Basically, there are two things that rock bands do: they make an album and they go on tour. Since Paul McCartney fervently wanted to believe Wings were a real rock band, he had them record an album or two and then took the group on the road. In March of 1976 he released Wings at the Speed of Sound and launched a tour of America, after which he released Wings Over America, a triple-album set that re-created an entire concert from various venues. It was a massive set list, running over two hours and featuring 30 songs, and it was well received at the time, partially because he revived some Beatles tunes, partially because it wasn't the disaster some naysayers expected, and mostly because -- like the tour itself -- it was the first chance that millions of Beatles fans had to hear McCartney in concert properly (the Beatles had toured, to be sure, and had played before millions of people between 1963 and 1966, but as a result of the relatively primitive equipment they used and the frenzied, omnipresent screaming of the mid-'60s teen audiences at their shows, few of those present had actually "heard" the group). Wings were never a particularly gifted band, and nowhere is that more evident than on Wings Over America. Matters aren't really helped by the fact that the large set list gives McCartney full opportunity to show off his vast array of affected voices, from crooner to rocker to bluesman. Also, the repertory, in retrospect, is weighted too heavily toward the recent Wings albums Wings at the Speed of Sound and Band on the Run, which weren't really loaded with great tunes. (It's also hard to believe that there were two Denny Laine vocals so early in the program, or that the concert ended with the plodding rocker "Soily," which was never released on any other McCartney album.) In its defense, the album offers bracing renditions of "Maybe I'm Amazed" -- arguably the best of McCartney's post-Beatles songs and possibly his single greatest composition -- and "Band on the Run," as well as nicely distilling the harder side of his repertory, with a few breaks for softer songs such as "My Love" and "Silly Love Songs"; another highlight is the rippling bass sound, showing off that instrument in a manner closer in spirit to, say, a John Entwistle solo LP than to McCartney's more pop-focused studio work. The triple LP, issued two weeks before Christmas of 1976, was priced so low that it was offered by most stores as a "loss leader" to pull customers in; what's more, the Beatles mystique was still very much attached to the record and artist alike -- at the time, John Lennon had seemingly burnt out a major chunk of his talent, George Harrison was losing his popular edge and had done a disastrous 1974 American tour, and no one was expecting great things from Ringo Starr -- and it seemed like McCartney represented the part of the group's legacy that came closest to living up to fans' expectations. Thus the album ended up selling in numbers rivaling the likes of Frampton Comes Alive! and other mega-hits of the period, and rode the charts for months. The double-CD reissue offers considerably improved sound, though the combination of workmanlike performances and relatively pedestrian songs diminishes the appeal of such small pleasures as the acoustic Beatles set or the storming "Hi Hi Hi." Wings Over America is most valuable as a souvenir for hardcore fans and also as a reminder of the excitement -- beyond the actual merits of the group's work -- that attended McCartney and Wings' work in the lingering afterglow of the Beatles.
Wings Over America cemented Paul McCartney's status as the one Beatle who conquered the globe. McCartney's secret was visible in plain sight: he formed a new band and toured them hard, establishing himself as a concert draw in a way none of his fellow Fabs ever did. Wings Over America celebrated the success of that new band, commemorating the chart-topping of 1976's Wings at the Speed of Sound and then becoming a blockbuster in its own right. In its original triple-vinyl incarnation, Wings Over America felt indulgent, but its 2013 deluxe edition is absurdly generous, containing a remastered version of the album proper, a bonus CD recorded at the Cow Palace, a DVD containing a 75-minute documentary called Wings Over the World, plus all manner of tchotchkes designed to satiate fans willing to spend over 100 dollars on a single album. The package is handsome, even seductive, and the album itself has gained stature over the years: what once seemed liked a cash-in for Christmas now has historical resonance, signifying the band's strength in an era when their innate musicality was often dismissed. The bonus material replicates songs on the album -- versions that are no better and no different than the ones on the LP, so they only argue that Wings were pretty consistent in the mid-'70s -- but they're still nice to have, which is an argument that can also be made of the album itself. Perhaps the album is not necessary, but it is winning, charming through strength and willpower. McCartney knew what he was doing when he formed Wings: he knew he had a songbook that could satisfy an arena's worth of fans and a band that could deliver the tunes. If the album isn't quite a classic, it does represent its time in an unhurried, unselfconscious way: this is what big-budget rock sounded like in the mid-'70s, and expanding it to such an extravagant size doesn't hurt it because it always was bigger and bolder than its competitors. And better, too: decades later, Wings Over America sounds better now than it did at the time. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Bruce Eder