If it weren’t for the fact that it is already a physical reality, shiny and blue in its CD case, then a 40-track best of retrospective of Paul McCartney and Wings might sound like the winning answer in a drink-fuelled parlour game. Challenged to devise, say, a fantasy remainder bin, what title could be more anarchically preposterous than the best of Wings, a combination of words surely destined to be forever contradictory?

This summer, though, this shiny blue reality hit the shops, closely followed by a two-hour documentary on Channel 4 that used home movies to go behind the scenes as McCartney attempted to rebuild his life after the Beatles, start a family and form a new band, all at the same time. Guaranteed to have unreconstructed Lennonists in a terrible lather, Wingspan, the title of both the album and the film, also offers a flag around which Paulines can rally. Okay, the remote control needs to be close at hand, to speed any but the most swivel-eyed fan past the crash sites of Mull of Kintyre and Pipes of Peace. But, once you’ve tailored the double CD to your tastes, what emerges is a body of work that is almost heroic in its restless creativity (and its willingness to make dreadful mistakes). Not as good as the Beatles, of course, but not as bad as Lennon’s final album, the appalling and justly traduced Double Fantasy, either.

Wingspan’s unspoken aim, however, is more controversial and, many would argue, unattainable. It is nothing less than the overhaul of McCartney’s artistic reputation, beginning with his Wings work, but leading on, in a second documentary due for broadcast later this year, to a complete reassessment of his contribution to the Beatles. The timing of the record’s release, just six months after the phenomenal success of the Beatles 1 collection, adds to the impression of a concerted campaign. Doubtless there is an innocent explanation, but George Harrison’s dig at McCartney’s "talent" for opportunism in last year’s Anthology book seems pertinent, and a useful counterweight to Macca’s relentlessly thumbs-upping and artless public image. Yet it is surely important for the sake of balance to take a fresh look at McCartney’s solo career, with or without his heavy prompting - if only in an attempt to locate a plausible defence, after three decades where counsel for the prosecution, in the form of Lennon fanatics, purse-lipped music journalists (often the same thing) and damning exhibits such as the Frog Chorus, have had it all their own way. The results of this exercise are interesting - it would be tempting to go further and describe them as conclusive, but no one in their right mind uses the C word in the context of the Beatles. Whether the acceptance you sense McCartney still yearns for is forthcoming - well, not even postmodernism at its most accommodating has shown signs of finding room for Wings. Time, though, for Exhibit A.

Wingspan the album consists of two CDs of, first, the hit singles McCartney and Wings notched up between 1970 and 1980 (when the band folded), and second, the singer’s personal selection of proudest moments from the same period. If they were by anyone else, these twin towers would represent an impressive testament. Effortless love songs - My Love, Every Night; hook-filled pop singles - Coming Up, Listen to What the Man Said, Let Em In, C Moon; darker, more complicated rock - Too Many People, Let Me Roll It; longer, more complex constructions - Back Seat of my Car, Band on the Run; and quintessential McCartney whimsy - Junk, Another Day (with its very Beatley line, "Slipping into stockings, stepping into shoes, dipping in 20the pocket of her raincoat").

What’s more, re-encountering this music helps join the dots between McCartney’s Wings period and the work being produced today by bands that grew up listening to him - most likely as part of their parents’ record collections. The influence is clearly audible in the music made by people such as the British acoustic duo Ben and Jason, strongly fancied newcomers the Bees, the French back-catalogue-raiders Daft Punk (the track Digital Love on their new album is pure Wings) and Phoenix, and any number of the "soft boys" of the so-called New Acoustic Movement. It’s unlikely that these bands would admit to it, but the similarities are too strong to be accidental.

It is the fact, though, that Wingspan is the work of a former Beatle, one half of the most successful and influential songwriting partnership of all time, that makes the compilation both semi-miraculous and, conversely, in danger of sounding like little more than a collection of doodles and sketches, a mildly diverting distraction after the big canvases people have queued to see. As McCartney will confirm, things play a little differently in Beatle land.

Lighten up, mate, I want to say (although, of course, I don’t) to the well-preserved 58-year-old sitting only inches away in the enormous office building he owns in Soho, and talking about the flak he has always attracted. The "Jesus Christ, it’s Paul McCartney" moment had occurred earlier, and now the musician who helped soundtrack our lives has taken on an eerie familiarity. Oh, collywobbles remain for sure; that, and the temptation to touch him for some of the folding stuff (after all, he’s reportedly worth £713m; it’s not as though he’d miss a few bob). But after a lifetime of seeing him and listening to him, the experience of finally encountering this potentially tongue-tying icon becomes merely an extension of that continuous line. Chatting to Paul McCartney on his sofa - hasn’t every one of us, in a way, been doing that with all the Beatles for years?

"I, particularly, took a lot of flak with John," he says, in anticipation perhaps of the renewed assault he may be about to face. "The break-up, and then of course when John died … very tragically. Obviously, people’s sympathy is going to go to him, including mine. But the picture did get a bit muddy round about then, people did go over the top, and say, well, it was only John, the other three were just hangers-on."

It didn’t help that, while McCartney was launching his post-Beatles career by taking his musically callow wife Linda on the road with him and releasing a single called Mary Had a Little Lamb, his erstwhile partner was recording an album that many, to this day, consider to be the finest thing ever achieved by a solo Beatle. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, with its visceral, therapy-induced catharsis scored into every track, announced in uncompromising terms just what its creator thought of his old band. "I don’t believe in Beatles," Lennon sang. "I just believe in me."

God knows the old arguments don’t need rehearsing again, but the ultimately fatal differences between the duo seem crucial to what happened to both of them subsequently. For if, in Fab Four terms, Lennon had always represented rebellion and McCartney continuity, then, while the former spat his defiance at the whole Beatles phenomenon as only he knew how, the latter, characteristically, knuckled down, fixed a grin to his face and got on with the job.

"The end of the Beatles was traumatic for me," McCartney says now, adding that "it was a feeling of escape, definitely", and likening the period immediately after he took his bandmates to court to dissolve the partnership - an act which puts him, in the eyes of some Beatles fans, beyond redemption - as "like sagging off school, getting out round about lunchtime and knowing you’re not going back that day. Suddenly I was experiencing that feeling again".

And it would be far too simplistic to judge his work of that period as being only about twee nursery rhymes. It took, after all, an almost ostrich-like stubbornness to hire a van and head off up the M1 with his new band, in search of gigs, just months after bringing about - however sound the financial and legal reasoning behind his action - the downfall of the most popular act in the world.

"I realise now," McCartney says, reflecting on the beginning of Wings, "that I didn’t actually know how to form a group, I’d never had to do it. I’d joined one, the Quarry Men, which was readymade. Suggesting that George came along and showed John how good he was on guitar, that was all I’d really done. Networked a bit." Which is one way of putting it.

If his chutzpah, in retrospect, seems remarkable, then so too does his courage, not least in deciding to enlist his wife in the band. "She was a real trailblazer there," he says, determined as ever to look on the bright side about a choice that left many Beatles followers shaking their heads in disbelief. "In bands now, there are certain girls who say, oh yeah, we saw her doing that and thought, so us girls can do it now." Footage of early Wings performances suggest that blazing a trail may have been the last thing on her mind - finding the right note on the keyboard could be closer to the truth. To his credit, McCartney is happy to acknowledge this. "She was, by her own admission, not the world’s greatest musician," he concedes, with touchingly loyal understatement. "But many bands, when they start, not everyone knows how to play. When the Beatles started, we just sort of made it up. You start off with four chords, C, A minor, F, G, and the permutations of those were all the Beatles’ early songs."

It is this insistence on continuity, of bracketing, by implication, his work in the Beatles together with Wings, that remains, for some, McCartney’s most questionable trait. But a more charitable interpretation might be to see his hyperactivity since the Beatles’ demise - which has encompassed solo albums, several less-than-successful attempts at classical composition, an exhibition of paintings and, most recently, a book of poetry - simply as an ongoing coping mechanism. A particular type of almost certainly American shrink would no doubt describe it as "searching for closure".

And, viewed as a 30-year-long frenzy of displacement activity - brought about by the demise of the Beatles, the brutal things Lennon then went into print to say about him, the assassination not long after of his closest friend and one-time partner-in-genius, and the death three years ago (from the same disease that killed his mother) of the wife he had married just as the Beatles disintegrated - it begins to make sense, as well as making you realise that, for McCartney, there was no other choice. In the Beatles he was a singer who wrote songs. And, when that part of his life finished, rather than take up a new profession, not surprisingly he continued being a singer who wrote songs.

He is the first to admit that the consequences of that decision weren’t easy. "Whenever we judged Wings," he says, in a phrase that refers to him and his wife, but could just as easily describe the record-buying public at large, "because it was in the shadow of the Beatles, we always came up with an inferior judgment, which then became almost the word on the street. It was always judged in the light of the Beatles."

He isn’t wrong. Wings may have been many things, but they were never, ever cool. Somewhere between minor irritant and major embarrassment, yes, but cool? Yet, just as listening again to the songs on Wingspan invites a radical reassessment, so does a thorough inspection of the evidence yield illuminating facts, and strip McCartney of some of the squeaky-clean gloss we have imposed on him. Yes, he released a version of Mary Had a Little Lamb - but it was intended as an ironic gesture, following the BBC’s banning of his two previous singles, Hi Hi Hi (too druggy), and Give Ireland Back to the Irish (too darn hot). And Lennon’s heroin-sniffing, cold-turkeying antics obscure the fact that McCartney himself felt the long arm of the law on several occasions, not least in 1980 when he was briefly imprisoned in Japan after being caught with an almost industrial quantity of grass in his suitcase.

"We felt it was like prohibition," he recalls, of the climate in Britain in the early 1970s. "Yes, there were risks, as it turned out - for quite a few of our friends it led on to much harder pastures. But for us it was relatively mild." Yet the law kept calling. "There was one bust in Scotland, and the reporter was going [adopts only semi-convincing Scottish brogue], ‘Mr McCartney, apparently you had in your possession some cannabis seeds’. And Linda’s on my arm, we’d just come out of court and we’re trying to keep a straight face, and I replied, ‘Well, we were sent some seeds, and some of them came up illegal.’ ‘Oh,’ he goes, ‘so you are into horticulture, are you?’"

The motorway touring in 1972 saw Wings turn up announced wherever they could find a suitable student venue, and charge 50p for admission. At one point they stopped a pedestrian in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and, on hearing that the town didn’t contain a university, sped on to Nottingham. Thus is history finely balanced - and Ashby-de-la-Zouch spared the unveiling by jumped-up civic dignitaries of a plaque commemorating a visit by a Beatle.

From such deliberately humble beginnings, Wings went on to defy received wisdom and critical derision by becoming the biggest band in America. By 1976, they were so popular that they broke the world record previously held by the Beatles for the largest single attendance at a concert. If they couldn’t be cool, they were certainly going to be huge instead.

"That was the year," McCartney recalls, "when we really did think, that’s it. "We’d set out to do the impossible - life after the Beatles? Forget it! - but we’d stuck with it and taken all the slings and arrows, and there we were."

Yet the band never made such a commercial impact here, even if Mull of Kintyre did notch up a truly frightening 2m sales during its seemingly endless reign at the top of the singles charts (and all this at the height of the punk era). Maybe it’s us Brits, unable to forgive one of our own for having the cocksureness to think that there could possibly be life after the Fab Four.

McCartney remains acutely sensitive for someone with so many achievements under his belt and stashes of cash in his bank vaults. Partly, he seems anxious to avoid renewed accusations of throwing his weight around, which were routinely hurled his way during the Beatles’ dying days as he fought to keep the show on the road in the face of the others’ indifference or contempt. But he also appears determined to wrest back some of the acclaim that has been Lennon’s sole preserve almost from the moment the band broke up, if not before.

Confusingly, a third strand emerges when you examine McCartney’s contribution to the planned documentary looking at all things Paul - he hasn’t been able to resist a degree of co-operation, but he can’t face the thought that people will think he’s trying to hog the limelight.

He becomes almost coy about the project, describing at as "slightly embarrassing for me. I’ve had to say to them, ‘Please make a disclaimer that in no way am I trying to down John by taking part in the show’, because it is such a pro thing about me."

McCartney sceptics will see this as yet more proof of what they see as the man’s essential slipperiness. And there is a definite duality to him - seconds after sweet-and-reasonable Paul, the harder-headed, less emollient McCartney shows his face. "When you’ve taken so much flak," he says, his features losing their rounded, perky openness for the first and only time in the interview, "you do think, enough’s enough. I’d better tell you some of the stuff that I was trying to modestly dimple shyly and not tell you. Well, fuck that for a game of cards."

It’s at this point that you want to urge the world to rush out and buy up every last available copy of Wingspan, if only to give this fundamentally warm but apparently still haunted individual some peace (and everyone else a rest). Oddly, though, the thin skin indicated by the above remarks doesn’t seem anywhere near as fragile as Lennon’s, whose verbal viciousness sprang from a self-hating insecurity. Something, then, helped McCartney through the critical minefield he has had to negotiate ever since the Beatles, and it can’t just have been the reflected glory of his Fab Four years. And at least he tried to exorcise the demons, while Lennon lay baking bread and/or taking drugs in the Dakota building, flat on his back and creatively finished.

There’s a kind of pig-headed cussedness about McCartney that remains both one of his key assets when attempting to make sense of the craziness of being one of the most famous people in the world, and the thing that most alienates those who don’t buy into the Macca dream. Somehow, and often uneasily, this streak of ruthlessness has had to share his soul with an enduring sentimentality (bordering on tweeness) that once allowed him to rise from his bed with the tune to Yesterday fully-formed in his head and start singing the words "scrambled eggs", and also, I suppose, led to mawkish mush like Girlfriend and Ebony and Ivory. After all, while Lennon produced love songs that sounded as though he’d physically torn them out of his chest, with McCartney, you could never be sure he wasn’t singing to his dog.

The period in history that he spans is hard to take in - one minute he’ll recall Diana Ross’s putdown of the audience at the Talk of the Town when she made her first appearance after the Supremes split up, the next he’ll marvel at the 8- to 10-year-olds he encountered in America who are getting into the Beatles and wondering what happened next, or recall being forced to ask for Phil Collins’s autograph on behalf his then teenage daughters ("there was a certain irony in asking Phil, because of course he was in A Hard Day’s Night as a schoolboy").

Nobody’s forcing him to do it, to keep playing the game. He could pack up his things, and retire to any or all of the homes he apparently owns in California, Arizona, New York, Long Island, London, Sussex and Scotland. He would never need to talk about the Beatles again, or have to read about how he was in the best band in the world ever with someone even more talented (apparently) than him, or feel forced to justify splitting the band up and daring to go back on the road without them, or hear the sniping that continues to this day about his wife. But you sense he won’t; indeed, that he’s somehow incapable of such a choice.

Forced, for a variety of reasons, to continue roaming the huge section of cultural history that he and three friends from Liverpool call their own, McCartney still commands our attention, and occasionally tries to demand it. He looks great, if possibly a little nipped and tucked; he’s shortly to marry again, to the model-turned-campaigner Heather Mills, but remains a proud keeper of Linda’s flame (at one point he refers to her in the present tense, leaving the conversation hanging silently in the air); and he’s an obviously dewy-eyed father. Yes, yes, I know he made that terrible celluloid turkey Give My Regards To Broad Street, but give the man a break, he also wrote Maybe I’m Amazed.

As for Wings, and weighing up the evidence? Well, it’s those old Buddhist koans again, isn’t it, the ones the Zen masters ponder to this day. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, has it really fallen? And were Wings any good?

And the verdict (although it could never, in such famously fractious company, be anything like unanimous)? In a word - yes.

Written, produced and directed by Dan Cairns, with thanks to Stewart Lee.

(c) Ptolemaic Terrascope, 2001)



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