Pressure-filled Red Rose Speedway fractured Paul McCartney and Wings: ‘Point of no return’

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Paul McCartney and Wings’ Red Rose Speedway, released on April 30, 1973, was supposed to be a double album — something indicative of a band at the peak of its powers. Instead, not long after, Wings disintegrated, with both drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough leaving.

It was as shocking as the resulting studio effort was uneven. Seiwell, already a rock-steady vet, had been with Paul McCartney since 1971’s Ram, creating a sturdy backbone for the early days of Wings that followed. The free-spirited McCullough had joined in time for the group’s biggest early successes, including the charttopping “My Love” and the Bond theme “Live and Let Die.” But when one domino fell, it seemed, they both did. McCartney, wife Linda McCartney and stalwart Denny Laine were left to move on with sessions in Lagos for what would become the multi-platinum Band on the Run.

“Henry is a very organic musician,” Denny Seiwell tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “One day, we were up in Scotland working on Band on the Run, rehearsing it, and Paul pushed him into the corner. The vibe was, we had become a band. Henry, though, he liked to play things differently every time. He had a little jazz in him. And Paul kind of pushed Henry into the corner about playing his part the same way, every time we played — the solo from “My Love,” as an example. I think Henry had just had enough of it, and he left. I had no plans on leaving, but at that point I felt like we had really gone to great lengths to become a band, and to go down to Lagos and record Band on the Run without Henry. It was just going to be a bunch of overdubs again like Ram. I tried talking to Paul into maybe postponing it for a month, and breaking in another guitar player, so we could be more organic about recording. He didn’t go for that.”

Heavily orchestrated, the gold-selling Paul McCartney’s “My Love” would also become heavily debated, to the point that it helped split a very productive edition of Wings in pieces. Henry McCullough fought for, and won, the chance to play the ballad’s searing guitar solo his way, but in the end everything else was lost.

“It was like playing a hand of cards, and having a royal flush,” McCullough said, in a separate Something Else! Sitdown, before a spate of recent health problems. “Paul had this particular thing that he wanted me to play. That was the point of no return. I said: ‘I’m sorry; I can’t do this. I have to be left as the guitar player in the band. I want to have my own input, too.’ He says: ‘What are you going to do?’ I didn’t know. I simply said: ‘I’m going to change things.’”

Henry McCullough ultimately nailed his “My Love” solo live in the studio: “I was half terrified, half excited. I just started playing, and that’s how it turned out — just as you hear it. That flabbergasted Paul, and there was just silence for a while. I thought: ‘Uh oh, I have to do it again.’ Paul came over and said: ‘Have you been rehearsing?’ [Laughs.] I liked to have that freedom. I wanted to put my cards on the table. He asked me in the band, but I didn’t want him to tell me what to play.”

Red Rose Speedway tends to reflect that turbulent, pressure-filled atmosphere. Paul McCartney’s continued struggles with the final tracklisting meant that songs from the earlier sessions for Ram bobbed back to the surface (“Little Lamb Dragonfly” and “Get on the Right Thing”), others were left to future live albums or b-sides (“Soily,” “Country Dreamer,” “Mama’s Little Girl”) or Wings solo records (Denny Laine’s “I Would Only Smile,” Linda McCartney’s “Seaside Woman”), and some were simply discarded.

As with Ram, which had only been credited to Paul and Linda, the album boasts a few Beatlesque moments — most notably an 11-minute closing medley. “Get on the Right Thing,” bolstered by one of Paul McCartney’s classic Little Richard vocals, likewise has an episodic flair that recalled some of the best-known elements of the Abbey Road era, but it found a home near other songs that don’t possess nearly that much gumption. The addition of “Live and Let Die,” from this era, might have given the project more lift but, in the end, Red Rose Speedway sounded like what it was: A hodge-podge of ideas, without a delineated focus.

Or, put more succinctly, the sound of a band breaking up.

“I never thought about it twice,” Henry McCullough once told us, ruminating on his departure from Wings. “We were supposed to go off to Lagos, and about a week before, I walked out. I regret that, the way that I did it, because it was probably the most unprofessional thing I’ve ever done in my life. That created a ripple, though, and Denny Seiwell walked out, too. … It just wasn’t going to work out for the rest of us in Wings — unless, of course, you had an apron on, if you know what I mean.”

McCullough would reunite with Joe Cocker, with whom he had appeared at Woodstock, then record an album for George Harrison’s Dark Horse label. He later worked with Donovan, Roy Harper, Eric Burdon and Ronnie Lane, while establishing a well-regarded, though sporadic solo career before being felled by a damaging 2012 heart attack from which he is still recovering.

For Denny Seiwell, the end with Paul McCartney remains bittersweet. He’d been there for Wings’ first stirrings, had seen it through its earliest triumphs, but couldn’t get past a financial situation that kept the other members from sharing equally in the band’s successes. Continuing legal issues with the breakup of the Beatles, he adds, kept everything in limbo. “I was really pushing for an agreement; we were all working on a handshake,” Seiwell tells us. “We had no contracts or anything like that, in those days. I don’t think we could have even had one that was legal, because of the Apple receivership and the court case that was going on at the moment. So I was there at the best, and the worst time, if you will.”

Seiwell collaborated with Art Garfunkel, the Band’s Rick Danko and others before returning to his early inspiration, jazz. He eventually rekindled a relationship with Paul McCartney, who eventually turned Band on the Run into a career-defining moment with the trio-edition of Wings. “It’s one of the few regrets that I have in my life — that I didn’t sit Paul down and say: ‘Hey, we gotta talk about this,'” Denny Seiwell admits. “Today, we’re still great friends. We love each other; we talk all the time. I wish him the best. But it’s one of those moments that I wish I would have handled it differently. I never made music with anybody like Paul, and I had a very, very special thing.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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