If McCartney was Paul McCartney’s declaration of independence from the Beatles, Part II signaled a new kind of freedom
McCartney (1970) was Paul McCartney’s declaration of independence from the Beatles. But McCartney II, released a decade later, signaled a new kind of freedom.
For most of his career, McCartney had always been a member of a band. He’d never considered going ahead without one. McCartney II opened the door to new possibilities.
For all his success in 1970s, McCartney had found the decade a bit of a rough ride as well. The constantly changing lineup of his post-Beatles band, Wings, meant the group never really jelled. The band’s 1975-76 world tour made them a mega act, but that lineup fell apart during the recording of the next album, 1978’s London Town. Two new members were duly drafted in, and Wings set about working on what would be their last album, Back to the Egg. But McCartney was itching to find a new direction.
Ever the workaholic, he started recording material on a 16-track Studer tape machine he had installed in his home as soon as the Back to the Egg sessions were finished, playing all the instruments himself. He was not considering the songs for a new album; he was simply recording for his own amusement. Free from the need to be commercial, he was more imaginative than he’d been since the time of his own Ram album (1971) and his brother Mike McGear’s underrated McGear album (1974). He felt free to take the kind of chances he would have hesitated to do on a more mainstream project.
Not that there wasn’t a measure of typical McCartney-esque tunefulness to the album as well. And it’s precisely this mix of the conventional and the unexpected that makes McCartney II either a fun bit of experimentation or inconsistent as all get out (my first copy of the album, purchased from a used record store, had a sticker with a note from a store employee on the cover, incredulous that a former Beatle could have released something this dreadful).
McCartney bookends the album with two of its strongest tracks. “Coming Up” has a bright, modern sound, due in part to studio manipulation that made his voice higher. It was matched with a delightful video, with McCartney fronting a band cheekily dubbed the Plastic Macs, with Paul himself playing most of the musicians, including a horn-rimmed glasses-wearing Hank Marvin of the Shadows and Ron Mael from Sparks. He even spoofed his own Beatle past, donning a collarless suit and shaking his head like it was 1964 all over again (wife Linda also appears as a pair of male and female backing singers). The closer, “One of These Days,” couldn’t be more different from those high spirits, a gentle, somewhat pensive number that’s simply McCartney and an acoustic guitar (McCartney said the song was inspired by a visit from a “Hare Krishna bloke … After he left, I went to the studio and the vibe carried through a bit.”
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Coming Up”
“Coming Up” would be the album’s most successful single (though the US preferred the B-side, a live version of the track; energetic, but not nearly as interesting as the studio version). But the next two singles illustrate how this album came to polarize McCartney fans. “Waterfalls” is the kind of thing you’d expect from him, a heartfelt, romantic ballad (even so, despite its success in the UK, it flopped in the states). But “Temporary Secretary” baffled listeners. With its atonal, electronic vocal and sequencers running wild, it was McCartney having fun by pushing the envelope, also revealing he’d been paying attention to the new punk/new wave music emanating from Britain at the time (Ian Dury in particular). One wonders how it might have fared had his name not been attached to it; a decade later, a house-fueled remix of his “Hope of Deliverance”–released anonymously–became a dance club hit before it was revealed as a McCartney song.
Similarly, tracks like “Darkroom” (another synth-driven, minimalist piece) and the rollicking, jokey “Bogey Music” can seem like what-was-he-thinking indulgences, though in fairness a song based on a children’s book (the latter song being inspired by Raymond Briggs’ Fungus The Bogeyman) was always going come out sounding a bit silly. The album’s instrumentals are pleasant interludes, best appreciated as his simply fooling around with a nice melody.
Or consider the dichotomy between “On the Way” and “Nobody Knows.” In “On the Way,” McCartney plays it straight, singing in his raspy “Let Me Roll It” voice. “Nobody Knows” is the send up, a foot stomping shouter, maybe something of a throwaway, but nonetheless engaging.
And that’s the secret to understanding McCartney II. It’s a look at McCartney’s private side, a chance to experience some of the music he initially created without any intention of releasing it publicly. It’s a clearing of the decks, in preparation for a new era. It was also something of a stopgap release. Wings’ planned tour of Japan in January 1980 had been cancelled when McCartney was arrested and deported for attempting to smuggle in marijuana. There were a few subsequent rehearsals later in the year, but the band never performed or recorded again.
Indeed, McCartney never worked with another band again. All subsequent releases and tours would be Paul McCartney and His Current Backing Group.
But with McCartney II, Paul McCartney greeted the new decade as a man standing alone.