18
Jul 08

WINGS – “Mull Of Kintyre”/”Girls School”

FT + Popular102 comments • 7,005 views

#416, 4th December 1977

This has the slightly dubious distinction of being the first record I ever disliked. I barely knew about records at all, I was four and three quarters: so my cynicism started early, if you like. This one was inescapable – number one for nine weeks, two million sold, flattening the opposition through Christmas ’77 and then on into ’78. I didn’t know what number ones were but I guess I just got bored of “Mull” being around, its comforting lullaby sway pushing into even our pop-free household*. I remember not being able to figure out what a Mull was, or a Kintyre: I’d been reading the Hobbit, and the Narnia books, so I reckoned it was an honorific, like King, or Tarkaan. And this dark haired guy singing it, he’d be the Mull, then?

Actually he was royalty of a sort, though more bicycle monarchy than Sun King by this point: still doggedly insistent on Wings the band, not McCartney the brand. Wings were intermittently terrific, more often whimsically entertaining or a curate’s egg, rarely as dreary as this. “Mull Of Kintyre” doesn’t much sound like a Wings record, in fact – it was recorded during sessions for London Town, their most resolutely lightweight album, and would have stuck out there like an unaloft thumb. Macca has told and retold the story of how he assumed the dreamcaught melody for “Yesterday” was an unconscious borrow from a far more primal tune – but how much more timeless does the hymnal “Mull” sound? It obviously struck chords deep enough to smash the Beatles’, and anyone else’s, sales records: an unexpected climax to the year punk broke.

What do I think of it now? Like most of the really monolithic singles, it’s hard to listen to fresh. It’s certainly a sweet and sincere record, and the pipes – locally sourced – work well. But there’s no ache to it, no true sense of place, it evokes nothing but standard Highlands postcard imagery. The mood is soporific: only right at the end, when the Laird of Wings breaks into a “woooooo-ha!”, does anyone try and even hint that life in the Mull might ever be other than the gentle contemplation of simple beauties. Which, of course, was the appeal: in a guttering economy, a fractious country, a pop chart full of confusion, Wings delivered a record about opting out entirely, a hit of pure escapism. “Mull Of Kintyre” is a one-way ticket out of pop culture: though those left behind by its Tartan Rapture were about to enjoy years of astonishing musical plenty.

*oh yeah, “Girls School” – apparently this was treated as the A-Side in the US, but here “Mull” was a double-A-side in name only: I don’t think I’d ever heard “Girls School” until a year or so ago, and I’ve heard plenty of Wings. “Girls School” is much more typical of the band, though – the kind of McCartney song that kindly reviewers have always called “a rocker”, which is to say it is to rock as a jog round the park is to the Olympic 1000m. Since I have no especial concern with the rockingness of things, I quite like it. But it has no business influencing this score.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Billy Smart on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Mull of Kintyre’s singularly wide field of public reception is demonstrated by this being the first song to appear on Popular since ‘Two Little Boys’ that my mother would recognise! (and I think that there will only be two subsequent ones…)

  2. 32
    Tom on 18 Jul 2008 #

    I assume my Mum knows it too, mind you she was coping with a 5 month old baby at the time, which I guess is why I was plonked down in front of the telly enough to actually notice a pop hit.

  3. 33
    grange85 on 18 Jul 2008 #

    #30 Damn! I wish I’d written that – I’ve bookmarked it in delicious so I can point McCartney detractors towards it!

  4. 34
    Tom on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Yes, terrific post Dan R. – I sometimes think the thing I like most about Popular is being talked round (or potentially so) when I’ve doled out a low score.

  5. 35
    wichita lineman on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Paul may claim Yesterday to have some primal Summer Is A-Coming In source, but it has already had a couple of mentions on Popular. Answer Me by Frankie Laine/David Whitfield bears a fairly strong resemblance. Alma Cogan’s mum was probably playing it on the banjo just as he nodded off at one of her soirees…

    I guess when Yesterday charted in ’76 Paul must have thought he’d already written his Imagine/My Sweet Lord. I can’t believe he’d have thought this awful thing came close to any of those songs. Or Answer Me, for that matter.

    But then again, I have to agree with you Dan R, you’re entirely right about the ‘pre-existing song’ knack that Paul has. Does anyone else in modern pop have it? I remember Smash Hits reviewing McCartney II and Ian Cranna saying that there was barely any effort involved (5 out of 10). Waterfalls is simple and beautiful, yes, so why the heck should he try harder? And for my money, there was a lot more thought and originality in McCartney II than there was in Double Fantasy: Front Parlour could have come out on Static Caravan in the late nineties.

    Re 8: My Bloody Valentine sampled the Hollywood Bowl screams for the opening track on their Ecstasy mini-album in ’87, so close were they to the tinnitus-inducing mid-eighties zeitgeist.

  6. 36
    tim davidge on 18 Jul 2008 #

    re:#34 – there are lots of things on this blog over the years that have got 5,6,7,8,9 or even 10 alongside them which I don’t like, didn’t buy and even turn off when they come on the radio. That’s not because they’re bad, it’s because I just don’t happen to like them, which is not to say that they don’t work on their own terms. This is another one that works on its own terms, be they simplistic, nostalgic, sentimental, emotional or whatever.

  7. 37
    rosie on 18 Jul 2008 #

    Paul was the de facto first Beatle with a number one with Eleanor Rigby, surely?

  8. 38
    Doctor Casino on 18 Jul 2008 #

    From an American McCartney fan perspective, “Mull of Kintyre” is one of the weird, mystery songs that you only hear as curious additions to greatest hits albums or bonus cuts on CD reissues – others include “Hi Hi Hi,” “Give Ireland Back To The Irish,” and “Once Upon A Long Ago.” So it’s hard for me to entirely get inside a world where this song is a relentless pop force of which every man of woman born is nightmarishly sick from birth. To my ears, it’s lovely, certainly a bit simpering but not quite as banal in its phrasing as a postcard sentiment… there are some funny ideas in here, particularly the anthropomorphisation of the whole place (“the life and the times of the Mull of Kintyre”). “Sweep through the heather” is nice too.

    I’ve always found this one of McCartney’s easiest tunes to sing, so some items in the above discussion confuse me. But I’ve never had a real singer’s voice as such, and in general I get thrown trying to sing along with McCartney because he just goes too damn high. This goes down easy.

  9. 39
    crag on 18 Jul 2008 #

    can i just say this is probably the best thread on Popular i’ve read in living memory?Its stuff like this that makes me keep coming back here…
    I’ll just add that i’d give MOK a 7 -weirdly enough i always mentally link it, a song about finding contentment living in Scotland written by an English man, with Ferry Cross the Mersey- even as a Scot whos never lived in Liverpool its a song that always makes that me a bit blubsome with thoughts of “home”-a shame both songs are so site specific really…

  10. 40
    Martin Skidmore on 18 Jul 2008 #

    It occurs to me that I think I probably got an acceptance letter from Cambridge Uni while this was at #1, which might dispose me more favourably towards it if a) I hadn’t hated Cambridge and quit quickly and b) this were not a horrible record that I loathed from the start and more and more as it lingered for so long.

    1978 has some major good memories for me. I’m not sure whether I connect any of them to hits of the day – we’ll see as we get there, I guess.

  11. 41
    Waldo on 19 Jul 2008 #

    Take out “Girls School”. The Scottish Song (as unmentionable as The Scottish Play is in some quarters) was what this was all about and you couldn’t really expect a lad from a Lambeth high-rise without a splash of Scots in him (though plenty of Welsh and in later life plenty of scotch) to have anything to do with this train wreck, especially after what the sods did on the pitch at Wembley… (Was that YOU on top of the crossbar, young Marcello?!)

    I happen to think that McCartney is a genius with few equals as a composer, particularly as a balladeer. There is absolutley nothing wrong with “Ma Looking Tired” at all. It’s just them fucking bagpipes, a contraption (certainly no musical instrument) which generates a truly ungodly screetch, which I would gladly deem illegal south of the Tweed. Perhaps our current Prime Minister might contemplate introducing such a bill in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. That’s if he lasts that long!

  12. 42
    DJ Punctum on 19 Jul 2008 #

    THE SLA’S GOT YOUR NUMBER CUNT!

  13. 43
    DJ Punctum on 19 Jul 2008 #

    ..and no, it wisnae me.

  14. 44
    CarsmileSteve on 19 Jul 2008 #

    this is the first song i can remember which, considering i was two and a half at the time of its release, seems a little unlikely in retrospect. the thing is i had small toy banjo with a face of a tiger on the big round bit (technical term there) and so would sing “mull of kin-TIGER” whilst pretending to play it.

  15. 45
    Kat but logged out innit on 19 Jul 2008 #

    Re: easiness of playing – a certain 1980 #1 was in the first half of Learn To Play Keyboard Book 1, whilst Mull Of Kintyre was only in the appendix at the back. This might have just been because it was ADG instead of CDF though – M of K is definitely one for the first page of Learn To Play Guitar Book 1 though.

  16. 46
    lonepilgrim on 19 Jul 2008 #

    This was played over and over when I had to work an 8 hour shift for my holiday job at a petrol station on Boxing Day with only a radio to keep me company – the day when I decided to break up with my first girlfriend – so it tends to remind me of that more than anything. I don’t hate it but nor do I much care for it.
    John Martyn’s ‘Small hours’ is a different matter. I think I bought ‘One world’ along with Eno’s “Before and after science’ (complete with prints) on the strength of a review by Vivien Goldman in Sounds and was not disappointed.

  17. 47
    Billy Smart on 19 Jul 2008 #

    A few words of praise needed for ‘The Floral Dance’ here, I feel.

    As a backwards-looking tune, how much I prefer it to ‘Kintyre’. How it manages to surge and overflow from it’s precise structure, evoking and creating real delight. The band might have looked a bit severe on Top Of The Pops, but all the concentration goes into making the song glorious.

    And it really is one of the most completely overlooked huge-selling singles in British pop history. Nobody even makes jokes about it… The Terry Wogan version is better remembered!

    Thankfully we will have the chance to discuss another brilliant record featuring a brass band very soon, though…

  18. 48
    Doctor Casino on 19 Jul 2008 #

    Incidentally, I don’t think “Girls School” is all that bad, and it falls well on the side of genuine actual “rocker,” in the same vein as “Hi Hi Hi” or “Jet.” The content is stupid but it’s got a good hook (“Ahhhhh, what can the sisters do?”) and a nice twang on the riff. It’s just so blatantly a B-side – what exactly was the idea with having them placed equally? Did they really have no idea what a monster “Mull of Kintyre” was going to be? Or was the idea that “Girls School” would perform well in places outside the UK?

    Also – wasn’t there a bit of a tiff over the credit for this? I seem to remember it being one of the major bones of contention between McCartney and Denny Laine over the following few years.

  19. 49
    Matthew K on 21 Jul 2008 #

    A’course the reason McCartney has cranked out so many classic tunes is that his output with the Beatles was formative in most people’s experience of pop music, so that for a couple of generations “classic pop” means “resembling I Saw Her Standing There, Lady Madonna, Let it Be, Drive My Car, Fixing a Hole, etc etc etc.” Meaning that whenever he drags out another variation on the theme such as this, it has an epic and timeless feel to the melody.

  20. 50
    Waldo on 21 Jul 2008 #

    # 49 – I think there’s something in this. But you nevertheless have to have sufficient talent in the first place in order to to “drag out another variation on the theme”, and in any case, this technique is by no means peculiar to McCartney. Quite frankly, one could apply this to just about anyone. Even Mozart.

  21. 51
    Christopher Barbour on 21 Jul 2008 #

    I came to this one backwards, my first conscious hearing of it coming in early 1992. I knew the legend : awful mock-tartan dirge becomes biggest selling singe of all time and hogger of top spot for months and years. However, like other long-running number ones (including one at the pinnacle at that very moment) once I heard it, I realised that much of the criticism it had received was lazy.

    Big songs are big for a reason – the first two strums of Mull, as they crackled from a friend’s parents’ copy of Wings Greatest, told you just about everything you needed to know. If you liked that kind of thing, you would love it. I did and by the end of the opening verse it was already a deathless classic in my eyes.

    I would have bought a copy that afternoon, had the single still been available. (luckily all charity shops in Britain seem to be legally bound to stock a copy, very often without any sort of sleeve or protection. I suppose that fact tells its own story about the whereabouts of the 2 million copies…)

    Trufax : Dan Ackroyd bought the 2 millionth copy and Macca gave him a hamper of food to celebrate.

  22. 52
    vinylscot on 21 Jul 2008 #

    The thing that gets me about these long-running number ones –

    What makes someone suddenly decide to buy “Mull of Kintyre” (or whatever) when it’s already been number one for eight weeks?

    a) it took you eight weeks to decide that you liked it enough to buy it (I know songs can “grow on you”, but, eight weeks??)

    b) you never heard it until week eight

    c) you have been saving up for eight weeks, and only now can afford to “splash out”

    d) your first copy has been worn out/damaged/stolen/eaten by the dog

    e) none of the above

    Your theories would be welcome.

  23. 53
    DJ Punctum on 21 Jul 2008 #

    f) It sold to people who don’t buy records

    g) slow post-Xmas/New Year sales turnover – no competition to unseat it

  24. 54
    Dan R on 21 Jul 2008 #

    or

    h) it grew on some people

    or

    i) some people don’t listen to radio much

    or

    j) some people just don’t get it together to do stuff quickly

  25. 55
    Tom on 21 Jul 2008 #

    There’s no question that a song sounds different when it’s become part of the furniture – sometimes better. There are a few songs upcoming (quite far off in some cases) which grew into their No.1 status, others where a huge run became a millstone.

  26. 56
    Erithian on 21 Jul 2008 #

    A possible reason (k) for a long chart run, at least in the case of a double A-side, is coming under discussion in a few months’ time… (hop hop)

  27. 57
    katstevens on 21 Jul 2008 #

    Also with the whole Christmas-NY thing – dudes be getting record tokens/record players as xmas pressies/in the sales innit.

  28. 58
    jeff w on 21 Jul 2008 #

    This is of course as nothing to the mystery of why “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol is today still being downloaded in sufficient numbers to keep it in the Top 75 and who’s doing it. Maybe we could get iTunes to send out questionnaires.

  29. 59
    Billy Smart on 21 Jul 2008 #

    Let us not forget, ‘Chasing Cars’ has been voted the best song of all time by the listeners of Virgin FM. And who can argue with that?

  30. 60
    DJ Punctum on 21 Jul 2008 #

    I would. For a start, it’s not a song.

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