Underrated: Cleared for take-off

If you go by simple arithmetic, a pop career pursued by one Beatle should be precisely a quarter as good as one pursued by four. The theory doesn't stand up, though, because it may be more or less true of George Harrison's solo output, but John Lennon's is generally about half as good without the other Fabs and Ringo Starr's is somewhere between a 100th and a 1,000th.

As for Paul, he has sometimes been nearly as good as the Beatles and sometimes nearly as bad as Ringo. Most of the superior songs happened under the umbrella of Wings, the band set up in 1971 as a casual touring outfit who, in 1973's Band on the Run, came up with one of the most tightly conceived albums of that decade. 'My Love' and 'Listen to What the Man Said' could easily have been late Beatles songs representing the two McCartney styles: mournful and down-tempo or cheery and up-tempo.

Wings signed off as they started: like Wings Wild Life (1971), Back to the Egg (1979) was a stinker that has its fragrant moments. In between, the quality of their albums describe a perfect parabola - rising from the patchy Red Rose Speedway to Band on the Run and Venus and Mars back down to the patchy Wings at the Speed of Sound. The only blip in the chart is London Town from 1978, an unfairly disregarded album in which McCartney's compositional skills range from the sea shanty through the yokel folk-song to melodic celebrations of childhood. Also there was the triple live album Wings over America, most of which is good enough to justify the decision not to skimp with an edited-highlights package.

Even though the whole back catalogue was recently released on CD, it is still regarded as something of an embarrassment to confess a fondness for Wings. The name is the first hurdle: they might as well have gone all the way and called themselves Feather or Furry Friends. Another problem was that they never quite slotted into any of the prevailing AOR trends of the time. Though fronted by one of the two most successful songwriters of the century, they weren't quite clever or solipsistic enough to be a singer-songwriter outfit. Despite a semi-dabble with the concept album on Venus and Mars, they weren't a pomp rock band either. Nor, despite perpetrating what at the time was Britain's biggest- selling single ('Mull of Kintyre'), were they just a singles band.

They invited scorn mainly because McCartney pressganged his tone-deaf wife into the band. Linda took her place on keyboards and backing vocals and even, on a paean to vegetarianism called 'Cook of the House', sang lead. It wasn't a great song, but then nor were a few of the numbers that, in a nod to democracy, McCartney allowed the rest of the band to sing.

Some of them were, though. His sidekick Denny Laine could never be Lennon but with the raspy nasal tincture to his voice you could close your eyes and pat him on the back for having a go. But as if to confirm that it was always McCartney who pulled the strings, Laine sold him his share of the writers' royalties for 'Mull of Kintyre' before going bankrupt in 1986. Since Wings disbanded, McCartney has had his biggest hits with 'Wonderful Christmastime' and 'The Frog Chorus'.

(Photograph omitted)

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