Sir Paul Behind Closed Doors: The McCartney Album Series
A new limited edition box set brings together all three of Macca’s DIY classics
When Paul McCartney released McCartney he was breaking away from the Beatles. When he released McCartney II, he was breaking away from his post-Beatles band Wings. And when he released McCartney III, he was breaking away from a world that had gone into lockdown during the COVID pandemic.
“It was very liberating,” he said of making McCartney, and the same could be said of all three solo albums; making music gave McCartney a place “to get away from the turmoil” in the outside world.
All three albums have been newly reissued as one set, on CD and in two vinyl editions (black vinyl and limited edition colored vinyl), packed in a slip case along with three photo prints (the music’s also available for streaming in Dolby Atmos). It’s a natural pairing, due to the album titles, and a not-so-subtle reminder that McCartney doesn’t need a band to help him create an album; he’s a versatile one man band in his own right.
McCartney (1970) is the most tentative work. Some of the songs are little more than unfinished sketches, like the opening “The Lovely Linda” (a mere 43 seconds) and the instrumental “Valentine Day.” “Junk” has a wistful nostalgia, but including “Singalong Junk,” an instrumental version of the tune meant to encourage the listener to add their own vocals, felt a bit lazy. Overall, critics at the time failed to respond to the album’s rough-hewn charms; UK music weekly Melody Maker called “Man We Was Lonely” “sheer banality. If it had been sung by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, I (and you) would’ve sneered and turned it off.” Ouch! It didn’t help that his sole musical partner was his wife Linda, who provided a few vocal harmonies.
But there was one standout: “Maybe I’m Amazed,” McCartney’s first post-Beatles classic. And over the years, there’s been a reassessment of the album, which, “Maybe I’m Amazed” aside, could be said to have pre-dated “lo-fi” by a couple decades (you could easily imagine the album coming out on K Records). You wish McCartney had taken the time to flesh out numbers like “Hot As Sun/Glasses” into full songs, but as a sampler of what McCartney was getting up to musically, it was more than sufficient.
McCartney II (1980) was a good deal more playful. In the summer of 1979, McCartney had just finished work on Back to the Egg, which turned out to be his final album with Wings, and then decided to have a little fun by recording some solo tracks. They might have stayed in the vault had he not been arrested for marijuana possession when he arrived in Japan on January 16, 1980, in advance of Wings’ tour of the country. Following his deportation back to the UK, McCartney decided those solo tracks might make a good album after all, and it became his first solo album since McCartney, hinting at a declining interest in Wings. Indeed, this is the only album of the three where he’s the sole performer.
On this outing, it was the poppy “Coming Up” that gave him the worldwide hit, accompanied by one of his best videos. Synthesizers, sequencers, keyboards, and electric piano would play a prominent role, tapping into the current vogue for electronic music, most obviously on “Temporary Secretary.” The song’s something of a dividing line for McCartney fans, some of whom despise it for sounding so unlike anything he’d done before, and those who love it for just that reason. “Waterfalls” is the kind of well-crafted ballad you’d expect McCartney to do. But what frustrated some critics are the numbers that seemed to be throwaways, like “Nobody Knows” (a spirited romp that’s fun, but doesn’t go anywhere), “Bogey Music” and “Darkroom.” But again, this was McCartney clearing the decks, seeking to, in his words, “blow the cobwebs away.” It certainly him helped chart a new musical direction; his subsequent album, 1982’s Tug of War, is considered one of his best.
It’s a shame he didn’t keep with similarly experimental, stripped down albums for 1990, 2000, and 2010; his own version of Michael Apted’s Up series, perhaps. Instead, there’s a gap of forty years before McCartney III (2020) appears. The changes the years have brought give this album a poignancy; McCartney’s voice shows its age on numbers like “Women and Wives” and the light falsetto of “Deep Deep Feeling.” Unlike the other two albums, there aren’t any instrumental sketches; even the opening track, “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” with its minimal lyrics, feels like a complete song (it also gives McCartney a chance to show off his acoustic guitar skills).
There’s some wildness on “Lavatory Lil,” which could’ve easily fit on Ram, a bit of social commentary on “Pretty Boys” (about the exploitation of models), and an outright rocker on “Slidin’,” which sees McCartney joined by some of his touring musicians. But overall, this is a reflective album, expressing contentment with one’s current state, seen in lines like “I know my way around/I walk towards the light,” “I must find the time to plant some trees,” and what could be the McCartney credo, “But it’s still alright to be nice.” This is a man who’s happy with himself, is where he wants to be, and desires to do nothing more than share his joy in being able to create music.
McCartney has sometimes been criticized for too obviously pandering to mainstream tastes in an effort to cultivate success. It’s more accurate to say that he somewhat compartmentalizes different aspects of his work. Along with the commercial works, he’s always taken the time to step outside of that role, whether it’s releasing albums of electronic trance music under the name of the Fireman, collaborating with his brother on the underrated McGear album, or creating an improvisational song with the former members of Nirvana.
McCartney, McCartney II and McCartney III each offer the opportunity to peek inside Sir Paul’s workshop and listen to songs that might otherwise have remained in the vaults forever.
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