45 Years Ago: Why Wings Struggled With ‘Listen to What the Man Said’
Paul McCartney and Wings' "Listen to What the Man Said" presents as a breezy romp, but sessions for the smash single were actually a painstaking drag. That is, until a key contributor came in and nailed his part on the very first try.
"It was one of the songs we'd gone in with high hopes for," McCartney told Paul Gambaccini in 1975. "Whenever I would play it on the piano, people would say 'Oh, I like that one.' But when we did the backing track, we thought we didn't really get it together at all."
Wings were at Allen Toussaint's Sea-Saint Recording Studio in the New Orleans neighborhood of Gentilly, where they'd complete Venus and Mars in early 1975. The locale provided a wealth of native and visiting talent, but McCartney was trying to work through "Listen to What the Man Said" with a core group that also included his late wife Linda McCartney, band stalwart Denny Laine and newer recruits Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English.
"Mainly we're coming here to make our own album," McCartney told local reporters back then. "I don't like to come to a place and use too much of the local talent, because you get people saying, 'Oh, they're taking our style.'"
But New Orleans worked its way into the proceedings anyway.
Listen Wings Perform 'Listen to What the Man Said'
Wings stayed at the Le Richelieu Hotel in the French Quarter, right in the middle of the annual Carnival festivities. During a break from recording, Paul and Linda dressed as a pair of clowns then actually waded into the crowds on Feb. 11, 1975, as revelers celebrated Mardi Gras. Wings went back the next day to complete a raucous future b-side called "My Carnival," before returning to the still-unfinished "Listen What the Man Said."
Dave Mason of Traffic fame happened to be in town on tour, so a frustrated McCartney brought him in. "A couple of the guys from Wings came by to the see the show, and we had a day off the next day," Mason said in 2014. "They said: 'Why don't you come down to the studio? I’m sure Paul would love to see you.' So, I just stopped by, and they happened to be cutting 'Listen to What the Man Said.' Paul was, like: 'Hey, c'mon, you should sit in with us.'"
McCartney remained dissatisfied. At this point, a song that ended up as the gold-selling lead single from Venus and Mars seemed to be going absolutely nowhere. Mulling it over, McCartney hit upon another idea: "We thought it would be great to have a very technical musician come in and do a great lyrical solo," he told Gambaccini.
That's when someone in the studio mentioned that Tom Scott, the well-known jazz saxophonist, lived nearby. "We said, 'Yeah, give him a ring, see if he turns up,' and he turned up within half an hour!" McCartney said. "There he was with his sax, and he sat down in the studio playing through. The engineer [Alan O'Duffy] was recording it. We kept all the notes he was playing casually. [Scott] came in and I said 'I think that's it.' He said 'Did you record that?' I said yes, and we listened to it back."
The instrumental track for "Listen to What the Man Said" was finally complete. "No one could believe it, so [Scott] went out and tried a few more," McCartney told Gambaccini, "but they weren't as good. He'd had all the feel on this early take, the first take."
Listen Wings Perform 'Listen to What the Man Said' in Concert
As McCartney completed the vocal, O'Duffy added a barely heard Easter egg, positioned right after Paul sings "soldier boy kisses girl." "I do remember exactly that it was lovely Linda who did the kiss on a microphone during one of the vocal takes," O'Duffy said in Luca Perasi's Paul McCartney: Recordings Sessions. "I made a point of making sure it was audible in the mix later at Wally Heider Studios."
Issued on May 16, 1975, "Listen to What the Man Said" became Paul McCartney and Wings' eighth consecutive Top 10 Billboard smash, and the fourth of their seven total No. 1 singles.
Mason and Scott became part of a group of outside collaborators on Venus and Mars. Toussaint played piano on "Rock Show." Local legends George Porter Jr. and Benny Spellman appeared on "My Carnival." O'Duffy also hired trombonist and arranger Tony Dorsey, an area native; Dorsey then brought in some college buddies to complete the horn section.
In a final nod to his Big Easy surroundings, McCartney attached a pre-song sentence to "Listen What the Man Said": "Alright, okay, very good to see you down in New Orleans, man - yeah reet, yeah yeah," he mumbled, impersonating Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli. McCartney later invited the Meters to play at the release party for Venus and Mars, held aboard the Queen Mary out of Long Beach, Calif.
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