Wings’ second single, ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, was based on the nursery rhyme of the same name.‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish‘, and many observers concluded that ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ was Paul McCartney’s response, an unbannable song.
That was not the case, however. ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ was written in 1971, prior to Bloody Sunday, with a demo recorded that year. The young Mary McCartney enjoyed hearing her name in a song, one reason why Paul chose to rewrite the nursery rhyme.
I do things that aren’t necessarily very carefully thought out. Now, you know, I’ve just got three kids over the last few years, and when I am sitting at home playing at the piano my audience a lot of the time is the kids. I just wrote that one up, the words were already written, you know, I just found out what the words to the nursery rhyme were, wrote a little tune up around it, went and recorded it. I had an idea in my head to find out what the words to the original nursery rhyme were.
Paul McCartney In His Own Words
The nursery rhyme was written by Sarah Josepha Hale, and first published in 1830. Later that decade it was set to music by Lowell Mason. The song was the first audio recorded by Thomas Edison on the phonograph in 1877.
McCartney discarded Mason’s melody and wrote his own. For this there was a precedent: The Beatles’ ‘Golden Slumbers’. Yet whereas the Abbey Road finale was universally acclaimed, few listeners considered ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ to be anything but a throwaway.
The song was recorded at Olympic Sound Studios in March 1972. In addition to the members of Wings, Heather and Mary McCartney joined their mother on backing vocals.
Geminis are supposed to be changeable and I don’t know if that’s true or not but I’m a Gemini and I know one minute I might be doing ‘Ireland’ and the next I’ll be doing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. I can see how that would look from the sidelines, but the thing is we’re not either of those records, but we are both of them. ‘Mary’ is just a kids’ song. It was written for one of our kids, whose name is Mary and I just realised if I sang that, she’d understand.
I thought it was all very deep and all very nice. I see now, you know, it wasn’t much of a record. That’s all. It just didn’t really make it as a record, and that’s what tells, the black plastic.
Paul McCartney In His Own Words
Released by Apple Records, the UK single had the catalogue number R5949. Coincidentally, The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’, issued a decade previously, was Parlophone R4949.
In the United States it was released on 29 May 1972 as Apple 1851, and reached number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. It fared less well on the Cash Box Top 100, going no higher than 48.
‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’… those lyrics are a heavy trip. Anyway, it sold as many as ‘Tumbling Dice’, so there! There was a critical thing about it, but listen, the point is we were all babies once and there are still a lot around who like to sing the song.
For me there were lots of silly little interesting things about the song, like I never knew beyond the first verse before. I knew ‘Mary had a little lamb and its feet were white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go’ and I knew they sang the la las. Then after that I knew it followed her to school, but I never knew that the whole story was about the teacher chucking the lamb out of class. I thought it was just a great end where it gets chucked out. Everyone’s wondering why this lamb is hanging about ’cause Mary loves the lamb. To me that’s like a heavy trip those lyrics. It’s very spiritual when someone hangs around because it’s loved. I’m sure no one ever thinks about those kind of things.
Melody Maker, 2 December 1972
Television and video
On 25 May 1972, Wings made their first appearance on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops, during which they mimed to a live recording of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’.
On 6 June, a month after its release, Wings filmed a promotional video for the song at BBC Television Centre. The finished item included animated sequences.
The band also filmed two other promos. One had the band in a barnyard setting, with Paul playing a piano with a chicken on top of it. The other, known as the ‘psychedelic version’, featured the band wearing orange t-shirts and dungarees before a kaleidoscopic background.
Wings mimed to the song for the 1973 TV special James Paul McCartney. It was filmed on London’s Hampstead Heath on 10 March 1973.
Another clip, known as ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (Desert Video), featured the band inside a circus tent, with Linda mounted on a horse. It was included on the 2018 reissue of Red Rose Speedway, part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection.