Paul McCartney - McCartney II (1980)
Welcome to the Overlooked Hotel, where guests are invited to disagree with the conventional wisdom and re-evaluate the underappreciated.
Paul McCartney’s second solo album, McCartney II, is an oft-buried oddment of his insanely worshipped, varied, and prolific output. It’s by no means a lost classic, but it is a forgotten treasure; quite a strange album that sees one of the greatest pop songwriters ever experiment with not only synthesisers, sequencers, and solo recording, but also with songwriting itself.
Recorded in his Scottish farm in 1979, McCartney II sees the ex-Beatle taking a consciously different approach to the craft he basically perfected whilst his surname was joined to that of Lennon in the “Lennon/McCartney” songwriting duo. Despite the breakdown of their relationship towards the end of The Beatles, and the subsequent disparity between an obvious Lennon and an obvious McCartney song, the songs on this second completely solo effort are distinctly different again. The songs are always odd, always experimenting with something that comes from left of centre. Take the opening song, and lead single, “Coming Up”. It has the chorus, hook, and bop of any other 70s pop song, but it’s the way McCartney has constructed these elements that is of real interest. The guitar is straight out of a Talking Heads number; all scratchy and sharp; the synth is as buzzy as a hard blown sax; and the backing vocals, which back up McCartney’s filtered lead vocal, are so high you’d think McCartney underwent a sex change to do them. And while all that stuff is interesting, as done by McCartney, it’s by no means groundbreaking: Talking Heads: 77 had been out for two years when “Coming Up” was recorded, and synths had been used heavily since the late 60s. But it’s the fact that McCartney, still considered a hero of songwriting at this stage, was trying these things. However, in terms of experimental synth-pop, the track that follows “Coming Up”, is leaps and bounds ahead.
“Temporary Secretary” is considered by many to be a horrible and annoying song. It starts with a busy, manic synth loop, before a simple, somewhat krauty beat drops in. Then McCartney’s oh-so Beatley melody, delivered with a robotic twinge, completes the oddball package. Though it could be grating, the song is worthwhile simply for its surprise factor. Find a Beatles fan and tell them you’ve got a great McCartney song to play them. Or put it on, and then do the bait and switch when McCartney’s distinct vocals start. Though all of the parts of “Temporary Secretary” had been done before, they hadn’t been combined by Paul McCartney before, in only the way he can combine, and it’s this that makes it a good song. His experiments have always been interesting because his standard songwriting, that of The Beatles, is basically the international lexicon for songwriting; thus when he rearranges those parts, or adds parts he couldn’t before, the result is always of interest. This is the man who gave us “Helter Skelter” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” after all. Funnily enough, it’s this song that’s most divisive in discussions of this album, or his output as a whole. McCartney purists loathe it, lamenting the synth part, his fiddled-with vocals, or the songwriting itself. Those a bit more open to experimentation, dubbed “young critics” by those purists in some forums I’ve perused in my research, stop short of loving it, but still regard it as an example of pushing and prodding at the boundaries of pop songwriting. To the song’s testament, it had a Lazarus moment in the 80s as an underground dance hit, oddly enough. As far as discussion and divisiveness go, “Temporary Secretary” is probably McCartney II summed up in a song.
As the album moves forward, there’s faux country songs, faux rock ‘n’ roll songs, faux ballads, all being tweaked in some way by McCartney’s latent desire for experimentation. The rocky/country “On The Way” seems normal enough, but the vocal is drenched in enough delay to render it nigh on undecipherable. “Waterfalls”, for me the low point of the album, for the purists the high point, is your standard love song/ballad, aside from the sole accompaniment of electric piano, and synthesised strings. Then there’s two of the album’s highlights, “Front Parlour” and “Frozen Jap”, two instrumental, synth and drum machine tracks that could honestly have popped up online in the last couple of years, courtesy of some bedroom producer, and you’d be none the wiser. They’re truly forward looking and genuinely good songs; “Front Parlour” the lighter, chill-wave brother to the equally harmless but slightly heavier “Frozen Jap”. Other standouts are “Darkroom” and “One of These Days”, the former a kind of quiet funk song, with catching beat/bass line, and McCartney squeaks galore, the latter a relaxed acoustic closer, and genuinely good song, with lyrics that border on introspective; something rare for a McCartney song, him generally being the perpetual pop everyman.
The most exciting songs on McCartney II didn’t appear on the original album, but as B-sides to the two lead singles, and then as bonus tracks on the CD reissue in the 80s, and again with the deluxe reissue in 2011. Those two songs are “Check My Machine” and “Secret Friend”. “Check My Machine” was the first song McCartney wrote in these sessions, during which he was literally checking that all his new equipment was up and running. It’s nearly frightening how before their time these songs are; “Check My Machine” sounds like a Gorillaz jam featuring children’s television show samples, funky bass line, groovy beat, nonsensical lyrics, delivered in falsetto, with reverb and delay laid on thick, it’s a fantastic song that builds and builds, whilst your head bops away with no effort on your part. “Secret Friend” is a ten-minute synth epic, worthy of Kraftwerk or any electronica heavy act from the 70s. Replete with vocoded McCartney, electronic salsa beat, reverb-saturated synthesised brass and bendy piano loops, again it’s a song that seems far ahead of its time, seeming more akin to the electronic music of the late 80s, and perhaps even hinting at elements of trip-hop with its combining of electronic and live drums, brass and filtered, odd vocals.
Those two songs are truly standout tracks, and McCartney should be commended for their creation, and for creating them when he did, but his decision to leave them off the original album says something of his self-awareness; namely that it wasn’t there. The songs that are on the original cut of the album are interesting mainly for his having created them, for showcasing what one half of the greatest song-writing duo was capable of cooking up on his own. But “Check My Machine” and “Secret Friend” are amazing songs, two songs that show McCartney could be just as visionary as Lennon was so often lauded for being. But their exclusion highlights his belief that he was a pop songwriter first and foremost, and it’s this that is most interesting about McCartney II. The songs, despite their quirk and consistently off-centre angles, are still pop songs, restrained by McCartney’s blind pop sensibilities. It’s as if his identity was formed by McCartney, the ex-Beatle, future knight, and songwriting god, more so than it was by Paul, the guy who wanted to experiment with synths in his Scottish farm. Those two bonus tracks show he was as forward thinking and experimental as any krautrocker or proto-synther, but that he didn’t see himself that way, which is unfortunate.
McCartney II is an overlooked oddment of his monolithic career, and it’s definitely worth a listen, just make sure it’s either the 80s bonus track CD, or 2011 reissue that you listen to, else you miss out on the truly amazing parts of this quirky album.