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McCartney II (1980)

When Paul was finished recording and mixing songs for his next album, his second solo album, he came up with an 18 track, two record set. Convinced by record companies to cut it to a single album, he edited the final mix to just 11 songs, five on side one, the other six on side two.

Paul McCartney was among the first modern recording artist to embrace modern technology and incorporate electronic sounds and new devices into his creative output. He recorded songs such as “Proud Mum” and synth versions of “Tomorrow” in the mid 1970’s. Mike Oldfield (“Tubular Bells” from 1973), David Bowie, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Giorgio Moroder, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Klaatu, Gary Numan and a variety of the newly emerging new age artists, such a Tomita, embraced electronic sounds at roughly the same time.

With 16 recording tracks at his disposal, Paul flushed out his ideas more than he had for McCartney I, but admitted later on he wished he had worked a bit more on a few of the new album tracks.

What McCartney did do was open eyes with a album that goes in a complete opposite direction that he had gone in before. But McCartney II is still very much a home-made lo-fi recording.

I was living (for a short time) in Las Vegas a small bedroom with two friends (right next to the airport), and I listened to the album for the first time with my girlfriend (at the time) in the privacy of that bedroom on my stereo (yes, that’s what we called them).

The cover, taken by Linda, is another of McCartney’s iconic covers. She wanted a a picture with the two shadow heads and she lit him to get this effect. The shot is given a grainy look, and his expression is as classic as it is confusing. Is he mad? Is he startled? The intense look still shows Paul still looking fantastic at 37 years old, with those dark doe eyes opened wide and focused.

The record begins with the first single, which was released about a month before in the U.K. and the U.S. Interesting thing about the single…. On the b-side the live version of the song is played by Wings during the short 1979 tour of England (recorded 12/19/79 in Glasgow) almost a half year before the album version was released.

The single also had a third track, the instrumental Lunch Box/Odd Sox, which Paul and Wings had worked on in 1975.

When I bought it I was shocked….three tracks…nice. Funny thing, in the United States, for some reason, they turned the record was over and radio played the live version, and it became a #1 in the U.S. This was Wings sixth and final number one single. The album version, which rose to #2 in England.

Both B-sides were credited to Paul McCartney & Wings. Columbia Records wanted to put the live version on McCartney II (an executive from Columbia Records explained the switch by stating “Americans like the sound of Paul McCartney’s real voice”) but McCartney resisted the change, wanting to keep it a solo album. Instead, a one-sided 7” white-label promotional copy of the Wings version was included with the album in North America.

For this opening track Paul also filmed what may still be his best music video of his career, over 40 years later. In the video Paul plays ten roles and Linda McCartney plays two. The “band” identified as “The Plastic Macs” on the drum kit (a homage to Lennon’s conceptual Plastic Ono Band), features Paul and Linda’s imitations of various rock musician stereotypes, as well as a few identifiable musicians.

McCartney identified characters that were impersonations of specific artists: Hank Marvin (guitarist from the Shadows), Ron Mael of Sparks (keyboards), and a ‘Beatlemania-era’ version of himself. McCartney said the other roles were simply comic relief.

The video premiered in the US on Saturday Night Live on 17 May 1980.

“I originally cut it on my farm in Scotland. I went into the studio each day and just started with a drum track. Then I built it up bit by bit without any idea of how the song was going to turn out. After laying down the drum track, I added guitars and bass, building up the backing track. I did a little version with just me as the nutty professor, doing everything and getting into my own world like a laboratory. The absent-minded professor is what I go like when I’m doing those; you get so into yourself. It’s weird, crazy, but I liked it.

Then I thought, ‘Well, OK, what am I going to do for the voice?’ I was working with a vari-speed machine with which you can speed up your voice, or take it down a little bit. That’s how the voice sound came about. It’s been speeded up slightly and put through an echo machine I was playing around with. I got into all sorts of tricks, and I can’t remember how I did half of them, because I was just throwing them all in and anything that sounded good, I kept. And anything I didn’t like I just wiped. – Paul McCartney

Former band-mate John Lennon liked the song and credited it for driving him out of retirement to resume recording.“I heard a story from a guy who recorded with John in New York, and he said that John would sometimes get lazy. But then he’d hear a song of mine where he thought, ‘Oh, shit, Paul’s putting it in, Paul’s working!’ Apparently ‘Coming Up’ was the one song that got John recording again. I think John just thought, ‘Uh oh, I had better get working, too.’ I thought that was a nice story.”– Paul McCartney“

Coming Up” I ready myself physically and emotionally and place the stereo tone arm onto the l.p. I am greeted with 3:54 of majestic pop and roll. The song is driven by Paul’s steady drumming, and chugging bass-line. The synths are perfectly placed and add to the slight cartoon feel of the song. I really don’t think Paul’s voice is un-natural. In fact I love it.

I love everything about this song. I think he hits it out of park on all aspects. It’s simple but layered with little sounds and fills that make this pure McCartney. And hey, the message of the song is spot on with thoughtful lyrics. “You want a better kind of future, one that everyone can share? You know we all could use it, stick around it’s nearly there. It’s coming up.” Wow, what an opener…. I was leaping around the room…. Rating – 9.5

“Temporary Secretary” A song that has now become a cult classic, and embraced my Macca, who has begun to play it in concert the last four or five years. Initially I was not taken by it, but have grown to love this song, thanks to the ear worms Paul is famous for. One of the most “techno” tracks on the album, featuring a synth loop that Paul plays off of and gradually builds off of it. The bass moves in and out like a cat stalking its prey. An odd track musically, lyrics that are odd, sung in parts that are odd….. but added up, it works. Rating – 9

“On The Way”. Paul counts in slows things down with a understated blues track. It is sparse, and I like when he goes all out on the last verse. Drums, bass, mostly one electric guitar over his echo laden lead vocals. After the the first two verses he ups the ante by double tracking the guitar break for a few. A very simple track from start to finish. Rating – 7

“Waterfalls” “Waterfalls” is a warning to the ones that Paul loves to be careful in the decisions that they make in the real world. I think I heard Paul say that THIS is one of the track he maybe should have flushed out more. It is a simple song it every aspect, with McCartney only playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a synthesizer and singing. He adds a bit of acoustic guitar during the short break.

It was released as a single with “Check My Machine” as its B-Side and reached chart position #9 in the UK. In the US, however, it was his first single ever to miss the Billboard Hot 100 chart, only reaching number 106 despite being the follow-up to the number one hit “Coming Up“.

In 2013, Rolling Stone Magazine rated it the #25 all-time Paul McCartney post-Beatles song, describing how it contrasted with Wings’ prior single.“The only song that was written before I came to record was Waterfalls… Waterfalls could have been called ‘I Need Love’ but that would have been too ordinary. I just had this waterfalls and lakes idea, from the notices you see in American tourist resorts, and it stuck. Halfway through the album, making it all up as I went along, I got a bit bored. I had finished about eight tracks by then and I thought I would do something different. So I decided to do a song that was already written, a track left over from the last Wings album, and that was my favorite at the time. That’s why it’s included.

The original lyrics were just working lyrics, gut lyrics, just spewed out. I thought I’d have to get serious and sensible and change them. Lyrics like that I don’t trust. But in time, I got to like them and I thought I should add electric piano and a distant string synthesizer like a mad Swiss orchestra on a mountaintop. And it worked! A lot of people have rung up about that one and said that it’s their favorite. So when you get such a good feeling, you think that perhaps it should be a single. Yeah, it was a “song”, I’d done it on piano.

You see, in the early days of the synth, you were intrigued by the synth string sounds, and you thought they were good. You were later to discover that they weren’t! And now of course it’s coming back, retro, and people are going, I like that crappy old string sound. But at the time I thought, “This is enough, it doesn’t need any more, just do the chords”. I think, looking back, it probably would have been a bigger song if it had a better production, because it’s not a bad song.” – Paul McCartney

A music video was filmed and was nowhere as amazing as “Coming Up.” Heavy green screen use, and Paul in his new schoolboy haircut and schoolboy sweater. It also features extra music at the end and finishes with him breaking something in the background at the end.

In other words, SEE, things can happen anywhere and anytime.. so be careful. The group TLC nicked the soul of this song many years later on their huge hit, “Waterfalls.” Paul has noted that, but didn’t press the issue. Rating – 6.5

“Nobody Knows” A hillbilly stomp. It comes close, but doesn’t quite get there, mainly on the weak buried on the track electric guitar work. The vocals are fantastic, and the standard bass run keep you driving down the road…. A little more care in the guitar work, and this would have a killer retro sounding romp. Rating – 6.5

“Front Parlour” Side two opens with the first instrumental. Total electronic sounding, with a interesting change in melody at the end to help bring the song to it’s conclusion. We have now (2021) heard the other songs that Paul recorded for this album, and in retrospect ones like “Secret Friend” or “Check My Machine” here would have improved the overall album…. For me. Rating – 6

“Summer Day Song” A track that always reminded me of someone waking up just as the sun was beginning to rise…. And they awake to the summer day. Filled with so much promise, the double track lead vocals are very religious sounding. Another total synth song, he adds this extended instrumental synth break (not unlike the full version of “With A Little Luck”) that slows the song to a crawl before roaring back to end it in what always felt to me to be the sundown and heading back to bed to rest for the next day. Rating – 6.5

“Frozen Jap” The second instrumental. It does have an oriental feel to it, and had to been influenced by events of that January. Hand claps and some live drumming overdubs are added to the synth layers. Paul can be heard shouting and squealing very quietly at certain parts of the song… The better of the two instrumentals. Rating – 7

“Bogey Music” Based on the book, Fungus The Bogeyman, Paul alters his voices throughout the song on the lead and the background vocals and gives us his best Elvis. More 50’s four on the floor bass lines.Rating – 7.5

“Darkroom” A nod to Linda’s photography. Features all sorts of blips, beeps and altered sounds…. I prefer the longer version which was prepared for the 18 track album, and feature more of Paul yelling and shouting and silly voices and sounds coming at you from all directions. The song speeds up, and ends quickly, like a cab arriving at its final destination. He sure was having a great time making this one…. Rating 7.5

“One Of These Days” A wonderful way to end the album. Outstanding lyrics, that book holders the thoughts of “Coming Up,” but this time in a retrospective way of evaluating ones life and learning and growing from it. A bit somber, a bit sad, its Paul bearing his inner feelings on where his life may be going from this point on. An acoustic gem, that I wish Paul could have brought out on one of his many tours since 1989. Rating – 8.5

Overall, the album grades out as 7.41/10. It sold well, but was largely dismissed at the time by critics and some of the fan base, who wanted another BAND ON THE RUN etc…but McCartney II status has changed and grown in the decades that have passed. It is now viewed as a wonderful example of the variety of musical offerings that this man can make, and is also seen as semi-ground breaking in its courage to adapt to new technology advances and gave us a taste of what would become new age as well as DJ driven EDM (electronic dance music). NEXT, all the songs that didn’t make the final edition of McCartney II and the rest of 1980, which ends even worse for Paul than it began.

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