When I was thinking about ranking the 10 best McCartney solo albums, Venus and Mars didn’t initially cross my mind. I immediately connected it to “Listen to What the Man Said,” one of those McCartney songs that felt engineered to become a radio single, but not terribly authentic.
But with the upcoming re-release of this album (in addition to a remastered Wings at the Speed of Sound), I took another look and found that, other than that one song, it’s one of the best in the catalog, a strong followup to Wings’ mega-hit Band on the Run, and a nice precursor to McCartney’s first world tour since the Beatles’ early days.
Much of the album was recorded on location in New Orleans from January to February 1975—likely a very different experience from their on-location sessions for Band on the Run in Lagos, Nigeria, the year before. Paul and Linda were able to fit some play in with their work schedule, attending their first Mardi Gras in disguise…though it wasn’t long before they were recognized.
Venus and Mars is fun and eclectic right from the title track, which segues into the made-for-touring “Rock Show.” It then jumps around a variety of styles, from the hard rock of “Magneto and Titanium Man” to the music-hall style “You Gave me the Answer,” to the sweet and sad “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People.” It also features the well-known “Listen to what the Man Says.” Though not a personal favorite of mine, it’s certainly on many peoples’ lists, having reached #1 in the US, #6 in the UK, and hitting the top ten across the world. The advantage of the album version is that it begins with a few odd seconds of garbled speech referring to New Orleans, so reminiscent of John Lennon.
Another interesting element is that other members of the band contribute both lead vocals (Denny Laine on “Spirits of Ancient Egypt”) and their own compositions (Jimmy McCullogh, who sounds remarkably like Ringo here, wrote and sang “Medicine Jar”). While neither is a highlight of the album, both songs are nice additions and fit right in with the Wings style. Considering the brilliance of his current band—Brian Ray, Rusty Anderson, Wix Wickens, and Abe Laboriel, Jr.—I wish Paul would bring this practice back, as their compositions and voices would surely be excellent contributions.
Highlights include (song names link to iTunes to preview):
- “Venus and Mars/Rock Show“: A fun way to start the album, totally evoking the excitement of a live concert. Some people, especially those of us who weren’t around in the ’70s, may need to google a few things to get a full understanding of who and what he’s talking about. (Where is the Concertgebow? Who was “Silly Willy with the Philly Band?” What’s a wig-hat?) Also, note an essential part of the concert experience: scoring an ounce! Being a huge fan of Wings Over America (see my review of that album here), I always expect this to lead into “Jet,” but this has a tag that’s just as much fun and not on the WoA version.
- “You Gave Me the Answer“: As with any of the songs in Paul’s “granny music” category, you’ll either love it or hate it. Being a fan of musical theater and vaudeville, I absolutely love it, right down to the spoken “shall we dance” and “this is fun!” sprinkled throughout. Paul must have been fond of it too as the ditty, likely inspired by his father’s jazz band music, also appeared on the Wings Across America tour.
- “Magneto and Titanium Man“: Immediately following “You Gave me the Answer” is this super-fun narrative song about the adventures of Marvel Comics characters Magneto, Titanium Man, and the Crimson Dynamo. It’s obvious how much fun Paul is having with this one, and he’s not the only one; Stan Lee, who created the three characters, loved it too! Paul’s rock voice is incredible on this track, as is the harmony from the rest of the band.
- “Call Me Back Again“: Paul blends his incredible vocals and harmonies with a New Orleans vibe, creating a gorgeous song that is both soulful and rocking. Whenever I hear it, I imagine the Paul of the Hamburg days, belting out American R&B with all his heart and soul. As part of the promo for the re-master, McCartney has released a new video for the song with innovative animation that repeatedly shows Paul’s childhood phone number (very cute!).
The Remastered Box Set
Venus and Mars is one of the next re-mastered McCartney albums to drop, along with Wings at the Speed of Sound in November 2014. Stacked with never-before-seen photos and videos, interviews about the making of the album, and unreleased tracks, this will be an essential addition to any McCartney fan’s catalog—even if you’ve already bought the album in another form. A nice feature is that though the book comes with CDs, it also gives buyers access to high-quality downloads—great for anyone who only uses digital media. So far, it’s only been announced as a physical box set, but since many of the other re-mastered albums are available as an iPad app, that announcement may come soon.
Bottom line: This is a great album that is so much more than the one single that it’s primarily known for, and the box set will make it even better. But if you’re a fan of live recordings, most of the original tracks also appear on Wings Over America with a totally different energy, so you might want to hear both of them.