Little Girl” was left in the vaults until 1989, when it surfaced as the b-side/bonus track for “Put It There,” is mystifying. Remove the “Loup (1st Indian on the Moon)” and the medley and you’d have room for most of them.
The deluxe version also comes with an additional disc that includes singles, out-takes, early mixes and the like. At their best, the songs show the power of that early incarnation of Wings, which was in the process of becoming road-tested. There’s also a DVD that includes several videos for “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” plus ones for “Hi, Hi, Hi” and “My Love” as well as a live clip of “Live and Let Die” that blows the mind. Also present: the 1973 James Paul McCartney TV special that aired on ABC and ITV; it’s a pleasantly surreal affair.
I should mention that I began purchasing the Paul McCartney Archive Collection deluxe editions with the first one, Band on the Run, in 2010. It was a modest undertaking—one CD of additional material, a DVD that included a few videos and the way-cool One Hand Clapping documentary, plus high-res downloads of both the limited and unlimited versions of the CDs. The accompanying book was slim. Each successive deluxe release, however, has grown exponentially in size. In some cases, such as Wings Over America, it was (arguably, at least) warranted. In most, however, it’s overly indulgent. Which is why, back in ’18, I decided to jump off the deluxe bandwagon until the day comes that London Town and Back to the Egg are released. (I was also annoyed that the only way to attain the Wings Over Europe live album was to purchase the mammoth Wings 1971-73 set, which packaged it together with the Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway sets and, thus, carried an astronomical price tag.)
All that said, thanks to my wife (who gifted me this for Christmas ’21), I’m thrilled to add it to my collection. The original album is, as I said above, a solid outing from McCartney, who was still in the process of figuring out his post-Beatles career, while two-LP version is even better.
Here’s everything that’s included: