Venus and Mars is one of McCartney’s most self-assured albums, released at a period in his career when he simply couldn’t miss from a commercial standpoint. Coming off the mega-success of Band on the Run, released at the tail-end of ’73 only to subsequently ride the charts throughout ’74 (claiming the number one spot on three separate occasions), McCartney was clearly riding high on the commercial and critical acclaim. Adding young lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and (initially) drummer Geoff Britton, McCartney began recording a colorful batch of new songs. Boasting some of his cleverest arrangements and catchiest melodies, the resultant album was completed in the first months of ’75 with new drummer Joe English (Britton only played on a few songs).
Everyone knows the hyper-hooky “Listen to What the Man Said,” bolstered by a memorable Tom Scott sax solo, but the album’s pleasure go far beyond its biggest hit. The title track combined with “Rock Show” (the two segue together as the opening album cuts) nearly made the top ten, rush-released to compensate for the disappointing sales of second single “Letting Go” (disappointing only by McCartney’s then-lofty standards; the crunchy, groove rocker “Letting Go” still dented Billboard’s top 40).
Venus and Mars finds McCartney at his most playful, making up for often silly lyrics with sheer musical invention and killer vocals. The Marvel Comics-inspired “Magneto and Titanium Man” boasts a full-throated vocal on the bridge. He gives his rock voice an even heartier workout on the staggering “Call Me Back Again.” In a precursor to the more democratic assignment of tunes that would follow on Speed of Sound, Denny Laine steps forth for lead vocals on the McCartney-penned “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” and McCulloch adds his own “Medicine Jar.”
What treats are contained on the bonus audio disc? Sometimes, as is the case with the seven tracks on Speed of Sound, the Archive Collection bonus discs have been disappointingly slim. Not the case, I’m happy to report, with Venus and Mars. It has double the tracks as its sister release, some of which is previously available material (all remastered): the hit single “Junior’s Farm” backed with “Sally G,” the instrumental obscurities “Walking in the Park with Eloise” and “Bridge On the River Suite,” and B-sides “My Carnival” and “Lunch Box/Odd Sox.”
“Soily” and “Baby Face” are holdovers from the One Hand Clapping documentary (the video was part of the Band on the Run Archive Collection). “Hey Diddle” appears in a different mix than found on the RAM Archive Collection. “Let’s Love” is a song written for (and recorded by) Peggy Lee, here found in McCartney-led demo form. “Going to New Orleans” is an early stab at “My Carnival.” The so-called “old version” of “Rock Show” has an entirely different feel than the final album take. “4th of July” is a melancholy acoustic guitar ballad, with McCartney giving himself a melody that lies just outside of his upper range. While the single edits of “Junior’s Farm” and “Venus and Mars/Rock Show” are not included, the single edit (which boasts a considerably different mix) of “Letting Go” makes its CD debut at long last.
I wish I could say the DVD is as generous as the bonus audio disc, but unfortunately it’s more in line with the sparse DVD that accompanies Speed of Sound. Running a total of about 25 minutes, there are three vintage featurettes and a Venus and Mars TV commercial. “Recording ‘My Carnival’” offers a few minutes of home movie footage featuring Wings recording backing vocals. “Bon Voyageur” is footage of Paul, Linda, and the rest of the band in New Orleans (where much of the album was recorded). Of more interest is “Wings at Elstree,” which is a series of clips showing Wings rehearsing at London’s Elstree Studios. But without so much as one complete song, the featurette is of marginal replay value.
The DVD is exclusive to the more expensive book edition, which I did not have access to for review purposes. If money is any kind of issue, rest easy that you aren’t missing much at all on the DVD if you opt for the standard double-disc version. As with Speed of Sound, serious fans will likely want to spring for the fancy edition. If vinyl is your thing, Venus and Mars will also be available as a double-LP containing the original album plus bonus tracks.