Thursday, 21 July 2011
Paul McCartney "McCartney II" (1980/2011) (News, Views and Music 106; Revised edition 2015)
“Alright, now come on, all you horseriders...” “She can be a belly dancer I don’t need a true romancer, she can be a diplomat but I don’t need a girl like that, she can be a neuro-surgeon if she’s doing nothing urgent, but what I need’s a temporary temporary secretary” “It would have been a lie, if I said that I could please you every moment that I try” “The Shangri-Las versus the Village People!” “Mr H Atom lives in a flat on the male side of town!” “You know I’ll get you baby, you know I will” “Got a place we can go, lights are low, let me show you to my darkroom” “One of these days when my feet are on the ground I’m going to look around and see, see what’s right, seed what’s there and breath fresh air ever after” “Here we are, where are we? Gasp with sight of shining seas, I know we’ll find our way, I know we’ll reach the end if you will say you’ll be my secret friend” “Night draws near once again, feel like you’ve never felt before, I know all my pain will end if you will say you’ll be my secret friend” “Check My machine!” “Don’t go jumping waterfalls, please keep to the lake, people who jump waterfalls sometimes can make mistakes” “I need love every minute of the day and it wouldn’t be the same if you ever should decide to go away” “I may go hungry – maybe next week, but if I do I’ll still find something to eat, because you see that nobody knows and that’s the way I like it” “You want a love to last forever, one that will never fade away, I want to help you with your problem, stick around I say” “You want some peace and understanding so that everyone can be free, I know that we can get together, we can make it, stick with me!” “Coming up, like a flower!”
Paul McCartney “McCartney II” (the original version) (1980)
Front Parlour/Frozen Jap/All You Horse-Riders/Blue Sway//Temporary Secretary/On The Way/Mr H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby/Summer’s Day Song/Bogey Wobble//Bogey Music/DarkRoom/One Of These Days/Secret Friend
Frankly, and no maybe's, I’m amazed. Macca has just re-released both ‘McCartney’ and ‘McCartney II’ in extended sets and the one that’s been getting the greatest praise isn’t the 1970 version - you know, the #1 selling album with ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘Every Night’ on it. No, it’s this 1980 synthesiser and instrumental update that’s getting all the music world in a hoo-hah. Even Macca himself sounded astonished at the role reversal in last months’ Mojo interview (‘I thought that one would have got more stars – but I don’t mind, man, I’m on them both!’) because even the kindest critics around in 1980 called McCartney II haphazard, dull, weird, bland or variations on that theme. But then that was in 1980, when punk and the fallout from ‘Back To The Egg’ not to mention a slight escapade in Japan (where McCartney was facing seven years for drugs possession after marijuana was found in his suitcase) had made Macca about as unpopular as he’s ever been (well, since 1970; there’s shades of ‘McCartney’ and the fallout from the Beatles’ undignified end). And, I suspect, that was because the sudden death of Wings and the unexpected hit with ‘Coming Up’ turned this album in record company EMI’s eyes from being a home-made fan-orientated curio into suddenly becoming the launching pad for McCartney as a solo artist.
Heard in its finished version ‘McCartney II’ is a frustratingly mixed project, caught halfway between being wacky and playing it safe, with half-baked songs vying for space with instrumentals and two songs (‘Coming Up’ and ‘Waterfalls’ ) as good as anything Paul ever made. Heard in its original two-album form, however, and this is less of an album and more of a mood piece, a great example of the talent that seems to pour out of Paul whenever there’s a tape machine present and a much greater insight into his ideas for melody and his ability to coax just about anything from a machine or instrument remotely musical. Above all, its adventurous and takes risks, far more so than any of Lennon’s or Harrison’s solo albums (past the avent garde stuff anyway and Macca II is much more listenable than ‘Two Virgins’ or ‘Electronic Sounds’), something Paul is always being criticised for and the fact that the music journos of the day dismissed this album in the same way they’d dismiss his ‘safer’ stuff in the coming decade (‘Ebony and Ivory’ ‘We All Stand Together’ etc) seems hypocritical to me. I’d never play even this original version to people who’ve never really liked Macca’s work and its far from my favourite McCartney moment (hence the fact that this album isn’t one of the 101 main reviews), but I do have a very very soft spot for McCartney II. As for you lot reading this, you’ll either love or hate this album (and I do know many people who do hate it!) so my apologies to those who buy this album on the strength of this review and do hate it – the rest of you, though, will love me for the rest of your life!
I’m especially thrilled that you can now hear the ‘missing’ tracks legally for the first time because I’ve barely listened to this as a single album over the years, so intensely have I been hypnotised by the original version. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the ‘bonus’ discs on the new pricey set, still haven’t replicated the original track listing (which is given above), so the first thing you need to do is ‘burn’ yourself a copy of the album as it should be heard, taking the relevant bits from disc one, two and three of the new set (you can ignore the Wings version of ‘Coming Up’, ‘Wonderful Xmas Time’, one of the worst and most pointless songs McCartney ever wrote, and sadly the 1986 vocal version of ‘Blue Sway’, although I have to confess this later re-recording might well be the highlight of the entire set). Shockingly, despite the hundreds of pages and photographs in the accompanying book (most of them unseen – and fantastic!), not one page is given over to how this ‘alternate’ album might have been like, despite the fact that it works really really well, adding depth and variation to what can be at times still a rather heavy-going album.
Perhaps the world is only now ready to acknowledge Paul as one of the leading lights of the 1980s music scene. It’s no coincidence that the Human League made ‘Dare’ the year after this record, updating their ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Travelogue’ sound without diluting the synth-only concepts of those tracks (just as Kraftwerk only really got into their stride after Neil Young released the similar-sounding ‘Trans’ in 1982). ‘McCartney II’ isn’t quite as revolutionary as the League records, simply because there are tracks with guitars, pianos and real drums (recorded in Macca’s loo!) breaking up the sound every so often. But for an established star of a previous decade to embrace new technology like this was unheard of. After all, the music industry was split after the sudden upheaval from rock and roll to disco and synths. Many said it would spell the end of music, with robots and computers replacing players – others said it was just a passing fad. In the end, it would prove to be a generational fad, filling in a big whole where rock music should be until oasis came along and made rock popular again (see last week’s newsletter!) Much of this record is repetitive and trancy, typical of a young act in this era when extended 12” mixes and clubs were all the rage – but you name me one other established performer who went this far into the void. Macca tried to keep up with punk in 1979 with ‘Back To The Egg’ and never sounded more middle aged; here, by contrast, he’s pre-empting fashions before they’ve properly arrived yet and only on the early Beatles records has he sounded younger or more energetic.
In 1980 the joke in music circles was that one day musicians wouldn't bother to appear at all - they'd just send their synthesisers out to play for them like robots. Paul, who'd once joked in The Beatles that they could send anyone out with a Beatle wig and a Beatles drumkit and the screaming teenagers wouldn't notice, must surely have been taken with the concept. Wings had recently been flying again with their much-delayed follow-up to their 1976 world tour, but the 1979 gigs had been patchy. While Paul was more than happy with Denny Laine's nominated replacements Laurence Juber and Steve Holly - excellent unassming players both - there's nothing likle being stuck in a tourbus with people you don't quite know yet to reveal cracks in a working relationship. Had Wings been studio-bound for a while longer the last line-up might have gone on indefinitely, with nobody in the band willing to rock the boat anymore. But without a McCulloch or a McCullough to push him or argue against him, McCartney seems to have lost interest in Wings and while Wings are if anything better on the survicing audio of 1979 gigs than the average 1976 model Paul sounds distracted and bored, going through the motions on a lesser-thumbed section of his Beatles and solo discography that, notably, has little room for any actual Wings songs (the disliked 'Back To The Egg' ones apart). Music, Paul's usual escape route when things get tough, was becoming his main problem - so it seems entirely natural that he should do what he did the last time a band of his fell apart and retrace the steps of 'McCartney' with the solo recorded-in-the-shed 'McCartney II'. After all, few musicians had the luxury of Paul of being able to replace all his band members at a stroke and still be able to sound like a full band whenever he needed it - the fact that a digital sparse sound was currently in vogue makes even more sense at the time of the since-misunderstood 'McCartney II'. However at the time there wasn't even mention of a split - this was something Paul was doing while the band was on hold, with Denny Laine tinkering with his own solo album 'Japanese Tears'; it was only when Denny got led astray into venting his frustration over the broken Japanese tour which left him near-penniless (abandoned when drugs were discovered in McCartney's suitcase at customs) and sounding his mouth off to reporters eager for some dirt on the McCartneys in return for a big fat pay cheque that Wings truly floundered (and even then Denny still worked on both 'Tug Of War' and 'Pipes Of Peace', both 'Wings' albums in their initial stages). 'McCartney II' wasn't a career opportunity or a gear change as so many took it to be - heck the album wasn't even intended for release until late in the day when Macca's friends and business colleagues were more receptive to the album than he expected - it was intended to be a one-off, a palett cleanser before the next 'proper' Wings album came along, a breathing space that would enable the mercurial McCartney to show off another skill and prove that without the band he was just as capable of making contemporary music as the youngsters in Wings' shadow.
But being ‘trendy’ doesn’t mean a record is successful. Too many times across this record McCartney seems to have run out of steam: ‘All You Horseriders’ exists only because Macca has found a percussion button on his keyboard that sounds like a horse trotting; ‘You Know I’ll Get You Baby’ repeats its title throughout the whole three minute-plus song without stopping; five whole instrumentals are also at least three too many. But like that other McCartney masterpiece of 1968 ‘The White Album’, it’s in this album’s margins where McCartney II’s greatness lies. It’s all very well hearing ‘Coming Up’ or ‘Waterfalls’ on a compilation album, surrounded by other minor and major gems, but heard here in context after one of these ‘deviations’ they sound blooming amazing. And people disagree still over what are the best and worst songs from both albums (I’ve heard people pan my favourites, ‘Coming Up’ and ‘DarkRoom’ in favour of rubbish like ‘Bogey Music’ and nonentities like ‘Nobody Knows’; then again there are lots of Beatles fans who hate ‘Revolution no 9’, ‘Long Long Long’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’, songs which for me are the backbone of ‘The White Album’ – and yet love songs like ‘Wild Honey Pie’ and ‘Rocky Raccoon’ that leave me cold). And, like the White Album, this set only hangs together as well as it does because of an inspired running order, one that makes much better sense of each track when heard one after the other (hence my annoyance at the lack of album packaging being reproduced in the set; hearing the raucous and unhinged ‘Check My Machine’ go into the wistful, understated ‘Waterfalls’, a song about the dangers of adventuring too far, is especially strong, among the best one-two punches of Macca’s discography). You know you’ve got a good album if critics can’t even make their minds up which the best songs are and McCartney II is one of those albums born for discussion, down the lines of ‘What was he thinking?’ ‘What would Wings have made of this album?’ and ‘does this album sound like the most dated thing McCartney ever did – or does it sound contemporary?’
What must be kept in mind, though, is that Macca never intended to release any of these songs when he was busy ‘making’ this album (at both his Scottish farm and his Sussex house), even the ones that came out the first time. All he did was spend the Spring and Summer of 1979 taking time out from Wings, preparing for what turned out to be their last tour and tinkering around on a new synthesiser and got someone from Abbey Road to plug in for him (oh, the perks of being a Beatle!) Freed of the need to ‘sound’ like Paul McCartney and live up to past brilliances, Macca sounds reborn here, playing around with new technology in the same way he played around with Abbey Road mixing desks and tape loops in the mid-60s, travelling to new places without having to worry about who in his audience gets left behind along the way. Macca only began to see these tracks as an ‘album’ when he started compiling them for listening to in the car when driving between houses – and then was intending something closer to ‘McCartney’, an album released with little fuss and absolutely no publicity. As it happened events overtook him and this album became big news – the first release without Wings in seven years. It works better as a little curio, a side project where McCartney isn’t living up to past milestones but finding new areas to explore, one where the ‘unfinished’ parts of the album were part of the charm. Interestingly, one other Beatle always applauded the idea of ‘unfinished’ music completed by the listener’s imagination and indeed John Lennon was particularly taken with this album, the song ‘Coming Up’ inspiring Lennon to return to making music because his partner ‘was finally up to something good’. No wonder Lennon loved this album, because in places it sounds like his own work – but he’d loved this original double album version even more! It’s interesting, though, that he should have ‘got’ this record as soon as lead single ‘Coming Up’ came out’...
Most critics are sniffy about ‘Coming Up’, with sentences like ‘the fact that it was this song that inspired Lennon to work again says little for both men’s creativity’. But that’s looking back on it now, some 30 years later, when we know it’s a one-off in McCartney’s canon. At the time, with a clever promo music video where a band of Maccas in disguise play all the parts (just as Macca did on the album), this sounded like the future of popular song – and yet again Paul was at the forefront of it, just as Lennon used to be. I can’t tell you how important this song is to Macca’s oeuvre, updating both his own personal optimism and the flower power message for a new decade and, like Lennon, Macca was certain that the 1980s would see a return to the peace and love days of yore after a difficult and disrupted 1970s. Ironically, its Lennon’s death in December 1980 that set the tone for a cold, hard decade full of emotionless synths and songs praising money and power, but as Lennon’s last interviews make clear there was a feeling in the air that things were coming right again, that 1980 was going to be the re-birth of at least some of the 1960s ideology (after all, the 1960s was long enough ago for the new audiences to rediscover the Beatles and other bands like them – as it happened, it took another decade, as we saw with the Oasis review last week). ‘Coming Up’ is the perfect song for the time, catchy but deep times 200, with an optimism of old contained with a sound both startling and contemporary. No wonder Lennon was inspired to write again – and I know which disc I’d take me with me to a desert island between McCartney II and the surprisingly wimpy Double Fantasy (even if it does sound a million times better in its ‘stripped down’ version from last year)!
‘Coming Up’ isn’t the only song that was well received either. The late 1990s wave of DJs and house music, looking for obscure songs to mix and play around with, fell in love with three songs from this project, a remix of ‘Temporary Secretary’ scoring well at the clubs’ and the two initially B-sides-only songs ‘Secret Friend’ and ‘Check My Machine’ tailor made for the ironic mish-mash era. These three songs in particular always sounded ahead of their time and, suddenly, the world caught up with them. I mean, what other celebrity would risk his career with a song that merely repeated ‘Check My Machine’ on a loop, started with extracts from a Warner Brothers cartoon and ended with a series of voices at different pitches muttering gibberish? Yet, freed from his past shackles of having to make the song work as a song and genuinely excited by the technology in his hands and the sounds in his head, Macca really gets into this track and makes it work. Mostly,. though, what hits you is how crwatively playful these songs are, right at the point when Wings was turning into a bit of a dead-end and fams were beginning to become a bit bored. The 'real' McCartney, the one who'd pushed The Beatles on to check out new sounds every few months, isn't dead, just sleeping and it's that infectoius enthusiasm and 'anything goes' mentality that makes this album so special, even if after that burst of initial creativity there's perhaps less 'tidying up' going on in these songs than usual. Even the author wasn't too sure on what he'd stumbled upon with this album; Here's Paul during a more recent interview about the album's re-issue: 'On The Way' is a nice little blues song. 'Waterfalls' is a nice song that not many people know. 'Nobody Knows' - that's craziness. 'Front Parlour' is too. 'Summer's Day Song' - that's craziness. 'Bogey Music' is craziness. 'DarkRoom' is rather cool. 'Check My Machine' and 'Secret Friend' too'.
Yes the synths sound dated now (though nothing like the late 80s/early 90s monstrosities in the McCartney canon despite being younger) and OK, there’s not one lyric on this album you could possibly sit down and compare to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘For No One’ or even later period gems like ‘Footprints’ or ‘Put It There’. But for an album more or less made up on the spot right at the point when the music world was beginning to get bored by the Wings formula this is terrific, especially when heard in all its unedited, unhinged glory, and deserved to have made an even bigger impact than it did. We forget sometimes just how brave McCartney can be when he thinks that nobody is listening and to be frank I wish we’d hear that side of McCartney more, especially after two dull albums re-treading ‘Blackbird’ (barring the ‘Fireman’ album ‘Electric Arguments’ which, as we said in our newsletter no 13A, is effectively ‘McCartney III’). A typical Gemini, Macca’s always needed to go to one extreme in his career in order to get the inspiration for going back down the other end – and when you get to know his discography well it’s no surprise that the far more MOR albums ‘Tug Of war’ and ‘Pipes of Peace’ are 'coming up' next. Buckle up your seatbelts, the going on this journey gets rough, but the exhilaration of hearings these songs in their proper order and the highs among this album makes up for any of the valleys along the way, I can assure you.
The album starts with its heaviest going side, with three instrumentals and a near instrumental making up its four tracks. ‘Front Parlour’ is possibly the easiest going of all these tracks and the one that sounds most like it could have been turned into a song. The song is named for the room in McCartney’s house it was recorded in (the front parlour had the best echo!) and is a rare opportunity to hear both ‘sides’ of McCartney at once. On the one hand, the song has a lovely lilting circular melody, one that McCartney made a speciality in his Beatles’ work, one so rounded and complete it sounds as if it’s been around forever. On the other, there’s a curious ‘gargling’ effect running underneath it (sounding not unlike the sound effects Don Was will be adding to Rolling Stones records in the decade to come), sounding alien and experimental. We don’t often hear the two bits of McCartney’s brain and, considering this album is going to see more that ‘duel’ between the two McCartneys than normal (hence the name of the record and the ‘split image’ back sleeve perhaps) it makes a fitting overture to the album. The version intended for the original McCartney II (as heard on disc three) runs 1:45 longer, partly thanks to a much slower running speed (many of these songs were ‘sped up’ for the final record, as you can hear if you play the two side by side on two separate machines – believe it or not I actually did this once back when I owned this set on vinyl!) and partly thanks to a straight repeat of the melody around the three minute mark, which was edited out at no real harm to the song.
The title of ‘Frozen Jap’ grabbed a lot of attention at the time this album came out, just a few months on from McCartney’s seven day incarceration in a Tokyo prison cell. It’s not about that at all, of course, as Paul is at pains to point out on the decidedly grumpy and uncharacteristically dismissive TV interview with Tim Rice on the deluxe edition of this album’s DVD disc, as the song was named six months before Paul’s imprisonment. The song is named for the keyboard setting Macca discovered on the synth which sounds vaguely oriental, inspiring Paul to add a tune played on the black notes (which always sound oriental for some reason). The ‘frozen’ bit refers to the idea that the music conjures up a picturesque scene as viewed by a painter, ‘frozen’ in time (then again, perhaps Paul recorded it in his fridge? He seemed to use everything else in his house during the making of this album!) Not quite as original as ‘Front Parlour’, ‘Frozen Jap’ does nonetheless sport a quite hypnotising angular riff and a sweet little tune over the top, while the fun percussion (handclaps, synth drums and what sounds like a bleeding radiator beeping underneath it all) adds a great deal of atmosphere, especially on the drawn out ending. The version intended for McCartney II (as heard on disc three) runs nearly two minutes longer, thanks to another example of Macca speeding the song up for the finished record and a slightly longer, more rambling middle section (where the tune drops out to leave just the percussion for about 30 seconds longer).
‘All You Horseriders’ is new to McCartney’s legally released collection and is probably the weakest of the ‘new’ tracks here. I’m particularly annoyed that the CD compilers have decided this song is a medley with the far superior ‘Blue Sway’, indexing the songs together so you can’t play them apart. Still, considering the stick this song has had from the few people who’ve heard it down the years, ‘Horseriders’ isn’t actually that bad. Sure, there’s no reason for it to exist other than the fact that McCartney has found a button on his synth that sounds like horses trotting, but he does quite well sounding like a manic trainer/commentator (it also says something for the blasé idea behind this original album that the first thing McCartney sings on the record is ‘Alright, now, all you horseriders, come on now, get your horses out...’) There’s an intriguing swirly synthesiser riff that sounds like a good one (normally played on bass, you’d assume) and some interesting ‘atmosphere’ from the synths, especially when the horses are taking ‘jumps’. Still, as songs on horses go, it’s not a patch on Linda McCartney’s ‘Appaloosa’. As a song on bootleg this is a bit of harmless fun, but Macca was probably wise not to release it in 1980 – and new listeners to this album, desperate to hear unreleased gems, are probably furious after coming to this ‘song’!
‘Blue Sway’ is much more interesting, even in its original version shorn of the lyrics, with a dramatic pulsating drum riff, a hybrid between a banjo and a ukelele and an insistent keyboard pattern that sounds like Siouxhe and the Banshees guesting with the Pet Shop Boys. It’s a complete one-off in McCartney’s canon, without any recognisable features at all, with more depth than the other instrumentals on this album and sounds much more finished (even if I hadn’t a clue that the vocal was going to go where it did on the semi-finished version). As completed, its a song about being hypnotised by the sea, but I’m not sure if Macca had the idea as far back as 1980 or not – certainly the synths do sound a bit like shimmering waves, switching melodies every so often as another ‘wave’ of ideas come in. Things get busy at the end too, as if after waiting for hours for a big wave, the ‘surfers’ are really going for it thanks to what sounds more like a tsunami, the track sadly ending there on a fade just as things seem to be falling apart. A word too about Macca’s vocal, buried right at the back of the mix so we can’t hear what he’s saying, but even without words it adds much mystery and atmosphere to the recording, as if the listener is buried underwater and can’t quite make out the sounds on the shore, with the vocal just another instrument no matter how loudly he wails. Paul’s ‘surf’ guitar work towards the end is impressive too, proving again what a multi-instrumentalist he is (and how curious it was that he ended up in another ‘band’ like ‘Wings’ at all). Quirky, inventive and revealing, ‘Blue Sway’ is far too good to have sat in the middle of bootleg LPs for all these years and is a welcome addition to the McCartney canon. Indeed, it would have made more sense being part of the finished LP than fluff like the above two pieces and the rubbish ‘Bogey Music’. The ‘finished’ 1986 version is even more impressive, adding swirly strings to add to the hypnotic effect and Paul adding a vocal much louder in the mix that makes the whole thing sound like an outtake from ‘Broad Street’ (that’s a compliment, by the way – terrible film, great music, especially the ‘new’ stuff!)
‘Temporary Secretary’ is something of a rude awakening at the start of what was originally side two, sounding doubly urgent after such a laidback start to the album. The opening series of synth notes, seemingly played at random, sounds like ‘Sparks’ (one of the bands Paul apes on his ‘Coming Up’ music video) and is the audio equivalent of flashing neon lights. The song itself is even stranger, with Macca sounding like he’s in a Carry On film, advertising for a secretary to do anything but secretarial work. The song makes much more sense here than it did coming after ‘Coming Up’ on the original album (even though, annoyingly, the slightly slower original pitch version is still unreleased to date, although unlike the previous songs there are no other editing differences). This is so unlike every other Mccartney song ever made that it’s easy to see why it flopped as a single – but it’s also easy to see why it’s loved by a more modern generation who’ve never heard of him, a 1990s remix actually doing quite well in the charts with minimal differences (there’s so much going on in this track, it sounds like it’s been ‘sampled’ from something else anyway). Above all, coming at this point on the original album, it sounds like a ‘song’ with a beginning, middle and end. The middle, especially is electrifying, the closest Macca ever came to replicating his strident middle eight in Lennon’s song ‘No Reply’, with the keyboards falling on a minor key before rising a chord at the time while both the synth riff and Macca’s vocal bleat away over the top. There’s another classic arranging touch on the chorus, when banks of McCartneys singing along add in one at a time. The highlight, though, must be Paul’s bass playing: sometimes playing along with the riff, sometimes bubbling underneath on one note, on occasion plunging downwards into despair, it’s this aspect of the song that gives it its nasty, dangerous air. The lyrics can’t compete, however clever they may be, and sound like merely a fill in for the clever half-rhyming title, although intriguingly it’s only from McCartney’s voice that we truly understand what ‘extra-curricular activities’ the pair will be getting into – read as a lyric sheet, this song sounds entirely innocent. An intriguing attempt at something new, guaranteed to annoy as many fans as it excites, Paul should be applauded both for doing something different and for adding such a strong arrangement, although you have to be glad that its a one-off and Macca’s never done the same sort of thing again (though ‘Famous Groupies’ from ‘London Town’ does have a similarly tongue-in-cheek ribald air about it).
‘On The Way’ is the first of only three non-synth tracks on the album and, again, has much more impact here after 25 minutes of undiluted keyboards than it did on the original. The song was inspired by a blues documentary on TV at the time (probably the BBC’s 1979 ‘History of the Blues’ with Alexis Korner), which inspired McCartney to make his own. As a blues, this song fails – it’s not 12 bar, it’s not sad enough and there’s no real reason for despair in the lyrics. But as a twist on rock and roll it’s a delight, with Macca aping Charlie Watts’ jazzy drum licks and adding some superb guitar duelling across the song which sound much more like heartbreak than the vocal or lyrics. The vocal sounds as if it’s deliberately hard to hear, thanks to being placed through a leslie speaker and an echo chamber, as if emphasising the distance between the narrator and his beloved, so it’s a shame the lyrics don’t quite match the arrangement. The idea is, basically, that even between soul mates there are going to be tough times and that both of them are going to speak out of turn occasionally, though that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. The trouble is, the way the lyrics are written, it sounds like a minor tiff indeed – so why, on the one hand, is the loved one crying her eyes out and on the other why have the pair been ‘driving for a long time’ but ‘finally finish here’? There is a nice part, however, where Macca’s usual lyrical optimism (‘You know I’ll always love you...’) hits an unexpected minor chord, making the narrator sound a liar and a fraud. The flurry of guitar chords that come out of nowhere, as if to shut him up, are also a nice touch, on a song that is far from perfect but does show more care and attention than most parts of this album. The song was left unchanged during the switch from the original double-album to a single one.
‘Mr H Atom’ is, as Macca’s faux-Jamaican accent tells us at the start, a cross between the ‘Shangri-Las’ (a 1950s girl band who recorded ‘Leader of the Pack’ and specialised in songs about death) and ‘The Village People’ (a load of disco-loving men who recorded ‘YMCA’ and loved spending time in the dressing up box). The result is a curious hybrid of contemporary disco and good old fashioned 1950s R and B, with Linda (a fan of both) high up in the mix on the vocals (though what family friend Twiggy is doing in there too is anyone’s guess). There’s not much to this track really, another one never actually issued in 1980, except the chorus of ‘Mr H Atom lives in a flat on the male side of town’. Perhaps Macca had just watched a documentary on science after his blues programme, because there is – as he tells us later – just one atom of hydrogen’s difference between the genetic make-up of male and females. This song could have been a good discussion about how little difference there really is between the two (which would have made a good link from the last track) or how such a crucial difference in life came about because of just one small difference. But Mr and Mrs Macca don’t really expand on either, they just keep a frenetic beat from a keyboard and guitar going across the song without changes or pauses, giving the song a real momentum as it gets going. Overall, this song works far better than it should, with a cracking simple riff and a rock and roll energy worthy of both disco and 1950s rock. It’s a shame there isn’t more to the song but, out of all the unused, unreleased songs booted off McCartney II, this is one that’s deserved it’s re-issue most, a whole lot of fun both to listen to and record, from the sound of things. Listen out for multi-tracked McCartneys at the end doing their impression of a bunch of Northern working class stereotypes, a joke he first tried with the unreleased ‘Robber’s Ball’ a couple of years before (itself unreleased and intended for the infamous ‘Cold Kutz’ album, although I dare say that will be added to the deluxe edition of ‘London Town’ in a few years’ time!)
Alas that song is a medley with the similar but less interesting ‘You Know I’ll Get You Baby’, another song unissued till now, and the two are indexed together as one medley. Like the last piece, this is less of a song and more an example in mass hypnotism, with lots of overdubbed McCartneys in a variety of funny voices repeating the chorus ad infinitum. The result is like hearing a synth cover of Beatles B-side ‘I’ll Get You’, at different times charming, seductive and threatening. The riff isn’t as good as before, however, and the voices are less-well synched, with the result that this song palls long before its short end, even with a number of key changes to keep us interested. In fact, this song might well have been another one better left as an instrumental because there is an urgency about this song’s backing which is intriguing, with this the most rhythmically-based (as opposed to melodic) of any of the backings on the album. Not as good as it might have been, although even this song is too good to have lain on a shelf for all these years (it deserved to be issued much more than ‘Bogey Music’ too quite frankly!
The version of ‘Summer’s Day Song’ originally intended for the album was an instrumental (as heard on disc three) and I’m in two minds as to whether I prefer this original version or the ‘finished’ version, which had a single chorus repeated twice overdubbed on top in early 1980. Certainly, heard here in context, tits nice to hear another instrumental and ‘Summer’s Day Song’ has a really lovely melody, the sort of long flowing piece that McCartney specialised in. The synth sounds to me like Mccartney’s playing it on the ‘strings’ section and the result sounds like an update of Macca’s part on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (Played on a mellotron in 1967), with the same hazy, wobbly quality associated with nostalgia. It’s odd, then, that Macca should choose to add words a) to this piece, which doesn’t call out for them as much as some of the instrumentals on this album and b) that those words actually look forward not back, with the narrator cooing that the sleeper’s nightmare will soon disappear when Summer arises. It’s tempting to see this last-minute verse as being about Macca’s drug imprisonment in Japan, which makes it a good fit with a piece that musically mimics the summer of love and sounds more drug-fuelled than normal. The vocals to me always sounded slightly insincere on this track, which makes sense if McCartney overdubbed them some nine months after recording the record, but then again this piece needs something to keep it going – so slow, stately and pompous is it that it gets quite boring by the end, however beautiful it is as a melody. Still, with different lyrics – and more space to sing them – this could have been a first class song, full of the McCartney magic: an easily hummable tune that sounds as if its been around for eons, but with added depth.
The second side then ends with the last of these fully instrumentals, ‘Bogey Wobble’, a ‘song’ that only makes more sense when you read the story behind the following track. Again, it’s the sound of Macca playing with a synthesiser and is the last piece here that wasn’t originally issued in some form in 1980. But even though its clearly just a bunch of fun noises rather than a full song, there’s something inviting about Macca’s attempts to conjure up a finished product out of nothing more than a wobble board sound effect, block chords, a stomping drum sound that sounds as if its sprung a leak and a curious throbbing riff that mimics the noise of a swannee whistle. At just under three minutes, this song is too short to outstay its welcome unlike some others on the record and throughout the weird sound effects there’s a quite lovely tune throughout as played the synth which might have made for a fine piece even without the effects. Again Paul’s ability to coax music out of anything, even such a haphazard collection of sounds, is astonishing and his seemingly instinctive gifts for melody are spot-on here, with a piece that’s halfway between being a collection of Goon Show sound effects and a score for a film. OK, so you’d be pretty cross to fork out £60 just for this song, but of all the unreleased tracks that didn’t make the final cut, this is one of the more deserving and would have made for a fine period B-side.
‘Bogey Music’ is, weirdly, the only track left totally unchanged for the album. That seems to imply that Macca was particular fond of it, but if he was I don’t know why – the basic song and beat is far too boring; the lyrics and effects far too outrageous. Only Paul’s guitar solo shines through the murk and even that is only ten notes long, repeated throughout the track. This piece, which has puzzled many a music critics before now, only makes sense if you’ve read the Raymond Briggs book ‘Fungus The Bogeyman’, a favourite of the McCartney children (who at this stage were 16, 10, 7 and 3 respectively). Paul even bought up the rights to produce a film of the book, intended as his follow-up to the ‘Rupert’ cartoon he was working on (released as ‘Rupert and the Frog Song’ in 1984) – for which, presumably, this piece (and possibly the last) were originally intended. In the end Macca had nothing to do with the film version that did come out, but this song sticks pretty close to the plot of an ‘opposite’ world where the tales of bogeymen parents scare their children with are true (we don’t see much of them, though, because they hate being clean and out in our world – and, for some reason, they really hate music). Like the plot of Monsters Inc, they’re as scared of us as we are of them, cue much hilarity – and the part of the book that probably appealed most to McCartney, namely the generational rebellion that takes place in their world, with a bunch of washed and well dressed youngsters singing music. To be honest, this song sounds like such a watered down piece of garbage that its hard to hear it as a rebellion – but the idea of a group of people experiencing music for the first time is, naturally enough, given a very retro 1950s setting (indeed, its very like Yoko Ono’s early, jazzy saxophone-driven pieces with the Elephants Memory Band – rock music was new to her too in the early 70s don’t forget!) Macca also probably intended an unforgivably bad pun on the words ‘boogie music’. To be fair on him, Macca did include a half-hearted ‘description’ of the song (printed on page 122 of the new book) but after ten years of Macca pseudonyms as Cliff Harrigan (the sleeve-writer of ‘Wild Life’) and Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington (the band leader who re-recorded ‘Ram’ as an easygoing lounge jazz album; both of which turned out to be Mccartney in disguise) we didn’t quite know whether to believe it or not. As a song, there is a fine tune going on, but for once on this record Macca’s ruined it with too many overdubs and a variety of strange electronically treated voices (possibly with a vocoder, all the rage at the time) which means that, together, with the unusual backing, this doesn’t sound like a McCartney track at all. You sense that this song might have sounded better in a children’s cartoon where the plot makes more sense – but for listeners in 1980 who’d never heard of what was then quite a new book, this must have been the sound of McCartney losing his marbles. Of all the songs on the ‘finished’ McCartney II, this is the hardest going and should have been given the push.
‘DarkRoom’ is a song too long dismissed from McCartney’s canon. In fact, the record company – and most of Macca’s friends – thought it shouldn’t have made the album at all, so it got watered down to a 2:18 edit that took all of the fun and mystery out of it. But for me, the full 3:45 version (as heard on disc 3 of the new set) is the best ‘unknown’ (as in not widely known) song here, another look at McCartney’s double selves caught between mischief and danger. As many a music critics of the day picked up on, this song most likely got its name because of Paul’s visits to his photographer wife’s dark room at the end of their Sussex house, but in McCartney’s hands this wordplay becomes something much bigger than that. Depending on which of the McCartneys are singing at any one time, this song sounds either like a mischievous prank or a sinister threat, with the ‘dark room’ where there are no lights both threatening and funny. Sure, there’s not really much to this song at all, even in its full length version, and yet that works in this song’s favour for once, with the ‘hidden meanings’ all up to the listener. As with many songs on McCartney II there’s a hypnotic riff at the heart of this song, with a holding-steady synth note surrounded by some comical percussion and quirky bass, with the song caught between happy and horrid. It’s as if two songs have been melded together and we don’t know which to follow, with even Macca’s ad libs and sound effects caught between laughter and scares. The ‘new’ bit of the song comes near the end of the track, when it all but seems to trip over its feet to McCartney’s consternation (‘Hey, wait a minute...!’) and a closing flurry of cymbals which sounds either like the protagonist has fallen over or committed murder or rape or something. A sudden switch in tempo and some mock-ghostly laughter at the song’s conclusion suggests the latter, but whatever your take on the song its nice hearing Macca’s playful side so to the fore in a track that for once on this album has a fully realised melody and some fascinating (if basic) lyrics to match. One of the better songs on the album.
As so often happens on this carefully programmed album, we switch from the playful McCartney to the serious McCartney. Whilst it made a strange sombre farewell to the finished McCartney II, taken on its own merits I’ve always considered ‘One Of These Days’ to be another of Paul’s most severely under-rated songs. A simple, stately song set to just Paul’s acoustic guitar, its a song about finding yourself out of sorts on an album where its basic arrangements makes it sound badly out of place. The lyrics are thoughtful, especially for an album all about improvisation and basic ideas, with the argument that there is a true message to how to live your life out there – its just that everything gets in your way so you can’t hear it. Macca will perfect the lyric for Flowers In the Dirt’s song ‘Distractions’, but even here (and Neil Young will be inspired to write almost the same song for ‘Harvest Moon’ in 1992, right down to the identical title) but even here, in half-abandoned state, this sounds like a pretty moving song. Again, its the melody that impresses most, with a tune that’s so slow it really does sound like an effort to move upwards and downwards, just as the narrator struggles to find the time to get his act together. I particularly love the way that the melody, having ended up with the hesitant chorus about dreaming of what could have been ends up with fading out on the line ‘all we really wanted to be...’, hitting a brick wall that leaves it nowhere to go thereafter. All Macca can do is wallop his guitar in frustration before starting the song from the beginning again. On the other-hand, unlike most of this album barring the similar ‘Waterfalls’, the half-finished state of the recording is frustrating, leaving the listener longing for more or for a re-recording or concert performance that really gets to the ‘heart’ of this song. Ah well, it still makes for a good sojourn for the following two synth-heavy noisa-athon tracks! This song was left virtually unscathed from the original, by the way, which is why there’s no ‘extended’ or ‘alternate’ versions on the deluxe set – the song has been sped up from the original recording, however, where it runs about 20 seconds or so longer.
‘Secret Friend’ is an absolute epic and, along with ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Waterfalls’, the cream of the whole of the McCartney II period. For a kick off, it sounds completely unlike anything heard before – although there are structural similarities between this and Neil Young’s epic guitar work outs with Crazy Horse. For a track that lasts in excess of ten minutes, there’s surprisingly few words to this one (just four short verses, spread out across the track with lots of improvisation based around them), but the idea is so big they sound positively epic, even without the hypnotic riff. Like ‘DarkRoom’ this is a clandestine operation, taken out under cover of darkness, but the listener isn’t sure what the narrator’s intentions are, with his promises that you’ll ‘feel like you’ve never felt before’. McCartney’s narrator is distant, sounding as he’s singing down a long tunnel and his vocals mixed so low it creates a very hallucinatory experience, almost as if the listener is caught up in the effects of a date-rape drug. You see, this isn’t just a simple romance but a ‘secret’ one – and the fact that the narrator is not a lover but a ‘friend’ could be an innocent offer of help but sounds creepy here (contrast to Macca’s later ‘From A Lover To A Friend’ on 2001’s ‘Driving Rain’, where a friend sounds like the nicer thing to be by far). As if that wasn’t enough, the opening riff gets even more wayward and confused during the next part of the song, with a wobble on the notes that on a guitar would sound like a string-bending machine, but which on a synth sounds like the whole room has gone out of focus. The riff even drops out of the song briefly, leaving just a clatter of wood on wood and some maracas, as if losing it’s way. As a result, its hard to know what to feel when the third and then later the fourth verses kick in – is this is an offer of help we really should take, or yet another part of the world trying to trick us? There’s a tale in the deluxe book that McCartney remembered overdubbing percussion on a track that ‘went on for hours’, looking at his watch the whole time to see how many minutes he had to go and regretting the fact that his original improvised keyboard runs had gone on for so long. Presumably, Macca meant this piece, with its wooden blocks throughout, but if so them I’m surprised Macca felt so detached from the piece because, just hearing it, its easy to get lost and caught up in the sound. No wonder Macca kept his riff going for so long: there’s a world of possibilities in the sound McCartney conjures up here and, with a full 10 minutes and no worries about leaving audiences behind, he pretty much studies them all in turn. The fact that a track as strong, as daring and as successful as this one was originally relegated to a B-side (of its polar opposite, the brief and surface-sheened ‘Temporary Secretary’) is nothing short of a travesty. Incredible, brilliant daring stuff that proves McCartney’s experimental side was only sleeping throughout the 1970s, not dead.
‘Check My Machine’ is similarly intense, with a similarly extended song structure based around yet another vocal we can’t hear very well, this time with McCartney using a falsetto voice he’d only used on record once before (on ‘London Town’s sweet love song ‘Girlfriend’, originally meant as a demo for Michael Jackson). Only the mood is lighter, with a curious lopsided synth riff that sounds like some large lumbering animal and a banjo lick probably unique in McCartney’s works. The opening snatches of conversation are taken from two Warner Brothers Cartoons, one an unnamed one with Mel Blanc as Yosemite Sam shouting his half-catchphrase ‘Down down down down down!” and the other taken from the Wile E Coyote-George the Sheepdog cartoon ‘Stealing Wool’ (available on disc four of the Loony Tunes Golden Collection Series Three – highly recommended and yes I do own a copy!) As we’ve already seen, Macca had plenty of young children in the house the right age to watch cartoons, so he may be practicing his new equipment from Abbey Road with the television here. Though Macca has talked little about this period, we do know that this was the first song recorded and probably was based around the idea that the machine needs checking. The fact that McCartney manages to get a pretty decent, if deranged, song out of his equipment says much for his creative talents at this time and more than one Mccartney fan rates this as their favourite song. It’s not quite my favourite, but there is much to enjoy, from hearing Macca’s unusual vocal get more and more deranged and the song gets more and more intense to the sudden chirp of a synth brass section that sweeps in out of nowhere from time to time. Best of all, might be the ending where the song trips over its own lumbering riff and falls apart. Macca’s not done yet, though, and continues for a full minute, chirping his synth like a church organ and having a conversation with himself in a variety of silly voices. No other musician with as big a name as McCartney would ever risk his career releasing something like this (albeit as the B-side of ‘Waterfalls’ rather than on the album) and yet the results are fascinatingly different and entertaining enough to justify the experiment. Macca’s clearly having fun and that fun is infectious here. The deluxe edition includes an ‘extended’ version of this song that’s new to me by the way – the ‘original’ Macca II double album included the same 5:50 edit as the single – but whilst there isn’t anything intrinsically different about it its worth hearing the full 8:58 edit just to enjoy the groove for three minutes more.
As we said above, the juxtaposition between the throwing caution to the wind experimental and ‘Waterfalls’, the one true song on this album is a delight. ‘Waterfalls’, which was the only song written by McCartney before recording for this project began, is a delightful song about caution and, though it doesn’t say so, is clearly inspired by the loss of Wings guitarist Jimmy McCullough to a drugs overdose months before these recordings began. The death of such a young spirit (he was 27 when he died) was a cruel reminder of the excesses of the late 60s and early 70s and probably upset McCartney more than he let on (he effectively discovered Jimmy, though he was still furious with the guitarist for leaving him in the lurch and leaving Wings to work with Steve Marriott at the time of his death). The result is a gorgeous, tender song with sometimes preachy lyrics about going too far down the wild side but that nevertheless sound heartfelt. Many a McCartney fan has pointed out that this lovely song would have benefitted even more from a ‘fuller’ arrangement more akin to the Wings songs (and I’m surprised none of Macca’s live bands since haven’t done just that), but this simple bare-bones arrangement does suit the song too. A fan favourite, its #10 chart placing was considered a flop at the time (albeit the last time Macca did that well with a single was 24 years ago now!) but even back then critics respected this song which manages to be moving without saying too much, bare but not empty. Macca also delivers one of his career best vocals, with his voice dripping with all the emotion the cold synth settings can’t provide, suggesting how much this song really meant to him. The metaphor of a waterfall, huge and unstoppable yet still attractive to thrill-seekers everywhere, makes for a fine cornerstone of the lyric too, even if as fans have pointed out the verses about polar bears and motor cars work less well. It’s the structure of the song, though, that makes ‘Waterfalls’ work as well as it does, with each verse’s warnings flowing right back into a chorus that says just why Macca’s narrator doesn’t want this person to risk themselves: because he loves them and can’t bear the thought of life without them. Sure there are some clever rhymes in there too, ones that mimic John Lennon’s ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’ (‘I need you like a second needs an hour, like a garden needs a flower’ versus ‘Don’t need a watch to waste your time, don’t need a sword to cut through flowers’), but they’re additional to the main theme of the song, that the narrator can’t risk being apart from his loved one at all. A fine, fine song, ‘Waterfalls’ would be the class act of any McCartney album but coming here, in amongst all the chaos and the noise, it’s effect is doubly perfect, the heart and conscience that this album needs to make it a record, not just a collection of doodles. Impressive stuff. And unchanged from the album, by the way, although the 3:20 edited single version loses much of its impact by missing out a verse and – unforgivably – the song’s coda, leaving it’s tune hanging in mid air.
Following the last two songs, anything would sound like an anti-climax and ‘Nobody Knows’ is the one song that sounded better on its eventual home, at the end of side one of the record. Freed for only the third time on the album of the synths that held Paul’s ideas in check till now, this was the ‘other’ song inspired by that Alexis Korner documentary. This time around the sound is much more upbeat and R and B, with a bunch of multi-tracked Maccas trading lines around a riff that sounds like ‘Oo You’ from the first ‘McCartney’ album. There is a good idea in this song – the idea that nobody in the world knows what they’re doing and that that goes double for the people in charge of it - but alas it’s a garbled message, both because the lyrics run out of steam early on and because we can’t hear them anyway. As Macca himself says defensively on the Tim Rice interview, there are some lyrics that look amazing on the printed word – and there are others that only exist because they happen to fit a tune. This is one of the latter. The result is a riff looking for a good time and a lyric that’s meat to be taken seriously and played for laughs. Not one of the more distinguished moments on Macca II in either version – and, again, this song is basically unchanged, although again it was sped up for the finished record and originally ran about 15 seconds longer. The added mania this gives the final product is fooling no one however and this track sounds much better in its originally intended form.
And so we come to ‘Coming Up’, one of McCartney’s best ever songs - it was awarded ‘silver’ status in my forum discussion of each AAA artists’ best tracks – that worked well as a quirky but meaningful single but works even better here as a kind of grand farewell gesture. Best of all, the intended McCartney II version runs to 5:34, a full 1:43 longer than the version known and loved all these years, adding a whole new section from the 3 minute mark where Macca sings the closing verse yet another time and the song does a sort of slowing-down time switch around him before kicking off again. As you’ve probably gathered by now, I simply adore this track. Everything that was ever great about McCartney’s optimism is here, with the belief that the coming 1980s would see greater peace and understanding across the globe, together with the acknowledgement is going to be tricky. I’m amazed the world fell apart so badly, though, with a riff so clever and a melody so strong as this one to see it through. Upbeat and smiling, but because of hope and desperation rather than naiviety or blandness, this is McCartney’s crowning achievement as a solo singles artist. The synth backings, which we’re getting very used to by now, are also the perfect setting for a song about joyous abandon and optimism and work much better than either the live Wings version (actually the A side in America) and later live re-workings on guitar, where the riff just sounds repetitive and flat. As John Lennon famously said at the time ‘I prefer the freaky version recorded in his garage – and I think the record company had a nerve switching the single around on him like that’. 1960s enough to inspire but conemporary enough to get played on the radio, ‘Coming Up’ is what music should be all about, warming the hearts of your audience with a classic catchy single and a positive message that, together, we shall overcome whatever life has to throw at us. When I went to see McCartney live in 2004 I read a joyous review that loved everything about the gig that I did – ie everything - before telling Macca to drop this ‘awful’ song from his set, which sadly he duly did. Don’t listen to them, Paul. ‘Coming Up’ might well be the crowning glory in your solo and Wings career and maybe even your Beatles one too – it really is that good.
Back in 1966, flushed with the success of ‘Yesterday’ and forever being asked in interviews about going solo, Macca joked to his fellow Beatles that he wanted to release an avent garde album entitled ‘Paul McCartney Goes Too Far’. In the end, Lennon beat him to it by 12 years, but nevertheless this album is, effectively, ‘Paul McCartney Goes Too Far’. Whether you’re enough of a fan to embrace half-finished tracks about checking machines, riding horses and wobbling bogeys is up to you – but somehow, these songs are as important to Macca’s development as a musician to any of his million sellers, more so in some cases. Even ‘All You Horseriders’! A disappointment to some on its release, to others this album sounded like the future – only now, in 2011, can we hear this album as we should have heard it and, while I can imagine a whole host of rude emails in my inbox next week telling me otherwise, I personally think it still sounds like sounds still to come. Certainly, it makes much more sense when heard in its original version and, after our lightly sniffy review of the deluxe edition of ‘Band On The Run’ which added only a documentary and some photos to the album’s prestige for your £60, with this set the McCartney Collection is back on track. As we’ve said, it’s a shame space couldn’t have been found for both the songs’ original running speeds and the track listing as originally intended and, yes, the DVD could have come packed with more (a bored looking Wings rehearsing ‘Coming Up’ while looking daggers t McCartney and a bored Paul arguing about the art of writing a song with Tim Rice are not up to this album’s inventive pair of music videos). But it makes sense to expand an album that was always too big to thin down to a single slab of vinyl and, as we’ve seen from positive contemporary reviews, the time for this album might well be now. Not the best place for casual Beatles fans to start their collections, then, nor is it the place to go for McCartney fans wanting easy going melodies and hits. But if you, like me, are fascinated by Mccartney’s art and want to hear him doing something outside the box, the original ‘McCartney II’ is a surprisingly strong and genuinely brave place to start.