I was obsessed with the Paul McCartney album McCartney II when I was a youngster. My dad had the LP and told me how much he liked the song Waterfalls – telling me it “was as good as a Beatles song”. (His measure of its worth.)
It is a remarkable song, so sparse, stripped back to leave the vocal (and the lyrics) vulnerable. McCartney does what he does best (or worst, if you’re not a fan): he throws out lines that dabble in cliché, taunting and flirting with the absurd, shimmying between prophetic and pathetic. In that song he needs love like “a raindrop needs a shower” or a “second needs an hour” but if you wait for the payoff (“Every minute of the day/And it wouldn’t be the same/If you should decide to go away”) it shows how vulnerable he is; it also shows how gutsy it is to leave these words hanging – the haunting melody helps – but it’s delicate and thin. It’s a risk.
The other best-known song from the album is the opener, track one, side one of the LP: Coming Up.
The video (click on that link above) features Paul playing every instrument – and many different versions of himself including a Beatle-Paul who adds “wooo” backing vocals in a subversive lampooning of his past.
Coming Up is another song Beatle-esque song. This time it’s not a syrupy ballad, it’s The Beatles 10 years after their breakup, recast as New Wave popsters rather than Old Guard pop stars – and it’s how (in many ways) Paul wanted it; control-freak Paul – playing every instrument. Capturing the sound in his head.
The other obvious reference to The Beatles is the album’s closing song, track six, side two: One of These Days.
Here Paul rewrites his Blackbird folk-guitar figure (as he would go on to do many times) and writes a love letter to the old days; to John Lennon especially – certainly to the creative partnership he shared if not to the man himself. He was approaching 40. His other successful band, Wings, was wrapped/wrapping up. He even writes a bridge that Lennon might have written for him. It’s as if he’s tried to write a Paul & John Song, the way Paul and John might have, taking a stab at writing the John part himself. The lines “It’s there, it’s round/It’s to be found/By you, by me/It’s all we ever wanted to see” are sung as if a duet, a call and response that McCartney completes himself.
So these three songs are the overt references to The Beatles, and they are placed at the beginning, middle and end of the album. They are great songs but the real magic is everything else on the album – from the sublime to the ridiculous (often within the same song).
Temporary Secretary follows on from Coming Up and is the true signal of a new sound; of a man holed up with the copious amounts of marijuana he would so often smoke at this time, experimenting – falling in love with music all over again. And, after a decade of (apparently) barely taking a risk, Temporary Secretary (and the entire McCartney II album, as art, as statement) is a leap in to the unknown. There are nods to Kraftwerk and Sparks, to where Eno had been, and there are guesses at where anyone could be about to go.
But the scrapbook that is McCartney II means that for every (giant) leap forward there are traces around the past.
On the Way feels like a tribute to the original Fleetwood Mac. Paul’s drumming could be a tribute to Mick Fleetwood. That said, his bass playing on this cut could be a tribute to John McVie. And, okay, it’s not as fluid, but there is something of the feel of Peter Green in the guitar playing. It’s also a nod back to McCartney – the first Paul McCartney solo album.
Side two starts with Front Parlour – more synthesizer madness, a motif that could be reworked for today’s dance floor with some slamming boom-bap behind it and it’s an example of McCartney wrestling with himself – for all that McCartney II references The Beatles it is also the sound of a man running as far from those comparisons as is humanly possible. And in order to achieve that distance he uses the least human instrument – the then ultra-modern synth sounds.
Summer’s Day Song takes the horrorshow creepiness of the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack and marries a hymn feel; an almost funereal dirge to the music. And it’s a hymn/prayer of a lyric too – just a snatch of words: “Someone’s sleeping/Through a bad dream/Tomorrow it will be over/For the world will soon be waking/To a summer’s day”. That’s the entire lyric – a childlike profundity, as is so often the case with both the best and worst of McCartney’s post-Beatles lyrics. You either think he’s a sentimental git or you appreciate the heart-on-sleeve approach. Can’t it be a little of column A, a little of column B?
Next up is Frozen Jap (hmmm…I wonder who that could be about?). Another slice of DIY beat making, subverted disco from the dying days of the fad. It’s also, when you hear it now, a sound that informs McCartney’s digressions as one half of The Fireman.
Bogey Music is the sort of misfire you can forgive – it doesn’t excerpt well but it makes complete sense on an album that (in the best possible way) doesn’t really make sense. Worth it for the bass playing and, much like Nobody Knows, it’s a future-feel rewrite of the past.
The album’s penultimate track is Darkroom – a banger that could simultaneously fill any dance floor today while emptying the inertia from a hipster’s soul. If no one else was paying attention to this, Damon Albarn surely was – there’s a value and set of ideas/ideals in this one track that separates McCartney from The Beatles while still holding the significant voice that parallels/prepares Albarn’s establishment of the Gorillaz persona as distinct from the Damon of Blur.
So that’s the McCartney II album – track by track. But of course it all started with Check My Machine, wryly titled since that’s exactly what Macca was doing, checking his equipment. It could be seen as an update of You Know My Name (Look Up My Number) – in fact this is what happens when someone looks up the number. And leaves a message…
And the 10-minute Secret Friend is the other great B-side from McCartney II. It could pass as Aphex Twin’sRejected Ambient Music 1979-1980; with a sly sizzle in its rhythm that, again, begs for tweaking and remixing or could just be played straight today.
When I was five and six and seven years old the McCartney II album was baffling and captivating.
Thirty years after its release I still feel that way about it.
They are both superb albums but McCartney II should, if there’s any justice, find a whole new audience. Secret Friend, Darkroom, Front Parlour, Frozen Jap and Bogey Music could appeal to fans of Animal Collective and so many other Pitchfork-endorsed oddities. And Waterfalls, Coming Up, One of These Days, Summer’s Day Song and On the Way should challenge the notion of McCartney as sentimental hack writer.
Everything on McCartney II extends out and away from the notion of twee – it’s Paul McCartney embracing the madness and spontaneity of creation, of working alone. It is, for my money, one of the great one-man-band albums. It is McCartney’s solo masterpiece. It is a man ushering in a handful of new sounds, regardless of whether he is sure of them. He may not even be sure of himself – there’s a real feeling of vulnerability here – but he is sure of himself as composer, as musician.
McCartney II is the real Hello Goodbye that he once sang about – waving goodbye to one band from his recent past, offering a smile and a nod to the other.
What are your thoughts about McCartney II? Is it a work of genius? Is it totally bonkers? Is it a little of column A, a little of column B?
Between late 2007 and early 2016 I wrote a daily music blog at Stuff.co.nz called Blog On The Tracks. I’m reposting some of the entries here because the discussion is still valid or entertaining or because you might have missed them the first time.
Click here to see the original post from 2011.