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Album Review: Venus And Mars by Wings
Venus and Mars are alright tonight
Reaching a soaring peak with the resounding success of Band On The Run, Paul McCartney was faced with a task of rebuilding Wings in order to go out on a world tour to support his smash album plus Wings' forthcoming Venus and Mars.
He recruited a young lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch. McCulloch was a guitar prodigy who was a full ten years younger than McCartney and though he was dedicated to his craft as a guitarist, he was equally a dedicated party animal. Geoff Briton was also added as a drummer for part of the album but was later turfed in favor of Joe English.
McCartney specifically wrote much of Venus and Mars with the intention of promoting it live during his forthcoming world tour. It would be a fairly long world tour covering two years and two album releases (Venus and Mars, Wings At The Speed Of Sound).
Venus And Mars/Rock Show
The opening guitar strains starting off this track would indeed be the opening notes heard in every major stadium of the world during the 1975-6 world tour. A simple yet melodic tune with a synth intro, finds McCartney singing about his "start of the show". This brief start is brilliantly followed by some shifting chords as if to get ready for the powerful transformation of "Rock Show". "Rock Show" is a perfect showcase rock number in order for McCartney to get the crowd on its feet to a fevered pitch. It features a chromatic guitar step by Jimmy McCulloch. The number rises and falls("The lights go down...) in order to rise and rock again. The album version features a fade to a lone piano riff which gets electrified by the swooshing bass sound that can only be described as signature McCartney. The excited jam then fades into...
Love In Song
McCartney slower tempo "Love In Song" has almost an East Indian feel to it. Certainly, if George Harrison had been present during this recording, he surely would have suggested at least one sitar to be on the track. The track features McCartney's vocals at his finest. The track is very atmospheric and reflective and perhaps for this reason, it was not selected to be used in the later world tour nor on Wings Over America. Even the sliding strings at the end would have been something right up George Harrison's alley.
You Gave Me The Answer
All through the Beatles' career, McCartney made a strong habit of writing show tunes which were mostly jokey and half the time did not go anywhere. They were highly entertaining enough to eventually be included on later albums. A good example of this is When I'm 64 that was put on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Could McCartney write another show tune to be performed on the upcoming tour? Of course. Hearkening back to the thirties, McCartney croons here to a delightful, light dance hall number complete with muted trumpet and brass. Upper class snobbery to the point of whistling and talking about an invitation to a "cup of tea", it is surprising that the Queen was not brought into the song although McCartney did refer to "the aristocracy".
Magneto And Titanium Man
A rollicking song about strange dialogues with cartoon characters, "Magneto And Titanium Man" is more goofy than anything else by McCartney and typifies some of the fluff that critics were leveling at the group. McCartney himself must have felt in a fluffy mood for having chose to perform this song over the deeper "Love In Song". Perhaps he did so, in order to take advantage of the cartoon visuals during the live performance on tour. It is during this track, one starts to notice a more raspy tone developing in McCartney's voice especially with the more rock tone. That rasp in his voice would be more pronounced with each successive Wings album to the end. Jimmy McCulloch does a great job with the agitated guitar solo on this track.
As if to apologize for the previous track, McCartney presents a heavier rock number to show off his versatility as a rock performer. The guitars are sliding and slinky here with a heavy bass punctuation. Track is complete with brass hooks that could only be weaved in by McCartney. While the track is full of interesting hooks and ideas, it feels over-saturated to the point of being synthetic. Perhaps there is too much compression that robs the track of a lively feel. Or it could be that McCartney was trying to hard to appeal to a new generation into the harder rock scene. The good news is that McCartney gives his horn section more meat to work with during the heavier rock moments.
Venus And Mars (Reprise)
Soaked in so much reverb and pseudo-psychedelia, McCartney opens the second side with a reprise of the title track. This rendition of Venus and Mars would have felt more at home on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour than a Wings' album. The backing vocals at the end were so overdone with reverb that it could be used as a torture device to send someone off the edge. Thankfully, it concludes in a unified hum that leads into...
Spirits Of Ancient Egypt
Denny Laine takes the lead of this McCartney tune and is faced with the task of singing some fairly bizarre lyrics involving the "Irish Sea" and "stew". Both this and Venus and Mars Reprise have not aged very well. Unlike some of other McCartney's material, not even live performances of this song or the backing truck sound could save it from its mundane character.
Wow. A Wings' track that does not feature either a vocal performance nor a writing credit from Paul McCartney. Jimmy McCulloch takes center stage here with wah-wah rock at its finest. Ironically, Jimmy is singing about counseling against the very thing that probably killed him - drugs. The track pretty much rocks from start to finish and the younger generation (most notably McCartney's children) seemed to have taken to this during the world tour. The track features Linda McCartney "the mom" on backing vocals must have sent shivered mixed signals to the younger McCulloch fans.
Call Me Back Again
As if to remind everyone who's the boss, McCartney follows up Jimmy's "Medicine Jar" with his own "golden age of rock" number "Call Me Back Again". The music has a slow Sha Na Na feel to it. The lead guitar weaves all the way through this and also returns to make an appearance in the closing track "Crossroads Theme". In contrast to "Medecine Jar", this track exudes a certain boredom or mundane feel. Part of this is caused by the slow drawn out chorus of "Call Me Back Again" and partly also due to the guitar solo being harmonized. Whatever the reason the blandness of this track could not keep McCartney from performing it live for the next two years.
Listen To What The Man Said
McCartney's pop gem of Venus and Mars is presented deep on the second side of the album. Much like Band On The Run, he seems to have tapped into the summer magic of song. This was a big hit in the summer of 1975 and it was the main reason why the album did as well as it did. Filled with an infectious groove, a great opening guitar licks and great lead and harmony singing, it was final proof that McCartney had indeed rediscovered his hit making touch. The song's playful and silly nature made it a natural precursor to McCartney's next big hit, Silly Love Songs. The melody was so good here that it duped a mass of listeners to sing Love is fine for all we know, for all we know our love will grow... without even breaking into a shade of red shame. Of course one could not let the track go until joining in the falsetto "Wonder of it all, baby.." The track abruptly takes a sharp turn with an orchestra movement that leads into...
Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People
McCartney goes into sentimental override here and the track drags unmercifully far too long. McCartney who was 33 at the time refers to himself and presumably Linda as two lonely old people "eking our lives away". Exactly who he thought would be sympathizing with this very sorry set of lyrics is quite the mystery that remains to this day. One could clearly picture any of McCartney's children ripping the scratching needle through the vinyl, saying "Get with it, Dad." before resetting the needle back on "Medicine Jar".
The only reason that this could possibly be used to be put on the album much less conclude it would be to convince the producers of the show Crossroads to replace the old theme with this new one. Of a particular note here is the great tone on the drums (especially the toms) that Joe English acquired on this track. The track concludes with a mystery voice (probably an engineer) proclaiming "Last space clear."
While Venus and Mars does not encapsulate the same spirit of Band On The Run, it is nevertheless an ambitious album. The primary raison d'etre of the album was to be a vehicle for the impending tour and in this light, the album quite successfully set out what it was intended to do. Aside from "Listen To What The Man Said", the other singles did rather poorly but it did not matter since the aim was to go out on the road.
The album did well enough to knock Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy out of the number one album spot. Though it was diverse, entertaining and full of musical ideas with contributions from the band, Venus and Mars will forever hide in the shadows of Band On The Run due to its unfortunate bad luck to have had to follow it up. McCartney would take the blueprints of this album and inject a similar formula for Wings' next project Wings At The Speed Of Sound.