PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Red Rose Speedway’

Our latest installment in an exclusive series of articles on solo Beatles albums of the past features Beatlefan Contributing Editor Rip Rense looking back at “Red Rose Speedway,” the second album Paul McCartney did with Wings. The 1973 release had a rather discombobulated genesis — it originally was planned as a double-LP before being cut down — and Rense finds it to be a bit of a mess. Could some of the tracks that were omitted have made it a stronger album? Rense thinks so, and offers a suggested track listing. Check out what he has to say, and, whether you agree or disagree, feel free to add a comment with your own thoughts on the album!

red rose cover

In 1966, Paul McCartney wrote a love song to marijuana, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and in 1973, the marriage was still going strong. Reliable estimates say he was budgeting at least a full hour each day to keep his mouth joint-free. Well, a bit of hyperbole there, but one must wonder how much of a factor muggles played in the release of the absurdly slapdash “Wings Wild Life” album of ’72 and its ambitious but largely leaden, contrived-to-death follow-up, “Red Rose Speedway.”

Not that I found “RRS” contrived when it was new, back in spring of ’73, perhaps due to the fact that I was also having a bit of an affair with the herb at the time.

“Speedway” (what on earth does this title mean?) might have better been named for one of the many tracks left off of it: “The Mess.”

First off, McCartney had undertaken the doomed task of assembling a kind of Beatles replacement band, complete with ersatz George Harrison in the form of Henry McCullough, joining drummer Denny Seiwell (veteran of two previous Paul albums), Paul’s new quasi-writing partner, Denny Laine, and wife Linda. Perfectly laudable ambition, but, to abuse the metaphor often applied to The Beatles, this was no soufflé. Producer Glyn Johns, a veteran of Beatles sessions who bailed out of “RRS,” put it this way in Howard Sounes’ biography of McCartney, “Fab”:

“They said, you know, ‘We’re not happy with you as a producer. You’re not taking any interest in what we are doing.’ I said, ‘When you do something that’s interesting, I’m there. But if you think because you are playing with Paul McCartney that everything you do is a gem of marvelous music, you’re wrong, it isn’t. It’s shite. And if you want to sit and play shite and get stoned for a few hours that’s your prerogative, but don’t expect me to record everything you’re doing, because frankly it’s a waste of tape and it’s a waste of my energy.”

Second, the album was intended to be a double, a concept that was dropped well along, and with good cause, considering the wildly uneven content.

The ultimate “RRS” problem, aside from the forced nature of group and album, is that, in the end, the wrong songs were chosen for the record. Not that the “Speedway” sessions could have been culled into a great work — but, I think, a decidedly more genuine, lively one, and more representative of the band, as per McCartney’s initial goal.

red rose paulDie-hard Macca fans, of course, will take exception to these assertions, and to many that follow. Beginning with the fact that the lyrics on this work are, for the most part, things that only a pothead could love. Or better to say, tolerate. I give you: “O lazy dynamite / O lazy dynamite / Won’t you come out tonight / When the time is right / Or will you fight that feeling in your heart?

The album begins where “Ram” finished, literally, as “Ram” trails off with the apparently improvised line, “Who’s that comin’ ‘round that corner / who’s that comin’ ‘round that bend?” These same words open “Big Barn Bed,” the first cut on “RRS.” Promising! McCartney is saying that he’s going to build on the exuberance, color, whimsy of that winning, antic 1971 album (which holds up well today).

But the track, while well arranged and played, feels McChanical, lifeless, redundant. And then there is the question, why, exactly, does he want us to keep “sleeping in the big barn bed,” anyway? No room at the inn?

Next up is what was designed to be a McCartney classic, the lilting “My Love,” which I read as his labored attempt to write a “Something,” but with bad grammar. Think about it. The song has the big “whoah, wo-wo, whoah” theme that is a kind of stand-in for the recurrent main theme in “Something.” Both are simple love songs with beautiful George Martin orchestration, and both have the “big guitar solo” moment, in this case done stylishly by McCullough. The recording circumstances for the solo were even a rerun of the fabled “Something” session, in which Harrison played his solo live with the studio orchestra. McCullough did the same.

As for the grammar, I realize that pop music is not known for proper use of adjectives, but to this day I cannot reconcile the line, “My love does it good” with passable writing. It’s another of many cringe-worthy McCartney “first thought, best thought” indulgences. (Not to mention the vexing question, just what does “my love” do “good”?)

Still, this soppy number achieved what McCartney intended: No. 1 (in the USA) and classic status, which is largely a tribute to how badly the world wanted anything that sounded like a new McCartney Beatles ballad three years after the group broke up. (Note: Like “Something,” it comes second in album running order, Side 1.)

The next song, however, exudes all the esprit d’ corps of “Ram” — mainly because it’s left over from “Ram.” “Get on the Right Thing,” a wild-and-wooly rave-up, was not part of the “RRS” sessions, yet is one of two stand-out moments on this project. (The other being, ta-daa, another “Ram” leftover.)

“Right Thing’s” zest and surprise renders throwaway lyrics fun, and then there is its tried-and-true message, “Try a little love, you can’t go wrong!” No argument. Great, banging piano, too.

Next: “One More Kiss,” a perfectly innocuous, singable ditty of the old-fashioned ilk that Lennon derisively referred to as “granny music.” File it a tier below “Honey Pie” and (later) “You Gave Me the Answer” or even “English Tea.” Or two tiers.

“Little Lamb Dragonfly” is the other “Ram” refugee, a lovely little suite of two lovely little songs, and easily the most affecting music to find its way on to “Speedway.”

Just when you think things might devolve into treacle, they don’t quite, and the melodies have remained endearing and tender through the decades. This is a rare case where sentimental McCartney lyrics (“Dragonfly, fly by my window / You and I still have a way to go / Don’t know why you hang around my door / I don’t live here anymore. …”) are redeemed by their sincerity and simplicity. The story of Paul being partly inspired by the death of a lamb for the first part of the song (“I have no answer for you, little lamb …”) imbues poignancy. The man’s well-known immersion in nature gives this piece integrity and meaning, two things one too often wishes to find in his songwriting.

paul sings 73From here, the “Speedway” is all downhill, so to speak. “Single Pigeon” is a trifle that badly needed better, or at least more, writing. “Did she turf you out in the cold morning rain / Me too / I’m a lot like you” is cloying. This is an opener for Side 2 of a major album by a Beatle? McCartney sounds unconvinced by his own singing. The bit of orchestration that mysteriously erupts at the end, almost as an afterthought, does not add the weight apparently intended.

As for “When the Night,” well, it sounds like some kind of stilted attempt at 1950s-flavored soul, perhaps, written in about 30 stoned seconds. Linda is to be praised for nice harmonies, and when you’re down to citing Linda’s contribution as the main attribute of a Paul song, it’s nervous time. (Though he does some decent scream vocals at the end.)

It’s hard to say whether “Loup (First Indian on the Moon)”  is a step up or down from “When the Night.” You simply wonder, why? Why is this on an album? It’s a goofy instrumental, and not without a fun factor (I recall it being effective after a 1973 toke or two), but one was left wondering, then and now, why did a man of McCartney’s enormous talent and wellspring of melodic inspiration decide to put this stupid thing on a major release? Throwaway B-side of a single? OK. Or fodder for a “McCartney”-type homemade LP.

Then we come to the big finish — the medley. First was the fake “Something” on Side 1, and now the fake “Abbey Road” medley to finish Side 2. Ambitious, yes, and it’s assembled perfectly well.

But the material, oh, the material. This stuff makes The Carpenters sound heavy. In fact, the medley would have been a natural for The Carpenters to cover! The music is sort of generic McCartney fare, neither inspired nor uninspired, and not without infectiousness. Of course, McCartney’s music is deeply infected with infectiousness, so that’s a given.

But the lyrics, oh, the lyrics. “Make love to me and make it right.” OK, Paul, easy boy. And in “Power Cut,” when the ultra-cutesy echoes of the word “miracle,” appear, I am embarrassed to be listening (almost embarrassed to be human). How McCartney could not be embarrassed to write and sing this … well, maybe he was. So much for “Hold Me Tight (I lost count the number of times this phrase was uttered)/Lazy Dynamite/Hands of Love/Power Cut.” It’s Muzak.

Other than that, the album’s fine!

Which brings us back to “The Mess,” metaphorically speaking: what the album almost was, and what it could have been. McCartney, much to his credit, wanted “RRS” to be a band album. He (ridiculously) instructed bandmates to “just think of me as the bass player.” This was an interesting move, a nervy gamble that he need not depend on his Beatles legacy for success. But, after assembling all the tracks for a double disc at some point — a band disc, complete with the fluffy “I Lie Around” sung by Denny Laine — he seems to have decided to … depend on his Beatles legacy for success. Well, who could blame him? The pressure was on to recapture critical approval after “Wild Life.”

red rose bookletAn acetate mock-up of the proposed double-LP reveals what McCartney junked in favor of (quickly) writing an entirely new Side 2 of the single-disc “RRS”:  “Tragedy” (the 1959 hit by Thomas Wayne), the homespun “Mama’s Little Girl,” Laine’s “I Would Only Smile,” “I Lie Around,” “Country Dreamer,” “Night Out,” “Jazz Street,” “1882,” “The Mess.” And, seeing as the “RRS” artwork contains a reference to Linda’s Caribbean romp,“Seaside Woman,” it must be assumed that this was included in the mix at some point, as well.

Hard to say how this might have been received. Fans craved anything Beatle, so a two-disc work that willfully pushed Paul McCartney and Wings — emphasis on Wings — might not have gone over so well, especially considering what a mixed-bag pastiche this would have been.

Still, when you consider how utterly flat Side 2 of the finished “RRS” was, the double set becomes attractive, at least by contrast. “Country Dreamer” (eventually the B-side of “Helen Wheels”) is an engaging, unpretentious thing, with some “Ram”-esque bounce to it. “Tragedy” is a winning production and performance of a strong heartbreak ballad. “The Mess” is a thumping good rocker.

“1882” is an intriguing, rather grim narrative about a poor fellow reduced to stealing to feed his dying mother, only to be sentenced to death. Not exactly “Big Barn Bed!” A studio version was done, but the choice here was a live Wings performance (with great singing).

“Night Out,” largely an instrumental (also recorded live), has more energy than the entire released “RRS” album (minus “Get on the Right Thing.”)

Even “Mama’s Little Girl,” while not much more than a slight singalong, is pleasant and unforced. “I Would Only Smile” is light, innocuous, and “I Lie Around” sheer stoner comedy. “Jazz Street” (perhaps one of the stoned jams that drove Glyn Johns nuts) is execrable, endless, and deserved the cutting room floor it got.

Still, the end result, combined with tracks from Side 1 of the finished “RRS,” is a double-album that at least is surprising, unpretentious (!), and diverse in style, texture, color. It solves the “contrived-to-death” problem of the finished “RRS.”

wings 73The probable truth of the matter is that there was a much better single album to be made from the “RRS” sessions. I’m a fan of “what if,” and I wonder: What if McCartney had been less confused about his direction at the time? What if he had asked for more help from George Martin? What if Martin had been allowed to do what he wanted to do with The Beatles’ White Album: pare it down to one very strong single disc? What if some very strong singles and other songs recorded during the creation of “RRS” had been included on the album? (Rolling Stone complained about the absence of the boffo single “Hi Hi Hi.”)

Well, here is my what-if:

Side 1: “Hi Hi Hi,” “My Love,” “Get on the Right Thing,” “Country Dreamer,” “Best Friend” (a fine uptempo call/response shuffle, live version), “Little Lamb Dragonfly,” “Soily” (one of McCartney’s most underrated and creative rockers, cut during the “RRS” sessions)

Side 2: “Live and Let Die,” “Mama’s Little Girl,” “Big Barn Bed,” “Seaside Woman,” “1882,” “Tragedy,” “The Mess.”

At seven songs a side, if that’s too much, drop one from each side, or turn it into, yes, a double album by keeping all 14 tracks, and adding “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” (a fine protest song), “Night Out” and “I Would Only Smile.”

Either way, single or double, I think the results are far superior to the released version of “RRS,” which has not held up as well as any other McCartney/Wings venture, excluding “Wild Life.” (Though “London Town” is competitively forgettable.) And it would have the band integrity that McCartney originally wanted — more Wings instead of Paul McCartney and Wings.

Of course, McCartney’s version of “Red Rose Speedway” (of which even he has said less than complimentary things in retrospect), wound up at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, never mind no one could make sense of the title. Which, again, really illustrates two things: first, how badly people wanted anything resembling a Beatles album in 1973, and second, how a little pot can really help one to relax critical standards. Or a lot of pot.

Rip Rense

 

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12 Responses to PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Red Rose Speedway’

  1. BeatleTom says:

    Always liked exactly 50% of this album – side one. Importantly, it’s a believable stepping stone between the dreadful “Wildlife” and the superb “Band on the Run”. Not sure the leap would have been believable otherwise.

  2. Slab says:

    I happen to think “Single Pigeon” is a lovely little song, but aside from that I think you hit the nail on the head here. I was 14 when the LP arrived in 1973, I bought it on release day, and from that moment the artwork – the busy, contrived “grooviness” of it – struck me as kind of repellant. Seen “James Paul McCartney” lately? That’s the companion piece to RRS, and it’s sickly and cloying and every bit as pretentious (and lame) as the album. Not a good period for the boy.

  3. ttuerff says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Half an album, and not a very good one at that. Don’t think I’ve listened to it in 30 years.

  4. Howie Edelson says:

    For a more in-depth look into “Red Rose Speedway” — check out BEATLEFAN #201
    – Howie

  5. Geepster says:

    Enjoyed that. This album has never been one of my Macca favorites. Always found “My Love” “soppy” as well, and never got the appeal of “Little Lamb Dragonfly.”

  6. Wings Jer says:

    RRS is a somewhat complex and confusing album at the same time. Like Beatle Tom said, it is a stepping stone from “Wild Life” to “Band on the Run”. I think side 1 is a keeper and maybe his best solo vinyl side up to that point (side 1 of Ram maybe tops it?) Get rid of “One More Kiss” and put “Night Out” instead and it is even better. The gold CD Re-issue about 10 years ago showed a sonic improvement was possible from the original dark/muddy production. As far as Glyn Johns, as the new Eagles documentary showed, he is very “full of himself” and eventually managed to get booted as the producer of the biggest selling American band in history so I take what he says about “RRS” with a grain of salt. Lets not forget Glyn also helmed not 1 but 2 rejected “Get Back albums”! Now enough with Glyn, back to “RRS”.

    I got married to “My Love” 11 years ago and simplistic lyrics aside, it is still a soft rock classic and still garners a lot of airplay (especially on satellite radio). It will always be one of Paul’s best known ballads (Beatles, Wings, Solo etc.) of all time. I also feel that “Little Lamb Dragonfly” is very Beatlesque and one of the top 5 underrated Paul songs of all time (again including all parts of his career). I await how this album is handled when the Archive Collection inevitably returns to the Wings days. I feel that “RRS” coupled with “Wild Life” would come after “London Town” and “Back to the Egg”. Out of 4 stars I would give “RRS” 2 1/2.

  7. James Percival says:

    My introduction to RRS was a friend’s tape when we went nightfishing. We weren’t stoned, but it had a similar crazy feel I suppose. Later I got a second hand vinyl copy (which I still have) but generally had a poor impression of the album. Just a slight improvement on Wild Life which is the only Macca album I don’t own. I then got the 90s re-release on cd and found myself playing it quite a lot recently. For some reason I had forgotten just how good Little lamb dragonfly was, but it is the only one I like apart from the commercial and sometimes cloying My love. So I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. At the risk of repeating what has been written so often about Macca, not only can be be trite and lightweight in his approach, he is also not the best judge of his own work. A friend of mine (owner of the original tape all those years ago) put me onto the superiority of so much of many of his b sides and unreleased work. I certainly agree with the suggestions for improvement, but I would add I Lie Around, which to me is one of those great B sides (sung my Laine, but not written by him I seem to recall).

    I really love your blog and it is exactly what I would like to do if I had the time and inclination. Ultimately Macca’s reputation will not stand and fall on this period of his career, but boy did he plummet quickly!

  8. James Percival says:

    At the risk of missing the point, I meant to comment on the title. ‘Speedway’ (what on Earth does this mean?) is a form of circuit motorcycle racing in the UK, and probably at its peak of popularity in the 70s. Apologies if you knew this, but some may not, and then pondered the significance of the the motorcycle and helmet on the cover.

    The other thing, in the interest of balance, is that for all the inconsistency of Macca’s albums at that time he was still churning out the big hits such as My Love, Hi Hi Hi, Live and Let Die (the start of his renaissance) and Helen Wheels (and with the aforementioned strong B sides). So in one sense he was maintaining his profile even if the dedicated fans probably felt disillusioned and short changed.

  9. jgkojak says:

    Great points –
    I would leave off the two singles (Live and Let Die, Hi Hi Hi) and go with
    SIDE ONE
    1. Soily
    2. Best Friend
    3. My Love
    4. Get On the Right Thing
    5. Country Dreamer
    6. I Lie Around
    SIDE TWO
    1. Big Barn Bed
    2. The Mess
    3. Mama’s Little Girl
    4. I Would Only Smile
    5. Tragedy
    6. Little Lamb Dragonfly

  10. Shaun says:

    Ok I’m gonna say it so stand by……this is my favourite Paul McCartney lp. Little lamb dragonfly is beautiful and the medley….ahhh the last bit of power cut makes the hair stand up on my neck every time I hear it. It’s the lp I listen to a lot. Looking forward to the deluxe edition soon

  11. Bill says:

    Thank you Shaun! I love this album dearly. Although it could use some sprucing up (HI HI HI and Country Dreamer in exchange for Loup). I love the ideas for new versions here and can only hope that there will be a deluxe edition. Love to all.

  12. Sebastian says:

    Fantastic write-up and right on the money. Thanks!

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