From the Beatles Onward: Paul McCartney’s Bands Ranked

Paul McCartney has put together a marvelous solo career, with most of the output coming from 1980 forward. Before that, he was in a pair of bands, the first of which he joined, the second of which he formed. Those two bands, of course, are the Beatles and Wings. The Beatles were recognized by many as the greatest rock band of their time and beyond, while Wings had to deal with critical pot shots for much of their existence. Macca later went on to try his hand at experimental music with The Fireman, as well. Let’s take a look at these three groups and how they compare.

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3. The Fireman

Is it possible there’s a band including Paul McCartney that even some diehard rock fans don’t know? It could be, because The Fireman is technically only a duo: McCartney and Martin Glover, the British musician and producer known by the stage name of Flood. It could also be because McCartney and Flood don’t do a lot of publicizing of their albums, of which there have been three as of this writing (the last was Electric Arguments from 2008).

More than anything else, The Fireman remains somewhat unsung because it’s where McCartney tends to explore much more experimental territory. If you’re looking for the pop rock version of McCartney, these records might leave you a tad confused. But if you’re willing to indulge some musical flights of fancy, The Fireman’s output can make for an invigorating listen.

2. Wings

When is a band that released six albums, all hitting the Top 10 albums charts, with 12 singles hitting the Top 10 in a span of about eight years, considered a letdown? The answer is when that band, or any other band for that matter, contains a member who was in the Beatles.

No matter how much he insisted that Wings was a completely different entity than his previous band, Paul McCartney had to know that he’d be dealing with unfair expectations right from the start. The fact that he was able to shake those off, rise to the occasion, and make Wings into one of the most successful rock acts in the world is a testament to his talent and persistence.

[RELATED: Behind the Band Name: Wings]

Wings featured a revolving door of members outside the core three of Paul, his wife, Linda, and former Moody Blues member Denny Laine. The first few albums by the band were a bit unsure; even as they were laden with a few hit singles, it sounded like McCartney couldn’t decide between irreverence and ambition as the band’s go-to setting. Interestingly enough, it was when the Wings lineup faced a few last-minute departures right before the recording of an album, and the core trio was all that was left, did they truly find their sweet spot. That came in 1973 with Band on the Run, which still can make a strong claim, along with All Things Must Pass, Imagine, and Ringo, as the best-ever post-Beatles releases by a former Beatle.

Band on the Run propelled Wings into a period where they became an arena rock juggernaut, jaunting off on mega-selling tours (where McCartney played some old Beatles songs for the first time) in between album cycles and smash singles. Snicker at this band at your own peril, because for a stretch in the mid-’70s, they were throwing haymakers right alongside the Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, and every other major rock band of that era.

By the latter part of the decade, Wings’ momentum began to waver, as they and other bands struggled to fit in with new musical movements like New Wave, punk, and disco. By the time Back to the Egg rolled around in 1979, McCartney could sense that the end was near. Without much fanfare, Wings was brought to a halt, with Paul’s next release being the solo McCartney II.

And what is Wings legacy? Well, they were perhaps the most reliable singles band in the world in their time, even if their albums, save Band on the Run, might not get mentioned with the elite LPs of that decade. They also burnished Paul McCartney’s reputation, as he showed the resiliency to overcome the naysayers and laugh his way to the top of the charts with his new band.

1. The Beatles

One wonders what music would sound like right now had Paul McCartney not happened to stumble upon John Lennon playing a local gig back in 1957. Then again, what they created together was so monumental that destiny had to be nudging that whole thing forward in some way. When George Harrison joined shortly after, and then Ringo Starr right as they were about to break big, the Beatles became an unstoppable force—at least until personal conflicts and diverging interests led them to a self-inflicted stoppage at the end of the ‘60s.

If the comparison needs to be made between the Beatles and Wings, it’s obvious why the former group has the edge. Wings was blessed with several talented musicians alongside Paul during their decade or so together. But none of them were necessarily instrumental in creating the work (save for a few songs here and there.) McCartney was the chief writer with Wings and the one largely in charge of how the work would sound when recorded.

The Beatles’ output was divided relatively evenly between Lennon and McCartney, with Harrison eventually catching up in the later years (and Starr chipping in now and again.) Throw in the impact of producer George Martin, and that kind of firepower was hard to match.

It’s interesting to think of how McCartney’s role changed over the years with the Beatles. In the earliest days, Lennon was very much the leader of the group; it was his band that Macca had joined, after all. Lennon also held the bulk of the songwriting credits for the first three years or so of recording that the band did. (Even when the credits were listed as “Lennon/McCartney,” it was rare that a Beatles song was a true co-write.) But McCartney’s ability and ambition helped to change that.

The concept behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which represented a major turning point in the band’s career, was devised by McCartney. Not long after that record was released in 1967, Beatles manager Brian Epstein passed away, and McCartney was the member of the group who started to drive the bus in terms of the projects they undertook from that point forward.

McCartney also deserves credit for helping the band go out on a high note. After the Let It Be/Get Back project was left unfinished, it was Paul who rallied the troops to put together a proper album one more time. That album, Abbey Road, allowed the group to put a bow on the Beatles in a way that strengthened their legacy that much more.

It’s unfair to compare any band to the Beatles. The fact that Paul McCartney was able to get Wings going in his former band’s aftermath and enjoy such success with them is a marvel. But there was only one Fab Four.

Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

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