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That '70s Rock Screed And The Man Who Saved Wings

If anyone out there has been foolish enough to "follow" the self-indulgent music ramblings that Steve Rhodes has been kind enough to let me post on this fine site, they'll know that, unlike a certain prominent Chicago daily newspaper rock critic, I'm one of those mentally straitjacketed music fans who truly believe that the '70s were indeed the be-all and end-all of rock 'n' roll, both in its best moments and its worst excesses. While there's been plenty of great popular music since then, there's never been the same level of great rock 'n' roll.

The combination of the huge baby boomer pool of young talent to draw from, the pervasive egalitarian political and cultural climate, the obsession with the blues and the freely available sex and drugs made for a musical Petri dish that we'll never again have in this country. I don't blame Generation X or Y for being somehow lacking because their rock 'n' roll doesn't have the same power and meaning - it can't, any more than, say, cable television pundits can have the same social impact as Walter Cronkite-era CBS News did. It's about the times and circumstances just as much than the actual creative achievements. And while I wouldn't go so far as to completely agree with the thesis and title of music writer Dave Thompson's latest book, I Hate New Music: The Classic Rock Manifesto - I know where he's coming from.

So, with that in mind, here's a '70s rock band that I think personified the era more than any - Wings. I mean, Paul McCartney's post-Beatles outfit . . . their ups and downs say so much about the decade. I'm not going to waste your time getting all windy about their place in my Midwestern U.S. boomer experience. Suffice it to say the way they reflected the passions and pitfalls of the '70s is profound on many levels. And here - we're finally getting around to it - is the bit of news that set me off on this whole Wings/classic rock screed: I was kinda surprised to see that one of the early members of Wings, a guitar luminary who also happens to be the only Irishman to play at Woodstock, is still around and kicking, with a new album out, albeit apparently only available in Ireland, at least in stores.

The guitarist in question is Northern Ireland's Henry McCullough. His Woodstock appearance was as a member of Joe Cocker's Grease Band, where his ultra-bluesy Gibson guitar licks lurked in and out of the horn section, peeking out between Cocker's dozens of wailing back-up singers and Leon Russell's boogie-woogie piano. But McCullough's guitar solo on "With a Little Help From My Friends," in my opinion, was probably one of the three or four top highlights on the festival (Jimmy Page played it on the studio version). It was a transcendent, and dare I say, sublime and important moment in the history of rock? Yea, verily.

Woodstock, though, was a bit before my time. I'm one of those pesky late boomers who didn't really come of rock age until the early '70s, and so, it is with Wings that I remember McCullough. After a short stint in the British proto-prog rock band Spooky Tooth, he was recruited by Paul McCartney in the difficult period shortly after the Beatles break-up when it seemed Macca would be relegated to the twee-pop novelty world of "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." The first official Wings album, 1971's Wild Life, had laid a big egg. It was the lightest, fluffiest, cutesy-est kind of crap McCartney had ever done. I know he and Linda were deeply in love and all, but geez. This album almost killed the career of one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. There's been bits and sprinkles of these kinds of "silly love songs" from Macca ever since, but to have such a concentration of them at a time when folks were still deep in post-Beatles mourning was a blow.

I'm not going to say that Henry McCullough single-handedly rescued McCartney or anything. But I don't think it's a coincidence that when he joined the McCartneys, Denny Laine and drummer Denny Seiwell in late 1971, he injected a hard-rock bluesiness that the nascent Wings desperately needed to balance out Paul and Linda's then-overwhelming sappiness. The first thing the five did with McCullough was to go on a European tour playing small venues, getting back to the rock 'n' roll roots. McCullough described this period to The Irish Independent this week, saying, "We toured Europe in an open-top bus that had been painted in the Sergeant Pepper vein. If you're floating around in the south of France in a psychedelic open-top bus, you don't have too many cares!"

I bet.

Then, with the Irishman in the band, Bloody Sunday happened in Belfast and suddenly Wings got a bit more controversial. They released "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" that got banned from the BBC because of politics, and another, "Hi, Hi, Hi" that was banned because of lewdness. Awww-right.

But perhaps McCullough's greatest moment in Wings came when the group scored its first U.S. No. 1 with "My Love" from Red Rose Speedway in 1973. Yes, another love song. But it wasn't silly. And it wasn't silly mainly because of McCullough's aching guitar solo. It was the song that really brought Wings back from the dead and showed the high school me that Macca still had a glimmer of rock left in him.

Wings/My Love

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McCullough's other big achievement with Wings before he left was performing on the George Martin-produced "Live and Let Die." This is a weird, alternate take of the song, in which which Paul literally gets blown up.

Wings/Live And Let Die

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Nowadays, McCullough has a new album out called Poor Man's Moon. He still plays a mean acoustic blues guitar, and here he's cut a collection of amiable numbers that include some outright country songs and gospel ballads. The Irish Independent says the disc is a collaboration with his old friend Eamon Carr, the former Horslips drummer and . . . oh my God . . . current rock critic with the Dublin tabloid The Evening Herald. So, really, how good can it be? I've listened to samples from all the songs, and while I like McCullough's guitar work (who wouldn't?), his croaking vocals are, shall we say, weather-beaten? They'd probably sound better after a few a draughts of Guinness.

Henry McCullough. While I indeed don't hate new music like Dave Thompson, I think Henry's an example of why the '70s will always rule when it comes to rock 'n' roll. Even the bit players made a difference then because the market, which was just being corporatized, was so huge and the stakes so high for so many suckers like us who took rock 'n' roll so damn seriously.

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From the Beachwood Country All-Stars to Dylan's Grammy Museum, the finest bones of rock 'n' roll are rattlin' 'round Don's Root Cellar.



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Posted on October 6, 2008


MUSIC - The Week In Chicago Rock.
TV - Cricket vs. Brexit.
POLITICS - Trailer: Swing District.
SPORTS - Ryan Pace's Narratives Are Killing Us.

BOOKS - Chicago For Dummies.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Sears Motor Buggy.


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