The lights. The dry ice wafting across the stage. The double-neck guitar. The brain-walloping volume. The mullets.
“Rockshow” has them all. And there is no irony in their appearance. This was Paul McCartney and his band, Wings, smack dab in the center of the 1970s, giving it their arena-rock all. Now, finally, after lingering around for decades in lousy VHS dubs and various bootleg forms, “Rockshow” is getting the official, cleaned up, dusted down and cranked considerably louder treatment.
The film, which has never had a theatrical release – it ran on network television at the time, and then vanished – will premiere at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (Northtown Plaza, 3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst) at 7 tonight and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Why care about a concert film from the dim and distant past? The reasons are abundant.
First off, this is McCartney at the peak of his solo prowess. In 1976, when McCartney and Wings arrived for the gig in Seattle which provides “Rockshow” with most of its footage, the former Beatle was riding a commercial wave that saw him dwarfing the sales figures of his fellow former Fabs. John Lennon was all but retired, fully ensconced in his “house husband” phase at the Dakota in New York City. George Harrison was about to release his lukewarm “Thirty Three and 1/3” album, but wasn’t touring on any grand scale. Ringo Starr was …. well, being Ringo, which means cute, charming and completely inconsequential, musically speaking, bless his heart.
But McCartney was moving from strength to strength with albums like “Wings at the Speed of Sound” and “Venus and Mars,” both of which charted high across the globe, and yielded hit singles. The “Wings Over America Tour” of 1975-76 marked his first U.S. jaunt since the breakup of the Beatles, and it was the biggest, most buzzed-about tour of the era. Significantly, it was also anything but a nostalgia trip. McCartney played very little Beatles material on the tour, filling the set instead with current songs culled from his solo albums and his Wings releases. So “Rockshow” was documenting McCartney at a peak based on his post-Beatles work.
“Rockshow” boasts an absolutely smoking set list, too. Opening with the arena-friendly “Venus & Mars/Rockshow/Jet” medley, McCartney and his band – and it was indeed a real band, with every member contributing to the sonic stew, and most of them getting a featured spot in the set for a lead vocal of their own – come out kicking. By the time they get into a torrid “Let Me Roll It,” it is more than obvious that McCartney was the only Beatle to fully comprehend the possibilities of arena rock. He took to it like a drunkard takes to drink, embracing the possibilities of the rock spectacle that in the years following the “Wings Over America” trek would become the industry standard.
There’s the whole issue of the Rickenbacker bass, too – no small matter. Though he is rightly revered for his songwriting prowess, McCartney is rock music’s first true electric bass virtuoso, and “the Ric,” as it’s known, is the bass he was born to play. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know he’s also pictured with his Hofner violin-shaped “Beatle bass,” but gimme a break – the Ric has the tone, not that flimsy old thing!) So “Rockshow” is all about the bass – McCartney’s playing was mixed incredibly high during this period, dwarfing even the electric guitars of McCulloch and Laine, and his playing is simply sublime here, a lesson in how to approach rock bass as a melodic instrument. And the Ric, coupled with McCartney’s “Ziggy Stardust”-like mullet and black silk outfit, is one of the most iconic images in ’70s rock.
I’ve watched “Rockshow” in dodgy bootleg form with terrible audio and even worse video quality so many times over the years that finally seeing it in digitally remastered rendition with pristine audio is a shock – like stumbling upon a video of yourself as a young child that you’ve never seen before. Now, 35-plus years on, we can see that Wings was the finest ensemble McCartney would (most likely ever) front in his post-Beatles life.
Even though Lennon is the one who has always been granted the street credibility, this film makes it plain that McCartney took his solo career far more seriously than did any of his fellow Beatles. Even Lennon.
So here it is, at long last. “Rockshow” is so strong that, by halfway through the film, you’ll be considering growing a mullet yourself.
Starring: Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, Denny Laine, Joe English, Jimmy McCulloch
Director: Jack Priestley
Running time: 141 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but suitable for all audiences.
The Lowdown: Long-awaited release of film documenting the 1975-76 American tour of Paul McCartney & Wings.