An Exclusive Discussion Of Beatles '1' And New 'Wingspan'
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An occasional feature column of analysis and opinion regarding music industry issues by Billboard's editor in chief.
By Timothy White
Now seems an apt moment once again to listen to what the man said. In an era marked by cynicism and rife with pop music that melds misogyny and other bigotries with seductive beats, it's instructive to reconsider the singular career path of Sir James Paul McCartney.
Not only a legendary songwriting force in the Beatles -- whose "1" album has either been at or near the top of The Billboard 200 albums chart for more than 16 weeks -- McCartney was also the founder of the popular follow-up to the Fab Four, a plucky outfit he called Wings.
"We had certainly decided to just go and wing it -- no wonder we ended up calling the band Wings," McCartney mused with a grin during a March afternoon of conversation and recording at Jim Henson Studios (i.e., the one-time A&M Records compound that began as Charlie Chaplin's landmark movie lot), located just off LaBrea Avenue.
Rather than aping the sound McCartney helped shape with the Beatles, Wings was more personal and stylistically prismatic in tone, its often ruminative sense of diversity tempered by considerable pop/rock craft. As made clear on "Wingspan" (MPL/Capitol/EMI) -- a two-CD commemorative anthology due May 8 that will be accompanied by an ABC-TV special and followed by a holiday boxed set of Wings rarities, studio outtakes, and previously unissued performance documents -- Wings' signature was a colorful and welcoming power-pop sound, meant to be heard live to a greater extent than ultimately possible with the superfame-encumbered Beatles, and its songs celebrated the peaks, valleys, and consoling plateaus of everyday life.
As the ensuing conversation reveals, McCartney's personal life has proved a wellspring for his public art, with the period that "Wingspan" preserves being an especially dramatic, fulfilling chapter. It's only fitting that during our talk this family man was periodically -- and happily-interrupted by contact with his children, specifically a phone call from 31-year-old daughter Mary, who produced, directed, and co-wrote the "Wingspan" TV documentary with husband Allaster Donald, and a studio visit by her half-sister Heather, 37, from Linda's first marriage (she was adopted by Paul in '69). Linda died of cancer April 17, 1998, six months after the world premiere of the acclaimed "Standing Stone" classical tone poem he composed in tribute to her and the family they raised together.
McCartney's son, James, 23, is a musician who guested on Paul's 1997 "Flaming Pie" album, and fashion designer Stella McCartney, Paul's second daughter by Linda, was born in September 1971 in King's College Hospital, London -- the band name Wings originally sprang to her dad's mind as he waited outside the delivery room, "praying like mad."
McCartney took this writer downstairs to hear some works in progress he was cutting with producer David Kahne for a future solo album. One of the most touching was a hymnlike homage to his late wife, with a refrain that included the poignant line "You're still here." Just as McCartney's music -- whether with the Beatles, on his own, or in Wings -- seems uncommonly worthy of chronicling, so is his quietly compelling legacy as a public figure, private citizen, husband, and father.