As time goes by, John Lennon’s importance to the Beatles becomes more and more self-evident. The same old story we’ve been hearing for years — that Lennon’s wit and abrasive probing were needed to balance Paul McCartney’s melodic charm and sweetness — is obvious but true; Lennon’s career has certainly had fewer ups and downs (the first Plastic Ono Band LP being his only real success), but his strivings, if at times embarrassing, have never seemed to be the product of assembly-line manufacture. None of the ex-Beatles has survived the first half of the Seventies heroically — George Harrison has become a musical Kahlil Gibran, Ringo Starr, a likably mediocre Everyman, Lennon, the confused method actor unsure of what role to play, and McCartney, a latter-day Burt Bacharach trying to invent his Angie Dickinson — but, of the four, only Lennon’s plight still reaches the rock & roll part of the heart.
Lennon probably had nothing whatsoever to do with Venus and Mars, the new Wings album, but somehow the ghost of his sincerity not only haunts but also accentuates the cool calculation of the McCartney project, and a jarring primal scream or two might make me feel less enraged by Paul and Linda’s chic, unconvincing and blatant bid to be enshrined as pop music’s Romeo and Juliet. One can point out that John and Yoko were no better, perhaps even worse, in their similar public insistence — or Bob Dylan on Planet Waves, for that matter — but what makes such a comparison appalling is that John and Yoko and Dylan believed what they were saying, or at least desperately tried to, while the McCartneys serve it all up with the offhand air of two uncaring jet-setters presenting us with the very latest in prefabricated TV dinners.
Venus and Mars begins with Paul and Linda’s casual and false assumption that the whole world is tremendously interested in the state of their union (whereas John and Yoko and Dylan were driven, I think, more by individual inner needs to say what they did), so they concoct a slick, Broadway / Hollywood exterior romance that is an insult to the very “lovers everywhere” to whom they dedicate the LP. For all I know, the McCartneys may love each other passionately, but it is self-aggrandizement, not private ardor, that shines through the computerized smoothness of their insubstantial songs; no blood on the tracks here, and no connection with reality either. Perhaps this is too harsh; perhaps Paul and Linda’s image of themselves as rock & roll’s mythical couple is real in their minds but, as this album proves, an extended trip across that arid area is apt to make even the night thoughts of Johnny Carson appear positively Dostoevskian.
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“Venus and Mars are all right tonight,” the lovers keep telling us, persistently answering a by-and-large unasked question with a press-release concept, generally uninspired melodies and some of the dumbest lyrics on record. As a card-carrying romantic, I bow to no one caught in the occasionally moony state of yearning, but I can’t imagine ever telling anyone I liked, let alone loved, something like, “My, you’re so fine/When love is mine/I can’t go wrong”; or, “Ah, she looks like snow/I want to put her in a Broadway show” or, “You’re my baby and I love you/You can take a pound of love/And cook it in the stew….” The last song on the LP carries the galactic couple all the way to the old people’s home, where we are asked to pity the doddering old McCartneys because “nobody asked [them] to play.” “Here we sit,” they cry, “Two lonely old people/Eking our lives away.” Pretty damned unlikely. If the musical career doesn’t pan out, guys, you can always get a job writing soap operas or the verses for Hallmark cards.
So much for the banal ballads — “Venus and Mars,” “Love in Song,” “You Gave Me the Answer” (done Rudy Vallee style), “Letting Go,” “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” “Treat Her Gently — Lonely Old People” — all treacle so far from the mainstream of amorousness that, if one were to make a joke, only a drip or two could sneak through. Unfortunately, some of the nonlove songs (“Magneto and Titanium Man” especially) on Venus and Mars are more galling and impudently silly than that pun, or just rather ordinary (“Rock Show,” “Medicine Jar”). The only two real exceptions are the well-sung, urban-blues-and-Sixties-soul-influenced “Call Me Back Again” and the LP’s certain hit single, the deliciously catchy and creamily produced “Listen to What the Man Said,” the latter as fine an example of slick, professional entertainment and carefully crafted “product” as has ever hit the airwaves.
Although I have always had doubts about McCartney, before this album was released I would have offered an opening argument that he, not Lennon, was the only one of the ex-Beatles whose career seemed to be going somewhere. Band on the Run wasn’t great, but it was good and did suggest that its creator wasn’t all vacuum-packed smugness and unmatched ego. Now, I don’t know. Were his talent behind him, McCartney’s current disaster wouldn’t matter much, but what is really worrisome here is the almost gleeful enthusiasm with which he makes trivial anything meaningful. It is symbolic that Venus and Mars comes with more extraneous junk (not all of it in the grooves) than it can sustain: two posters, two gummed decals, a flashy inner cover, etc. Perhaps this is the ephemera of fame, but it’s really not as cosmic as Paul and Linda think it is; indeed, it seems more an inadvertent definition of artistic emptiness. These are two geese who have laid a golden egg in a land where Michelangelo Antonioni and Norman Rockwell have somehow become soulmates, and all of us are going to be expected to pay the price.