Album Spotlight: Paul McCartney – McCartney II

Summer, 1979. Paul McCartney is in his home studio in Scotland, perhaps depressed, admittedly discouraged. His musical group isn’t working out the way he’d like. Their last album hasn’t been well received by the critics. Perhaps it’s time to move on. But the drive to create is still there, unchecked. Also, he’s acquired several new synthesizers and sequencers that he’d like to experiment with. So he takes delivery of a Studer 16-track machine and phones an engineer friend of his to help set up a mixer and effects, so that he can do some home recording.

Alone, he regards his new batch of toys with bemusement. The first thing to do is to test the recorder and other equipment, to be certain everything’s working smoothly. Perhaps he begins with a catchy riff on one of the sequencers. Perhaps it’s played first on the banjo, or maybe a simple bass track as a foundation. However he begins, he plays, losing himself in the riff. Layer upon layer, he builds the recording: drums, bass, rhythm guitar, banjo, sequencers. He adds an improvised vocal, playing with the varispeed control and plastering it with echo, singing the first words that come into his head. “Check…my machine…”

How long does he continue this playful ditty? Surely thirty seconds is long enough to be certain everything’s working properly, or a minute. Surely no longer than two minutes. But the drive to create, to make music, is too strong. The final track clocks in at almost nine minutes, complete with Mel Blanc snippets of cartoon voices at the beginning.

*****

Should people ever ask me just why I think Paul McCartney is one of the most brilliant musicians since Mozart, I might very well steer them toward his 1980 solo release, McCartney II.  Recorded almost entirely at two of his homes (the only exception being vocals done on one song) and completely solo save for a few backing vocals from Linda, this album is completely unlike its closest predecessor, McCartney. In fact, it’s really unlike any other record he’s done.

McCartney II is the work of a thirty-seven-year-old musical Wunderkind at play in his studio, reveling in the joys of synthesizers, sequencers, effects, echo, varispeed and any other tricky sound he could manage to create. It made the world’s collective jaws drop when it was originally released in May 1980, and was received with mixed reviews. Many Wings fans thought Paul had completely wasted their time. They were expecting Seventies rock and got New Wave synth weirdness instead. Time, however, has increased respect for this record. While certainly not Paul’s greatest solo album, it’s probably his most playful, fun and off-the-wall.

What strikes me each time I listen is the sheer joy McCartney seems to have in recording. Many of these songs were edited to fit onto a single album. The original plan for McCartney II was a double album with lots of instrumentals or semi-instrumentals. In fact, Side One of this compilation would have opened with three heavily-synth based instrumentals in a row. It’s no wonder that Columbia Records, which had just paid McCartney millions of dollars to be on their label, rebelled and insisted on a more commercial single album. The final result, while more listenable, certainly came off as odd to fans at the beginning of the Eighties, with the possible exception of those few who were discovering bands like Talking Heads, Human League, Kraftwerk and Devo. McCartney II, however, came with the baggage of having been recorded by an ex-Beatle, which meant that it had better be either highly commercial or freakin’ genius (and preferably both). In that respect, the record failed miserably. Fun and adventurous it is, yes, and genius of a most geeky sort, but too mainstream to be punk and too punk to be mainstream. Neither fish nor fowl.

Give Paul credit, though. He did his best to open with one of those catchy tunes which embeds itself in any unsuspecting listener’s brain. “Coming Up” as it evolved in the studio featured a sped-up, Chipmunk-sounding vocal, plenty of synthesized queeps and beeps and a bass line which sounds as if a robot played it. Paul’s mistake was backing the single with a live version of the same song, played by Wings. DJs in the US listened to Side A, went, “What the hell?”, and quickly flipped to the more rocking Side B. So Wings had the hit–at least in the States. The UK, in its wisdom, went with the much quirkier and far more progressive original.

(As you can see if you click on the above link, Paul’s experimentation extended to the song’s video. Not many promo films feature ten iterations of the singer (and two of his wife).)

For those who made it through “Coming Up” unscathed, McCartney II had bigger surprises in wait. The typewriter simulation programmed onto a sequencer started “Temporary Secretary” off with a bang, and Paul’s lyrics, composed well before sexual harassment became a common workplace threat, extolled the frisky joys of help for hire.

She can be a belly dancer, I don’t need a true romancer
She can be a diplomat, but I don’t need a girl like that
She can be a neurosurgeon if she’s doing nothin’ urgent….

Although it was released as a twelve-inch (single) in the already-cited more progressive UK, “Temporary Secretary” was so far out that it took thirty years to catch up. In 2010, a Brighton DJ blew the dust off his copy and made it a club hit, and several bands have recorded electronica-drenched covers. But Paul was there first.

“Waterfalls”, the ostensible ballad, was the one song Paul had actually written before he began these home sessions. As such, it’s the most typical “McCartney” song on the record, and could have been a hit if he’d recorded it in the studio. As it is, the synth-based strings and the glacial pace combined to make radio stations shy away from it. However, the B-side gave the world Paul’s home equipment test, edited down to only just under six minutes. I played this on a jukebox at college in 1981 and got the weirdest looks from other students. I smirked all the way through it.

I can’t honestly say that at the time, I thought this was anything but something to play to piss people off. Nowadays, I tend to listen in amazement, thinking, “God, that sounds like Gorillaz.”

Side Two gave us a couple of synth-based instrumentals, “Front Parlour” and “Frozen Jap”, which are better in their cut-down versions. The former sounds like the late night background music independent TV stations used to play for the eleven o’clock movie; the latter like some kind of bizarre soundtrack to a modern Kurosawa film. Paul was smart enough to overdub vocals onto the third instrumental, “Summer Day’s Song”, to keep the average fan from falling asleep during this part of the record.

“Bogey Music” brings back the weirdness full force. Based on a UK children’s novel, the song is ostensibly a rocker, but Paul pulls every trick in the vari-speed manual out, speeding and slowing and echoing his vocals until your head spins. Still, it was pedestrian compared to “Darkroom”, another nudge-nudge-wink-wink song about coming along to a darkroom, e.g., dark room–hey, Paul, tell me when and where! Chirping bird-like noises and a thumping bass serve to totally disorient the listener. He was so far out he was in.

“One of These Days”, an acoustic ballad and relatively straightforward, must have left most fans thinking, well, at least there’s still hope. Particularly the Americans, who missed out on the B-side of “Temporary Secretary”, “Secret Friend”. A ten-plus minute long synth based, Latin-tinged ethereal piece of wonder, the song haunts me each and every time I play it. Imagine, if you will, Paul strapping on his rhythm guitar and playing for ten minutes. Then sitting down at the drums. Then getting on the bass guitar. Then the claves, and the cowbell. Then…but it just goes on and on and on. Only love of music could create such a wondrous piece. And he didn’t even intend to share these songs with the public!

The unreleased tracks, which were released in 2011 to rabid fans such as myself, contain a few pieces just as wild and wonderful as the songs above. “Blue Sway” exists in two versions, the original instrumental from 1979 and the orchestral overdubbed piece that was intended for an outtakes album in 1986. Both are sheer dreaminess. “You Know I’ll Get You Baby” is a one-line tune, but the arrangement is pure Prince a la Dirty Mind. What was Paul listening to? One wonders. You can hear it preceded by another reject, “Mr. H Atom”, below. That song, a duet with Linda, is just plain dumb–but hey, it was for home consumption only.

I could cite a few others, but really, you either love this stuff or you don’t. To me, it just goes to show Paul’s real brilliance. With all due respect to John Lennon, his idea of an adventurous home recording was overdubbing two acoustic guitars and a rhythm box, or creating bizarre sound collages a la Two Virgins. Someday the world will recognize that Paul was the real musician, even if his work can be lyrically shallow. With musical inventiveness like McCartney II, I can accept that.