Since beginning this occasional series in 2017, I included this italicized explanation at the top of my picks until earlier this year: “As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.” What I hoped to convey with those words was this: “essential” does not necessarily equal “great.” Sometimes they are one and the same, of course, but as often they’re simply important, but flawed, chapters in the chosen artist’s development.
Such is the case with McCartney II, which was released on May 16, 1980. It was, is and likely will forever be a love-it-or-hate-it entry in Paul McCartney’s oeuvre. Some fans consider it an eccentric delight, as the 11 songs span the gamut from synth-pop to ambient electronica to new-fangled techno to old-fashioned blues to an acoustic ballad. Others, however, find the synthesizers, electronica flourishes and vocal distortions off-putting. I’m in the former camp, myself. While I don’t consider it a great album, per se, I do think it’s an important album that features glimmers of greatness.
Most fans know the backstory of the album, but for those few who don’t: Following the wrap-up of the Back to the Egg album, which was released in June 1979, the members of Wings – Paul and Linda, long-time compadre Denny Laine, and newcomers Laurence Juber and Steve Holley – went their separate ways for a spell. With a 19-date U.K. tour slated to begin in November, and the expectation that it would expand to the rest of the world the following year, everyone had things on their to-do list that they wanted to address first.
In Paul’s case, that meant goofing off – first in Sussex and then in Scotland. In a 1980 Club Sandwich interview with rock writer Paul Gambaccini, he says that “I hired a 16-track machine and got an engineer friend, Eddie, to fix me up a thing where I just took one microphone into the back of the machine direct, so we didn’t use a big console. It’s very difficult if you’re trying to work on your own with a big console, so we bypassed it and just went directly into the back of the machine.”
In some respects, McCartney was looking to cast out the cobwebs he’d gathered during the on-and-off Back to the Egg sessions, which began in late June 1978 and didn’t end until March 1979. While BTTE was and is a fun set, it’s also flawed and formulaic – and, though it includes a nod to new wave, extremely safe. Like many of the era’s old-guard rockers, in other words, he was treading water.
For II, he changed things up. As he explained to Gambaccini, “Well, the whole thing about all these tracks was to do something different. ‘Coming Up’ was done as all the tracks were. What I did was to just go into the studio each day and just start with a drum track. Then I built it up bit by bit without any idea of how the song was going to to turn out. It’s like a reverse way of working. After laying down the drum tracks I added guitars and bass, building up the backing track.” In the interview, he equates the process to sculpture: “It is very much like sitting down with a few lumps of clay and putting down one after another until it makes itself into a face or something.”
By the time he finished the working holiday, he had enough material for a double album – but shelved everything, as the Wings tour beckoned.
And then Japan happened.
The plans to re-conquer the world were cancelled along with the sold-out 11-date Japanese tour; and McCartney found himself listening to his previous summer’s sonic adventures. From the same Club Sandwich interview with Gambaccini: “I wasn’t even thinking of it being an album until I got all the tracks together and played them on a cassette in my car; it started to sound like an album.” Then it became a matter of figuring out how to create a coherent set from the material. Paul, apparently, wanted to release everything as a double album, but then thought better – or, more likely, was reined in by his record company. Some songs were edited for length, while others were left behind.
In a sense, McCartney II is a high-tech update on the 1970 McCartney album, which is also accented by oddball instrumentals alongside a few memorable tunes. In this case, the fun begins with the catchy “Coming Up,” which was also the album’s first single.
The flip side of the 45, I should mention, features a live rendition of the song by Wings along with the Venus & Mars castoff “Lunchbox/Odd Sox.” In the U.K., the song reached No. 2 on the pop charts, but in the U.S. the live rendition – which is what most radio listeners heard, as deejays rebelled against the sped-up vocals – went No. 1.
“Temporary Secretary” is, depending upon one’s mood, funny, maddening or the audio equivalent of a dentist’s drill. (When I saw Paul in 2015 at the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia, there was – and it may have been mine – an audible groan when, early on, he announced it as the next song.) In September 1980, it was released as a limited-edition U.K. single, believe it or not, and has supposedly taken on a life of its own in techno cubs the world over. (As I don’t frequent techno clubs, I can’t say for sure.) Its b-side was the interminable “Secret Friend,” which was added as a bonus track when II was released on CD in 1987.
The third track, “On the Way,” is a bluesy delight that was influenced by Paul having watched Alexis Korner on a TV show about the blues.
Another highlight: “Waterfalls,” which was the only song on the record that Paul wrote prior to beginning the one-man-band sessions.
It was also the second single released from the album, sneaking into the U.K.’s Top 10 while failing to crack the Top 100 in the U.S. The b-side, “Check My Machine,” is what raised the hair on the back of my neck, however; it features sped-up vocals and an absolutely killer beat – a true overlooked gem. (Like “Secret Friend,” it’s now a bonus track on the McCartney II CD.)
Aside from “Check My Machine,” however, the album tracks I’ve featured are anomalies from the overall feel of II, which veers more toward the ambient and eccentric as it continues. For instance, “Frozen Jap” is an oddball instrumental built around a cool motif that conjures Mount Fuji.
“Darkroom” is another favorite of mine. Be forewarned, though: It’s an ear worm. One listen and you’ll be hearing it for days onward…
The closing “One of These Days” is another overlooked gem.
Paul told Gambaccini that he was inspired to write it after “a Hare Krishna bloke came round to see me. He was a nice fellow, very sort of gentle. After he left, I went to the studio and the vibe carried through a bit – I started writing something a bit more gentle that particular day. The song seemed right as a very simple thing, and it basically says ‘one of these days I’ll do what I’ve been meaning to do with the rest of my life.’ I think it’s something a lot of people can identify with.”
Like many U.S. fans, when I brought home the “Coming Up” single in April 1980, at age 14, I first preferred the b-side with Wings. And when the album was released a month later, I found the mix of the expected and the eccentric more of a curiosity than anything. But as the listens accrued, I began to appreciate the eccentric more and more. And, in retrospect, the synth stuff, sped-up vocals and the like led the way for me to appreciate off-kilter releases from other favorite artists, such as Neil Young, in the years to come.
We fans sometimes pigeonhole our favorites, after all, and expect their every release to build upon, or borrow from, what came before. But just as I, as a fan, enjoy a wide array of sounds, why can’t or shouldn’t a music artist expand their sonic palate, as well? In some ways, the success of the album – and it went gold in both the U.S. and U.K. – freed McCartney from the straitjacket that Wings had become to him. Ask yourself this: Would The Fireman have happened without McCartney II? I doubt it.
Anyway, in 2011, McCartney II was released alongside the original McCartney as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection (and can be heard on Apple Music). The set includes the unedited versions of many of the tracks as well as a few previously unreleased curiosities, such as the ambient “Blue Sway” (with Richard Niles orchestration) – a very cool track, that is – and the “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” and “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway.” Not everything jells, but that’s okay. They’re cool to hear, nonetheless.