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.
In the spring of 1978, the Bee Gees, at least in pure pop-charts terms, were the most successful band since the circa-’64 Beatles. So maybe it’s cosmically appropriate that the song that ended the Bee Gees’ miraculous streak of #1 hits — at least temporarily — came from an actual Beatle. In the early months of 1978, Barry Gibb wrote or co-wrote four #1 singles in a row, breaking a record that had been jointly held by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The fact that McCartney was the next songwriter to slide into #1 is a fun little curiosity. Too bad that’s the only fun thing about “With A Little Luck.”
There is absolutely nothing musically turbulent about “With A Little Luck,” but the song came out of a turbulent period for Wings. A couple of years earlier, the band had been doing great. In the US, “Silly Love Songs” had been the biggest single of the 1976. The band toured America and did huge business. But soon afterward, two fifths of Wings up and quit. This was the second time it had happened, and it demands the question: How miserable do you have to be to leave one of the most successful bands in the world? Is Paul McCartney just a terrible boss?
The first time that much of Wings quit was in 1973. When Wings were getting ready to make a new album in Nigeria, guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Danny Seiwell both departed. Wings responded to this by making Band On The Run, almost unquestionably their best album. In 1977, something similar happened. Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English walked out. McCulloch joined the Small Faces and died of morphine and alcohol poisoning a year later. English started a Christian rock band. Suddenly, Wings were once again a trio. This time, they didn’t have a Band On The Run in them.
Wings recorded “With A Little Luck” just as all this was going on. (English plays on the song; McCollough does not.) Paul McCartney had installed a recording studio on a yacht, and they started recording “With A Little Luck” and some of the other songs that would appear on their London Town album in the waters of the Virgin Islands. Then Linda McCartney found out that she was pregnant, so the band had to stop recording; they finished “With A Little Luck” up at Abbey Road later. English left during the Abbey Road sessions.
In the UK, “With A Little Luck” was a relative brick. The single followed “Mull Of Kintyre,” a folk lullaby that Paul McCartney had written about his Scottish farm. “Mull Of Kintyre” didn’t chart in the US, but in the UK, it was huge. It was Wings’ only UK #1, and it replaced the Beatles’ “She Loves You” as the biggest-selling single in UK history, a title it held for a few years. In McCartney’s homeland, then, “With A Little Luck” was a hugely anticipated release. It only made it to #5 in the UK, which was considered a huge disappointment.
McCartney didn’t read the room. In the US, punk rock didn’t really became a commercial force until it evolved into new wave. In the UK, though, punk was a game-changer; even the Bee Gees were worried about it. McCartney responded to this new climate with probably the least punk single imaginable. In the face of social, political, and cultural upheaval — widespread strikes, racist violence, IRA bombings, the terrifying rise of Margaret Thatcher — Wings came out with a dinky, synthy soft-rock song about how we can all just get along. It didn’t work.
But dinky, synthy soft-rock was still big in the US, so this column has to deal with “With A Little Luck.” You have probably already figured out that I think “With A Little Luck” is a bad song. Like so many other Wings hits, it’s a perfectly passable piece of studio craftsmanship that has no compelling reason to exist. It doesn’t suck, exactly. You can hear McCartney reaching for the woozy modular prom-prog gurgle of 10cc and Gary Young. If you’re going to rip something off, that’s not a bad sound to rip off. McCartney stacks up the backing vocals nicely, hitting a few vintage Beach Boys oooh-oooh-ooohs. But the song just idles there, never asserting itself. Even the attempted song-ending crescendo, with McCartney trying out soul-gospel vocal runs, just flatlines.
Plenty of people love Paul McCartney for his corniness. This corniness is a key part of his appeal — a feature, not a bug. But I can’t wrap my brain around it. On “With A Little Luck,” McCartney is in soothing, reassuring mode, both musically and lyrically: “There is no end to what we can do together / The willow turns his back on inclement weather / And if he can do it / We can do it just me and you.” That was naïve, risible bullshit in 1978, and it’s naïve, risible bullshit now. It’s nice, I guess, that McCartney can find some inspiration in the image of a bird not looking at rain. But I think it’s fucking stupid.
At any rate, Wings bounced back just fine from their own labor issues. While “With A Little Luck” was still #1, McCartney announced the two newest members of the band: Guitarist Laurence Juber and drummer Steve Holly, both session musicians. With this lineup, Wings managed to keep it together for a few more years. They’ll appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Paul McCartney has never performed “With A Little Luck” live, either with Wings or solo. But here’s some footage of Wings rehearsing the song for a 1980 tour of Japan: