Search This Blog

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Paul McCartney: McCartney II


1) Coming Up; 2) Temporary Secretary; 3) On The Way; 4) Waterfalls; 5) Nobody Knows; 6) Front Parlour; 7) Summerʼs Day Song; 8) Frozen Jap; 9) Bogey Music; 10) Darkroom; 11) One Of These Days; 12*) Check My Machine; 13*) Secret Friend.

General verdict: A brave experiment in which Paul demonstrates that the Eighties might not be the best decade for him to keep up with trends and fashions.

Although Paulʼs first official solo album of the post-Wings era was released only in May 1980, most of the actual recordings were from the summer of the previous year; it is interesting, and quite telling, that he apparently had no intention of making them public before the Japanese bust and the souring of relations with his Wings companions. The solo sessions, recorded at his private studio in Sussex, were just a small part of Paulʼs, let us say, playful and erratic behavior throughout 1979 — beginning with the rather silly and somewhat tasteless flirt with «cocktail lounge disco» on ʽGoodnight Tonightʼ (far from the best of his singles) and ending with the rather silly and somewhat tasteless flirt with «Sesame Street electronica» on ʽWonderful Christ­mastimeʼ, which, by the way, was the only one of the 1979 solo recordings that he actually decided to release in 1979.

As the thought of seriously going solo once again crept into his mind sometime after (or, who knows, maybe even during) Tokyo jail time, he decided that it would be OK to return to the recordings he made earlier, rather than starting anew. This made the entire experience a little less improvisational and spontaneous than the recording of the original McCartney, but the two albums definitely share something — like the willingness to offer the public a rawer, less glossy side of himself, where pop perfection could be sacrificed for the sake of an extra personal touch and an atmosphere of friendly intimacy. What definitely makes McCartney II stand out, of course, is Paulʼs increased interest in elements of electronica — of all his records, this is the one that most directly reflects the influence of New Wave, although it would be an exaggeration to say that Paul ever had any big ideas on how to change the rules of the game and make his own unforgettable mark on contemporary music fashion. After all, it all started out as just a bit of harmless fun in his basement.

In terms of individual songs, only one song off McCartney II has legitimately «survived» through the ages, and, ironically, it was the least solo number on the album: although this parti­cular version of ʽComing Upʼ was indeed recorded on his own, it started life as a Wings number, and a live performance from 1979 was included as the B-side on the corresponding single. True enough, it sounds like nothing ever done previously by Paul: the funky guitar riffs clearly reflect a Talking Heads influence, although the melody is far happier than anything that the grim, sarcastic New Yorkers had produced (it does feel more at home with the later, more pacified years of the bandʼs and David Byrneʼs careers). But it is still a lively, catchy, sing-along-ish pop anthem, which, in Paulʼs case, means almost inevitable popularity and a long, healthy life on the radio and in the live setlists. My only problem with it is the awful production on the vocals — it is quite likely that Paul intentionally wanted to make himself sound like a green goblin and a sucking up choir of will-oʼ-wisps, but we are under no obligation to respect that artistic decision. If not for that bit of silly vocal circus, ʽComing Upʼ could have become a perfect opening state­ment for the new decade — along with Johnʼs ʽStarting Overʼ and the Stonesʼ ʽStart Me Upʼ, all of them songs that optimistically opened up the curtains on a brand new morning (which, for most of these guys, never properly resolved into a brand new day).

Get beyond ʽComing Upʼ, though, and what you have is a severely disappointing experience — albeit unusual and unpredictable enough, to the point of garnering McCartney II a devoted cult following, typically from people who value the art of «going beyond oneʼs comfort zone», no matter what the cost, above the art of staying true to oneʼs traditional self. In reality, it can never be perfectly predicted which choice is the better one to take; and as for history in general, it has not been as kind to McCartney II as it has been, for instance, to Bowieʼs Berlin trilogy or certain other attempts by «old school artists» to go all «new school» on us in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And the reasons for that go way beyond the proverbial pop-McCartney bias.

Starting off on a personal note, I find it weird how McCartney II is the very first McCartney record from which I can never even vaguely remember even half of the songs. Some of this, I think, has to do not with the fact of Paul employing electronica, but rather with the fact of his relying on clichéd songwriting templates — ʽOn The Wayʼ, for instance, is a surprising excourse into the territory of dark, almost heavy, blues-rock, but a one-man Led Zeppelin with muffled, echoey production is not quite the same as a four-man Led Zeppelin with crystal clear production; ʽNobody Knowsʼ is fast, bawdy country-rock whose attempt at creating a drunken barroom atmosphere by means of overdubs is nowhere near as fun as the real thing; and ʽBogey Musicʼ (sic!) is indeed an attempt to cross «boogie» with a bit of «bogey», with Paul transforming himself into a hologram of Elvis and then cloning the hologram. Like most of Paulʼs musical jokes, these ones would have worked much better if they were fully surrounded with material of substance; unfortunately, most of this album feels like a musical joke, with but a tiny drop of substance encountered from time to time.

A true gentleman could certainly say that something like ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ feels like a ʽPaperback Writerʼ for the new decade — a classic light-hearted character vignette from Paul, with a touch of sarcasm, a touch of hipness, and plenty of inventiveness. It is certainly a serious effort to master the art of synth loops, and it certainly sounds like nothing else around it: modern electro-pop, yet imbued with the half-quirky, half-innocent vibe of our old friend Paul McCartney from Liver­pool. The problem is that these two vibes do not mix in a way that would make much sense. The effect is neither futuristically scary or mind-blowing, nor properly humorous. The synth tones and artificially treated vocals clearly go for comical effect, but Paul was never a true comical genius, and in the end, ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ is just a bizarre oddity.

And it is also arguably the best of Paulʼs electronic exercises presented here. Anybody remember ʽFront Parlourʼ or ʽFrozen Japʼ? If not, hardly surprising: the former is essentially three and a half minutes of inobtrusive elevator muzak, and the latter buries a potentially rewarding, but way too simplistic and repetitive, crystal-clear synth-pop melody under a grimy layer of over-loud percussion. I will admit that in purely objective terms of complexity of composition ʽFrozen Japʼ is probably quite comparable to something like ʽHot As Sunʼ from McCartney; but the simple acoustic theme of ʽHot As Sunʼ was jumping out at you and naughtily seducing you with its beachy leisureness, while the synth theme of ʽFrozen Japʼ never breaks out of the background. (The name of the instrumental is spot-on, though — it really does sound like a refrigerated variation on a Japanese pop melody).

In the end, I can only name two songs on the entire album that still sound acceptable today — ʽComing Upʼ is one, obviously, and then there is ʽWaterfallsʼ, not one of Paulʼs best ballads (a bit too child-like in both melody and lyrics) but managing to combine sentimentality and sadness in a way that, even in 1980, remained open for McCartney on a completely exclusive basis (there is that mournful, no-escape wisp in the line "people who jump waterfalls sometimes can make mis­takes" that goes all the way back to ʽFor No Oneʼ and ʽFool Of The Hillʼ). Okay, throw in ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ if you really want to remember what McCartney II was all about, but I still do not like that thing.

Curiously, what might arguably have been the best result of those electronic sessions never made it to the LP itself, being instead relegated to dark B-side space: ʽCheck My Machineʼ, sampling dialogue from an old Tweety and Silvester cartoon, is a leisurely shuffle whose unnerving vaudeville tempo really fits in with Paulʼs echoey falsetto to produce a genuinely creepy effect, something that ʽTemporary Secretaryʼ or any other tracks on McCartney II totally failed to do. It may have been unintentional, of course, but reality states that I, for instance, was seriously creeped out by this track when I first heard it, and I still do not recommend anybody to play it to their kids if they have a frail and sensitive nature. It is perfectly possible that Paul did not include it on the LP precisely because he did not want the songʼs disturbing atmosphere to clash with the jolly optimism of ʽComing Upʼ or the sentimental innocence of ʽWaterfallsʼ — but then whatʼs the use of a nice, risky titillation if all you do is stick it away on a B-side?..

Compared to ʽCheck My Machineʼ, the other B-side that you will find tacked on as a bonus track to the CD edition — the ten-minute long opus ʽSecret Friendʼ — is another disappointment. Its length and repetitiveness introduce it as an otherworldly soundscape, but it ends up reminding me rather unfortunately of the kind of experimental stuff youʼd meet on, say, Canʼs Future Days, and guess who wins that competition. Again, this is Paul trying to set up a tent on somebody elseʼs turf, straying away from his strengths and confessing his weaknesses; as an electronic suite, ʽSecret Friendʼ is no more alluring than Paulʼs classical exercises like Liverpool Oratorio — this is simply not what he was sent into this world to do.

All in all, regardless of whether this experiment is to your liking or not, it is quite telling that even after going solo, Paul would never again return to this format (even his Fireman works with Martin Glover would be a collaborative project). This was not due to a lack of sales: on the success wave of ʽComing Upʼ, McCartney II fared much better than Back To The Egg, and the critical reception was slightly warmer (though still mixed). This may have been, however, due to feeling that, after all, this was only a slight distraction of a project — and that there were many other people around who could do this kind of stuff much better. I have no doubt that McCartney II will continue to live on as an attractive, intriguing oddity, but I still tend to rate Paulʼs albums by how often I get the urge to relisten to any of them rather than by how formally unusual they are — and according to this simple criterion, McCartney II always finds itself at the bottom of the heap. In the end, I fully agree with that mixed look of amazement, suspicion, terror, and disgust that Paul shares with us on the sleeve photo. 


  1. Yeah, this one is pretty much a trainwreck. I mean, a fairly interesting trainwreck but a trainwreck nonetheless. The only songs on here that I truly like are Waterfalls and, perhaps my favourite, One of These Days, as well as Coming Up in live form (I really don't like the vocal effects on the studio version). Interesting that those are by far the most straightforward songs on the album and, in the case of One of These Days, by far the most stripped down. Temporary Secretary has grown on me but I think more in the sense of "this is so stupid, it's kinda fun" than it actually being any good.

    Fortunately, Paul rebounded pretty spectacularly a couple of years later before jumping head first into that '80s malaise.

    1. Oh and, come to think of it, I also rather enjoy Darkroom - or, at the very least, find its chorus to be a serious ear worm.

    2. I agree about One of These Days, the best along with Waterfalls and Coming Up in any form. I only recently listened to Check My Machine and I agree with the creepy aura but.. it's great as well. On The Way is alright but not much more. Great album cover!

  2. Frozen Jap is similar to The Cars synth and mechanical style.

  3. Sorry, but One of These Days is a Pink Floyd song. Great song though.

  4. McCartney had been hanging around a bit with Kevin Godley & Lol Creme ca. 1979 (he shows up in the credits for Freeze Frame). You gotta wonder if those two put McCartney in a rather weird and experimental mood. This wouldn't be the first time they had influenced him (see 10cc, "Silly Love"). But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

  5. Frozen Japs has been extremely underrated by everyone here.

  6. I believe the appeal of "Coming Up" has to do with it sounding just not like anything Paul had done before. Fred Seaman (former assistant of John Lennon) reported that John's curiosity was provoked when listening to Paul's new song on the radio, saying something like "Paul really took a new venture here". If you believe Seaman this contributed to John's emerging from his professional retirement, working on music again.