It was 41 years ago tonight (December 29th, 1979) that Paul McCartney & Wings gave their final live performance. McCartney, who had formed the band in 1971, had seen the group go through several incarnations — running through three guitarists and four drummers in only seven years. The main nucleus of the band, McCartney, wife Linda and Denny Laine, were the group's only constant members. The final 1979 line-up featured guitarist Laurence Juber and drummer Steve Holley.
Their final show, which was the closing spot on the three-night Concerts For The People Of Kampuchea UNICEF benefits at London's Hammersmith Odeon, featured Wings' normal two hour set, before being joined by the Who's Pete Townshend and Kenny Jones, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones, along with Ronnie Lane, James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders, Bruce Thomas of the Attractions, Procol Harum's Gary Brooker, and Dave Edmunds, for a three-song “Rockestra” performance.
The mini-set, which featured all the musicians in gold lame tails and top hats, included nearly 40 players tearing through Little Richard's “Lucille,” the Beatles' “Let It Be,” and two run-throughs of McCartney's “Rockestra Theme,” which was released earlier that year, featuring many of the same musicians, on Wings' Back To The Egg album. The tune went on to snag the Grammy for that year's Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
The Kampuchea benefit, which McCartney organized, came on the heels of Wings' recent UK tour — which was to be the first leg of a world tour that was due to hit Japan in January. McCartney's subsequent pot bust upon landing in Tokyo on January 16th, 1980 and eventual ten-day incarceration forced McCartney to not only cancel the Japan dates, but scrap the entire tour due to visa problems, losing millions of dollars.
Wings re-grouped twice in 1980 — in July and again in October — to work on new McCartney material for his Tug Of War album. According to legend, when McCartney reunited with George Martin, the Beatles' legendary producer informed him, in no uncertain terms, he wouldn't produce anything but a solo McCartney effort.
After John Lennon's murder on December 8th, 1980, McCartney decided to put any live appearances on hold indefinitely. In March 1981, selections from Wings' final show were included on the live Concerts For The People Of Kampuchea album. Wings was quietly disbanded a month later, in April 1981.
Upon hitting the road in the fall of '79 with the final lineup of Wings, McCartney explained how he wanted the band to tour behind music they had a hand in recording: “We started the (new) group about a year ago, with the new lineup — with Steve and Laurence — and we already had Denny, Linda, and myself. We coulda gone out then, but we woulda had to do the old lineup's material. So, it would've meant for Steve and Laurence having to play other people's parts, which is a bit of a drag, really, 'cause they feel a bit. . . I mean, I'd feel sorry for them, really, if they had to play other people's creations.”
A highlight of the Kampuchea performance — and the entire 1979 UK tour — was Wings' full band version of “Coming Up” — the tune that would mark the band's seventh and final U.S. chart-topper. By the time of “Coming Up's” release the following spring, any chance of the band promoting the hit were left in the dust. Guitarist Laurence Juber recalled that with Wings still together — but with McCartney also pursuing a solo career — it was a strange time to be scoring a Number One hit: “The shame of it was, that if we had continued — he would've been touring the States with a Number One record, 'cause 'Coming Up' was Number One. But the fact that there was this conflict, this dichotomy between Paul as 'Paul' and Paul as 'Wings,' as the band, it was most epitomized by 'Coming Up.' Because in England, the studio. . . Paul's McCartney II version came out. In America, nobody wanted to play the McCartney II version.”
McCartney fans have always wondered about how the songlist for the 1980 concerts — which were to include legs in Japan, Europe, and North America, and were scrapped due to McCartney’s infamous pot bust and incarceration in Tokyo that January. We asked Juber to list the tunes that McCartney was going to add for the 1980 legs of the tour: “‘Live And Let Die,' ‘Let ‘Em In,’ — ‘Another Day.’ We had some rehearsals scheduled for Tokyo before we did the Budokan gigs, so, I think the setlist was going to get refined at that point. But, it was like, we weren’t doing ‘Jet’ — we did ‘No Words'”
Back in 2001 McCartney released his Wingspan documentary chronicling the group's career. As he replayed the band's time together, he said that Wings was first and foremost a lesson in overcoming the impossible: “The great thing about this story is it's got a lot of human drama because it was a struggle trying to put it together after the Beatles. I mean, the Beatles career itself was a struggle, but then having reached those heights, to try and do it over and at the same time bring up a, a young family was quite an interesting human interest story. And that comes over.”
Although Denny Laine was the sole co-founder of the group to weather all of Wings' lineups, he told us that McCartney tended to keep the band's decisions pretty close to the hip: “Y'know, you've got to remember that I wasn't really involved in that — it was Paul's baby, really. I just kind of turned up for work, and I had ideas obviously, but as far the administration and record company discussions, I wasn't a part of any of that.”
Laine's recent live shows have featured a smattering of Wings hits. He says that he thought McCartney's early '90s band was a good fit, but he's not thrilled with McCartney's latest group of sidemen: “I'm not so wild about the one he's got now to be honest with you. Because it doesn't rock. It's all about Paul now. Like, that's the thing about being in a band, when you start working and doing a lot of live dates and a lot of recording, you become a band. It doesn't matter how famous one of the members are, you just become a band. Well now, it doesn't sound like a band, it sounds like Paul doing his stuff with backing musicians.”
In December 2007, McCartney and Laine, who have been estranged since 1981, were photographed backstage at a UB40 concert in London.
Footage from Wings' final performance at London's Hammersmith Odeon on December 29th, 1979 was featured in the DVD's included in the 2011 deluxe reissues of the McCartney and McCartney II albums.