In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Wings managed to record a whole album in Nigeria without absorbing even a tiny bit of Nigerian musical influence. And against all odds, that turned out to be a good thing. When Paul McCartney & Wings — down to a trio, after the last-minute departures of two band members — made Band On The Run in Lagos, McCartney was able to truthfully tell a suspicious Fela Kuti that the band wasn’t there to capitalize on the incredible music that Kuti was making at the time. Instead, McCartney and his band, dealing with nowhere-near-optimal recording situations, made a rich and ambitious and urgent record, quite possibly McCartney’s best non-Beatles work.
But when Wings went to New Orleans, basically the opposite happened. The band did attempt to absorb the sound of their host city, the #1 single that came out of those sessions was lazy and cutesy and fatuous — McCartney on starry-eyed cruise control. There are some cool things on Venus & Mars, the album that Wings partly recorded in New Orleans. “Listen To What The Man Said” is not one of them.
Like a whole lot of other Paul McCartney songs, “Listen To What The Man Said” is all about love. And like a whole lot of other Paul McCartney songs, it’s almost maddeningly vague. McCartney babbles on and on, and his half-formed thoughts are very close to gibberish: “Soldier boy kisses girl / Leaves behind a tragic world / But he won’t mind / He’s in love and he says love is fine.”
After the unlikely triumph of Band On The Run, McCartney had put Wings back together, recruiting two new members: The former Thunderclap Newman/Stone The Crows guitarist James McCulloch and Joe English, an American drummer called in for the New Orleans sessions after another guy didn’t work out. And McCartney dropped his name from that of the band. Wings, at least to McCartney was now a full-on band, not a solo project.
Traffic guitarist Dave Mason also sat in on “Listen To What The Man Said.” And when McCartney realized that the song was missing something, he also brought in Tom Scott, a jazz-fusion saxophonist who has had a crazy career. Scott, the son of a TV composer, became a TV composer himself. By the time he’d played on “Listen To What The Man Said,” Scott had already written the theme songs for Starsky And Hutch and The Streets Of San Francisco. A year later, he’d play on Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score. Later on, he played in the band that did the soundtrack for The Blues Brothers, though he didn’t act in the movie. He collaborated with Johnny Mathis on the Family Ties theme. And he played on a whole lot of ’80s hits, many of which will end up in this column.
McCartney thought “Listen To What The Man Said” was turning out underwhelming, but he found out that Scott lived near the studio, so he called him over. Scott showed up within a half hour and tootled along with the song as he was listening to it for the first time. McCartney loved that. Scott tried a couple more takes after that, but McCartney liked the first one the best. So what we hear on “Listen To The Man Said” is Tom Scott improvising along to a song that he’s never heard before.
That would be a cool story if Scott added anything to the song. He doesn’t. It’s already a forgettable song, a flat staccato chug with McCartney doing what sounds like a Vegas lounge impression of himself. But with those Scott saxophone flourishes, it is rough. Scott’s saxophone, entirely appropriate for a ’70s TV-show theme, is glossy and glib and airless. Its smooth-jazz nothingness actively detracts from everything around it.
But it’s not like the song would be worth much even if Scott had gotten lost on the way to the studio. This is pretty clearly a fucking-around-in-the-studio effort, right down to the way McCartney tries out a goofy fake New Orleans accent on the intro. McCartney is supposedly impersonating Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli. This might be a good place to point out that, great as they were, the Meters’ highest-charting single, 1969’s sublimely funky “Cissy Strut,” only made it up to #23. I implore you to listen to “Cissy Strut” and to check out the serious work, the almost-telepathic interplay, that comes into recording a truly great New Orleans song. And then listen to “Listen To What The Man Said” and notice how little of that there is in there. You can’t halfass New Orleans music. Paul McCartney tried.
BONUS BEATS: On their 2003 cheese-house hit “Just The Way You Are” the Italian dance group Milky interpolate the riff from “Listen To What The Man Said.” (They also, fascinatingly, sample the riff from the Go-Betweens’ 1988 indie-pop nugget “Streets Of Your Town.”) Here’s their video for “Just The Way You Are”: